The sound was coming from my best armchair, the one I liked to sit in to watch the game. I stood in front of it looking at Joe Murray, alias Giovanni di Mare, aka Stupid Joe (although you never called him so to his face). Stupid Joe was a mobster, well known in his neighborhood for the easy, nonchalant way in which he handled those who fell in disgrace with his family. He was not a bad sort and I had often had a beer with him when fishing for information. But as his nickname suggested, he was not an eagle.
He was holding a whacking big pistol in one hand, and a glass of my best Scotch in the other. He was waving me to the chair in front of him with a friendly movement of his gun. I, on the other hand, was too amazed to move. It was not the fact that Stupid Joe had broken into my apartment that had left me speechless—when you are a Private Eye like myself it's an occupational hazard—nor was the fact that he was drinking my best whisky that left me perplexed. Even his pointing a gun at me was not the reason for freezing as I did (I have had guns of all kinds pointed at me over the years, and one gets used to it). The reason was that I had been watching the news at my girlfriend's house that night.
The news had been very clear about it: One mafioso named Joe Murray, they said, had been shot in the back in a busy bar. The gun employed on Joe Murray, they explained in lavish details, was a big caliber hunting rifle that had bored an impressively large hole in Joe's back, and had left an even larger exit wound in his chest—one through which you could easily poke your head.
The identity of the murderer wasn't known, and the police were making inquiries. I bet they were. I could almost hear the sigh of ecstasy let out by those who, now that Stupid Joe had checked out and was lying on a slab at the morgue, felt that the world had suddenly become a better and a safer place for them to live in.
Only he wasn't lying on any damn slab, if you follow me. He was in my living room, sitting in my armchair and drinking my whisky. He did look a little pale though, as befitting one who has been clinically dead for a while, but he seemed otherwise in good shape. Well… if you overlooked the hole, that is.
Joe was wearing a raincoat two sizes too small for him—he was a big guy, more or less my size—which was unbuttoned. Other than that, he wore only a pair of dirty shorts. His feet were crammed into tight sneakers. The hole in his chest that had been so widely advertised on TV was even larger than I had imagined. The shot had apparently taken off an entire length of his esophagus, and drops of my whisky were falling from its severed end, onto the rim of the carbonized exit hole, which accounted for the dripping sound. From the edge of the exit wound they flew out and splashed onto the cushion of my armchair. Every time he took a sip the stream of drops intensified, and the drip... drip... drip... quickened. I was hypnotized by that dripping hole and wasn't able to take my eyes off it.
"Take a seat, Dave," he said to me in a low, rasping voice, once again pointing helpfully to the chair with the gun. "I'd hate to have to whack you."
"Hi, Joe," I said, regaining some of my composure at the sound of his voice. It was not a beautiful voice, but it was as human as it had always been. "I'd heard reports..."
"That someone had whacked me, right?"
"Right. And you do look a little worse for wear, I must say – no offense meant," I hastened to add. You didn't offend Stupid Joe, if you wanted to see the next sunrise standing up.
"Yeah, it stinks. I am at the Blue Bird bar, you know, the one downtown where they have this new number with this girl curling up... Have you seen it?"
"No, I haven't, but I know the place you are talking about. It was in the news."
"You should go and see it. It's unbelievable what this girl can do… but that's not the point now. The point is, I am there, talking to this broad and passing the time of the day, when I hear a shout and a shot, and the next thing I know, I wake up on a slab at the morgue, really pissed off, you know. So I sit up and start thinking what to do about it. I'm naked, you see, and I can't go out like that. So I look around until I find this stuff I am wearing now, and then I figure I should come and talk to you."
"Why me? Why don't you talk to the police? They're investigating right now, and I am sure they'll find the one who did it, in no time."
"Bah! The police won't find your dog's shit if it left it under the lamp in front of the police station. No, everybody knows that you are the best Private Eye there is, so it's you who is going to find this guy for me, so that I can get even with him."
It appeared that I was being engaged, and wasn't getting to say no. Still, it was worth trying…
"But, Joe, I don't think you have any money now. How will you be paying for the investigation? I mean, I like you, and I am sorry for you, but I never work unless there is something in it for me."
"But you stand to gain from it too."
"Well, if you find him, I won't whack you. That's fair enough, I think."
That was Stupid Joe, in a nutshell. A sudden thought occurred to me.
