Pincus, the Shamus
By Barry S. Willdorf
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The Yuwok Resort & Casino is draped like Goya's Naked Maja over a sensuous California hillside. There is a cobalt blue neon sign, "Yuwok Resort & Casino," in Coca Cola script splashed across the stucco. We stop at the front desk and there's a note from Birnbaum waiting. He's expecting us to dine with him tonight "under the dome" an immense half-globe reminiscent of a planetarium. It's fancy-shmancy dining with fine linen, crystal, bone china, and sterling. The food, I pray, should be so upscale but not rich. I can't each rich any more.
In the time it takes to freshen up, Birnbaum has arrived. He's fondling a cocktail glass filled with a translucent green concoction. "He's drinking swamp water," I whisper to Bess, who is examining the evening sky through the dome, as if she's never seen stars before. "You look like a hippie, Lip," I say, making the "h" sound like I'm preparing to spit on him.
"And you, meiskeit (geek), you look like the before picture in a diet drink ad." He shoots a salacious wink in Bess' direction. "Ah Bess, mayn sheyna (my pretty one.)"
"You're farshikkert (drunk) already?" she scowls and points to her wristwatch, but she's blushing.
Lip waves for a waiter. "What are you drinking?"
Bess wants a chardonnay. I take a gin and tonic. Lip sips some of his swamp water. He looks around as if what he's about to impart is top secret. He's set up this meeting in the middle of a busy restaurant for Christ's sake.
"My client is a guy named Tom Scott. They booked him for murdering the rabbi who ran this casino, but he's innocent. What I want Sammy, is for you to help me clear him."
Bess takes a notebook out of her purse and gives me a questioning look. When I was doing this for a living, I didn't take notes. I claimed I kept everything in my head but the truth, should you care to know, was that Bess kept me organized. A thousand times I told her "I like being disorganized. It gives me excuses." She never believed me. Why would I lie about a thing like that? I nod. She produces a pen and sits poised to make a record.
Lip narrows his peepers. "I might as well tell you up front, boychik, Scott is an anti-Semite. He's about as uncomfortable with Jews as the Grand Cyclops of the Klan would be at a Black Panther convention. And," Birnbaum continues, "he's also an Indian-hater."
Bess suppresses a smile.
Thomas, who will be our server tonight, takes our orders. I wait until he's out of earshot. "And the deceased was both a rabbi and an Indian chief?"
Lip taps his temple. "Ah, Sammy, I see you've lost none of that sechel (sharp thinking) that was the trademark of your youth. He, Scott that is, was with the Army Rangers in Nam." Birnbaum pauses to let me digest this fact.
"And let me guess, Reb Moishe was shot?"
"In the forehead from about a hundred yards." Lip waits until Bess has it all down and her pen is poised for more. "They found an M-21 rifle with ten power scope in Scott's cabin."
"A military sniper rifle," I explain to Bess.
Lip takes another sip. "They think the rabbi was shot from the fifth story of the casino garage."
"What other good news do you bring me in reference to your client's innocence?" I ask.
Lip signals Thomas for another of his green slimy drinks. "Well, let's see. They found a parking receipt in Scott's truck, stamped showing that someone left the garage close in time to the shooting."
"Someone? Did I hear correctly, or are my ears plugged with wax, Lip? You did mention 'in Scott's truck,' right? You getting all this, Bess, honey?"
She shows me the scribbling in her notebook. Bess is close to the last of the shorthand takers. Someday, there will be none left and a true art form will be lost. Then a clever young painter will resurrect the skill and do shorthand compositions in oils, probably stuffed with obscenities and pornographic innuendo, and make a name for herself doing what once was barely above minimum wage woman's work.
"Have you spilled all of the beans yet, landzman (countryman)?
"Did I forget to mention the DA thinks that revenge was the motive?"
"I believe you might have forgotten to mention that, but my memory is not what it once was. Bess, do you find the word 'revenge' mentioned in your notes?"
A long time ago, I learned if you want your memory refreshed, just keep a wife handy. They're programmed for it. And if you want to forget, they'll be sure to remind you anyway because they're only trying to help. Bess shakes her head. "Labe, you didn't mention 'revenge.' You want I should take notes on that subject?"
Lip smacks his forehead. "Oy, how could I have overlooked such a critical point?"
