Back in the Day

It’s an annoying phrase. It really is a bad turn of words that would have you believe the day-to-day living back then was simple, pure, less complicated than today. Anybody with an iota of lived experience would tell you anything that is purported to be simple isn’t; anything pure, won’t be, and nothing is less than complicated, except dying.

That brings us to the point: dying. This story is about death. Plain and not so simple, complicated and not complicated.

Let’s knock the nostalgia stuff out of the way: a murder story needs a place. Town was a place to purchase a Pullman ticket. There was usually one bank, one general foods store, and every respectable town had at least one bar or ‘Social Club.’ In town roads were likely not paved and you could pay a bill with a coin. Couples in town could go somewhere reputable for a bite to eat. A girl was a lady and a woman was a woman and both could teach you a thing or two. A kiss was a kiss and nobody talked about what they did in bedrooms that didn’t involve sleeping. In town murder is a cozy affair, about as close and comfortable as kissing your sister, because everybody knew everybody. In town knowing someone meant you knew a name.

Our murder takes place in the city. The city is an altogether different species of living. Nobody will stop you if you want to drink your gin & tonic at 10am. A night can start at 2am and the day can begin at 2pm. There are restaurants, diners, greasy spoons, pubs, and on-the-fly food-stands for your daily eats. There is more than one newspaper with the same story twisted different ways. More than one road gets you in and more than one can get you out. Nobody knows anybody because they’re usually from somewhere else, working to get by, and living where they can, often with their own kind.

See, some things don’t change about murder. A man has to die sometime, and if left alone he’ll die of something. One day. Murder just hurries it along. Women die every day though. They can pick up a magazine and look at the pictures. They die. They can go out to see the pictures, look up at the screen and they die. Beauty kills.

The why a man dies is an entirely philosophical matter. We’re not talking about the self-ordained kind of death and not the one that the woman upstairs writes on the back of the slip when you’re born. I know God is a woman. It explains the humor in this world, like why flamingos have their kneecaps on backwards. As I was saying about a man and his dying…he could die because he has a cause he believes in, but that really is a lie. What that really means is that a man is willing to put himself in a situation again and again that improves the probability of it happening. Call it possibility and mathematicians will call it probability. Others may call it suicide, and some may call it sacrifice. Dead is dead. Murder is a little more precise than that.

Dying for love? Men may not die for love but they’ll kill for it. Let’s skip this one for now.

In my city the tough guys are the ones that can afford manicures and the deadly ones get themselves pedicures. In this story the murder is over the most obvious cause – sex. There’s your motive.

In this murder there are people: there is a lady, a mobbed-up mick cop, a Jew, a creative-type brother of the lady just mentioned, and a dead WASP. Oh, and there’s me.

I forgot. Back in the day we talked that way. We didn’t say Ms., Irish or Italian-American. In my city the Irish were considered equal if not below coloreds. Life was so bad for the Irish that there were signs hung up in the windows everywhere telling them they ‘Need Not Apply Here. Irish are Unwelcome’ but the mean joke was that the Irish had to see the signs but the coloreds were the ones who could read them. No lie. It took a lot more blood and cracked heads than pulling a pint of Guinness to see an Irishman walking the beat.

Coloreds ran the numbers for the Jews or Italians. Once the Italians either killed off the Jews or the Jews went white-collar and left some version of Shylock to run the neighborhood street corner to feed the anti-Semites there was the rest of us fighting over our daily bread. Nobody wants to talk about these things. Each group had their quarter of the city. The Italians ran their neighborhood like their opera, with a fear of sex, respect for the priest, and every now and then, they put out for display some schlep face down in his bowl of pasta, because he rolled out too much dough that belonged to someone else.

Me? I grew up on the West End with a mongrel mix of Irish, Italian, and some coloreds. Us kids feared the old ladies because every one of them was our Mom and every one of them held authority like the law – more so than the beat cops. Lottie, the colored lady on our block, for example, was one such lady and us kids never called her a shine or a nigger or anything vulgar like that, because if we did there was a gauntlet of apron strings to fear more than Jesus. Today the West End is a place for some nice condos with a hospital facing the river.

Let’s get back to the murder. Oh, and one more thing you need to understand about my city. It’s an old city. The rich folks had their mansions all right. The one thing that separated the rich from the poor back then was a zip code. Wealth lived on the top of the hill and poverty at the bottom. Remember that because it is important. Some things never change.

There was Constance but we called her Connie. Sully was the cop. He retired last I heard. There was Ray. He ended up in San Francisco where walking the hills can give you a heart attack. Lest we forget, there is Charles Davenport III. And then there is me.

Always start with the girl. Constance was a constellation in her own right here on earth. She was a genuine Harlow blonde uptown and downtown, half-class and half-trash if there was a glass of champagne in her hand, in and out of a grape-skin dress. That was her dust-jacket presentation to the world. Connie could laugh and play, like a kid in a pile of leaves. I know because she became my Connie.

A girl had to make a living then and Connie was one of the burlesque queens. Stripper isn’t the right word because burlesque is a lost art form. There was more suggestion with gloves and boa feathers instead of the bump-and-grind shows around today. Gynecology was something that belonged in a doctor’s office and not on a stage or a screen. Burlesque required you use your brain while it worked other parts of you. The end result was it separated you from your money; and on a good night you didn’t mind.

If the world enshrined Gypsy Rose Lee for her days at the Addison as the undisputed diva of burlesque then I need to remind you of other legends of tease and taunt, like Little Egypt, and Sally Keith. Connie was what you would call an understudy to Ann Corio, performing at the Howard Athenaeum, the same place where both Booths performed, turning out Macbeth and Hamlet to sold-out audiences. The Howard was near the hill where I told you that the moneyed types live. For the time it lasted – and it lasted quite some time – the rich went slumming late at night and the poor climbed out of their boxes and rented out the top drawer, until the politicians razed the Bulfinch Triangle and built those impersonal cheese-grater granite government buildings.

There were no words to describe Connie on the stage. She was a burning angel under the stage lights. She had her name in neon on the marquee. That became a problem and you’ll see why soon.

