Death Lessons

by John Samony Jr.

.......I hadn't been practicing for more than ten minutes before the pounding on the door started. I gently laid my saxophone back in its case and went to the door. "Who is it?" I said, knowing full well who was going to answer back.

......."It's Mrs. Koler."

.......Her voice was like the sound of a finger rubbing on a balloon. I opened the door.

......."What did I tell you about that racket?" she scolded. She had curlers in her hair and wore a floral print housecoat. She was definitely a relic of a bygone era.

......."It's after eight," she continued. "You're interrupting my shows."

......."Too much TV'll rot your brain. You should be reading a book," I suggested.

......."You think I could read with all that racket?"

.......She had a point.

......."Practice is supposed to sound bad," I said. "That's why it's called 'practice.' How am I supposed to get better if I don't?"

......."That's your problem."

......."Don't you want me to play like Coltrane?" I smiled.

.......She gave me a dull look. "Coal train. Coal truck. Don't matter. I'd tell him just what I'm telling you. Put it away."

.......She stomped back upstairs.

.......I closed the door.

.......Aside from Mrs. Koler's taste in music, she was okay. She didn't pry into my comings and goings and I usually returned the favor. The only time I found myself at all interested in her daily affairs was when I hadn't practiced in a while. She went away for the occasional weekend up north to see her sister, or at least that was her story. Frankly, she was so reticent about the whole thing that I suspected she had a gentleman friend--but all I cared about was that she was out of the house. When I was in grave need of practice, I could usually worm her plans out of her and spend that weekend playing. If she knew I practiced in her absence, she'd probably get upset, even though she wasn't home to hear it--just the fact that I disobeyed her would get me evicted.

....... I was getting ready to wipe down my sax before I put it away when the phone rang. I picked up.

......."McFetter?" the voice said, wavering.

......."Yes?" "There's been...a murder." The voice was hysterical. I couldn't make it out. It could have been male or female.

......."Calm down. Who is this?"

......."In...the alley...behind the Evergreen Lounge." The line went dead.

.......I had never really gotten a call like this before. My normal casework consisted of the quiet mundanity of divorces and missing persons. I usually didn't have much to do with murder. Once or twice it had become part of a case, and I hadn't liked the ensuing investigation.

.......Still, since whoever was on the phone had known my name, and since my landlady had shut down my noisemaking session for the night, I decided to check it out. I had spent many nights and early mornings at the Evergreen, back when playing the sax was the only thing I cared about. I grabbed my coat, locked up and hit the streets.

* * * * *

.......He was one dead jazz musician.

.......He had an alto saxophone rammed down his throat so deep that it seemed he was smoking it like a large pipe. But that wasn't what killed him--it was the bullet hole in his chest. If I had been staring down at this poor soul at any other time, at any other place, I probably wouldn't have given him another thought. Like I said, but I wasn't a stranger to dead men, or women, for that matter. I had seen a few--unlucky souls who had sunk too deep into the new lives they had chosen after running away from the old.

.......But this was different. I knew him. His name was Wallace "Wigs" Morgan and I had jammed with him a few times over the years, mostly on amateur nights.

.......Like the other guys who played the Evergreen, Wigs was a professional who had studied his instrument academically. They were all young lions with aspirations to the big time--in jazz, that meant steady work as a sideman in clubs, studio work in film and television, or as a leader on records of their own. Wigs had been the first to accomplish that only a few days ago. A major record label had picked him up after a talent scout saw one of his blistering shows in New York last month.

.......What a way to start a career. Dead.

.......Then I heard my name.

......."James McFetter."

.......I turned to the voice. It was Detective Stelling of Homicide. He strolled towards me with that languid gait of his. Behind him, at the mouth of the alley, I could see marked and unmarked cars arriving on the scene. An ambulance wailed somewhere in the city.

.......Stelling walked up, looked at the body, then looked at me. "Who called you?" he said.

......."Anonymous tip. You?"

......."One of the barbacks. Found him while taking out the trash," Stelling said. "You recognize him? Or what's left of him?"

......."Yeah. His name was Wigs."

......."Close, were you?" Stelling asked.

......."I used to jam with him."

.......He raised an eyebrow. "You play?"

......."Tenor sax," I said.

