Murder, when it comes in pairs, causes echoes. The push and pull, the cause and effect, the what and why, bounce off every surface. The sound jangles and makes intrusive inroads into daily and otherwise common sense. When one of the victims is a small account part-time drunk, bar room stentorian, an ex-jailbird, and the other is Doyle Hapgood, Harvardian, Commissioner of Police for the City of Boston, there is resonance, there is reverberation, and the black ink of headlines runs red.
Hitch Higgins had one hero in life, and only found him when he himself was down, out and dirty. That his own star would never take on a great shine was pretty much agreed to by Hitch, having no false illusions, but when he met Floyd Bentz his already upside down life seemed to find a bit of reason, some sanity, and a smattering of hope.
Hitch was floating in this world, at loose on the winds, the waves, the streets of Boston, but after his own fashion. Or so he figured. I’m neither vagrant, nor vibrant, he’d said to himself on more than one occasion. There was nothing wrong in washing dishes and pots and pans, Hitch figured, if you did it right, did it honestly, and knew all along that there was not much else you could do.
Oh, it wasn’t all he could do…he’d banged a hammer or two in his time, changed tires, pumped gas, maneuvered or wandered at the edges of at least a dozen other occupations, but found with dish washing he could get at least two squares a day. And that helped out on his small income. That’d get him an extra beer or two every now and then, or a nice bottle of wine if he felt like celebrating a plain Tuesday or a plain Friday, helped with his token rent, by the grace of an elderly aunt from Gloucester who owned his building.
And the pittance let him play the Lottery. The Big Score, maybe next week, was coming. He bet on that coming.
As they might have said in Charlestown, any of a dozen or so people who had been in contact with him for a few years, “Hitch likes his tay, the tickets, the dole he comes honest by with the dishes, and a tale or two.”
His only prize possessions were one or two books he had not yet read. And those would have to be adventures, such as the great romantic sheaves that Alistair Maclean wrote, like South by Java Head and HMS Ulysses and The Guns of Navarone, the real stuff of this world.
When not working, when not drunk, Hitch Higgins was reading, reading about the worlds of possibility that existed out there, beyond Boston, “that other place,” reading about what might have been.
Jobs, as it were, were always around for Hitch, from the fringes of Boston and inward to the core, from the city line at Everett out past old Sullivan Square in to the Symphony Hall area; the world never runs out of dirty dishes, pots and pans, grills, racks, shelves, sink tops, you name the piece of chrome and he’d been there.
And then one day, late, after work, the March sun rolled down behind the western suburbs of Boston someplace, the pain down the inside of one leg from standing too long at one of Cosmos’ sinks, Hitch Higgins met Floyd Bentz in O’Malley’s Bar and Grille on Warren Avenue, just out of City Square. Floyd Bentz was tall, about six foot-one, and dressed no better than the average drinker in the bar, comfortable and well out of style. Hitch, forever at the envy and comparison which tears at the edge of life, tried to guess Floyd’s age because of the gray in his hair, the crease lines squeezing their parentheses at his mouth, the small bag of an Adam’s apple popping on his thin throat when he spoke. Hitch noticed the texture of skin on the backs of his hands, dark in spots, like melanoma had found a place to sit down for a while, resting, before it began to get edgy and run around for good.
When the number forty-six came to mind, not forty-five and not fifty, it was not because he was so observant but because he stubbornly did not want to round off a number. And he was right on the button.Floyd, twirling a beer in one hand, the head still on it white as a beard, had just said, from the invisible podium created for some men, the tall ones, with good voices that carry, “For my money, Harry Truman was an asshole of a president because he canned the good general who just wanted to roust the Chinks right out of Korea. Look what they’ve done now!”
And he had gestured to the whole universe, as if the eight billion of them were crawling on every available space on the face of the earth, right down here to O’Malley’s, of all places. It was the tone of that gesture, imperial, omniscient, which grasped at Hitch Higgins. Nothing else. The tone, and his own need; they came together like shirt and tie, fork and knife, sunset and horizon.
Floyd’s shirt was clean, if well-used, his pants the same, and the sweater he grabbed off the bed on the way out that morning was clean but had no buttons.
Something there is that’s hidden. Hitch almost heard himself say that.
He liked the way Floyd Bentz spoke, how he made gestures to include all of the unknown and the whole universe, how his voice projected across the woodwork of the bar and bounced around the room, how people no matter what they were doing seemed to be listening to him, even the guy in the corner with his hand and most of his arm most of the way up Sally Bistro’s skirt.
“Old Mac was a hero,” Floyd continued, a new glass in his hand, the fire in his eyes well ignited. “Saved our asses he did on more than one occasion, then the frigging corporal flushes him down the John like he’d been a bit turd.” He raised his glass, cast his dark, demanding eyes around the room, and said, “A toast to the general, gentlemen. And up yours, Harry!”
