Authors: Gil Brewer
MY BEAUTIFUL CLIENT had sure dreamed up a nightmare for me. Big Boy wasn’t just another goon—he was a Mack truck wrapped in dynamite. I lay on the ground wondering if all the pieces of me were still on the premises.
Then the sweet oily scent of a .45 filled my nostrils. I turned my head and saw him watching me with cold empty eyes. “How much do they pay you for this?” I asked him when I could finally get my mouth open.
“Enough,” he answered softly, “for this. Next time they’ll have to pay more. I might kill you.”
I was beginning to feel unwanted.
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HE SAT THERE
on the couch and watched me; a sweet, slim, sexy number wearing a white nylon dress and white pumps. Thick auburn hair framed an oval face that faintly hinted of Oriental ancestry, a face I would never forget. She was a year or two younger than I. She stared at me steadily through minutely slanted, tragic dark blue eyes.
Memory had fired old emotions the moment I saw her. She felt it, too, but we both avoided the words. There was the interim before the war, then the war years, and ten years away from the home town, between now and the intense time we’d spent together back in high school. She was the dream you remember in the occasional long dark night when the span of years between then and now is empty of everything but painful regret.
She had called me. I had come to her. Her name was changed, now. She was changed. More lovely in every way.
“I’m in trouble,” she said.
“Tell me about it.”
I listened and remembered.
The world may be harsh and blood-filled; a cynical street, your street. But you’re just a bowl of mush when you remember.
The dark corner of spring. Elms in the wind, dashing warm rain across streetlights.
The first kiss at that party, in somebody’s home. It was in the bedroom, with coats and hats piled on the bed; the smells of wool and felt and fur and perfume. She had asked me to help her find her purse.
The way she stirred when I touched her. How it would be forever.
. That was “our” song.
Once in a While. That Old Feeling. I Can’t Get Started. Indian Summer
The taste of her lips. The way she looked at me.
A thousand torments.
It’s still there. It always will be there. Only you can’t have it, because contradictorily it’s gone forever, too.
I listened to her. Finally she stopped talking.
I said, “You’ve tried to reason with him?”
“I phoned him several times. At first he cursed me. Really bad—worse than I can say. The past few times I called, he won’t answer the phone.”
“Why don’t you just go home yourself, then?”
“I told you—Lee.” She hesitated. “I nearly called you Mr. Baron. Silly, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid to go home,” she said. “That’s why I need your help. The afternoon he caught me with—with the person I told you about, I thought he was going to kill me, he was so mad. I just got away in time. He even chased the car when I drove off. He was like a maniac.” Her eyes were worried. “You’re a stranger to him. If you’ll just talk to him, I feel you could smooth him down.”
“Does he carry a gun?”
“My husband?” She seemed surprised. “No.”
“What was this other ‘person’s’ name?”
“I’d rather keep him out of this.”
“Just one of those things?”
“Yes. It’s all over. It was never really anything. I was bored and unhappy. I’m sorry for what I did. Carl caught us kissing. He’s made much too much of it.”
“Carl is your husband?”
“Yes.” Her expression became earnest. “Will you please help me, Lee?”
I turned and looked out the door of her duplex apartment at the Southern Pines Motel. Rain brightly iced the Florida skies, lanced green palms. My car was across the street, parked in a deep puddle.
“I’ll have to know a few things,” I said.
Her voice was low. “I’ll tell you anything I can.”
I went over and sat in a chair directly in front of the couch.
“When did all this happen, Ivor?” Unlike the way she had nearly used my last name, I could never call her Mrs. Hendrix. Her maiden name had been Heira. “Yesterday?”
“No. Over a month ago.”
I digested that for a moment. She was deeply troubled. She spoke melodically, with carefully broad A’s. Southern-born, she had obviously been further schooled in the North, after I’d known her, maybe at Smith. It was somehow a strange mixture. She had large breasts and she aimed them at you when she talked.
“How did you happen to call me?” I said. “I’ve only been in town six days. I’m not even open for business yet.”
Her eyes widened. “But I thought—your agency was advertised in the classified section of the newspaper.” She nudged her lower lip with even white teeth. “I wanted someone experienced in dealing with people. I felt that in your business, you’d know how to handle a thing like this.” She hesitated. “I do have a little confession to make, Lee. The ad was under your father’s name, James Baron. I didn’t know you worked with him till I talked to you.”
“I never did work with him,” I said. “He died recently. I’ve taken over the business.”
“I’m sorry.” She was no longer eager. “Perhaps this isn’t in your line.”
“Now you’re doubtful,” I said. “As for qualifications, I’m a licensed private investigator, Ivor. Both here and in California. I guess I’ll be here from now on. I was a year with the Mallory and Kartel agency in San Francisco. Before that I was a cop on the force in Chicago. Previously, I pulled several years in Europe with Army Intelligence. Would you care to see credentials?” I grinned at her.
“Oh, no—that’s all right.”
She crossed her legs. She was the type girl who would always have difficulties when it came to crossing legs. Rebellious skirts. The gesture would brighten dark moments with revelations of plump assets that make the heart beat hard.
“Shall we continue?” I said. “Or would you rather call in somebody else? I can recommend….”
I made no comment. I felt faintly stiff with her, as if there were a wispy barrier of time that neither of us could quite break through. She had colored faintly. Very, very lovely. She smiled a faintly embarrassed smile. I wondered if she recalled saying those same words to me long years ago, with a different meaning. The smile made her still lovelier.
