Authors: Edward Gorman
Tags: #Mystery & Crime, #Suspense
Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press
Â© 2012 /
Copy-edited by: Patricia Lee Macomber
Cover Design By: David Dodd
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For my wife Carol, abiding love.
Night, the shadow of light, And life, the shadow of death.
-ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE
spent two hours that rainy Tuesday morning
honoring my boss's request to explain to a chunky twenty-two-year-old Chicano kid named Diaz why he'd get canned if he ever again used the choke hold on anybody.
He was shoplifting, man,
Not exactly the same as shooting or raping somebody."
"He looked dangerous."
"He's forty-three years old and he gets early social security
because he shakes so bad from injuries he picked up in Nam. I saw him, Diaz. The poor bastard's barely alive. He shoplifts because the boys in Washington cut vets' benefits. And in his present condition, he couldn't whip Madonna.
I lost it then, just a bit.
We're rent-a-cops, Diaz. We're not mercenaries or whatever those guys are in those magazines you read. You understand?"
Diaz has an annoying habit of snuffling phlegm up in his throat, then expectorating it into his empty Styrofoam coffee cup. I have to wait a few hours afterward before I can even think about eating again. He did it now and he kept his eyes on me all the time he was doing it. "I ain't gonna get wasted because of some weirdo creep, man. The boss don't let us carry iron, then he shouldn't have no objections when we use some force."
Carry iron. Inside his head, Diaz, like too many other rent-a-cops who can't get jobs as real policemen, lives out scenes from grade-B action movies. Carry iron. How about just saying "go armed"? But Charles Bronson would never put it that way, now would he? "Sometimes you have to use force, but not on somebody who's barely alive, and not the choke hold. Unless it's life and death, and it's rarely life and death."
He wiped his hands on the front of his uniform shirt. The American Security uniform is light blue with dark blue epaulets and fine gold buttons. It makes us look like cops who moonlight as bus drivers.
"I put up with this shit for minimum wage, man,
Diaz said. He might have been nice-looking if he lost twenty-five pounds and did something about his zits and smiled. I'd seen him smile only once in the three months he'd worked here. That was the time Hanrahan, another rent-a-cop, told about the time he'd busted a shoplifter's arm. Hanrahan and Diaz swapped issues of mercenary magazines. Diaz, inhaling a Winston, said now, "I should at least be able to have a little fun."
He knew he'd really get me going with that one and I was all ready to let go, but then the
the small back room with the Pepsi machine and the sandwich machine and the trash barrel that gets emptied only when the well-fed cockroaches join hands and start dancing around it. Poker gets played a lot back there, and according to legend, a very beautiful rent-a-cop named Stephanie did it with a rent-a-cop named Ken right on the table. To me that tale sounds like something out of one of Diaz's magazines.
"Dwyer?" Bobby Lee said.
Somebody here to see you."
wait a bit?"
"It isn't a he. It's a she." She explained this with a modest hint of disapproval. She and Donna have become good friends, and when Donna's not around, Bobby Lee acts as her surrogate home-room monitor.
She. She give her name?"
"Yes. Karen Lane."
So there you have it.
I'm standing here in my para-bus driver uniform, forty-four years of age, ten pounds overweight, spending part of my time cuffing shoplifters and the other picking up small bits as an actor of dubious talent, not exactly what you'd call the American success story, and Karen Lane comes back into my life.
Twenty-five years ago Karen Lane, who then bore an unnerving resemblance to Natalie Wood, had broken not only my heart but my bank account. Even though we were both from the same poor neighborhood, the Highlands, Karen had early on gotten used to the pleasures to be had merely by smiling. Rich boys had been lining up for her ever since she'd first strolled onto a playground; I had never been sure how I'd gotten in that line, even if it had been only for a few months.
The odd thing was that no matter how many years passed, the stray thought came back once or twice a year that someday I'd run into her again, though of course in a lurid soap-opera fashion. I'd be an established actor by then and Karen would be this smiled-out hag with six kids and a husband who beat her as often as he had the strength left over from his job in the coal mines.
So there you have it.
She doesn't have the grace to wait till you're living in Hollywood and hanging around with Jimmy Garner and Bob Redford, uh-uh, she comes back some rainy Tuesday morning when you're chewing out some fleshy bullyboy who enjoys choking some poor vet who has to resort to stealing because he's broke.
"You look weird, man," Diaz said.
"Weird. Your face."
He nodded to the intercom. 'This lady, this Karen Lane broad, she must be special, huh?"
Not the way you mean."
I shrugged. "Used to be. Maybe she's changed."
"I knew a bitch once." He made a fist. Showed it to me the way most men would show you pictures of their babies. "She answered to Papa."
He always called his fist Papa.
"Diaz," I said, but what was the use?
"I know your situation."
"Your home situation, asshole."
Your mother couldn't get by without your paycheck. And this would be the third job you've lost in six months. So cool
it with the John
Wayne crap, all right?"
I was starting to feel sorry for himâhis life wasn't without frustration, he had six brothers and sisters still of school age, and a mother too haggard to work and a father who had died of heart disease three months agoâbut it was dangerous to feel sorry for Diaz because he'd kill you with your pity. He'd put you to the wall with your pity.
I said, "You get the impulse to put the choke hold on somebody, try to think of your mother, okay?"
"What you think I am, man, some kind of fruit?"
I sighed and shook my head.
He picked up his Styrofoam coffee and snuffled some phlegm into it. Then he held the cup out to me. "You thirsty, man?"
On the way down the hall, Robbins, the boss, stopped me. He's a big man, six-five, and the proud possessor of the world's largest collection of clip-on neckties. "Holy moley, Dwyer." He still says that. Holy moley.
He smiled. He'd just gotten a haircut and there were white wiry flecks of hair all over his shoulders. He smelled of the kind of sweet hair tonic my father's barber had always used on all the working guys. Sweet enough to kill a chocolate urge. "Oh, yeah." Real casual like.
He jabbed at my chest with a plump finger. "Donna's gonna kick your ass when she finds out."
"Robbins, honest, I haven't seen this woman in twenty-five years."
"Right," he said and winked. He had a wink like my uncle Phil, whom I once saw trying to peek in the women's john at a family reunion. He winked because he likes me and considers us friends, and I like him fine and I consider him a friend, too, if only because we are the only people in the agency who've actually been real cops. "You should keep me filled in on this stuff, Dwyer." Then he put a Tiparillo in his mouth and strolled off down the hail to his office.
All his talk about how good-looking Karen Lane was caused me to lean into the john, grind a comb through hair getting steely with gray, and make sure my teeth didn't have samples of my breakfast still stuck in the cracks. I stood there and looked at myself and then shrugged. I wasn't magically going to get any better looking.
So I went out to the lobby where Robbins, for reasons I've never actually understood, has arrayed blown-up black-and-white photos of criminals ranging from Jesse James to a guy he calls Lefty Dalwoski, who, he claims, was such a despicable bastard that he not only shot a nun but shot her in the back. "Christ," he always said, "at least if he'd shot her in the front, she'd have had a chance." What chance? To draw her Magnum? What order of nuns go armedâthe Sisters of the Holy Luger?