Friendly Fire

75d 2 copyChapter 6

Finally.

Back in the office I headed straight for the filing drawer behind the desk and poured myself a stiff one. I lit a cigarette too and tried hard to get the stink of sewer out of my mouth and the image of dead men sitting out of my mind. The cigarette helped and the drink helped some more. I was probably on my third when I heard the click of the reception room door. Someone trying to be discreet.

It was hardly likely that Molly had come in for some late night filing, so I drew my .45 from the drawer next to the bottle, eased my shoes off and slid out of my seat.

I could imagine the two of us, me and my intruder, doing a shadow dance on opposite sides of the door, both with careful slow movements so as not to tip off the other. The difference was, I was content to stay on my side of the door, while my intruder was more ambitious about advancement. I watched the handle slide down slowly and then in one quick movement the door swung open and the hand and sleek revolver dropped through.

I grabbed the thin wrist just as the gun kicked. The shot exploded and smashed some cheap diploma on the wall above my desk and I brought my gun hand down sharp on top of the revolver, yanking hard at the wrist with my other hand. The gun made a dull thud on the carpet in the doorway and the intruder was hurled into the room, quickly stopped short and hard by my desk. I scooped the revolver up and levelled the .45, found the light switch and looked with disappointment at Delilah Ambrosia.

“You have a concern about the expense account charges?” I asked.

She looked more startled than I was, striking a pose like on some cheap horror flick poster. Then her face seemed to try on every emotion imaginable all at once. She collapsed into a chair and began blubbering into her hands. “Oh, Mr. Murphy!” I caught, as she popped up for air now and then. “It’s not what you think!”

I hoped not, because just then I was thinking she was trying to kill me.

I slipped her rod into my jacket pocket, came around the desk and poured two drinks. I did it all one handed, letting the .45 take a good look at her. I didn’t think she’d try anything, still it seemed she was more civil when she knew I had it.

“It was just to scare you,” she continued. The shot was pretty high but, if I’d been standing there, she still might owe me a new hat. “You have no idea the fix I’m in.”

I slid a drink over towards her, “Why don’t you tell me about it.”

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Goodbye, Darlings

darlings 2Chapter 7

Germany.

I had seen it at the end of the war. It would be a lousy thing for me to try to claim that it was the war’s fault, that I was a product of the violence and so, when I came back, I was no good for anything but work on the seedy side of the tracks.

The truth was different, because a lot of guys came back and settled in comfortably to office jobs and the family life. No, the war didn’t break me. But it did open up my eyes.

See, it was the kind of thing that makes you lose faith in your fellow man. Some folks claimed they saw greatness, heroic acts and selfless courage, and I won’t try to tell you there wasn’t a whole lot of that over there. But I never saw it.

All I saw was survival. A man could survive or a man could crumble. And the sooner you decided which one it was you wanted to do, well, the better you could do it I guess.

I decided pretty early on I didn’t want to crumble, and by the end of the war we were entrepreneurs, business men, supplying needs and moving goods on the black market all around Berlin. We were ahead of the curve. Then it all fell apart. The ring was broken up and I was sent home.

I’d squeaked out a living all right over the years, but it was only when I was back home, back among the supposedly civilized that I really figured exactly how the war had changed me. I realized that it wasn’t just Europe and Germany that were different, it was me. Disillusionment had set in, same as it had for most of us. We knew now what men were capable of and it wasn’t pretty. We weren’t to be trusted. And so we brought the war home with us that way, building up a world that was every man for himself.

But a little something from before those days still stayed with me. Or maybe I was just fooling myself, but I wanted to believe that there was some good left out there, every now and then, someone who meant well, was trying to do the right thing and still get by. And maybe it was just circumstance that had them in a bind. I suppose that little piece of me that held on to that belief was the piece that was the sap just waiting to be played.

Maybe I even knew it. But maybe I figured that little piece was really the only piece of me worth a damn, worth holding on to. And if I gave up that last little piece, gave it up and surrendered it to the darkness, well there’d be nothing left of me at all. And when all that’s left of a man is just a shadow of himself, seems to me it’s time to call it quits. Just pack your bags and disappear into the night, leaving nothing but a farewell kiss and a “Goodbye, Darlings.”

Hard Fall

hard fall 2Chapter 8

Havana Boom!

The club was swinging.

I had left Delilah Ambrosia outside of my office, a touch lighter without the gun she’d been carrying on the way in. I had her story on loan, since I wasn’t quite sure I was buying it yet. It all needed checking out.