“Anything you tell me is strictly between us, Ivor. In case that’s bothering you. Now, can you tell me why you want to return to your husband, after all this?”
She hesitated. “I do want to be truthful,” she said.
“I’m just not sure how I feel about Carl. I don’t know for sure whether I
stick it out with him again, now that all this has happened.” She paused, the eyes very serious. “I do know I can’t just leave him—without clearing things up between us.”
I said nothing.
“We hadn’t been getting along too well,” she said. “But a lot of that was my fault.”
“A month’s a long time on a thing like this. It may be just a question of pride. You won’t go to him, he won’t come to you. He’s probably chewing his nails now, wishing he’d never said anything, hoping you’ll come home. He’d be a fool to think anything else.”
“I’m afraid it’s not like that at all.”
“You’ve been staying here for a month?”
“No. I came back to town five days ago. I’ve been trying to work up courage. Then I had this idea.”
“Where were you?”
“At Carl’s aunt’s. In Orlando.”
“Not with this other—person?”
“No. I thought if I went away, then got in touch with Carl, didn’t let him know where I was—but it didn’t work.”
“The other guy’s no problem?”
“What is the aunt’s name?”
She began to chill. “Haskins. Elizabeth Haskins.”
“She didn’t get in touch with your husband?”
“Absolutely no.” She took a deep breath, uncrossed her legs, and crossed them the other way. There were soft warm silken sounds in the room. She clasped her hands around her knee, watching me. “I just want you to see Carl,” she said. “Act as a sort of intermediary. That’s all.”
“Suppose he won’t intermediate?”
“Well—” Again she colored briefly. “I’ve considered that, too. I thought perhaps you could throw a scare into him—tell him I’m desperate, that I might harm myself. That’s up to you, of course.”
“That wouldn’t be too much trouble, would it?”
“You think it’ll work?”
“He won’t listen to you at all?”
She shook her head. “When he gets mad, it’s awful. He said he’d kill me, if he caught me.”
“Yet you want to go back to him.”
She turned her gaze downward, then looked up at me and half-smiled. “I just don’t know,” she said. “I’ve got to talk with him, Lee.”
“It’s a little out of my line. Who should I tell him I am? Any particular story you want cooked up?”
“No. Tell him the truth.”
It had been a loaded question.
“What about the ‘desperate’ part?”
“Your family still in town?”
She hesitated, tugged her skirt over her knee, let it slide back under her thumb. “Mother and Dad are both gone, Lee. My sister, Asa, still lives here.
married now. You didn’t know him. Elk Crafford.” She thought a moment. “Asa and I don’t get along.”
“Everything helps the picture.”
“Oh,” she said coldly.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s better if I know certain things.”
“I’m sorry. Will you do it for me?”
“I’ll have a try. I won’t promise anything. What is your husband’s work?”
“He isn’t doing anything just now. He and Elk—but that’s not pertinent, really.”
“Where do you live?”
“In a trailer.” There was a shade of bitterness in her tone. “Out in Pine Park. You know where Pine Park is?”
I watched her. “It was a swell place to park and neck, when I was in high school. If I remember right. I suppose it’s changed.”
She looked at the backs of her hands.
I stood up. I didn’t want to leave. “I guess that’s it for now.”
She rose from the couch and looked at me with those eyes. There was the thick auburn hair, and the fine body under the tightly smooth white nylon dress. We were close for the moment and there was perfume, too—so faint and elusive you might go crazy trying to find it again.
“Is fifty dollars enough? I’m afraid I can’t afford more. I know this sort of thing is expensive.”
I felt the blood in my shoulders and head. “You’re my first client since I’ve come home,” I said. “It’s an offbeat thing. I’m not sure I can help you. Let’s just make it a favor, okay?”
I heard myself say that, marveling.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I insist you take the money, Lee. I wouldn’t feel right unless you did.” She turned, stepped over beside the couch, and leaned down in that wonderful way they have of leaning down, and brought up a white cylindrical purse. She unsnapped it, reached in, and handed me a fifty dollar bill.
I looked at it and put it in my pocket.
“I’m terribly impatient, Lee. I’ll be hanging on strings till you let me know.”
She held out her hand. I took it. It was very smooth and soft and cool. Time sprawled headlong back across rocky years. I wanted to say something deeply nostalgic. I said, “You’re sure he’ll be out there? If he’s not, what would you like me to do?”
Her face did not change expression and there was the gentle pressure of her fingers.
“He should be there,” she said. “If he’s not, the key’s on a ledge under the step. You can go inside and wait for him. He never stays away long. I mean, if you would?”
“Well, I wouldn’t do that.”
“I want you to, Lee. It’s my home. You have my permission.”
I held her hand a moment longer, until she turned deftly and opened the door. I went outside. It was still raining and there was something of long-lost summers in the air.
I shrugged into my wet slicker and started down the walk toward the street.
I spotted a telephone booth on the next corner, stopped the car, and called the
. I canceled the agency ad James Baron had kept running in the classified for years. Then I flopped the phone directory up on the shelf again and checked. The Hendrix number was listed under Carl’s name. I dialed and waited.
It rang a few times.
Somebody picked up the phone on the other end, breathing fast and nervous, then quieting.
“Ivor?” a man said. “Ivor—that you?”
“Telephone company,” I said. “Testing. Line down out here. Would you hang up, please?”
He hung up.