"I can see how you might, Lip," I say. "What with all the strong facts pointing to the innocence of your oppressed, anti-Semitic, Indian-hating, gun-toting Army Ranger who just happened to be in possession of both the murder weapon, which I might add is a military sniper rifle, and paperwork proving he was at the scene of the crime, who could blame you for letting the little matter of motive slip your mind?"
Lip does a palms-up shrug. "Well, Sammy, it is the contention of the People that Reb Moishe was trying to knock down the price of Scott's land so he could buy it on the cheap. When he succeeded, Scott got pissed. To tell the truth, the rabbi did nick Scott in the seven figures."
I look at Bess. "I was hoping it would be women."
"Or men," she giggles.
Lip rolls his eyes.
"So, nu (well,) can you be more specific with the revenge angle?" I ask.
"In case you haven't noticed, this casino we're eating at is a goldeneh medina (city of gold) for the tribe. On weekends, the place is so busy in fact that the traffic clogs up Rickets, across the river. So it was decided to build a new bridge here from the freeway. Now the endorsement of the Yuwok tribe is something the state needs before it decides where the bridge will be built. But until Reb Moishe unloaded his bombshell, there was a big fight over where the bridge should go. Some of the Indians, the orthodox Jewish Yuwoks, who were led by Rabbi Moishe Hunter favored the bridge going over land belonging to Clem Rickets, the great-grandson of one of the original white settlers. The goyishe (non-Jewish) Indians wanted the bridge to go over our Tom Scott's land."
"Maybe I should also mention, there's no love lost between the Rickets and the Scotts. Both their ancestors were original settlers in this valley and so got first picks on the land they stole from the Yuwoks. Naturally they fought over who'd get what. Uriah Rickets, who led the victorious settlers in their massacre of the Yuwoks got first pick and took a tract upstream that he thought was the Yuwoks' sacred burial ground. He named it The Happy Hunting Ground Ranch. Pius Scott, Tom's great-grandfather, had to settle for a downstream parcel and always maintained that Rickets chose the upstream land so he could piss in Scott's water. That was the start of their feud.
"On top of that, our Tom Scott is now married to Clem Rickets' ex-wife, Mae, who clipped Clem but good in a divorce about ten years ago."
"So quit being coy, Lip. What's this bombshell you're hinting at?"
Birnbaum gives me a "stop" sign. "Genug shmendrik, (enough, jerk) I'm getting there. The goyim, wanted the bridge to go over Scott's land because they thought Rickets' land was their sacred tribal burial ground and as you may know, Native Americans are always whooping and screaming 'sacrilege' over defiling a sacred burial ground."
Unlike the rest of us, I think. "And, don't tell me, let me guess. If you can't build anything on a sacred burial ground without the local Indians going on the warpath, it lowers the price of the land, right?"
Birnbaum winks. "Right you are, boychik. Anyway, since the deceased rabbi wanted the bridge to go over Rickets' supposedly holy land, the goyishe Indians were hoping to use it as an issue to help them take over the tribal government, which controls this little goldmine where we're now dining."
"The bombshell, Lip."
"The bombshell, Sammy, is that Reb Moishe proved that the actual sacred burial ground is on Scott's land. That's why I mentioned to you a moment ago, did I not, that the rabbi's news clipped Scott in the seven figures?"
"You getting all this, Bess?" I ask. "There'll be a test in the morning."
Thomas is back with our dinners and it's impolite to talk while chewing a mouthful of food, so now I'm more grateful than ever that Bess takes shorthand. We dine in silence for a while, well not silence, slurping and chewing, before I ask: "So Birnbaum, are you saying Scott, "the innocent", wasn't mad at the rabbi for costing him a bundle, that despite this revelation that destroyed the value of his land he didn't have a motive to kill the rabbi?"
Birnbaum shakes his head. "Sammy, everyone around here had a motive to kill the rabbi. The guy was a major putz (prick.) But I just think what happened to Tom Scott smacks of a too-convenient set up. "
Bess puts down her pen. "So, Labe, nu (well) how did it come to pass that there was such a big mix up whether it was Scott or Rickets who really owned the holy land?"
