When Ms. Gebel is murdered, Detective Shimmel’s suspects are all such suspicious low-lives he doesn’t know where to start; by Salvatore Difalco.
“All night my legs danced like whirling dervishes. The machine elves shadowing the walls scolded me for being so fractious. Then, a disembodied voice said, It means changes are coming. Big changes. I pulled the duvet up to my cheekbones. Fear is nothing but an evolutionary response to a presumed danger. What could they do to me? Eat me alive like painted dogs? My eyes refused to shut. Graininess ensued. The shadows genuflected around my bed. Their silence spooked me more than their presence. So I slept nada and rose from my bed weighted down like Jesus Christ. A figure in black stood in the doorway pointing at me. It was Ms. Gebel. You look terrible, she said. Let me put on some clothes for crying out loud, I said, but she had vanished. I dressed and went down to the kitchen. Ms. Gebel stood by the stove handling a spatula. A smell of frying filled the air. She made me breakfast and I ate. Two eggs, two rashers of bacon, and two pieces of buttered toast. She knew I didn’t like her hash browns, so she left them off the plate. That’s it. That’s the story.”
Detective Shimmel scribbled in a pad as Jimmy Crespo spoke. Jimmy smelled like socks removed after a long day shoveling manure. Mary Gebel had been brained by a blunt force object in the kitchen of her rooming house that afternoon. Shimmel had already interviewed the other four tenants of the rooming house, all of them parolees with extensive records, all lowlifes, but none particularly violent. Jimmy was the last interviewee and as he was the last person to see Ms. Gebel alive, he definitely stood out as a person of interest if not an obvious suspect. That said, his manner of speaking threw Detective Shimmel a little. It took a few moments to get a hang of the man’s odd rhythms and phrases. As Jimmy blathered on with great animation, Shimmel checked his waving hands for any signs of blood. Then he regarded him from head to toe, again looking for any signs of blood or anything at all suspicious. His blue flannel shirt and faded blue jeans looked clean, as did his leather moccasins.
“So you put on these clothes after you got up?” Shimmel asked.
Jimmy furrowed his brow. “Well, I normally wear pajamas when I sleep, boss. I have these very cool polka dot ones of worsted hemp that I’ve been favouring lately – red with white polka dots. They wick off the night sweat, you know. I sweat like a beast at night, swear to God. Although, on this night, I was so friggin’ restless, I stripped down to my gotchies. In other words, I didn’t sleep in these clothes I’m currently wearing, if that’s how you’re coming at me.”
“Where were you at two o’clock this afternoon?”
“Hm, let me think,” Jimmy said, pulling on his lower lip and squinting. “Oh yeah, I was playing dominoes with Frank Ricci over at Lenny’s Cafe.”
“Who’s Frank Ricci?”
“Frank Ricci’s an acquaintance.”
“You know you’re not supposed to consort with criminals.”
Jimmy reared his head and bared his upper teeth. “Ain’t I living with a bunch of them?” he said. “Talk about hypocrisy. Besides good old Frank is like a hundred years old. He’s had both hips replaced. He don’t bother nobody. He just likes to play dominoes, to kill the time before he does the big goodbye.”
Shimmel stared at Jimmy for a beat. Grizzled, sweaty, potato-nosed, stoop-shouldered, and pock-skinned – evidencing a double whammy of poor nurturing and bad genetics – it was almost remarkable how utterly Jimmy failed to arouse any empathy or trust. He had spent five years in prison for drug offenses, fraud, and grand theft. But was he capable of whacking the old broad? Anyone is capable of whacking anyone, Shimmel believed, given the right motives or circumstances. We share ninety-eight percent of our DNA with murderous chimpanzees, he always reminded himself. What does that tell you? Finding a motive was the next step.
“How did you and Ms. Gebel get along?” he asked.
“She thought I was evil,” Jimmy stated flatly.
“Evil?” Shimmel said. It wasn’t the first word that came to mind regarding Jimmy. Scumbag, junkie, drag on society – these terms applied themselves more readily. He sighed. It could have been any one of these deadbeats, or none of them. The neighbourhood brought to mind the phrases third world and war zone. Violent death was a commonplace. Detective Shimmel had seen so much of it, the sight of blood aroused no more emotion in him than a little spilled milk.
“Yeah, she never thought much of me. But she always cooked and cleaned no matter what. For all of us. She was a tough old broad and tight as a warden, but imagine running a joint like this? Look, I’m no St. Francis of Assisi, but I had no reason to off Ms. Gebel. I’m still here, ain’t I? Whose gonna cook me breakfast now? Think of that. And that goes for the rest of the executives who live here. Unless…”
“I know she was old as the hills, but was she, you know, interfered with?”
