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Chi-Town Blues: An Anthology

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2/ "The Tenants"

by D. J. Herda

Cartel squinted at the paper before him.  Was it East 67th Street ... or East 76th?  He crushed out a cigarette in the cup on his desk and closed his eyes.  The butt hissed, spit a puff of dying smoke skyward, and expired.  He sighed.

Shit.  I hate growing old.

"Tell Mrs. Rasci," he spoke absently into the report, "there's no sign of her three skips yet.  We'll call her when we get something."

"That's just it," the gray-haired man standing behind the papers said.  "Now there's four."

Cartel's eyes popped open and his hands dropped to his desk.  He peered up over his glasses.  "What?"

She just called in to report another one."

He lay his pencil down and slowly squeezed his 200-pound frame as far back into the chair as it would go.  "When?"

Meyers sighed.  "I just got off the phone with her.  She found out last night.  Thought you'd wanna know."

Cartel paused.  "Don't tell me.  He owes her back rent."

"Same as the others."

"How much?"

"She says four hundred."

He shook his head.  "Four hundred dollars.  That's a hundred more than the last one."

Meyers turned toward the door, stopped, and peered back over his shoulder.  "You want me to send someone over to take the report?"

He thought for a second, looked down at the cup he was swirling in his hands, the butt swooshing softly from one side to the other.  "No.  No, this time I'll do it.  Something's not right, here.  Nobody rents an apartment to four different people and they all skip out owing you money.  Nobody would be that dumb."

"I don't know," Meyers said.  "The way she sounds on the phone ..."  He made a whirling motion with his finger.  "A little ditzy, you know?"

Cartel grabbed his coat from the chair.  "If the captain asks, tell him I'll be back in an hour.  But don't tell him where I've gone, understand?  I don't want him to know where I'm headed.  I just wanna check this out myself.  Nobody could be that dumb.  Nobody."

Meyers turned back toward the door.  "If he finds out, he ain't gonna like it ... You know the address?"

"Yeah," Cartel said.  "Better than I know my own."

*          *          *

The lieutenant groaned as he goaded first one leg, then the other, out from behind the wheel.  He ached all over.  Fuckin' flu.  When he'd finally pulled himself from the car, he looked up the side of the weathered three-story Chestnut Street brownstone.  The chiseled bricks, once painted gleaming white, radiated an eerie gray-green beneath a gloomy Chicago sky.  He wondered if it might rain.  That would solve one of his problems.  He wouldn't have to go over to his ex-wife's house, his house, to dig up some stinking strawberry plants she had so generously consented to donate to him.

He mounted the concrete steps slowly, pausing at the aging wooden door standing guard to the palace.  Ornately carved and fitted with beveled glass, its mossy green jacket showed the wear of too many years, too many battles waged and lost.  The knob, once shimmering brass, had been painted and worn clean, painted and worn clean until it glistened like the head of a dozing eunuch.  No hint of its original finish remained.

Cartel huddled against the wind whipping down Chestnut, the icy blasts sweeping in across the city on the back of Lake Michigan, rolling in and funneling down the concrete canyons of the Near North Side.  He thought for a moment that it was starting to snow.  He looked up at the paint peeling off the side of the building, the wind stripping it like bark from some ancient white birch, settling to the ground in layers around the structure's roots.  The building even smelled like an old birch--dank and musky.  The smell of age.  The smell, he thought, of death. 

The wind reared up again, sending leaves and dust swirling down the center of the street and slicing through his thin coat.  When the hell am I going to start wearing a hat?  He lifted his fist to strike again against the thin, wrinkled skin of the door.  When the hell am I going to buy a hat?

He hunched his back against the fury of the wind until the lock on the door jiggled.  The knob turned.  The lock jiggled again.  Come on, come on!  Cartel danced from one leg to the other, staring anxiously at the knob.

Slowly the worn, weathered door opened to a worn, weathered face.  The face exposed itself slowly.  "Oh, it's you, Mr. Cartel, darling.  I'm so sorry I kept you waiting, no?  But I tell you, I'm so surprised to see you are here, and not that other dumbbell who came last time."

Cartel stared into her dancing eyes.  Set in a face nearly indistinguishable from the stone, they looked strangely out of place, the lively blue eyes of someone a quarter her age, still filled with the passion of life, the exuberance of youth.

"Come in, come in to my little place.  It's so cold outside.  You know, I was cleaning my little flat on the third floor and it takes me a little time to walk down all these steps."

"That's okay, Mrs. Rasci."

"Come in and I'll make some coffee to warm you."

"No, please.  Don't go to any trouble.  Besides, I don't have the time."  He pulled the door shut against the wind, surprised at the weight bearing down on the sagging brass hinges.  "I got the report you called into the precinct, and I came right over."

