A Picasso Smith, Jr. Mystery
by Hugh Lessig
......Scrooge Macready called
on Christmas Eve. Perfect. It was just after dark and I was half
in the bag.
....."Smith," he said.
"I hear you breathing."
.....He had me there.
....."Come to the usual
place. Bring that photographer of yours. The one with the shaved
head and the rivets in her face. You'll get your byline on the
front page tomorrow with a headline big enough to declare World
.....I was on the couch, alone.
A 12-inch Wal-Mart Christmas tree winked at me from the coffee
table. Next to it was my only present: half a carton of Marlboro
Lights from Irma, who lived in the group home next door. She
did'nt include a card because she had the shakes, which made
writing problematic. The fact that I had never smoked hadn't
occurred to her.
....."I'm here. Do you think
900 numbers work on Christmas Eve?"
....."You need to process
what Im saying."
....."I'm processing. Downloading
....."This isn't funny.
It's about the 'transformation', is that what you call it? What
you always wanted to know, what you need to know. The usual place
in half an hour."
....."And if I don't come?"
....."I'll be as dead as
....."That was Marley. Even
I know that."
.....He hung up with a hard click.
.....I rolled off the couch and
called Barb Moore. Thirty minutes later, we stood shoulder to
shoulder in the middle of Canal Street, which had undergone its
own sort of transformation. It used to have brick buildings filled
with men who punched clocks and sweated salt stains into their
collars. Now it was industrial condos where young people with
hard waists checked Palm Pilots to look busy. Scrooge had one
of the few remaining warehouses down here -- a cinder block building
with a flat roof surrounded by a prison fence. It was true to
the neighborhood's roots, right down to the holiday decorations.
There was something about twinkling lights intertwined with razor
wire that brought home the true meaning of Christmas.
.....Barb took in the scene with
her photographer's eye. She wore a beret atop her bald head and
a one-piece snowsuit, her cameras strapped like bandoleers. Multiple
earrings winked under the streetlight. She smelled like good
dope. It was not an unpleasant smell, and for a moment I thought
about hitting her up for some. Except I really didn't know her
....."Barb, you nervous?"
The kid was all energy, flexing and unflexing her hands.
....."I'm cold. Let's get
this over with."
....."Any idea why he asked
....."No. Should I?"
....."Just asking. Sheesh."
.....Barb shifted her straps
and followed me. We pushed through the gate and found the side
door. It opened into an office, which had a simple oak desk and
a hard chair and very little light. It was, as he said, "the
usual place." Where we always talked.
.....After a few seconds, my
eyes adjusted to the gloom.
.....Scrooge was flat on his
back near the only window.
.....His body caught the glow
from an outside security light. He had worn his usual denim shirt,
his Cubs jacket signed by Ernie Banks, a pair of blue jeans and
dirty yellow sneakers. His shirt had a dark stain the size and
color of a fruitcake. The window had a small bullet hole, a webbed
crack. He had been standing near it, maybe watching for me.
.....I went to the body but his
dead eyes stopped me. Even in the gathering dark, they stopped
me. I waited for his mouth to move. Maybe he could tell me how
to fix this. (NOTE: "Certainly" is a bit strong, since
Scrooge seems dead).
.....Barb strobed off four shots
with one of her Nikons. The body winked in and out of focus,
and the hard light made it real. Scrooge was dead. He was right
there, frozen in time, and he would never get up.
....."Easy on the flash,"
I said under my breath. "The killer might still be around.
Plus, I almost made number two in my nappy."
....."I don't answer to
reporters. Plus, you're in my shot."
in Scrooge's hand caught my eye: a CD in a plain plastic case.
I bent down and slid it from his fingers, cold plastic across
cold flesh. The CD was black with the name of his main enterprise:
The Scrooge Foundation.
....."Is that the story?"
.....I counted to three, remained
calm. "Stories don't come on CDs and they don't just fall
into your lap. Jesus, Barb, the man is dead."
....."And dead men deserve
my best shot."
.....Barb swung her long-lensed
camera into place like a sniper. She went pop-pop-pop-pop
again, then blocked my path as I tried to walk out the door.
....."What is it, Barbarella?"
....."You can do this story,
right? You're not going to fall apart, are you?"
....."You want to try that
....."I'm just thinking.
You and Scrooge were close. You covered his original arrest.
You're the only reporter he talks to. Talked to."
.....I stared at the snowsuit
where her cleavage would be. "Number one, photogs don't
take me off assignments. Number two, there never was a Scrooge
arrest. It's revisionist myth, like Captain Kirk never said 'Beam
me up, Scotty' or Tarzan never said, 'Me Tarzan. You Jane.' Get
your facts straight."
eyes turned hard. "I've read about Scrooge's transformation.
Two years ago"
....."Three years ago. Christmas
morning. These are the facts. Gus Macready, owner of Macready's
Heating Oil and the tightest wallet in River City, walks through
the low rises in bathrobe and slippers, handing fifties to whomever
he meets. Someone said it was hundreds. It was fifties.
....."He ends up at a church
and dumps three large at the foot of the altar. Some said it
was six. It was three. The preacher starts speaking in tongues
and someone thinks he's having a seizure, which brings the cops,
which brings me. Naturally I was working the Christmas shift.
....."Macready was never
arrested. He was detained and let go. No one at The Blade
has an ounce of institutional knowledge and that includes you,
.....Barb stared me down. "You
nicknamed him Scrooge. Or is that a myth, too?"
.....The kid had stones, I gave
her that much.
....."My lead was something
like a modern day Scrooge came to his senses yesterday at Our
Lady of the Federal Reserve. I meant it as an insult, but his
change of heart (NOTE: too many transformations) seemed genuine.
Macready never told me what caused it. Never. Not in all the
conversations we had. But he loved being called Scrooge. And
tonight he was going to tell me everything."
.....Barb sighted the body through
her long lens. Then she shoved past me and got up close.
....."Smith. Come here."
....."What? Are there entrails?"
....."Just come here."
.....I walked up behind her.
Scrooge had written something on the floor in the dust and the
"BC + Bulbs"
.....Barb was frozen in place.
I could almost hear the wheels turning inside that shaved skull.
....."Bulbs. Um, that's
....."Bulbs? Are you sure?"
The name hit me between the eyes, and not from anything I knew
about Scrooge. From years and years before.
....."Some of the pressroom
guys gave me the nickname a few years ago. I used to take the
rear entrance and walk past them every morning. You think his
death has something to do with me?"
....."My guess is it has
to do with both of us."
....."No," I admitted.
"But I have half a theory. Let's cruise. My laptop is in
the car, and we can try to read this CD "
..... I drove toward the empty
downtown while Barb fired up my laptop. The CD loaded in a minute.
Green computer glow bathed her face.
....."It contains one file,"
she said after a moment, "labeled 'Restraining Orders'."
....."That makes sense."
....."The Scrooge Foundation
operated a halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics. If
they broke the rules, they got kicked out. Any number of them
resented this, and would show up at the Foundation office to
bitch. Scrooge slapped them with restraining orders so he could
call the cops. It was one of his favorite tools, but he sure
pissed off a lot of crackheads and drunks. Good chance his killer
is on there."
.....Barb squinted and wrinkled
her nose. "I see a list of names followed by a date, followed
by a set of initials. Thirty or forty names. Most have the initials
....."The name of the halfway
house, Marley's Second Chance."
....."We're talking about
the man who established the Tiny Tim Pediatric Wing at River
City Osteopathic. He wanted to put God Bless Us, Everyone, on
the cornerstone until the ACLU got apoplectic."
.....Barb looked at her watch.
"It's six-thirty and we've got early deadlines tonight.
We can't run down every disgruntled drug addict in the city and
see where they've been in the past hour."
....."What's the most recent
one? And are there any sets of initials besides MSC. Don't look
at me. Look at the screen."
....."Don't give me orders,
Smith. I'm not some j-school intern you can boss around."