This hadn’t even occurred to the detective. “Hm. Good question,” he said. “We’ll know more after the autopsy.”
“Well, that would be pretty disgusting, boss. I don’t even wanna think about such a thing. She was like everyone’s hard-ass grandma, you know. But some people are animals. Actually, that’s doing animals a disservice. I met enough of these bastards in the joint. Not all of them are locked up, though, that’s the problem. The biggest creeps are still out there, stalking their victims, doing their dark thing. What a world, eh? Is that all?”
What a world is right, thought Detective Shimmel. “Don’t stray too far, Jimmy. I’m not quite done with you yet. I may have a few more questions, depending on the autopsy.”
“Oh, damn. I was thinking of hitting Saint Tropez for a few weeks. Guess I’ll have to put that on hold for now. My travel agent will be right pissed.”
“Just don’t disappear, smart guy.”
“Actually, I have this tub of vanishing cream -”
“Enough. Save the jokes for your stand up act.”
“Speaking of which, buddy, Detective – am I free to do some open mic stuff? There’s this comedy club in the east end, Mr. Chuckles. Every Tuesday night they have an open mic. It’s funny you said stand up, ha, because I’ve actually been thinking about it. Seriously. Joey Diaz made it big, and he’s a total criminal. Dudes in the joint thought I was hilarious. Saved me from beatings and being a bitch, you know. I’m good with the bits. I mean, I’m getting better. Like, did you ever hear the one about -”
Shimmel shook his head. “Another time, Jimmy. And if this comedy club serves alcohol, forget about it.”
“Aw, such a buzz killer.”
“Just stay home and stay out of trouble. ”
“And you know what, boss, when I make it big you’ll say, I knew that I guy, I knew that fucking guy. And if I ever see you in the street I’ll say hey man, what up? I won’t be a rooster about my success, not me. I’m not going to be one of those pricks…”
Jimmy kept talking as the detective exited the rooming house. A brisk forensics team had arrived, all business, as well as an ambulance. The body still lay in the kitchen, covered by a blanket, blood from the crushed head oozing all over the yellow linoleum. Bits of skull and brain matter stuck to a steel meat mallet Shimmel had found on the kitchen counter identified it as the murder weapon. What a way to go, he thought with a shudder, though it wasn’t the worst he had seen, not by a long shot. The dismembered priest came to mind, pieces of him found all over the city. His head turned up at a downtown haberdashery, in a hat box, wrapped with blood-soaked tissue paper. Eventually, they managed to fit him back together like a grisly jigsaw puzzle. A man the padre had sexually abused as a child had meted out a savage and colourful revenge.
As Shimmel climbed into his unmarked cruiser, his almost utter lack of emotion troubled him. Each time he ran into something horrible like this, he reacted a little more coldly. It was one thing to maintain a professional distance, but he felt nothing for poor Ms. Gebel and this seemed wrong. He wondered how long he could continue doing this job before completely losing his moral and psychological bearings. And never mind therapy. Who the hell had time for therapy? And for any decent therapy, you’d be dishing out of your own pocket. Alimony and child support kept him just above poverty, and thoughts of cashing out his pension monies and just splitting arose perhaps more often than they should have, given that he loved his two kids, Mercy and Stefano, and didn’t want to leave them hanging or further disrupt their lives. After twenty years doing this ghoulish job, he wondered if he still had any normal transferable skills.
He drove to Bayside, near the local yacht club – rows of bobbing yachts covered with tarps and anchored for the coming winter – and parked the cruiser in an empty lot by the water. He muted his cellphone and two-way, switched on the radio, and found a jazz station – Bill Evans tinkling the ivories, very soothing. He then removed an ornate silver cigarette case from his inner jacket pocket, opened it, and selected a plump joint from the five he had rolled that morning in his flat. This was his therapy.
The cigarette case had been appropriated from a mafioso he’d pinched for murdering a shortchanging cabdriver in broad daylight. Poor guy had five kids. Never pays to be a petty thief, but losing your life for it seemed harsh. But the world was harsh, ha. Did one even need to point that out? Wasn’t it baked in?
Shimmel rolled down the window and lit the joint with a silver Zippo lighter – also lifted from the mafioso – that set it ferociously ablaze. Jesus Christ! he cried, pursing his lips and blowing out the flame before it charred the joint completely. The little moment made his heart race and his hands shake and he took a few seconds to gather himself. Then he hauled on the joint and blew the smoke out the window. Fighting off an urge to cough, he held the joint in his left hand and kept it poised it near the sideview mirror. He didn’t want too much smoke seeping into the cruiser. Not that it mattered. He had it booked for the next forty-eight hours, often a decisive window in a murder investigation. He planned to look into a few nebulous leads after he stopped at a restaurant and noshed something. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was running on fumes. The joint would hone his appetite and free up his thoughts. He filled his lungs with smoke again and, with the delicate accompaniment of Bill Evans, began to feel the onset of the indica buzz, heavy, warm, and euphoric.