She turned and stood before him, motionless.  She had a way of standing so close to him that it made him uneasy.  A way of invading his personal space, as if she were after something from him and not about to leave until she got it.  He shifted one foot awkwardly backward.

"Now, what do you think of that.  Did you ever hear of such a thing?  This makes the fourth one who just ran off owing me money.  Can you imagine, Mr. Cartel, darling?  The fourth one!"

"Can you give me his name, Mrs. Rasci, and tell me a little about him, what he looks like, things like that?"

"Back in the Old Country you never saw a thing like this.  People was careful with their money and when they made a word with you, you could depend on them to keep it.  This little fellow here," she motioned toward the basement flat where he guessed the tenant had been staying, "I should never have rented to him.  You know, Mr. Cartel, darling, I have nice people living here.  Two nice girls on the first floor and Mrs. Fougherty on the second floor in a little flat.  So nice.  You never hear a peep out of them.  But that dumbhead!"

"Mrs. Rasci?"

She looked up into his large, round face.  "Yes, darling?"

"What's his name?"

She waved her hand.  "Oh, Walter something or other.  I have his name written down somewhere on a little piece of paper.  You know, I always ask my tenants to pay me cash.  I don't believe in all this other stuff, this checks and stuff.  I know his name is Walter something.  I have it written down on a piece of paper."

"Do you have a lease?"

She looked at him blankly, then suddenly slapped her hand against the side of her head.  "Of course.  All my tenants sign a lease.  You know, I don't want no troubles.  I don't want nobody saying, 'Oh, no, Mrs. Rasci, you said I could have the apartment for fifty dollars a month!' or nothing like that.  You wait here and I'll go get it."

"That's not necessary," Cartel said.  "I'll have one of my men stop by later to pick it up.  But can you at least give me some idea of what this Walter looks like?  Where her works, what he does.  Does he have any relatives, any ... any friends that you know of?  Anyone who might know where he is now?"

"I tell you something funny.  You know that little fellow before this Walter?  I can't remember his name.  But he was soooo good looking.  Such a good-looking little fellow.  But I tell you something, Mr. Cartel, darling.  He used to bring his girlfriends home with him ... these tramps!  You know something, I don't understand about this country.  All the beautiful things the people have here, and this feeling all the time for the sex and the tramps.  I tell you something, it's a sin, a good-looking little fellow like that fooling around with these ... these things with their short skirts and their ratty hair and ..."

"Mrs. Rasci--" Cartel twisted his face to one side--"what about Walter?"

"Well, Mr. Cartel, darling, I am coming to that.  I think after this one good-looking young fellow gave me all the trouble with these women and then ran off owing me three months' rent, I think all right, Velchenka, the next time you are going to rent this little flat to some ugly fellow.  Then there won't be no fooling around.  Well ... " her mouth turned up in a sly smile, "this middle-aged man rings my doorbell and asks to see the apartment for rent.  Well, I tell you, I nearly have to laugh.  Mr. Cartel, he is ugly as sin!  As sin!  Forgive me to say it, but he looks like some kind of a little fish or something.

"So, he looks at the apartment and he tells me he has a good job at a factory somewhere and that he would like to give me the rent.  I ask him if he has a little girl or something, and he says no.  He was married but now he's divorced.  Isn't that a shame?  But I think no girl in her right mind would ever go for such a ugly man, so he gives me a hundred dollars cash and he rents the apartment."

"Can you show me the apartment, Mrs. Rasci?"

She paused.  "You haven't seen it before?"

"I just want to take another look."

"Well, I don't know.  I'm not sure how clean it is.  I just discovered him missing yesterday.  I haven't ..."

"Just a quick look, Mrs. Rasci.  That's all."

"Oh, sure, sure," she said, fumbling in her apron for a key.  Cartel followed her out the front door and down the steps, one agonizingly slow step after another, to the basement entrance.  For the life of him, he didn't know why she hadn't slipped and fallen and broken her neck long ago.  "So, the next month comes around, and he says to me, oh, Mrs. Rasci, I lose my job and have to owe you the rent for a couple of days.  Then he says, oh, Mrs. Rasci, my ex-wife is sick and I have to pay her hospital bills.  Then he says, oh, Mrs. Rasci, I'm expecting a check from the government for my taxes and I will pay you everything when I get it next Tuesday."

Cartel followed her through a dimly lit corridor lined with old chests smelling of cedar and old cardboard boxes smelling of mold and old broken floor lamps not smelling of anything in particular and old discarded furniture smelling of anything and everything you could possibly imagine.  And a few things you couldn't.  The last few rays of daylight filtered through a single window at the far end of the hall, its faltering beam spilling across the floor and into the kitchen of the flat.  A few second-hand chairs lined one wall, and as Cartel moved across the floor toward the stove, a handful of roaches dashed madly across the yellowing enamel, disappearing en masse through the gas grates.

