Pincus, the Shamus
By Barry S. Willdorf
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The sign on top of the electronically controlled entry gate reads "The Happy Hunting Grounds Ranch." I speak to a voice on an intercom and the door swings open as if by satanic forces. The driveway is hemmed in by whitewashed fencing, dampening my urge to steal his livestock. The home, and a hovel it isn't, sits on a bluff with the river more than a hundred feet below. It's a nice site for a bridge and is worth a bundle now that it no longer has that holy land problem.
"I don't know why I should be talking to you." Rickets growls, scrutinizing me like he's Joseph Mengele and I'm a candidate for experimentation. We're standing on his ante-bellum style veranda, in the shade of a white Doric colonnade. He's wearing an oyster-white, wide-brimmed hat with a dark leather band. There's a fringe of thin gray hair poking out from underneath. His light cotton pants are held up by suspenders. He's not going to invite me inside.
"I can understand your position," I say. "Why would you want to possibly help out Tom Scott or, of all people, Lance Birnbaum?" I cock my head.
"I don't know what you're driving at, Mr. Pincus."
"You must have a little resentment against Tom Scott. After all, your ex is now his wife."
Clement pats his loose belly. "The guy that gets stuck with Mae deserves sympathy. She's vengeance enough as it is. If she hasn't already, she'll do unto him what she done unto me."
"I understand that she took you to the cleaners in the divorce."
"That's common knowledge. Your amigo Birnbaum got my property declared a historic site and engineered a theft by appraisal. Left me with a lot of land I couldn't move. That's old news."
"Ah, but now that we all know that the real holy land is on Scott's property and he lost millions because of this revelation, surely you can't be all that mad. You're going to make his profit."
Rickets gives me a stare. "I sold the land to Hunter for a song before I knew anything about that. It's in escrow but you can bet your boots it'll end up in court. The deal stinks."
I try to look surprised. "How come?"
"He comes to me, that fat prick, and tells me that he'd like to preserve my land. He knows I want to sell and that the price is low due to it being a historic site. But the Yuwoks, he says, want to make sure it will always be a sacred burial ground. Blah, blah, blah. They're the most natural buyer, and I can keep some of the land where my house is. They don't mind. The fucking ink's not dry on the sales agreement before he comes out with some cock and bull that my land's not a sacred burial ground after all and my house will end up in the shadow of a goddamn bridge. First that Jew, Birnbaum screws me out of my land by getting it declared a historic site. Then another kike gets it undeclared and screws me again. You tell me that these Jews didn't know the score. Who's going to believe that?"
Now I can see that Birnbaum has a point in telling Scott to keep a lid on it. "Well maybe the Yuwoks feel there's some poetic justice in the way they got their land back," I suggest.
He balls his hands into fists and closes the distance between us.
I'm an old man older than him. I step back. "I gotta try to think like the other guy. It's my job," I explain.
"Get," he says.
American Legion Post 704 is on my way back to the casino. I decide it might be enlightening to shoot the breeze with some of the old vets. They're hunkered down in a ramshackle structure warped clapboard held together by lead-based paint and caulking compound. Out front, a handful of pick-ups broil in an un-shaded parking lot that's strewn with potholes the size of artillery shell craters. Inside it is dark. In a far corner, there's a card game going on under a green shaded bulb hanging close to the table. As if belonging to night-stalking jungle cats, ten eyes reflect light in my direction. Just an arm's-reach away, a pear-shaped geezer grunts out a fart, climbs off his barstool and extends a hand.
"Name's Max." he volunteers.
"Sam," I reply.
He invites me to join him at the bar. I select a location upwind from his gas attack. He wants to know my branch. "Army." He wants to know when. "'63 to '65." "You come to play at the casino?" he asks.
I nod. "Heard the Jew Indian chief who runs the place bought it recently."
"You're not exactly in mourning I take it."
"When they was buildin' it, they promised lots of good jobs. Sure. First, they hired Indians. Then they hired Mexicans 'cause nobody can tell the difference, you dress 'em up right. But them Jews might just as well hung a sign in the window 'Cowboys need not apply.'"
And now I see what the typical juror in that lawsuit Clem Rickets has planned against Reb Moishe and Lip Birnbaum might look like. "News claims some sniper did him."
Max snorts. "Weren't that tough a shot. Hundred yards tops. With a scope you'd have to be Ray Charles to miss."
"You know the guy they busted for it?"
"Sure. Tom Scott. Regular guy. Not one of our best shots though."
