As you look through the sharp dusty knife-edges of a shattered window of the old tool and die factory in this lake-weathered small town, you see a third-floor window of a run-down hotel on the main street of the once-proud burg.
It was the kind of hotel where people come when hope is just a distant memory and success is like a dame that stands you up at the big dance.
An acrid, half-broken neon light advertises vacancies that won’t be filled except by a few lost travelers, ex-cons, hustlers and hookers.
You see a single bare bulb burning overhead, an uncovered mattress and a down and out cockroach paused on the floor. Paint and cracked plaster were peeling off the walls.
The writer sits in the middle of the room in a tattered sleeveless t-shirt ruined by yellowed armpit stains, a filter-less Roakanoake-brand cigarette dangling precariously from the side of his mouth, a half-empty flask of whiskey on the bare desk and a dirty ashtray filled with chewed cigarette butts. If you listen carefully, you can faintly hear the staccato rat-tat-tat of his well-worn 1931 Johnson-Valdez Typewriter on frayed Onion-Skin Paper.
Living in the same cheap hotel since his wife threw him out after the war, Lorton hasn’t shaved much since ‘46, as soon as he got it, he lost his post-war job at the tool and die factory when it shut down to re-open in South Carolina. He still wears a .38 Ivory-Schmouck pistol in a leather holster from working part-time as a private dick in Erie.
He is Paul Lorton, the voice of a grizzled, unshaven generation of disaffected veterans, punks, pushers, drunks and other losers who are on their last dime.
It figures a washed-out bum like him would end up in what was left of this shabby rust-belt loser of a town. Another Boulevard of Broken Dreams running from the New York border along the rusted-out pastel lakefront all the way to Ohio. The only ones left are those typical hangers-on: those who are too old to move, veterans who don’t have the energy to start again, and shiftless losers who gave up on hope a long time ago.
It is Sam Cicero, PI once out of Dearborn, Michigan, standing just inside the broken window of the Tool and Die Factory, paid to follow Lorton on behalf of some rich dame from Toledo. Seems she thinks this down and out bum Lorton knows something about somebody.
One look at this disheveled Palooka would tell you he doesn’t know squat about anything except how to lose a job and how to smoke a cheap square down to its worn-out filthy butt. All this character has left is his worn-out typewriter and the slim hope that one of his crappy stories might get published and he might hit the big-time.
Cicero is dressed to the nines as usual, his clients always pay better and he still has the pearl-handled revolver he won from a Colonel in a shitty card game during a torrential downpour in a giant muddy shell hole at Anzio Beachhead back during the War.
One might mistake Cicero for a small-town pimp or some other white-shoed hustler looking to make a fast buck. Only his badge will tell you different and maybe the butt of his gun if you end up on the wrong side of him.
Cicero did a little snooping around on Lorton. Erie was new territory for Cicero since he recently bailed out of his Dearborn office.
He had followed Lorton for a while the day before, when Lorton disappeared into an old National Guard Armory on Erie’s west-side. One of the soldiers who came out for a roak claimed that Lorton was still in the service somehow, an officer, working some kind of project that was very hush-hush. It didn’t add up. The kid said Lorton was an officer, claimed he was in both the Great War and WWII.
To Cicero, a character like Lorton, a wanna-be pulp writer, is a born killer. You can see it in the vacant stare in his eyes. You wonder how he could write when his imagination was blown out along with his senses years ago. He killed his way across the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Leyte and he’s liable to do it again if the price is right.
Cicero lit a cigarette, it was a Kanawha menthol. He then took a swig from his flask of cheap Bourbon. He had to be careful. Lorton was quiet, but prone to outbursts of savage, controlled violence. He could coax the truth out of a fanatical Jap without much trouble, so what chance would the average man have with him? Better not to roll the dice.
Cicero jotted down the clues in his little leather bound notebook. What did he know? What were the facts? Every good detective starts with the first fact, the first clue. Then he has to substantiate the fact. The best way is to have three independent sources validate the fact.
All facts were important. Some more important than others. He had at least six facts. They had to be sorted, analyzed, validated and sequenced.
Fact 1: Lorton was living in Erie. Why Erie? Lake town? Fact 2: What was he doing with the National Guard? It was clear he was still in the Army. Fact 3: Why was he still carrying a gun? Army officers don’t carry guns when they aren’t on duty. Plus, it was a civilian gun, not military issue. Fact 4: The typewriter. What the hell was he writing? Fiction? Or was there some kind of message in his writing? Fact 5: The Roakanoake cigarettes. A special brand from coastal Carolina. You couldn’t order them, you had to buy them from one little shop on Nag’s Head. Fact 6: Why did he take a civilian job at a factory if he was still in the Army?
