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I woke up and wished I hadn't. Sunlight was streaming through the windscreen of my Lincoln. The car was a hothouse of whisky fumes, stale cigarettes and dull pain. I'd have winced but it hurt too much. My neck felt like I'd been sleeping on a pile of rocks. So much for all the advertisements of opulent comfort. The shift lever was halfway up my trouser leg and my tie was caught up in the door window. No wonder I felt like I'd been hanged.
I groaned a groan that started at the tip of my toes and stopped at my ankles because it was too painful to go on. My head was as thick as Mulligatawny soup, my eyes looked like blood oranges, my face felt like a piece of pounded steak and my mouth tasted like a three-week-old pot of yoghurt. All in all, I was quite a dish.
I'd been celebrating. Just cleaned up the Buggsy Buttwinkel kidnap case. It was grey leather; soap wouldn't touch it. I had to get heavy. In the end, bleach loosened it up. Sometimes you gotta get tough to get results.
I was parked outside the Sleuth Booth. I looked at my watch. Either it had stopped or it was five in the morning. I brought it up to my ear and listened. The ticking bored through my head like an idling chainsaw. It was five.
I waited to see if things would improve. They didn't.
After a while I got out of the car and lurched up the flight of stairs to my office. It was a long way up. The door was open. Odd - I couldn't see Kate's coat on the hook.
I stopped in my tracks - I'd walked in wet paint last week: there were yellow footprints all over the carpet. There was a shape sitting at my desk; I couldn't see who it was through the frosted glass but one thing was for sure - it wasn't the owner of the joint, Lopsided Larssen. Sometimes people ask me how I picked up the name. I tell them that Larssen is quite common in Sweden.
My desk light was on: one of those Anglepoise lamps with a counterbalance big enough to tie down a jetliner. All I could see was a small pyramid of light silhouetting a man with a Homberg against the wall. I moved to one side and unshipped my piece from its shoulder holster. Sometime, I'd put it back together. Whoever was keeping my seat warm was going to get fed some lead if he couldn't come up with all the right answers.
It was now or never. Never would have been preferable. I kicked the door in. Then I remembered that it opened outwards. That was fifty bucks to the glazier.
I'd seen the galoot before. If I wasn't mistaken, it was Frank Grappa, a small time hood from the west side with big ideas. His eyes followed my shooter as it shook in my hand. I needed coffee. Or whiskey. Or both.
"I've got some questions for you, wise guy," I croaked, covering him with the gun. He was a very small man.
He jerked back in my chair. It reminded me to get that spring fixed.
"What's the capital of Chile?" I hissed, reaching into the filing cabinet for my breakfast. Three ounces of Jack Daniels sloshed around in a bottle marked Erasing Fluid. The stuff was guaranteed to wipe your mind clean.
I'll give the palooka credit; he could keep his head. Nobody else could want it, not with that ugly mug attached to one side.
"Lima," he said, without missing a beat. It was in six/four with triplet fills in the middle eight.
"You seem to know an awful lot for a jumped-up boot shine boy," I said, lighting up a Camel.
"I make it my business to know a lot," he spat back through clouds of sputum-laden smoke, "How many people are aware that it takes eight and a half minutes for the Sun's light to reach Earth."
I had to admit that he had me there. I had no idea how many people didn't know. I had to keep the upper hand otherwise he was going to walk all over me. So I shot him.
"You'll regret doing that, one day," he groaned, holding his ear.
"I regret a lot of things, Grappa, like that second bottle of Kentucky red-eye last night and that bowl of Mexicali peppers, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over a bent-nickel louse like you. Don't bleed on my papers, if you don't mind."
"I've come to give you a warning, Larssen - drop the Spud O'Pinion match-fixing investigation. It's a hot potato and way out of your league."
I don't like threats. I don't like jellied asparagus, either. Threats are easier to deal with. I shot him again. Now he had matching ears. They suited him.
"Who sent you, Grappa? O'Pinion's bitten off more than he can chew in the Pepperoni case and he ain't gonna be walking once the DA gets his teeth into the other half of the saveloy." I poured five fingers of Jack into a tooth mug; my tonsils took a quick shower.
Grappa stood up. He was the same height, either way. "You've had your warning, Larssen. I think there's one thing you'd better know before I go to Demetriopopopopolus the Greek."
I was intrigued but I didn't let on. "Oh, yeah - what's that, you fink?"
"In a typical cubic mile of sea water, there are one hundred and twenty eight million tons of sodium chloride, forty tons of silver, twenty-five tons of gold and two hundred and fifty tons of arsenic."
"That's four things, Grappa."
"Some things you can't count on in life, Larssen..."
I gave the DA a call when Grappa had gone. His wife answered the phone.
"Hiya, Mr Larssen, Dewey's not here right now, he's out of town."
"Where's he gone," I said, making a dum-dum bullet with Kate's nail file.
"Well, to start with, he's seeing Roy in Illinois, Corrigan in Oregon, Hennessy in Tennessee, Lucky in Kentucky, Corky in Milwaukee, Tasker in Nebraska, Duckett in Nantucket and some dork in New York. After that, he's meeting Neil in Mobile, Kitty in Sioux City, Gene in Abilene, Claire in Delaware and Ray in L.A."
"Is he seeing anyone in Choctawhatchee?"
"Uh, just one moment... yeah, someone called Arnetzberger."
"Yeah - you know him?"
"No, never heard of him before. Thanks, babe, hasta disasta."
What was going on in Alabammy?
I gave most of my body the rest of the day off. It thanked me by falling asleep. Dreams of Kate ran through my head. I'd sooner they'd walked so I'd have had a fighting chance of catching her. Kate was my right-hand woman; whatever you read into that, you're probably correct.
She'd been with the Sleuth Booth for as long as I had: twelve years and six months.
"I respect you too much to have an affair," she told me after the third week. I appreciated that; I couldn't think of a polite way of telling her that I couldn't have an affair with her.
But that was then and this was now. She'd developed from an Olive Oyl to a Gina Lollabrigida.
She'd never married. Not for lack of offers. Even one or two of mine. She'd been decent enough to forget them when I'd pitched up the next day, stone cold sober. Or drunk.
Perhaps she still had too much respect for me or maybe all she could see was a forty-year-old cynical private dick with a face that Karl Malden would be ashamed of, terms by arrangement.
I guess you could describe Kate in three words: mag-nif-ique. OK - that's three syllables but our relationship was based on trust and Bourbon, not fancy French letters. She was a neat package, one that stood a good chance of going adrift in the mail. She weighed in at around one-fifteen; a good portion of that was in the latitudes between her stomach and collarbone, I'd say her belly button was used to living in dark climates.
Her hair was red, if you could call it red. It started in her scalp and hung down to her shoulders like it had grown there. Sometimes she wore it up. Most times it wore me down. I'm a sucker for lollipops and flame-haired dames.
Her lipstick, if you could call it lipstick, was Studebaker gloss red, and it hinted at the horsepower under the hood. One kiss with those smackers and your revcounter was over the red line, too. Everything about her was red, except for the rent bills. The trashmen could read them.
But don't let looks fool you. Underneath the surface of sizzling sexuality was a seasoned snoop as solid as stone. She could make a fair Sidecar, as well.
The phone rang just as I was about to do nothing. I picked it up and listened. It rang again. This time I lifted the receiver.
"Lopsided Larssen - no job too small, no bill too big, cheating partners a specialty, discretion assured for an additional fee."
It was Kate. "Hi, Lopsy," she drawled in that cute Charleston accent, "You'd better get here right away - there's been a development in the O'Pinion case."
"Yeah - an eleven-letter description of an event or process appertaining to a specific situation in which progress is made after extensive research or by the overlay of external influences which aid advancement of the same."
"So lay it on me, sis."
"Somebody shot Frank Grappa."
I stood up quickly. Blood rushed to my feet, Jack D took the shorter route to my head.
"Is he dead?"
"The medics say that it's too early to tell."
That was something, at least. Time to get back into the driving seat before too many cooks boiled the froth.
"OK, baby," I said, "I'll be there right away." I blew a kiss down the line and hung up. Then I opened the door and walked into the office.
I didn't waste words. "So what's the dope on the Grappa shooting?"
"He took two slugs."
"He was shot for taking two slugs!"
"Yeah - they belonged to Cuban Joe. Seems that they were odds-on favorites to win the Wisconsin Terrestrial Gastropod Derby on Saturday."
Cuban Joe! The same old story - no man is an island. It didn't matter how many times I heard it, it still got to me, even after twelve years as an investigator. But there's no room for sentimentality in my trade so I pierced Kate's sleeping Chihuahua with a knitting needle and stepped outside for a run-in with a Camel.
I lit up and blew the smoke luxuriously into an open window. I heard the old widow inside coughing.
Spud O'Pinion... Frank Grappa... Demetriopopopopolus the Greek... and now Cuban Joe and the Gastropod Derby.
The clot was thickening.
The intercom squawked.
"Go ahead, Sweety-Pie," I said.
Either Kate was taking basso profundo lessons or it wasn't Kate. "Hello, my petite pumpkin," mimicked a gruff voice, "Perhaps you can spare an itsy-bitsy moment for your little pal, Spud."
O'Pinion - what the hell was he doing here and what had he done to Kate? I reached under my jacket and patted my Colt. It whinnied with pleasure.
"I'll be right out," I said, opening the window that overlooked the intersection of Calvin Coolidge Crescent and the Herbert Hoover Highway. There was a ledge about twelve inches wide running the length of the building, a sort of express freeway for dirty rats to visit their furry friends. I climbed out onto it and eased my way along. A pigeon left its calling card on my shoulder. I stuck my head around the adjacent window and peered in. A wasp-waisted dame in a pearl-gray two-piece was adjusting her garter belt. I looked again. She was still doing it. Wrong window.
I headed east. The window was open and true enough, Spud O'Pinion was in the reception room, obviously waiting for me. I could tell that because he was holding a Biretta. There was no sign of Kate.
He never saw me as I slipped in through the window. It was as well that it was open. He didn't hear me either, as I crept behind him. He certainly felt me though, as my blackjack cracked him behind the ear. He went down like a man who'd just been coshed.
I relieved him of his gun and went through his pockets. Two knuckledusters, a flick-knife and a Hershey bar joined the Biretta on Kate's desk. O'Pinion started to groan so I hit him again. This time he stayed quiet.
Kate was lying on the floor, behind her desk. She didn't speak to me or move. So I undid the twenty feet of electrical tape that was wrapped around her mouth, wrists and feet. In gratitude, she kicked O'Pinion in the kidneys. I showed her where his liver was and she kicked that as well. All those years spent studying biology weren't wasted.
"Listen, honey," she said, grinding O'Pinion's nose with the heel of her stilettos, "there's a two-grand contract out on you."
And to think that my father said I'd never amount to anything. "That so, babe? And this jerk's in on it?"
She nodded. "It's all tied in with the Slug Derby. Cuban Joe and Frank Grappa are in cahoots with Dó "
I cut her short. I do the sleuthing around here. "Go make the coffee while I have a little talk with Spud, here." He was just starting to come around. She gave me a look that compressed an encyclopedia into a matchbox and flounced off to the kitchenette.
"So," I said to O'Pinion, as he opened his eyes. He didn't like whatever he saw because he closed them again. It was a knuckleduster. And it was wrapped around my fist. "So," I said again, "Who put me on the hit list?" Thump. "Who's Mr Big?" Pow. "Who set up Frank Grappa?" Bosh. Spud wasn't too keen on sound effects.
"All right, all right, I've had enough, I'll talk," he yelled, "Cuban Joe's got the formula for doping gastropods, it's guaranteed to make him a million; all he's got to do is sprinkle their lettuce with it. I was supposed to keep the Raffia off his case by buying off Mr Big but along you came and fingered me for the honey badger heist. Frank dropped by to warn you off but he got too greedy and filched Cuban Joe's champions. He took 'em to a fence on Thirteenth and sold them to Philipe the Frog's restaurant. Cuban Joe sent his boys around to rub out Frank and I came here to kill you."
"That still leaves a couple of questions unanswered, punk. Why kill me, to start with?"
"Remember Kinky Binky, the turkey from Albuquerque?"
"Kinky Binky? No, should I?"
"No, I just wondered. She put me in hospital once, with a slipped disc."
"So, why kill me?"
"Because I hate you and everything you stand for, Larssen, that's why."
"OK, that's fair enough, O'Pinion. I've got enough evidence to put you away for a very long time; you can make it easier on yourself by admitting that Mr Big is none other than Demetriopopopopolus the Greek."
I looked behind me. It was Dewey Hooey, the DA. He was holding a piece that made my Colt look like a peashooter. And it was pointing straight at my head.
"You always were too smart, Larssen, with your fancy alligator-skin shoes, your silk shirts and your monogrammed handkerchiefs. I was into a lot of dough, selling Cuban Joe's slug whizz to the syndicates; that call to my wife tipped me off that you were on to me. Sorry, gum-shoe, here's where the party ends."
The barrel of his shooter was wide enough for me to see the tip of the bullet and it looked like it had my name stamped on it.
"Say your prayers, Larssen." His finger tightened on the trigger.
There was a dull thud. Dewey hit the carpet, bleeding from a gash on the brain box. Kate stood above him, Jack D in hand. She hadn't broken it. The bottle, not his head.
I could have kissed her. So I did. Then we called the cops and reacquainted ourselves with Jack, so everybody got slugged, one way or another.
There were a few loose ends to tie up. But not today.
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