Kirby's Last Circus

Kirby's Last Circus

by Ross H. Spencer


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When the CIA chooses Birch Kirby, a mediocre detective with a personal life even less thrilling than his professional one, no one is more surprised by the selection than Birch himself. But the Agency needs someone for a secret mission, and Birch may be just the clown for the job. Going undercover as a circus performer, he travels to Grizzly Gulch to investigate the source of daily, un-decodeable secret messages that are being transmitted to the KGB. Birch interacts with wildly colorful characters while stumbling through performances as well as his assignment. With the clock ticking, Birch must hurry to take a right step toward bringing the curtain down on this very important case.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626819566
Publisher: Diversion Books
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.57(d)

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It was June in Chicago. In Chicago Junes are pretty much the same — robins chirp from tree-tops, pigeons crap on windshields, White Sox stumble, Cubs collapse, mayors and city councils exchange epithets they'd be hard-pressed to spell, school teachers go on strike from jobs they can't handle, potholes riddle the streets, fat women hold up banks, rapists and child molesters lurk in every alley, murder is an everyday fact of life, the weather is oppressively warm, and there are tornado warnings two times a week, sometimes three. Birch Kirby never questioned these things — he had no just cause to do so. He'd been born and raised in Chicago and they'd always been there, like fog in London or coffee in Brazil, but the tornado warnings were a trifle puzzling, even to Kirby. He wasn't a weather freak — he didn't much give a damn if it rained, snowed, froze, or boiled the hell over, but he'd never heard of a tornado warning until he'd reached his teens. Now they came thick and fast, April through October, year in, year out. Something to do with the atomic bomb, he'd been told, a local theory that Kirby hadn't placed a lot of faith in, knowing that when Chicagoans run astraddle of something they can't explain, they blame it on something they don't understand.

Kirby had been living on Diversey Avenue for nearly a year. His lodgings in Stone Park had become untenable for a number of reasons, all of them female, and he'd stumbled onto a likely thing on the north side of Diversey, a three-room apartment, one of two vacant flats located above a quartet of small business accommodations, three of the four occupied — Jolli-Day Travel Services, Sam Anzivino, D.D.S., and Solly Hyman's Fresh Fish Market. Kirby had chosen the flat on the east side of the narrow hallway because its big front room had been converted to combination office quarters and parlor by an aging chiropractor who'd been forced into retirement when he'd slipped two discs while enthusiastically massaging a plump lady's derriere, presumably in the line of duty. Never having had office space, Kirby had signed a lease and fared forth on a shopping safari. At a second-hand furniture store in Franklin Park he'd scrounged up a spavined desk and a battered swivel-chair with one caster missing, the pair coming considerably cheaper than the cross eyed sign-painter who'd lettered KIRBY PRIVATE INVISTEGETIONS on the Diversey Avenue window. Noting that an H and an S were missing from INVESTIGATIONS and remembering that sign-painters are notoriously poor spellers, Kirby had shrugged a philosophical shrug, jammed the chiropractor's abandoned anatomy charts under the swivel-chair's casterless leg, opened a can of Hickory Barrel Ale, turned on the baseball game, and settled into residence.

Perfection is the child of Time, and there'd been early annoyances — the flush-box float hadn't floated, the bathtub had been too small to accommodate more than half of Kirby at one time, the refrigeration had gone on the fritz in Solly Hyman's Fresh Fish Market while Solly Hyman was in Resurrection Hospital having his hemorrhoids removed and the resultant stench had forced Kirby into the backseat of his automobile for three consecutive nights. However, the weather had been reasonably moderate and, all factors taken into consideration, Kirby was convinced that he had the world by the testicles on a downhill pull — his very first office and a passable apartment for less money than he'd been paying for third-floor lodgings in rapidly deteriorating Stone Park.

Kirby didn't know a soul at Jolli-Day Travel Services, his associations with Sam Anzivino and Solly Hyman limited to perfunctory nods and waves, but then Jim Gallagher had occupied the vacant ground-floor office and a month or so later Tizzie Bonkowski had taken the empty flat across the hall, and Kirby had hit it off swimmingly with both. Jim Gallagher had taken a shine to Kirby because Kirby could carry an acceptable barroom tenor to several Irish songs, including Gallagher's favorite, "Where the River Shannon Flows," a number they'd performed with gusto when in their cups, a frequent artistic presentation because Jim Gallagher was in his cups as often as not, and so was Birch Kirby. Kirby wasn't Chicago's busiest private investigator and Gallagher hadn't finalized a real estate transaction in a coon's age, or so he'd told Kirby one evening at Lulu's Jungle Tap, this shortly before they'd ripped full-tilt into "Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" and Lulu had been polite but firm in her request that they either shut the fuck up or get the fuck out before somebody called the fucking police, and they'd hiked around the corner to Ed Berserkski's Polski Inn where they'd sung "Sweet Rosie O'Grady" and somebody had called the fucking police.

On a muggy morning of that particular typical Chicago June, Birch Kirby wandered into Lulu's Jungle Tap. Kirby didn't really wander into Lulu's but he looked like he was wandering in, because his distant, often blank stare and his seemingly directionless amble served to convey the distinct impression that Kirby didn't know where the hell he was going, or what the hell he was going to do if he ever got there, and there were times when he didn't, but this time he did.

Lulu's Jungle Tap was owned and operated on a rather catch-as-catch-can basis by Lulu O'Doul, a dark-haired, blue-eyed, terrible-tempered Irish female of some forty-five tempestuous years, the only daughter of Terence "Terrier" O'Doul who'd tried his hand at several trades — gun-running, hijacking, and counterfeiting, to mention a few — enterprises that had dispatched him to many places — Fort Leavenworth and Alcatraz, for example. Lulu O'Doul stood behind the bar of her establishment, arms akimbo, frowning, shaking her head, watching Birch Kirby straddle a bar-stool. She said, "Oh, laddie, laddie, ye've had a rough night!"

Kirby said, "Why?"

"Your fly's open."

"The zipper's busted — my other pants are in the cleaners."

"You only got two pairs of pants?"

"Hell, how many can I wear at one time?"

"Jim Gallagher was in earlier, looking for you."

"What's with Gallagher?"

"He had some sort of real estate appointment on Armitage Avenue and he wanted you to ride shotgun."

"On Armitage Avenue he may need more than a shotgun! Have you seen Moss Hallahan around?"

"Not since Decoration Day. Why?"

"He owes me fifteen bucks."

"When did he borrow it?"

"Decoration Day."

"You got lucky — Moss owes me twenty-five."

"When did he borrow it?"

"Decoration Day."

Bud Hackelson came in, nodded to Kirby, and went to the south end of the bar. Lulu popped a splotched glass and a bottle of Hickory Barrel Ale onto the mahogany and turned to saunter after Bud Hackelson, smiling, her full buttocks rolling provocatively. Kirby yawned and took a slug of his drink. Funny how a woman's walk can change so abruptly. Kirby knew the signs — they had something on the fire, Bud and Lulu. It'd peak, they'd hit the hay, Lulu would pussy-whip him within an inch of his life, and Bud Hackelson would never again be seen within howitzer range of Lulu's Jungle Tap. Lulu lost more damned customers that way. Kirby sat, sipping his beer, watching Bud and Lulu play grab-ass until the telephone rang. Lulu answered and waved to Kirby, holding the phone aloft. "For you, Birch — it's Jim Gallagher."

Kirby took the phone and said, "Where the hell are you?"

"Armitage and Albany — The Chili Pepper — know the place?"

"Been by it — smack-dab in the middle of Tortillaville."

"Yeah, how soon can you make it?"

"Twenty minutes, outside — what's up?"

"I may have a problem here — three tacos want to take me out in the alley."

"What for?"

"To work me over. As I recall, it had something to do with the fucking Alamo — one of these characters claims to be a shirt-tail relative of Santa Anna."

"Jim, this is getting monotonous. Last week it was that joint on Division Street."

"This is no time for trivialities."

"I'm leaving now."

"I'll try to stall 'em. Be in the alley."

Kirby hung up, grabbed his cigarettes, dodged traffic crossing Diversey Avenue to his Ford, peeled rubber leaving the curb, ran half-a-dozen red traffic signals while careening southeast, and hit Armitage and Albany in fifteen minutes flat. He sprinted into the alley behind the Chili Pepper and stopped short. Jim Gallagher was there with three Mexicans, one of whom was conscious, squatting against a rotting wooden fence, holding his head and groaning. Jim Gallagher was perched on a garbage can, smoking a cigarette. He smiled sheepishly. He said, "I couldn't stall 'em."

Kirby said, "Which one's the relative of Santa Anna?"

Gallagher said. "I forget — what the hell, they all look alike."

Kirby said, "So now what?"

Gallagher said, "Well, we could drive down to North Avenue."

"What's on North Avenue?"

"Diablo's Den."

"What's at Diablo's Den?"

"More Mexicans."


Gallagher blew on his knuckles. "Okay, we'll go to Lulu's and sing."

They went to Lulu's and sang. They sang "Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?" and "Peg o' My Heart" and "Galway Bay" and somebody called the fucking police. Kirby would have bet five hundred dollars that it was Lulu, but Kirby didn't have five hundred dollars. Not at that time.


They call it depression, or melancholia, or the blues, or the black dog. Whatever they call it, Birch Kirby had it. It wasn't an occasional thing with Kirby, it seemed permanent — a downward pressure that threatened to hammer his brain into his socks, a vast weariness more mental than physical, a numbing treadmill fatigue that comes when effort has outdistanced accomplishment and the future is nowhere to be seen. Kirby was on the shady side of thirty-seven and he was sick of the big gray city on the diseased lake. He was a loser gorged with losing and fed up with fellow losers, the fever was deep in his belly, in his eyes, in his soul, a man damned if he quit and damned if he didn't. The best spans of his existence were those spent in sleep because sleep brought dreams that Kirby didn't recognize as dreams until he awakened, dreams that held hope for that moment or that hour or however the hell long dreams last, and hope to Birch Kirby was a golden-haired lady in a silver gown — he'd seen her many times, she'd come with his dreams, but always her face had been turned from him.

At two-thirty in the morning he was sleeping the deep sleep, the sweet sleep, the sleep of sleeps, when his telephone jangled him out of it, one level at a time. When he'd managed to break the surface he sat up in bed, plucked the phone from its cradle, dropped it, lost it, found it in his shorts, fished it out, glared at it, and said nothing. Tizzie Bonkowski's voice rustled on the line, cautious, subdued. She'd be using the emergency telephone she kept hidden in her bathroom laundry hamper. "Birch?"

"Yeah, Tiz?"

"Birch, trouble!"

"Okay, Tiz, hang on." Kirby hung up, piled out of bed, dug his clothing out of a chair, and dressed fumblingly to ease from his apartment and across the hall. He located Tizzie's key on his ring, unlocked her door, and stepped into her living room. Tizzie Bonkowski sat huddled on her sofa, trembling as with a chill, her lank peroxide-blonde hair straggling about her drawn face, her large, pale-blue eyes wide with fear. The front of her black satin pajamas had been ripped out, and high on her left cheek there was a livid bruise that would be a full-fledged shiner before dawn. At her tiny bar a hulking, hairy-faced man mixed himself a drink. Kirby waved to him. He said, "Well, hi, there!"

The hairy-faced guy wrinkled a fuzzy lip and growled, "All right, you sonofabitch, out — I mean now!"

Kirby said, "Aw, looky, fella, don't be that way!" He approached Tizzie Bonkowski's guest, extending a peaceful hand and smiling his most ingratiating busted-tooth smile. The hairy-faced character wasn't buying any olive branches. He coiled and lashed out like a diamondback rattler. Kirby brushed a schoolyard haymaker into thin air and buried his left fist to the wristwatch in the big man's solar plexus, doubling him up like an eleven-dollar jack-knife. He brought him erect with a right uppercut and tagged him with a crisp left hook and a whistling right. He caught him in a fireman's-carry as he crumpled floorward, lugging him into the hallway and pitching him down the stairs. When the prolonged rumbling had ceased, Tizzie Bonkowski appeared in his doorway. She chirped, "Thanks, Birch! Come in, won't you?"

Kirby smothered a yawn. "Not tonight, Tiz, thanks anyway."

"Just for a little while?"

"Naw, Tiz, I'm still half-asleep. You'd better put some ice on that eye."

"I will, right away. You're always welcome, Birch."

"I know that, Tiz."


"Yeah, Tiz?"

"Your fly's open."

"Yeah, well, you see, I got dressed in a hurry. Goodnight, Tiz."

Kirby liked her, he really did, he liked her a whole bunch. When you've slept with a woman a few dozen times, when you've listened to her mumble in her sleep and felt her snuggle against you in the dead of the night, you get hunches, and Kirby had a hunch that Tizzie Bonkowski was one helluva female, even if she was a twenty-five-dollar hooker.

Within five minutes Kirby was sleeping the deep sleep, the sweet sleep, the sleep of sleeps, and Hope had returned to his bedside, a golden-haired lady in a silver gown, but her face was turned from him and this saddened Kirby, even in his sleep.


Lulu O'Doul said, "A penny for your thoughts."

Kirby came out of his dark brown study to glance around Lulu's Jungle Tap like he'd never seen the place before. He said, "Don't get in over your head." He and Lulu were the only people in sight, and his Hickory Barrel Ale had gone flat. "I was sort of hoping that Jim Gallagher would come in this afternoon."

"Why — so you two can get into a brawl with a couple bricklayers?"

"I don't know any bricklayers."

"No? Well, I'll bet Gallagher does! You bastards drive me crazy! If you ain't in a fight, you're raping poor 'Little Annie Rooney'!"

"We never raped 'Little Annie Rooney' here — we rape 'Little Annie Rooney' over at Bailey's Keg. Bailey always requests 'Little Annie Rooney.'"

"Bailey is a drunken, stone-deaf masochist."

"Jack Bailey is a highly intelligent and sensitive man."

"Uh-huh, and Attila the Hun wore panty-hose. Say, I heard somebody busted into Doc Anzivino's office last night."

"Yeah, kids, probably, looking for dope."

"Dope — what kind of dope? Dentists don't got H or coke."

"Then maybe it was needles."

"Pushers give needles away. It's a standard introductory offer. You live in Doc's building — hear anything unusual during the night?"

"Yeah, a guy fell down the stairs. Helluva ruckus."

"That ain't unusual in Doc's building. I hear tell that ten, twelve guys fall down them stairs damn near every week! What's wrong with 'em?"

Kirby shrugged. "Drunk, I suppose."

"I'm talking about the stairs!"

"Oh — well, nothing, except that the light ain't too bright up there."

Lulu didn't respond. She was staring through her murky plate glass window. She frowned and said, "Who do you know that drives a long black Cadillac?"

"Foggy Dugan."

"Who's Foggy Dugan."

"The chauffeur at Nash-Courtney Funeral Parlor on Lawrence Avenue."

"The guy who always wears roses in his lapel — steals 'em from the flower car? That bastard?"

"Sometimes it's a carnation."

"Well, anyway, this ain't Foggy Dugan."

Kirby turned to watch a big man depart the Cadillac parked in front of Lulu's. He wore a rumpled gray leisure suit, a powder-blue sports shirt, and shiny black loafers. His dark hair was silver-flecked and thinning but he was tanned and fit-looking and Kirby would have thought twice before calling him anything but "sir." He carried himself well, walking lightly, shoulders back, belly sucked in tight, and he had the gnarled hands of a lumberjack. He was bushy-browed and steely blue-eyed with the battered nose of a club-fighter, a tight, turned-down-at-the-corners, thin-lipped mouth, and a jutting, confident jaw. He stalked into the dim confines of Lulu's Jungle Tap, pausing briefly to take stock of his strange surroundings before easing his considerable bulk into a booth. Lulu leaned over the bar and muttered, "Batten down the hatches — I think the joint's just been busted."

Kirby shook his head. "Not by this cat. He ain't no cop."

"Why ain't he no cop?"

"He don't got that defeated look — Chicago cops all got that defeated look."

Lulu sighed. "Okay, hold onto your hat." She left the bar and headed for the booth to speak briefly with the newcomer, flicking her eyes in Kirby's direction during the conversation. When she returned, she wore a puzzled expression. She said, "Birch, he wants to talk to you!"


Excerpted from "Kirby's Last Circus"
by .
Copyright © 1987 Ross H. Spencer.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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