Smooth, by Nick Young
Photo by Raphael Lopes on Unsplash
The dirtiest deeds are always done by night, are they not? The acts that men want to remain in the shadows, their nature too vile, too depraved for the light of day. The deeds that bring shame, that promise ruin, that no man would want another man, not one of any decency, to know. Those are the deeds shrouded in darkness.
It had been raining most of the pre-dawn hours — squalls, driven by fitful winds which whipped and moaned under the elevated tracks. Light sifted through the morning mist, falling between the skyscrapers and onto pavement that reflected a dirty, oily sheen. The street lamps cast a dull glow. A world in shades of gray. Even the nine-to-fives hustling along the sidewalks looked like they had all the color washed out of them.
It was that kind of Monday.
And my mood matched it. Not that I felt a big letdown because the weekend had been a dizzying whirl of soirées with a glamorous blonde on my arm. That was somebody else’s life.
Mine was a bit less scintillating. The highlights?
On Saturday there had been the lunch-counter stop at Kresge’s where, thanks to the astute recommendation of my favorite waitress, I had dined on the day’s special — an open-face hot roast beef sandwich with extra gravy and two sides. Tasty enough and filling. And, along with a couple of cups of passable joe, at a buck-fifty, you couldn’t shake a stick at it.
Three blocks away, I was just in time for the matinee at the Royale. Citizen Kane it wasn’t. Instead, a wild West potboiler. Six-guns and Audie Murphy. But with the newsreel, a cartoon and one or two forgettable “coming attractions,” it was good enough to kill a couple of hours.
Around the corner, I dropped in at the neighborhood smoke shop for a fresh carton of Pall Malls. Then it was back to my third-floor flat for a supper of warmed-over chow mein rescued from the icebox before it turned into a science experiment.
The rest of the evening I spent with Mingus on the tune set in the company of my favorite relative — Old Grand-Dad.
As for Sunday, well, not much remained by the time I came around and, I have even less to say about it.
So, back to Monday.
As I sat smoking in my office on the fifth floor of the Andiron Building, I reflected on my situation. Looking down at the street through the dirty rivulets of rainwater that had streaked the window, I felt a twinge of envy for the scurrying figures below. Regular jobs, regular hours, regular paychecks. Thirty years and out the door with a “bon voyage” and a gold watch, off to join the shuffleboard set at Happy Valley.
These moments weren’t new to me. They’d come before, and they always passed quickly. I'd done fifteen years of regular as a beat cop and a homicide detective. That was plenty enough regular. So, pushing the high side of thirty-five, I rolled the dice and walked away. No more kowtowing to the brass. No more punching a time clock. I would do it my way. Not always a smooth sail, but it was my way, the only way I ever wanted it from here out.
As I took a last drag of my smoke, the inner office door swung open and Doris swung in. Tasteful white polka dots on navy blue rayon. Nice dress. Just right for the July heat. And, like everything Doris wore, it fit her tight five-three frame to a tee.
With a blonde bob haircut and blue eyes, she was still girlish at twenty-eight. But make no mistake — she was no kid. Not the way she handled herself. When she wasn’t cracking wise, she was working on a stick of Wrigley’s. Juicy Fruit. Damned good description of her rose-red lips, I thought. Not that the observation meant I had designs on her, mind you. Not that at all. Not my type, for one thing. For another, she had a very intense romance going with the maitre d’ of one of the city’s swankiest eateries across town. An Italian, with the oily good looks of Valentino and a temper like Vesuvius.
I had hired Doris on her references — efficient, trustworthy, professional. She was all of those, alright. The fact that she was a treat for the eye was icing on the cake. Especially when male clients came calling.
She entered bearing coffee, steamy wisps curlicuing up from a large white mug.
“Fresh from the pot,” she announced.
“Friday’s?” I said, stubbing out my cigarette. Doris stopped chewing her Wrigley’s long enough to cast a half-smile of derision my way. “I am badly in need.”
“I could tell,” she replied, as I took the mug from her.
“That obvious?” I said after the first sip.
“If you have to ask, what’s obvious is that you haven’t bothered to check a mirror lately.”
I set the mug down on the desk, slid open a large drawer and drew out pint of rye. Unscrewing the cap, I doused the coffee.
“It’s got to be noon somewhere,” I began.
