Cicero Speaks

Back in the cab after a three day roller coaster ride that included dead bodies, a street shoot-out, a frenetic forty-eight hours of spilling my guts in primary colors on canvas, a conversation with the (maybe) ghost of my dead friend and culminating in having a gun stuck in my face by a predatory female who looked like she could tear my guts out with one swipe of her carniverous claws, and I was ready for a night engaged in something as simple as transporting the city's night owls hither and yon. That's just what I thought I was going to get until Chucks' voice barked out over my intercom. "Hey Johnny, turn on your radio!"

My radio is on," I replied, surprised he hadn't asked me for a dozen of his favorite donuts.

"Not the intercom, stupid. The FM."

 

I never listen to radio. It's crap, as is TV and almost every newspaper I've had the displeasure to peruse. I don't like the way any of them cover the news, or the way newspaper editorial boards editorialize or the idiotic soaps and sitcoms that pass for entertainment on television or the song list on just about every radio station so the commercial radio in my cab stays silent. I keep my own counsel, and think about art, and my next painting. And go on the occasional bender. That's my life, and I like it.

"Why should I listen to the FM, Chuck?"

"Cicero's on."

"Who's Cicero?"

There was an exasperated pause. "Jesus! You never heard of Cicero? He's just about the hottest thing out there on the radio right now."

"And I should care why? Because of the lame-ass songs he plays, or his snappy DJ patter?"

"Nah. He talks a lot about politics, and local stuff between the songs, and right now he's talkin' about you!"

"Why would he be talking about me?

"You found Dupree's body, right?"

"Right."

"Well he's spoutin' off about it right now, and he mentioned you, you jerk." He cut the connection as I turned on the radio and fiddled with the tuner. I found Cicero near the end of the dial. His voice had a nasal, tinny quality about it; annoying actually, nothing like the silkily-baritoned dopes I remembered dominating the airwaves when I actually paid attention to this shit. He was engaged in rapid-fire dialogue, talking over some contemporary tune I didn't recognize.

"That's right boys and girls, the spectacular murder of local icon and war hero Tank Dupree was no random act of violence, or so my sources tell me. The question is why would someone put a hit out on a war hero, and who could have taken him out? For those of us who knew Tank, he was very capable of defending himself. The police have interviewed the cabbie who found the body and come up empty; the coroner performed his autopsy and came up empty . . . (he paused a few seconds for effect) . . . so that leaves little old me, your own radio dude, Cicero, who has the answers. Only nobody wants to know. Why? How about you, Mr. J. J. the cabbie? You interested? Want to have a sit-down with your wacky overnight dude? Step into my parlor, man, and I'll give you the straight poop on everything and anything you want to know, because no one knows like Cicero knows."

He jacked up the volume on the next song as I made a tire-squealing u-turn in the middle of the busy street in the midst of blaring horns and cursing drivers and headed out toward the interstate and beyond, to the lonely country road to the tiny building in the shadow of the tall tower that housed the radio station.

***

It was an old frame farm-house, sided in bright aluminum. The four hundred foot tower behind it swayed in the summer breeze, blinking red light at its crown flashing to warn low-flying pilots of the danger. The gravel in the driveway crunched under my tires as I parked and then under my shoes as I walked to the front door and turned the knob. It was open. I entered the living room turned reception area. There was a half wall with a desk and a typewriter behind it. A family photo adorned the desk top: fat mom, skinny dad and two freckled kids. A cut glass vase with one long-stemmed red rose protruding from it hugged the photo. A gift of love from the man in the photo, I supposed. It was well past midnight, so no one was manning the desk. I opened the half-door in the half wall and went through the door behind it.

There was a long hallway, and at the end of that was another door, a light above the door flashed bright white and the words "On-Air." I ignored it and stepped inside it. A man at a table festooned with brightly lit buttons broke into a smile and leaned into his microphone. "Well, well, ask and ye shall receive," he said. He grabbed an LP and placed it on a spinning turntable, set the needle down on the record. "Let's listen together to an album side," he said. "You're really gonna dig this one. Tom Waits' 'Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night.' Enjoy." As Waits' raspy voice filled the room he reached down and switched off a button that I assumed controlled the microphone, laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back in his chair and widened his smile.

"Johnny Jump, I presume?" he said. His hair was a mass of black Spaghetti-Os. He sported a matching black beard and moustache under the generous Roman nose that bifurcated his face. The overall effect was that of an Italian-American Bozo the Clown.

"Who told you you could spout off about me on your crappy radio show?" I said, more than a little pissed off. I should have been out on the road, racking up the fares so I could accumulate the cash to pay back Sparky and here I was instead, engaged in give and take with some low-level media asshole.

He raised his hands in mock surrender. "Take it easy, chief," he said. "I'm only here to help."

"Help who? You?

"Just giving the people the information they need to know. If I don't do it, nobody will."

"And that information includes popping off about me?"

"I 'popped off,' as you so eloquently put it my man, because you are one hard dude to get ahold of. No phone, no pool, no pets . . ."

". . . . and I ain't got no cigarettes," I shot back, finishing the Roger Miller line for him.

"I can dig it," he nodded, grinning. "So that left me with only one option, the show, to get your attention.

"What's so important about having to get my attention?"

"Information, my man. Information."

He stared me squarely in the eye, all traces of the clown in him now gone.

"That is unless you don't want to find out who killed your pal."

"You know who gutted him?"

"No, but I can put you on the right path, I think."

"How are you going to do that?"

He reached into a cabinet to the left of his microphone and pulled out a few pieces of worn typing paper.

Read it," he said, handing it to me. I began to read.

"Not here. Save it for your crib, man. You need to read it thoroughly, and to think about what it says."

"Does it say who killed Tank? And if it does, why don't you go to the police with this?"

"It does not say, nor does it even point a finger, but what it says and who it talks about will set you on the right path to finding out who killed your pal." He pointed a finger at the papers as I shoved them into my pants pocket.

"The man I describe in there is connected to everything and everyone that happens in this town. If it goes down he has a hand in it, or at least the inside dope."

He paused as if he were broadcasting into his mic, rather than to one lone cabbie.

"I've been waiting to see that dude get his due for many, many years," he said. "Maybe this is finally the time."

"Then why don't you do it yourself? Why give this to me?"

"Look at me, man. I'm all of one hundred thirty pounds under all this hair.  I'm a radio jock, and a chickenshit, too boot. I spin platters for a living. You on the other hand are built like a brick shithouse; you're a war vet, a silver star recipient, you spent a couple of years in the joint doing hard time and it's widely known that you won't back down from a fight, no matter how uneven the odds. And to top it off you're an idealist, Johnny Jump. You're perfect for the job."

"What job?"

He pointed at my pants pocket where I'd shoved the papers. "Read the shit, then you'll know. And be cool about, man. Be very, very cool."

"Cool is something I don't do very well," I replied.

"I know, my man. I know."

I turned to leave. Behind me I heard him speaking to his radio audience, "Remember boys and girls, ladies and chumps, no one knows like Cicero knows."

I left Cicero to his music and his on-air patter. Somehow I felt that he was not long for this world.

 

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