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Chapter 1
Taking a meeting with Mr. Roast Beef

Call me a cynic, but I maintain that nothing can clarify a man's thinking quite like looking down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of a man who is irked with you and considering homicide as a solution to his problems. This has happened to me from time to time in my so-called career as a private eye in St. Paul, Minnesota, and each occurrence promoted clear thinking, inconvenient though it was at the time. Christians try to find clarity through prayer, but you don't really know what prayer is until you meet someone who's prepared to shoot you. I am thinking in particular of an afternoon last February when an eighty-two-year-old gorilla named Joey Roast Beef sat quivering in my office on the twelfth floor of the Acme Building with a cocked pistol aimed at my chest and ordered me to tell him something that I had no intention of telling him because it involved the beautiful prospect of vast wealth I was in no mood to share. His hairy finger was coaxing the trigger and he yelled, "Talk to me!" and suddenly everything got clearer, The Delicate Beauty of Life and its Fragility and The Sudden Relative Insignificance of Constitutional Law and the Dow-Jones Average.

Moments before, on this particular February day, on the twelfth-floor, high above the poor souls struggling through the crotch-high snowbanks along Latimer Street, all was well, no inkling of imminent peril. I was savoring page fourteen of a trashy novel in which a twenty-three-year-old fashion model is attracted to a heavyset sixty-four-year-old galoot in a wrinkled blue suit and the two of them are sharing chicken quesadillas and his knee is pressed firmly to her thigh and she does not seem to mind. I was thinking about ordering a chicken sandwich from Danny's Deli and hoping Danny would add it to my tab, though my tab was long, two or three hundred bucks, which is not good, but business had been slow and a guy's got to eat. Chicken on a kaiser, slice of onion, and a squort of hearty mustard to clear the sinuses. My long underwear had gotten bunched up in a way that made me think about my prostate, and I was thinking about that, and the sandwich, and the fashion model ("her thigh was firm but pliable, even, he hoped, complaisant"), while listening to a voice mail from Doris, my landlady at the Shropshire Arms, saying she's sick and tired of me being two months late on the rent, and the honeyed voice of my ex-love Sugar saying she's sorry but she can't have lunch with me on my birthday in March (Sixty-five!!! Moi??? The poor man's Philip Marlowe? Yikes!!!!) because she and Wally are taking a Caribbean cruise—so I'm in a Dark State of Mind when I hear heavy thumping on the door, and the thumper yells, "Hey, Noir, open up. I know you're in there, ya duckbutt." And it was him, the Senior Citizen of Organized Crime.

"The office is closed, Joey," I said in a calm, businesslike tone of voice.

"Not to me it ain't." And he threw open the door and stomped in, all 340 pounds of him. "Forgot to lock your door, Noir. What a genius. It's amazing someone didn't rub you out a long time ago."

He was draped in a blue seersucker suit, like a toad in gift wrap, and a yellow shirt and pink tie, his thinning black hair slicked back, peering out through thick black hornrims, and he looked like one of those fat generalissimos with a chestful of medals who run banana republics, though the jacket lapels had traces of schmutz on them, but his beetle brow was set for battle, his jaw jutting out, his dewlaps quivering, he was wheezing—as you or I would if we were five feet four and weighed 340 pounds and carried an oxygen tank with a plastic tube stuck up our nose.

"No 'Good morning'?" I said. "No 'How are you'?"

"I know how you are. You are in big, big trouble, smart guy. I'm done with you. If you don't tell me what I need to know, you're gonna be swimming in the river in a pair of concrete shoes." He lowered himself gingerly into my old oak chair, which groaned under him, pulled out his Colt .45, and aimed it at my sternum. It appeared to be loaded. With bullets. Real ones.

"I'm expecting visitors, Joey," I said in the same calm tone. "Lieutenant McCafferty and Captain Calhoon. Our weekly hand of whist. So I don't have time for an extended visit."

It was a lie, of course, but when dealing with an angry, armed man, you'd like him to think that witnesses could arrive at any moment.

"This won't take long. About two minutes. The word on the street, Noir, is that you are holding out on me on a very lucrative deal involving millions—and you made a big, big mistake thinking I'm such a ditz I wouldn't get wind of it, which is a grave insult. I am not the type of person who accepts being insulted. And I'm gonna give you about two minutes to tell me what is the deal and when do I get my split," he said. "So out with it. Sing. Let's hear it."