DOWNTOWN, ERIE, PA
Down on the darkened main street, under a buzzing streetlight that hadn’t been replaced since ‘38, stood a crafty local pimp and hustler by the name of Dave Thomas. Dave was a typical punk, ex-con, slimy, smooth talker with the prettiest hookers in town.
He was tough alright, until you started to slap him around a bit. He was a greasy, no-account punk… the kind that made you want to wash your hands after you knocked him around for a little scoop.
Cicero never knew Dave Thomas’ real name. He never was interested. He was just another low-life greasy, foreign bum who crawled here along with the real refugees from Hungary after the War.
He was good at one thing: finding young runaway girls and getting them to turn tricks. He was also good at Hustling drunken, staggering, whisky-stinking businessmen and traveling salesmen out of their billfolds. If there was a dollar around, a punk like Thomas could sniff it out from a mile away.
Cicero dropped the butt and screwed it into the metal landing with his feet. He walked down the dusty steps of the Tool and Die Factory. It was covered with years of rancid pigeon droppings. Once upon a time, a thousand men worked here seven days a week, three shifts a day. Now it was washed up like Cicero, Lorton and all the other rotten losers that still chose to live by the rusting cemeteries that used to be lake-towns.
Cicero took a long look around the plant. Giant rusted, idled machines stood like dinosaur bones in a shuttered museum covered with dust. Every now and then a piss-stinking wino came in to sleep off the nights’ rotgut or Sterno. The stench of long-rotted urine crept up from under the stairs.
Cicero climbed through the chained, but broken-down front door of the plant into the acrid lights. There was a little bit of mist. There always is in a lake-town. He stepped quickly across the street.
Thomas spotted him and thought about running, but it was too late. Thomas tried to act cool, but he knew he was in for another beating. Cicero crossed the vacant street and had Thomas by the collar.
“Boss, boss it’s OK! Don’t crinkle da matewrial!” He said in a high-pitched eastern European accent.
“Is wery expwensive you know.” Thomas put his hand up and straightened his collar and tie. He wore a diamond stickpin set in a silver frame, a cashmere coat , a straw hat and a bow-tie.
“You know why I’m here, punk?”
“Is no secret boss, you watching da writer. The man upstairs. He a little bit scary.”
“Yeah and how did you find out, you sleazy punk?”
“You let me go and I twell you story, Mr. Cicero-man.”
Cicero loosened his grip on Thomas’ collar. Thomas straightened his collar and patted down his coat. Thomas gestured for a square. Cicero handed him a cigarette and they both lit one up.
Thomas took a long roak and nodded with approval to Cicero.
“Is dies a Kanawha? Wery good Charlotte Cigarette! Good Piedmont flavor!”
As they roaked the sweet-hot, acrid, hypnotic, nicotine-stoked Kanawha-brand cigarettes, Thomas spilled the scoop, but never everything he knew. He was too smart for that.
There was always a little cash in being a little bit quiet. He knew how to handle a private eye. They needed info, he needed cash. Never want to break the relationship. Private eyes were too valuable and knew too many shitty flatfoots.
“It seems they was a man in town from Creefroo.”
“What the hell is Creefroo you stinkin’ import.”
“Yoo know boss, Creefroo, Ohio-da big city on dee lake.”
“You mean Cleveland you idiot, Cleveland.”
Cicero held Thomas by the cheeks, forcing his mouth into the right position to pronounce the word right.
“Say it, say it!”
“Close enough, punk.”
“I forget the man’s nawme now…what was dat name?” Said Thomas with a finger pointed to his temple.
Cicero handed him a Hamilton.
“Now I remember, Sammy my boy. His nawme was McGlory. He have blond hair. He look like Jesus.”
WHAP! Cicero backhanded him across the face.
“Don’t you blaspheme in front of me you rotten punk!”
“OK boss you stretch de matwerial, is nice is very, very nice! I mean no insuwlt to the howly Jesus man.”
Just then, out of the shadows, a shitty-looking worn-out tramp who looked like she was ridden hard and put away wet showed up. She was dolled up in a short skirt, stockings and high heels.
She was a dirty little girl, probably a runaway before the War who got stuck in this festering rat-hole like everyone else. At least she came by her money more honestly than the draft-dodging bums who ran the factory, bled the town dry and then destroyed a thousand hopes and dreams when they took it South to save a little money, Cicero thought. He hated suits and money-men.
The girl twirled her little purse while taking a long sweet-hot roak on a Katawba brand cigarette’s alluring, erotic menthol fumes.
