I threaded my way through the strolling tourists on Columbus, dressed in my usual jeans, black leather jacket and boots. My nostrils were assailed by the garlic-tinged odors emanating from the Italian restaurants. Today the crowded North Beach streets annoyed me. I was bored, too many hours spent at my desk doing background checks.
When I turned the corner on Green and Grant and spied the red neon sign for Miss Dee’s Jazz Club, I lightened up. And when I opened the door, I sighed with relief. I searched for the splash of red that would be Dee’s outfit, eager for the warm smile guaranteed to improve my mood.. But I didn’t see my friend, the club’s owner and principal performer.
I checked my watch, six-thirty. Dee was late. She was usually downstairs by now. But the usual suspects were there: Willie washing glasses behind the polished mahogany bar, Rae lighting candles on the tables, Harry at his corner table, his gray head bent over The New York Times. But none of them greeted me, and they all looked glum. A wave of anxiety washed over me.
I stepped up to the bar. Willie, who’s pushing eighty and has worked at the club forever, glanced up from the sink and gave me a grim smile.
I searched his face for a clue of what was wrong. “What’s up, Willie? Dee should be down by now.”
His head tilted upwards. “She said for you to go on up. ”His eyes were anxious.
Dee seldom summoned me to her inner sanctum, although I’d gone up there with her occasionally. We’d always hung out at the bar after the club’s official closing. I wondered what was so urgent that it couldn’t wait until she came down. My anxiety level ratcheted up a notch.
I pulled aside the black velvet drapes to the left of the bar and pressed the security button. When I heard the answering buzz, I opened the door and went through to the hallway leading up to Dee’s apartment.
I was halfway up the red-carpeted stairs when Dee opened the door. I was taken aback but kept my cool. It was the first time I’d seen her without her wig and make-up. She looked shrunken, like the energy had drained out of her. She must be sick, because nothing kept Dee from her beloved club. I met her eyes, my stomach churning, waiting for an explanation. But she didn’t speak, just gave me a hug, clinging to me for several seconds and sniffling in my ear.
I pulled away and searched her face. Her eyes were glistening with tears. “Dee, what is it? Are you okay?” I held my breath, half expecting her to tell me she had cancer or something.
She leaned against the doorjamb, her voice cracking. “Casey, Milton’s dead. He’s been shot. Suspicious death, they said.”
I breathed deeply, relieved that she was all right. But it took me a while to figure out she was talking about Milton Brown. Brown was the owner of a jazz club in Oakland and been Dee’s friend since they were kids together in Detroit.
She dabbed her eyes with tissue. “I just can’t believe it. You know, he was like my brother.”
I stood there, stunned. I didn’t know the man well, but still I was disturbed to hear that someone had been shot.
Sniffing, Dee motioned for me to follow her down the hall to the living room. The walls were lined with dark polished wood, Victorian style, now lighted by the evening sun streaking in through the bay window blinds.
She sat on a couch, while I slid onto a window seat. I gazed into Dee’s glistening eyes and felt my own eyes moisten. “Tell me what happened.”
She met my gaze. “They found him this morning in his office. Shot in the head. A gun lying next to his hand. With a note. The cops think it might be suicide. But they’re not sure.” Her voice faltered. The mournful sound of a muted trumpet from the CD player filled the silence. I didn’t know what to say. Her friend was dead. It was tough anyway you looked at it.
Dee took a deep breath and seemed to pull herself together. “My ass it’s suicide. That’s bullshit. The po-lice don’t listen.” Her eyes cleared and her voice regained some of its resonance. I stared at her, my thoughts spinning.
Her expression was strained. “They don’t care about no old black man getting shot. Even the brothers don’t give a damn.”
Whenever she talked of racism, I felt at a loss. I could sympathize, but, being white, I could never truly understand her feelings. I was sorry that Dee had lost her friend, but I thought she was exaggerating. It sounded like suicide to me. I figured she didn’t want to admit it. It was easier to blame the cops. She was one of those black people who were convinced that the LAPD had framed OJ. Which I thought was bullshit, but gave up arguing with her about it. She was black and I was white; we had different perceptions of the world. I was sad for her, but all I could do was go along with her.
“Why are they calling it a suspicious death if they think it’s suicide?”
Her dark eyes were fierce. “They say they can’t connect the gun to Milton. Hell, I coulda told them that. He never owned no gun. He hated them.” Her eyes bore into mine. “All’s I know it wasn’t no suicide.”
“But if there was a note –” my voice trailed off.
She only stared at me. She’s adamant about this. She ought to realize that leaving a note indicated suicide, for God’s sake.
We fell silent. Miles Davis’ trumpet sounding louder in the quiet. I stared out at the darkening sky. She was in denial. It was bad enough to mourn a friend, but to believe he was murdered only made it worse.
Her voice was steady and determined. “Casey, I want you to investigate.”
I spun around to face her. “Investigate? Investigate what?”
“You’re a PI, aren’t you?” Her tone was defiant. “Well, I want to hire you professionally, pay your fee and expenses. You know, like on TV.” I saw a hint of a smile.
“But what do you want me to do?”
Dee’s intense dark brown eyes bored into my green dubious ones. She snorted. “Find the motherfucker who killed Milton, what else? I don’t care what the cops think. Somebody killed him.”
For crissake, now she wants to involve me in her paranoia. She was not to be contradicted, not when she was like this. I’d have to wait until she calmed down before trying to talk her out of this folly.
I turned away again, gazing out at the now dark night, brightened by the lights of the restaurants across the street. I didn’t know how to answer her. I was itching for a real case. I was bored with searching databases for missing persons, but what she was proposing didn’t sound promising. Investigating a shooting that was only dubiously suspicious could be a waste of time, not to mention humiliating, arguing against the Oakland PD.
“I owe to him; you know what I’m saying?” Dee’s voice broke into my thoughts.”I seen plenty of black men killed back in Detroit and the Man didn’t do nothin’ about it. If I’m wrong ” She shrugged. “At least I’ve done something. You know?”
I nodded. I could see her point. I had the same motivation when I was working on a murder case. You gotta root out the bad guys. But that argument only held water if someone had murdered Milton. And about that I had my doubts.