The name is Cordell.
I’m a drunk. I think we’d better get that straight from the beginning. I drink because I want to drink. Sometimes I’m falling-down ossified, and sometimes I’m rosy-glow happy, and sometimes I’m cold sober—but not very often. I’m usually drunk, and I live where being drunk isn’t a sin, though it’s sometimes a crime when the police go on a purity drive. I live on New York’s Bowery.
There’s some talk that now with the Third Avenue El demolished, real estate values will soar and the city will clean out the Bowery and make it a respectable high-priced business district. All right. When they do, I’ll move elsewhere. There’s always an elsewhere for people who are running from something. I’m running from a ghost. The ghost is named Matt Cordell.
There’s a little park just outside Cooper Union. During the school term, the park is full of art and engineering students. The young girls come out in their paint-daubed smocks and puff on their cigarettes as if this is the last smoke before the firing squad takes over. It’s fun to watch the kids because they’re burning more than cigarettes—they’re burning life, they’re burning it in big blazing holocausts and loving every minute of it. It’s great to be alive, I guess. I never go to that little park during the school term. I go there in the summer, though. The park is empty then. You can sit on one of the benches and look at the statue of Peter Cooper and feel protected and cloistered in the middle of a giant throbbing city. Once in a while, a cop will come along and tell you to move on. But most of the time, you can sit there and be alone in the center of a crowd.
I was there when Johnny Bridges found me. I wasn’t drunk. I was feeling like tying on a stiff one because New York City in the summertime is possibly the hottest place in the world. I can’t understand why tourists come here. It’s a wonderful place to live, but who’d want to visit it? I was sitting in the park thinking of cool civilized drinks like Tom Collinses and Planter’s Punches and then thinking about what I’d drink—an uncool, uncivilized pint of cheap booze. That was when Johnny Bridges walked up.
"Matt?" he said.
I didn’t recognize him at first. He’d put on some weight around the middle, and his features were a little thicker. It took me a few moments to place the broad shoulders and the brown eyes, the narrow thin lips and the sharply sweeping nose. Then the name came back from somewhere in my memory, Johnny Bridges, and I looked at him with new interest. He was about my age, I guessed, thirty-two or thirty-three. I hadn’t seen him in ten years.
"Matt Cordell?" he said.
"How’ve you been?" he said, smiling. "You remember me, don’t you? I’m ..."
"Yeah," I said. "What’s on your mind?"
"Okay if I sit down?" he asked.
"It’s a free country."
He sat on the bench alongside me. He tried not to notice the shabby wrinkled suit I was wearing, or the soiled shirt, or the fact that I hadn’t shaved in a week. He tried not to notice my red-rimmed eyes, too, but he didn’t succeed in hiding his initial shock or the slow adjustment he was making to my appearance. I don’t know what he expected, but this wasn’t the Matt Cordell he’d known ten years ago. Nervously, he fished into his jacket pocket and extended a package of cigarettes to me.
"Smoke?" he said.
I took a cigarette and he lighted it for me, returning the package to his pocket after he’d taken one for himself. He was wearing a blue seersucker suit with a red tie. I figured he was working for a Madison Avenue advertising agency or a bank. He looked very neat and very clean-shaven and very Esquire magazine-ish. It probably made him itchy just sitting there beside me.
"How have you been, Matt?" he asked.
"Just dandy," I said. "And you?"
"Fine. Oh, fine," Johnny said.
"Yeah, that’s...." He let the sentence trail. We sat in silence for a little while. I don’t believe in pushing a man. He’d come looking for me, and I’d have been delighted if he hadn’t found me. If he had anything on his mind, he’d get to it in his own time. If he had nothing to say, he could leave as soon as he finished his cigarette.
"I read about you," Johnny said. "In the newspapers."
"That was a terrible thing," he said. "I mean, the whole business. The thing with your wife, and then the police taking away your..."
"Let’s forget it, Johnny," I said.
"From what I heard...I mean, I heard you were a good detective."
"I was," I said.
"When they take away a man’s license..."
"He stops being a private detective," I said. "He moves to the Bowery. Okay? Can we drop it now?"
"It must have been quite a blow," Johnny said.
"It’s always a blow to find out your wife’s unfaithful," I said, and then I stood up. "I’ll see you, Johnny." I started to walk away, and he put his hand on my arm.
