The Case of the Man on the Wrong Damn Side

The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event – Noir: A Celebration of Detective Fiction. Please enjoy.

 

I had a guy on the Lower East Side that owned a Jewish bakery. One day he puts a tray of his signature giant macaroons in the front window while two sisters of the cloth happen to be strolling by. The sisters look in the window and their eyes go big and they look at each other and take off running. Five minutes later the guy’s got thirty sisters and a mother superior crammed into his store. Apparently one of his macarons bears a strong resemblance to Saint Agnes of Somewhere. The nuns are going crazy pointing and praying, and none of his regulars can get in the door to buy a challah. When I get there, I reach into the case and take ahold of Saint Agnes and eat her in three bites. Problem solved. I get beat up pretty good on the way out, but the guy pays me double, and I enjoyed a nice macaroon.

The NYPD calls me up because the Face of Evil has appeared in a stain on a water tank on West 82nd Street. So many people come to gawk that the cops have to block off the street. The owner says he tried painting it over, but the stain bleeds right through the wood and the paint. I go into a bodega and buy some lighter fluid, take it up to the roof, squirt it all over the stain, and touch my cigar to it. WHOOSH! I let it burn for awhile then whack it out with my hat. Now there’s a nice layer of charcoal where the stain was. Problem solved. The guy pays me double. I buy a new hat.

I develop a bit of a reputation as a problem-solver.

So when the curator at the art institute in Chicago tells me how much he’ll pay me, I’m on the next train.

The painting shows an all-night diner with two guys and a girl sitting at the counter. The guys are in suits and fedoras, and the girl–a redhead–is wearing a flashy red dress with short sleeves. She’s leaning over the counter while the guy next to her–her date, maybe–just stares straight ahead. Doesn’t anybody take their hat off anymore? Behind the counter is the soda jerk, a kid in a white uniform, very clean-cut looking kid. He’s talking to the other guy, the one sitting alone.

“See there? The woman’s arm.” He hands me his magnifying glass. “Do you see it? Right at the elbow.”

I hold the glass up close. There’s a little blue-ish gray dot inside the elbow. “That’s not supposed to be there?”

“Of course not!”

I step back a little. You can’t even see it. I know that painting like the back of my hand, Detective. “Nighthawks” is Mister Hopper’s masterpiece.

I knock on the wall next to the painting. It’s about two feet from one side to the other. The wall is in the middle of the room. “Nighthawks” is the only painting on it. The other side is empty. I guess when you’re a masterpiece you get your own wall.

I hand the curator his magnifier back.

Everybody with access to the painting checks out. They have a guard in the room every night, but every morning the gray line is a little longer. People begin to notice. Then it’s front page news.

Good god! It looks like a vein!

I don’t know how the curator is keeping his bladder under control. “It’s a lumpy, blue-ish line going down her arm! It’s appalling!”

I push my way through the crowd. You’d think these people were looking at Saint Agnes of Somewhere on a macaroon.

The curator gives me his magnifier. The vein is definitely a vein.

I wave the glass at the painting, “Who are these people?”

“Well, the two gentlemen are dark representations of …”

“No, I mean are these real people? Like, models?”

“Yes. Both men are self-portraits. The lady is Mrs. Hopper.”

“Who’s the kid?” I ask.

“That would be Jimmy. Jimmy was Mr. Hopper’s model for several paintings. The boys in “Ground Swell,” for example …”

“Do you know where I can find Jimmy?”

“I do. The Hoppers set up a fund for Jimmy’s health care. I send Jimmy a generous check every month.

 —

The drapes in Jimmy’s apartment are closed in the middle of the day. Jimmy sits in a beat-up easy chair in boxers and a raggedy bathrobe. His skin is pulled so tight over his eye sockets and jaw and cheekbones that I’m afraid it will tear if he tries to speak. His skeleton-like fingers pull a pack of Lucky’s from his bathrobe pocket. He lights up. He doesn’t offer me one.

“You will excuse me, Detective.” He sets the cigarette in an ash tray on a table next to him. He takes a syringe with a long needle from the table. I can hear his joints pop as he bends over. 

He looks up at me and says, “Insulin. I’m diabetic.”

He jams the needle between two of his toes, pushes the plunger slowly, pulls it out fast and wipes a dot of blood away. Jimmy leans back and closes his eyes.

“What can I do for you, Detective?” he asks.

I stand up and put my hat on. 

“I’ll see myself out.” I say.

“Detective?”

“Sorry to bother.” 

 

I lean the sledge hammer against the chair and drain my third coffee. About midnight I hear a thump on the roof, then a sound in the ceiling like someone dragging a sack of potatoes, then a grunt, and a thud in the wall behind “Nighthawks.”

I move next to the painting and press my back against the wall.

The point of a syringe pokes slowly through the canvas where Mrs. Hopper’s new vein ends. It moves back until just the tip is sticking out. A bright red liquid drips from the syringe, makes a tiny red river down Mrs. Hopper’s arm. Then the syringe slowly withdraws.

I grab the sledge hammer and run to the wall behind the painting. With the first blow I hear a yelp. I smash harder and harder.

“Stop! Stop!”

Jimmy tumbles out in a cloud of plaster. He staggers to his feet and waves the syringe.

“No closer, Detective. This is my blood. It’s full of hepatitis. It’s a terrible death, Detective,” he yells.

I bet it’s full of a little heroin, too.

“That bitch was a junkie, and she made me a junkie, too.”

“And now you want the world to know that the beautiful girl in the bright red dress was just a miserable, lying junkie.” 

“Yes. And now I’m a miserable, lying junkie,” he continues, “Hopper got the girl. He always got the girl, didn’t he? You were the guy on the wrong side of the counter.”

“Enough! Stop!” I yell.

Jimmy lunges. I swing the hammer and brake his arm. He falls writhing on the floor.

“She didn’t love me! She just wanted a little lap dog to shoot up with her. To make eyes at her, to try to kiss her.”

“Oh, dear God! Is that Jimmy?” The curator asks.  He comes in with the cops. Jimmy feels around for the needle. I kick it away from him.

“You,” Jimmy jabs a finger at the curator. “You were her little toy, too. Keep Jimmy quiet. Keep a few grand for yourself. It’s only money.”

“That painting is priceless! How dare you ruin it!” says the curator.

“What am I, then? What’s my life worth?”

Two ambulance guys come in. Jimmy shrieks as they roll him onto a stretcher. He shakes his good arm in the air as they carry him out.

“Isn’t my life priceless, Curator? It’s the only one I’ve got! I’m on the wrong side of the counter again, but it’s the only damn side I’ve got!”

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