Chapter 1 & 2 of Tricky Dick Nixon and the Five Naked Nuns

 July 31, 1974

I damned near ran over the corpse.

I’ve seen plenty of dead men, and plenty of violent death in Viet Nam, and you could say I’d become immune to the shock, but this dead man gave me a jolt. I thought at first it was a raccoon, one of those big sons of bitches that live in the city’s sewers and whose bulging eyes are frequently trapped in my cab’s headlights as they creep out of the concrete caverns they call home. Or maybe a porcine urban rat, one that scurried off a thick docking rope tied to one of the ocean-going ships anchored in the harbor; the kind that morph to the size of puppies. Or an alley cat; the thirty-plus pounders that every animal in the city gave a wide birth, or risk a world-class ass-whipping. But it wasn’t any expired metropolitan wildlife bathed in my cab’s beams. It was a dead man sprawled out in the middle of the road, legs bifurcated, arms spread crucifix-style, face pressed against the pavement like some half-assed Jesus ashamed to look heavenward and face his Dad.

 

I slammed on the brakes, put the cab in park and cursed my bad luck as the old cab’s engine wheezed as it idled. I’d have to tell Fat Bob the dispatcher, and then Fat Bob would have to call the cops, and that meant hours with the constabulary and the rest of my shift (and my tips) blown to hell. And rent was due tomorrow. I pounded a fist on the steering wheel, grabbed the mic and checked in with Fat Bob who sat in Sparky’s living room, noshing on chips and dip, beef jerky, candy bars and other junk food he washed down with lukewarm cans of Pepsi as he took calls and dispatched fares to the half dozen drivers on the road. I was free and the closest to the Twinkle Star Tap, where one of the late night drunks had the bartender make the call for him, so Fat Bob gave me the fare. It was supposed to have been a simple tavern pick-up. I wrote down the name of the joint and the time of the call on my log sheet, backed out of my spot at the Chicago and Northwestern station where I was waiting for the two a. m. train and zipped the two miles to the Twinkle Star Tap. When I’m in a hurry I’m a two foot driver; one foot on the gas, the other on the brake, and I was in a hurry tonight, hustling Fat Bob for fares. I’d bought a dozen donuts: elephant ears, bismarcks, cyclops; the cloying sugar-packed pastries the overweight dispatcher loved so much, stopped in at Sparky’s at the beginning of my shift and asked him to keep me at the top of his list when fares became available. Bob eyed the donuts lovingly, almost sexually, pouty smile arching his girlish mouth and nodded an affirmative to my request. If a driver kept Fat Bob in donuts, Fat Bob would toss that driver a bone or two. I cursed my bad luck, my decision to take the side streets to save a minute or two, the wheezing cab, my boss Sparky, the drunk who needed the cab, the bartender who called Sparky’s Cab Company instead one of the other four cab firms in town and Fat Bob who passed the call on to me even though I’d sprung for the dozen donuts to make sure he kept me busy. I had a girlfriend once who used to say “everything happens for a reason” and found myself wishing she were here with me in the cab so she could explain how this confluence of events that brought me here in the cab parked on a tiny side street that saw no more than a half dozen vehicles a day with a dead man sprawled out on the pavement before me actually had a reason behind it.

My new landlord was a prick and I was a bit short on the rent and I was positive he wouldn’t take any excuses as to why I didn’t have the entire amount. Now I was screwed, and this guy wouldn’t take a painting in lieu of rent like Ned, my old landlord had. Klaus was a septuagenarian German immigrant; a real hard-ass with a take-no-prisoners temperament and an up-from-nothing old world respect for coin of the realm. And disdain for those who had none. Hell, I could hear him already: “Ver iss da rent, Chonny?” My boy Pablo’s free-wheeling spirit did not reside in Klaus’ shriveled walnut of a heart. Yeah, Art-Boy, I mumbled to myself, “Ver iss da rent?” I knew where; my rent was ticking away as I sat in the wheezing cab, waiting for a squad to respond to my call while a dead man blocked my path. Something about the corpse looked hauntingly familiar, and I had to turn away. He wouldn’t have to worry about such mundane things as love, rent or where the next meal was coming from, I thought. In a perverted sort of way, I envied him. But where was the constabulary? I needed to get back on the road and rack up the fares, or Klaus the goose-stepping landlord would have my fanny on the street. Me, Johnny Jump, who walked away from a million samolians less than a year before worrying about a couple hundred bucks for the rent.

Where were the cops?

Time, they say, is money.

***

One squad answered the call. Two uniforms, one black, one white exited the auto. They were in short sleeves in deference to the August night, and blocky patches of sweat stained their armpits. The black officer walked to the body, knelt and gave it a perfunctory look. He looked up at the white cop. “Dead,” he said matter-of-factly. The white cop sauntered to my cab, fingers hooked in his gun belt. He made a circle gesture with his finger, ordering me to roll down my window.  I did.

“You find the body?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Touch anything? Move anything?”

“Nothing.”

He jammed fists into his hips and gave me a cool once-over. He had a broad face peppered with acne scars, a blonde handlebar moustache and thick mutton chop sideburns. He turned away from me and toward the black cop, who was still kneeling over the body.

“Is it him, Fred?” he asked, pointing casually to the corpse.

The black cop shook his head in the affirmative, hat balanced precariously on his abbreviated afro. “Uh, huh,” he said.

Mutton chops turned his attention back to me and was about to say something when an unmarked squad pulled up. I knew the rumpled suit who stepped out of the car. Leonard Featherstone had been on the force for more years than anyone could remember. There had been talk of him becoming Chief of Police at one time, but he hadn’t smooched the right number of political asses, so he remained a detective. I remembered him as the guy who arrested me when I went back to ‘Nam in my mind during a bad acid trip, waving a gun and taking hostages. Featherstone stood for me in court, pleading leniency to the judge, who was himself a World War Two combat veteran and therefore cut a fellow Silver Star recipient a break, sentencing me to eighteen months in prison (of which I served twelve), rather than the ten years he could have handed me. I picked up the habit of reading the classics during my short prison stint, as well as pumping iron, and continued both after my release from the joint. I keep a selection of solid reads: Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, et al, in my digs, as well as a pair of fifty pound dumbbells that I toss around on a regular basis. Mens sana in corpore sano. Lockup had been good for me, and I owed Lenny Featherstone big time. One day I’d pay him back with a painting. I am, after all, an “art boy.” Definition: broke.

Featherstone frowned and shoved his hands in his pockets, strolled casually to the corpse, knelt down and rolled it over with effort, stared at it for a long moment or two then walked to my cab, leaning down and staring into my open window.

“Johnny Jump,” he said. “I heard you were back in town.” His craggy face begged for the stark reality of Leonardo’s pen. His hooked nose perched above a graying moustache. Deep furrows creased his forehead, and crows’ feet fanned out from the corners of his deep-set steel-blue eyes. A developing double chin quivered above his unbuttoned collar. All the hard years were creeping up on the detective, I thought, and they weren’t going to be kind to him.

“I also heard you came into a lot of money,” he said. “And lost it pronto. Any truth to that?”

“None, Lenny,” I answered. I wasn’t about to give him the unexpurgated version of how I came into one million dollars of boosted bank loot and gave it away within six months after realizing the money was making me lazy and hindering my ability to create art. Maybe I’ll give you the straight poop later on, but suffice it to say that I violated every societal expectation by divesting myself of what most, if not all, Americans would call their primary goal in life: cash, and lots of it. As if money equated to happiness. Most wealthy people I know are miserable. Worst of all, they don’t know they are. Not for me, thank you.

He grunted and gripped my open window with rough-hewn hands. He nodded in the direction of the corpse. “What about this?”

“I took a shortcut, Lenny. Damn near ran over it. That’s all I know.” I wanted to get the hell out of there and see if I could salvage what was left of the night. Maybe Sparky would let me cover a bit of the day shift, and I could still make the rent. If I could wrap this up pronto and get back on the road.

“You take a look at the body?” Featherstone asked. “See his face?”

“Never got out of the cab. I called it in to dispatch, and they called you. Why?”

“It’s Tank Dupree. “

Tank Dupree. I was stunned silent for a long few seconds.

Featherstone added, “Somebody stuck him with a knife. Right in the gut. Must have been a big blade to make a hole that size.”

I studied the corpse now bathed in the patrol car’s headlights; the thick shoulders and biceps and narrow waist. I couldn’t see his face, but the physique gave it away. It was Tank, for sure. Built like a brick shithouse and sprawled dead in the street. Whoever had taken him out had to have been one tough son of a bitch. Tank Dupree was no pushover, and was perhaps the toughest man in the city. Tougher than me, even.

Now I knew the night was shot. I was going back to the PD for sure to spend at least an hour, probably two, in the interrogation room. Tank Dupree was the closest thing I could call a friend in town. I operate at society’s fringes. I don’t go to parties, I don’t aspire to wealth or prestige and therefore I am not on anyone’s short list for those-in-the-know soirees. Neither was Tank Dupree. He was a veteran of Korea, had been on the long retreat from the Chosun reservoir, and like me he’d seen the foul face of combat. Like all soldiers who’d seen war’s horrors up close and personal, we shared that common bond of the thousand yard stare.

Featherstone studied me for a reaction. “He was a pal of yours, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “Sort of.”

I didn’t know of anyone who could get even get close to Tank Dupree, let alone to catch him so off guard that they could shank him.

But the bigger question wasn’t who, but why?

 

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