"No, look, wait a minute," he said. "I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it still bothered you."
"It does," I said. It still bothered me. It bothered the hell out of me, and I didn’t feel like sitting there discussing it with a guy I hadn’t seen in ten years.
"Okay," he said, "we’ll forget it, okay?"
I almost laughed out loud. Forget it! I’d spent the past five years trying to do just that. And now Johnny Bridges spoke the magic words, and we’d forget it. Bang! Johnny Bridges, Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
"What do you want, Johnny?" I said. "I was on my way to getting drunk."
"I need your help, Matt," he said.
"My help? How can I help you?"
"You used to be a detective..."
"Used to is right. I’m not any longer. I have no license. You said you read the newspapers. All right, you know they yanked my license."
"Yes, I know. But still, you used to practice...and you were good."
"So...I...need help, Matt."
"Are you talking about an investigation?" I said.
"Yes. Sort of."
"Count me out," I said. I started to go again. He came up off the bench and stepped into my path.
"Matt, listen...I’d go to a regular detective agency, but I can’t afford it."
"That’s unfortunate," I said. "Why don’t you go to the police?"
"Because I don’t want this thing to...look, can I explain it to you a minute? Can I just explain it to you?"
"I’m getting thirsty," I told him.
"I’ll buy you a drink. Will you listen then?"
"Sure. Come on."
We went to a bar on Fourteenth Street. I didn’t take him to any of the Bowery places, which were a lot less expensive, because I thought they might embarrass him. The bar we went to served both bankers and bums. We went to a booth at the back. Johnny ordered a gin and tonic. I ordered rye neat. When the drinks came, I threw mine down and asked for another. I threw that one down, too, and Johnny ordered a third for me and then began sipping at his gin-tonic.
"So what’s the story?" I said.
"I’m a tailor," he told me.
This shouldn’t have surprised me because his father had been a tailor, but I guess the seersucker suit threw me. Besides, in this day and age, you don’t think of young men entering professions like tailoring or baking or cobbling. You just don’t.
"I’m in business with another guy," he said. "Up in the old neighborhood. Maybe you remember him. Dom Archese?"
"No, I don’t remember him."
"Well, that’s because he’s older than us. He used to hang around with Frankie Di Luca, that bunch. He’s a wonderful guy, Dom. Married, settled down. You know. But..." He stopped and shook his head. The bar was silent except for the whir of a giant fan in one corner of the room. The fan didn’t help the heat much. Even in his seersucker suit, Johnny Bridges was beginning to sweat.
"You’re having trouble with Dom?" I said. "Is that it?"
"Well, I don’t know, that’s the problem. I mean, he’s a wonderful guy, Matt, honest he is. He didn’t know anything about running a tailor shop when we first started. I knew it from my father...well, you remember him."
"Sure. But Dom didn’t know a thing. He’d just got married, and he was looking for a good steady business, so he asked if I could use a partner in the shop. The business came to me when my father—God rest his soul—passed away, you see."
"I see. So you took Dom in, is that right?"
"Yeah. Well, I didn’t take him in exactly. He bought in. After all, it was an established business with a lot of steady customers. Actually, I was glad to have a partner. The work was really too much. Even now, we have to hire a presser. And Dom caught on right away. I mean, he still doesn’t do any of the actual tailoring work, that’s not something you pick up overnight, you know. But he’s great with the customers, and he knows how to press, and eventually he’ll learn how to sew, too. Not that there’s very much of that to be done, tell the truth. Nowadays, a tailor shop is mostly dry-cleaning and pressing. Except for sewing up a ripped seam every now and then. You know how it is."
"So this Dom Archese—is it Dominic?"
"Yes, Dominic. Everybody calls him Dom, though."
"This Dom Archese is a married man who bought into the tailor shop because he wanted something sturdy and solid and apparently had a little money to play around with."
"Five thousand dollars," Johnny said. "That’s what it cost him. I probably could have got more, but actually I needed a partner and was glad to have him. He’s a wonderful guy."
"You said that before."
"Well, he is."
"Then what’s the trouble?"
"Well, I don’t know. Dom’s not a rich man, you understand. That five grand was probably his life savings. He’s got some government bonds, and maybe a little in the bank, and some insurance to take care of Christine—God forbid anything should happen to him."
"Christine? Is that his wife?"