“If we were in the Azores,” Doris shot back. Like many of her jibes, I ignored this one, choosing instead to shake a fresh cigarette from a half-empty pack on the desk, snap open my Zippo and light up, drawing a deep lungful of of smoke. “How was your weekend?” she asked. “Do anything exciting with Lana?”
“We did not.” My reply was curt and my look sour.
“Oooookay,” Doris replied. “I'll say no more.” There was a brief awkward moment before I cleared my throat.
“Sorry. Shouldn't bite your head off. The love life is rather a sore spot at the moment. “What about you and Alfredo?” I asked.
“Pietro, Drummond, Pietro.”
“Yeah, sure, Pietro. I was just pulling your pinky.”
“As a matter of fact, we had a lovely weekend. After he got off work Saturday night, he took me dancing at Club Maroc. And since yesterday was so beautiful, we went to the zoo.” I froze with the coffee mug at my lips, then lowered it slowly.
“You went to the zoo?”
“You and . . . Pietro?”
“Yes, Drummond — you know, the place with all the animals? The place where many of our clients belong?”
“Guess I didn’t figure you were the zoo type. Guess I figured you and lover boy would have spent your Sunday locked away, far from the madding crowd.” Doris smirked.
“In your fevered little brain.” With a smirk of my own, I turned my attention back to my coffee.
“My fevered little brain would like to know how the schedule looks today.”
“Let me think a moment,” Doris said, wrinkling her brow and tapping the side of her head in mock concentration. “Well, this morning you’re clear. Then this afternoon, there’s nothing until we lock up.” I leaned back in my swivel chair, drew on my cigarette, exhaled and regarded my secretary through a haze of smoke.
“When was the last time we had a client?”
“I believe Mr. Truman was still President.”
“A week. Maybe ten days. Since the Crawford bail bondsman business.” I rolled my eyes up toward the ceiling. “Not exactly cover material for True Detective," Doris continued. I snorted.
“Did we get paid?”
“The story of my life,” I said, finishing the last of the coffee and sliding the mug across the desk with an imploring look.
Doris swiped up the mug, and within a quick minute was back.
“You’re welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some filing to do.”
“Explain to me,” I began skeptically, “how you have filing to do when we haven’t had any clients beating down our door.” Doris smiled, raised a hand and wiggled her fingers.
“My nails, Drummond.” I had to shake my head. That one was too easy; I should have seen it coming.
Doris closed the door behind her, and once she did, I turned to the pressing matters at hand.
Pulling a ballpoint out of the desk drawer, I opened the morning paper to the crossword, folded the page, leaned back in my chair and got to work. It didn’t take long. Never did on Mondays when the clues weren’t very taxing — a four-letter word for “La Scala solo” — that kind of thing.
After I dispensed with the puzzle, it was off to the sports pages to peruse the box scores. It was my daily exercise in masochism, so poorly was my team playing. Halfway through the ’54 season, Stan Hack had the Cubs wallowing at the bottom of the National League barrel. And they had lost again the day before to the equally hapless Phillies.
Enough self-inflicted pain for one morning, so I laid the paper aside, threw one more look at the gloom out the window, then kicked back, put both feet on the desk, folded my hands and got down to what would turn out to be the most productive part of my morning. I closed my eyes and caught forty winks.
By just after noon I had come around and so had the weather - big sky scattered with dazzling white clouds, spun confections across an azure dome. With plenty of time on my hands, I decided that a stroll was in order, so I stretched and nipped my homburg off the coat rack.
“And you are going . . . ?” Doris asked as I stepped into the outer office.
“Out to get some lunch. What’s your pleasure -- I’m buying,” I replied.
“Well,” Doris began with mock surprise, “let me mark this event on the calendar.”
“If you’re going to be a wise-ass, I'll rescind my generous offer.”
“Oh, no, I'm deeply grateful. Really. But fetching food is one of my official duties isn’t it?”
“It is, but you’re relieved today. I need to perambulate. So what are you in the mood for?” Doris hesitated for only a moment.
“A little Greek, I think.” I arched my eyebrows.
“Better not let your big Italian find out,” I said reaching for the doorknob. Doris returned a wan smile and lifted a middle finger in my direction.