"Sorry for asking, but you are dead, right?"
"I guess so. I can't tell you how pissed off I am because of it. But I'm pretty sure that I'm dead. I'm dead cold. Here," he said, pointing at his arm, "feel my flesh. I'm cold and no pulse. Feel my flesh, I said," he ordered, when I indicated that I might skip the invitation.
Well, it did feel cold. And there was no pulse. He was dead all right, but somehow his brain had not yet caught up with it, and refused to stop commanding the body. Perhaps the amount of intellect involved in running Stupid Joe's business was so minimal that it could go on, at least for a while, even after his death.
"Yeah," I agreed, "you are as dead as they come. Look here," I added, trying to bring our little discussion onto a more businesslike plane, "I'm ready to help you find who did this to you, on one condition."
"I didn't say anything about allowing conditions, but shoot anyway."
"My condition is that the moment we find this guy and you get even with him, you go straight back to your nice slab at the morgue, where you belong, and let nature take its course. Do we have a deal?"
"OK. You have my word. I promise that as soon as I'm through working on this guy you're going to find for me, I'll go back to the morgue and you'll never hear from me again."
"It's a deal, then."
"No more chin wagging now," ordered Joe. "How are we going to start this investigation?"
I realized that arguing wouldn't do me any good. I had to play ball, at least until I discovered who the shooter was, or I found a way to get rid of him.
"Well," I said, resignedly, "first of all we need to get you some decent clothing. You are more or less my size. Come here," I said, moving toward my small bedroom, "I'll find something that fits you."
I looked into my cupboard and selected a suit that I had always thought too bright for me, a pair of shoes, socks, and a dress shirt with a tie. Soon it became clear that we had a problem, though: the liquid oozing out of the hole in Joe's chest would drench the shirt and suit in no time.
"Here," I said, handing him a towel. "Stuff that into that hole, to stop the liquid from wetting everything." I watched him do it and, encouraged by his apparent docility, I asked: "Why do you go on drinking, anyway? Do you taste the stuff at all?"
"To tell you the truth, no. I'm kinda unable to taste anything. It's just the habit. I can stop, if you like."
"I do. Yes, I definitely prefer it."
"OK," he said quietly. Joe now seemed much more manageable than I had ever seen him. Perhaps Death softens the toughest guys.
I felt sorry for him—but not half as sorry as for myself. If I wanted this nightmare to end, I realized, we'd better start getting busy.
"Let's begin by going to the Blue Bird. You'll need a disguise—we don't want anybody to recognize you and to freak out. Here," I said, pushing a false beard and mustache at him, "paste this on your face. The mirror is over there."
The result was quite impressive, I must say. The shop where I buy my disguise gear is pretty good, and I wouldn't have recognized him with that beard myself. We left the apartment and went down the flight of stairs to the car park. He walked a little strangely, in a sort of side-to-side wavy fashion, but over all, he looked quite normal. When we reached my car, he extended an open hand.
"The keys," he said curtly.
"You heard me. Gimme the keys."
"But you can't drive. I don't trust your reflexes, and your driving license has expired by law when you legally died." I was looking for excuses, any excuse, to prevent him from driving my Jaguar, the apple of my eye. "And you smell of whisky—the whole towel is impregnated with it—so what do we do if a policeman stops us while you drive?"
"Simple, we whack him and go on."
"Now you listen to me, Joe. You can't go around whacking people. Someone is bound to take notice, and it may get in the way of our investigation. You must correct this tendency of yours to whack everybody in sight. Forget it, expunge it from your thoughts!"
"All right. Now gimme the keys."
"Sorry. You don't get to drive my Jaguar, and that's final!"
This is why we were now driving at twice the speed limit along Rosebud Boulevard, with Joe at the wheel, and me trying to remember whether I had mailed the check to the insurance people. We finally reached the Blue Bird, and not a moment too soon. Joe parked the car right in front of the entrance to the bar, which was swell since it improved our chances of finding it again when we came out, and we moved toward the door.
"Let me do all the talking," I commanded, before we went in. "While we are on the job, I'm the boss. Agreed?"
"Agreed. You are the boss. Now move your ass and get down to work."
The atmosphere in the bar was merry and noisy. You wouldn't have believed that only twenty-four hours earlier someone had been shot to death in that very spot. The lights were dim, and the air was full of smoke, but the place was fully packed with happy couples and singles. We approached the bar and the barman greeted us with a smile.
"What will it be, gentlemen?"
"Scotch for me," I said, "and nothing for my friend."
"Scotch for me too," said Joe, and then whispered to me with a wink: "I've stuffed in an extra towel for that. Hey, look!" he added, sounding excited. "That's the girl, the one with the curling up number. I have a mind to go and talk to her."
"I'd rather you'd stay put and talk to nobody," I said severely. "I'm going up to the manager's office to make inquiries. You stay here and don't get into any trouble."
"Yeah, yeah," he answered, his eyes fixed on the girl, but he plainly wasn't listening.
I left him to his gazing exercise. No harm done there, I assumed.
On my way up I worked on my line of inquiry. I knew the manager slightly, and I wasn't expecting much cooperation. That was lucky, 'cause I got none. William McIntire, better known as "Flash Billy", on account of his skill at cheating with cards, was sitting behind a dirty desk, eating a salami sandwich, a can of beer in his other hand.
"Hi, Billy," I said genially, when I let myself in without knocking, "how are you these days?"
"I'm fine," he answered. "Beat it."
"Not so quick, Billy. Just a few questions and I'll leave you to your gourmet dinner."
"Why should I take any questions from you? What have you become, the police commissioner?"
"Nope. But I have an interest in what happened to Stupid Joe here, yesterday."
"Why is that any business of yours? Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say."
"I wouldn't say that too loudly," I warned him. I was preoccupied that Joe might be within earshot. "In any case, I have an interest—it doesn't matter why—and I would like to hear from you what you know about it."
"Nothing. Now beat it."
It was clear to me that Billy wasn't going to tell me anything. In fact, he had gone back to his sandwich and was working on it as if I wasn't there. It was quite a disgusting scene, so I left without closing the door behind me. At least he would have to get up to shut it. I call that getting even.
I climbed down the stairs, feeling at a dead end. I had no more ideas on how to investigate the shooting. Perhaps the best plan would be to start with Stupid Joe. He might have information that he didn't realize he should tell me. Yes, by the time I was back in the bar I concluded that this was the way to go. I had to start working with Joe. Only Joe was gone. The bar was crowded with people of every color, age and size—but no Joe. He was nowhere in sight. Nor was the "curling act" girl.
* * *
I opened the door of my apartment with a bowed head and sore feet. I had looked for Joe everywhere, but had drawn a blank. Someone was in my living room, which, I thought bitterly, appeared to be no longer my private place, since people were always dropping in without asking first. Lizzy—my girlfriend—was sitting at one end of the couch.
I had been going out with Lizzy for five months now, and I really liked her. Her only defect was her intellectual side—she worked as a guide at the Museum of Modern Arts—but I had managed to take control over it, and most of the time I was able to keep art out of the conversation.
Deep in conversation with Lizzy, at the other end of the couch, and sporting my silk pajamas (a present from my former girlfriend) was Stupid Joe.
"Hi, Dave," said Lizzy, jumping up as she saw me coming in, "we've been waiting for you. Where have you been all this time?"
"I had work to do," I mumbled, eyeing Joe. I couldn't figure out what was going on.
"You never told me about your friend Gustave," she said reproachfully.
"Gustave?" I spurted, frowning at Joe.
He lifted his eyebrows with a schoolgirl-like smile, ill-fitted for his ugly features, and lifted his shoulders in an apologetic gesture.
"Well, I seldom come to town, you know," he said to Lizzy, and then turning to me he added: "I'm sorry for not giving you advance notice, but I phoned and couldn't find you. Is this a bad time? Am I in the way?"
"No, no. It's OK," I answered quickly. I only wanted Lizzy to leave before matters became more complicated than they already were.
"Is it OK for me to sleep on the couch?" asked Joe, contritely.
"Yes, yes. OK. Come, I'll give you a pillow and a blanket." I wanted Joe to myself, and I wanted an explanation.
"I'll make some coffee while you organize," said Lizzy.
"Not for me, thank you," said Joe. "I can't sleep well after coffee."
Thank God he has some sense left in him, I thought with relief. Black coffee on my white silk pajamas would elicit questions.
"What do you mean, disappearing like that on me?" I whispered with anger, once I managed to close the door of my bedroom behind us. "I told you to stay put and out of trouble. Where have you been? How did you get here?"
"Yes, yes. You're right. I'm sorry. But, you see, I got into conversation with that girl down at the bar—you should really see her curling act—and I couldn't help myself. I told her: 'let's get out of here, what do you think?' and she said: 'your place or mine?' So we went to her place."
"And…" I could feel the hair curling on the back of my neck.
"And we had something to drink, and I started to leak. Then she said: 'Oh, look, you've spilled your drink on your shirt. Let me take care of that.' And I know that was really stupid of me, but I let her take off my shirt."
"And…" I prompted him again, feeling weak at the knees.
"Well, I hope she has come to, by now. When I left her she was really gone, though. She gave a little cry and fainted. That was it. I don't know why; you didn't faint."
I didn't tell him that I almost did. There was no point.
"So now she's probably telling everybody about you, and they'll be looking for you. What were you thinking? What was the big idea?"
I was really pissed off. Not only I was in this against my will and best judgment, but he was also making everything in his power to make life difficult for me.
"I'm sorry," said Joe, contritely, and I couldn't help feeling sad for him.
"You know that I have a good mind to call the whole thing off?" I said. "If you keep interfering, there is nothing I can do."
"Please, Dave… I'll be good, I promise."
I looked at him. He had started talking like a scolded child. I wondered if he was regressing into childhood. Perhaps he was undergoing some kind of progressive death. Still, I liked this new and improved Joe better. He was much more manageable than before.
"Yeah, OK," I said curtly, "but no more funny ideas, OK?"
"And," I asked as an afterthought, "how did you pick that ridiculous name, Gustave?"
"Well, you see, I knew that I needed a name, and I saw a book from Gustave Miller on your shelf, so I told her that Gustave was my name."
I knew the book he referred to. It was a present from Lizzy, and was entitled: My Fjord—Chronicle of Nature's Art. I kept it on my shelf out of necessity, but was in perpetual fear that one of my friends might see it.
We went back into the living room with a pillow and bed sheets—acting it out for Lizzy's benefit. I didn't think that Joe really needed them. The coffee was on the table and Lizzy was standing.
"I'm tired and it's late," she said. "I think I'll go home."
"I'll walk you to your car," I said. I wasn't being chivalrous. I wanted to find out what nonsense Joe had been telling her. At the door she turned to Joe.
"I'll pick you up at nine, then," she said, and walked out.
I closed the door and, trying to sound natural, I asked her:
"What was that about picking him up at nine?"
"Oh, nothing. Gustave has never been to the Modern Arts Museum, so I offered to take him."
That was a good one. A stupid mobster spending quality time at the museum.
"Really, you don't have to do that."
"But I want to. He's your friend, and he's nice. And he's so big and awkward, which is so cute."
"Cute!" I almost yelled. Nobody ever thought of Stupid Joe as "cute"; "spooky" was more like it.
"Well," said Lizzy, looking at me askance, "are we being jealous?"
"Me, jealous? Not at all. Why?" I asked, feeling a sudden knot in my stomach, "Did he come on to you?"
"You are jealous!" she said with a little laugh. "Of course not, you silly. He's a friend of yours, isn't he?"
I mumbled something unclear in response. We had reached her car and I stood by her while she opened it. She kissed me hurriedly and got into the car. Then she opened the window and poked her head out.
"By the way, Dave. Don't you ever air your apartment? There was a rancid smell there, as if you kept spoiled food in your living room. I would open a window, if I were you."
Without waiting for an answer she waved to me brightly, and was gone. I walked back to my apartment, trying to figure out whether I was ready to pick a fight with Joe. But when I walked into the apartment he was sitting on the couch, reading the last issue of the National Geographic magazine, and I didn't have the heart.
I took a long shower and, before going to sleep, I opened the door to my living room to see what Joe was up to. He was still sitting there, with the magazine in his hands. I closed the door silently and stretched on the bed. Sleep came with difficulty, but at least I was so tired that it was dreamless.
* * *
I woke up the next morning to the sounds of slammed cupboard doors. Presently Joe was in my room, dressed up in my best checkered suit, beaming on me.
"What on earth are you doing, dressed up like that?"
"Lizzy is coming to take me to the museum," he answered, "and of course I had to make myself decent."
"And what's that foul smell?" I asked, annoyed.
"It must be your after shave lotion, Dave. I'm afraid that I may have overdone it a bit, but, you know, I can't smell anything, and I couldn't tell if I'd used enough of it."
"You've used enough of it all right," I said, twitching my nose. He had probably used up all of it. But the bright side was that my lotion did a good job of covering his natural stench. "What time is it?" I asked. I didn't feel rested at all.
"Almost nine," he said. "And what do you plan to do about our investigation?"
"Plan? I have no plan. I don't know. I may be doing nothing at all. So what will you do," I asked defiantly, "whack me?"
"Whack you? What a strange notion. I would never whack you. You're my best friend."
I looked at him sideways. I had never heard him talk like that—I mean, expressing himself in a civil manner. His face, judging from whatever little expression it still showed, conveyed sincerity. I felt relieved.
Lizzy arrived a few minutes later, and left with Joe. I didn't show my face until I heard that they were gone. I wasn't up to it. I dressed and left for the office, without drinking my usual cup of coffee. For some reason I didn't feel the urge. I might get some at the bar near my office later, but first I wanted to check my mail.
* * *
When I reached the cubbyhole I called my office, on the second floor of an old building that was home to a large colony of cockroaches, I knew immediately that something was wrong. The door was ajar, and I was quite sure that I had locked it going out. It wasn't as if I kept anything of value in there, but one doesn't like to have strangers wandering uninvited into their offices. I drew my gun from its shoulder holster and went in, gun first, kicking the door. Pimpled Fred was sitting at my desk. An anticlimax, but a welcome one. The anticlimax, I mean, not Fred who, in contrast, was entirely unwelcome.
Pimpled Fred and I went a long way, back to fifth grade in the same shabby school in the neighborhood where we both had grown up. He had earned his nickname on account of a profusely pimpled face, which he still sported twenty-five years later. He owned the Blue Bird and six other joints, and had a hand in many lucrative rackets. In school he had already shown promise by shark-loaning to us, less business-oriented kids. I had hated him in school, and I hated him now.
"Get your ass off my chair," I said without lowering my gun. This business of goons appropriating my seats was starting to get on my nerves.
"I'm glad to see you too, Dave," said Fred with a twisted smile. "Why don't you take a seat and let me tell you to what you owe the pleasure of my visit?"
"'Cause I don't care, and if you're not off that chair in under ten seconds, they'll have to bury you in it."
"OK, OK. No need to be touchy," said Fred, rising. He walked around my desk and seated himself in one of the worn out armchairs reserved for my sporadic clients. I replaced the gun in its holster, kicked the door closed, and sat behind my desk. I fixed my gaze on Pimpled Fred, and waited. I could see he was fretful, but I wasn't going to make it easy for him to tell me why he was here.
"I hear you have taken an interest in Stupid Joe's death," he said at last.
"Who told you such a thing?" I asked. So that was it. I knew he knew, but why waste a good opportunity to torment him.
"I hear things. You know I do."
"But why would that—assuming it were right, which I ain't saying it is—be any damn business of yours? You're not connected with the mob, as far as I know."
"No. But, you see, I've got a very delicate transaction going on right now, and this business of Joe's has come at the worst possible time. And then there is this broad that works for me at the Blue Bird, going around telling ghost stories about Stupid Joe turning up all alive with a hole in his chest the size of your head. And my informers tell me the police have lost Joe's body. All this is very bad for business."
"Yeah, you can see how my heart is bleeding for you. It's all I can do to keep myself from crying. Well, it was nice of you to come and tell Uncle Dave your troubles. I like you young people to come to me whenever you need comfort and advice. Now get the hell out of here. You're taking up space that I require for other purposes."
I know I wasn't being nice, but I wasn't interested in Pimpled Fred's troubles. I had enough with mine. Fred, on the other hand, showed no tendency to get up. He frowned a bit—no doubt stung by my lack of sympathy—but didn't move.
"Look here," he said in a hoarse voice, "I need to know if this here that they tell me about you being involved is true or not. If it is, I may have a proposition for you."
"What proposition?" I asked suspiciously.
"Assume for a moment—just for the sake of argument—that I knew who did Stupid Joe in. If I were to tell you, could you guarantee that you, and whoever is impersonating Joe's ghost, will stop poking your noses into my business?"
"Assuming that I were poking my nose into your business—which I am not—and assuming that I knew someone who was impersonating Joe's ghost—which is a stupid assumption to make anyways—then it would be reasonable to assume that I might be able to guarantee that neither I, nor this non-existing ghost impersonator, would keep poking our respective noses into your business, if you were to tell us who did Stupid Joe in," I said, stopping to inhale before it was too late.
Pimpled Fred had been following my statement with a furrowed brow, leaning forward as if in an attempt to grasp its meaning.
"Do you mean to say 'Yes'?"
"Yes," I conceded.
"Then why don't you say so, damn you! Never mind. It was Tony Zuzzurello. And I happen to know—just in case that you may wish to 'interview' him about it—that tonight he will be at home, all alone. The address is here," he added, handing me a slip of paper, which I folded and put into my wallet.
"Ain't you gonna thank me?" he asked.
"For what? You haven't dropped dead yet, as far as I can tell."
"Ha, ha," he laughed lightly, reaching for the door. "Remember our deal," he added, and was gone.
Tony Zuzzurello! That made a lot of sense. This Zuzzurello was a little rat of a hired hand who worked for Stupid Joe's family. The story, as I had heard it, was that one day, last year, he had incurred Joe's displeasure over a job not done well enough. Stupid Joe, I was told, has broken his fingers one by one, reciting all the while "This little piggy went to market". This couldn't have been pleasant for Tony Zuzzurello, and apparently he had decided to get even, big time. Well, now we had something to sink out teeth into. And if Pimpled Fred was right, we could wrap it up that night, and then I would get rid of Stupid Joe for good. I was elated and, after a frugal lunch, I drove back to the apartment. I had hoped to find Joe and break the news to him. And in fact he was at home, watching the Discovery Channel. I had to switch the TV off to gain his attention.
"Hey!" he complained. "I was watching that."
"No time for that," I rebuked him. "You already had your fun at the museum. How was it, by the way?"
"It was great. Huge. Elizabeth is a wonderful lady."
"Yeah, Lizzy is a great gal. No doubt. I wouldn't call her 'a lady', though."
Joe got up and looked at me with severity.
"Are you making disrespectful remarks about Elizabeth?" he asked menacingly.
"No, of course not," I said hastily. I was getting a glimpse of Stupid Joe, old style, and wasn't liking it.
"Because," he continued, making himself clearer, "I won't tolerate disrespect toward Elizabeth. She is the most divine creature I've ever met. She's kind, she's nice, and she teaches me a lot. Let me tell you this," he continued, and I could swear that his eyes, normally suggestive of those of a dead fish, had taken on a forceful light. "mine has been a wasted life. Yes, entirely wasted. But now I have started my rehabilitation and I need to learn and improve. She's taking me to an open concert at City Gardens, tonight."
"Listen to me," I said, feeling that this was getting out of hand. "I hate to remind you of this, but you're dead. Your flesh is decaying, and soon you'll start leaving pieces of yourself around. You are in no position to start getting an education. OK? You must focus on our mission. Remember our mission? We have to find the one who did you in, do him in, and then it's Requiescat in Pacem for poor Joe. You follow me?"
"You know," he said rebukingly, "there's no need to get personal. You aren't that beautiful either. Are you aware of the fact that your front tooth is badly encapsulated? The effect is quite disagreeable. But do I tell you so? Of course I don't. My mommy taught me never to comment on other people's appearance. I wish you'd known my mommy."
"Yes, yes. I'm sure she was charming. But now listen to me. I know who shot you. It was your old friend Tony Zuzzurello. And what's more, I know where he's gonna be tonight. Now you can go and whack him, and then you can go back to your nice slab at the morgue. Isn't that great?"
Joe scratched his head and sat on the couch, peering pensively into the black screen of the TV set.
"All of a sudden," he said, I don't feel like whacking Tony Zuzzurello any more. He's also a creature of God, you know. He also has a mother."
"He's nothing of the sort. He's a treacherous shooting-in-the-back son of unmarried parents. Besides, it was you who wanted to get even with him."
"I know, but… Oh, I don't know. Perhaps we'll do it some other time. I promised Lizzy to go to the concert with her. She says that she can never talk you into going places—intellectual places, I mean—and I won't let her down. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get ready."
He got up and disappeared into my bathroom, to do what, God knows. I sat there in my armchair, feeling as if the roof had fallen on my head. If I had read the symptoms right, this walking piece of rotting meat was in love with my girlfriend. Can you beat that?