"Yes. But what I’m trying to say is that he isn’t a rich man, and maybe he’s in some kind of financial trouble or something, I don’t know. It’s the only way I can figure it."
"The thefts," Johnny said.
"Someone’s been stealing something?"
"Yes," Johnny said. "From the cash register."
"How much? Large amounts?"
"No. No, that’s just it. The thefts have been small. Ten dollars at a time. Sometimes fifteen dollars. Until this last one."
"How much was the last one?"
"That still isn’t very large," I said.
"Well, it’s large enough to be serious," Johnny said.
"How much has been stolen altogether?"
"Two hundred and thirty-five dollars."
"Over how long a period of time?"
"About six months, I think. In any case, that was when I noticed the first shortage."
"Did you tell Dom about it?"
"Yes. He said I probably added wrong. Then, when I found the second theft, a couple of weeks later, I told him again."
"And what did he say that time?"
"The same thing. He’s either a very trusting person, Dom, or else..." Johnny shrugged. "I don’t know what to think."
"Who else works in the shop?"
"A kid named Dave Ryan. He’s our presser."
"Does he handle the cash register at all?"
"But he could get into it when you or Dom aren’t around, couldn’t he?"
"No. If both of us are out of the shop, we lock the register."
"Then he does sometimes work alone in the shop? When both of you are gone?"
"Yes. He presses at night sometimes. I told you, there’s a lot of work to be done."
"But the register is locked?"
"So you figure it’s Dom who’s been dipping into the till?"
"Well, what do you want from me?" I said.
"Matt, I don’t know what to do. How can I blow the whistle on my partner and friend? How can I go to the police? If he’s taking the money, he must have a damn good reason."
"Why don’t you talk to him? Tell him..."
"And suppose I’m wrong? Suppose it isn’t him? Suppose...I don’t know...suppose somebody’s sneaking in at night or something? Jesus, I don’t know what to do, Matt. That’s why I came down to see you. I’ve been all over the Bowery looking for you. Finally, some guy told me I might find you in that park outside the school. Won’t you help me, Matt?"
"By doing what?"
"Come up to the shop. Look over the register, look over the windows. Maybe somebody’s getting in at night and forcing the drawer. I can’t tell, but I’m sure you could."
"Do you ever leave any money in the register at night?"
"Yes. Usually about fifty bucks or so. Just enough to start the next day. It saves the trouble of taking it out and then bringing it back in the morning."
"Mmmm. Then there is the possibility..."
"Will you help me, Matt?"
I thought about it for a while. Did I want to go back to the old neighborhood, see people I’d known when I was a kid? Did I want more memories to add to the memory I already carried, the memory of first meeting Toni, that goddamn corny meeting as she was coming off the Triborough Bridge, laughing, her blonde hair caught by the November wind, walking with the Randall’s Island football crowd, carrying a pennant in her hand? Did I want that memory to come welling back, and with it all the other ghosts, all the shadows I’d been drinking away for five years?
"No," I said to Johnny. "I’m busy. I can’t help you."
"Busy doing what?" Johnny asked. He paused, seemed to weigh his next question, and then said, "Getting drunk?"
"Yes," I said, "getting drunk. Do you have any objections?"
"It seems to me..."
"It seems to me a smart man stops when he’s ahead," I told him. "I’d hate like hell to have to knock down an old neighbor."
"You talk a good game, Matt," he said, and he stood up. He reached into his pocket for some change to leave on the table. "What are you afraid of?" he said. "The police? This wouldn’t be an official investigation. It would just be an old friend doing a favor."
"When did we become such good old buddies?" I said.
"For Christ’s sake, we grew up together."
"Does that make us brothers? Go to the police. Or else get yourself a bona fide private detective. Don’t come running to a Bowery bum."
"Is that what you are, Matt?"
"What the hell did you think I was? A society swordsman? A pedigreed dog trainer? I’m a bum. Me. Matthew Cordell, bum. I sleep in flophouses or on park benches when I can’t afford a pad. I’m drunk twenty-five hours out of twenty-four, and I get my whiskey money by panhandling. I’m a bum. Do you want me to yell hallelujah?"
He shook his head and looked at me. "I didn’t think it was possible," he said. "I didn’t think a dame..."
"Shut up, Johnny."
"...could take a guy who was a man and turn him into..."