A white van with white-walled tires and spoked rims pulled into the parking lot and inched toward the cruiser, unhurried, the driver and passenger bearded and stone-faced. The windows were rolled up, but Shimmel could hear a bass-heavy beat thumping inside the van. He tried to conceal the joint by holding it near the sideview mirror, but he didn’t really care if these clowns saw it. What were they going to do, arrest him? Go fuck yourself, he thought. Fucking creepers. Probably can’t make up their minds where to park. That’s how it is with too many choices. Let’s see what these hombres are up to – I’m betting no good, Shimmel thought, but no need to prejudge. It’s always easy to find trouble if you look for it. He watched the van slowly pass the cruiser and park at the far end of the lot, next to a shuttered concession stand. The driver killed the engine. No one exited the van.
Shimmel took a few more hauls of the joint and let the roach drop by the side of the cruiser. He immediately spritzed the interior with a powerful pine air freshener that made his eyes and nostrils burn. Then he popped a blue mint, rattled it around his teeth, and crushed it between his molars. He popped another mint, pushed back the car seat, and leaned his head against the head rest. The bay water looked oily and gray. Being this close to steel mills for almost a century will do that. On previous rest stops here, Shimmel had actually seen people fishing those toxic waters. God knows what monstrosities they caught, if anything.
His buzz intensified and everything around him took on a languid, welcoming ambience not present before he smoked the weed. Reality hadn’t changed, but his perception of it had. The music tinkled like a distant wind chime – was it still Bill Evans? Was it real, this thing, this moment? He breathed deeply and the act felt amazing. Breathing, breathing, filling your lungs with life-sustaining air. Was there anything more essential?
Low and seamless clouds slid over the bay. A heavy metal storm had been forecast; there it was, setting up its strobe lights and speakers. Gulls cawed and the sound reminded Shimmel of his childhood. He had lived on Bayfront, not far from the water, with his mother. His father died when he was a toddler so his mother had raised him on her own. She passed away two years ago after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He thought about her with a touch of guilt. He’d never really mourned her. She hadn’t been herself for a decade. He thought it merciful she passed when she did, but he never shed a tear for her and felt nothing inside. How was that possible? After all she had sacrificed to raise him on her own, he couldn’t shed a single tear? Had he grown so calloused that he couldn’t mourn his loving, long-suffering mother? And yet, despite this, he believed he had not been a bad son. He had put her in a good home. He had visited when he could, even though she had stopped recognizing him after the first year. Ma, he’d say, it’s me, your son. It’s me. But she was gone. And maybe he resented her a little for disappearing so quickly, even though she could hardly be blamed for it.
He glanced at the van and saw white smoke billowing from the windows. Now he understood. The lads figured they were safe blowing a doob in the parking lot, even with a narc in the vicinity, and they were. Weed was legal, anyway. Well, not driving and smoking weed. He could bust them for that, no? He could handcuff them and arrest their sorry asses. You know, play the heavy, make a big scene. Not bloody likely! He burst into laughter, holding his stomach. He glanced in the rearview and saw that his eyes were wrecked. This made him laugh harder. He couldn’t believe how high he was. These new strains of weed were through the roof. He’d have to wait some time to drive. And he had no sweets or soda pops in the cruiser, nothing to jack up the blood sugar and bring him down a little.
Lightning crackled across the bay. Moments later thunder rumbled. Rain started splatting the windshield. At first a few fat drops, then the skies opened up. Shimmel switched on the defogger to keep his windows from steaming up. As he did he noticed a dark stain on the back of his left hand that he hadn’t noticed before. He switched on the interior light and saw with some relief that it was nothing but a little dried blood. Maybe some had rubbed off on his hand when he was examining the body or the meat mallet. The top of Ms. Gebel’s head had been beaten completely soft and flat, a cleft on the forehead exposing the pinky-grey brain, one of the eyes detached from its socket and dangling by a nerve or vein over the collapsed cheek. The killer had fully tenderized her head with that mallet, Shimmel thought with a mirthless smile. He fished through his jacket pocket and produced a wad of tissue paper. He spit on the tissue and tried to clean the dried blood off his hand. It wasn’t coming off that easily.
His mouth was so dry now he couldn’t produce enough spit to do a thorough job. So he rolled down the window, stuck out his hand, and let the rain wash it off.