I flew out of Mitchell in Milwaukee again, a ninety-minute flight to Memphis International. As was my habit, I took a cab to the nearest sketchy-looking used car dealership, where I could pay cash and get title to match my phony ID (John R. Quarry) no questions asked. The sunny if humid weather encouraged me to go a little flashy, so I paid two grand of the Broker’s money for a pale-green ’69 Mustang convertible.
The ride to downtown Memphis, mid-afternoon, took only twenty minutes. I’d been here before, on one of my first jobs for the Broker, but that was almost five years ago. The area was still mostly a desolate, boarded-up place whose hard times had gotten harder after the murder of Martin Luther King; but it was starting to work its way back. I parked on South 2nd and, in my gray t-shirt, jeans and tennies, strolled to the Rendezvous and the best ribs in town, after which I walked it off on the riverfront.
That took me through Tom Lee Park, where a massive new bridge with M-shaped arches loomed. The gray shimmer of the Mississippi was undisturbed but for a paddlewheeler brimming with tourists. Tom Lee, by the way, was an African-American dock worker who saved the lives of thirty-two passengers when a steamboat sank in 1925. If that paddlewheeler started to go down, the odds of me diving in to start saving people weren’t so good. I mean, I’m a hell of a swimmer, but I would never dream of stealing Tom Lee’s thunder.
I retrieved my Mustang and headed for the address the Broker had provided, which was a bit of a head-scratcher. That years-ago Memphis job had taken me to the Highland Strip before, to remove a drug dealer (presumably for one of his competitors), and that the area might include a budding publishing empire seemed hard to fathom.
The Highland Strip had been a virtual extension of the University of Memphis campus for a very long time. Last trip I’d been told that before the late sixties, Highland Street near Southern Avenue had been a typical shopping district—grocery, hardware, jewelry store, barber shop and so on. What pulled the students in was a record store called Pop-I’s, where campus hippies began to gather. Soon funky restaurants, head shops and clothing stores began popping up, boutiques like Sexy Sadie and the Jeanery, restaurants like the Taj Mahal and The Café, plus The Cue Ball, a pool hall with an opium-den vibe. By the time of my visit here five years ago or so, the Highland Strip was strictly a hangout for freaks, long hairs, tie-dye tees, bell bottoms, and bare feet.
But as my Mustang prowled the Strip of today, with afternoon trailing into dusk, I saw a mix of empty boarded-up storefronts and new businesses, conventional ones not unlike the ones the hippies had driven out. College kids still walked the streets, but they just looked like students, not users looking to make a connection.
My destination turned out to be another defunct store in this neighborhood trying to work its way back to normalcy. The faded red-brick building was two stories, the white-paint-lettered ghost of CAFÉ floating above boarded-up double doors between plywood-covered storefront windows.
On the corner directly opposite was a three-story tan-brick building whose bottom floor, under a dark brown overhang, bore a fieldstone facade with beer neons glowing in its windows. Above the overhang, a sign extended from the side of the building like an arm signaling a turn, with red neon pulsing CLIMAX CLUB, smaller letters saying COCKTAILS. This substantial but hardly ostentatious structure did not look like the home of either a publishing empire or a nightclub that might have inspired one. But that’s exactly what it was.
I parked the Mustang, after putting up its top, on the street around the corner from the stakeout. The apartment over the dead café was accessed on the cross-street side of the building. The door was locked, but I had a key courtesy of the Broker. Travel bag in hand, I went up unlit, creaky, musty stairs to a claustrophobic, equally creaky landing, and knocked three times, like Tony Orlando but louder.
Footsteps behind the old paint-peeling door came my way and stopped.
"Me," I said to the paint-peeling wood.
Boyd peeked out, confirmed my claim, and let me in.
"Welcome to my world," he said with a sour smirk, scratching his head of curly brown hair.
This wasn’t a room at the Flamingo.
We stood in something that had been a kitchen, and, as if to prove it, an old refrigerator hummed in wheezy indignation about having to stay at it after so many loyal years of service, while blistered white cabinets hovered over a once-white counter like suspects in a line-up. A gray Formica table with paint stains and a couple of gold and gray chairs, their vinyl upholstery splitting, completed the less-than-inviting display; all the other appliances were missing in action, their shadows on the wall as if in the aftermath of an A-bomb.
Boyd was in a ribbed red long-sleeve shirt and black-and-red plaid pants. He surveyed the scene like an alien who had landed in the midst of ancient ruins.
His mouth pursed beneath his mustache. "Why do we put up with this shit?"
I shrugged. "The money? Rest of the joint this inviting?"
