Tender Is LeVine: A Jack LeVine Mystery

BOOK: Tender Is LeVine: A Jack LeVine Mystery
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Tender Is Levine

A Jack LeVine Mystery

Andrew Bergman

 

A
MysteriousPress.com

Open Road Integrated Media ebook

For

     Lulu

     Jake,

     and Teddy

PROLOGUE

 

In the summer of 1950 I had my office redecorated. That may not seem like much to you, but it was a very big deal to me. Call it a sense of permanence or an acceptance of my limits; I had realized, finally, that a private detective was all I would ever be. The colossal and magical fantasies of my youth had extinguished themselves: I would never wear the uniform of the New York Yankees, my name would never be illuminated above the Morosco Theater, Rita Hayworth would never thrust her silken hand down my gabardine slacks. I was forty-four years old and this was it, this office on 51st Street and Broadway. This was my destiny. This was my lot.

I had come through a very rough period: long, ragged months of self-doubt and shallow, anxious sleep. This malaise had been building for years, but I had always managed to jolly or work it away. Then in March of 1948—the nineteenth, to be exact—my old man died, nice and easy, listening to Jack Benny on the radio. The last human voice he heard on this earth belonged to Dennis Day. I took it pretty hard, for all the reasons. No longer a father’s son, I started sizing up my adulthood: divorced, childless, drifting through middle age with a PI’s license and an expanding waistline. In eight years, I’d be fifty; in sixteen years … The math was not reassuring. I couldn’t get a comfortable fix on mortality and began a period of retreat, turning down cases, choosing instead to stare out my office window or just stay home in Sunnyside, listening to ball games and eating western omelets. Ringing phones and doorbells went unanswered, dishes went unwashed. Poised over the bathroom sink one morning, I put down my razor and began to cry for no reason I could identify. I left a perfectly good toaster in the incinerator and ran down the hall back to my apartment, panicky and short of breath.

I dreaded the mornings and tried to avoid them by listening to the radio far into the night. I would stare out my bedroom window at the stars twinkling over Queens, listening to strangers talk about nightclub acts or the atomic bomb or all the commies running our government. The discussions would grow garbled and I would fall asleep, often waking up to static from the airwaves, the sky growing light. I would turn the radio off, suddenly wide awake and raging.

It was depression, pure and simple. The case of the depressed dick. My income, always marginal, sank to the janitorial level, but I couldn’t have cared less. Money for what? Friends talked to me earnestly, gripping my arm, but I simply nodded, scarcely hearing them. I started drinking a little—Jewish drinking, nothing scary—and began to play the horses. I would take the train out to Jamaica, certainly the ugliest racetrack in America, and stand for hours by the rail, drinking foul black coffee and losing my money. I bought all the guidebooks, bet exactly four dollars on each race, and drew immense satisfaction from the inevitability of defeat.

I can’t locate a precise moment or occasion, but after about three months I simply grew tired of my crisis. It ceased to engage my pity or my interest. Like a virus, perhaps, it simply played itself out. I stopped going to the track, cut the drinking cold—except for my nightly Blatz—and began shaving every morning at seven-thirty sharp. I started working more, and found that I was working better. Pedestrian cases took on profound interest, the dullest of clients immediately engaged my attention. I purchased an alpaca overcoat and attended all five games of the ’49 World Series, and when Tommy Henrich stepped to the plate in the ninth inning of the first game, swinging his bat very slowly, back and forth, staring out at poor boozy Don Newcombe, I began to put on the coat. Not out of hubris, not at all, but more out of a sense of order restored; the Yankees versus the Dodgers and the Yankees win. That was simply the way the world was supposed to operate.

From that point on, I emerged fully from my shell. Friends marveled at my rejuvenation and took me to dinner in celebration. They toasted the LeVine of old: nimble, sprightly Jack. My poker partners hailed the return of their favorite sucker, Jack of Eternal Hope. My vital fluids coursed; I got random, indiscriminate hard-ons and found myself once again the roué of the coffee shop, charming the tired, bleached-out waitresses, sliding that extra dime beneath the chipped saucer, spinning off my counter stool and onto the sunny streets. I breathed deeply, enjoying the Broadway bus fumes. Birds flapped overhead, flying north or south it mattered not to me; I knew they had their reasons, as I had mine. Each in its way, each in its place. The way the Good Lord meant it. I was, simply, a contented soul.

So I decided to redecorate my office, to reaffirm my career and my bald-headed place on this earth. I engaged three brothers named DiNapoli, who ripped the place apart in between mouthfuls of fried-egg sandwiches in the morning and meatball heroes in the afternoon. They never stopped eating or working. The War Bonds poster came down in the outer office, wood paneling went up. New lamps and a coffee table were purchased, as well as a generous supply of postwar magazines. The inner office was repainted (beige) and recarpeted (green), but otherwise untouched. I would not part with my ancient desk and chair, my lamp, my wooden files, my coat stand, my moose-head. These things were sacred. “This shit is really old-fashioned, strictly Sam Spade,” said Tommy DiNapoli, showing me multicolored brochures in praise of metal and vinyl. “This is the trend now. It’s a cleaner, more modern look.” I simply shook my head. For the walls, the brothers strongly urged oil paintings depicting the Finger Lakes region, as rendered by their Uncle Augie; I resisted, despite considerable pressure, and put up some George Bellows fight scenes.

The hammering and sawing and sanding lasted about ten days, and I reveled in it. “Can’t hear you,” I’d shout into the dusty telephone. “Having the office done over.” I felt prosperous, burgherlike; I watched the progress of the work, hands in pockets, hat slung back on my head, smiling from ear to ear. Then Frankie DiNapoli repainted my name on the frosted glass door in bold blue letters and the brothers were gone, after hearty handshakes all around. They pulled the drop cloths, vacuumed, and stole off like Italian genies, leaving me alone and missing their perpetual motion.

I sat behind my desk and surveyed the newness and splendor of my office. In the center of my desk was an invoice for four hundred and fifty dollars. I was reviewing various options for raising this sum when my newly painted door opened and Fritz Stern walked in.

ONE

 

 

Fritz Stern was a
small man with gray eyes, gray hair, and the nervous attentiveness of a refugee who had never stopped escaping. His sharp features were coated with a Florida tan that seemed as inappropriate on him as a zoot suit.

“I have been traveling,” he told me somewhat apologetically. He held an elegant gray fedora in his lap and blinked several times. He was wearing a blue three-piece suit that looked to be ten years old and would probably last another fifty.

“Florida?”

Stern shook his head. “No, no vacation,” he said. “I in fact acquired this suntan while on tour some months ago. And then with the summer months—”

“Tour?” I pulled open the top drawer of my desk and extracted a toothpick, then began working on a strand of bacon that was dangling precariously from a back molar.

“Yes,” Stern said brightly. “We were in the southern states and Texas, the Northwest, the Midwest, all over.” Stern had overcome most of his accent, but a phrase like “the southern states” defeated him entirely: the
t
’s came out in
s
’s and the s’s gave way to
z’
s.

“You from Germany originally?” I asked him.

He blushed delicately—God knows why, it wasn’t his fault—and then nodded.

“The accent,” he said. “I know is terrible.”

“Not at all,” said Ambassador LeVine. “You come over in the thirties?” The piece of bacon fell from my molar.

“I was born in Frankfurt in 1907 and came to this country in the year ’38.”

“Good year to come over.”

“Good and bad,” he said with some force. “Many were not so fortunate. I lost family, friends of a lifetime. We all did.”

All I could do was nod. There isn’t a lot of room for snappy patter when you start discussing mass murder. You nod a lot, you shake your head a lot, maybe you don’t feel as guilty as you think you should, so you feel guilty about that. Nothing you can say will make a rat’s ass worth of sense or difference. The best thing to do is just listen.

“But that is the past. I consider myself completely an American.” Stern looked at his fedora, then smiled. “I even dream in English now.”

“Me, too,” I told him. “You have a family, Mr. Stern?”

“A wife and two daughters, one almost twenty-two, the other is thirteen. We live on Fort Washington Avenue in Washington Heights. It’s a good neighborhood, well kept up. There are a great many other German refugees there, a beautiful park to walk in, good stores.” He nodded, convincing himself. “I would say we are quite happy there.”

Stern blinked a few more times and again studied his hat. He sighed loudly, as if to relieve a great pressure.

“Everything okay at home?”

He looked up quickly, as if startled.

“Oh yes, at home is fine. Fine.” He nodded as he repeated himself. “Fine. Sure.”

“Mr. Stern, not to be a busybody, but may I assume that something is less than fine or you would not be sitting in the office of a licensed private detective?”

Stern recoiled slightly, as if I had uttered the words “New Orleans whorehouse.” He pulled on his earlobe, worried his bottom lip, rubbed his neck. He said nothing.

The circumcised Sherlock Holmes swung into action.

“You said you were on tour, Mr. Stern. You an actor, something like that?” It didn’t seem possible; this guy was about as theatrical as a steamed carrot.

“A musician,” Stern said after a moment.

“I see.”

“With the NBC Symphony.”

“I’m impressed. Jesus Christ, to play under Toscanini, that must be something.”

“The experience of a lifetime, Mr. Levine.”

“LeVine, capital
V.

“LeVine, I apologize. The experience of a lifetime, I can assure you. I have been with the orchestra since 1940, since the South American tour. Before that I played in Buffalo for a couple of years. But those winters were terrible.”

“I’m sure. What instrument do you play?”

“Second violin,” he said a little ruefully. “A soldier in the ranks, one might say.”

“Listen, just to play with that crowd …”

“Again I say, the experience of a lifetime. You listen to the broadcasts?”

“Sometimes,” I told him truthfully, “if it doesn’t conflict with the ball games. I’m no expert, but I like my Beethoven as much as the next guy. And you were on tour a while ago. Yes, I remember reading about it, quite a rousing success. Got a tremendous play in the press.”

Stern stared at the floor through my blathering, preoccupied.

BOOK: Tender Is LeVine: A Jack LeVine Mystery
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