I don't know for how long I sat there, but when Joe came back I lifted my head and my eyes met the most grotesque spectacle. Joe's face was red like that of an Indian chief, and the false beard was dangling from one check.
"What on earth have you put on your face?" I asked, amazed.
"It's make-up," he said. "Elizabeth happened to comment that I was a little pale, today—like a Greek god, I believe she said—and I thought that a bit of color was called for."
"You look like a painted doll. And the beard won't stick on all that powder. For God's sake, go and wash that muck off your face. Quick," I hurried him, as the doorbell rang. "This must be Lizzy."
Joe rushed back into the bathroom and I opened the door. It was Lizzy, as expected, and she walked in with a smile that immediately turned to an expression of disgust.
"Gosh, Dave, don't you ever open a window in here?"
In fact, I had opened all the windows, but it was little use. I ushered her out quickly.
"I'm sorry. Problem with the drains. They'll fix it in a couple of days."
"Where is Gustave? We will be late for the concert."
"He's dressing. But wait a second. I need your help. I have a serious situation here." Lizzy is a good listener, so she simply opened her ears without asking any silly questions, and I explained. "You see, J… Gustave is not really a friend of mine. He's here for a job. A very important job. But as it turns out, he has got a crush on you…"
"The precious little thing," she squealed.
"Yes, isn't it," I said with ill-concealed annoyance. "The fact is that right now his only interest is in you, and because of you he refuses to do his part and help me with the job. And if he doesn't, I'm in a fix. And I can't even begin to tell you how big a fix this is."
"Oh, I'm sorry. It's all my fault, isn't it? I've been too nice to him, but I couldn't help myself. He seems so helpless and polite, even though sometimes he is a bit of a stiff."
"Stiff is right." I said curtly. "Be as it may, you must help me."
"He'll do whatever you ask him to. You must tell him how much you value men who keep their word, and how distasteful you find those who go back on their promises. Tell him that you will never be able to hold in esteem a man who undertakes to do something, and then changes his mind. That will do the trick."
"Well, that's simple. I can do it. No problem."
"Then do it. Do it now. I'll meet you after the concert—look for the Jaguar. And if you play your part right, he is sure to come with me and complete the job."
"Don't worry. I'm sure that he'll keep his word. He has such a delicate personality."
"Give me a break," I said, but I said it to myself.
Joe came out, looking much more normal than before, the false beard now sticking in all the right places. I went back to the apartment, wishing them an enjoyable evening, and invested a few minutes in the futile exercise of emptying two cans of air-freshener in it.
* * *
"Lizzy!" I called when I saw her coming toward me in the crowd, with Stupid Joe wobbling at her side. His walk had deteriorated noticeably during the last twenty-four hours, and he was barely able to keep up with her.
"Hi, kids," I greeted them when they reached me. I was standing with my back to the Jaguar that was parked at the curb.
"What are you doing here?" asked Joe, suspiciously.
"I'm here to remind you that you gave me your word of honor…"
"About what?" he asked, as if trying to remember.
"You said that you would go back to where you belong—you know what I'm talking about—as soon as we finished running this small errand we have on our agenda. Remember?"
"Yes, yes, but I can't be bothered now. Elizabeth and I have plans."
"But you promised," I said desperately, looking at Lizzy.
"Did you now, Gustave?" she asked, looking at him with wide-open eyes.
"Well…mm… I guess I did—but that was before I met you."
"You know how I feel about keeping one's word."
"Yes, but this is really nothing. Dave here won't mind if we skipped our little errand this time, would you, Dave?" he asked wistfully.
"In fact, I would mind it very much. Get in the car, please," I added, opening the door for him.
"OK, but then I drive," he said, showing me the palm of his hand.
Resigned, I dropped the keys of my car into his hand, and sat beside the driver. Joe got in, waved goodbye to Lizzy, started the engine and drove off with a strident sound of burnt tires. Showing off, that's what I call it.
Miraculously, we managed to reach Tony Zuzzurello's address without crashing into anything. We stopped near the house and Joe cut the engine.
"What now?" he asked.
"Simple. We go in, grab Tony, you get even with him, and we leave. Any questions?"
"You know," said Joe, looking embarrassed, "I don't really feel as if I cared any more. Why don't we forget about Tony Zuzzurello, and go see a good movie instead?"
