By Hugh Lessig
A Picasso Smith Story
Wallace Random got shellshocked at Iwo Jima, and he came home wide-eyed and full of secrets.
He took government checks and wrote letters to his Aunt Tot in Eugene, Oregon, whom I suspected did not exist. He spent his nights drinking sasperella at The Chinaman’s Tooth, a bar for reporters, stevedores and the occasional preening galoot from City Hall who wanted to slum with the unwashed. Two months after he came home, Wallace Random began to predict the future.
It started with the horse races, and I was there to see it. He didn’t check the newspaper to see who was running. He didn’t do anything except stare into the bubbly recesses of his sasperella and yell out the winner:
“Prickly Heat in the fourth race at Bayside Downs! Bank on it!”
I laughed and tipped my hat and bought Wallace another round of sasperella. Just for shits and giggles, I put five bucks on Prickly Heat the next morning. She won going away in the mud, and word got around. I guess that was my fault.
From then on, whenever Wallace Random yelled out a tip, the conversation stopped. Beer mugs clonked down. Reporters fumbled for notebooks and pencils. If someone missed the tip — if they were sitting on the throne or playing pool — that was too bad. According to an unwritten rule, tips from Wallace Random could not be shared. They were considered sacred, like words from an oracle.
We didn’t make a lot of money, but we made some. As it turned out, Wallace Random was never wrong. We could have bet our paychecks and retired, but we didn’t know that at the time. We thought he had some kind of lucky streak going, and who knows when a lucky streak will end?
One night — it was a Tuesday — I leaned against the bar for another beer. Wallace sat on the next stool with his sasperella.
“Hey Mr. Smith,” he said. “Waitin’ for suds?”
We had this thing going now. “That’s right, Wallace. I’m waiting for my suds. Got any good tips for me? I haven’t made page one in a week.”
“Page one tip, coming up,” he said.
“Really? Let’s have it then.”
He let go of his mug and folded his thick hands on the bar. He looked at me with those beagle brown eyes. He spoke very softly:
“Edna Mae O’Rourke dies tomorrow night. Icepick in the chest. Bank on it.”
I paid for my beer and walked away. As I did, a voice came from somewhere. I figured it was the same voice that spoke to Wallace. You’re at a crossroads here, it said. Wallace just told you something — not anyone else — just you. And now you’re walking away with a beer in your hand pretending that nothing just happened.
I sat down and drank half my beer. When I looked up again, Wallace Random had left the bar. I didn’t know where he lived. I didn’t know how to find him. The darker part of my nature suggested that all lucky streaks come to an end, and if not, who is Edna Mae O’Rourke and why should anyone care?
The next night came, and everyone cared about Edna Mae O’Rourke.
She was 45 years old, and she lived at the end of a rowhome. She lost her husband at Bastogne in 1944. She was childless. The neighborhood kids ran through her house to get cookies and popsicles. She threw parties on their birthdays to stay one step ahead of her grief. People remembered her unwashed apron and red, calloused hands.
A cabbie found her three blocks from home just after midnight. She was in an unlit alley, standing against a telephone pole, eyes frozen open, already going stiff. A 14-inch icepick had been inserted into the lower half of her heart. It came out the other end and embedded itself into the wooden pole.
The killer had untied her apron and retied it around the pole. He had taken a smaller ligature and tied it around her neck, so her head was relatively level. Between the icepick and the apron and the ligature, she stood up straighter than someone walking out of church. It is entirely possible that people strolled by her in the shadows, figuring she was taking a rest, and nodded out of respect.
I had worked up a nasty buzz by the time the call came.
It was 1 a.m. The paper had gone to bed and I had been at the bar. My boss wanted 20 column inches that could jump off page one and kill inside, next to the grocery ads. I had to file by 5 a.m. to make the newsstands for the afternoon edition.
I drove out in my Ford and parked half a block from the crowd. I opened the window and listened to the street noise. Normally I come onto murders like your worst nephew in a candy store. I want to know happened. I want to know how it happened. I want to know who is crying, who is watching, who might know something. I want, I want, I want.
