BY LARRY FLEWIN
A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
I CAN always tell when a storm is coming. The warm mid-afternoon cools down quickly, and clouds roll in like a deep dark tide. People start looking over their shoulders, walking just a little faster. The wind picks up, sending hats flying and leaves spinning. And just when you think you might be spun off your feet and up into the sky yourself, the wind holds its breath, and the world becomes as still as midnight.
Then, all hell breaks loose, and all at once. The lightning rips up the darkened sky in great bursts of light, and the thunder shakes the ground like a runaway train. The rain comes, a hard rain, thick as grass and heavy as lead. When it stops, just for just a split second the world feels cool and clean again.
My old gran said the sound of a summer storm was nothing more than the angels bowling. Love thy fellow man she would say, and then smack me for not washing behind my ears. Fine for her, sitting in her living room and sipping tea, and quoting from the bible to her cat. The thunder reminded me of a time I would just as soon forget, but can’t.
A lot changed after that ended, and all for the better, mostly. For the longest time things appeared to be on the up and up in the world, work was plentiful and money was no object. Then, overnight, it all went sour. It was like the world lost patience with us and our happier, sunnier lives, and kicked us all to the curb. One day we were rolling along, having a few laughs and making a little money, and the next it was over. Period.
I was working on an accounting case for some uptown bow tie at the time, but he chose to take a dive off the roof rather than listen to my report, or pay me. That was a Tuesday, and by the weekend, a dark cloud had rolled in, blocking out the sunshine and any hope of a better life. No more laughs, no more work, no more money.
It got deeper and darker, all that crap about brotherly love and love thy neighbour replaced by long lines for a bowl of soup, and even less hope. There was something about food that added a certain ugliness to it all. Men opened their hearts, and women their blouses, just for the chance at a nickel steak and a cold beer. One took courage and one took nerve, but in the end, all it got them was bread, soup, and a line to stand in for more.
Call it luck, call it skill, but I still have a job, if you can call it that, and a life, if that’s is what this is. I burn a lot of midnight oil, and pound a lot of pavement. There isn’t much difference between them and me except that I can afford a better class of soup. In my line of work, hope can be just as elusive, but I get paid to find that out.
I spent the evening doing what I usually do on a rainy Thursday. Not a whole helluva lot. The murder business was a little slow, leaving me time to perfect my smoke rings, and my drinking. Doing somebody else’s dirty work wasn’t the prettiest way to make a living, but it paid the rent, and kept the phone company off my back. Not that the phone ever rang much, but at least my desk had company.
I had just completed a fine repast as they say, at the diner up the road. More of a hole-in-the-wall than anything fancy enough to be called a diner. The booths were covered in worn red leather, the table tops pitted and scarred. It needed new paint, new lights, and a new menu, but who was I to complain. The menu featured all things fried, the house speciality being grease à la mode with a beer chaser.
The owner was Stella “Five Star” Johnson, someone I’d known forever and who probably knew me better than myself. An old-world momma was Stella, treated her customers with surly disdain, and wasn’t afraid to bounce anyone looking for a free lunch. There weren’t any in her world, except for me, I got to run a tab.
One thing about me that rubbed her the wrong way was the menu, I never read it. This guy only ever wanted steak and fries and a side of slaw. She called it my usual, I called it heaven on a plate. With what I had to go through to earn my daily bread, that was about as good as my life got.
“Sure ya don’t want something else, I got meatloaf.”
“Don’t know what you’re missing, it’s real quality stuff.”
“Just the steak, honey, just the steak, and don’t forget the gravy this time.”
A couple racks of eight ball next door at Jerry’s, and I was dragging my sorry self home for the night. Again. Just like every other night for the last three weeks, only this time I left my last five-spot behind. Should have figured him for a hustler, but I was too full of the milk of human kindness, and Stella’s home cooking, to notice. Side pocket gets me every time.
It started raining about four in the afternoon, pouring at 4:15, and hadn’t let up since. As I turned the last corner and headed into the home stretch, it began to rain even harder, if that’s possible. Turned up my collar, tugged on my hat brim, and made a run for it.
The streets were empty of life, which suited me just fine. You get tired of giving every crumb you meet the brush off. Yeah, yeah, we all gotta eat buddy, but I come first. House rule. That’s when the lightning did a number on the skyline, and in that split second, things got a whole lot worse.
Now, if you were like me born and raised in the big city, you’d know this particular corner of it was nothing special. Couple of run down storefronts, a sidewalk, and some rusty street lamps were all the civic pride we cared to muster. Mail was at the bottom of the stairwell; my office took up the front half of the second floor. One big window let in enough light to scare off the spiders, and wake me up in the morning.
The rest of the place was a Chinese laundry, run by a five-foot fireball. Mrs. Chen. Business was good judging by all the brown paper parcels coming and going. Apparently you weren’t anybody if you didn’t have starch in your shorts, and they excelled at its use. The whole reeked of steam and starch and sweat, the babble of a thousand voices hard at work, and one shrill drill sergeant.
Otherwise, it was just me and the mice. Tony Ford, Private Investigator.
When it comes to my business, the smart ones always knock first. Nobody likes surprises, least of all me. It’s dusty, smoky, and dark in here, just the way I like it. The closet is empty and the tan leather heap in the corner doubles as a bed on occasion. Other than a desk, a telephone, and a sink, my world and welcome to it.
Everything else I owned in this life fit in the desk. Which wasn’t saying much when you consider it was little more than a bottle of scotch, dry socks, and a .38 police special in a kneehole drawer. Files? Don’t have them; because l doesn’t need them, what was the point. Once the case was solved, I got paid, and everybody went home. Usually everybody.
What the lightning revealed was nothing less than 320 supercharged horses parked right out front. Maroon coachwork, black leather interior, and a 15-foot wheelbase. Not that a guy could get sentimental over a car, but this was no ordinary iron. She was a love affair on wheels, a big, beautiful, Duesenberg. Too bad my old friend Michael Panychkin was her lover, his affairs usually ended with somebody dying, and not very pleasantly.
A local thug with more brains than brawn, Michael and I had crossed paths on more than one occasion. He was a good little boy from the north end of town, ran a couple of clubs, among other enterprises, and was a leading light in the local men’s social clubs. Had money to burn and was always sending some of it home to mama. Everything else about him oozed evil.
So what the hell was he doing here? We’d steered clear of each other lately, if only because my casework kept me out of his line of fire. I tried to blink away the rain, looking for any other signs of life, but there weren’t any. Not a living soul to be seen. Just the Iron Lady parked by the curb.
It was close to midnight by my watch, and the rain was unrelenting, so I stepped back into the shadows and prepared to spend the night standing up. If he was up there waiting for me, then he could stay there. I was in no hurry to renew our friendship.
It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes later when I heard the screams. They were coming from the direction of the car, which puzzled me. My Chinese neighbours couldn’t possibly interest anyone, and I was over here, so who, or what, was making all the racket. I stepped out of the shadows for a quick look.
Bad idea. Two big goons in cheap suits appeared, dragging some banshee between them. Despite the darkness and the rain, those two I would know anywhere. The big ape was Oleg. Ollie for short. A pig-faced giant of a man, with hands like hams and a disposition to match. Michael’s right arm, he did little more than nod, smile, and kill. His companion was a shorter version I called Happy. Couldn’t pronounce his name to save my life, but knowing he carried an ice pick did. So, no Michael, but this wasn’t much better.
The lightning flashed again, a dazzling bolt that froze time and space for a split second, we all of us taking one more step before mutual recognition set in. Then we all danced the same right-handed ballet, and fired off the opening rounds of a renewed friendship. Two holes appeared in the sign over my head, the sound of the shots lost in the night. I replied in kind, snapping off a couple from the edge of the doorway.
Unfortunately, the Iron Lady was in the line of fire and took a hit. She lost a headlight, which wouldn’t please Michael very much. Nobody pays that kind of money for a fancy set of wheels and a custom paint job just to have me to shoot it up. I stayed low and small, hoping that they hadn’t seen much more than the muzzle flash.
There was a lot of yelling and screaming, thunder and lightning, but no more bullets. A slow count to 10 and I eased my piece around the corner, looking for the other headlight. A blur shot out of the dark and I was flat on my back with the banshee on top of me. It must have gotten away when everybody was saying hello. Why it came my way I didn’t know, but that was the good news. The bad news was my gun was 20 feet away, knocked out of my hand when I’d gotten run over.
She was a Colt 45 automatic, with worn bluing and a filed down sight. I loved that thing like a brother, the only part of my past that I was even remotely proud of. We travelled the high roads, and the low, together, and had saved my life more than once. Right now I was crawling along the sidewalk in a cold sweat, trying to get to it before the ice pick made an appearance.
There was a deep, throaty growl and Iron Lady roared past, Happy at the wheel. I guess they’d had enough for one night, or maybe I’d scared them off. Either way, they were gone and that was good. I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of sleeping outside again.
As I collected myself, my piece, and my dignity, I tried to figure out what the hell had just happened. All I knew for sure was I was soaking wet, back in Michael’s sights, and out the cost of a couple of slugs. On top of which, there was no sign of the object of everyone’s desire. Whoever the banshee was, he, she, or it, was long gone. And all I did was go out for dinner.
My only thought now was that there was a liquid cure-all with my name on it in the top drawer of my desk, if the boys hadn’t already helped themselves. That had also saved my life on more than one occasion, or at least made the occasion more bearable. Tonight was probably going to be another one of the latter. A quick look around and I holstered my piece and headed for home again, soaking wet, fed up, and thirsty.
Turns out the banshee was waiting for me in the next doorway, all curled up like a wet cat. The street light outlined a tiny little thing, pale faced, soaked to the skin and shaking with the cold. It stepped out gingerly into the pouring rain and came up to me as I trudged along. It was a woman, on the younger side of 30, with big dark saucers for eyes.
“You are Tony Ford, yes?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you.”
“I have something for you,” she said, and started fumbling with her clothes. She didn’t seem to be wearing much more than a trench coat and slippers, but it was hard to tell. The rain had glued everything to her body and she was having a hard time getting them apart.
“Look, sister,” I said, angrily. “Whatever it is you got for me, I ain’t interested. Whatever problem you got with Michael’s got nuthin’ to do with me. The rescue’s on the house. I’m cold, I’m tired, and I’m going home. See ya in the funny papers.” And with that, I pushed past her, and marched straight for that home. I was thinking hard about hot toddies, and hoping like hell to make my dream a reality some time before dawn.
She caught up to me before I had taken more than two steps, and grabbed onto my right arm. There was a determined look on her face, those big round eyes staring up at me in soulful desperation. She swallowed hard, like she was trying to drink the rain.
“Wait, please wait.”
Next thing I knew she was waving a soggy envelope in my face.
“I ain’t a postman, honey. Go find someone else to mail it.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t understand, honey, what are you buggin’ me for. I’m in enough trouble already thanks to you. Beat it, sister.”
The rain had stopped, so our voices echoed loudly off the dripping brickwork. A little too loudly for me. There was a flatfoot who patrolled the area on a regular beat, but I guess with the rain he had been hiding out. If he was anywhere nearby, he’d heard the shots and was on his way over to find out what was going on. And he knew me well enough to start asking the kind of questions I couldn’t answer. I pushed her roughly aside and moved on.
When I finally got to the stairwell and my mail, there weren’t any more goons, bullets, or soggy envelopes. I was half expecting the kid to jump me again, and maybe try to make me eat her envelope or something. I mean, she hadn’t quit up to now, so when I pulled out my mail and nothing happened, my curiosity got the better of me. Or was it guilt. I don’t normally go around giving dames the brush-off like that, but this one had rubbed me the wrong way right from the get go.
I knew I should have never looked back. Too much of that can soften you up. A private snoop can’t afford to be soft, or he winds up dead. Just like her, or so I thought. From the stairwell, I could see the street was deserted, except for a lump of something under the street light. It had to be the girl. I didn’t think I’d been that hard on her, I mean a shove’s a shove, right? Or maybe she was playing dead to get my attention. Either way I couldn’t let it go, I had to go back.
As I walked over, I could see that it was her, laying on her back on the sidewalk, arms and legs spread out like she’d fallen off a cross. I knelt down beside her, checking for signs of life, thinking I’d overdone it again. She seemed okay, cold to the touch, almost frozen, but her breath I could see, and the pulse on the limp wrist was good. However, the envelope she’d been waving at me was not. It was ripped open, spilling a fortune in cash all over her.
Dough. Bucks. Deniro. Semolians. Cold hard cash, and lots of it. I didn’t stop to count it but started scooping it up and jamming it into every pocket and opening I had. There had to be a couple grand here at least, if not more. A whole lotta steaks in my hot little hands, and no one in sight to claim them but me and Little Orphan Annie. And she was out cold. I had no idea who she was, but I wasn’t about to leave her now. With this kind of cash in her hands, and mine, she was worth a couple of minutes of my time.
I lugged her up the stairs and dumped her into the tan big armchair in the corner where she dozed until dawn. Thankfully, she didn’t snore, otherwise I might have thought twice about it. I pulled her coat close around her and checked for a purse or some kind of identification. That there wasn’t any didn’t surprise me. There was a mystery developing here, and I was in it whether I liked it or not. I added my old army blanket to keep her warm.
As for me, I whiled away the hours playing the numbers game. The number of shots of firewater scotch I could down before kissing the floor, and how many 50s and 100s went into a grand. The first was easy, but only after the bottle was empty. The second should’ve been a snap. Trouble was I’d started counting shots before I’d started counting the dough.
They say time passes quickly when you’re having fun. I didn’t notice the time or the fun, but they must have taken up most of the night. Next thing I knew dawn was trying to scratch its way through my window and wake up the room. And if that wasn’t enough, the blanket was showing signs of life. Big brown eyes appeared, staring at me over the edge of the blanket. At least I think they were. In my condition, everything was that colour
I returned the stare, casually leaning back in my chair and blowing smoke rings at her. There were a million questions swimming in the booze I’d just had for breakfast but the one that made it to the shore first was the most obvious.
“Got a name, doll?”
“Hey, I’m askin’.”
Still nothing. Great. Another tight-lipped broad. This town seemed to be full of them. It was all I didn’t need right now, not this early in the morning, and not with a hangover the size of a bowling ball parked on my shoulders. I leaned forward on the desk, arms crossed, returning stare for stare.
“I want some answers, honey, you owe me that much. I’m not exactly Michael’s best friend, so he’s going to be plenty mad when he finds out it was me that saved your keister last night. Least you can do is tell me who I stuck my neck out for.”
That’s when Mother Nature took over. She wasn’t very patient either, especially with this old doughboy. Every once in a while the old girl got it into her head to do something about me, and that usually meant something drastic. This was one of those times, I could feel it, a slow burn in my gut that getting hotter by the second. Everything from the waist up had decided it was time to leave the way it had come.
One thing about my office, everything was close at hand, including the sink. Didn’t have to go too far to do what I had to do, but it didn’t leave much room for privacy either. I’d always thought that was a good joke, a private eye with no privacy. Well, Ma Nature wasn’t in a joking mood, what followed wasn’t pretty and I didn’t care.
A cold-water wash snapped me awake enough to start seeing single again. I never had any hot, the laundry next door always seemed to get there first. I took a good look at myself in the mirror, didn’t like what I saw, and more importantly, didn’t recognise. Was that thinning, baggy-eyed thing really me, was I really getting too old for all this?
There was something about being a PI that seemed to suck the life out of a guy. Especially this one. Time was I could go round the clock for days on end, with nothing more than a pack of Luckies and a mickey to keep me going. Now I was lucky if I didn’t fall asleep on a stakeout or run out of gas after a three block chase. Shook my head to snap myself out of it, and kick my brain into gear.
As I towelled off, I snapped a glance her way, hoping to see she’d taken a powder. Who could blame her. I wasn’t exactly Errol Flynn, and my sink trick was bound to make her sick herself. But no such luck. When I turned around, the hair and the eyes had been joined by a mouth and nose. The mystery woman spoke.
“Why did you count the money? It’s all there. Take it, it’s yours.” The voice was very soft, and very smooth, too polished for a secretary, or some streetwise orphan. There was class sitting over there, I could just smell it. Somebody’s wife with time on her hands, or daddy’s loaded little girl. Either way she was trouble, the expensive and dangerous kind, the kind you get into when you’re bored, loaded, and lazy. And she was doubly in dutch with Michael.