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Authors: Jack Kilborn

Street Music

Street Music

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Street Music is my favorite story of any I’ve written. Phineas Trout was the hero of my first novel, an unpublished mystery called
Dead On My Feet
, written back in 1992. It was unabashedly hardboiled, and it helped me land my first agent. The book never sold, probably because it was unabashedly hardboiled. Phin starred in two more unpublished novels, and then I relegated him to the role of sidekick in the Jack Daniels series, which did wind up selling. I’m intrigued by the idea of a hero dying of cancer, and how having no hope left could erode a man’s morality. I wrote this story right after selling
Whiskey Sour
, and soon after sold it to
Ellery Queen.

itch couldn’t answer me with the barrel of my gun in his mouth, so I pulled it out.

“I don’t know! I swear!”

If that was the truth, I had no use for it. After three days of questioning dozens of hookers, junkies, and other fine examples of Chicago’s populace, Mitch was my only link to Jasmine. I was seriously jonesing; I hadn’t done a line since Thursday. Plus, the pain in my side felt like a baby alligator was trying to eat its way out of my pancreas.

I gave Mitch’s chin a little tap with the butt of the Glock.

“I really don’t know!”

“She’s one of yours, Mitch. I thought big, tough pimps like you ran a tight ship.”

His black face was shiny with sweat and a little blood. Sure, he was scared. But he wasn’t stupid. Telling me Jasmine’s whereabouts would put a dent in his income.

I raised the gun back to hit him again.

“She went rogue on me, man! She ditched!”

I paused. If Jasmine had left Mitch, his reluctance to talk about it made some sense. Mack Daddies don’t like word to get out that they’re losing their game.

“How much money do you have on you?”

“About four hundos. It’s yours, man. Front pants pocket.”

“I’m not putting my hand in there. Take it out.”

Mitch managed to stop shaking long enough to retrieve a fat money clip. I took the cash, and threw the clip—a gold emblem in the shape of a female breast–onto the sidewalk.

“You letting me go?” Mitch asked.

“You’re free to pimp another day. Go run to the bus station, see if you can find some other fresh meat to bust out.”

When I let go of his lapels, his spine seemed to grow back. He adjusted the collar on his velour jump suit and made sure his baseball hat was tilted to the correct odd angle.

“Ain’t like that. I treat my girls good. Plenty of sweet love and all the rock they can smoke.”

“Leave. Now. Before I decide to do society a favor.”

He sneered, spun on his three hundred dollar sneakers, and did his pimp strut away from me.

I probably should have killed him; I had too many enemies already. But, tough as I am, shooting fourteen-year-old kids in the back isn’t my style.

The four hundred was enough to score some coke, but not very much. I thought about calling Manny, my dealer, and getting a sample to help kill the pain, but every minute I wasted gave Jasmine a chance to slip farther away.

Pain relief would have to wait. I pressed my hand to my left side and exited the alley and wondered where the hell I should look next.

I’d already checked Jasmine’s apartment, her boyfriend’s apartment, her parent’s house, her known pick-up spots, and three local crack houses.

To rule out other options, I had to call in a marker.

It was September, about seventy with clear skies, so I took a walk down the block. The first payphone I came to had gum jammed in the coin slot. The second one smelled like a urinal, but I made do.

“Violent Crimes, Daniels.”

“Hi, Jack. Phineas Troutt.”

“Phin? Haven’t seen you at the pool hall lately. Afraid I’ll kick your ass?”

My lips twisted in a tight grin. Jacqueline Daniels was a police Lieutenant who busted me a few years back. We had an on-again-off-again eight ball game Monday nights. I’d missed a few.

“I’m sort of preoccupied with something.”

“Chemo again?”

“No, work. Listen, you know what I do, right?”

“You’re a freelance thug.”

“I prefer the term problem solver. I keep it clean.”

“I’m guessing that’s because we haven’t caught you in the act, yet.”

“And you never will. Look, Jack, I need a favor.”

“I can’t do anything illegal, Phin. You know that.”

“Nothing shady. I just have to rule some stuff out. I’m looking for a woman. Hooker. Name is Janet Cumberland, goes by the street nick Jasmine. Any recent arrests or deaths with that name?”

There was a pause on the line. I could only guess Jack’s thoughts.

“Give me half an hour,” she decided. “Got a number where I can call you back?”

I killed time at a hot dog stand, sipping black coffee mixed with ten crushed Tylenol tablets; they worked faster when they were pre-dissolved.

The phone rang eighteen minutes later.

“No one at the morgue matching that name, and her last arrest was three months ago.”

“Do you have a place of residence?”

Jack read off the apartment number I’d already checked.

“How about known acquaintances?”

“She’s one of Mitch D’s girls. Been arrested a few times with another prostitute named Georgia Williamson, street name is Ajax. Kind of an odd name for a hooker.”

“She one of Mitch’s, too?”

“Lemme check. No, looks like she’s solo.”

“Got an addy?”

Jack gave it to me.

“There’s also a note in Janet’s file, says her parents are looking for her. That your angle? Even if you find her, the recit rate with crack is over 95 percent. They’ll stick her in rehab and a week later she’ll be on the street again.”

“Thanks for the help, Jack. Next time we play pool, beer’s on me.”

“You’re on, Phin. How’s the—”

“Hurts,” I interrupted. “But my doc says it won’t for much longer.”

“The tumor is shrinking? That’s great news!”

I didn’t correct her. The tumor was growing like a weed. I wouldn’t be in pain much longer because I didn’t have much longer.

Which is why I had to find Jasmine, and fast.

She had to die first.

Georgia Williams, aka Ajax, lived on 81st and Stoney, in a particularly mean part of Chicago’s South Side. Night was rolling in, bringing with it the bangers, junkies, ballers, wanna-bes, and thugs. None of them were thrilled to see a white guy on their turf, and some flashed their iron as I drove by.

Ajax’s place wasn’t easy to find, and asking for directions didn’t strike me as a smart idea. Maybe in neighborhoods this bad, whole buildings got stolen.

Finally, I narrowed it down to a decrepit apartment without any street number. I parked in front, set the alarm on my Bronco, and made sure I had one in the chamber.

“You lost, white boy?”

I ignored the three gang members—Gangster Disciples according to their colors—and headed for the building. The front door had a security lock, but it was long broken. There was a large puddle of something in front of the staircase, which I walked around.

Ajax lived in 206. I took the stairs two at a time, followed a hall decorated with graffiti and vomit, and found her door.

“Georgia Williams? Chicago PD!”

Another door opened opposite me, fearful old eyes peeking out through the crack.

“Is Ms. Williams home?” I asked the neighbor.

The door closed again.

I kicked away a broken bottle that was near my feet, and knocked again.

“Georgia Williams! Open the door!”

“You got ID?”

A woman’s voice, cold and firm. I held a brass star, $12.95 on eBay, up to the peephole.

“Where’s your partner?” asked the voice.

“Watching the car. We’re looking for a friend of yours. Jasmine. She’s in big trouble.”

“She sure is.”

“Can I come in?”

I heard a deadbolt snick back. Then another. The door swung inward, revealing a black girl of no more than sixteen. She wore jeans, a white blouse. Her face was garishly made-up. Stuck to her hip was a sleeping infant.

“Can’t be long. Gotta go to work.”

Ajax stepped to the side, and I entered her apartment. Expecting squalor, I was surprised to find the place clean and modestly furnished. The ceiling had some water damage, and one wall was losing its plaster, but there were nice curtains and matching furniture and even some framed art. This was the apartment of someone who hadn’t given up yet.

“I’ll be straight with you, Georgia. If we don’t find Jasmine soon, it’s very likely she’ll be killed. You know about Artie Collins?”

She nodded, once.

“If you know where she is, it’s in her best interest to tell me.”

“Sorry, cop. I don’t know nothing.”

I took out my Glock, watched her eyes get big.

“Do you have a license for this firearm I found on your premises, Georgia?”

“Aw, this is—”

I got in her face, sneering.

“I’ll tell you what this is. Six months in County, minimum. With your record, the judge won’t even think twice. And say goodbye to your baby; when I get done wrecking this place, DCFS will declare you so unfit you won’t be allowed within two hundred yards of anyone under aged ten.”

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