I was starting here at the Havana, because it was where I had found Lionel Tucker the last time. I figured he just might have some answers for me – answers about Delilah and the whole mess. I also might run into Dominic Hutchinson again and catch him up on his missing painting. With any luck I could kill two birds with one stone. That would make three dead altogether if you counted the fat man sitting in the sewer. It was a lot of math that didn’t quite add up.

The Cuban band was brawling a Spanish jazz and the stage show was all coloured ruffles, waving feathers and over-sized pearly whites. The waitresses whisked by in glittered dresses, like shooting stars doling out wishes by the bottle or the glass full. I knocked back a few wishes myself as the night wore on, none of them coming true, and there was still no sign of Lionel.

Eventually I pulled aside a cigarette girl. She was a cute brunette with a wavy bob, chestnut eyes and a thin, quiet smile. She looked like the sensible type, which is what I wanted. “Hey doll, is Lionel in tonight?”

“Mr. Tucker?” She wasn’t demure, she looked right at me and spoke easy, “He came in earlier. Went up to the office, but I haven’t seen him since.”

“You see him go back out?” I asked.

She shrugged, “Nope. Didn’t I just say.”

We let each other sink in, then she looked to her little box of treats and back at me. I took the hint and bought a pack of smokes.

“Thanks,” she said, giving me the once over before moving along.

I smoked two cigarettes and finished my drink before heading across the floor, to the stairway that lead to the office up top.  There was no one around so I went on up and listened at the door. Inside was quiet, for all I could tell over the muffled sound of maracas from the club. I tried the door and it opened welcoming enough and I eased inside.

The office was pretty sizeable, dimly lit with a large mahogany desk in the middle, a fish tank to one side and a wide window overlooking the club. Didn’t take long to see Lionel Tucker was still there. He was sprawled face-down on the floor in front of the desk. A dark pool on the carpet said he wasn’t napping.

Another bird. Another stone cold corpse.

Indemnity Crisis

indemnity 2Chapter 9

Idiot.

I couldn’t help the feeling I had walked right into this. And I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like that I was the one to find Lionel Tucker face down in his carpet, shot an unhealthy number of times in the chest and once in the head for closure. I didn’t like that I had been asking all over town for him these last few days. And I didn’t like that all I had to hold was the flimsy sob story of Delilah Ambrosia, a dame who’d hired me to ask the questions, then tried to shoot me.

I thought of calling the cops, then changed my mind. Then changed it back again. Things already looked bad enough.

They swarmed around, tripping over each other and asking me the same questions over and over again. I figured I’d tell them what I knew, which was nothing much: I’d been hired by my client to track down Lionel. I’d done the job. Then why was I back? Okay, maybe I told them a little less than I knew.

“Guy owed me a ten-spot.”

“Doesn’t look like you’re gonna be able to collect,” the cop said. He thought he was being clever.

“Maybe the wife will honour the debt. You got her address?” I lit a cigarette.

“You don’t know the Tucker house?” he was intent on proving himself the wise guy. “You just drive as far up Holland as you can go, stop when the houses don’t get any bigger. That kinda place, you might find your tenner under the doormat.”

“Save me knocking,” I said.

They were questioning the cigarette girl, but she didn’t have anything for them that wouldn’t gel with my version. She didn’t look too scared of me either which was a good sign. I’d talk to her later, when the cops were through. Ask her some sensible questions, which she might find refreshing for a change.

I needed to take a closer look at Delilah Ambrosia. She was the one who had set this whole train in motion. She had walked into my office just a few days ago and now I was attracting dead bodies, bullets, and bull stories at a rate that would have me six feet under, if I closed the eyes at the back of my head for even a second. I needed to unravel this mess. I’d see if I could verify her story and, if it was true, I’d need to find out who was really pulling the strings in this macabre theatre.

Jigsaw Jungle

jigsaw 1Chapter 10

Justice. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong city.

She said her name was Julie Hamilton. So she said. She had changed it to Delilah Ambrosia for the sake of the billboards and the posters that were supposed to bear her name. They all came by bus, the old story of arriving with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. Only supply and demand dictated that the price was high for dreams, and Julie Hamilton didn’t quite have enough in that suitcase of hers to foot the bill.

It was a scene that played out too many times for comfort: Julie, now Delilah, found herself dropping down the show business ladder towards obscurity. Then a hand reached out to her. Vincent Levalle was dashing and suave and for all appearances had the power to pick Delilah up out of the gutter and raise her amongst the stars. She just had to do a little something for him first. He assured her that all the greats had done it, it was nothing to be ashamed of.

