A Joe Angello Story
by Peter A. Parmantie
.......Whenever I want information
from city hall I don't dirty my hands, I call Sammy--Oliver Sammons.
He gets me what I need, when I need it. But he'd never sought
out a private detective until one evening when he sat across
from me at Torelli's. It was unusual that he wanted to see me--it
was more unusual that he had an RN, Latricia Owens, in tow.
.......They turned down my offer
to buy them dinner, settling on coffee, which they sipped halfheartedly
during our conference. While they talked, I ate.
.......They were concerned about
.......The two sitting across
from me were an odd pair. Sammy is thin. Latricia Owens, a black
lady built like a fire hydrant, is a registered nurse who checks
on the health and welfare of the children placed by the private
adoption agency where she works. She rides herd on Sammy and
his wife to ensure she doesn't make a second mistake with Stevie,
.......The first almost turned
him into a psychiatric basket case. She and the agency fell for
the line of a couple who proved about as decent as Lady Macbeth
married to Charles Manson. They adopted the year-old Stevie Doe,
abandoned by his mother as soon as she could sneak from the hospital.
The adoption had Nurse Owens' half-hearted approval. When a neighbor
told her that the couple was abusive and on the verge of leaving
the state with Stevie, she and the agency petitioned the courts
to remove him from the home. By the time they got Stevie away,
he shied like a nervous horse whenever an adult looked at him
or spoke to him. With time, the welt marks on his body faded;
the invisible damage was slowly fading too under the love of
Sammy and his wife.
.......The couple, originally
from some state with a lot of mountains and little else, left
town without the boy, who was almost a year old.
.......I came into the case two
months after Sammy and his wife adopted Stevie. Nurse Owens--to
her glee I nicknamed her Nurse Ratchet for her persistence in
the Stevie case--visited him twice monthly for two months until
she collided with Mrs. Sammy's mother hen instincts. Unable to
bear children, Mrs. Sammy showered a desperate maternal affection
on the boy and resented what she saw as an intrusion by another
.......Together with her husband,
Mrs. Sammy barred Nurse Ratchet from visiting her son. Given
her husband's influence, she could have made it stick. Nurse
Ratchet saw me, I saw Sammy, and Nurse Ratchet resumed her periodic
.......My job was to ensure access
to Stevie. For the first few months Nurse Ratchet and I visited
Sammy and wife regularly. After a year or so I tagged along on
occasion, maybe once a month, just to see how Stevie was doing;
I found myself developing a bond with Stevie, who as a toddler
liked to pull at my nose to hear me honk-honk.
.......Mrs. Sammy, given name
Joanna, hates Nurse Ratchet and me, but she may hate me more
because she knows I have a hold over her husband. Not to put
too fine a point on it, I blackmail him. Sammy does what I tell
him because I have financial records he'd just as soon not be
made known at city hall, where he works. He's a virtuoso accountant
and an asset to be pampered if you're a politician and think
of dishonesty as a virtue. One time only he was dishonest to
the wrong people, and I dug up the documentation. If this became
known, there would be severe consequences at city hall. Sammy
knows I'll keep his secret as long as he comes when I call and
gets me whatever I happen to need. Why does he know? He realized
that when I was near bankruptcy I did not demand money.
.......Stevie's name is now legally
Steven Sammons, and he has a devoted father and an overprotective
mother. He is seven and in the fourth grade of a school for bright
kids and doing fine except for occasional nightmares. I give
Nurse Owens credit for following up leads and getting Stevie
out of that disastrous first family, and she in turn is grateful
to me for using my leverage with Sammy.
.......Now, at Torelli's, Sammy
seemed a bit uncertain of himself: he'd never been to see me
before unless I ordered him into my presence. It was Nurse Ratchet
who spoke first. "Angello," she said, "Mr. Sammons
here came to see me, and I think we need you." She has a
drill sergeant voice when she wants to use it. At other times
it is rich and nicely modulated. Her gold earrings and glasses
with their gold wire frames gleamed under the restaurant light.
She's a friendly woman and smiles often when not worried. She
was not smiling as she recalled the coffee at her elbow and took
a sip. As she lifted her cup to her lips, she said, "It
happened to your wife, Mr. Sammons."
.......Sammy twitched nervously,
then said, "She's home. She won't leave the boy. This afternoon
someone tried to approach Stevie. Jo thinks maybe kidnap him."
My nod and raised eyebrows signaled him to go ahead. I kept eating.
He glanced at Nurse Ratchet and went on, "Today Jo was running
late to get Stevie. When she got to the school, Stevie was walking
away from a car and a tall thin man was hurrying around the rear
to get inside. She saw him for an instant before he got in, but
he drove away in a hurry. Stevie told her that the man wanted
him to get into his car. Said he was a polite man."
......."How does he know?"
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "He
spoke courteously and gave Stevie a candy bar." She spoke
with quiet fury. If that man were to appear in Torelli's and
she could identify him for a certainty, she'd kill him. She is
fond of all the children she oversees, but especially of Stevie.
.......Sammy and wife didn't
want her around before, but they want her now, I reflected as
I ate and listened. They even want me. When I asked about the
candy bar Sammy said, "Jo threw it away."
......."Tell me about the
car the man drove."
......."She said it was
dirty and beginning to rust out."
......."Trunk lid and one
of the doors."
......."Beige top, the rest
......."Some travel stickers
on the rear window."
......."Out of state, she
said. Anyhow, she didn't think to read it, too agitated. Besides,
she was watching Stevie get in her car." Like Nurse Ratchet,
Joanna Sammons is a big woman. If she had got out of her car,
her size alone would have scared him off. But she's not fast
on her feet.
......."Did this guy see
her pulling up?"
......."She thinks he did.
Jo said he was leaving because Stevie was walking away, toward
her. She's told Stevie often never to talk with strangers."
......."But he took a candy
bar from this one."
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "A
sort of reflex, Angello."
......."Stevie said that?"
......."Told me he didn't
want to take it, but this man was smiling and courteous and tucked
it into his backpack like he knew Stevie was expecting it."
.......Sammy broke in, "Stevie
feels bad about that."
......."Did he say anything
.......Deep concern on Nurse
Ratchet's face and fright on Sammy's as he said, "Mentioned
something about his people."
......."Stevie was uncomfortable,"
Nurse Ratchet said. "He knew he shouldn't have taken the
candy bar. He was confused and he turned away just as Mrs. Sammons
......."Did this man leave
because Stevie walked away or because his mom arrived?"
.......She looked at Sammy. He
said, "Because she pulled up. He left real fast, she said."
He anticipated my next question. "She didn't get a good
look at him, too disturbed, and he had on this big-brimmed hat.
But Stevie did."
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "Angello,
we need you to look into this."
.......I said to Sammy, "What
does your wife say?"He nodded slowly. "She wants you
.......Sammy is nervous in my
presence. For the first time--maybe the first time ever-- he
looked directly at me instead of at my cheap tie or at my plate
of ravioli. "I'm positive, Angello."
.......According to Sammy, Mrs.
Sammy is hypertensive and I tend to drive up her blood
pressure to dangerous levels. If she wanted me, this was serious.
.......We sat in the living room
of the Sammons home. "No thanks," I said to Stevie.
He had tried to sucker me into a game of chess since his parents
had given up trying to beat him. "Too harmful to my fragile
.......Stevie grinned. He was
a member of the chess club at his school and some sort of champion.
He said, "I could teach you, Angello."
......."Sure you could.
And you could teach an elephant to play the tuba if you could
get him to sit down and practice a lot."
.......Stevie laughed. Even Mrs.
Sammy let half an icy smile dance over her face. She kept her
eyes on her son, but they did not share in the glint of merriment.
Sammy kept his eyes on me. Nurse Ratchet watched Stevie as if
she thought someone would enter and kidnap him. She leaned forward,
hands on knees. The Buddha-figure of Mrs. Sammy compressed the
couch springs almost to the floor. The ice wasn't all the way
broken, but I could get down to business.
......."Stevie, tell me
why I'm here."
.......Stevie has taken a whole
bunch of intelligence tests and ninety-eight percent of the population
are below him, or maybe it's ninety-nine. If he knows about that
it doesn't matter. What does matter is he knows Mr. and Mrs.
Sammons love him. They're now unequivocally Mom and Dad. He's
also feeling a bit of guilt for having taken the candy bar."A
man tried to pick me up after school yesterday. Angello, do you
think he's a pederast?"
.......Joanna Sammons winced.
I looked at Sammy. He shrugged at me and said, "Stevie reads
......."I don't know, Stevie,
that's why I and my big nose are here."
.......Stevie blushed a bit.
My proboscis is still a cynosure, even if he is too old to honk
it. I winked. He smiled. "I didn't go with him."
......."But you took that
candy bar and you feel sorry about that."
......."He said 'here' and
kind of pushed it into my pack. I was trying to think of a way
to take off the pack, hand it back politely and run if I had
......."What else did he
......."Not much because
Mom was pulling up, something about I shouldn't forget my people."
How the hell he could forget what he'd never learned was beyond
me. Maybe he figured that remembrance of family was fixed at
the instinctual level, that the kid had some sort of hard-wired
connection, like dogs or cats.
......."Did he say who they
were or where they lived?"
.......Stevie shook his head.
"I turned and walked to our car and he left." He took
a deep breath. "But he did have a funny way of speaking."
He noticed the license plate, named the state.
......."Ever hear anyone
talk like him before?"
......."In my dreams."
He brightened, "But I don't have many of them now."
.......Joanna said, "Once
or twice a month."
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "At
any time did he try to put his hands on you to get you to enter
.......Mrs. Sammy is a pretty
woman under all that weight. She looked sick.
......."No, ma'am, but I
think he wanted me to get in with the other lady."
.......Sammy and I exchanged
glances. He said, "What other lady?"
.......I said, "Describe
her, Stevie." Stevie couldn't see much of her but she looked
very pale. He did notice that she had a pointed chin and her
eyes were large. Her hair was dark and straight, like a native
American's. She stared at him fixedly then turned away.
I said, "Now describe the man."
......."He was thin and
he had bags under his eyes. His face was young but it was wrinkled.
He wore a hat like Indiana Jones and he had on a short brown
jacket and jeans." He thought a moment. "He smiled
at me and I saw his teeth were bad." He looked straight
at me. "Angello, I think they were related. He looked something
......."The chin, I think."Mrs.
Sammy glanced at me, a look of appeal. She might never hate me
again if I could remove this threat to her child. I rose.
......."I'm on it,"
I told them. "Stevie, you go to school. If you see that
man again, run like hell back into the school building. Mrs.
Sammons, don't keep him at home unless he's sick. When you pick
him up from school, get there early. Watch for that car. When
he's not at school, keep him near you."
.......She nodded and heaved
her bulk up from the sofa. "Help us, Angello." She
had never used my name before.
......."Count on it,"
I said. This time her smile was full, the first of those I'd
ever earned from her, too. Sammy moved to her side and Stevie
followed suit. She put one arm around him, the other around Stevie.
Suddenly she looked dangerous. She was two inches taller than
her husband and weighed at least twice as much as he did.
.......Nurse Ratchet rose. "I
have confidence in Mr. Angello."
......."I'll be in touch,"
I promised. I nodded to Nurse Ratchet, gave a high-five to Stevie
(Mr. and Mrs. Sammy beamed) and we left.
.......Outside she said, "Angello--"
......."I know," I
said, looking up and down the block. We both had the same thought,
and I'm sure it occurred to Sammy and his wife. The stranger
was able to pick Stevie out of a crowd of children: Stevie has
large eyes and a pointed chin. And his hair is dark and straight.
.......And the stranger was parked
down the block.
.......Nurse Ratchet glanced
into the rear view mirror. "You're sure he's still following
us?" She turned a hard right, in front of a bus, which angrily
hissed its brakes at her.
......."I'm sure. It's a
Chevy, brown, two-tone." I'd put down the sunshade to keep
track of it in the vanity mirror.
......."What do you want
me to do?"
.......I said, "Don't try
to lose it. I want him to know where I live. Drive me home and
park. Then get out of the car so we can stand around and talk
for a few minutes. I want him to see me."
......."It could help, unless
you'd rather not."
......."They've seen me
already." She stared grimly ahead. I continued to watch
the car; It never got more than two cars behind. Nurse Ratchet
concentrated on traffic.
said, "why don't you buy a car?"
"You shilling for your man?"
.......She said evenly, "My
husband," stress on the noun, "has been in the automotive
business for twenty years, owns his own reconditioning facilities.
He sells only the best used cars, ones that go through his shop
and are completely reconditioned."
......."Okay," I said
"I apologize. And I take back shill, too. It's been a while
since I tried to make light conversation. Maybe when I want to
complicate my life more I'll drop around and check out the values.
After all," I quoted his slogan, " 'you're never scrooged
at Cratchit Motors'."
.......Morgan Owens is a devotee
of Charles Dickens, had his collected works ordered specially
from some fancy bookstore in England. He's read them all more
than once. I don't think much of his ability as an ad writer,
but anyone who can get through all of Dickens has more on the
ball than I. I met him once and told him I didn't think much
of the slogan. He smiled and winked and said it'd been his slogan
for the last ten years and most people who didn't like the slogan
stayed to talk, then to dicker, then to buy.
.......Nurse Ratchet pulled up
in front of my apartment building. "Not subtle, is he?"
she said. He passed us and parked across the street, about half
a block down. If you could call it parking, that is. He had to
shuffle around and jerk back and forth a few times, and even
then the front end of the car stuck out into traffic.
......."Either he's stupid
or he doesn't think he has to be careful."
.......Or, I thought to myself,
he's trying to intimidate us. We got out and stood for a while.
At my request, she gave me a spiel about Cratchit Motors. At
hers, I told her I was fine since Maud died, which isn't too
much of a lie, and that financially I was more or less on my
feet. Yes, I had enough work to keep me busy. Nurse Ratchet and
I talked for a few minutes longer to give him time to observe
us. Then she got into her car and pulled away with instructions
to drive to the police station if she were followed. She wasn't.
I couldn't make out the license number, but it was from out of
.......I went up to my apartment.
When I looked out the car was pulling clumsily out of the parking
space. He wanted Stevie and he wanted me, not necessarily in
that order. I wanted it to be me first.
.......The next day, I had a
follow-up appointment with a client, a businessman who'd asked
me to find out who was embezzling from his company. So, apparently,
did the guy following me. When I left, richer by two thousand
dollars cash (off the books, no doubt) and a promise of more
work in the future, I paused a moment to alert the watcher, then
walked down the street to the bus stop.
.......The car parked down the
block didn't move. Whoever was driving the two-tone Chevy had
an interesting idea of shadowing, stick as close as possible
to the victim, let him see you. If we were walking, he'd be a
foot behind, forefinger hooked in my belt loop. I decided this
wasn't intimidation; it was diminished intelligence.
.......I pretended to wait for
the B bus. After a short while I walked slowly around the corner.
Two diagonal parking spaces. Good. I stood outside Jody's Silver
Ace, a blue-collar bar. They don't serve much food, and it's
all prepackaged, but at least it's cheap. I stood outside for
a few minutes, then said the hell with it and went in. Since
this was the only walk-in business on the block, my shadow would
find me here. At least, I hoped he'd be able to figure it out.
.......The crowd that put alcohol
first and lunch second had not yet arrived. A few early birds,
about five, were sitting at tables or at the bar. I ordered a
stein of beer and took it to a booth. In a minute or two the
personal pizza I ordered arrived thanks to the miracle of the
microwave. In another minute my tail arrived, thanks to the advantage
of diagonal parking. Maybe no one in his state knew how to parallel-park,
or maybe he was the only one still working on it.
.......He came over to my booth
and sat across from me. He was a tall man in an Indiana Jones
hat. I nodded. One short chop, like shooing a fly. He smiled
warily. His teeth were bad. He studied me. I studied him. His
face was weatherbeaten. He stared at me out of icewater blue
eyes in a glare that I guessed was supposed to be intimidating.
One dirty-nailed hand was folded atop the other. I suppose he
had a knife somewhere on his person. I felt my own weapon and
opened my suit coat to make it a tad more accessible.
.......I looked at the tip of
his nose and continued eating. Finally he broke the silence.
"You like that big black poontang, ol' man? I hear where
you Yankees go for juicy dark meat." He waited for this
brilliant sally to register. Apparently where he came from such
an insult was mortal and by now we should be rolling on the floor
clawing and gouging and inflicting mayhem on one another.
.......I chewed and swallowed.
I took another bite, chewed and swallowed. I smiled my sunniest
smile, interrupted it for a swallow of beer, and resumed it,
full wattage. I said conversationally, "You hillbilly son
of a bitch, she and her husband could buy and sell you and your
filthy family twice over, fleas and all, just with the change
they carry around for tipping cretins like you."
.......At first he jolted back,
then he fumed. Either he resented my insult or he was wondering
what cretin meant. Maybe both. I continued, "I'm hungry.
State your business and get the hell out of here so I can eat
lunch." I took a swallow of beer, then added, "You
smell bad." I kept my right hand on the stein and ate with
.......His eyes narrowed when
he noticed that. He resembled Stevie, faintly. If the woman with
him was Stevie's mother, who was this? Her brother and Stevie's
uncle? He didn't seem bright at all, not like Stevie, whose intellect
was measured (Nurse Ratchet told me once) in three figures. The
man sitting across from me looked like his smarts could be down
in the two digits, if one of them was a zero. He was nearly as
good at conversation as he was at parallel parking.
.......I said, "Not only
do you smell bad, you're boring. Understand this: you come around
that boy again and I personally will turn you into a gelding."
.......He swallowed. Gelding
he knew. "What did that there boy tell you?"
......."That you tried to
buy him with a candy bar, you cheap shit-stomping bastard."He
must have figured the game I was playing; he didn't want trouble,
not up North with a bunch of damyankees for witnesses. He looked
at the patrons. He regarded my stein, figuring it was my first
line of attack. I guess he didn't want to stink of beer too,
though I couldn't imagine he could smell any worse. I could see
his mind working--did I have a second line of attack? I did.
I could break bones--and worse--with it if I had to.
......."Look here, that
there boy is family. He got hisself family."
......."Don't never you
mind. He got a grandpa and he got me."
......."Who the hell are
......."Never you mind about
that either, ol' man. I know you a detective. You don't get nothin'
......."You his father?"
He stared at me. Why no mention of a mother, who was likely the
thin faced lady with the pointed chin?. Intellectually Stevie
was no kin to the man sitting across from me like a buzzard on
a fence post. Family? Legal adoption in this state wouldn't be
overturned in the courts, not with the power Sammy's bosses had.
What I feared from Cretin was kidnaping. And I would have to
work off the books to forestall it.
.......Before he could speak
I said, "If I see you or that ratty car again, or if I hear
one word about you stalking that boy," I spoke slowly, "or
his parents, I will put you in the hospital and you won't walk
again, believe me."I felt like an idiot, mouthing inane
lines in a cheap TV melodrama, but the looks of this fellow did
not suggest an appeal to reason or to the law. The man sitting
across from me didn't seem amenable to reason, and I've never
done well with the law.
.......He said, "The boy,
he got family."
......."So you said,"
I retorted. "He has a mother and a father here, here only--that's
what I say. As far as I know, he hasn't a birth mother, or a
father. Does he?"
.......He didn't reply immediately.
He sat back and studied me. "He got me and he got a grandpa
down t'home who want him back."
......."Don't make no difference;
he be taken care of. Best he be with his kin." No mention
of the lady in the car, as if she didn't count in the equation
of family he had worked out.
......."Listen to me, whoever
you are." I finished my pizza and drained my beer. As I
spoke I held onto the stein. He watched it. Halfway through my
tough-guy talk his eyes switched to my face, "One more time.
If you come around that boy I will fix you permanently. I won't
kill you, but you'll wish I had." More cheap melodrama.
I edged out of the booth, paid the check and left. He didn't
move. I passed his Chevy. Empty. I got to the corner just as
the B bus was pulling up.
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "How
did he find out about Stevie to begin with?"Morgan Owens
sat at his desk in the office of Cratchit Motors. He's a tall,
spare man, courteous to a fault. I'd apologized again for the
gaffe I made to his wife and he thanked me politely with "Apology
accepted, but not necessary, Angello." He listened as his
wife and I talked. He knew the Stevie story. He knew all the
stories of all her children.
.......I said, "Who was
that first couple that adopted Stevie?"
.......She frowned. Her first
failure. "That trash. The name was Hody."
......."You got Stevie away,
no problem, you said."
.......She nodded. "Usual
process and no problem. Our agency was fortunate enough to find
witnesses. The Hodys left the state afterwards."
.......I suggested a state they
might have moved to. She said, "They were from there. Moved
in just a few weeks before adopting Stevie." As if they
were sent. Luckily for Stevie they didn't leave for the mountains
......."Then that's it,"
I said. "That's how this fellow got wind of Stevie."
I'd bet the grandfather sent him.
.......Morgan Owen leaned across
the desk. "Excuse me, people, after five, six years he comes
"That I can't figure yet." I stood. "Glad I found
you here, Mrs. Owens."
.......She smiled, "Call
me Nurse Ratchet."
.......I said to her husband,
"Do I need to apologize for that?"
......."No, sir. There is
no invidious racial connotation that I am aware of. Ratchet is
fine since Latricia bridles at bulldog or pit bull."
.......They laughed and I relaxed.
Bulldog would be more suitable, but Latricia Owens has a round,
pretty face that hides the tenacity she displays to protect the
children she monitors. Ratchet means she never backs off; a ratchet
goes only one way.
......."Has this man been
seen around the Sammons house the past couple of days?"
......."No," she said,
"I check on that daily with Mrs. Sammons. Mr. Sammons has
a bit of political power at his disposal and the police know
what to look for and where--around the house and Stevie's school.
She said the patrols are there on an irregular basis so as not
to set up a pattern."
.......I nodded. "So our
hillbilly may try something else. He wants that kid and he's
not bright. He can avoid cops, but their being between him and
what he wants means he'll turn sneaky."
.......Morgan Owens said, "How
did you deduce sneaky, Angello?"
......."He tried to suggest
that we were cohabiting," I gestured at Mrs. Owens, "a
cheap dodge. Probably an insult where he came from. When he saw
I didn't bite, he didn't pursue it. I insulted him back and that
put us on an equal footing. He's not quick, but he can adapt.
He dropped one strategy, to make me attack him so he'd have a
reason to kill me if I reacted physically. That failed, so I
suspect he's working on another."
.......Latricia Owens said, "Meaning
.......I went to the door. "Meaning
he'll try something that works."
......."To get Stevie?"
......."Right. He considers
me more of an obstacle than Stevie's parents or even you, Mrs.
Owens. All we don't know is why he wants Stevie and why he waited
so long to come looking for him."
.......I was nearing my apartment
building that night, thinking I should get more exercise after
all the eating I'd been doing in the past months--a good start
would be to get some decent food in my apartment so I couldn't
use Torelli's as an excuse--when I heard the tock of heels behind
me. My left hand went to my back pocket and I whirled.
.......She stood in red night
neon from a closed insurance agency. She was about an inch taller
than I and so thin her head appeared too large for her body.
Her cheekbones stood out. Her professional smile displayed bad
teeth. Her clothing was hooker standard, a long-sleeved one-piece
sheath dress, easy to slip on and off. She wore a tatty shawl
in what she apparently considered a sexy drape. Her shoes were
.......I turned. No one behind
me. It was not his plan to creep up and assault me. At least
not right away. "Hey you, mister," she said in a soft
drawl, "you want a good time?"
......."Where's your brother's
car?" That shook her. Inadvertently she looked over my shoulder."Come
on, Mom, how close is he?"
.......She began to shiver. She
was dressed for the street, dressed for a trade that ended up
in a bed or an alley or just about anywhere on her knees for
two minutes, but it was too warm to shiver. Something had gone
wrong and she didn't know what to do now with Cretin absent.
She hugged the shawl to her and looked up the street, past me.
......."Is he close?"
......."He three block down."
......."He's your brother,
......."He my brother."
She did not seem happy with the relationship.
......."Does he expect me
to ask you up?"She nodded and shrugged. Or the shrug might
have meant, we can do it here in an alley on top of a garbage
can. Any position you like, mister.
......."Want to come up
to my place?"She nodded. As I led the way she told me what
she wanted to do to me and for me, told me in a drone and in
stark clinical detail, interrupted once by a cough.
......."What's your name?"
......."Come in, Tovala."
My hand on the front doorknob I looked up and down the street.
The Chevy wasn't in sight. Maybe it really was three blocks somewhere,
or maybe just around the corner and she was the advance guard
for some sort of attack, or maybe she planned to kill me herself.
.......Under the lights in my
kitchen she looked ill. The walk upstairs had winded her. Her
pale face contrasted with deepset eyes. From time to time she
coughed. She needed a bath. Her hair was Stevie's hair, but his
was shining clean.
.......I went to the phone, dialed.
"Morrie? Angello upstairs. Do me a favor. Twenty bucks?
Okay, robber. Nobody comes up to my apartment. No, just the front;
I have the light on by the back door. I just want to know if
anyone tries. No, no muscle. Just ring me. Thanks."
.......Morrie lives downstairs.
He does favors for me on occasion, and I pay him. The rest of
the time, we keep each other at arm's length.
.......I nuked water for instant
coffee. I put powdered cream and sugar on the table. I opened
up a small pop-top can of pork and beans and got a plastic picnic
spoon and put them in front of her. I placed another can, unopened,
by it. I tore off a piece of toweling from a roll and put it
.......My shabby apartment might
have been an exclusive restaurant from the way she followed me
with Stevie's eyes. Without preamble she began wolfing down the
beans."How long have you and your brother been in town?"
.......Around the beans she mumbled,
" 'bout a week."
......."Did he expect me
to go to bed with you?"
......."What does he want?"
.......Her voice changed subtly;
it strengthened. "He want the boy."
Her face came alive for a moment and she stared at me. A nod.
We sat silently.
.......The microwave beeped and
I put her cup down in front of her. She used one spoon of instant,
three spoons of sugar and the same of cream. I went to the cupboard
and pulled out an unopened package of chocolate chip cookies.
I broke it open and dumped a bunch in front of her. She ate,
alternating beans and cookies, cramming food into her mouth and
sipping coffee. She emptied the first can of beans and I opened
the second for her. Her meal was interrupted from time to time
with spates of coughing. I made myself a cup of coffee and waited.
From time to time I glanced out the back.
.......Slowly, prompted by my
questions, the story came out. She was Stevie's mother. Her father
and her brother wanted him back. At first they'd demanded she
abort the child, but she ran away and had the child in this city.
When she abandoned Stevie and returned home, they beat her until
she told them where she had been, the name of the hospital and
the name of her baby.
.......The beating made her sterile.
The grandfather and her brother couldn't father children. Yes,
her family knew the couple that first adopted Stevie. The grandfather
sent them, and after they returned home without the boy they
told the family where he was and who had adopted him. In response
to my question she said they didn't do anything until a brother
with motile sperm--the last family member to be so endowed--was
killed in prison two months ago, which effectively ended the
family line. Except for Stevie.
.......Why didn't the Hodys leave
the state right away? Because of agency rules--they knew they
were being watched. They began raising Stevie as they thought
her father would want him reared. After Stevie was taken away,
Stevie's grandfather didn't want trouble, not from us damyankees,
not with the accusations of child abuse that had been proven
already, so he left the boy to Sammy and Joanna. After all, he
knew their name and where they lived.
.......Now, grandpa was getting
along in years and ailing and wanted Stevie back. He wanted his
grandson close by. He was fond of saying that blood and breeding
will tell. Did she know Stevie's father? No she didn't, there
had been so many men and the boy had been an accident. Her brother,
she added indifferently, was her pimp and periodically "took
advantage" of her.
.......She looked into my face.
On her, Stevie's alert eyes were dead.
.......I suspected if she hiked
up her skirt I'd see needle tracks on her thighs. I also suspected
that if I reached over and hiked it up, she wouldn't care. "Do
you want him to have the boy?"
......."He want the boy."
.......I shifted the problem
slightly. "Will your boy have a good life with your brother
and your grandfather? If you had your druthers, would you want
the boy with--" She glanced up sharply, the first sign of
life she'd shown. "By the way, Tovala what's your brother's
.......She scraped up the last
of the beans. "Name Boone."
......"Would you want him
with Boone and your father?"
......The beans were gone and
half the cookies. I'd fixed more coffee for her while we talked
and she added heaps of sugar.
.......What she said surprised
me. "You gonna he'p me?"
......."Depends on the help
you want. I know one person who maybe--just maybe--could get
you into a detox program." I did not mention the coughing.
.......Again the it-doesn't-matter
shrug. "Mister, I want you to keep Boone away from that
boy, that what I want."
......."Not your boy?"
.......She began to cry softly.
"Not no more." She looked at me in appeal, and wiped
her eyes on the shawl. "Boone and Tyler, they get hold of
him, he's gonna do like them, gonna think like them."
.......I rather doubted that.
"And Tyler is?"
......."Tyler his grandpa.
He say that boy the end of the family line and he wants to bring
him up proper. Meaner n' Boone, way meaner. Not right in the
head, that what Boone say."
.......I looked into her eyes,
into her soul. "And you don't want Boone and Tyler to have
She stood. A bit of color had come into her face. "Mister,
this what I don't want." Slowly she pulled the dress over
her head. The long sleeves gave her trouble and she had to turn
them inside out then reach inside and reverse them.
.......She was naked. Her wasted
frame was covered with welts, new and old, bruises bright and
faded. The flesh around her bones was enough to hold in life,
not enough that she could rejoice in being alive. I wondered
what sort of man she could attract.
.......She turned around slowly.
Her back and buttocks were badly scarred. "That's what Boone
a-gonna do to that boy, mister, make a man of him. Him and his
.......Not my dad, his dad. And
Boone hadn't acknowledged that Stevie had a mother. I didn't
think Tovala had long to live, and not because of the cough.
For the first time I turned my back on her; she wasn't a danger
to me. "Get dressed," I said over my shoulder.
.......If there were needle tracks
they were between her toes or they were covered by the welts.
I didn't look closely. She said again, "Gonna he'p me, mister?"
......."You don't want Boone
or his dad to get to the boy."
......."You'll do anything
to prevent that."
.......Something flamed briefly
behind her eyes.
.......I repeated, "Anything."
......."Why did Boone send
you to me?"
......."Wanted me to kill
you, maim you, that what he said." She could have maimed
me easily enough just by doing what she'd offered on the street.
......."He didn't give you
......."He say I find one
up here, use it on you. Said that all detectives have weapons
so's they can fight and all. Say if it yours can't be traced
......."Something like this?"
I uncoiled the sap from my pocket. It is deceptively small. The
braided leather gives it flex and the length of the thong gives
it terrific centrifugal power. Her eyes widened. "I know
how to use this, Tovala. I know where to use it and I've had
practice. Trouble is, you need space to swing it and it takes
a lot of practice to hit the right spot." I looked her up
and down. "It's best used standing up."
.......She said as if it were
a refrain, "Said I find something to use on you."
.......I returned the blackjack
to my pocket.
......."What do you think
he'd do to you after you killed me?" I had an idea, but
I wanted to hear it from her. I think she knew Boone's plans,
.......She looked at me, no attempt
to evade my gaze, "Mister, I'm ugly. I don't get me no tricks
no more and when I don't Boone he beat me and make me worse,
'cept he don't beat me round the face. Then he take advantage
of me and say I oughta die and why don't I die because I be a
disgrace to the family. Figure he's gonna kill me after I fix
you. That way nobody know and him and Tyler, they get the boy."
She coughed. "He know what I got."
.......What she had was more
than a drug habit; she had tuberculosis. I stood well away from
her all evening. "When Boone talked to me he said nothing
about a mother, only him and your father. Tyler."
.......She nodded as if she expected
.......I went into the living
room, motioning for her to follow, and opened a desk drawer.
Before Maud, I'd collected these mementoes--some from people
I'd made into defendants, one from a corpse. They'd reminded
me of what I could have become, with just a bit more bad luck
and a stretch in prison. Maud hated them, but I think she understood
why I needed to keep them. At least, she didn't insist that I
get rid of them--just that I keep my prints off. There had been
a time when I'd needed to know they were there, whether or not
I actually looked at them. Since Maud, I haven't needed to look.
.......I opened the drawer and
pointed to them one by one. "He could have given you something
like this. Or this."
......."He don't let me
have nothing like them there things, mister."
.......We both knew why: their
family was a family based on hate. Even if Tovala had done what
she was supposed to, it was far more likely that I'd have killed
her. In either case, though, I'd be dead or badly injured, Tovala
would be dead or in jail, and he would have a clear run at Stevie
with no mother to object to his upbringing. If I didn't kill
her, he would.
.......Somewhere in his dim mind
he had me figured as the only obstacle between him and the boy
he wanted. Nurse Ratchet didn't register since she was black,
nor had the police patrols. If his sister and I were dead, he
and his father would rear Stevie in a thoroughbred tradition.
Improve the breed.
.......I gestured at the contents
of the drawer and went into the kitchen. I ran water in the sink.
Taking a paper towel, I picked up her cup and put it in the hot
water. Below the sink I took out a bottle of laundry bleach and
added plenty to the water and followed that with detergent. I
dropped the spoon and the empty pork and bean cans into the garbage
and tossed the paper towel on top. After a moment's thought I
dumped the sugar and creamer canisters into the sink.
.......Behind me a soft, "Mister?"
I turned. Tovala was standing there smiling. The dejected air
......."I wanna thank you
kindly for the he'p you done give me, mister."
......."Wish I had better
food. Want to take the rest of the cookies with you?"
......."Won't need them."
......."Ready to go now?"
.......She nodded and looked
a question at me.
......."Your son has a good
family, Tovala, and he goes to a good school. It's for very bright
.......She nodded again and the
smile returned. She liked the sound of "your son."
......."Just a minute,"
I said. I picked up the phone and punched in a number. "Morrie?
Angello. Anyone? Okay, and thanks. Be down in a minute. There'll
be a lady exiting a minute or so before I come down to settle."
.......I hung up. "Tovala,
he didn't try to get in by the front. I've been watching the
back and he didn't try there, either."
......."Hoped we done done
each other, mister, that's what I think."
.......That's what I thought
too. Boone's intellect was not formidable.
.......I nodded. "Think
he'll be waiting?"
......."Sure, he outside
somewheres. He want to see what happen so's he k'n tell Tyler.
Boone be shrewd. He know how to wait and wait. He go for the
boy if no one stop him." She stared straight into my eyes.
.......I said, "Thanks from
your son, Tovala."
.......When we met in front of
the apartment she'd had the cheap shawl loose around her, held
by her arms. Now it was around her neck and hanging between her
......."Stevie, he have
good people? You sure, mister?" She said his name as if
it hurt, as if she wanted to say, my baby but knew she had forfeited
......."The best, Tovala.
They love him. Just like you."
.......She turned quickly and
went to the door.
.......She shut the door after
.......After a minute I went
down and settled with Morrie.
.......The street was deserted.
It had begun to rain.
.......I went upstairs and shut
the desk drawer.
......."Blood all over the
car," Sammy said to Nurse Ratchet and me, "The lady
ripped his jugular. Sliced it. Then sliced her own."
.......I said, "Careless
of him not to search her." What she told Boone about how
she got out of my apartment and what she did to me, if anything,
would remain a mystery. His next move would have been to eliminate
her. She was sick, through as a hooker, and might object to the
curriculum he and Tyler had in mind for Stevie. Leave her wasted
corpse up North in damyankee land.
......."Captain Drexel said
the weapon was filed down from what he thought was a leaf from
the rear spring of a car."
.......Nurse Ratchet said, "What
did it look like?"
.......We were sitting in the
Sammons living room waiting for Mrs. Sammy to return from picking
up their son.
.......Sammy got up to look out
the front window. He sat again. "Might have been made in
prison, that's what Drexel said."
.......I could have told Nurse
Ratchet what it looked like.
.......Drexel had shown it to
Sammy. He described the implement. It was two inches long, shaped
like a half circle, and filed to a knife edge on the curved side.
Electrical tape folded over the straight side made a handle.
Drexel had told Sammy it was made for up-close slicing, not stabbing.
It could be held between two fingers and concealed in a partially-closed
fist if the user didn't mind the prospect of a cut or two.
.......Sammy had described it
.......The weapon was over twenty
years old as near as I could figure, maybe more, and it was made
in prison. From a leaf spring? It could have been that as well
as anything. It was one of my first mementos and a reminder that
I could as easily have been the man I took it from. He'd spent
more time in prison than out.
......."Maybe," I said,
"she got hold of it from some old wreck in some front yard
in the rear end of nowhere." And filed it down in her spare
time and concealed it until deciding to use it. Sammy didn't
want to think too hard about it, and neither did I. Nurse Ratchet
was content that the threat to Stevie had vanished with the murder-suicide.
.......I trusted Grandpa Tyler
was well down the road to death. I wished him speed, but not
......."Captain Drexel said
it'd be hard to trace."
.......They'd been found across
town, in Salvage Yard, a garbage pit that the city was trying
to close and bulldoze over. Trouble was, it was too good a spot
to jettison the unwanted and inconvenient. The brown Chevy had
been parked inside the Yard next to a mountain of fermenting
Boone knew Salvage Yard. Tovala knew it was her grave site.
.......He had been in the driver's
seat. Tovala made the first move, then the second, and they'd
died writhing in the front seat of the wreck, their blood spraying
.......Sammy jumped to his feet.
"Here they are." Their car pulled into the driveway.
Sammy turned to me, "What should I tell him?"
......."The truth as you
know it," I said.
.......Stevie entered. He ran
to Sammy, who scooped him up and hugged him. Stevie said, "Hey,
Angello. Hey, Mrs. Owens."
.......I nodded and we exchanged
high fives. Nurse Ratchet smiled.
.......Joanna Sammons entered.
She nodded to Nurse Ratchet and smiled at me. When she stepped
closer, I shrank to Munchkin size. She bent down and kissed me.
......."I told Stevie on
the way home," she said. "Thanks, Angello."
......."Hey, Angello, was
he a pederast?"
......."I don't think so,
Stevie, just a bad man, not very bright, not like some kids I
......."What did he mean
about my people?"
......."Stevie, I don't
know. You've got too many brains to be any relation to him or
to the woman either. He just happened to look a bit like you
and may have fixed on you for that reason. Probably a nut case."
Sammy and his wife smiled. I was the big detective to Stevie,
and if I said it, it must be so.
.......Stevie had something of
the child's short attention span, for now. Some day when he graduated
from Stevie to Steven, he might be curious again, especially
about the woman he caught only a glimpse of. His parents would
be obliged to cover my lie later.
......."You want me to teach
you chess? I could, you know."
I said. "I'll be by another day, but Mrs. Owens and I have
to leave now." We exchanged high fives again, then shook
hands. He hugged Nurse Ratchet.
.......At the door Sammy said,
"Thanks. We owe you."
.......I winked, "Just you."
.......He frowned, "I know."
"Don't forget I still have the goodies." The last
thing I wanted from Sammy was friendship. You don't make friends
with a man you want on call, a man who would much rather not
be on call. That wasn't why I didn't charge him. But now he owes
me because he wants to owe me. My situation has improved.
......."I won't forget,"
.......In the car Nurse Ratchet
said, "Angello, what really happened?"
"Whatever the newspapers said happened, Mrs. Owens, whatever
Drexel said happened."
.......She knew me well enough
not to pursue the matter.
.......We drove in silence. I
was thinking about Tovala and the mingled blood and her courage
and the fact that Stevie would never know how grateful he should
be to her.
.......Nurse Ratchet yanked me
out of my reverie by drawling, "Y' all know somethin', massa?
Mah man, he name Morgan and he done got hisself some real nice
cars and they ain't used, they pre-owned. Iffen you uns buy from
mah man, this heah gal don't got--" her voice reverted to
normal speech "--to lug your fat white ass all about the
.......She said, "You haven't
done that for a while, Angello."
Not since Maud's death. I paused dramatically. "Oh, what
the hell, let's see what Cratchit Motors has to offer."
......."Nope, decided to
complicate my life. Drop me at my apartment, wait a minute, then
we can head for Cratchit Motors."
.......My last client's cash
was still untouched. With luck I could get a car under two thousand.
With a little less luck I'd have to finance part, which would
mean a paper trail, no matter how insignificant.
.......What the hell, I thought,
if I can laugh I can buy a car.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Peter A. Parmantie
Peter A. Parmantie
is a retired teacher who has decided to write. He is a compulsive
reader, starting almost from birth. He cut his teeth on thrillers
as an adolescent, kicking his regular studies overboard and educating
himself by reading what adults then considered trash. They were
wrong. Now he wants to try his hand at the genre. His first Joe Angello story appeared
here in our July 1999 issue, and he
promises more for the future...
And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!
Please direct further comments and
inquiries about submissions to the fiction
editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking
to a man who likes to talk."
| Table of Contents | Detectives
| Film | Radio | Television | Comics | FAQs |
| Trivia | Authors | Hall
of Fame | Mystery Links | Bibliography | Glossary | Search |
New: On The Site | On
the Street | Fiction | Staff | The
P.I. Poll |