Hell of an ache in my leg. Must be going to rain. Good thing I’m wearing my trenchcoat. Even now, far from the trenches, I can’t escape the need to wear it. It is one of the best things to fend off the rain, despite how it can sometimes invite the wash-off into my boots. Good against the New York fog, too. And the cold New York winters. My fedora helps also, keeping my head dry, but nothing keeps the chill out of my gimp leg. Damp, cold pain. Like a Mauser gone cold in my leg. As it so happens, it is an old Mauser in my leg. Medics never could get it out, they said, without risking my artery. The fact that my artery had healed around it baffled them back then. Should have bled out, they said. I did bleed out. But I am still alive today, for better or for worse.
She wouldn’t let me die back then. Sometimes I think she is still here, keeping me alive.
The sprawl of the docks is like a ship at sea. The boardwalk sways with the ocean and creaks as if it has a hull breach, keen on sinking. The boats are in the distance, lost in fog and night and the crowding shadows. The streetlights lead me along in my uncertainty. Like a dog on a leash, unsure why his master has a sad face and a loaded rifle. The dead of New York line the empty streets, like shades on River Styx. Only I can see them as their apparitions drift by. Not many living people would put up with the Sight. Seeing the dead everywhere can really ruin your appetite.
But the dead are not the people I’m concerned with. At least, I don’t believe so. I’m on the lookout for a young man. His Jewish mother is wanting him home. Probably went for a visit at a brothel and fell in love with Loose-Lucy. Or maybe got himself Shanghaied. Or maybe just left his old mother for another life. It happens. If he was dead, I would have seen him in her apartment. The dead cling to familiar forms of their former lives. Much like those of us who are half-alive, having lost our former lives in the War.
I try not to think about the War. There are enough ghosts on the boardwalk as it is without conjuring more to haunt me. That old decade is gone, and a new one’s begun, the upstart pup saddled with all of the problems from the old hound dog. Nobody warned me that the new decade would be of the same pedigree as the old. Same president, but different war. Not that I have anything against Truman. He’s just no Roosevelt, you know? Maybe he started war with the Koreans because he thinks he needs to live up to Frank. Maybe there are too many war hawks circling restlessly since 1945. I don’t know. Feed them scraps from the table and they think they rule the castle. I’m no Beatnik, but even I’ve got to say this country’s had enough of war for a while.
Glad I’m a cripple now. No war with a side order of conscription for me, thanks. Then again, there’s always a war going on in New York, isn’t there?
The bar is called the “Creak-Easy”. A joke, obviously. It is on the edge of the city, near the docks. A good place to funnel some patrons fresh off the boat. Dock workers. Sailors. Fishermen. The bartender has blonde hair and blue eyes. Hitler would have loved him slapped up on some propaganda posters. Only, he is one of our boys. Navy, I assume, by the pictures of the battleships and sailors and pilots all over the place. Also, the bloated dead men around him are a hint. Not much detective work involved, all in all. Dead men tell no tales, they say, but that isn’t the case at all for me.
“Hello,” I say.
“The name’s Dan,” the bartender says, unprompted. He extends his hand over the counter. “I like to greet all my new regulars.”
I hesitate, sizing him up. I shake his hand.
“Jim,” I say. I hold up the photograph Allen’s mother has given to me. “Private investigator. Looking for a missing person. Young man. Tall. Big. Jew.”
“A tall, big Jew, huh?” Dan says, grinning as he glances at the photograph. “He’d be easy to spot. Most Jews I know are little guys with big noses.” When he sees that I do not share his joke, he shifts uncomfortably, withdrawing his hand. “Course, they didn’t deserve what the Nazis did to them. Just saying that your Jew doesn’t sound run of the mill.”
I ignore his opining. “His name’s Allen Cronenburg. Likes to go by ‘Al’ sometimes.”
“The problem is,” Dan says, “that not many of them come around here.” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder, indicating a Catholic crucifix on the wall. “Even if he was welcome here—and he wouldn’t be—he wouldn’t dare show his face around here. Not if he was a smart Jew.”
“Guess I’ll ask around anyway,” I say, turning to go.
“Not without buying a drink,” he says, his baby blue eyes hardening.
I don’t drink anymore. It gives me a headache, and I see more than I care to see when I’m drunk. So I try a different tact.
“You were in the Navy,” I say. It is not a question.
“Yeah. What of it?”
“Lost a lot of friends to the waves,” I say, trying not to stare too much at the swollen faces of the ghosts around him, behind the bar.
“Maybe,” he says, shifting uncomfortably.
“I lost friends, too,” I say. “In the Death Factory.”
His scowl dissolves into wonder. “You survived the Death Factory?”
“Somewhat,” I say. “Not completely.”
He nods. He stoops down behind the bar and fetches a glass. He pours a glass of beer and hands it over to me. “On the house,” he says.
I take a gulp— just enough to show good faith—and I survey the bar and its patrons.
“The limp?” Dan asks.
I nod. “Lucky I got to keep it. The leg, I mean.”
Dan starts talking to me about his own wounds. I am not listening to him. One of his ghosts is sputtering with swollen lips, his voice gargling in his distended neck. It is hard to understand the dead sailor and his babbling, but I get the gist of it. The dead man tells me his message for Dan, the bartender. I will tell him later. Right now I am more concerned with finding the living man I was sent to find.
“And so I get this shoulder ache pretty badly from time to time,” Dan concludes, grimacing as he rotates an arm. “Better than dead, I always say.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I say. “But keep the healthy perspective. Excuse me.”
I leave the counter and head toward the middle of the room, amidst all of the tables. None of the ghosts look like a tall, big Jewish boy, so I ignore the ghosts, for now, and focus on the living. A couple of guys at the far back corner have several dead men around them, their tickets punched to the Stygian shore. Bullet holes in some. Others with wires around their throats, eyes bulging out of their sockets. Mafia men, likely. One of them smirks up at me—as only a Mafia man can—and winks. The other one—bigger than the smaller, smirkier one—scowls at me.
Save those two for last, I think. I focus on the other patrons before the smaller Mafia man’s smirk loses its edge of humor. I could use tact with the two Mafia men—butter them up with some jokes and whatnot—but my leg is hurting me, so I just sit down, uninvited. Sometimes you got to just open with an honest salvo. Let’s both sides know that there is no flirtation involved.
“Looking for this guy,” I say, holding up the photograph. “Allen Cronenburg. You two wouldn’t happen to know what could have happened to him, would he? He frequented this dock. Possibly for business. Possibly for pleasure.”
“Maybe for both,” the smaller man says, smirking. “Some of us have the good fortune of business and pleasure at the same time.”
The bigger man says nothing. He only nods, his hard gaze unblinking as it, in all likelihood, surveys me for every little bone he could break when need should arise.
“It can be,” I admit, “but I don’t know the peculiarities of the man enough to know. You know? I wanted to make sure he did not get mixed up in anything that wasn’t…kosher.”
The smaller man— an Italian with dark black hair and a pencil mustache that could underwrite your execution—smiles broadly. His brown eyes glitter with amusement beneath his fedora.
“This guy here is funny, ain’t he?” he says to the bigger man.
“Real funny,” the bigger man says, mirthlessly.
“And that’s why I’m going to give him a warning,” the Italian says. “But in a funny way.” He grabs my arm; not violently, but firmly, and points to his own nose with his other hand. “We don’t like nosy people,” he says. “And Jews got big noses, don’t they?”
He laughs and lets go of my arm. I smile, but it has no more humor in it than the bigger guy’s openly hostile grimace. I wait until the Italian’s laughter peters off, then press him while still holding the photograph up.
“So you’ve never heard of him?”
The bigger man squints up and down at me like a tailor making an estimation of size for a suit, or an undertaker for a coffin. The Italian glances at the photograph, briefly, then shrugs.
“No,” he says, “but you keep sticking your nose where it don’t belong and you’ll wake up to find yourself a rabbi.” He grins broadly. “By which I mean you’ll have gotten an aversion to pig’s blood.”
He chuckles. His friend—accomplice or partner in crime or whatever he may be—does not share in this joke, either. His grim expression is set in granite, like a mountain, and like a mountain he is ready to drop those boulders of his fists on my head.
“What?” the Italian says, looking hurt. “Nobody appreciates a good joke. A couple of wet rags, the both of you.”
“Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” I say, standing.
“No problem, gumshoe,” the Italian says, rolling his eyes to watch me step away. “Happy hunting.”
I leave their table. The two Mafia men are not responsible for Allen’s disappearance. Their table is crowded with people, but none of their ghosts match the photo of Allen. Their eyes follow me imploringly; wanting revenge or justice or acknowledgment. I don’t have much time to offer them anything. There are more dead in this city than there are homeless, and even if I had the money to offer the Ferryman payment to send each of them Beyond, I still wouldn’t have the time to see it through.
The next person I visit is an old man with the drunken dazzle of the sea in his swaying eyes.
“Hello there, old-timer,” I say. “Mind if I shoot the breeze with you for a minute?”
“It’s a briny breeze,” the old man says, taking a gulp of his beer. “Awfully salty. But it’s the way I like it.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I say. I sit across from him, the wobbly little table between us. I show him the photograph. “Mother’s looking for her son. Young man, as you can see. Allen Cronenburg. Big Jew. Probably head and shoulders above us all.”
The old man finishes his beer in one last gulp, then squints at the photograph. He is wearing a trechcoat, like mine, but faded with too much sun and saltwater.
“There ain’t no saltwater like a mother crying for her lost child,” he says. “Big man, hm?” He rubs his scraggly beard. “Lots of lads help on the docks. Different sizes, but few so tall as you say. Maybe he sought his fortunes over the waves. Some of us do, and never look back. Take a new mother to replace the old.”
“I thought he might,” I say, “but I still need to make sure, if I can.” I shrug. “I don’t get paid, otherwise.”
The old man drinks the rest of his beer, squinting with one eye out the window, toward the docks. He never blinks. He seems the type that stares at the sun defiantly, even if it burns out his sea-dazzled eyes.
“Aye, the payout’s what we are all looking for,” he says. He sets his empty mug down on the table, in front of me. “Any sailor worth his saltwater gets a portion forwarded afore the ship sets out to sea.”
Taking the hint, I pick it up and bring it to the bar. I tell Dan I need another beer.
“On the house,” he says.
“Not for me,” I say, hooking a thumb over my shoulder at the old-timer. “Him.”
It is a mistake.
“His tab is as deep as the Mariana Trench. I’m not even sure how he got that beer to begin with. Probably filched it from somebody or suckered them with a sob-story.”
“I’m not looking for a sob-story,” I assure him. “Just a trail, or a few breadcrumbs.”
“You’ll get nothing from him but hogwash.”
“Regardless,” I say, “I need a beer for him. I’ll pay.”
I pay for the beer, then bring it back to the old sailor. I set the mug in front of him.
“Thank you, kindly,” he says. He takes the mug casually, lipping the froth. I ask him a few questions as he wets his beard. He ignores my questions in the meantime, then sets his mug down.
“What you need to know,” he says, “is that men have been dying around here. Young, old, Christian, Jew, Negro, Pollock. It don’t matter as to who—they’ve all been turning up dead. And by ‘turning up’ I mean to say floating up. We’ve been finding them on the sea near the docks. Lot’s o’ dead from drowning. Or so it seemed at first. Only, they’ve been done a terrible wrong. Their…well, their lower halves have been violated all bloody. Mutilated. And sharks and fishes can only account for so much. Maybe they all crossed the wrong gang. I don’t know what Christian would do that to a man to kill him. A garroter might bloody his hands a little with a little wire, and a hitman might bore a swallow’s nest out of a man’s head, but to do what has been done to some of these boys? Well, what diabolical bastard would do that?”
“You think Allen suffered the same treatment?” I ask.
He takes another swig of his beer, clearing his throat roughly as if he’s got shrapnel in it.
“Don’t know. All I know is that even the gangs around here are unnerved by it. Nobody wants to talk about the bodies. Even those tough boys over there that you risked your stones to talk to don’t like nobody saying nothing about it when they’re in earshot of it. Gets them upset.”
The old-timer chuckles, or gargles glass— it is hard to tell the difference.
“They go all lily-white,” he says quietly. “Reminds me of that fellar in London with the knives and the prostitutes. What’s his name?”
“Jack the Ripper,” I say.
He nods. “Something like him,” he says. “You don’t want to find a body like that.” He gives me a knowing look. “You were in the War, right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, it’s like somebody sat on a landmine. Not a pretty sight. You know, we used to eat turtles, and one of the ways of cleaning them is to cut off the head and put a hose in the stump, flushing it with water. These bodies are like that, only reversed.”
He takes one last swig of his beer, tilting his head back dramatically and draining it to the dregs. His head sways as if he is ready to fall asleep, but his eyes never shut or blink. They just keep on squinting. I wonder if he sleeps with his eyes open, like Captain Ahab ever fixed upon his White Whale.
“No, sir,” he concludes, “you do not want to witness what we pulled up in our fishing nets. It’s likely to haunt a man…even a man that’s seen the horrors of War.”
This conversation finished, I stand up and walk around between some of the other patrons of the Creak-Easy. Some are more taciturn than others. Some can’t stop talking; others are tight-lipped as a can of sardines and mercury. Eventually, someone makes a scene. Not me, or anyone I am conversing with, but a newcomer barging in through the door.
“Whooooo!” the newcomer crescendoes, wobbly as a jellyfish. He is wearing an old, dirty coat and a pair of dirty slacks. A hat sits crookedly on his head, and seems like it will fall off at any moment as he wobbles left and right. Ican tell just by the look of him that he has all his shoestrings untied.
“Leroy, you loon!” Dan yells. “I’ve told you before to get out and stay out!”
Leroy’s feet halt, their big boots planting heavily on the floor, but his upper body sways as if he was a plunger struck by a 2×4. He is a lanky man of indeterminate age, his dirty beard curly and twirly.
“Oh, Dan!” Leroy exclaims. “Jus’ lemme’ haf a seagull drink. Jus’ won drink!”
“You’ve have enough, by the look of you!” Dan says, scowling. “Get outta’ here before I have to throw you out. Go get some sleep!”
“I can’t,” Leroy says mournfully, blinking back tears I cannot see. “I ain’t had nuffin’ to eat! Not won bite!”
Dan glares all the harder, but says no more. His anger gives way to blue-eyed pity—reluctantly—and he fishes into his pocket with a hand. Sighing, he holds up a couple of quarters.
“Go get something to eat,” Dan says, “somewhere else.”
Leroy wobbles to the bar, takes the two quarters, and stands there, staring at all of the liquor behind Dan.
“I said go,” Dan repeats. “Somewhere else.”
Leroy purses his lips thirstily, then sighs as if someone told him his childhood sweetheart has died.
“Ain’t no love fo’ ol’ Leroy ‘round ear,” Leroy groans. “Jus’ haf to throw mah’selth in the oshun if I wanna’ drink. Like ‘em lizard people. THE LIZARD PEOPLE!” he shouts at the end for emphasis.
Leroy staggered toward the door, the two quarters now gone into his dirty coat pocket. Smelling a potential trail, I head after him. Drunks with loose lips can reveal things that others are less likely to say.
Dan meets me at the door.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “but Leroy’s a lost cause. He can’t offer you any info except what color the park bench is under its seat.”
“What happened to him?” I ask, still eying Leroy as he goes through the door.
“Same thing that happened to everybody else,” Dan says. “The War. Leroy was a cook on my ship. He wasn’t a bad guy, just a bad cook. All he could cook well was his own brain. And then a kamikaze hit us and he took a heavy kettle to the head. He has been dazed ever since. Dazed and confused and drunk. Once, when sober, he begged me for a drink. Saying he kept hearing ‘voices’.”
“Lizard men?” I say.
Dan shook his head. “No, the voices of all of the men trapped below-deck. The ship was taking on water and we had to abandon ship. We…we all hear those voices sometimes. That’s why I can’t stand the Japs next-door. I won’t go out of my way to tell them so, but I can’t stand them.”
“What are they, tenants?”
“Something like that,” he says, scowling. “But they also sell food to idiots willing to eat it. They act innocent, but no Jap’s ever been straight. Even their eyes are slanted, ya’ know? Probably been killing people and putting them in their soup. They’re goddamn cannibals, and I would know. I’ve heard stories from buddies in the Pacific. Japs don’t even value their own lives. Kamikazes will tell you that much. Crashed into us like they were playing chicken while blindfolded.”
Japs next-door. Cannibal soup. Farfetched, I know, but I think I’ll bite this hook and see where it takes me.