They went to a house in the hills. There were a couple bottles of wine, his strong hands in her hair, and then his fingers in her dress straps… He had slipped her something too, so she wasn’t even sure if the flashing bulbs and the man with the camera were actually there or just all in her head. It was like being on the red carpet, only it felt all terribly wrong.

When she awoke, Levalle was gone, along with her dignity. She tried to forget, to put it all behind her, like so many before her. Only, for Delilah, it didn’t end there.

A year later she had picked herself up a little. She wasn’t the star she had set out to be. She was waiting tables, but at least it was in a decent joint and sometimes she’d get to perform in the chorus. She was surviving and no longer swimming with sharks in the shallow pool. But then she got a call from a man calling himself, “Crab.” He said he had pictures of her. The compromising kind. And she would do what he said or the pictures would find themselves in all kinds of inconvenient places, not least of which would be in the hands of her parents back West.

Delilah agreed to do what he said, in exchange for the pictures. Two weeks later she hired me to find Lionel Tucker, and then she shot my office in the diploma, right were my head was in the habit of being.

At least that was the story Delilah was telling me.

I wondered if maybe Lionel was tied up in blackmailing her and she wanted to find him to kill him. Maybe that was justice. Maybe someone else was using Delilah to exact their own justice. I had nothing against that. In this city you made your own justice because it was rear that anyone would make it for you. What I did have something against was being made a fool of. What I cared for even less was being made a fall guy.

It was the kind of thing that made me want to seek some justice of my own.

Kings & Pawns

noircover 2Chapter 11

Keepsakes. They could tell you a lot about a person.

Lionel Tucker was a veritable ruler of a domain. He had several clubs and restaurants, maybe a hundred people in his employ, connections to the mob and sticky fingers in four-and-twenty-odd shady pies. Still, he carried around a lock of hair tied with a ribbon in his breast pocket. The charm was from his first girlfriend, but it was less than a sentimental trinket.

Charlotte Tucker was the one who told me about it. When I went to see her up at that big house on Holland, she wasn’t in too bad shape for a recently made widow. I was surprised how easily she agreed to meet me, and surprised again to see that she was a dark looker of the highest order; raven hair and grey eyes. A startling, dangerous woman, the kind a husband would be afraid to leave home with the gardener around. It didn’t seem to bother Lionel much though.

The lock of hair may have been the key.

See, the keepsake wasn’t a nostalgic memento of a time of innocence, but rather a symbol of the ultimate loss of it. To hear Charlotte tell it, Lionel had once, as a teenager, been madly in love with a pretty blonde. The girl was the honey of the pot and all the boys wanted a dip, but for some unknown reason she had picked Lionel. He had loved that girl, worshipped her. But one day it wasn’t enough. He wanted more. When the girl resisted, Lionel took it. He cut that hair from her head as a trophy afterwards and he kept it with him ever since.

Charlotte looked at me with a cold statuesque quality that I was beginning to see as something trained. “He told me that story,” Mr. Murphy. “He kept that thing on him because it was a reminder that anything he wanted, if it wasn’t given, he’d take it.” The mask slipped for a split second, like a shadow veil drifting down, but she caught it in her glass and restored it with a quick gulp. From the looks of it, it was a game she’d been playing all afternoon. “He was cruel,” she repeated. “I hope he died cruelly.”

She was a lady I would have loved to console, but she looked to be beyond that, so I collected my hat to go. I stopped once before exiting the room. “I’m sorry to ask,” I said, “but did you know about his girlfriend?”

She snared cruelly with a short laugh, “Which one? It was hard to keep track.” Each question and answer was punctuated with a slug of the punch.

“You ever hear of Delilah Ambrosia?”

The stone goddess looked at me blankly, her perfect sharp teeth bared slightly. I left her like that. She didn’t need to say anything. I’d already heard her loud and clear.

Lonely Liars

 Lonely LiarsChapter 12

Love.

It was a four letter word in Lionel Tucker’s book, and he had passed that definition on to his wife, Charlotte. She hated him and was glad he was dead. It made me wonder how a dame like that could get mixed up with a sadist like Tucker in the first place. I wondered about it all the way home, but with Tucker’s money, it wasn’t a long stretch. The stretch was whether she hated him enough to kill him.

My apartment was on the third floor and I had just bounded the stairs, with my keys in hand and a notion of sleep in my head, when I was pulled up short. Delilah Ambrosia stood right next to my front door.

She looked good. Looked at me with more composure than at our last meeting (when she had been crying over the loss of her gun, the one I took from her) and she smiled. Her smile was a little sheepish and it did the trick of softening those perfect lips and high cheekbones enough to suggest there was a person inside all that packaging.

“Hi, Mr. Murphy,” she said, like we were neighbours.

“Ms. Ambrosia.” I proceeded as normal and slid the key into the lock.

“Please,” she said, shy and up close. “Please call me Delilah.”

“Not Julie?” I jabbed gentle.

She lowered her eyes and smiled, “No. Those days are behind me. It’s Delilah now.” She almost looked sad, and I would have felt sorry for her too, if it weren’t for the bullet in my office wall.

“Ok, Delilah,” I conceded. I got the door open and stepped in.

“Could I come in, Mr. Murphy?” she asked.

“You gonna try to shoot me again?” I asked.

She smirked. Yeah, it was our little joke. “No, Mr. Murphy. I won’t shoot at you.”

“Call me Jack then.” I stepped back to let her in, but stopped her once more. “Wait,” this time more playful, “you don’t have a knife on you, do ya?”

She smiled, “No, Mr. Murphy… Jack.”

She arranged herself on the couch and lit up with a funny little gold lighter. I fixed us a couple drinks and we fell to talking, and I found myself liking the kid despite myself. She was a fine actress as it turned out. She wasn’t the hard-jaw that’d first walked into my office, nor the blubbering mess that had tried to cap me, though she had played both roles pretty well. Turns out she was just a girl that life had treated a bit roughly, and like everyone else, she was trying to cover her bruises and conceal her tells. Just trying to survive in the big game of life with the meagre chips she had left.

Before the end of the night she was warm in my arms and I tasted her lips briefly and then she was asleep against my jacket shoulder. My arm grew numb under her, but I didn’t have the heart to wake her. It wasn’t until I woke in the morning, to the sun creeping under the blinds and the dull ache of her memory below the collarbone, that I wondered whether I’d actually met the real Delilah at all. Or whether the girl last night was just another performance.

Murphy’s Law

Murphys lawChapter 13

Murder. It was always an ugly business.

It didn’t matter that my two main suspects in Lionel Tucker’s murder were anything but. There was the smouldering dark wife, Charlotte, and the elusive starlet chameleon, Delilah.

But the wife seemed too direct, too open about her venom towards her husband. To the point where the cops were salivating to press charges. And when something seemed obvious to the cops, I automatically assumed it was otherwise .

Then there was Delilah. I found myself feeling protective towards her. She’d had a rough trip and been used by the type of men I was all too familiar with. I wanted to see her clear of this jam. Problem was, she was a liar and probably had a better footing in this whole mess than I did.

There are some simple rules in this business, rules that I laid down early on myself. One was, you don’t fall for a client. Two, you don’t fall for a suspect. I was on the verge of breaking both rules. Delilah had me balancing on the thin line, despite myself. But could she be trusted?

There were other players and I was intent on tracking them down to sort this mess out. The mysterious “Crab,” the voice on the phone who had prompted Delilah to redecorate my office with lead. Then there was Vincent Lavalle, facilitator to Delilah’s blackmail in the first place. I had asked Delilah the night before for any info she had on the two. She gave me an address for Lavalle, though she said it was an old one and he may not be around any more.

When I walked into my office in the morning there were cops waiting and they didn’t look too happy. It was like they were public lawyers in the office of a lucrative private practitioner. It didn’t quite work the same way, but I didn’t want to spoil their illusions, so I acted more on top of the world than I was. They weren’t interested in my act though.

“Listen, Murphy,” one detective snapped. “All we wanna know is whether you own a .38 Smith and Wesson.”

“That’s a cop’s gun,” I said.

“You suggesting a cop shot Lionel Tucker?” the other detective said, the not-so-sharp one. It was always how they paired them: One sharp. One not-so-sharp.

I shrugged, “There’s an angle to explore.”

“Answer the question,” Sharp snapped.

“No,” I said, while I busied myself opening mail. “I don’t own a .38 Smith and Wesson.”

It was the most interesting mail I ever got. It intrigued me through several repeats of the same question, a lecture about interfering in police business, and the whole time they walked out the door. Once the door closed though, I was all about the safe behind my desk. I opened it up and peeked inside.

It was still there where I had put it. Staring at me accusingly. Delilah Ambrosia’s .38 Special.

Nothing Lasts

nothing lasts 2Chapter 14

Nasty habits.

Vincent Lavalle was a cultivator of them. From petty scams to molestation to shooting H, he collected bad habits like fireflies in a jar. A guy like that was transient, unable to hold down a fixed address, and I wasn’t surprised when the address Delilah gave me turned up empty.