Sully. He was a good guy. We were friends even though we walked opposite sides of the street. His old man worked the docks and his mother schooled him at home about matters back in the Old Country. She was not entirely pleased with the school curriculum those days. She wanted her boy to know that the Irish could write. Sully and I had our differences but a drink and discussing books resolved them quickly. Have to say the Irish know how to write. Sully woke up every morning and crossed himself citing Beckett, Joyce, and O’Brien as the Holy Trinity.

We’ll deal with Charles Davenport III later.

Ray. Loved the guy because I had to. He was Connie’s brother. He was a well-dressed sight. Ray always wore the soft colors. First time I saw Ray he was wearing these linen slacks that never seemed to wrinkle, a light pink dress shirt and a dead-canary pullover tied off with a polka-dot ascot. He had a slightly pitched voice that turned your head when you heard it. The way he walked I can’t describe. Ray was the kid you beat up on the playground until Sis came to his rescue. Ray was a delicate kid, an artistic child, and so sensitive that he could gag on his morning toothbrush. That arrangement with Sis worked fine until Ray miraculously developed a jab-and-right hook combination of his own. Sis got time off and spent it understanding the effect her curves in satin had on the rest of us.

Ray had the habit of visiting Connie after her last performance of the night. She’d sign some courtesy autographs for the men in uniform before she went to her room. Despite what people think, sailors were respectable then and waited like kids staring at the gumball machine to get her sinewy signature; and if they were foolish enough to act improper there was Big Bill, one of the coloreds there to teach them etiquette. Bill was a gentleman and a fine Othello who should have had more in life had people been a little more open-minded.

Ray came in one day. “Connie, I’ve got the tickets. Bill Tilden against Don Budge.”

“That’s wonderful, darling,” Connie said, as she took off her earrings and worked her way over to the clamshell screen to shimmy her way out of her dress, “When is the match?” her eyes asked over the lacquered wood.

“In two weeks, Saturday afternoon,” Ray responded, holding his prized tickets to the tennis match.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ray. The girls and I have rehearsals. We have a big show and management is planning to let us know if we have that private show or not. Awfully sweet of you to think of me.” Connie had put on a less risqué number and came out from behind the screen.

“Private show? Connie, I really don’t like these private shows. I know the money is good, but I worry that things’ll get out of hand.” Ray looked down at his two tickets and swept them into one, pocketing them.

“Now, your Sis can take care of herself. I took care of you for years and I understand that you’re trying to make up for it, but I’ll be all right. And besides, I have Big Bill.” Connie tilted her feet into a pair of silver heels that made her walk the skyline.

“Big Bill is a good man, but these men have money. You know that. You also know that if they get hungry they’ll want to eat.” Ray stood there brotherly.

Mae West hips had nothing on Connie when she walked across the room, not that they would affect Ray. “Now, look here, Ray. I’ve got my own mind. You’re right. They have money and they should have manners, too. If any of those Harvard boys get any funny ideas that Big Bill can’t correct himself, I’ll just slap the eyebrows off any one of those overgrown brats. It isn’t Christmas and nobody is going to undo the wrapping unless I say so. Got it?”

Ray turned a shade. Connie pinched his cheek and kissed it. She took his arm in one hand and her sequin purse in the other. That purse of hers was shiny, small, and held her money clip, lipstick, and a derringer, like the one Booth used.

We met up for breakfast over at Joe & Nemo’s over at Cambridge and Stoddard Streets. Breakfast was actually lunch for us but none of us listened to rules, especially Connie. Her one sin a week was one of those famous hot dogs. The place had breakfast and a steak dinner with all the works but Connie always had herself a ‘one all around’ which is a water-cooked dog on a steamed roll with mustard, relish, onions and horse radish. Joe broke a good egg and I loved his spooning the bacon fat over it to brown the eggs something nice. That was my dish.

Ray told me about Tilden. He had two tickets he reminded me. I knew Ray liked my company but I had to decline. Not a big fan of tennis. He tried Sully later but Sully turned him down because he said being seen seeing Tilden would be bad for his reputation on the force.

Now, Charles Davenport III was, as the name tells you, old money. He lived on the hill and once in a while, when he wasn’t making more of it or inheriting it, he came down from his gilded perch to spend it. Charles had a taste for flesh and he used a C note to acquire girls like they were rental properties. Charlie managed to get every girl in the place except Connie.

Connie was no temple virgin nor would you find her in the choir at midnight Saturday Mass, but she was a decent girl. She made her money honestly. The other girls were struggling and they did what they had to do even if that meant the likes of Davenport and his band of bowties.

Charles was a Harvard legacy. His grandfather was a one-dollar-a-year Harvard professor; and rumor had it that if you went rummaging through his closet you might find some Puritans and some floorboards from the Mayflower. He talked proper. He drank tea. He wore his top hat and his bowtie, imported from England. He walked with a cane not because he had a limp but the accessory matched his social status as royalty in the New World. The only thing missing on Charles was that silken handkerchief to pull out from under his sleeve to cover his genteel nose when he passed us poor in the street.

Davenport hired out the hall for the private party. He liked champagne, cigars, and expected with each passing hour that the girls lose their clothing until they had nothing but what God gave them on their first day. Then the real fun would begin behind locked doors and closed windows. Had there been a scream or call for help no cop with the best ears in the city would hear a thing. Big Bill had a full night; and rich, white boys who made in one day several times over what he made all year made him as nervous as a kitten surrounded by unfed German shepherds.

The calendar squares flew off the wall and two weeks later, Saturday appeared. Ray found himself someone to take to that Tilden and Budge match. Him and his friend took the train out of state and had themselves a good time. Sully was at work. I was home balancing the books and planning to read one from Sully’s library. I think it was Flann O’Brien. I had tried Beckett but every time I looked up I lost my place in one of his sentences and had to wind back my brain to remember where I was. I gave up. The evening plan was to visit Connie and take her to Joe & Nemo’s after the private show.

The phone rang. I don’t like phones but my boss insisted I get one. He paid for it so the leash sat on the table. So when it rang I knew it was the Boss on the line. Nobody else called on the exclusive line.

I told the operator, “Put him through.”

“What is it, Sap?” I said all polite to the man who paid my bills. Sap was short for Leo Saperstein. He was a professional gambler. I ran his numbers and if I played out like a good ace he might promote me up to the higher rackets. Sap was a New York Jew, had run with Lansky and Siegel, but after his good friend Arnold Rothstein got clipped he left town. He respected Meyer’s business-sense but Bugsy Siegel and Charlie Luciano scared him. He told me that Arnold was old business and Meyer Lansky was new business but Bugsy and Charlie were murderous thugs with about as much self-control as drunks staring at a full bottle of Scotch.

“Hey, I think you need to get over to The Howard,” he said to me over the phone. We kept our conversations as minimalist as one of those awful canvases in the museums. The cops listened in at times.

“I think there is trouble over there,” Leo said calmly.

“How’d you know if there was?” I asked. “And besides, Big Bill is covering the floor. He knows how to fend for himself.”

He was about to say something but I could feel worry weighing down his voice. I said to him, “C’mon, Leo, I’m sure it’s nothing; and besides, I thought Jews don’t touch phones on the Sabbath.”

Leo cleared his throat. I knew he was a killer if the push turned to a shove and the wall was behind him, but only I could get away with ribbing him about his religion. I heard his bristle, “That’s Orthodox Jews, numbskull. I’m a reformed Jew.”

“All right, all right, Leo. You know I was kidding, right? Keep your yarmulke on, will ya?”

Leo wasn’t laughing. “I’m sorry, Leo. What makes you think there’s trouble there?”

“My cousin called me and said that Davenport was creeping the girls out, seemed hell-bent on Connie.”

“Your cousin?” I asked.

“Yeah, my cousin. He goes to Harvard. He tagged along. He left when things turned sour. I just got off the wire with him.” My brain did a swivel and I almost had to ask, Since when did Harvard let in Jews, but Leo was ahead of me by several paragraphs and answered, “Yeah, he’s the only Jew in Harvard. Spare me your jokes. We had to change his name a little, but that’s another story. If you care about the girl you better get over there pronto. I’ve seen one crazy Charlie in my life and this Davenport is busting up the place something mean, and I wouldn’t put it past him if he’d gut her if he she didn’t give him the sugar for his sweet tooth.”

I had clammy sweat breaking out on the back of my neck. Leo had his way with words so when he said crazy Charlie I knew he wasn’t being poetic comparing Davenport to Luciano. I had asked Leo about Lucky once and the man got as quiet as a nun at high mass. Leo loved his old pal Rothstein and could gab about the man’s impeccable brain and clothes, and mock Fitzgerald for his portraying Arnold as the cartoonish Meyer Wolfsheim, but droopy-eyed Luciano gave him the sweats like Davenport was giving me. I mopped the sweat and threw the handkerchief next to the phone. Looking back at it now, I’m sure that kerchief was a modern day Shroud of Turin.

I rang Sully and told him to meet me near the hall. He needled me but all I had to say was that Connie was in trouble. I said Davenport. That was all it took. “Meet you at the Trick & Joke Shop.” I knew when I hung up that I could count on Sully bringing his Irish charm.

I snatched some poor Joe out of a cab, sticking a fresh twenty in his hand for my rudeness. My mother would be proud if she were alive. I saw Sully in the dark. He wore his London Fog over his uniform.

“How we get in?” he asked me.

“You’re the cop. I thought you guys do this all the time,” I replied, unable to get a grin out of him. Sully stingy on smiles meant someone was going to have a bad day.

“Around back, side alley. We can use the door,” I directed him. His look asked me how I knew so I told him, “Actors used it to break away from the crowds.”

Sully had to ask, “And you use it for your conjugal visits to Connie?” I gave him a cold eye that told him to zip it.

The door gave off a metallic shrill like it hadn’t been pulled since John Winthrop came to town. The place was dark. We heard a bottle break but no idea from where the sound came since the theater carried acoustics well.

We found Big Bill on the floor, cold-cocked and dreaming about the big headache that he would have in the morning. Two of the girls appeared out of nowhere running down the curved hall. They were so scared they had no clothes on and we were too surprised to appreciate it. They were terrified. They told us that most of the Harvard boys had left but there were one or two passed out from drinking. When we had asked where Connie was the girls said that Davenport had dragged her off to one of the private balconies.

Sully and I looked at each other. A private balcony was a sweet view of the stage with plenty of room. The high price also gave the owner for the evening some privacy by providing a door that he could lock from the inside. Unless Sully and I had any ambition to imitate Tarzan the only way up was the velvet curtain and for Connie the only way down was a jump that if she were lucky would break one of her legs like Booth did in DC after he plugged Lincoln behind the ear. There was screaming behind the door. Like an idiot I had to turn the knob to confirm what I already knew. It was locked.

Sully whispered, “I can shoot the knob and we can bust through.”

I didn’t approve, “And what if he panics and pitches her over the side or takes her with him and uses her to break his fall?” We looked at each other and the idea that Davenport would use her as a flying carpet sickened us.

“Here, take this,” Sully said. He handed me a shiv and instructed me to start prying at the wedge and crease where the lock met the wood. I looked at him like his wheel had rolled off his bike and had gone down the street alone. Sully pushed me to my task. “I’ll talk to him and buy us time,” Sully said. “You have a better idea?” he asked me. I got on my knees next to the door and worked like a quiet termite with one sharp tooth.

“Hey, Davenport!” he pounded on the door. “It’s me, Sullivan.”

“Which one? Sullivan is a common enough mick name,” the snarling voice said from the other side of the nice wooden door. Sully smiled for a second. He looked down and he motioned to me to keep digging away. I did.

Sully used his respectful police persuasion. “The downtown Sullivan, the one you pay fifty a week to overlook your fun and games over in Cambridge. Remember now? Daddy isn’t going to be happy about this escapade, Junior, so why don’t we call it a wrap and act civil. Let the lady go and I’ll get you a cup of coffee. Nobody will know and everyone will forget. Get me?”

“I paid for her,” the man screamed from the other side. We heard Connie’s voice saying some unladylike things. Davenport had turned out to be one of those customers who had a broader definition of service on the side.

I was splintering wood with the makeshift knife. The taped handle conformed to my hand nicely. I could tell it had been used but I was afraid to ask, knew I shouldn’t. The knife’s edge was touching the little metal flap that clicks into place. I just needed to push it and turn the knob just right and we would be in.

“Hey Davenport?” Sully yelled.

“What is it?” rich boy bellowed back. The tone of his voice was telling me I had to get the damn door open soon.

“Why don’t you pick yourself another girl? Imagine it, Davenport. The two of you share a nice glass of champagne, an evening out on the town, and when you get back to your place you hold her nice and watch that nice dress of hers drop to the floor. You can read her poetry from Barrett and Browning and treat her to some chocolate and …” I pulled on Sully’s trench and asked him, “What the hell are you doing?” The last thing I expected to hear was the Irish serenade.

His hand turned my head into the door wedge. I got the tip of the knife against the metal and with my other hand grabbed the doorknob. Sully looked down and saw that I was ready. Our eyes met and we agreed that we both would open and charge the room.

The door flung open. I was on the ground crawling and trying to stand up. I didn’t see it but a shot went off. I looked up at Sully but there was no smoke from his gun so I spun my neck the other way, looking for Connie. I didn’t quite see it the way I should’ve because it happened so quickly.

It seems Davenport had Connie wedged deep into the seat. When Sully barged in he saw him and the silver tips of her shoes on either side of Davenport’s head. As Davenport’s eyes met Sully’s Connie’s long white arm emerged out from the velvet underneath with her derringer. She had put the muzzle up and under Davenport’s chin and pulled the trigger.

When I stood up Davenport had already stepped back and was moving backwards to the balcony edge. We heard the thud seconds later. It was an awful sound. Sully and I rushed over to the edge and looked down. Davenport, for all his money, was dead. His body looked like a little contorted puppet down there. He lost a few shirt studs on the way down but the untied bowtie lay nicely on his tipped collar. The coroner man said the bullet hole that let his final thoughts out the top of his head killed him.

The police came and in true city fashion they wanted to haul off Big Bill for killing Davenport. The detectives made a big stink about a colored being bodyguard to a bunch of lily-white burlesque girls. Sully gave Connie his trench coat. I got Leo on the wire.

It all worked out in the end. Big Bill took a bruising at the station but he was let go. Leo knew some judges higher up in the circuit than the ones the Davenports knew. It was nice to see new money beat old money. Leo made all the arrangements. It cost Connie her career in town.

The Davenports weren’t an easy tribe to deal with. When Ray came back he did a brave thing. Like Leo’s cousin he knew the social scene on the other side of the river and made it known that Davenport was doing his version of a Tilden. See, back in the day gay and queer had a different meaning. It was unfortunate then that when someone used the name Tilden it was like mentioning Chaplin. It was a stand-in for moral degeneracy. When the Davenports heard that Ray was willing to get up on the stand and say that he was one of them and that their boy played in the same pond, it all went away rather nicely in the end.

Me? I owed Leo. He did Connie and me a big favor. The big boys were hammering up a tax evasion charge on Leo. Let’s just say that Sully and I looked over the books before the Feds did. With an eraser here and there I made it look like that I had cooked Leo’s books and ran off with some of his money. When the bookworms finally took off their green visors and pulled the chain on their banker’s lamps they concluded I was liable for Leo’s math problem. Since Sully did well with the Davenport case and exhibited his clover charm at every turn, he got bumped up to Detective. I got a nickel upstate but Leo made sure I did only a year.

When I got out Connie was on the other side waiting for me. She was wearing Sully’s coat and inside a paper bag she had brought two of her ‘one all around’ dogs. We were married for fifty-plus years. I’m an old man now but life has been good to me, always been good to me, even back in the day.

*

Shortlisted for the Fish Prize 2010, this story appears in the charity anthology PALADINS, available from both Amazon UK/US. Proceeds are directed to the Multiple Myeloma Foundation (MMF) in honor of Henrietta Furchtenicht  (9 October 1955 — 29 August 2016).

 

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La Santa Muerte

It’s the air that I remember most when I think about the story of the two cousins long ago on that balcony above Mexico City. There, high above the Federal District, I had looked down and seen the Cuauhtémoc borough, where the poor lived; there, in the visible distance, the open-air markets, or tianguis, of the failing Tepito barrio tenements is where our story happened long ago. I also remember on a very clear day, when the smog was not as intense, one could see Laredo to the northeast and, with very good eyes or binoculars, the faintest insinuation of Los Angeles was a mirage to the northwest.

The tale I shall relate took place many years after the earthquake that had leveled most of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century buildings in Tepito. I had taken ill with an alleged parasite and was convalescing in the home of Diego Reyes, another famous writer. Surrounded then with the musky lemon air of epazote tea in my head and the distinct breeze above the city bathing my face and hair, Diego told me the legend of the two boys, as I sat swaddled in my blankets, recovering. We had sat there talking for some time as Diego entertained me with an oral account that I now surrender to you with some trepidation, as I’m a rational man not given to the mystical and mysterious.

Diego had said that he was also a man of facts and not of fancy; but this tale that he was about to tell me, as most legends do, had begun with some bare bones that had then acquired flesh and clothing over time; he had no way of knowing where the truth ended and the embellishments started; but he would try to keep faithful to the story as he had heard it.

It is said that Cristián and his cousin Jesús had been playing in the open-air market all day when the policeman came to Alfarería Street to tell Cristián that his mother had been found dead. The two boys, about 8 years of age, were sharing a cherry refresco outside the shrine on the street, watching an elderly woman say the rosary for Santa Muerte, while the faithful came and went buying their votives and making other purchases as the mariachi and marimba bands played. The policeman who had found the boys was a big man with an offensive paunch and unkempt beard and a pockmarked face. He had felt no need to be gentle with Cristián and had ignored Jesús. He marched right up to the two boys at the shrine and yanked Cristián away from his cousin without explanation. Poor Jesús with his bottle and straw yelled at the man in uniform dragging his cousin away. Witnesses say that that the policeman swung around and backhanded Jesús in a manner so vicious that the boy fell to the ground and his soda bottle broke into several shards and the cherry soda spilled on the pavement.

The old lady of the Santa Muerte shrine yelled out at the policeman and soon a crowd of Tepiteños started to form around the man and the fallen boy. Clutching the standing boy by the crook of his arm, the policeman cursed the old woman as both ignorant and as a meddlesome hag. Those in the crowd, hearing these vile pronouncements, crossed themselves and indistinct murmurs undulated through the crowd. This cursed old lady asked the man why the boy was being taken away; he had committed no crime; he was known in the neighborhood as one of the kindly, playful ones. What the elderly woman had said was true, since both cousins were too young, too naive, to be involved in the darker trades of the barrio. She charged the man to reveal his purpose; the crowd then pressed around him to squeeze the truth out of him.

The policeman cleared his throat and announced that Cristián’s mother was dead; and since he had no father that he would become a ward of the state. A sense of sadness and pity rippled like a ribbon through the gathered crowd as Cristián shrieked and rebelled against the man’s arm at this horrible news. He broke loose and rushed to the old lady, who took him into her skirt and her arms to comfort him. The policeman, trying to be respectful of the dead, took his hat off and declared to the crowd that the woman, Cristián’s mother, had been strangled in her own bed. He explained that his task was to take the boy so a home could be found for him.

At this point Jesús stepped forward from out of the crowd to make himself known and said that he was the boy’s cousin; and that surely his mother and father would take the boy in. The policeman asked the cousin his parents’ name and, upon hearing it, his face blanched, making his whiskers all the more unintentionally sinister. Another silence fell and a need for explanation lingered over the crowd.

The policeman cleared his throat again and said again that Cristián’s mother had been killed in her bed, strangled with her own rosary beads, but with a painful pause added that the killer was Jesús’s father. The revelation provoked a unified gasp of horror from the crowd. Jesús screamed “Liar! Liar! — Not true.” Jesús stood there with a halo of dirt around him opening up there on the pavement, protesting to the open air that his father was good, that it was all lies and slander. A hush of shame and sorrow fell over the crowd, who believed the boy’s naiveté. The policeman walked solemnly over to Cristián and to the old lady, so he could take the boy’s hand and fulfill his duty. The old lady is said to have declared that Cristián was now one of Santa Muerte’s children and that the saint would take care of him now.

Cristián’s mother, Magdalena, had been a laundress, and a seamstress, who had worked out of her modest house. She had been a beautiful woman, with long black hair and shiny Argentinean eyes, a proud face and in possession of long, vigorous legs with which she had danced the tango of her native land. She had married young but her husband died after a series of illnesses. With no relatives in Mexico and her family in Argentina having disowned her for running off with a Mexican, she had resorted to odd tasks to support herself and her child, since she was destitute as a widow. Unfortunately, her beauty and those legs had been her curse; and it was not long before she had men serenading her. Since she had deeply mourned her dead husband she rejected their offers of marriage.  Her landlord, however, was a calculating man who would let the rent slide but he tacked interest onto the debt, insinuating that there were always other ways for her to settle the debt. Her brother-in-law, her late husband’s brother, no less, had also taken a fancy to her; and he did have money.

Backed into her own bedroom out of necessity, it did not take long for Magdalena to realize that it was easier to relent, easier to rationalize ‘just this once,’ and easier for her to lie back with her skirt caught up for those few moments with her brother-in-law. Unfortunately for her, once had not been enough for him because the laundry and sewing never covered the rent. She did excellent work but she would not cheat her customers, who were often poor. Her landlord, outraged that she had paid the rent in full, raised his interest rate higher when the rent had slipped again. Magdalena was caught again in the whirlwind of poverty. She would send Cristián out to play, after which Jesús’s father would visit and they would repeat her humiliation in her own bed. With time, however, his lust demanded more of her. One day he tore at her clothing to paw at her flesh and she turned to crawl away. Enraged at her denial as he continued having his way with her and seeing those beads hanging from her bedpost, he placed the rosary around her throat and began throttling her as she tried to crawl away from him on her own bed. In this heated battle of wills, her will to escape had failed; his to dominate, had won. When he had finished, he realized what he had done to her. He left the rosary around her neck, pulled down her skirt, leaving her in repose, and quit the bedroom.

The investigation was blatantly simplistic for the police. They found the woman dead and sought the landlord first. He was easy to exonerate because numerous witnesses had testified that the man was across town on other business. When the police arrived at the other house, the crime, of course, was denied, but the evidence was clear. The man’s accounting for his day was vague, but the more damning sign of guilt was the man’s hand, for on it was imprinted, deep into his flesh, the small shape of Magdalena’s crucifix from her rosary. The man’s wife slapped him hard across the face, calling him a whoremaster, and for that insult he sent her reeling across the room with a resounding backhand and would’ve done more violence to her had not the police inspector and his men intervened. Arrested, his statement taken at the precinct headquarters, he was then released: He had money: He was a man of influence.

Believers attend the San Judas Tadeo day outside the San Hipolito church in Mexico City. Thousands of people arrive at the church to pay homage to San Judas Tadeo for alleged miracles. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez

As for the matter now of Cristián and his need for a proper home, the police sequestered him temporarily at the rectory of San Hipólito, where Cristián stayed and witnessed the romería, or religious feast, of St. Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes. It was there the small boy prayed, promising life-long devotion to whoever would give him sanctuary and deliverance from the orphanages. Sometime between the Feast of Jude, the 28th of October, and Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the 2nd of November, Jesús’s father had financed his flight from prosecution and invoked his right to avenge his brother’s honor, since his sister-in-law had defiled the family name in resorting to prostitution. While nobody knew of any other men that Magdalena may have taken into her bedroom, it was known that she had male customers visiting her house; but all these men, when questioned, swore in court that she had been an honorable woman and that they had visited only with clothes to be washed and mended. With her husband cleared of wrongdoing, Jesús’s mother, Maria, negated the possibility of Cristián’s adoption, saying that he was the son of a whore in open court; and so, it appeared that the boy would be sent to the orphanage.

As news traveled and people gathered into the district for the feast days, word of what was happening to Cristián overshadowed the religious celebrations. There was speculation and there were rumors and in all of it there was truth. As the dirty silver seemed to move through hands to corrupt justice the old lady on Alfarería Street directed a procession of the devoted to the precinct courthouse. On that very day when the judge was to decide the boy’s fate, a crowd of thousands began to converge upon the courthouse, parting as they did when the old lady appeared with the statue of Santa Muerte behind her. The skeletal icon with its scythe in one hand and globe in the other, accompanied by the bust of the bandit-saint Jesús Malverde, moved with her, asking for justice from the street. Two young men carried the statue on their shoulders. Santa Muerte seemed to be moving slowly and surely toward the hall of justice with empty, conquering eyes; silent beads hanging from her neck; the stately crown on her head trembling but not falling, and colorful flowers strewn at her feet and sticking out from her ribs from under the flowing robe announced her fragrance with each step forward to the courthouse. The occasional follower would step out from the sideline to blow the purifying smoke of marijuana across her face or place a kiss upon her bony cheek. When they stopped and the judge was called out to the front steps, the old lady said that she was there to take what was Santa Muerte’s since there was no justice among men. She did not explain or justify herself. The throng quieted itself for her to utter her request, “El Niño.”

And Cristián was led out to the faithful, while Jesús watched helpless, and disappeared into the crowd, becoming, like many in that city, one of the children of La Santa Muerte, the lady of death. Now, this part, as Diego had relayed it to me, is the uncertain part. As always happens with young boys, Cristián initially had sought revenge for his mother’s murder, praying fervently to his new mother, the one who would not leave him ever, even in death, because she was Death; and Jesús, burdened by the guilt of his father’s crime, sought to do penance by devoting himself to St. Jude, becoming a priest.

Things began to happen that made the people of Tepito say that the two saints were at war with each other, that these two cousins, representatives of Holy Death and Desperate Situations had a feud that enveloped the district, if not all of Mexico, and migrated into the United States. This feud of theirs was said to have reached the tables of the narcotráfico cartels, known to claim both saints as their protectors.

Some say that Cristián’s prayers were powerful ones heard in the other world. While others say that Muerte claims everything eventually. Cristián, it was said, destroyed his cousin’s wealth and distributed it among the poor in the name of Santa Muerte. Little by little, his uncle’s holdings were taken. His stores were robbed. His workers were not safe in their business errands until it reached a point that nobody wanted to work for the man; and with his wealth fading and debts mounting his wife, Maria, was said to be cavorting with other men, hoping to find one who could sustain the quality of life that she had grown accustomed to having — mountains of clothes, the jewelry, the never-ending line of credit at the expensive stores, the cars, the villas, and the vacations. After the infamous affair, her revenge was to spend her husband’s money to every last peso and to let it be known in their social circle that she had made a cuckold of him several times over with younger men. Maria continued in her materialistic and indulgent ways until she disappeared one day.

Jesús’s father, humiliated by his wife’s rash spending and flagrant infidelities, was the prime suspect in everyone’s eyes. It was whispered all around the barrio that he had hired thugs to dispose of her body, but with no body there was no crime. Numerous dramatic stories had been spun like dark cotton candy in the shadows: one said that he had violated his own wife; another said that he had strangled her; another said he had used poison or had shot her; but the most poetic one was that he had stabbed her with a Muerte dagger he had bought at a botánica known for selling merchandise for both saints. This last rumor was popular because it was La Santa Muerte’s revenge. Jesús had ignored all these innuendos and sickening stories until he heard this one about the dagger.

While Cristián loved his cousin and missed him terribly, he could not hide the shame that he felt inside his heart that his cousin, Jesús, in having lost a mother, would want him also to lose his mother. Driven by confusion, by hate, by madness and maybe — who knows — a son’s grief, Jesús confronted his father. The man produced the dagger, denied it all, saying Santa Muerte was to blame for his mother’s disappearance.

Jesús had gone to San Hipólito to pray to St. Jude. He then went to Alfarería Street where Cristián began the evening ritual for Santa Muerte. It was approaching 8pm that sultry evening. The offerings of skull candy, chicken with mole, and lit candles surrounded the sacred lady of black bones. Cristián was fixing flowers around the statue when Jesús arrived at the shrine. The faithful know that the black manifestation of Muerte is said to ward off both psychic and physical attacks. Cristián was about to begin the novena when Jesús charged him, screaming at him about the idolatry of Santa Muerte and waving the dagger around. The outburst had parted the crowd but Cristián stood his ground, asking for peace in a sacred space. When Jesús asked whether Santa Muerte had made his mother disappear, Cristián is said to have replied that Santa Muerte comes for all and discriminates against none.

Holding the knife high, brandishing it in the air for all to see, Jesús had come forward, had made his way through the crowd, and, with an irrational jump forward, had sunk the dagger. Jesús and Cristián fell together, one living and the other wounded; and in dying, Cristián unfolded his hand for Jesús to see the rosary without the crucifix that he had kept as the only memento of his earthly mother; and upon seeing this, it is said Jesús let out a terrifying wail, realizing what he had done, realizing his father’s trickery.

It is not certain how, but the dagger that had killed Cristián was found later, buried to its hilt, inside the chest of Jesús’ father. And what of Jesús? Not much is known. Some say that he walked into the desert swearing that he would return one day when all impossible situations had been resolved. Others say that he died of grief; the point remained irrelevant ever after, for he was never seen again. It is said that some pray to Cristián while others pray to Jesús. One thing is certain, though: from that evening forward, the black statue of Santa Muerte was completely white; and it is said that this meant that there was peace, for now; that Santa Muerte had whispered to her brother, the Devil, to make sure that he had his due.

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Images not watermarked by the owner are from Wikipedia.

Published December 2010 in Moon Milk Review (Now The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review)

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A banker with a conscience

Eric Martin returns in another financial thriller from Georges Bénay. This time, acting more on a hunch than real evidence, he suspects that there is more afoot with a successful stock trader. Eric has more than a pebble in shoe when he tries to investigate the data behind all the homerun transaction — he’s offered a foreign post in his banking firm. Eric is persistent as a mule, which prompts a visit from the bad guys. The ‘motivation’ doesn’t work. Eric is now more determined to find out what’s what. A plot device from his first book, Nomad on the Run, reappears in this story, but you wouldn’t have had to read the first book to appreciate its significance.

The novel’s start was a bit slow for me. There was a lot of Telling than Showing with some backstory before anything happens. I found it difficult at times to discern what was important to Eric’s investigation. The story does pick up, there are some clever red herrings, and I found myself thinking and guessing along with Eric. That is no easy task for any writer. Bénay describes the esoteric world of financial crime, which few know or understand, and delivers a fast-paced thriller in exotic locales, and peopled with memorable characters who are ambiguous.

With some patience with the story’s start, the reader is rewarded with action, intrigue and a guessing game behind the mystery.

Note: I received this book free of charge from the author for an honest review.

Both books in the Nomad Series are available at Amazon.

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Nomad on the Run

Nomad on the Run is my first introduction to Georges Bénay’s writing. I plan to read his next book, The Nomad’s Premonition, to see what happens next with Eric Martin. Either bored with his life as bank director or plain greed compels Mr. Martin to respond to an email that guarantees a 30% return on investment, if he’ll move to Morocco. With one mouse click, Eric’s life is changed. Martin is not unlikable but he is flawed, and I’m not convinced that, despite his intelligence, he’s a better person by the end of the story. He’s soon on a roller coaster of adventures, twists and turns, through European cities to keep one foot in front of both the good and bad guys, while he is trying to prevent a mystery person or persons from using a predictive algorithm to upset global financial markets.

Bénay doesn’t spend too much time explaining what a ‘predictive algorithm’ is, but it isn’t a McGuffin, because such software programs do exist and are used to anticipate a stock prices. A financial thriller is a challenge to write because it can get cerebral and lose the reader, but Bénay pulls it off. If you enjoy a brisk tech-thriller, the sights and sounds of foreign locales, a brief love interest for variety, and guessing whom to trust every few pages, then you’ll enjoy Nomad on the Run.

Note: I received this book free of charge from the author for an honest review.

Nomad on the Run on Amazon.

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A quiet patriotism and humility

Angelo DiMarco was a US Army Ranger who survived the decimation of the Ranger First Battalion, who endured psychological torture, and as a POW made a harrowing escape from certain death in a labor camp. His story is a testament of survival, quiet patriotism and a memorial to lost comrades, and a story told with sincere humility and gratitude. At Cisterna di Latina, he engaged an overwhelming enemy. The explicit German victory shattered the Ranger First Battalion and forced the US Army to reassess its strategy in the early days of World War 2. The Nazis so destroyed the city that it took until the 1970s for Italy to rebuild it.
Angelo’s stoicism is both what is admirable and tragic about More Than A A Soldier. Most men of his generation did not talk about war. His story emerges after decades of silence, after his death in 2010. Most men of that era did not admit to wanting to kill for their country. Angelo wanted to kill. He sought out combat. He recounts his first kill. Men of The Greatest Generation did not express their emotions. My grandfather’s emotional rapport, for example, was limited to a handshake. These men did their service, came home, put their papers, medals (and memories) into a literal and metaphorical box, and then went out to get an education under the GI Bill, or a job somewhere because that is what men do. The inherent tragedy is that what we now call PTSD went untreated. I have no doubt that Angelo suffered from it.
War is the backdrop in this well-written and respectful narrative. The ‘real story’ is Angelo’s relationship with his family and with the family in Italy who harbored him at great personal risk. Angelo’s Italian father is himself a man of a different time and place: patriarchal and impossible to please. It’s moving and painful to read how Angelo begged for one crumb of acknowledgement from his dad, and just as visceral as Angelo’s account of how he had felt inadequate around his family in Italy. He wanted to pull his own weight, earn his keep, and felt embarrassed that he was vulnerable. Like most men of that generation, he made a promise to his family abroad and Angelo kept his word. His gratitude, his humility are virtues, and that I did not once feel preached at, or reminded of Angelo’s extraordinary heroism is a high compliment to D.M. Annechino’s understated and laudable style.  

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Aurélien Masson, Life is a Thrill(er)

An article from Libération  by Sabrina Champenois that I translated for NoirCon16. Space and consideration prevented it from its inclusion in the conferences proceedings.

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788880-aurelien-massonHis rock star looks and exalted nature clash with the milieu of publishing, but the boss of Gallimard’s Série Noire has proven himself.

Photo credit: © Fred Kihn

Since first meeting him ten years ago, little to nothing has changed. Always with the allure of a gutter cat, dry and nervous, he wears black from head to toe, in jeans, a rock T-shirt (The Stooges this time) under a leather jacket. Aurélien Masson keeps – he’ll be forty soon – a post-adolescent pace, jacked up by a machine-gun-like flow, theatrical movements, a carnivorous smile, and fervor of worldliness. In his Paris Headquarters, a bar just a step away from the Lyon Station, he looks the mantra “Love.” Nevertheless, Masson does not work at Harlequin, but at Gallimard’s Série Noire, the den of national thrillers previously embodied by Marcel Duhamel, Robert Soulat and Patrick Raynal – not exactly sissies. And Masson doesn’t dress up the seventy-old Dame Gallimard. In one decade, the reckless dandy injected some new blood – especially, French — some adrenaline; some gambles from poker and reinvigorated Gallimard in an already hypercompetitive and swollen market. Ballsy, yes — but in his own way. “Ah yes, I call him the Feisty Horse,” smiles Caryl Férey (Mapuche), the gatekeeper and gondolier of Série Noire, according to Masson.

For love of the author. We find him bent over a manuscript – Help! A caricature. But his authors affirm in unison, Masson is obsessed with texts, ‘You can’t find anyone more involved in them.’ (Férey). The deep-sea diver, they say, is coupled with a patient, precise and loyal publisher. DOA, the acronymic pseudonym of a Série Noire author, which comes from the 1950 Rudolph Maté noir film, Dead On Arrival, was a 2015 sensation with his novel Pukhtu, the first in a series: “He is curious, open, and under his rock-and-roll restlessness and vibe, very cultivated. His idea is not so much to publish texts as it is to publish good texts […] in which authors and he himself find themselves.” Dominque Manotti (or Noir [Gold Medal series]), mistress of the sociopolitical thriller: “Aurélien is hyper-attentive and hard-working. With him, you feel that your publisher is there every moment.” Elsa Marpeau, a sounder of psychological depths: “He’s with you deep inside [the work], but distant enough to point out what is missing.”

The Oulipian [‘Oulipe’ is a school of critical literary theory in which the text does not have any inherent authority] Jean-Bernard Pouy: “He reads well and beyond his zombie demeanor, he has maintained a line, one of socio-political criticism.” The man of the hour speaks for his part as a paradoxical gang leader, a mothering type: “I need to make them happy, I tell them, ‘You’re right,’ all the while making suggestions; I do that so that they are treated better, so that there are no cuts, so that they make out better in the end. I also tell them to be ambitious, even if this kind of talk is frowned upon in the circles of the Polar [crime-thriller genre]. For my part, I am not in the aesthetics of sabotage.”

For love of love. Does Aurélien Masson owe his name to the emperor or to [Louis] Aragon, whose eponymous novel was published by Gallimard? We did not ask him. But if the second proposition were true, it would be a premonition. The admirer of Huysmans, Bukowksi, Céline, Ferrara, and other big lights, exudes the need for the absolute, for hardcore feelings [XXL is a television channel for erotica], ‘too much’ possibly embarrassing for the upholders of dignity but not deprived of panache in this era of thinking small where the social network takes the place of the public meeting places, of the I’ll-just-keep-myself-hidden-behind-my-keyboard kind.’ Masson says candidly that he ‘adored’ the meeting, and then sends a text-message, which he closes with childish ‘kisses’ says that if he loves a text. “I’m going to love the author, otherwise, it doesn’t last.” Caryl Férey: “He always has a kind word, of the type, ‘Oh, you were beautiful today,’ not exactly the kind of thing guys say to each other.” The affection takes a viral turn, causing the warship DOA to say, “I love him. However improbable it might seem, work and life made us friends.” At the same time, there’s a boomerang effect; Masson goes through roller coaster periods of great highs and great lows. It is just as well as he had the means right from the start to be moody. The son of a good Parisian family, with a doctor father who was a star of homeopathy and a mother mainly in advertising then a psychoanalyst, grew up in the posh 5th district. He had and always has had for a friend Raphaël (a singer today), and did not last long at the Lycée Henri-IV, “a factory of champions obsessed with exams.” In sum, the child Aurélien, a fan of McEnroe, Connors, and Lendl, dreams first of being a tennis player but a proclivity for tendinitis and anti-competitiveness torpedoes his whims for sports. He is succeeded by an adolescent Aurélien who just didn’t have it together, “hyper-shy,” glued to video games, who would “not know girls before twenty years old,” but who discovered “rock, joints, and the literature of thrillers from the bios of serial killers.” The third is still the same today (“I shall never be under the influence of cocaine or ecstasy, these capitalist drugs for traders; me, I need slowness”). His entrance into Série Noire, as a reader of English-language texts under Patrick Raynal, takes place after going to school for history and sociology and a road-trip of one year in Asia, mostly in an opium haze.

For love of life and death. Aurélien Masson is a father, for two years now. Named Iggy, in tribute to “the Iguana” and ex–Stooges, but Joey had its chance, in honor of The Ramones. Iggy’s mother, his Brazilian partner, is a legal specialist in copyrights. It seems that the affair sometimes takes rock-n-roll turns, with, on Masson’s side, “moments of absolute depression.” But there is good resolution in the air: “I try to find a happy medium, between joy and self-destruction.” To be consumed without burning too deeply: a tall order for a guy under Nirvana’s grunge influence, who loves the dark and even the sticky and is said to be obsessed with death, and defends “laborious texts,” and losers, and “guys who missed the train.” France moreover delights him, in its tensions and its depression: “France becomes more and more interesting as matrix of the crime novel, we’re witnessing a fallen world.” Hence his interest in “the guys who shit” — Marc-Edouard Nabe, Pierre Carles, Emmanuel Todd – arises from the coherence. Masson likes when things scrape, slip, disturb. Masson defends obstinately Antoine Chainas, author of baroque, claustrophobic, poisonous thrillers, not the usual easy-sell publisher drug. Masson recently even considered publishing the text of an obscure policeman, in alexandrines; he is still buzzing about it. A paper kamikaze? The quivering soul does not lay any claim to heroism, nor to sacrifice, points to the benefit: “It is through books that I find again the flame that we have in youth, this capacity to feel emotions crazily.” It is a question of remaining alive, in the end.

19 September 1975 Born in Paris.

1989 Discovers rock.

2000 Arrives at Gallimard, as a reader.

2005 Succeeds Patrick Raynal at Série Noire and meets Diana, his companion.

2013 Birth of Iggy.

2015 70 years of Série Noire.

© Sabrina Champenois for Libération

— 1 July 2015 at 6:06 pm

Translation: Gabriel Valjan

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Crazy by Elsa Marpeau

Not a translation, but the slightest of edits to words from Elsa Marpeau to Aurélien Masson for NoirCon16, where Masson received the David Goodis Award.

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Aurélien is a crazy man, a crazy editor.

Five years ago, I sent a sci-fi manuscript to Gallimard. Aurélien Masson read it and called me. He said this text could not be in Série Noire, but he would publish my other book.

“Which book?” I asked. There was obviously no next book yet.

product_9782070446711_195x320“The next one. The one you are about to write.”

He had seen me once, for hardly an hour, and even then I hadn’t known at the time that I was about to write this next book.

However, he committed to publishing it and I took him at his word.

I published my first book with Aurélien, and the second one too, and the fifth.

How crazy does that sound?

-Elsa Marpeau

em_77202_195x320

Titles at Gallimard.

Photo Catherine Hélie © Éditions Gallimard

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