“Wud man know of nightingale if she ‘ad not left ‘er mother’s nest?”
Candy Mouth gave me that obscene conclusion to her daughter’s crime. Her real name was Lolla and she didn’t know her last name. She was known by the alias not because she had obsession for candy but fourteen years back she was a tarty damsel had by many men before her dream knight found her. Turned out the knight was really a hoodlum.
She worked as a waitress in Dahlia Bar, Texas until Joseph Nippe, the knight, stole her from the hood. Their affair was most talked about by other women who served drinks and femme contours in the bar and the rumor was that one envious waitress sold his whereabouts out to his money lenders. Joseph and she ran away and settled in Brooklyn, then they had a daughter, Eva. Joseph named her after his pet nightingale and to save her from being subject of mockery in the hood, Lolla snipped its wings and flushed it in toilet and lied to her that it had been dead. Lolla still had the rusty cage strung up in her room, she said it would be a reminder of her daughter when she’s gone and her own degraded sense to kill the bird instead of setting it free.
Then, her body grew old and disfigured like a sag of potatoes yet her voice behind the powder, lipstick and fake eye lashes was still smooth and seductive, not ‘come on me’ seductive rather.
Yes, was my reply to her question but I didn’t give it utterance to avoid stupidity of answering what challenges human nature.
Half an hour ago, before heavens started to pour like it was the last rain ever. I paid her old shotgun house down Brooklyn a visit, which earlier was owned by a pet shop keeper. I wanted to know the truth of her husband’s murder and pass on a message. She had grey hair reaching her shoulders and sat with shameless esteem on a couch in her white evening dress and I sat on a creaky chair by a table, in her living room. She put the cigarette between her red lips from her fingers, barely biting it with her bad teeth and drew a lite drag and expelled smoke through her pierced nose.
Sometimes to give life to our loved ones we pay with our lives, she said something like that. It was hard to follow her dialect.
“You knew getting her out wouldn’t help her, it’ll only make them mad” I said.
“yu t’ink what yu go wantin’ novel boi, dis me not fearin’ of your sort men” she replied.
“I am not police, I am a reporter. Editor wishes me not to disclose your innocence in the case, Deputy Commissioner has ordered the department to rush the case pinning it on you. Your husband pimped them girls and they want to hide the pimples on their faces”
“He expeks me to fell for my princess, him right. What wick’dness brought yu here? yu carry a piece to do what them suited men be pay for?”
“Two uniforms will come tonight to arrest you or your husband’s second wife’s brother, Brian, to spill your brains before. . .I thought I’d know more than what my newspaper tells. You can run now” Her gaze transfixed on mine, her brows contracted and her eyes were bigger, she flickered her cigarette on the empty tabletop and looked away.
“I did once boi and ‘t didn’t work out. Yu sh’uld leave. . .dead people dezerve time alone. My man, he’d have sold my baby too…she done and gone good. She be a singer in New Jersey theaters soon. . .bright coin not like ‘er mama”
I left the place and fared in a taxi back to my friend Jake Calloway’s apartment. The rain sounded like bullets hitting against the cab’s body and windows, the forked water streaked down and blurred the city into grey haze making me wonder if all the angels above cried at the same time.
Joseph’s homicide was a lost-in-plain-sight case dragged for two years. Few months to pull Eva in it and rest to pin the death sentence, but there weren’t enough evidences and she got out on bail. I could’ve been a made-man cracking it before detectives, until I lost my files and home in a fire. I could guess who lit the match and was impotent to prove it. They tried to scare me off their backs, they burnt my apartment during working hours. My wife, Nithika, worked as a typist in a lawyer’s office and my son, Johnny, was in school. She left me five months ago, two days before the fire, taking him with her. I was uncertain to be happy or not that she did.
I didn’t eat, couldn’t. I undid my clothes and laid in hot water and scented shampoo in bathtub for half hour, I stared at my hands which had touched Lolla’s when she offered coffee. I wore a grey T-shirt and black trousers and dumped my worn suit in a basket for dry cleaning. I thought my clothes and hands had filth on them but I could not rinse the filth in my mind towards Lolla. I felt like I swam in dung and no matter how many times I bathed in scented shampoo and hot water, I could not stop smelling filth. I wouldn’t have been forgiven if I set myself dinner and slept knowing that Lolla would meet the cliche end from J.L.Burke’s novel. Maybe I was too much stressed, it wasn’t the first time I let someone die on me but I was tired of pushing me, I was tired of being cold, subjective and of trying to pick most rational choice.
I said myself that I had a wife and a son to protect from unfriendliness of diplomatic people, it gave me fake courage that letting an innocent take the fall was the unary choice.
