Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

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The Man With the Iron-On Badge (22 page)

BOOK: The Man With the Iron-On Badge
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When I walked up to the store, Tom Wade was standing on the porch, looking out at the lake through a pair of binoculars. Betty Lou was wiping the counter with a rag and didn’t see me.

“Is that one of our rowboats out there?” Wade asked.

“I don’t know, Tom,” his wife replied. “Why don’t you go down to the beach and see if any of our boats is missing.”

“I think I’ll do that.” He lowered his binoculars, turned around, and smiled when he saw me. “Well, good morning, Harvey. How about some breakfast?”

“I’m making pancakes,” Betty Lou said.

“It will have to be next time,” I said, setting my key on the counter. “I’m afraid I have an early plane to catch in Spokane.”

“Let me get you a slice of pie for the road,” Betty Lou said, hobbling off into the kitchen. “It will only take a minute …”

“Did you enjoy your stay?” Wade asked me.

“I’ll never forget it,” I replied.

Before I left, I borrowed Wade’s binoculars, stood on the porch, and took a look at the lake. I stared at the little boat floating out on the water and wondered about all those missing anchors.

I wondered if Esme Parkus was really down at the bottom, or if she’d staged her suicide too, so she could try a new life somewhere else. And if she had, I wondered if I could find her and what I’d learn about fate if I did.

I dumped the contents of the trash bag in dumpsters around Spokane and tossed the Rambo knife, my BB gun, and the sledgehammer I never used into the river.

I kept the yearbook, though.

I dropped the Crown Victoria off at the EconoCar outlet at the Spokane airport; then I called Carol and told her I’d be home that afternoon.

She had a lot of questions, and I promised I’d answer them all when I got home. I was still trying to decide if I really would. I wasn’t sure which would make her fall out of love with me faster, the truth about what I’d done to solve the mystery or the lies I’d have to tell to convince her I’d failed.

While I was waiting for my flight, I went to the gift shop and browsed through the selection of paperbacks for something to read on the plane. They had a lot of mysteries there, but none of them interested me. I’d lost my taste for detective stories.

Instead, I spent the three-hour flight to LA flipping back and forth through the yearbook, looking into the eyes of two young women, searching for clues to what happened to them and what might become of me.

I ransomed my car from airport parking and drove home. After driving those big cars up in Washington, my Kia Sephia felt unbearably small and cramped. But I’m not sure the tiny car was entirely to blame for my sudden claustrophobia. I was boxed-in by the stop-and-go, rush hour traffic on the San Diego Freeway and by the inevitability of the questions Carol was going to ask.

Even my own skin felt too tight. Between my cracked head and cracked ribs, it hurt to think and it hurt to breathe.

I tried to do as little of both as I could.

I could have flown halfway back to Seattle in the time it took me to drive from the airport to the Caribbean, but once I got there, I wished the journey had taken a little longer.

Carol’s Toyota Camry was parked in her spot a few spaces down from mine. She’d come home early.

Stalling, I stopped at the mailbox inside the lobby and got my mail. There were a couple bills and a letter from my insurance company. It looked like a check. That was good news.

I stepped into the courtyard and the cloud of chlorine gas emanating from the pool. It was the sweet, toxic smell of home. It felt like I’d been away for years instead of days.

I went up the stairs to my apartment. I opened the door, tossed my gym bag and my mail on the couch, and stood there for a minute, just breathing the stale air and looking at the place. I used to be able to look at the beaten-up couch and the sagging bookcases and think the place felt lived-in. But I didn’t see much of a life there anymore.

I closed the door and walked down to Carol’s apartment. She must have heard me coming, because her door was open and she was standing there, waiting for me.

And suddenly, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had waited for me, the last time anyone wanted to share what I’d felt or experienced.

Seeing her at that moment, I never wanted a woman so much in my life. I took her in my arms and kissed her hungrily. She kissed me back with just as much appetite. She pulled me into her apartment and I kicked the door shut with my foot.