"Give me a hint," I said. "I got no idea what you're talking about. You want to know who to pick in the seventh at Belmont? You want the formula of the hydrogen bomb? Warren Buffett's cell phone number? What you want, Joey?"

"It involves you and that hootchie-kootchie dancer at the Kit Kat Klub named Naomi Fallopian. The one who got her Ph.D. and now she's teaching women's rights or something at the U. So let's start with her." He shifted his enormity in the chair, and it groaned, and I could imagine it collapsing and him sprawled on the floor, a mountain of adipose tissue, and me leaping up and whacking him senseless with the desk lamp. I could also imagine the shock of the fall twitching his trigger finger and a poof of flame and the bullet hitting me in the frontal lobe and turning me into a human cauliflower. The second possibility seemed more likely.

He cleared his throat. "This dame and you. You two are walking around about to make a killing and sashay off to a penthouse somewhere with a revolving king-size bed under a silver ceiling mirror with her in her pink peignoir reflected in it, and that's okay, I don't begrudge you the comforts of life, I'm only looking to collect my share, otherwise Miss Fallopian is gonna be wearing a black suit and a hat with a veil and crying into a hanky as she gazes at the china vase containing your ashes." He set the pistol down on the desk and adjusted his air hose, which was taped to his upper lip.

I said, "Joey, I respect your perspicacity in most things, but as to this scuttlebutt somebody sold you about me and Miss Fallopian, Joey, you are woofing down the wrong rainbow, there is no pot of gold at the end, just an old private eye with lower back pain and a pocketful of breath mints, namely me. There is no killing about to be made. Whoever whispered this in your ear is pulling your leg. I say this as an old and dear friend. This is delusional thinking, Joey. If you're not careful, you're going to wind up on the funny farm, talking to the window shades."

I was hoping to build doubt in the man's mind, but his firm grip on the peashooter indicated otherwise. He was in no mood for Story Hour. "Tell me what's going on, Noir, or else you are gonna get you a new buttonhole. Right in between those other buttonholes."

It occurred to me that prison might not be a great deterrent to a man of eighty-two. By that time, a person has had all the freedom he knows what to do with. He has squeezed that orange. There is no more juice in it. A small cell might come as a comfort to him.

"If I were you, I would go home and ask the beautiful Adele to fix you a mai tai or two and then lie down and take a nice nap. You're obviously under a lot of stress right now. You don't want to get yourself a coronary."

"You're gonna be under even more stress when this bullet hits your rib cage," he said. "The last man who double-crossed me is wearing the pine kimono, Mister. He's taking the dirt nap. If you get my drift. Start talking, or I'm gonna roll the credits." And then he cocked the pistol.

That little metallic skritch and click clarified my thinking but good. I am not going to beg for my life, precious as it may be, especially with Naomi Fallopian involved in it, I thought. I am not going to crawl. Au contraire. I will keep on pushing Joey's buttons and rile him up so he goes nuts and maybe shoots himself in the kneecap.

"Listen, fat man. You ever hang out up around 102nd and Broadway?" I says. "That's where I grew up. New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice. We used to use guys like you for footrests. You're darned right I have hit pay dirt, and it's mine, lard ass, no freeloaders. Your mooching days are done. You can wave your hardware all you like, I am not going to let a schtoonk with an air hose and pee-stained pants to help himself to the gravy." I said it quiet, but I said it straight.

He was mightily peeved. "The clock is running out, buddy boy. You take this wiseacre attitude with me, and I will mash you like a grape." He stamped his foot so hard, the tassel came off his shoe, and the exertion squeezed his hemorrhoids and he let out a yelp.

"You really ought to see a proctologist," I said. "They can snip those hemmies off with a pair of pinking shears and cauterize them with a curling iron, and it'll probably improve your love life and add twenty points to your bowling score."

He shifted the pistol from his left hand to his right, and his tone changed. He started pleading. "You and me go way back, Guy. I have been like an uncle to you. So many times when Rico or Tony wanted to run you out of town on a marble slab, I told them, 'Hands off Noir, he's family.' I had your back. More than once. Otherwise you would've been floating down the Mississippi in a barge full of soybeans and processed into tofu and eaten by skinny women and pooped out and floated out to sea. Is that what you want for yourself? To be sludge on the ocean floor?"

I suggested that I take him into the deal as a consultant. He snorted. "I had a cat once who was neutered, but he still went out at night and served as a consultant. Not me. Stop wasting my time."

I suggested that we go to Danny's and talk about it over a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a hot Reuben.

He thumped the pistol butt on the desk and wheezed from the effort. He whispered, "You got ten seconds to talk, Noir. You're trying to cut me out of a meal ticket, and I'm not gonna take that laying down."

I saw my opening.

I pointed out to him that laying is a transitive verb, it takes an object—you lay down your head on a pillow, but you yourself lie down on a bed—so what he should've said was lying down—and Joey did not care to be corrected like he was back in the sixth grade at Immaculate Conception. He shifted in his seat as if to get better aim at my aorta, and he landed smack on those painful hemorrhoids and whimpered, and I grabbed his right wrist and twisted it and made him lay down his pistol on the table. And then I pinched his oxygen tube to make him lie down. Which he did. He laid his big noggin down on the desk, and his body relaxed, and he let a long hissy fart that smelled of fried automobile tires.

"Sweet dreams, pal." I crimped the tube for forty-five seconds, long enough to shift his synapses into neutral, and then released.

He opened his eyes and blinked. "What you doing with my gun?" he croaked.

"Just borrowing it for a day or two," I said.

"Oh," he said. "Okay."

I helped him to his feet. "Lulu LaFollette called, Joey. She's upset that you forgot you said you'd meet her at the Hotel Cranston. Room seven-sixteen. She's got her green chiffon nightie on, and she's all hot and sweaty thinking about doing the horizontal dance with you." He grinned and heaved himself to his feet. "My memory isn't what it used to be," he whispered. "Thanks, Guy." And he lumbered off to perform amatory wonders on the buxom bombshell—who, for all I knew, was back home on her llama ranch in Stanley, North Dakota.

And a minute later, he was back. "Lulu who?"

"LaFollette."

"The name is familiar."

"The singer, Joey."

"Oh yeah."

And I put a hand on his shoulder and sang—

Even those who write prose do it.
People wearing all their clothes do it.
Let's do it. Let's go to town.
Some intertwined centipedes do it.
In winter, even Swedes do it.
Let's do it. Let's go to town.
Gorillas deep in the mists do it,
Hanging by their palms.
True feminists do it,
Though they have qualms.
The lower halves of giraffes do it,
Even managers of office staffs do it,
Let's do it. Let's go to town.

And he headed for the Cranston, a smiling man with a song in his heart, not the homicidal psychopath he was fifteen minutes previous. Love will do that to a man. And senile dementia. It has made Mr. Roast Beef a much nicer human being. It should happen to more people than it does.

Ten minutes later, more thumping on the door. It was Joey, all hot and bothered. "You sent me somewhere and I forgot where," he said. "How about you write it down on a slip of paper."

So his urge to canoodle with Lulu LaFollette was no longer strong enough to stick in his cerebellum. I said, "I was sending you home, Joey. Adele wants you to check on Pookie and Mr. Big Boy."

"What's wrong?" His eyes filled with tears. "Are they all right?"

Joey is quite devoted to his elderly Siamese. He called me once, devastated, when Pookie disappeared, and I joined him, walking up and down West 7th Street calling "Pookie Pookie Pookie." A reputable PI and a 340-pound man in a black pinstriped suit walking to and fro and calling out "Pookie Pookie Pookie." From such little deeds of kindness had I built the loyalty that made Joey hesitate to blow me a new buttonhole.

I told him the cats were fine. "They have a little fever, and Adele wants you to come home and slip a thermometer up their butts."

He wrung his hands and whimpered something about not knowing what he would do if his babies got sick and died, and out the door he went. It was a whole other Joey from the guy aiming the pistol at my sternum. I made a mental note: Joey—vulnerable to extreme anxiety about cats. In case of emergency, ask him if Pookie is feeling better.




(Instapaper)


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