The Eighty-eighth Key
In the days and weeks after the Bennett assassinations, the City of San Francisco was living along the edge of a very sharp knife. Tourists stopped coming to see the sights, hotels emptied and flights into and out of SFO flew with most their seats unsold. Criminal enterprises – from ‘mom & pop robberies’ to more organized rackets fell off the radar too, because the police department’s patrol division was on a total rampage. Traffic stops escalated into life and death affairs, so much and so frequently that people began obeying speed limits and using their turn signals – both being completely unheard of in and around the city.
Sam Bennett took extended family leave and was rarely heard from. Frank Bullitt was heard talking about taking early retirement, leaving Delgetti and Stanton rudderless and adrift. Al Bressler went back to vice and, just after An Linh’s funeral, Lloyd Callahan left for the Orient. Jim Parish left for a new posting in Hawaii – but only after he was sure his friend’s deteriorating mental state didn’t need a more rigorous intervention. He watched Callahan for a few days, not quite sure what to make of the false bravado on constant display.
Or was it false?
Was Callahan a psychopath – unable to assimilate An Linh’s murder? The more questions he asked the more uncertain he became until, in the end, he felt like he was peeling away the layers of an onion – and not at all liking what he found.
After a few days of this he forced Harry to take four weeks of vacation, and after Parish left for Hawaii Harry literally sat at his piano for hours on end. His first night alone he played dark creations interspersed with off the wall television classics – themes from shows like Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip – before he fell away into his beloved Gershwin, and somewhere in the middle of Summertime he lost it completely – falling to the floor and crying for hours.
He found himself the next day walking the city, taking An Linh to all the places he wanted to share with her – before he realized the ghostly nature of the shadow by his side.
The next night he pulled his favorite chair up to the window and propped his feet on the sill, and for hours he watched the regular hard-core drinkers file in and out of the bars the lined both sides of the street below. Occasionally he could hear the half-hearted efforts of a really bad pianist playing at the nearest dive, a real bloodbath that belonged to the Threlkis syndicate, and so for some reason, he decided the time was right – so he walked over and stepped inside.
An altogether unimpressive looking kid sat at the keyboard stumbling his way through Green Dolphin Street and Harry watched until he couldn’t take it anymore – and then he walked up to the bar.
“Whaddayahavin’,” the bar-keep muttered.
“Club soda, lime,” Callahan replied.
“Who runs this place?”
“Just wonderin’, really, but is that the best you can do?” Callahan said, nodding towards the piano player.
“Kid’s connected. Not much I can do about it.”
“Connected?” Harry asked.
“One of the Threlkis kids, or so I hear.”
The barkeeper nodded through his frown, and when the kid started butchering some kind of Stevie Wonder song they both grimaced.
“Sounds kind of like he’s choking a cat,” Callahan said through gritted teeth – but then without saying another word he walked over to the piano and looked at the kid while he finished up the tune. “You play any Gershwin?”
The kid shook his head.
“You ever take lessons?”
The kid looked up on hearing that. “Fuck-off, faggot. Not interested.”
Callahan sneered, then growled: “The name of the song you’re butchering is ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,’ right?”
“I ain’t butcherin’ nothin’, faggot.”
“Move over,” Callahan said – and the tone in his voice was all the kid needed to hear. He slid down and Harry sat; without hesitating, he banged out the song, then stood and went back to the bar.
The kid followed. Kind of like a puppy, Callahan thought.
“You a teacher or somethin’?” the kid asked.
“Jack, buy the faggot another drink, and I’ll have a tequila sunrise.”
Callahan’s jaw was working overtime now, his teeth clenched tight.
The drinks came and Callahan downed his water, then he turned to leave – but then, as expected, the kid went too far.
“Come on, faggot…wanna go out back and get on your knees?”
Callahan turned and faced the kid – yet still, Callahan kept his mouth shut – content to let his eyes do the talking for now…
Only up to now the kid had just enough sense to keep his mouth shut, and so Callahan simply stared at him, egging him on, deciding to let the kid seal their fate…
Which came by way of an uncoordinated dry-gulch, a knee-to-the-groin that Callahan deflected with ease, followed by a floppy-wristed attempt at a right cross…
…and then Callahan grabbed the kid’s fist in mid-strike and slammed it down on the bar, next he drove an ice-pick through the kid’s hand – and with that part of his plan complete he turned and walked out of the bar.
Heading through an early morning fog down to the wharf he felt the adrenaline coursing through his veins, his anger still at an intense peak. A few minutes passed before he began to come down, yet still he walked around the gently bobbing boats…letting this brew come to a boil. He took in fishermen loading ice and pumping diesel into holds and tanks – and for a while he wondered what a life at sea would feel like – before he figured enough time had passed. He sighed and turned back for his apartment.
‘Why do I always walk down to the sea?’ he reflected. “And in the fog…?”
He was almost home when he saw a girl in the shadows – an obvious hooker – and he thought about using her in his little plan – just as she stepped into the light.
“Hey man, wanna party?”
“No thanks, darlin’,” Harry said, trying but not quite succeeding to smile, “I’m tryin’ to quit.”
She laughed. “Never heard that one before. You live around here?”
“I’m kinda cold. Could you fix me up with some coffee?”
“Sure, if you don’t mind some home-brew.”
She fell in beside Callahan and followed him to his apartment. He went into his little kitchen and put on the kettle, then set up his carafe with a filter and coffee, and he made enough for two.
“Have a seat,” he said as he finished up, and after he gave her a cup he walked over to the window and looked down at the bar.
The expected patrol car was parked out front now, and an ambulance was still there too; even so he shook his head as he watched two patrolmen walking up the hill towards his building. So predictable. And yeah, soon enough they were out front; when they buzzed his number he let them in, then went to his door. Waiting for the inevitable knock…
“Callahan?” one officer said when he opened his door. “You nail that kid?”
“You know who the fuck his old man is, man?” the other said.
“What are you talking about?” Harry said. “I’ve been up here with this young lady all night.”
The first cop peered in and leered at the hooker before he nodded. “Nice, quick alibi, Callahan. I salute you.”
Callahan shut the door and watched them leave from the window, and from the way they were acting he figured both of ‘em were on the Threlkis payroll.
“You a cop?” the girl asked.
“You gonna arrest me, or what?”
“For what? Being cold?”
“Mind if I finish this? It’s pretty good.”
“From Jamaica. It ought to be.”
“Oh. Like the ride? At Disneyland?”
“Yeah. Like that. Mind if I ask how old you are?”
“You run away?”
She looked away, answering that question with a well-oiled screen of silence.
“Now, just one more question: If you wanted to go home right now, what would stop you?”
“I don’t want to go home, man.”
“That wasn’t the question.”
She shook her head. “You don’t wanna know, man. You really don’t.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Look man, they got no problem takin’ out a cop. You, like, hearin’ me?”
He nodded his head while he watched the cops walking back to the bar, and he watched as a couple of men got out of a Lincoln and walked over to meet them. The cops nodded and pointed in the direction of his apartment, and then one of the men handed each cop an envelope.
“You’re working a Threlkis street, so that makes you for one of theirs.” He looked at the developing situation, watched it unfold just as he knew it would. “Your pimp. What kind of car does he drive?”
“A black Lincoln. Why?”
He watched the two men get sawed-off shotguns from the Lincoln’s trunk before he turned to the girl. “You better finish your coffee…” he said as he helped her to the door. “Matter of fact, you’d better head out the back door.”
She saw the men walking up the street…and didn’t need to be told twice.
He went to the bedroom and double-checked that all his important papers were in the top dresser drawer, then he went to the living room and sat down.
And he waited.
At one point he thought he heard something fall in the stairwell, but then his little world fell silent and close once again.
Then…a gentle knock on the door…and this he did not expect.
He stood and went for the door, and as planned – unarmed, and he didn’t bother to look out the peep-hole.
“It’s open,” was all he said.
He watched the knob turning and stepped back, wondering what it would feel like. Pain, probably, then cold awareness before…
But when the door opened Avi Rosenthal walked in, followed by several heavily armed men in black uniforms, their faces blacked-out and glistening with sweat.
“You trying to kill yourself, Harald, isn’t going to make my job any easier, ya know?”
Callahan went to the landing and looked down at the Threlkis men – now thoroughly dead – being stuffed into black nylon body-bags. Then he felt a scalding pinch on his left arm – before a gentle warmth washed over his falling body.
He was, he said, a colonel in the Waffen SS, and not to be trifled with – yet he seemed cautiously courteous. Almost unctuously so. He did not introduce himself, yet he made sure Imogen understood that he knew everything worthwhile there was to know about her, and he repeated time and time again her vulnerability while she was his guest in Theresienstadt. And to drive the point home he walked up to her and took her left breast in hand and fondled it aggressively – in full view of the clearly frightened children huddled on the floor.
“If I want to take you, I will take you. If it amuses me to have a dozen guards sodomize you in the middle of the street, it will happen. If you challenge any rule I will debase you in ways you have never imagined.” He moved his gloved hand from her breast to between her legs, and he lingered there. “Am I being clear?”
“Yes, perfectly clear.”
“You have no protector here, no clever scientist to look after your interests. Do you understand what that means?”
“We will see. I understand you play the piano quite well. Do you know Wagner?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Ah? Very good…then I may indeed have need of your services from time to time, when I entertain guests from Berlin.”
She remained quiet, and quite still, trying to keep in the moment…but in any event the colonel had already turned and left the room, leaving her to pick up the pieces. Several of the littlest children were openly sobbing now, clutching her ankles in blind fear, so she knelt and gathered all the boys and girls ‘round – yet for a moment she wondered what to say…
But just then the deep rumble of thunder shook the town, and the children gathered closer still…
“I wonder,” she began, “have you heard of the old blind man in the cape? He conducts a very peculiar orchestra…”
Several children looked up at her as she spoke, and they seemed enchanted by her words…
“Yes, come with me to the window, and let us look for him, and we might just see what he is up to this evening!”
Everyone moved to the window, and the smallest children she placed on the window seat, making sure everyone had a clear view of the sky…
“There he is!” she cried. “There, across the way, on that brown roof! Now watch closely, watch his cane, because the entire sky is his orchestra, and he conducts his orchestra with that magic cane! Get ready! Here it comes…watch that tree!”
And a fiery bolt of hot-white lightning came down inside a searing crescendo of thunder, the charge hitting a tree just beyond the gates of the camp, and now – far from being frightened – all the children watched as Imogen described the Caped Man’s movements, and even the oldest girl gathered and watched, fascinated – yet clearly unable to figure out how this strange lady knew when the thunder and lightning were coming, let alone where the lightning would strike.
Frank Bullitt knocked on Harry’s door, and when no one came he used his own key and went in – and he went inside expecting to find the worst. But Harry was not in the bedroom, the kitchen appliances were stone cold, the shower floor dry as a bone. Badge in wallet on top of dresser, his Smith still in its shoulder holster hanging from the hook on the back of the closet door. No clothes in the hamper, everything else neat, no signs of a struggle.
He walked back down the stairs to the third landing and knelt there, looking at several splatters of what just might be blood, then he took out his penlight and sighted along the wall looking for scuff-marks…and yes, there they were!
He went back to the apartment and called central, summoned Dell and Carl and a full Crime Scene Unit, then he called Bennett, who was still at home.
“Sam? Frank. I’m at Harry’s.”
“Is he there?”
“Nope, and there’s evidence of a struggle on the stairs.”
“Let me know what you come up with.”
Bullitt hung up the phone and turned to the door, and right away he saw an old man standing there, his hands in his pocket.
“Can I help you?” Bullitt asked, his hand sliding inside his jacket – reaching for his 45.
“Doubtful,” the old man said as he stood there, “but I can probably help you.”
“You see what happened?”
The old man shook his head. “Mind if I come in?” he asked.
“Not at all.” Frank watched carefully as the old man slid – silently – into the living room, and as he removed his hands from his pockets while he walked to the window. The old man went there and looked down the street.
“See that Lincoln down there? The black one – across from the saloon?”
Frank came to the window and looked down the street. “Yeah?”
The old man handed Frank a set of car keys. “Check the trunk. You’ll find a couple of Threlkis’s men in there.”
“You could say that.”
“And you know this how?”
“My men killed them.”
The old man turned and faced Bullitt. “Yes. Mine.”
The old man proceeded to take out a small wallet and handed Frank a business card – but the only thing printed on the card was the obscure name ‘Rosenthal.’
“You one of Avi’s?” Frank asked, and the old man simply nodded. “You know where Harry is?”
“With Avi. And with any luck at all, he’ll be back soon.”
“You know where he is?”
“Me? No, I don’t.”
“Why are you here?”
“Cleaning up some loose ends, Lieutenant.”
“You need to spend more time with your Captain Bennett, Lieutenant. He is not well.”
And it wasn’t what the old man said, but the way he said it that caused the hair on the back of Frank’s neck to stand on-end: “Why? What are you saying?”
“Bad dreams. Waking up in the middle of the night, playing with his revolver. I’m afraid he might have an accident…cleaning his gun, something like that.”
“And how do you…”
But the old man simply shrugged as he turned and walked slowly out of the apartment.
Frank looked at the Lincoln’s keys in his hand, trying to come up with some kind of plausible story to feed the press. When Carl and Delgetti arrived he handed the keys over to Carl and told him to go check the car’s trunk – while he briefed Dell on his conversation with the old man.
“Where do you think they took Harry?” Delgetti asked.
Frank shook his head. “The guy seemed more concerned with Bennett.”
“Yeah. Kinda implied the old man is suicidal.”
“What? Bennett? No way!”
“I don’t know, Dell. He lost his sister and his boy in one fell swoop. Maybe we’re assuming Sam is stronger than we…”
“So what do you wanna do about it?”
“Get him thoroughly toasted, for one. Get him talking…” Frank seemed to come alive as he worked through an idea, turning things over in his mind as more and more ideas poured in. “I’m gonna call Cathy…you and Carl handle this one…then come on up to The Shadows around nine or so.”
He woke up to the now all-to-familiar droning of the Jetstar’s four Pratt & Whitney turbojet engines, yet this time the backs of his eyeballs felt sore, almost abused. He rubbed them with his knuckles for too long, leaving his vision blurred and his headache worse, so he reached up and found the air nozzle and dialed it open, directing the airflow to his face.
“Feeling okay?” Avi asked.
Harry shook his head. “What was in that shot? Panther-piss?”
“Here, try this.”
“What is it?”
“Tomato juice, celery, salt, pepper, and a little Tabasco.”
“No,” Avi said.
“That’s called a Virgin Mary.”
“So, where are you taking me this time?”
“To a psychiatric hospital.”
“Turn this fuckin’ thing around, Avi. I mean it. Right now.”
“This aircraft is going to Geneva, and so too are you. I’ve had you under constant surveillance since the incident at the Bennett house, and I am not going to sit idly by and watch you destroy yourself.”
“Why Avi, I didn’t know you cared…”
“I don’t, Harald. I do, however, care for your mother, and if she were to lose you now…well…I’m not sure she would recover. And, in any event, I will not take that chance.”
Callahan shut up and looked out the window, saw what had to be London far below and took a long pull from the glass of tomato juice. “Not bad,” he sighed.
“Too much salt, but you need electrolytes after that sedative. You’ll want to drink some water soon, or your ankles will look like an elephant’s.”
“My eyeballs are on fire.”
“Here, take these.”
“And these are?”
“Panadol. What you call Tylenol.”
Harry downed the caplets and leaned back, let the cold air stream down his face until he couldn’t stand it any longer, then he turned and looked out the window again – this time it looked like they were over Paris – and he got lost in the passing landscape as afternoon slipped into evening.
“So…Geneva. Then where am I going?”
“We are going to a clinic near Davos, but high up in the mountains.”
“Yes. I’ve wanted to do some skiing for some time now, and this might turn out to be a good excuse to do just that.”
“Glad to be of service.”
Avi looked at him for a moment before speaking. “Life is a precious thing, Harry. This cliché is of course well-intentioned…but, why are you smiling?”
“I do believe that is the first time you’ve called me ‘Harry’.”
Avi shook his head. “Your mother would kill me.”
“Really? I never knew her to be quite that aggressive.”
“Oh? I wonder if we’re talking of the same woman.”
“Where did you two meet?”
Avi sighed as he leaned back in the seat. “Copenhagen, of course, years before the war. I think it was her playing, really more than anything else, that brought us together.”
“Was she that good?”
“She was better than you could possibly imagine, Harry. My father knew many of the best musicians, people like Gustav Mahler, and he thought your mother was better than all the rest.”
“What did your father do?”
“My family has always been involved with the business side of music. Publishing new works, selling music to students, or scores to orchestras. We still have the store in Copenhagen, as well as the little shop in San Francisco.”
“Wait…you have a store in The City?”
“Yes, of course! You mean, you didn’t know?”
“I had no idea. There are two stores, if I’m not mistaken?”
“Yes, just as in Copenhagen; one for sheet music, and the piano dealership – which has been more than useful over recent years.”
“Yes, the Soviet consul’s house, among others, simply has to have the best pianos for their various receptions, and we were more than happy to supply them – suitably equipped, of course.”
Harry nodded. “So, you were related to Saul Rosenthal?”
Avi hesitated, not quite realizing the lack of depth in Harry’s familial literacy – and unsure how to proceed: “He was my older brother, and he became the sole proprietor of the business after the war. I took no interest in such things after I moved to Israel.”
“So, Saul knew my mother?”
Again Avi blinked rapidly, then crossed his hands in his lap. “I feel most certain that he did.”
“Man, that’s weird…”
“Weird? How so?”
“Mom would never go up to the store. She always sent me and Dad.”
“She hates automobiles so. Perhaps that explains why.” Avi looked out the window and squinted into the evening gloom, looking for a way out of this thorny line of questioning. “Ah, the alps already! We are getting close, so time to buckle up! We will resume our little talk later…”
But if anything, by now Harry Callahan was a skilled inquisitor in his own right, and watching Avi’s body shift and squirm, let alone the way his eyes darted down and to the left, told him more than Avi’s hastily constructed evasions ever could. And now, and for the first time, he began to look at Avi Rosenthal not as a friend but rather an inquisitor in his own way. And perhaps one who held the keys to a vast prison.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | as always, thanks for reading…
[note: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until the work is finalized. Yet with the current circumstances that might not be the best way to proceed, and I’d hate to have this story stop ‘unexpectedly’ without some mention of these sources. Of course, the source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two Hollywood films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’ storyline derives from characters originally found in that screenplay. The Threlkis crime family storyline was first introduced in Sudden Impact, screenplay by Joseph Stinson. Most of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed within the works cited above, but as always this story is otherwise a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing historical fabric, using the established characters referenced above, as well as new characters I’ve come up with here and there.]