Lip smirks and clears his throat. "That's partly my fault, Bess. I was the one who represented Clem's wife, Mae who by the way is shayna shicksa (beautiful gentile woman) in that divorce. Since from day one the Rickets clan was claiming they owned the holy ground and since everyone knows that sacred Indian land is hard to unload, I got the state to declare Clem's land a historic site. That did his for his property values. In the settlement, I was able to wangle a great big slice of that parcel for Mae."
There's nothing but gristle left on my plate. "Now, Lip, you're going to tell me that you knew all along that you were getting the wrong land declared a historic site. Clem Rickets must be pissed."
Lip touches a finger to his forehead. "You're a klug, (smart guy) boychik." He winks at Bess in a lecherous sort of way. "You ready for dessert? They've got some very nice crème brûlée."
Birnbaum blinks a couple of times. "So you may well ask: how is it that Reb Moishe came by the truth pertaining to the actual location of the sacred burial ground?"
"And you, Birnbaum. How did you find out you got it wrong? And I may well ask."
"I'm glad you asked," Birnbaum snorts. He checks to see that Bess is ready to take notes. "Well, remember I mentioned that one of Clem Rickets' ancestors led the party of settlers that massacred the Yuwoks? A few Yuwoks survived the most important for our purposes was a young warrior named Sagacious Hunter, the deceased's grandfather. In 1928, when Sagacious Hunter was dying, his last request was to be buried with his ancestors in the sacred burial ground. And so he had his son, Moishe's father, pay a visit to the Scotts to ask if they would let them bury Sagacious on what was now Scott's land
"Hold your horses, buckaroo. Did you just say that this Indian what was his name, Sagacious that he wanted to be buried on Scott's land?"
Birnbaum clears his throat. "To continue, if I may, the Scotts ran off the old gent at the point of a shotgun. The rabbi of course, knew this story, and so knew that the sacred Yuwok burial ground was really on Scott's property not Rickets'."
"But Scott must have known the story too?" I interrupt, " and then, when his shicksa girlfriend was getting a divorce from his enemy Clem Rickets, who he was glad to screw because of an old feud, he told you, right? That it?"
There's a glint in Lip's eyes. "I'm having some of that aged Tawny Port. I suggest you give it a try."
I look at Bess. She smiles. "Two more, on you, Lip."
He signals Thomas using three fingers and forces him to lip read the order. "You had to know the rabbi, Sammy. For him there was always an angle. Sure, he wanted the bridge to go over Rickets' property but he also wanted to make a few shekels by taking advantage of the confusion where the sacred ground really was. Also he had it figured that he could knock off the goyishe Indian opposition, who were campaigning for the bridge to go over Scott's land, at the same time.
"So how is it that you're privy to the rabbi's thinking, Labe," Bess asks.
Lip looks at me and shakes his head. "She asks better questions than you, Sammy."
I can only nod in agreement.
"Reb Moishe came to me, wanting to buy Mae's share of the Rickets land. I told him I knew the score. He wanted to know if Clem Rickets knew the truth as well. I told him that he probably didn't know yet, so he still had a chance to buy out Rickets on the cheap while at the same time knocking off his goyishe Yuwok opposition, but it was going to cost him."
I shrug. "So you and the Scotts shook down the rabbi and became partners in this little real estate escapade. In which case, there'd be at least two other parties with a motive to kill the rabbi, Clem Rickets and the leader of the tribal opposition who is
Lip smiles. "Ray Davidson, our local RV dealer."
I stroke my chin. "But you didn't plan on a murder and your Mr. Tom Scott getting charged with it, did you?" Now I know what Birnbaum wants from me a credible alternative to his client as the perp. Someone at whom he may point an accusatory finger, thus creating "reasonable doubt" something every good defense attorney needs.
"And these goyishe Indians," Bess asks, "how the hell did they ever lose control over their tribe to the Yids in the first place?"
Thomas delivers the Port. Birnbaum gives Bess's glass a clink with his own. "Sei gesund (be healthy.)" He slides some Tawny around his tongue, swallows and smacks his lips. "After the massacre, Sagacious made his way to San Francisco where he got work in the household of a Jewish clothing-maker. He ended up converting and marrying the guy's daughter. Don't you know, this Sagacious and his bride were some shtuppers (fornicators) and this begetting took on Biblical proportions for three generations. So now, the Yuwok tribe's restocked with a whole slew of orthodox Jews and oy, they're coming out of the woodwork since they learned they've got a casino going on up here."
