Bettina looked herself up and down in the full-length mirror. She was wearing a black and white swing dress with a full skirt, red cuffs trimmed just below the elbows of the three quarter sleeves, and a red collar at the top end of three big black buttons. Underneath it she wore a Playtex bra and girdle. Along with the dress she had on a black belt, black shoes, and black gloves.
She had a black short-strapped handbag slung from her wrist and a broad-brimmed red hat on her head. She lifted her chin, looking down at the middle of herself. It was her ping-pong games that kept her fit and the girdle that made her look trim.
“You look good,” she thought, “straight from the fridge.”
She turned one way and the other way, taking a peek at her backside. Halfway out of her apartment door she paused, flipped the clasp on her handbag, and made sure she had an Anchor Life Insurance Company business card.
“Swank,” she thought, looking around Dr. Robert Baird’s waiting room.
Everything was white, except for the floor and the two Barcelona chairs. The floor was gray and the chairs were brown. The round receptionist’s desk was white, as was the sofa and small round table in front of the sofa. The ceiling was white and the fluorescent lighting was bright white.
It was 8:35 in the morning on Friday.
“I’m here to see Dr. Baird,” said Bettina.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t, but this will only take ten minutes of the doctor’s time. It’s about the death of Jackson Pollack.”
She handed the receptionist her make-believe business card.
“His first appointment at nine hasn’t arrived yet. Let me see if he can see you.”
She was back in less than a minute.
“The doctor will see you,” she said.
“I love your outfit,” she said.
The receptionist was her own age.
“I got the dress at Macy’s, splurged on the bag at Henri Bendel’s down in the Village, and everything else, well, I just picked up here and there.”
Bettina walked into Dr. Baird’s office. It was even whiter than the waiting room. Dr. Robert Baird came around from behind his large desk, his arm extended, shook her hand, and offered her one of the two chairs at the front of the desk.
“How can I help you, Miss Cross, is it?” asked Dr. Baird, swiveling around in his chair to face her
“Cross, Mrs. Betty Cross,” said Bettina.
“A working woman.”
“Yes,” she said. “A working woman.”
She had been turned off by Dr. Baird at first sight. There was something oily about him, as though he were tossing her a few crumbs by just seeing her. She tried to keep it out of her voice and off her face. She crossed her legs and pulled a spiral bound flip pad out of her pocketbook.
The receptionist hadn’t gone to college for just a M. R. S. degree, meaning finding a husband and becoming a Mrs. She was in her mid-20s, neither married nor engaged. Everyone she knew had married right out of high school or while they were in college. Most of them got pregnant inside a year, and most of them were looking forward to their second and third child.
Her mother told her she was in danger of becoming an old maid.
“Better to die an old maid, mom, than marry the wrong man.”
She had her sights set on making money, a small fortune, at least, and stay a single woman, as sensible and respectable as anybody else.
She liked what she saw of the woman from the insurance company. That was what she wanted to be, someone on the go, not someone stuck behind a desk answering a phone and being polite to whoever walked in the door. She was going to make her own way.
“We carried a policy on the life of Jackson Pollack, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to just ask a few questions about him,” said Bettina.
“I don’t understand,” said Dr. Baird.
“We aren’t asking you to violate the doctor patient relationship, but we would like to know if, in your opinion, he had suicidal tendencies.”
“I’ve heard of Jackson Pollack, of course,” said Dr Baird. “I’ve read about him in the papers, it seems he was larger than life, but I never treated him.”
“Oh” said Bettina. “It was our understanding he was your patient.”
“You were misinformed,” said Dr. Baird.
“He wasn’t seeing you about his drinking?”
Jackson Pollack drank heavy most of his life, starting when he was 15-years-old, on the road, helping his father make topographic surveys of the Grand Canyon. He got psychiatric treatment on and off to cure his alcoholism. Joseph Henderson, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Manhattan, found color sequences and symbols in the illuminated manuscript “Splendor Solis” and worked them into explaining Pollack’s dream images to him.
He got help from Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.
She wrote the Selective Service System in 1941, after he got his draft notice.
“I have found him to be an inarticulate personality of good intelligence, but with a great deal of emotional insecurity, who finds it difficult to form or maintain any kind of relationship. It has become evident that there is a certain schizoid disposition underlying his instability. I venture to suggest that Pollack be referred for a psychiatric examination.”
He was declared unfit for military service. He got re-acquainted with Lee Krasner. They got married. He broke through to the other side.
After the war he slowed and finally stopped drinking, but after the summer of 1950 he took his first drink in two years and from then on stopped painting and drank heavily until his death. Whenever he was soused at the Cedar Tavern up-and-coming artists walking past him would try to touch him for good luck.
“That’s a mistake, get your goddamned hands off me!”
“I don’t have anything more to say,” he told his homeopathic physician Dr. Elizabeth Wright. “What’s the point?”
“I’m sorry about wasting your time,” said Bettina.
“That’s quite all right,” said Dr. Baird.
Bettina retrieved her hat from the coat rack stand. The wall on that side of the office was filled with a ball clock, diplomas, certificates, a letter from the mayor, artsy black-and-white photographs, and a small drawing in a steel frame.
It was a pencil drawing of a man-beast, naked, on his haunches, leaning forward, his nose like a snout, and a snake winding out of his mouth. The initials JP in small squiggly letters were hidden at the bottom, just in sight beneath the man’s calf.
“That’s an interesting drawing,” said Bettina, putting on her hat.
“Oh, that. It’s creepy, if you ask me. It was done by one of the city artists, the one who died a few months ago.”
“The one who crashed his car?”