But habits also made a man like that easy to find. I checked around the seedy dens of the neighbourhood and eventually found him in a run down boarding house.

The lock on the door was broken so I just waltzed right in and there he was, slouched on a bare mattress. The dashing man Delilah had described had been worn and frayed away; his skin was blotchy, his moustache scraggly and his eyes dull.

“Vincent Lavalle?” He looked up and it was all the response I got, or needed. Guy was higher than a kangaroo on Empire State. “I hear you sell pictures,” I said genially. “Hear you got some racy ones.”

His head bobbed on his neck, “I ain’t got no painting,” he said.

This guy could be a goldmine.”I didn’t ask about a painting.”

“I  said, I ain’t got it!” he shouted. Then he got suspicious, “Who sent you?”

“Who do you think sent me?”

Suddenly he leapt up and barrelled into me, driving me back out the door and down the short hall. I didn’t see the knife until I had already caught his wrist in my hand, but he was taking me for a ride and I couldn’t see where we were headed. Not until I felt the window ledge and then glass smashed against my back and there was the sickening sensation of falling. But I’d be damned if I was going alone.

Our fall was cut short by the lobby roof, but Vincent fell heavy on top of me. I felt the full weight of him and his arms twist and then I threw him off. I was worried about the blade that had been straining to see my ribs, but  it had decided to change tack.  I rolled Vincent over to see the knife handle sticking out of a bloody patch in his side. Nothing fatal but it didn’t seem that he knew that. I leaned in over him.

“I can either call the doc, or I can let you bleed out here.” I let that sink in. “Now, tell me about the picture.”

He was grimacing. In his addled mind he was dying and that was fine by me. If it meant contrition, I’d administer last rites. “I don’t know nothing, man,” he cried. “Crab… It was a simple pinch… The guy set it up himself.”

“What guy?” I shouted. It was hot out here, my body ached and I was getting impatient.

He gave up the gold.

Limping away along the sidewalk moments later, I was chewing it over like a tough steak. I had known Dominic Hutchinson a long time. Since the war. I had always had him pegged for a good guy.  But I had learned by now that things change, and that all good things come to an end.

Over Kill

Over Kill 2Chapter 15

Old times.

Nostalgia was a bad basis for decisions. Hutchinson had dragged me into a scam, or so it seemed from what Lavalle had said. Not that a junky word of Lavalle’s would hold up in any court. I was in need of a drink, but I had to take care of business first. I was trying to work the pieces. I had a .38 special locked away in my safe, and easy money said it was the same one used to plug Lionel Tucker. I had also been asking around about Lionel prior, so the police knew I had taken an interest in him. I was beginning to take shape as a patsy, courtesy of one Delilah Ambrosia.

But why me?

The answer seemed to be Dominic Hutchinson. He had arranged with the mysterious Mr. Crab to steal a painting. His painting. I was guessing for the insurance money. Either way, something went amiss. Somehow Lionel Tucker was involved and Carl Morella, the fat man from the sewer. Then there was the disappeared cafe owner, Dalton, the last person to be seen with the painting. Hutchinson knew me, so it seemed a good guess that he had brought me into the whole mess. He could have hired Delilah and then hired me himself to divert suspicion. It was all tied together somehow, like a neat bow, about to be pinned around the neck of yours truly.

It didn’t quite figure yet, but I was speeding over to Hutchinson’s with an intent to find answers. The soft way, or the hard way.

I pulled the car right into that big fat driveway and hobbled up to the oversized door. I still ached everywhere. Falling out of a window will do that for you. I was ready to pound that drawbridge to splinters but it was already open. My first thought was that I could slip right in and surprise him.

My second thought was that someone already had.

I pulled my .45 and eased in. It was dark in the hallway but there was a good bit of light coming from the back deck. I made my way about halfway there, down a few steps onto plush carpeting and two steps into the sprawling den when I saw him.

Hutchinson was slumped in a chair slack-jawed, like Morella was in the sewer, bleeding into the carpet like Lionel. And he was just as dead as both of them combined. Someone had really gone to town on him, like they had already asked him the hard way. Harder than I ever could. And from the looks of it, they didn’t like the answers they got.

I got away from Hutchinson’s quick, hoping no one had seen my car and I went back to the office to hide and steady my nerves with a drink. When I got there a note was waiting for me, written in Molly’s neat flowing script that reminded me that somewhere in this world there was still a little light of goodness leaving notes for me. The note said that Charlotte Tucker had called and wanted to see me, tonight at 7:30. If I rushed I could still  make it on time.

I poured myself a drink. She could wait a couple extra minutes.