“Having a little trouble, Dave she asked?” She looked Cicero up and down and gave him a wink. He looked her over. He liked her. She was his kind of gal, a dirty, filthy low-class tawdry little tramp without an ounce of self-respect.
“No is good, is my friewnd Sammy, no troubwle, he good man! You go now, wait for me little girly.”
The girl handed Thomas a wad of cash from her brassiere. She walked away slowly, looking back at Cicero over her shoulder. He looked at the back of her ribbed-stocking covered thighs. Her filth-encrusted skirt was short enough that he could see a garter.
“Boss you like dee girl? Do you want dis boddee? Do you want dis boddee?” He began to do a little erotic dance with his palms turned up as he balanced on one foot.
“Shut up you perv or I’ll pistol-whip you. Where does this beatnik Irish-Mickey bum McGlory hang out?”
“He play piano in a shitty bar in a town called Iriria Ohio-now what was the nawme of that bar…”
Cicero handed him another ten.
“You talking about Elyria?” Thomas stepped back lest his mouth be grabbed and contorted again.
“Yes boss, Iriria.”
Cicero looked up and he noticed that the room where Lorton had been staying was dark. He looked down the street to the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal. He saw a tall figure with a black case boarding the train on the Cleveland-bound side of the tracks.
Crap! He had been sleeping at the Switch while Lorton slipped away. He had to act fast. He didn’t want to lose Lorton. He needed this case to pay his bills. He already lost Lorton’s trail once since this whole shebang started.
Thomas threw Cicero a pack of Roakanoake brand cigarettes. Cicero winked, then he stuffed the good roaks into his coat pocket as he ran to the train station.
Cicero didn’t like to run. He picked up kind of a limp when his ship was sunk by a Nazi sub in the North Atlantic in ‘42. He was a beachmaster at Anzio when he got hit again.
But without the Navy, he was just another bum. A washed up two-bit palooka in a pin-striped suit, white shoes and a Fedora to match. He still had the rusty anchor tattoo on his forearm that his dad and him each got when they were in Wilmington before the war.
UNION STATION, ERIE PA
He walked into the Old Train Station. It was a typical choo-choo station-old, but well-kept. At the window, the worn-out, half-dead, grizzled old station master peered up at Cicero over his bifocals. Looked like this old rascal must have started out with the Western Pennsylvania Railroad Company back in the 1890s.
‘You’re gonna miss the train if you don’t get on it soon there sonny-Jim.’
‘Where’s it going old-timer?’
‘Well first to Cleveland, then Toledo…’
‘Stop in Elyria by any chance?’
‘$12.75 will get you there, we only got room in first class.’
Cicero threw a ten-dollar silver certificate and a bunch of silver halves on the counter. The old man carefully tallied it up and wrote out a ticket, then he adjusted his dried-out stamper, spun a few gear-wheels, stamped it on an ink pad and then he stamped the ticket.
‘Here’s your change sir, and don’t forget your ticket.’
The train was idling. A giant machine-age NY South-Central 2-6-0 Mughal 1924 locomotive. It was huge, powerful, loud and violent. It belched out thick coal-smoke. The train whistle blew as it had for decades and the conductor called “All Aboard.” Cicero scanned the train before he boarded.
The train was packed with the nameless faceless, haggard, travelers who were riding for work, going home or going nowhere like most of the jokers in coach. Failed quitters with no destination but out and away from whatever shattered life they were leaving. Rotten losers and bums who drew the short straw in the game of life.
Cicero never sat in first class, but he was keeping tab of all his expenses, because that’s how he got paid. He wasn’t even sure about the Dame who was paying him on this one.
He only knew she paid in advance. A stack of 200 crisp, icy-hot Ten-Dollar Silver Certificates for the first two weeks work plus expenses. This was a lot of jack. Either she was loaded or she had someone behind her who was loaded. The whole thing was as fishy as the moldy boats he could smell wafting up from the lake.
Cicero moved down the aisle toward the porter. A wealthy-looking elderly man raised a hairy eyebrow as Cicero walked by. His wife scoffed and looked down at her newspaper. A group of young collegians wearing Case Western letter sweaters suddenly became quiet and eyed him as he passed.
“Your ticket sir”, said a skeptical-looking porter. The porter pulled him into the small room at the end of the car as the train left the station and slowly built speed.
“Curtis, It’s damn good to see you again!” Said Cicero.
“How the hell you end up on my train Cicero? I haven’t seen you since we both ended up in the water.”
“Long story short-I got a job I’m working in town.”
He lifted his coat and showed Curtis the gat.
“Erie, PA. But you the law now?”
“No just a PI mostly serving papers and spying on cheating spouses, but this, this is a hot one.”
“Can I help you man? Life pretty dull from time to time.”
“Yeah partner, get me into coach. I’m trailing a guy by the name of Lorton.”
“Lorton, a tall guy, scraggly, big scar on his neck?”
“Yeah that’s him.”
“We’ll he got you good man. He got off the train and changed his ticket. He’s going back the other way. He’s headed for Pittsburgh.”
“Where can I get off?”
“I recommend you get off in Cleveland and take the express back down through Steubenville. You stop at Conneaut you’ll be there for a day and a half.”
The two of them walked out between the cars. The train was at full speed now and there was a cool but smoky breeze between the cars.
Roakanoake?” Asked Cicero holding out a pack of squares.
Cicero pulled out the matchbook.
Written on the back in Thomas’ shitty Hungarian, Gypsy scrawl was:
“Forget Krazy Jim’s Bar Eriria, go to Big Jowe’s in Five Miles Run Piwccsburgh. Find Piawno player nawme McGlory. You call him at MOntclair5-2368.”
Cicero though for a minute, next time he’d give the bastard a couple of twenties. Thomas was nervous. He didn’t tell the truth on the corner for a reason. Maybe the walls had ears or Lorton had still been watching. Either way Thomas was alright for a sleazy pimp.
It was gonna be a long night. He took a long hot, soothing, acrid drag on the filter-less Roakanoake brand cigarette and he looked out across the lake. Roakanoake cigarettes…that was Paul Lorton’s brand! He had been double-crossed, or had he? Maybe Thomas was afraid. But why, and if it wasn’t Lorton that spooked him , then who had put the chill into him?
Cicero put the squares back into his pocket. The two men looked out at the dark lake and they roaked the sweet nicotine-filled fumes in silence.
He thought back to the last week…
Cicero walked into the Toledo car dealership.
“Hey it’s Fast Bobby. Fast Bobby fast cars, you bet. Glad to meet you! Did you just get off the train? Instead of driving? Man I could put you into a new car!”
“The name is Sam, I’m a private eye and I’m not here about a car. I’m here about a Dame.”
“I don’t sell those partner!”
“No… a Dame who bought a car here, this is the plate.” Cicero showed him the number scrawled on a little crumpled piece of paper.
“Oh yeah, a pretty little thing. She wears shades all the time.”
“What do you know about her?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“She’s my client and I want to make sure everything’s straight.”
“She told me she needed a car to get back and forth to Pittsburgh.”
“Did she come in here alone?”
“No she came in with a couple of old Army buddies of mine. They’re both musicians now. Play in some dusty dump down in five-mile run in Pittsburgh. Called Big Joe’s”
“What do you know about her?”
“Some kind of war orphan. From China or Philippines or somewhere. My buddy and his brother took her in.”
Sam took out a cigarette and handed one to Bobby.
“If you need any help let me know.”
The two men took long sweet-hot calming roaks on their cigarettes.
“Sure you don’t need a car?”
Broadway Station didn’t look like much at this time of the morning. Sleeping winos, sleazy hookers, night-owls, the usual.
Cicero went over to a dirty payphone at the station. He struggled with a handful of nickels.
He dialed Jenny back at the new office in Erie.
“Is this station to station or person to person?” Asked the operator. Cicero hated the phone company. Everything was always a pain in the neck. You could never just make a call.
“It’s person to person.”
“Please deposit twenty cents, please.”
He slowly put in each nickels.
The phone rang seven times. Jenny was never too far from the phone. She usually slept on the big, wooden desk.
“Cicero Investigations, how may I help you?”
“Jenny it’s me.”
“Sam, what time is it? What do you need?”
“I need you to call a place named Big Joe’s after 9AM, get scoop on a guy named McGlory. Seems he’s a piano player, hangs out with a couple of guys and a Dame. It’s MOntclair 5-2368″
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Twenty Cents, please.”
Sam fumbled for more nickels and he put them into the slots.
“Got it Jenny?”
“Oh yeah, I got it. How do I get back in touch with you?”
“I’ll call you, stay near the phone.”
“I don’t have a place yet, you ass, I’m living in your stinking office! Are you gonna pay me any time soon?”
“Jesus, I’ll pay you, be patient!”
Cicero hung up the phone. He walked out into the street and he lit up a roak. Fast Bobby gave him pretty good scoop. He lived for scoop. What if this dame was connected with the Army some how? How else would she have been able to get here with a bunch of Army guys. She must have been someone important. But if the Army was involved, that would explain the bankroll.
But who were these other bums? They must still be connected with the Army and for that matter why was Lorton hanging around the Armory? This dead cat was starting to turn green-Army Green and it was really beginning to stink.