I lean in close. "I heard that the shooting had something to do with a new bridge across the river and a lot of dough's riding on where it goes."
Max's breath is like week-old crab shells. "Ain't got no clue. Most of these guys," he waved a hand around the room, "'cludin yours truly, ain't so high in the saddle they got a piece of the action. Want another brewski?"
I shake my can of suds. "Not just yet. I heard that there's an election fight for control of the casino."
Max waddles over to the fridge and withdraws another Bud. "Right, but that's 'bout all I know on that score. I don't follow Injun pol-tics much. You want intel on that you best talk to Ray Davidson."
"This Davidson, he in the Legion?"
"Yep. And Kiwanis, Elks, Masons, VFW, Rotary, you name it. He's one of them pol-ticians. He'd enlist in the Girl Scouts if they'd let him in. Runs the RV dealership other side of town."
"What branch of the service, was he in?"
Max rubs his belly. "Memory's a bit rusty, Marines, I think. Recon sounds right."
"And Clem Rickets?"
"Trained as a sniper?"
"Ain't they all?"
When I get back to the casino, Bess is stretched out on the bed watching a daytime talk show. She rolls on her side, peers at me over her red-framed bifocals, points to a pile of loose bills on the bedspread and smiles.
"How much you got there?"
"Two hundred and seventy one dollars."
"They know you count cards?"
She bites her lip and runs a set of slender fingers along her hip, which retains a goodly amount of its youthful shape. "They never seem to suspect it from an old lady."
I kick off my gumshoes and cozy up on the bed beside her. "They got bad taste."
"I actually won more," she brags, "but I spent a hundred and fifteen on a Swedish massage and then some more on sweat lodge thingy. I'm very relaxed. You ought to try it. How was your day?"
"I already had two beers." I pat my bloated mid-section and close my eyes.
Bess frowns. "You're too old for this line of work, Sam."
"This is news? So, do you recommend the massage?"
"You'll be a new man in no time. I'll make you a reservation. By the way, Labe called. He's going to take us to dinner in town. Wants us to meet this Mae Scott.
"So Bess, you know this Mae Scott, she's supposed to be some goldeneh shiksa (beautiful blonde gentile girl)."
"And what am I, kishka (a kind of sausage)?"
"My favorite food."
Bess and I show up early at the Golden Heifer, which I think is an odd name for a place to eat. I'm a little nervous that God's going to give me gas tonight. Lip arrives in a sports car. He opens the door for a blonde who's six inches taller than him, but to be fair you have to give her three for the heels and maybe another two for the hair. She's wearing something shear that shows off all that's goldeneh. He's about to take her arm but thinks better of it. They enter the restaurant amiable and close. There are introductions. Bess puts a damper on my ogling. I wait until Mae is into her second Manhattan.
"So Mae, I seem to be bumping into your beaus everywhere."
She scrutinizes my face. I try to look benign.
"Saw Tom this morning. He's looking a little raggedy. If you don't mind my suggestion, maybe next time you visit you might want to bring him some toiletries."
"I would too, you know," she says through a slurp of cocktail, 'but he's not much for that stuff."
"I think he'd appreciate it now, where he is and all," I wink. "Then I went out to the old Happy Hunting Grounds Ranch. Clem had nothing but the very best complements when I mentioned your name."
"That's Clem, the vengeful bastard. Nothing's ever forgotten or forgiven."
I look over at Lip. "He had some sweet things to say about you, too."
Lip is all smiles.
"So, Clem and I were schmoozing (talking) about real estate. He said that he sold his land to Moishe Hunter before he learned that the hold ground was on Scott's property. He was threatening a lawsuit for fraud."
Birnbaum's eyes are slits. Mae is about to say something but Lip puts a hand gently on her arm to suggest she shut up. "Sammy baby, just for tonight, let's talk about something besides real estate."
After dinner, we go to a floor show at the casino featuring entertainers so wrinkled they look like they've been preserved in formaldehyde. During an intermission, Lip and I take a little walk. I put my arm over his shoulder, "So Lip, what's the game? You got the shiksa in your pocket. You got her old man in jail on a homicide charge. After Reb Moishe swindles Clem Rickets out of a fair price for his land he ends up dead. You're looking more and more like the last man standing."
Lip lights up another of those Cohibas. He's unruffled. "So, Sammy, there's still something you don't understand? You must be slipping, boychik."
