Chapter One of SYMPHONY OF BLOOD:
“This place could really use a paint job,” I mumbled to myself as the phone rang. Feet up on the desk, arms clasped behind my back, eyes half shut while looking up at the cracking plaster on the ceiling, I tried to ignore the annoying buzz. A bottle of Jim Beam—about two thirds empty—sat next to the phone. I grabbed the booze instead of the phone.
Finally, it stopped ringing, and I took a gulp directly from the bottle.
“Hank, it’s for you,” came a shrill cry from just outside my office door.
“Take a message!” I hollered back.
The door sprung open—hinges creaking—then smacked the wall, the knob coming to rest inside the sheetrock; there was an imprint of the handle where a doorstop should have been.
“Hank! I said phone call for you!” It was Sandy, my secretary, five feet two inches of fury, Burberry scarf draped around her neck.
“I heard you, Sandy. And I asked you to take a message.”
“Well, you didn’t ask very nicely.” She did this flip-thing with her long, curly brown hair that works on me every time.
“Sandy, will you please take a message?”
“No! It’s your mother. She needs to talk to you.”
I shook my head while grabbing the phone as Sandy sauntered out with just enough east-to-west sway in her hips to really distract me. “Hi, Ma.”
“My rent, Mr. Mondale. When will I have it?”
“Avi?” Sandy would say anything to avoid having to do some work and she knew I was avoiding my landlord. “One second, please.” I cupped the receiver, then yelled, “You lying little bitch!”
“Sorry. Tee hee.” That phony, obnoxious laugh always pisses me off and she knows it.
“Avi, sorry to keep you holding.”
“Mr. Mondale.” He spoke with a horrible lisp and seemed to sing his words more than speak them. “Today is the sixth. Your rent was due on the first…of last month.”
“I know, Avi. And I’m sorry. I’m caught just a little short this month. But I’ll have your money.”
“Soon. I promise. Soon.”
“Very well. I’d hate to start the eviction process again.”
“Me too, Avi. Me too.”
“Yeah, yeah. Bye now.”
I hung up the phone, then took another swig of Beam. I got up and walked to the door.
“Sandy, that wasn’t very nice.”
“Why should I have to deal with him? You’re the one who owes him money.”
“Because you’re my secretary. When I ask you to take a message, you take a message. That’s your job.”
“Yes, job. You work for me, remember?”
“A job implies that I get paid, Hank.”
“Very funny. Sandy, I’ll have your money today. A couple guys owe me money. Don’t worry.”
“Would you turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.”
She walked to the thermostat and turned it up. Nothing happened.
“You didn’t pay the heating bill either, did you?”
“Don’t worry, Sandy. I’ll get this sorted out. It’s no big deal.”
She grabbed one end of her scarf, threw it dramatically around her neck and said, “I don’t know why I stay with you, Hank.”
“Maybe because you’re too lazy to find another job.”
I walked back into my office and sat down. My brain was racing as I flipped through my appointment book, then my phone book. There had to be a case out there for me. A way to make some legit money, and quick.
But legit money rarely comes quick.
I got up, grabbed my overcoat, and walked out of the office.
“I’m going out, Sandy.”
“If anyone calls, take a message…please.”
“I mean it. I’m expecting a big call on a big case. It’s important.”
I shot her a snarl. She shot one right back. We both knew I was lying but I wanted to keep Sandy’s spirits up. She works harder when her spirits are up, not that that’s saying much.
I stepped out onto the downtown Manhattan street and walked towards Second Avenue, buttoning my coat as I walked. I put on my black gloves, squeezing my hands in, then instinctively rubbing them together.
Just past Third Street stood my favorite haven: Dempsey’s Pub. A simple joint where a simple guy can get a shot and a beer, or just a bourbon with ice and not see his wallet get raped. I’m in the place just about every day. Still, this trip wasn’t a pleasure visit. Rory owed me two grand, and I needed it.
Monday Night Football posters and beer signs hung from the walls and the place was dim. It always was. A short flight of steps below street level with just two tiny windows letting in the smallest hint of sunlight, you could rarely tell day from night inside Dempsey’s. The customers liked it that way. I know I did.
I bellied up to the bar and hopped onto the first empty stool. The usual afternoon crowd was there: two haggard-looking drunks on barstools and a few people eating quietly in booths towards the back.
Rory worked six days a week tending bar at Dempsey’s and usually spent his day off there getting hammered and watching football. He lived in a small apartment above the joint. He’d probably be buried underneath it one day.
“Rory,” I called out and waved him over.
“Hey, Hank. What can I get you?” He was a Scottish native, but moved to the city so long ago that his accent blended to the point that no matter whether he was home or abroad people thought he talked funny.
“My two grand.”
“What? No hello? No, ‘I’d like a Jim Beam please, Rory?’”
“Okay, I’d like a Jim Beam please, Rory. And my two grand.”
“I’m a little light today, Hank,” he said as he threw a glass on the bar and dropped two ice cubes in it. Rory knows how I prefer my drink, cool but never watered down.
“So am I.”
“Can you talk to Flip for me? Buy me some time?”
“I need the money, Rory. I told you not to bet Cleveland.”
“It was a lock. Everyone and their mother had Cleveland.”
“Exactly. It was a trap game.”
“Either way. Can you just stall Flip for me?”
“He told me if I don’t get your money today to bust you upside your head.” I said it with a wry smile, hoping he wouldn’t feel threatened. After all, I like Rory. But I really needed the cash.
“Would you stop it. We both know you’re not the muscle.”
“Exactly, so settle up with me now, or else Flip will send that idiot cousin of his down here. And we both know you don’t want that.”
Rory shook his head and blew a lip-fart. Then he walked towards the cash register and grabbed some bills from the tip-jar that stood next to it. Rory fumbled through the old glass jar, then his pockets. He handed me a disheveled wad.
A fast count of the cash followed by a chug of sweet bourbon whiskey and I stood up, dropped a ten on the bar and walked towards the door.
“Thanks, Rory. See you later.”
“Yep,” he said with a nod of disgust.
I walked down Second Avenue then turned down First Street. The storefront office quickly came into view: Mondale Investigative Services, read the white letters engraved into the small black sign that was glued to the entryway my office shared with Kim’s Dry Cleaner.
I waved to Mr. Kim. The old guy nodded back; his nods were subtle—very slight, but definitive in a way I always admired.
Mrs. Kim called out from behind an old black sewing machine where she spent most of her days, “Hi, Mr. Mondale.”
She spoke perfect English, and he didn’t speak a word of it. The Kims were solid, decent people—not enough solid people left in New York.
As I opened the door, Sandy quickly shuffled something into her oversized name-brand pocketbook—a cute-looking leather thing; nothing but the finest name brands for that girl.
“Sandy! What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all, Hank.”
I walked quickly towards her and grabbed for the bag. She wouldn’t let go so I gave it a hard yank. It came free and crap shot out every which way: a stapler, a lipstick, a box of pens, a small mirror and yellow sticky pads went flying about.
“You bully,” she said, trying to sound helpless—not that I was buying it. “You don’t need to be so rough.” She rubbed her arm
“Sandy,” I said as I shook my head and sighed. “Are you stealing my staplers again?”
“It was only one stapler.”
“You’re too much.”
“I was just borrowing it. I was going to bring it back tomorrow. I have a project to work on at home tonight.”
“Yes, a project. Do you have a problem with that?”
“What sort of project?”
“If you must know, I’m revising my résumé.”
“I need a job that actually pays me.”
I dropped the bag on her desk then reached in my pocket for the wad of bills. I counted off five hundred and handed it to her.
“There. Five hundred tax free dollars, cash. What job is going to pay you that? Huh, Sandy?”
“Thank you!” She grabbed her bag and put the money in her wallet. Then began picking her stuff up off the floor.
“Here, take this too.” I handed her two hundred more then helped her gather up her junk. “Run down to Con Ed and pay our heating bill.”
Her eyes lit up as she grabbed the cash and stood up. “Now you’re talking! While I’m out, I think I’m going to stop at Macy’s. There’s this cute pair of Jimmy Choo’s I’ve been eyeballing.”
“Aren’t those like a thousand dollar pair of shoes?”
“More like five hundred.”
“Are you kidding? Don’t you have rent to pay? Groceries to buy? You’re going to dump your entire week’s pay on one pair of shoes….that you don’t even need.”
“Don’t worry about me, Hank. With role models like you, it’s no wonder I never pay my bills on time.”
“Very funny. Just make sure you pay for those shoes. I don’t have any bail money.”
“Yeah, yeah. Later sweetie.”
No sooner did she shut the door than the phone rang. There’s nothing worse than answering my own phone. It wasn’t good for appearances. A proper private investigator should have a secretary answer his calls.
“Hello. Mondale Investigative Services. Hank speaking.”
“Hennnn-reee, it’s your mutha.” The familiar voice was all Brooklyn, a heavy accent with a horrible, hoarse smoker’s throat that worries everyone who loves her, especially her only son.
I should have known better than to answer the phone.
“Henry, will you be coming over for dinner tonight?”
“Not sure, Ma, got a lot to do.”
“What could you have to do that’s more important than spending time with your mother?”
“Just some business to take care of, Ma.”
“You know, Henry, we don’t know how much time I have left. It’s important I should share my time with the ones I love.”
“Mom, stop being so melodramatic.”
“Melodramatic? Is that any way to talk to your mother?”
“If you’re worried about living longer, then quit smoking.”
“I like smoking. At least I can always count on my smokes being here when I need them. My smokes and my sweet Fluffy are all I can say that about. Certainly not my son. He comes and goes as he pleases.”
“Mom, I’ll try and stop by. I’ve gotta go.”
“Fine, if this is the way you treat me…”
“Call you later. Love you, Mom.”
“Goodbye, Henry. I love you, too.”
SYMPHONY OF BLOOD is available now as an ebook: