Who are the suits and why are they here?

President Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade approximately one minute before the first shot rang out. Photograph: Associated Press
President Kennedy in the Dallas motorcade approximately one minute before the first shot rang out. Photograph: Associated Press

PAT KIRKWOOD COULD TURN A DIME into a dollar and keep the dime. There in the dim light of his own personal tavern, an all-night beatnik coffee house tunneled beneath a downtown Fort Worth hotel, all he could see were bodies lying around on cushions beside small coffee tables.

The music made the walls vibrate around him. The drums were deafening, and the amp for the electric guitar had been turned up as loud as it would go. Johnny Carroll was behind the microphone, screaming an assortment of jazz and blues, and a slump-shouldered black gentleman, King George Cannibal Jones, was pounding out a hard rhythm on a fifty-five gallon oil drum. The music would go on all night, from dark to dawn, or even longer if someone had a dollar to spend and a tip for the waitresses.

The room was a curious concoction of stark black and white. Someone had painted on one wall: “You must be weird, or you wouldn’t be here,” and on another, “Evil spelled backward is live.”

Pat Kirkwood and a lovely friend at The Cellar.
Pat Kirkwood and a lovely friend at The Cellar.

He frowned when he saw the men seated up front near the Bandstand. He slowly counted them. There were ten in all. They were new, at least new to him.

They weren’t part of the usual crowd of night crawlers who came to the Cellar solely because it possessed an alcoholic hint of sin and scandal.

If there had been a bad side to Sodom and Gomorrah, it would have resided in the back corner of the Cellar.

“Who are the guys in the suits,” he whispered to Dubber, his bouncer.

“Beats me.”

“How long they been here?”

“Since before midnight.”

“They drinking?”

“They brought their own.”

Kirkwood frowned. “They’re hustling the girls,” he said.

“Everybody hustles the girls,” Dubber said. “That’s why you have the girls.”

Kirkwood could not deny it. A lot of places sold ice and mixers. A lot of places had live music. A lot of places had girls. His took their clothes off. Well, they weren’t naked in the Biblical sense, but they were close enough. They did come to work, promptly strip down to their bras and panties, grab a tray, and start waiting tables. Tips, they noticed, were in direct proportion to the amount of skin and lace that showed. White skin. Black lace. The combination fit the décor perfectly.

Kirkwood simply hired pretty girls. The darkness made them beautiful. A drink of two made them sexy. The music could sometimes make them dance. And often, God forbid, a bra fell off somewhere between verses. A lot of girls worked their way through Texas Christian University with a bra hanging loose around their shoulder.

The suits were tipping big. By now their coats were wrinkled. Their ties had been loosened. Their white shirts had a stain or two of spilled whiskey. One wanted to dance. “Don’t let him dance,” Kirkwood told Dubber.

Dubber grinned. Crowd control was his specialty.

One look at Dubber’s face, and the suit lost his urge to dance. Of course, he was having trouble standing, and the music was so loud that the floor would not stay still beneath his feet. It must be the music. He reached for another bottle.

The suits bothered Kirkwood, and he didn’t know why.

He glanced around and squinted in the darkness. He knew most of the faces, some better than others. But all were familiar. The suits were different. The suits were out of place. He knew it but did not know how or why he knew it. The suits didn’t leave until five o’clock when the band played its final lullaby. Kirkwood watched them slowly climb the stairs, and a couple were staggering.

He stopped the waitress who had made a career out of serving them. “Know who they are?” he asked.

“The Secret Service,” she said.

“That’s what they told you?”

“They did.”

“They’re lying to you,” Kirkwood said.

“One showed me his badge.”

She giggled.

“What is the Secret Service doing in here?” he asked.

“Kennedy’s in town.”

“They should be with the President.”

“One said they got bored and asked the fire department to stand guard outside his hotel room.”

She giggled again.

Kirkwood shook his head. He did not like the foreboding sense of dread that lay boiling in his stomach. He should have talked to the suits earlier. He should have found out who they were. He should have made them leave.

He sighed. Too late now, he decided. Besides, they were paying with cash.

The Secret Service walked in unannounced.

They left the same way.

Seven hours later, on the streets of downtown Dallas, beneath an open window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, a President was shot.

Kirkwood sat stunned. He would watch the film time and again. He saw the agent running frantically to reach the President’s car as the First Lady crawled in a precarious daze toward him. Kirkwood wasn’t sure, but he thought he recognized him.

The agent hadn’t been moving very fast when he left the Cellar either.


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