We did it with a ferocity and urgency that approached the kind of thing you see in movies, only we didn’t rip our clothes into shreds, and our lovemaking was frequently interrupted by cries of pain, mostly from me. Maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much if we’d made it to the bed instead of doing it on the floor, and if I was on top instead of her, but we weren’t thinking of comfort, only of slaking our need. And when it was over, about five minutes later, we lay beside each other on the floor, breathing hard, our bodies sticky with sweat and saliva and other stuff.

We lay quietly like that for a while, then she rolled on her side to face me, rested her head on her arm, and said: “Tell me everything.”

So I did, without even thinking about it. I didn’t leave anything out, or dress anything up so she’d still have some respect for me.

I told her about Jolene’s murder, and how I’d cleaned up the crime scene to save myself. I told her how I took pleasure in the beating of the highway robber, and how later I used what I learned on Arlo Pelz. I told her how that helped Cyril drown Arlo and why Cyril did it. And I told her how I cleaned up the cabin and threw away the evidence to save Cyril and myself.

I told her the whole story while looking up at the ceiling and feeling her gaze against the side of my head like a heat lamp. It was hard enough revealing my shortcomings while I was naked; I didn’t want to see the anger, the disappointment, and the disgust on her face while I did it. When I was done, I sat up with a grunt of pain and started to gather up my clothes.

“What are you doing?” Carol asked.

“Going home,” I said, peering under the coffee table for my underwear. “Isn’t that what you want?”

I found a sock, but no underwear.

She sat up and touched my shoulder. “You are home.”

I clutched the sock, and my shirt, to my chest. “What about the things I did?”

“You did some stupid things,” she said. “I’m not happy you did them. So what? You aren’t a perfect person. Neither am I.”

“You’ve never covered up a murder or beat the shit out of somebody when they were defenseless,” I said. “You’ve got to be an idiot, a coward, and an asshole to do that.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But the fact you know you fucked-up, and you recognize you can be an idiot, a coward, and an asshole, goes a long way towards making up for the things you did, at least with me,” she said. “Eventually, I’m going to fuck-up, and you’ll see all of my failings, and you’ll have to decide whether you can live with them, too.”

I turned around and looked at her. I tried to keep my eyes on her face and not her breasts, because it was an important moment in our relationship, but I couldn’t.

“I was planning on lying to you,” I said. “I’m not sure why I didn’t.”

“I think I know,” she said. “And that’s another reason I don’t want you to go. You care about me so much that it’s important to you that I know you as you really are. That kind of honesty isn’t easy. It was a very brave thing you did for me.”

Her words had a big impact on me, and I didn’t want to let her down. I wanted to continue to earn her respect, so I made another admission.

“I’m having a hard time not looking at your breasts.”

“So, look at them.”

“But we’re having an important conversation,” I said. “Doesn’t it piss you off that I can’t stop looking at them?”

“I’m naked; of course you’re looking at them,” she said. “I’m looking at your penis.”

I immediately got up and went into the kitchen for a drink of water. I wasn’t really thirsty, I just needed to hide behind the counter if we were going to continue talking. I’m funny about nudity and certain kinds of conversations. I used to hate it if my shirt happened to be off, or if I was in my underwear, when my parents scolded me about something or when I had an argument with a girlfriend. It embarrassed me. It made me feel more naked than actually being naked, if you can understand that.

Carol apparently had no such hang-ups. She sat there on the floor, showing me her breasts and her crotch as comfortably as if she were wearing clothes. I was envious of her casual indifference to her own nudity.

“You haven’t said anything yet about how I fucked-up the case,” I said.

“Because you didn’t,” she replied.

“Three people are dead and I didn’t bring anyone to justice for it.”

She laughed. “Who do you think you are? Batman?”

It was the second time someone had said that to me since this all started, but it was the first time it made me feel foolish. Of course, when Cyril Parkus said it to me, I wasn’t naked.

“I didn’t accomplish anything,” I said.

“You wanted to find out why Lauren killed herself and make the guy responsible pay for it. You did both.”

“And I let Cyril Parkus get away with murder.”

“So what? Arlo deserved it. To me, that’s justice.”

“Maybe there’s still a way to catch Cyril without getting myself thrown in jail with him.”

“Why would you even want to try?”