"Sure. Thanks for listening, Matt. I’ll work it out some way. Thanks a lot."
"Get the pity out of your eyes," I said. "I don’t need it."
"You need something, pal," he said.
"Oh, go the hell back to 118th Street. Who asked you to come down here, anyway? Who needs you?"
"I need you," he said.
"I do. Matt...please. Won’t you help me?" He put his arm on my sleeve, and I’ve never been able to kick a man in the teeth when he suddenly begins begging. "Please, Matt, I’m...I’m ready to lose my mind with this damn thing. Please. Help me."
"I’ll pay you. I can’t afford much but..."
"I don’t want your money."
"Then will you help me? Will you please..."
"Jesus Christ, can’t you leave me alone?" I said.
The table was suddenly silent. Johnny kept looking at me. I kept looking at my hands.
In a small voice, I said, "Can’t you just leave me alone?" He didn’t answer. He kept staring at me. Finally, I raised my head and met his eyes. "I’ll...I’ll just take a look at the...the windows and doors," I said. "And the cash register. Just to let you know if...if someone’s been getting in at night. But that’s all. I don’t want..."
"Thank you, Matt," he said.
The sky had turned black outside. Clouds had moved in over the river and were banked overhead now, ready to burst. There was a smell in the air, the sweet air-rushing smell a city gets just before an electric storm. The lights in some of the shops had already come on as the city grew darker. It was going to rain like hell.
We caught a cab and headed uptown. The tailor shop was on First Avenue between 118th and 119th. It was just a small shop, with the usual dry-cleaning posters in the window, the posters that somehow never look professional but seem to have been run off by an art student in a basement. There was also a small sign in the window which read: we do expert hand tailoring. A heavy padlock hung on the front door.
"Nobody here?" I said.
Johnny looked at his watch. "We close at six," he said. "Dom is probably home already."
"Were you in the shop today?"
"Yes." Johnny took out a key ring and began searching for the right key.
"When?" I said.
He found the key and unlocked the padlock. "I came in around noon, and left at two. I went down to the Bowery. To look for you." He swung open the door and snapped on the lights. The rain had still not started, but it wouldn’t be long now. "This is it," he said.
The shop was the kind of shop you don’t find around much anymore. Two sewing machines were near the window, and opposite them was the counter over which business was done, the cash register at the extreme right. Behind that was a row of cabinets in which the finished clothes hung, waiting to be claimed. A curtained doorway bisected the clothing racks. I assumed the doorway led to the back of the shop. I also assumed the pressing was done in the back.
"There’s the cash register," Johnny said.
I went over to it and studied it for a few minutes. "It doesn’t look to me as if it’s ever been forced," I said. "Where’s your key?"
He took out his key ring again and handed me the key. I unlocked the register and opened it. As Johnny had said, there was about fifty dollars in small bills and change left in the register to start the new day. There were no marks on the drawer. I slammed it shut, locked it again, and handed the key ring back to Johnny.
"Is that the only entrance door?" I said, gesturing at the front door.
"No, there’s another at the back of the shop. And a lot of windows that open on the airshaft."
"Let’s take a look," I said.
We were moving toward the curtained doorway when the rain started. It started with a crackling streak of lightning and an answering bellow of thunder, and then the rain poured down suddenly in giant spattering drops, sweeping across the streets and pavement. Outside, people began running for shelter. Another lightning streak shattered the sky.
"It’s going to be a bad storm," Johnny said.
"Come on, I’ll take you in back."
He swept aside the curtains. I followed him into the back of the shop. It was dark back there, and I almost stumbled on a basket of unpressed clothes. Then Johnny snapped on the light.
The first thing I saw was the giant pressing machine with its levers and cloth-covered pads, gaping open like the jaws of a monster. The next thing I saw was the man sprawled against the wall opposite the machine. The man was in his early forties, wearing a white dress shirt with the collar unbuttoned and the sleeves rolled up. The front of his shirt was red with blood that flowed from two holes in his chest. A piece of tailor’s chalk was in the man’s right hand.
Scrawled in chalk on the wall behind him was an arrow and the arrow pointed to the initials J.B. which had also been chalked onto the wall in a shaky hand.
I guess Johnny Bridges saw the initials at the same time I did because he let out a short sharp scream and then whirled to me, his eyes wide with terror.
Copyright © 1958, by Hui Corp. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved.