Authors: Loren D. Estleman
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
Mr. Charm. He had twitched his moustache at me twice and called me a cut-rate gumshoe.
I went behind the desk. Light filtered down through frosted panels in the ceiling, but there was a gooseneck lamp on the desk as well, switched off. The bulb was cold. I switched it on, using my handkerchief now. His calendar was full to the end of the month, appointments inked in in a neat block hand like architects use. His last appointment for that day had been with the initials A. G. at noon, shortly before I’d met him. There were no cross-outs, no pages missing. No one had ever left this world more neatly. I asked Lester about A. G.
“That’d be Mr. Gordenier, the owner.” He still sounded out of breath.
There were scratches around the lock of the safe. They could have been brand-new or years old. You just can’t tell unless they’ve been exposed to the elements. I tugged at the handle. Locked.
“He’s the only one had the combination,” said Lester.
“Maybe he forgot it sometime. When did you see him last?”
“Just after you left. I give him today’s license numbers. That’s them there on the board.”
The top sheet on the clipboard attached to the wall contained a double row of letters and numbers written in a slashing hand, with the day’s date and
. scrawled at the top. There were other lists for
. and noon. I paged back further. There were two sets of three for each day. Both sets were seldom in the same hand; two sets, two shifts. At length I wrapped my hand and lifted the board off its hook. Setting it on the desk I pried up the clip and took them all out and shuffled through the cheap drugstore typing stock. A torn corner drifted out. I asked Lester if he had worked the night of February tenth.
He stroked his crescent of dark beard. “Night before last, yeah. Pulled two shifts.”
“You turned in three lists that night?”
“Every night I’m on.”
I handed him the triangle of paper. “Eight o’clock’s missing.”
“It doesn’t take that long to unclip it. Somebody was in a hurry.”
I was looking at him. He stood there holding the torn corner, which was blank on both sides. “Ain’t that the night you axed about before?”
“Yeah. I don’t guess you make copies.”
“Job don’t pay that much.”
“Hey, I didn’t take it.”
“The ante just got upped.”
His face went wooden. “Fuck you, Jack.”
I didn’t say anything. He took my two five-dollar bills out of his pocket and threw them on the floor at my feet and reached for the door.
“Take it easy,” I said. “It isn’t like you called me ahead of the cops to discuss ethics.”
He hung there with his hand on the knob. I picked up the bills and held them out. After a moment he took them.
I put the lists back in order and clipped them and rehung the board. Then I switched off the lamp. “Call the police. Don’t tell them about the missing list. They’ll find out about it in their own time. Leave me clear of it. You never saw me.”
He was contemplating the bills, stroking his beard. It didn’t mean anything; they were just something to look at. I held out a fifty. He contemplated that.
“I didn’t take nothing.”
“I believe you. You’re too smart to monkey with a murder scene just for a couple of dollars. I had to throw it at you and see if you ducked.”
“They lean, I talk,” he said. “I got a record.”
“They said I stole a car.”
“They won’t lean that hard. No car thief did this. The fifty’s for making them work.”
He took it and reached for the telephone. I caught his wrist. “Call from the lobby. All they did was arrest you for a felony. You don’t want to be around when they get mad.”
“I used that phone to call you.”
I let go of him and used the handkerchief on the receiver and buttons. He said, “They’ll wonder how come it’s clean.”
“Not long. Nobody’s gone down for prints since the Lindbergh kidnapping.”
He went out. I gave him a minute to get down the hall, then went back to Mr. Charm and rummaged inside his coat until I found his slim gray notebook, which I pocketed without opening. Before I left him I picked up a tiny glittering something from the carpet next to his body. It was in shadow from every angle unless you squatted to examine the knife, and I didn’t think Lester had done that. In that position it was hard to miss. You don’t see that many gold unicorn pins with diamonds for horns. I had seen only one.
OR THE SECOND TIME
I made a call from the telephone at the service station on Tireman. The snow had stopped at five inches and I was standing up to my ankles in someone else’s footprints. Just as someone answered, a big party in an arctic cap climbed into a pickup parked by the pumps and turned over the engine with the grinding squeal of a broken starter. I turned my back on the noise and asked for Iris. The pin felt heavy in my pocket.
