C C Canning
Sly is the man
There were stairs leading up into darkness and a ground floor hallway strewn with rubbish leading to a faint light from an open door and sounds of conflict. I trod cautiously, trying to ensure that my feet knew exactly where they had landed in case they needed to find their way out again in a hurry. There was a smell I recognised but couldn’t identify.
The sounds of conflict came from behind a closed door and involved two men, raised voices and a car engine revving at high speed into the distance. Television. The open door spilling light into the passageway was also spilling the music. The Supremes’ Baby Love; music to pop rivets by, arc welding music, steel-toed-boots music, music to rev your engine by; the music of America’s ugliest city that made everyone want to fuck Diana Ross.
I knocked. The music ended. The turntable needle jumped out of the track and scratched across the vinyl. ‘Asshole!’ a woman shouted. I waited for someone to shout back and knocked again.
The woman’s voice more out of habit than anger. Throaty.
‘Suzanne. Suzanne Bronsky.’
Sounds of movement. Someone whispering. Bare feet on a bare floor. A hand on the door handle pulling it open.
‘There ain’t no Suzanne here.’
She was lost somewhere between thirty and fifty, eyes off-centre, skin the colour of those blue-black damson plums, hair that had failed to straighten and long given up on being kempt. There was someone else in the room and her head was turned away from me as if they were saying something to her that I couldn’t hear. Either that or she didn’t want me to see her clearly.
I took my copy of the rap sheet out of my pocket and folded it down so only the photograph of the girl was showing.
‘This is her.’
She didn’t look at it.
‘You a cop? No, if you were a cop you’d know she ain’t here.’
‘Why would I know that?’
‘Because you’d know she was dead.’
She turned and looked at me to catch my reaction, but she was looking through a shifting cloud; not only trying to see, but trying to recall why it mattered. Her hand flew up to her mouth as she remembered something. She had very long and elegant fingers with immaculate false nails painted crimson with a small white moon on each thumb exposing the quick. The rest of her was that kind of disaster that can afflict a woman when the cruelty of nature and absence of self-awareness conspire to persuade someone with elephantine legs and a distended abdomen to wear a fluorescent orange miniskirt and an undersized lime green knitted top. She swayed gently and the door swayed with her.
‘I take it that you did know her, then, and that you knew where she lived. I’m not a cop, I just came … to see her things, and to see if there was anyone else who knew what had happened … who ought to be told.’
Still holding one hand to her mouth she teetered forward and pointed with her other hand at a door further down the corridor.
‘She lived there. It’s not locked. There’s nothing to lock.’
There had been a padlock and a hasp but the hasp had been jemmied open. The door was solid and seemed to have withstood any number of kicks and scrapings over the years but the person wielding the jemmy had finally been too much for it. There was no door handle and no longer any way of keeping the door closed. Stuck to the jamb was a piece of crowd control tape with the NYPD letters printed on it. I pushed my way in and looked for a light. There wasn’t one.
While I stood still adjusting my eyes to the gloom I felt the woman’s hand on my shoulder as she steadied herself. Her breath was heavy like that of a herbivore, slightly dank and with the odour of fermenting grass.
‘Suzanne liked candles,’ she breathed in my ear: ‘candles and incense.’
‘Then we’ll light one for her.’
‘You must be her brother. She hoped you’d come.’
By any standards the room was filthy, the sort of hole that teenagers crawl into in order to escape parents, every surface marked with the touch and smell of its occupant. A mattress on the floor and coloured cushions losing their stuffing, a rug or two but no linen, and bits and pieces of underwear that didn’t invite inspection: in the flickering light the stark absence of comfort and care screamed silently of despair and loss of hope.
Having used her lighter to light two candles that I’d found on the floor the woman left me. Whatever I had come there for she apparently wanted no part of it. Perhaps it was just that she knew already that the room contained no rewards, spiritual or material, no matter who entered it. Apart from the bed there was no furniture; no chair, no table, no clothes rack, no possessions of any kind; so empty that it had clearly been cleaned out, leaving no clues about its occupant other than the detritus of a junkie: a discarded needle in a shoe box, a razor blade, tobacco pouch and papers, crumpled squares of toilet tissue with tell-tale blood spots, a jar of Vaseline with no lid, a condom packet, empty. If I’d wanted confirmation of the rap sheet, there was no ambivalence in the evidence presented: this was the sink hole of a collapsed life. Yet, instead of feeling relief I felt guilt. I blew out the candles, dropped them on the floor and left the room without bothering to close the door which now had no purpose. I was angry for all sorts of reasons and that anger must have been detectable in my voice as I knocked on the open door across the hallway and called out to the woman.
‘Where’s her stuff?’ I wanted to know. ‘Who’s taken her things?’
There was no point in hiding my suspicions because this was the door closest to Suzanne’s and no-one was going to pass it without her knowledge. The sound of an acoustic guitar being discordantly strummed stopped abruptly and a chair scraped across the floor before falling over. I had forgotten my earlier impression that she was not alone in her room so the figure that answered my question caught me by surprise as it came from behind the door like a rabid Rottweiler snarling obscenities and forcing me backwards across the hallway into the wall opposite, pinning me against it by the force of his elbow against my throat and by the threat of the blade which he held against my cheek.
It wasn’t that he was bigger than me or likely to be stronger, but when it came to anger I was clearly outclassed, and as he hissed and screamed at me the knife made me deaf to his words, if not to his meaning.
Behind him the woman in the lime green top and orange fluorescent mini skirt mimed a dance of wide-eyed entreaty trying to calm him down.
‘Honey, Honey, ain’t no harm. He don’t mean nothing. He ain’t no cop, he just her brother. It don’t mean nothing, Honey. Don’t cut him.’
‘Fuckin’ cunt comin’ in here. Who the fuck comes in here asking fuckin’ questions? I’ll cut your fuckin’ nose off nosin’ in here on MY territory. You hear, you white piece of shit? I’ll cut your fuckin’ nose off you ever come in here again and that shit for brains sister yours was nothin’ but trouble and is well dead, ya hear, and the cops was right, she was a Jezebel, just like they say in the bible, and they could fuck her with their night sticks all I cared and I should a done her myself for the trouble she caused me and ain’t no-one gonna miss her just like they won’t miss you when I slice your fuckin’ neck open you even come within ten blocks of me. You hear?’
I heard. Oh yes, I heard and he knew I’d heard ‘cause he eased his elbow off my throat, inserted the knife down my shirt front and sliced it open so that all the buttons popped off and dropped to the floor at our feet. It was a clever trick that made its point well. Had he been less well skilled it would have been my blood that dropped to the floor at our feet.
‘If she was your sister then you owe me for her. You hear that? She thinks she can pay off her juice with a lousy blow job and pick her Johns like she some high class dame from Park Avenue ain’t got a hardcore habit gonna kill her anytime soon and no time is soon enough. You plannin’ on paying off her debts with your faggot ass? That what you came here to do?’
My eyes were on the woman; that was the safest place for them and by far the most rewarding. She could probably read him, for this was not aberrant behaviour he was demonstrating, this came so easily to him that it was clearly his normal style.
She approached him cautiously from behind making soothing noises like a dog whisperer but ready to pull back if she got it wrong. My eyes must have been willing her not to get it wrong because she paddled the air behind his back reassuring me.
‘Honey, he lost his sister is all. He just wants her letters and stuff. He ain’t saying nothing ‘bout anything else. He don’t know nothin’. He just lost his sister is all. Ain’t no harm. He knows Sly is the man. Everyone knows Sly is the Man. Ain’t that so? You just want your sister’s letters and stuff. They ain’t got no value to us. Tell Sly that’s what you mean and he can let you go.’
She was talking to me but really it was meant for Sly, the sociopath with the hyper allergic reaction to any invasive threat to his territory, a territory that I had already deduced through my fog of fear included drug dealing and prostitution where people like Suzanne were part of the inventory.
‘I only wanted to gather whatever traces of Suzanne I could find,’ I pleaded. ‘I didn’t want the cops to have it.’
That last sentence proved to be the release valve. Two minutes later I was stumbling down the darkened hallway carrying a cardboard shoe box tied with string and trying to figure why the creature who had fetched it for me from within their room believed I was Suzanne’s brother and why she had dropped her voice so low when she gave it to me in the darkened hallway that I suddenly realised she was not a woman at all.
© c c canning 2014