Midnight. At least I think was midnight. Wasn't sure. Had to give my watch to the cabbie just to get me this far. When the watch stopped, the cab stopped. Funny how it always seemed to work out that way. I sat on the curb and stared down the deserted street. Still eighteen blocks from home.
My stomach growled. I wonder what old Mrs. Pennyworth had cooked for dinner? Last night it was tuna casserole. Tasted like roof tar. I hope she remembered to let Marlowe in the building like I had asked her. He gets irritable when I'm not there to meet him. I guess I'll find a surprise somewhere when I get home. Damn cat. Last time it was in the coffee pot. Took two bottles of gin to get that taste out of my mouth.
It was hot. Who would have thought that Dallas in July would be hot? I removed my fedora and placed it carefully on the curb beside me. Ran my fingers through my hair and noticed rain-water in the gutter between my legs. "What the hell", I shrugged. "Wouldn't be the worst place I've ever rinsed my face." Cupping my hands, I scooped what I could and splashed my sweaty face. I winced as the dirty water burned the cut above my left eye and groaned as a cigarette butt jabbed me in the right. I hate filters.
"Here ya go, buddy", a scraggly voice said. "You could use it more than me."
By the time I could focus my eyes through the haze of whatever was floating in that gutter, the man, dressed in rags with cereal boxes for shoes, was half a block away. He turned and glanced back as a street light played across his face. Shante Carver. I always wondered what happened to that guy. With a tip of his imaginary hat, he vanished around a corner.
I pulled the quarter from my fedora and grinned. Things were looking up.
As I opened the paint-chipped door to Skitch's Place, a comfortable familialarity slapped me in the face. Stale smoke. Scratchy jukebox. Hopeless desperation. Next to Cap't Lou's Jiggly Hut, this was my favorite place in the world.
"Diamond", a tall man, with a towel on one shoulder and a chip on the other, glowered at me as the door swung shut. Skitch. "Long time".
"What's the word, Skitch?" I asked, perching on a stool at the bar.
"$106.50. That's what you owe on your tab," he explained.
"Well", I shrugged, "set me up and add another $4.50."
"Not this time, Dick. Can't do it." Skitch casually wiped the bar with the towel. "Have a business to run."
I plucked the quarter from my pocket and flipped it into his hand. "What'll this get me?"
Skitch bit it to make sure the quarter was real. Smart-ass. "About ten minutes on that stool, Diamond."
Tap, tap, tap. A guy at the end of the bar tapped his empty glass. "S'cuse me." Skitch refilled the man's glass and returned, staring at my face. "What happened?" he queeried, pointing at my eye.
"Some bird over at Cap't Lou's gave me the 'what for'," I chuckled. "I guess she didn't like where I tried to stick the dollar bill."
"She wasn't real happy, huh?"
"That's alright, it wasn't a real dollar bill."
"Kinko's money?" he asked.
"Kinko's money," I confirmed.
"C'mon, Diamond, show some respect," he scolded. "The dancers are just trying to make a living. They don't want you pawing all over them."
"She wasn't one of the dancers. That's probably why she got so mad," I surmised, gingerly touching the afflicted area.
Skitch shook his head in exasperation. "You're a dirtbag, Dick."
"No," I disagreed, "I'm a romantic. There's a woman out there somewhere who'll see the difference. Besides, that's how Mom met my Pop. It's tradition."
"Your mother was a stripper?" Skitch asked in disbelief. "No offense, Diamond, but she hardly looks the part. Bouncer? Sure. Dock foreman? Definitely. Body double for Ed Asner? Without a doubt. But stripper? Not seein' it."
"Why you gotta go there?"
"I'm just sayin'," he explained, holding up his hands in defense. "Your mother and I go way back. I love that woman like she was my own ma. But you have to admit, she looks like five miles of bad road."
"Just take it easy on Mom, buttercup." She always liked Skitch. Said he was the son she never had. Spiteful, vindictive old crow. God, I miss her.
Skitch took the hint. "Never heard you talk about your dad before," he changed the subject. "Is he still around?"
"He's not dead if that's what you mean?" I responded. "He blew town after I was born. Ran off with a meter maid named Chuck." Skitch stifled a chuckle. "Still get letters once in a while and a Christmas card every year. Last I heard, they were in Fresno performing a dinner theatre production of 'Brokeback Mountain'."
Skitch shrugged. "To each his own, my friend. As long as your pop's happy, you should be happy for him."
"Oh, I am. From what I understand, Chuck's a decent guy."
"Then why the sour face?" he asked.
I wasn't sure. Maybe it's because I have an interesting father who I barely know. Maybe it's because the last time I had more than twenty bucks in my pocket was when I rolled that guy passed out at the OTB. Maybe it's because I had a tuna casserole damming my colon like a bionic beaver. Maybe it's because my coffee pot smells---and tastes---like a litter box. Or maybe I was just tired. Skitch'll buy that. "Just tired," I mumbled.
Tap, tap, tap. Skitch returned from the other end of the bar in short order. "Well, Diamond, this'll snap you out of your funk." I looked up disinterestedly. "The guy down there," jerking a thumb towards the 'tapper', "would like to buy you a drink."
I glanced over at my benefactor. Couldn't see his face. Busy studying the bottom of his glass. Reasonably well-dressed. Clean cut. Physically fit. "What the hell," I rose from the stool. "Nobody said love had to be conventional."
I walked to the end of the bar and planted myself on a stool next to the stranger. "Thanks for the drink, friend. Appreciate it."
"You're Dick Diamond, right?" he asked without looking up from his glass. "The self-proclaimed 'Pigskin Investigator'?"
"You got me at a disadvantage, junior." I still couldn't see his face.
"We've never actually met," he explained. "But I recognized you from last summer."
"Again, specifics. I can't remember yesterday most of the time and you're bringing up last summer?" I chided. "C'mon, sparky. Help me out."
My new friend sighed and turned towards me, finally looking up from his glass. "Recognize me now, Mr. Diamond?"
"Yeah, kid. I know who you are." It was Dan Bailey. What was he doing in this dump pounding down the Jack? "Mind telling me...Holy crap! What happened to your eyes?" I didn't notice before because I couldn't see his face. Bailey's eyes were crossed. Severely crossed. As in, almost touching.
"You noticed, huh?" Dan Bailey grinned self-consciously.
"Sport, Stevie Wonder would notice your eyes. That's the craziest thing I've ever seen. And I once spent a weekend duck hunting with Dick Cheney."
"I'm screwed, right?" The kicker shook his head in disgust. "I can't walk to the bathroom, much less kick a ball." Bailey gulped the rest of his drink and groaned. "Got any ideas?"
"I'm not a doctor, ace," I reminded. "Why not talk to one of them?"
"I'm not stupid, Mr. Diamond. I've seen the team doctors, optical specialists, alternative physicians, herbalists, accupuncturists...You name the 'ists' and I've seen them," he complained. "Even had a witch doctor rub my forehead with a bloody chicken's foot and a Baptist minister, rather noisily, lay hands on my face."
"No luck, huh?" Bailey shook his head. "Why come to me, slick? What makes you think I could possibly help?"
Bailey hesitated. Picking his words carefully. "Word gets around. I've over-heard certain players mentioning your name, and what you've done for them. Plus, like I said before, I remember you from camp last year." He acted like he didn't want to mention last summer. I think I knew why.
"Alright, tiger," I conceded. "Maybe I made a mistake. But nobody bats a thousand. Looking back, you know, hindsight and all, I should have stayed out of it."
"Then why didn't you? Stay out of it, I mean."
"Because he asked for my help. Just like you're asking now. Should I turn you away without trying?" Bailey nodded his understanding. "Besides, how was I supposed to know that telling Terrence Newman to tackle low would blow up in his face? It was sound advice. I should have reminded him to keep his eyes open, though."
"Yeah," Bailey agreed. "That would've helped."
"I believe you're right, rocko. I believe you're right." Good kid. Reminded me...of me. Only smarter. And better looking. And richer. Nevermind. "Well, why don't you tell me what happened and we'll see if we can't get you fixed up?"
"The special teams were going through our drills," Bailey began slowly, "and I needed someone to snap for field goals. Ladouceur was working with McBriar, trying to get their timing back, so Boniol asked Costa to step in for a few minutes."
"Uh, oh." I saw where this was going.
"Exactly. The very first snap...Whap! Right between the eyes. Damn thing came at me like a rocket."
"Blunt-force trauma," I concluded.
"That's what they called it, yes." Bailey stared at me expectantly. "Well, what do you think?"
"Close your eyes."
"Close your eyes," I repeated. "And don't open them til I tell you." Bailey was apprehensive but followed my orders. "OK, killer, open your eyes."
"AAAAAAHHHHH!!!" The kicker fell to the floor at my feet.
"For crying out loud, Diamond," Skitch exclaimed. "What'd you do?"
I ignored my old friend, squated over Dan Bailey and lifted an eyelid. Perfect. Everything was exactly where it was supposed to be. "Relax, Skitch. The kid just fainted."
"What happened? Why'd he faint?"
I grinned. "Showed him a picture of my mother. Guess it caught him off-guard." I slipped the photo back into my coat pocket. Kept it there to ward off muggers.
"You're lucky it didn't kill him," Skitch retorted.
"Nah. I figured he was strong enough to handle it." I looked down at Bailey. Good luck, kid, I thought. Knock'em dead out there. "Do me a favor, will ya? When he wakes up, make sure he's alright and call him a cab."
"No problem, Diamond." Skitch took Bailey's glass and rinsed it in the sink. "You heading home?" he asked.
"Yeah, buddy." I rubbed my eyes and ran a hand through my hair. "I'm going to go heat up some leftover roof tar and scrub my coffee pot."
"You never got that drink this guy bought you," Skitch reminded.
"Next time, Skitch." I wasn't in the mood. Suddenly had a lot on my mind. "Think I'll go home and call my pop. It's still early in California, right?"
"I guess, yeah." I nodded and headed for the door. As I reached for the handle, "Hey, Diamond," Skitch called. I turned. He looked like he had something to say, but wasn't sure how. Instead, Skitch just smiled. Warm, caring and sympathetic. "Nevermind, it'll keep. Take care of yourself, Dick."
"You, too, pal. You, too."
The warm summer night smacked me in the face. I lit a Camel and leaned against a lightpost, waiting. Before I finished the smoke, the familiar lights of a cab turned a corner. Pulled a watch from my pocket and gave it a few twists. Holding it to my ear, I grinned. This one should get me home. It was still ticking strong...
Join Dick Diamond next time when he gets buried to his eyeballs in The Case Of The Obviously Obtuse Owner...