"And then one evening when I come down to bring him his little supper, what do you think I find?  He is drunk.  He starts crying on my shoulder and telling me how bad things is for him.  And I tell him to get away, to go get sober!  Now, how do you like that?  Such a young man and he was drinking his money away.  I tell myself, Velchenka, you are such a dumbhead.  You believe all these lies.  Such a dumbhead you are!"

"And how long ago was that?  How long between then and when you discovered he'd skipped?"

"Well, it is maybe two weeks, maybe less.  Last night I go to bring him some dinner and I say to myself, now, Velchenka, you must ask him to pay you the money and to move out.  It's no good to have drunks around.  They are dirty and they lie and they could start a fire and burn your house down.  So when I knock on the door and come in, what do you think?  He's gone!  All his stuff is gone.  Everything is gone."

Cartel turned the knob on the old Roper range.

"Oh, that old stove don't work no more.  I had it disconnected."

Cartel ran his finger over the top and sniffed; a hint of cleanser, nothing more.  Mrs. Rasci stood near the kitchen sink, chattering on, while Cartel opened some cabinets, checked the solitary closet off the bedroom, opened the bureau drawers.  All empty.  Spotless.  Picked as clean as a Thanksgiving turkey in a family of twelve.

"I don't seem to find anything of Walter's here, Mrs. Rasci.  No papers, pencils, ashes, food, nothing.  Not even a speck of dust in the trash can, here."

"Ohh," she waved her hand.  "He didn't have much.  A couple little things.  Some dirty clothes and a couple little things like that.  I threw them all in the trash, such filthy dirty things."

"Uh-huh.  And how about the other three skips?  I don't remember.  Did any of them leave anything behind?"

"Oh, they didn't have much.  None of them had much.  They all wasted their money on women and liquor and that one little fellow, he smoked the dope.  You know, Mr. Cartel, darling, I rent a furnished place here.  None of these crazy people are like you or me who got some things and who save our money.  You know, you are smart, Mr. Cartel, darling.  You are so smart.  I know you are.  That's why I like talking to you.  You're not like these other dumbbells who come to see me.  That's why I like you.  Such a gentlemen, and so smart."

Cartel walked back into the bedroom for another look.  "I was just wondering about that sofa, there.  It's new, isn't it?"  The sofa sat next to a makeshift cot and mattress, between the bureau and a floor lamp, each of which hadn't been new since American elected Roosevelt president--the first one.

"Oh, the old sofa was no good no more.  I gave it to the Salvation Army.  They come and take it away and resell it."

"Uh-huh."  Cartel pushed his fist into the cushions--soft, overstuffed.  They could easily gobble up a man his size.  "Nice," he said.

"Mr. Cartel, darling, I have to go back upstairs now.  It's getting close to five o'clock, yes?  Poor Mrs. Fougherty, she has trouble with her eyes and can't cook so good.  I have to make her supper and bring it to her or else she has nothing to eat.  She is a good woman, kind.  She worries all the time about Velchenka.  You would please lock the outside door when you leave, no?  Just pull on it hard until it clicks."

"Sure.  And if we hear any news about Walter, we'll phone you."

"Oh, no," she said, ambling toward the door.  "He is nothing to bother about, Mr. Cartel, darling.  He is not good enough to waist your time and worry about.  I don't care that much about the money he owes me.  I got plenty of money.  My grandmother used to say in the Old Country, 'Velchenka, you have only one thing nobody can take away from you.  Your mind.'  You know, Mr. Cartel, darling?  That woman, she was so smart.  Like you.  She used to run her own seamstress shop and sold flowers and took in laundry and people would come to her and ask her to do their work for them.  She tell me, 'Velchenka, you see how some people are so dumb?  They got two good hands, yet they willing to pay someone else to do their work.'  I tell you something, Mr. Cartel, darling, that when my mother died, it was the best thing that ever happened to me when my grandmother took me in and raised me up.  I tell you, you're so young.  Like a baby, so young and so smart.  That is why I don't like to see you worry about such a dumbhead like this who live in a flat like this without nothing to their name.  They won't ever amount to nothing, believe me.  They wouldn't even know they have a brain in their head, they're so dumb.  That's why I can't feel sorry for them when they cry on my shoulder, oh, Mrs. Rasci this, oh, Mrs. Rasci that.  No, they not like you, so smart and nice to talk to.  I like it when you come to talk to me.  But you don't got to worry about them, these dumbheads."

"Well, that's my job, Mrs. Rasci."  Cartel's mind drifted as the old lady wandered off down the corridor.  If her grandmother had been anything like her, it was no wonder Mrs. Rasci was so well off.  She probably had the first dollar she ever made.  And probably would have until she died.