“Can you receive visitors?” I asked when she came on.
“It’s not the House of Corrections,” she said. “Did you find my father?”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.” The pickup still hadn’t started when I pegged the receiver. It sounded like a pig passing a pineapple.
Prostitution rehabilitation centers were out of my experience. I don’t know what I expected this one to be like. An old hotel, maybe, or a converted warehouse with a living room setup and a lot of former working girls sitting around in clean cotton shifts with their hair up, reading Bibles. What I found was a middle-size frame house on St. Antoine with cheery yellow siding and flower boxes heaped with snow under the front windows. The bell brought a small short-haired woman in her late thirties, with bright eyes and quick movements that reminded me of a hamster.
“Iris’ friend, yes. I’m Mary M.” She stuck out a hand and I took it. It was like shaking hands with a small steam wrench.
I stamped snow off my shoes and stepped inside. “What’s the M for, Magdalen?”
“Micheljansky. Iris said you were direct. I’ll get her.”
She pointed me toward an open door off a hallway papered in flowers and hung with photographs of sunsets and took off down it with backless slippers slapping her bare heels. She had on a dragon-red quilted housecoat with white piping and a long blue lacy nightgown under it. The time was almost midnight.
It was clearly a waiting room, only more personal than most. It had an expensive bordered rug and upholstered armchairs and a television set and a glass-topped end table holding up a lamp and some magazines. A blonde in a pink cashmere sweater and white jeans sat curled up in one of the chairs, holding an open book in her lap. Her hair was very light, almost white, and waved back gently from a sweet round face without make-up. She might have been twenty.
I took the chair on the other side of the end table. “I’ll guess.
Valley of the Dolls
.” She smiled without looking up from the book.
“That’s a lot of reading this late.”
“I’m not used to sleeping at night.”
That was it for conversation. It was forced on my part anyway. After that I sat there waiting and listening to her turn pages. I wanted a cigarette, but there were no ashtrays, which nowadays is supposed to mean something.
“You wouldn’t say on the phone if you’d found him.”
I looked up. She was wearing a black-and-white-checked blouse tucked into black parachute pants and white half-heel boots that zipped up the sides. Her hair was the way she’d worn it to my office that afternoon. I stood. She saw the blonde and said, “Sara, can we have the room?”
Sara got up and tucked the book under her arm. She was barefoot; her toenails were painted coral. “Another five minutes and I might’ve been back in business.” She smiled at me.
Iris said, “No, you’d be out of business.”
“It’s like that?”
“No, it isn’t.”
It was too much for Sara. She left.
“That your type now?” Iris asked.
“To bounce on my knee and tell clean stories to.” I found the door and closed it. “I didn’t find him. It’s about the man who left your mash note.”
“You could have left the door open. Mary knows.”
“Not all of it.”
She sat down then in the chair Sara had been using. I remained standing and unbuttoned my coat. The room was warm. “You reported the break-in to a Mr. Charm?”
“Yes. The name’s appropriate.”
“To a point. He called me a name and offered to bend my license.”
“Not an obscene name. Not Mr. Charm.”
“Depends on your definition of obscene, but I didn’t start blubbering until he was out of earshot. There’s a kid who works at the motel, Lester Hamilton. Maybe you talked to him. Black, goatee, wears his hair like Jimmy Hoffa?”
“I don’t think so. The clerk was white.”
“Not important. Lester’s part of the security, keeps tabs on the cars with plates that aren’t in the register. I slipped him ten bucks to check the list for the night you were broken into.”
“Bet Mr. Charm won’t like it.”
“He wasn’t doing any complaining when I saw him a little while ago.”
She picked up on that. Her face went stiff as dark marble. “He’s dead?”
I lit a cigarette and to hell with the no ashtrays. I deposited the match on top of last week’s
“Somebody put a jackknife where it would do the most good. He didn’t take a lot of time finding the right place. In Charm’s office. Sometime today between say three and seven. I was there at ten-thirty and it would take at least that long for a body to get cold in a warm room, but not long enough to get stiff.”
“Who did it, this Lester?”
“I considered it for about a second and a half. Not for the fifty I gave him to keep me out of it—you too, though I didn’t mention you—and if there was something else between them it’s not our business. Besides, he called me. Anyone who knows as much about how to knife a man as the one who did Charm also knows that the guy who reports finding the body is always the first suspect. Also I like Lester. But then I’ve liked killers before.”
“Why’d you pay him? I’m clean with the cops.”
I tipped some ash onto Richard Chamberlain’s forehead and let the opening go past. “This list I asked Lester to get for me was missing from Charm’s office, torn off the clipboard in a hurry. I tumbled to the fact that there was a list because I saw Lester making one, but the practice isn’t uncommon. Whoever left that drawing in your jewelry box might have thought of it later. Professionals make mistakes sometimes. That’s why we fry one every half-century or so.
“What I can’t figure is why kill him at all. It’s a lot of trouble to go to just to bury a piece of paper that’s less than evidence, and of a petty B-and-E to boot. And if our man wanted to drop bodies he’d have started with you instead of drawing skulls and crossbones and shooting innocent automobiles.”
“Maybe it was something else like you said.”
“Then why steal the list?”
“Maybe the person who killed Charm isn’t the same person who took it.”
“Maybe. I hate that kind of clutter.”
“I see. You want a tidy murder.”
It seemed as good a time as any. I took the pin out of my wallet and put it down on the end table with a click. The diamond horn threw off colors under the lamp. “Where were you today between three and seven?”
“Where’d—” She reached automatically for the pin, then withdrew her hand and dropped it in her lap. She curled the other one around it.
“He was almost lying on top of it. Were you with anyone?”
“I was here. Just a minute.” She got up and left the room. I extinguished the cigarette in Richard Chamberlain’s beard and lit another and smoked that and she came back in. “It’s gone.”
“I didn’t lose it in Charm’s office. You know that.” She was glaring.
“I don’t know anything like it. It’s not a question of types. We’re all killers. The luckiest of us live and die without getting a chance to prove it. Who could have taken it?”
“I don’t know. There are no locks on our doors. Mary says they’re an encouragement for some of the girls to lock themselves in and carve up their wrists. Amos, I didn’t kill him.”
“Of course not. It was a pro job and unless there was something more going on than an argument over whether or not your room was burglarized it didn’t fit you. Someone wants to scare you back to Jamaica. He’s graduated from breaking and entering and property damage to murder and framing, and whoever he is he’s been here within the past twenty-four hours. When were you out of your room?”
“Several times. The longest was when I went to see you this afternoon.”
“No. Mary’s family. Nobody’s going to run me out of her place.”
“I can’t swing police protection. I don’t have that kind of drag.”
“I wouldn’t want it if you could. I saw enough of cops when I was working.” She smiled. “A cop who is not a cop is what I want.”
I didn’t smile back. “Somebody’s scared. You’re scaring somebody. Scared people with knives and guns scare me. What makes you so frightening?”
“I’ve gone over it and over it. I can’t come up with anything.”
“What about that list of johns I asked you to make out?”
“I started to. It’s all first names. I can’t even put faces to most of them.”
“Keep working.” I buttoned my overcoat and picked up my hat. “Stay inside as much as you can. Send out for whatever you need, or call me. I’m standing on some evidence to keep the cops off you, so don’t worry about them. I’ll check in.”
She picked up her pin, looked it over on both sides, and put it in one of her pants pockets. “I wish I was paying you.”
“I’m flush. It’s been a busy winter.”
“Yeah, you look it.”
We stood listening to the quiet in the room, growing quiet with it. After a long time she took a step toward me and then two more fast and then we kissed.
“Find my father,” she said when we came up.
Mary M was in the hall. Iris told her good night and rustled off down it toward the back of the house. A door closed. Mary M regarded me brightly. “Mr. Walker. I thought you’d gone.”