“Because Cyril Parkus murdered Arlo Pelz,” I said. “I can’t just let him walk.”

“Why not?”

Because Travis McGee wouldn’t.

Neither would Joe Mannix, Lew Archer, Kinsey Milhone, Dan Tana, or Spenser.

But that’s not what I said.

“Because it’s wrong,” I replied.

“That’s not why,” she said. “Don’t start lying to me now, Harvey.”

At that moment, I hated her for knowing me so well. I don’t know how she did, since I never really talked to her before. Maybe I said more over the years than I thought I did. Maybe I’m just transparent.

“Because a private eye is supposed to solve the crime and catch the bad guys,” I said. “I only did half the job. The bad guy is still out there.”

The truth was, I felt cheated. I solved the mystery but I didn’t get to be a hero. The only people alive who knew what I’d done were Cyril and Carol.

I was hoping for wider acclaim than that.

I was hoping to get a friend on the force.

“The bad guy was Arlo, and he’s dead,” Carol said. “Cyril did a bad thing, but that doesn’t make him the bad guy. He lost his wife once and his sister twice and his life is shit. I have a lot of sympathy for him.”

“This just doesn’t feel right to me,” I said. “It feels unsettled.”

“Welcome to real life,” she said. “You don’t get tidy resolutions. People fuck-up and do terrible things, and if we’re lucky, like we are now, things sort of work out. Not everyone has to feel good about it. In fact, maybe it’s better for everyone if they don’t.”

She was right. I was looking for the TV ending, where the whole case is wrapped up nice and neat, the bad guys are all behind bars, and the PI gets laid.

Well, at least one thing worked out the way it was supposed to.

I came around the counter and let her see me naked again, though I think I will always be naked in front of her.

“So, where do we go from here?” I asked her.

“Wherever you want.”

“You’re looking at my penis.”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “And I think I have a pretty good idea where you’d like to go.”

It was a start.

Chapter Twenty-Five

I
quit my job at Westland Security the next morning. I couldn’t go back to sitting in that guard shack, or any guard shack, again. I had a feeling if I did, it would always remind me of a cabin closet on Big Rock Lake.

I didn’t need the job anyway. If I added up my auto insurance settlement with what I had left from the Parkus job, I had about five thousand dollars. That would hold me for a few months, especially since I didn’t have to buy myself a car right away. Carol was letting me drive her Camry as long as I dropped her off at work promptly at nine
A.M.
and picked her up at six. I think she had an ulterior motive, since the arrangement almost guaranteed I’d be spending my nights with her.

She didn’t need to come up with the car arrangement for that, but I guess she was covering her bases.

The first few days I was back, I mostly lay around my apartment or hers, recuperating from my injuries, and getting used to the idea of being with Carol. I was the wounded bird in this story, though I didn’t have to scrub Carol’s floor or do her laundry.

I tried not to think about all the dead people. Lauren, Jolene, Arlo, even Esme. But they haunted me anyway. In my mind, they were all floating in the murky lake, all of them giving me the look that Lauren gave me before she jumped.

I can’t recall Spenser being haunted by anything except his own splendid competence.

I didn’t have the competence, I knew that. Still, I accomplished something, something more than writing courtesy tickets at Bel Vista Estates, even if I couldn’t point to exactly what it was. And I took some big risks to do it, too.

It pissed me off that I didn’t feel the euphoria and pride I felt I deserved for solving my first case and surviving.

The only thing I felt was different.

I know that’s not very specific, just saying different. But I knew I was not the same guy I was a couple weeks ago and that I never would be again.

So, who was I now? What was I going to do?

Those were questions I’d managed to avoid my entire life and I had a feeling that keeping Carol around, and continuing to enjoy all this sex I was getting, had a lot to do with not avoiding them now.

Although my experience as a detective wasn’t as much fun as I’d dreamed it would be, and I couldn’t exactly use Cyril Parkus as a reference for future work, I still thought I had a certain affinity for the job. It might even live up to my expectations next time, assuming I could snag another gig. So, I started looking into what it would take to go legit, to become a licensed private detective.

BOOK: The Man With the Iron-On Badge
11.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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