Ernie, wearing an unzipped black cocktail dress and gripping an unfamiliar handgun, stood in the street in front of his house. It was a warm and motionless summer night, which had made the shadow’s movements obvious. As he made his way back to the front hedges, his heel caught, and he went down like a tree in the forest. All that remained of the peeping Tom was the 9mm that Ernie had banged his left cheekbone on. He got up, pulled off the platinum blonde wig and looked around at the deserted street. His red patent leather stiletto pumps chafed the back of his heels with every step on the concrete walkway. He absently wiped the Party-Fusion-Red lipstick from his lips to the back of his hand, remnants clinging to coarse stubble.
“Mother Fucker,” Ernie growled out between gritted teeth as he looked down at the double runs in the $17 silk stockings. He took a closer look at the handgun. It was a Browning Hi-power semi-automatic single action 9mm pistol. “The king of nines,” Ernie thought. He noticed that the serial numbers were filed. Whoever this was, he or she wasn’t fooling around. Ernie headed back toward the house just as the phone inside his doorway started to ring.
“Yeah,” Ernie said, feeling pissed off.
“Are you comin’ or what?” It was Ernie’s partner, Morrie, short for Morrison, short for impatient asshole at this very moment.
“Someone was outside my window.”
“Can you blame them? You’ve been leaving your house for two weeks now dressed as the ugliest prostitute ever seen.”
“Cute, real cute.”
“No, I said ugly, real ugly.”
“Whoever it was, they had a gun, a 9 mm, with the serial shaved off. Seems like they wanted more than a little peeping.”
This worried Morrie. He swerved the unmarked police car from its location in the park onto the road and headed toward Ernie’s place.
“I’m on my way. I’ll call it in.”
“Yeah, and I’m going to change. That fucker made me run my new stockings.”
This worried Morrie too. Ernie was getting a little too into his role as decoy for the Allentown Police Department. He laughed to himself. Together, as partners for 10 years, they had been the Batman and Robin of the department. It had been literally the drawing of straws that had Ernie playing bate instead of him. Their prey was a serial rapist targeting prostitutes in the city’s park system, which was 13 percent of the city’s acreage. It consisted of more acres per capita than any other city of its size. This made the task like finding a needle in a haystack. When a serial rapist nestled into a community with a population of 110,000, it gets noticed quickly. And it was the department’s number one priority.
By the time Morrie pulled to Ernie’s driveway, there was a black and white already parked there with two boys in black, one patrolling the area around the house and one writing on a notepad. Ernie was back in male garb and looking highly pissed. It was going to be one of those nights, thought Morrie as he walked up to greet the two men standing on the front walk.
“Hey, Sid. You guys find anything?”
“Nah. There was a cigarette butt outside the window, Parliament, no lipstick.” Remarked Sid as he smirked and looked at the traces still lingering on Ernie’s stubble.”
“You guys ought to pair up and do a comedy routine up in the Poconos circuit.”
Morrie pulled out a clean hanky and handed it to Ernie, stifling a laugh.
“Well, we’re through here, I guess, unless you can think of anything else about the intruder.”
“Nah. Go on. Dunkin’ Donuts is callin’ ya.”
Sid just waved to his partner, and they proceeded to depart together without any more jabs at the two detectives.
“Well, what’s next partner?”
“My cover’s blown.”
“Dude, you’re cover was blown by not shaving. It was a dumb-ass idea to think you could look like a dame anyhow. You walk like..”
“Okay, okay. That’s about all I’m goin’ take on the subject. It’s closed, ya hear, closed.”
“Like a book, Ernie.”
“Good. Let’s head downtown. I’m gonna see if Freddie knows anything about this gun.”
“I’m with ya, partner.” Replied Morrie. He jammed the key into the slot, fired up the engine, put the car into gear, and let his right foot come down hard on the gas.
The streets were buzzing with activity, especially near the clubs on Hamilton Street. That wasn’t their destination, however. Morrie swung the car around to the corner of 15th and Union and parked haphazardly. They exited the car and entered the Tap Room, a bar where good-ol-boys can kick back a few and throw a few punches, if the need should arise. Arnie and Morrie sat at the end of the bar nearest the front door. The wood stool were sticky as was the bartop. An overweight middle-aged woman with hair that looked like black smoke blew out from the top of her head came over to welcome them. Her name was Angie Martinelli. She was married to the bar, never a man. As long as Ernie could remember, he’d never even seen her make a pass at any of the gents that blew in and out her door every day. Then again, they were the slimmest of pickin’s, even for this part of Pennsylvania. Ernie surveyed the bar while Morrie shot the shit with Angie. A couple of old timers sat at the opposite corner of the bar smoking Camels and crying to each other about the hard times they’ve been living in for the past 20 years. While the rest of society has been moving up and down with the waves of the economy, they had been stagnant, wallowing in a hell of their own making. It made Ernie want to go over and put them out of their misery. In the back corner were two mill workers, Johnny Meglanoni and Pete Sanchez. Ernie knew them well, had got them out of trouble a couple of times. They owed Ernie, owed him big. There were a couple of other strays meandering around in some sort of twisted dance in front of the jukebox, two dames and a gent. They weren’t familiar to Ernie.
