“You’re a fool!” she yelled with a bit of a slur, spilling a dash of her martini.
“And you’re drunk,” I said with a certain husk. She was the very essence of a dame: A beautiful, dark-haired young woman. She looked like she’d dressed up the night before then slept in her clothes.
“Well you’re drunker, you’re . . you’re . . . you’re a drunk. You sir, are a drunkard!”
With a total lack of irony she downed her martini. Suddenly oblivious to my presence, she dropped her purse on my desk, pulled out a flask and a small jar of olives and made herself another strong one. The fact that she re-used the toothpick made it clear she had fallen on hard times.
“I suppose I don’t need to offer you a drink then,” I said. I went to my desk and got my bottle of hooch from the drawer. As far as I’d ever known, the only reason desks had large bottom drawers was so you could put your liquor closer to the floor in case that was where you needed it.
“Don’t be clever with me, dick.” She wasn’t using my name or referring to the fact that I’m a private detective. She was just calling me a dick.
“I don’t have to take this abuse from you yet. You’re not my client–I haven’t taken the case.”
“You’re right.” She cooed, “I’ll take that drink now.”
I was about to break the news that she already had one in her hand when she downed her martini and held out the glass. She raised her lips and eyebrows in a coy pout that I couldn’t resist, so I broke all known social convention and filled her martini glass with scotch.
“That’s your third drink since you got here, not including the one you walked in with.”
“So?” she said with a lack of defiance.
“So I might like to marry you.”
She looked me up and down and said, “You wouldn’t last the night.”
She ignored the fact that she was already thoroughly married to local newspaper tycoon Tom Huxley. Not that you’d be able to tell that by looking at them; they both slept with far more people outside the marriage than in. That was usually where her trouble began and usually why she woke people up after midnight without so much as a phone call first.
“Tom is going to kill me.” It was the first thing she said when she walked in and she got hot when I didn’t take her seriously.
“It might make things easier if you told me why your husband would be planning on murdering you,” I said. “You’ve been married six years. He’s known all about you for the last five. If he’s put up with you that long, why would he want you out of the picture now?”
“Who knows?” She lightly tossed her hands in the air, once again giving my floor a taste of her drink. I felt a sting of remorse because it was my booze she was throwing around this time.
“Maybe it’s that I sleep with the occasional other man or woman; maybe because I recently tried to have him killed so I could take all his money; or maybe he’s just gotten tired of me.”
She was a real piece of work, and a real piece of something else too.
“Maybe a little of each,” I said as I pressed my glass against my head, hoping the ice would do something for my sudden headache.
I didn’t know if I wanted a case like this, protecting an abusive drunk from the most powerful man in town. Huxley could use his connections in the police department to have me shut down; worse, he could use his connections in the underworld to have me killed.
She lit a long, thin cigarette with a gold-plated lighter. She inhaled like she was pouring the smoke down her throat. We locked eyes as she blew a ring of smoke and it really put the hook in me.
“I’ll pay you double your rate,” she said.
“Sure,” I said. “Now explain to me just how I’d spend that money after old Hux had me bumped.” I’d admitted I was afraid, but she could probably smell it anyway. “Besides, you haven’t told me what you’d expect me to do. I’m a pretty lousy divorce attorney and even worse at murder.”
“You’d be an excellent attorney,” she said. “And I know for a fact you murdered one of Sammy’s best hitters three years ago.” Now that money was involved, she seemed suddenly sober.
“No, I killed him,” I said. “There’s a difference.” I stared at her a moment then asked, “Not even Sammy knows I pulled that trigger. So how do you?”
“The same way I know you did it to protect a young woman rather like myself, ” she said, working up a faint, almost insinuating smile. “You won’t have to kill anyone. I just need you to keep a package safe. That’s it, that’s all.”
“For how long?”
“Maybe forever. How does that sound? Fifty dollars a day for the rest of your life. And all you have to do — in the event of my death or disappearance — is send the package to the feds. Not the local cops — the feds.”
“So,” I said, trying on my own insinuating smile, “you’re going to blackmail Tom Huxley into letting you live.”
It was almost last call at Skip’s Bar and that wasn’t the only bad news.
After telling me where to pick up the package, Mrs. Huxley had left via the fire escape. Which was fine except the guys who’d been tailing her were real keeners and picked up my tail when I’d left through the front door.
The pair sat at a table watching me sit at the bar. I couldn’t go near the package while they were on me, so I’d strolled the two blocks to Skip’s, a place where I knew I could count on some support. To my relief the pair kept waving off the waitress; if they’d been big tippers, Skip would have turned on me in a second.
I glanced over my shoulder at them again and they finally got tired of playing googly-eyes and made their move. One slid onto a neighboring barstool; the other remained standing behind him.
I worked up a pretty good staring contest with the sitter, but the real action was between our right hands, both of which were inching toward our pistols. My opponent didn’t seem the least bit nervous, a real pro.
“Hey Skip!” I yelled without breaking eye contact. “My friends here could use a drink.
“What can I get you boys?” Skip asked the gangsters, seemingly unaware of the standoff.
It was now or never. “Do you have a cigarette?” I asked the Pro.
He didn’t blink as he slowly reached for the pack and held it out to me – with his right hand.
I tore my gun out of my pocket so quickly I ripped my pants but it was right in his eye before anyone could react.
The pro continued to hold out the cigarettes as if nothing had happened. His partner started groping inside his jacket until Skip hauled his shotgun up from under the bar and got the drop on him.
“You shouldn’t bring cigarettes to a gun fight,” I said as I took the pack. They weren’t Lucky’s; maybe I’d overestimated him.
“Hands on the bar,” Skip shouted. They complied. Skip and I had a solid rhythm after all these years. He’d do anything for a regular.
“Who are you and what do you want?” I asked, cocking my .38 to let them know I was serious.
It was one of my best tough-guy moves and it didn’t seem to make any impression at all on the pro. His partner, however, was probably a rookie and definitely not gangster material.
“Tom Huxley has us followin’ some broad,” he blurted, darting his eyes between Skip and I.
“You ever talk?” I asked the pro and his eyes gave me the answer.
He had a trick up his sleeve. I sensed he was calculating my bravery and speed and working toward the bottom line. I did a mental double-check of all the bullets on my side: I had six–Skip had none.
“Yeah, sometimes.” His voice crawled right up my back. I immediately knew he had killed and liked it.
“The lady you’re looking for is a friend of mine,” I said, my brain a half-syllable ahead of my mouth. “She needed some dough for a train ticket. If you hurry you might catch her at the station.”
We all knew it was bullshit, but it gave them an excuse to leave. For a moment I thought the pro wanted to hang around, but instead he got up slowly without taking his hands off the bar. He said, “I’ll have those smokes.”
“Smokes? What smokes?”
He left the bar with a grin that sabotaged any smugness I might have enjoyed after winning our little standoff.
As soon as they left Skip put a piece of paper on the bar. It was the tab I’d spent three weeks fattening up.
“Looks padded,” I said without looking at it.
“You gets what you pays for,” Skip said. It was one of his half dozen or so catch-phrases.
I got out my wallet and said, “Gets me a scotch then.”
On the way back to my office I decided I’d pick up the package in the morning. It felt like a good night to sleep at my desk with my bottle for a blanket. Covering Skip’s chit and the post-showdown drinks left me about two dollars short of the two-dollar cab fare to my apartment, so I was stuck anyway.
Two inches into the desk bottle and a vague feeling of deja vu came over me. I mentally groped for a moment then realized what it was: I was in trouble up to my fedora again, and again it was all because of a dame.
The sun pouring through the blinds finally woke me and I got up and stretched, painfully. I went to the safe and retrieved my ‘difficult case’ supplies: an extra .38 and a flask with a bullet-shaped dent courtesy of Sammy’s best hitter. I emptied the desk bottle into the flask and headed down out to the street.
A familiar face was waiting for me outside. The pro leaned against the fender of a black Packard that needed a bath worse than I did.
“I know where you sleep,” he said, not looking tired at all. I thought seriously about giving him back his cigarettes.
We stared at each for a moment, not unfamiliarly.
“How about a lift to the bar?” I joked and started walking toward the disgracefully blank bar tab waiting for me at Skip’s.
He leaned off the fender and opened the passenger door of the Packard. I hesitated. He held the door open and we warmed up for our next staring contest.
What could possibly be the harm of getting in the car with an armed killer?
“I need the exercise,” I said.
I heard steps behind me and turned to see the blabby rookie coming out of the alley behind me.
“We insist,” he said. The joke about the gun bulge in his pocket was just too easy.
Much to my chagrin, we drove past Skip’s without stopping for an eye-opener. I was sandwiched between the pro, who was driving, and the rookie, who kept his pocket pointed at me.
“Where we going?” I asked.
“You tell us,” the rookie said. He must have woken up on the tough side of the bed this morning.
I thought about it for a moment, then said, “The docks.”
They glanced at each other. Too easy, they were thinking.
“I don’t have cab fare,” I explained, shrugging. “A ride is a ride.”
I directed them to an aging warehouse and the pro parked the Packard in front of a sign that said Wang’s Import/Export. I knew there was a joke in there somewhere and was about to say so, when rookie hauled me out of the car. He jerked the pistol from my right shoulder holster and the flask from my left.
“Inside the warehouse,” I said, gesturing with my hat as I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. Then I put my hands in my pockets. In the left was my other .38, but what I really wanted was my flask.
I started working out my brilliant plan we walked into the dusty warehouse: If I used the rookie as a hostage the pro would just shoot him — lord knows I would. On the other hand, if I jumped the pro he would probably have a trick up his sleeve, or in his pocket, pant-leg, or maybe a razor blade in his mouth. It would explain why he was so quiet.
“Where is it?” the rookie shouted.
“Keep it down,” I muttered. “I drank my weight in rotgut last night.”
“Get the goddamn papers!”
His shouting was so painful I didn’t even have to think about drawing my gun. It was my first shot in years.
The rookie’s gun went off before mine, but he couldn’t get it out of his pants and shot himself in the leg an instant before I shot him in the chest.
The pro looked at my pistol with mild interest.
“He didn’t check your pockets,” he said with casual contempt.
“Good help is easy to find but damned expensive,” I said, aiming at his head. “I guess it’s time we finished what we started.”
We both turned our eyes to the door when it opened. Only I was relieved to see who came in.
“Good morning, Mrs. Huxley.” I said, smiling. The thing about the P.I. business is, your clients rarely got to see you in action, earning their pay. This was going to get me in good.
She reached into her purse — an odd time for a martini, I thought — and came out with a polished, almost feminine automatic.
“You can call me Ingrid,” she said and I nodded, though she didn’t really look like an Ingrid.
“Well, son,” I said to the pro. That’s two guns on my side, and this time they’re both loaded.”
We were standing in a triangle five feet apart, our guns on him and him with his hands up at chest level. I bent and retrieved my flask and other gun from the dead rookie.
“Belt?” I said, offering him the flask.
“I’m fine.” And he said it like he believed it. What’s more, his grin seemed a little on the smug side, considering the circumstances.
“Had ’em fooled all along, baby,” I told Ingrid without breaking gaze. I was locked in his stare again, that cowboy-stare. I made a mental note to call him cowboy sometime.
“Is that right?” the pro said.
“That’s right. The package is on the other side of town.”
“Then what’s she doing here?”
It was a pretty good question that hadn’t occurred to me.
“She follows me around,” I speculated. “We’re in love. Where going to get the papers, move to Paris and get hitched.”
“Bullshit. No one would marry you. And nobody’s going anywhere until I get those papers.”
“All right, cowboy,” I said. “Guess we’re finally gonna shoot it out. Gotta cigarette?”
“Fresh out. Got any bullets?”
“Plenty,” I said. My palms were so moist I worried about the gun slipping out of my hand.
“You have five,” he said.
“Five is plenty.”
“This is a guy thing, right?”
I’d forgotten about Mrs. Huxley, or “Ingrid” as she liked to be called when guns were being brandished.
“Yeah, it comes with the right to vote,” I said. It wasn’t up to my usual quipping standards, but when you’re winning you don’t need to be as funny.
Ingrid opened her purse and traded the effete automatic for her martini fixings. I glanced at my watch.
“Cocktail time, already?” I said, turning back to the pro who presently had a gun in his hand.
I fired twice. He managed to get off one shot.
“Missed!” I said as he collapsed to the concrete.
I turned to Ingrid to find I’d spoken too soon. She lay face up in a growing pool of crimson.
The pro managed to get out one last blood-choked laugh as I moved quickly to Ingrid. She’d got it in the stomach. She was losing blood fast and all the color was gone from her face.
“Make me a drink?” she whispered.
I unscrewed my flask and filled her martini glass. I put the glass to her lips but she was already dead.
I wrapped her dead fingers around the glass, pocketed her flask and walked outside.
“I’m trying to run a newspaper here,” Tom Huxley said without looking up from his desk. His hair was slick and his suit was expensive. I’d hated him before I’d met him and I hated him more now.
I dropped the bundle of papers on his desk. “The package,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said, pushing the bundle aside like it was a sandwich he wasn’t ready to eat yet. “I don’t keep cash here. Come by the house tonight.”
I didn’t move.
He finally looked up. “I can, of course, offer you a drink.”
“Drinks are on me,” I said, unscrewing Ingrid’s flask and passing it to him. He brought it to his nose and his expression changed.
“That’s right.” I said as my right hand joined the .38 in my pocket. “And your hitters too. What’s in the package?”
“An honest account of my finances,” Huxley said, sighing. “So honest I’d be on my way to prison if it found its way into the right hands. Fortunately, it’s found its way back into mine.”
“I’m curious,” I said. “Why did you want her dead? Was it the other men? Did she destroy something valuable to you?”
“Well, I could not just let her take it, could I?”
“Half my money. In the divorce.”
“So,” I said. “Three people are dead just so that you wouldn’t have to divvy up your dough.”
“Of course. What could be more simple?”
“I’ll take that drink now.”
He smiled and went to a liquor cabinet, unlocking it with a small key.
It was the last thing I was waiting for. He reached into the cabinet and I took out my .38 and shot him in the back of the head.
I stepped over his slumped body and chose a 15-year-old bottle of scotch as a going-away present.
I thought about filling a box with the rest of his liquor, but I didn’t have the time. I only had a couple hours to pack up my office, say good-bye to Skip and catch a train to some place with less rain.