An hour later when the rains stopped, I walked down the road to a newspapers stall. The clouds hid the sun from giving light and my body casted a lean dark reflection on the sheeny road. In a gap between white walls of the complex, the small stall where a black man was hooking up newspapers and magazines looked like a match box from distance, clenched among white quads of wax.
“Reopened just now, Joey?” I asked.
“Ye mon, I gotta keep it shut when them pours. Tss. Ya wawn whot?”
Lil’ Black Joey looked at me and smiled resuming his his seat behind the counter. He had been selling the hood newspapers and magazines since eight years then. He grew fat sitting on the stool, listening to radio and occasionally buffing his brother’s satin-white custom violin case, which he carried most of the time. I once ran into him on parish’s sunday alms event and he had the case, in a coffee shop, in the police station, the church, almost any where. Irony was that both the Joey brothers were twins and one upset cocaine dealer mistook Big Black Joey for Lil’ and shot him in cold blood. Lil’ one’s guilt outweighed his addiction.
I bought an evening magazine and strolled back to the apartment. Going upstairs I heard the landlord beat his wife, again. They usually have quarrels but that day she screamed and begged for him to stop. Then I heard a thud on a wall and suddenly it became silent. I went down and knocked his door, ambiguous that I might get my friend homeless but it was no excuse to not act promptly.
“Mister Laurence?! Is everything alright?” I enquired. The knob twisted and the door opened, Harvey Laurence stood dismayed and stiff in cold sweat. “What is-what do you want?” he asked.
“Perhaps you should tell me what is wrong with you? you live on your wife’s salary and you beat her almost every other day! I need to see if she’s alright”
“Nick! you’re forgetting that I own this damn building and I live on rent I get not that woman’s money, you’re a free loader here nosing in my privacy-”
“You’re forgetting that I work for a newspaper! Harvey, if I want then police and reporters will swarm in here and you’ll lose other tenants and reputation! Let me in”
“. . .fine just don’t wake her up”
I pushed through in and went inside their bedroom, Mrs.Laurence was stuffing few dresses and a purse from a wardrobe in a bag on the bed. “Are you alright Mrs.Laurence?” I asked her. She certainly wasn’t, her eyes were moist, her left cheek was scathed and reddened, her blonde hair were messed up. She didn’t look up into my eyes and whispered “I am-am leaving this place”
“I’ll call a cab and we’ll report this in police-”
“I can take care of me. . .please don’t make it any worse”
She picked her bag and began walking out avoiding Laurence standing at the door.
“I shuda kown you were had by him too” he said spitting on her and Mrs.Laurence raised her hand to slap him but he held her and pushed her down, I pulled him away and he fell crashing in a chair. “Maybe she won’t press charges on you, take this as ultimatum-” I said and gave him a blow to his temple knocking him off the chair. Mrs. Laurence ran out the main door.
I was sure he won’t gain conscious till evening, I shut the door and went back upstairs. I didn’t read the magazine, I laid on bed looking at my wrist watch and imagining action in Lolla’s house as it might happen, will she be killed or be arrested? Then Jake knocked at the door.
I opened the door to a drunk middle aged man who had a bottle of scotch wrapped in khaki paper bag in right hand and a bloody handkerchief in left.
“Why boy? why I could not pull the trigger? now every broad in the Shoot in Range knows me as a coward” he said turning his back to me, helping himself stand against the wall across and hit his head on it.
“Get in Jake, we don’t want the neighbors know we drink crazy” I said pulling him in. His shirt had blood splatter on it and his nose had turned blae, it seemed like someone had worked him over in the club.
“Tell Nicholas, I should have shot that bastard when had chance. . .right?”
He said that and let himself clumsy on the table in kitchen. I picked him up looping his arm around my shoulder and threw him on his bed and sat on the couch by the window and finished the bottle myself.
Jake had lost his mind a bit in second world war, on his return he was made a traffic officer spending days redirecting and stopping traffic middle of the road, when he’d have less work in second week of every month he’d sign off early from duty and visit the shooting club, Shoot in Range.
He told me why he wanted to shoot his fellow soldier, Trevor, in Okinawa. Jake and his company were ambushed on a bridge by Japanese troops firing from a imperial temple. Trevor had been missing for an hour since the assault. Jake with other two men went out to search him and they found him in a burnt house laid unclothed over dead body of Jake’s best friend. Jake drew his .45 at Trevor’s face and asked if he killed him, he didn’t hesitate but Jake did. Another soldier shot Trevor that killed him. Jake wouldn’t tell why he hesitated, I wouldn’t ask either.
“I shoulda shot that son-owa-bitch” Jake grunted subconscious on the bed.
“No, there are men who never switched the safety of their rifle in war and now blow their own trumpet. You are not one of them so don’t let one clean bullet crawl up your brains” I replied.
“That son-owa-bich burnt your house and I didn’t blow his brains on the floor. . .I don’t get do what I wanna do” he said.