"I'm running out of paper, Sammy," Bess warns. "So as to the motive, Labe, we've got a conniving rabbi who has lots of enemies and a crooked land deal. But what about the gun? What about alibis? Where was your client when the rabbi was shot?"
Lip looks at me. "I should have married her when I had the chance."
"You never had the chance," I say.
Bess thinks it's a good time to make sure her hair is in place.
Lip ignores me. He's now talking to Bess. "To tell the truth, Bess, Mr. Scott's alibi is drek (shit). He was at his cabin, just down the hill from the casino, alone. No witnesses." He now decides to talk to me. "So to sum up for tonight, Sammy, Tom Scott, who doesn't like Jews at all, nevertheless feels that our people have a lot of experience in the survival game and he'd like to purchase a piece of our mojo. I'm selling mojo, what about you?"
The county jail looks like a rambling ranch, except that the bunkhouses are surrounded by twin twelve foot chain link fences topped with razor wire and there is a guard tower at each corner. The deputy in charge escorts me to a trailer. There's heavy cross-hatched wire over the windows and a cheap analog clock on the wall. The table is faux pine in the Formica medium. The chairs are extruded plastic capable of accommodating the oversized American tuchas.
Tom Scott comes packaged in a bright orange jumpsuit wearing the jewelry du jour polished stainless steel chain. He's tall and gaunt. His clean-shaven cheeks are hollow and his faded blue eyes are deep set. He has some red hair, also some gray. He looks through me with a crazed stare, as if he's figuring out whether he can use me as a hostage. "You Burntbum's investigator?"
"Sam Pincus, Pincus & Associates, Private Investigations." I offer him a hand to shake.
He looks at the shackles and snickers. "Another Jew."
"You want a goy? I can get you a goy, you'll feel more at home. Lance happened to mention though, you want a Yid someone who can shmooze (make small talk) with the Indians."
Scott nods. "Okay, Mr. Pink Ass, what you wanna know?"
"Birnbaum tells me you're as innocent as the driven snow, Mr. Scott. So, tell me, how do you explain first, the murder weapon they found in your cabin and next, the parking garage receipt they found in your truck?"
"Someone planted them there to frame me."
"Are you saying they planted your M-21 sniper rifle in your cabin?"
"M-21s are pretty common. I know five, six guys at the Legion Post got em."
"How do you know that?"
"We have matches."
"How'd you do?"
"Make it to top five every once in a while. One time, I finished third. I got a marksman rating in the Army, but we got some experts among our members and I ain't never had no sniper training. I learned using an adjustable ranging telescope, an ART. It's easy to estimate range with. Some of the better shooters use other scopes. We got some Seals, Special Forces, Marine Recon guys who can outshoot me, even with them using manual sights."
"You have an ART on your rifle?"
"Who knew you kept your rifle at your cabin?"
"Lotta guys at the Legion. Wouldn't a been no big deal to borrow my weapon to do the job, then put it back afterwards, or even to switch the murder weapon for mine all the M-21 match rifles are pretty much the same they wanna set me up."
"You got someone in mind?"
Scott shrugs. "I got a lot of enemies."
"Ah," I raise my eyebrows, "but you've got one less now than you did before, I understand."
"He had a lot of enemies too, Mr. Pink Ass. You find someone who has both me and the rabbi as enemies, you got a suspect."
"It's Pincus, P-I-N-C-U-(as in Ulysses S. Grant. Not 'A' as in Asshole.)," I explain. "You think you can say 'us'? Try it. Pincus. I know you can do it."
It turns out he's capable of proper pronunciation. Now that we've got a meeting of the minds on this subject, I think there's a chance we can work together. "So, tell me, Mr. Scott, who around here would hate both you and the rabbi enough to kill him and to frame you with the murder?"
He leans back in his plastic chair and that's good, because his breath smells like a fortzen zoffer (a nasty fart.) "Well, let's see. First, there's all them Yuwoks that're pissed the Jews took over their tribe. They been on the warpath against Hunter since he got control of that casino. There's this election comin' up for tribal counsel. Maybe some of 'em decided to knock off the rabbi. Give 'em a better shot at winnin' the election."