A half-roar and a kind of self-effacing glee swished through the room. On the way by, it touched Hitch Higgins the way the Cardinal might have laid a hand on him; All your lot in life is forgiven, son, all that you’ve fucked up.
At first Hitch thought Floyd was blasphemous, but the presence of the tall man, his deep voice, the way he had of looking over the heads of people as if needling them to rise from their seats, caught his attention, and those dark eyes were staring right through this here Hitch Higgins. Right down to the socks on my feet.
Hitch made up his mind to listen to what this man had to say.
It didn’t make any difference then, and never would, if ever he found out, that Floyd Bentz was an ex-school teacher who was bounced from his job because he indulged with a willing but underage student, had served a few minor sentences due to theft or misappropriations, and liked his liquids better than his solids. Loose on the world was Floyd Bentz, like a new cult leader without a cult following, without a stable of fans, without even having his first fan. But his eyes had found a yield in the man across the room.
Those eyes saw the sharecropper face, the servant look, the lost promise hanging on the frame of the man who wore worn clothing, had a day’s beard in place, at least, and liked his beer. Hitch’s third beer, in a matter of minutes, had disappeared.
“The Governor sucks, if you ask me, if you want to talk politics and economics.” Floyd was still looking directly at Hitch. “He spends more time in California and playing goddamn sailboat down at Martha’s Vineyard than he does right here in the Big City,” at which point he paused, his caesura a point of stressed punctuation, after which he added, “where he frigging belongs. He’s a silver-spoon hero, a Brahmin bastard if there ever was one, and he sure doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me or you.”
His glass was aimed at Hitch, drawing him in, measuring him.
Hitch accepted the close association with Floyd. The Governor sure never had done anything for him.
And then, in one idea dropped from the rostrum, one utterance in O’Malley’s, one thought which grabbed Hitch Higgins right by the catch handle on his soul, Floyd Bentz said, “And the goddamn lottery he runs is as crooked as a lawyer’s finger in the till.” He was imperial, he was omniscient in Hitch’s mind as he finished, “Take it from me, on fucking oath, it’s as crooked as it can get!”
His pause was electric, his eyes were fire. He was truth personified. More minister than many, sermon of sermons!
The unclaimed lottery ticket, worth a buck, burned a hole in Hitch’s pocket. It could have been a grand, two grand, a frigging million! Past the dark side of his mind he saw himself standing outside Cosmo’s on payday with ten dollars’ worth of tickets in his hand, a cheap bottle of wine stuck in his coat pocket, a cold March rain coming down as if Engine No.7 guys were aiming at him. The yield from the ten tickets was zilch. Mostly it was zilch. Mostly it was nothing but a buck to draw him back, a nibble for another fish at the hook. Always then, in those circumstances, pay day, loose change in his pocket, a day off coming at him, came the terror of tomorrow. That, too, as always, would be nothing, would be Eff fuckin’ zilch.
Floyd, with a beer floated down the bar to him from another listener, cast his dark eye across the room when a voice said, “What about the winners we hear about? What about ‘Cars’ Finnerty? What about them winners? And the Dago cop from Eastie?”
“Nepotism at its best. Patronage, my friend. Simple, fucking connections! They’re all related. ‘Cars’ Finnerty, as every man here knows, has his uncle ‘Shaky’ up there at the State House, ‘Shaky’ dry now for the one hundredth and thirty-eighth time in his illustrious drinking career, the Double A and Triple A terror of the drinking and driving world. You know he has his own drying out room up there right under the gold top.”
He paused. Accepted the small laughter. Let silence ring in the room waiting for a new pronouncement. It came as expected. “Henry Ford would have hung up his tools and quit early in the game if he ever saw ‘Shaky’ coming down the Expressway. Or Barney Olds would have or Old Man Tucker, him the one they all screwed from asshole to tea kettle. Take it from me, ‘Cars’ wins because of the connection, simple as pie, then some of his pie is cut up and sent back to you effin’ know where. The lottery, and its servants, prolongs their lives, and livelihoods.” And he added, as if it was a fact known to every person in the bar at that particular end of Charlestown, “And of course, Turnelli, cop or no cop, is connected to the Mafia, which is another side of the coin.”
Hitch Higgins, then and there, in O’Malley’s, took the first step that all disciples take. Having found a hero, a bit of sanity, a cause to fit all causes, he was off and running into the next existence. The gravy was on the meat.
And only three weeks down the road, off to the side at a big curve on Storrow Drive, in the shade of the Hatch Shell, the Pops and the music and Eric Leinsdorf still three months away, not a single sail yet catching wind on the Charles River, it ended up in murder, a classic murder.
Doyle Hapgood face to face with Floyd Bentz, or Floyd Bentz face to face with Doyle Hapgood.
It’s whatever your perspective leans you into.
Image – Pixaby.com