But there I sat in my car, unable to get past the dim reflection of myself in the windshield. Seconds turned into minutes. I forced my hand onto the door handle and pushed, but the door wouldn’t open. I pushed harder, but it seemed I had no strength.
“Going somehwere, bub?”
The sweaty weight of a man pushed against my door and spilled through the open window. It had a badge and it smelled like half-decent scotch. The badge said Captain Barnes.
The big man stepped away and allowed me to exit the car. We locked gazes for a second or two. His eyes recommended that I get back in the car. I don’t know what my eyes said.
“I’m Picasso Smith,” I said. “My paper sent me here for the murder.”
“I’m thrilled. All of my problems are solved.”
I tried again. “I don’t believe we’ve met. You must be the new precinct captain. I heard they were getting one.”
“My name is Rottweiler Barnes. I am the new precinct captain. I don’t want to be here. I enjoy making trouble for the likes of you. I carry a loaded gun and I’ve shot three people whom I hated less than I already hate you. Just so we understand each other.”
He hunched up his suit coat and lumbered towards the crowd. I counted to three and began to follow. He counted to 10 and turned around. “Are you following me, Mr. Smith?”
“Yes sir, but at a respectful distance. I believe you just let loose a fart, and I don’t want my cigarette to catch a gas jet, because it would crawl straight up your ass, and that would ruin a good cigarette. By the way, may I call you Rott?”
He looked at me the way a child looks at a fly just before pulling off its wings. “You’re a funny man,” he snarled.
We walked together up to the crowd. Barnes pushed through the people and bent under the tape. He moved gracefully for a big man. I could tell he had been in shape for most of his life. I followed him under the tape. I saw where the corpse stood, then I saw the face of Edna Mae O’Rourke. The coroner had done nothing to her. No one had even closed her eyes. I heard what sounded like a laugh, and turned around to see Barnes gritting his teeth in a smile.
“She’s looking at you, Smith. I think she likes you.”
“Any suspects, chief?”
“Go climb up my ass. I don’t talk to reporters.”
I started to work the crowd. Asking questions and taking notes has always proved to be my tonic. Maybe it’s like anything else: the routine of work comforts people. But the more people I talked to, the sicker I got.
A large dumpy man was seen.
He had a funny grin.
Seen near the murder right before it happened.
A real funny grin.
Big, wet eyes.
Never saw him in the neighborhood before. Didn’t belong here.
Some big Georgie-Porgie. Didn’t have a car.
Walked like he hadn’t a care in the world. People don’t walk that way at night around here.
Then again, perhaps it was not a grin.
The last observation came from an old woman who lived three doors down. Her name was Hazel Nutt, and she had been a nurse at a children’s hospital for 43 of her 78 years. She was the kind of woman who sensed pain, and I wondered if she sensed mine.
“What makes you think it wasn’t a grin?” I asked her. “I don’t rightly know if I can put it into words,” she said. Her gnarled hand clutched a Rosary. Her lower lip trembled. She stood on the cusp of true old age, but for now she possessed the gift of clarity that the elderly have. I knew that. I think she knew it, too.
“If he wasn’t smiling, what was he doing then?”
“I’m pretty sure he was crying,” she said. “Just crying his eyes out to beat the band.”
“Do you think this man might have killed Mrs. O’Rourke?”
She turned over the possibility and finally shook her head. “This is rough neighborhood, Mr. Smith. There’s guns and dope, and people can kill at the drop of a hat. You know that, I suspect.”
“I looked at this man — the one I’m talking about now — and I pitied him.
Just a man walking under my window. Now why would I do that? I don’t know the answer, but I know he wasn’t a killer.”
I went back to the newsroom and filed 20 column inches by 5 a.m. The cop editor had a couch in his office, so I curled up there amid cigarette burns and old newspapers. The next time I opened my eyes, it was 10 a.m.
I got up and walked across the street to The Tooth. It had opened early to catch the drunks coming off the graveyard shift, and now Woo, the owner, was wiping down the bar. Woo was all right. The morning crowd looked a little rugged.
“Mr. Smith. You’re in early.” Woo eyed me with something resembling suspicion. “Something wrong? You look like hell.”
“Just had a murder, Woo. Get me some coffee, willya? And some eggs.” Woo set coffee in front of me. He cracked a couple of eggs with one hand and dropped them on the griddle, yolks unbroken. He put in some toast without me having to ask. Then he said, “I thought you enjoyed murders, Mr. Smith. Why the face?” So it was that obvious.
“This is a hard one, Woo. Say, do you know where Wallace Random lives?”
“He’s connected with your murder?” Woo said that just a little too fast for my tastes.
“That’s a helluva thing to say about one of your customers. I just wanted to… thank him.” My stomach churned around a fat lie. “He gave me a good tip last night.”
“Sometimes he sweeps up around the place. I send his paycheck to an address– oh, maybe 10 blocks from here. Belmot section. A row of brownstones.” Woo smiled. He was being too cooperative. Something was going on here. He wrote down the address and gave it to me. I took one look and knew it wasn’t legit. Upscale brownstones with tree-lined sidewalks did not admit people who lived on government checks, even if they did fight at Iwo Jima.
I ate my eggs and drank my coffee. I gave Woo a two-dollar tip on a three-dollar breakfast and walked out. I strode purposefully down the sidewalk, turned the corner and doubled back through an alley. The back of The Tooth faced the water — a short inlet that emptied off the Bay. He had a deck with a few tables out there, but it would be deserted at this hour.
I walked up onto the rear deck and into the pool room. An old geezer played by himself. I had him seen a million times, or maybe it was another old geezer who resembled him. I asked if he had just seen Woo.
“Yeah,” the man said. “Went upstairs. He’s got some kind of squirrel up his ass today.”
The staircase was in the kitchen. I slipped into the main room, went behind the bar and walked into the kitchen like I owned it. One of Woo’s cooks stared into a sinkful of dirty dishes. I tipped my hat and walked up the stairs, which ran up to the left. The stairs led to an attic where Woo stored everything from kegs of beer to No. 10 cans of sauerkraut.
Woo stood in the corner. He was talking to Wallace Random.
An attic window gave them a full view of the street. Our newspaper office stood across the street. It had large windows with venetian blinds and gold-flake lettering. On the second floor, I saw my editor, Lazarus Flint. He sat at his desk and stared idly toward the newsroom. He probably wondered what I was doing right now. This business sometimes, who would think?
I walked halfway across the attic floor. I took long strides and landed purposefully on the balls of my feet. I didn’t make a sound. “That’s not true,” Woo was saying. “Don’t twist my words. I didn’t say you had to get out.”
“You said to come clean.” said Wallace. He had been crying.
“Something is going on with you,” Woo said. “Mr. Smith from The Foil was just in here. He’s writing about a murder and he was asking about you. I fed him a story because I like you, and you deserve a break, and because you killed the Japanese who raped my country. But that won’t last forever.”
“I killed Japs,” Wallace said. “That I did.”
“Did you kill anyone else?”
I harrumphed as loud as I could. Woo jumped like someone just shot him. Wallace scrambled around on the floor and came up with a M-1 Garand pointed in the general vicinity of my chest. I stepped from the shadows with a smile pasted on my face. “Sorry to disturb you,” I said. “But the door was open.”
“Jesus, Smith! Don’t pull stuff like that!” Woo smoothed his apron.
“Wallace, put that gun down. There’ll be no shooting in here.” He was back to being a bartender again. “I don’t want any trouble, Smith. But if you’re here to do a story . . . “
“Now Woo,” I interrupted. “I’m always here to do a story.”
“You didn’t go to the brownstone, did you?”
“No, Woo. I didn’t.”
“I don’t ususually lie, you know.”
“I know. I also know Wallace was about to say something that might get you into trouble. You’re not in trouble now — not as far as the police are concerned. And what you don’t know won’t hurt you — at least it shouldn’t. Now why don’t you go back to your customers and let me take over?”
Woo eyed me. He eyed Wallace. Then he shrugged his shoulders walked toward the attic door. “Don’t be too long up here,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “And don’t move anything. I got heavy kegs up here. I don’t want to hear any crashing noises.”
“Don’t worry, Woo.”
