GUY ON THE BLOCK
(This story first appeared in the Private-Eye Writers of America
anthology Mystery Street, edited
by Robert J. Randisi.)
bonds, tattoos, rubber goods, and hot dogs," said the fancy-lettered
sign in the front window of Sammy's Place. Inside there was a lot more,
including the pervading aroma of hamburgers, fried onions, and the old
grease that went along with them.
had no idea which of Sammy's many enterprises netted him the most cash, but
I suspected it was the bail bonds. I had just started as a private
investigator, and for the last month, he had been calling me to locate some
of his bond skips so that his strong-arm guys could bring them in.
short and overweight, leaned back in the swivel chair behind the desk in
the rear of his establishment. Even from there he had a good view of the
foot traffic on 400 Block of East Baltimore street, with its strip joints,
dirty bookstores and penny arcades. He chewed the stub of his cigar, with
dark brown spit sloshing around in his mouth. Miraculously, he kept it from
dripping down to his Hawaiian shirt.
him out of here!" Sammy yelled passed my ear.
turned to see a blond-haired drunk in a rumpled suit stumble to the
counter. He looked straight up at me, and the short-order cook made a
sudden transition to bouncer. He ushered him out the front door, tumbling
him to the sidewalk. He came back wiping his hands in his filthy apron as
if the drunk had contaminated him.
one's murder," Sammy said, regaining my attention. "But you're a
smart guy. It's worth a hundred bucks for you to find him."
1946, a hundred bucks was a lot of money. It was just short of what I was
getting for a full week's advance as a private investigator. Sammy gave me
fifty on the other cases. I located all three skips in less than two days,
but they were pretty easy, just punk kids who showed up at their mothers'
He gave me a quick thumbnail of the story, and I commented: "I
thought it was an unwritten law? If you find a guy in bed with your wife
and you kill them--you're in the clear. Right?"
"Not if he tells his people he was gonna catch 'em at it. The
'unwritten law' only counts when it's a surprise."
"Oh." At thirty-one I was learning something new every
day, especially after being out of circulation with war in Europe. The only
thing I knew for sure was that I had a living to make. Catching wayward
husbands and wives and looking for people and things seemed a better way to
do it than working at my brother's butcher stall in the Lexington Market.
"Who said he was going to catch them?" I said.
"Ask the cops." He shrugged and told me that Vincent was a
partner with Bennie Traveler in a strip joint called the Wannasea. It was
pronounced, "Wanna see ya."
"This one sounds a little tough for me. Maybe I'll pass."
I didn't think it was a good idea to mixed up with murder.
"If you don't do this one, you can forget anymore work from me.
Maybe you can even forget being a private dick -- at least in this
Owning any business on the Block implied influence with organized
crime. I thought about ignoring his threat and taking my chances, but I
didn't want to test him. Besides, I had no other jobs going, and I needed
the hundred bucks.
"OK," I said. "You got a picture?"
"I knew you was smart." Sammy reached into his top middle
drawer and pulled out a glossy photo of some guy in a tux.
like a singer," I said.
"He was, before the war. Name's Chip Vincent. His face is kind
of messed up now, but you'll recognize him. Here's everything I got on
turned over the eight by ten photo, and while he printed out some
information with the stub of a pencil, I remembered that the double
homicide happened just before my first job with Sammy.
"He doesn't live far from the club," I said, looking at
the address. "Is that where he caught the wife?"
"That's it. If you get him by Sunday, I'll give you fifty
"That's only a couple of days."
"If you want the bonus, you'll have him in."
I wanted the bonus.
Night people are easier to catch in the daytime, but you have to
talk to their friends and associates first, and that's usually in the
evening. I stopped up at the Central Branch of the Pratt Library to check
the newspapers for the past month. I picked up some new detail and verified
what I remembered about the case. Then I went home and took a long nap.
I came back to the Block, it was nine-thirty. The war was over almost a
year, but the street was still crowded with sailors out of Bainbridge and
soldiers out of Meade and Hollibird. Some of them were mustering out, and
some new ones were in training to replace the guys who hadn't come home
who doubled as barkers were in front of most of the clubs shouting out
their individual and sometimes raunchy versions of "Girls, Girls,
barker grabbed my sleeve, but I brushed him off. The rest just shouted out
their pitch. Some gestured toward the glossy photos behind the club
windows, which usually showed women with pasties over their breasts and
long, slit skirts that showed the full length of a leg. A staggering
redhead stopped in front of me and asked if I wanted a good time.
having a good time," I said, and I walked around her.
had managed to catch a wad of gum on the sole my shoe, and I ground it off
onto the curb in front of the blue-mirrored façade at Wannasea. I glanced
at the hand-printed sign that somebody pasted at the bottom of the wartime
poster of Uncle Sam pointing. "Yes, We Want to see you!"
Like most of
the clubs on the Block, they had live music--piano, base and drums. On the
runway behind the horseshoe bar was a slightly overweight cutie stripping
out of something that once upon a time looked like an evening gown.
slid up on one of the tall stools and ordered a bottle of National Bohemian
Beer. There were six other guys at the bar, along with four women, but
nobody at the tables. I wasn't there a minute, when a tiny, straw-haired
blonde slithered between me and the stool to my right, and rubbed her
breasts against my arm.
"Ah'm Charlene, you want some company?" she said. She
dragged out the words in the thick accent of West--by God--Virginia.
thanks, I'm looking for an old army buddy, name of Chip Vincent."
know Chip?" She was still trying to be casual, but she glanced over at
the gray haired bartender when I mentioned the name.
were together at the Bulge," I said. The papers said he had been
decorated during the European Campaign, and just about everybody was
involved at the Bulge in one way or another, so I took a guess.
ain't been around for a while, but maybe I might could keep you happy while
so," I said. "You know him?"
The game was to keep me occupied while the bartender made her a drink and
put it on my tab. I kept an eye on him, making sure it wasn't the
twenty-dollar bottle of champagne he was working on. When the guy put
together a phony mixed drink, I figured I'd put it on Sammy's expenses. He
might balk, but Charles "Chip" Vincent had skipped on big bail,
and Sammy stood to lose a lot of money if somebody didn't track him down.
is he?" I said.
waited until the bartender put up a glass of ginger ale with ice and a
cherry. She stirred her drink, while he stepped away. "He's good . . .
it true what they say?"
spoke very quietly. "He didn't kill no wife."
do the cops think so?"
ain't gonna talk about that." She looked toward the bartender.
is. And if I was to tell him what your askin', you'd be in all kinds of
took a deep breath. "Now if you was to buy me a bottle of champagne,
we might could go into one of them dark corners."
don't want to know that bad." I knew she worked for a percentage on
the phony champagne, but I had an uneasy feeling about being there.
she said, but I could tell that she wanted to talk as much as I wanted to
tasted the Boh from the bottle and looked straight ahead.
really one of his old army buddies?"
would I say it if I wasn't?"
needs help," Charlene said. She held the glass to her lips so Traveler
couldn't see her talking.
is he?" I said, feeling like a traitor.
know," she said.
face flushed so red it showed through her makeup. "Uh, no. But . . .
uh . . . I date."
What time do you get off?"
I don't get called by the boss. I'm usually on the street by two o'clock
and thirty minutes."
I'll stop back," I said.
way I figured it, the management had already made me as no good in one way
or another, and the chances of me talking to her again in Wannasea weren't
very good. While I was thinking about that, and with me not so much as
glancing at him, Traveler put up bottle of Champagne with a glass for the
I peeled off a ten-dollar bill, dropped it to the bar, and started
to walk away.
"Hey, pal. You gotta pay for the champagne!"
"There's enough for the drinks and tips for both of you. Put
the champagne on the next sucker."
"Hey!" Charlene called, pretending indignation.
When I reached the front door, the barker-bouncer blocked my way. He
was half-a-head shorter than me but at least that much wider. If I knew the
routine, he was carrying at least a black jack. I was carrying a .38, but
neither one of us would use it unless the other showed first.
"Where you goin', pal?"
"You don't want trouble from me," I said, looking straight
Somebody behind me caught his attention. Then he said,
"OK," and let me slide by him.
glanced over my shoulder twice as I strolled up the Gayety Burlesque
Theater. Lili St. Cyr was making one of her few appearances in Baltimore,
and I figured it was a good way to kill time. After a couple preliminary
acts, barkers came through the audience selling 8x10 glossies of the star.
They were selling "dirty" magazines and "dirty story
books" too but they were only risqué. The real dirty stuff was sold
nearby from under the counters in the bookstores and magazine stalls. Sammy
even sold some of it, especially the nude glossies wrapped in cellophane.
were a couple of preliminary acts, then Lili St. Cyr did a kind of reverse
strip, by getting out of a bathtub and getting dressed. She did it in such
a way that it was far more exciting than the strippers who made that final
little move of slipping their G-string to their thigh, and going naked
below the waist. It was the only time I ever saw Miss St. Cyr, but it was
also one of the few strips I actually remember. Even now it's like a
picture going through my head.
the show, I made it a point to stay away from Sammy's. At two a.m., I sat
near the window in a different hot dog joint drinking coffee and watching
the front door of Wannasea. I saw my own reflection inside the window, but
I also saw the blond guy who had been thrown out of Sammy's this morning.
He had cleaned up, and he was nursing coffee at the counter.
about two-twenty Carlene, in a yellow dress and a red cotton coat stepped
onto the sidewalk. She looked around, confused for a moment. Then she
walked east on Baltimore Street. A half-block later, a guy wearing a sports
jacket grabbed her by the arm. Any woman, whether whore, lady, or
schoolgirl, was fair game on the Block at that time of the morning.
don't think so, honey. Not tonight," she said.
on," he said. "Twenty bucks."
she said, as if the word were all H's, and she beamed a smile at me.
guy in the jacket looked at me. His eyes were glazed over, but he thought
he knew trouble when he saw it. "I didn't know this was your, uh . .
girl friend, right. I'm here now."
the guy said, and he stumbled away.
want to go get some breakfast," I said.
if we get a cab?"
Charlene said nothing until the cab stopped at a place just west of
downtown that was alleged to be a tavern owned by Babe Ruth's father. The
waitress brought us our coffee before Charlene even looked up at me.
didn't kill her, you know."
"You told me that."
"They want him dead."
"Who wants him dead?"
"Traveler. If Chip does time up to Greenmount Avenue, Traveler
gets it all."
Charlene called "Greenmount Avenue" was the location of the State
Penitentiary and the City Jail, just a few blocks north of where we were.
I nodded and looked down into my black coffee. I recalled the old
saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I also remembered
the one about being aware of Greeks bearing gifts.
are you telling me this?" I said.
I don't want nothin' to happen to Chip. He's a good guy." Her speech
had cute lilt. I'm a sucker for those southern girls, or maybe it's
mountain girls. I can hardly tell them apart.
in love with him?"
didn't answer. Then she went back to another subject. "Why you lookin'
his own protection." It was only half a lie, because if what she said
was true, he was probably in more danger on the street. "Where is
working for Sammy ain't you?"
my expression had given something away, because her eyes widened. "You
are a rotten bastard. Do you know that?"
pushed back from the table and started for the door.
I called, but she kept walking.
left two dollars and started after her, but by the time I reached the
sidewalk the same red, white and blue taxi was pulling away from the curb
with her in it.
I knew from my friend Detective Vyto Kastel that there were seven
individuals who, in one way or another, had an interest in every business
on the block. Either they owned it, were part owner, or accepted a fee from
the owner for protection against everyone, including the vice cops.
Traveler, who I had heard about in other regards, might be one of them, so
I called Vyto at home. Friend that he was, he didn't give me any crap, even
at three in the morning.
"He's slime," Vyto said, referring to Traveler, "but
he ain't that far up the ladder."
had been together on the streets of the Central District before the war. He
got wounded early and came back to become a detective. I was back six
months after V-J Day. By that time all the police jobs were filled, and I
was on a waiting list.
"I thought he was a singer?"
"Yeah, he was a good singer too, but one thing led to another
and before you know it, he was breaking skulls and working into a
partnership with Traveler."
breakers don't usually get married do they?
was still a singer when that happened."
"Is the States Attorney going to push for murder one?"
"Maybe two counts of aggravated manslaughter. He killed them
both you know."
"He caught 'em in bed."
"He knew they were going to be there."
"That's what Sammy says . . . What did you find in his
"Not a thing except the bodies, the suspect, and some clothes
he didn't wear the night of the murder."
"Papers said you had the gun?"
"He threw it out the window and into the river."
"How'd you know that?"
"Middle of the night tip? Interesting."
"Somebody walking along on the other side of the water saw him
toss it. The bullets are from the same gun. Looks like a GI souvenir. We
got everything we needed. The house ain't even a crime scene anymore."
"Was he mixed up in anything?"
"How do you mean?"
"You know the Block. Who's not mixed up with one or the other?
And now we're getting drugs, but I don't think it's that."
thanked him and I hung up.
Kastel telling me that Vincent's place was no longer a crime scene
was like an invitation to look. The two-story brick row house on Front
Street was a few blocks away from the Wannasea. It backed up onto the Jones
Falls River, a narrow waterway that was little more than a sluice for
I was uneasy as I approached the house, but not about what was
inside. A vague thought in the back of my head told me there was something
else I should be aware of. I reached across the single marble step and
knocked on the door. I looked both ways on the street, but all I saw was an
old lady sweeping a sidewalk two blocks away. No one answered the third
knock, and it was easy to get in. A head breaker should have better locks.
I eased into the living room, which showed a dim blue through the
paper window blinds. The dining room and kitchen on the other side of the
enclosed stairs glowed almost gold from the back blinds, putting a shine on
the linoleum-covered floors.
he had shot them in bed, the murder scene would be on the second floor. So
I climbed the narrow stairs, stepping lightly where I thought the steps
would be nailed to the supports. I reached the landing and looked both
ways. There was nothing in the tiny front room except a vanity dresser with
a large mirror and a chair. A double bed would have made it impossible to
move in there. The shades in the long bedroom at the back of the house were
up, and everything was bright.
Somebody had taken the sheets from the bed, but there were bullet
holes in the mattress, along with two bloodstains about the size of
basketballs. The rest of the blood was smeared in streaks. There was a
crucifix on the wall over the bed.
Chip Vincent had come to the top of the stairs, taken three or four quiet
steps, and let them have it up close, blam, blam, blam. How many blams, I
didn't know, but I wasn't looking for evidence of murder. The cops already
had what they needed.
crossed the room and looked out the back windows. Somebody could easily
throw a gun into the river from there.
"Who the hell are you?" said someone behind me.
turned and recognized Vincent from the glossy. He wasn't as pretty as in
the photo, and he wasn't as young either. His right cheek had been crushed
at one time or another, and he seemed almost sightless in that eye. He was
pointing a revolver at me.
"I'm working for Sammy. I've been trying to find you." It
was what I planned to say all along, but not under these circumstances.
"That son of a bitch would sell his own grandmother,"
I had no doubt about that, but what I said was "Do you want to
come in with me?"
"Hell no! You told me who you're working for, but you didn't
tell me who you are."
"Oh," I started to reach for my wallet.
"No, no!" He waived the revolver.
From the light coming through the back windows, I saw that he had no
shells in the cylinder of his gun, but I kept my hands up as a matter of
"Name's Ken Sligo. I'm a private investigator, and pretty new
at it. I just got back from Europe."
"Ain't that a coincidence. Me too."
"So your wife was one of those bad girls?"
"Yeah, but I didn't kill her or the guy."
"Everybody says so?"
"Everybody says so because I found them. I called the cops too.
And first thing they did was lock me up."
found your gun in the river."
"Not my gun."
"So why did you skip?"
"People follow you, and you start to get suspicious, especially
after they take a couple of shots at you. That's all I needed to run for
"Look, Vincent. I've got no beef with you. If you didn't kill
your wife, that's fine, because it probably means you won't kill me. But
I'm getting paid to do a job. So why don't we--"
"That bastard Sammy. He gets me out on bail, then he sets me
"You know the rules. You skip, and Sammy comes after you. You
can't blame the guy, he put up good money and he don't want to lose
it." It was argument for argument's sake, because I had some other
ideas that were just about to be verified.
Behind him, someone peeked around the wall from the stairway. It was
exactly who I thought it might be, the blond guy who had been thrown from
Sammy's yesterday. He was carrying a sawed-off shotgun, and I could see by
the angry look that he intended to use it.
"Look out!" I shouted.
The blond guy thought I was warning him, and he looked behind him. I
lunged past Vincent and pushed the double-barreled shotgun up and away, and
it blasted off, slamming the wall with shot and scattering plaster onto the
mattress along with the splintered crucifix.
If Vincent got killed here in front of me, I would be the major
witness to the bounty hunter's argument of self-defense, and I wasn't going
to let that happen.
his empty revolver, Vincent swung his arm in our direction. He could only
be going for a kind of self-orchestrated suicide, I thought as I twisted
the shotgun in the blond guy's arms and wrestled him to the floor.
been set up," I said.
crap!" he said, and the shotgun blasted off again, this time under the
bed, with shot pinging at the springs and bouncing all over the linoleum.
The blond guy reached under his coat, but when he saw Vincent's revolver
point-blank at his nose, he slipped his and away and let his arm slump to
went up on my knees and looked up at Vincent. "Let me take you
his gun," Vincent said.
reached inside the blond guy's coat and pulled the automatic from his
working for Sammy, aren't you?" I said
dumb bastard," the blond guy said, but I didn't think so.
are no shells in your gun," I said to Vincent, as I rose to my feet.
blond guy tried to get up, but I put my foot on his chest and aimed the .45
at his face.
get you for this," he said.
might fire me, but he won't get me."
had been setting me up to be his witness in the death of Chip Vincent from
the first time he hired me. That was why he gave me the easy jobs right
after Vincent was arrested, and it was why he insisted that I take this
one. He didn't need me to find anybody. His strong arms knew as much about
finding skips as I did. Sammy had just eased me along, waiting to use me
for his big kill.
looked at me a little too close in Sammy's," I said to the blond guy.
"And you followed me too close. It took me till now to figure out
glanced over at Vincent. "I'll take you in. You'll get a much better
got the gun with bullets," Vincent said, and he smiled. "But make
damn sure you take me to the cops."
set you up. Traveler wanted the whole business for himself, right?"
wanted my half. Traveler don't even own half anymore. It's in hock to
Sammy, and he can't make it up."
took the thirty-eight from Vincent. I broke it, verified there were no
shells, and slipped it into my jacket pocket. He tied the blond guy to the
springs of the bed with his shoestrings, and we left the house. I knew he'd
break free before the cops came back, but it kept him out of our way for a
gonna keep his .45?" Vincent said, as we walked the three blocks to
the Central Police Station. I had a gun in both pockets and another on my
if he's got a permit," I said.
what I thought.
cops took a while but they finally got Traveler and the blond guy in a
murder-for-hire scheme. Vincent's wife was Traveler's girl friend and she
was two-timing both of them with another of Traveler's creditors.
Vincent was exonerated, but for whatever reason, they couldn't put Sammy in
jail. A lot of people knew he was in on it, but there was no proof. All I
had was an hunch that the blond guy had come into Sammy's that first
morning to get a look at me, but hunches didn't fly in court. Maybe Sammy
just paid the right people. He even gave me a bonus for the quick track. I
might be wrong about his involvement, but I didn't think so.
still work the Block now and then, because wayward husbands often make the
trip there. I don't work for Sammy anymore though, and he's still slime.
© Jack Bludis, 2001
the 20th anniversary of The Private Eye Writers of America. This
one-of-a-kind collection features original stories set on some of the
world's most notorious streets-and written by some of the world's
best-known mystery writers, including:
Bludis • Max Allan Collins • Loren D. Estleman • Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
• Jerry Kennealy • Patricia McFall • Maan Meyers • Deborah Morgan
• Warren Murphy • Percy Spurlark Parker • Marcus Pelegrimas • S.J.
Rozan • Dan A. Sproul • Tom Sweeney