His expert hands emptied the contents of the shaker, filling every inch of my hungry glass. No one in town makes a dry martini like Joe—no one. Normally I would avoid alcohol while working, but this Arturo Fuente, Joe’s gift to me and one of the finest cigars known to man, begged for a martini complement.
Joe’s a top-notch bartender, a connoisseur of fine cigars, and an all around decent guy; which made me regret even more the business that I came here for. Years of absorbing sad tales and missed opportunities eighteen hours a day can certainly wear on a man’s psyche, perhaps that was what had happened to Joe.
Tonight though, he was working the game masterfully; his occasional glance and sympathetic nod were yielding cents; dollars and cents. The number of bills lying on the tired old bar easily outweighed the empty glasses; two to one at least, a testament to his prowess. How he feigned genuine interest in these tragic stories, mumbled through thin lips misdirected by inebriated minds, was beyond me. Joe was good and managed to fool most of the patrons, but not those with a discerning eye, like myself. Joe’s sole intent was a decent tip, but who could blame a guy for that. Hell, who doesn’t admire a man who takes care of business first. Finally the conclusion washed over me; it was business that was the contributing factor that pushed Joe over the edge—to commit cold-blooded murder.
Joe, always the gentleman, lit my cigar first and then tended to his own. As a swirling cloud of opaque white smoke encircled his head, he began to speak—in that thick undeniable New York accent.
“What would life be without a fine cigar? Awe—dames is ok too, but they’re disposable. Once one’s outta the picture, it’s time to find another.”
The term, ‘dames’ continued to ring through my head, as did Joe’s apparent disdain for them. On this particular night that was my reason for being here, only one more piece of evidence was needed regarding a ‘dame’s’ murder in order to ‘put this case to bed’.
This case was so cold a detective with my experience was embarrassed to have his name attached to it. The original dick, some snot-nosed rookie, came up empty handed—no big surprise to me and even less surprising that the boss turned the case over to me. Under normal circumstances I prefer to start from the beginning and solve my own cases. A hot trail, where the smell of gunpowder still lingers in the bedroom, the smell of sex and cheap perfume is folded among the rumpled sheets, and empty casings lay scattered on the hardwood floor. Yet this particular case involved not a single one of those elements.
Her name was Lola Gambini, a tawdry, busty blonde; the type of woman no man had trouble recalling. Drop-dead looks and ‘a body to die for’ (which apparently came to fruition), weren’t the only things she had going for her, or against her depending on how you look at it. Lola was the daughter of Tony Gambini (‘Da Big One’), one of the most vicious, and feared bosses to rise to the top of the underworld in the ‘big apple’. Climbing the crooked ladder of success usually requires sacrifices—frequent payments, always in the form of blood. It would seem that Lola’s lineage ensured she was merely one of those installments.
They found her in an alley within a mile of here, not one of her blonde hairs out of place. Her glistening ruby red lips still painted on, but there was only one problem. A .45 caliber bullet has a special way of making any stunning girl look suddenly unattractive. The entrance wound, right between her dazzling blue eyes, doesn’t immediately catch your attention, but the exit at the base of her skull, now that’s another story. A gruesome scene like that can make even the most hardened detective take a second look at his lunch.
Although the young sleuth originally assigned this case was unable to crack it, he had gathered all of the evidence necessary; he simply didn’t know how to use it. The only missing piece of the puzzle was that innate ability that just couldn’t be taught. You either had it or you didn’t, and personally I didn’t think this ‘pup’ would ever hunt with the ‘big dogs’.
The case had been in my capable hands for almost a week now and I knew who the smoking gun belonged to, but I had to get a look at for myself. Sure, I had concocted a motive for the killer, but I wanted to hear him say it. Maybe I’m a little twisted like that, but there’s something gratifying about standing face to face with a murderer and hearing him confess in his own words.
“Hey Joe, you heard about Lola, right?”
Joe continued to busy himself with bar-work, as if he hadn’t even heard my question. He ran another glass through the soapy water and just as I was about repeat the question, he sat the glass down and moved closer to me. His dark stubbly face was mere inches from my own, and I could feel the heat of his stale breath. My heart-rate doubled in an instant, but the rush of these encounters is what makes the game worth playing. Telecasting my intentions, my right hand eased inside my suit and rested comfortably on my sidearm. Joe’s quivering lip gave away his reluctant intent to respond.
“You ask that question like I know somethin’!”
“Well,—do you Joe? Wait a second—don’t answer that yet. Let me tell you what I know. I know Lola was killed not far from here, she also had a matchbook in her pocket from this bar, and most importantly she was killed with a forty-five caliber Springfield Arms model 1911. If my memory serves me correct Joe, you just so happen to have a loaded ‘1911’ sitting beneath this bar on the first shelf, down near the register. What do you say to a ballistics test?”
He wasn’t going to be easy to rattle, but all good detectives know consistent pressure will eventually yield results. Joe was tough, but even the toughest crack in the end; it was only a matter of time. Joe moved back from the bar and continued his busy-work, as if we’d just shared some casual conversation. Instead I had blatantly and coldly just accused him of murder.
“Come on Joe, everyone knows Tony squeezes all of these businesses for protection money. What makes your bar any different? How’s a business man to stay afloat? Nobody’s blaming ya, Joe.”
Beads of sweat were forming on his brow now and indicated my time-proven tactic was working. A confession was only a few seconds away and I needed to keep pressing.
“Well, I figure a good business man, like you Joe, knows he can only sustain those losses for so long—then a man’s gotta do something about it. You were tired of paying your hard earned dollars to slime like Tony, and decided you’d reverse the tables and take a little piece of Tony this time!”
Raising my voice, I leaned in as close to Joe as the bar would allow. Grabbing a fistful of the front of his shirt, I pronounced each word very clearly. “So Joe, when you couldn’t stand it anymore, you took that forty-five from under this very counter and you hunted Lola down—you went and killed Tony’s only daughter. Didn’t ya Joe—Didn’t ya!”
As the tears began to swell in the corners of his eyes, he whimper, “Yes—yes, I killed the bitch—what do……….
Joe’s words abruptly came to end. Out of my peripheral vision in my right eye I saw a terrific flash come from the end of the bar. Fragments of brain matter scattered everywhere and shards of Joe’s skull made a clinking sound on the clean glasses that hung from above the bar.
“Tony sends his best—you cowardly bastard!” A voice rang out from the dark end of the bar.
As quickly as possibly I grabbed my own gun and wheeled around in the direction the shot had come from, but it was too late. Whoever had killed Joe had made a clean escape, and having little inclination to go chasing one of Tony’s boys down a dark alley, I instead retreated to my stool.
One of the patrons at the other end of the room slowly approached me. “Here—the guy threw this up on the bar before he shot.”
Intuition told me it was far too late for old Joe. Leaning over the bar I watched helplessly as the warm pool of blood continued to grow and then soak into the coarse boards beneath his once sharp business mind. Opening my hand I examined the object the customer had given me; it was the useless last inch of a cigar, but the band remained intact. Arturo Fuente—apparently one of Tony’s guys had found Lola before the police arrived to the crime scene.
Another case put to rest, not exactly how I envisioned it, but nonetheless justice has been served. Only one nagging question remains, now that Joe is gone, where will a guy find a good dry martini and fine cigar?