....."You actually went
to journalism school?"
....."University of San
....."Yeah. Want to make
something of it?"
....."No Just asking."
.....I was now officially weirded
out. There'd been a Barbara Ann "Bulbs" Moore who was
a photog during the 1950s back at our sister paper, The Frisco
Foil. She'd worked with my dad. A chain-smoker. A hard driver.
Her name was sprinkled through newspaper lore. This Barb had
arrived at our newspaper last year. She didn't go out for beers
and she never, ever attended staff meetings.
.....Maybe some of the old guys
in the pressroom gave Barb that nickname or maybe it was all
just a coincidence. Or not. Scrooge was dead, and the last thing
I needed was another Christmas ghost.
..... "Smith, are you listening?
The final name is John Lipovek. His restraining order is dated
last week. It's the most recent one. Different initials after
his name, too. MHO."
Oil. Scrooge's real business, where he made his fortune. Its
coming together now."
....."Lipovek works for
Macready's Heating Oil?"
....."Yes. I can even guess
what he does. He's an overworked clerk, a drone. Someone who
has taken enough and just went postal on his boss."
....."Why a clerk?"
....."B.C. Bob Cratchit."
....."No, really, hear me
out. Scrooge and I used to have long talks. He did the Marley
thing. He did the Tiny Tim thing. I would always joke with him
about Bob Cratchit, as in 'When does something get named after
Bob Cratchit?' His face would darken and he'd say nothing. It
was a bad association."
.....Barb rolled her eyes as
she searched her memory. "I don't know any John Lipovek.
Not even vaguely. I'm supposed to be connected to him?"
....."Let's connect you
and see what happens."
....."Why not? You up for
.....Barbs answer was to call
the newsroom and ask the librarian for John Lipovek's address.
He lived in the West End, a fashionable address for corporate
VPs, top-drawer lobbyists and flacks. An overworked clerk? Maybe
I'd been wrong about that.
.....During the twenty-minute
drive, I laid down ground rules.
....."First, let me do the
talking. You see things, but I hear things. Second, leave your
damn cameras in the car. If we find Lipovek at home, and if he
is the killer, he'll be hinky about a cold call from the Blade.
No drive-by strobing. He's liable to pull a gun."
....."All I've got."
.....Barb studied me for a moment.
"That's the first nice thing you've ever said to me."
....."Whatever it was, I
....."You said I see things."
....."Thats your job. You're
a photog. If you hadn't seen Scrooge's message, we wouldn't have
a clue. So you did good. Or more precisely, you earned your fat
paycheck. The thing is . . . "
....."Nothing. Let's leave
it at that."
.....Lipovek's neighborhood was
Hallmark Card pretty. Snow dusted the big Tudors and Williamsburg
colonials. Most of the homes had icicle lights. A few had mechanical
reindeer in the front yard.
.....Lipovek lived in a brick
Cape Cod, smaller than the other homes. It had no decorations,
not even a candle in the window. It was like he wanted to belong
to this neighborhood, but he wasn't up to it.
.....As we approached the house,
a man opened the front door. He might have been fifty, dressed
in charcoal gray and black. He wore a gold chain around his neck.
Back-lit against the house, it was hard to tell much else.
....."Looking for John Lipovek,"
I called as we walked up.
....."You've found him.
How can I help you?" He had a smoker's voice, dry and deep.
.....We shook hands. He held
my gaze and tried very hard not to look at Barb, who stood behind
....."I'm Picasso Smith
Jr. of The River City Blade. Sorry to bother you on Christmas
Eve, but we have a problem you might solve."
....."I'm doing a feature
story on Gus Macready -- you know, Scrooge. The story is in the
can and it's scheduled to run tomorrow. But my editor wants to
jazz it up with a few comments from his employees. You work for
him, don't you?"
.....He glanced at Barb, then
back at me. "No. Not anymore. I recently ended my employment
with Mr. Macready. I have little to say."
....."Anything would be
helpful. He's such a great man."