Cartel stepped out into the corridor and pulled the apartment door closed behind him, then took one last look down the hall.  He spotted an open doorway a few feet farther down and picked his way past some piled-high junk over to the light switch.  The yellow glare spilled softly over a giant behemoth, an old converted coal burner, chugging and sputtering away in a vain attempt to match wits with the coming cold of winter.  Cartel spotted a stack of old clothes and rummaged through them.  Men's clothes.  Underwear.  Socks.  Pants.  Shirts.

Strange.  She said she'd been widowed for more than ten years.  Yet these can't be but a couple of years old, judging from their condition.  I wonder ...    

He stacked the clothes back in a pile and walked over to a wall lined with empty cardboard boxes.  Behind him, a crate suddenly tumbled from its perch.  Cartel leaped to one side, grabbing for his revolver, when a small, gray rat skittered along the baseboard and disappeared into a hole between two bricks.  Cartel breathed out deeply.  Against the wall, the shadows bobbed and weaved like a roomful of dancers on hot coals as the furnace belched rhythmically.  He holstered the gun and kicked aside some more boxes.  There, two feet above the floor, he discovered a cast-iron pipe poking its aged head up from the concrete.  A handle extended from the center of the pipe.  He examined it closely, following it back as far as his eyes could see.  He turned the handle halfway, then full, and listened.  Silence.  Finally, he turned it back to its original position and shifted the boxes back where they belonged.

Strange.

Cartel pulled the heavy door closed behind him and stepped back into the chill of the night.  The wind had stopped blowing with the setting of the sun, but his curiosity had suddenly been fired.  He wasn't any closer to solving the case of the missing skips than he'd been an hour earlier.  And, yet, somehow, something in the back recesses of his mind told him that he was ...

*          *          *

Meyers fingered a small memo pad as he spoke.  He was a funny looking man, with a long forehead and straight, thin hair that slunk down and across his face to one side, where it seemed to reattach itself to his scalp as if by magic, like a barnacle clinging to the hull of an aging ship.  His nose was long, thick at the end, a full Roman nose, while his eyes were small and bird-like--always moving, always searching, seeking to take in everything about their surroundings.  He was a good enough investigator, although Cartel wished he showed more motivation.  He was one of those people who did enough to get by, enough to keep out of hot water, no more.  Cartel, on the other hand ...

"What'd you find out?"

"The stake you asked for at the Rasci place?  Well, he just called in."

"And?"

"And he reported the usual.  The two girls left the apartment this morning at 7:45, just like always.  One returned at lunch and went back out half an hour later.  Mrs. Rasci swept down the steps and threw some breadcrumbs to the pigeons around ten.  The two girls returned to their apartment around 4:45."

"No sign of the other one ... that ... Mrs. Fougherty?"

Meyers shook his head.  Nothing.  Although the lights in her apartment go on each evening around 4:30 and off, again, a little before ten."

"Anyone else enter or leave the building?  Any strangers?  Anyone?"

"The gas reader showed up this morning around 11, and Mrs. Rasci let him into the basement.  He was there for three or four minutes and then left."

Cartel hesitated, rummaging through the scant information Meyers had given him, searching for something unusual.  Anything unusual.  "What time is it now?" 

Meyers squinted at his watch.  "Quarter past three."

"Well ... have our stake stick it out 'til tonight, then ring him back in."

"Right.  "Oh, and one other thing."

Cartel looked up.

"About 2:30 this afternoon, two men from the Salvation Army pulled up and went inside.  A short while later, they came out carrying a couch."

"A couch?"

"Yeah.  You know, a sofa."

"Sofa?"

"From the basement.  Mrs. Rasci let them in, and a few minutes later, they carried it out, loaded it onto the truck, and took off."

Cartel rubbed his chin.  "Who's our stake?"

"Tony Barducci.  Why?"

"Get him on the horn.  I just got an idea."

Cartel slipped back into his chair and crossed his arms upon his chest.  This is it.  You did it once too often.  You're gonna play with fire, you're gonna get burned, old lady.  No doubt about it.   

Through the doorway, Cartel saw Meyers motioning him to pick up the phone.  And then ...

"Cartel!  Cartel, you get your fuckin' ass in here.  Now!  You hear me?"

Cartel jumped to his feet.  Whenever the captain shouted out that way, it spelled trouble.  And Cartel had a good idea of what that trouble was.  He hurried past an armada of metal desks leading to the captain's office.  He glanced down at Meyers.

"Tell him I'll get back to him.  I hope."

Cartel peeked into the captain's doorway.  "You wanna see me, Cap'n?"

Lombardi scribbled furiously across a sheet of paper before him, his hand moving faster than the cop's eyes could follow, until finally he jammed the pencil down so hard, it snapped in two.  Lombardi blinked, took a deep breath, and slowly looked up.  "Get in here and close the door," he said.

Cartel turned and reached for the knob.

"No.  No, wait.  On second thought, leave it open.  Leave it open so that everyone in this fucking office can hear what I'm going to say to you."

Cartel turned back around and folded his hands behind him.  He stood straight and tall, eyes focused on a spot on the wall just beyond the captain's head ... just the way he'd been taught to do in rookie school.  It was a posture he hadn't used for 14 years.

"Is the captain displeased with something I've done?"

Lombardi rose slowly from his chair and walked around the corner of his desk.  He approached Cartel cautiously, warily, like a hungry ferret might stalk a clueless field mouse.  That's how Cartel had always looked at Lombardi.  Like a ferret.  With his long, thin nose, his swollen, darting eyes, his bushy brows and scraggily mustache, his long, gangly neck.  He even moved like a ferret, on short, stubby legs that couldn't possibly carry him fast enough to outrun a lamppost.  Most of all, though, it was the way the guy thought; it was his thought process.  He was always thinking, always scheming, always planning.  His mind never stopped.  Cartel once bet a fellow officer that the guy's brain was still racing even after he'd gone to sleep, but neither of the cops could figure out a way to tell for sure, so they called the bet off.

"I ... got a call ... a short while ago ... from some woman over on Chestnut Street," he said slowly, deliberately, exaggerating every other word

Oh, no.

"She was concerned because she'd seen a car, a dark four-door sedan parked across the street from her apartment building for the past three days.  It never leaves, she told me.  And there's always someone inside it.  A man or a woman, she couldn't tell, but would I mind coming over to check it out?"

Oh, fuck.

"So I told Scaliaggi and DeCico to check up on it.  I told them to be careful.  I told them someone might be casing the place, planning a robbery or a kidnapping or maybe even a murder, you never know, do you, Cartel?"

Cartel raised his eyebrows and shrugged.  He opened his mouth to speak, then quickly shut it again.

"Well, Scaliaggi and DeCico got there and, sure enough, they found the car that the woman had called in about.  And, sure enough, they found someone in the car that the woman had called in about.  And, do you know who that someone was?"

Cartel cleared his throat.  "It was ... probably Tony Barducci.  I imagine.  Sir."

The captain circled Cartel until he stood just inches from his junior officer's nose.  He rocked back on his heels, then forward onto the balls of his feet.  Back and forth he rolled, for what to Cartel seemed like hours, until finally he broke the silence.

"Noooo," he said slowly, deliberately.  Noooo, it was probably not Tony Barducci, you imagine!"

Cartel's eyes shifted quickly down to Lombardi's, then back to the same spot on the wall behind the desk.

"It was definitely Tony Barducci, and you don't imagine, you fucking know it was, goddamn it!"

"Yessir," Cartel snapped.

"It seems that someone who used to be a lieutenant in this precinct decided to place a stake on the woman's house because the woman has had some tenants move out, owing her money.  Can you imagine that, Cartel?  Can you imagine anyone being so dumb as to waste official department manpower and money that way?  Can you imagine anyone in his right mind doing such a thing with police resources being as low as they are these days?  Can you just imagine?  All because of a couple of skips!"

"Sir, I, uhh ... It was me.  Sir."

Lombardi cranked his head to one side.  He learned his ear so close to the cop that Cartel thought for an instant they were going to touch.  The captain rolled his eyes slowly around to look straight into Cartel's face.  "What ... was you?"

Cartel paused.  "Sir?"

"I said, what was you, Cartel?"

"It was me who ordered the stake on the Rasci place, Sir."

Lombardi shifted slowly away from his officer, turned his back and took two trembling steps toward his desk.  "It ... was ... I," he said softly.

Cartel looked at the back of the man's head, at the bald spot forming there.  "Sir?"

"It was I, you fucking moron!" he shouted, swirling around so suddenly that Cartel nearly tripped over backwards.  "Subjective complement of the verb 'to be' is I, not me!  And if it were you, then you disobeyed a direct order about not wasting precinct time on a fuckin' hunch you had about some old lady and her skips.  If you hadn't, then you wouldn't have wasted precinct time, and you wouldn't have wasted precinct manpower.  Not only did you have a stake sitting out there for the past three days, but by not telling me, I had to send two of my best men out after him, which meant that, at least for a couple of hours today, I was without three of the eight men in my department!"

"Yessir.  I'm sorry, sir.  It won't happen again, sir.  I just ... wasn't thinking.  I ... I had a hunch ..."

"You don't have hunches, Cartel.  Do you hear me?  You don't have hunches, and that's an order!"

"Yessir."

"You don't have hunches, ever!  You have evidence.  You have proof.  You have some poor fucking bastard nailed to the wall before you ever even think about wasting my manpower on a stakeout because of your fuckin' hunches.  Do you understand?  We don't do things around here based upon hunches."

Cartel nodded.

"Do ... you ... understand?"

"Yessir."

"Good.  Now you get back to your office, get on that fuckin' phone, and call Barducci in.  Fast!  And don't ever ... ever ... place a stake out in the field without clearing it with me first, is that understood?"

Cartel nodded.  "Yessir.  Perfectly, sir."

Lombardi slipped back into his chair and snapped his head toward the door.  "Now you can close it," he said as Cartel walked out of the room.  When the lieutenant reached Meyers' desk, he motioned him into his office.

"Jesus," Meyers said, closing the door behind him.  "What got up the old man's ass?"

"How do I know.  Maybe he's on the rag."

"You want me to call Barducci in?"

Cartel paused.

"I say, do you want me to ... "

"Huh?  Oh, yeah.  Later.  First, I want you to run a check on someone for me.  Velchenka Rasci."

Meyers craned his neck to one side and squinted.  "Huh?  What about Barducci?  Shouldn't we ..."

"Just do what I tell you, okay?  I want a full check, from the time she left Hungary until twenty minutes ago.  And check up on her husband, too.  He's supposed to have died 10 years ago.  Run a full report on him, too.  You'll have to dig around for his first name.  Got it?"

Meyers shrugged.  "You're the boss."

Damn straight I'm the boss.  And I'll be goddamned if I'm gonna let some bubble-eyed weasel too afraid of his own shadow throw me off this one.  She did it and she knows she did it.  She knows she did it and she knows I know she did it.  She just doesn't know that I know how she did it.

"Oh, and while you're at it, call over to legal and have them work up a warrant for Rasci's arrest."

"A warrant?  For what?"

Cartel thought for a moment.  "Make it murder one."

*          *          *

"Mr. Cartel, darling, what a surprise!  I didn't expect to see you again so soon.  I was just talking with Mrs. Fougherty, you know she lives on the second ..."

"Mrs. Rasci, I wish this were a routine visit so that we could chat.  But I'm afraid I'm going to have to place you under arrest for the murder of your four tenants.  Sargeant Meyers, here, has the warrant.  He also has a warrant to search the building.  Sargeant," he turned to his assistant, "you and Rossi start with the third floor, Mrs. Rasci's apartment, and work your way down."

"I ... I don't understand what is happening.  Is this some little joke, or what ... what it is you want?"

"It was really very clever, Mrs. Rasci.  Very clever.  But the sofas gave you away."

"The sofas?"

"No one grows up an orphan in Europe, lives through two World Wars and a major depression, then comes to America and buys a new sofa every three months.  It's just not in character, you know what I mean?"

"I don't understand, Mr. Cartel, darling.  Could you say it so an old dumbhead like me could  understand?""

"You really don't like the men who rent your basement apartment, do you, Mrs. Rasci?  I mean, you really hate what they stand for."

"I don't like dumbheads.  I don't like the sex and the drinking and ..."

"So you set out on your own little vigilante escapade to get rid of them ... or at least as many of them as you could, without drawing too much attention to your activities."

She shook her head, her eyes for the first time displaying a hint of fear, of confusion, a look Cartel imagined she had worn back in Europe, in Hungary, after her mother's death and before her grandmother had taken her in.

"You killed your tenants, one by one, in cold-blooded murder, Mrs. Rasci, didn't you?  You killed all four of them."

She shook her head, again.  "I kill no one, Mr. Cartel.  Velchenka Rasci is a woman of life and of love, not a killer of people."

"At first, I couldn't figure out how you disposed of the bodies.  That's always the hard part.  I had my men sift your trash for any signs of human remains or blood.  I had a stake watching your every move.  But you were too smart for that.  Then I got the bright idea that you were stuffing your victims' corpses inside the sofas.  That would explain why you bought a new sofa after each tenant disappeared.  So I called the Salvation Army and asked a few questions.  Naturally, the sofas would have been quite a bit heavier than usual with a man's body inside.  But when I asked the pickup guys about the last sofa, they told me just the opposite.  Oh, they said it was big and bulky but that it was actually lighter than you'd expect for a sofa of that size.  That really stumped me.  Maybe she's not guilty of murder, I thought.  Maybe I'm barkin' up the wrong tree."

She smiled.  "Mr. Cartel, darling.  You know I could not do such a thing like that.  I am a poor, old lady with nothing to live for but my tenants.  My two girls, and Mrs. Fougherty.  They rely on me.  I help them, I cook for them, I visit with them.  I am not some criminal.  I am not some murderer.  You know that now, yes?  And so I will go upstairs and tell your Sargeant to ..."

"Wait.  Hold on a minute.  I'm not done, yet.  Don't you see what I'm getting at?  Just about the time I was thinking I had it figured all wrong, that's when I decided to run a background check."

"And what is that, darling?"

"That's when I look into your life history, going all the way back to Hungary."

"My life?"

Cartel nodded.  "And your husband's.  Poor guy.  Seems he died longer than 10 years ago.  Seems it was closer to ... 35."

She smiled.  "I am an old woman, Mr. Cartel.  For an old woman, time passes quickly or time stands still.  But time is never on your side."

"It seems that, in your case, it was, Mrs. Rasci.  It appears that your husband died just a year or so after the two of you were married.  He died of, what was it again?  Oh, yes.  Asphyxiation.  Gas, wasn't it?"

"Yes."  Her mouth turned down at the corners and her eyes seemed suddenly sullen.  "Yes, that is right."  Cartel could see even after all these years that she had once been very beautiful.  Stunning.  The kind of woman that any man might fall in love with.  Especially an older man, a jeweler, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly more.  "It was ... an accident.  It was very sad.  I cried.  Just a little girl, such a small, innocent little girl.  I cried so much ..."

"I'm sure you did, because you loved your grandmother dearly."

She nodded.  "Yes, I did.  She was so good to me, taught me everything, taught me how to be a lady, taught me ..."

"How to kill?"

Her eyes rolled suddenly in her head, her pupils swelling to twice their normal size.  "Mr. Cartel, I ..."

"She did do it, didn't she?  The courts found her guilty.  The Hungarian justice system.  And they sent her away to prison, where she died the same year you came to America, the year after your husband died.  And left you his fortune."

She shook her head, lightly at first, then harder.  "No, she could not have done such a thing.  My husband was a good man.  She would not have harmed ..."

"Didn't she call him something at the trial in Budapest?  Didn't she say, in her own defense, that she killed him because your husband had been a drunkard and a  liar and a ... dumbhead?"

"No.  No, he was not a drunkard.  He was not a dumbhead.  He loved me.  And I loved him.  I mean ..." she looked down, the wheels of her memory spinning freely, grinding out the traces from the past--"as much as any young girl of 18 or 19 could love someone."

"At first, they couldn't find his body, isn't that so?  And because of that, your grandmother very nearly went free."

"Yes.  Yes, they could not find him ..."

"But then, when the authorities began snooping around the cellar of your grandmother's home, they made a remarkable discovery."

She looked up at him blankly, and he thought he noticed a wet spot in one corner of her eye.

"Lieutenant Cartel?  Lieutenant Cartel!"

Cartel turned toward the stairway.

"Lieutenant," Meyers said, skipping down the steps leading to the foyer.  "We're not quite through with the third floor, but I thought you oughta see this."  He held out a clear plastic bag.  Cartel took hold of it and lifted it toward the light.  Slowly he lowered it to his side, where Mrs. Rasci's gaze remained fixed.

"Thanks, Meyers.  I think you can stop searching, now.  And call for a van.  Mrs. Rasci is going for a ride."

"Got it," he said, reaching for the door.

"In fact," Cartel added.  "Make that call to Captain Lombardi, personally.  Tell him I hereby request that he get his fat ass out here, and tell him to make it fast."

Meyers grinned, then ducked through the doorway before disappearing down the steps.

Cartel turned back toward the old woman standing before him, looking for all the world like a helpless child, like an orphan of war, like a small doll that some equally small child would someday cherish for her very own and then abandon.

"You know what this is, don't you, Mrs. Rasci?"  He jiggled the bag.

She shook her head, paused, then nodded.

"It's your embalming kit, isn't it?  Your needles, your scalpels, some kind of fluid ... formaldehyde, is it?" 

She looked up into his eyes and nodded again.

"That's why those sofas were lighter than they should have been, isn't it?  Because you opened them up, removed some of the padding, and placed a sealed body bag with your victim's remains inside before closing the sofa up again.  Isn't that right?  A few pounds of bones, a few pounds of organs and tissue shrunk down to nothing.  The padding you removed weighed more than that, didn't it, Mrs. Rasci?"

She thought for several moments.  "They are nothing.  They are not worth bothering with, Mr. Cartel, darling.  You know that.  These ... these ... dumbheads and drinkers and dope smokers and these ... these ... things that crave the sex.  These things ... like animalsYou can see that.  You are a smart man, Mr. Cartel.  Very smart.  Like me, you don't like these people, these crazy people who got no job and who don't work and just drink and have the sex and steal and lie and ... you don't like these people.  I don't like these people.  These are not people, Mr. Cartel, darling.  You and Velchenka, we are people.  We are alive.  We know the value of life.  We know how to work hard and how to keep away from these others.  We are not like them, we are not some ... bums.  It doesn't matter what happens to them.  They are not worth worrying about.  The world is better place without them.  All they cause is pain in others.  The world is better place without them."

Cartel heard the screech of tires in the street.  Meyers came up the steps, peeked in, then motioned to someone over his shoulder.  Cartel pulled the cuffs from behind his back and slipped them over the old lady's wrists.

"Mr. Cartel ..." she said.  "I like you.  You are not like the others.  I like talking to you.  You are so smart, and such a gentleman.  But tell me, nobody could find my husband.  Nobody would know if not my grandmother had told a confession to protect me.  How did you find out?"

"Well, you had me stumped, I admit.  And I was just about to give up on the case.  Except for two things."

"What two things, Mr. Cartel, darling.  Tell Velchenka.  Tell an old dumb lady, so that she know."  A sparkle had suddenly come back into her eyes.

"Well, the last time I was here, I took a look around your basement."

"It's so dirty there, Mr. Cartel, darling, you should not have ..."

"I found the men's clothing, and I thought that was the smoking gun I needed to tie you to the murders.  But when I looked more closely, I noticed the sizes were all large or extra large, and the descriptions you gave us of your tenants were all of small men."

She smiled.  "Such little fellows."

"Then I noticed the gas pipe ... with the shut-off valve?  I wasn't sure at first where it led, until the second thing came along.  And then I knew the pipe led to the basement flat where your tenants were murdered."

"But, all old buildings have gas pipes in them, darling."

"Yes, but this gas pipe had a handle that was clean of dust and dirt, as if it had been turned on and off recently ... maybe numerous times.  I remembered that you said you had disconnected the stove in your tenants' apartment, so you had no need to fiddle with the handle ... ever."

"You are so smart, darling."

"I figured that's how you killed them, because that's how your grandmother killed your husband in Hungary--by turning the gas on in the house as he slept.  That was in the confession she gave to the police just before you were to be arrested for the murder.  From that and the information I got from the Salvation Army, I was able to figure out the rest."

"You'd fuckin' well better be right, Cartel--" a gruff voice sounded from behind him--"draggin' my ass out here in the cold.  And you'd better make it fast!  What the hell's the idea of ..."  Lombardi pushed his way into the foyer and halted.  "Oh.  Oh, sorry, ma'm.  I didn't know you were ..."

Cartel turned back to the old lady.  "You see, Mrs. Rasci, when that background check came in on you, it had your entire family history on it.  I doubt that so detailed an account would ever have existed except for the fact that your grandmother had confessed to your husband's murder in court, and the court stenographer's job was to take down what your grandmother said ... everything she said  ... right down to the fact that your grandmother had a couple of occupations that you had failed to mention to me.  You neglected to tell me that she had been a pretty fair upholsterer in her day ... as well as one of Budapest's most respected embalmers.  She helped her husband, your grandfather, run a mortuary there for years, didn't she?"

The old lady smiled.  "She did, yes ... until he died."

"Of natural causes, I assume."

Another twinkle lit her eye.

Lombardi wormed his way around Cartel and checked the cuffs on the old woman.  "What about the bodies?" he asked his lieutenant.

"I sent the coroner out to the Salvation Army warehouse.  The stiffs are at the County now.  Or, three of them, anyway.  We're still running down the fourth sofa," Cartel said.

Lombardi glanced at the old lady, then at Cartel, then back again.  "All right, Mrs. Rasci," he said finally.  "Come on.  Looks like you've got a date with destiny."  He motioned toward the door and signaled one of the uniforms to take her out to the van.

Cartel grabbed Lombardi's sleeve.  "Oh, and Captain?  Make sure you head right back to the station with her, you hear?  No side trips to the coffee shop.  We don't want any misuse of official department resources."

Lombardi glared.  "You.  You'd better watch your step, Cartel.  You could still end up walking a beat somewhere."

Cartel smiled.  "Might not be so bad.  I could use the exercise."

As the cop turned away, the old lady stopped and peered back over her shoulder.  "But what about my two girls?  What about Mrs. Fougherty?  I have to bring for them the dinner.  I have to ..."

"Don't worry," Cartel said.  "I'll make sure they're looked after."

"Until I come back?"

He smiled.  "Until you come back."

"Can I call them?  Can I talk to them?  They will worry about Velchenka."  A tear formed in her eye.

Cartel shook his head.  "I'm afraid not, Mrs. Rasci.  At least not for some time.  But I'll tell you what.  I'll call you.  I'll look in on you from time to time, just to make sure everything is all right.  And I'll pass along any information you want."

She reached out her hands, placed them--two dainty, fading white lilies--inside his.  "I like you, Mr. Cartel, darling.  You are such a gentleman.  And so smart."

Cartel smiled and held her hands for several moments before finally releasing his grip.  As she turned to accompany the uniform down the steps, she stopped to look up at Lombardi.  "You, I don't like."
 

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