"I heard the D.A. claims you killed Rabbi Hunter 'cause he went public with the news that the sacred Yuwok burial ground's on your land. Word is that it cost you a lot of money."
Scott starts staring out the window. "Well, that bastard sure enough cost me a bundle. And we're not talking just about the sale to the state for that bridge. There was gonna be an interchange along with it. Maybe you don't know it but every goddamn oil company and fast food franchiser wants a shot at puttin' up stand at every damn interchange they build. So there was a lot of characters from back east nosin' around to buy my land. But after Hunter opened his trap that all dried up."
"But, Mr. Scott, you knew that you'd be selling bum land, land the Indians think of as holy. Did you ever consider that Hunter did you a big favor when he broke the news that the sacred burial ground really was on your land? I hear tell that the kind of people you were dealing with don't fuck around. They'd be mighty pissed at you if they learned you swindled them by selling land they couldn't build on."
Scott smirks. "Sounds like you just put your finger on a good reason for me not to shoot him."
"Anyone else you can think of hated both you and the rabbi?"
Scott tries to scratch his head, but he's shackled and the chains prevent it. "Fuck," he growls, then calms down. "Well Clem Rickets, he sure hates me, 'cause of Mae specially but there's always been that runnin' feud 'tween our families."
"One more thing, Mr. Scott, where were you when the rabbi was shot?"
"My cabin." "Now that's on the Yuwok side of the river, right?"
"Yup. Just down the hill from the casino."
"So what were you doing there at that time?"
"Waitin' for that rabbi to show up. He said he had a proposition for me about my land. But he never made it."
It's time for lunch with Labe the Lip.
Birnbaum is set up in an old Victorian in Rickets, across the street from the 1893 granite courthouse. There's a pretty young lady at the reception desk who's expecting me. She invites me to wait in Lip's conference room. The chairs are padded leather. You can check out how well you shaved this morning by looking down at the surface of the table. He's got a chandelier that looks like he stole it from a decommissioned synagogue.
Lip sneaks in through a side door. He opens a box of Cohibas and offers me one.
"Those are contraband."
"That's how you know something's good. What would be the point of smuggling drek?
We each light up. Lip sinks into an armchair. "So, what do you think of Scott?"
"He's an anti-Semitic scumbag."
Lip nods. "That's what I think, too. But do you think he did it?"
"I didn't think you cared about things like that, Lip. Isn't my job just to find someone else with a motive and no alibi?"
Lip kisses the soggy end of his Cohiba.
"Lip," I ask, "how did the cops zero in on your client anyway?"
"DA said the sheriff got an anonymous tip. Told him to look in Scott's cabin for an M-21. When they searched his truck, they found the receipt from the casino parking garage."
"So somebody cared enough to make sure Scott got arrested for the murder?" Birnbaum exhales a cloud of smoke. I can't see his face. "Tell me, Lip, how come your client Scott isn't playing straight with me?"
Lip looks confused. "How so, boychik?"
"I don't like being played for a Chaim Yankel (rube), Lip. Scott wouldn't come clean about the deal you guys had with the dead rabbi. Seems to me, if you went to the DA with that information, the People's motive would be in the toilet."
"Sammy, Sammy, Sammy. You know what would happen if Clem Rickets got wind of collusion between Scott, me and Reb Hunter?"
"Tell me, Lip."
"Rickets gets a lawyer and unwinds the deal. Think about it, Sammy. If Rickets goes to court in this county against a Jewish Indian chief, a Jew lawyer and his crooked ex-wife and her swindler husband, his chances of breaking the deal would be pretty fair, no? Then we all get bupkis (beans). Maybe Tom was just being careful."
"What I'm hearing, Lip, is that you, Scott and his nafka, (loose woman) Mae are still working on this plan to swindle Rickets."
"That's my client, you're calling a nafka, shmendrik (loser.) I should tell Bess."
"What do you take me for? Thinking you can sell me this farcockteh (for shit) story that Scott is innocent. Once the deal went down, you didn't need the rabbi any more, did you, Lip?"
"Gay kocken offen yom (go take a shit).
"I want to talk to this Clem Rickets."
Lip gently places the better part of his Cohiba in the ashtray. "What about Ray Davidson?"
"Shoyn genug (enough already), Lip. I know how to do my job."
* * * * *
For Continuation, go to Page Three
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine