The Duke Steps Out
He wasn’t more than halfway through the door, a flash of bright yellow in his thigh-length rain slicker, before he asked, in a low, gravelly voice that sounded slightly familiar, “Do you know who I am?”
“Should I?” I asked, as I stood to greet him, half-expecting him to flash an American Express card to answer his own question.
He put up his hand. “No need,” he said in a tone of nobless oblige, hinting he was a man used to being catered to. Funny, I hadn’t known this guy for more than a few seconds and already I didn’t like him. I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest judge of character—I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes—but I can tell when a man has a chip on his shoulder. I can also tell when a man, or a woman, for that matter, is going to rub me the wrong way.
“You will,” he said, leaning forward slightly.
“If you say so, pal. I’m Swann,” I said, extending my hand. “And you are?”
He hesitated a moment for dramatic effect, then grinned. “You can call me, James Brown.”
“So what can I do for the Godfather of Soul and the hardest working man in show business?” I asked.
Not even a hint of a smile. Instead, he asked, “What’s the H. stand for?” alluding to the initial on my front door.
“Harried, hackneyed, horrible, hot-headed, hospitable, hedonistic, hellacious, hog-tied, hateful, take your pick.”
“I’m not here to play games, man,” he said sharply, and I could tell that he meant it.
“No problem, amigo. It’s Henry. Now why don’t you take a seat and we’ll get down to business.”
“Ain’t no wonder you use Swann,” he mumbled, as he started to move toward me. He was a big man, over six-feet, kind of husky, with a bit of a beer belly. He had a milk-chocolate complexion and he was wearing the worst damned disguise I’d ever seen: a fake mustache, goatee, long side-burns, a curly, yellow Harpo Marx-like fright wig and a wide-brimmed, black Stetson. And although he walked with a slight limp, I noted that he moved with remarkable grace, almost gliding across the room. He sat down on the folding chair in front of my desk and when he gingerly crossed his legs I noticed he was wearing a pair of expensive, hand-sewn cowboy boots.
“So, you’re a private dick, right?”
“That’s right and the way you say that means I can’t very well counter with, ‘I’ve been called worse.’”
“Fact is, I don’t like your kind much, Swann.”
“There are times, my friend, when I would echo the very same sentiment. Moments of self-doubt, inadequacy, low-self-esteem and self-loathing. But I’ll save that for my shrink.”
“Good idea. Maybe he gives a shit.” He began massaging his knee. “Bad knees, man, and this damp weather don’t help none,” he explained. “It don’t matter how many operations you have, once they go they’re pretty much gone forever. But they done me right for a long time, so I can’t complain. Anyway, I’ll be back in Florida soon, real soon.”
“That where you’re from?”
“That’s where I hang my hat now.”
“Speaking of hanging, would you like me to hang up your jacket?” I asked.
“Always do. So, enough of the idle chatter. I’m here to see about hiring you to find someone.”
“Who do you want me to find?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be hiring you.”
“So you want me to find someone, but you don’t know who it is. Have I got that right?”
“You catch on quick. But first, I gotta know some things about you.”
“Fair enough. And by the way, before we go any further, I should tell you that that’s the most ridiculous disguise I’ve ever seen. How’s that for a fancy bit of detecting?”
“I’m impressed, man.”
“I thought you would be. So what’s up with that?”
“I like to protect my anonymity.”
“I have no such problem,” I countered, knowing that I couldn’t possibly be anymore anonymous than I already was. A skiptracer working out of a seamy, broken down office in the middle of Spanish Harlem who had to re-introduce myself to the local bodega owner every time I went in to buy some cuchifritos. No, being recognizable was never one of my crosses to bear. “So, what do you need to know?”
“How long you been in business?”
“Well, I repoed my first car back in ’92, so I guess it’s over ten years now.”
“That’s a pretty shitty way to make a buck, man,” he said, offering a wry smile.
“I can’t disagree, but I’ve got a calling for it. Finding things is my specialty.”
He squirmed in his seat. “Man, this chair is an uncomfortable motherfucker.”
“Sorry, but usually folks aren’t here long enough for it to bother them.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking around. “I can understand that. So, ever conducted a criminal investigation?”
“Now and then, though they never quite start out that way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sloth, envy, greed, lust and coveting your neighbor’s wife often make a left into more serious matters, turning them into criminal activities. I prefer to catch them before they do, but sometimes I’m just not quick enough.”
“You know, Swann, you talk like someone I used to work with. Someone who used words with more syllables than a cow has titties. Didn’t like him much. Man, he got on my last nerve after a while. He’s dead now, so he’s someone else’s problem. But I’m sure his mouth’s still goin’, no matter where he is, if know what I mean? You a sports fan?”
“ I watch a little baseball every now and then, if that counts.”
He was pissing me off. In fact, I would have ushered his ass right out of the office except for two things: He was bigger than me and I needed the money and suspected I could hit him up for a pretty penny, because he certainly didn’t look like my normal welfare client in search of a wandering husband. “And you? You a sports fan?”
“Golf’s my game…now.”
“Never could quite get a handle on that,” I said giving it a feeble Johnny Carson swing. “Chasing around a little white ball, trying to coax it into a hole.”
“Yeah, well, coaxin’ balls into little holes is what I do best.” He grinned lasciviously. “Ever been outta New York?” he asked, getting back on track.
“You must be kidding. Jersey don’t count for nothing. How about California? Ever been there?”
“Once. Didn’t really like it, though. Not enough tall buildings to block out the sun.”
“They got lots of cars out there, man. Real nice ones. Maybe you ought to think about it, you being in the repo business and all.”
“I’ll give it some serious consideration. How about you? Where you from?”
“I’ve moved around a lot.”
He shrugged and made a face. “Business reasons.”
“How’d you come to choose me?”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that.”
Suddenly, the sound of a jackhammer began to reverberate through my office. I got up to close the window and lingered a moment as I spotted Joe Bailey, the owner of the Paradise Bar & Grill, crossing the avenue, trying to dodge raindrops. Joe used to play some semi-pro football and he moved effortlessly, shifting his hips gracefully as he darted in and out of the late afternoon Broadway traffic.
“This here’s a pretty shitty neighborhood,” said Brown.
“Yeah, well, the rent’s cheap and it feeds into my feelings of superiority,” I said, returning to my desk.
“You’re in the ghetto, man.”
“I guess that’s why it’s so tough to get a cab up here. But you know, I tell people my office is on the Upper West Side and they seem impressed.”
He glanced down at his watch, an expensive Rolex, and my greedy little heart skipped a beat. Without looking up he said, “My wife was murdered. I need you to find the dude who did it.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t do that kind of finding.”
“Don’t tell me you got scruples, Swann.”
“I won’t tell you that because frankly, I’m not even sure what they are. It’s just that I know my limits, which is one of my more endearing personality traits. You know, your voice is beginning to sound very familiar.”
“So, where do I know you from?”
“Might say I’ve had my moments in the sun.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“This and that.”
I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere with this line of questioning, so I decided to tackle a more important issue. “You know, I don’t come cheap.”
“I may look low-rent, but I’m not.”
He laughed again. “I got enough to pay you, man, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I worry about everything, Mr. Brown. It’s my nature. I worry about the diminishing ozone layer. I worry about my cholesterol. I worry about being able to pay my rent. I worry about someone poisoning the water supply. I worry that I’m going to have a heart attack. I worry about the world exploding and I worry about my body imploding. In short, I worry about the sky falling directly on me. So, tell me about your wife.”
“She was a slut.”
“I take it you were divorced or on the verge.”
“Yeah. I dumped the bitch, though she kept comin’ back for more. She liked this,” he said, pointing to his crotch.
“Obviously, there was no love lost, so why do you care who killed her?”
“That,” he said, scratching behind his neck, “is my business.”
“Well, it’s going to be mine if I decide to take the case.”
“You’ll take it.”
“Because I’m going to make you famous, if you do.”
“And what if I don’t want to be famous.”
“Everyone wants to be famous, man,” he said, untangling his legs and crossing them to the opposite side. “I should know. I been there and it ain’t all that bad.”
“Maybe you should tick off the good points for me.”
He snorted. “Well, you always get a good table in restaurants. You get invited to a lot of parties. You get stuff you don’t have to pay for. People give you respect, whether your deserve it or not—in fact, the less you deserve it, the more you get. They cut you all kinds of slack. And the women, man, let me tell you, the women are all over you. You’ll get more pussy than you know what to do with.”
“I didn’t know what to do with what little I had,” I said, remembering the ex-wife who moved to Vancouver, which was about as far away from me as she could get without leaving the damn continent.
“Yeah, well, you’ll learn, man. The Duke here,” he said, pointing down below his belt, “likes to get fed…and he got fed plenty…still does. Fame goes a long way, man, and once you got it, it don’t just fade away, no matter what they say. But sometimes there’s a fork in the road, if you know what I mean. Things just happen…”
“Like a wife getting murdered?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“So, you never answered me. Why do you care who killed your wife.”
