I realized this wasn't going to be your average kids' birthday party when Rita handed me the bloodstained letter.|
"They want to make it look like I killed him," she said, padding over to the bedroom door to check for any stray rugrats lurking about.
I skimmed the letter. "That's what it says, alright."
"That's why you're here."
"I didn't think it was because your nephew's clown bailed out on you."
"Can you help?"
"Did you do it?" I've come to recognize the subtle change in a woman's face when she's about to lay five fingers across your cheek. "Easy," I said, "I have to ask."
The yelp of a tot with a donkey's tail made her jump. She stared at the sound, then licked her orchid lips and turned back to me.
I could never refuse this one. I'd already made up my mind.
She looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth. "Is that... his blood?"
"Running it through the lab might raise a few questions. Something tells me you can't afford that."
She turned away from me like I was her past. "Alan Marsten was an artist, Nolan. That's all he was. He died with a bullet in the head in some back alley like a common hood." She turned back to me. "Find out who wrote that letter. And find out who killed my husband."
Rita possessed a singular talent for picking out checkered men to match her life. Before Marsten, she'd vowed to go straight, and even I believed her. Marsten was a concert pianist. He met Rita one night after a performance in some fancy juke joint. He had dreams of Carnegie Hall. She had dreams of Hollywood and clean sheets.
They got along like two feral cats in a burlap bag.
Marsten came to me the first time he started playing around with fire. Fire lived in a high-rise on 69th and 2nd. Fire smelled like candy and had the eyes of a demon bride.
I was Rita's shoulder to cry on too. She and I talked over cups of dirt coffee in a Harlem greasy spoon at two in the morning.
Alan wasn't coming home nights, she said. She wanted me to tail the skunk. I didn't tell her I already knew the story.
I still for the life of me can't figure out how starving artists get all the women. Marsten met this other dame while she was still attached to a guy by the name of Luchesi. Marsten borrowed money from Luchesi.
Luchesi isn't affiliated with any bank. Luchesi's collection department has a slug in his left leg that hurts when it rains.
The boss was doing a dime for extortion at the time of the murder. I found out through the network that he'd dispatched his goon to pay Marsten a visit right before his Carnegie Hall debut.
The goon lived in a cold water flat on 14th street.
"I wasn't 'upposed to kill'm," he said, sitting in his boxers on the edge of a stinking cot. "Just put the feara God in'm."
"No-show. So I left a message with one of his, whatdyacallit, coworkers."
"Got a name?"
"You heard enough, Nolan. Nighty-night." He reclined on the cot.
"I'm not playing around," I said.
The fake snore irritated me to no end. I illustrated my discontent by jabbing my fountain pen into the war tattoo on his left kicker. The ape howled and sprang up.
"You gonna play nice-nice?" I said.
He looked at me with bible black hate. "Licorice stick player," he said, breathless, massaging his scar. "Blonde hair, almost white. Can't miss'im. Jeezuz, Nolan..." He went on to curse my mother.
In my line of work, you have to train yourself to look under the skin. Murder is born in the spleen. And wending its way through every man's veins is a lust for some kind of personal power. It comes in as many colors as can be dreamt by junkies and artists and night folks and alley cats and priests and pigeons and kings and piano players combined. And dames like Rita are a walking rainbow.
The Philharmonic's first clarinetist had that shock of platinum that Luchesi's goon talked about. He played the amnesia game backstage in the theater for a few minutes before I threatened to show him a new way to insert the reed. Yes, he said, the goon had come skulking around the hall that day. Marsten came in later on, went straight to his dressing room, and didn't come out till curtain time. Blondie never got to deliver the message.
The band played some Mozart and then took an intermission. That's when Blondie broke the news to Marsten.
Blondie told me they were going to debut the Klemhoff piece and then go into an encore if things were hot. Marsten was all thumbs for the second act. I would have botched the Klemhoff concerto too after receiving Luchesi's little love note.
The killer got him sneaking out the back of the theater. Plugged him right there in the alley.
I was able to track him down after they discovered Blondie's body in a similar manner a few hours after I left him.
He lived in one of those lofts the fairies like to rent south of Houston Street. He had a piano, a card table, one chair, and a bunch of printed music littering the floor like the bottom of a birdcage.
Helluva way for a composer to live.
I looked under Klemhoff's skin that night. Before I cocked him over the head and dragged his carcass to the cops.
His motive in framing Rita was to collect the vig on Marsten for ruining his masterpiece. Rita's got enough baggage in her past to unpack a few motives here and there. Blackmail was a cinch.
Klemhoff iced Blondie for tipping Marsten off and causing those talented fingers to falter.
I wonder how far he would've gone had I not come along.