“Yes, that one. I read all abut it in the papers. He was a drunk. He killed one of the girls in the car with him.”
“Did Dr. Baird know him?”
“Oh, yes, he treated him for months, from about March or April.”
“That picture might be worth a lot of money some day.”
“You think so?”
“I would keep my eye on it,” said Bettina.
After Bettina left, but before she had gotten to the elevator, the receptionist was giving the small drawing a long look, her finger to her chin. She turned back to her desk when she saw her phone blinking.
“Hold my first patient for a few minutes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Yes, sir,” she said.
He dialed the number he’d been given in case of an emergency.
“I had a visitor this morning, a woman who claimed to work for an insurance company that carried a policy on Jackson Pollack’s life,” he said.
“What did she want?”
“She wanted to know if Pollack had ever exhibited suicidal tendencies, if I had been treating him for that.”
“What did you say?”
“I said Jackson Pollack had never been my patient.”
“That was a mistake.”
It wasn’t a mistake from Dr. Baird’s point of view. He planned on being far from New York City by the end of the week, before whatever was supposed to happen happened, more than a half million dollars to the good, almost a million with the rest he had squirreled away, far away in a warm sunny Mediterranean world in a villa where no one would ever find him for the rest of his life. He wasn’t waiting to be paid the balance of what was owed him for the work he had done on Tony de Marco. He suspected the rest of his life depended on getting far away from New York City sooner than later.
“All right, sit tight, we’ll take care of it. What was the broad’s name and who did she say she worked for?”
“He said Jackson Pollack was never a patient of his,” said Bettina after getting back to the office
“We’ve got it from Barney Newman and the wife that he was,” said Stan. “Why would he lie about it when it’s easy enough to see through it?”
“He might be buying time, for some reason.”
“That’s a good thought,” said Stan. “Let’s see if Ezra’s up for some second-story work, do a little digging, get into his files.”
Ezra broke into Whistler Dental Specialists on the fourth floor twenty minutes after they locked up at four o’clock on the Tuesday the following week. He waited and five hours later broke into Dr. Baird’s office in the same building. An hour later he had Jackson Pollack’s file laid out on the receptionist’s desk in front of the Minox spy camera Otis had given him. When he was done photographing it, he returned the file, and removed the film from the camera.
He was wearing a black t-shirt, dark khaki’s, and a brown newsboy cap. He taped the film to the top of the cap’s brim and snapped the bonnet securely to the brim. He put a fresh roll of film into the camera. He tucked the camera away behind the fabric divider in his right front pocket. He waited until it was more than an hour after midnight. He took the fire escape to the first floor and walked out the back door.
He hadn’t taken two steps before he felt, before hearing or seeing them, the two men. A slapjack broke his nose. He hit the ground like he had been dropped. A big man yanked him to his feet and slammed him against the wall. He turned him around. A smaller man with sharp front teeth and a black felt pork pie hat stepped in front of him.
“Hey, don’t I know you,” he said, talking to Ezra’s broken nose.
“No,” said Ezra.
“Sure I do, you’re the zigzag man from down on the docks,” he said, and hit Ezra twice fast high on both sides of his face with the jack.
“Fuck you!” Ezra spit, screaming, and the man hit him in the mouth. Ezra tried to kick him, flailing his legs, but the small man danced away, and then darted in, jabbing him hard in the ribs with the butt end of the slapjack. Ezra felt something crack and slumped in the big man’s arms.
“You’re in a world of hurt, Jew man,” the small man sneered. “What were you doing in there? You tell me or we will take you to another world.”
Bumpy Williams was suddenly behind the small man.
“Let’s beat feet,” said Bumpy. “Radio car just pulled up, blocking that way, they’re coming fast. We got to go the other way.”
The big man let Ezra flop to the ground and the three men walked away quietly briskly.
One of the Radio Motor patrolmen rolled Ezra over.
“Mother of Jesus, you got a bad dose of it,” he said, looking at his face.
The other policeman came back.
“Gone,’ he said. “They must have had a car waiting.”
“Let’s get him to the hospital.”
They helped Ezra to their green, black, and white Ford Tudor RMP, a lit-up ‘Police’ sign on the white roof, one of the policemen sitting in the back seat with Ezra, his battered head in his lap, the other, siren wailing, making the short fast drive to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.
It was half past three in the morning by the time Stan and Bettina pulled up chairs next to Ezra’s bed on the seventh floor. A police guard sat outside the door.
“You look bad,” said Stan
“I feel better,” he said. “They doped me up.”
“Do you know who it was?”
“One of them was the rat face who’s usually hiding behind Big Paulie. The other one, I never saw, he had me from behind. I saw his hands, though. It looks like he was a fighter once. There was an eggplant who came running up when the cavalry got there, but I didn’t recognize him.”
“OK, we’ll get them. Did you find anything?”
“Yeah,” said Ezra, his voice muffled by the drugs and swollen busted lip. “The film is in my hat.’
“I need two, three days,” said Ezra.
“Take your time,” said Stan.
In the hallway Stan stopped, the policeman stood up, and Bettina kept her hand on the doorknob.
“Not to worry,” said the uniformed officer. “One of us will be right here until he’s discharged.’
“Thanks,” said Stan.
“Get Karol and Bartek first thing in the morning,” Stan said to Bettina when they were outside. “Tell them what I want, and tell them I want it by the end of the week, all three if they can do it, but rat face, for sure. I don’t care how they do it, just so long as it gets done.”
“It’ll get done,” said Bettina, a sour metallic taste in her mouth.
Stan hailed a taxi for her.
She got in and he waved the cabbie to go.
“I’m going to walk,” he said.
The cab turned away into the quiet Manhattan morning.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.