“Would I be here trying to hire you if I did it?”
“You tell me.”
“So, if they think you did it, why aren’t you in jail.”
“Because I already been tried and found not guilty, that’s why.” He straightened up. “But I am not going to rest until the real killer or killers are brought to justice.”
“I’m impressed. What were the circumstances of her death?”
“And then she died.”
“There’s more to it than that. Tell me how it happened.”
“She was with her latest boyfriend and someone got them in front of her apartment building.”
“Yeah.” He ran his finger across his throat.
“Where was that?”
“Where in California?”
He hesitated a moment. “Ever hear of Brentwood.”
Okay, the charade was over. I knew exactly who I had in my office, only I couldn’t believe it. The infamous O.J. Simpson, dressed in a fright wig, looking like a refugee from the circus, was trying to hire me to find the killer of his wife, Nicole.
“Listen, O.J. why don’t we just cut the crap. I don’t know what your game is…”
“I don’t have no game anymore, Swann. I’m hiring you to clear my name, so I can get my game back, okay? The Duke,” he looked down to his crotch again, “is always on duty and me and him want to come back out into the sunlight. People think I don’t have feelings. But I do. You think I like walking around having people whisper and point at me? You think I like hearing ‘if the glove don’t fit, you got to acquit,” over and over again? You think I like never being able to wear a pair of Bruno Magli shoes again? And man, those are some badass shoes…I got to get this monkey off my back, man.”
“So you came to me.”
“Well, I think if you were serious you’d find someone a little more experienced than I am.”
“Yeah, you’d think so, but it ain’t so easy to find someone to take this case. I ain’t exactly America’s sweetheart, you know. And I figure, what does a guy like you have to lose workin’ for a guy like me?”
“Not much, I guess,” I said, as I reached into my desk drawer and pulled out a notebook.
“You ain’t gonna ask for my autograph, are you? Because if you are, it’s gonna cost you.”
“No. I was just going to take some notes.”
“Why don’t you take off that head gear and get comfortable?”
He removed his hat and the wig and there he was, in all his glory, O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL and one of the most notorious not guilty killers in the annals of American crime. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but one thing I wasn’t going to do was pass up an opportunity of a lifetime—to put O.J. on the hot seat and maybe have a little fun with him.
“So listen, O.J.—you don’t mind me calling you that, do you?”
“It’s my name, man. But I’ve always preferred just plain ‘Juice.’”
“Okay, Juice, what’s with you and blondes?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
He smiled. “The Duke here likes blondes, man.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“It’s the American Dream, my friend. A hot lookin’, long-legged, blonde with a nice pair of headlights, a shiny new Mercedes convertible and a bottle of fine Crys-tal champagne. That’s my idea of heaven. You got a problem with that? You ain’t no damn racist, are you?”
“Nope. I like blondes as well as the next guy,” I said.
“That ain’t exactly what I meant. So anyway, you gonna take this case or am I wastin’ my valuable time?”
“I’m interested. But you know, I gotta say, I watched that trial like everybody else in the country and man, they had some heavy duty evidence that nailed you to the wall.”
“And the verdict was…?”
“Twelve of my peers found me not guilty, my friend. NOT GUILTY! In case you don’t know, that means I…didn’t…do…it.”
“It means you got yourself a good set of lawyers, that’s what it means.”
“Same difference. Hey, I’m the victim here. I’m the one who’s gotta slink around in disguise being the most hated man in America. I’m the one who can’t get a damn job. I’m the one who’s gotta keep it together for two kids who are always gonna ask, ‘Hey, Daddy, is it true that you killed mommy?’ I’m the one who’s gotta hide all his dough so those damn Goldmans can’t get their greedy little hands on it. Look at the rest of ‘em. Marcia Clark. Million dollar book contract. Got her puss on TV every damn day. The other dude, Darden, another million dollar book contract. Cochran. Book contract. TV. Commercials. The dude’s set for life. Scheck? No one heard of him before me, now he’s called in on every goddamn murder case in the U. S. of A. I feel like I was a goddamn charitable institution. And me? Nothin’. No one’s handin’ me a million bucks for my story. I’m not jumpin’ over suitcases in airports no more. I can’t get no fuckin’ job as a sports commentator. Marv Albert—he gets caught slappin’ women around and wearing chick’s underwear, but now he’s back on TV callin’ hoops like nothin’ ever happened. What’s left for me?”
“I suppose you could team up with Pete Rose and Mike Tyson…Bad Boys, Inc. has a certain ring to it.”
“Very funny, man, but it ain’t no joke. They piss on me, pal, but that’s gonna change, because you, or somebody like you, is gonna find the real damn killer.”
“So all this is about money,” I said, thinking that if the answer was yes we really would have something in common.
“It’s about redemption, my friend. It’s about stickin’ it to the man. It’s about giving that big, fat middle finger to every goddamn, hypocritical, white cracker who’s tryin’ to keep the black man down. To every goddamn hypocritical football fan who won a bundle bettin’ on my ass.”
“So you think you’re representative of the black man.”
“Don’t go there, pal, because there’s a chance you won’t come back.”
“Sounds like a threat.”
“Ain’t no threat. The Juice is a peaceful man.” He held up two fingers in the V sign. “I had enough violence to last me a lifetime in pro ball. They unleash the beast in me and it’s fine so long as I’m runnin’ down the field with a pig’s skin under my arm. But now I ain’t got to knock any more heads or run over any more people to get my jollies. I’m just warnin’ you not to get into a discussion you can’t win.”
“So you’re an innocent man…”
“You hear me say I’m innocent? Who’s innocent? You innocent? You walked the straight and narrow your whole damn life? I…don’t…think…so.”
“How do I know you’re not just using me?”
“Using you how?”
“Like tomorrow I see an item on Page 6—‘O.J. hires private dick to find wife’s killer.’ And suddenly there’s a little bit doubt planted in people’s minds as to whether you really did it.”
“How you figure that helps me?”
“Would a guilty man hire someone to find the killer of a murder they were accused of?”
“Now why didn’t I think of that?”
“I think maybe you did.”
He flashed an enigmatic smile. “I ain’t that smart, man. I’m just a dumb-ass, ex-jock lookin’ to get a beer commercial. I want back in.”
“Haven’t you heard? There are no second acts in America.”
“F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“Sounds like something Cosell would’ve said. That man was a walking book of quotations and I don’t think anybody knew what the hell he was talking about.”
“Well, maybe he did say it, but he wasn’t the first.”
“There may not be a second act, but there sure as hell is a second half, man. They never did call the game off at half-time, far as I know. And sometimes I had my best game in the last quarter, when everyone else was bone-ass tired.”
He got up and started ambling around the office, stretching out his knee every once in a while. He stopped in front of a small bookshelf and squinted at the titles. “You like to read, huh?”
“They’re mostly for show. I like to give the appearance of being an educated man.”
“Oh, yeah? You go to college?”
“Four, for me,” he said, grinning. He put the book back and looked at his watch. “Well, we got a deal or not?”
“You gonna take the case or not?”
“Can I think about it?”
“I’m leavin’ town tomorrow.”
“What about I let you know by morning?”
“What do you think is gonna tip the scales?” He took out his wallet, opened it and took out a wad of bills. “You know, the one thing they couldn’t take away from me was my NFL pension. And man, that is one fine-ass pension. If I never worked another day in my life, I’d still be in pretty good shape. And they can’t touch a penny of it. It’s protected. By law. And you know something, I’m a very generous man.” He took a bill and threw it on my desk. It was a hundred. “This is for your time, Swann. And there’s plenty more where that came from. You do me, I do you. The Juice likes to spread it around. You take this job and your life will change forever. You don’t, you’ll be sorry for the rest of your damn life. Your choice, man.”
He reached across my desk, grabbed my pad and pen and wrote something on it. “Here’s my number. You call me by eight o’clock tomorrow morning. I think we’re going to work very well together.”
He turned and walked toward the door. He opened it and took a step out, then turned back and said, “Swann, you take me on as a client you’ll never have to worry about finding other clients for the rest of your life. You’ll be the man who worked for O.J. And who knows, hangin’ with me you might just get your own book contract and some fine-ass pussy. Won’t be long before you’ll be callin’ yours the Earl. We’ll be set for life, my man. The Duke and the Earl. For life.”
And then he was gone.
I walked over to the window. It was raining harder now. The wind was blowing so that the heavy raindrops we’re making a thwacking sound on my window. A moment passed and then I saw O.J. come limping out of the building, listing slightly to one side. He stepped out into the street, which was now fairly deserted. He put up his hand and suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a cab appeared and stopped in front of him. He got in and it sped off.
“Damn,” I thought, “a black man scores a cab in this neighborhood. The Duke must be doing something right.”