RIVER CITY WOMAN
She sashayed into my office the way I like a woman to sashay – nice and easy, smiling like the proverbial cat that swallowed the proverbial canary. I pushed back in my chair and tried to look professional. She was tall, the way I like a woman, and beautiful, which is fine as long as I’m not the one footing the bills. I could tell by the haunted, help-me look in her champagne eyes she was on a mission that would, pending a successful outcome, foot a few bills of my own.
“Hank James,” I said, rising and practically bowing. Clearly I wasn’t her type. I had on my usual cheap wrinkled suit (off the rack from Sears, or maybe Burlington Coat Factory, I forget which). My tie was nothing to brag about and the knot I had tangled in it was nothing to publish in a how-to manual. The smear on the right knee of my trousers was a reminder of the triple-decker taco I’d eaten at Cotija’s for lunch. Some sugar daddy I would have made her.
“Tipsy Caldwell,” she replied, in a singsong voice that made me think of ice cubes in whiskey. She extended a long, smooth, pearly-white hand, which I gently shook. I should mention this Tipsy Caldwell was dressed entirely in black: blouse, skirt, hose, stilettos, top to bottom, head-to-toe black. Her hair was also as black as the inside of one of the millions of cats roaming the alley outside my building. Her pale skin had a painted-on quality, as if she’d only recently been brought to life by some 72201-area Geppetto. And those eyes, my God, how they shimmered with cold light. Yeah. She turned me on.
“Tipsy,” I said, attempting to lighten the mood. “That’s my new favorite name. I enjoy getting a little tipsy myself now and then.”
Her eyebrows formed two tight little bows and fired an arrow of distaste.
“Bad joke,” I said, with a shrug.
“I hope your professionalism isn’t as questionable as your sense of humor, Mr. James,” she purred – yes, by God, purred. “You were recommended by a mutual friend – or acquaintance, I should say. You’re not some sort of crook, are you?”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Crook? No, ma’am. I’m as honest as the day is long – longer, even. I am a licensed private investigator.”
My face fell apart. “Beg your pardon?”
“Show me your license.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I’m afraid I am.”
Haughty! “No problem,” I replied, and pulled out my wallet. Inside the wallet was a plastic card sleeve. Inside the sleeve was a laminated card. On the card: my photo, name and credentials. Registered PI. State of Arkansas. Bona fides. I pocketed the wallet and glanced at my Rolex.
“I have a busy schedule, Miss –”
I hadn’t noticed a rock on her finger but of course, she was married. “Mrs. Caldwell. What do you say we get down to brass tacks?” We seated ourselves, she on one side of my desk, me on the other. To my left, her right, was a window overlooking Markham Street, one of the main arteries of downtown Little Rock. It was just after 3:00 and my bartender down at the Capital Bar would notice my absence soon. Hell, he might even sell my drink to someone else. I eyeballed the icy Mrs. Caldwell, noting her conspicuous lack of wedding ring, then turned my attention to other minor details, such as her décolletage, which was bountiful.
“What can I do you for, Mrs. Caldwell?”
She started to reply, then thought better of it. Instead she gazed out the window. From her seat, the view of the Arkansas River was magnificent. She gazed at it a while. I took advantage of the momentary lull in our relationship to light up a Marlboro. I’d seen the river before.
“I hardly know where to begin,” she said, with a languorous sigh that reminded me of every Liz Taylor movie ever made. “Our mutual … acquaintance … tells me you specialize in difficult cases. Is that true?”
I filled my mouth and lungs with carcinogens. “Sure,” I said, puffing smoke, “whatever pays.”
“I’m serious, Mr. James.”
“Believe me, so am I.”
She paused long enough to adjust everything from the neck down. “Tell me,” she said, in that gondolas-in-Venice way of hers, “do you have any experience in cases involving … murder?”
I smudged out my coffin nail. “I’ve written a few books on the subject. None published, of course, they’re all in the first draft stage. Still looking for an agent and all that. Why do you ask?”
She shivered, as if cold, and I longed to warm her by the fire of my genitals. “Because,” she answered, giving me the most forlorn look I’d ever seen, “I want you to find who murdered my husband.”
I let that dangle between us a couple minutes. Then I took out my pen and notepad, the two most important tools of my trade.
“What is your husband’s name?”
“And your husband is, um, currently … not with us?”
I made a note of it.
“What did this Jack Caldwell do for a living?”
“He was a building inspector for the City of Little Rock.”
“Interesting. When did he die?”
“Fourteen years ago.”
I made another note. “How do you know he was murdered?”
“He was found decapitated. In our shower.”
I made more notes, underscoring decapitated.
“I see. You found him?”
“No,” she said, sobbing, “our son did. Michael.”
“Very sorry to hear it. I presume the police were notified?”
“And what did they determine?”’
“That he’d been murdered – but they had no idea by whom. There was nothing to go on. Jack was simply … dead!”
I frowned. No one is ever simply dead. Tipsy Caldwell burst into fresh tears. I didn’t want to seem insensitive, but I didn’t want to come across as a pushover, either. I passed her the roll of bathroom tissue I keep in my desk for such emergencies. She bawled into a two-ply square, smudging her mascara in the process. She wore a little too much mascara. Not a deal-breaker, but it was too much, already. I mean, Jesus Christ.
After the monsoon, I returned to my line of questioning.
“How long were you married? To Jack, I mean?”
“Ten years. Michael was eight when his father died.”
“Uh huh. I imagine the sight of his father headless in the shower was quite traumatizing for the boy.”
She glared tiny daggers into my solar plexus. “Quite,” she said, snippily.
“It’s an unusual way to go, I got to say.”
She balled the toilet paper in her fist. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s an unusual way to go, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Of course I would! You don’t have to be flippant about it!”
“Just making an observation.”
“Needlessly. I’m perfectly aware how unusual it was.”
“Okay, so, there’s no need to bite my head off. No pun intended.”
I felt the room temperature plunge ten degrees, and it was a warm day in June.
“The police had no clues, no suspects?”
She directed her cold-as-hell gaze out the window. “None.”
“Did your husband have enemies?”
“Loads! He was the building inspector. If a particular structure didn’t come up to code, it was Jack’s job to correct the situation or have a fine levied. A man in his position would do well not to have enemies, Mr. James.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a list of those enemies, would you?”
“No, Mr. James.”
I started making a list of my own. A grocery list.
“Mrs. Caldwell – can I call you Tipsy? – Tipsy, I’m sorry, but so far, you’ve given me very little to go on.”
I might as well have dashed her with cold water. “What do you mean? I’ve told you everything!”
“I beg to differ,” I replied. “All you’ve told me is that your husband died fourteen years ago, the victim of a strange, tragic, unexplained accident.”
“It was a homicide.”
“Perhaps, but in any event, we’re talking about a cold case here, Mrs. Caldwell.” I felt like a pretty big bastard. “Do you have anything new you’d care to share with me?”
Glaring darts into my forehead, she said, “As a matter of fact, I do.”
I held up a hand. “Whoa – maybe you should go to the police.”
“I can’t do that, Mr. James. I believe my husband was murdered by a cop.”
I squeaked my chair convivially. “Ah,” I said, “a new wrinkle. Tell me all about it.” I had disliked the LRPD ever since the Six Bridges Affair. The years had yet to cleanse my palate of the bad taste left by that caper.
Eyes brimming with diamond tears, she said, “I’m afraid I can’t go into it at the moment. Would you care to meet later for a drink?”
“That’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”
Dabbing her eyes with her wad of TP, she smiled. “I heard that about you. That you drink like a pirate.”
“May I ask, who is this mutual acquaintance? I’d like to get them a thank-you in the mail.”
“I’d rather not say. At least, not yet. Is that permissible?”
“As long as the check doesn’t bounce.”
She rose, I rose. “Capital Bar? Say, six?”
I snapped her a salute. “On the dot. Bartender knows me by name.”
Mrs. Caldwell squared her padded shoulders with as much dignity as she could muster – which, under the circumstances, wasn’t much. She was in the dusty office of a third-rate, back-of-the-phone-book private eye whose phone kept getting shut off due to lack of payment.
“Sorry,” I said, “I just remembered –”
“Oh,” she interrupted, “shall I pay you?”
I shrugged, deciding at the last possible second to be a nice guy, for a change. “You know what? Let’s call this an ‘initial consultation.’ You don’t owe me a dime.”
Her lips curled. “You are joking.”
“Ya got me. Yeah, that’ll be fifty dollars. Don’t worry about the drinks – we’ll go Dutch.”
She dipped a hand into her bag and came out with a neatly-folded bill. I tucked the fifty into my hungry little wallet. “I’m assuming you’re going to offer me the case tonight,” I said.
“Possibly, but I want you to hear all the details and decide for yourself. I won’t lie to you, Mr. James, there are many aspects that could make this a very nasty investigation. I want you to decide whether you’re up to the task.”
I held out my hand. “Til we meet again.”
“Six o’clock,” she said, and left.
I eased back into my chair and sat enjoying the soft zephyrs wafting through my open window. There was a flask of Johnny Walker Red in my lower right desk drawer; I took it out and downed a swallow. In preparation for the night’s drinking. I never walk into a bar on an empty stomach.
My husband was killed by a cop. The most delightful sentence I’d heard in a long, long time. Perhaps I’d have my revenge on the Boys in Blue after all. Especially that turd, Wilson. Wilson, who’d beaten me down and cuffed me. Wilson, who’d threatened to cram my teeth down my throat. Wilson, Wilson, Wilson. The cop with his picture in the society pages thanks to his rich, bosomy bride. Doug Wilson. Detective Doug Wilson. The Man Who Muffed the Six Bridges Affair.
There came a thick knock on my door, and for an instant, I thought to call out, “Nevermore.” Since I’d had to fire my secretary due to the economic downturn, I was acting as my own receptionist. I was seriously underpaid.
“Come,” I answered. For some reason, I was unwilling to turn away business. The door swung open, and a man sauntered in, just the way I dislike a man to saunter. He was dressed in a fancier suit than any I had hanging in my closet. His tie was nicer than mine, his shoes shinier, his shirt newer, his cufflinks brighter. Just looking at him, I felt like a thousand bucks. He wore no hat on his buzz-cut head. He was either 40 or 50 years old, depending on who wanted to know; a casting director might have hired him to play The Heavy, or Him Who Breaks Legs.
I held out my flask and said, “You look like you could use a shot.”
This opening confused him. He glanced around, momentarily concerned he might have gotten off on the wrong floor.
I weighed my options. Finally, I said, “Yep, I’m James. Hank James. Who’re you?”
My would-be client grinned. He had more gold in his mouth than taste buds. “I’m the Delivery Boy.”
“That so? Where’s the pizza I ordered yesterday?”
The Delivery Boy juked his head up and down, as if he could appreciate a good joke, he just hadn’t heard one lately. With his right heel he whipped the door shut. Now we were alone. The window was open; I thought about jumping.
“That dame just came outta here,” he said, in a thick, wheezy voice, “she ain’t no good for you. Bad for your health. Ya get me?”
I thought long and hard. “Oh, you mean her? Seems high maintenance to me, but I think I can handle her. Why’s it your business?”
The Delivery Boy came over and stood right next to me. His knuckles, when they weren’t dragging the floor, looked like pure granite. So did his face. I figured there were some eyeballs in there, tucked in among the folds. He showed me more gold teeth.
“She’s bad for you,” he repeated. “Get me?”
“Take a walk, Chuckles. I got a bat mitzvah in half an hour.”
He looked me over, as if to make sure. “You ain’t no Jew girl.”
“Tell that to my rabbi.”
The Delivery Boy stuck out his arm and grabbed me. With no effort at all, he brought us nose to nose. Then he used my nose to dust the blades on my ceiling fan. It was whirring at the time. I knew I should have jumped.
Satisfied the blades were clean, he dropped me to the floor, where he treated my face like a door mat. After I’d licked enough shoe leather, he seized me by my tie knot and jerked me to my feet.
“Ya get me now?” he wheezed, his chin mere inches from my nostrils.
“I told you, Dorothy,” I answered with a grin, “I think I can handle her.”
I caught a fist and all the air puffed out of my lungs. Somehow I ended up in my swivel chair, spinning round and round, until I thought I was going to puke. By the time the chair stopped spinning, the Delivery Boy had made his escape. Good thing for him. I was about to get rough.
She’s bad for you.
I limped into the Capital Bar a little after 6:00. The dominant colors of the tavern – caramel and gold – were a tonic to my eyes, one of which was blackened. I raked my gaze across the place, searching for my potential meal ticket. I saw plenty of beautiful women, most in the company of rich-looking guys in business suits, but of the Widow Tipsy, there was no sign.
I dragged myself across the room and took a seat at the bar. Here I felt like a rich man, elevated above the mortal plane. Here I could rub elbows with politicians and artist-types and consider myself high class. The bartender knew what I wanted. He slipped me a screwdriver and left me alone. I took a sip of the cold libation, smiled contentedly, and waited to get Tipsy.
It was a long wait. Six turned to 6:05. I drained my glass and demanded another. One found its way into my hand. I had my way with it and checked the clock on the wall. 6:10. Damn.
I am unaccustomed to being stood up. I mean, brush off the lint, stitch my wounds and put me in a better suit and you got Cary Grant. To think Mrs. Caldwell had blown off our date … er, appointment … without so much as a phone call … well, that hurt my feelings.
I ordered a boilermaker. According to my non-Rolex, it was now 6:15. I was getting a little hot under the collar. I downed my drink and excused myself. The bartender mentioned something about a “tab;” I vowed to come back as soon as possible and throw more onto it.
The men’s room of the Capital Hotel offers luxurious relief. When you go in, you don’t want to take a dump, you want to break into song. They even got one of those hand blowers in there.
I was taking care of business when I heard the door swing open, felt cool air from the lobby on the back of my neck. Some other classy customer had come to take a piss. I gave a wag, zipped up, flushed, and turned to look straight into the happy-go-lucky gray eyes of that turd, Wilson.
“James,” said Wilson, his voice the tone of mud, “good to see you.”
I said nothing and attempted to sidestep him, but he blocked me simply by standing still. He was a big fella, and wide, 350 pounds of shit in a 100-pound sack. He smiled, showing a lot of small white teeth.
“Isn’t this place a little pricey for the likes of you, gumshoe?”
“I’ve been drinking here for years,” I replied, trapped, as it were, between his $1,000 suit and the urinal I’d just used. “Good news is I don’t have to rely on my wealthy wife to get into places. Not like some people I could mention.” I didn’t name any names but waggled my eyebrows suggestively.
A smile crawled across his face. He was a real charmer, that turd Wilson. A good-looking guy with brawn and intelligence, if pond scum can be said to have intelligence. How he became a cop and not a movie star was a question I would pose to my Higher Power.
“Haven’t spoken to you since that Six Bridges thing,” Wilson replied, ignoring my waggling eyebrows. “You remember that caper, right? The one that made your career?”
I said nothing. His garlic breath was putting me under.
Wilson let his eyes wander up and down my bargain-basement suit. “Looks like you’ve come up in the world. Say, bud – what the hell happened to that face of yours? Looks like somebody roughed you up a bit.”
“Yeah. I’m sure you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
He smirked innocently. “Why would I?”
The detective grinned slowly. “You’re funny. Oughta take that act on the road. Might turn into a paying gig for you. Unlike your current occupation.”
I gave him a face full of air. “Are we going to stand here wagging our chins and eyebrows at each other like children on a grade-school playground? Or can I go back to my drink? It’s getting lonesome out there.”
Wilson’s smile faded like love’s last rose. “I was enjoying our reunion. Say, pal, I gotta take a squirt. Mind if I use your pant leg, there? Close enough for municipal work.”
I was getting hot again. Not only had Wilson maligned my suit, with me standing in it, he’d raised the issue of the Six Bridges Affair, which had resulted in many sleepless nights and unfinished steak dinners for Yours Truly. A flood of ugly memories came rushing back. Weeks of sensational headlines … an endless stream of gorgeous widows parading through my office, begging me to find the killer … violent confrontations with mindless “officials” like Wilson, whose status as an “official” made me laugh. And the ugliest of all: that of a body suspended above the Arkansas River, hanged by the neck until dead from the Main Street bridge. The body of my partner, Benny Benson.
Again I attempted to pass.
Again I was blocked.
“I’m meeting someone,” I informed Wilson’s nose. “Let me by.”
“Is that so?” Wilson said, with a mocking grin. “You don’t mean a lady friend, now, do you?”
“What makes you think your wife is a lady, Wilson?”
His dopey orangutan eyes turned red and I knew he would go for his piece before he actually reached for it. It had been there all along, snug under his left arm. I reacted without thinking, which is how I would describe 90 percent of most of my actions. My right hand shot out, palm up, fingers pointed stiffly at the ceiling. His soft, squishy nose caught the flat of my palm. His neck snapped like a chicken bone and blood spurted past my shoulder to spatter the urinal. Before I could withdraw my arm, Wilson had dropped to the floor, deader than 250 pounds of hammers in a 100-pound sack.
So there I was, in the men’s room of the Capital Hotel with a dead cop at my feet. Even when drunk, I have killer reflexes. Thinking fast, and suddenly quite sober, I gathered the massive, well-coiffed corpse in my arms and lugged it across the bathroom to one of the stalls. I positioned Wilson on the shiny porcelain throne and rifled his pockets. I came up with his billfold, badge and semi-automatic service pistol. These I dropped into my own pockets, uncertain of my intentions. I got the hell out of there but not before taking a moment to wipe the urinal clean of Wilson’s blood. I am nothing if not neat.
At the bar, I shelled out two twenties to cover the tab and made with the vamoose. I could no longer afford to be seen in that place, not with Wilson’s carcass cooling on the crapper. Shame, too. I loved that bar.
I thought about making a mad dash for my office in order to establish an alibi, but decided against it. Our security guy, a beak-nosed corporate phallus named Albert, despised me, and I had no desire to attract his attention. I walked up Broadway toward Third, trying to decide what to do with Wilson’s ID and pistol. I certainly didn’t need them; I had a heater of my own strapped to my ankle. Nor could I afford to be caught with any incriminating articles by police who had nothing better to do than investigate crime. I had really done myself in. I needed to get off the street. Like, pronto.
I headed down an alley. Weird, spray-painted hieroglyphics vied for my reading pleasure but I ignored them. I was still reeling from the friendly “warning” I’d been dealt by the Delivery Boy, in shock from my confrontation with Wilson. My mind was spinning like a dime-store globe. I had no idea where to go or where to turn. I began angling in the general direction of my apartment when someone accosted me – “Hey, mister.”
I spun on my heel. A street person stepped from the shadows. I hadn’t even noticed him standing there. He approached me in the manner of all stumblebums – stumbling, with his hand out. “Got any money, man?”
His smell preceded him. I reckoned he hadn’t changed underpants or bathed since Nixon was office. I stuck my hand in my jacket pocket.
“Nope,” I replied.
The homeless guy grinned. He was so filthy I could tell nothing about him, other than that he was crazy. He had me all to himself. Of course, the reverse was also true.
“Just give me yo wallet,” he said, dragging out his words. “Juuuus gimme yo waaaaalet.”
“Sure,” I answered. “Here you are.”
I whipped out Wilson’s pistol and slammed the barrel across the man’s right eye. He went down with a scream. I weighted him down with the dead detective’s belongings – wallet, badge, gun – and broke into a wild, shambling run that brought the far end of the alley into tighter focus. You could almost say I never looked back.
Just as I reached the sidewalk, a black SUV, all smoked glass and purring engine, pulled up, blocking my escape. The passenger side window zipped down and a face framed in black hair floated into view. “Jump in,” Tipsy Caldwell said, and I did. We sped away, chasing the sun down behind the state capitol.
I was gasping for air. She was breathing normally. We made a good couple.
“You stood me up!” I yelled.
“Yes,” she replied, gunning it through a red light, “I know.”
Her whole attitude was a bit too blasé for me. “Mind explaining why? I mean, I got all dressed up.”
She sighed wearily. “I’m starved,” she announced, as if reaching some monumental decision that would affect carbon emissions for the next 60 years. “Dinner? Drinks? On me.”
I did some quick mental calculations. “Okay.”
We grabbed a back booth at Doe’s Eat Place and ordered a couple of burnt tenderloins. The décor was 1980s Hollywood fuck pad. We sat beneath autographed photos of Bono and Kevin Spacey, drinking red wine and gazing into each other’s pupils.
“So,” I said, warming up the conversation, “a lot has happened since last we spoke.”
“Do tell,” she replied, in a tone normally used on kitchen staff. She took a sip of wine, her tongue doing illegal things to the rim of the glass.
“For starters, I was the recipient of a very unpleasant visit from an otherwise delightful fellow calling himself the Delivery Boy. It was all I could do to let him mop the floor with me. He saw you come out of my office. Had a message for me.”
“Stop being coy, dear. What was the message?”
“Allow me to quote verbatim: ‘She’s bad for you.’ Then he left, with an alarming amount of skin on his shoe. Alright, lady, give. Who was the Delivery Boy?”
“I have no idea,” she answered, sounding bored.
“Too bad. I was hoping you’d know why a lug with a mug like a rug would be following you.”
“Why should I?”
“Cut the shit, lady. I haven’t finished my story.”
“Do go on.”
“You and I agree to meet at the Capital Bar,” I went on. “I show up and order milk and cookies but you’re nowhere to be found. I run to the boys’ room and guess who should stroll in but a friend of mine, a plainclothes police detective by the name of Wilson.”
She appeared mildly interested. “Is that so?”
“We got into a pissing contest. I came out on top. He’s dead now.”
A smile so tiny only a certified jeweler could identify it touched her ruby lips. “Detective Wilson is … dead?”
“Dead as Elvis. And I’m on the run. I was on the run, by the way, when I ran into you. Thanks for the lift, by the way.”
Our steaks arrived, sizzling in their own juices, and we tucked in. At last she said, “Did you speak to Edward?”
“Who the hell is Edward?”
“The bartender there.”
“Oh, him. Yeah, we’re soul mates. We spoke of ships and sealing wax. OK, Mrs. Caldwell, it’s time for me to put my big mouth on sabbatical and you to start using yours for more than chewing. I need you to tell me everything you know, going back to when your husband first lost his head.”
“Edward,” she said, quickly, “is keeping things quiet for you. Back at the hotel.”
“I know Edward,” said Tipsy Caldwell, tearing off a small chunk of meat, spearing it on her fork, and raising it to her ivory teeth. “He’s my lover. Edward never saw you. You were never there. The police have no idea who killed Wilson. Just as they have no idea who killed my husband.”
I lost all interest in my $72.50 dinner. I called the waiter over and ordered a Bloody Mary with a beer chaser. He delivered. Boy, did he ever. The widow Caldwell continued eating. As far as carnivores go, she could put a T-rex to shame.
“What does Edward have to do with this?” I demanded. “Why would he cover for me?”
She sighed, as if I hadn’t been properly housebroken. “Why do you think I proposed drinks at the Capital? Why do you think I failed to show?”
I took a slug of beer and shrugged.
“I knew Wilson would be attending a party at the Capital tonight,” Mrs. Caldwell explained between bites of scorched beef. “I knew you were likely to run into each other. I knew of your mutual animosity, thanks to our … shared acquaintance. I also knew, or gambled, rather, that the two of you would go at each other like pit bulls on a Saturday night. I hoped only one of you would be left standing.” She tipped me a sly wink. “You were.”
I signaled for another round. “You set this whole thing up?”
She raised her wine glass in toast. “Congratulations.”
“Because,” she answered, “I believe Detective Wilson murdered my husband.”
Tipsy Caldwell lived in a moss-covered mansion in a tree-lined neighborhood that reeked of Old Money. She had a thing about being alone. She didn’t want to be.
“What do you do for money?” I asked as she undressed me in her stadium-size bedroom.
“I run a small boutique,” she replied, taking my organ into her mouth.
“Bullshit,” I snapped, watching her head bob up and down. “You don’t make this kind of cash running a small anything. What do you really do?”
“You mind if we don’t talk? I’ve got something on the tip of my tongue.”
I tried to go with the flow but my brain was raising a stink. I guessed she had come into a fortune when Jack died – an easy assumption to make – but how much was a fucking building inspector worth?
I addressed the back of her head. “You were both loaded, am I right?”
We moved our discussion to the bed, where she lifted her ass high into the air. I plunged into her like a sledgehammer and pumped away.
“How much was Jack worth?”
“Plenty,” she puffed down in front.
“And you got it all.”
“I got it all, baby!”
“Anybody ever try blackmailing hubby?”
“Detective … WILSON!”
“How much was he squeezing him for?”
“Five hundred K. To the left, please. TO THE LEFT!”
I rolled left. “What did Wilson have on him?”
“Yeah? Of what?”
“Who were you screwing?”
“I dunno … guys … a lot of … GUYS OH YES!”
“Oh, a lot of guys,” I said, trying to get across some sarcasm. “So you liked banging different guys, huh?”
“God, yes. To the right! HARDER!”
I hit it harder to the right.
“Wilson had you followed?”
“He was. A. Private. Dick. Then.”
“And he took peeping tom photos?”
“Yes. Yes. Yes!”
“Who hired him?”
“I don’t know. GO ANAL.”
I did as I was told. I’m good like that. “So, someone hires Wilson, a private dick, to shoot pix of you making the beast with two backs. Wilson then uses said pix to squeeze your old man for five hundred big ones.”
“YES FUCK ME YES!”
“Doesn’t make any sense,” I said, gripping her hips. “Wilson should have simply turned over the evidence and cashed his check. Unless, of course, he realized what a drooling slut you are and decided there was real money to be made cutting out the middle man.”
“There. There! THERE!”
“He must have threatened to send the photographs to one of the leading social rags here in town. Would have destroyed your image, of course … I’ll bet dollars to donut holes Jack was obsessed with keeping his good name, eh?”
“So he pays Wilson the money to keep the photos buried.”
“No, he would never have done that – when are you going to orgasm?”
“I’m on my own schedule. How do you know he wouldn’t have?”
“He would have tried bargaining with the blackmailer.”
“So Wilson felt cheated.”
“Maybe – you’re getting bigger, are you close?”
“Suppose he lost the photos.”
“Follow me here, babe. Jack steals the pix from Wilson, or hires a middle man to do it. That way, the treat is eliminated. Wilson hasn’t got shit to sell but he is a smart cookie. He figures out who nabbed the pix. So he breaks in here and lops off your husband’s noggin. Make sense, sugar pop?”
She was coming too hard to give a coherent answer, so I waited until she finished.
“Yes, darling,” she cooed, rolling over and drawing me into her embrace.
“Don’t get comfortable,” I told her. “I still haven’t come.”
Next morning, Tipsy was nowhere to be found.
I went downstairs to the kitchen, where I was served food by a pretty Hispanic girl. After breakfast, I got dressed and called a taxi. By noon, I was back in my lint-infested office, gazing out the window at the street far below.
I liked Little Rock well enough. It is both worldly and provincial, small enough you can bump into the governor at lunch or spot a former US president on the street. I might have made better money in some other town, but I doubted I’d feel as good about my spiritual health. A guy like me, in a line like this, could risk his soul in LA or DC. Here there was very little competition, and the cases were, by and large, easy peasey. I handled everything from divorces to missing persons to the occasional child custody dispute. It wasn’t every day somebody took a swing at me. Tipsy Caldwell’s case was unusual. I’d crossed many personal lines for her without even discussing my hourly rate. I didn’t accept pussy in lieu of payment.
I leaned out the window and was smoking a Marlboro when I heard someone at the door. I looked over my shoulder to find myself eyeball-to-eyeball with the widow Caldwell herself. She had on a red dress. My internal fire alarm went off. If there’s one thing any dick distrusts, it’s a woman in red. I mean, that’s basic. Fail that part of the course and they bounce your ass out of dick school.
“Why, hello,” I said, startled, though not surprised. “I wondered when I’d see you again.”
“Did you think you wouldn’t?” she replied, her voice quivering, and suddenly I knew the shadow lurking behind her belonged to the gentleman calling himself the Delivery Boy. Sure enough, the giant stepped into the room, clutching her by the elbow. He hadn’t changed all that much. His nostril hairs were longer.
“How do,” he smirked, heel-toeing the door shut. “Ya miss me?”
“Like a hemorrhoid,” I replied, setting my hands on my hips. “Cut the girl loose, Donna.”
“Tough talk,” grunted the Delivery Boy. “Got a few cuts on your face, dick. How’d you get those? Oh, I remember. I came in here and used for a broom.”
“Office needed cleaning, anyway, and for maid service, you’ll do.”
He shook Tipsy, rattling her teeth. “Tell him what’s what, sister.”
“He was hiding,” she said. “In the bedroom. Last night. I didn’t know he broke in. He was looking for Jack’s pictures. The ones he stole from Wilson. He heard you … theorizing … while you were making love to me.”
“Is that what you call it?” the Delivery Boy sneered.
“He knows you know everything. He thinks you have the pictures. He wants them.”
I put on a smart grin. “I don’t have the pictures.”
The Delivery Boy rattled Tipsy’s teeth again. “Cough em up, tough guy. My boss, she wants the photos.”
I frowned. “She?”
“That’s right. Surprised?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Sexist a-hole. She runs a fashion mag. Crème de la Crème. Ya heard of it?”
“Of course. I’ve been trying to get into that rag for years. Nice, glossy slick. High-quality photos. Helen Myron is the publisher. What of it?”
The Delivery Boy leered unattractively. “Ms. Myron, she wants evidence that the lady here is a tramp. She’s thinking of starting an interactive 3D web site – something about ‘going where the eyeballs are,’ she said. Me, I call it click bait, but what do I know, I’m six months out of the pen. Innywho, Crème wants to kick things off with a nice spread on Tipsy. We need those pix. I slipped out the back door last night after you slipped out the widow’s back door, if ya know what I mean. I figured you’d snoop around and the find pix yourself, save me the trouble. Now give em over!”
Tipsy stared at me in horror, her mouth forming a large O.
I shook my head. “I told you, I don’t have them. I caught a cab home after breakfast. No photos. Ply your trade elsewhere, punk.”
He seized Tipsy by the throat. “Maybe I’ll use your girlfriend here for a toothpick.”
“That won’t get you the pictures.”
Things were not going his way. He frowned and pushed her aside. “Maybe I’ll beat em out of you.”
“You’re welcome to try.”
He roared and lunged at me. I took one step to the left and out he went, plunging headfirst straight down, six stories. I heard him SPLAT on the pavement outside the sushi joint on the corner. A scream went up.
I went over to Tipsy and comforted her as best I could.
“There, there,” I said, patting her shoulder.
She produced a gun from her handbag.
“The woman in red!” I hissed, drawing back. “Damn!”
“Where are the photos, Hank?”
“That’s Mr. James, to you. Nice trick, bringing that gorilla in here to shake me down.”
“You mean Buford? He was nothing to me – a hired hand, like you. I want the photos.”
I pulled my trouser pockets inside out. “I haven’t got them.”
“The hell you don’t! You stole them from my bedroom. I want them back!”
“You had your husband murdered, didn’t you? For hiring Wilson. Only Wilson didn’t whack Jack. That big dumb gorilla did. Pulled your old man’s head clean off, didn’t he? I dropped by the PD this morning and read the case file.”
The widow Caldwell said nothing, just stood there seething. The gun trembled in her hand.
“The fact you want the pictures proves you had them all along, and that you were behind the murder,” I told her, getting riled up. “You had Jack killed and pocketed the insurance money. A free and easy life for yourself, right? With the incriminating evidence stashed in a lockbox or some damn place. Only years later, Helen Myron decides to start some ill-conceived porn site that’ll probably crash on the first day of business, and wants your sin shots for the launch. So she hires the big dumb gorilla currently decorating the sidewalk to snatch them. Only he can’t find them, so you come to me and drag me to your big house on the hill, where you figure I’ll get curious and look for the photos myself. After which, you and the Delivery Boy show up to shake me down. You figure I’ll cough them up and you’ll get to play the innocent victim all over again. Sadly, the only innocent victim in all this is Wilson – that turd. I killed him out of self-defense, true, but you get the vicarious thrill of revenge. Am I right?”
She began to sob. “I hired Buford to kill Jack,” she admitted, eyes dancing with tears, “and yes, I wanted Wilson to die for what he did. But don’t think I didn’t enjoy last night for what it was.”
“What was that?”
“An act of love?”
“An act of hypocrisy! Would you like to know what else I did while I was down at the PD? I confessed to killing Wilson. That’s right, and I agreed to wear a wire. You’re on record, honey. I got ya cold. Murder One.”
She snarled and leveled the gun. I knocked it aside just as she squeezed the trigger. The round slammed into the wall inches from my best filing cabinet. Stunned by the shot, I grabbed my ringing ears. Out the corner of my eye, I saw the widow Caldwell dash toward the open window.
Too late. I glimpsed the red hem of her skirt against the blue summer sky. She was gone. A long, terrible scream traced her descent. Then another SPLAT on the sidewalk. My ears winced.
I took stock of my office. Aside from the bullet hole in the wall, there was little evidence anything had occurred. There was the small matter of the revolver; I picked it up by the barrel and dropped it in a desk drawer. Let the police ask their questions. I had nothing to hide.
I sat down, lit a Marlboro and put my feet up. Another slow day. When would a new case walk through my door? Money wasn’t growing on trees. I did have one resource, though. A fallback. Something I might trade. Or sell.
I reached into my jacket pocket and removed a large brown envelope. I opened the clasp and shook the contents out on my desk calendar: about a dozen black-and-white smut photos starring none other than Mrs. Caldwell.
Smiling, I scooped the photos into an open drawer and trashed the envelope. It had been a cinch uncovering the stash, but I don’t think I’ll reveal how or where I found it. I will say that Tipsy’s housekeeper had offered a lot more than breakfast when I asked a few pointed questions.
I squeaked my chair convivially. Down on the street, all hell had broken loose. Inside, I was cool as a cuke.