RIVER CITY DICKS
It was the worst hangover of my life, and I am no stranger to hangovers. This one felt like North and South Korea waging thermonuclear warfare right between my ears. I lay paralyzed in bed, caught between a coma and a nightmare. How much alcohol had I consumed the night before? Benny and I had closed down the Flying Saucer before moving on to our preferred watering hole, the Capital Hotel. We were getting obscenely shit-faced, or, in dick parlance, “celebrating the successful conclusion of a lucrative case.” As bad as I felt, I could only imagine how Benny must feel. I wondered if I’d ever see him again.
I was thinking about using my pillowcase for an airsick bag when my phone rang. I picked up without checking the ID.
“Hzalgmo?” I said, by way of greeting.
“Mr. James?” Our secretary, Angie, snapped in my ear. “Sir, it’s almost eleven a.m.! Are you coming to work today?”
“Rmagazolneformazibn?” No kidding, this was a really bad hangover – I could hardly understand myself.
“Say again, Hank? It’s ELEVEN O’CLOCK. Are you COMING TO WORK?”
Angie was operating under the mistaken assumption that a person suffering a massive hangover will understand you if you SPEAK LOUDLY INTO THE PHONE.
“Magolaltum?” This seemed a perfectly reasonable response, garbled though it may be.
“Hank,” Angie replied, snippily, “you have a customer here. I tried raising Benny but he isn’t answering his phone. Should the gentleman continue waiting? He is a very important man.”
I licked my scum-coated lips, still tasting last night’s vodka. “Blathanomunum?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” She kept getting louder for some reason. “You say you’re on a stakeout? Oh, yes, a very nasty business. Oh, I see. Yes, sir!”
She must have been putting on a show for this “important man” waiting in my anteroom. I tried asking his name, but all that came out was drool.
“I understand,” Angie was saying, “yes, I’ll tell him. Eleven-fifteen? Hold on.” I heard her place her hand over the phone while she spoke briefly with someone. Then she came back and said, “President Clinton will be happy to wait.”
I sat straight up in bed, sunlight cutting through the fog of my hangover. “President Clinton, you say?” My lips and tongue suddenly worked just fine. It’s funny how a big customer will do that.
“He’ll see you in fifteen minutes,” Angie said, sternly.
I was dressed and out the door in two seconds.
I bounded into the office to find Angie chatting up two Secret Service agents. One of them threw me up against a wall and pinned me with his forearm while the other searched me like a prison bitch in a shower stall. He relieved me of my pistol, switchblade and cigarette lighter. Then his partner boxed my ears for me. I guess I shouldn’t have startled them.
“Mr. Clinton,” Angie told me, “is in your office.”
Bill Clinton looked exactly as he did on television, only shorter. No, I’m kidding. He was a tall, dignified, well-dressed man who smelled of Old Spice and pussy. He had a head full of gray hair and a smile as warm and genuine as an afternoon in the Ozarks. He rose from his chair, ambled over and put out his hand.
“Hello, Henry,” he said, in that solicitous tone of his. “I’m Bill.”
“Call me Hank, Mr. President,” I replied.
He chuckled and sat back down. I went over and sat behind my desk. “Care for a belt, Mr. President?”
“No, thanks, and call me Bill.”
“Okay, Bill,” I said, taking the flask of Johnny Walker Red out of my desk. I leaned back and poured about a third of the whiskey down my throat. Sated, I replaced the flask and wiped my chin with my tie. I had forgotten to wear a tie, so I used my coat sleeve instead.
“Rough night?” Bill asked, with that wry smile I recognized from the Monica Lewinksy press conference.
“Not at all,” I replied, drying my tongue with a Post-It note. “Thank you for waiting, Bill. What can I do for you?”
He waggled a finger at me. “We’ve met before,” he said. “I remember because you have the same name as one of my favorite authors. Henry James? And, we met on the campus of UALR once in 1989. We talked about James’ novel The Ambassadors, which you seemed to like a lot. You were planning to go to law school and I made some suggestions in that area. As I recall, there was a girl with you, name of Samantha? I got her phone number. She leaves a mess on a sheet. Good to see you, Hank.”
“Yes, same here.”
“Did you ever make it into law school?”