After a morning in the quiet and relative gloom of the office, the bright sunlight and noise hit me like a slap in the face when I stepped out into the street. I paused for a moment to let the warmth on my skin seep in and allow my ears to adjust to the cacophony.
My destination was Kriti, two blocks over, a humble hole in the wall with only room enough for couple of sorry tables and chairs and the stolid figure of Mother Elektra behind the counter. Still, it offered up the best Greek carry-out in the Loop.
Half-a-block away, my eye was caught by a display in the window of Gold’s, a bookshop I frequented, so I slipped in under the merry chime of the small brass bell attached above the door and picked up a copy of Ian Fleming’s latest James Bond adventure.
Paperback safely tucked inside my jacket, my stop at Kriti was a quick one, long enough to pick up two gyros, make a fruitless attempt at a joke with Mother Elektra, pay the dollar-sixty tab and get back to the office.
“Famished,” Doris said as I opened the brown paper bag and set the sandwich on her desk. “And did you remember --”
“Extra tzatziki? Do you think I’d dare return without it?” I replied, producing a small container with a flourish.
“Oooh, you’re good at this. Maybe you should make the lunch run every day.”
“I wouldn't get my hopes up,” I answered drily.
Inside my office, I quickly shrugged out of my jacket and loosened my tie. The day had turned hot and the room was stifling, so I pushed open the only window, set a small fan on the sill and turned it on. One of these days, if I ever make enough goddamned money, I’m going to buy myself an air conditioner, I groused to myself as I settled in behind the desk to eat my lunch and get caught up in 007’s newest intrigue. One bite and two pages in, the intercom buzzed.
“What is it, Doris?” I was slightly annoyed by the interruption.
“There’s a fellow on the line who says he knows you. He sounds real nervous.”
“He give you a name?”
“He said ’just tell him it’s Smooth.’ Mean anything to you?”
“It does. Put him through.” I reached for a crumpled handkerchief to blot the perspiration from my forehead. The fan seemed to shudder as it cut through the oppressive air. I slid a Pall Mall from the pack on the desktop and lit up, exhaling twin ribbons of smoke through my nose as I lifted the telephone off its cradle.
“This wouldn't be the city's best damned bass player, would it?”“We need to talk, Drummond.”
“Whoa, man -- not even a ’hello-I'm-fine-how-the-hell-are-you?’”
“Ain’t got time for that. We need to talk.”
“Okay, you got me, so talk.”
“Not on the phone.”
“Why don’t you come to the office?”
“Naw, man, I ain’t comin’ up there. Tonight, at the club, after the first set. We break about 11:30. And it’s gotta be tonight.”
And just like that, he hung up. I drew on my cigarette, frowning. Melvin “Smooth” Dobbins had earned his nickname, both for the way he played and how he carried himself. He was always so self-possessed, the most laid back cat in the room, and that was why I was troubled by his tone. Not the Smooth I knew. Whatever was up with him, it must be plenty serious.
Percy’s Hideaway wasn't on the tourist maps. Deep on the South Side at 79th and Cottage Grove, it was neither the place nor the neighborhood most folks would seek out. Not white folks, that is. But jazz aficionados knew all about Percy’s. To them, white or black, it was Mecca.
Mine was a familiar face at the club. During my time on the force, it was a haven where I could kick back, drink and get lost in the music. And I stayed a regular, making a special point to take in Smooth’s quartet whenever they were booked.
That night I arrived in time for the first set, ordered up a bourbon and water and settled in near the bandstand. It was a small room with a dozen or so tables. Intimate. I liked that.
Smooth’s combo, the Take Four, was solid as always, whether breathing fresh life into one of the standards or laying down original material. The house was full and appreciative, giving the musicians their due as they took their first break. Smooth wasted no time, approaching me with a hard face that bore no trace of its usual openness.
“Hey, man,” I began.
“Come with me. We ain't got much time.” He took the lead, behind the bandstand, down a dimly lit, narrow hallway past the dressing room to a staircase. We climbed to the second floor, then through a steel door leading out onto a fire escape. Once there, Smooth seemed to relax, but only a little, shaking out a cigarette. I did the same, lighting both our smokes.
“Never seen you tense like this,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Some serious shit, man.”
“Last night after the gig, I slipped up here, and while I’m smoking my j, the back door opens and Percy and two white dudes walk out and start talking. Now, they don’t know I’m up here, so I just mind my own business and listen.”
“You recognize the white guys?”
“One of them, a cop. Detective. Dude with a Polack name.”
“Yeah, that’s it. I seen him around. Seems pretty tight with Percy.”
“And the other one?”
“No idea. Had his back to me, so I never got a look at him.”
“So what was the palaver all about?” Smooth took a deep drag off his cigarette.
“Okay. You know that Percy has more going on here than a nightclub.”
“Of course -- the ’gentlemen’s quarters’.”
“Percy works with a cat who runs some very fine women. High class, you know? White dudes with plenty of jack don’t mind coming downtown for a little taste of the chocolate, you dig? Percy provides the space for entertaining and gets a nice cut of the action.”
“Not exactly a secret,” I said. “Percy keeps his nose clean, greases the right palms and everybody’s happy.”
“Yeah, right. But last night he and the other two were talking about something new -- underage girls, man -- bringing them in from over in Indiana, maybe Calumet City or Gary.”
“I’m sure. But that ain’t all of it. The whole deal is a special setup for some very important people.”
“I didn't hear no names, but there’s supposed to be another meet-up here tonight to finalize the plans, so I’m going to do just like you do, Drummond -- keep my eyes and ears wide open. Come back tomorrow night, same time, and if I got anything, I’ll pass it along.” Smooth paused and looked away into the night.
“You’re taking this pretty personally, aren’t you?” I asked, noting my friend’s distress. He turned and looked hard at me.
“You’re damned right,” he said. “I never told you, but I got a fifteen-year-old daughter lives with her mother up in Detroit.”
The next day was a long, drawn out affair. Fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk weather without much to show for it but an afternoon visit from a middle-aged woman in a purple dress and matching hat adorned with a pheasant feather that preceded her by at least two feet. It was clear by her accouterments that she had a few shekels in the bank and was prepared to spend them, she said, to find out for certain if her husband was carrying on with “a little tramp” who worked as a cigarette girl at one of the city's tonier nightspots. I didn’t much like getting into these domestic entanglements -- and I’d been in the middle of many -- but they helped keep the lights on, so I agreed to take the case. As the aggrieved woman departed, Doris looked at me and rolled her eyes.
That wrapped up the day. After an early supper, a couple of stiff bourbons and an aimless hour in front of the television, I napped on the couch before it was time to head downtown.
When I arrived just before 11:30, there were two police cruisers and an ambulance at the curb, lights flashing and radios crackling. The front door of the club opened and a pair of medics wheeled out a stretcher bearing Melvin Dobbins.
“Smooth -- hey, man, can you hear me? What happened?” I said at the side of the gurney. My friend’s eyes flickered open and he grasped me weakly by the arm. His lips moved, but what he was trying to say was inaudible, so I bent low, putting my ear to his mouth.
“Dressing room . . . picture,” was all he could whisper before slipping into unconsciousness.
“C’mon, buddy,” one of the attendants said to me urgently, “we’ve got to get him to the hospital.” I stepped back and watched as the medics swung the rear doors of the ambulance wide and loaded the stretcher.
“Well, well, what brings you to the neighborhood?” The voice was raspy, cocky. I turned as Frank Senkewicz exited the club followed by Percy Warren.
“What's going on, Frank?”
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Percy said, mouth dry, voice pinched, eyes darting quickly to Senkewicz and then away. I cocked my head at the cop.
“Your boy Dobbins. Bad accident.”
“What accident?” I snapped.
“Looks like he fell from the fire escape out back, hit his head. Poor bastard.” There wasn’t a shred of feeling in his voice. “I guess it’s a good thing you saw him last night.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You were here, right?”
“And if I was?”
“I just mention it, that’s all,” Senkewicz said nonchalantly as the ambulance pulled away from the curb, siren wailing. “A shame. Accidents, I mean. You just never know.” He threw me a thin-lipped smile before he and Percy moved away, leaving me standing, numb.
Smooth had found out too much. And he had told me where to find it myself.
I went to the alley behind the club and made my way to the back door. From there, it was only a half-dozen steps to the club’s dressing room.
It was a small space, just enough room for two or three folding chairs, a place to hang a few clothes and a lighted mirror with a lacquered makeup table beneath it. That's where I saw a small gold-framed photo. It was of Smooth, younger, smiling, with his arm around a pretty girl. I guessed she was about ten.
I lifted the picture, running my thumb lightly over the glass, turned it over, moved two small clasps to the side and removed the back of the frame. When I did, a slip of paper fell out. On it, in small, nervous print, there was a date and two names. I read them, and as I did, I let out a low whistle.
I knew just where to find Tony Pugliese on a Wednesday afternoon. At fifty-two, Pugliese had been a cop for twenty-seven years. Still trim and well-muscled for his age, he was also the senior middleweight boxing champion of the police athletic league. Every Wednesday, he and his sparring partner went a few rounds at West Side Boxing on South Kedzie, just down the street from police headquarters.
“Hows’ life among the civilians?” Pugliese cracked as he stepped between the ring ropes, jumped down to the floor and shed his oversized sparring gloves.
“Living the dream, Tony,” I replied. This elicited a wry snort from Pugliese as he picked up a towel and draped it around his neck.
“Purely a social call today?”
“Business.” Pugliese looked me up and down.
“Give me a few to shower and change.”
I liked Tony Pugliese, always had, though our paths hadn't crossed that often when I was on the force. I appreciated his sense of humor, his take on the world. That was part of it. The rest was the respect and trust I had for him. He was a straight-shooter. His slate was clean. That was saying a lot in a town where there were cops so crooked they couldn’t walk a straight line if they had a gun to their heads.
Once Tony had cleaned up, we went around the corner to the Shangri La, a misnomer if one ever existed. The lounge was a shadowy hole in the wall that featured faded photos of the town’s sports heroes from bygone days and a very large Maine Coon cat that had his run of the place and took a dim view of the clientele.
Toward the back of the room Tony and I found a worn booth, slipped in and ordered beers.
“What's so earth-shattering you had to corral me at the gym?” I shook a cigarette free.
“Do you mind?” I asked.
“You want to kill yourself with those, it’s your life.” I lit up and took a deep drag.
“How long have you been running the vice task force, Tony?”
“A little over eighteen months.”
“Do much business on the South Side?”
“With Percy’s place?” Pugliese wasn’t known for his patience.
“You want to cut to the chase here?”
“Percy’s got a scheme cooking with Frank Senkewicz -- ”
“That sonofabitch,” Pugliese spat out.
“ -- to bring in underage girls from Indiana for the express purpose of entertaining some big shots.”
“How do you know this?” he demanded.
I reached into the pocket of my suit jacket and removed the slip of paper Smooth had left. I laid it on the table and slid it across. Pugliese's eyes narrowed as he read, then looked up at me.
“How did you get this?”
“A friend of mine, a musician at the club, overheard talk and did some nosing around.”
“You convinced it’s solid?”
“I am. It was important enough to my friend that it cost him his life, Tony.”
“And Senkewicz is in on it?”
“Up to his eyeballs.” Pugliese looked across the table at me with a tight smile. He raised the piece of paper.
“You mind if I hang onto this?”
“That’s why I brought it.”
Three days later I sat smoking in my office, nursing my second cup of coffee The night before, Tony Pugliese and his vice squad had hit Percy’s, with the results splashed across the front page of the morning paper on my desk:
SOUTH SIDE SEX RAID NETS BIG FISH
SONS OF MAYOR, CITY COUNCIL PREZ ARRESTED
UNDERAGE COLORED GIRLS
Beneath the glaring headlines were four pictures -- the two young scions of the powerful, Percy Warren and Frank Senkewicz. The story fleshed out the details of the raid, with numerous quotes from Pugliese about cracking the case with “inside information,” that even “the well-connected were not above the law” and the importance of “putting away rotten apples” who gave good cops on the force a bad name.
It was shaping up to be another scorcher of July day. I looked outside -- not a cloud on the horizon. The clamor of the city rose up from the street and through the open office window. The fan, perched on the sill, seemed to be fighting a losing battle against the heat.
I sat back and drew deeply on my cigarette, slowly exhaling as I thought of my friend.
For you, man.
Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent. His writing has appeared in more than twenty publications including the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Bookends Review, the Nonconformist Magazine, Backchannels Review, Sandpiper, the San Antonio Review, Flyover Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Best of CaféLit 11 and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies. He lives outside Chicago.
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