That Little Voice Inside: A Jack Hagee Story

by C.J. Henderson
adapted from the graphic novel by John L. French


“There is no more tooth left to fill, Mr. Hagee. I have to cap it.”

The words of my dentist. The night before I had a molar with two fillings… until 8:30. Then it decided to shatter for no reason I could discern. Suddenly I had a mouth full of cuts and enamel shards—and pain. Blood oozed at a steady pace. Any breath I took through my mouth sent air over a now-exposed nerve, rocking me with sharp jolts of agony. And forget about eating or drinking.

It made me less than happy.

I’m not making the boohoo over the fact. The life I live, the business I’m in, the punches to the face I’ve taken—it had to happen sooner or later. It was just the timing.

It wasn’t like I could call in sick. When you’re the boss and sole operative of an investigative agency there’s no one to call in sick to. And I had a meeting with a client that morning, a client I didn’t want to lose.

Lately it seemed that all my cases had been thuds—you know, the kind where all the client is looking for is someone with good aim and a thick skull. This one promised to be different though. So, numb from the drills and drugs and the pain of getting a root canal and a temporary cap I was on my way to The House of Avo, a fashion studio. It seemed that someone had ripped off their fall line.

Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors. Forgive me for being smug but it didn’t seem like the kind of case where I needed to expect any real trouble.

Then again, the little voice inside my head managed to shout out over the pain, I hadn’t been expecting any real trouble any of the other times I’d almost gotten killed.

I entered the rust and cream colored marble-drenched deco lobby of the Morgan Building and waited for the elevator with a group of devastatingly beautiful women and several mutant-like delivery men. The effect was that of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel about a lost jungle tribe. Statuesque women standing side by side with a hovering pack of troll-like males. The fact that this collection of bored lovelies made a point of keeping the trolls between themselves and me made me wonder—not for the first time, mind you—just what kind of scent I give off anyway.

I restrained myself from thumping my chest and bellowing something like “Hagee am strongest of all,” figuring it might not go over, even considering the Tarzan-like atmosphere of the crowd.

Sometimes I can be all class.

When the elevator finally arrived I meekly took the place allotted to me by the crowd, sucking in my gut like the rest of trolls. I got just as much reward for it as they did.

The Avo receptionist was the first woman I’d seen all day with hair that was less than prefect and whose clothes looked like they had been selected more for comfort than for how they looked. I was relieved that there was someone from my own planet to talk to.

“Good morning,” I said, giving her the best smile I could with a mouth still slightly numb from Novocain. “I’m Jack Hagee. I’m supposed to see Mr. Jancing at ten.”

She looked up, returning my smile as if the sight of me didn’t make her want to vomit. I like that kind of smile.

Gesturing to an inner door, she said, “Right through there. Mr. Jancing is expecting you.”

I walked into a large room that at first glance seemed to be every man’s dream. The beauties from the elevator were there as were several others just like them and all were in various stages of undress. Some were in underwear that didn’t hide many secrets, others in just panties, one in just a bra. One was completely nude, casually talking to someone who was fixing what looked like a busted zipper. No one seemed bothered about the display of female flesh, to them it was just another part of their working day, nor did they seem to care that a man they didn’t know had walked in on them. No shrieks, no yells, no grabbing of towels for modesty’s sake.

That’s what brought me down to heaven and back to earth. They didn’t care. Didn’t care that I was looking. I was beneath their notice.

I took a breath, a small one through my nose, and looked around for someone who wasn’t taking clothes on and off or helping those who were. A smallish Chinese woman passed by carrying some fabric so I said,

“Di gon tau?”

I thought I had asked “Where’s the big boss?” The woman’s smile made me think I’d just given him a new nickname instead.

“Where did you learn Chinese?” she asked.

“I used to do detective work in Chinatown.”

She nodded. “Then you must be Mr. Hagee.” Yeah, I must be. The way my life had been going lately I doubt if anyone else wanted to be.

“Mr. Jancing,” she yelled over the crowd, catching the attention of an overweight man with a slicked-back comb-over and a shirt that was opened enough to show greying chest hair.

He looked toward me in puzzlement then recognition. Walking over he asked,

“Didn’t we have a ten o’clock?”

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was ten exactly.

“Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, pleased to meet you. Let’s get out of this facockta noise and down to business.”

Jancing took me into a smaller room where there was a man working at a drawing table. The man looked up and scowled, not pleased to have been interrupted at whatever he was doing.

“Mr. Hagee, this is my partner, Ira Berkenwald.”

On hearing my name Berkenwald became more social.

“Can we get you anything, Mr. Hagee—a coffee, a juice? We could send down for Danish or bagels. The deli’s just two doors down, a supreme egg sandwich they make in the morning.”

“Grapefruit juice, please. Warm if you can. I just had a cap this morning.”

Jancing waited until I had drink in hand then asked, “So, Mr. Hagee, how much do you know about the fashion business?”

From the suit I was wearing Jancing probably already knew the answer, but I told him anyway.

“Not a lot.”

Jancing waved away my answer. “That’s okay, neither do nine-tenths of the people that are in it.” He looked at his partner. “Ira and me, we’ve been dressing women for twenty-seven years…”

I couldn’t resist. “Nice work if you can get it.”

“A comedian he is,” Berkenwald said before turning back to his drawing board.

“I heard him, Ira. I’m right here. And he is right. It is nice work, Mr. Hagee. But it is also tough, with the competition out to kill…”

“Kill,” echoed Berkenwald.

“…and never a sure dollar.”

“Never.” Berkenwald’s frustration came through that time, as if the dollars had been less sure of late. I could understand that.

Jancing could have gone on all day complaining about his business, these days who couldn’t, but I had my own to run and I was feeling the first tingle that told me the Novocain was wearing off.

“Ah, and the reason you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, okay. Fast fashion lesson. There are six, no, five real designers in the entire world. Five who do any real designing. The rest are copiers—copying machines with an eye for color.”

“And sometimes not even such a good eye,” Berkenwald added.

Jancing nodded in agreement.

“Are we one of those five? No, we copy the latest trends too, of course. But what keeps The House of Avo a step ahead is we try. Every year we run our own line. Nothing extraordinary, nothing too different, nothing you’d see on that cable show, but it’s our own. We do more than put an extra sash on someone else’s dress. We create our own style every year.”

He took a sip of whatever he was drinking and went on. “Okay, true, we’ve never been the mainstay of the season, but still, we try. Try to do something different, something that’s ours.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I knew what he meant. Anyone who’s been in public school, or the military, or dealt with any facet of corporate America knew what he meant.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in the make-a-buck world—following instructions, passing time, collecting checks—just turning off your brain and going through the standard motions until God the Father Almighty’s servant on Earth points his hand to the right number on his face and announces “Quitting time!”—not caring that people can’t exist on nothing more than commuting, sit-coms, and McNuggets. Dreams are hard enough to reach when you’re actually trying, let alone after the world starts beating you down working day after damned working day.

And now some dirtbag wanted to steal his dream from him.

Hell, if I were Jancing I’d be hiring a hitman instead of a private detective.

Yeah, I knew what he meant all right.

What followed was a crash course in fashion buying. Apparently The House of Avo had come up with a new twist for the fall line that had all the industry magazines raving—and the copy cats gearing up. But that wasn’t the immediate problem.

As Jancing put it,

“The people who shop at the malls and big box stores, if they know what a knockoff is they don’t care. All they want, and bless them for it, is to save money. They don’t care that the labelled sweater we make is 100% virgin wool that will last twenty years and that the piece of crap rayon they’re buying will look like shit in two—immediate price is all they’re interested in.”

The House of Avo discovered its real problem when some of their regulars called in orders expecting to get two-thirds off. When everything was hashed out, the boys realized that someone else had called all their stores across the country, rerouting their orders to a new address. A lot of those orders had already been filled, apparently with sweatshop crap not worth a dollar or two apiece.

The plain and simple was that someone had gotten their hands on the plans for the boys’ fall line and knocked off cheap imitations. They mashed the Avo customer list, told the world that they were in financial trouble, and they could get the fall line for peanuts, if those nuts were for paid in cash and C.O.D.

The police checked out the address given for the shipping orders. They reported it was a dummy front that resulted in no leads. The boys felt that the cops had given up on their case, not giving a damn about what happened to The House of Avo.

Knowing cops the way I do, I can assure you they usually don’t give much of a damn about anything. The trick was in knowing why they didn’t give a damn in this particular case. I’d have to do some checking before I could say why they were ignoring the boys and their problem.

I looked around. Even when I don’t think I’ll find anything I always look around. Clients seem to expect this, makes them think they’re getting value for their money.

The only copier in their office was a joke. Besides, for the line to be copied their patterns had to be stolen. After a quick course in the nuts and bolts of fashion even I could see that was something that took both time and skill. Whoever pulled this off had figured an angle that was not obvious.

Suddenly that little voice started sending danger messages warning about bad pork ahead, suggesting that my sarcasm about “Industrial espionage being waged between fancy tailors…” was going to blow up in my face.

I was dying for a cigarette but lately I’ve made it a point not to smoke on a prospective client’s premises or anywhere close by. You never know when a member of the “we-know-better-than anyone-else-what’s-good-for-everyone-else” society is going to speak up and ruin the deal. So I squelched the need for a lungful of relaxation even as Jancing was asking if I was going to be able to help them.

“I’m just a working man,” I admitted to Jancing, “and as such I hardly ever walk away from an honest job. Yours looks honest enough.”

When I said this he looked at me as if I were Dick Tracy and had just told him that everything was going to be A-OK.

I spent a little time reminding him that I was an investigator and not a superhero, that my work came with no guarantees except that I would do my best for him.

By now the drugs needled into my jaws that morning by the dentist had almost fully worn off and I was beginning to lose my ability to make polite conversation so I said something about getting to work on the case, shook the hands of both partners and left.

As I left The House of Avo I was also beginning to lose some of my earlier assurance. These guys hadn’t been ripped off by some other designer, they’d been danced on by an organized bunch who moved quick and who were blessed by either lazy or dirty cops.

Life is always swell for the working man.

I stood out front of the building for a moment, trying to both enjoy a much needed cigarette and ignore the mounting pain in my jaw. I couldn’t do either. I could feel the shit level rising, knew I didn’t like where I was but couldn’t see any better place to be.

Finally I crushed out the smoke while the little voice inside told me to stop my bellyaching and get to work. I stared at the butt on the sidewalk for a long moment. Don’t ask me why. Finally in anger I kicked it into the gutter. That would teach it.

Sometimes I can be such an idiot, I thought as I walked off massaging my jaw. No part of me jumped in to argue.

An hour later I was in my office with an aging, black saxophone player named Popeye. I’d gone looking for him on the way, finding him at University and 14th, one of his three usual corners. From the grin he was flashing I knew he was thinking of the first time we’d met.

Two summers back, I’d been in the office with my feet up on the desk working on a tattered copy of Stand on Zanzibar and a thermos of Long Island iced tea. I was alternating from one to the other, curious as to which I’d finish first. The iced tea was in the lead when through the window I heard a lonely jazz sax aching its way through the Popeye the Sailor Man theme. It caught my attention so completely I popped the window to see where it was coming from. A shout brought a thin, somewhat ragged musician up to my office for a drink.

Before we could say much though a suit came in. He was a self-important, smooth-faced little preener with slick hair and a carefully cultivated attitude—the kind that’s easy to hate but too tightly tied to dispensable income to easily ignore. He was dismayed to see a trash beggar who smelled of the streets in my office. My need for the inside of his wallet tempered my desire to push the suit off into the hall, maybe down the stairs, and possibly into traffic. So I introduced my new friend as “Popeye,” an undercover agent posing as a street musician for surveillance purposes. The suit was so impressed he was sold on the spot. I got a nice security contract that practically wiped out my credit problems and Popeye got a nickname. He apologized after the suit left.

“Sorry ’bout almost queerin’ your deal, man.” His eyes got distant as he talked more to himself then me. “You on the street, sometimes… sometimes you forget the smell. Fo’get what it was like to be a regular and what’s important to dem, how dey think an’ all. Anyway, sorry, man. I just fo’got.”

That had been just a few months after I’d first opened for business. I was grateful to him for helping to scam the suit but he wouldn’t take any money from me for anything except his playing. So I had him play cartoon themes for an hour and a half, throwing cash into a hat there in my office. The two of us finished the iced tea in between numbers then tapped the gin bottle in my desk. We finished that as well. If the gin and the tea had any affect on his playing it affected my hearing at an equal rate.

All in all, that was one fine afternoon.

Back in the present, I asked Popeye how he was doing, if he was holding the pieces together. Popeye was a decent guy, I liked him. He was just one of those unfortunate sacrifices the city demands on occasion.

I’d offered him a job in flush times but he always had a reason to say no. The truth was the years had burned him out—bad. Too much booze, too much dope, too much lying to himself.

He was still an amazing musician, but as far as what most people call “a normal life” he couldn’t handle it. He lived in an abandoned car—winter and summer—and no one could talk him out of it. His family had abandoned him years ago as a lost cause. Not being family, I hadn’t given up on him yet. I told him I had a check to do, one where something smelled bad, one where I could use some cover. He smiled as he told me,

“And I am the best man you uses.”

“Best, I don’t know,” I said, smiling and shaking my head. “You’re the cheapest anyway.”

He returned my smile with a rare one of his own. “Hey, it’s a goddamned recession out dere. Don’t bein’ the cheapest makes me the best?”

“Welllll, maybe,” I countered, drawing out the “well” as long as I could.

“Fuck me runnin’, no wonder I hates white people so much. So full of bullshit it make my head spin.”

As much fun as it was sparring with Popeye, I told him,

“Okay, that’s enough. If I’m going to get this done today I’ve got to get it done this afternoon. How much for, say, two hours, travel time included?”


“Done. Let’s get going.”

He looked disappointed. ‘Shit, don’t you want to haggle it out some?’

Here we go, I thought. “Okay, you grifting chiseler, not a cent over thirty-five.”

Popeye’s previous smile was now a frown. “Don’t be pullin’ no games on me. I don’t be wantin’ no charity…”

“Oh get off your high horse. Every halfway decent back-up in the business demands at least fifteen an hour with a lot of bullshit thrown in on top. As easy as you and me work together, I’d be cream-shit supreme to offer you less. And considering how smooth thing have been going here lately, I’m embarrassed to be offering a pal less than forty.”

Before Popeye could reply to that I added, “Look, I understand all about pride. I’ve damned near died for it a few times myself. This has nothing to do with that. This is negotiating a living wage. You are a human being, you know. You do deserve a living wage.”

Popeye was quiet for a minute, raising his eyes as if figuring. Then he said,

“Okay, I want seventy-five an hour.”

“Get bent. I said twenty.”

“I thoughts we were negotiating?”

“I’m negotiating. You’ve moved to highway robbery.”

“Twenty-two fifty an hour. And you gots to buy dinner.”

I held out my hand. “Done on the money. Dinner if you earn it.”

“Done and done, bro,” he said, grabbing it to seal the deal.

As we moved to leave, Popeye said, “Hey, I just want to say thanks, you know?”

“Hey, don’t thank me. Just earn your money. We’re not playing games here. I don’t usually need you to earn your stake but sooner or later you’re going to have to. The day you do will be thanks enough, believe me.”

“Man, white people is sure cold.”

“So’s a grave,” I told him. “We’re not fooling here. One of these days coming back alive might be the best we get. You sure you want in this time?”

Popeye shook his head. “Shit, bro, I don’t wants to work, but Ize wants the money so…”

I held the door open for him, “So let’s go fuck up some bad guys.”

“I thinks maybe I should haves business cards too.”

“Shut up and get down the stairs.”

The office in question was on 23rd, between 6th and 7th. A good cover address but not a good place. The area was one of New York’s fifteen million “neighborhoods-in-transition,” a mix of expensive shops crammed into buildings not designed for them but too enduring to fall down on their own. There was the typical debris and poverty one sees throughout every stretch of the city. Popeye would fit right in.

We checked out the area with separate walk throughs then met back around the corner. We felt that things seemed peaceful enough. That accomplished, Popeye went back down the street and took up a post in front of the building into which I’d be going. He started a bluesy rendition of the Spider-Man cartoon theme, gently warming the area to his presence. I gave him fifteen minutes to become a fixture then eased around the corner, crossing my fingers.

Although we’d agreed that we didn’t feel any immediate danger, that hadn’t put off the churn in my stomach, a gurgle that couldn’t be explained by my office coffee. Maybe nobody was waiting with drawn guns but something was at work in the area that spelled trouble and I didn’t want it aware of me any earlier than necessary.

As I passed through the revolving doors I looked the place over. I had a business card in my hand as a cover so I could pretend to be looking for an office address. No need—the building didn’t maintain lobby personnel. Hell, it barely maintained the lobby.

The place was a mess. The paint on the walls was chipped and faded, and a lot of plaster had fallen from the ceiling, most of it ground to chalky powder. That meant people were still going in and out, no matter how abandoned the dump looked.

There were no cameras anywhere I could spot and precious few tenants listed in the lobby’s directory. The bogus House of Avo was one of them. It was located on the fourth floor, same as the real one.

When the elevator doors opened the little voice inside quietly reminded me that my radar was still screaming, that I didn’t usually get this nervous over nothing. I reminded it that people didn’t usually pay us for nothing. My voice didn’t have anything to say about that. But somehow, as the metal box sealed around me, I didn’t feel that I’d won that round.

The offices of the fake House of Avo must have once been impressive enough, at least impressive enough to fool the suckers who thought they were dealing with the real thing. Now it was as abandoned as the downstairs lobby looked. If I’d ever seen a joint that had been stripped, this was it. Everything held the sheen of a pro job, that obvious look that screams “We cleaned the place out, jackass. We’re professionals; we do this for a living.”

Sometime in the last twelve hours, the place had been steamed properly. Not a wasted ounce had been taken away. The computers had been left behind, but not the files or hard drives.

You could see that at one time the fakes had thought of making a more elaborate charade of things—phony business cards and other blinds littered the place. It made sense, having that stuff in one’s possession was practically a confession. No, the only things grabbed were stuff that said anything other than the address where I was.

And the place where I was was officially abandoned. A big dead end. Popeye was still wailing safety music, my tooth still hurt like a tax hike and my best lead was a fizzle. Yeah, my life was moving along just as it was supposed to.

I looked around anyway. It was my job and I like to think I earn the money I’m paid. I bent down to retrieve one of the fallen business card thinking that maybe I could trace the printer. That was a long maybe; they probably used one of the printers that had once been there. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed something. It was almost invisible on the carpet.

That’s when I heard it, the sound of the elevator coming up. Then there was the ding of it stopping on my floor. The doors opened and I heard voices.

“This sucks.” The cry of the working man everywhere.

“Job’s a job, Lenny.”

Lenny and his friend were big, as big as me or maybe a bit bigger. I might have been able to take one of them down, but not both. Besides, one lucky punch from either in my mouth would have me screaming on the floor. By the time they made it to the office proper I was crouched down behind a desk waiting for a chance to break past them.

“Hey, we gave this place the big polish. There ain’t nuthin’ here and you know it.”

“I believe you, Lenny, honest. But it don’t matter. Fergesi pays for a second sweep, he gets a second sweep. You take the money, you do the job. Yes?”

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Holier-than-Thou. I get it, I’m all growed up. It’s the lack of trust that burns me. I mean, you know and I know if evidence was gasoline there ain’t enough left in this dump to power a pissant’s motorcycle around the inner ring of a god-dammed Cheerio.”

“So’s how about I grant your premise and you start…”

The bitchin’ and moanin’ was winding down. Soon they’d start to search which meant that soon they’d find me. There wasn’t a better time.

I broke from cover, pushed Lenny into his partner and headed for the stairway door, hoping not to hear what my little voice assured me was coming. Once again it was right as two pistols fired and splintered the wood of the doorway.

I was armed, but being in plain view and not having the high ground I figured my best chance was to get down to the first floor and the hell out of the building as quickly as possible. As I took the stairs two and sometimes three at a time behind me I heard “Get ’em… the stairs… go get him…” along with more shots.

I guess I was lucky in that the two were more than likely workers with guns rather than professional gunmen pressed into the moving business. Shots followed me down the stairs but they were all aimed at where I’d been rather than were I was going to be.

I made it to the lobby with the two mokes right behind. I was almost out through the glass doors when,

“Stop, you son of a bitch.”

I didn’t stop, didn’t turn to see how close they were. I could feel them, feel them taking aim, getting ready to fire that one bullet that would have my little voice saying “Told you so” before it was stilled forever.

Somehow I made it through to the street, the crowded street. With people coming and going both ways I headed for what I hoped was the safety of a crowd, hoping my pursuers weren’t pissed enough to fire into it just to get me.

I didn’t have to worry. No sooner were the gunmen out the door than Popeye stepped into their path, blocking their way and tangling them up with his body and his sax.

“Hey, what’cha doing?” he asked, making it look like he was trying to get out of their way but only getting more into it.

“Watch it, ya shit,” said one of them. “Get outta da way,” said the other. And then with me nowhere in sight, Popeye became the focus of their frustrated rage.

A hard push knocked him down, his saxophone flying. As a citizen of the street, he knew what was coming next and rolled into a ball, protecting his head and vitals as the kicks came. Finally,

“Hey, forget about this guy. We gotta job to do.”

“But the shootin’, the cops,” Lenny protested.

“All the more reason to get upstairs, get it done and get out. We knew it was possible we’d run into that punk. Let’s just make sure da job is clean then blow this hole.”

I pulled up in my Skylark just as Popeye was getting to his feet. He found and checked his sax, and was checking himself when,

“Need a lift?”

He climbed into my passenger side with a, “Hell with business cards. Ize wants medical coverage.”

I drove us straight to The Old Fallout Shelter, a club I go to whenever I need to escape the regular crowd. Nobody knows me there, which sometimes is just the way I like it.

My heart had been doin’ the overtime shuffle when I broke for my car, leaving Popeye to take everything those two King Shit Supremes had to dish out. He’d taken it all and walked away without any breaks. It was luck I didn’t think I deserved.

I couldn’t fault him for not sounding the alarm. The moving man suits those two had been wearing were a nice touch. I wouldn’t have tripped to it, and Popeye had more than made up for it by pulling my bacon out of the deep-fry like he did.

At dinner I kept the Lincolns dancing until he couldn’t stuff down another bite then forced a couple of Grants on him on top of his fee. When he protested I reminded him that the white guy who’d been racing bullets was alive without a scratch on him.

He saw my point.

I hadn’t eaten much because my tooth was still throbbing, although a steady diet of gin and tonic had started to help with that. I didn’t know if the alcohol was killing the pain or my ability to care about it. Frankly, I didn’t give a good goddamn. All that mattered was that I piece together what little I had.

From what Popeye had heard from the two bone dogs who had tramped him it was no accident we ran into them. Someone had tipped them that the place was going to get a once over. And that someone had to be working for The House of Avo. Hell, the whole thing had smelled of an inside job since Jancing had laid it out for me. The only question was who.

Who could afford to sink the company they owned or worked at? Who could have that raw a grudge? What was the angle?

But did any of that matter? Did I need to know who the rat was gnawing on The House of Avo’s cheese from inside the wheel, or did I just have to bring down the vermin raking in the cash?

My little voice told me to stop thinking and just drink for a while. Finally, useful advice.

About fifteen minutes later the night’s entertainment started. It was a new band, new to me at least. If its name was announced I missed it. Blame the tooth. Blame the alcohol. Blame the front man for not introducing himself as he started things off.

“Hey, we want to thank everyone for noticing we’re up here. Now we’d like to do a song off our new CD…”

“Your only CD,” someone in the crowd yelled out, getting some laughs.

“Killin’ me with semantics,” the front man said. “Anyway, if you like it and don’t have it we’ll be happy to sell it to you on the way out. First though, I guess you ought to hear it. So… one, two three…

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too
Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.
When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…


Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.
Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.
They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…


Kill ’em any way you can. This you gotta understand.
Drown ’em, stab ’em, keep it simple or make it grand.
They’re not your friends, they’re all just slop.
You gotta wipe ’em out ’til you’re the one on top.
If you wanna be the top dog, there’s one thing you can’t lack—
Uncle Fester’s good advice to


Let them see what it feels like and

Maybe it was the quart of gin I’d already put away, maybe it was the fact that it was two in the morning but suddenly I felt a whole lot better. I had a couple of good leads and some good advice from the band. Granted, the little voice inside warned me that perhaps I might need a bit more to go on. But then…

If I’d wanted to listen to reason that night, I wouldn’t have started drinking in the first place.

Sometimes the little voice inside has a point. Determined to be stupid, I’d kept drinking until dawn. That led to my sleeping in my car until the 11:00 sun convinced me it was time to wake up. By the time I managed to get home, shower and shave, and consume a caffeine cocktail the day was racing by. At least the pain in my jaw had subsided to where I could eat some donuts I’d dunked until they were soggy enough to slide down under their own power.

After that it was off to Belduchi’s Print for All Occasions. That bit of something I’d picked off the carpet at the fake House of Avo was a piece of cellophane tape with Belduchi’s address on it. It was just the words from the package stuck to the tape, but it was enough.

One of my playmates from the day before was kind enough to drop the name “Fergesi.” That could have meant the well-connected Anthony Fergesi or any of his three sons. It didn’t matter. With that name to drop I was able to con Mr. Belduchi into showing me the original bill.

I played on his sympathies like a 10th Ave. whore, letting my hangover explain why I needed to go to such stupid lengths to find my way to where I was supposed to be.

The old man made me a cup of coffee and gave me some fatherly advice. I thanked him for both. I could tell from his smile that he was honestly happy to have helped a young man back onto the path.

As I left I hoped he couldn’t tell from my expression that I was sincerely wishing what I was going to do next wouldn’t get him killed.

I’d managed a good parking spot right across the street from the address Mr. Belduchi had provided me—one of those “someone pulls out, someone pulls in” shots the whole city understands. Nobody thought twice about it as I locked up and wandered off.

It only took about ten minutes of back street trolling to find a promising way into Fergesi’s building. All I had to do was illegally enter someone’s property, climb the outside of their house, then invade some more private property—hopefully getting by the razor wire without slitting a major artery.

Oh well, I thought as I threw my coat over the sharp edges of the wire and hoped that the material would be thick enough to protect me, at least my tooth doesn’t hurt anymore.

Always something to be grateful for, I suppose.

My point of entry was a second floor office. This let out on a darkened catwalk which circled the warehouse floor below. Then, bingo, my work was pretty much done. After I was done at Belduchi’s, I’d called an information weasel by the name of Hubert to do a little digging for me. He almost immediately pegged this particular piece of McDonald Ave. real estate as belonging to one Anthony Fergesi.

Mob owned, hard evidence of the theft of intellectual property. Once I got my pictures it would be time to hit the road.

Of course, those pictures weren’t going to be easy to get.

From my position on the catwalk I spotted Fergesi instantly. It wasn’t like he needed to be inconspicuous, not in his own building. There were three other men with him. I didn’t know any of them, but I figured I could leave them for the cops.

As I focused my camera I remember thinking, Okay, smile for the birdie. Then through the shutter I saw something I wished I hadn’t—a nice, shiny, NYPD badge. I didn’t have to worry about the cops. One of them was already there and working for the wrong side.

Then one of them saw something I wished they hadn’t.

“Hey,” he shouted, turning and pointing in my direction, “who the hell is that?”

Back through the office, out the window, a long jump towards the fence, all the while dodging gunfire for the second time in two days. I was glad it was dark. These guys were the kind of pros that, given a clear shot, didn’t usually miss what they aimed out.

I cleared the razor wire with only a torn shirt and a new cut on my back. Coat, shirt, and stitches. The expenses on this case were adding up. I hoped I’d be around to add them to Jancing’s bill.

I thought about my car. It was out front. I was in the back, in an alley that soon would be blocked by men coming from both sides. I took a side alley, hoping it had an outlet that led to the street. It did. I worked my way around front and made it to my car just as Fergesi’s men figured out what I’d done.

Calm, I told myself, told my hands. Work the key, get inside, get us out of here.

I got inside, got the ignition turned on, then got the hell out of there with more gunshots from the two cars following me.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Couldn’t wait. Couldn’t play it smart. Just had to let your hangover do your thinking for you.

Shut the hell up, I told the voice, then sent up a prayer that I’d make the next light.

I did. They didn’t but went through anyway. The lead car made it. The one behind got clipped but not hard enough. It straightened out and kept coming.

Damn, there was no way I was going to lose those guys on a straight-away. That meant getting off the straight-away. An angled turn was coming up. There was only a 50/50 chance I could make it at this speed.

Right then my luck was crap.

I almost made the turn but hit an oily patch and lost it. I slammed into a few things, the last being part of the fence to Green-Wood Cemetery. Behind me I heard other crashes. Guess their luck had been no better than mine.

Bailing out of my car I climbed over the ruined fence. Voices came out of the night.

“Mr. Fergesi, we think he’s in the cemetery.”

“You think he’s in there? You asshole, you think he’s in there? You get your goddamned ass in there and find out if he’s in there, and don’t come back without his goddamned head on a goddamned platter.”

“We’re getting out of here before the heat turns up.”

“The likes of you aren’t ditching me. Get your goddamn asses in there or it’s all our goddamn heads.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you oily bastard?”

A single gunshot ended that debate, with the rest of them coming in after me.

Trying to save my worthless ass, I staggered into the maze of tombstones and monuments. On the up side, I still had my camera, both my .45s, even my spare clip. On the downside, however, I’d broken my temporary cap in the crash. The edges of it had torn open my cheek, filled my mouth with blood.

Suddenly things had gone from a dull ache to screaming pain as each breath brought a blast of air over the exposed nerve. Now my head was throbbing, lightning flashes of pain tearing though my system, frying me, making me wish I was dead.

Through my pain I remembered that there were men in the dark looking for me, men with flashlights and guns wanting to grant my wish. Then I remembered what the band had recommended the night before.

Bombs in the mail and poison in the stew
Government out to rob you, Business do it too

Their flashlight made them targets.

Life gets tough, then it gets tougher.
Playin’ fair’s no good, you gotta go rougher.

They weren’t too spread out, sticking together in that atavistic fear we all have of the dark and death.

When you’re up against the wall and you got no slack,
Just listen to your Uncle Fester and…

The rest was easy.

Bastards in the dark, been waitin’ from the start
Steal all your money, then stab you in the heart.


I hunted them down. Following the flashlights to tell me where they were then coming up behind them.

Drink your blood and eat your eyes
Wear your skin as their disguise.


A few shots, then a fade. The muzzle flashes telling me where they were and in what direction they were firing.

They never, ever stop ’til your guts are in a sack.
So listen to your Uncle Fester and…


I don’t know how many of them I got. Toward the end I was losing ground fast. None of their panic-driven hasty shots had found me but still my head was pounding, it was hard to breathe and I was drinking my own blood. I was not going to be able to go on much longer.


Everyone stopped. Everything froze.

The boys in blue had arrived. The only problem was…

Whose side were they on?

A flashlight finally found me. “Freeze!” the voice behind me said.

I listened to it. The thug beside me didn’t.

He shot the cop. I shot him, then dropped my gun and raised my hands. The little voice inside stirred itself again to tell me I was doing the right thing. I hoped I’d be agreeing with it in another few hours.

I spent the early part of the morning getting my mouth put back together. I still hadn’t eaten anything but it felt good to talk without spitting blood everywhere.

I told Jancing and Berkenwald almost everything that had happened, leaving out the part about the dirty cop. For letting the department take care of their own my name was removed from the picture. The chase and the scene at the cemetery was laid squarely at the feet of Anthony Fergesi, along with the theft of The House of Avo’s fall line.

“Well, my boy, this is yours,” Jancing said as he handed me my check. “Like a tornado you solved this. Like a wizard you are.”

“Ah… yeah. Thanks, but there’s a little more.”


“Fergesi spilled that one of the partners here at The House of Avo has a weakness for the ponies, one he hasn’t kept in check too well recently. It seems one of you picked up a line of credit, not knowing you were being set up by some patient guys with the need for an inside man.”

Jancing frowned then, looking more at Berkenwald then he was at me, said,

“Thank you, Mr. Hagee… for everything.”

With a “No, thank you, gentlemen” I left them. Behind me came the sound of screaming and cursing in more than one language. It continued as I left the offices and I could still hear faint traces of it even as the elevator doors closed to take me to the first floor.

It never fails. Let two people start something together—any two people, any thing—and sooner or later one of them will ruin it.

Hell, just look at the divorce rate.

It was one o’clock when I hit the street, well past the time the dentist said I could eat again. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jancing, but then, I feel sorry for a lot of people. After all, everybody’s got problems.

Even me. Like right then I had a big problem.

I had to figure out where I was going to go for lunch.


The Big New Year’s Party

by Bud Webster


It was the first party of the holiday season. As is customary, most people brought something. A bottle of booze, a cake, even a date. Me? I brought a gun. A big gun. You might even say a very big gun. A gun as big as a diamond as big as the Ritz.

I walked into the room, comforted by the weight of my big gun in its holster under my coat. It was a big coat—it had to be, to hide my big gun—and my eye was caught by Spider Two-Suits, a guy I occasionally did business with. I could tell by how big his coat was that he was carrying a big gun, too. He nodded to me and I ambled over.

