posted by ric ricland
by Gari Lloyd
Fat Tony lifted his head to catch the aroma of the sausage grilling in the back. This is how Fat Tony cooked -- by nose, not sight. He grunted at the two younger men sitting with him at the small table then sniffed again: it was ready. Without a word he put his cigar in the plastic ashtray, rolled out of his chair and went inside. A moment later he was back with a plate of perfectly grilled sausage, onions, green peppers, a hunk of Italian bread. He did not offer any of this food to the two men. Instead, he began eating ... ravenously, like a man who did not care how piggish he looked. He ate like this until all the food was gone. He used the last piece of Italian bread to wipe the plate clean. After this he picked up the cigar stub and jammed it back in the corner of his mouth.
“Was it good, Boss?” asked one of the men.
“Terrible,” said Fat Tony. “But what are you gonna do?”
The old restaurants were gone now. The new ones made pizza the way the Puerto Ricans liked it—tripping with grease—but that was all right too because although the neighborhood was almost gone, there was still The Palm Social Club with the kitchen in the back. You learned to adjust.
Times change— boy, do they ever. Fat Tony was born down the street 70 years ago. He could remember when East Harlem was the biggest little Italy in the country. Back then there were more Italians living in New York City than Rome. Now all that remained were two blocks: First and Pleasant Avenues. The pattern had been the same: the Dutch pushed out the Indians, the English pushed out the Dutch, the Germans and Irish pushed out the English, then came the Jews, then the Italians who pushed the Jews into the sea, and now the Puerto Ricans who pushed the Italians out to Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst and almost inside the East River with all the dead bodies. And now in East Harlem only these two blocks left for the Italians. Only two blocks. But within these two blocks The Palm Social Club, the last Italian-American social club in East Harlem, a place Fat Tony would never let the Puerto Ricans and blacks push into the sea. Never.
Elsewhere on the street life continued placidly enough. This was a slice of East Harlem few people knew about, a place so different from the war zone surrounding it, its existence defied explanation. But there is a very good explanation for it. Without question, these were the safest two streets in the city, a piece of Manhattan that had died around the time Eisenhower left office, a protected place. Further down the block an unattended newborn lay in a baby carriage. But the infant was well protected: a network of eyes and ears extending from one end of the block to the other, watched and listened. If a stranger so much as looked into the carriage ten people would instantly want to know why. Across the street an old mustache Pete who’d come from Italy 60 years earlier, dozed on a beach chair a fist-full of dollar bills in his shirt pocket. But the bills were in no more danger of being plucked than the $5,000 to $10,000 Fat Tony always carried in his own pockets.
“Look, you two, I gotta explain something to you,” Fat Tony said. “It concerns the legal situation I got, so I want you to pay close attention.” The two men seated at the small table with him pulled closer. It was time to listen. Fat Tony’s RICO conviction and 20 year sentence had been handed down a month ago, the date for him to turn himself in, a week away. Everybody on the block knew this. The only question was what the Mafia boss planned to do about it, what trick would he pull out his hat—and surely he would pull some trick out of his hat because in his 60 years of being a gangster he had always managed some trick to stay out of jail, always pulled some rabbit out the old, weather-beaten pork pie hat he still wore.
“Okay, you two know about the golf resort in South Carolina, right?”
“Sure, boss, we know all about it,” said Vario, his bodyguard.
Fat Tony paused. Vario’s answer hadn’t really been out of line—it was the kid's tone, a small thing, but in this life of ours small things were the difference between life and death for older man too slow to notice—the East River was full of older men too slow to notice.
“What do you mean you ‘know all about it?’” said Fat Tony.
“Hey, we’re not dumb, Tony,” said Vario. And the younger man groaned inside for no sooner had he spoken these words did he realize they were far too cocky to use around an older man as treacherous as Fat Tony.
Fat Tony pulled the stub out of his mouth. The tone he might forgive, the cute reply he could not: “Hey, let me ask you something, Vario.” Fat Tony's black eyes were gleaming with anger now. He was jabbing the air with the cigar as he spoke, always a bad sign. “Those big balls you got all of a sudden—where’d you get them from?”
Vario blanched. “I didn’t mean no harm, boss.”
“Cause you better get the small ones back quick,” said Fat Tony unconcerned at the spittle spraying from his mouth onto Vario’s face. Suddenly, Vario understood his life was in peril. He had seen it many times before: the jabbing cigar, the spittle spraying, the order to kill someone—“Hey, Vario! Brocci! That cocksucker whose late— we make an example of him today. You know what I’m saying?” Vario shook this black thought from his head and forced a whining, weaseling voice from his mouth, one he hadn’t used in years:
“I apologize, boss—I didn’t mean nothing by it, I swear on my mother’s grave.”
Fat Tony let it hang like that for a moment, his eyes boring into Vario's face, daring the younger man to take up the challenge. But the younger man would have none of it. Instead, his face was a whipped dog's: head bent, eyes downcast. Maybe another day; now he wanted only his boss's forgiveness. Fat Tony snorted then looked at the other man, but Brocci was looking at Vario in anger; feigned anger, perhaps, but the appropriate response nonetheless. The Fat Man snorted again then he spoke and the tension was gone as suddenly as it had appeared: “You don’t know nothing because you ain't supposed to know nothing—you got that, wise guy?”
It was all right now. When Fat Tony lectured you it meant it was all right, it meant he wasn’t going to hurt you… at least not right away.
“Right, boss, that’s what I meant,” said Vario his chest finding its normal breathing pace again.
“I hope for your sake it is. It don’t pay to know what you’re not supposed to know—see?”
“I’m clear on that, boss. It was just a figment of speech, that's all.”
“You mean a figure of speech,” Brocci corrected. Brocci could talk now that the crisis was over. It was decided. He would not have to hurt Vario for speaking out-of-line and for this he was thankful if not annoyed.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” said Vario looking at Brocci with a smile he knew looked crooked but under the circumstances it was the only expression his face could manage.
The fat man nodded. His quick mind was already racing to other things. He tucked the cigar back in the corner of his mouth. In these days of FBI agents who could read lips, smoking a cigar was actually good for your health. “The place is working out real good,” he said. “A real earner. Everybody’s making a couple of dollars down there-- Hey! how do you think we got the President to vacation there? See, that’s how legit it is.”
“A good piece of work, boss, everybody takes pride in it, boss,” said Brocci. “You did good.”
Fat Tony nodded: “Now, I know you street guys don’t know a golf club from a stickball bat, but the two golf courses we put on the place are Jack Nicholas replicas—and we can say that, just as long as we stick in the word replica—see?”
“Like the Bob Hope Classic,” said Vario.
“Better—and one day soon we’ll have our own classics there. Like I say, totally legit in every way.”
“A good deal.”
Fat Tony paused. He had their attention; now it was time to throw them a few crumbs. He began talking again his thick finger jabbing the air as he talked: “And they used to say us gombas could never do something like this, that it took Jews like Siegel and Lansky to pull a deal like that together.”
“I never believed that, boss” said Vario, his voice low and well-modulated now. He was trying to find his way back in. It would take time.
“Lansky and Siegal ever get the President to come to Nevada, tell me that?” asked Fat Tony.
“Nah, boss, they never even got the governor of Nevada to come to Nevada,” said Brocci.
The men laughed.
“And Morello and Trafficante—what did they accomplish with the Kennedy hit?” asked the Fat Man. “I’m still waiting for a answer on that one. Did things get better after he was hit?”
“They got worse.”
“That’s when Hoover came out of his shell, right?”
“Right, we’ve been getting peanuts ever since.”
“Hey, enough already with the jokes,” said Fat Tony taking the cigar out of his mouth. He looked at the stub, the light had gone out.
“Want a light, boss?”
Two Bics came up from under the table. The fat man chose Brocci’s, puffed and continued talking: “Okay, you don’t need to know this, but I’m going to tell you it anyway—because it doesn’t go any further than this table, see?
“Sure, boss” the two men said in unison.
“We set the President up when he was down there, see? The guy is always on the make, just like the Kennedys. Incidentally, Giancana set that one up, with his own girlfriend, Judith Campbell, but the mistake he made is he didn’t get the goods—no pictures, tape recordings, missed a hell of an opportunity.” Fat Tony paused. Once again the stogie came out his mouth. He sighed. “See, I’m telling you this because this is the new way. You two are the next generation. You gotta learn this stuff. I’m an old man, see? I could go tomorrow.”
“Don’t say that, boss. You’re no old man yet.”
“When you can’t get a hard-on you’re an old man.”
The men laughed. The fat man continued:
“Gotti, I love him like a son. But he ain’t the future. In the future no more muscle-- everything is legit.”
The talk continued and two younger men understood that before he told them what he really needed to tell them, he would have his say. Fat Tony was known for this. No one did it better. If there were such things as “groits” in the Italian-American community, Fat Tony was one. He knew things you couldn't get from books:
“Jews built Harlem. Before them it was just another Irish shantytown. Jews were the first immigrants to make the clean money, to go legit. That’s because they had their own schools –“yeshivas.” Maddon, they taught everything in those places like you wouldn’t believe—architecture, civil engineering, all the sciences. See, this was when a Jew couldn’t get in the good colleges. They wouldn’t even let them in City College, for chrissakes. So what do they do? They started their own yeshivas. The best one they had is long gone now, but it was right around the corner. They called it the Hebrew Institute. It was right around the corner near where Milton Berle was born. Listen to me, this is the way it was. These apartment buildings you see from the East river to the Hudson were built by Jew kids—architects, engineers—from that old Hebrew Institute.”
“I thought it was the micks and guineas boss,” said Yario.
“No, that’s the dirty end of construction. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the clean end—the architects, the engineers, guys like that top Jew, Robert Moses; Jews who used their brains, who never got their hands dirty, who worked with paper, clean. Speaking of paper, did you know there are 70,000 apartments in the two Harlems of which Jews still hold the paper on 69,999 of them?”
“Who got that last one, boss?”
Fat Tony pointed to entrance of The Palm Social Club: “Some fat little wop on 115th street.”
The men laughed.
Fat Tony continued: “Look, when I was a kid we lived at the end of the street. Okay, on 116th street old Mother O’Leary had a farm. This was in 1920-something. Her farm took up the whole block— a wood farmhouse, a well, cows, goats, everything from soup to nuts. We used to buy our eggs from her. But it was no good. She was standing in the way of progress. The Irish didn’t understand that. We gombas didn’t understand that. But Shartz and Gross knew the farm had to go.”
