I don’t know about you, but I’m not one of those dealers who eats, sleeps, and breathes the book trade. Much as I love my vocation, I feel the need to change things up occasionally. I sold 4 items at Marvin Getman’s last Virtual Book Fair (2 of which were actually purchased after the fair closed.) Three of them were 4-figure items, so I figured I had enough cushion to go up to my son’s place in Jay, VT. In normal times, I’d go to Canada for a week or two. But Covid still has that country shut down. Jay, on the other hand, is only 4 hours away, so I can sneak up there for 3 or 4 days every once in a while. My son and his family use the place for skiing in the winter, but I don’t ski. When the snow melts, I go up there with my bike and work on my next book.
Jay peak is about 3500 feet, and the adjacent Gilpin Mountain is 3000. The pass between them goes from 500 feet elevation (my son’s place) to 2000 feet at the top. Up and back will get me 3000 feet of climbing in 10 miles or so… hard climb, short flat, hard climb. Back home I might spend an hour a day working on my crime novel. Up here, when I’m not on the bike, I’ve got all day to write. It’s wonderful to have all that time at the keyboard, but the extended working hours make it is as much of a grind as the bike rides. I like think of Jay, Vermont as “training camp.”
This morning, as I was huffing back up the far side of the mountain pass, a black bear ambled across the road about 100 yards in front of me. He got all the way across, then stopped on the far shoulder and turned to look at me. It occurred to me that, with my bug-eyed sun glasses, crash helmet, and spindly bike, I might have looked like a giant edible insect. Consequently, I did not take out my camera and snap a few pictures. I drove another 100 yards back down the hill. When I turned to see if he was following, he had disappeared.
In the novel, I’m working on a chapter in which Uncle Willie, bent on revenge for a beating he’s suffered, visits the detective hero, Walkaway Kelly, in jail. Kelly is in jail because, as is required of detective heroes, he has beaten up the two thugs who were threatening Rachel, the sexy dame. However, the two thugs report the beating to the cops, and the cops arrest the detective hero for assault and throw his ass in the slam. I’m fairly certain this is the first time such as thing has occurred in the entire history of detective fiction. Here are a few lines from that masterpiece (Talman is the name of the town Kelly and Willie are trying to save)…
Willie knew better than to say anything. Kelly was moving mental dominoes around, or painting cerebral sand pictures, or whatever the hell it was that passed for thinking with him. A most delicate procedure.
Finally, Kelly said, “Remember Red Grover’s gang back in the neighborhood?”
Red Grover had run one of the last of the Irish gangs in Hell’s Kitchen, but toward the end, he’d become infatuated with the Italians, who were infiltrating the West Side. Started wearing fancy silk suits, a complete insult to the neighborhood ethos. If Grover thought this wardrobe makeover would curry favor with the Wise Guys, he was mistaken. Billy Turcotte, who’d long been planning on taking the gang over, shot Grover as he was coming out of a bar on 9th Avenue, which was just what the Italians had hoped for. During the chaos that followed Grover’s assassination, they moved in. Turcotte disappeared. His bosom buddy and bodyguard, Francis “Marbles” Meehan, had been in the Ginzo’s pockets all along. They put him in charge of the numbers and loan sharking rackets, and gave him a cut of the drug action, but nobody doubted who was running the show.
“Yeah,” Willie said. “They were bad actors, the lot of them.”
“Kill you soon as look at you, right?”
“And all that stuff we grew up with – the Code of Silence, us against them, Westie pride… It was all bullshit. They used it when it suited them, but they’d betray one another without thinking twice.”
“Remember when the cops flipped Indian Al?”
“He was the one who ratted Marbles Meehan out, and then Meehan had to turn rat or the Feds would’ve put him away for life with all the stuff Al had on him.”
“And what happened to Meehan?”
“And the Indian?”
“Dead and scalped,” Willie said. “I think that was the one that finally put the fear into people on the street.” He felt a chill, despite himself. “Where are you going with all this nasty shit?”
“It’s not people, Willie. It’s like a corporation.” Kelly had a distant look about him. He was speaking from inside the real now. “The bigger unit, that’s the actor, and the humans are just mechanical parts. They become capable of terrible things because they don’t seem terrible anymore, just necessary. Like taking a crap. Yeah, I had to whack my mother. A damned shame. But they’re not feeling it like people would feel it, see? Because they’re just body parts now. Body parts in the corporation. Like, does your stomach feel guilty when it digests a cherrystone clam?”
“The clam is alive, Willie. And, technically, the stomach is what kills it. But the stomach doesn’t feel guilty because the orders came from the brain that told the mouth to swallow the clam. See?”
“It’s not people running Talman. The people are parts of a corporation. And the body of this corporation is an idea that exists in Talman and in the old neighborhood across the river, in Hell’s Kitchen, and up in Albany, too. One unit. And the body parts do what the body tells them.”
Willie was totally lost now.
Kelly continued, “How could the cops not know that the Mayor and his boys are running the Urban Renewal scam, huh? How could the Mayor not know what’s going on at the Shoe Factory wharf? I’m telling you, Willie, the smuggling is part of the same racket with Urban Renewal. It’s one big, crooked company running that poor old town like it was their private money factory. When Rachel came to visit me, she explained about the Housing Authority racket. Then I understood.”
“That brunette from the bakery. She, uh, sort of hired me.”
“Oh, I think I’ve seen her around. Mousey little thing.”
“Some might think so. But she’s no dummy.”
“Mayor Burd and Chief Noonan, huh?”
“Yup. And those two creeps I clocked. Sutcliff and Whoever.”
“And that English guy, the clothes horse, and most of the cops on the force. I can’t tell if any of them are straight.” Willie was getting excited again.
Kelly said, “I saw what it was like down there at the station when they had me in that holding cell with the kid. Chief Noonan runs his shop like Stalin. They’re all terrified of him.”
“I bet some of those cops wouldn’t mind seeing him go down. And the bakery people would love it if the Mayor went down with him. And Ella, of course, the bartender’s wife. You think she doesn’t have an axe to grind?”
“You’re getting it now.”
“Yeah. That dame Rachel, too. Her boyfriend Richard is the boss of my pal Clarence. He’s a big black guy, sort of the mayor of the Hump, which the Urban Renewal gang have been busy destroying. He’s in with us for sure. And I already talked to Jarkey. When Mitchnik springs you, we’ll have a nice little corporation of our own.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not going anywhere!”
“I stick my head out of here, they’ll lop it off. Anyway, you don’t want me charging around Talman like a… like a bull.”
“Bull in a China shop, Kelly.”
“You ever been in a China shop, Willie?”
“That’s hardly the point.”
Kelly shook his massive head, sending a surprising whiff of aftershave across the table. “I went down to Times Square a while ago. The old Aster Theater. It was a holiday special. President’s Day, I think. They were running all three of those Clint Eastwood westerns in a marathon session for one money.”
“The movies?” Willie noted Kelly’s smooth, shiny chin and wondered if he’d actually cleaned himself up for this meeting.
“One of them,” Kelly continued. “Fistful of Dollars I think it was, where the cowboy drifts into this crooked town and they catch him and beat him up. He escapes in a coffin, remember?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“Then he lives in a cave and practices shooting while he gets better. He makes a bullet-proof vest out of an old bathtub or something. Then he goes back to town and there’s a bunch of shooting. But he’s got the armor on and they think he’s a ghost. Next thing you know, all the bad guys are dead and he’s riding out of town.”
“It’s a fucking movie, Kelly.”
“That’s you, Willie.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
“Rachel’s boyfriend, Robert. He made friends with one of the goons I laid out. We’ll get him to go back and tell the rest of the goons in the Housing Authority that the wharf guys are trying to take their operation over. Then we get the widow of the bartender to let it be known that the bartender – what did you say his name was?”
“McCarthy. Gerry McCarthy.”
“She’s going to start telling people that Gerry wrote everything down before he got whacked because he was nervous they’d try to kill him. She’ll say he gave her a complete confession of his role in all this corruption. Then we’ll see what happens next.”
“It’s a fucking movie, Kelly.”
Kelly just looked at him. “You already said that.”
Willie just looked at him back. “You want to see what happens next? What happens next is they kill her. Then me, then you.”
Kelly treated Willie to one of his wolfish grins. “You got a gun?”