"Lip, it doesn't take a klug (smart guy) to figure out that something cut three ways makes for bigger slices than four ways. And, if one of the three ways is conveniently in jail and the other two are making nicey-nicey, isn't that a motive?"
Lip removes my arm from his shoulder. "I hired you, Sammy."
"What you hired was an alta kocher (old shit) who you were counting on being over the hill. You figured I'd shoot some blanks and you'd get to say you tried your best, and then make your getaway with the nafka and the gelt (money). Is that the score?"
Lip shakes his head. He's feigning sadness at my unfair accusation but overplaying the part like a ham Shakespearean actor. "Okay, shmendrik, the reason you don't get that part about who stands to gain by killing the rabbi is because I don't gain and neither do my clients. We didn't kill the rabbi, but his murder threw a wrench in our plans. First, the real killer framed Tom. And now I've got to jump through hoops to create a corporation so we can step into Hunter's shoes without Rickets discovering our part. The Scotts and I have to stay below the radar or Clem will undo the sale and everything will be for naught. So we need to spring Tom Scott without revealing that he was in cahoots with the dearly departed. You get it now?"
The lights are blinking on and off. It's time for the second act.
"Whatever, Lip. Would it be a big problem for you to make arrangements with the DA? I'd like to take a peek at the evidence."
The next morning, I take my time. I've got plenty. Bess and I have breakfast at the casino. She wants to know the score. I tell her that our dear friend Lip was part of a conspiracy with the rabbi to swindle Clem Rickets out of his land and then sell at big profit once everyone learned that the holy land was not on Rickets' property. I tell her that the deal went sour when someone killed the rabbi and set up Scott to take the fall.
"Do you think that this someone knew that the rabbi and the Scotts were working together and was trying to screw up the deal?" she asks as we walk to the poker table. I don't know.
Five old goats are already seated at the table with piles of chips in front of them. They check out my Bess and try to repress smiles. She's dressed in a modest black shmattah (rag) that an Amish (bubbe) grandmother would be comfortable wearing. Her hair, as fluffy and-gray as a cumulus cloud, is pinned in a bun. Her glasses are low on her nose so she can squint noticeably. When she trades all of her two hundred and seventy one dollars for chips, the goats begin drooling. I almost pity the shnooks (patsies) hunched over their chips like misers. I grab a nibble of half-pickle from a little spread they've laid out behind the gaming tables and shlep across the river to browse among Ray Davidson's RVs.
You want to sleep inside something that's got an internal combustion engine; this Ray Davidson's got from bus-sized to the cab-over camper variety. One of them though is not inventory but an office. He's standing in the open doorway, hair perfectly coifed. There's a stars and stripes pin in the lapel of his blazer. He's running for some office, that's for sure. He knows who I am. "Mr. Pincus come on in and have a set."
Inside, it's paneled in four by eight sheets of fake maple. I barely get my tuchas onto his padded office chair before Ray lets me know he's done his homework. "I want you to know Tom Scott's a friend of mine." He points through the slats of his Venetian blinds to an American flag large enough it would've taken a whole company of Marines to raise at Iwo Jima. "Served his country with honor. I can't see him killing that bastard, even though the son of a bitch sure deserved it."
"That's good to know," I say. "I mean that Scott didn't do it, not that anyone deserves to be murdered."
"So what can I do for you?"
"Since you know I'm working for Scott, maybe you can just help me clear up a couple things." Davidson strokes his chin. "Cops say that Scott's motive for killing Rabbi Hunter was that Hunter went public with the fact that the sacred Yuwok burial ground was on Scott's land and that lowered the value of the land."
"I don't see Tom Scott killing for money," Davidson says, shaking his head. "Honor, yes money, no."
"So what does Hunter's death do to the tribal elections?"
Davidson shrugs. "They go on. Just like any other election. Like with Bobby Kennedy. The Hunter faction will just have to nominate another candidate."
"Doesn't hurt your chances though, does it to have a late entry?"
A bit of flush darkens Davidson's already burnished complexion. "It wasn't a political assassination, Mr. Pincus. If that's what you're driving at."
"You hear anything about the Rabbi Hunter buying out Clem Rickets before it became public information that he didn't own the sacred burial ground after all?"
Davidson's eyes widened. Either he's a very good actor and I don't put it past a politician like him or he really didn't know. I scratch my chin. "Smart move, that bringing the tribe a tidy profit. Couldn't hurt Rabbi Hunter's chances in the election, could it?"
Davidson furrows his brow at my return to a political motive for the murder. "Unless the deal he was making was for his personal benefit." He gets up, walks around his desk and offers a hand. "Well, Mr. Pincus, it's been a pleasure. Sure hope you can help my friend Tom Scott with his case, and sorry I couldn't be more assistance to you."
Birnbaum has set up a look-see at the evidence for early afternoon. All I have to do is just show up at the Sheriff's Department, show them my card and they'll take me to it an M-21 rifle and a parking garage receipt.
The receipt shows that the vehicle was in the garage for 36 minutes 8:38 a.m. through 9:14 a.m. on the morning Hunter was killed. I copy down the information.
The M-21 is pretty stock military issue, really a fancy version of the M-14 lugged around by every draftee for a decade before Vietnam. The big difference from those is that seated on top of this one is a Bausch & Lomb ten power telescopic site.
Tom Scott smells as bad as he did yesterday. He extracts a roll-your-own from his pocket and asks for a light. (I gave up the habit nearly forty years ago, but still, in my line of work, I learned it's good to have a match.) Tom's grateful. I decide not to mention the fun time his wife had last night with my old buddy, Lip Birnbaum.
"Tom, you ever use a ten-power Bausch & Lomb scope on your rifle?"
"They're nice scopes but mine had a Leatherwood ART. Snipers like the B&L. Guys like me trained on the ART 'cause its easier to use and I stick with what I know."
We shoot the breeze a little more. I get up to leave. "Why don't you ask your wife to bring you some toiletries, next time she comes? Don't take offence but you smell like drek."
Scott, smirking, requires no translation.
When I park back at the casino, I notice that the ticket machines are under security camera surveillance. My first stop is the security office. There's a red-faced elder sitting behind a counter dribbling coffee on his uniform. He's holding the Rickets' News at arm's length. I hold my card at the same distance for him to read. "I'm investigating the rabbi's murder. Name's Pincus. You happen to know whether anybody ever reviewed the security tapes from the garage for the day Moishe Hunter was shot?"
He raises his eyes. There's plenty of red in them. He shrugs and waits on my next question.
"You keep the tapes here?"
He gives me the feeblest of nods.
"How long you keep them for?"
I've gotten here in the nick of time. "Then what happens to them?"
"You have equipment to play them here?"
He nods again.
I open my wallet and lay a hundred dollar bill on the counter. "All I want to see is a couple of minutes of tape, 8:38 to 9:14 from the morning the chief was shot."
"Don't know if I should."
I look at the C-note. He looks at the C-note.
"Well then don't move; I'll be back with a subpoena." I reach for the bill.
He puts his hand on top of the money. "Just a second."
I let him fold the dough into his wallet. He's gone about five minutes. When he returns, he points to a television monitor. "Tape's got a time stamp in the lower right corner. I'll fast forward. You let me know when we're close."
At 8:38 on the tape, an RV camper pulls into the garage. The driver takes a ticket from the machine. His face is shielded from the camera by a white, wide-brimmed hat with a dark leather band. At 9:14 the same RV pulls up to the exit. The driver puts the ticket into the machine, followed by a dollar bill and takes a receipt. The gate rises and he drives away. The face of the man behind the wheel is still obscured by the hat. I can make the front license plate though. I ask the old man to run the tape back and forth a couple of times until I'm sure I have copied it correctly.
On my way back to our room, I stop in at the poker table. Bess has a mound of chips in front of her. The fellows around the table look none too happy. "Okay, Bess honey," I say, "time to cash in your chips."
A couple of the guys curl their lips. They don't want her to leave with their money but then they don't know how to work it, because she's a woman and she's supposed to obey me according to the way their world works. All they can do is grumble.
"How much today?" I ask as we make for the elevator.
She looks up at me, smiling with those bubbilah (little cutie) eyes of hers. "Last time I counted it was seven hundred and forty."
I whistle. "That's over a grand in two days."
She pats her purse. "How'd you do?"
"Oh, I earned my keep today." I put a hand over my hip and give her a wince. "But I'm getting too old for this kind of shtik (routine.)"
"You need a massage, Sammy. When you going to be done here?"
"Tomorrow, honey. Tomorrow we go home and we eat leftovers again."
She purses her lips. "And I was having such a good time."
Back at our room, I make an appointment for a massage and sauna. Then I call Birnbaum.
"Make yourself useful, Lip and get your DA pal to run this license number for me, pronto."
Birnbaum calls back an hour later. "Plate belongs to Davidson RV Leasing, Inc. Tell me we got the mamzer (bastard), Sammy."