"Take the tour and see."
The place was, or had been, a furnished apartment. A hallway off the kitchen fed two bedrooms to the left, each with a double bed and an excuse for a nightstand. With a shiver, Boyd said that the mattresses had been bare and he’d gone to J.C. Penney and got us sheets and blankets and pillows. Sometimes having a gay partner comes in handy.
I stowed my travel bag in the unclaimed bedroom; between it and Boyd’s quarters was a working john with a shower stall, which was the pad’s only redeeming feature. Someone had cleaned it, almost certainly Boyd.
The living room seemed spacious, or maybe that was just because it had so little in it—a threadbare green-sparkle-upholstered couch to the right, a matching chair over at left. The walls were pale yellow swirly plaster, the carpet a urine-yellow shag, and the thought of what might be hiding down in there was a little chilling.
By the row of four front windows, Boyd had set up his surveillance. We were lucky the windows weren’t boarded up, though two of them were broken, the glass held in place by their frames and duct tape; mustard-color curtains had been left behind.
"Also from J.C. Penney," he said, gesturing at the khaki folding camping chair, angled to the edge of the window farthest right. His stakeout post.
He’d also gotten himself a cooler and a small portable television. The portable radio I recognized as one he’d brought from home; it was on an easy listening station, Jack Jones singing, "Wives and Lovers." Also from home were the binoculars, which rested on top of a spread-out newspaper near his chair—he would not set those on that questionable carpet—as did his Smith and Wesson .38 long-barreled Model 29 revolver.
I rarely used a revolver. Boyd preferred them over automatics, because the latter sometimes jammed. That was true, but you can’t use a silencer on a revolver. We agreed to disagree.
I pulled the green easy chair over and sat, which put the "easy" part in question. He turned the camp chair toward me and settled into it, crossing his legs. Bing Crosby started singing, "Pennies from Heaven."
I asked, "How long you been here?"
"Three goddamn days." He winced at the world around us. "What is the smell in this dump?"
"Cat urine. Ancient cat urine, but unmistakable. Like vintage wine."
"Jesus." He shivered, then gestured generally. "I put those air freshener things around, too, and what good are they doing?"
"Not much. How much good are you doing?"
He smirked, shook his head. "Not much more than the air fresheners."
"This our only stakeout site?"
Boyd nodded. "That’s the saving grace of this shitty job and this shitty shithole."
His head bobbed toward Highland. "We have one-stop shopping here. This character Climer lives on the top floor of the building across the way, in a kind of penthouse. The magazine offices are on the second floor, and of course the club is on the first."
"You been over there?"
He nodded. "Club floor only. Nicer than the outside looks. Mirrors and leather. No cover charge. Pretty girls. Nice bodies. They strip down all the way. If that’s what you’re into."
"Well, it kind of is."
He flipped a hand. "Drinks aren’t weak, or expensive. There’s no hooking on the premises, but the girls and the clientele negotiate on the side. Night I went over there, I saw table dances with as much talking as dancing. Then back here at my post, I observed several of the little dears, after closing, meet the gentlemen out front of the club and go off with ’em."
"You think the club is in on that action?"
The other hand flipped. "Don’t know. My guess? The management doesn’t discourage the hooking, ’cause it brings in the customers. But they probably don’t participate because even in this corrupt town, they might get busted big-time."
"You assuming the town’s corrupt...or did you see something?"
"Saw something. A couple of plainclothes gendarmes who I took to be vice cops got paid off at the bar. Money passed hands with no effort to conceal."
"Was Climer making the pay-off himself?"
"Well, a Climer was. Max’s first and only cousin, Vernon. He runs the club now that Max has turned editor and publisher. I have the Broker’s file for you to go over—Vernon’s in it."
I frowned. "Does the Broker think Climer’s own cousin took out the contract?"
Under the bushy brush of a mustache, white teeth blossomed. "Why, Quarry, would that shock you? He’s Max Climer’s sole close living relation, no brothers or sisters, and Mommy and Daddy went to heaven when Max was but a teen—seems the family moonshine still exploded."
I gave him half a grin. "You gotta be shitting me."
"Not even a little. Max Climer grew up in a cabin straight out of Dogpatch. The family business was shine. Hell, the Climer boys are still selling spirits, aren’t they?"
"Yeah, but that’s not where their fortune’s being made. And somebody in that organization is smart, because their magazine isn’t just another skin rag."
The shaggy eyebrows climbed. "Really? And what separates it from the smutty crowd, would you say?"
"For one thing, it’s funny as hell. The cartoons, and even the articles, are really off the wall. That rag tells all kinds of important people to go fuck themselves. And it does it in between split-beaver pics."
The ugly phrase made Boyd shudder. Which of course is why I used it. I have to have some fun out of life.
His chin rose so he could look down his nose at me. "So you read Climax for the articles, do you, Quarry? Now I’ve heard everything."
"Why, you ever read the magazine?"
"I don’t believe I’m the target audience."
"Well, if you ever cracked a cover, you’d know that hillbilly Hefner over there writes editorials in favor of gay rights, women’s liberation, and civil liberties in general. Of course, his idea of striking out against racism is running a pictorial of a big black stud banging a young white chick."
Boyd made a face. "Must you?"
"There’s no reason to insult me."
"Anyway," I said, "there are all kinds of people who want to silence a guy like Max Climer. It wouldn’t have to be a family member who wants to inherit."
The Broker’s manila folder was on the cooler. Boyd nodded toward it. "Why don’t you go over the file, and see if you have any questions?"
I sat and read it, sipping a Coke courtesy of Boyd, who had a six-pack in his cooler for me, looking after my needs like the good partner he was.
The cousin was in the file. So was a wife, separated but not yet divorced from Climer. And a current girlfriend who’d been a dancer at the club. Also the daughter of cousin Vernon, who was some kind of women’s libber. A few other co-workers. Local civic types who’d spoken out against Climer and Climax magazine. Some religious leaders, a few of them potentially dangerous flakes.
Tossing the folder back on the cooler, I said to Boyd, who’d angled his chair back to the window and was using his binoculars, "How have you proceeded, so far?"
He lowered the binoculars, swung his head toward me. "The usual. Keeping an eye on Climer’s comings and goings. He stays pretty much to that three-story castle over there. Goes out for an early supper, five, six o’clock. Country boys don’t eat late like city folk, I guess."
"You follow him then?"
Boyd nodded. "Haven’t been here long enough to know if he’s got a regular schedule in that regard. You know, favorite eating spots he frequents."
Some people established a pattern that way, going to favorite restaurants on the same nights of the week, every week.
"So, then," I said, "you barely got back from Vegas when the Broker got in touch and sent you here."
With a few quick nods, Boyd said, "That’s right. A little odd, doing two jobs this close together...but Broker’s the boss, and this is paying very damn well, don’t you think?"
I nodded. I didn’t want to go into specifics because I might be getting paid more than Boyd. Previously when the Broker sent me in undercover, he’d rewarded me for it. No need to get Boyd’s nose out of joint over that.
I said, "You’ve been following our regular routine?"
"As if Climer himself were the target."
"Uh, yes, of course."
I held up a "stop" palm. "Okay, now meaning no offense...he’s not our target. We have multiple targets here, but Climer is not one of them."
Boyd frowned. He clearly hadn’t thought this through. We had our usual way of doing things, and he’d fallen into step. Nor had the Broker thought to give him new directions in this different circumstance.
I said, "Our targets are as follows—first, the team that somebody’s sending in to kill Max Climer. Second, whoever hired that team...who we have to first identify and then dispatch. Because if we don’t, another team will be sent in, and on and on it goes."
Boyd was still frowning. Defensively, he said, "Well, if we keep an eye on Climer, surely that will lead us to—"
"No," I said, cutting him off. "You’re assuming if we spot somebody going after the guy...either in that building across the street, or by way of a drive-by kill outside his favorite barbecue joint or something...that we can interrupt things in a timely enough fashion to save his ass and take down the hitters."
And by "we" I really meant "me," because I was the active half here.
"I see your point," he said, and the defensiveness was gone. "And you’re right. Sorry. I guess I...I guess I really screwed up."
I waved it off. "Climer isn’t dead yet, so forget it. You’ve picked up worthwhile intel, which is good, but now we have to shift our focus from Climer to the team sent in to take him out."
Boyd sighed, nodded. "Might not be a team, though. Might be a lone wolf. Not everybody works this game the way the Broker does."
"True. But a lot do. Either way, we need to locate the competition and put them out of business...like that café below us."
He smiled, a little embarrassment in it. "Wish a café were down there now. Would come in handy."
"Actually, it wasn’t bad."
The shaggy eyebrows came together. "You ate there? When in hell?"
"One of my first jobs for Broker, before he teamed us up, was here in Memphis. They served sandwiches and cold beer and if you used the head, you got yourself a free contact high. It was all hippies and dope back then."
He smirked. "Now it’s pussy and pornography."
"Well, not entirely. Seems like this neighborhood is trying to come back to respectable life, and I’m sure Max Climer’s presence here is not a happy thing for many of his neighbors."