Woo trudged down the stairs. Wallace set his gun aside and stared out the window. I got out my notebook and hunkered down on the floor next to him. We looked at the street together. The smell of bacon grease and coffee wafted up from The Tooth, mingling with the aroma of aged beer from the kegs. On the sidewalk, a street vendor parked his cart on the corner and pulled out fat loaves of bread. The hard sun hit people in the eyes.
“It’s going to be a nice day,” I said.
Wallace said nothing. He seemed to be watching the street vendor. Or maybe he was looking past him at something else.
“Running only makes it worse,” I whispered.
“I never run.” Wallace looked at me. “I never run from anyone.”
“Then what’re you doing up here? Last night, you tell me Edna Mae O’Rourke is going to die. You tell me how. And a few hours later she turns up dead exactly the way you described. Furthermore. people who live near the murder scene talked of a man who resembled your description. One old woman said it looked like you were crying.”
“I was crying.”
“Because you killed Edna Mae O’Rourke and you were sorry? I got nothing against you, Wallace, but I’m telling you right now. It’s best to come clean with something like this. Maybe you could cut a deal. What with your condition and all.”
Wallace seemed to find this funny. “Yop,” he said. “I got a condition all right.”
“Did you kill Edna Mae O’Rourke?”
“She never closed her eyes,” he answered. “Not once during the whole time.”
“Did you kill her?”
“And she didn’t say a word, neither. That was something. Didn’t scream or cry out for help. I seen lots of people die. Usually they scream or they cry out for help — if they got the time. She had the time. But she didn’t say nothing.”
“Dammit, Wallace! Did you kill her or not?”
The big man turned and smiled at me. Then he got up off the floor and walked over to a big barrel. He hiked up his pants and pulled himself on top of it. The floor groaned ominously. The barrel was labled “SASPERELLA SYRUP: 200 lbs. gross wt.”
He patted the barrel and said: “Right now, I’m in heaven. You can print that, Mr. Smith.”
“That’s nice Wallace, but . . . “
“You can print everything I just told you. It was all on the record.”
That stood up me up. I didn’t think Wallace was smart enough to know what ‘on the record’ meant, or to even know he was talking to me for a story. “The record is full of holes,” I said. “To hear you tell it, it’s clear you saw Edna Mae O’Rourke die, but you won’t say what happened. You won’t confess, and you won’t say if someone else did it. That creates more questions than answers. And you might as well tell me. If we run a story and say you’re holed up here in the attic at The Chinaman’s Tooth, the cops’ll find you.”
“I didn’t say I was holed up in the attic, Mr. Smith. I said I was in heaven. You can print what I said. That can be our agreement.”
“Why are you in heaven, Wallace?”
“Because I like sasperella, and it’s all around me. That’s a quote. You go write yourself a story, why don’t ya? But I never told you I was at The Tooth, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t say that.”
He patted the barrel. I straightened my hat. Across the street, Lazarus Flint stared out the window. He would be looking for me in a couple of hours. He would wonder what new dope I scared up on the murder.
It was no use to run.
Lazarus Flint and I argued behind a closed door for the better part of 20 minutes. My pitch was as simple as it was ridiculous: Write a story naming Wallace Random as a person who had seen the death of Edna Mae O’Rourke, who had, in fact, predicted her death, but wasn’t saying if he did it, or if he saw someone else do it. And by the way, he says he’s in heaven, but we can’t say where that is.
Flint grabbed his glass ashtray and wound up for a throw. I scampered to a neutral corner. The ashtray hit the wall and three weeks’ worth of old cigar ashes filled the room.
“Dammit, Smith! See what you made me do?”
Flint opened his window. As he toook a breath of air, he saw Wallace Random in the attic window of The Tooth. Flint, who is too old to be doing most things, leaned far over the sill and shook his first. “You white-eyed hoodoo! You’re the cause of all this! You and a good-for-nothing scribe who doesn’t know a murderer when he sees one! Heaven, huh? I’ll heaven you right in the head.”
Wallace smiled and waved back. I grabbed my boss before he fell onto the sidewalk.
“I’m feeling pretty bad about this, boss,” I said. “Wallace was trying to tell me something last night and I missed it. But now I found him and it’s starting to feel like a murder again. Somehow I got a feeling it’ll turn out. I want to write the story just the way Wallace told me.”
Flint smoldered for a few seconds. Then he turned around and closed the window. “You have 45 minutes to make deadline,” he hissed. “Not that you ever do.”
Exactly 48 minutes later, my story was in a pneumatic tube on its way to the typesetters in the back shop. Flint sent it on without changing too many words. Not that he ever does.
The story hit the racks at three. I ate dinner at The Tooth at five. Rottweiler Barnes was blowing diesel breath on my neck at six, fists clenched, eyeballs pinpricked with rage, waiting for me to finish a wad of meatloaf with onion gravy.
“Might we have a chat, Mr. Smith?” His heavy hand rested on my shoulder. It trembled ever so slightly, like a huge generator thrumming under the floorboards of a factory.
“About a certain man who killed a certain woman last night with an icepick, and about a certain reporter who knows said man and did nothing, even after said man predicted the murder.”
“I’m a newspaperman, not a reporter,” I said around wad of meatloaf. “To be more precise, we call ourselves Foilers.”
“You’ll be calling yourself for dinner at Alcatraz pretty soon. If you covered up for this guy, you’re as guilty as the hand that held the icepick.”
I looked at my hand. “Funny, it don’t look guilty.”
The stool next to me groaned as Barnes settled his weight onto it. He hunkered forward with both elbows and motioned for coffee. It came in a very small cup, or maybe it just looked that way when he curled his hand around it.
“I really like newspapermen,” he said quietly. “I know everyone wants to shove a two-by-four up your giggy because they blame you for all that goes wrong, but people still keep reading your stories and feeding you stuff because they want you to twist the other guy’s balls a little. Am I right?”
“That’s funny, captain. Yesterday you wanted to shoot me.”
“Look Smith, I’m hard up for this icepick guy. That Edna Mae O’Rourke? I knew her. Her husband had just started out on the beat when he got drafted, and she’s still in the FOP Ladies’ Auxiliary. Look at this.”
He dug into his pockets and pulled out a crumpled square of green paper. “I bought these raffle tickets off her just the other day. That’s the kind of dame she was. She’d do anything for the precinct, for the kids in the neighborhood. You know her husband got killed in France?”
“Bastogne,” I said. “Battle of the Bulge.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. I seen her around the station house just last Christmas. She’d bring in toys for the Police Drive. Armfuls and armfuls.
Always duck her head in and say ‘hi.’ She’d come by four, five times during Christmas Week. I don’t where she got the toys. But sh’d always duck in and say ‘hi.'” Something in his eyes changed right then.
“And what did you do?” I asked.
I waited for him to cuff me, but his eyes turned weaker and wetter. “I’d just nod my head and see her on her way. You know. Just . . . . “
He let that possibility trail off and let out a heavy sigh. I watched him play with his coffee cup. Fire alarms started going off in my head. I saw Rottweiler Barnes with his big feet propped up on his desk, watching Edna Mae O’Rourke walk down the hall, turning a toothpick over and over in his mouth. The raffle ticket had a date. It was more than six months old. He had bought a raffle ticket and kept it in his pocket all this time.
“She walked alone at night,” he said. “Something was going to happen to her. You could see it.” His trembling hand curled around the coffee cup but did not pick it up.
“That’s an interesting observation, chief. By the way, the person I wrote about did not confess to that crime. He may have just witnessed it. You should have read the story more carefully.”
“Oh I read the story carefully,” he said. “I read every word. To the point where I know where he is.”
I exhaled softly and kept my voice straight. “How’s that, chief?”
“You said he was in heaven, right? And you said he was sitting on top of a keg of sasperella at the time he said that, right? That was a nice touch. Do you know how many places in San Francisco keep kegs of sasperella on hand?”
“I can’t say that I do, chief.”
“There’s only one warehouse that stocks it. And soda fountains don’t go for sasperella any more. They’re into root beer. Sasperella is too old-fashioned. In fact, according to shipping manifests, there’s only one establishment in the city that orders whole kegs of sasperella on a consistent basis.”
I folded my hands on top of the bar. “Then you don’t need me.”
“Not right now,” he said. “But I will. Stick around, Smith. You did me a favor writing that story. Now you’re going to get a scoop. I won’t even arrest you — much.”
He slid off the stool with surprising ease and walked behind the bar. Woo had gone into the kitchen. Barnes looked that way. He looked up at the ceiling. The Tooth had no storage shed, and it sure as hell didn’t have a cellar this close to the water. As Barnes made for the kitchen door, I began to follow. His houndog ears pricked up as soon as my heels hit the floor.
He spoke to me without turning around. “Smith, if you follow me, I will shoot your balls off.”
A 45-caliber had found its way into his hand. Barnes disappeared through the kitchen door. It took a few minutes before his clunky footsteps sounded on the back stairs that led to the attic. The noise stopped at the top of the stairs. I started to count. One thousand one. One thousand two. The clunk began 10 seconds later. Just one step at first. Then another.
I saw Wallace Random on the far side of the attic. He had no particular expression on his face. Cop shoes moved across the attic floor. They came to the corner where I imagined Wallace was standing, where I left him yesterday. It struck me that if Lazarus Flint looked out his window right now, he could probably write the story himself.
The attic floorboards groaned. A knot of people came through the front door. They had made an early start of it. One woman braced her knees and leaned forward until she stopped at the bar. She looked around for a bartender. She was a stupid, inexperienced drunk and I thought she deserved whatever she got.
The floorboards groaned again. Woo’s words came back to me. Don’t move around. I got a lot of heavy kegs up here.. I nodded toward the stupid woman and gauged her proximity to the groaning. No voice told me what to do, but went ahead and did it anyway.
“Ma’am,” I said politely. “You might want to move.”
She acted like she heard swahili Then several gunshots sounded from the attic. The knot of party-goers screamed. The woman rushed into my arms. Woo burst in from the kitchen and gave me a stare that asked if I knew what the bejeezus was happening. The woman belched in my ear and asked if she got any on me. The gunshots came impossibly fast, too fast for any gun, fast enough for splintering wood.
Captain Rottweiler Barnes fell through the ceiling about that time.
He landed head-first on the bar. He bounced up. Almost graceful. No expression on his face. He landed on the floor and rolled. As he did, a gout of blood burst from his abdomen. He screamed once and fell silent. The woman passed out in my arms. I let her drop.
Woo went for a mop.
Wallace Random peered down from the hole in the ceiling and waved.
I looked at the body. An icepick protruded from the stomach.
“It was his,” Wallace called down.
“That figures,” I said.
It came together without much help.
The medical examiner determined that Barnes had stuffed the ice pick in his waistband. Between the fall and the hard landing, it twisted around enough to do the job. Wallace’s prints were not on it. When they checked Barnes’ prints against the icepick that killed Mrs. O’Rourke, it sealed matters pretty good.
Over the next few days, people started coming forward with stories.
Barnes blocked her way in the hall whenever she visited the station with her toys.
No one could say anything. They’d lose their jobs.
She would run from the station red-faced and silent.
Helluva thing, how he got when she came around.
Used to call her from the station. Order flowers. Finally got himself transferred to her neighborhood.
That brought it to a head. Evidently, he couldn’t take rejection.
I got Page One play four days straight. By then it was the weekend and people had stopped caring. I found myself at The Tooth drinking away another Saturday night, eying who might be coming in and who might be leaving. Woo kept them coming and he didn’t charge me. The publicity had increased business fourfold.
“You know something, Woo?”
“No, Mr. Smith. I don’t know anything.” He smiled just barely.
“Whenver you want a woman to come jumping into your arms, it never happens. It only happens when a cop is about to fall from the ceiling, and when that’s going on, you don’t have time to make conversation.”
Woo nodded thoughtfully. “I never saw a cop bounce like that. What about you, Wallace?”
Wallace Random sat at his usual stool drinking his usual sasperella. He shook his head back and forth and said nothing.
“Mr. Random has had a difficult week,” I said. “Make sure he doesn’t have to buy any more sasperella tonight. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn’t drink Coke.”
“Coke make you rich!” Wallace yelled. “Bank on it.”
“That’s good Wallace,” I yelled. “We’ll all invest in soda pop.” Then I took out my notebook and scrawled a reminder, just in case.
Copyright (c) 1999 Hugh Lessig.