The morning sun was as hot as the Devil’s coffee. The pavement was hotter. It scorched up through my shoe soles. Light bounced off windows and the metal and glass of passing cars. People were surly from the heat. The newsman snarled his thanks when I paid for my newspaper. The fat guy behind the donut counter slung my apple fritter into the bag with contempt. A taxicab tried to run me down in the crosswalk. The driver hung out the window and yelled something unintelligible after me. Something about coming back and getting run over like a man.

I trudged up the stairs to my office. The placard on the door said M. Murphy, Private Investigations. That’s me. Mike Murphy. Detective. You might be tired of hearing about detectives, but what choice did I have? It was either that or working for my brother’s law firm. I don’t believe in lawyers, just like I don’t believe in Santa Claus. I’m Irish, so, even though I believe in some things, a man has to draw the line somewhere.

I pulled the curtains shut and sat down at my desk. The air conditioner wasn’t working, but I wasn’t about to call up the landlord, seeing I was two months behind on rent. The newspaper didn’t hold anything instructive, other than another headless corpse floating in the harbor, several bribed politicians looking like lobotomized monkeys in their photos, a case of arson, and a new city budget spending fifty million bucks more than the city had.

Ho hum. Business as usual.

I ate my apple fritter. It was greasy and good.

I eyed the telephone. It was better that it didn’t ring. If it did ring, it would probably be a bill collector or my girlfriend Maura. Maura was mad at me. Mad enough to throw a bottle of beer at my head last night. I’d give her a few days to cool off. Only trouble was, nobody cooled off in this kind of weather.

I investigated my wallet and found a dollar bill. Two dimes and a nickel in my pocket. I opened the desk drawer and found a quarter under a pile of unpaid bills. A buck and a half. That would be enough for a hotdog from Fat Joe’s Lunch Cart.

It was high time I found some clients. The last paying client I had was Mrs. Georgia Pulley-Givens, wife to Mr. Frederick T. Givens IV, banker and fathead philanthropist. She paid me four hundred bucks for finding her missing Chihuahua Bootsie. I would’ve charged her two hundred bucks, but I always figure hyphenated names are good for twice as much. She thought the Mafia had kidnapped Bootsie. Either for ransom or to torture information out of the dog. Mrs. Pulley-Givens claimed Bootsie was the smartest dog since Lassie, and chock-full of dog information any criminal would kill to know. I considered explaining to her that Louis Six-Fingers, the local Mafia don, probably wasn’t interested in what various people’s shoes smelled like, or whether the cat in 16-B was a snotty piece of work. I just nodded and thought about the cash.

I had found Bootsie gobbling stale pizza out of the garbage behind Gino’s Italian Grill. Bootsie didn’t look all that smart, pizza sauce smeared all over her ugly little face. But Mrs. Pulley-Givens smothered Bootsie in her ample bosom and wept tears of joy. The dog had given me a dirty look, as if to say, why the hell didn’t you leave me with the pizza?

I leaned back in my chair and thought a moment. Maybe that arson job mentioned in the paper might have some money in it. Poke around, ask a few questions, steal a march on the cops. Pressure the right person and who knows? They might cough up some bucks for my silence.

I trudged along Grove Street to the precinct station. The gun in my shoulder holster felt like a lump of lead. My feet hurt. I needed some new shoes. Or maybe it was high time I got in shape. I was six-three in my socks, heavy enough with muscle, but my gut was starting to show the influence of a few too many beers. I could join a gym. Pump some iron, run on a treadmill while staring at a TV talk show twenty inches in front of my face. Do time on the elliptical next to some flabby gasper in spandex.

Or maybe I just needed better shoes.

As if the city agreed with me, I noticed a sign across the street. Finnegan and Sons. Shoemakers since something-something. The paint of the something-something part of the sign was cracked and peeling. It looked like it might read 1948, or maybe 1848, or maybe even 1748.

The shop was tucked between a grocer and a bank belonging to Mr. Frederick T. Givens IV. I’d been up and down this street for years and I couldn’t remember seeing the place before. I pushed through the door. A bell jangled in the back of the shop. The walls were lined with shelves and the shelves were full of shoes. All different kinds of shoes. Boots. Sandals. Tennis shoes. Weird shoes. Shoes covered in fur. Covered in feathers. In what looked suspiciously like gold. A pair of boots that looked like they’d been carved from stone. Some running shoes that looked big enough to fit an elephant. I picked up one of the running shoes.

"Those are already spoken for."

The voice came from behind me. I turned and didn’t see anyone until I looked down. He was short. Short enough to be prickly about it. And he looked prickly. Spiky gray hair, green eyes, and big ears that stuck out from the side of his head like bat wings. He grabbed the shoe from my hand, brushed off an imaginary speck of dust, and put it back on the shelf.

"People usually make an appointment," he said.

"Oh," I said cleverly.

"Then we’re in agreement you should leave. At least, I’m in agreement."

He began shooing at me, making sweeping motions toward the door. But my feet were aching and I had held that running shoe in my hand. That thing, enormous as it was, had been light as a feather. Hand-stitched, too.

"You make the shoes in here?" I said.

"Of course," he said, pride winning out over reluctance.

"I’d like a pair of shoes. I walk a lot in my job. I’ve never found a pair that really fits, you know what I mean? It’s all those mass-produced Chinese knockoffs flooding the market. You can’t find a good shoe anymore."

"Er, no, you can’t," he said, unable to help himself.

"You obviously know what you’re doing. These are real shoes you’ve got here. Real shoes."

He couldn’t help smiling, and, before he knew it, he was measuring my feet and taking notes in a worn leather notebook he whipped out of his pocket.

"Walks a lot," he mumbled, scribbling. "Six feet, three inches. 235 pounds. Irish. Green eyes, crooked nose, smells of cheap coffee. Man of business, not too casual, but nothing dressy either. Serious shoes, correct? No! Don’t tell me. Not a word. I know what a person needs in shoes just by looking at them. Leather uppers, gum rubber soles. Cushioned inner. Let’s see. . . Shoes that can stand up to concrete sidewalks, dodging traffic, a quiet dinner at Fleur de Lis, resistant to mustard stains, spilled beer, and modern music. Got it. Right. They’ll be ready tomorrow morning."

I thanked him and left before he could change his mind.

The 53rd Precinct station is brick and plaster. I know the place like the nose on my face. I used to be a cop there. Eleven years until I got bored of filling out paperwork, drinking bad coffee, and having to listen respectfully to gibbering idiots from City Hall.

I was past the front counter before the duty sergeant saw me.

"Hey, MacGregor," I said.

"Hey, Murph," he said, without thinking. "Hey! You can’t go back there. You ain’t working here no more."

"Relax, you mashed potato. I’m not gonna steal the crown jewels."

The Captain was in the back, frowning at a jelly donut.

"Whaddaya want, Murph," he said. "You come to get fired again?"

"You didn’t fire me. I quit. Remember?"

"I shoulda fired you. I should fire the lot of ’em! Whiners, that’s what they are. Drooling, incontinent babies licensed to carry guns and arrest people. But the modern policeman’s more concerned about violating people’s civil rights than beating the tar outta some scumbag. In my days we beat ’em until their kidneys bubbled. But you should hear the rookies now. It’s Captain this and Captain that. Captain, we should have Evian in the break room. Captain, I’d like to attend the Ethnic Diplomacy Convention in Manhattan. Oh Captain, perhaps the mugger I just brought in would benefit from a session with the psychoanalyst. I tell you! I’d like to take that Ethnic Diplomacy garbage, plus that psychoanalyst and a crate of Evian, and shove ’em up–"

"Any word on that arson?" I said.

"What’s it to you?"

"Oh, I might have a line on the burner."

"You do, do you?" He glared at me.

"Of course, I’d bring what I find straight to you. It’ll be like old days."

He glared at me some more and squeezed the donut until jelly spurted out.

I strolled out of the station half an hour later with a pocketful of scribbled notes. The arson had taken down Hong Sho’s Wash ‘n’ Fold over on 57th. Rubble and ash and a few smidgens of heat accelerant. One scorched skeleton that probably belonged to old Hong Sho, but missing the skull and hands. One suspicious person seen leaving the area, carrying a sack, who fit the description of Joe Lugg. Lugg worked for mob boss Louis Six-Fingers. And Louis Six-Fingers, well, he was a mean old junkyard dog, mean enough to boil his grandma into grease and sell the poundage to some fancy-pants cosmetics factory.

I headed east on 3rd Avenue, thinking about arson, and Joe Lugg running off with old Hong Sho’s head in a sack, and whether one hot dog would be enough for lunch. It wasn’t, even though Fat Joe piled the sauerkraut high enough to sink the Queen Elizabeth full of senior citizens playing shuffleboard.

"Got any news for me?"

Fat Joe glanced around. People hustled by on the sidewalk. He leaned in a bit closer.

"Buy my pickled peppers at Pepe’s Peruvian Emporium," he whispered. "Every Tuesday."

"I’m not going to buy your pickled peppers," I said. "On Tuesday or any other day of the week."

"I don’t want you buying my pickled peppers. I merely omitted the personal pronoun in my sentence."

"Oh." I took a bite of hotdog.

"Pepe said Manny Lolo came in and bought a gallon of barbecue sauce, a box of chopsticks, and an industrial-size walnut cracker. You know, the kind big enough to crack open a stone basketball."

"A stone basketball? Why would anyone want to crack open a stone basketball?"

"Or a frozen one." Fat Joe shrugged. "You know. Anything hard and round, about the size of a nice big skull. Third time they’ve bought one of them crackers this year. They must wear out fast."

I detoured over to 57th. The Wash ‘n’ Go was cordoned off with yellow tape. Blackened brick lay tumbled in piles. The place was a complete write-off. If anyone hadn’t picked up their laundry before Wednesday evening, they were out of luck. The interesting thing about the place, though, wasn’t the remains of the shop. The interesting thing was the fact that the stores on either side–Versnecker’s Music and the Ye Olde Worlde Fudge Company–were completely untouched. There wasn’t a single smudge of smoke on their walls.


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