Tag Archives: Hard Boiled Fiction

Contents Vol. I No. 10

Introducing Dime Pulp Number Ten

In Issue Ten of Dime Pulp, A Serial Fiction Magazine, the big news is that Colin Deerwood, who had always considered A Detective Story as a working titled, has finally settled on Better Than Dead for the title of his 1940 serial detective fiction prompted by the illustration of a vintage Black Mask cover and featuring the hapless Lackland Ask now on the run from the cops and the mob after the massacre in the Heights.

The Last Resort, aka Tales Of A Long Legged Snoop, picks up the pace toward its concluding chapters as Lee Malone, former international beauty and reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, accompanies her boss to a Charity Fund Raiser fashion show at Montague Winery’s flashy mini Bavarian castle.

In the final installment of The White Room, Helene Baron-Murdock’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Weston County Sheriff’s Office Violent Crimes Unit narrowly escapes being shot on sight as he tries to solve the mystery of the death of Ike Carey in this latest Hard Boiled Myth.

Dime Pulp continues its crime spree with the serialization of two full length novels, The Last Resort and Better Than Dead, A Detective Story, as well as another serial short story based on Greek myths under the rubric of Hard Boiled Myth.

If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and follow the links below to reading entertainment with the serial contents of Volume One, Number Ten

  —Perry O’Dickle, chief scribe
and word accountant


TLR banner321Deep in the redwood wilds along the Corkscrew River, someone is shooting neighborhood dogs. The year is 1985 and Lee Malone, former fashion model, queen of the runways from Paris to Milan, once dubbed the most beautiful woman in the world, now a part-time reporter for The Corkscrew County Grapevine, is looking for a story to sink her teeth into. When Lee finds the owner of Kelly’s Seaside Resort brutally murdered, it leads her on an adventure that includes a mysterious gray van, another murder, extortion, pornography, sex slavery, and a shadowy organization of militant feminists known as SAPHO.  In the process, Lee Malone’s notorious past catches up with her. 

The Last Resort, Chapters 30-31

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Greek myth is rife with murder, mutilation, cannibalism, mayhem, and the ever popular incest.  Weston County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Donovan of the Violent Crimes Unit wouldn’t know a Greek myth from a Greek salad, but if he did he would find some troubling similarities to the cases he’s investigating.  Revisited as crime fiction are the strange death of Hippolytus, the agonizing death of Heracles, the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, the Fall of Icarus,  the sparagamos of Orpheus, and the cursed lineage of Pelops.  Helene Baron-Murdock’s Hard Boiled Myth taps into the rich vein of classical literature to frame these ancient tales in a modern context.

The White Room I
The White Room II
The White Room III
The White Room IV
The White Room V

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Lackland Ask is the name. ‘Lack’ to my friends, ‘Don’t’ to those who think they’re funny. You might have seen my portrait on the cover of Black Mask, the crime fiction magazine. This is my story. It starts with a blonde. This kind of story always starts with a blonde. 

A Detective Story—10

 

The White Room—5

by Helene Baron Murdock

“County Sheriff! Keep your hands where I can see them!” Donovan leveled his weapon at the man with the dog just stepping into the clearing. The mastiff strained at its leash. “Heel your mutt or I’ll shoot!”

The dog lunged forward, growling. “Put your gun down and get on your knees,” the guard commanded. “You are trespassing on US Government protected property in violation of the lawfully posted warnings! I have authority to use lethal force!”

Donovan hesitated. It was either shoot or be shot. The rote response of the guard struck him as oddly dispassionate, mechanical. He wasn’t going to waste any time thinking about it because he knew it was coming and that the decision was going to be made for him. He was just buying time. He didn’t have long to wait. He felt the cold prod at the base of his skull.

“Drop the gun, asshole, on your knees.”

Donovan held his arms out away from his body and let his weapon drop to the ground. The dog was on him immediately as with the force of the blow knocking him down. Then the jolt shooting through him like a fully body funny bone motor lock up shock and the dark pit of forever falling.

Slowly he caught his breath, the pounding of his heart jackhammering in his head. His arms were jerked behind his back and he heard the familiar sound of a zip tie pulled tight, a snarling snout filling his blurred field of vision. His jacket yanked down over his back, he felt a sharp jab in his shoulder as his face was pushed into the dirt until he floated away in a pale inflated softness.

His first thought was of Ionna as he slowly pieced himself back into consciousness followed by the spike of panic not knowing if she had escaped the dog patrol. They had agreed to meet at the Sparta Creek Overlook the day after their conversation at the Sole Sister Diner. She would show him the waterfall access up to the old summer camp but would take her own car. She didn’t want to chance being seen in his sedan by friends or acquaintances. She’d mentioned that she had already had rides in squad cars but mostly in the back and handcuffed, and wasn’t eager to revisit the environment. One thing she wanted to protect was her reputation.

He’d spotted her watching the hang gliders launch off the bluff, drifting like bits of engineered debris down to the pastel beach runway below. A good wind blustered off the expanse of ocean pushed by a formidable line of gray fog on the far the horizon, otherwise the noon sun in complete command. He’d parked as unobtrusively as possible among the SUVs and camper shelled pickups. She’d joined him as he was lacing up his patrol boots and he followed her to a service road leading off the parking lot.

Beyond the large green storage container belonging to the State Park, the road petered out, and they’d followed a foot path down around a large granite outcropping that led along the meager creek. The trail looked well-trodden with debris and signs of encampments along its meandering to where the gravel beach hemming the watercourse expanded to the edge of the narrow brook and then abruptly stopped at the base of a twenty foot megalith and a large swimming hole.

Donovan  gave the open space a three-sixty. There didn’t seem to be any way forward. He tilted his head back and took in the sheer granite cliff that loomed above him and assumed that at its top sat the old Mount Oly summer camp and the now off limits compound.

“You come here often?”

Ionna laughed, cocking her head, “I think I’ve heard that line before.”

Donovan raised an eyebrow that said “Ok, you got me.”

waterfall1“But to answer your question: I used to come out here all the time but not in a long while, not since a group of us snuck into the construction site.. That’s when I realized that you can’t fight them on their own terms, otherwise they’ll always win. They have a bottomless source of money and all we have are donations. So I chose the path of productive nonresistance.” She glanced around, wistful, nostalgic. “The creek’s changed some, lower than I’ve ever seen it. Climate change, you know.” She looked at him, a knowing smile wrinkling her high cheekbones. “Around here Sparta Creek has always been known as ‘Party Creek.’ It might even be in your intelligence dossier on EAF, but some of the earliest discussions we had as fledgling earth activists about saving the planet from this industrial age capitalist runaway train destroying the ecosystem were around campfires down here, setting our world saving agenda, away from the spying eyes of the military industrial complex, the man.” Ionna chuckled. “Or so we assumed.”  She turned, looking up at the embankment of wild willow and dune grass edging the gravel creek bed, and pointed at a hillside populated with coyote brush, anemic pines, and stunted oaks. “That way.”

“So are you a surfer as well?” Donovan small talked choosing his footing carefully across the larger unstable rock field beneath the embankment while she scampered up to the barely perceptible opening in the brush like a mountain goat.

“When you are in the arms of mother earth,” she turned to wait for him to catch up, “you realize how precious she is. The waves are her breasts from which we suckle the pure joy of being. The air is her perfumed breath through which we glide.” She saw his bemused look. “Don’t worry, I won’t turn into a wood nymph and fly away!”

“Hang glider, too?” he said under his breath and she continued up the deer track toward the hillside behind the massive boulder overlooking the creek.

She’d heard hm. “Of course. I’ll try anything if it looks fun or thrilling.” She turned to catch his eye. “Or dangerous.”

They’d agreed, she was only supposed to show him the old waterfall access up to the compound.

“You’re a rogue cop, a cowboy. I thought you’d all left and got jobs in television.”

At first his eyes adjusted to a wide band of light, bright but also indistinct. A shadow crossed the luminous field. It moved from side to side, growing larger and then smaller. His eyes followed it the way a frog’s would tracking a fly. Another fly appeared to one side.

“He’s coming back,” a muffled voice spoke and he realized that he was sitting, his shoulders slumped forward. He tasted the bile, raised his head and tried to swallow, and felt nauseous, gagging.

“Give him some water.”

A straw was placed in his mouth and he was given a metal cylinder to hold. His eyes began to focus with the first cool sips of liquid. There were two of them, maybe more he couldn’t see just yet. The light came from a wide observation window set in the thick walls of an ovoid white room. He took another sip from the straw realizing that his hands were no longer locked behind his back. Tension painfully gripped his shoulder muscles and those in his neck, and his head was pounding so hard it could be heard into next week.

He looked up to bring into focus a beautiful face wreathed by a lustrous mane, predatory gaze looking down her aquiline nose at him as if she were deciding what to serve him with. “I’m Doctor Ida Quinn, director of the IDA Project. You no doubt understand that you’ve just stepped into a black hole. This is my chief of security, Dak Tillis. He’ll explain it to you.”

The other shadow came into focus as a square faced tiny eyed crew cut action figure and fit the description the Highway Patrol officer had provided, a universal warrior type. “Welcome to Calcutta, loser, the very fact of your being here constitutes a breach of national security. Pursuant to the provisions of section 20 of the Internal Security Act of 1950 in accordance with the directive issued by the Secretary of Defense on the Tenth of December 2005, I have the authority to hold you indefinitely without habeas corpus. Think Guantanamo, the government’s own Club Med, and you’ll get the idea. You might as well take a pill because you’re not ever going anywhere again.”

Donovan looked back at Doctor Quinn, wet his whistle and rasped, “Does he have an off switch?”

“Spare us your Hollywood dramatics, Detective Donovan, we are not amused.”

“Then spare me the phony legalities. You can do whatever you want with me so why the drama?” Donovan leaned back and found the support of an armchair. His blood was getting to all its proper places and the gears engaged behind his eyes. “I am here as a sworn and duly authorized officer of the law investigating a murder that possibly occurred on these premises.”

“Two things, Detective, a court order, and good luck with that. Federally administered property is outside your jurisdiction.”

“Tell me something I didn’t know. But it is my job to proceed while potential evidence is still actionable to make my case. What the DA does with findings isn’t really my problem.”

“You’re a rogue cop, a cowboy. I thought you’d all left and got jobs in television.”

“Meanwhile you’re still talking.”

Tillis made to strike him but Quinn held him back. “That would be unproductive at this point. I think our unwanted guest may have become a solution to the unfortunate incident with Professor Nimoi’s shift into another time dimension.”

Now would be a good time to wake up, Donovan told himself.

“If someone hadn’t sounded the alarm with your location, you’d have been found floating in Corinth Bay as a result of a party boat accident.” Tillis growled as if it were a personal affront.

“Someone, Detective,” Doctor Quinn continued, “female by the voice, transmitted a Code 30 on the emergency frequency, officer in distress at the top of Mount Oly at the abandoned girls summer camp, an accomplice, perhaps, one of your officers waiting for you to return within an agreed upon amount of time? Someone who remembered that there had once been a summer camp up here years ago. Your device was compromised as soon as you crossed into the advanced electronic faraday shadow around our perimeter so you obviously weren’t able to transmit your location.”

He’d stopped listening. He felt relieved, Ionna had made it back to the sedan and called for help. Now it was up to his boss to let him twist in the wind or call out the cavalry. He was angry with himself for being so foolhardy. He’d put a civilian’s life in danger just to prove he was right, to satisfy his self-righteous ego.

When they’d reached the base of the old waterfalls he couldn’t at first see any way up the wall of rock without climbing gear. Ionna had led him to a narrow fissure off to one side of the rock face. Out of the beating sun it was dark at first, then points of sunlight seeped into the angled shaft onto a field of brush, rubble, and gigantic boulders climbing more gradually toward a ragged glimpse of sky. She’d pointed toward the edge of light. “At the top is a little gulley that takes you up behind the mini tower lookout and toward the highest point on Mount Oly.” He’d been reconsidering his options when she said, “Come on, I’ll show you the way up. Steer clear of the poison oak and watch out for rattlesnakes.”

A few narrow crevasses were a squeak for him to twist through or crawl under. The rubble field was not very stable and had a tendency to slide. But he’d made it, a little out of breath from the unaccustomed exertion. When they’d reached the top of the narrow overgrown  gulley following another deer track, she’d insisted that she just had to see for herself what they’d done with the place. By then it was late afternoon and he was too winded to argue. They followed a dirt track that led to a clearing, staying to the shadows of the forested hillside. They were looking down onto a hollow in a crease of the hillside at the center of the camp and its cluster of dark green roofed cabins among a grove of tan oaks and oleander.

water tower1“Wow!” she’d exclaimed under her breath “This is crazy! The last time I was here there was not a stick standing, totally leveled , and now it’s like they rebuilt it exactly like it was when I attended camp.” She’d thrown him a look of disbelief. “Except for that!” She’d stepped forward to point at a squat ovoid tank tower outfitted with an array of dishes and antennae. “That’s not the mini tower I remember.”

They had likely set off a motion detector alarm at some point. He could faintly hear a  buzzer pulsing and barking dogs in the distance. He didn‘t have many choices. They could retreat together and try to outrun the dogs. Unlikely, as he was still catching his breath from the slog up the old waterfall. Or he could buy Ionna some time. He quickly explained what to say and how to operate  the sedan’s radio, handing her his keys. And to repeat the code and location until she received an acknowledgement from dispatch, then to make herself scarce.

He’d unholstered his weapon and run up toward the highest point on Mount Oly. He could hear the dogs behind him, barking, as he took a path that led upward to a cluster of large lichen covered crags. On the other side was nothing but a straight drop off and the long flat expanse of surf battered beach. The wind pushed against him like a sail. He didn’t wonder why the hang gliders coveted this spot, but could Ike Carey have launched from this spot in his home made set of wings? Had he fashioned the wings himself ? Or had someone else helped, someone with a sardonic sense of humor? Too much didn’t add up.

Ida Quinn was talking to him like she could read his mind. She had a classic beauty that could have sold a trillion shares, hypnotic in its allure, and whatever it was he would have been a subscriber, yet behind those eyes was a seductive intelligence that was both remarkable and terrifying. “Your little investigation is meaningless, especially since the prime suspect has already flown the coop. We thought we had recovered him after he had been taken to the hospital after his, shall we say, accident. . . .”

“When your bruiser here pulled a PIT maneuver on the old Merc. I thought I recognized your trademark g-rig on the flatbed. It’s a tricky one, you have to be careful someone doesn’t get hurt, land in a ditch. . . .”

He could feel Dak Tillis’s glare. “You could have killed one of my men with your stunt!”

Quinn glared at him. She didn’t like being interrupted. “. . .but he proved too clever, switching his identity with another patient whom we took into custody before we were aware of the subterfuge.” She seemed almost embarrassed. “Sometimes the contractors are not always the most thorough.”

“Does this he have a name?”

“Not a name that you would recognize, but it belongs to one of the most talented geniuses in the history of science, rivaling Feynman, Einstein, Newton, Archimedes, and Pythagoras. Professor Pavel Anton Nimoi, is one of the greatest men of science in any century. As are many men of extreme intelligence, he is a little eccentric and has a particularly troublesome quirk. He is a murderer.”

“You’ve got my attention.” Donovan shrugged and shifted his shoulders to work the stiffness out and felt the presence of movement behind his field of vision. “You’re saying he killed Ike Carey?”

“There have been others over time.”

“Over time? How old is this guy?”

Doctor Quinn shrugged it off. “His mind is ageless, it transcends time. Physically, he is typical of men in their later years.”

“You must have a photo of him. A physical description?”

“That, Detective, I’m afraid, is above your pay grade. You will never find him because you will never have any idea where to look. Professor Nimoi believes that he is a trans-dimensional being who has developed a method of time travel that insures immortality and that requires the death of someone close at hand, a ritual sacrifice if you will, what he terms ‘a cutout’ to another time dimension, such as the one formerly occupied by the person whose death he’s caused. You see it is his theory that we each inhabit our own time dimension while we are alive. But we can stay forever young by traveling through the time dimensions of others.”

“You know this about him and you go along with it?” Donovan leaned forward to read her, find some hint of sadistic taunting. “This is nuts! Do you actually believe this theory?”

“It’s a matter of national security. Professor Nimoi is ultra-secret. No one can know about him, especially hostile governments or predatory corporations. His inventions, innovations, theoretical breakthroughs are immeasurably useful to certain clients with whom we contract for research and development, some so astounding and spectacular that they must remain under wraps until the groundwork has been prepared for their eventual presentation. Think internet but something exponentially more advanced and life changing.

“High security for the IDA Project was necessary in part to secure the perimeters and keep out interlopers, both innocent and the overly curious, some with malicious intent. But it was also to make sure that Pavel Anton Nimoi did not wander away to satisfy his homicidal urges. Ninety percent of the time he was preoccupied with his work, a perfectly well behaved human, for a raving genius, and we had no reason for concern.”

“But that ten percent was murder. Ever hear of ankle bracelets?”

But she wasn’t listening, looking up as if she were hearing a voice and then with a finger to her ear she said, “Yes, Senator, this is Dr. Quinn,” and began to walk away, “I certainly was not aware. . .yes, we’ll form a search party right away.” She tuned to look back at Donovan.

“What do we do with the cowboy?” Dak wanted to know.

She shrugged. “Like we do with all the others, package him.”

His arms were pulled behind his back, the water bottle tumbling to his feet. Another pair of hands in disposable gloves kneaded his left shoulder muscle and he felt the jab. Tillis, grinning mockingly and holding up a rectangular device no bigger than a paperback saying, “Smile for the birdie,” blinded him with a double strobe.

He didn’t remember much although at times he thought he recalled a detail, but it just wouldn’t reveal itself, peeking from behind a synaptic partition, like a word on the tip of his tongue that could never be brought forward into consciousness no matter how he tried.

He remembered what he’d been told. A search party from the Mount Oly compound had found him unconscious on a rock ledge overlooking Sparta Creek Beach. IDA Project personnel had used their own helicopter to medivac him to the hospital. Half a dozen hours later he regained consciousness, wondering how he’d got there. He’d been given a medical evaluation and they’d found no signs of trauma except for a nasty bruise on his shoulder. When he couldn’t tell them what happened, they said that it was probably temporary amnesia and his memory would return eventually. So far all it did was tantalize. He spent the next twenty four under observation and then was sent home and told to take some sick days to recover his equilibrium. It didn’t include an exemption from an ass chewing.

The Sheriff started off the phone call with “I’m not even going to ask what you were thinking” and it went downhill from there. One morning he woke, got dressed for work, figuring he’d spent enough down time, and got as far as the back door with his keys in his hand before he paused and went back into the kitchen, had another cup of coffee, and did the math.

“The architecture of oppression is the same with all the world builders throughout history erecting their edifices on mountains of skulls.”

And he wanted to thank Ionna even though she wasn’t having any of it. He hadn’t mentioned her and feigned ignorance when they questioned him about who might have known to transmit the Code 30 using his radio call sign. It was part of his voluntary amnesia, that and how he knew to access the compound by the abandoned falls. He would keep that to himself, and he wanted to assure her of that pact. A phone call, an email, a visit to her office would all have been more than just coincidence. There couldn’t be any links between them other than what might have been recorded on the listening device in her office in conjunction to Ike Carey’s death. Something was nagging at him and he couldn’t put his finger on it.

That morning he drove to Old Town Santa Lena and the Sole Sister Diner for breakfast. On his second cup of coffee, she slipped into the booth to face him. “I blame myself,” were the first words she spoke. “If I hadn’t shown you the way up, you’d still be trying to figure out how to get there. I saw it on the news, Sheriff’s Detective Recovered In Daring Cliff Rescue. . . .”

“Just the opposite, it was irresponsible of me to involve and endanger a private citizen.” He was going to offer more excuses but her smile stopped him. It said terms of agreement met and mutual responsibility accepted.

“You’re not the ordinary copper.” She stared across the table at him, hands placed on either side of her cup. “I mean that as a compliment.”

“Most cops are ordinary. I don’t see that I’m any different.”

“You should know I have strong opinions about the organization you work for.”

Here it comes, he thought, the civilian fantasy of how to fix, defund, dismantle the police, and make the world a better place for kitty cats. He rolled his eyes up and watched the ceiling fan turn over the empty late morning tables of the diner, the few stragglers nursing coffees at the counter. She wasn’t angry, just insistent and he didn’t mind the sound of her voice.

“The judicious enforcement of the law is crippled by a disease known as mission creep. Law enforcement is getting funded for work that is outside their purview. Sheriff Departments are the most susceptible as besides being an independent law enforcement agency they are also a political entity by dint of popular election and subject to outside influence and financial considerations. To generate additional funding that the tax payers can’t provide, they are ready to take on additional duties generally outside their initial mission to protect and serve.

“Why should a cop respond to a mental health emergency. That’s a mental health professional’s job. Most of the times it’s the police who escalate the violence. Racism, sexism, ethnic prejudice have no place in the judicious enforcement of the law. And I don’t blame the individual cops although they could probably do with more sensitivity training.”

If she only knew what the rank and file thought about “sissy” training, as it was known, her idealism would be sorely disappointed. He smiled and shook his head.

“And typical of any top heavy government agency, administrators keep adding more busy work that would be better accomplished by NGOs or at least social service agencies, not because they think they can do a better job, but because it feathers their nest, makes them appear to be wheelers and dealers in the competition of more power and politics. Money talks and the more funding for supplementary programs in the form of grants and transfer of military surplus equipment only makes the administrator, the Sheriff, in this case, seem more able and effective. Unfortunately it also relegates the policing force to an occupying body with no relation to the community they ostensibly serve and protect and setting up an us-versus-them mindset among the civilians, as you call them, and the ranks, essentially enforcers of a police state.

“You are an agent of oppression whether you realize it or not. You are just a factotum, a straw man, a straw of the straw man. The real police state is accountants, publicity agents, and AI surveillance networks that keep ordinary folks poor, distracted, and distrustful. Most elected officials, your boss included, are congenital hypocrites, and those that aren’t don’t last long.”

“Wow, just like 1984 except that was almost forty years ago.”

“This country was a police state long before that date, keeping people of color in their place has a long long history, but the realization that we are all under the thumb of big corporations and the corrupt inept governments they own is now catching on! The architecture of oppression is the same with all the world builders throughout history erecting their edifices on mountains of skulls!”

He listened to her ramble and felt sorry for her and her delusion. He’d heard a lot of it before, from an ex-wife, from girlfriends, including Marion, who’d suffered indignities because she was a black woman, constantly being pulled over for imaginary traffic infraction. “You never know if they gonna give you a ticket or ask for a sexual favor,” she’d told him, and it gave him grief to remember her weary voice pronouncing those words.

Ionna reached across the table and touched his arm as if sensing something. “But I want you to know, Donovan, I really appreciate you going the extra mile to get justice for Ikey.”

“Unfortunately I failed, miserably,” Donovan sighed letting his hand fall open next to his coffee cup, “and those responsible will never be held accountable.”

She nodded, her intense eyes focused on his, “Welcome to my world.”

As he got up to leave, she stopped him. “One more thing. Maybe you can tell me the name of the person who is informing on EAF.”

Donovan shook his head. “They’re not identified by their real names in the reports. Most of the time though, it’s someone close to the top. Otherwise, what use would they be?”

The morning of his “performance review,” as Tim Collins called it, he’d driven out to the Sparta Creek Trailer Park and found Heron sitting on the bench outside her weather beaten trailer watching a couple of young surfers in the space next to hers wax their boards. She frowned when she saw his sedan pull up. He smiled and waved at her as he approached, pulling a plastic bag from his coat pocket.

pan2“You can have it back now,” he said, returning the bronze medallion. She lit up with a genuine smile that acknowledged her gratitude. He pointed to the bag. “There’s a business card of an antique dealer in there, too. Give him a call if you ever want to sell it. The amulet has been appraised and old Dad Ailess was right, you could probably buy a proper mobile home overlooking the ocean, a couple of cars to go with it, and still have some mad money left over for what that hunk of metal is worth.”

On the return to Santa Lena, he got a text from Debbie inviting him to a charity auction for the hospital volunteers. Why not, he could use some charity. Logging in at his desk there was an email waiting from the new chief of detectives wanting him to close out the Ike Carey case so he could review his notes pending any disciplinary action. He knew right away he was going to love this guy.

He stared at the spreadsheet on the screen in front of him and retraced the timeline. Someone, presumably one of the guards at the IDA compound, had likely shot at Ike Carey as he launched from a point high enough that he could safely land on Sparta Creek Beach even with the homemade hang glider. Something bothered him about that scenario. It sat cockeyed in his head and he couldn’t understand why. Could it have been Dad, or the name that had been on the warrant, Philip Andrew Nichols? But why? He entered the initials into the cell, color coded red for NFI, Needs Further Investigation. Ike Carey’s initials, of whom he had a fairly complete picture, occupied the green cell adjacent. He accessed the spreadsheet macros menu and clicked on the one labeled Final to run it.

The phone on his desk warbled. He’d been expecting the call. It was Helen from HR.

“Am I speaking to Detective James Donovan?”

“You are.”

“I can send you the material as an attachment over email. There are FAQs that’ll likely answer all your questions. Just follow the guided questionnaire.”

“Filling out a questionnaire is only going to make me more undecided.”

“There are seminars you can attend. Let’s see, you just missed one so the next one won’t be till after the first of the year, that’s only four months away. I’ll send you the registration info, OK?”

Something had caught Donovan’s eye as he glanced at the screen, dissatisfied with the way the conversation was heading. “Uh, yeah, ok, thanks, Helen,” and hung up.

He stared at the bottom of the page and the report, the red and green cells adjacent to each other read PAN IC. The time and date stamp pulsed, 10:04 AM on 10/4, a Monday.


Better Than Dead, A Detective Story—9

by Colin Deerwood

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The rain had stopped but there were puddles among the piles of trash in the alleyway. I steered her away from a big one by stepping in it for her.

“You’re so gallant,” she said.

She had looped her arm through mine and leaned on me for support. I leaned on her because it felt good. She was smiling and humming to herself and I kinda knew what that felt like just then.

“Mind if I call you Becky?”

She looked shockingly pleased. “Becky, a name like in your American writer, Shemuel Klemins’ book, who is the sweetheart of a Tom Sawyer, yes, Becky. We read his stories when I was in school in Zurich.” Her tone turned confidential and intimate. “He is quite famous with his American tall tales translated into many languages. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was my very favorite. How I longed to sail on the mighty Mississippi!” she added with a sigh.

toms1Max’s hi-test fruit juice had really made her loopy and I didn’t want to pop her bubble to correct her because she was pretty happy thinking she knew what she was talking about, but everybody knows that Tom Sawyer was written by Mark Twain and even though I never read the book I did see Jackie Coogan in the movie version and that whole fence routine was a pretty funny scam. I’ve known guys who operate just the same way, although they weren’t all that nice or clever in getting you to do their work for them, and then taking all the credit. As for that whole bit with Becky, it just proved that dames are dames even at a young age waiting for some charming prince to ride up on a white pony and rescue them.

We were under the streetlight by then. I looked down into her glimmering eyes and said, “You can call me Tom.”

Her laughter echoed down the deserted rain wet street. It was a pleasant laugh, full of promise.

“Golie? Golie is here, too?” Now she was frightened and that was exactly what she wanted me to be as Hairy the Hat had her by the arm and was hustling her toward the Packard.

Then Herr Hat had to spoil it. He came running out from the shadows. “Rebecca, Rebecca! Where have you been? You took so long! We were going to come looking for you!”

“Oh, David!” she said as he approached, obviously ready for any and more attention, “Were you really worried about me?”

By then he’d got close enough to get a whiff of her breath as she smiled up at him. “Are you drunk?” I got the benefit of an angry glare.

“Don’t be silly!” She slapped him playfully on the lapel. “I am perfectly slobber, I mean, sober!” And then broke out in a fit of giggling.

The Hat was making moves like he might want to take a poke at me. I wasn’t too worried about him, he was just a kid. It was the other guy behind him, a guy I hadn’t seen before, with slick backed pomaded hair, a razor sharp nose, pencil thin moustache, and a mean sadistic gleam in his bug eyes.

The dame saw him, too. “Isaac? Why is Isaac?” she addressed the kid in the hat, and then stared at me, instantly sober.

I was keeping my eye on the Isaac guy when  I thought I saw the big pole in front of the barbershop step forward. I wasn’t feeling any pain but I wasn’t that far gone. Then I remembered that there wasn’t a barbershop on this block and that wasn’t a barber pole. The guy was seven foot if he was an inch and a head on him like a cornerstone.

“Golie? Golie is here, too?” Now she was frightened and that was exactly what she wanted me to be as Hairy the Hat had her by the arm and was hustling her toward the Packard.

“Hey!” I shouted, about to say, “you can’t do that!” when I got a set of knuckles in the kidney from razor face. I folded like a day old racing form.

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If it ever crossed my mind I might have considered what a ragdoll felt like being tossed into the back of the rattletrap pulled up at the curb. It was an old bazou from the previous decade, as they say up north of Maine, and if it ever had a cushioned bench seat it wasn’t obvious. It didn’t matter anyway as I was dumped on the floorboards and the big mug kept his foot on my back while hatchet face took the wheel. The jalopy was lacking in springs as well and every bump and pothole was telegraphed like a smack to my face. It seemed like the driver was going out of his way to find something to bump over or bang against. And of course when he took a corner on two wheels, my head slammed on the door post. Good thing I was wearing my hat. By the time the ride was over I’d been pummeled and no one had laid a hand on me. Unless you count the bruiser’s foot, and the brass knucks to the kidney that was the admission price for this carnival ride.

The gorilla pulled me to my feet and pushed me against the gray granite of a swank building. And it had started to rain again. I had a sense that I was back where I started from but in the alley by the servant’s entrance. I was still feeling weak in the knees when Mutt woke me up by slamming my head against the bricks. Neither of them had said a word the whole time I was taken for the ride. Now the skinny guy said, “Less go” while the lummox picked me up and tossed me into the open doorway.

There were a couple of tough nuts waiting for me, each one there to greet me with a fist to the solar plexus or the side of the head. At least I was out of the rain. I tried to look at the bright side but now all I was seeing were stars. Then everything went black because they knocked my hat off and pulled a hood over my head. I was more in the dark than I wanted to be. One of their punches had affected my hearing and all that was coming through was the dull roar of voices as they dragged me up a couple flights of stairs. I wasn’t resisting but they were moving faster than my legs would allow and they didn’t care that my shins were banging against the risers. Then they half dragged me a long stretch through another door by the sound of it slamming open.

A gruff voice gave an order that sounded like “put him there” or “in the chair” and next thing I knew I was thrown roughly into the sitting position and the hood was yanked off my head. I blinked in the bright light. A couple of big body shapes came into focus. The Mutt and Jeff of the strong arm crew first, hovering, waiting for me to make a wrong move, any move, in fact. Among them standing well back by his desk, Herr Doktor and his pointy goatee looking more than agitated, the bookshelves and the maps looming behind him and I knew I was back to where I’d started from, but obviously things had changed.

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“Do you takes us for fools?!” It wasn’t a question Professor Soloman was expecting me to answer.

“We have made inquiries about you, Mr. Ask. We have friends in high places. According to them you have an unsavory criminal record, receiving stolen property, public nuisance, drunk and disorderly, impersonation a police officer, soliciting prostitutes, nonpayment of alimony, vagrancy, assault and battery, unlicensed possession of a firearm, discharge of a weapon in a public place, murder, attempted murder, trespassing, invasion of privacy, stalking and spying with lewd intent. To say nothing of the fact that you have a price on your head placed there by the notorious Balkan gangster, Jan Kovic, a mortal enemy to our cause and my people, a tentacle of the Black Hand in this country!”

By the time Soloman got all that out off his chest I had a chance to get a sense of the mess I was in. There were a couple of other palookas besides the viper named Isaac and the gorilla they called Golie standing around the den with broad shoulders and mean eyes mostly pointed at me. They had me surrounded. The next thing I know I might be dead.

I pointed to the pocket of my suit coat. “Mind if I smoke?” I was playing for time and they probably knew it. The viper hissed and made like he was going to smack me one. He hadn’t hit me in the last five minutes and maybe he needed to go another round.

Soloman waved him away. “No, no, let him have his cigarette.” He said it like he was letting me have my last smoke.

I shook out one of the few left in the pack of Lucky’s and fit the smiz to my lip, the one that was starting to swell when the snake had smashed my face against the wall. I searched out a blue tip from my vest pocket and snapped the flame to life with a thumbnail. After I caught a lungful I blew it out slow and easy like I didn’t have a care in the world. I felt a little tickle below my throbbing nose where my moustache used to be and put a finger up to it. It felt sticky and when I looked at the tip I saw that it was blood. I leaned back and crossed one leg over the other.

“You might have missed a couple, Doc, but seeing as how they were minor offenses, I’ll let it pass.” I picked a fleck of tobacco off the tip of my tongue. “Sounds like someone let you take a peek at my rap sheet. Each one of those so-called charges are not at all what they seem.” I brushed some floorboard dirt off my pantleg “Take for instance the drunk and disorderly. I’m no stranger to drink but when you find out your wife has been carrying on with your best pal, well, it does something to you so I got drunk and angry. You can’t blame me. And besides the mug threw the first punch and I was in no mood for that and laid him out with a right to the jaw. But he wouldn’t stay down so I had to kick him in the head a couple of times till he got the idea, and then the bartender and some of his friends came after me and I had to pull my rod to let them know I meant business and put a round over their heads. When the cops arrived I told them I was one of them and showed them my private investigator tin. They said that it wasn’t a real badge and that I was under arrest.

“But it was just that one time.” I waved away the smoke. “And just to set things straight, I never murdered anyone. The rest of that is just part of the job or misunderstandings, personal and financial. Besides you don’t need a pedigree to do what I do in a world of cheats, chiselers and double crossers. You gotta know the game, Doc, And that’s something I know. So you think you can just toss me around and step on me? Something’s up and it smells fishy.” I blew out another mouthful of smoke like I meant it.

“Fishy? There is this!” He shoved a wet towel in my direction and I saw what looked like a soggy pile of paper the size of an address book resting on its soaked black leather covers. It looked very familiar.

“This mushy matzos is what was discovered in the water closet after you left.” He positioned himself to give me the broadside. “But not before the contents had been irreparably damaged!”

I’d seen Oliver Hardy give a more convincing chin nod. He had malarky written all over his mug.

“This item you had to sell to us is useless, worthless. We could not consider the remuneration we had agreed on and must withdraw our offer.”

I got up to take a closer look but the big brute slammed me back in the chair with one hand on my shoulder like he was merely closing a window. I stared at the pile of paper pulp. How could four dozen pages get so soggy in that short of a time? I hadn’t stuck Yamatski’s address book in the toilet tank, but in the space behind it and the wall, and if the address book had survived a swim in the East River fairly intact, especially zippered shut, why was it now just a sopping stack of curled pages?

Then I remember that I’d seen such a mess before. In the kitchen of Pat Fitzpatrick’s apartment, a freelance reporter I used to know who went off to cover the war in Spain and hasn’t been heard from since. His wife at the time, Flossie the floosy, had washed a pair of his trousers but forgot to check the pockets and didn’t find his notebook till she was putting it through the ringer. Pat was in a rage when I just happened to drop by and I might have saved Floss another knuckle mouse to her powdered cheek. But Floss wasn’t one easy to phase. She heated up her iron and one by one steam pressed each of the pages and laid them out to dry. Pat’s pencil and the ink scribbles were still readable if not a little scorched. She’d even stitched it together when it was dry and handed it back to him saying that maybe it wouldn’t have happened if he washed his own clothes.

I eyed what had been my ticket out of the dumps. If the information in that address book was that valuable, why weren’t they trying to save it? I would have. I didn’t doubt that it had occurred to them so why the con?

“Keep your shirt on, big boy,” I said as I fished the pebble out and held it between my thumb and forefinger. “This what you’re looking for?”

I drew on the fag and considered my options. I didn’t have many. I never expected a jackpot from the contents of the address book just more opportunities to get my revenge on Kovic and his mob, and I’d already harvested the cash so I was back to Go and waiting for my turn on the dice. I let out a breath of smoke. “Well, easy come, easy go. Too bad about the soaking of the goods, Doc, and that we won’t be doing business. I can’t expect you to accept damaged goods.”

“Garbage!” the old guy insisted, “You offer me garbage!” He pointed his cigar at me accusingly. “And to think I allowed young Rebecca to accompany you to meet with that degenerate, Max Feathers, a traitor to his people!”

I could tell he was warming up to launch a tirade and I didn’t want to hear it. “Listen, Doc. . . .”

“No, you will listen, Mr. Ask. I will not deal with criminals like you and Feathers. Again my suspicion is aroused. Perhaps you are an agent of the Black Hand after all, sent to reconnoiter the scope of our operation. I was right to be suspect you of trying to trick us with this worthless material! This garbage.”

“I get the drift, Doc, it’s garbage, but it’s my garbage so I’ll just take it back and be on my way.”

“Don’t bother yourself with it, we will dispose of it for you.” He called over one of his goons, “Maurice, see that this muck is thrown out with the kitchen refuse,” and handed him the pile of wet paper.

I had to object. “Hey, wait, that’s my mine, I don’t care if it’s wet!”

Soloman waved away my objection. “It is unusable rubbish. You have no use for it.”

“It is still my property.”

“It is something that belonged to someone else of which you were in possession, hardly your property. You are a thief and consort of thieves. Young Rebecca tells me that you, not she, are in possession of the uncut diamond, something else that does not belong to you. You will surrender it.” He held out his hand.

I admit that it stung my pride that she’d finked on me because I thought that there just for a moment maybe we had seen eye to eye and she had felt about me the way I felt about her but it was probably just Max’s bug juice that was making me addlepated. A dame is always going to be looking out for her own best interest and the kid was a dame, she couldn’t help it.

“Ok. Ok, let me stand up. I have to reach in my trouser pocket.”

I was hemmed in on all sides. Once I gave them what they wanted what’s to say they wouldn’t drop me off a roof or in the drink with bricks tied to my ankles. I was getting the bum’s rush that was plain to see, and this skit with the useless notebook was doing serious damage to their high and mighty cause.

I stuck my hand in my pocket and felt for the little white box the diamond was in. I could tell that it had popped open, likely during my manhandling on the way over, and that now the rock was somewhere in the corner of my pocket consorting with the local lint. I pulled out the open box to give my finger more maneuvering room and tossed it on Soloman’s desk.

He was alarmed to see it empty and Isaac stepped toward me impatiently like I was trying to pull a fast one.

“Keep your shirt on, big boy,” I said as I fished the pebble out and held it between my thumb and forefinger. “This what you’re looking for?”

I laughed at Soloman’s anticipation as I tossed the rock in my mouth and did a quick swallow just before Isaac’s fist hit me right on the button and the lights went out.

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I felt trapped like a rat, encased on all sides by something that wouldn’t give. I was blind as a mole but I could still picture what that was like. I couldn’t feel my hands and my shoulders ached from being pulled behind my back. My knees ached for the same reason. I was struggling to breathe. I’d been falling and tried to catch my breath. That’s what brought me back. I had a clanging headache as well. If it was a bad dream I was dying to wake up. The combination of the workover I got and the gut full of Max’s plum potion treating me to the stamping feet of pink elephants convinced me that the pain was too real to be all in my head even though that’s where all the hurt was congregating.

crateHow long had I been out? My jaw still throbbed so maybe not that much time had passed. I was thirsty and at the same time had the urge to relieve myself. I was lying on my left side, not my preferred side for unconsciousness. I didn’t have much choice the way I was trussed up. The gag was constricting my breathing and I started to panic. I could still move my head and tried to rub my cheek against the surface I lay on. I didn’t have much leeway. I felt as if I’d been stuffed in a crate that was too small for me.

Finally the edge of the gag pulled away enough to let in a little unobstructed air. It was a relief but my bladder may have got the wrong message. Next to being dead, the last thing I wanted was a spill in my BVDs.

I was boxed in, no mystery there, and how to get out was a question for Professor Quiz as I had let my subscription to Houdini Magazine lapse and missed the issue where they had tips on how to escape from a fix just like this one.

At the same time I managed to reposition the blindfold up over my cheekbone that allowed for an unimpeded view of more dark. There was a distinct smell of damp mustiness that reminded me of mothballs and dusty attics.

It was a familiar smell. I’d spent a lot of time in my granny’s attic above the old mercantile store upstate. It was a kingdom of dust and cobwebs and I would root around in the old crates and barrels and cedar chests and play with old wooden toys that belonged to my dad and my grandad before him. Tattered leather bound books piled on the floor and the shelves behind them, and bundles of piano sheet music for the piano no one played anymore, itself gathering its own dust in the parlor below. There were mice and spiders in the rafters, threads of gossamer trailing from the clay thimbles around which the wires for the “electric”, as granny called it, were wound to power the light in the parlor and in the kitchen and one in the bathroom.

I’d lived at granny’s off and on when I was growing up, mostly when the old man was at sea and the old lady was off doing something that didn’t involve anything that had to do with me. They fought a lot and drank a lot when they were together, and I kinda fell into that pattern too, and soon I was a candidate for reform school which had nothing to do with reform and everything to do with keeping me locked up. How I ended up being a private peeper is another story for another time.

I tried to unbend my knees but that only pulled on my arms and wrenched my shoulders but in doing so I managed to dislodge more of my gag. Big gulps of air almost made me forget the headache and my throbbing chin. I was still under pressure from my bladder. I did a little more squirming and all it did was make me feel helpless.

Angry, I jerked  whole body no matter how much it hurt. It had the effect of bunching up the top of the blindfold so that my left eye could peek over the edge and make out more darkness. I kicked the only way I could and my feet hit a wall behind me with a solid thud. I could feel with the top of my head that it was lodged in a corner of the crate. My knees with a little movement bumped another solid surface.

I was boxed in, no mystery there, and how to get out was a question for Professor Quiz as I had let my subscription to Houdini Magazine lapse and missed the issue where they had tips on how to escape from a fix just like this one.

Beside the sounds of my struggle and grunts there wasn’t much to hear. I felt like I was drowning in a big bowl of silence. Silence, with an occasional creak and groan of the architecture and maybe the occasional soft tread, titter, and squeak of rats, the occasional slammed door, a distant car horn, the rumble of an elevator, those are the sounds of silence in the big city. And the occasional sound of feet walking discretely on toe tips, the sharp tapping of fingertips on the outside of the crate, and of a soft voice asking softly, “Lack, are you all right?”


Next Time: Massacre In The Heights

The Last Resort 28-29

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Eight
THE LADYBUG RUSE

Anything I said could and would be used against me. I had a right to remain silent. Yet in many situations such as mine, people have a tendency to babble, volunteer more than anyone needs to know, and in the process, unwittingly incriminate themselves in crimes that they never committed or intended to commit. People can be so obliging in the face of authority.

As a young up-and-coming model with a mind of my own and outspokenly opinionated, I had learned the hard way that anything I said would be twisted and bent to mean exactly the opposite of its intent. After being burned at the stake in numerous tabloids, I chose my words carefully and dispensed my opinions even more penuriously than I did my favors. I had taken as my motto the words of the other Hepburn. I didn’t care what they said about me just as long as it wasn’t true. I kept my mouth shut.

First there was the long silent ride to the Hall of Justice where May Ann Young had her office, a tiny cramped closet in the basement. Her manner was apologetic as she had me sit in the only other chair. Battered black file cabinets took up most of the wall and floor space. Cardboard boxes overflowing with case files occupied any area that didn’t block entry and exit. A few posters exhorting fire safety served as decoration on the otherwise drab green walls. She had removed a sheaf of forms from her desk drawer, a dinged and dented metal affair that looked like it had come in last at a destruction derby. She referred to the small yellow pad I had seen her with at the fire scene and copied her notes into the spaces provided.

I felt cold. In the heat of this late July day my flimsy attire would have been appropriate, but my chill had more to do with an uncomfortable self-consciousness at having only bikini bottoms and a makeshift halter top underneath the ridiculous polka dot trench coat. My gold sandals had turned to mush and so for all intents and purposes I was barefoot. The scent of my charred cabin hung about me like a noxious perfume. I was trying to put together a scenario that would explain who would be capable of such an act. Blackie came to mind immediately. Even after what Chandler had told me, I had difficulty believing that he would set fire to my home. Yet his words “play with fire and you get burned” resonated with ominous significance.

May Ann returned my driver’s license after copying from it onto the form in front of her. She extracted a cassette recorder from a drawer and set it on the desk, plugging it in the outlet behind her chair. When she faced me again, her mouth set in determined seriousness, she reminded me of my rights. “Why don’t we talk about why anyone would want to torch your cabin?” she said as she depressed the record button on the machine.

I could have declined to speak until I had a lawyer present. But there were more viable suspects than me. And, I was never good at taking my own advice. I told her about the Fashwalla murder and the one at the Franklin Resort. About the dog killings and the men in the gray van. And about Blackie. I also mentioned Assistant DA Chandler Wong. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything about the ongoing investigation into Tommy Montague and Ramparts Corp.

Her eyes narrowed with a steely glint. She punched numbers into the keypad of her phone after she stopped the recorder. She shuffled the forms on the desk in front of her while she waited for someone to pick up.

“Mr. Wong, May Ann Young, County Fire Investigator.”  She paused. “I’m fine, thank you. The reason I’m calling is that I have a women in my office on a suspicion of arson.”  She paused again. “Her name is Lee Malone. She says she knows you.” A longer pause. “Her own home.” May Ann blinked in surprise and for a moment lost some of her professional composure. She listened to the voice at the other end of the line, nodded in assent a few time, interjecting an “I see” now and then. All the while her eyes took me in as if the words she heard were prompting a reappraisal. When she put the phone down, her cheeks appeared flush. She folded her hands on the desk and looked down at them for a moment, gathering her words. She fixed me with her relentless gray eyes and spoke. “Ms. Malone, your story checks out with the DA’s office. You’re free to leave. And I apologize for any inconvenience.” She sounded sincere.

I didn’t have to be told twice. I picked up my purse and opened the door. I hesitated.

“Turn right and up the stairs. I’ll call up to have them buzz you out to the lobby.”  Her tone had lost its hard professional edge.

When I reached the locked security door that led to the lobby, there were two younger women waiting to be allowed out as well. If I had not been barefoot and wearing my fashion faux pas, we would have been in similar states of undress. One of the women was a short skinny blonde with way too much make-up that did not look all that freshly applied. Her denim shorts were cut so that much of the curve of her buttocks was exposed. An off-white sweater top allowed a view of her bare midriff encircled by a gold chain. The open-toed high heeled plastic shoes she wore could have doubled as step ladders. Her friend was taller, closer to my height. There was something familiar about her, as if I had seen her somewhere before. She wore a green blouse with short puffy sleeves over a bright orange tube top that accentuated her perky breasts quite accurately. A leather mini-skirt and black thigh thigh-high boots completed the outfit. From the way they both joked with the deputy at the door, it was obvious they were familiar with the routine.

media doorOnce out in the lobby, they stopped to chat with another deputy at the reception kiosk. I made a bee line for the double glass doors that led outside. I stopped in my tracks. A throng of reporters and TV cameras were waiting at the bottom of the steps. The last thing I wanted to do was face them, especially in my ladybug coat. One of the reporters spotted me and alerted the others. A deputy kept them from bursting into the lobby. I turned to look for another way out. That’s when I caught sight of Rhonda.

I was surprised to see her there. She had just recently returned from an extended stay in Switzerland. There was a hospital in Zurich that promised a cure for what was afflicting Ward. I had not seen her in months. But thinking back on the years I had lived in that neighborhood, she and Anna were often gone for long periods of time. They were retired, she told me more than once, and they loved to travel. They even had a little place in Malaga. On the other hand, she liked to say, there was no place like Corkscrew County to get away from it all.

“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.

At my puzzlement, she explained that she had come to bail me out. She knew I hadn’t set fire to my cabin. She had already told that to the deputy who questioned her. She’d been taking her midday nap when she was awakened by the sound of a motorcycle roaring away. Soon after that she had smelled smoke and had seen flames coming from my cabin. She had been the one who had called it in. Now she was here to take me home, what was left of it. It was just the neighborly thing to do.

The mention of the motorcycle made me think of Blackie again. The reporters were clamoring at the glass doors and I moved further out of sight.

“Help me, Rhonda,” I pleaded, “I can’t go out there and face them.”

The hookers had wandered over, drawn by curiosity. I saw inspiration light up Rhonda’s face. She motioned to the two women. “Do you ladies know who this is?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “This is Lee Malone, world famous fashion model.”

The one who had looked familiar to me nodded and said, “Yeah, I thought you looked familiar.” It was then I understood why I thought I’d seen her before. She was me. She had imitated my hair style, the way I used to make up my eyes, along with a slight physical and facial resemblance.

Rhonda explained my predicament as she led us all into the woman’s bathroom. She was about to outline her plan when the short blonde, whose name was Sandy, pointed a finger at Rhonda and said “I know you! I’ve seen you in porn movies. You’re famous!” The prostitute who looked like me and whose name was Liza chimed in. “Right, right! I’ve seen your movies before. My boyfriend made me watch them. You’re amazing!”  We all looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Who’d a thought we’d ever be in the woman’s bathroom at the Hall of Justice with a famous old time porn queen and a world famous fashion model?” Liza exclaimed like a delighted child. Sandy was bubbling over with giggles.

“Now, calm down, girls,” Rhonda said, “After all, we’ve all sold our bodies in one way or another. Nothing to get excited about. Here’s my plan.”

Liza and I were to exchange garb. She was thrilled by the makeshift halter top after I explained I had gotten it in one of trendiest boutiques in Monte Carlo. She wrinkled her nose and passed on donning the bikini bottoms. And she wasn’t so sure about the trench coat but that was a big part of the ruse. I had no problem fitting into the tube top, the boots and the leather miniskirt. I don’t know why I was surprised that she wasn’t wearing underpants.

Rhonda’s plan was that Liza, dressed as me, would create a diversion to draw the reporters away from the front doors, and then Sandy and I, as hookers, would slip away unnoticed. She sweetened the deal with a few bills from the bankroll she pulled from her purse.

The plan worked like a charm. The reporters swarmed Liza who put on fashion model airs quite naturally. I caught a glimpse of her wide smile as she basked in the momentary crush of notoriety. By the time the reporters realized that it wasn’t me, I was being whisked away in Rhonda’s Coupe Deville.

Chapter Twenty Nine
ODD WOMAN OUT

I had no clothes. I had no home. And I didn’t have a clue why anyone would want to torch my cabin. I stood on the littered asphalt and stared at the smoking debris. Rhonda dragged me back to her house and handed me a large glass of scotch. “You need to relax” was her admonition. I took a tentative sip, the alcohol burning as it went down. My nerves released their grip and by the time the molten drop made it to my gut, I wanted another taste.

We talked. Rather, I babbled and she listened. I had to get over the hurdle of my disbelief. When I voiced my suspicion that Blackie might have done it, she considered me warily and then shook her head.

“I go way back with Blackie and unless he’s changed since then, I don’t think he would do something like that. If Blackie has a bone to pick with you, you’ll know it because he’ll be right there in your face,” she said touching up the glasses with a drab more scotch.

“That’s right, you guys were in business together.”  Rhonda’s fingers tighten around her glass, lips pulled into a mirthless smile. “More like co-workers, considering that we were both employees.”

“So you knew Arlene.” I was curious about the woman who had been Blackie’s mate and whose photo I had seen on the wall of his shop.

Rhonda drained her glass and then stared at the empty bottom. “Arlene was my best friend. We both come from foster homes in the Midwest. Me Indiana, her Missouri which she liked to pronounce misery. We were runaways. And we met out here, on the West Coast. A way to make a quick buck back then was posing for nude photos. We were just kids, but that’s what the pervs want to see. We were hoping to be discovered in Hollywood like a lot of young gals. This was after the war. We hooked up with a gang of motorcycle guys who also had the idea of making it into pictures, as stunt men. One of them was Blackie, another one of them was Tommy Perro.”  She paused as if making an effort before she spoke the other name. “And Chip Pierce.”

I’d seen the picture on the repair shop wall, a young Rhonda with someone Blackie had identified as Chip. I vaguely recalled something about an accident, too. “Blackie told me a little about those days. You were all models, is that right?”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Rhonda chuckled. “And if that’s the way Blackie wants to remember it, that’s fine with me.” She shrugged. “The way I remember it is that Tommy had a friend who worked as a cameraman for a low budget studio. They came up with the idea of making dirty movies, what you’d call soft core these days. The plan was to use me and Arlene, and Chip and Blackie as actors. The first one they made went nowhere. It was mostly ham-handed situations, innuendo, cleavage and crotch shots, and a lot of tongue twining, grunting and panting.” She exhaled a staid chuckle and splashed more scotch against the sides of her glass. “Tommy found a backer, a two-bit gangster and wannabe movie producer, to put up the money. But the guy wanted something a little more realistic. At first everyone was cool to the idea. We all knew that once you were in stags, your chances of going legit were dead. But the money was easily more than either of us made in months of waitressing. And the guys, well, they were always broke. The way Tommy talked it up, we wouldn’t be doing anything we weren’t already been doing with each other. It’d just be on film is all. So Chip and me went at it first. Then Arlene and Blackie. Then Arlene and me. Then Blackie and me. And Arlene. And Chip.

“Once we got over our initial bashfulness, we went through the motions like actors playing their parts. All except for Blackie. ” Rhonda smiled grimly. “He was a hunk, then as now. But he just happens to be an apple with a short stem.”

I laughed involuntarily at her expression.

“Tommy used to rag him mercilessly about that. But Blackie took it from Tommy because they were friends. And among Blackie’s faults is his blind loyalty. If he’s your friend you can count on him to give you the shirt off his back.”

“And if he’s not your friend?”

She shrugged. “What do you want me to say? He’s got a temper.”

“So I heard.”

“Really?” Rhonda sat back in her chair, guarded. “What have you heard?”

I realized that I might know more than I should let on. What Chandler had told me was confidential. “Oh, just something JJ said in passing.”  I’m not a very good liar. “You were saying, about Tommy and Blackie?”

Rhonda nodded and looked at her glass as if the thread of the story would be found in the half inch of amber liquid. “Yeah, Tommy was a ball buster. But Blackie took it good naturedly. Of course we all knew not to tease Blackie, especially about something like that. The actor Tommy used as a body double with Arlene didn’t know that. I don’t think he even got to finish the taunt. Blackie came unglued and beat the man to a bloody pulp.”

I inhaled sharply. Even though I’d heard the story, it still shocked me. “He hurt him pretty bad?”

“He killed him.”

The way Rhonda spoke it so matter-of-factly it shocked me nearly as much as Blackie’s brutality.  “Oh.”

“Blackie served his stretch, and when he got out he looked up his old friends. Arlene was first on his list. You can’t blame him.”  Rhonda sighed, a troubled frown drawing a V between her penciled eyebrows. “But Blackie had spent his time in the pen thinking about a lot of things besides Arlene. One of them was his old buddy, Tommy. He came to realize that Tommy was a manipulator, a behind the scenes backstabber and that he only cared about numero uno.” She said it with a sly sarcastic smile. “Blackie’s plan was to get back together with Arlene and get as far away from Tommy as he could. He didn’t expect to find her living with Tommy and two babies, twin boys.” She didn’t take notice of my gasp. “Arlene didn’t hesitate. She packed her bags, loaded the kids into her car and took off with Blackie.”

I was dumbfounded. These were details that Blackie had conveniently left out when he told me the story of how he and Arlene ended up in Timberton. “What about you? I mean, did you know they were going to leave it all behind?”

Rhonda shook her head, maybe more at the memory of what she was dredging up than my prying.  She swirled the scotch in the bottom of her glass before knocking it back in one practiced motion. “No, I was out of the picture about then.”  She gave me a baleful stare. “The problem with working for Tommy is that he wasn’t just making dirty movies. He was dealing drugs, too. Hard drugs. Most of his actors were using. Chip got hooked after his accident. Morphine and then heroin. And it gets to be a habit. You realize you’re not going to survive the day without a fix.”  She shook her head sadly. “It’s kind of ironic, you know? Blackie getting out of the slam and me going in.”

“You went to prison?”  I didn’t hide my disbelief.

“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.”

Rhonda nodded. “About a month before Blackie got out, I was sent up on a drug charge. I owed Tommy for drugs, and after Chip overdosed I really hit rock bottom, so I was moving weight for him.”  She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows as if to say what do you expect. “And I got popped.”

“I don’t get it. Tommy and Arlene and two kids. Blackie just spirited them away? Tommy didn’t do anything about it. I mean, they were his kids, right?”

Rhonda cocked her head to one side and considered me with a narrowed look, like I was being a little too nosy. “Yeah, no telling what was going through his head. Besides dollar signs, I mean. I didn’t know what Arlene and Blackie had done. I didn’t find out till much later when I was let out on parole.”

“That Blackie and Arlene and the kids were living up in Corkscrew County?”

“Right. I heard that Blackie was working as a mechanic, and living at the Mint, in fact. Arlene wasn’t idle either, making the rounds of garage and estate sales, buying things to resell. She always had good sense in that way.”

“What became of the kids, the twins?”  I hold my liquor better than I can contain my curiosity. “Isn’t one of them named Tommy?”  And get enough liquor in me and I’m liable to blurt out anything.

She gave me a pained smile. “Did Blackie tell you that? Yes, Tommy. And Timmy.”

I tried not to be coy. “I know that Tommy Perro is now Tommy Montague and the money behind Montague Winery. And that he has a son, also named Tommy, running the business. I didn’t know about Timmy.”

Rhonda offered a bemused smirk before answering. “Tommy was making too much money so he got the idea of buying up property and planting vines as one way to launder the dirty cash. The boy, Tommy, he’s smart, crafty like his old man. Timmy, his twin? Let’s just say he’s. . . .” She paused, searching for the word. “Odd.”

Odd how that word struck me. Odd. I searched my memory of anyone I thought of as odd, and I’d known many who fit that description. But none of them came immediately to mind. The image the word triggered was of a greasy dark haired man with a scraggly goatee. A man I had seen not more than a few times and then only briefly and in passing. Someone who filled me with apprehension. The booze was prompting my odd fuzzy logic. Odd that I felt a sudden chill. “So what happened to them?”

Rhonda stretched her arms across the table, empty glass in her hand, weariness weighing the corners her eyes. “It took a while but Tommy tracked Blackie and Arlene down. I was out of prison by then. He had the money, lawyers and the connections to have Arlene declared unfit. She could have fought it, but she knew that if she did Blackie would get involved. And he would kill Tommy.”

“Were you still working for Tommy then?”

Rhonda shrugged, the strain of this stroll down memory lane taking its toll. “I got straight. Took my cue from Arlene and cut loose of Tommy. I worked restaurant jobs, went back to school, looked for something better paying. I’d find one, and then some guy would recognize me from a stag film, and once word got around the office, they usually found a reason to let me go. I was too much of a distraction.”  She snorted a laugh into her empty glass. “I kept at it, though, spent a good fifteen years walking the line, keeping my head down. I even resorted to wigs, dying my hair and wearing glasses to change my appearance, and eventually it worked. The problem was that I was making peanuts while all my old friends who were still in the business were sitting in the lap of luxury.”

Rhonda considered the bottle before she continued. “I knew that I didn’t want to work for another crook like Tommy. So I got together with an actress I’d worked with before. You know her. Anna.”

I nodded dumbly, partly in shock. I was desperately trying to keep all the new revelations from tangling into an incomprehensible snarl. The fact that my head was swimming from the effects of alcohol didn’t help.

“And we started our own production company. We had a pretty good idea what guys wanted to see, but we also knew what women were interested in. The money was good and it was better than walking the street. After that I never worked more than a couple of months a year. I can’t complain. I’ve lived well.” She said it with great satisfaction. “I’ve got a house in the Frisco, a place in Spain, and when I want to get away from it all, I’ve got my little shack in the woods, which up until yesterday was nice and quiet.” She held up the bottle at an angle and stared at the corner remaining before dumping it into her glass. “When Arlene took sick I semi-retired and moved up here, to be near her.”

“Semi-retired? You mean you’re still. . . ?” I didn’t exactly know how to say it.

“In front of the camera?” Rhonda took a sip with an amused expression. “Not for a couple of years now. You’d be surprised how many men want to see an old gal get it on.”  She hefted her large breasts with both hands. “I still got it.”

That was obvious, and I wondered if I would still have it when I was her age. I sighed. “Well, it’s a man’s world, after all.”

Rhonda rolled her eyes. “Listen, honey,” she said, pointing a well-manicured finger at me, “man may have invented the wheel, but if it weren’t for women, it would still have corners.”


Next Time:  A Sleeping Beauty Awakens

The White Room—4

by Helene Baron-Murdock

The storefront’s narrow glass doorway was papered over with flyers and announcements. Two large plate glass windows, one painted with a depiction of the globe and the initials EAF, and the other featuring a representation of the scales of justice circumscribed by a large peace symbol and the words Justice Means Peace had greeted him as he’d exited his sedan. Like EAF, JMP, or JuMP as they liked to style themselves, had come up in various briefings on local leftist radical groups prone to civil disobedience so he knew exactly whose den he had stepping into.

EAFAmong the array of framed protest placards and posters urging respect for Mother Earth or face the dire consequences, the one that caught Donovan’s eye proclaimed “Braless & Lawless” superimposed over an artfully distressed representation of three women giving the power salute. Another wall was painted sky blue bisected by the darker arc of an image of Earth seen from space against which stood a set of bookshelves lined with somber spines and a sign above it that read Earth Consciousness Library crudely carved into a wide weathered plank. A patchwork of worn and frayed Indian rugs covered a slab floor around which were deployed a variety of mismatched secondhand couches and armchairs and centered on a redwood burl table piled with slick conservationist magazines.

The young woman with the green and purple dyed hair at a small desk off to one corner of the large storefront space looked up from her laptop and smiled. Then her cop radar kicked in and she frowned. “Can I help you?” The tone wasn’t friendly.

“Hi, Jim Donovan with the Sheriff’s Office.” He held out his identification and the young woman peered at it like it was repulsive. “Are you in charge here?”

Her blue eyes behind stylish retro frames shifted left then right and back again as she considered how she would answer the question. “Uh, no, no, uh. . . .” Her voice sounded fearful, panicked. She licked her lips and glanced at the passageway leading to the back of the building. “Can. . .can I ask what this is about?”

“I’m inquiring about one of your members, Dwight Carey?”

She seemed relieved. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that name.”

“I am.” A woman in her late forties, dark graying hair cut short below the ears, stood at the entrance to the rear space calmly studying him. She held out her hand. “Ionna Gunn, I’m the director of Earth Action Fellowship.” She smiled and then motioned him to follow her. “Why don’t we talk in my office.” And then to the young woman, “It’s alright, Regina.”

Ionna Gunn’s office was a small cramped space lined with bookshelves and file cabinets. She removed a pile of papers and file folders from a sturdy chair with a dented seat cushion and cast around for a place to put them before deciding to stack them in front of one of the file cabinets. “Please, have a seat.”

She wasn’t what Donovan expected even though he had viewed her booking photos. She looked older, maybe more mature, less defiant. And her complexion was not as dark as in the photos. Dark eyes above high cheekbones considered him after he’d introduced himself again. On the wall behind her desk was a collage of photos featuring Ioanna and associates at protests, at speakers podiums, with bullhorns, and with garden implements in what appeared to be urban community gardens beneath a banner that read Earth Action Fellowship.

“Ike Carey,” she spoke shaking her head, “I read about his accident in the paper just yesterday. So sad.”

“What can you tell me about him? When was the last time you talked to him?”

“I don’t know, years? Maybe about five, maybe more. He was one of our original group when we started Earth Action Front. Always very enthusiastic. Then the beating at the hands of the Santa Lena PD put him in the hospital. He was the youngest of our group with the passion of youth.” She paused as if remembering. “He wasn’t the same after that. He’d always been happy go lucky, up for anything, a trickster of sorts. But after that time something rattled loose and. . . ,” she looked down at her hands, “Well, he never recovered that playful impish quality that we always loved about him.” She sighed then fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “You’re being here would lead me to believe that it might not have been an accident.”

Donovan read her short stature, broad shoulders, knit mauve vest over a gray t-shirt, and a man’s gold wristwatch that spoke of a certain assertiveness. Square northern features softened by equatorial curves, not noticeably made up, suggestive of a lack of pretention and her readiness to engage intelligently marked her as truthful so far.

“Purely routine. At this point just paperwork. I didn’t have a current address for him on file and I’d like to get an idea his movements before he ended up where he did.”

“The article in the paper seemed to imply a hang gliding accident. Isn’t that the case?”

“That’s what we believe. There seemed to be some kind of homemade glider involved.”

“Homemade glider? And at Acropolis Cove? That sounds dangerous.”

“The launch point was probably closer to Sparta Creek Overlook.”

She leaned her chin on a forefinger, considering. “That’s quite a distance.”

“You’re familiar with the area?”

“I had a boyfriend in high school who was a surfer.” She smiled at the memory. “According to him the waves at Sparta Creek Beach were gnarly.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Is there anyone you can steer me to that might have had contact with him recently, maybe friends in the radical conservationist network?”

This time it was a chuckle, genuine in its incredulity that the question had been asked. “No, Detective Donovan, there is no radical conservationist network that I’m aware of. We’re Earth Action Fellowship now, no longer a Front. Letter writing, phone banking, community gardens, neighborhood beautification, and legitimate political action and education are what the Fellowship is all about. And no, there is no one I can refer you to.” The smile had left her face.

“Just thought I’d ask.” Donovan removed a business card from his identification case and wrote on the back of the card. “Here’s my card in case you remember something. That’s another number you can reach me at.”

Ionna accepted the card and glanced at it frowning. It wasn’t a phone number, just the letters U and R followed by a circle with what looked like multiple legs and a plus sign.

Donovan stood up at her questioning look angling his head toward a corner of the ceiling of the small office. “Thanks for your cooperation.” He checked his wrist. “That time of day already. Know a good place around here where I can grab a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat?”

“You might want to try Sole Sister Diner down at the end of the block.” She nodded knowingly. “I can guarantee the coffee.”

Donovan remembered when the place had been a paint store and even before that an auto parts store. Now converted into a hip diner, part of the gentrification of the old industrial west side of Santa Lena where they’d paved over the railroad right of way and featured art galleries, antique stores, and trendy boutiques. He’d picked a booth off to the side of the narrow service area by the door to the kitchen. The counter stools were crowded and the spindly two person tables always made him feel naked, unprotected. He sat facing the front of the building looking out the wide window to the street.

dinerThe waitress had a large gold stud through the top of one nostril. The way she was made up he could assume that she was on call to perform under the big top. She smiled and it was nice. “Coffee?” and handed him a printed menu with the Sole Sister logo across the top when he nodded yes.

He checked his phone messages, missed call from Helen in HR, otherwise routine random bullshit. He had to ask himself why was he even concerning himself with this investigation when it was going nowhere. Fingerprints having turned up nothing, his request for DNA analysis of the sweatband on the ball cap he was told was going to be slow tracked to the contract lab considering not enough of the boxes had been checked on the request form. The hair sample stuck to the inside of the crown of the cap came back as non-human. The tech had guessed when he’d called for clarification, “Yeah, goat, or an animal like that.”

The ballcap, he’d also learned, was a one of a kind, a gift to James Lidlaye from his friends, fellow hang gliders, who had given it to him after he had fractured his back on a particularly hard landing. The logo depicting wings signified the hang glider fraternity and the lower case i was a pun on his last name. He’d got that from Lorrain, Uncle Jimmie’s sister when on a hunch the hang glider connection became evident, and he’d claimed the hat as evidence. And evidence of what, a stolen hat, but also of a missing or misplaced person. He pictured a helicopter lifting off the helipad at Santa Lena General and not realizing their mistake, not that anyone would ever learn of it. Besides, Uncle Jimmie was an office nerd, no contact with a goat or animals of that type was likely.

The lab had also referred him to someone he remembered as a lecturer from his academy days, Duncan Betalle, professor of Forensic Archaeology at Weston County Community College aka Wheesies, or Dubya 300 to the hip crowd. He didn’t seem all that imposing twenty plus years later, his beard showing only streaks and patches of the original red color, but still hanging on, semi-retired, at the pleasure of the administration. He’d weighed the medallion in his hand, opened the evidence bag and stuck his nose in the opening, slipped the medallion onto a blank piece of paper on his desk and examined it with the magnifying app on his phone. He’d snapped a photo and sent it to an artifact recognition app as he explained, staring at the rapidly shifting shapes on the screen.

“There, I knew I’d seen it before.” He’d held up the phone for Donovan to see. “Pre-Hellenic, early Bronze age, unearthed, it says here, in the ruins of a temple to Penelope in Ithaca. Apotropaic uses, to bring good luck and ward off the evil eye, probably a replica.” He brought his nose close to the medallion and tapped it a few times with a metal letter opener. “You won’t miss a few atoms. My nose tells me I would like to examine this closer. If it is a copy, it’s a very old copy, a depiction of the Greek god, Pan.”

Evil eye. That’s what  Heron has claimed Dad Ailess had told her about the medallion, it would ward off the evil eye. His coffee appeared before him and he hadn’t even looked the menu over.

“Can’t make up your mind?” Ionna Gunn slid onto the red vinyl bench across from him. She held him with her dark eyes, hands crossed on the Formica tabletop. She had brought her own cup. Faint wisps of steam passed up in front of her face and suddenly she was as beautiful as a photograph. “What I’m wondering is why?”

“Maybe I had questions to ask that I didn’t want overheard.”

“You don’t want your people to know what you’re asking me.” He eyes narrowed. “Is this some kind of harassment?”

“First, they are not my people, not the Sheriff’s Office, directly at least. Our intelligence operation is one guy who doesn’t shower which may be the reason he’s the only guy. He just makes sure to grease the skids for the guys who get the electronic surveillance court orders. In exchange they share any pertinent intelligence which is almost never.”

She had cocked an eyebrow. “And just who are ‘they’?”

Donovan took another sip after blowing across the scalding brew to cool it some. “I have a friend who knows how to do these things and I got her to trace the chain of authority on the court order. When you trace it high enough that you don’t want to know anymore, you say ‘it’s in the clouds’”

“It’s in the clouds.”

“And that makes me curious as to why someone that high up has their eye on you and how that fits in to my murder investigation.”

“Murder is it now?”

“Just a technical term. Ike Carey was a dead man one way or the other. I’d like to hear what you know about him and I have an idea that it’s more than you wanted to spill in your office.”

“It should come as no surprise that I’m not surprised that my phone is tapped. In more radical times,” and her body language said they were behind her, “we always operated under the assumption that we were being watched, that we had to be discreet about what we were saying. . . .”

“Did you talk in code?”

Ionna laughed as if remembering something. “We did for a while but people kept forgetting what the codes were so it just got to be that we didn’t say anything of any consequence over the telephone. Now that everything is digital I guess the same precautions and etiquette would apply, maybe even more so.” She held up her smart phone and showed him the blank screen indicating that it had been turned off. “Snitches I can understand, but a listening device seems a little much. What are they going to hear, my berating of inept, corrupt politicians, intimate conversations with friends, my indigestion?”

“I’m baffled as well. What does it have to do with Dwight Carey? And EAF. As far as I can make out you have yet to sprout into a national security threat. But I did come across something in your file. The protest that Ike was injured at was over the acquisition of property on Mount Oly by a government contractor. EAF and a number of other conservationist groups were opposed to it, demonstrated against it. I didn’t understand the reasoning, an obscure chunk of property out in the middle of nowhere?”

He eyes were focused with deep reflection as she stared at the cup in front of her. “You could possibly be right, and Ike may be the connection, but not in the way you think.”

Dwight Carey, known from the very first as Ike or Ikey, was the son of an old family friend, the nephew of one of the original founders of EAF. His father, who had disappeared around the time of Ike’s birth, was a legend among a small group of avant-garde intellectuals and artists, an older man, easily twenty years older than Ike’s mother, respected for the breadth of knowledge and creativity, his impish sense of humor and cleverness. Ike had been raised in a radical environment of talk should be accompanied by action. To show that they meant business as a community focused action group, EAF saw an opportunity to secure the long shuttered girl’s camp on Mount Oly and return it to its original purpose as a summer retreat, but for underprivileged and disadvantaged girls.

Ionna herself had attended Camp Minnoknosso, or as she called it, Camp Me-No-Know-So, as a young girl and into her late teens.. She became the driving force behind the project to obtain the property, writing grants to philanthropic foundations and conservationist trusts, consulting with a local contractor who was part of their group to assess the property and estimate the extent of repairs needed to bring the old property back into shape to house thirty six girls in three six week sessions across the breadth of the summer months. They had heard through back channels that their prospects of obtaining at least some of the funding were very good. The group rallied around the project, everyone on a positive high. Then the phone call ahead of the official letter of rejection and its oddly apologetic tone. The news was demoralizing. There was much recrimination within the group, power politics demanded that she resign.

“Yet years later, I am still here. To make matters worse we learned that the property had been transferred to a holding company, a shell corporation that no one had any information about, IQ Dynamics. They didn’t waste any time, they had heavy equipment razing the place in a matter of weeks. And the property was heavily guarded so without a satellite photo or a camera drone, which didn’t exist back then, there was no way of knowing what they were doing. We tried court orders, injunctions, all of which were denied. Years later I uncovered evidence that it was funded through proprietary companies working through the highest level of the Defense Department.”

“What was Ike’s father’s name? Did you ever meet him?”

The smiley faced rainbow waitress appeared ready to take his order.

“I recommend the sausage, eggs, and yam fries,” Ionna said pointing at the menu.

“Yam fries?” Donovan raised an eyebrow. “That may be too earthy for me.” He ordered two eggs over easy, bacon and English muffin

“I never met the father though I’d heard a lot about him from the old guard, some kind of natural genius, jack of all trades, and apparently a champion surfer.”

“No name?”

“Peter.”

“Peter Carey?”

“No, not Carey, that’s the mother, Inanna’s name. Ike took her family name. I think his last name began with an N. . .Newton? Something like that. Everyone referred to him as ‘the goat’ though?”

“Goat?”

“Yeah, like ‘Greatest Of All Times’?” Ionna leaned her back against the back of the booth. “Does this have anything to do with the father?”

Donovan shook his head. “Maybe, but I don’t know why. There was someone named Dad that Ike hung around with at the trailer park and the overlook. Could that his father?”

“Oh, the crazy old guy?”

“You know him?

“Know of him. I have friends who were part of the movement and who still surf out there and live in the trailer park. In my last years at Camp Me-no-know-so, I and a few of the older girls would sneak out at night to hook up with some surfers we met at the beach or the trailer camp. Some of those guys never left.”

“The trail from the camp to the trailer park, is that the one the hang gliders use to get to their highest launch point?”

“No, that one’s too steep and dangerous, especially in the dark. There’s another trail, a secret trail that only few of us knew about. Further down by the old waterfall. You would never find it if you didn’t know where to look.”

Donovan nodded as something clicked into place. In the interviews someone had mentioned the old waterfall in association the man they called Dad.

“Anyway, Ike’s name comes up once in a while, mainly his antics and acting out. It’s like time stopped for him. He was still locked into the old Front ways. He could get very. . .vehement at times. I’d heard was that he was hanging out with this crazy old homeless guy who lived in the woods up the creek, someone they all called ‘Dad’ and that Ike actually believed that he was his father.”

Donovan looked up surprised as the waitress placed the plate in front of him. “That was fast.”

The waitress grinned, “The cook’s a psychic, she had you pegged as a bacon and eggs man.” She laid the guest check at the edge of the table and smiled at Ionna.

He cut into an egg and watched the yolk spill out. “How many people know about this secret trail out of the camp?”

“At first it was only a few of us older girls, but someone blabbed, and soon everyone knew about it including the Camp Director and they had the passageway blocked.”

“Passageway, you mean like a tunnel?”

“More of like a long trough that had been eroded by the waterfall into the hillside, and then when they diverted water into the swimming pond for the camp, that part of the channel dried up and was overgrown with brush and brambles. They filled the trough with rubble and large boulders and it was no longer passable.”

“I don’t imagine a mere pile of rocks would keep some girls from the lure of a good party.” He looked up to catch the gleam in her eye and pull of cheek into a smirk.

“A lot of the rubble was washed down the sluice after a couple of years of heavy winter storms. The big rocks stayed in place and created vents and spaces that the adventurous might find challenging but not daunting.” Ionna laid a hand on the table next to her cup and engaged his eyes. “So I’ve been told.”

Donovan stared at the bacon on his plate and wondered how he could get it all in his mouth without appearing like a ravenous wolf. He also wondered about the trail by the old waterfall. How had perimeter security missed that. Just plain sloppy? Or sloppy on purpose? “Do you know if the camp property is still accessible up through the secret trail?”

Ionna leveled him with a long look, gauging his trustworthiness before she spoke. “About nine, maybe ten years ago, when the construction of the facility was going on up on Mounty Oly I snuck in to take a look at what they were doing. Since we couldn’t get any answers from the county planning department of what exactly was going on up there, a few of us decided to find out for ourselves. We crawled up the ravine to the site of the construction, Ike was among the group. It wasn’t completed yet, but it looked like row upon row of container vessels and a large landing area for helicopters.”

Donovan solved the problem by making a bacon sandwich with the English muffin.. “Would you be willing to show me the access to the secret trail?”

He eyes narrowed. “Are you asking me to break any laws? Like trespassing?”

He shook his head and swallowed another bite. “You won’t be breaking any laws. I just want to determine if access to the Mount Oly compound can be made through this trail you’re talking about. I have a hunch that it’s been used or in use since the last time you went up there, possibly by Ike Carey.”

She nodded her head thoughtfully. “Yes, that seems likely. Ike was particularly affected when we lost the bid for the property. He’d wanted to sabotage the construction while it was underway. He wasn’t the only one,” she added with a smile. “But I have to warn you, it’s a maze, and some spots might be a tight fit for someone your size.”

Donovan looked down at where some of the egg yolk had dribbled down onto the napkin tucked under his chin and then back up at Ionna. He didn’t want to admit he was wearing his Kevlar. “It’s just the jacket, it makes me look bulky.”

“If you say so.”


Next Time in The White Room: On Top Of Mount Oly

The White Room—3

by Helene Baron-Murdock

Donovan knew he had to face the music sooner or later. Later found him sitting across from Sheriff Tim Collins, a big man behind a big desk—they had served as deputies together, but ladder climbing and a regular diet of ass kissing had added a puffiness to the Sheriff’s face and midriff making him look overinflated. He leaned back in his large red leather office chair looking through half closed eyes before pointing a finger and raising an inquisitive eyebrow. “That’s your story?”

sheriff  “It’s a murder investigation, Tim, plain and simple, body, gunshot wound, a potential crime scene I’ve been denied access. . . .”

“You’re not going to get anywhere with that. Even if I wanted to help you, my hands are tied. These people have a lot of clout. I have budgetary concerns to look after and I can’t risk someone stepping on the supplementary funding pipeline, too many jobs at stake. If this was strictly a law enforcement matter, you’d have your search warrant, but it’s not, it’s political. Technically, it’s an accidental death. Let’s leave it at that.”

“Someone’s shitting on your turf, Tim.”

“I’m not saying I’m happy about it. I’m up for reelection in eighteen months. I can’t piss the wrong people off. Besides I had nothing to do with it. It was signed off by the Board of Supes and the State before I became Sheriff. Until now I’ve had no cause to complain. Put together a case file on it. Maybe after I’m reelected I’ll have another look.” He gave that shit eating grin he was famous for. “You could even be retired by then.”

“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”

“Well, now that the hiring freeze is over I can now hire a chief of detectives instead of handling the job myself.

“I don’t think I want the responsibility.”

“Like you had a snowball’s chance.” Collins chuckled. “And maybe promote a couple of deserving young officers into your slot. I can hire two for what I’m paying you.”

Donovan canted his head rolling his eyes, as if he cared. “It was never enough.”

“It works for me, movement in the ranks is always good for the department. It’s trickledown theory, you’ve heard of trickledown theory, haven’t you?”

“I have. I learned it from a plumber.”

“A plumber?”

“Yeah, ‘Shit flows downhill.’” Donovan rose from his chair, the ass chewing obviously over. “I’ve got a couple of angles to look at before I file this one away. Just to make sure the paperwork’s in order and we can cover our asses if something goes sideways in the future.”

Collins made a face. “It won’t, but go ahead, as long as it doesn’t impinge on any other ongoing investigations. And once I hire the new COD, it’ll be his call.”

foggy coast

Donovan was on the road back to the coast and Sparta Creek Trailer Park the first thing next morning. There was a gap between the approximate time of death and the time the body was discovered that might never be completely filled in. He’d stared at the timeline spreadsheet, checking off each item, time of his dispatch, travel time to Acropolis Cove. The vehicle accident, a junker versus an SUV had slowed traffic on Corinth Bay Road. He recalled the demolished older model sedan on the shoulder of the highway and the near pristine Suburban, tinted windows, on the flatbed of the tow truck thinking it odd and that the junker should have had priority if the intent was to clear the roadway. He’d accessed the accident on the Highway Patrol incident log and noted the case number. Logging in to the incident file with his interagency LEO password, he read the at-scene officer’s notes. 11-80, major injuries, driver of a pre-millennium Mercury GM transported to Santa Lena General. Vehicle info: registered owner William Bailey Yates, current address Site 11A, Sparta Creek Trailer Park. That the vehicle information on the Suburban was simply Federal Government Fleet gave him pause. He recognized the name of the reporting officer, Zara Valdez, and left a message on her voicemail to call him back.

It was another grim gray day at the coast in the shade of a huge fog bank. And windy, flags and pennants rippling furiously like they wanted to break free and fly away. The awning on the battered trailer at site 11A was shuddering from the gusts and sand was swirling around the aluminum steps leading to the door. A head peeked out the narrow doorway to register his presence and then closed. Either the wind or those within made the trailer shake slightly from side to side.

After Donovan 10-97’d his 10-20, and as dispatched acknowledged, he answered the incoming call on his phone. “Officer Valdez, thanks for returning my call.”

“What’s up, Donovan, run into some more highway trouble?” She was a perky little number he remembered. It had been a Charity Slow Pitch Softball Tournament, street cops versus highway cops. He‘d gone from home plate ump to UFC referee in a matter of seconds. The street cop catcher was talking trash to the batters, but whatever he’d said to her, she erupted and almost took the guy’s head off. He’d stepped in, cautioned the catcher, and assessed her one strike. The pitcher, a tall gal who worked in city dispatch and a former amateur player, couldn’t stop from laughing. Once she caught her breath she threw a fast ball and Valdez hit a line drive right at her head. Later he’d learned that the catcher had made disparaging remarks about what he thought her sexual preferences were. “The V stands for Volcano,” she’d told him.

“Word gets around fast.”

“That’s why we have radios. What can I do you for?”

“That TC outside of Dardanelle two morning’s ago? An 11-80 involving a Suburban. . . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I remember. What about it?”

“The Suburban belongs to. . . .”

“It was Fed fleet. The driver badged me, Deputy US Marshal.”

“You used to get those in cereal boxes but since the world went granola. . .got a description?”

“Of the fed? Yeah, universal soldier, definitely military type, by the haircut at least, high and tight. Impressive, imposing, and full of himself. Name was Brick or Dick something. Tiller? Tillis?”

“How about the other driver, the transport?”

“A mess, older guy, lotsa blood, fire and rescue had to use the can opener to extricate.”

“What was it? A 102 or a 103?”

“I don’t think it was a 2. A 3, maybe, but on the other vehicle’s part.”

“Oh yeah?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say some tactical driving was involved, at an unsafe speed, and the driver looked like someone who might have had the training. The Merc flipped a couple of times according to witnesses.”

“No take on the vehicle assignment?”

“I wanted to take a picture of the registration but he wouldn’t let me. Some weird agency I never heard of.”

“What about the transport, description?”

“Like I said, old guy. Despite the blood, my impression was leathery, like he’d been out in the sun a lot, like forever. No ID on him, wrote him a citation for driving without a license, not the vehicle’s registered owner from the DMV database photo, wrong age, too. He was out the entire time. Even in the hospital, they couldn’t ID him to see if he had insurance. But from the car he was driving, I’d say he didn’t.”

“What happened to the vehicle?”

“County impound yard, why?”

“I’m looking at the registered owner right now. He might want to know.”

“Oh yeah? I hope he has insurance because it’s totaled.”

An angry face surrounded by a shaggy bush of salt bleached hair stared at Donovan through the windshield of the sedan. When he stepped out, the mop retreated toward the trailer atop a wiry frame, feral in posture, mean-eyed as a cornered rabbit. “What you want?” a near soprano voice demanded. “I ain’t done nothing!” And then as a last recourse, “She ain’ta gonna press charges,” pointing at the woman named Heron cowering in the doorway of the trailer looking more harried than the last time he’d seen her.

If Donovan’s glare had been a thumb, it would have crushed the man like the insect he was. He addressed the woman in the doorway. “Ms. Heron, I have a few more questions concerning Dwight Carey.”

“She already told what she knows!” The boyfriend puffed himself like a bantam rooster and moved to block Donovan’s path to the trailer.

“I’m not here to talk to you. Get in my way and I’ll arrest you for obstruction of a murder inquiry.”

At the word “murder” the tenor of the man’s aggressiveness changed and his mouth opened and closed like a gasping goldfish undoubtedly mimicking his sphincter. He stood frozen with his arms stiff at his side, fists clenched.

“Ms. Heron, I would like to speak to you in private if I may.” He beckoned to her to step down out of the trailer. A few of the neighboring residents were drifting over to satisfy their curiosity.

Heron, her head down, eyes on the ground, came to stand next to him. “When I asked you about Dwight Carey yesterday, someone named ‘Dad’ came up. Do you remember?”

She nodded and cast a glance over her shoulder at her boyfriend.

“What else can you tell me about Dad?”

She shook her head, “Nothing I ain’t already said.”

“He’s a dirty old man and I’ll kick his ass when I get my hands on him!”

Donovan gave the boyfriend the practiced hard cop stare. “I’m not going to tell you again. Stay out of this.”

“He stole my ride!”

Donovan nodded and addressed Heron. “Did you loan Billy’s car to Dad and that’s why he beat on you?”

Heron whimpered and nodded her head.

“Did he tell you why he needed to borrow the car?”

“Said he had a doctor’s appointment in Santa Lena first thing in the morning but he’d bring it right back before Billy even knew it was gone. I ain’t lying, but he never did.”

Billy had got some of his nerve back and had edged closer, anger contorting his face. “This stupid bitch traded that old bastard my Merc for a stupid medal. Said it was worth a lot of money when it’s just a cheap piece of crap. Ain’t worth nothing and now I ain’t got wheels neither.”

“You have this item he gave you?” Donovan pointed a finger at Billy. “You stay where you are. If you wanted to file a stolen vehicle complaint, I’ll have the deputy come by and take the report.”

Heron reached down the front of her blouse and pulled up a round flat object attached to a thin leather cord. “It’s bronze, he said,” she spoke quietly, reverentially, “said it was ancient, magic, s’posta ward off evil spirits.” She looked at Billy. “Guess he was just making all that up cause he wanted me to let him borrow Billy’s ride. He’s a real slick talker when he wants to be, really smart, used a lot of big words. Talk anybody outta anything. I seen it. Said if he didn’t come back I could sell it to a collector for enough to buy a new car and a trailer. . . .”

“It’s a piece of junk!”

She handed it to Donavan who asked, “Did the thong come with it?”

“No I added that, There’s a little hole for it at the top.”

pan2He held it by the length of rawhide and examined it closely. It was the size of a cast belt buckle although solid and crude in its depiction of a face, what looked like a tongue protruding below a bushy mustache, the eyes round with terror or menace. The weight of it belied its size, encrusted in hues of coal black to greenish blues, there was nonetheless something intriguingly authentic about it.

Donovan set the medallion on the hood of his sedan and took pictures of the bronze medallion with his phone. He retrieved a plastic evidence bag from the driver’s door pocket.

“That’s mine!” Billy challenged and started toward him. “You can’t take that!” The nosey neighbors were joined by additional onlookers, curious, grim faced, but not their first police action.

“What did I say about staying put? This is evidence in a criminal inquiry. It’ll be returned to you as soon as it’s declassified. Step back or I’ll take you down and take you in!”

Someone in the crowd asked loudly, “Can you keep him longer this time?” A titter of laughter and grunts of approval rippled through the crowd of onlookers, some with smart phones recording the proceedings. A woman at the front of the neighborhood watch group held up her phone to get a better angle and yelled “Don’t let them take your property, Billy! You got your rights! They’ll be coming for your guns next!”

On cue Billy launched himself at Heron, punching, slapping and kicking, screaming “See what you did! This all your fault!” Heron cowered, screeching in surprise and pain.

Donovan moved quickly, grabbing Billy’s arm before the next blow landed and twisting it up behind his back in one swift practiced motion, knocking the man’s feet out from under him. Face down, Billy struggled to get up but Donovan, with a knee on his spine, snapped the cuffs on one wrist and final caught hold of the wildly flailing loose arm to bracelet it to the other. The wind, in a furious gust, whipped them both.

“Put your knee on his neck!” the woman filming with her phone yelled as if she were the director of an action movie.

Donovan stood up slowly, his breathing heavy. Two days running his adrenaline had kicked in and he could feel the cool itch of sweat breaking along his brow and under his eyes. He bent down again catching the glint of the medallion he had dropped in the wind shifting sand. For a moment he had the impression that it was mocking him as he hooked his finger through the leather strand and dropped the sturdy amulet into the evidence bag.

A couple of concerned neighbor women were comforting Heron, helping her over to the wood bench outside the trailer. One of them glared at Donovan as he approached. “You need to keep him in jail,” she said indicating Billy thrashing on the ground demanding his rights and the return of his property, “he’s always beating on her.”

“Do I need to call for a medic to take a look at you?”

Heron, sniffling between sobs, shook her head. “No, I’m ok,” she spoke feebly, “Are you gonna arrest him?”

Donovan pursed his lips. “He didn’t give me much choice. I witnessed an assault. I’m going to arrest him and leave it up to the DA to charge him. If he’s got a record for this kind of behavior it’s likely he’ll be doing some time. It’s the law and I have to enforce it.” He held up the evidence bag. “I’ll have you sign a receipt for the medallion. It’s interesting enough that I want to have the lab take a look at it. When we’re done with it, I’ll get it back to you. Promise.”

Heron looked up at him with tear reddened eyes and nodded. “Ok,” she said weakly.

emergencyWhy connecting one dot made him feel like a bloodhound hot on a trail he couldn’t say although it did energized him. He could draw a line from Ike Carey to Dad Ailess by association and by the odd coincidence that Carey was wearing a blue jumpsuit two sizes too small for him, a blue jumpsuit that was described as Dad’s usual attire. Now he had a link between Dad and the vehicle accident the morning Carey’s body was discovered. His next stop was Santa Lena General to learn what had become of the driver of the totaled Mercury. Once he reported his 10-15, the coast deputy arrived to take custody of Billy and await transport to the county jail.

The security guard at the ER recognized Donovan and nodded as he held the door open for him. He paused at the receiving counter for one of the nurses in blue scrubs to notice him. A young nurse, severe dark framed glasses, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, walked up to the counter.

“Hi, Jim Donovan with the Sheriff’s Office. I’m inquiring about the victim of a TC brought in here two days ago, mid-morning?”

“I’m sorry, do you have a warrant for that information?” She looked around and called for the attention of another nurse with her back to them. “Maria?”

Maria turned and then smiled. “Jim Donovan. I have not seen you in a while. I thought maybe you have retired.” She was a sprightly slightly rotund Hispanic woman with streaks of gray in her otherwise jet black hair.

“I don’t know how that rumor got started.”

“If you ask me, I think Tim Collins start it in hope he get rid of his bad boy detective.”

“You might be on to something.”

“Jim, this is Tess, she is new here.”

Donovan gave an affable smile and claimed to be pleased to meet her.

“Have you heard from Marion recently? How she is liking Baltimore?”

Donovan scratched his chin. “Not in a while, but last time I talked to her she was liking it just fine.”

“Tell her ‘hi’ from the SaLeGen gang next time.” She addressed Tess. “Marion was one of the top ICU nurses here and a frequent companion of the Sheriff detective and we adopt him as ‘our guy’.” She beamed a big smile, warm and affectionate. “So what bring you down to the ER, Jim?”

“He wanted information on a TC admit. Doesn’t he need a warrant for that?”

Maria looked taken aback. “Why he need that? He need a court order to get private medical information, sure, but information on a patient status is entirely appropriate, especially if it is in the course of an investigation.” She turned to Jim, “I assume it is, yes?”

“Absolutely. I merely need to determine the victim of the traffic collision. . . .”

Tess looked confused. “But the others showed me a warrant and said. . . .”

“Others?” Donovan and Marie asked in near unison.

“The others came shortly after this man, the one who was in the vehicle accident two days ago, we had him as a John Doe, admitted him for assessment. They said they had a warrant for him but the on-call emdee said he was too fragile to move and they’d have to wait till he regained consciousness. Then later, I was off shift but I learned from Miguel, the late shift nurse, that they brought in their own doctor, a woman, and he said he didn’t think she was an emdee, but she had a lawyer with her, and they were going to transport him to another facility, and even the director of operations had to be called because the old guy had never recovered consciousness and the on-call refused because he was already tied to in-hospital life support. . . .”  She paused as if out of breath.

“So that what that was all about,” Maria nodded sagely. “I am looking over the shift note and here is this whole kerfuffle about the transport. They want to send their own helicopter to medivac. So we get him ready to move. But wherever it was come from, there was a weather delay, so he have to wait.

“A cluster kerfuffle, you might say,” Donovan interjected.

Maria chuckled, “Jim, you always make me laugh.” Tess gave a tentative smile and added, “But they got it all resolved this morning. The helicopter medevacked him to another hospital I’m assuming.”

“Ugh!” Donovan shook his head. “Was there any identification made on the patient, his name? Anything?”

“There was a name on the warrant. I saw it when they showed it to me.” Tess made the helpless gesture. “But I don’t remember it. Sorry.”

“Could it have been Daniel Ailess or Alaz?”

“Mmm, I don’t think so. It was the full name, you know, first, middle, last.”

“I should have acted on my hunch yesterday,” he groaned.

“Wait,” Maria said, “there must be a copy of the warrant if the hospital authorize the  release.” She held up a finger. “The director of operations! I will call his office,” she smiled picking up the hospital phone.

Donovan addressed Tess, “Can you give me a description of the patient, anything you can remember about him that might have struck you as odd?”

“No, not really, just that he seemed really old, you know, his skin was dark but the intern checked Caucasian on the admittance form.”

“Anything else?”

“Just that there was a lot of blood on his clothes. From the accident, you know.”

“What were his injuries?”

Tess shrugged. “I don’t know. I wasn’t part of the triage team. But I remember Marcus, one of the nurses on the team, saying he didn’t know where the blood came from.”

“It didn’t come from the injuries?”

“I didn’t ask him what he meant. We had a busy patch right around then. The on-call had him transferred to ICU almost immediately so it must have been pretty serious. I don’t think he regained consciousness, at least not under our care.”

Maria hung up the receiver shaking her head. “He is in a meeting and cannot be disturb.” She stared at the phone set. “The problem with hiring the children of the board of directors as receptionists is that they do not know anything and they do not care that they do not know anything.” Her eyes narrowed. “Tess, who was the on-call that day?”

“Meridan.”

“Oh, Merry Dan? That is disappointing.”

“No, wait, it was Fatima! Meridan was working another incident. Like I said we were slammed that day.”

Maria nodded. “Fatima Fattah. Now Doctor Fattah I know we can trust. She is not on call today. But!” with a spark in her eye, “I can review her patient log. If I know her, she count the buttons on his shirt.”

Donovan and Tess exchanged a hopeful glance as Maria manipulated the mouse, and a few keystrokes later nodded her head and said “Ok, here we go.” Her eyes scanned the screen and she frowned. “I have not seen that one in forever, a BOP billing code.”

“BOP? Bureau of Prisons?” He nodded his head. “Ok, that gives me something to chew on. Anything else?”

“Here, his name is Philip Andrew Nichols.”

“No joy there, and I’m almost back to square one.”

“This is odd.” Maria pointed to the screen. “Dr. Fattah could find no injuries that would account for the blood on the clothing.”

“The clothing? Any chance that they would still be around?”

Maria shook her head, “No, they were his effects, they probably were pack up with him when they transport.”

“Can I  get a look at his room in the ICU? Maybe something of his was left behind.” He shrugged. “I know it’s a reach.”

Maria put the phone to her ear. “You will have to mask and gown, but I will ask Debbie.” She smiled. “You remember Debbie, don’t you?”

Donovan remembered Debbie and Debbie hadn’t forgotten Donovan. Debbie had had a huge crush on him and had made a move on him at a Christmas party, one that Marion hadn’t been able to attend because she was working that evening. That had been some years back when he was still working Narcotics. Nothing had ever come of it mainly because Debbie had been very drunk. He’d driven her home, helped her find the keys to her front door, end of story. Except for the ones wagging tongues were tempted to tell.

Martina PapponettiDebbie talked a lot when she was nervous and that made Donovan nervous. “The room was scrubbed soon after they transported, I doubt you’ll find anything. There’s already a new patient in there. And even if I did, I could get in serious trouble if anyone found out I’d let you in. Privacy rights, you know. I don’t know what Maria was thinking.” They were standing by the double doors that led into the ICU. She had her mask pulled down under her chin, a large sterile cap covering a pile of blonde hair, and a full blue gown and matching booties.

“How about blood or tissue samples?” He felt stupid. He knew the answer as soon as he asked the question.

She answered anyway, “You’d have to have permission of his custodian or a court order, or both.”

Donovan looked around, a security guard was hurrying to the nurses station. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed, “Grasping at straws.”

Debbie had a nice smile even if it had a little edge of smug superiority to it. She tucked a stray strand of blonde hair under her cap and asked, “Have you heard from Marion since she moved back to Baltimore?”

He was about to give his boiler plate answer when an angry voice erupted at the nurses station. Another security guard was hurrying down the corridor crowded with idle machines, gurneys, nurses, orderlies, and patients hobbling along grasping their mobile IV poles or in wheelchairs. The loud voice belonged to an older woman. “I can’t believe this! How can you lose a man who can’t walk?”

The nurse, embarrassed and flustered, was losing her patience over the presumed lost patient. “Please, calm down! I’m certain it’s just a mistake. He’s here in the hospital, I’m sure of it.”

The loud woman was accompanied by a younger woman, likely her daughter, and a young girl not much older than five who was tugging insistently at the young woman’s jacket. The young woman tried to shush the girl but looked up in the direction the girl pointed as she announced in the clear voice of a precocious pre-adolescent, “That man has a hat just like Uncle Jimmy’s.” That caused the loud woman to whirl around. “Someone’s wearing my brother’s hat?” Then she screamed pointing at a now empty wheelchair in the cluster that had gathered to view the ruckus. All heads turned, including Donovan’s, to catch a leg disappearing behind the corner of the corridor. The security guards looked at each other perplexed. They had no idea what had just happened. They’d been called to quell a commotion. They weren’t at all certain they were supposed to chase someone down the hospital corridor even as the woman screamed “He stole my brother’s hat!”

Donovan was around the corner in a couple of strides. A gurney with attendant IV pole was waiting to be loaded on the elevator at the far end of the hallway flanked by two orderlies in pale green scrubs. Other than that, the people in the hallway looked like they belonged there, their demeanor professional, some flashing him questioning looks. Then he saw it on the floor between a soiled linen hamper and a medical waste disposal crate, the uncle’s hat. He bent down and with the pen from his pocket lifted the ballcap to take a closer look. There was an unusual logo on the front of the hat, a lower case i framed by a pair of wings.


Next Time, in Part 4 of The White Room: The Lab In The Labyrinth

A Detective Story—8

by Colin Deerwood

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stormy sky allywayI instructed the boys to park mid-block in the shadow of the cone from the street light. Max’s Triple A Loans was half a block down and locked up tighter than a spinster’s legs on a full moon night. I squired the dame around the corner and into the alley that ran behind Max’s pawn shop. She didn’t hesitate once as we entered the narrow unlit corridor of discarded crates and overflowing overturned garbage cans, a sliver of gutter water gleaming down the center, the scramble of rats scurrying away. Visible in between the gap of tall buildings the sky was filling with the dark billowing clouds and in the distance a flash then a rumble sounding like someone was moving furniture around in the apartment upstairs, really heavy furniture.

I’d been there before and even though the sign on the large metal door claimed to belong to Ho Gung Import Exports, I banged on the door a couple of times. I knew Max burned the midnight oil counting his filthy lucre and probably even slept there. All I got for my trouble was a reminder of how hard a metal door can be. I tried again, this time adding my voice. “Max! It’s me, Lackland Ask, open up!” I thought I heard a movement on the other side of the door and put my ear up to it. “Max! Open up!”

“Go away,” a faint tired voice answered.

“Come on Max, it’s me, Lack Ask. I found your stupid niece for you when she ran away upstate with that travelling Bible salesman!”

Nothing. Except for the raindrops that were falling with increasing intensity.

“I don’t know what was worse for Max, that she ran away or that it was with a Bible salesman,” I said from the corner of my mouth. I slapped  the palm of my sore hand on the door a few more times. “Come on, Max! It’s important! And it’s starting to rain!”

The gal thought she’s give it a try, stepped up and rapped on the door delicately with her knuckles. “Mr. Fedderman,” she called out, “my name is Rebecca Levy. I request a special favor of you. I am here with my betrothed, Mr. Ask, and we have an item we wish for you to appraise if you would be so kind.”

What she said was more of a mouthful than Open Sesame, but it worked. I could hear the bolt being slid back and the tumblers turning and finally the heavy door creaking on its hinges swinging outward to reveal Max with a Louisville slugger in one hand and a very perplexed look on his mug. He stared at Rebecca and then at me and back again. “Betrothed?” he croaked.

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“Come in, come in” Max waved his hand impatiently, smiling at Rebecca and frowning at me. There was the stink of old in the little storage room in the back and it wasn’t just Max. And as I had guessed, a cot pushed against the wall under some shelves crammed with pawned items. He led us into the cage that was his office just off the main showroom and pulled the chain on the overhead light. In among the clutter was a rolltop desk and a work bench.

Max sat in the only chair and looked up at us. He was a sight. A halo of wild white frizz surrounded his mottled dome, wrinkles on his forehead stepped down to a pair of cheaters like the bottoms of jam jars astride a carbuncled schnozzle below which sat a smear of liver lips on a bed of untrimmed whiskers. No wonder he was known as The Owl on the street, but an owl that had just smoked an exploding cigar. He smiled and showed that he was running out of teeth and the ones that he still had weren’t in that good a shape. The smile was aimed at the dame. Me, he fixed with a squint.

Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.”

“So you are getting married? The temperature in Hell must have dropped below zero.” The liver lips shaped a smirk.

“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Mr. Fedderman.” The kid beamed her glow at him. “It is the matter of a stone and its authenticity. Mr. Ask. . .I mean, Lackland, doubts that it is real.”

“A stone,” Max breathed noncommittally.

“Yeah, Max, it’s supposed to be an uncut diamond, but how can you tell? I mean, it looks like a pebble you might find in your shoe.”

“Uncut diamond?” Now the old guy was interested because instead of slouching in his chair he sat straight up.

“Lackland says you are an expert in such matters and can appraise its value for us.”

From the look on Max’s face maybe he took the term “expert” to  be some kind of insult. He stood up and I realized how short he was. Still, puffing out his chest he said, “Young lady, I will have you know that I was the most respected and renowned purveyor of gemstones in the international community of Shanghai. I handled only the finest in jewels, from diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and jade. . . .” He was about to go on but the tailor’s daughter jumped in.

“Oh, jade, I love jade. My mother had the most beautiful jade necklace. . . .”

Not to be outdone, Max dismissed what she had to say. “I carried only the finest of Burmese jade, the jade of emperors and empresses, to some more valuable than diamonds!”

Now it was my turn. “That’s what I told them, Max. . . .” And at the dame’s scowl, corrected myself, “Uh, her, that’s what I told her. You know your gems, diamonds especially.”

“Of course, if I do say so myself.” Acting humble didn’t suit him. “If I may examine the specimen.” He held out his hand and the girl reached into her coat pocket and produced a small white box. Max took it from her and opened the box and muttered a hmmm. He set the box on his work bench and found a pair a tweezers which he used to hold the rock up to the light.

“Like I told you, Max, it looks like something you might find on the beach.”

Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.” Then he parked his glasses on top of his dome and pulled a loupe from his vest pocket and fit it in his eye socket. “The next detail is the surface of the stone, its facets, what are their shapes.” He dropped the diamond back into the little white box and handed it to me. “Congratulations! You are in possession of a genuine diamond. Quite a valuable one, I have to tell you.”

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money eyesWell, that cinched it. I was going to be a rich man. My eyes and my grin were competing with each other over which was going to get bigger. I looked at the dame and her smile was trying to make up its mind if she was pleased or now what. But I didn’t care. All I could think about was what I was going to do with all that money once I turned those diamonds into cash. A new roadster like a Torpedo or that Roadmaster I had my eye on, an apartment in a classy neighborhood with a doorman at the entrance, new suits, none of those second hand threads, dames, booze, travel, maybe catch a train to Frisco and look in on Della who I heard was working for a slick lawyer on Mason Street and flash my roll and say “who’s the loser now.”

Luck was finally turning my way. I could open my own office instead of just passing out business cards in cocktail lounges and night clubs. I would certainly be looking at a more upscale clientele. I’d actually have customers I could call clientele. I would need a receptionist, someone to answer the phone and show the clients into my private office with Lackland Ask, Confidential Investigations in gold lettering on the frosted glass pane of the door, maybe a dame like this one, smart, sassy, and eager to learn. Happy days were here again where actually they had never been before or if they had, they didn’t stay for very long. I was going to be rich!

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No doubt I was taking advantage of the situation but I reached around and put my arm over the frill’s shoulder and pulled her to me. “Hey baby, how about that. we got a real diamond. It’ll make a beautiful wedding ring!”

I got a sharp elbow in the ribs for my trouble. “Yes, of course, darling,” she said between gritted teeth and giving me a firm no smile avoiding the closeness of my face like I had three day bender breath. “Maybe we should be on our way and thank Mr. Fedderman for his kindness.”

I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”

“Leaving?!” Max’s whole body, head, arms, legs shook no. “I would not think of it! This happy occasion calls for a drink! I insist!” and he produced a short round bottle from the bottom drawer of a dusty wooden file cabinet, the kind of bottle Sinbad might have rubbed when he was calling out the genie. He had a glass but it was greasy and finger stained. He shook his head and scurried to a set of shelves along the wall crammed with odds and ends, mostly glass and porcelain figurines like you might find in a Chinese variety store. He reached into the clutter and with a grin that was startlingly sinister, produced a pair of blue and white tea cups, setting them on the edge of the desk, and proceeded to drip some of the liquor into each of them before pouring a generous helping into the smeared glass for himself.

I didn’t see why not. A drink always went a long ways to settling my nerves. It was the best tonic I knew. Besides I was in a mood to celebrate. The frail wasn’t so sure and stared at the cup Max had handed her.

“Mazel tov! To the health and prosperity of your union. May you have many offspring to see to you in your old age!”

She went all red in the face and I almost felt sorry for her. She hesitated and Max leaned forward to say something like it was going to convince her. “Ming dynasty,” he said indicating the cup, “Very rare.”

She pass the cup under her nose, still uncertain.

“A plum brandy from the old country.”

She took a tiny sip to wet her lips. She smiled at the sweetness of the taste and tried a little more. By the time it reached her throat her eyes were watering and she was trying to catch her breath. She began to cough.

“Where are my manners?” Max gently steered her to the only chair in the room. “Here, sit, sit.”

She thanked him and asked, “Where is your old country?”

“Transylvania.”

Dracula_(1931I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”

“Pah!” Max spit, “The fever dreams of an Irishman. In the Carpathian Mountains there are many strange legends, but none of them are about vampires.”

Rebecca took another sip now that she was sitting. She nodded. “I have heard many of the folk tales from that region. They are similar to the ones I grew up with.”

Max was pleasantly surprised from the way his whiskers parted to form a smile. “And where is that, my dear?” So when she said the name of the place that sounded something like Salami-ka, he exclaimed, “We’re practically neighbors!” He poured himself a little more of the liquor and then a dab into each of our cups. “To the crucibles of civilization!” he toasted and took another big gulp and just to be polite I followed suit. The girl, too, though maybe not so eagerly.

Then she asked the question that set it all in motion, and gave Max the opportunity to tell his story. “How did you end up in Shanghai?”

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“When I was a young man I had to leave my tiny village in the shadow of the larger castle town of Sibiu because of a matter of honor. It was a matter of honor for the father of a young woman who vowed he would kill me on sight. I offered to marry her but because of who I was that was impossible. I come from a poor family, my father an itinerant tailor, and she was the daughter of a prominent man in the village. I was quite handsome in those days and was known about the village as “zilbertung”. My father went to the mayor of the town and begged him to intercede. Being a wise man, the mayor proposed a solution. The man’s honor needed to be appeased but he was not an unreasonable man except for the fact that he wanted to kill me. He would accept satisfaction on two conditions. One, that I was to be banished from the village, and two, that a compensatory payment be made. As I said, my parents were very poor. The first stipulation would break my mother’s heart but at least I would still be alive, but the other was beyond their means. The mayor had an idea that would resolve both of the demands. With my parents’ agreement, my father was ready to kill me himself, the mayor took me to Sibiu and sold me to a travelling merchant as an indentured servant.”

“Oh, how awful!” the kid breathed, and accepted another drib from Max’s bottle while I leaned my rear on the edge of the desk. Max had the floor.

“It was the best decision I never made in my life!” Max held his glass up in acknowledgement and lapped up more of the juice. “From that moment on, I trusted only fate, dame fortune. Decisive action is for schnooks. And most of my life has proved me right. Opportunity is always underfoot, you only have to trip over it.

“As it turns out, the man I was sold to was a trinket merchant, a man who bought, I should say swindled poor peasants out of their family heirlooms. And he beat me horribly at first, especially when he was drunk, but I learned that he had a weakness for folk tales and so with my silver tongue I beguiled him with stories from my village, some that I had heard at my grandmother’s knee and others that I made up ex nihilo, especially the ones with fantastic beasts and enchanted maidens who would lure young men with their whiles. And so I always made certain that he had plenty to drink at whatever inn we stopped at and I would tell him stories until he fell asleep.

“By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg, he had me reciting my tales to the denizens of roadside taverns and passing the hat. Of course I never saw any of the money because I was essentially his slave, a slave to a Slav. But in St, Petersburg, creditors caught up with the merchant who was known as Ursulov, by the way, a bear of a man. He owed many debts and to pay them off he had to sell me even though he had become very fond of me and my stories.

Soviets-2“And I had landed in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, a simmering cauldron of political dissent and talk of revolution, but now as the servant of a man who was a jewel merchant or a jewel thief, depending on whom you spoke with, a tiny man with a very bad temper who was not quite Russian and not quite Chinese—he claimed to be from the region near Lake Baikal which later proved useful in extricating me and my companions from a very dangerous situation.

“But I digress. At first I merely swept the shop and washed the windows and kept the fires going in the winter, and because I was quite strong, I accompanied him when he thought he might need protection. He carried a pistol and allowed me a knife. A known jewel merchant was not safe on the streets of St. Petersburg and he had made many enemies over his gem transactions. He had a young apprentice as well, a boy of about my age, perhaps younger, named Freddy, from Switzerland, and we became fast friends.”

“Ah, Switzerland,” the dame murmured, leaning a little sideways and accepting more of the fruit juice from the bottle. I had a refill as well. After a while, that stuff made you feel kinda warm and cozy, like you didn’t have a care in the world, and added to the fistful of diamonds I had in mind, I didn’t.

“I attended boarding school in Zurich,” she said dreamily, “I learned French, Italian, German, and English while I was there, and I had a friend in each of those languages.” She looked up at me trying to focus her eyes, “And now I am learning American.”

“The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”

“A woman of words in the ways of the world!” Max raised his glass again and we all downed a slug. “I too learned many new languages during my time working for Otobayar as the merchant was known. Chinese and Russian, German, and French. Because of my silver tongue, languages were easy for me, and soon Mr. Otobayar came to trust me as someone who could always bargain a good price for the merchandise, either up or down, depending on the circumstances. I also learned much about the gem business, especially that stones were an international currency, and quite easily transported across borders sewn in the lining of a sleeve or the cuff of trousers, and were accepted everywhere.”

“Kinda like diamonds,” I said and I sounded stupid saying it.”

“”Exactly,” Max said passing the bottle around.

“Diamonsh,” the kid echoed and sounded just as stupid.

“Those were wild and dangerous times in St. Petersburg. There were strikes by workers and peasants alike. Factions of the military were trying to gain power by overthrowing the Tsar’s rule. There was fighting in the street, soldiers killing many of the citizens who were protesting, demanding food, better wages, or even wages. Much of this fomented by the disciples of a dead Engländer by the name of Marx. Less than half a dozen years into the new century, Russia had started a war with Japan. The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”

“The damned Reds,” I growled and emptied my cup

“Soon Mr. Otobayar, whose full name by the way had thirty letters to it and was unpronounceable to anyone not familiar with the Mongol tongue even when they were sober, realized that a man in a business such as his was in more danger than a mere bodyguard could protect him from. It was time to flee. He had Freddy and I pack up as much as we could carry, sewing strings of gems into our clothes, in the linings of our suitcases, and the heels of our shoes, and we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway and headed east. The streets of the capitol were running with blood and the Russian Empire was losing the war to the Japanese.”

“The Japanese,” Rebecca spoke dumbly and I had to agree with her.

“When we arrived in Moscow to board the train,” Max said, steeling himself with a sip for the next part, “there were soldiers everywhere. They were heading to the battle front. We feared we would not be allowed to board. But there were also poor peasants conscripted to hard labor in the east and so we rode in the boxcars with them, with Mr. Otobayar disguised as our servant.”

Max stared at the wall of his office like he was looking out a window and shook his head like he didn’t like what he was seeing. “It was an incredibly long journey across the wilds of Russia complicated by the fact that the train heading east, the one Mr. Otobayar, Freddy and I were traveling on, was regularly sidetracked to let pass the trains heading west that were loaded with the dead and wounded from the war with Japan.

transiberian“Even in your most extravagant moment you could not imagine the horrors I witnessed. Peasants starving or killing each other over a crust of bread, soldiers committing suicide or deserting which was almost the same thing as they had no hope of surviving in the wilderness, and particularly after a troop train of their wounded comrades passed the other way, there were always the wails of inconsolable desperation. We had to be continually on our guard and Mr. Otobayer and I had to deal forcefully with the growing insolence of the peasants. We feared for our lives and the gems we carried which of course would mean nothing to them. They wanted our clothes and our shoes.”

Max talked in a way that put pictures in my head and I just stared at him looking at what his words said. The girl was looking up at him with her mouth hanging open.

“Fortunately for us, as the train rounded the southern tip of Lake Baikal, we took on a contingent of soldiers native to that region whose language Mr. Otobayat was quite familiar with and was able to convince them to allow us to continue to our destination in their company and under their protection.

“When we arrived in Harbin we waited for weeks in vermin infested lodgings along with other Russian refugees who had arrived before us and were still waiting for the Eastern Chinese Railway train to take us to Peking  We roomed alongside criminals and deserters, Japanese agents and Chinese soldiers. Our lives were more in danger than they had been on the train for these men, and women, knew the value of the gems they suspected us of carrying.

“Mr. Otobayat had engaged one of the servants at the inn to be our ears and eyes and keep us informed of the intentions of the other guests. The night of the train’s arrival he warned us that several of the toughs and army deserters planned to attack us in the morning of the train’s departure for Peking. Mr. Otobayat on hearing the news came up with a plan. He paid the servant to betray us and tell the bandits that we had got wind of their plan and were fleeing to a neighboring village. As there was only one road in that direction the gang of ruffians set out to follow us, assuming that we could not have gone very far. We waited for them outside the city limits hiding in ditches alongside the road. Once they came into view, we had Freddy run down the road in full view. As they ran past us, we jumped out of the ditches and beat them with our clubs. Mr. Otobayat had to shoot one of them and I cut another one’s throat.” Max held his hand like was holding a knife.

The dame’s eye opened wide and rigid like the slots on a pay phone. He kinda got my attention, too. And as if to fan all the smoke away, he said, “A week later were in the international settlement in Shanghai. Mr. Otobayat acquired quarters where we could continue our business in gems and sent Freddy on a steamer across the Pacific to America to look for further opportunities. Mr. Otobayar always thought of the future. Unfortunately his past caught up with him and he was murdered in a deal with a Burmese jade dealer.”

Max held the smoked glass of the bottle up to the light and squinted with one eye. There was a corner left, probably enough for one more round whether we needed it or not. “Fortunately I knew enough of the gem business to continue in the trade, I had my silver tongue, and by then I was considered a yu shu lin feng, a handsome young man, and cut quite a dashing figure among the emigres of the international settlement as well as the citizens of the middle kingdom. I even became the president of League of International Gem and Diamond Merchants, Shanghai chapter.” He frowned. “Until they brought false charges against me and had me barred from membership.” He dismissed them with a wave of a hand and downed the last in his glass. He peered at the tailor’s daughter. “And that is how I ended up in Shanghai, my home for a quarter of the century. I won’t bother you with the details of my having to flee before the Japanese invaded, the fascist Blue Shirts I had to bribe, the tongs, the Green gang, and Shanghai gangsters like Crater Face Huang and Elephants Ears Wang!”

Now there were some names for a Dick Tracy funny book and maybe the girl thought so too because she started giggling and then broke into a loud guffaw. “Elephant Ears Wang!” she snorted, and then let out a very unladylike gut splitter, tears running down her cheeks.

They say laughter is contagious. I thought it was kinda funny myself and volunteered a couple of chuckles. They bounced around the small office and the next thing I know, we were all practically rolling on the floor, pointing fingers, crying, and trying to catch our breaths with a bad case of the yuk-ups and ho-ho-hos.

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Wheezing and holding a hand up in surrender, Max wiped the tears from his eyes. “Thank you for your gift of humor, Miss Levy, soon to be Mrs. Lackland Ask.” That only caused to her to laugh some more, but not as heartily. He gestured to the interior of his shop. “Let me offer you something for your trousseau. Pick any item of clothing, silk dresses imported from China, or silk pajamas for the wedding night, perhaps. With my compliments.” He winked at me and I gave him a big wink back like we were part of some vaudeville routine.

“Oh, I just love the feel of silk on my skin,” she said getting to her feet, a little wobbly but managing a cross ankle dance to the clothing racks Max was pointing to further in the shop.

“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat

Max gave me the raised eyebrow and called me over for a tête-à-tête which I knew was French for a mouth to ear. “These diamonds, they have relations?” He was trying to be subtle but it almost went over my head.

“Uh, yeah, about a half dozen, I’d say. And if this deal works out, they’ll be all mine.” I couldn’t help grinning but Max’s grim mug made me stow it.

“Deal, what deal?”

“Don’t worry Max, I’ll cut you a commission for moving the rocks for me.” I looked over my shoulder to see if the dame was still occupied with sorting through the rack of dresses and pajamas. “See, I had this address book that belonged to one of Kovic’s goons and unbeknownst to me it was full of information about this mob called the Black Hand.”

At the mention of the Black Hand he gave me the Felix the Cat bug eyes. And nodded impatiently.

“These guys, the girl, this rabbi and his group are fighting them or something like that. It’s got everything to do with what’s going on. . . .”

“Yes, yes, I am getting the flavor of what you are saying. And it is you that Kovic is looking for?” He was giving me the once over like he didn’t think I had it in me. “There is a price. . . .”

That’s when we heard the kid scream and then start laughing again. I figured she spotted a rat but why was she laughing? It sounded hysterical.

She was holding a bright red Chinese dress to her neck with one hand and standing by one of the glass display cases, pointing to a brocade cloth Chinese box on top. “What is that?” she said, looking as she if she was pleasantly mortified.

I was kinda brought up short myself. I knew what it looked like and I could give a guess at what it could be used for, but I didn’t want to say. I left that up to Max.

“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat.

Now that he said it, I had to agree, it did kinda look like a cucumber. It was green and longer than it was wide, rounded and curved at the tip, with some carved leaves around what looked like a stem or handle at the other end. It looked like something valuable or at least expensive tucked in the plush padded red lining. On the other hand, it also looked like something you might find in the bedside table drawer of some lonely old maid.

“This once belonged to an empress?” The disbelief wasn’t hidden.

“Oh, no, no, this is merely a soapstone replica. They are also known as ‘auntie’s friend.’ The original one belonged the Empress Dowager Tzu-zi and made of the finest most translucent Burmese jade.”

“Her name was Suzy?” Now I was doubting what I was hearing.

“No Tzu-zi, although I know it does sound like Suzy. The original Empress’s Cucumber mysteriously disappeared after her death shortly after I arrived in Shanghai. Being in the jade business at the time I had heard rumors that it was for sale to the highest bidder. Mr. Otobayar thought he could broker a deal with a rich Japanese industrialist but it was all quite secret and I was kept out of the transactions. Although his death was attributed to a jade deal gone bad, I believe Mr. Otobayar was murdered by a sect of loyalist bent on restoring imperial rule. They believe that possession of the Empress’s Cucumber will boost their claim to legitimacy among the people of the middle kingdom. And from what I hear from my informants even though no knows where it is, treasure hunters and agents loyal to the throne of Heaven are still searching for it.” Then dropped his voice confidential like. “There is a rumor that the jade has been sighted recently. Whoever has possession of it is holding millions of dollars and the fate of a people in his hands. No wonder they would kill for it.”

traditional-chinese-bridal-dress001Max turned his head and smiled at the frail as if he hadn’t just been talking about conspiracy and murder. “So you’ve picked the red cheongsam dress with the gold embroidered birds of paradise. Excellent choice. The size looks right but maybe the hem could be let out a bit otherwise you might show a little more ankle than is proper. I can have it done by tomorrow and delivered to your address.”

As Max was showing us to the back door, Rebecca asked. “I was wondering, whatever became of your friend Freddy after he left for America?”

Max shook his head. “Sad story that. He returned to France and joined the Foreign Legion to fight in the Great War, and was wounded, lost his hand. Now I hear he seeks out the company of Bohemians and degenerate artists.”


Next Time: Full Flush Or No Flush

The Last Resort 26-27

by Pat Nolan

Chapter Twenty Six

SAPHO

The waves washing across the black gravel of Sabbia Negru made a sound in their receding like that of distant applause. I might have been feeling nostalgic for the attention I received as a celebrated beauty. There was no doubt that I was conflicted. To say I had family and friends who were concerned for my well-being would be an understatement. I had been kidnapped after all. On the other hand, my captors were kind, generous women who had rescued me from sex slavery. Though when I reflected back on it, didn’t my life as a fashion model constitute a kind of slavery?

I’d been keeping track of the passage of days by the phases of the moon and my own cycle. In that time I had changed. My once pampered alabaster skin had darkened to a bronze hue under the unrelenting Mediterranean sun. And I was growing hair in places that had not seen a follicle in decades. For as long as I could remember I had been peeled, plucked, waxed and shaved of any growth that would hint at a more aggressive sexuality. As now, my hair fell to below my shoulders, streaked with salt bleached strands. And I had come to look forward to my daily jogs along the beach and my visits to Treyann’s stone cottage. Xuxann was often too busy with her other duties to continually watch me and she had to trust that I wouldn’t do anything foolish, like try to escape. Much of the time I was left on my own. I got a chance to know myself in those hours of solitude.

And I was learning things I had never imagined. For one, the group that was holding me was known as SAPHO, Société Anonyme Protectrice des Hétaïres et Odalisques, which, loosely translated, stands for Anonymous Society for the Protection of Prostitutes and Concubines. As their name indicated, they were an organization of anonymous female humanitarians engaged in the rescue of sex slaves and women forced into prostitution. They were a modern reimagining of nunneries in the Middle Ages coming to the rescue of wayward girls. Their sign was the ancient Greek letter psi which consisted of three lines converging on a single point at the base to form a bisected V, and the first letter in the Aeolic name for the great woman poet, saphoSappho. Some of the women had the mark discreetly tattooed on a shoulder blade or an ankle. Their totem was the octopus from which they derived their organizational structure, the nine: eight tentacles and one body. The head of a group of nine, usually the eldest, acted as the body, and directly beneath her were two women who in turn each directed a group of three. But despite their hierarchal structure, the women seemed to act by consensus. There were SAPHO octopi cells in every country around the world who worked to rescue young woman from sex slavery, usually operating as clinics and halfway houses. It was even hinted that Mother Teresa belonged to SAPHO. Only cells like the one that held me were clandestine operators. Known as the Erinnyes, they engaged in sabotage to disrupt the operations of the vast networks of the international sex trade. Each clandestine cell specialized in a particular type of operation. Those holding me specialized in being invisible and providing safe houses while others, like those who had rescued me, were more militant and lethal.

I was informed that it had been white slavers from the Sophia Syndicate, purveyors of female flesh since the days of the Ottoman Empire, who had kidnapped me at the behest of some sandcastle despot. SAPHO intercepted my transport at a private air strip in Moldavia and spirited me to their hideaway in the Mediterranean. Unable to deliver the goods, the Bulgarians claimed to be holding me for ransom and were demanding five million dollars. They were certain the Prince would pay the price.

SAPHO had their motives for keeping me under wraps. Through private channels, they released a picture of me holding a copy of Le Monde with the news of my kidnapping to prove to the Prince that my custody was under their aegis. They proposed a less costly solution, but one that was more politically delicate. And they had to move cautiously. They suspected that some of the Prince’s advisors were complicit in the original plan to kidnap me. When Mohamed el-Ipir’s name was mentioned, I wouldn’t believe it. And when Preston Carmichael’s name had come up, I dismissed him as merely that lawyer who had gotten me out of a drug jam.

Urann, the elder of this particular SAPHO cell, had been candid in explaining why I was being held. They were negotiating with the Prince to intervene in gaining the release of women from harems controlled by less enlightened oil royalty. The Prince’s professed affection for me would be the incentive to free the women from the basement sex dungeons. When I was released I would be at liberty to tell anyone who asked what I knew about the organization.

“Do you think they will believe you?” she had asked, allowing a glimpse of her cold determination. “You are a woman whose sole function is to serve as a display of a man’s idea of beauty, a measure held up to the women of the world. Your words on politics or the rights of others will be dismissed as that of a vacuous female icon.”

As it was, once I was allowed to tell my side of the story and counter the spin that appeared in the tabloids, hinting at wild lesbian adventures or just the antics of a fading star looking to attract attention, I opted to say as little as possible. I did speak out against sex slavery and the plight of women around the world. Not surprisingly, little of what I said was reported. I was much more of a photo op, and innuendo is always so much more interesting than fact. For me it was like buying a beautiful gown and not being able to remove the price tag. Every time I cut off one tag another appeared as a reminder of what it cost to be me.

Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinyes. . .Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.

My greatest lessons, however, were learned in the presence of Trayann. Together we explored the pine woodlands and meadows situated at the base of the monolithic crag I named Mother Mountain. She was intimately familiar with the surroundings and where to look for wild herbs, berries, and mushrooms. She tried to teach me the ancient names of birds and their calls. It was hopeless. The only name I remembered was Pica, the persistent woodpecker with its nest in the pine near Trayann’s hut. Between my quasi-Parisian French and her provincial argot, we managed to establish a rapport that included much gesturing, head nodding, and sympathetic understanding.

There were places that were obviously sacred to Trayann. She would stop and raise her arms to the transparent blue to incant a prayer or sing a song of praise to the great goddess. Then she would show me the herm hidden in the foliage or a stone column representing a wood nymph. Other times I just sat with her in her garden or beat the midsummer heat in the cool of her stone hut with a cup of herb tea. Conversation was nearly impossible unless Xuxann was in attendance. I would ask her to tell me the names of plants she had gathered or objects that adorned her tidy stone hut. And patiently, she did.

Once I noticed what I thought to be a vaccination scar on her left shoulder but when I looked closer I saw that the scar was the result of a hot brand. The image was that of an octopus with eight radiating tentacles. She had run her fingers over it, speaking words heavy with sadness.

Xuxann had been with me that day and as we descended the path back to my cell, I asked her if she understood what Taryann had said about the brand on her shoulder. I assumed that it must have had something to do with SAPHO as the octopus was their totem. Xuxann had given me a long searching look as if she were trying to discern my trustworthiness and then told me the story of Trayann.

What Trayann had said was something like “this is where I began.” As a young girl, she had been kidnapped by white slavers and ended up in the clutches of the Sophia Syndicate, the very same group that had tried to kidnap me. The SS, as they were known in the trade, had long branded their property with the octopus symbol. Even their luxury yachts on the Black Sea, essentially floating bordellos, flew the octopus pennant. After years in a brothel specializing in young girls, Trayann escaped and made her way to a convent in the eastern forests of Czechoslovakia where she was given refuge by nuns of the Order of St Hildegard. The nuns ran a sort of underground railway for refugees from the sex trade. They put Trayann in touch with other escapees similarly branded by the SS. She was introduced to a secret society whose mission it was to put the Bulgarians out of business. With the help of the Hildegardian nuns, Trayann and her associates set about establishing a variety of fronts and charities whose purpose was the rescue of at-risk young women. In an ironic twist, they appropriated the Sophia Syndicate brand as the symbol of their own organization.

Trayann also became a member of one of the clandestine cells working to disrupt the transport of women. They called themselves the Erinnyes or the Furies. That had been years ago, between the wars. During the war, the women of SAPHO had devoted themselves to working in hospitals and relief organization, sheltering young women who had been displaced by the fighting. Organizations like theirs, often headed by nuns, had existed in one form or another for centuries. The brutal lessons of the war had convinced SAPHO that they needed to be more militant and meet their foes head to head on the field of battle. Their lack of physical strength and fire power was more than made up for by their womanly wiles. They had to become invisible. This was accomplished by being what men thought they were, compliant and subservient. They learned to shape shift as the ancient shamans had. Their power was the hypnotic blurring of the edges of reality, confounding the already befuddled minds of men.

Trayann, because of her age, was no longer a participant in the day to day activities of SAPHO. Nor was she one of the nine. To the women of the organization, she was a model, a symbol of the ongoing struggle for the rights of women to be recognized as human and not chattel to be bought and sold like livestock.

Something else began occurring with regularity in the early months of my safekeeping and that was the arrival, every five to seven days, of motor launches crowded with woman, young and old, of all shapes and sizes. They were excursions from the woman’s resort on the grey shadow of land on the far horizon that I sometimes glimpsed from the vantage of Trayann’s garden.

The women at the villa, as a cover for their presence at Sabbia Negru, hosted overnight retreats that included vegetarian meals, herbal tonics, and accommodations in cabanas set up along the base of the cliff. Late into the night I listened to the joyful shrieks of female voices accompanied by the hypnotic rhythms of drums and flutes. I was not allowed to participate because I would surely be recognized. Only on those occasions had I felt a twinge of isolation. By the time the festivities began I was usually looking forward to a restful sleep after an exhausting and fulfilling day traipsing around in the woods with Trayann. Those who knew me would have been shocked at my indifference. I had a reputation as one of the most intrepid of party girls.

Like clockwork, I watched the boats arrive. First a sparkling wave at the prow would glimmer like a faint blinking white light. Then as the shapes of the large motorboats became more apparent, the rough rumble of their engines would reach my ears. At times three or four boatloads of women would disembark at the jetty and then proceed up to the villa, a procession of colorful beachwear flapping in the shore breeze like festive drapes set against the blackness of the sand. As I sat on the stone bench high above them in Trayann’s garden, the sound of their voices, a musical incomprehensible babble, would reach me, too often drowned out by the rumble of the motor launches returning.

I didn’t think I’d fallen asleep. I was hearing those motors only much louder, as if they were directly overhead. I opened my eyes and looked across the river. Rikki was waving his arms and shouting something to me. I might have been at the edge, where reverie turns to dream. And I’d barely touched my drink. Using my sandals as paddles, I made my way back to the dock where Wallace and Lalo stood shading their eyes and looking in the direction of the sound. Rikki directed my attention. “Look! A fire!”

It took me a while to focus at where he was pointing, but eventually I made out a column of black smoke roiling out from the hillside of firs and redwoods in the distance. Then I saw the source of the noise, a large white helicopter with a huge red bucket suspended beneath it, dipping into the river further down around the bend.

The look on Rikki’s face mirrored what I was thinking. Wallace spoke for both of us. “Lee, isn’t that smoke coming from over near where you live?”

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

BURNT OUT

The roof had caved in exposing charred rafters. Trails of smoke snaked up through the already choking air. The rear end of a fire truck, beeping a warning, nudged past me, backing toward the ruins of the fire demolished cabin. My cabin, half of which was now nothing more than brittle charcoal sticks. The fire chief took me by the elbow and led me back to his pick-up truck. I’d made the acquaintance of the fire chief when I first moved to Timberton. He was a moderately good looking guy in his late forties. I went to dinner with him once. Like most firefighters, if it’s not on fire, they’re not interested. And I don’t catch fire for just anybody.

burntcabinLike giant bumble bees with axes, the firefighters in their yellow protective gear tore away at the scorched, discolored walls of the back bedroom that had served as my clothes closet. The chief spoke close to my ear to make himself heard above the din of the engine pumps and the chainsaws. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. He explained anyway. The closely packed garments in the back bedroom had somehow slowed the spread of the fire to that part of the house. This was supposed to be some sort of consolation? The clothes were so smoke damaged that they wouldn’t even make good rags. The Valantini’s, the Borochios, the Kokolas, my beautiful Yamita silks, a classic fashion wardrobe that held the history of my career. Gone.

What I felt was more like disappointment than anger. I was still trying to puzzle the pieces together. How did my home, my refuge, become a smoking mass of rubble? What he was telling me didn’t help. Besides it was competing with what I was trying to sort out in my own mind. It started when I had seen the smoke from Nathan Thiele’s beachfront. I had a sinking feeling that the black column was somehow a signal to me. I had to rush home to confirm for myself that what I was imagining was just paranoia, that it was just me, crazy me. But not crazy enough to go the way I was dressed, teensy bottoms and an improvised halter top. I’d come with a wraparound skirt but that didn’t seem to be quite appropriate to go meet my insane intuition. I needed something to throw over myself.

Thiele didn’t have anything in the way of women’s clothing, nothing that would fit me, anyway. There was just one item, a collector’s piece that had once been worn by Audrey Hepburn in some horrid movie that had never been released, and when it occurred to him, it was as if he were having an epiphany. Personally, I was a little appalled. It was a sixties-style woman’s trench coat, deep red in color with large black polka dots. The movie it had appeared in might have been shelved solely on the basis of that coat. Rikki couldn’t help but quip, “I knew there was a Madam Butterfly but now I see that there’s a Madam Ladybug as well.” I couldn’t stay to laugh. My house was on fire.

The access to Primrose was blocked by fire trucks. I’d ditched my wheels and made my way up the street through the runnels of ashy water, my gold flip-flops slipping and sinking in the mire of soggy grime. I saw billows of black smoke pouring out of a broken window. Firefighters were working the hillside where the tall weeds and the oaks were burning. I began to understand then that the cabin I had called home was gone. There was nothing anyone could do.

I felt numb. My cabin wasn’t just a home, it was a connection to a part of my life that had always seemed safe. It had belonged to my stepfather, Frank Zola, and he had come by it in a high stakes poker game. This was long before he’d met my mother. He’d been a brash upstart Wall Street lawyer. She claimed to have civilized him, and maybe she had. But the cabin, for me, represented that side of him that had never been tamed. After I had been rescued by the Prince’s elite security force and then turned over to the authorities who were intent on charging me with fabricating my disappearance, I wasn’t feeling all that great with the world. I’d had to stay in Paris until the legal wrangling was over. Frank had been in touch with me much of that time. The transatlantic phone calls alone must have cost him a fortune. He wasn’t living with mother anymore. And I didn’t realize how sick he was. He passed away shortly after I was vindicated.

    I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.

I could have cashed in on all the attendant publicity. There was not one tabloid that didn’t carry a story about me somewhere in their pages, barely any of it true, mostly rehashing past indiscretions. I was in demand at social occasions and public spectacles like gallery openings and premieres. On the other hand, I wasn’t hearing much from the agencies. But I was fairly ambivalent about it all. My time in captivity on what turned out to be the southwestern tip of Corsica on the Straits of St Bartholomew had given me a new perspective. I had come to think of myself differently. I tried to keep a low profile in spite of being hounded by paparazzi. I had been evicted from my posh apartment. I stayed with friends, putting all that I owned, which was mostly clothes, in storage. Then I had to fly to Chicago for the funeral.

It wasn’t quite a circus, though it was trying hard to be. Wisely, mother had convinced someone high-up on the police commission of the possibility of an unruly crowd and that he should have a riot squad on hand. Fortunately it didn’t come to that. Still flashbulbs sparked like thousands of tiny random white holes in the gray mass of on-lookers that rainy Sunday afternoon. Men with telephoto lenses had climbed into trees just to get close-ups of the grieving bad girl. I would have traded every bit of my notoriety for just five more minutes with Frank Zola, to enjoy his kindliness and humor, and his common sense. Later that day his lawyer advised me that Frank had left me the cabin in Corkscrew County in his will. The mystified expression on his face said he had no idea where that was, certainly no place in the civilized world. But, considering my mental state, I took it as a sign, Frank’s last bit of advice. Lay low for a while, regenerate yourself, rediscover yourself.

From the moment I parked the rental in front of the cabin on Quince, I knew I had come home. Financially, Frank had me covered, setting up a trust fund and investing my earnings while I was a minor. Even as an adult and accustomed to extravagances, he managed to convince me to contribute a percentage to the “strong box” as he called it. I sent for the things I had in storage in Paris and moved in. I wanted to be free to explore the world in anonymity, as an unknown. I wanted to reconnect with the person I had started to become on the beaches of Sabbia Negru, but this time on my own terms. I wanted to get to know that person.

Someone had once suggested that I write the story of my life as a top model. It would make a good book, they said. I never thought so. But I did start a journal and wrote down my thoughts on a daily basis. That’s easier said than done. But I kept at it. And I came to realize that I had a knack for observation, for detail. That’s how I ended up writing for the Grapevine. It was in answer to a plea for local news and events. I wrote a scathing review of a gallery show up the coast in Healy, the upscale art colony, and sent it in under a pseudonym. I heard back from JJ not because she accepted my article but because she said I had talent that could be used in a positive way. And I was probably the only one who had answered her plea. When we met for the so-called job interview, she recognized me immediately from one of the old cigarette billboards. She had been elated at first and then uncomfortable. And finally, very business-like in a tremulous sort of way. She couldn’t pay me much, she explained, but I should consider my assignments as part of an apprenticeship into the world of journalism. In reality she just wanted someone else to write the puff pieces, a soul deadening task in any language.

The fire chief directed my attention to the tall gray haired woman in uniform approaching us from the edge of the fire. “May Ann Young. The County fire cop,” he nodded toward her almost respectfully. “She’ll want to talk to you.” When she reached us, a fiftyish, weather scarred, no nonsense square ruddy face, he made the introductions. “May, this here’s the property owner, Lee Marlowe.”

“Malone,” I corrected, and extended my hand in greeting.

She looked at it. “You are the legal owner of this property, is that correct?”  She didn’t blink and I had the feeling my every scintilla was under scrutiny.

“Yes, I inherited it from. . . .”

“What time did you leave the house today?”  She held a small yellow notepad in her hand.

I didn’t know what time I had left the house this morning and I said so.

“So you left this morning. Early, late?”

It had been closer to noon.

“Are you having financial difficulties, Ms. Malone?”

I didn’t know how to answer that. What had my finances to do with my house burning down?

“Arty, show the lady what we found,” she said to the firefighter with the shovel who had accompanied her. “Recognize that, Ms. Malone?”

The firefighter extended the shovel in my direction. I looked at a vaguely familiar shape of burnt plastic and discolored metal sitting in the shovel but couldn’t say exactly what it was.

“That’s an electric iron. Or what’s left of one.”

I jumped involuntarily as if I had touched the hot iron itself. I had an electric iron. And I had taken it out when I thought to use it on the scarf I chose for my halter top. But when I realized that it was not a material that would take heat, I’d thought better of it. I didn’t think I’d plugged the iron in. But I had been in a hurry so I wasn’t certain. “You mean that my iron started the fire? It was an accident?”

May Ann looked at me without a change of expression though I could tell she was weighing her words. “Normally, I would say yes. You wouldn’t believe how many people lose their homes to fire through carelessness. But in this case there was just too much accelerant splashed around to make it anything but deliberate.”

I was stunned. “Ok, you just said two things I need to understand better. You said accelerant. What’s that?”

“In this case, I’d say gasoline. That’s what you would use so that what you wanted to burn burned hot and fast.”

“And deliberate, I know what that means. Arson. Are you saying someone purposely set fire to my house?”

“And tried to make it look like an accident.”

“Why would anyone want to do that?” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew the answer.

May Ann spoke, wearily, as if she were tired of saying it. “Why, to collect on the insurance money, of course.”

I felt stupid, but I played it smart and stopped talking. Something Frank Zola had taught me.

“Ms. Malone, I have a lot of questions to ask you. I would like to establish your whereabouts from around noon today to approximately half an hour ago, three o’clock. Sheriff’s deputies will be questioning your neighbors to see if they saw or heard anything suspicious. But I think we might accomplish more if you accompanied me to my office for an interview.”

I hesitated. I was under suspicion of setting my own house on fire. “Do you actually think that I burned my own home?”  I tried to sound irate but it came out with too little conviction. I was starting to doubt myself.

“The facts haven’t been established. But I’ve been a fire cop for a long time, and a fire like this,” she indicated the pile of smoking debris with the jerk of her head, “it’s usually the property owner who has the most to gain.”

“Am I under arrest?”

A ripple of a smile or smirk flexed her stern jaw. “Not unless you wanna be.”


Next Time: Audrey Hepburn’s Raincoat

DIME THREE: He’s Back! (Nolan, That Is)

I gotta come clean. Once again the gang at Hard Case Crime have crossed the transom with the requisite paper in the form of two novels in the Nolan series by Max Allen Collins. If Dime Pulp were a legit operation, we might expect more, but since it isn’t, we don’t. The latest from Hard Case Crime did keep these offices burning the midnight oeil. Not due to a guilty conscience, however, but in pursuit of guilty pleasure, i.e., reading crime fiction.

To make up for the gap in our limited knowledge of the Nolan saga, those Hard Case types bookended these offices with the original Collins foray into Nolan territory, and then an encore, as a wrap up to an epic crime career, written thirty three years later. Collins’ origin stories for the Nolan and Jon characters begin in a novella titled Bait Money, a boy meets thief story, in which the bond between apprentice and master is forged and sets the tone for all the Nolan-centric adventures to follow.

twoferHard Case Crime has reprinted four novellas from that late 80s period,  Two For The Money and Double Down  (reviewed in Dropping A Dime Two) each in the twofer format, which will be joining another two (four) titles slated for publication in 2022 and 2023. Skim Deep, the encore curtain call for Nolan and Jon, is novel length in its own right.

The incredibly prolific pulp polymath Max Allen Collins is a Hard Case Crime franchise author, it should be noted, Mickey Spillane’s heir apparent, and author of the Quarry assassin series (also well represented under the Hard Case Crime imprint). In the author’s note to Two For The Money, Collins reveals that the idea for the title and the plot of the first story, Bait Money, was inspired by his girlfriend who worked in a bank. The story starts off solid with a portrayal of Nolan, heist meister extraordinaire, trying to smooth things over with the mob over his killing of one of the bosses’ relatives. The mobster wants a blood price and Nolan has to find a way to pay it. Enter Jon, a comic book aficionado and amateur who has come up with a plan to take down a local bank. Needless to say it’s a bad plan, but the pro sees a way of fixing it and potentially clearing his debt. And naturally there are double crosses, unfaithful women, killing, and last minute glitches.

The Nolan character, Collins admits, is based on Richard Stark’s Parker. And to fix him in the reader’s mind, he is described as looking like Lee Van Cleef. If you were reading Bait Money when it was first published, you would know who Lee Van Cleef was and what he looked like. For the new generation of readers, Hard Case Crime has commissioned covers featuring the likeness of a Van Cleef-ish looking protagonist. And while Parker is a meticulously formulated character, Nolan, ostensibly just as tough, is humanized by taking on an heir apparent in Jon who also adds some comic (book) relief as it is his naivete that informs the narrative. There the resemblance ends, due primarily to a difference in styles.

Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark, author of the Parker novels, presents a casebook for the terse, uncompromisingly “stark,” stoic, “just the facts, ma’am,” Joe Friday deadpan voiceover narration. It is a style Stark is known for, and one admired by countless crime fiction buffs and aspiring writers. The economy of the prose finds it source in an older generation of writers who knew the value of counting words, as they were paid by the word, and well aware of the editorial constraints on length. The Parker novels may be formulaic but they have an edge that never gets dull. Combined with nearly imperceptible cinematic scene transitions and you have a style well worth emulating.

Max Allen Collins’ Nolan stories have what might be termed an improvisational discursive style, aka the kitchen sink approach, in which everything you need to know (cue Ed McMahon) about the characters’ looks, motivations, hopes, fears, hangnails, and warts are presumed open secrets from the discourse of the omniscient narrator who does not hesitate to tell the reader how it is. Collins is a good storyteller whose style is no style, just a recounting of the honest to goodness facts of a story that is too good to be true and bound to go south at any point, and of course that’s what the reader is looking for behind the feints and dodges, and seemingly untenable albeit predictable situations.

In some sense Parker doesn’t seem to have a future, going from one heist to another, scrabbling to stay even. Nolan, on the other hand, is trying to get just enough ahead so he can open up a snazzy club while staying out of the clutches of the mob. He wants to retire from the heist biz and lead a normal and happy life without a .32 Colt breathing down his neck. It would be difficult to make Nolan into a petty bourgeois but he has the dreams of one, a quintessential American dream, though with more than a little tang of cynicism. Parker is an untamed animal, a force of nature, with which nature will deal.

The second novella in Two For The Money is titled Blood Money in which the bonding between Nolan and Jon solidifies in their quest for revenge against the men who killed Jon’s guardian uncle, the “Planner” (shades of Dortmunder). The “eye for an eye” theme is big in the Bible Belt Midwest where most of the action takes place: Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, anywhere the mob and fundamentalism might have its tentacles. There are no shortages of derring-do, shootouts, kidnappings, and miraculous rescues. Enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning, a few slapstick moments to offset the more compelling business of getting the money and getting revenge, and the hedging justifications for that chosen lifestyle of outlier/outlaw. Yet there are consequences: that butterfly whose butt you kicked is going to come back around in the form of a homicidal maniac looking to get even. And take all the money.

skimCan an author go back to a character thirty three years later and pick up where he left off? What will have changed in experience and maturity of style? These are question the curious reader might ask as they dip into Skim Deep, the epilogue to the Nolan saga, the last ride into the Acapulco sunset.

Nolan is retired from the heist biz with that snazzy club he always wanted and the soft life is making him sentimental so he pops the question to his longtime live-in gf. Enter Vegas, where Jon now resides trying to make a living as a comic book artist keyboardist for a casino cover band and where Nolan and his bride-to-be are heading to get hitched. Enter, also, revenge, in the form of “Maw” Comfort, matriarch of a clan of crooks from (where else?) Missouri, three of whose members Nolan has had to eliminate for stepping on the toes of his thief’s integrity and going for the double cross. And, of course, money, the root of all robbery, in the form of a casino skim. This one time, the coming together of the retired robber and his now journeyman partner is not with the object to plan a job but to celebrate and “legalize” a relationship about which Jon’s feelings are ambivalent (incidentally). Not to spoil all the machinations of the plot, but like a Jacques Tati movie, everything that goes around, comes around and meets at the intersection in a head-on collision. The pitch might be spun as: they fall in shit and come out smelling like roses.

As for the difference in style, Collins has not abandoned his fussy omniscient narrator nor the breezy improvisational writing style. The sex scenes have improved in detail if not in sensitivity. In the portrayal of Jon, Collins allows more of the autobiographical nature of the character emerge (which has always been there on one level of emphasis or another). That the main action does not take place in the Quad Cities area somehow ups the ante on the techniques of graphic violence. In Skim Deep, the pulp adventure returns to its roots as a Western, and Collins’ long expertise in the pulp genre skillfully brings about the denouement to everyone’s (characters included) satisfaction.

To read in this crime fiction genre is to discover something about the American psyche, the deep rooted divide of oblivious well-off swells and the continual rebellion of the have-nots who want theirs. The symbolic outlaw then becomes valorized to justify contravening societal norms as a leveling of the playing field, a kind of grass roots communism, a Utopic equitable community. Yet the myth of egalitarianism posits a level playing field in which universal values are applied equally when obviously this is never the case—the “nature” of humans intervenes—hierarchies or boundaries are created depending on the circumstances. Idealized individuals (such as Nolan and Parker) stand symbolically for the masses, and differences are glossed over to align with the symbolic outlier outlaws who are too unruly to fit into the narrow category of convention and reside at the periphery where dogs howl to be let in, but flee the multitude once the gates are opened (thus their tantalizing mystery). Fiction can only deal these issues a glancing blow in the hazy nostalgia for a way it has never been.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,
Perry O’Dickle
for Dime Pulp

A Detective Story—7

by Colin Deerwood

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Her eyes never left me as she steered the old gent to a chair alongside Soloman’s desk. They were blue shiny pools and I was drowning in them. She stood behind him once he was seated. Gramps had perked up since the fainting episode, his cheeks had a little color and he was focused, attentive. He pointed a gnarled finger in my direction. “You have more of these documents?”

I drew myself up to my entire height, pulled in my gut, and put as much authority as I could in my stance. It was all an act. I was wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. “Yeah, I do. It’s an address book.”

Soloman threw old Joe a look and then said, “You can read the Cyrillic?”

“Ixnay, Doc, I’m just guessing from the way some of it was arranged. Plus there were street names in American I could figure out.”

Now it was Rabbi Joe’s turn. “You are in possession of this dress book?”  There was a fierce gleam in his eye as he leaned forward.

“Yeah, yeah, I just brought that page to see what it might be worth. I coulda brought the whole works but you guys mighta said it was nertz and I woulda never known the diff.”  As it was the book was digging into my backbone just about the beltline.

Soloman and Joe looked puzzled. Finally the old rabbi asked, “What is this ‘nertz’?”

Soloman shrugged. “It is not Yiddish to my knowledge. And this ‘diff’ I do not know also.”

JELLO ADThe tailor’s daughter smiled and I about swooned. She spoke and I felt my knees turn to Jell-O. “I think I know, zayde. I have been studying my American. Nertz is a Brooklyn pronunciation of the expression ‘nuts,’ maybe meaning crazy or perhaps nonsense, also a negative term for bankrupt or no good.”

Even I didn’t know that and I used the word all the time. This frail would be a smash on Information Please.

Soloman looked surprised and the old guy beamed a prideful smile at his granddaughter.

“Also,” she continued, “I believe that ‘diff’ is a shortened form of the word ‘difference.’  Americans speak like telegrams I have learned.”

Just like that I was laid bare by some Jane who just got off the boat.

Soloman harrumphed to get the conversation back on track. “I would say that if the rest of the book is similar to what you have shown us, we could come to a lucrative arrangement.”  He smiled what wasn’t really a smile.

I figured when he said ‘we’ he meant more than just those present in the room. I had to be extra cautious around these jokers. There was a whole dining room full of tough kikes on the other side of the door. And once the dolly had opened her yap instead of flapping her lashes some of her glow had dimmed for me. She was out of my league, besides. “Yeah, doc, what you got to offer? I’m all ears.”

Rabbi Joe gave a knowing nod and Soloman went to the wall of books, moved a couple aside to reveal a tiny wall safe. He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was peeking and then spun the dial. When he rejoined us he had a tiny cloth bag in his mitt like a miniature Bull Durham pouch.  He loosened the ties and poured the contents into the palm of his hand and held it out for me to take a gander.

I looked at him and back at the hand and then at the rabbi and his granddaughter who all seemed very pleased by what was being offered.

“You’re offering me pebbles? Little gray rocks?”

It took a while to register and then Soloman almost choked on his goatee laughing. Rabbi Joe’s laugh was wheezy squeak. The girl held her hand over her mouth but her eyes were yukking it up. When Soloman finally caught his breath he intoned, with all his puffed up superiority, “But Mr. Ask, these are uncut diamonds.”

You coulda fooled me. What do I know of uncut diamonds? They looked like rocks to me. And then as if a light had been shined in my eyes: rocks, diamonds, ok, I got it. But who could tell the diff. Maybe I sounded suspicious. “How am I supposed to know that these aren’t fake?”

“I can assure you, Mr. Ask, these are diamonds of the highest quality. From Africa,” he added.

Learn something new every day. Diamonds that look like driveway gravel from Africa when all I thought they had was bananas and coconuts.

“Maybe you are who you say you are, Doc but I only met you and Rabbi Joe here less than thirty minutes ago. I need to get the say-so from someone I’ve known a bit longer.”

Soloman looked astonished. “You have an appraiser?”

“Yeah, guy I know runs the pawn shop over on Fourth near Chinatown. He was in the diamond trade years ago. He knows his stuff.”

Now Soloman was almost on his tippy toes with indignation. “Stuff? If he knows this stuff then I knows of his stuff. I am familiar with everyone in the diamond trade. Name your stuff expert!”

I’d obviously hit a nerve. And again I was distracted by the comely granddaughter and feeling like the big bad wolf. “Yeah, sure, everyone knows him. Triple A Pawn, Max Feathers proprietor.”

Two bigger bug eyes you couldn’t find in the cartoon featurette at a Saturday matinee.

“Feathers?” he moaned the name as if was a curse. “Max Feathers was disbarred from the League of International Gem and Diamond Merchants. Feathers is a fraud! A cheat! A scoundrel! A confidence man!”

I shrugged. “Yeah, but he knows his diamonds.”  From the shade of crimson creeping up toward his popping temple veins I figured my bird in the hand had flown the coop. But I was saved by an angel.

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“Herr Doktor” she said, and why he wasn’t charmed is beyond me. He raised an eyebrow as if being spoken to by a woman was highly irregular. “Zayde,” she also invoked the protection of the old rabbi, “I have a suggestion if you will indulge me.”  Of course I was enchanted and I’d have to say she’d been doing pretty good at learning her English. Old Joe gave a nod lifting his hands to Soloman as if asking what’s the harm?

“Just as Mister Ask has brought only one page, perhaps we can allow him one,” and she smiled at me, “pebble to verify with Mister Feathers. In exchange for the book he will receive more.” She beamed, proud of herself although gramps wasn’t so sure.

Soloman didn’t like the idea as soon as she started talking and when she was done he liked it even less.  “Nein, nein. What if he did not return? He has gained an item of value and we have nothing but a scrap of paper! Does he take us for fools?”

The thought had crossed my mind. If the diamond was real I could be on a boat to Havana before anyone was the wiser.

“It was my suggestion, uncle, and I have a feeling that Mr. Ask is in a situation unlike any other he’s been in before.”  She came at me with her eyes as if she were boring in and I began wondering when I’d last changed my underwear.  “Here he is with the opportunity to make a considerable amount of money, enough to give him a vacation from his dangerous profession for a very long time. I don’t think that he would pass up that opportunity.”  Now she was appealing to my mercenary side: with a load of dough I could ditch this burg, maybe move to Hollywood, reconnect with Grace. “Furthermore, I think that Mr. Ask is a man of honor, a man of his word who would not consider betraying us.”  By “us” I was sure she meant “her.”  And the way she said it, the implications were tempting. I just wanted to see how committed she was to her scheme.

“There was an expression I liked to see after I’ve made love to a woman—shock and pleasure. I recognized it immediately because it was so rare of an experience.

“Thanks, miss, I forget your name, but you are correct. I am a man of my word. Once I shake on a deal it is solid. And if what I have is that important to you,” and I meant to her, “then it is just makes good business sense for us to conduct this exchange, the book for the rocks.”

Soloman sniffed like something didn’t smell right. He squinted one eye at me as if trying to view me from a different angle.

“Like the girl said, I take one diamond to Feathers. He looks it over. If he gives the ok, I get the gravel and you get the book. No one breaks a sweat.”

Soloman was shaking his head. He didn’t like the logistics. “How will we make the exchange? The Rabbi nor I cannot go abroad.”

“What? I ain’t asking you to leave the country.”

“No, no we have to be careful in this city. We have enemies. We cannot be seen in public.”

“How about a coupla your minions. They look like they can handle themselves.”

Soloman gave a sour look. He didn’t like that idea either.

“How about the dame?”

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There was an expression I liked to see after I’ve made love to a woman—shock and pleasure. I recognized it immediately because it was so rare of an experience. That’s what was missing in my life. I could tell by the demur smile that she liked the idea. Shock for being put into that position and pleasure because it felt good.

Soloman sputtered like he’d inhaled something down the wrong way and coughed till his eyes bulged holding on to the edge of his desk for fear he might fall down.  Then it translated into, once he caught his breath, “absolutely not, impossible, I won’t hear of it.” And in a couple of other languages, I couldn’t be sure.  In a way it made the objection international, like we were hemmed in by little flags stuck in a map. The old rabbi looked uncomfortable, color coming to his ears, and lowered his eyes.

But she knew her mark. “Zadye,” she began, “if you send Mr. Ask with your men to the Feather Diamond place he will become suspicious and might not want to verify the authenticity of . . .” and looked directly at me, “the pebble.”

The rabbi had lifted his eyes. They asked what are you getting at?

“Now if I were to accompany Mr. Ask to the pawnbroker, he would not be suspicious because we could pose as betrothed,” she smiled, pleased with herself, “and we are inquiring as to the authenticity of the stone.”

It sounded so simple. And naive. I know, I’d been there.

Soloman wasn’t buying it. “Nien! Nein!” He was pacing now. “It is not safe! Who knows who we’re dealing with.  This might all be a ploy. He could be working for them. To kidnap Rebecca!”

“Herr Doktor, they could not have known that I would be involved. I didn’t know it more than a minute ago when I suggested it.”

“Rebecca, my child, these are cruel and evil people we are dealing with. They are clever, insidious.”  His head wagged back and forth like a dog’s tail.  That meant no.

“Listen, Hair Doctor, do we have a deal or don’t we? Otherwise I’m wasting my time here.”

“What you suggest is impossible. How do I know you have what you’re claiming to have in your possession? That it is authentic. What else is there beside this single page? What am I buying?”

“First of all, Doc, suddenly you’re worried about authenticity. You musta thought that this page was the hoot’s snoot otherwise you wouldn’ta asked me into the inner sanctum. You were gonna offer me a bag of gravel in exchange for the book. That’s how authentic you made that single page. I get it. You think you need to be extra careful because you don’t know me from Adam. But lemme put you straight. This book usta belong to one of Yan Kovic’s goons, a guy by the name of Yamatski who is now swimming with the fishes in the East River. How I got it is a story we won’t get into. Just let’s say I got wet and the pages only suffered a little water damage around the edges, but everything is still readable because it was written in pencil. It’s an address book and doubles as a wallet, about the size a cigar case, leather like one, and it’s got a wraparound zipper that closes up the three sides.” I don’t know why I felt I had to claim the wallet was empty, but I did. “There are pages of what look like names and addresses like I said, and what looks like some kinda codes. I couldn’t figure out what they said because my Buck Rogers decoder ring got lost in the mail.  Besides they mostly was all in that serialic writing.”

Now the doc and old Joe were trying to say something to each other without opening their mouths.

I gave them a nudge. “I saw you flash the old stink eye when I mention’s Kovic’s name. He’s from that part of the world you were showing me on the map, am I right?” I pointed to the map on the wall. Mrs. Peabody would have been proud of me—maybe something did sink in after all.

“Yes, the name is known to us. America is truly the land of opportunity when a petty thief in his home country can become an American gangster and make more money than even the President of the United States. Is that what you call democracy, rule by the petty?”

“He’d be part of this secret society then, the Black Hand, I’m guessing.”  Even the frill took a breath in fright at the mention of the name.

Soloman nodded glumly. “They are a network of thugs and murderers who prey on the vulnerable, the fringes of society and culture where the powers that be often look the other way. We are the mercy of their genocidal schemes. There is a chance, a slight chance, that the address book will provide information that will aid us in our resistance and thwart their aims. These fascists are drunk with power! The Black Hand must be stopped from terrorizing our people!”

“You don’t have much of a choice then, do ya, doc. Me and the bird take a rock over to Feathers’ shop. He scopes it and it’s either deal and you get the book you wanted or no deal and I get a free ride downtown in the company of a beautiful young woman.”

Soloman made a face that made him look like he had exclamations points all over his mug!!!  “They are real, that you can count on, and I would expect delivery of the address book upon verification!”  He glanced sideways at the rabbi whose head reluctantly nodded yes. “Simon and David will drive you there and make certain there is not a. . .double cross, as you American’s like to say.”

I shook my head. “The girl is right. Max sees a couple of mugs with us, he’s gonna smell something fishy. Just me and her. Nothing to worry about. Max won’t bite. You just watch.”

“Nonetheless, they will accompany you and stay discreetly hidden but nearby. Should the need arise, Rebecca, do you know what to do?”

“Surely my father must have told you of what I and my troop of Red Kerchiefs did in the hills above the city.”  Before Soloman could interject, she said, “We secured the parachute drops and parachutists and hid them from the authorities.”

“Ja, ja, we are well aware of your exploits. And that is why you are here in the United States. To keep you safe, out of harm’s way. You are, after all, Rabbi Joseph’s great granddaughter and ark of his ancient family line. Your father was foolish to leave you behind.”

“I stayed with my mother, to fight in the resistance.”

“And sadly she is no longer with us.” Soloman lowered his head. “And you are here in relative safety.”

“I would have stayed behind! I wanted to avenge her death! Instead you had me kidnapped and brought to this country!”

I had to step in. “I hate to breakup this family tussle here, but missy, if you want to get your revenge, the quickest way is to get going with the plan.”  I coulda asked her if she had a backup plan but this was looking like taking candy from a baby. “Only I need to use the can before we head out.”  With the quizzical looks they gave me I had to add, “My bladder’s lapping at the overflow valve.”  Still nothing. “The facilities, the toilet?”

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They rolled a big Packard around to the front entrance. The tailor’s daughter didn’t look a bit like the kid in Soloman’s study. She was wearing a dark wool skirt and a beige blouse with a collar tied in big bow under her porcelain chin, a russet three quarter length wide lapeled tweed coat, and a tiny brown Robin Hood peaked cap with a black and red band propped jauntily on the luster of her long auburn hair. Looking like she just stepped off the silver screen, she smiled at me as I held the door open for her, long lashes blinking a beguiling thank you.

1940-packard-1Two mooks sat like bowling pins in the front seat of the Packard—they couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old—the one who looked like he was working on a ‘stache driving. The other one had a head of curly hair no hat, even the bucket he was wearing, was going to hide.

I sat in the back seat with Rebecca. I’d made a detour to the water closet before we left, pretended to make my business all the while wedging Yamatski’s address book up behind the gravity flush water tank. Then I flushed.

I even felt a little flush—sitting next to this specimen of female flesh had worked up my blood. It was her feisty nature as well as her good looks that kept my interest. She, however, was interested in only one thing. Learning how to talk American.

“What is this stink eye?”

“Uh well,” I was at a loss, “it’s just kind of one of those looks you give somebody who says something that spills the beans when they shouldn’ta.”

“Beans? In the kitchen? I see, they have spilled a pot of beans and you are giving them this look that you are disappointed, no, angry! Angry eye, yes?”

“Yeah, angry, maybe the evil eye without all the hoodoo voodoo behind it.”

“ Hoo-doo voo-doo. This is your American tall tales you are telling me. I have heard that they are told and one must be cautious because they have flam flam. No, flim flim, that’s it!”

She had such a little pink innocence to the scrunch of her nose, such a determined set to her lips, such an intense gaze I couldn’t decide if I wanted to kiss her or laugh in her face. “Flim flam.”

“Yes, that is what I said. And this stink to the eye. It smells, it emits an odor, and you are . . .threatening with it? No, you are giving them this, this. . .stentsch with the look of your eye! Yes?”

She had my mind taking corners I didn’t even know were there and it was making me dizzy. I was on the verge of asking her if she wanted to see Niagara Falls because I was about to change my name to Niagara and I was falling for her. But it would have just added to the confusion. I didn’t want to look like a dumbo so I said, “The look says you can see the reek rising up off them and lets them know that you can.”

She cocked her beautiful head to one side as if considering the explanation “And who is this Buck Rogers, an associate of this Feathers man?”

I don’t know why all this wasn’t covered at Ellis Island but all of a sudden I was feeling like a tour guide at the Statue of Liberty. “Naw, Buck Rogers, he’s this guy who flies around in a rocket to other planets in outer space. In the funny papers, the brats, you know, the Katzenjammer Kids? He’s on the radio, too, and in the movies, that Olympic champ, Buster Crabbe plays him.”

Her pretty little forehead gave a frown. “This is your flam flim, yes?”

She was a real doll, and I can’t say that I’d ever met one before, not one like this, not putting on a front, acting tough or sexy, but smart as a pistol, and from what I could see, some terrific gams. She caught my gaze and pulled the hem of her skirt to cover her knees. “I am curious also. A hoot’s snoot, this is more of your filmy flam?”

“Naw, just something I made up. ‘don’t give a hoot’ means ‘I don’t care,’ and ‘snoot’ means ‘nose,’ kinda like I’m ‘thumbing my nose’ and I just threw them together because they sound the same. It’s jive talk, that’s all.”

“A whole other American language?

“You might say that. It’s what you might hear on the street, you know from the hep cats or if you hang out in jazz clubs.”

This is something you can do in American? I am unaware.”

“Well, yeah, you can if you’re good at it”

“And you are good at this, what would you call, improvisational arabesques, verbal flourishes? Maybe you should be a writer.”

“Yeah, I thought about it once.”

“What happened?”

“I ran out of paper.”

She laughed, peals of amusement filled the entire car, and even Mr. Hair had to look over his shoulder to make sure we weren’t being unruly.

“Ah yes, I understand,” her eyes widely innocent,  “Jive talk, a kind of argot.”

She wasn’t going to get me with that fancy word because I knew exactly what she was talking about so I said, “No, it ain’t like them snails you eat at fancy French restaurants.”

This time she chortled behind her gloved hand and her eyes gleamed merrily reflecting the neon night of the passing streets. “Mr. Ask, I find you extremely charming which belies your rough exterior and manner. This is a most wonderful and informative conversation.”

“Pigs who speak Latin, another one of your American tall tales, yes?”

The beam of her smile blinded me and tangled up my tongue. I didn’t know what to say, besides my heart was in my mouth and I didn’t want to spit it out and hand it to her because that would definitely be uncouth, and what little couth I had I wanted to wait and use at the right time so I said “Yeah, I was thinking the same about you, and maybe sometime you and me, we could, ah, get to know each other a little better, you know, over a cup of coffee or a drink, I could take you to a club, go dancing, hear some jazz.” I put my arm across the seat behind her and moved in her direction. “We probably got a lot in common. I mean, you’re doll and I’m a guy.”

She shifted toward the door on her side and I felt something hard poke against my ribs. I looked down at her hand in her coat pocket and up into that determined look I had found adorable earlier now steely and uncompromising. “You are suggesting what it is called a date, but not from a palm, one agreed on ahead of time on a calendar. I don’t think my father would approve or allow it. Our supposed engagement is a ruse, Mr. Ask, nothing more. Please do not try to make more than it is. I am fully capable of taking care of myself.”

I shrugged and sagged back to my side of the bench. I felt the breeze of being blown off followed by the disappointment of being wrong about a dolly again, I always end up leading with my chin wearing my heart on my sleeve, and falling for a herring, the operator behind my eyes putting me through to a wrong number.

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I’d been shot down before so I laughed it off. “I dunno why you need any help from me. Your English ain’t so bad.”

“Yes, but it is my American I must improve. I am curious again for a word. What is this ixnay?”

“Nix, no. What you just said to me, notta chance. It’s pig Latin.”

“Pigs who speak Latin, another one of your American tall tales, yes?”

“No, it’s for real, something we used to talk in the neighborhood among us kids. Only thing I still use is ixnay, anybody who’s ever spoken it still does, that and amscray.”

“Amscray, I have not heard.”

“It means scram, beat it. . .go away?”

“I must remember these, scram, beat me. . . ? I am still confused as to why you speak the Latin of pigs as a child.”

“Well, it ain’t really Latin, it’s a made up language, kind of a code so you can say stuff that somebody who don’t know the igpay ain’t gonna understand, like if they ain’t part of your gang, see?”

“Now I am very confused. Are you being truthful or are you with me making a toy?”

“No, it’s all true. Now I wasn’t as good at it as little Stevie Silverman, he’s the guy who taught igpay to most the guys in our gang. We called him “Stubby” cause he was so short. He could hold whole conversations in pig Latin. Once he recited the preamble to the Declaration of Independence in pig Latin to history class. Mrs. Peabody didn’t know if she shoulda been shocked or amused, but it got Stubby beat up on the playground for being a showoff anyway.”

“This is fascinating. How is this pig Latin spoken?”

“It’s pretty easy. You take any word, like say ‘pig’ and you move the first letter of the word to the end and add ay, a-y, so pig becomes igpay. Or, like scram, you take all the letters bunched up before the a and move them to after the m, add an ay, and you get amscray. Simple.”

“That is easy for you perhaps, but let me see if I grasp. Pig is igpay. If I wanted to say  pig Latin I would say igpay. . .atinlay?”

“Yeah, I suppose, if you wanted to say that. Usually we just said things like amscray or uckday.”

“You would say a duck? For whatever purpose?”

“That is a very short question to a very long answer, but the gist is ‘keep your head down.’ Unray was always popular when we seen the cops coming.”

“Run, am I correct?”

pawnshop“Yeah, I think you got the hang of it. Try this one on for size. Ouyay areyay ayay ishday.”

“I am at a loss. It sounds like an infant’s babble.”

“It means ‘you are a dish.’”

“A dish? What is a dish? Do you mean a place setting. . . ?” She blushed, “Oh, porcelain.”

I laughed “No flies on you.”

She brushed at her shoulders, suddenly alarmed, “I hope not!”

I laughed again. And we were there.


Next Time: Max and The Empress’s Cucumber