Manhattan

…past midnight on the coldest night in November.

This is the main component of my hostel’s entry to the inter-hostel (lit-soc) creative writing contest here in college, written by Slicer and me. For the full pdf with all the frills and to check out other hostel entries, if so inclined, check out The Fifth Estate’s coverage, here. It’s worth it-our design’s rather nice, and it’s not particularly large. It’s the Alakananda hostel entry, right on top of the list.

I don’t think anyone will “get” the title until they’ve read the whole story, but it would be interesting if somebody did get it afterwards 🙂 . Also, assuming you get the idea, do tell if we were too subtle, not subtle enough, or just right (the “with frills” version has a few more light non-verbal hints, but they shouldn’t make all that much difference). I’m not entirely happy with the way we executed it, but I was immensely excited by the premise 🙂 .

UPDATE:We got second!

The full story is under the fold:

November 3, 1926
Six months ago, on Friday night, a cop died in New York City. He was my partner, and he was shot dead as I watched.

I wanted to be a cop since I was five. Pops was a cop, in the good ol’ days. Those were the days of the righteous, idealistic cops of the movies, who fought those dirty Italian bastards. I wanted to fight them too… rid America of its filth, like Pops would say.

Now, everything’s different. The city is dying. The mayor is corrupt and decadent, happy to drink from the mob’s scuzz as long as his campaign kitty keeps getting topped up. The streets are extended gutters, filled with vermin preying on the city’s filth. The cops are dirty too, with most of them raking in more from their masters in the mob than from the city. But I stayed, the money was good. Fried eggs don’t come free in New York, and I don’t have no rich parents I can live off.

Johnny Walter was my partner those days. Good ol’ Johnny, always talking fast, with his donuts and black coffee, getting socked by pretty ladies in the city. We used to hang at the Hooch in the weekends, when we were off duty. He was a good cop, the kind Pops would have liked. We busted over fifteen rings in those ten years, and we got ourselves a medal.

And then Johnny died. Shot by some Jap bastards in the Bronx. I pasted a couple of ’em, but they came with their cronies in them Model Ts and they drilled him in seconds. And I watched poor Johnny die.

The cops gave him a gun salute, and another medal – you know, the works. But they didn’t feel my pain, they didn’t go after the bastards hard enough. The Japs were the new Italians – Mikey became Chang, Sonny became Shaw. And they were worse; they had no respect, no love for their family. They were dirty, lying thugs – and they should all be shot. But the cops did nothing. The goddamn courts did nothing.

So, I quit. I found Tom Ashford, the news hack who worked the Post. I told him everything I knew, on promise of anonymity – I wasn’t going to get slugged by the cops. That was my parting gift for the bastards. And I started my agency, with a brand new door, and a tinny new bell. ‘Private Eye Philip Marlowe’, it read. I’d be better than the goddamn cops…hell, I’d be the best. Ol’ Johnny would have approved.

The new life was slow, and I liked it that way. I used to breakfast at the deli by Stockton Street – they make the best fried eggs in Manhattan. I liked the pretty waitress with the tight skirt. I think her name was Jenny, or Jill, something like that. She had blonde hair, and nice curves – things I like in a woman. Wish she’d talk to me. I guess she’s turned off by the scar. Most people are.

But, this day was different. This was the day it all began.

November 6, 1926

It began as usual… dames past their prime worrying about their wayward husbands. Tail them from the office to their mistresses’ apartments, take a few photos for the divorce courts, and the job’s done. Easy as hell, but good money.

But today was different. I walked back the usual way, past Bush Street and into 4th Avenue, with the iron railed hatchways that opened to ugly staircases. A clunker rattled by, and the laugh of the woman in the car filled the air. Someone was getting lucky that night. A billboard stared out at the street, with advertisements for a moving picture. I walked into the building, shirking past the landlady – whining about rent again – and entered my office.

At about 5 in the evening, a young woman walked in. She was young, in her twenties, and pretty as hell. She had a strong jaw, the kind of jaw a girl inherits from her father. Her almond shaped eyes were shy but level, and she wore the kind of scared but determined look you can keep up only until you find just how scary this city can really get. She was wearing a black, figure-hugging dress straight out of men’s fantasies. I tried not to stare too much. She was obviously nervous, sweating through her dress. I wondered if I should offer her a towel.

“Are you Mr. Marlowe?” She asked, stealing a look at the street through the window.
“Yeah, I am,” I answered slowly, looking at her snakeskin handbag. She was obviously rich.
“Mr. Marlowe, I heard about you through a friend. I need advice, and I need it quick. I do not have much time, so – “she said, speaking as though she’d rehearsed the speech in front of a mirror.
“Wait. I need to know your name, Miss,” I said, mostly to break through her practiced routine.
“Uh… Call me Ellie. My name is not important. Please hear me out; I do not have much time. My husband will be very upset if he finds out I came to see you” she said, glancing out at the street again. I was uncomfortable.

“I’m in danger,” she continued. “There are men in suits all over my building the past week. They always go to 12B, the one in the top corner that overlooks the street. And these men are… they aren’t very nice- they smoke their cigars, make passes at me, and I don’t like it. If my husband knew, he’d be in a rage. My son is terrified, he refuses to get out of bed when he hears them coming. And then last night, I saw something. One of them – I think his name is Akira or something like that, he tripped on the stairs, and I saw a gun fall out! An actual gun! I was watching from my window and I was shaking. These men are dangerous, Mr. Marlowe.”

“A gun? Everyone carries guns these days, Miss.” I refused to call her ‘Ellie’, or whatever bullshit name she gave me.
“Mr. Marlowe, I know these men! You have to believe me!” Her lips twisted and anger darkened her eyes. “I heard them talking. One of them said something about finishing off two cops on 14th Avenue. That Akira or whoever he is, owns a nightclub on 13th Avenue, and they go there in their black automobiles. They sock anyone who gets in their way. They even harassed poor Mrs. Atkins when she yelled at them for kicking their cat. And, sometimes I see a fancy car parked outside for hours. I think someone inside is watching us, Mr. Marlowe. I can’t take this anymore.” She was close to tears, the poor lady. As for me, I got more awkward. I offered her a tissue. She smiled softly. I guess I did the right thing. Women, phew.

“Miss, you never told me where you live. I’ll come around and have a look, if that’s fine by – ”

“No! Don’t do that, Mr. Marlowe! They’ll kill me! Please. If you believe me, meet me in the café on South Street tomorrow at 8 PM. I will leave now. Thank you, Mr. Marlowe. Please do not try to follow me,” she said in a hurry, before turning and running out of my office. I took a while to gather my thoughts. Sometime later – after that old whore of a landlady finished yelling at her no-good son – I got out a cigarette and started thinking.

So, what was I going to do? Should I meet the babe at the café tomorrow? She didn’t seem fake – I know fear when I see it. The poor lady, afraid of her husband. Wish I could show him a thing or two – how to treat a woman, for one. And she mentioned a name – Akira? I had heard of him before. He was a dumb old mug, one of those rich bastards with too much money for their own good. And he had a son who was crazier than a snake’s armpit. I had to be careful. He owned a nightclub, she said, on South Street. I’d pay him a visit later. And she said someone was watching them. That was odd…I had to think about that.

I walked to the sofa, and turned on the radio. The same old shit as always – bank robbed, women raped. What was happening to the city? The accumulated filth of all their murders and rapes will raise a stench that’ll drive everyone away. What’ll the Mayor do then? I lit another cigarette and waited for morning.

November 7, 1926

So, the next day I woke up in the evening, and put on my brown coat and hat And I had myself a gun. I didn’t know this lady, and I didn’t want any trouble – wearing iron helps. Always. I got off a bit before South Street, near the deli with the good steak. Maybe I’d stop for a bit on the way back. It was a windy day, and I pulled my coat tighter. A couple was getting too close in front of the deli. They should get a job. I grimaced and turned the corner and WHAM!

A black Ford had stopped in front of the café and I heard someone shout. A muscly hand with a machine gun poked out the window, and pummeled a lady in front of the café. I pulled out my gun, just as the goddamn buster was slugging the lady. I ran towards the café as fast as I could, but the car was too damn fast. I burned powder, aiming at the rear window but it had already turned the corner.

I turned to the café and saw the poor lady – It was the babe I met yesterday! She didn’t even have time to scream, she was dead before she knew it. And then it all made sense. They bumped her for talking. I knew these bastards were ruthless, but I was shocked. They bumped an young, unarmed woman just for talking to private dick! The Italians wouldn’t have dared. Criminals in this town used to believe in things. Those sons of bitches. I’m not one to weep, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t get real mad. I left her there, got someone to call an ambulance, and scampered.

It took me an hour to get back to my room. I’d stopped by the deli with the good steak, hoping it’d cheer me up. The waitress there saw my scar and the blood on my shirt and shirked away. Typical.

The landlady was yelling again – I wish I could shut her trap permanently- and rats scurried across the sidewalk. I was desolate, depressed – it’s never fun to see someone die, even if you’ve been a copper. I couldn’t sleep that night. I stayed up, smoking, thinking about Johnny and my client; ex-client, to be precise.

November 9, 1926

I was walking on 12th Avenue, heading for the nightclub. I had to find this Akira… he might have something useful to say. I’d asked around – ‘The Orient’, it was called. Shady club, the kind of place Jap goons would hang at. I had to use my black coat, the brown one was bloody. Another reason to hate the Japs – they ruined my favourite coat. So, I turned at the corner, and saw the entrance to the club.

It was a typical nightclub. Two big musclemen, probably with half an ounce of brain matter between them, stood in front of a door with a dull red glow from the inside. There were a couple of hookers on the left, chatting up a middle-aged guy – I saw a ring on his finger and so did the hookers, but of course they didn’t care. I pulled my hat down, and walked slowly to the entrance. One of the bouncers stopped me, and looked at me, sizing me up. I didn’t say a word, and stared right back at his yellow slanted eyes. He nodded, and I pushed past him into the dim loud entrance.

There were men in suits everywhere, guys with their hair plastered back, trying to find a cheap whore on a Friday night. Almost everyone was a Jap; I knew I was in the right place. I turned a corner and entered a large dark room, with a stage, lit with floodlights. There was a performance tonight. I found the bar and sat down, and tried to fit in.

“What’ll it be, Mister?” the slant eyed bartender asked me.
“Scotch on the rocks, with a twist.” I replied.
“Coming right up, mister.” he grunted.
“So..who’s the owner of this place? Bet he’s full of berries, huh?” I asked, trying not to sound too interested.
“Funny you should ask, mister. You’re the second person to ask me that today. Where you been, man? He owns half of New York, the boss Akira. He’s over there, watching the show.” he replied, passing me the drink.

I turned, searching for him. Ah, typical – Akira was a large man, with flabby pink cheeks. He had a large belly, and big steaks for hands and legs. You’d wonder how he walks around. His eyes looked small because of the fat dark rings around them – and from the tattoos on his arms, it was obvious that he was with the Yakuza. And he was powerful, judging by the number of men around him.

The hall filled with applause, and the geisha came onto stage. She was gorgeous- curves in all the right places, long legs that never seemed to end, and long dark hair that fell on her shoulder softly, drawing attention to her perfect face. She was beyond beautiful . Obviously, the rest of the room agreed – catcalls and wolfwhistles filled the air, before she began singing. She sang a song in Japanese. I didn’t understand the words, but that didn’t matter. Not one man in that room could stand up in front of their mothers by the time she was done.

A well dressed, handsome man sat at the next table… he looked completely out of place here. He musta been some debonair playboy, trying to see the wild side of the city. At least, that’s how he looked most of the time… but I caught him sneaking a look at Akira every once in a while, and then it was like he took a mask off. He kept looking at the singer with a subtle smile. She loved it, you could see. Some guys get all the luck.

I finished my drink, and walked over to his table. He sat on a plush green chair, unlike the others in the club. I decided to try my luck, and sat down next to him. I needed to talk to him fast, before they smelled anything funny.

The “singer” walked past the tables, tempting every man to come close. She crooned, hitting every note with apparent ease.

“Mr. Akira! It’s an honour to meet you. My father told me so much about you, how you helped our neighbourhood from those Italian bastards. I wanted to meet you, to thank you.” I said, speaking fast, trying to make a cover story.

He stared at the “singer”, enraptured. Then he slowly turned to look at me. He blew smoke over my head in a long slanting pane.
“Ah…yes, I see. It is no issue.” he said in a slow drawl, with his Jap accent. I realized he’d fallen for all the ass kissing. “Whaz your name, again?”
The singer finished her first song, and the crowd broke into polite applause, and not so polite whistles. She was going to take a break, and she slowly walked towards Akira, and sat down next to him.
“Darling, you were amazing…”, he said, kissing her. This bastard had a girl like that? What a joke. I tried not to stare too much.
“My friends call me Jim, sir. I wanted to ask you a few questions, I hope that’s fine,” I asked, trying my best impression of a subservient minion.
“Yes…ask me. You! Get Jim here a drink,” he said, looking at one of the bulky goons behind me.
“Thanks, Akira sir. You know, a couple of me friends were talking back in my place – We heard you took down two cops last week. Good shit, Mr. Akira! Someone needs to show them their place, them corrupt bastards. They don’t mess with us,” I said, privately swallowing my disgust.

He finished his martini – as crude as he was, he knew how to drink one right- and turned and looked at me.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about…Jim. Where did you say you live?” he asked, slowly, looking me up again. I sensed the mood changing.
“Near the Pizzeria by South Street, Mr. Akira. Oh..I must have me facts wrong..and I heard you guys have a big shipment coming in tomorrow. Anything I can do, sir?” I asked, improvising. If he smelled something funny, I was done.

He took a minute to answer, smoking his cigar slowly. The lady looked at me in a weird way… not with the usual fear or disgust, just…interest. I was surprised.
“You’re asking a lot of questions, Jim. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t like people asking me questions. You sound like a motherfucking cop!” he said, with a not too subtle tone of suspicion. I’d had enough. This bastard was getting on my nerves.
“I’m not a cop, you fat numbskull. Now hear me out – I’m onto you. And if you finished off that babe who came to my office, I’ll find you and kill you. Hear me?” I grunted, anger overcoming me.
That was stupid, I said to myself as I pushed past the bodyguards. Who was I to go yelling at a mob boss? They’d finish me off before I wake up for breakfast tomorrow. Angry at myself, I started walking away when I heard a woman shout, “Mister!”
I turned. It’s not everyday a lady calls me. It was the geisha, the singer from ‘The Orient’. What was she doing outside? She walked out of the small door on the side, and walked quickly to catch up with me. She had something in her hand – a napkin, I think. She placed it in my hand – I was so surprised, I didn’t move. I couldn’t quite figure out that look on her face- Was it hope? Or was it despair? And before I could say a word, she ran back in. I looked in my hand, and there was something written inside. I was about to read it, when I looked up and saw the bouncer right in front of me – I didn’t want no more trouble, so I turned and walked away. There’ll be time to read it. I can’t be seen here tonight.

November 10, 1926

That night, I bought me some Southern Comfort and thought real hard about letting it go. Maybe I should have. This wasn’t my fight any more-but what was I supposed to do, if no one else was going to fight it? The cops weren’t, that was for sure, goddamn them. The client was dead, and I had enough to do, with the cheating husbands and their worried wives. I could just about pay the rent, as long as I wasn’t fool enough to go chasing a gang on my own. And Mrs. Marlowe didn’t raise any idiots.

Her 3 lines pricked at me all night, though. Guess the dame wasn’t good enough to get it to rhyme, but it still rolled off the tongue pretty well. Must be a Jap thing.

They try to cloak it,
but the salmon always peeks
from within the rice.

Subtle, she ain’t… anyone with any sense could figure out she was talking about that sushi bar on 10th and Lex. Something must be going down there tonight. It wasn’t as if the cops didn’t already know that it was owned by the Yakuza, but they don’t get paid enough to bother the nice gentlemen plotting murder over sake. It usually paid a lot better not to. But nobody could complain if a private citizen decided to try a little raw fish, right?

It wasn’t too far from the office, so buzzed as I was, I still got there in 20 minutes. She was right, something was going on. There weren’t as many Model Ts as usual, but there were a hell of a lot more Bentleys and Rolls Royces. I didn’t go in the front door, of course. The bosses weren’t going to yap where I could hear them, anyway, and asking too many questions in this place was going to buy me a one-way ticket to the morgue real quick. Maybe going into a back room filled with young men holding knives in a gang-owned joint wasn’t so smart, either, but you had to start somewhere. Lucky for me, Fat Sparky was taking a little cigarette break when I turned up. Even luckier, he was alone.

“Hey there, Sparky.”
“Hullo, Phil. Didn’t you quit? I ain’t telling you nothing, anyway.”
“Now, I happen to know that’s not true. Besides, you always say you got nothing, and I always know it just takes a bit of a shake to get you to spill. How hard am I going to have to shake you today, Sparky?”
Baka! You’re trying to threaten me behind my own kitchen! I can have 15 men out here before you can say nameru ! You stupid cop, you think you can just come here and make me talk? Who do you think you’re dealing with?”

He was right. I knew he was right. But I was drunk, and this was getting me mad as hell. I had myself a revolver; never travelled anywhere without it these days anyway. But, I needed to keep it low, I ain’t stupid. So I brought my knife out- the poor bastard hadn’t quite finished his little speech by the time I put it to his throat.

“Maybe, but you know what? I’m not with them any more. I’m all on my own now. No one’s going to fire me if I drop you right here. And no one’s ever going to find out, either. Still want to get cocky, you slant-eyed bastard? Just try it! You could scream like a little girl before you lose consciousness, but it’ll be too late for you anyway.”

I leaned in closer so he could smell the whiskey on my breath. I had no intention of following through, and he probably knew that, so my only chance was to get him to believe I was too drunk to think.

“Hey…hey, man, don’t go doing that now, okay? Look, just ease up a little. I’ll tell you, okay? We’re all friends here, aren’t we?”

“No we’re not, asshole. You get five seconds to start talking. Five…” I increased the pressure. Just a little, but enough to get him to bleed.
“Alright! Look, I’m not holding out on you, ok? I really don’t know that much, I don’t get to hear anything they don’t want me to hear. All I know is that they’re worried, ok?”
“Worried? About what?”
“I don’t know. I swear! I heard someone beat up Akira and Takashi’s men. Nobody has gone to war yet, but it’s very tense. That’s all I know! Look, if I don’t go in soon someone’s gonna come out looking for me. I won’t tell anyone, man, just let me go!”
Of course he’d tell. Of course they’d come after me. I couldn’t help it any more, though. It was too late to back away now, and this was starting to get real interesting.
“What are they doing inside?”
“They’re just talking, all the families showed up, they’re… upset, and that’s all I know, man!”
“Oh, I dunno, I’m thinking there’s more.” I tried to increase the pressure by as little as possible, but I might not have been very successful. Oh well. I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it.
“Alright! Look, I heard some of the guys are planning something at the Jirochoyo tomorrow night- you know where it is, right? On 46th St, out in Queens… come on, man, leggo of me already!”
I let him go, but not before someone else that day felt what it was like to be kneed in the groin. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but… nah. I really had to.

November 11, 1926

After a good quarter of a night’s sleep and a boring day taking photos of clumsy philanderers, I decided to head over to the bar and check out what was happening there. I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t even know what I was going to do. Stop them from doing… whatever it was they were doing? And how would I do that? Find out, and rat on them to the cops? A fat lot of good that would do. Nobody in this city even seemed to care any more. So why did I?

‘Cause we needed someone. I knew that it couldn’t be me, but I still had to try. We needed someone all the same, someone… truly incorruptible. Not like goddamn Sergeant Michaels back at the precinct. A decent man in an indecent time. I had seen too much to hope that some hero would drop out of the sky to save us from ourselves, but…

There was surprisingly little noise coming from inside. I hoped I wasn’t too late, that they hadn’t moved off already. They couldn’t have known I was coming. Had Fat Sparky squealed already? I pulled my hat low over my head, pulled out my revolver, kept my eyes down, and moved in. It wasn’t exactly a disguise, and it wasn’t even really inconspicuous, at this time of the night. But it would have to do.

Lucky for me, it was enough: the place was completely empty.

Most of the locals in this area knew enough to avoid this place on “special” nights like this one… still, it was clear that something had happened that caught them gangsters by surprise. There were half-full glasses and uneaten food all over the place. Half the furniture was knocked over, and the other half had been taken apart to use as makeshift clubs.

I moved out to the back room and it was pitch black. I waited for a minute to let my eyes adjust and stepped in, as quietly as I could. I could make out a large shape in the middle, but I couldn’t be sure what it was. This didn’t feel like a gang fight; something was off. I skirted along the wall, and Jesus! There were ten men in the middle, all knocked out! And they were all tied up, in one big circle. There was a note –“Special Delivery for the Commissioner”. This wasn’t cop work, that was for sure. I was confounded, and then I heard something.

I turned around quickly, pointing the gun at the door – was there someone else? And that’s when I saw it: something-a man? I couldn’t tell. It looked larger than a man, and he seemed to fade into the shadows. He was dressed all in black. I was numb, but I somehow knew not to shoot. And I knew it was him – he took out these men. The families were afraid of him. And just like that, he was gone.

I heard sirens around the corner, and I scampered. I didn’t want to be caught up in all this again. They’d make me a hero- did I want to be one? Hell, no. I had to think. Far too much had happened in these past few hours. I needed sleep.

I’ve looked for him ever since. I went around the city, searched in all the shadows. And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge….

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7 thoughts on “Manhattan

    • 🙂 we actually thought about cutting the watchmen reference, because while it went very well there, you could just as well argue that it’s plain plagiarism. I’m glad you liked it. All the other bits we used, at least some of which I’m sure you noticed, were basically for, well, “priming” the reader for the reveal, so we figured it was fair game. Any comments on the quality of the writing?

      • I think the Watchman-reference fit the whole thing very well. Also, nice foreshadowing.

        The quality of the writing varied a bit. I felt that some of the time, it was a little anachronistic, but most of the time it captured the time period and the genre pretty well.
        There was a lot of exposition in the dialogue, though, which made it a little wooden. Especially “Ellie” suffered from this.
        I have to admit that I took a dislike to Marlowe, but usually I’m not really a big fan of noir detectives (with the exception of Blacksad), so that’s not something you should take to heart. 🙂

      • 🙂 well, there were two of us writing it, so that’s probably expected. And yeah, he’s not necessarily likeable, but you should’ve seen the original version: this is what we had AFTER cleaning up the more outrageously racist bits 🙂 . Of course, he’s not SUPPOSED to be a good guy, anyway.

      • I understand that he’s not supposed to be a good guy, but it’s always a difficult feat to have an asshole as a protagonist and not lose the audience for it.

  1. Pingback: The Year in Review | The Ego Chronicles

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