“Who were they, Boss?”
“Shartz and Gross? You never heard of them?”
“And you come from this neighborhood? This is hard to believe. All right, I’ll tell you what you should have learned a long time ago. They were the biggest outfit around at time.”
“You mean like Murder Incorporated?”
“What? What is he talking, Brocci? Didn’t I just get finish saying the Jews were the first immigrants to make the clean money?
“So why does he bring up Murder Incorporated? That’s Lansky and Siegel. Those Jews were as dirty as us, that’s why they called them the Kosher Nostra.”
The men laughed.
Fat Tony waited until they finished then continued: “Shartz and Gross went to this farm, right. The one with the Irish lady, see? And they say, ‘Mrs. O’Leary, get in the car we want to take you somewhere.” Well, the old lady don’t know from nothing. She says, ‘Oh, you nice boys, you taking me to Coney?’ The two Jews say, ‘No, we want to show you something real nice here in Harlem.’ And that was it.”
“That was it?”
“That was it.”
“What do you mean ‘that was it,' boss?”
Fat Tony took his stogie out the corner of his mouth. Fat Tony told a good yarn except sometimes when it got to the punch line he didn't always finish the way you expected. It was a curious thing—you never knew if he was going to finish or leave it hanging like that. But the thing is, even if he left it hanging it would come to you later—bada-bing—and all of a sudden you'd know exactly what he meant.
“They drove her to a building they had just finished,” said Fat Tony sticking the stump back in the corner of his mouth.
“What? Was they gonna whack her boss?”
The men laughed.
“Shut up, stupido. No jokes.”
The men laughed again.
“The building is there to this very day. It’s a building like you wouldn’t believe—maddon. Outside it’s like a castle. Inside, it’s fitted with dumbwaiters, gas stoves, wood interior, and other amenities. Back then it had two passenger elevators, uniformed operators. I tell ya, this shanty Irish lady ain’t never seen anything like it—but that ain’t all. They take her to the top floor, and guess what they got there?”
“A penthouse?” said Brocci.
Fat Tony paused. “How’d you know that?”
“’Cause I heard you tell the story before, boss.”
“So why didn’t you say something, you dumb guinea?”
“’Cause I like to hear you tell it,” said Brocci.
Fat Tony smiled. He liked this Brocci kid, that was no secret. “Then you know the ending, wise guy?”
“Yeah, boss, they swap her the penthouse for the farm, tear the farm down and put up every apartment building on 116th from Pleasant to First Avenue.
“Yeah, that’s right. And that’s 500 apartments they get for giving the dumb mick one lousy penthouse,” said Fat Tony.
“And then she dies a year later, right, boss?”
“Yeah, from all the excitement.”
“She should have stayed on the farm, huh boss?”
“She’d be alive today.”
“Yeah, that’s a good story, boss.”
Fat Tony nodded then fixed his gaze on Yario, and Yario knew it was time to get down to business. “Look, you, that Puerto Rican kid, what’s his name—the one we used the last time?”
“That would be Pacheco, boss,” Yario said.
“Yeah, let’s bring him,” Fat Tony said. “Let’s stop foolin’ around with it. Let’s bring him in and send him up there to Harlem. It’s time to stop playing with these niggers, you know what I mean?”
“He lives right around the corner,” Yario said. “I’ll reach out for him.”
“And we take care of both of them this time, you understand? That wise guy Shaft and his niece, the one that's causing all the trouble—what’s her name?”
“Kimba , boss. Kimba Woods.”
“Yeah, we clip her wings too. You got that?”
“Sure, boss. I got it,” said Yario. Yario looked at Brocci and smiled. It was good being in the boss’s good graces again no matter the spittle.
I was doing my nails when Florence sent him back. He was tall, high-yellow, built for speed. His eyes were bigger than ginger snaps and just as brown. He wore a coal-black Armani, a flowered tie, and lawyer shoes, the kind with those tiny holes in the toe. In short, he was a piece of work, a fancy Negro, mainly.
“My name is Dawson, Robert Dawson,” he said. He handed me his business card. I usually ignore business cards, what I want to know about a man I get from the way he looks, talks, drinks his Scotch, but there was something in the way the child was handing over his. Then I saw the card was no Kinko’s 1000-for-$10 special. The paper stock had enough rag content to get your hay fever flaring, its embossed ink shimmered like gold:
Robert Dawson, Asst. Communications Dir.
Office of the President of the United States
1700 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC
“Nice gig,” I said. I leaned the card against the pencil holder. Then I handed him one of my Kinko’s 1000-for-$10 specials:
Licensed Private Investigator
Harlem, New York
“So what can I do to serve my country?” I asked. He chuckled, slipped my card behind his three-point handkerchief then said, “I’m not here on official White House business, Miss Woods. This is personal.”
I’m a Natalie Cole look-alike who’s always been a sucker for high-yellow men, so you know I was already getting frisky. And you could tell he knew he had it going on: eyes prettier than a girl’s, wavy hair, straight nose sitting on his face just so; and it was about this time he did a trick that still makes my knees buckle – he stood up, put his jacket on the back of the chair then sat himself down again. Dang. . . the child must spend a lot a time in the gym, was all I could think…heaps of time.
“Okay, Mr. Dawson, why don’t you break it down for me,” I said, shifting my eyes to his forehead so he couldn’t get a read on how I’d been tripping over his physique. “I’m all ears, baby.”
He nodded, sighed, smoothed his hand over his wavy hair then began breaking it down for me: “A girl in South Carolina says I’m the father of her three-year-old son. Well, Miss Woods, what can a man say when a girl he hardly knows lays a guilt trip like that on him? I mean, it’s possible she’s telling the truth, but I’ve got to know for sure, that's all. In other words, Miss Woods, I'd like a sample of the little boy’s blood.”
“Sounds reasonable enough— so why do you need me?”
“Well, as I said, because of my particular situation—”
“And what particular situation might that be, Mr. Dawson?”
“I’ve got a wife and two kids.”
“I see . . .”
So that was deal: he'd got some biddy in a family way and was running scared. Poor widdle baby. I stared him down like the dog he was. It wasn’t hard; he knew he was in the wrong. “Where does the mother live?” I snapped.
“A place on the South Carolina coast called Yamassee Island—about 50 miles south of Charleston, ten miles or so north of Hilton Head. She’s what you call a Gullah. Ever hear of them?”
“You mean Geechee?”
“Right, same thing. Yamassee Island is quite a place. Best kept secret in Washington – the resort, that is. The President spent his vacation there three years ago. I went down with him and made the stupid mistake of walking off the resort. That’s how I met Calinda Williams. Well, one thing led to another and, well. . .”
Again he fluttered his eyelashes, but now it was to pretend he was embarrassed. Embarrassed my foot. . . No, his $1800 suit and fancy business card didn’t fool me none. He was all canine, he’d just confirmed that and more. Same old tune; I’d lost count of the times I’d heard it—hit and run, just for fun then when Mother Nature rears her fat belly there they go accusing you of being a slut, that fetus in your womb, Leroy’s baby. Same old, same old . . . Yeah, I knew the drill. Been there, done that, don’t want to do it no more; had three damn abortions myself. Sure, I knew what kind of so-called man was eyeballing me from across the desk—oh, did I know! They’d come in with their wives and sometimes even their long-suffering mamas to dish dirt on the other woman. Call her everything but a daughter of God, swear she’s a gold-digger hunting for a meal ticket, that kind of gutter talk. That was their way of setting things straight – asking me to prove the woman carrying their baby was a slut. They’d pay all kinds of guilders if old reliable Kimba Woods I would just do that for them.
Sometimes just dwelling on it got me so twisted inside I couldn’t think straight; more the reason why I wanted to tell this one to hit the bricks and never grace my office with his $1800 suit again. A user, that’s all he was … probably grabbed himself three or four telephone numbers on the way up in the elevator, that’s how they worked it. Then they never called you. To them it was sport—doing what comes naturally. So why hadn’t I thrown him out already? Why? Because I was in charge here, this was my Popsicle stand and when I told him my fee he’d either pony up or shuffle down the hall to Uncle John’s office, that’s why. And that’s the way a woman has to deal with his breed—hit ‘em where it hurts the most, the purse. That, they understood; that, they respected you for; that, brought them to their knees quicker than all the sweet lovin’ in the world.
“I’m going to be up front with you, Mr. Dawson,” I said, eyeballing him like I was the meanest welfare queen in Harlem. “If you hire me I’m not going to let you dog the sister. You want somebody to do that, my Uncle John is right down the hall and I hear he’s running a special on paternity cases this week – three for $19.99.”
He reared back like somebody just put some bad reefer under his nose, stopped battering his eyelashes then made what seemed a sincere effort to look at me without all the game: “I don’t want John Shaft. I want this to be sister-to-sister thing. I want you, Miss Woods. This girl is trying to destroy my life and I can't let her do that.”
You could tell he regretted those last words the instant he said them. He had sounded just like a punk and knew it. He gulped and tried to hide his embarrassment—genuine embarrassment this time—but in a second he had recovered his cool and was working that grin again. And I really should have thrown him out on his behind right then and there—and if I had an inkling of all the suffering he was going to lay on me I most definitely would have.
“But don’t get me wrong, Miss Woods. If the child is mine I’ll help the best I can.”
Now his face had gone 180 degrees on me. Somehow he had managed to remove all the game and replace it with the kind of expression he thought a real man should have at a time like this. “What exactly do you mean, Mr. Dawson?” I said, not bothering to keep the bass out of my voice. “Are you saying you’ll take it to family court to go on record as the father?”
The flash of panic in his eyes came too fast to hide: “No! I-I’m a married man, Ms. Woods. I-I couldn’t do anything like that. My wife…you see, she’s… eh—white. She’d be humiliated if it went public. Then there’s the kids—look, you know how sensitive these things are. If it went public—that’s it, I’m through. I’d be out of Washington in a New York minute … my entire career would go down the tubes … That’s why I came to you—to have things done discreetly. What I’m getting at is a settlement if the baby’s mine. You know, a lump payment, that kind of thing—I mean, that’s fair, isn’t it?”
He was good, cloaking his cheating ways in the name of family and fatherhood—which in my book is as low as a man gets. And he really didn’t need to tell me his wife was white; I knew that the second he walked in the door. I can sense white woman on a black man: it shimmers off them like heat devils in a Mississippi cotton field.
“Call me Robert, please.”
“No, let’s keep it Mr. Dawson, if you don’t mind,” I said, feeling nothing for him now but disgust. They can’t have it both ways. If a brother wants to go over to the other side, that’s his business—just don’t expect Kimba Leontyne Woods to keep treating him like a brother.
“Mr. Dawson, I’m not here to pass judgment. I’ll take the job because it needs to be done and—”
“Thank you, it definitely needs to be done and—”
“Mr. Dawson, would you mind not interrupting me when I’m speaking?” He seemed miffed at this, but the rebuke was necessary. Either you show them who’s boss in the beginning or you wind up picking your teeth off the floor in the end. “As I was saying, Mr. Dawson, I’m not here to pass judgment. I’ll take the job. I’ll go down there and get the blood samples, it’s a done deal—but I’m telling you right now, baby. I find out you’re snowing me, you’ll rue the day you were born.”
His reaction surprised me: he leaned back as pleased with himself as a fat pasha. You never can tell—some guys like to be sassed, some don’t. I marked it down and filed it away. Then again, maybe he thought I was jiving—big mistake if he did. Next, he tilted his head the way Ronald Reagan used to do, plucked a piece of lint from his shirtsleeve, examined it then flicked it away. What the hell was that all about? It was a boring gesture and I was about to call him on it when all of a sudden he did something that wasn’t boring at all: he began pulling dead presidents out his wallet:
“I don’t know how to thank you, Miss Woods, but maybe this will help—”
Maybe . . .?
I sure wasn’t expecting five crisp thousand-dollar bills from this joker, but that’s exactly what he slapped on the counter. Yeah, the child slapped down those G-notes like it was the kind of trick he pulled all the time. And he didn’t let his eyes off mine and you better believe I didn’t let mine of his neither. I figured he was waiting for me to start hollering, “Thank you, Jesus!” but I wasn’t about to lower myself to that level. I’d wait until he was gone first.
Also, I didn’t have to look to know they were Grover Clevelands because I can smell G-notes. G-notes smell different from other bills the same way steak smells different from hash.
“I hope that’s about right,” he said.
Baby, it don’t get no righter…
“Think you can handle it, Miss Woods?”
Now why’d he have to go mess it up by saying something stupid like that?
“If I can’t, you’ll be the first to know,” I said, reaching for my money.
“But can you?” he said, sliding the bills away from me.
It took a second for me to overcome the shock then I let him have both barrels straight between the eyes: “Mister, I don’t believe you did that,” I said, choking back the rage. “You don’t come in here pulling no carrot and stick play with me. I ain’t no Welfare queen you can buy for a fish sandwich and a bottle of gin and I’m not going to let you or nobody else treat me that way—and another thing.” I pushed my chair back and stood up hands on hips, nose flaring, head rocking side to side the way the girls on Jerry Springer do it.
“You can flash your money in family court, you hear? Oh, yeah! They like to see a black man flash his dollars down there, give you a standing ovation for it. As for me—I decline the job—you hear? That’s right, you blew it. This meeting’s over—your 15 minutes are up, mister!”
He seemed genuinely shook by this. I think it was the part about family court, that always makes their scrotums shrivel to the size of walnuts quick. Now he was looking at the G-notes like they disgusted him, but that didn’t last for long. In a moment he was working his jaw again: “Miss Woods, I really need your help. My family really needs your help.”
I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t through with this turkey yet. Of course, had he tried reaching for them G-notes I’d have tore his arm off and beat him around the head with it, but he didn’t know that and wouldn’t as long as I kept fronting. I gave it another minute to make it look like I was forcing myself to cool off then I sat back down. “You mentioned a lump payment,” I said, not bothering to hide my sneer. “The mother might ask about that—what kind of dollars we working with here?” His body jerked. I guess he wasn’t ready for that one either—but, hey, lump payment were his words, not mine. I shut up and let my eyes roll again. After a while he got the message: his eyebrows begin going up and down like he was doing some heavy calculating, which is always a good sign—lets you know you and the man are on the same page.
“I’ll have to talk to my wife first, of course.”
“Oh, you mean your wife allows you to keep an outside woman?” I said as sweetly as I could.
“Of course she doesn’t!” he said, letting his cute temper get the best of him.
“No, of course she doesn’t,” I said, deflecting my eyes so he couldn’t see the twinkle in them.
No, he didn’t like that wisecrack—but fuck him; I didn’t like what he done to the sister, so that made us even. Angry now, he looked at the five bills on the table and this got me a little worried again, but in an instant his eyes were back on mine. Then he pursed his lips, the way a person sucking a lemon does, adjusted the knot in his tie and said, “Blair and I have agreed to $10,000 if the mother signs an affidavit saying she’ll not take the thing any further. I know it’s not much, but it’s the best we can do.”
I considered this for a moment: it was disgraceful, a black man trying to buy off his own flesh and blood like that, but it wasn’t mine to judge—that was the mother’s call and even then only if the blood test came back confirming this so-called man was the father. “That’s assuming the baby’s yours—suppose it ain’t?” I said, not ready to take the fire off his feet yet. “What do you have in mind to pay the mother then?”
His eyes got wider than a screech owl’s: “What do you mean?”
“Stop the game, Mr. Dawson,” I snapped. “You had your fun in the sun and now it’s time to pay the piper. Maybe the baby’s yours, maybe he isn’t. If he is, the $10,000 will help. If he ain’t, the mother can still use a hand—right? Look, I’m the one going down there to stick needles in little babies and whatnot—right? I take it she’s a poor girl without a pot to pee in or a bed to shove it under—right? Well, damn, brother, let’s lend a hand regardless of who the father is. Let’s at least be man enough to do that—right?”
No, he didn’t like it, but he knew I had him dead to the rights. He stared at me like he wanted to put his fist through my big Harlem mouth. I grinned. Once you get them that mad you had to be doing something right. He kept bunching up his mouth like that but I just kept grinning. He tried to stare me down—something no black man has ever done— but I didn't blink. He broke away and looked to the floor. He had just got his butt kicked and knew it. I guess he was expecting to come in here, make with the goo-goo eyes and have me roll over and throw up my legs. Somebody should have told him Kimba Leontyne Woods don't throw up her legs ... at least not that easy. Anyway, after it became abundantly clear to him I wasn’t budging an inch, he pulled out five more G-notes and slammed them on the table.
“All right, you win,” he said, placing the four next to the five. “She can have this, win, lose or draw, OKAY?!?”
I smiled. “Now, don’t you feel better already, my brother?”
“No, my sister, frankly, I don’t,” he said. He stood up. The meeting hadn't gone quite as he planned. He was starting to hate my black ass.
I didn’t stand up. I’m only 5’7” and the last thing I was going to do was look up to a dog of man like him. He glanced at his Rolex then began smoothing his clothes. Probably late for a quickie in the broom closet. I flipped on the intercom and ordered Flo into the office. She was there in a heartbeat. I pointed to him without looking at him. “Flo, Mr. Dawson will be needing to sign the usual papers.” I turned to dog boy: “Will you be wanting a receipt for these funds, sir?”
“No, no, no receipts, please.”
I nodded. “I didn’t think so. Flo will show you out. And I’d like another meeting with you, say, tomorrow, for lunch or something. We can meet downtown then I could be on a plane by, let’s say… tomorrow evening. Will that be soon enough for you, Dawson?”
He said it would then begin screwing up his face like he didn’t want Flo to hear anything. Dummy. I ignored this and kept talking. This child had already begun getting on my last nerve and the case hadn’t even started. Goes to show you the caliber of people we got running things in Washington—or maybe it goes to show you what you get with Affirmative Action. Either way, this sucker’s 15 minutes were up. The job was straightforward enough and I really didn’t want or need to hear anymore of his infernal whining.
I’d fly down Thursday, get the blood samples Friday, be back in Harlem with plenty of time to catch Whitney at the Apollo Saturday. Piece of cake.
Carmen Miranda is my sometimes partner and like most Puerto Ricans she’s a little smart and a little dumb. But the thing about Carmen is she has a knack of showing up at the right place at the right time. Whenever I encounter a hardhead with information I need but can’t get, that’s when I send in Carmen. It’s like sending in the Marines. Carmen has a body with more curves than a snake’s. The girl can give a blind man an erection just by the sound of her Cha Cha heels, and if the hardhead is stupid enough to try and get physical, she knows how to deal with that too—Carmen is not only a damn good lady boxer, she also carries a roll of quarters in her pocket for double-duty as brass knuckles. To Carmen a good fight is like a hot guy—they both make her Latin blood percolate like water for chocolate.
After Dawson left I called Carmen and told her to me at the The Schomberg (Harlem’s black research center), the perfect place to learn about Yamassee Island, fast. Lisa Meyers was the one for that. She’d been my librarian of choice since I was a kid. “You’re going where?” she asked, letting her spectacles slide down her Jewish nose. Lisa had to be on the wrong side of 50 now, her once fluffy hippy hair now white and quill-like, her voice no longer girlish. But I still remember the day she came back from Woodstock—I was five, maybe six years-old. I still remember the peace sign on her head, the flowers in her hair, her marijuana lit eyes. That would have been at the Countee Cullen library right around the corner, the place to keep cool in the summer when Harlem streets got hot. We’d crowd around her during story hour, and on this one day in particular instead of another Cat in the Hat yarn, she started telling us about Woodstock. It was going to change the world, she said, send out vibrations not even Nixon and Spiro Agnew would be able to resist. One day I’m going to ask her what happened.
“Yamassee Island,” I said again. “It’s off the South Carolina coast, and I’ve got to find out about it fast.”
“Yamassee Island?” she repeated, her dull, gray eyes suddenly coming alive. “Wait a minute, I know about that place. Not far from Hilton Head, right? Sure, we’ve got plenty of material on that, Kimba . The place is steeped in history—controversy too. Yes! In fact, The New York Times did a piece on it a few years ago—about how a woman bought up all the old land deeds, sold them to developers, and made a killing. Then I think the developers turned it into a golf resort . . . very isolated place until she sold them the deeds. Fascinating history—and you say you’ve got a case down there, Kimba ? Come with me, then, hon, you’ve got a lot a reading to do.”
With a librarian like Lisa Meyers, you just wind her up and let her go. In a second, she was tearing her old bones down the stacks with me in tow. “God, I wish I were going with you,” she called over her shoulder. Halfway down the aisle she stopped and pulled a big green book from the shelf. In an instant, her long fingers were flipping through the dusty pages as she talked: “Yamassee is as remote as it gets . . . rice plantations—during slavery, mainly—but the really fascinating thing about the place, Kimba , is that the people were all from the Gullah tribe.”
“The Gullah tribe?”
Lisa nodded. She was pointing to a line on the page. “Here, let me read something to you, listen to this: ‘The owners of the Yamassee rice plantations must have been careful to buy slaves that were perfect, for they built up a strain of intelligent, upstanding human beings, just as they bred race-horses and hunting dogs that could not be excelled . . . They are no Guinea Negroes with thick lips and wide noses and low ways; or Dinka with squatty skulls and gray-tinged skins betraying their mean blood; they are Gullahs with tall straight bodies and high heads filled with sense . . . ’.”
“Sounds like Mandingo,” I said. “You know, that blaxploitation movie with Ken Norton.”
“No, that’s fiction,” replied Lisa. “The Gullahs lived on Yamassee with almost no contact with whites. That’s the way the places were set-up. These rice plantations were huge, they had to be, rice-planting is labor intensive. On Yamassee there were some 700 slaves or more—and get this, just one white family!”
“Is that unusual?” I asked, a little put off that Jewish Lisa Meyers knew more about my own black folk than I did.
“Statistically, yes,” said Lisa.
She was standing there as intense as a Talmudic scholar. Lisa was like that. She’d stop in the middle of anywhere to explain the nuances of a thing to you—usually insights far more intricate than you really wanted to know. I looked into her thin white woman’s face as I bobbed my head up and down in sync with her patter. As I say, we went back for years; the woman was practically family, the closest white acquaintance I had. And she still refused to wear make-up of any kind, still wore her now snow-white hair down to her shoulders hippy style, still adorned herself in all that freaky 60s jewelry. God knows where a woman like this lived, probably some Greenwich Village garret not big enough to swing a string of love beads in. Never seen her with any kind of man, positive she wasn’t married or had kids. So what does a woman like this do once she climbs out the subway? Probably goes to her tiny flat to macramé another Protect our Rain Forests quilt, surely had a cat or two, maybe even a dog—a big one named Dylan she’d let sleep at the foot of the bed and—
“Oye, Kimba !”
That would be Carmen. . .
Carmen and Lisa greeted each other then Lisa kissed me on my cheek and split. I tried to remember what I’d given her for Christmas the year before. She always gave me a book. I had twenty books in my Lenox Terrace apartment with her name inscribed in them. A surge of sweetness swelled inside me.
“What’s wrong?” said Carmen. “You look like you got gas.”
I nodded towards the path Lisa had taken. “No, just thinking about my old hippy friend there. I’ve known her since her hair was brown and her breasts stuck out like ice cream cones. Back then all the jive black power Harlem brothers wanted her, but she was cool; she left them alone. Yep, I’ve known her that long.”
“Dios mio, you that old?”
I gave Carmen by best New York hate stare and said, “Hey, you big cuchifrito, don’t diss Miss Meyers. I’ve known her a lot longer than I’ve known you. She’s practically family.”
“Hey, don’t go spastic on me, bro. I didn’t mean no harm. She’s cool . . . for a senior citizen.”
I didn’t bother responding to that. We walked past the young black scholars seated throughout the room and found a table of our own. Carmen was still chattering: “Betcha didn’t know the man they named this library after was a‘rican—you know, beans ‘n’ rice, the Mambo, a little toy dog in back of his car whose head goes up and down like this—a hibiro, just like me. Betcha didn’t know that.”
“Flo tell you why I wanted to see you?”
“About the guy with the nice ass who came to see you this morning?”
For some reason a pang of jealousy shot through me.
“You know, Carmen, you have a filthy mind. Anybody ever tell you that?”
Carmen chuckled then said, “Oh, I remember Flo said something about five one-thousand-dollar bills on the table—you mean that?”
“Your tiny brain would remember that detail, I see.”
“Uh-huh . . . ahem . . . cough . . . cough . . . ahem . . .”
I rolled my eyes at her at her again, reached in my shirt pocket and pulled out one of the G-notes. Her Latin face got as serious as a Jew’s.
“Here, and that’s all you get too, bitch,” I said.
“Thank you, Poppee.”
She took the G-note brought it up to her nose, sniffed it, turned it over and began tracing the one and three zeros with her gaudy fingernail. When she started licking it I knew it was time to snap her out of it. “Carmen, will you put it away? This is New York. There are people who’d kill you for that.”
“It would be worth it.”
Carmen liked it when I paid her in cash. It was funny, I could give her a check for $500 and she’d undergo no visible change—but lay $400 or $300 in cash on her, and she’d go into estrus every time. John Queen, the legendary fight promoter, perfected this. He’d sign a fighter for, say, $100,000 then only pay him $50,000—but that was $50,000 in hard, cold cash. The fighters rarely squawked, most didn’t even count the 50-Gs just stuffed it in their gym bags and split. John Queen kept the other $50,000—and worse—stuck the fighter with the tax bill for the entire $100,000 at the end of the year. That’s why all his fighters ended up broke. Of course, I never pulled a number like that with Carmen. Carmen and I went back too far. We’d gone to the same schools, kicked boots with the same men, dragged our sorry butts to the same abortion clinic. We were thicker than blood.
Carmen stuck the bill in her bra the way a streetwalker does then began smoothing her jeans. Carmen was always smoothing her two-sizes-too-small jeans. Carmen was a life-long jeans addict, she’d go everywhere in them and get away with it too. And that was because of her million-dollar keester, which was the part of her anatomy she was known for throughout the five boroughs. Men would fall into a trance gazing at it. Some would even follow her home. Carmen stood 5’ 8” and weighed exactly 130 pounds and her weight never fluctuated no matter how much rice ‘n’ beans she ate. She was only 28, so the curse of Latin women was still a year or two away at which time she was going to blow up bigger than a manatee like all the other females in her family. And Carmen could pass for any ethnic she wanted – black, Jewish, Arab, even Puerto Rican.
“So when you leaving?” Carmen asked, sweeping the room for anything hot and loose. Carmen was always sweeping the room for anything hot and loose, always on the make, always ready to draw some stunned male to her like moth to a flame – “Hey, Poppee, you married?”
“Look, Carmen, it’s real simple. Tomorrow I fly down to Charleston then I take a boat over to the island and get the blood sample. Then I’m back home. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than 48 hours. Think you can stay out of trouble till I get back?”
“I hope not.”
The main reason for wanting to see Carmen was to get her report on our Arab sheik caper. The client was one of those Arab Mac-Billionaires who’d made the awful mistake of marrying a Jewish American Princess. Now he wanted to go back to Arabia, and she, of course, wasn’t having any of that. He was still in love with her but ten times more in love with their daughter, and that was the problem. If he got a divorce and moved back, no way he’d see his daughter again any time soon. Therefore, his plan was to get proof his wife was an unfit mother—but Carmen had been tailing the wife for weeks without seeing any of that. She went out a lot, like to hang out with disco ducks, sure, but was always home by sunrise to send their little darling off to school. Then she’d remain inside until time to hit the clubs again and this was fine too because she kept a sleep-in maid for the kid. Meanwhile, the husband was across town tripping the light fantastic himself. The guy was really confused but his money wasn’t: I was billing him 300 bucks a day and his checks never bounced. We’d been at it a month without any dirt on the wife; still, whenever I told him he was pouring his money down a hole he’d shake his head and say, “wait… just wait, Miss Woods,” she'd fuckup sooner or later if I’d just waited. So I waited ... and billed him $2100 a week while I waited.
“She went to Maxwell’s Plum last night,” Carmen was saying, “the usual stuff, but I’m beginning to wonder. . . See, the same taxi guy picks her up all the time. Something funny about him, don't you think?”
“So maybe they’re kicking it,” I said. I shook my head. “You know I don’t report that kind of crap. The Sheik knows it too. Dem’s the rules.”
I had made it clear to the sheik up front that the only kind of dirt I ditched was drug abuse or something along those lines. If his wife was dating other guys that was her business and not an unfitness rap in any event. I don’t do that kind of work, never have and never will. I spent six years as a New York City police officer before getting into the private detective business so if things ever got to the point where I couldn’t respect myself in the morning, I could always go back on the job.
“There’s just something so shaky about the taxi guy, you know?” Carmen said. “He’s always there whenever she needs a ride, right? How does he do that? He’s driving a cab. He’s got a million other fares. It don’t figure, you know?”
I made a mental note to follow up on it then plunged into the Gullah girl thing. I knew the way Carmen’s tiny mind worked. Stakeouts are the most boring kind of work there is and if you’re on a particularly boring one it’s easy to start seeing ghosts and goblins where none exist. More than likely the cabbie was hot and Carmen wanted to bounce him off the walls a little. That was prone to happen with a lady op, even a good one like Carmen. Watch a good-looking man long enough and you get to thinking about him; after a while you want to know everything there is to know about the child.
“What else did Flo tell you about Robert Dawson?” I asked.
“Ah, let me see—something about a baby, I think.”
“Right, that’s it in a nutshell—there’s a girl down there with a baby she claims is his. He wants me to get evidence it isn’t.”
A little fat guy with a big afro sitting at the table 20 feet from ours looked up and frowned. What was his problem? We were talking in low voices, weren't we?
“Does he really work for president in the White House and everything?” Carmen asked.
“Yep, assistant communications director or something. His office is right in the White House. I checked him out; he’s the real deal. If you watch any of the press conferences he’s the black guy in the background. Looks like Secret Service but he’s not.”
“Big shot like that, picks us? Why didn’t he go with your uncle John?”
“I asked him the same question. His answer made sense. He wants a black woman on it, and you know how my uncle feels about black female ops.”
We want back and forth like this for a while. When the fat guy with the afro turned to frown again, Carmen gave him the finger. That shut him up. We left a little after that. Carmen had to go back on stakeout; I had to get ready for the trip. I found Lisa Meyers again and made her promise to stop by my place after work. Then I left with the book. I’d read it on the flight down; that, and whatever else Lisa told me about Yamassee Island should do the trick. Also, a funny thing happened when I got back to my apartment and began to pack. My Glock fell out of my pocketbook on to the floor. Had it gone off it might have killed me or Madonna, my cat. I picked it up and put it back in my pocketbook. This was before 9-11 when you could carry a weapon on board a plane if you were licensed. Little did I know how much I'd live to regret not leaving the damn thing on the floor