After some unexpected shuteye, I dragged my bag of bricks out of that ugly green armchair and back into the kitchenette to start up another round of coffee. As far as I could tell it was sometime after 9 in the morning. When the pot hit the flame, I stepped into the bathroom to shave. After three or four minutes of scraping the blade across my face, I came back out with shaving cream all under my jaw and poured myself a cup, black.
I sat at the little wooden table outside the kitchenette. The puny thing was made for half a person. Barely a nightstand in any normal home and low. My knees never cleared the underside, so I sat sideways, like a giant in a dollhouse drinking tea all by himself. But I was tall to begin with. A little too tall I’d been told. And when I was younger man, a little too thin. In my forty-third year all that changed. Now a small tire hung where a washboard used to be and I moved a little slower than I used to. But I still had a full head of thick dark hair. So, I couldn’t complain.
I took a cold shower and dressed. Swigging one last sip of coffee, I opened my front door to a surprise. It was Italy’s greatest weapon, Josephine Spinelli, my landlady. She stood stout at 4’8″ with a sour face like a lemon-sucking fascist. At least a deuce and a half. And always in a pale blue house dress with pink roses splattered across it. It was hard to tell the difference between the roses and the stains of her daily gravy.
She came over from Naples at the age of 14 and was considered the property of her husband, Giuseppe. The only problem was Giuseppe, a real son of a bitch according to his widow, took a walk into the East River three years after her coming over here. It didn’t take her long to find her real Prince Charming, Mario Spinelli. Equally short and about 100 pounds thinner, Mario only lived to make his wife happy. Together they bought a flea-trap tenement on Cherry Street where Mario ran a grocery and Josephine rented rooms to the dregs of the city. I was one of them. And I was yet to find anyone in this town tougher than her.
“Mistera Finch,” her accent was subtle, like a cool breeze on a hot June afternoon. Her hand whipped out a small envelope from the pocket of her house dress. It was as crumpled and tired as I was.
I snatched it up. “What are you torturing garlic downstairs?” The smell kicked me harder than a drunken speakeasy bouncer after a few wise words.
She didn’t even blink. “Thisa come for you very early thisa morning.”
“Thanks.” I put it in my pocket. There was something in it. She didn’t move. She wanted to know what it was. “Excuse me Mrs. Spinelli. I have an appointment.”
“Bullashit!” She also cursed like a Red Hook dockworker. “You a going to Tony’s to sit on youra ass and eat youra breakfast.”
“And it’s an appointment I like to keep.” She still wouldn’t budge and I certainly couldn’t move that truck of a body out of my way without brute force.
“Whatsa so special it needs to wake upa my Mario at 4 AM? You know me I a never sleep. But mya Mario needsa his rest.”
I smiled in a way I’d hope would work her over, “Now that’s for me to find out in private.”
“Nota in my house it isn’t.”
I kept smiling just on the hope it would make her crack. She just wanted me to mouth off so she could sock me. “Do you read all my mail?”
“You don’t geta any. This isa the first piece and it comes to wake upa my Mario at 4 in the morning.”
“You mentioned that. Look, my deepest apologies for waking up, Mr. Spinelli. I know he’s a busy guy running his shop and all.” I reached into my pocket and slipped out what felt like a small key. I took the envelope out and opened it. A note nestled on a crumpled piece of blank stationary read, “Love, Franny.” I held it out to Mrs. Spinelli. She snatched it out of my hand like a frog tongue to a fly. After inspection, she grunted and threw it back at me. “What about the key in youra pocket?”
The thought crossed my my mind that I should hire this woman to shadow me. And as a bonus, she’d be good in a fight. “Not a clue what you’re talking about, Mrs. Spinelli.”
Her eyes filed themselves down to dark and powerful slits. “Youa think youa so smart. Alla I know is, no woman delivered that. It was a man. A weak looking man. No woman.”
“Well how do you know Franny isn’t a man?”
She finally moved from her perch outside my door. The hallway was barely letting in any of the morning sun. The walls were so brown and there were so many layers of thick dark paint that sunlight couldn’t make a dent.
Her body labored down the stairs, each one screaming in pain with all that weight on them. “That’s a woman’s writing. And besides you have a no idea who a Franny is or why she givea you that key.”
She was right about every single point and I both loved and hated her for it.
“Some a detective you are, huh?” She burst out into a roaring laughter that made her bosoms shake as she pounded down the stairs.