He looked at Angie, even though it wasn’t really where he wanted to look, and asked, “Who’s the freaks?”
“Dunno. Just started coming in about a month ago. They’s harmless. Don’t cause me no trouble.” She set a bottle of Jack, two shot glasses, and a couple of cold ones down on the bar.
Ernie poured a shot for him and Morrie, glancing at the three-some periodically.
“Angie, have you seen Freddie tonight?”
“Nah. He ain’t been around in quite some time.”
“What’s quite some time..a week, a month?
“Well, let’s see. “ Angie looked up as if the the swirl on top her head held the answer.
“Never mind.” Ernie continued, “Do me a favor. If you see him, tell him to call me. He knows the number. Why don’t you get a little info on your new patrons for me.”
“What’s the deal? Something going on I should know about?”
“There ain’t nothin’ you have to know about,” said Ernie.
“Hey, hey, give the lady some respect.” Morrie interjected.
“Yeah, whatever. Come on. Let’s blow this joint.”
They both sucked down a final shot and drained their beers. Morrie blew Angie a kiss, and they headed out the door.
“Where to now?”
“I think it’s time we break up a little game, don’t you?”
Morrie chuckled as he sped down the road.
The house on 9th Street sat right behind Cannon’s, a tavern known as the Cheer’s of Allentown. The food was some of the best in town, as was the selection on the jukebox. It was a local favorite even among the politicians and journalists of the area. That was why The House, as it was referred to, was so very popular and profitable. No cop in his right mind ever busted the place. For one, you just never were sure who you’d find there on any particular night. Your career could be over before you blew your nose.
Ernie knew the secret knock that allowed the refrigerator-sized hulk to open the door and block entry.
“What’s up, pops.” Came a weasely voice from between chipped yellow teeth held in place by dark colored gums.
“ Well, son” Ernie answered sarcastically, “is that any way to greet your pops after a long hard day at the office.”
“Listen, old timer. I don’t have time for your bullshit. You know the knock, so you know there’s also a code word to get in. So spill it or get the fuck out of my doorway.”
Ernie could feel the steam rising and turning his ears engine red. He was in just the mood to knock what was left of those yellow teeth out of this wise-ass. Instead, he grabbed the kid’s balls and squeezed. He went down like limp spaghetti onto the floor.
“How’s that for code word, prick, or should I now say, prickless,” Ernie remarked before kicking the kid in the face. Blood squirted out his nose and onto Ernie’s shoe, which he wiped across the kid’s shirt as he walked over him and entered the building. Morrie followed right behind, just grinning and shaking his head. Sarcasm was cutting into his tongue, but he didn’t dare say a word, yet.
Inside the house rooms were set up with various casino games. There was blackjack in the front room, video poker and the like in what was once the dining room, roulette, dice derby, as well as an array of poker games, 5-card slingo, 6th street Omaha poker, double-deuce poker, and five-card deluxe throughout the rest of the downstairs area. Big-titted 20-somethings walked around with cigars, cigarettes, and cocktails. Ernie paid no attention to anything around him. He had just one destination, upstairs to the high-stakes poker game. He was about to shake up society and see if anything popped out. Morrie felt the handle of his gun, as if warming it up. Things were about to get real interesting.
Billy Joel sung about Allentown in 1982. Bennie often wondered why a big star like Joel would even give a shit about a piss-ass town full of nothing but uneducated, out-of-work drunks and losers . That’s what Allentown was to Bennie, just a dying town full of half-dead people. You could go to any corner bar and hear some old-timer talking about how Allentown was booming with business when the nation was soaking up all the iron we could produce and the railroad come through. Then, boom, the railroad industry just collapsed. And then the iron industry that put the town on the map fell apart. Nothing came to take its place. All that was left was shit-paying service jobs kissing the asses of the people with old money who were too lazy to move on. When they finally kick the bucket, the town will be put to rest too. It seemed like a kind of last gasp as the city shoved every available tax dollar into hi-tech buildings and the like to schmooze big business, but it was all a facade, a false front, like they used to do in the old west. Nobody was coming here, ever. Crime…that scared them off. Crime was the new thriving big business that held the noose around the city’s neck. As far as Bennie was concerned, every pocket was lined, every cop was on the take, and every corner held some punk waiting to kick his ass.
He entered the diner dripping wet from the late morning rain that accompanied him on his walk to meet up with Laney, his best friend, even once –in a moment gone wrong –had been his lover. She sat in a booth at the far end of the diner. Her hair looked like the color of moist dirt, while her eyes looked like the most beautiful of summer days. Those eyes took in Bennie as he approached.
“You look like a drowned rat.” She said before looking back down at her menu.
“Why do you look at that thing. It never changes and you always order the same thing.”
“It’s my prerogative.”
“Oh, so now you’re like the American Idol lady, what’s her face?”
“It’s Paula Abdul. Did you watch last night?”
“No. Do you think I give a shit about it? It’s all rigged, anyhow.”
“Damn, you’re such a cynic.”
Bennie was a 22-year-old without a dream, and he hated those who had one. It ate away at him every day that he was like his father and grandfather and great grandfather, a nobody stuck in a nowhere town. He never saw ambition growing up; hence, there was no fire growing in him either. His only really strong attribute was to complain, just like his paternal role models.
“I’m going to get the pancakes…blueberry.”
The waitress, somewhere around 30ish, dressed in pink and white with drips of red, ketchup, Bennie assumed, walked over with pad and pen in hand.
“What’ll it be this morning, gang.”
This sent Bennie into a head spin. “Gang? Am I missin’ somethin’ you’re seein’?”
The waitress, already on her feet since 5:00, had no patience for Bennie’s sarcasm and just continued to look down at her pad awaiting their order.
Laney started, “I’ll have the blueberry pancakes with oj, small, and maybe some bacon too.”
“And you?” the waitress spit out toward Bennie.
“I’m having coffee, a couple of eggs scrambled, white toast and lots of butter.”
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“Hey, there’s no smoking in here. You know that.”
He knew it. He was in the place three times a week with Laney. He just like to bust the waitress’s chops every chance he could.
“Oh, I thought you heard. They changed that law.”
She didn’t even have the energy to respond to the smart-ass. It was going to be a long morning, she thought. Rain always brings the ass out of the hole.
They ate their breakfast with little conversation. Everything Laney said just brought a snide comment from Bennie.
They both reached for the check.
“It’s my turn on Wednesdays, Bennie.” She reminded him.
He didn’t argue. He had his last 20 bucks in his pocket until payday on Friday. It was going to be a lean couple of days. He’d had to steal cigarettes from his old man’s stash or he’d really be broke.
Together they headed out the door in search of the other person that made up the trio. Brian was Laney’s cousin. His dad was referred to jokingly as the last honest lawyer in America. He had also recently been before the court’s disciplinary board for calling a powerful judge more corrupt that the legislature. Not smart to do in this area. His son, Brian, was as dirty and deadly as a toilet seat over at Red’s. Brian made his money doing the kind of jobs nobody in his right mind would take on. He stood about six foot two, had bright orange hair, and two gold teeth in the front. There was no way he was missed in a crowd, yet he could slip into one and break a man’s neck and come out without anyone even mentioning him being there. It was just plain magic. Obviously, Brian and his dad didn’t communicate when they both spoke two very different languages.
The rain had stopped, but the sky remained a cloudy gray. The heat didn’t let up, and the steam rising off the pavement made it seem so much hotter than it was.
“Damn, it’s so hard to breath when it gets like this.”
“Ain’t that right,” responded Bennie. He was feeling in a better mood now that he was full, the rain had stopped and they were about to find out what exactly Brian had in store for them today. He was money hungry this week. So he needed any bone that would be thrown his way. The three of them had performed more scams than the local theater group had performed shows. It was not only profitable, most times anyway, but it also gave them the best adrenaline high.
“Bennie, I’ve been thinking lately.”
“Are you sure that’s healthy?” He replied.
Ignoring him, she continued. “What if my mom heads out of town, like she says she’s gonna, you know, to marry that guy over in Jersey? What the hell do you think I should do?”
“I dunno. What’s ya wanna do?”
“Well, she told me if I went her boyfriend, Jimmy, would enroll me in community college.”
“What good is that shit? You can’t make near as much as you do when we work for Brian.”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure that holds a very bright future. I don’t look too good in prison orange, you know?”
“Aww, you worry way too much, girl. “
“I’m thinking it’s a great way to get out of this shit town.”
“Yeah, but her boyfriend, as you call him, sure likes having his hands all over you. What do ya think would happen if you lived in his house and didn’t have anyone around to put the fear of God in ‘em?”
“Maybe that wouldn’t be the worst thing. If he did things for me, maybe a little fuck now and then ain’t such a bad thing.”
“You’d be selling your soul to the devil. At least with us as your family, you keep your self respect.”
“You guys use me too. It’s my looks that get you the marks. I know that.”
“Yeah, but we never have you sleep with them. You just…well, you just get them to think they’re gonna. Believe me, there’s a difference.” He thought about his Aunt Connie. She lost her husband in the Gulf War. She had three kids to support and took to the streets. It killed her in every way that mattered.
They saw Brian walking down the steps of his apartment on the corner of Union and 6th. He saw them at the same time and smiled a golden smile while tipping his hat at them.
Ernie busted his way passed yet another block of testosterone and entered the smoke-filled room located to the left of the staircase. Three dames all dressed in short black dresses sat on barstools around a small black leather bar surrounded by mirrors with gold veins running through the glass, making the images from within appear disjointed. Looking at the poker table, Ernie could see five men and an empty chair. Someone was either taking a piss or had bowed out of the game and went to lick his wounds. The girls at the bar abruptly jumped up when Ernie busted through the doorway. They huddled in a corner farthest from Ernie.
A large man with scraps of gray hair above each ear that crawled around to meet in the back of his head spoke first.
“Well, if it isn’t one of Allentown’s finest. What can I do for you, detective?”
Ernie couldn’t detect anything but arrogance in the man’s tone and decided to reply in the same manner.
“Mayor, how’s it hangin’ these days? Working on the re-election campaign? Saw your wife the other night getting into a squad car. I guess she was in no condition to drive again, huh?”
A small almost undetectable glint of sweat started to appear on the man’s shiny forehead. A few more minutes of this, and Ernie would have him right where he wanted him.
“Don’t worry, though. I know it was just a slip of her hand when she grabbed at the officer’s ass the way she did. She’s a looker. Can’t be too careful. Never know when someone could take that the wrong way and think she meant some business should go down, if you know what I mean. If that was me, man, I’d…”
“Shut up you pathetic piece of shit. Do you think you can stand there and talk to me that way, talk about my wife that way. I’ll have you cleaning out cages for the dog catcher by tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you will. But before then, I think I’d like you to come with me and take a little ride.”
“Fuck you, you piss ant. I wouldn’t have you shining my shoes. I’m in the middle of a game here, and you are ruining my concentration as well as my mood.”
Two very quiet and very large men slipped up behind Morrie but not before he had his gun drawn. He ushered them to return back downstairs in the same quiet manner in which they approached.
“This isn’t really a yes or no type of request, Mayor. Get off your fat ass and come downstairs with me.”
The four other men at the table stood up and excused themselves to the bar, not wanting to be noticed, pointed out, or otherwise in the fray if things got too heated. This was a pissing contest they did not want any part of.
“Morrie, is gambling legal in P.A.?”
Morrie responded with a sarcastic yet respectful tone, “Why, Detective Matthews, I do not believe it is. Under Statute 5513 it’s considered a misdemeanor of the first degree.”
“Mayor, that’s not exactly the kind of thing you’d like to read about tomorrow in the paper, now is it? So why not just step away from the table and tell your friends nighty-night and come take a little ride with me.”
The mayor had turned a deep shade of red that bordered on eggplant purple. He stood up and grabbed his suit jacket off the back of the chair, placed it on and walked over to Ernie.
Regaining his composure, he said, “See you boys next week.” Then he turned back to face Ernie eye to eye and whispered in his face, “Next week, you’ll be sitting home reading the want ads.”
Ernie coughed down at his shoes. “You’ve got to do something about that breath.”
Morrie chuckled and formed the end of the line behind the two other men as they made their way down and out of the premises.
As they piled into the brown sedan, the mayor took a back seat behind Morrie.
“Damn it, Ernie, someday I’m really going to bust your ass.”
All three men laughed.
“I was convincing, though, wasn’t I?” Said the mayor, delight at his performance of just a few minutes ago.
Ernie drove off and Morrie turned to look at the mayor. “How do you get those little veins on your temples to jump out at will like that. Very cool trick.”
“What gives, Ernie?” The mayor asked, ignoring Morrie.
“Well, boss man, it seems somebody thinks I’m getting a little too close for comfort.”
“You got any idea who?”
“You got a plan?”
With that, the car went silent until Morrie turned on 97.7 and sang along with the radio.
Brian waited for the two to approach. He grabbed Laney and gave her a big wet kiss in the middle of her forehead.
“Brian, it’s too hot for that shit.” She backed away rubbing away the moisture with her left forearm.
Bennie shook Brian’s extended hand and Brian threw his other arm over Bennie’s shoulders.
“Guys, today we become major league players.” He announced.
Laney and Bennie looked at each other as if playing chicken with the switchblades they both kept in their back pockets.
“Where we heading?” questioned Lanie as she tailed behind the two boys.
“Let’s get over to Marco’s. He’s got something we’re gonna need.”
This sent a flurry of questions into Laney’s head, but she forced herself to keep her mouth shut for now.
Marco lived in on the 1st floor of a brownstone on 18th Street. It used to be his grandmother’s flat, but she had long since passed away leaving him the entire apartment building to do with as he wished.
(To be continued.)