“So, Spider. I see you’re wearing a really big coat,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, the way I’d learned when I was in the Big House.

He blinked at me. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I gotta wear a big coat. A really big coat.”

“I understand,” I said. “A really big coat is necessary, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it is, on account I got a really big gun.” He opened his coat slightly so I could see inside. It was a really big gun, all right. Bigger than mine, and I got a big gun.

“I always say a guy, a real guy, hasta carry a big gun. I mean, who don’t carry a big gun, right?” he asked.

“Nobody, is who don’t,” I said. “Nuns don’t carry big guns. Pansies don’t. Cops like to think they’re carrying big guns, but that’s just hooey.”

“Damn straight. I got two suits, it’s why they call me Spider Two-Suits, and both of ’em got really big coats so’s I can wear my gun.”

“Your really big gun, right?” My voice was gravelly like a cheap driveway in Scarsdale.

“Damn straight.” He shook his head in admiration. “You don’t miss much, do you?”

“Can’t afford to, I’m a PI. If I missed much, nobody’d hire me. How could I afford to buy ammo for my gun then?”

“Big ammo?”

“Yeah, big ammo. But not as big as yours must be, Spider.” I knew when to kiss up; you don’t get to be private heat in this town without you know how to kiss up a little. But I never kiss up big-time, that’s for losers. Pansies. Nuns. When you got a big gun, you don’t have to kiss up but just so much.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. It was Scree Talus, who people called Rocks. I nodded at him.

“Youse guys got yer guns?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Spider said. “We got our guns. You?”

“I got mine. It’s big. The bigger the better, right? Am I right?” We both said he was right. He looked around the room. “I think we all got big guns here tonight,” he said. He looked satisfied, like all of us having big guns made us like a club or sorority or something.

I checked out the room. Sure enough, all the guys had on big coats, some of them really big. Except for one guy who might have been a pansy or a nun. He was holding a cake, but he didn’t have a date. There might have been dates in the cake, I guess, but they weren’t big dates or you’d have been able to see ’em. And it wasn’t a big cake, either.

It was a big room, it had to be. There was a big band on the stand, playing “Begin the Beguine,” and couples were dancing, but not too close. I saw one guy, Tony Skeets, dancing with two women, and remembered hearing he’d been arrested for bigamy. Didn’t seem to have made a lot of difference, though.

Suddenly, the doors at the other end of the room burst open, and the cops came waltzing in. They had their guns drawn, and from the looks plastered all over their mugs, they thought they had big guns, but they was wrong. You could of hidden any of them under a Hawaiian shirt, that’s how little they were.

I walked up to the main cop. “So, Lt. Manicotti. You here to enjoy the ambiance?”

He sneered. “Yeah,” he said in his gravelly voice. “Where’s the cake and the booze?” He shouldered me aside and strolled to the center of the room. The band went quiet.

“Now hear this!” he yelled. “All you pansies line up against that far wall. We’re gonna search you. Not you, Sister,” he said to a nun on the left holding a piece of cake. I couldn’t tell if it had dates.

“Who the hell you think you are, Manicotti?” yelled No-Neck Arnie in a gravelly voice. His coat was so big he almost couldn’t see past the lapels. “We all got big guns here. Right, fellows?”

“Right!” they all said, pulling their guns out. Every one of them was big. Even the nun pulled out a big gun, and so did the pansy with the cake.

I almost dropped my booze trying to ease out of the way. Something big was going down, and I wanted to look as small as I could, as small as the dates the other guys brought.

“Yeah, those are big guns all right,” Manicotti said with a shrug. “But we got more of ’em than you got.” Sure enough, about a hundred more cops came in through the doors, all of them with guns. Little ones, but lots of them. “Now, drop ’em, you guys!”

Grumbling in gravelly voices, the guys all dropped their guns. They made a big noise when they hit the floor. “How about me?” the nun asked. Her voice was gravelly, like a gravel pit with all the gravel still left in it.

“Yeah, you too, Sister.” She grumbled, but dropped her gun.

Manicotti walked up to me. “Peeper, I ain’t gonna take your gun, ’cause you got a permit. But you remember this: lots beats big anytime.” He looked me over like I was something really small, then he snorted and walked away.

I watched as the cops picked up all the big guns. Somehow, all the guys’ coats looked empty, like banana skins with no bananas in them. I guess it don’t get much emptier than that.

I walked slowly out onto the street, knowing that of all the guys on the block at that moment, I had the biggest gun. It wasn’t much comfort to me somehow. I lit a smoke and thought about the booze I had at home. Maybe I’d try and get a date. One with a cake.

I began walking, leaving behind me the sound of the cops taking all the guys away for having big guns, leaving behind me the mean booze and the cake that might have had dates in it. “Lots beats big,” Manicotti had said. I shook my head wryly; it made a sound like gravel. I had learned a big lesson, and I was more than ready for a little sleep.

Or maybe even a Big Sleep.