The brim of Rickenbacher's battered fedora hung low over his left eye as he shouldered his way through the late-evening crowd milling about on the sidewalk in front of a three-block long stretch of strip joints and pornographic book stores. The hat -- a half-size too small and tight at his temples -- hid his thinning hair and the bald spot he'd rediscovered that morning.
He pushed his way into the Muff Inn, dropped onto a stool as far from the entrance as possible, and ordered a three-dollar beer. It was the beginning of a long, dirty night, the kind of night where winos met God and hookers dreamed of saying, "Not tonight, dear, I have a headache" to some missionary-position-only working stiff in a suburban split-level.
"What's all the commotion outside?" the unfamiliar bartender asked as he dropped an unopened beer bottle in front of Rickenbacher.
"Some sleaze tried to swallow the sidewalk."
When Rickenbacher failed to elaborate, the bartender shrugged and moved away.
The young woman on the stage behind the bar, her heavy breasts already scarred by stretch marks from an explosive spurt of growth during her late teens, turned her back to the men watching her, bent, and peeled away her red silk panties. They caught on one of her spike heels and she almost toppled over as she momentarily lost her balance. Then, having given the men an intimate look at her young body, she turned again to face them.
And she moved, but not quite to the music. Each thrust of her hips, each bump and grind, each jiggle of her breasts, was an ungainly movement like she'd only recently developed neuromotor skills. The men in the audience didn't seem to care as they drank their beer and stared at whichever body part held their fascination.
For Rickenbacher it was the eyes, the clouded eyes that focused on nothing and shimmered with unshed tears. Down the street were the professionals, the slender women who danced the dance, the women who performed as if each performance were a Broadway audition. Here were the girls with nowhere else to turn.
As the song ended, the dancer scooped up her discarded clothing, crushing the wad of cloth against her breasts, and hurried off-stage. A malnourished blonde replaced her.
Rickenbacher downed the last of his beer and rubbed his bruised knuckles. Before the blonde finished disrobing, a uniformed police officer stepped into the strip joint, squinted against the bright stage lights, and then slowly walked down the length of the bar toward Rickenbacher.
"There's a dead guy outside," the officer said.
Rickenbacher stood and followed the cop out of the bar to where a handful of gawkers stared at a dead man's body sprawled in a pool of shattered glass.
A neon cacophony hung only a few feet above their heads, the popping and buzzing of the lights only occasionally drowned out by the shouts of the barkers, bulbous men whose doughy fat strained at their sweat-stained t-shirts as they called out, "Girls! All White Girls!" and "Biggest tits on the block!" and "Take a look, gentlemen! None Better! None Finer! None Younger!"
"You know him?" the cop asked.
"I met him once."
"A couple of these guys say they saw you coming out of that door a few minutes ago." Glass crunched under the cop's shoes as he turned to indicate a door wedged between two buildings, unlit and without advertisement. "The stairs inside lead up to his office."
"Don't talk much, do you?" The cop took off his hat and held it in his left hand as he ran the thin fingers of his right hand through his closely cropped blond hair. He'd been walking this beat only three months and already he'd seen more dead bodies than he'd seen his entire first year on the force when he'd been teamed with a career sergeant named Kowalski and had walked a beat in the yuppie district.
"The Lieutenant been called yet?"
"Yeah," the officer said. The radio on his hip squawked as if to answer. "He'll be here."
The winos and the street people turned away from the body or stepped around it. Only the tourists and the conventioneers still stared, nudging each other and whispering questions.
Rickenbacher wore a faded beige London Fog trench coat, had a recently-acquired file-folder buried deep inside one of the pockets, and he reached into a different pocket for a pack of cigarettes. He shook one loose, wrapped his thick lips around the filter, and pulled it free. Then he held the nearly-empty pack out to the cop and had his offer rejected with a quick shake of the young man's head. He slid the cigarettes back into his pocket and retrieved a butane lighter, snapping it to life and cupping his hand around the flame to shield it from the still-born breeze.
An unmarked car pulled to the curb as Rickenbacher sucked the flame against the end of his cigarette. A gaunt man with thick black hair greying at the temples opened the door and walked around to the sidewalk in front of Rickenbacher. He wore a coat like the bigger man and it hung open to reveal a crisp white shirt and a narrow black tie held in place by a gold tie chain.
"Dick," he said with a nod.
"Lieutenant." Rickenbacher responded with his own nod.
Lieutenant Salvador Castellano stepped past him, took the uniformed officer by the elbow, and talked quietly with him for the next five minutes. Then he returned to Rickenbacher.
"How'd it happen?"
Rickenbacher pulled the cigarette from between his lips and held it military style, the filter between his thumb and forefinger, the glowing end in the cup of his hand. "He tripped."
The Lieutenant looked up at the broken window, then down at the body. It wasn't a long fall, but the sudden impact had broken the man's neck. "Self-defense?"
"He tripped," Rickenbacher repeated.
"What happened to your knuckles?"
Rickenbacher took a long drag from his cigarette, letting the Lieutenant get a good look at the discoloring skin. "Hit a door."
"We find out different, you be around?"
"You know where."
"Yeah," the Lieutenant said as Rickenbacher turned away. "I know where."
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Bracken