"Hold your horses, Lip. There's one more thing to do before you go out and organize a lynch mob." I hang up on him before he has a chance to ask me what that is. I ask Bess to see if she can put off my massage for an hour or so and head out clutching my back, which is now aching but good. I'm resolved. This is going to cost Birnbaum.
Davidson has just turned the key in the lock of his RV-cum-office and is strolling off toward a late model sedan. "Hold on a minute, would you, Ray." I'm waving a sheet of note paper that the casino provides with the room. "I've got just a little teeny tiny question."
Davidson turns, squints into the setting sun which is the direction from which I am coming and shakes his head. I'm not sure whether he's feeling sorry for me, trying as I am to move my feet fast enough to simulate running or just being critical. I don't really care. I have to devote my energy to catching up on the oxygen deprivation the exertion is causing. I show him the note. I'm gasping. "Ray, you got an RV with this plate?"
He looks at it and shrugs. "So? What if I do?"
"Well, Ray, (cough) if it was rented on (gag
spit) the morning the rabbi was shot you've got an alibi. If it wasn't, (wheeze) you've got trouble."
Davidson shows me some teeth. He's got the kind of wide, Native American face that makes it difficult for us white men to tell whether it's a grin or a grimace. He shakes his head again, reaches in his pocket and pulls out a ring of keys.
Back at the office, he unlocks a filing cabinet and rifles through files until he gets the one he wants. He flips through its pages then turns the file so I can read it. "I don't know what this is all about," he assures me.
I'm looking at a rental agreement signed by Clem Rickets.
Bess is a wonder. She's managed to delay my massage. I even have time for a sauna first. Then a pretty young woman works on my back for an hour. I feel much better when I call Birnbaum.
"There's a funny thing about this case, Lip," I say. "The big money is in keeping your mouth shut."
"What do you mean, Sammy?"
"Well, Lip, old friend, Reb Moishe was murdered not long after word got out that the holy ground was on Scott's land. And that was also not long after Moishe bought land from Rickets. You and the Scotts kept your mouths shut about the location of the holy land so the rabbi could buy out Rickets on the cheap and in return got a piece of the action." I pause for effect. "Escrow hasn't closed, so even now the deal could go south and you'd be out a tidy profit if he found out about the collusion."
"So, shamus, are you saying you want a cut?"
"You said it, not me, Lip, but it's a very nice gesture. I'd like a prime cut, if you don't mind. No bone or gristle. And if you please, wrap it in a little paper with your signature on it."
"And if I say 'no'?"
"You'd be violating the Golden Rule."
"Silence is golden, Lip. Mr Sniper is very good at getting lead from point 'A' to point 'B', but otherwise he's a low wattage bulb. He hasn't quite put it all together but when he does, a certain goldeneh shiksa and a certain Yid will be point 'B'. That is, unless I corral him for you before his slow-moving gears begin to mesh."
"I want you to know shmendrik (jerk,)" Lip says, "I'm doing this for Bess, not you."
"Here's what you need to do for her then."
The next morning, Lip delivers the fee agreement indicating that my fee will be a contingent share of the profits he and the Scotts get from their action in the Rickets property deals. Then he calls the DA. We all watch video tape over coffee and croissants. I present the DA with a copy of the RV rental agreement. The sheriff presents Clem with a warrant. He is wearing the same hat that he was under during my visit the same one that's on the tape. In his barn, they find an M-21 rifle with an ART.
Later, when we stop by Birnbaum's office to say goodbye, Bess asks, straight-faced, "So Labe, now that your client is going to get out of jail, what does that mean for you and the goldeneh shiksa?"
Lip gives Bess a wink. "It'll take a month or so to close our deals for the gas stations and the fast food joints. Between you and me, Bess, that's how long I give the Scott marriage." He shrugs and turns his palms up. "But nu¸ am I a judge of character? I should have asked for your hand a million years ago. Maybe they'll stay together and enjoy their new-found wealth. Me, I'm making for a resort by the water in La Jolla where they clone nafkas like Mae Scott just for rich guys like yours truly."
"Bess, do ever regret not marrying Birnbaum?" I ask as the casino drops out of my rearview mirror, behind a wheat straw hill.
She puts her hand in my lap. "That mamzer! He'd shtup his bubbe if he had the chance."
And now she's got me worrying that the fee agreement the gonif (thief) just gave me isn't worth the paper it's written on.
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine