New York City, 1922.
All varieties of human vice on display—drugs, murder, prostitution. Gangsters running everywhere.
The stuff you think about today–the hotdog vendors, moms pushing strollers through the park, Wall Street guys in suits almost getting run over in crosswalks: none of that. Just piles of garbage with heroin needles in them.
It was the center of America in a time when America wasn’t doing too well. Recovering from a war, foolishly trying to legislate morality. It was a strange time.
“Woody Bleeker wiped the rain off his glasses,” said Woody Bleeker into the recorder. “His skinny body shivered against the cold. Alone again. A woman wearing a tight-fitting black dress walked in the other direction and he turned to follow her, hoping she’d lead him into the doorway of one of the speakeasies along the street. There would they dance, her long black hair sticking to her face. …Sorry, can I start over? I feel like I’m not coming off well here.” “Woody!” shouted Agent Clark Sorrento, cigar smoke spewing forth from his mouth. “This isn’t The Sun Also Rises. Just say what happened for the report.”
“Okay, sure. The stenographer, is she ready? She doesn’t look ready.”
“She’s ready, Woody. We’re all ready to start. New York Police Department Internal Report. John Sorrento, Chief of Police. Interviewing Woody Bleeker, Junior Clerk.”
“Okay. Let me see. …Woody Bleeker walked beneath the skyscrapers, through New York City, the center of America. Of the world. Four years he’d worked this beat, ever since 1923. Detective, NYPD.”
“Cut the crap! You’re not a detective in this Police Department.”
“I know, but I’m—”
“Woody, just describe what happened! Just the facts.”
“Right. Okay, fine,” said Woody. “Just the facts.”
Woody Bleeker walked through the rain that dripped through few the narrow cracks that the city left open to the sky. Four years he’d worked this beat. Detective, NYPD. It sounded so glamorous. But all he had to show for it in four years was a drinking problem and bad dreams.
He let himself into his apartment. He took a bottle of scotch from the bureau and poured himself a glass. He was just about to take the first sip when a sound came down the stairs.
He stopped, the bottle in his hands.
“I got you a new pair of socks!”
“Ma, I told you, I don’t need any more socks right now!”
“Yes you do, all your socks have holes in them!”
“And there’s still some rice pudding in the fridge, but don’t eat it in your room!”
“I can eat my rice pudding where I want, ma!”
“Don’t talk back to me. And you need to get an early night tonight—you can’t be a big secretary at the police department if you don’t get enough sleep.”
“Ma, I’m not a secretary, I’m a detective!”
“Woody, how long are you going to keep that up? Being a clerk in the detective bureau doesn’t make you a detective!”
Work was hell the next day, as always. Woody’s tiny office in the police department was filled to the ceiling with stacks of binders and manila folders. A never-ending stream of cases, of good people making bad mistakes. Until Maria walked in.
She came through the door, her head buried in a book. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Neruda.
She was beautiful. Eyes like sapphires, artfully sloppy makeup and a French haircut topped off a body to die for entombed in a floral-print dress.
A woman this beautiful had never been in Woody’s office before. He panicked.
“I’m sorry, you must be in the wrong place,” he called. “Sometimes people can’t read the sign—the lettering is starting to come off.”
She didn’t hear him speak. She pulled herself out of her book and noticed Woody.
“Detective?” she said.
“Defective? I would have just said ‘broken’…”
“No, are you Detective Bleeker? My name is Maria Moretti, I was wondering if……”
She was tough on the outside, but Woody thought he could see a spark of innocence hidden behind the exterior. She was just a kid.
“…No, not me,” Woody said. “I’m just Woody Bleeker.”
“But I read about you in the paper. All about how you took care of that mob killer, what was his name, Andiamo. I have the clipping right here. ”
It dawned on Woody that something significant had happened. Whether it was terrible or wonderful, he still didn’t know.
“Can I see that?” he said. “I… need to make sure that they got my middle name right, the spelling is very complicated.”
She handed him the clipping.
MOB KILLER NABBED
KILLER PEGGED BY NYPD
DETECTIVE WOODY BLEEKER
by Ron Hackman
Detectives arrived at an apartment on 21st and fourth last night to find a pool of blood seeping out from underneath the crack in the door. They entered to find human viscera hung over the dresser. A severed arm swung suspended from the chandelier as a warning to anyone foolish enough to investigate…
Enter Woody Bleeker, the new rising star of NYPD’s detective unit. Bleeker, beaming with pride, explained that the wanton destruction in the apartment was the work of one Amerigo Andiamo, the famous “Butcher of the Mob.”
Andiamo is the Italian mafia’s second most notorious killer, known for sending the family members of his victims smoothies made from their remains.
“Well, I got the dirty bastard,” said Bleeker. “I hope this teaches all the other scum like him that’s out there that the city’s jails are where they belong.”
The recent arrest leaves the mob’s number one killer, Amerigo Andiamo, on the loose. Andiamo, when reached for comment, told the New York Daily Tribune that he was going to “gut that pig Woody Bleeker the next chance he got.”
Below the article there was a little black and white picture of Andiamo. He was a massive, muscular man, impeccably dressed. He wore a suit and a bowler hat and his face was covered with scars, and he was smiling like he’d just given a kid a skinned knee and enjoyed it.
Woody gulped. This was a frame up. Someone wanted him dead.
He thought it out. If looks could kill, this girl would be a pound of dynamite. She was trouble. But by the looks of it, trouble had already found him, whether he liked it or not. This was turning into a real problem, and he had never been one for math.
“Detective Bleeker?” said Maria.
Woody looked up.
“You were mumbling. Listen, if this is a bad time…”
He shook his head.
“Good. So, I’ve been having some problems with my husband.”
“What kind of problems?” Woody said.
Maria blushed. “Never you mind that,” she said. “But he’s into some dirty business. I think he has connections with the mob. I want to spy on him.”
She looked around at the stacks of papers that filled the cramped office.
“It looks like you could use a break, anyway,” she said. “Why don’t you come out with me tonight and I can explain things better. Pretend it’ll be fun.” She cocked an eyebrow suggestively. Suggesting what, Woody could only guess.
Woody slept poorly that night. Ecstatic visions of Maria alternated with premonitions of the horrible tortures that Amerigo Andiamo would subject him to. He had only just drifted off when he was woken up by a tapping at his window.
Could it her? Had he not dreamed the whole thing?
A breath of cold air came in through the window, then he heard the voice. Like the first cold air in autumn.
Those blue eyes appeared out of the darkness.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Woody climbed out of his window to meet her on the street.
There she was. Just as he had remembered her.
They hailed a cab. They talked on the way.
“You ready to get started on the case tonight?” she said.
“Started?” said Woody. “I thought you said explain. I thought you were going to explain things.”
“Yeah, but that’s no fun. I thought we could get right into the action.” There was that eyebrow again.
“Yeah,” she said. “We’re going to go and spy on my husband. There’s a jazz club on 95th in Harlem that he’s at a lot. If we go there tonight maybe we can catch him out.”
“Why do you need to come with me?” said Woody.
“Don’t you worry about that.”
“There’s an alarming amount of stuff that you don’t want me to worry about.”
When they got to the club, the cab driver turned around in the front seat. “You sure you wanna go to this place?” he said. “It’s a pretty seedy joint.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Maria.
They got out of the cab. Woody had never been to Harlem before. He looked around the street before they went in. Negroes in suits with musical walks greeted each other outside the doorways blaring jazz. On this Friday evening, they seemed more joyful, more full of life than any human beings he’d ever seen.
The club was a place called the Spit Valve. Woody looked over his shoulder as he came in. Would he see Andiamo here?
They sat down at a table.
“So,” said Woody. “You wanna tell me what your husband’s done to make you wanna come to a place like this to spy on him? You know, marriage is generally seen as a positive thing. You know, love, and…”
“Well, I’ve never been in love, so.”
“You were never in love with Phil?”
“No. That wasn’t love.” She eyed him skeptically. “Sex can be so intense that sometimes you think it’s love. But people change.”
“How’d you change?”
“I used to be a normal girl, and now this.”
“Now what? You still look plenty normal to me.”
She rolled her eyes like this was the cheesiest line any guy had ever used on her. She wouldn’t meet his eyes and looked down cynically into her food.
“I’m serious, you’re not so bad. Everyone makes mistakes.”
“You just wanna sleep with me.”
“I don’t see how that changes anything,” Woody said. Lame joke.
“It does. Everyone acts a certain way because they think it’ll make me get in bed with them. They act like I’m an angel.”
“Maybe you are.”
The same eye roll.
“I’m serious,” Woody said. “You’re beautiful, you’re independent. So you’re going through a bad time now. Everybody does at some point in their lives.”
“Maybe. Speaking of bad points, how’d you end up doing paperwork for the police department?”
“Well, I missed a lot of opportunities because of my peanut allergy.”
Woody looked over at the next table, where a large man in an overcoat sat smoking a cigarette. He wore a bowler hat pulled down low over his eyes and the rest of his face was shrouded in smoke. The figure he cut looked familiar to Woody, but he couldn’t place how.
The big band got up on the bandstand and started to play. A crackling intelligence, a sophistication of a kind he’d never known before, seemed to extend through the black skin and the black night through the gleaming horns and back out into the air. It landed in the dancers on the floor—hot and sweaty, shaking and grooving, smelling of humanity.
Woody felt a calm descend over him. His eyes were drawn to Maria’s.
“Would you like to dance?” he said, with more confidence than he had ever said a sentence before in his life.
They got up and danced. Her head fell into his shoulder and her hair splayed over his chest. He felt all the fear of the newspaper article and Andiamo melt away. It seemed that it had never been real anyway.
The world of paperwork and phone calls receded further into obscurity. This was a new language. No forms or memos. Just her body against his.
When the song was over, she left him and glided across the room to a group of friends that stood in the corner, off the bandstand.
Suddenly Woody noticed something out of the corner of his eye. The man in the bowler hat stood up from the table quickly. When Woody looked over, he was darting out of the restaurant. Maria noticed too.
“Follow him!” she said.
“Andiamo!” Woody yelled.
“Right, let’s go!” said Maria.
Ignoring this incongruous remark, Woody saw his chance to prove himself to Maria. Borne on by the feeling that had taken him by the soul, Woody followed. The ragged rhythm drew him out the door.
They followed the shadowy figure through dark alleyways… through the steamy New York night. Woody heard jazz in every footstep that he took. His heart and Maria’s heels tapping on the sidewalk were the erratic drums underneath his movements.
At some point, they lost the shadowy character in the night. He could have slipped into a doorway or up a fire escape or into a basement. He was gone.
“Well,” said Maria (panting, flushed, somehow more beautiful than before). “I guess we lost him.”
“Yeah,” Woody agreed.
“Anyway,” she said, looking at him with that strange suggestive look again. “It’s a perfectly good night. We might as well make the most of it.”
They went to a party at an apartment on 75th and and Broadway. The elevator was perpetually out and there were no inside stairs, so the partygoers mounted the steps of the fire escape in the cold. Before they knocked at the door, they took a moment to see if any friendly face was coming up the stairs behind them, a name to shout into the night; or if any raucous souls were perched atop the roof.
The night cooled down and the few who were left sat or lay around the room, against the walls and arms of sofas, heads propped up on pillows, straining to join the lazy conversation. Joints were passed around.
Maria took a swig of wine and put another record on the machine. It was “In a Sentimental Mood.” Coltrane on tenor, Duke on the keys.
Maria took him by the hand and pulled him into a bedroom. She sat down on the bed.
“So, Mr. Detective,” she said. “Would you like to investigate me?”
“Ah, uh, for what, madame?” Woody said, his awkwardness returning.
“I’ve committed a terrible crime,” she said, smiling wolfishly.
“Uh… ah… well, then, we should get the constable!”
There was an awkward silence.
“What are you talking about?” said Maria.
“Never mind. I—”
But she was upon him, wrapping her body around his like a snake.
At the moment she kissed him, there was a boom and Woody felt himself covered with shards of glass. His gaze flew to the window and he saw the man in the bowler hat looming in the jagged window frame, smiling, a pistol in his hand.
In the hard reality of that moment, Woody saw that he had a choice. Protect Maria–or back down and live with her blood on his hands.
“Not this time, Andiamo!” shouted Woody.
He jumped up from the bed (wearing his boxers) and grabbed the gun from the attacker’s hands. The attacker pushed back with shocking force. They rolled around on the floor, knocking over furniture, dragging the sheets from the bed.
Woody finally got the upper hand and pushed the attacker to the window. He saw in the moonlight that the man he was holding against the open window was a sweaty, skinny, nervous-looking man wearing glasses. Not the terrifying Amerigo Andiamo, after all.
“Woody, STOP!” yelled Maria.
Woody stopped. He was covered in sweat.
“What the hell is going on here?” he said.
“I was hoping you could explain that!” said the attacker. “What the hell are you trying to do to my wife?”
“She’s your wife?” said Woody.
He turned to Maria. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” Maria said.
“But when we left the club–I thought we were following Amerigo Andiamo!”
“The notorious murderer?” Woody said.
“What? We were following my husband, you scoob.”
Maria became the sullen version of herself that Woody had seen before. “I wanted to make him jealous. I knew he was cheating on me so I thought by sleeping with you I could get my own back.”
“So you’re Phil Ocks,” Woody said, turning to the man he had thought was Andiamo. “Then why did you look so muscular when I saw you in the jazz club?”
“I was wearing a lot of layers,” Ocks said. “It was cold.”
“Hmm. Then Maria–when I yelled ‘Andiamo,’ why did you say ‘right, let’s go!’ and proceed with me to chase the man I understood to be Amerigo Andiamo, as though we we were both on the same page?”
“Oh, Woody. ‘Andiamo’ is Italian for ‘let’s go.’ “
Woody shook his head. “What a strange coincidence this is turning out to be. For events that would amount to no more than a fifteen page short story, this is all becoming very complicated.”
“What can you do?” said Maria.
“Alright, Maria. It’s time for you to come home.” said Phil.
“…No, Phil. I’m leaving you.” Maria said.
Ocks’s face assumed an expression like the softest puppy in the world had just been taken away from him.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sick of you taking advantage of me. I don’t love you any more, Phil.”
Woody couldn’t suppress a grin of victory.
“What are you smiling at, glasses?” Phil said.
“She doesn’t love you any more, old sport,” Woody said. “And she never has. Because she loves me!”
Phil let out a snort of derision. His face held a triumphant smirk until he saw the look on Maria’s face.
“Sweetie, it’s not true, is it?”
“He was ready to save my life, Phil. That’s more than you’d ever do for me.”
“Honey, it’s not true.”
Maria rolled her eyes in the same way she had so many times before at Woody.
“Phil, it’s over,” she said.
“So what happened next?” said Sorrento.
“What do you mean, what happened next?” Woody said. “You told me you wanted just the facts. That’s what I’ve given you.”
“But–it can’t just end there. What happened between you and Maria?”
Woody smiled wryly. “It didn’t work out,” he said.
Sorrento looked crestfallen.
“What?” said Woody. “What do you expect me to say? That Maria and I lived happily ever after? That I became a detective and cleaned up all the crime in New York? That’s just not how life works.”
“But didn’t you at least get something out of it? A sense of honor, perhaps?”
“That’s for you to decide. Don’t you know that life’s about the journey and not the destination? Clichés like that can end up being very true, surprisingly. But you seem to want something more, so I’ll leave you with this.
“Two detectives walk into a bar. One of them is clearly distraught. Tears running down his face, he orders a beer and the two sit down at a table.
“‘So tell me what’s wrong, Ira,’ says the friend.
“‘It’s this woman,’ says Ira. ‘I love her, but just I can’t tell her how I feel. Every time I try, I trip over my words. I’m a detective, for God’s sake! I’m supposed to be tough! But I just can’t show her the real me–the one that hurts sometimes.
“‘ You know what your problem is?’ says the friend.
“Ira looks across the table expectantly, a tear running down his face.
“‘You’re just too private, I.’”