..... Behind me, Barb made a
noise in her throat. I couldn't tell if she wanted to be introduced
or if she wanted to leave. I decided to let the moment hang.
One thing you learn in this business -- cops and private investigators
learn this, too -- is that people hate dead silence. They'll
say almost anything to fill it, even things they don't want to
....."You've talked to Mr.
Macready recently?" Lipovek asked me.
....."Yes. Just few minutes
....."A few minutes ago.
.....Lipovek smiled. People love
to catch you in a lie, so I allowed myself to be caught. Except
he had no way of knowing I was lying without knowing Scrooge
....."Tell me, Mr. Smith.
How did you get my name?"
....."Mr. Macready gave
it to me." Technically, that wasn't a lie.
....."He gave it to you?
In this conversation you just had?"
.....I let the silence be my
answer and waited for him to fidget. He needed to know what I
was up to.
....."How do I fit into
this story again?" he asked.
like I said. Or ex-employee. Maybe not everyone liked Scrooge.
You could give us that side of the story. Maybe you and I can
.....I motioned toward the house.
Lipovek started to turn, then stopped. "You're forgetting
your manners, Mr. Smith. This beautiful woman behind you is begging
to be introduced."
.....Beautiful? I took my time
turning around. "Oh yeah. Meet Barbara Moore. She's our
.....He shoved me aside to shake
hands with her. Barb and I exchanged looks. Her expression had
changed. She knew Lipovek. She knew him and he was bad news.
....."Pico," she said
sweetly. "Why don't you get my cameras from the car?"
....."Just do it, please."
.....She wanted to be alone with
.....I walked back down the sidewalk,
retrieved both cameras from the car and slung them over my neck.
As I fiddled with the straps, I called back over my shoulder.
....."Is this the right
way to carry these things? I'm getting whiplash here."
.....No answer. I looked back
and saw no one. Tracks led up to the front door. Lipovek had
taken Barb inside and quietly closed the door behind him.
....."Hey! What about me?"
.....The door was locked. I pounded
on it, disdaining the brass knocker. No one answered. There was
no doorbell and the front window was dark. I circled to the right
and saw a screened-in porch, also dark. The cameras clanked around
my neck, just in case the rest of the block hadn't known I was
.....I found my way to the backyard,
where light spilled from a large window. The two of them stood
in the kitchen.
.....Lipovek gestured right and
left -- the stove, the table, the ceiling fan. He seemed to be
playing tour guide. Barb stood with her arms crossed. She had
unzipped the top half of her snowsuit to reveal a white blouse.
She had taken off her beret. Her expression told me that Lipovek
was telling some kind of story and she wanted him to get to the
.....As Lipovek bent slightly
at the waist, something glinted in the small of his back.
.....The bastard had a gun. You
could almost overlook it -- a black handle against a black shirt.
.....I counted to thirty while
Lipovek talked. Then he spread his hands as if to say, "What
do you think?" Barb began looking right and left. She just
wanted to get out of there.
.....I pounded on the back door,
kept pounding until I heard footsteps. By the time Lipovek came
out, I had retreated into the darkness of the yard, beyond the
glow from the kitchen.
....."Mr. Smith? Are you
.....He squinted into the darkness,
looking past me.
....."Mr. Smith? This is
no time to play hide and seek. I've got a beautiful woman visiting
and we're having a conversation." His voice shook with excitement.
He had it bad for Barb.
.....I stayed quiet, let him
fill the silence.
....."I know you were a
friend of Gus. He talked about you all the time. He said you
were the bad son he never had. He meant that in a good way, if
that makes any sense. Gus loved turning people onto the straight
and narrow. There. That's my quote. Now, why don't you leave
and come back later?"
.....Scrooge talked about me
at work. I would have never guessed that.
....."Or maybe I need to
be more firm with you. This is my property. I can order you to
.....Lipovek stepped to the edge
of the light, still angling away from me. His hand snaked behind
....."If you don't want
to leave, we can talk. I'm curious what Gus said to you -- this
recent conversation you had."
