California where the American continent dead-ends at the Pacific. Bodhidharma died in California.
Henske was at his desk in the second-floor walk-up office over the chop suey joint that was what his intermittent practice could afford. Pull-out couch and a working bathroom near enough to the desk made the whole setup his living space as well. Was a photo lying on his desk in front of him of his partner lying in the street. Had blood coming out of his head following the lie of street which ran oblique and down through a built-up Jap neighborhood. Henske had received the photo from his secretary and given her the rest of the day off. She had gotten it from a cop she slept with on occasion and that upstanding officer being willing to part with the photo implied how little they gave a damn. Partner wasn’t much more than an aesthetic blight on an expensive neighborhood and once they had washed him off the sidewalk that was the end of him as far as the police were concerned.
“I think I made more an impression than that,” his partner said sitting in the couch across from the desk wearing the same worn-out suit and mismatched tie he’d been wearing last time Henske had seen him among the living.
“You aren’t real,” Henske said.
“Considering the photos in that briefcase you being very skittish of looking at, think I was working on something real shocking indeed.” Partner was a Southern transplant who’d stuck around after the West Coast Scene had gone to hell along with the rest of the country excepting, because God has a certain peculiar sense of ironic humor, the Southland. He’d also left a briefcase in the safe beneath the desk which Henske liked to rest his feet on and that was what he was doing now along with not looking at the photos in the briefcase in the safe.
The photos showed a young stud with a Mediterranean complexion and a circumcision along with an older flabbier man was recognizable from his re-election posters and another who Henske didn’t recognize off-handedly but wasn’t circumcised and was making collaborative use of the stud. Boy took it hard and in one had the mayor’s entire fist inside him and the photos which weren’t arranged chronologically but were like enough the follow-up were a close-up of the red gaping fissure and in the ones were harder to stomach they brought in some larger breeds of dog.
“They aren’t to my taste.”
Wasn’t particularly hard to figure why his partner ended up dead.
“Told you, boy, white slavery was going be the case made our reputation. The Nips run this city and the Russians who run it with them and the whites make scalawags look principled who spend their days sucking Nip and Red asses all and every one of them are degenerate perverts. Pederasts and faggots, and even the ones can stand girls only like them when there ain’t grass on the field. And all of those poor boys and girls bought and sold like they was niggers on an auction block.”
“I was going to abandon you the moment I had an ounce of worldly success. I imagined you drinking yourself to death in Jackson cursing me your partner who made a name for himself and then fucked you over.”
“Well, now,” partner said, “then ain’t it a fine thing that I was the one kept this operation humming and you in the grand style of living you accustomed to.”
Henske was a private detective which was an occupation rapidly waning and had never been particularly profitable, city as decadent as San Francisco was something quaint to digging through marriages. Hell, idea of two people having ever meant to commit to each other was practically Old World like a novel by some dead German Jew didn’t make it into exile in time to escape being gassed. Zyklon B ruined romance.
What was left of romance was on those photos. Photos his hustling goddamned dead racist partner who was too much of a hustler to stay in his grave managed to find. Score of a goddamned career and the man who needed to get fitted for his robes had gotten himself dead over it.
“I suppose you can’t tell me how you came by them?”
Partner leaned back and put his hands behind his head and crossed one leg over the other. Boots like he’d polished them that morning. Shit-eating grin with nothing behind it.
“Now, could a man that ain’t real explain the provenance of some pornographic photos?”
“I’d ask you not hold that comment against me.”
“Well,” his partner whose name in life was Andrew Brat Stephens and went by A.B. and supposed he continued to after death, “suppose a man can forgive a body being skeptical. Ain’t every day you meet a man who is walking around dead.”
Scratched himself and showed his manners hadn’t improved. Took his time but while he was scratching his expression changed like he was searching around his head and what he was doing with what was between his legs was frustrated transference.
“But, fuck me sideways, can’t goddamn remember where I did get those photos. Remember coming in and telling you would make us goddamned rich enough to hire better looking secretaries and leaving again and the rest is like film ain’t in the fucking projector. Suppose might be somewhere but I ain’t seeing nothing playing on the screen.”
A.B. had been a late-night movie man. Claimed he had been a projectionist at one point in his life but then he claimed to have done most everything. And he had certainly come in that morning and made that crack in front of their secretary who wasn’t all that homely and seemed to do well-enough and A.B. had put the manila envelope in the safe and Henske hadn’t opened the clasp until after hearing his partner was dead and the day had become quite upsetting and strange all around.
Took what his partner had left him out of the safe again and put them on the photo of his partner so he wasn’t seeing double anymore.
“Well, at least you didn’t leave me with absolutely nothing to work on.”
Names on the back of one of the photos. Morris Reddington, Wayne Murphy, and the mayor’s so supposed the other two must be the other degenerate and the boy had the distinct misfortune of catching their eye. Had an empty envelope inside, smaller kind might use to mail a bill, and scrawled on the back was an address and a description of the operation.
White slavery ring – Reddington – old money – supplementing income? – Likes boys – tell from pictures – Homosexual – can be pressured? Business with Overseas Nips and Reds – cant stand fags – turn him and work along the chain – listed an address which presumably was Reddington’s – open secret – open means powerful friends – mayor – alone? And alone was slashed through like the idea had been summarily rejected. Blackmail now? Kenta – need know photos circulation – blackmail man with third-hand copies aint smart
“Always thought was damned silly folks not giving some notes explain why they doing what they doing if they got a decent chance of being killed. Like going out hiking without telling nobody you gone somewhere and then being surprised ain’t no rescue party coming to save your stupid ass.”
“Well, you still managed to end up dead even with having left me a note.”
“Boy, we all manage to end up dead and I ain’t saying expected to stop a bullet. And, good way of getting a man’s thoughts in order.”
“It looks like you were planning on blackmailing a wealthy homosexual who you believed was involved in the commercial exploitation of children on a wide scale using these photos as leverage, and you were going to determine if the leverage was good or if this man would offer to sign them for you as though he was proud of himself by going to an alcoholic Japanese information broker you routinely describe as being the kind of Japanese who, and I’m quoting from memory, ‘is the reason why white folks goddamn hated the fucking Nips even before they bombed Pearl Harbor.’ That sound about right?”
“Long and short of it. Course, my memory ain’t any clearer but I can dig the logic of it.”
The hippy-isms had smuggled their way into A.B.’s drawl sometime before he and Henske had met. Henske suspected A.B. had come out for the Summer of Love and cut his hair and gone straight. Or, straight as a blackmailing detective. Hell, the victims of the Age of Aquarius were still around. Hippies burnt out and strung-out, clusters of them in buildings a city with more pride in itself would condemn. Would wander out wearing hand-sewn hand-dyed tie-dye and looking like the ghosts of a dead self-serving idealism and looking for a fix. Psychedelics had transitioned to heroin and daddy had stopped wiring money and mailing checks. Blackmailing detective was at least a career path that showed some ambition.
“Wonder why they haven’t killed me yet?”
“Might be I was killed over something else and the white slavers don’t know either of us exist. Might be these boys ain’t operating with military precision, which is a goddamned stupid expression because military precision would really mean they ain’t going to get around to you for a couple weeks if they don’t forget you entirely. Might be they waiting outside this place right now and minute you turn the light off they will break in and bludgeon you to death.”
“Well, you alive now and that is more than I can say for myself.”
Henske pulled his drawer open and wished to Christ he had a gun in it but it would be easier to get his hands on heroin and possession would carry a shorter prison sentence. Instead, was a datebook with his secretary’s address and a key to her apartment. Would have to slip out through the chop suey joint, the owner lived in an adjacent set of rooms overpopulated with what appeared to be his entire extended family and was an exit they took that wasn’t obvious from the street and might be his luck would hold and either wouldn’t be anybody watching or the anybody watching hadn’t done a thorough job casing the place. Which was all to say that he was quite likely to die. Unlike his partner doubted he’d get a second wind because it was a small operation and their secretary was the kind of imminently practical menial professional woman who wouldn’t pay the unsettled dead any mind.
“Boy,” A.B. said, “you hear the championships in town? The weightlifting competition?”
City had lobbied for the World Championships and were thrown the opportunity to give the illusion of autonomy. Same reason Warsaw hosted the year before.
“Why, in the name of sweet Jesus Christ, would you need to bring that up now?”
“Because I might be dead but I’m still around and so’s Big Joe and that new Russian who just looking at him is a contender and felt that match in my blood.”
A.B. had been a fan of the sport since Joe Dube had taken the championship from the Soviets and made it acceptable for patriotic anti-communists to watch. Competition weightlifting amounted to a Soviet cultural import because for some reason the Reds thought watching men lifting weights on a platform was more fun than the real kind of football and everything Russian had become chic among the chattering class how a bunch of intellectuals in Paris started taking German lessons and convincing themselves they liked beer and pretzel cuisine for a few years in the early forties.
“Saw the tickets in the safe besides the envelope,” Henske said and he had and had seen the posters with Dube and the combined Soviet and European title holder on them across the city because the Superheavyweight was what people cared about how Bantamweight boxers had a grudge against Heavyweights for getting all the attention.
“Think I was going to invite you to go with me. Heard in an interview Big Joe was talking about how he always got excited kicking Commie ass. Thought that’d be something to see after he fucked them hard in their own country, even if this one ain’t so far behind.”
Henske followed the sport in the sense that his partner hadn’t shut up about it in life and so from that standpoint it seemed reasonable, as he came to think it over and adapting himself to a certain peculiar logic, that his partner wouldn’t shut up about it in death, and Henske had absorbed a certain amount osmotically and researched enough to take contrary opinions.
“He only won because the Russian with the long name got injured on the first lift, and the new one who looks like a bear already set records winning the European Championship. Dube isn’t winning again, and, Jesus Christ, we’ve got other things going on.”
“You saying you won’t go and take me along?”
His dead partner actually sounded plaintive.
“That Russian, that big bastard, think watching him be something, hear he might break five-hundred on the jerk and wouldn’t that be something to see? Historical.”
“If, God help me, we can get there,” Henske said wondering now if he was going entirely crazy because talking to a dead man was one thing and bargaining with a dead man was another and perhaps doing a favor for a dead man he had dreamed of screwing over in life was a particular something they didn’t have an word for besides charity, “assuming I am not with you in the grave and not trying to dodge bullets, I will take you to watch some fat Russian win a weightlifting championship.”
Took the tickets out of the safe and put them in his pocket and closed the door behind him. A.B. didn’t follow him and Henske wondered if his partner would stay on that couch for the rest of time and if he did how he might be able to avoid keeping the promise he had just made and an associated trip to the asylum.
A.B. was waiting for him at the top stairway and his boots were still finely polished and his grin was still shit-eating.
“Boy, suppose we might still be able make ourselves a reputation, even if mine’ll have be posthumous.”
“Going to wind up dead as you are and even if I don’t it’s all going to be for a payday.”
“Now boy,” and his partner’s grin widened as they made their way down the stairs, “they’s no need to talk down money because it don’t hardly matter more to you after you are gone than your reputation, and they’s always an opportunity to learn something and believe was a poet once advised a man to clothe himself in knowledge so he might know God.”
“We searching for God or a white slavery ring?”
“Well, seeing God’s got himself in everything ain’t certain the latter can’t lead to the other,” A.B. said and they were double-timing out the exit or at least Henske was because his partner wasn’t breaking a sweat.
“I’m an atheist,” Henske said as they ran out into the alley and not immediately taking a shot to the head gave him the hope his luck might hold.
“Sure you is. Ain’t sure that is a healthy long-term decision, but we seem to have some time together to see if it will last.”
© V.N. Ebert 2022