“Who are you talking about?” I asked.
“BJ man! he was at the club”
“I don’t know how he knows about Trevor bidness done in Okinawa but he disrespected me, I pulled my revolver at him and the crowd held me from shooting. I should have shot him, shit! He put some paper in my mouth and blew one on my nose. . .here”
Jake pulled a blood stained piece of paper from his coat pocket and dropped it on mattress. I picked it up and read.
‘Tears of Odin burns in my veins, for I share the sorrow he kept lain.
Like a seed in mother’s womb, its flames will curl me inside.
And in image of the phoenix ailed, to end the lover’s mortal pain,
From my own ashes, I shall be reborn immortal kite.
“Its a message, maybe he thinks his crimes will make him immortal or something, the references are not clear. What do you think?”
Jake fell asleep “wake up damn it! how’d he looked like?” he didn’t respond. Black Jack was a psycho arsonist and I made every one I knew his target. I decided to leave city and packed my clothes and reached for the door. I thought I’d call Jake next day and then I saw an envelope on the card table, it had E initial on it. It was glued, I tore it from side and replaced the neatly folded instrument inside.
I know I shouldn’t have killed Joseph, he never deserved calling a father or a husband. I did it in concious and consent, not in vein, not in anger, I planned this and burnt his body to not leave any trace but I didn’t know he was in bed with Deputy Commissioner and I broke hell lose. My mama worked all her life paying for my tutions, because of her I can read and write english like a proper lady, now she wants me to leave her and hood but how can I? I have changed my mind, I wont run away. You are a brave man to get me bailed from jail and I am sorry to fail you. I read your newspaper everyday, you are stupid to let your obsession hurt your family. Leave this case, I will turn my self in. You go back to your family. . .I dont want to part a wife from her husband a child from its father. I am going to my family and stand by her. Your family needs you.
Nerves in my head felt swollen. The girl had more guts than me, I was gonna run away while Eva would take the heat for her mother and wanting me to get back my family. I didn’t get her bailed, Lolla did but she thought I helped her. I wouldn’t face god if I didn’t help her then. I stole car keys from Jake’s over coat, I didn’t find his revolver, either he dropped it in the club or worse.
The evening broke out dark, the dying sun shot its godrays higher in the sky and the golden hour was losing its halo by the passing dusk. When I reached Lolla’s house it seemed awful calm and unscathed as if the land was ready for the nuclear bomb tests, abandoned and doomed.
“Lolla!” I screamed at her door. When no one showed up I kicked down the door and went inside. She was dead. Her body collapsed behind the rugged sofa in her own blood and her forehead had a bullet hole. The place didn’t give away any signs of struggle but a glass pane of the window closer to us was crackled around a neat hole. Outside the window were gothic slums, small houses built one above another, a balcony where an old Haitian woman was beating dust off a mattress and far sounds of kids gagging.
The phone rang few minutes later, I answered it hoping the caller was the crack shot.
“Like Jake says Mr.Chase, its about timing and precision” the man on the other side of the call said.
“Brian?” I asked him.
“No, someone closer to you. If I you’re crurious enough, you can find me in your burnt apartment giving company to this talented little girl” and then he put his receiver down.
I heard a car drive up to the street and hit brakes hard on the mud, I looked out a window and saw the cop car mounted on the curb outside the house and two police officers stepped from it. They noticed the door was left open suspiciously, I ran into the kitchen and kicked down the back door, the clonk alarmed them but I made it around the house and got in Jake’s car. As I drove few meters away, in the rear view mirror, I saw the old house behind me blew up, the gas regulator in the kitchen went off and the fires curled the rubble as it elevated high in sky with a fire ball, the falling bricks and remnants looked like devil’s tears, raining fire. The orange bloom shone in chrome linings of the car’s interior and I didn’t stop driving.
The shooter had planned it all, I remembered the scenic letter from Eva, I wondered if it was true at all. Either that or the caller’s gibberish, I could be framed for murder of two cops and a suspect.
By the time I was close to the grave of my burnt home north of Manhattan, the night had fallen down. I ran upstairs the building and went in the half rebuilt apartment avoiding the worker’s tools, pile of bricks, paint cans and ladder scattered about the living room, inside the bedroom which remained untouched since five months. The fire had charred the paint and turned the bricks black like charcol. The furniture, my bed, study table, Nithika’s fond wardrobe were removed and the roof miragy of the sky which wasn’t any darker than the caller’s intentions.
A man in black working boots and blue coveralls appeared from the shadowed junction of the adjoining walls.
“Mr.Chase, you remember me?” The strange man sounded familiar but I didn’t recognize him. He stepped further out and his silhouette shaded in blue ambience leaking from the empty window. His pale face, his lean body and the burnt side on his head highlighting the lapped octaves carved down till his neck would make him stand out as The Ghost of Rashmon Hall among men.
“Jack Waters?” I said his name out loud.
“Glad you remember your victim by name. Your newspaper gave me a tired alias, guess we are not the editor’s choice” he said.
“Ah. . .I’ve been waiting to hear you say it!”
“Where’s Eva! your fight is with me, don’t hurt her!”
“And your promise was to protect your sister! my wife! you got her killed!”
“Jack, I would not have hurt her. . .let Eva go”
“How could you! Nippe told me you abandoned her in sickness when I was in the war, I trusted you!”
“You’re deluded Jack! how would Nippe know what happened to her. . .Nippe kidnapped her. No one knows how her body ended up in the slums godamit!”
“You are lying! but you’re a family none less and family deserves a second chance, right?”
“Whatever you say”
Jack pushed the revolver on my back and made me lead him to the roof. Eva was ligatured by a rope to a chair and she was unconscious. Jack stood behind her and placed his hands lapped on her scalp and said “You are so desperate to save the nightingale”
“Come on Jack why are we here?” I tattled the words on my teeth, frightened of my sister’s widower.
He pressed the gun on her head and asked me “Why do you want to help her? She is a murder fugitive. . .do you love her?”
“No, I love my family”
He pulled the trigger and the barrel clicked a blank. “Do you enjoy it?” he asked.
“I know your game, you wouldn’t kill her, the gun’s empty”
“Is it?!” he screamed and shot a bullet above my head, I leaned down to dodge it but he didn’t mean to kill me, not yet.
“A blank fire to the blank answer, I know you love your family and I am counting on it!” he said jerking the chair and waking her up.
“Nicholas?” she stared at me with suspicion and accusation glistering in her eyes. I couldn’t look back.
He replaced the gun on her and asked again “Your family is in a car in Hell’s Kitchen, the car is rigged with gasoline cans and firecrackers. How long does a mosquito coil take to burn down?”
“You- you have my fam-”
“Save the dramatics for a funeral!”
“One-some one hour?”
“Yes, and you have some half hour to get to the green Ford behind the Baldar’s Bar-”
“Dont do this” my words vanished in the cold air and died unheard.
“-You save them and lose this bird. Save her? you lose your family by the time you’ll kill me”
“I am sorry! Oh Christ, please you don’t do this”
“Your apology won’t weigh more than my dead wife”
Jake put me in a dilemma. To save Eva, I’ll have to fight him off putting all our lives at stake. If I save my family then he’ll kill her. I felt like a lost tourist with a map. I looked at her face, she heard him and started crying. Her worsened brave would put her in a grave.
I knew a strong girl who’d face death for her mother but when she did, she lost her ground.
“He killed your mother” I told her the last truth she needed to know and then nodded looking back at Jack. I saw a binary choice, my family or her and I had chosen them.
Jack stiffened the gun on her scalp and pulled the trigger. The gun fire echoed in the eerie sky and faded away with the nightingale’s life.
“I’ll find you!” I said and turned about to run downstairs.
“Your family’s safe” he said.
He threw the gun near my feet, I picked it up and faced him. He spread his arms in air like the Nazarene and started laughing.
I raised my arm and my aim was clear. I shot three bullets at him that lodged in his chest and killed him, his body crashed down tripping over the chair.
I dropped the gun and ran down to a payphone in the lobby. I called Nithika’s mother, the ring played along and no one answered. I dialed in the number again and on third ring, a soothing voice of a young woman answered.
“Hello?” Nithika asked.
“Nithika? Jesus! where are you?”
“Nick? what are you trying to prove by calling me, that you care?”
“Where are you godamit?!”
“You called my ma’s, so where would I be idiot and good you called,
I was going to call you anyway”
“I want a divorce and I-” Before she could complete her sentence I mashed the receiver on the phone and few breaths later I called the detective working on Jack’s arson cases.
“Kevin? I got the B.J.” I told him haphazardly.
“What who’s this?” he asked, gaping and half asleep.
“This is Nicholas, I got B.J. dead on my ashed house’s roof, bring in the cavalry” I said and without listening to his reply I slamed the device again on the phone.
A lightening struck outside, in a split second it threw light on the hood sleeping under the night, agonizing the sleepless and my heartbeat was restless. I let my tired legs lose and I stood with my back against the wall behind. Looking at the payphone I remembered a call I received on my office’s phone two years ago and my eyes welled with tears. The caller was my sister, Julia Waters. She told me that she’d fallen in love with Joseph Nippe and that she’s pregnant. Until then Joseph was a stranger to me. She wanted to run away with him, she asked me if her decision was right. I figured if they both were really in love then it was good for them. She made me promise to not tell Jack about it when he’d return from war. I should have told him, but I was too late and so guilty.