"Because that is not what we have agreed upon. I agreed to find the one who did you in, and you agreed to get back to the morgue as soon as you are through taking care of him. So now you're going to get even with Tony, and you're going to like it."
"All right. But perhaps all I need to do is to scare the hell out of him. I'll reveal myself to him. That should do the trick."
I considered it. "Will you feel that you have gotten even afterwards?" I inquired.
"More than even. Absolutely ahead of the game."
"Then I don't object," I said. And I didn't. One corpse less to account for was all for the best, particularly since it might be difficult to sell the police on the idea that Stupid Joe had done him in.
We got out of the car and walked toward the house. A little light was coming from what I assumed was the living room. I decided that pushing the bell was as good an approach as any other, so I did.
"Who's there?" asked a voice.
"Electricity inspector, sir," I answered in my best respectable tone. "We have a short-circuit in the transformer down the street, and we need to check that your fuses are in order, because of fire hazards."
You wouldn't believe it, but Tony Zuzzurello was dumb enough to bite, and opened the door. The moment I saw a crack of an inch I shoved the door with all my weight, which is considerable, and Tony went flying down the corridor. Joe and I walked in, keeping an eye on the little rat on the floor.
"May we come in?" I asked with my most frightening smirk after I finished locking and bolting the door. We didn't want to be disturbed.
"Who…who? What do you want?" asked Tony with an equal mixture of fear and confusion.
"We want you, Tony," said Joe with that rasping voice that I had learnt to tolerate, but which I understood was scary when you heard it for the first time.
"Who are you?" whined Tony. He was still sitting on the ground, his back to the wall, and was making a pathetic attempt to inch away from us.
"I'm your nemesis," said Joe, and once again I was amazed to discover that he had learnt words such as "nemesis". It occurred to me that, to some little extent, he had indeed improved his education.
"My what?" asked Tony, missing the point in its entirety.
"I'm Joe Murray," thundered Joe.
"Impossible," was Tony's reaction. "I know that I have… that poor Joe has been shot and is dead. You can't fool me."
"Yeah?" I threw at him. "Then where is Joe's body?"
"I've no idea. I don't have it here, I can tell you that."
"Yes you do!" thundered Joe, ripping away his beard.
I couldn't help admiring the dramatic effect he achieved. Tony opened his mouth, then closed it and finally opened it again. It seemed as if it would stay open for good. He covered his eyes with both hands, and started whimpering and shaking his head vigorously from side to side.
Joe drew his pistol and pointed it at Tony. He kept it there for a full minute, but Tony wasn't paying any attention. Eventually Joe pocketed his gun and turned around, leaving Tony Zuzzurello to perform creative contortions on the floor. I ran after him, relieved.
"Does this mean that we are done here?" I inquired.
"Yup. He's got a nasty shock, don't you think?"
I looked at Joe's face. It showed the nearest thing to a smile that I had ever seen on him.
"He'll probably stay on the floor for a day or two. Are you satisfied now? No more revenge needed?"
"Nah! That's enough. Hey!" he called out with excitement, looking at a small table near the door, "these are the keys to Tony's Mercedes."
Joe pocketed the keys and walked out. Tony's Mercedes was parked outside and he unlocked the door and sat behind the wheel. I leaned forward and looked at Joe. He seemed as happy as a child, and was playing with all the buttons on the dashboard. I was sorry for him, rotting away at a young age, and I felt mild regret, mixed with relief, that our ways were parting. After a while I cleared my throat to get his attention.
"Yes? What?" he asked, tearing himself away from the gadgets on the dashboard.
"I understand that you'll be going back to your slab in Tony's Mercedes. Good choice. Elegant way to go. Well, it was nice having you with us, and I wish you all the best. If that's all right with you, I'll be going now."
Joe smiled appreciatively and nodded, closing the door of the car. I stepped back, waiting for the car to move, but Joe lowered his window and looked at me.
"I wanted to thank you for all your help, Dave. I really appreciated it. "Well", he added, starting to drive away, "I'll be seeing you."
Poor Joe. I looked at him, fumbling at the wheel with hands that refused to function properly. It was pathetic.
"Oh, and Dave," he said over the noise of the engine, before the car slid away into the night, "don't wait up. I have the keys."
© 2002 Kfir Luzzatto