.

Thoroughbred
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 Stevie Sammons.

.......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, now seven.

.......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 childless woman.

.......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 visits.

.......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."

......."Where?"

......."Trunk lid and one of the doors."

......."Color?"

......."Two-tone brown."

......."More."

......."Beige top, the rest dark brown."

......."More."

......."Some travel stickers on the rear window."

......."License plate?"

......."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 to Stevie?"

.......Deep concern on Nurse Ratchet's face and fright on Sammy's as he said, "Mentioned something about his people."

......."That's all?"

......."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 pulled up."

......."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 to investigate."

......."You're positive."

.......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 ego."

.......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 a lot."

......."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 to."

......."What else did he say?"

......."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 his car?"

.......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 like her."

......."For instance--" I began.

......."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."

......."And 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.

......."Angello," she 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 state.

.......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 my left.

.......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."

......."Where?"

......."Don't never you mind. He got a grandpa and he got me."

......."Who the hell are you?"

......."Never you mind about that either, ol' man. I know you a detective. You don't get nothin' from me."

......."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."

......."No mother," I prodded.

......."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 immediately.

......."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 looking?"
"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 what, Angello?"

.......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 badly worn.

.......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, isn't he?"

......."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?"

......."Tovala."

......."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 beside her.

.......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?"

......."Guess so."

......."What does he want?"

.......Her voice changed subtly; it strengthened. "He want the boy."

......."Your 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 name?"

.......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 the boy."
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 dad."

.......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."

.......She nodded.

......."You'll do anything to prevent that."

.......Something flamed briefly behind her eyes.

.......I repeated, "Anything."

......."Anything, mister."

......."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 a weapon?"

......."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 no way."

......."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, too.

.......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 this.

.......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.
Livestock Stevie.

.......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 was gone.

......."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 kids."

.......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 pitiable breasts.

......."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 that right.

......."The best, Tovala. They love him. Just like you."

.......She turned quickly and went to the door.

......."Goodbye, Tovala."

.......She shut the door after her.

.......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 accurately.

.......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 Godspeed.

......."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 lawn waste.
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 the interior.

.......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 know."

......."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."

......."Later, Stevie," 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," he said.

.......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 city."

.......I laughed.

.......She said, "You haven't done that for a while, Angello."

......."Guess not." Not since Maud's death. I paused dramatically. "Oh, what the hell, let's see what Cratchit Motors has to offer."

......."You're joking."

......."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...

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"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

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