Boyd frowned. "Unhappy enough to want him dead?"
I grunted a laugh. "Wouldn’t surprise me." I stood. "Look, stay at your post. I’m going to take a look around the neighborhood. See I can spot anything or anybody."
Boyd nodded. "Okay. Do that. Good idea. Good thinking. Uh, Quarry?"
I was halfway across the room, heading for the hallway. I glanced back. "Yeah?"
"Sorry I...kind of screwed up."
"Naw, you didn’t. We’re just getting started here."
"You won’t, uh...mention how boneheaded I was to the Broker or anything...?"
"Hell no. And you weren’t. Cool it. I’ll be back in an hour or two."
Soon I was down on the street where dusk was darkening to night and the air had turned cool even as it stayed dry. I had the black windbreaker on, the nine millimeter (minus the silencer) stuffed in my back waistband—the jacket came down over my hips enough to help hide the weapon.
I took a nice casual walk along both sides of the streets adjacent to the Climax Club. What I was looking for was somebody (or somebodies) sitting in a car without the engine running. Probably a man or men, but a female gun wasn’t out of the question—I knew of several who worked for the Broker. In many cases, someone sitting surveillance would tuck into the backseat, keeping down, so that at first glance the car would appear unoccupied.
For now, anyway, I spotted no one who might be on stakeout. But I’d have to stay on top of the possibility.
As I walked, I also looked at the second- and third-floor apartments of buildings close enough to Climer’s to provide decent surveillance. On the cross street, the side of the three-story building opposite the front of the club had second-floor lights on above a pawn shop.
The door to the stairs up to the apartment was on Highland, between the pawnshop and a secondhand furniture store. It was unlocked and, after switching on a light inside the door, I went on up to the landing. These stairs were carpeted and not at all creaky, the walls fairly freshly painted, and the door on the landing had also been painted this decade, a friendly bright yellow.
My right hand on my hip, for easy access to the nine millimeter, I knocked with my left. One more knock, and the door cracked open, a young woman with dark curly hair and big brown eyes gazing across the night latch. She was in navy slacks and a navy-and-white polka-dot top, and looked nice if a little harried. The sound of a toddler making a noise that was identifiable neither as happy nor sad was making her wince at little.
"Yes?" she said, talking over the kid noise.
"Oh," I said, "I’m sorry—I thought this was the Lindel residence. Sorry."
I backed away, smiling embarrassedly, and she found a smile and a nod, then closed the door on me.
That was not a lady hitman. Nor was her toddler, though he or she might having been killing mommy by inches.
I went up the remaining flight and knocked several times at a bright green door. No response. Some landlord had spruced the building up, but apparently this apartment was either unoccupied or its renter wasn’t home.
I returned to the second-floor landing and knocked again.
As before, the young woman in navy blue answered, frowning over the latch chain, and I said, "Forgive me—this is the last time I’ll bother you. But do the Lindels have the upstairs apartment? No one responded to my knock."
"That’s because no one lives up there," she said with a painfully forced smile. "If you’ll excuse me?"
The door closed a little harder that time. Didn’t blame her.
This made the upstairs apartment problematic. If it sat empty, that meant sometime in the next few days it could be occupied by people in the same profession as Boyd and me. It might be occupied by suchlike right now, if those doing so were being discreet and quiet about it.
No other lights were on in nearby second- and third-floor windows. And I knew how to spot minimal light from between windows and curtains, as well as the glint of binoculars.
I returned to Boyd, who was still in his camp chair with his own binoculars at the ready.
Plopping down in the uneasy chair, I said, "I don’t think they’re here yet. Nobody’s running a parked-car stakeout, and I don’t see anything suspicious in the rooms with a view."
"Well," Boyd said, brow furrowed, "the Broker indicated he turned this job down only recently. The client would have to find a new broker and things’d have to be set in motion. Could be we’re ahead of the curve."
"If we are," I said, "it’s just barely. But still an advantage. You had any sleep lately?"
"Some," he said. "According to the advance intel the Broker gave me, Climer sleeps in till noon. Likes to work all night or party the same, depending on his mood and the needs of his magazine. So I’ve been sleeping in myself. But this has been fucking drudgery, and we’re just getting started."
I pawed the air. "Catch yourself some zee’s. I’ll cover the night shift."
"Cool. I appreciate it, Quarry."
"Don’t freak out if I’m not here. I’m going to check out the Climax Club at some point this evening."
"Okay. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do."
He’d said this to me before and knew what my response would be.
I gave it to him anyway, with a smile: "No promises on that score."
Copyright © 2017 by Max Allan Collins.