.....Another step. His hand stayed
in the small of his back.
....."Perhaps Ms. Moore
will talk to me. Did you know we met once? She came to the office
to photograph Gus. He was giving money to some such charity.
I said hello and shook her hand. A striking woman. She wouldn't
take my calls after that, but photographers are always busy,
.....Something shuddered inside
the house -- the front door slamming shut. Barb had gotten out
of there. Lipovek ran inside, disappeared for a moment, then
returned to the yard with a crazed and crooked smile.
....."Now Mr. Smith. See
what you've done."
.....The gun came out. The tendons
were tight on the back of his hand. He was looking right at me
.....I straightened the camera.
The strobe went off in Lipovek's face. He threw up his hand and
.....Something hard and hot slapped
against my shoulder and threw me in a circle. My left arm went
numb. The camera with the long lens clattered to the ground.
I took the second camera and swung it like a bolo as Lipovek
came toward me, still seeing spots.
.....The lens cracked against
bone. Lipovek fell in a heap.
.....Barb came running from the
side of the house. She surveyed the scene as she would a car
wreck, quickly and efficiently. Silhouetted against the light
of the house, she looked like some kind of Amazon angel, all
fuzzy and bright.
....."Smith! If you broke
my equipment it's coming out of your paycheck! Smith? Pico? Oh
no . . ."
.....I woke up in a hospital
bed with a fifty-pound weight strapped to my left shoulder. Barb
had parked herself on the bed. She wore another white blouse
that left a few buttons undone. Perched atop her bald head was
a red Santa cap with a fuzzy white ball. She held a copy of The
....."How . . ."
....."You're fine. It was
a twenty-five caliber slug and they got it out. Possible nerve
damage in the shoulder. Therapy is a must, and typing might be
out of the question for a while. Did you see the paper?"
..... She held up the front page.
The headline ran six columns across the top.
"Scrooge" Murdered on Christmas Eve,
Former Employee Confesses.
.....The story was bylined by
Barbara Ann Moore.
....."So this is hell,"
.....She flipped the paper so
I could see below the fold. It carried a photo of Lipovek firing
his gun. One of my shots had caught the desperate squint of his
eyes, lips pulled back, the gray clothes in a black night. An
evil shadow frozen in time. Hell, it was pretty good.
....."What happened after
I passed out? Lipovek said he knew you. Some previous assignment.
Said he called you, but you never returned his messages."
....."He called me all right,
going back nearly a year. He probably saw me when I went to shoot
Macready, and I must have really turned his crank or something.
I started to get some calls just after that, and at first I thought
it was just some pervert. I figured he'd leave me alone after
a while, but he kept calling. He never told me his name, but
I recognized the voice while we stood on the sidewalk. I thought
if I could get him alone, he might talk to me."
....."Scrooge must have
thought so, too. If I couldn't get to the bottom of his death,
you might. That's why he wanted you to come with me."
.....But why did Scrooge call
you Bulbs? What did he know? The unspoken question bounced
around inside my head. But right now, I needed to know what was
in our paper.
....."Tell me about your
big story," I said.
.....Barb resettled herself on
the bed. "Before his big 'transformation', Scrooge had two
lists of customers. His A-list were mostly white, well-off homeowners.
His Z list were the trailer trash, low-rent blacks and working
poor. He had two systems of credit -- low interest for the customers
he coddled, high interest for the poor people he didn't mind
....."And Lipovek knew about
....."Yeah, Lipovek was
the dispatcher. He took all the complaints. Three years ago,
he threatened to go to the State Consumer Advocate Office. But
Lipovek had his own mean streak. Instead of ratting out his boss,
he forced Macready to hand out money on Christmas morning in
the poorest section of town -- just for kicks, just to see him
....."So the motive for
the transformation was blackmail."
....."Yes. Except Macready
really did see the light. He really embraced the whole Scrooge
thing. He also paid Lipovek to keep quiet -- an extra stipend
in his paycheck every month. That worked until recently, when
Lipovek wanted more money to build an addition to the back of
his house. He had it bad for that West End neighborhood. Scrooge
wouldn't do it and they argued. Scrooge fired him and got the
restraining order. Lipovek threatened to go to the newspaper
about the A list and Z list, probably twisting the facts to hide
his own blackmail."
....."So Scrooge figured
he'd do a preemptive strike and confess, throw himself on the
mercy of the public?"
....."Bingo. But Lipovek
was stalking him. He killed Scrooge before he could talk to us.
When Lipovek saw us, he figured either Scrooge had survived or
he had left behind some clue."
....."Why did Lipovek confess
....."He regained consciousness
shortly after you clobbered him. By then, I had his gun. I told
him we found Scrooge's body. Then I told him I loved him, that
I'd help him escape if he told me the truth. Except the cops
were already on the way. I heard the shot as I came around the
side of the house and called 911 on my cell."
....."Not very ethical,
Barb. Even by my standards."
....."It's a good story."
....."I wish I could have
.....Barb looked at the folded
newspaper. "Good shot, Pico. I wish I could have taken it."
.....We sat there, letting the
silence grow between us. A nurse came in and checked my IV bag.
We both watched her go. Barb sighed and pushed up from the bed.
....."See you around, OK?"
.....She was about to disappear
around the corner when I got up the nerve.
....."We need to talk."
....." Your name. Your nickname.
....."Really? Is it?"
....."Barb, I'm not stupid."
....."No. Just not very
.....She left it at that.
.....Two days later, they let
me go home with a bottle of Motrin that looked like horse pills.
It was the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, the slowest
news cycle of the year. I took a cab back to my apartment, retrieved
a fistful of mail, picked up my newspapers, trashed my tree and
poured myself a beer.
.....I put the mail and the newspapers
on the coffee table. Sorting through it, I found a red envelope
from a Barbara Moore, Foushee Street, Richmond.
.....I opened it carefully. She
had sent me a Christmas card that had two teddy bears on the
front. Inside was an old black and white photo, bent at the edges,
as if someone had handled it over and over again.
.....My dad stood on the left.
.....He was in his glory, long
before life had started to kick him around, long before he had
started to kick me around. He wore a slouch hat and one of his
oversized sweaters. It must have been taken back in those magical
years of the late Forties when his life stretched before him
as straight as a Ted Williams' line drive.
.....The original Bulbs Moore
stood on the right. She wore a fedora, a white blouse, a dark
jacket cut short at the waist and she clenched a thin, black
cigar in her perfect teeth.
.....They didn't smile and they
didn't touch. They stood as partners.
.....I studied her face for a
long time. I pictured it without hair, added seven or eight earrings.
It could be.
.....Hell, it was.
.....A piece of paper was taped
to the inside of the card, folded up many times. I didn't open
it right away.
.....My dad and I had parted
with hard words that neither of us ever took back. Old Bulbs,
she was still living at the time. She'd known my father better
than I did. What scared me was the prospect that some young,
bald chick knew more, too.
.....I unfolded the paper. It
was an invoice from Toms Camera and Supply for $437.23, replacement
parts for the lens and strobe I had broken.
.....Across the bottom was a
"The day I took Scrooge's picture, he pegged me for
my mother's daughter. He gave me this picture. The guy spent
a lot of time researching your past, more than you knew. Why
am I at this newspaper? I owe you an explanation. You owe me
money. Let's talk over a nice bowl of Smoking Bishop. And bring
the chips. I always get the munchies. Merry Christmas."
Copyright (c) 2003 by Hugh Lessig.
Author Hugh Lessig, besides being a
contributor to this site, is a newspaper reporter in the Richmond,
Virginia area. Many of his stories honor the spirit of the hardboiled
newspaperman, including his hero Kennedy,
the hard-drinking reporter created by Frederick
Nebel. He also writes about ace reporter, Alamo
Barnes and Picasso Smith,
Sr., and is currently at work on a Picasso Smith Jr.
novel. He's also written several short stories that have nothing
to do with newspapers or reporters or even drinking. They're
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."
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