Tarnished Gold by Ann Aptaker – Lambda Literary Award Winner – Lesbian Mystery
A Cantor Gold Crime.
New York City, 1950. Cantor Gold, art smuggler and dapper dyke-about-town, hunts for a missing masterpiece she’s risked her life to bring through the port of New York. She must outsmart the Law that wants to jail her; outrun the dockside gangsters who would let her take the fall for murder; and outplay a shady art dealer, his lover, and a beautiful curator who toys with Cantor’s passion. Through it all, Cantor must stay out of the gunsights of a killer who’s knocking off rivals for the missing masterpiece—and stay alive to solve the mystery of her stolen love: Sophie de la Luna y Sol.
TARNISHED GOLD – by Ann Aptaker
Place: The office of NYPD Homicide Detective Norm Huber
Setup: Dapper dyke and art smuggler Cantor Gold is being interrogated for murder
Barking dogs. Snapping alligators. Dirty brown clouds fat with storms. I see their shapes in the soot and tobacco stains on the window behind Lieutenant Huber’s desk. Picking out shapes on the glass is all that’s keeping me from going loopy from the drone of Huber’s tedious grilling, or howling like a banshee at the memory of Marcus Stern’s exploding head.
Marcus Stern, Hannah Jacobson: brother and sister whose family has suffered more death and destruction than heaven should allow. And Huber, for all his droning, all his grilling, doesn’t know the half of it.
All he knows is that Mrs. J and Marcus Stern were murdered in the here and now and that I show up in both killings. Huber’s knocking himself out trying to attach their deaths to me, somehow find some scrap that will give him the satisfaction of sending me to prison, which seems to be every New York cop’s wet dream.
So I’m stuck here in Huber’s office, my face still sticky and stinging, and my coat still reeking with the bloody remnants of Marcus Stern’s skull and brains.
Huber’s had me going around and around about the Stern shooting for the better part of the afternoon, ever since he had me brought back to Manhattan for questioning after the Queens cops wasted about three hours of my time. The Queens boys weren’t happy about handing me over to their more well connected rivals in Skyscraper-ville, but their hurt feelings were nothing compared to how I felt about it. I wasn’t crazy about them taking my gun, either.
My annoyance collapsed into bone crushing tedium by the time Huber pumped me about the Stern shooting for the umpteenth time through that buzzy growl of his, though I’ve given him nothing new with each telling. He’s taking his frustration out on his unlit cigar, chewing the end like a dog working a piece of gristle.
He can gag on that cigar, for all I care. He’ll never hear it from me about the mysterious woman who scared the crap out of Stern at the cemetery. I don’t share anything with cops.
And I’m sick and tired of Huber’s company. It’s time to get the hell out of here.
So I reach for the phone on Huber’s desk.
His hand slams on the receiver. “And whaddya think you’re doing?” he says.
“Taking my rights as a citizen, Lieutenant. I’m entitled to a phone call.”
“You’re entitled to what I say you’re entitled to.” He pulls the phone away from me, parks it close to him.
“Sure, I forgot,” I say. “You’re Daddy Law. Mustn’t disobey Daddy.”
He finds that funny; anyway, he’s laughing, sort of, if you can call that toothy rasp of his a laugh. “Daddy Law! Not bad, Gold. But I hope you don’t think it’ll make me like you any better.”
“You’ve got a right not to like me, Lieutenant, but I’ve got a right to use the phone.”
He’s not laughing anymore but he’s still enjoying himself, still playing petty with me. Maybe he can’t make me talk, but he can control my use of the phone.
He finally lights his cigar, takes his time about it, too, letting the match hover at the burning tip. Then he sucks two or three times on the damn thing, the flesh under his day-old stubble on his skinny face creasing like a dirty pillowcase. He finally tosses the match away, saying, “Okay, sure, go ahead, make your damn phone call. Calling your lawyer, I suppose?” He pushes the phone towards me like he’s offering candy.
“I guess you’re just too smart for me, Lieutenant.”
“Don’t get cute, Gold. Y’know, it could be a while ’til your lawyer gets here, and in the meantime you’re still mine.”
I do my best to ignore that stomach turning thought, just take the phone and dial the number. The whirr and click of the rotary almost masks the sloppy pop of Huber’s lips puffing the wet end of his cigar.
It’s not my lawyer I’m dialing, it’s my office. I get Judson on the line, but before I get a chance to say anything past “Hello,” Judson says, “Hey, where you been? Drogan called. He wants you to meet him at Smiley’s Bar. You know the place, across from Pier 18 near the fish market. He said he’ll wait.”
“Yeah, okay. Listen, I need you to spring my car from the police lot in Queens and get the busted window replaced and the interior cleaned up. And tell the repair guy he’ll see an extra fifty to get the job done this afternoon.”
“How the hell did the window get busted?”
“Tell you later. One more thing”—I look straight at Huber, who’s still puffing the cigar behind a cloud of smoke that can’t completely obscure his smug disgust with me—“call my lawyer. Send him to Lieutenant Huber’s office. Now.
”When I hang up, Huber’s grinning around that cigar. Then he talks around it, tobacco juice pooling between his teeth. “Y’know, Gold, for all your big money and flashy style, for all the fancy women in your life—yeah, sure, I know all about that. Sickening, if you ask me—for all that, you’re nothing but a no-good lowlife who keeps lousy company. Death squads seem to follow you around. You visit Hannah Jacobson and she gets cut to ribbons. Her brother Marcus Stern gets into your car, and, bang, he’s blown to Kingdom Come. And how many times do I have to ask you what the hell he was doing in your car anyway? Why wasn’t he with his family after the funeral?”
“You’re wasting your time, Lieutenant. My lawyer’s office isn’t far. He’ll be here pretty soon to spring me, since you have nothing to hold me except your deep dislike of me, my love life, and my tailoring. So why don’t you forget about all that and do something useful, like arrange police protection for Stern’s wife and daughter? Or are you using them as bait? I wouldn’t put it past you.
”You’d think I’d learn by now not to toy with cops, but it’s too much fun and I can never resist an opportunity to stick a pin in their puffed up chests, like calling Huber Daddy Law. But I’ve gone too far this time. I know it because I recognize what’s going on in Huber’s eyes and on his face—darkening, reddening—as he puts his cigar down, stands up so slowly and moves his stick of a body around his desk so calmly that the air around him won’t even ripple. I know what’s coming and there’s nothing I can do about it, because if I raise a hand to a cop in a police station I’ll wind up broken and bleeding on the floor of a holding cell, worked over by every cop in the building, even the traffic boys. So when Huber’s fist slams into the left side of my jaw I’m stung by the pain but not by surprise.
He grabs the armrests on either side of me, pins me to the chair. His flushed face and cigar-stained teeth are a grotesque study in red and yellow. Stick a picture frame around his bony head and he’d pass for an Expressionist portrait of meanness. “You got your nerve, Gold,” he says through a predatory growl. “Everything about you is an insult to what’s good and decent in this country, you hear me? You think you know my job? Well I’m way ahead of you. I posted a patrol at the Stern house while you were on your way here from Queens. I was free to do that, Gold, while you were stuck in a paddy wagon. You get my drift?”
The temptation to rip his lips to shreds and get that smug ugly smile off his face is so strong I figure it might be worth the beating I’d take in the slammer, but I’m distracted—and Huber’s mouth saved from disfigurement—by the musky tang of expensive men’s cologne drifting into the room. Irwin Maximovic, my lawyer, is coming through the door, all three hundred elegantly fat pounds of him.
If you want a lesson in just how confident, quiet and polite pure power can be, all you have to do is listen to the refined patter of Winnie Maximovic. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant Huber. Always a pleasure to see you. I know a policeman’s lot is a busy one, so I wouldn’t dream of wasting your time. May I inquire on what charge you are holding my client?” The smile on Winnie’s fleshy face, like a fold in a satchel, would charm the stars out of the sky, and then he’d step on them.
Huber picks up his cigar again and chomps it between his teeth. “You can skip the theatrics, counselor. Just get lost and take your client with you. She’s stinkin’ up the joint, and so are you, if you want my opinion. The sooner the two of you get out of here the sooner my office can air out.”
Winnie, still smiling, says, “Well then, let’s go, Cantor,” but he immediately changes his mind and says, “Sit down again, Cantor.” He’s seen the bruise on my jaw, my split lip, the smears of Marcus Stern on my face. “Lieutenant? To what do we owe the injuries to my client’s face?”
“Haven’t you heard? She was behind the wheel when the passenger in her car was shot to death. Head blown to bits. Glass and flesh and pieces of the guy’s skull flew everywhere. She must’ve caught some. Isn’t that right, Gold?” It’s not a question. It’s a coded instruction not to make trouble for him. Ordinarily he wouldn’t care; cops slap people around every day and get away with it. But he knows that Winnie Maximovic has more lines into City Hall than the phone company. Huber may not care who digs around in his personal life, a fact he lorded over me last night, but no cop really wants their name dangled like fruit in front of the higher-ups, even if their name is clean. It annoys those higher-ups, makes extra paperwork for them, puts blisters on their fingers, and if that happens, Huber would take it out on me. Maybe not now, maybe not soon, but down the line, when the heat’s off him and no one’s looking.
Winnie, dry as toast, says, “Is the lieutenant’s account true, Cantor?”“True enough,” I say. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.” Getting rid of Huber feels as good as having a good shit.
Before Winnie and I leave the building I stop in a restroom to wash up. There’s nothing but cold water, and its chill stings the cuts on my face. Framed by the mirror, I look like a recruiting poster for one of those death squads Huber says follows me around. Last night’s gash to my chin has new company: the patch on my jaw where Huber walloped me is red as raw meat and already turning black and blue; there’s blood on my split lip and crusting remnants of Marcus Stern on my cap and overcoat. I wash the blood off, get rid of as much brain pulp and bone splinters as I can, but violence and death still cling to me like sweat.
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