“I dropped out to become a cop.”
“Cool. You know, I put 100,000 new police on the streets back in 1994. What led you to the gumshoe trade?”
“Too many crooked cops.”
Bill looked thoughtful. “I see.”
“By the way, I enjoy your Presidential Library. It’s right near here.”
Bill got serious. “I’m very proud of it. You know what I’m maybe proudest of? There’s a letter over there under glass – maybe you’ve seen it? It’s from Elton John. I love that letter. Hell, I love Elton John! I wish I could take it home with me every once in a while, but those goddamn National Archivists won’t let me. I mean, is it my letter, or what?”
I downed another quick shot of liquor. “Mr. President,” I said, wiping my chin with my shirttail, “how can I help you?”
He folded his hands on his knee. “Yes, let’s get down to cases. Hank, I’ve been scammed. Can you believe it?”
He grew irate. “Cheated! By a couple of con artists!”
I took out my notepad. “How and when did this happen?”
“It was yesterday. How is … hard to explain.”
“How much did they make off you?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“Not exactly chump change,” I admitted, jotting down the figure, “but I’ve heard of bigger swindles. I’m guessing you want your money back?”
“Yes, and I want you to beat those two assholes into the ground!”
“That’s not how we do business, sir.”
He looked properly chastised. “Sorry. I guess I’m just used to revenge.”
“I know. I just don’t -”
I paused long enough to vomit into the waste can I keep for such emergencies. Bill waited patiently for me to crawl back into my chair.
“I don’t like getting rough,” I wheezed, wiping my face with my shirt collar. “Normally, we see to it that restitution is paid, then collect our fee.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“Why don’t you go to the police?”
He scoffed. “Are you fucking kidding? I don’t want this in the papers! ‘Ex-president loses shirt to street hustlers.’ Can you imagine what Hannity would do with something like that? No, thanks, I can’t afford to go through normal channels.”
“Well, I’m not sure how I can help.”
“Come on, Hank. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. These two clowns caught me at lunch!”
“Where were your Secret Service goons? Choking their chickens?”
“They give me plenty of room at chow time,” Bill said, flicking lint off his slacks. “Probably too much room, now that I think of it.”
I got comfortable in my chair. “Tell me what happened.”
Bill got misty-eyed as he remembered. “I was sitting in Market Hall enjoying a nice Israeli salad and chatting up the occasional housewife. This fella wanders over and says he’s found an envelope containing five hundred dollars. Shows me the envelope, asks me what he should do with the money. I suggested he donate it to my library, or to the Democratic Party, same thing. We were talking when this other fella wanders over and asks this guy about the envelope. They have this whole conversation and it gets kind of heated. Meanwhile, I go back to my salad. It’s got these walnuts and cranberries … usually I prefer a good taco, but that’s for another day.
“Anyway, next thing I know, these two assholes are asking me to hang on to the envelope for them while they try and find its rightful owner.”
My eyes rolled so far back in my head I was able to read the calendar on the wall behind me. “Please don’t tell me!” I moaned.
“Don’t judge me, damn you! It was a good trick they pulled – sort of admirable, in a way. The deal was that if they didn’t turn up with the owner, we’d keep the money. Finders keepers, if you can dig that. We’d split the look three ways. First I had to put up some cash in good faith.”
I sighed. “How much cash?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“They told me it had to be an amount equal to contents of the envelope!”
“And how much was in the envelope?”
“Zero dollars. Well, some napkins.”
“Holy shit! And you had control of the nuclear codes for eight years?”
“That was actually some dude with the Pentagon – they never let me anywhere near the codes. Point is, the napkins were in a different envelope. They switched them on me.”
“Let me guess – they asked you to put your money in their envelope. Then they let you keep the envelope.”
He nodded, amazed at my knowledge. “Did you invent this scam?”
“No, Mr. President, but I wish I had.”
“Hank, I need you to find that money. Hillary’s got me on a short leash. I can’t take a piss without her asking where I’ve been. If she finds out I lost five hundred bucks, she’ll cut my dick off. So, how about it? Can you help a fellow Arkansan?”
I held out my palms. “I don’t know what I can do for you. They played you for a patsy, a pigeon, a dupe. That’s the easiest five hundred bucks anybody ever made! Were you just waiting for someone to fuck you in the ass? How did you keep us safe while you were President? You make me sick!”
To illustrate my point, I leaned over and spewed into the waste can.
“Hank,” Bill replied, “I gotta get that money. What’s it gonna take?”
“Hey, I don’t even know what these guys look like.”
He described them for me, rat-a-tat-tat. He might be a fool, but the guy had a memory for people. I took careful notes and told him my fee: two hundred bucks a day, plus expenses, plus a bonus.
Bill looked unhappy. “I was told you were cheap, Hank.”
That riled me up. “See if the dicks at Dewey, Findum & Howell are any cheaper. You’ll find I am quite competitive. Now, what’s it gonna be?”
Bill did some thinking. Finally, he said, “I can’t do it.”
My jaw dropped. “You’re a millionaire!”
“Hillary handles all the money. She doles out a small weekly allowance. I got the five hundred out of an ATM – she doesn’t know about it.”
“Thanks for wasting my time!”
“Wait,” he said, waving me down. “What’ll you take in trade?”
I scoffed. “This isn’t some playground negotiation, Bill! This isn’t NAFTA, Part Two!”
“Come on, can’t we work something out?”
I sighed. He was such a pathetic fool, and a terrible bargainer, to boot. “Tell you what,” I said, “there is something I would consider in lieu of payment.”
“Just tell me, Hank! I got porn stars on speed dial.”
“You have in your possession a certain letter … signed by a certain homosexual pop star …?”
His eyes went wide and his mouth fell open. “Not …!”
“Yes!” I answered, springing my trap. “That letter! I want it! The original, mind you, not a copy or a fake.”
Bill lapsed into thought. I took another quick nip. I could wait.
About thirty minutes later, he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Deal!” I said. “Benny and I are on the case. That money’s as good as found, Mr. President.”
He frowned again. “Who’s Benny?”
“Oh, that’s my partner. He’s a fan of yours. He’ll do the job for nothing.”
The two scammers looked unhappy in their matching steel bracelets. I told Benny they were probably not used to such cheap bling. Benny shrugged, unamused. He was wearing a black wool suit that was scuffed and blood-stained but otherwise neat as a damn pin. The brim of his fedora shaded his small dark eyes. Only a cop or another drunk could tell he was smashed. He could always hide his intoxication better than I.
We’d found the two scammers that morning, laid up in rooms at the Peabody Hotel. It went down like this. Downtown Little Rock is lousy with scammers, con men, and bunko artists. Once Benny had recovered from his all-night drinking binge, he and I ambled down to the River Market to put my (somewhat haphazard) plan into action.
We were working off excellent physical descriptions that Clinton provided after lunch. One of the men was tall, big-boned, red-headed, well-muscled, and had an enormous gap in his teeth. The other was short, wiry and dark-haired, and had green eyes and teeth that were slightly crooked. They were both in their mid-thirties. The tall man had a birthmark on his cheek in exactly the shape of Columbus, Ohio. The smaller one was missing his right ear. Clinton speculated the ear had been gnawed off by a rabid Yorkie. When pressed for evidence of this claim, he offered none.
Benny and I combed the Market. We prowled every grotto, microbrewery, barbecue joint, strip club, delicatessen and haberdashery along Clinton Avenue. We cased the ice rink. We lurked in public toilets. I beat up a couple of tourists. Benny smoked a spliff in front of the Chamber of Commerce. We ogled broads at the library and imbibed cheap liquor at Big Whiskey. When it became apparent our tactics were flawed, we decided to pursue our marks the old-fashioned way: fists first.
We came down like bags of cement on dozens of low-level cons. I demolished a game of four card monte; Benny dismantled a gang whose trick was selling termite insurance to nursing homes. Hell, we even put a Ponzi scheme out of business. After about an hour of strenuous crime-fighting, we sat down in a coffee shop. Benny’s eye strayed to a curvaceous babe in a scintillating black dress. I knew what he was thinking.
“Easy,” I cautioned, over my vanilla latte, “that one’ll bite.”
Benny wasn’t listening. He opened a line of patter with her and followed her out the door. I snapped a lid on my latte and followed him. There was a slow-motion foot pursuit. The lady crossed the street to a chicken shack called Sticky Fingers. Benny followed the lady; I followed Benny.
I found them in a back booth, getting to know each other on a strictly personal basis, while Aerosmith’s “Love in an Elevator” shook the walls. The babe in the black dress was giving Benny a lap dance that would strip the paint off a Humvee. I parked my big red caboose in a lounge chair for some good old-fashioned voyeurism. A waitress with tattoos on her tattoos took my drink order: a Tom Collins for me, and another for my identical twin.
I was well into my fourth Tom Collins when Benny staggered over with a smitten look on his face. He sat next to me and demanded a Rob Roy from the waitress.
“Well, Hank,” he burbled, “I can tell by the stupid look on your dopey face that you enjoyed the show.”
“That’s my normal look,” I replied, “and I found the show merely tolerable.”
“Bullshit. As my rabbi says, ‘Make hay while there is sunshine.’”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means I obtained valuable information from that shiksa – such as the location of our two bunko birds. How does that grip you, my friend?”
“Tightly,” I answered with a grin, “and in all the right places. So where are these punks? And if you have the phone number for that shiksa, I wouldn’t mind having that, either.”
He tilted back his Rob Roy. “As it happens,” he replied, with that coy look of his, “I’m in a position to accommodate your request.”
Benny’s shiksa, or non-Jewish female acquaintance, was a trickster in her own right. She provided the information that led us to the Peabody, where our two suspects had registered under the names Ray Kinsella and John Dunbar. She said she used to know them back when they were peddling pornographic images of soap stars in the Greater Shreveport Metropolitan Area. Not only did she have little love for Kinsella or Dunbar, but she wished to hang them out to dry. Benny and I positioned ourselves in the Capital Bar, directly across from the Peabody, and began our surveillance.
Dunbar and Kinsella showed up just after dawn, right around the time the Capital staff invited us to take a hike. The two swindlers had been out all night, ripping off such poor innocent Arkies as our client, the former president. Benny volunteered to tail our marks to their rooms and keep an eye on them. I was to work up some kind of new strategy. We were to meet Clinton at 6 p.m. on the Junction Bridge with the two bunko birds in tow. I figured we could make that deadline, but we had to work quickly, and efficiently. Intelligently might have been out of the question.
I sat on a bench to read the morning paper. Seven hours passed. By the time I got around to Page 2, Benny was coming back across the street. I couldn’t help noticing he had on a maid’s uniform.
“I disguised myself as a Haitian chambermaid,” he explained, sitting next to me and lighting the Marlboro I proffered. “Ten white guys hit on me.”
“I can believe it. What’s the sitrep, sweetheart?”
“Sacked out, both of them. They have adjoining rooms on the fifth floor. No one’s gone in or out. I knocked to ask if they needed towels but no one answered.”
“You look sexy in that outfit,” I remarked.
“Fuck off, Henry.”
“What say we find some refreshment?”
For the second time, we set up surveillance in the Capital Bar, which meant simply that we occupied a window seat for several hours, drinking whiskey and munching fried black-eyed peas.
Around 5:00 p.m., I spotted a pair of familiar-looking assholes loitering outside the Peabody. Dunbar and Kinsella.
I patted Benny’s arm, disrupting his alcoholic slumber. “I spy two bunko birds,” I said, tossing a hundred-dollar bill on the table to cover our not-inconsiderable tab. We went out through the revolving door.
“Hey, Ray,” I called out, catching the attention of the tall man.
“Mr. Dunbar?” called Benny. “Mr. Dunbar!”
Both men froze, wide-eyed. We quickened our pace as we crossed toward them. We paused for a passing trolley – and nearly lost sight of them. They were running flat-out toward the River Market. Benny and I gave chase, our Florsheims pounding the pavement. We dodged foot traffic, keeping our eyes peeled for our two flown birds. At last, Benny let out a sharp cry and dove headfirst into a restaurant – Sonny Williams’ Steak Room. They got some good food in there. I followed.
We cut to the head of the line, angering several customers. I spotted Kinsella sprinting through the main dining room and shoved an old man out of the way so I could pursue. Someone, probably a damned kid, tripped me, and I flew headlong into a table of twenty. In the kerfuffle, I ended up wearing a plate of ribs. Benny, meanwhile, hurtled past me in pursuit of Kinsella. I stayed to settle the party’s bill (plus 20-percent gratuity), then dashed back out front, hoping to catch at least one of our bunko bastards by surprise.
It worked – John Dunbar ran right into me. We ate pavement, then climbed to our feet and went into fisticuff mode. Dunbar threw a haymaker, which I dodged easily. Then I fed him a couple of his own teeth. He went down, bawling and bloody. I cuffed him and dragged him down an alley where my shoe accidentally sank into his solar plexus 10 or 11 times. After that, he got all kittenish.
Benny showed up, dragging Mr. Kinsella by the shirt collar. He threw the man up against the wall and beat the living shit out of him. Then he told him a joke – classic Benny. Kinsella laughed, only to be silenced by a well-timed throat punch.
I glanced at my Rolex. “Time,” I announced, and together Benny and I marched our beaten and bloodied quarry toward Junction Bridge. Lights glistened on the river; young couples strolled hand in hand. We jostled Kinsella and Dunbar, getting them to laugh, as if we were drunks on a pub crawl. No one seemed to notice much, or care.
We shoved our captives ahead of us, chortling as they stumbled on the concrete steps, for we were hard-hearted bastards. In the declining sunlight we saw a man who looked remarkably like the former president of the United States.
Benny, a Clinton fan from way back in the Paula Jones era, blinked in astonishment as he spotted his hero. “That’s him,” he whispered, as giddy as a school girl at a Beatles concert, c. 1965. “That’s – that’s Bill!”
I rattled Dunbar’s few remaining teeth. “There’s the guy you bilked out of five hundred big ones!”
Dunbar whimpered like the coward he undoubtedly was. I accidentally bounced him off a girder to shut him up.
Clinton waved us over. The scammers dragged their heels on the pavement. Were they afraid? I had to laugh. It was all too funny. Plus, I was drunk.
We met our client in the dead center of the span. Confusion registered in Clinton’s soft gray eyes. Looking from one bird to the other, he said, “Who the fuck are these guys?”
You could have heard a pin drop. A pin or a pen, take your pick. I go pin. As it turned out, it was a pen. I stooped and picked it up. There was a hole in my shirt pocket. “Mr. President,” I replied, “what do you mean?”
Clinton looked disgusted. “Where the fuck did you pick up these assholes? They aren’t the ones who ripped me off!”
A lot of blinking went on. Benny and I even exchanged looks. I said, “They’re the ones, sir.”
Clinton got up in their faces, giving each man the once-over, at least twice. “Nope,” he said. “I don’t know these punks.”
Kinsella began to laugh, but Benny drove his knee into the man’s scrotum. That stopped the goddamn laughter.
“Mr. President,” I protested, “these men ran from us – ”
“Nope,” Clinton interrupted, “you got the wrong guys.”
“They fit your descriptions!” I persisted. “We staked them out! We found a witness who identified them! They’re registered under phony names at the Peabody! I mean, Kinsella and Dunbar? Those are characters played in movies by that actor. These are the guys. We beat the hell out of them!”
“Obviously,” said Bill, admiringly. “I still don’t think you’re right.”
I let out a defeated sigh and produced a set of tiny keys. With numb fingers I unlocked Kinsella’s cuffs.
“Hank,” cried Benny. “What the hell?”
“We made a mistake,” I replied. “We gotta let them go.”
Benny wailed and gnashed his teeth. He pulled his hair, put on sack cloth and doused himself with ashes. We did our best to ignore him.
The two bunko birds turned to us. “Tough guys,” snarled Kinsella.
“Watch the lip,” I told him. “You got lucky tonight, punk.”
Dunbar gave me the two-fingered shoulder tap. “You better watch yourself, dick,” he growled. “Don’t go off down no dark alleyways.”
I smirked at him. The men turned and meandered down the bridge, finally melding with the shadows.
I gave Clinton a hard stare. “I think that you have wasted our time, sir.”
“Yeah,” Benny sneered, stepping forward. Together we were a solid wall of dick.
“Fellas,” Clinton chuckled, holding up his hands in a pathetic defensive posture, “I told you all I could! I was under stress at the time – it’s possible I made an error in judgment!”
“Yeah, you did,” Benny retorted, “when you came to us!”
“An error in judgment?” I said mockingly. “That guy’s birthmark couldn’t have looked more like Bangor, Maine.”
“Guys,” Clinton said, tremblingly, “I know you’re pissed, I get it.”
Our faces were positively stony. Clinton gulped and looked about for help.
“Your bodyguards,” I told him, cracking my knuckles, “are down at the ice rink. Skating.”
“Damn it!” Clinton ejaculated. “Listen, what will it take to satisfy you? How about that Elton John letter I promised?”
I nodded, as cool as ice. “That’ll do,” I replied. “That, and a thousand dollars each – for our time.”
Clinton turned so purple I thought I was looking at a Big Mac-induced heart attack. “You want – two thousand dollars?”
“That’s right. We don’t take checks or credit cards. Fork it over, Slick.”
Fuming, Clinton reached into his coat and withdrew a lambskin wallet. With trembling fingers he counted out the money and handed it over. I split it right then and there with Benny.
“So much for Hillary’s small allowance,” I murmured.
“Fuck you,” Bill snapped. “Do you know how much I get paid for one lecture?”
“Now for the John.”
He looked puzzled. “What?”
“The letter. The fucking Elton John letter, Slick.”
Clinton’s confusion was all show. With a sigh of dejection, he reached into his other coat pocket and took out a thrice-folded sheet of hotel stationary. It bore three typewritten paragraphs and one wild-ass signature. Embossed across the top: the emblem of the Waldorf-Astoria.
I grinned without accepting it. “Not that one,” I told him, “the real one. I didn’t fall off the watermelon truck yesterday, Billy Boy.”
Scowling, Clinton shoved the fake back in his pocket and took out another piece of paper from inside his coat. This one I examined with my magnifying glass. (Any detective worth his salary keeps a magnifier in his breast pocket, right next to his pens, slide rule, calculator, notepad, phone, cigar cutter, extra ammo clip and Zippo lighter.) To my trained eye, this autograph looked legit.
“That’s Elton, alright,” I said, passing the letter to Benny. He made it disappear.
“Thanks for the business, Mr. President.”
“That’s it? You’re not even going to bother finding the real con men?”
“You tried passing a fake Elton John,” I replied. “Beat it, Bill. Case closed.”
Clinton ducked his head and exited stage left. Benny and I hustled down to the north end of the bridge where we rejoined our “actors,” Felton Sandrich and Leonardo de Hatch, AKA Dunbar and Kinsella. They were old sparring partners of ours from training academy. We divided up the two grand – $500 each – and stood around congratulating each other on a job well done.
“Nice one, guys,” I told them, shaking hands with all.
Leonardo rubbed his swollen jaw. “Hell, Benny,” he laughed, “next time pull your punches!”
Benny hooked his thumbs in his belt. “It had to look convincing. Oy, vey!”
“You,” Felton said, staring right at me, “got a little rough back there, fella.”
I laughed in his face. “Just trying to make you prettier, Felt.”
We all laughed hysterically. We might have been a little drunk.
Felton got serious. “Did you get it?”
I winked and gave Benny a nod. He passed Felton the Elton. He handled it as if it were dynamite. Leo – Felt’s brother-in-law – put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
Without warning – and a warning might have been nice – Felt burst into tears. “I can’t thank you enough. My Jenny … you know how she loves Elton!”
“Ever since the day we toured the Presidential Library … the day we saw this letter under glass … it’s been all she can talk about. Just to hold it in her hands … once before she dies … will mean so much.”
We all started dabbing her eyes. Felt’s daughter had leukemia. She wouldn’t be around much longer.
“Thanks, guys,” Felton said, wiping his tears.
“It was worth it,” I said, giving him a playful jab. “Remember … when the time comes … the letter shows back up mysteriously in the mail. Right?”
He nodded vigorously. “Yeah. Sure thing, Hank.”
Felton and Leonardo bade us farewell and slipped off into the night. Benny and I took the Junction Bridge back to the Capital Bar. We had crisp new bills in our wallets and a lot of drinking to do.