......."I wouldn't have figured you for the tortured artist type. Maybe torturing an artist to get a confession but..." He grinned.

......."Hey, I'm sensitive. If you were female, you'd already know that."

.......Stelling eyed me curiously, then, "You may as well go home." He waved a mob of people into the alley--the crime scene photographers, forensics, coroner's office. Everybody knew the drill. "We'll call you when we have some answers."

......."Sure," I said, but I had no intention of leaving before I got some answers of my own.

.......Before I walked back into the bar, I heard one of the uniforms bark, "There's the toy."

.......I turned to see him lifting something out of a garbage can-a .22 pistol that he held by a pencil inserted through the trigger guard. Hopefully, the lab boys would be able to produce some damning prints. Crimes of passion are usually good for that.

.......Inside the lounge, there were only a few people milling about. A couple of uniforms were already grilling people. One familiar face was sitting at a table, smoking. I went over.

......."Hey, Leeks."

.......Leeks looked up. A slow smile spread over his face like a sponge absorbing water. "McFetter. Haven't seen you around for a while."

.......I sat down. "The jet set got tired of me. They find you boring when you run out of money. So here I am."

.......Leeks' laugh was clipped short. "How 'bout Wigs? Man, we were just playing our asses off a couple hours ago. Now he's dead."

......."Anything weird happen?"

......."Wigs left after the second set. He said he'd catch us later 'cause he had something to do."

......."Any idea what?"

......."Maybe it was with a certain lady giving him the lucky eye."

......."From the audience?"

.......He took a long drag of his cigarette then stubbed it out. "Sitting right at the front table. A fan, I guess. She's hardly missed any of Wigs' gigs."

......."What's she look like?"

......."Sophisticated looking. Would come in wearing a funky hat."

.......I considered this. "You seen Jimmy around?"

.......Leeks nodded. "In the can."

.......I got up and went into the men's room. Jimmy's sobs were amplified by the tiled walls and floor. I opened up the middle stall. Jimmy was sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, feet tucked up under his chest, arms hugging his knees. He was a barback and busboy at the lounge, a slight kid with a crooked smile. Everybody liked him, looked out for him.

......."You all right?" I asked.

......."Wigs..." his voice trailed. "All twisted up like that. Why did I have to find him?"

......."We all see things we don't want to see." I cringed at the cliche, but I didn't have time for originality. "That's what life's all about." I took a wad of paper towels, soaked them, wrang out the excess water and gave them to Jimmy. "Wipe your face. You'll feel better."

.......After a moment, I decided Jimmy was calm enough to talk to. I had one angle, hinted at by Leeks. A jealous husband-boyfriend sees Wigs with his gal, words fly, then fists, then the gunshot. I decided to explore another. "You see anybody suspicious hanging around here tonight?"

.......Jimmy said matter of factly, "You mean like wise guys?"

.......That's exactly what I meant. I knew Wigs had had a small problem with gambling, not enough to get his legs broken but enough to get his horn put in the pawn shop a few times.

......."No more than usual," Jimmy said. He finally came out of the stall and went to the mirror above the sink to comb his hair.

......."Anybody else out of the ordinary?" I asked.

......."No. It was pretty dead. A few people at the bar."

......."Okay, Jimmy. You'd better get back out there. The cops'll want to ask you some questions."

.......As I walked out of the bathroom, I knew I wasn't going to get much shut eye for the next few days.

* * * * *

.......After a few hours of fitful sleep, I awoke to find Wigs' murder plastered all over the papers. It even got thirty seconds on the noon newscast. Neither said much except that the circumstances surrounding his death were mysterious and that the police had no leads. So far, the only lead I had was a well-dressed female jazz fan. Linking her to Wigs would be tenuous at best, even assuming I could find her.

.......After lunch, I decided to follow up the gambling question. I drove downtown and parked in front of a nondescript storefront.

......."Hey, Leo. How's business? Any more scalps hanging from your belt?"

.......Leo gave me a nasty stare. He was short and wore a huge mustache that hung down over his lips like a window shade. He had to punctuate each word with a forceful blow of air to clear the hair from his mouth.

......."You wanna place a bet? Fine," he said. "I'd like you to lose your shirt. If not, get the hell out."

.......I walked up to his window, pushing ahead of the other lowlifes waiting to put their unemployment or welfare checks down on some longshot. "I need some info."

.......Leo shuffled some cash. What he held in his hand was more than I made from six months of steady case work. "Why should I help you? All the times you put a cramp in my livelihood."

......."Ever hear of a good deed? Maybe it'll help your chances in heaven. Lord knows you're gonna need it when your number's up."

.......He actually seemed to be considering this. But before he could come to his senses, I sweetened the deal. "I'll ask some old friends down at the precinct to lay off you a while."

.......That did it.

......."What d'ya need?"

......."Wigs Morgan. He lay down any big bets recently? And lose?" I moved aside so he could deal with his customers.

......."Nothing," Leo said. "I ain't heard his name anywhere."

.......I didn't have a choice but to take Leo's word, for now. He was a small time bookie but had big time ears. If Wigs hadn't personally bet with Leo, some of the other bookies in the area would have spilled the juice. They always liked to talk about the losers.

......."Okay, Leo. Thanks." As I was walking out, I yelled over my shoulder, "Put me down for $50 on Saturday's playoff game."

.......Leo mumbled something that I was glad I couldn't hear, right before the door closed.

* * * * *

.......I drove back home through lunch hour traffic. It didn't look like Wigs had been rubbed out due to nonpayment of debt.

.......Later that night, the Evergreen Lounge was hopping. There was a line to get in but Batty the doorman waved me right through. The crowd despised me for that.

.......Inside, the place was quaking with two kinds of music--the feverish, pulsing drive of the jazz quintet on the small stage at the rear of the club and the more orchestral nuances of the bar itself--the hum of nonstop conversation, the tinkling of glasses and the tympanic thump-thwack of the bar's cash registers.
I walked over to the bar and got a stool that had just been vacated by a very large man. I slipped into it in his wake, to the chagrin of another single guy. He gave me a scowl and I scowled back. I settled in. I looked over at the bandstand to watch the musicians, but instead, my attention was drawn to Jimmy, who was off to the side of the stage.

.......He was engaged in what looked to be a heated dispute with two burly men dressed in muscle shirts and wearing matching pony tails, the short kind that you sometimes see on Sumo wrestlers. I hated that look on anybody but Sumos. Every now and again, one of the guys would grab Jimmy by the shoulder and shove him violently.

.......Just as I was about to get up and offer Jimmy some assistance, they left. Jimmy stood there a moment. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were vacant . Then he snapped out of it and started walking over to the bar.

.......I called his name. He came over.

......."Hey, Mr. McFetter. You gonna play tonight?" His voice was tremulous.

......."No way, Jimmy. Tonight's for the big fish. I'm just a small fry. They'd eat me alive." When it looked like he wasn't going to offer any comment on what had just transpired, I asked him.

......."That was nothing," he said. "Couple of guys got sore 'cause we didn't have valet parking."

.......I didn't press it further. Instead, I pushed a ten on the bar. "Tell Bill to get me a gin and tonic."

.......Right after Jimmy left to give the bartender my order, I noticed her.

.......A woman wearing a funky hat had just walked in. I remembered her as the only detail Leeks could give me about the night Wigs was murdered, and I realized she was really my only lead.

.......She walked over to the other end of the bar. A man saw her and gave up his seat. When all she did was nod an imperceptible "thank you," light a cigarette and focus her attention on her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, I saw his lips move in an angry way before he stormed off.

.......I got comfortable and watched her. I could tell she was older by the way she carried herself. Her movements were confident, direct. There wasn't any hesitation in any thing she did, which really wasn't much, unless you called blowing smoke in a thin stream toward the ceiling and staring at me, "doing something."

.......This went on for five long minutes. Then I turned around toward the bandstand in response to an exceptionally piercing high note from the trumpet player. When I turned back around to take another hit from my drink, she was still watching me.

.......I couldn't pass up this chance to talk to her. Besides, I hated sitting at bars alone....and after all the time she'd spent sizing me up, I couldn't disappoint her.

.......I grabbed my drink that Bill had placed in front of me and snaked around the bar, through the three-deep crowd, to get to her. There wasn't a free stool next to her, so I stood to her left and leaned in.


.......She was in the middle of taking a drag, but courteously blew the smoke out of the corner of her mouth, into the face of the woman next to her.

......."Hello," she said.

.......This was going good. I downed my drink. While she suddenly gave in to a compulsion to look in to her purse, I saw Jimmy coming up the small set of stairs by the waiter station, carrying a rack of glasses.

......."Hey, Jimmy," I yelled, holding up my glass. "Get me another, will you?" He nodded.

.......She closed her purse and put a pack of matches on the bar.

......."So, you come here often?" I cringed when I said that. Boy, was I rusty.

.......She reached for the bowl of peanuts on the bar. She popped a few in her mouth. "Yes, I do. And I've seen you here before, too."

.......I took a drink. "I'm a friend of the musicians."

......."Oh, you play too?"

......."A little."

......."I hope you're not like these guys." She made a motion toward the stage. "All they do is take and take from those before them. They never give anything back, like a piece of their soul. That's what you have to do to be a great player."

.......She saw my reaction to her bitterness. "I'm sorry," she said.

.......I nodded. "You seem to know a lot about paying your dues."

......."Let's just say I've seen it first hand."

......."You're serious about the music?"


......."Do you take your musicians seriously, too?"

......."I'm married."

......."Where's your ring?"

......."It didn't go with my outfit. I left it at home."

......."Come on. Diamonds don't clash with anything."

......."Who said it was diamonds?"

......."It's always diamonds," I said.

.......She looked down at her drink. "Not in this case. My husband couldn't afford diamonds when we were married."

.......There was a break in the music. "I'm going to try and get a table," she said. "Join me?"

......."No thanks. I need to be close to the source," I said, patting the bar.

.......Before she left, she reached up and started taking off her hat. So far I had refrained from making any comments about it. But I had to say something.

......."Interesting hat." She couldn't argue with that.

......."Thank you. The damn pin was sticking me."

.......Ahh, the hat pin. How old school.

.......After she got it off, I helped her off the stool.

......."Nice meeting you," she said.

.......I watched her move through the crowd, carefully holding the hat out in front of her like it was bleeding and she didn't want to soil her dress. Then she disappeared. This would have been a good time to down my other drink, but Jimmy hadn't gotten it yet. So I left.

.......Outside, Batty saw me.

......."Leaving so soon?" he said.

......."Some of us have to earn a living." I walked to my car which I had parked across the street, diagonally to the entrance of the lounge. There I waited for Mrs. Hat to appear.

.......And she did, two hours later. I figured I had nodded off a few times by the way my neck hurt from that jerking reflex which snaps you awake whenever your head droops.

.......She stood on the corner and hailed a cab. I followed her.

.......After twenty minutes, we stopped in what used to be a strong middle class neighborhood; it now teetered back and forth between economic renaissance and utter desolation. She got out and walked into a brownstone.

.......I parked across the street. I walked over, stood in the vestibule and read the four names on the mailboxes. Then I realized how stupid I was -- I had forgotten to ask her name at the bar. Luckily, only one of the names was a Mr./Mrs. so I figured Mrs. Hat was indeed Mrs. John Morris. I jotted the name down in my notepad and took off.

* * * * *

.......After another night of not practicing, I woke up, made some breakfast and hit the phone. I got the Morrises' number from information. I dialed and expected someone to answer---the someone who had been boozing it up the night before while wearing a funky hat. But all I got was the answering machine with a male voice.

......."You've reached the Morrises," the machine played. "Please leave the pertinent information and we'll get back to you as soon as possible. If this is a student, please direct all inquiries to the Templeton University Music Office at 555-1324."

.......I tried the office since it was about ten thirty in the morning.

.......I waited a few rings and hit paydirt.

......."Hello . You've reached the Templeton University Music Department."

......."Hello," I started. "My name is James..."

......."If you would like Professor Handel, press one; Professor Marks, press two; Professor Morris, press three. If you would like to speak with a graduate student..."

.......I hung up. Damn. Fooled again. God, how I hated voice mail. I redialed after I wiped the egg off.
"Professor Morris," a man's voice said.

......."Professor Morris, my name is James McFetter and I'm investigating a murder. I'd like to come over and ask you a few questions..."

......."...about Wigs Morgan. I was waiting for this," he said.

......."You knew him?"

......."I was his music teacher for ten years."

.......Paydirt wasn't the word. "I'll be right over."

* * * * *

.......Morris' office was a mess. Piles and piles of staff paper were stacked on an upright piano and were spilling over onto the floor as well as taking up half his desk. Music stands stood in the corner like silent choir members waiting to open their arms to receive their sheet music.

.......I sat in a dusty chair in front of his desk while he reminisced. He was about fifty and had a lilting quality to his voice.

.......'Wigs. Bright kid. One of my best students."

......."You meet him at the university?"

.......He laughed. "No. We're from the same neighborhood albeit two generations apart. His mother brought him to me as a young boy, hoping to keep him off the streets. The fact that he became a virtuoso was unforeseen."

......."What about you?"

......."What about me?"

......."Did it bother you that a student of yours hit the big time while you toil in obscurity?"

......."How do you know I'm not comfortable in obscurity?"

......."Just speculation."

......."Save that for the stock market." He leaned forward. "I'm happy for what Wigs accomplished. It pains me that all his hard work was for nothing."

.......I looked around the office. I tried a new angle. "Does your wife have extravagant tastes?"

......."What does she have to do with it?"

......."I was just wondering if your salary is keeping her happy."

.......He stood up. "That's none of your business as I don't see how this line of questioning is pertinent to Wigs' murder."

......."But I see. That's all that counts." I stood up and walked over to the door. "I might need to ask you a few more questions in the near future. I'll be in touch."

.......I let myself out.

* * * * *

.......Driving home, I tried to sort out what facts I had, and frankly, there wasn't much sorting to be done. How did it all fit together? I decided to start from the beginning.

.......When I got home, I called Stelling.

......."Did you ever find out the caliber of the slug?"

......."Not slug, slugs. A few .22s to the heart."

......."Any make on the gun?"

......."We traced it as far back as a pawn shop on South Street. Some woman bought it for protection. Name of Janine Traver. Nothing on her yet."

.......I sank a bit. Was I really expecting to hear the last name of Morris?

......."Anything else? Prints?"

......."Just the shop clerk's."

......."What about you?" Stelling asked. "What have you..."

......."Thanks." I hung up before he could grill me for what I had dug up on the case. It's not that I didn't like sharing but I wanted this finale for myself. I wanted to look into the eyes of whoever extinguished the flame of a genius in his prime.

.......Since I didn't have anything else pressing, I decided to check out the pawn shop. I couldn't very well have any loose ends flapping about.

* * * * *

.......I knew the pawn shop Stelling had mentioned. It wasn't the typical, desperate last stop for the drug crowd or the fugitives from gambling debts. It catered mostly to musicians who swapped their old instruments for someone else's old instruments. A lot of players changed axes (this is a musician's term for his/her instrument, originating with jazz players) like Madonna changes her image.

.......I walked in and introduced myself to the clerk.

......."I already told the police what I know," he said.

.......Obviously he hadn't been impressed by my introduction. I slipped him a twenty.

.......I asked him about the woman. "You sure her name was Janine?" I said.

......."That's what she said."

......."You have her signature. A receipt anywhere?"

.......He looked at me like I was stupid. "Some people don't like to leave a trail. We traded even up."

......."That sounds illegal. I thought there were reporting requirements for pawnshops."

......."And you never popped a guy's chin for a little co-operation?" He stared at me in challenge.

......."I know enough law to know they call that aggravated assault."

......."Alright, Perry Mason. What'd she trade you for?"

.......He bent down behind the counter and popped back up. "This ruby ring."

.......It was a pretty good sized ring. "A ruby for a .22 pistol?"

......."Yeah, I know. There's one born every minute."

.......I thanked him and started walking out. Before I got to the door, I stopped and spun around. "By the way, was she wearing anything distinctive?"

......."Hell, yeah. She was wearing a fur wrap. I hadn't seen one of those since my grandmother had a fake one made to impress my grandfather when they were courtin'. Or so family history tells it."

......."Okay, thanks." I turned back around to go out.

.......Before the door closed, though, I heard him say, "It made that purple hat she wore seem almost normal."

.......I sat in the serenity of my car, the street sounds outside muffled by my rolled-up windows. Janine Traver had to be Mrs. Morris. How many people go around town wearing clothes like that? If this were true, presumably she'd popped Wigs. But why? Were they having an affair and in a twist of irony, she found him with another woman? It was certainly possible. The musician's stereotype was true in Wigs' case--love'em and leave'em before the next gig.

.......I started the car and merged into traffic. I figured it was about time to pay Mrs. Morris a visit.

* * * * *

.......I parked in front of the Morrises' brownstone. I walked up the stairs, a lot of unanswered questions swirling around in my head. I buzzed their apartment and, as I waited, I wondered how I was going to broach the subject of murder with Mrs. Morris.

.......Out of boredom, I let my eyes roam around the vestibule. There was the usual accumulation of unwanted grocery and department store circulars in one corner; in another was a bunch of mismatched shoes. Then I noticed the inner door was open slightly.

.......Not one to ignore any kind of advantageous opportunity, I pushed open the door and climbed the stairs to the Morris' apartment.

.......I found another open door.

......."Hello?" I called. "Mrs. Morris?"

.......I pushed the door open and walked into the apartment. There, on the floor, was a good reason not to have that conversation with Mrs. Morris.

.......She was dead. Her throat slit. Her blood had run the length of her body, outlining and hugging her like a thin shadow.

.......I knelt down next to her body to check for a pulse, just in case. None.

.......Since she wasn't going anywhere, I closed the apartment door and decided to stroll around the place to see what popped up. When I turned up nothing incriminating from my initial check, I hit the drawers to begin a more detailed search.

.......Her underwear drawer was first on the list; usually, that turns out to be a goldmine of illicit stuff.

.......I flipped through bras and panties. Nothing. I checked the second drawer. Still nothing. I reached my arm under and felt underneath the drawer above and found something. A piece of paper with a phone number written on it. Putting a bra over my hand to hide my prints, I picked up the phone and dialed the number.

......."Yeah," a gruff voice answered. "How much and on what? I ain't got all day."

.......I hung up. That voice was unmistakable. It was Leo the bookie's.

.......I sat down on the bed and leaned against the headboard. An interesting turn of events. Probably meant nothing, but anything that pricked up the hairs on my neck during a murder investigation was worth wondering about.

.......I called Detective Stelling to send over the works. Then I rolled over on my side facing the nightstand, figuring I had a couple minutes before they came. For a minute nothing registered but slowly a flashing numeral caught my attention. The answering machine. It showed two messages.
I hit "Play." The first was from one of those "You Just Won A Vacation To Bermuda" scams.
The second one was more interesting. The voice was hysterical. "I know you said not to call but I'm desperate. I need that money, damnit. They're going to kill me if I don't pay. Meet me tonight at midnight in the alley behind the Evergreen Lounge."

.......It was the same voice that had tipped me off to Wigs' murder roughly 36 hours before.

.......Then I broke the law again; I erased the message. I wanted tonight's meeting to be between me and the caller. No cops.

* * * * *

.......Later that night, I sat in my apartment, just holding my sax, silently fingering the keys. I could hear Mrs. Koler's TV above me. At least if I couldn't make a sound, I could still keep my fingers limber. But these exercises weren't just physical, they were mental, too. They relaxed my mind and soothed my nerves, and I needed that before going to meet the killer.

.......A couple hours later, I was in the alley behind the lounge. I hid myself in a crevice where I had a nice view of the alley.

.......From a small window above and a few feet to my left, dim light filtered down to me, enough that I could look at my watch. 11:53 p.m. The music from inside came through the walls and lingered just outside of distinguishability. I could tell that the band was playing a hot, fast one from the dull yet constant snapping of the snare drum, but the melody was just out of reach.

.......Then the back door opened and Jimmy stepped out. What was he doing here? Catching a smoke? But he didn't smoke. I looked down at my watch. Midnight.

.......I kept my voice low and even. I didn't want to startle him.

.......Jimmy jumped anyway. He turned.

......."Surprised to see you here, Jimmy," I said.

......."Mr. McFetter. What're you doing here?"

.......I stepped into the light from that small window. "I'm waiting for someone."


......."A murderer."

.......Even in the semi-gloom of the ally I could tell Jimmy had gone pale on me. I decided to take a chance. "Why'd you do it, Jimmy?"

.......Jimmy choked up. "I..."

......."Spill it. I know you killed him. What does Mrs. Morris have to do with it?"

.......He made a move to run but I had anticipated it and was already blocking his escape. I shoved him up against the back wall, held him there by my forearm pressed against his throat.

......."Okay," Jimmy said, barely audible.

.......I released some pressure from his windpipe.

......."Mrs. Morris hired me...to kill Wigs."

.......I gritted my teeth to keep my rage from boiling over onto his face and body. I clenched my fists, digging my fingernails into my palms, trying hard to keep from digging them in Jimmy's throat.
"She was...jealous. She said her husband had more talent than any of these young punks. He should have been the famous one, getting the record deals, raking in the cash..."

......."Why'd you do it?"

.......Jimmy sagged in my arms. I let him slide down the wall to rest on a trash bag.

......."They were after me," he coughed, rubbing his throat. "I owed them big time. I needed the money. She was going to pay me."

.......I couldn't believe what he was telling me. "You could have come to any one of us and asked for help."

......."I was afraid. I couldn't think..." His voice had that desperate, high pitched tone I had heard before. On the night he phoned in Wigs' murder.

......."Why did you call me?"

......."I don't know," he sobbed. He was silent for a beat. "I guess I just couldn't leave him like that."

.......I looked down at him. "That's too bad, Jimmy. Too bad you got a conscience after you killed him."

* * * * *

.......That night I brought Jimmy down to Stelling's office and explained what I knew. Jimmy signed a confession without interrogation. When Stelling told him that Mrs. Morris had been killed as well, it didn't seem to faze him; he had already sunk down into a deep morass of guilt and fear. He was living in his head now.

.......Stelling eventually traced a bloody fingerprint off a carton of milk to a mob enforcer who had, it seemed, satiated his appetite with milk and cookies after killing Mrs. Morris. His mug shot brought up another lowlife, a partner of his. They often worked in tandem and were the guys I had seen shaking down Jimmy that night at the Evergreen Lounge. They had hoped to get the money Mrs. Morris was going to pay Jimmy, in order to cut out the middle man. But the source was all dried up. According to her husband's statement, she wouldn't have been able to pay off Jimmy or anybody else. When the collection guys found out, they exacted a different form of payment--Mrs. Morris' life.

.......Leo had tipped them off to Mrs. Morris' deal with Jimmy; it seemed she was a gambler , too. Leo had introduced the two of them in the first place. I planned to pay Leo a visit about his part in all of this. It wouldn't be a social call.

.......It was only after the entire case had been wrapped up that I began feeling Wigs' absence. The chaos of solving the case had forced him from my mind, but now, as I sat in my ragged old armchair and stared out the window, he came to me.

.......I thought about what Morris had said, about music keeping Wigs off the streets. I imagined Wigs as a child, painstakingly learning his scales and circle of fourths and fifths while his friends played stickball or tag. If only he'd known that all the time spent on lessons would end in his death, that each new lick he mastered, bringing him closer to virtuosity, would ultimately be a factor in his demise. But then another image came to me--him, on the stage, his face contorted in ecstasy as he poured his soul through the bell of his horn. If he had known about the future, would he have cared?

.......I opened up my sax case and saw the gold glint of my old friend. I strapped it on, silently warmed up my fingers on the keys for a few minutes and put my lips to the mouthpiece.

.......I started soft and steady, staying in the low register, slowly building, slowly getting louder and louder until I was truly wailing the blues. This is for you Wigs, I thought as the sound enveloped the room. I was on fire, playing better than I had in years.

.......I ignored the pounding on the door and the curses that punctuated it. Mrs. Koler would have to wait until my tribute was over, until the last note slowly faded through my open window and out into the night.

Copyright (c) 2001 by John Samony Jr.

John Samony has had poetry published in numerous literary magazines as well as humor in Cracked Magazine. Recently, he and his wife celebrated the birth of their second daughter, Gillian. He has been overheard to describe the experience of having two daughters--a two year old and a three month old--as being "hardboiled."

He counts Brett Halliday and Mickey Spillane as being two of his favorite writers in the detective genre and admits being a fan more out of sentimentality. "I know there are better and more influential writers in the field, but those two are inextricably linked to my high school years," he says. His tribute website to Mike Shayne, Flagler Street, is up and running and kicking ass. Check it out, ya lout.

Death Lessons is his first published story in the crime/detective genre.

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