The Deadline (Extra-Spicy Detective Stories, Issue 32, January 4, 1934)
I love detective pulp fiction so very, very much. I also like gay porn. Mashing the two together was like getting my gats in my peanut butter.
Warnings: porn, violence, sleaze, dated attitudes, also it's fuckin' noir
What is it the pulps always say? It started with a dame.
God-damned pulps. Ruined my life. Fresh out of the war, barely twenty, looking for something to do and thinking that those private eyes in the pulps were awfully swell. Well. They were. On pulp stock. In real life the gig stank, and by the time McCrae came around looking for a PI who could maybe let a few things slide, I didn't have a damn left to give. Sure, he took care of me well enough while I dug up his dirt and did his slightly-soiled work, but a couple of months ago McCrae caught himself a bullet and died of it. Left me out in the cold, and stinking of poison, to boot. I had a rep as being one of McCrae's crooked little pets. I was legit, but just barely, and I sure as hell wasn't clean, and nobody would touch me unless they were cheap, or desperate, or both. What little I still made from divorce work and the occasional missing-persons case wasn't enough. I was living out of the back room of my office in a sleazy building just barely on the right side of the tracks, and I needed to trip over a cheating husband soon or I'd lose that, too, and then it would have been just me, and the gutter, and the bottle, like it was for a million other poor guys out there right now. The end of the war nearly killed Seattle, and then the Depression nearly killed it all over again. It was a hard place to be in those days. Still, I stayed. I didn't have anywhere else to go.
What I'm trying to say is that it started with a dame and with desperation, and nothing that starts that way can end well.
She looked like she'd skin me alive for calling her a 'dame', in any case. Agatha Danvers: I knew her to nod to. She worked for the photography studio down the hall from my office, den-mothering the packs of hard-eyed gum-chewing girls who hustled in and out at all hours, making my life a little more interesting. She'd seen forty from the back end, though, and she'd given up on a lot of things. She wore a pantsuit that would have made Marlene Dietrich look unappetizing and made her look like a brick painted powder-blue; the frilly flowered blouse underneath the jacket was an insufficient apology. She had her hair chopped off severely at her jaw and wore a slash of red lipstick as her sole concession to makeup. On that face, with that expression, she might as well have used the lipstick to write 'hell with you' on her cheek.
"I want you to find my kid brother and drag him back home," Agatha said, lowering herself into the other chair, suspiciously, like I might have rigged it to collapse. Her voice was all right, roughened and husky. Too little, too late. "You're a useless son-of-a-bitch just like every other man I ever met, probably, but maybe you'll do better than some know-nothing cop."
"Keep up the sweet talk," I said. It's hard to keep your voice dry when you're trying not to salivate. A missing-persons case meant one more month's rent, which meant another sliver of fingernail dug into the edge of the abyss.
Agatha snorted. "Nuts to you," she said. "You going to be a gentleman or what?"
Matter of fact, I hadn't been planning to be. The ten soldiers left in this pack of Luckies were all I had to last me the week. Still, if she was good for the retainer, a whole lot of little problems like that one would go away, so I sighed and fished the pack out of my shirt pocket. I tapped out one for each of us. "Tell me about your brother," I said.
She paused long enough to light hers on the desk lighter. Unwilling to wait, I fished a match out of my pocket. The smoke rolled over me like a caress and suddenly the world looked a little smoother. "His name's Tommy," Agatha said, glaring at the wall behind me while she jetted smoke from her nostrils. "My half-brother, actually. Thomas Danvers." She clammed up again.
"Uh huh," I said. "Father remarried?"
"Yeah, and long after my ma died, so don't go getting any ideas." Agatha pointed the ember of her cigarette at me. "Tommy's a lot younger than me. Younger than you, even. Twenty-eight this year. Cute kid."
"Got a picture?"
"What do you think?" Agatha sneered at the wall.
I gave this due consideration while I worked my Lucky down. "I think you work in a photography studio, Agatha."
"Well, God damn," said Agatha. She skimmed a picture across the desk at me. "Guess you've got half a brain in there after all, shamus."
I picked up the headshot and studied it. Thomas Danvers was a cute kid, with a head of light-colored hair, dark eyes, and a little smirk so sharp that it was nearly a 'v' on his face. The hat he was wearing looked too cheap for the nice tweed jacket he had on beneath it. "Models for you?"
"Hats," Agatha said in agreement. "He's too thin for clothing work. Not enough shoulder on him."
"Right." I flicked ash off the end of my cigarette. "Tell me about him."
"Thinks he's cute," she said. "Runs with a bad crowd, always needs money. I give him some every Friday and every Wednesday he's on the phone begging for an advance." Agatha wrinkled up her puss like she was about to spit on my floor. "He didn't show up last Friday. Didn't call me this Wednesday. Didn't show up today, either. I went and knocked at his place and no one answered."
I frowned. A kid skips out on his meal ticket like that, it's never good. "He have any other income?"
Agatha shrugged one meaty shoulder. "I get him work when I can. He's good for hats, hair pomade, that kind of stuff. Anything else..." She hesitated. "I don't know about it."
"Yeah. Like I said, he runs with a bad crowd. I'd smack him one if I knew he was into anything crooked, but he'd think he was smart enough to get away with it."
"That's the second time you've mentioned this 'bad crowd'," I said. "What's so bad about them?"
Her lips twisted further, writhing like red-painted worms. "Party girls," she said. "Slick boys, gigolos, perverts. Fairies."
"Yeah?" I said, keeping my voice neutral. "Fairies, huh? Never did trust that Tinkerbell, myself."
She didn't bristle, which was interesting. "Their kind is always crooked," she said. "Maybe they don't go out of their way to be, but they're bent one way already, it's not so hard for them to bend another."
"Nice to know that the milk of human kindness still flows so freely," I said. "You know for a fact that his friends are crooks, or you just assuming?"
Agatha snorted and ground out her cigarette. "Maybe I don't know at that," she said. "Why don't you get off your ass and ask around? Maybe then you can tell me if any of Tommy's little friends are any better than they ought to be."
I teased one last drag off my own cigarette, then ground it out in the ashtray next to hers. I'd pick the butts apart later, when no one was around to see me do it. "Thirty as a retainer, to start," I said. "Five a day after that. Plus expenses."
"Nuts to that," she said with alacrity. "Twenty to start and four a day after, and you clear your expenses with me first before you go running up my tab."
"Twenty-five and four."
"Done," she said. She fished around in her powder-blue jacket and passed me a folded sheet of paper. "Address, phone number, as many of his little friends as I know, and a couple of places he likes to go," she said. "You find him, you bring him to me. He doesn't want to come, you bring him anyway."
I picked up the paper and read down it, frowning at Agatha's cramped and stilted hand. "Smacks of kidnapping. Guess you don't want the cops in on this."
Agatha was silent, looking at me narrowly. "Twenty-five and five," she finally said, "and you keep this quiet. If he's done something stupid, you tell him that I'll fix his ride out of townbut you bring him to me."
I shouldn't have taken it. Any other time, I wouldn't have, or so I like to tell myself. But I was doing business out of the front room of my office, where in better times a secretary would have sat, and living in the back room, sleeping on a war-surplus cot and heating up cans of soup on a hot plate, and I was barely hanging on to even that"Let me type you up a contract," I said, pulling open one of the desk's lower drawers.
Thomas Danvers' last known address was a room in a run-down hotel just a couple of blocks south of a decent neighborhood. You saw the address on paper, like I did, you thought nothing of it, but then you went down the hill and you found yourself crossing Yesler Waythe Deadlineand things started looking wrong almost immediately. Skid Road, they called that area. The Tenderloin. Wappyville, back in the day. It used to be a ripsnorting place where the law didn't go; now it was a gray and hopeless slum with a Hooverville growing on its backside like a wart. Other parts of the Road, you got kids on the street, you got people sitting out on the stoops, you got, in short, life. Tommy's part was a ghost town at nine in the morning. Not even a stray dog to give the place a little atmosphere. It wasn't even raining yet, although the clouds were starting to mass in the south.
Just having something to do, having a real job again, kicked me right out of the doldrums that I'd been in for weeks. I let myself into the lobby. Everything was quiet. Something about the building felt heavy, like everyone was home to press it down into the soilif it hadn't been for the sunlight filtering bravely in through the filthy glass of the doors, I would have thought it was midnight. The area past the Deadline had always been a nighttime kind of town.
The front desk was deserted. A voice came from the manager's office, some guy with a perpetual whine abusing the telephone. I went right past and skipped the elevators, heading up the stairs instead.
That heavy feeling persisted on the third floor. Every door I passed had the weight of its occupant behind it, but things were quiet nonetheless. It was almost a relief to get down to 312 and feel its comparative lightness, even though it meant that this job wasn't going to be as simple as that. There was no one behind that door, awake or asleep. I thumped a couple of times just to be safe, waited for a few minutes, then slipped a butter knife out of my pocket and cracked the cheap lock, letting myself in.
312 had been cleaned out. The shabby bed and bureau stood alone and forlorn on the crusty rug. The mattress was bare, the drawers empty, the bathroom stripped straight down. No one lived here any more, but at least they'd left quietly. Properly. Tommy had had time to pack his things and tote them away, and like a good boy he'd left the room the way he found it.
The wastebasket was empty. The closet, too. I spent five more minutes looking the place over and called it a wash. I let myself back out and locked the door behind me, out of the goodness of my heart.
The whiny guy had gotten off the telephone by the time I got back downstairs. For lack of anything better to do he was giving me the stink-eye over the front desk, so naturally I strolled over there to get acquainted. "Marcus Immanuel," I said, flashing my license. "I'm looking for Thomas Danvers."
"Moved out last week," he said.
"Yeah? When last week?"
"I dunno." His smirk was sickly. One pale hand flopped to the counter like a dead fish, palm up. "Memory's not so good these days."
"That's a damn shame and I'm sorry to hear it," I said, ignoring the hand. "Good thing you keep a register, huh? Like the hotel association requires you to?"
Whiny's smirk wobbled and then fell right off his face. Sullenly he fished last week's register out from under the counter, shoveling slowly through the pages like they weighed a thousand pounds apiece. "Week ago Thursday," he finally reported. "Paid up and everything."
That matched up with what Agatha had told me, at least to a point. Whiny moved to put the register away and I put my hand on it, stopping him. "He leave a forwarding address?"
"Dunno." Belligerent now. "What's it to you?"
No help for it. I fished a dollar bill out of my jacket and laid it on the register. Whiny stared at it until I added another one, then pulled a memo pad out from under the counter and scribbled something on it. "Pleasure doing business," he said, closing the register on my dollar bills and putting the whole thing away.
"It is, isn't it?" I said, looking at the address. Everything to go to another hotel room, in a different flophouse, care of one Evangeline McKenna. I touched the brim of my hat in salute.
I let myself back out and trudged through those ghost-town streets, further on into the Road. I didn't have far to go: Evangeline McKenna's hotel was only a couple of blocks up the hill. Same neighborhood, same deserted streets. I couldn't really see the reason for the move. The new place was a little nicer, sure, but not that much nicer. No accounting for taste, I guess. I found my way in just as the rain started to fall.
The little number working the front desk thought she was awfully cute. Trouble was, she was right, if you liked them hard-bitten with their bottle-blonde hair piled untidily on the tops of their heads. She looked at me over a pair of little half-moon glasses. I showed her my card. "I'm looking for a guy named Thomas Danvers," I said.
"Well, he don't live here," said the little number, popping her gum.
"Yeah?" I said, leaning on the counter, trying to put a little shine on her. "Now how do you know that, when you didn't even check the register?"
"Can'tcha read?" she asked, snidely. "Din'tcha see the sign? This is a ladies' hotel. Gentlemen only during visiting hours, and then only in the lobby and radio room."
I glanced over my shoulder. The neon sign in the window was backwards and half-burnt-out, but now that I knew what to look for I could make out the letters 'L DIE O Y'. "Guess that answers that," I said, straightening up and putting my hat back on. "So what's your name?"
"Mabel," the little number said. "What's it to ya?"
"It's what it is to you, Mabel," I said, trying for a winning smile. "See, I got the itch to go upstairs for thirty seconds and knock on a door."
She shook her head, her piled-up blonde curls trembling. "Nuh-uh. No can do, mister. You wanna see a girl about a dog, I gotta call up and let her know you're here. She wants to see ya? She'll come down."
"You sure?" I asked, letting my hand fall to my wallet, in my back pocket. "Any way I could change your mind?"
"Nope, not for all the money in China." Mabel sniffed, unimpressed. "Which you ain't got to begin with, looking at you."
I let my hand drop again. "Well, all right, if that's the way you gotta be about it, Mabel."
"That's the way," Mabel said. She shifted on her pins and huffed out an irritated breath through her nostrils. "Why don't you scram? You're makin' me nervous."
I scrammed. It's not good to make girls like Mabel nervous. If you don't get a hatpin stuck in your ear, you get her boyfriends jumping you in alleyways. I hadn't peed blood in a while and I'd gotten to like it like that. I scrammed, all rightand then I went around to the alley and let myself in through the back door. It wasn't even locked. Some ladies' hotel. Welcome to the Road.
Evangeline McKenna lived on the second floor. I don't know what I was expecting from a ladies' hotelsilk stockings on the banisters? giggling sweethearts in shortie pajamas having a pillow fight?but the reality looked about the same as Tommy's place. About half the rooms had that heavy 'occupied' feeling, including the one I was after. I rolled one shoulder to settle my jacket and knocked. A couple of minutes later, I knocked again.
The heavy feeling didn't change, but everything behind the door was quiet. I was so busy frowning at that that I didn't hear the door opposite swing open. "You're wasting your time," a dulcet voice said from behind me. "Evangeline never answers the door before three in the afternoon."
Startled, I revolved. The redhead leaning against the doorframe was everything that Mabel wasn't: soft, pretty, and hinting at a sleek shape under the folds of her robe. Her strawberry-blonde hair tumbled into her eyes, which were green and looked sleepy. I cleared my throat. "Think I'd have more luck if I knocked louder?"
"Evangeline wears earplugs to bed," said the redhead, with a little smile. "All you'd be doing is keeping me from my beauty sleep."
"Lady, I have never seen anyone less in need of beauty sleep in my life," I said. "But all the same, I'll stop bothering you."
Seattle's prettiest redhead favored me with a sleepy little smile. "Aren't you sweet," she said, and then she waggled her fingers at me and quietly shut her door.
Stymied, at least for now, I let myself back out of the back door and went looking for a lunch counter. I was in the green all of a sudden, and so sick of tinned soup that I could have screamed, and a decent meal with actual meat in it sounded like a little slice of heaven. Two slices, you threw in the coffee. I found a place that didn't look too dirty and settled in.
I took my own sweet time over that meal. I was never so happy to see overdone meatloaf and two vegetables in all my life. By the time I'd scraped my plate clean and thrown back three cups of coffee I felt better than I had in months. I'd settled back in my booth to contemplate the addition of a piece of apple pie when a hand fell heavily on my shoulder. "Well, well, if it ain't Marcus Immanuel, pee-eye," said the hand's owner, his voice smirking and nasal.
"Afternoon, Officer Cragthorne," I said, all the fun going out of my afternoon just like that. Dickie Cragthorne had been another one of McCrae's boys, back in the glory days. The crooked cop to my dirty-work PI. He didn't hate me, not exactly, but he'd conceived a healthy dislike for me about two seconds after we met, and ever since he'd never passed up a chance to step on my toes for a while. Unlike me, he'd made the shift to McCrae's successors without a bump. I wished I knew how he'd done it.
Dickie snickered and dropped into the booth opposite me, waving at the harassed waitress. She hurried over his cup of coffee a few seconds later and dropped it off without waiting to be thanked. "So," Dickie said, dumping about five sugars in his coffee and topping it off with half the cream pitcher. "What brings you south of the Deadline, Immanuel?"
"Sightseeing," I said.
"Yeah? I'll bet. Careful the sights you see don't give you something they can't cure."
"I'm not much for whores, officer."
Dickie's grin only got sleazier. "Oh, yeah, that's right, mooks like you gotta pay, dont'cha? That's a dirty shame."
"Dirty, anyway." The waitress wasn't about to refill my coffee with Dickie sitting right there, so I had nothing to do but watch him drink his.
The big trouble with Dickie was that he didn't look like anybody's idea of a crooked cop: he was tall, blond, fit, baby-faced, and capable of radiating a cheap sort of sincerity. It wouldn't fool anyone who knew himthe waitress was proof enough of thatbut the people who counted bought the whole circus act, complete with elephants. Only the foghorn voice didn't fit the look. Dickie threw back about half his coffee, skinned his lips back from his teeth in a grimace, and put the cup back in its saucer. "Boy, that's nasty stuff," he said. "So, Immanuel, 'fess up: what really brought you to this neck of the woods?"
"Job," I said shortly. That didn't seem to be enough. "Client."
"Oh, a client, is it? Fancy! Got you doing his dirty work?"
I made a mistake: I didn't answer him. He grinned at me and waited until he'd finished his coffee, then put down his cup and said, "Well, Immanuel, you can either come down to headquarters quiet-like or in cuffs. What'll it be?"
"What's the charge, officer?" I sounded tired. I was tired.
"'Loitering' ought to do for a start," Dickie said, cheerful as anything. "But the way I see it, you're hanging around somewhere you're not supposed to be, looking suspicious, and refusing to answer questions about your business here, so I'd suggest you decide to voluntarily aid the police in their inquiries, Immanuel."
I considered telling him to go blow it out his hat. It'd feel good for about a second. "Always happy to help our boys in blue, Officer Cragthorne," I said, resigned.
"That's what I like to hear," Dickie said. He barely gave me a moment to clap my rain-wet fedora on my head before dragging me off, leaving my tab unpaid.
All in all Dickie sweated me for close to five hours, displaying me to his supervisors before settling us both in an interrogation room. It was a lazy sort of questioning. He only hit me twice, both times with his open hand. Most of the time, he didn't even bother. He must have tried to hang every open case on the books on my supposed client, from the stolen Amberdale diamonds all the way down to some marine getting his pocket picked last Tuesday, all the while sitting pretty in an interrogation room instead of trudging around the wet and nasty streets. Dickie's sharp enough, when it counts.
It was after four by the time Dickie conceded that maybe my business wasn't dirty after all and threw me out. I reeled out into the darkening January evening, immediately soaked to the bone, my jaw sore. At least Evangeline McKenna ought to be awake by now. I made my way back down to her hotel and let myself in through the back doorstill unlockedand dripped my way up to the second floor.
I knew before I even knocked that she wasn't there. Her rooms felt empty, lightened of their human burdens. Still, just for form's sake, I gave it a try. Maybe more than just a try. I'd had a long, frustrating day, I'd already spat blood once, and it felt good to take a little of that thwarted anger out on Evangeline McKenna's innocent wooden door.
"If you're planning to break it down, you should probably be hitting it closer to the knob," said a voice like heaven from behind me.
I stopped in mid-knock. "When did she leave?" I asked, my voice suddenly hoarse.
"Half an hour ago," heaven said. "Was I supposed to tell her you'd come?"
I sighed and let myself turn around. It wasn't a bathrobe she was wearing this time but a slim spring-green slip-dress, so lightweight that a good gust of wind might tear it right off her. Not that I'd mind. Her hair was up, her face was on, and her pearls were good fakes. She was better than this fleabag had any right to be hosting, and if her eyes were narrowed and measuring, well, I didn't look all that reputable. "Actually, I'm glad you didn't," I said, recollecting myself. "I like to make my first impression in person."
"It's the tie," I said. "The saleslady promised it would bring out my eyes."
"That must be it." Her shoes were in her hand. She put them on the floor and stepped into them, and suddenly she was only a couple of inches shorter than I was. "What do you need from Evangeline anyway? I ought to warn you, she's not that kind of girl, and neither am I."
"Sister, no one's that kind of girl, not any more." I shook my head to clear it. "Has she had any strange company in the past week or so?"
One perfect peach-blonde eyebrow arched skywards. "You mean, besides you?"
It wasn't funny. Coming from her? I laughed a little anyway. "Besides me," I clarified. "Specifically, I'm looking for a man named Thomas Danvers. Supposed to be a friend of hers."
"Oh." Her face slammed shut like a door. "Him."
"I take it you know the guy."
"I know the tune, but I wouldn't even hum it to pass the time," she said. "What do you want with him?"
"His sister's worried about him," I said, bending it for sympathy. "She hasn't heard from him in too long."
Heaven's perfect mouth twisted up into a wry rosebud. "Why anyone should worry about that heel I'll never know," she said. "Anyway, he hasn't been by in a while. Evangeline's still got his trunk parked in her main room and she's getting awfully shirty about it."
"You don't say. Maybe he is missing, at that."
"Good riddance," she said, and then paused. "Did I help?"
"You did at that," I said, pleased. "Good girl."
It made her laugh, low in her throat. "Mister, I'm not that kind of girl, either."
I tried not to let her see me swallow. Fishing around in my jacket turned up a business card that wasn't too battered. I gave it to her. "If you see him around, do me a favor and give me a call at that number, all right? No matter what time of day or night."
She read over my card, frowning a little. "Marcus Immanuel," she said.
"Awfully fancy name for a shamus."
"Hey, blame my parents," I said.
"Decent address for a shamus, too." She flicked the card against her outstretched pointer finger, then made it disappear into her decolletage. "I'll call."
"Any time," I said, clearing my throat. "And if you're calling because you've seen Thomas Danvers, I'll consider it a bonus."
She eyed me for a moment, then laughed again. "You are sweet, Mr. Immanuel," she said, coming out into the hallway and closing her door behind herself. It locked with a little click. "But time is money, I'm afraid, so if you'll excuse me..." The froth of the green dress floated around her as she shimmered off down the hallway, graceful and swaying in her narrow little heels.
"Sister, I'd excuse you anything," I said under my breath, watching her go. Seattle's prettiest redhead had disappeared down the front stairs before I realized that I'd never gotten her name.
It had made my day, but it couldn't make my day for long. I was determined not to miss Evangeline McKenna again, so I planted myself in that dull little hallway and made to memorize every inch of it while I waited. It was too early for her to be out for the night, I hoped.
I was right. First time for everything. Two hours later, when I was on the verge of falling asleep in the hallway like a vagrant, a pneumatic little brunette package in a cloth coat came bouncing down the hallway, a string bag of groceries hanging from one tiny hand. I pushed myself upright. "Evangeline McKenna?"
She paused at her door, blinking at me, her brown eyes as big and mindless as a cow's. "That's right," she said, her voice breathless and girlish. "Were you looking for me?"
"Name's Marcus Immanuel," I said, showing her my ID. "I'm looking for Thomas Danvers."
Evangeline hitched in a shocked little breath like a startled kitten. It made her upper half bounce like a pair of beach balls, not that I noticed. "Aren't we all," she little-girled at me, sighing out that breath with a cute little whistling sound and rolling her eyes. "I haven't seen him in a week and I want him to get his things out of my place already."
"His things?" I said, playing dumb.
"He moved out of his old place a while ago. Said he was on to some 'big score' and wanted to lay low," said Evangeline, with more eye-rolling. "He asked if I could hold on to his trunk until he was settled again, and then: poof!" 'Poof' was a kitten squeak. "I haven't seen Tommy since. Why, I've half a mind to sell his things and charge his trunk rent, mister."
A big score, was it? Laying low. Interesting. I filed that away. "Could I take a look at his things, if you wouldn't mind, Miss McKenna?"
"Oh," she said, one tiny hand fluttering to her mouth. "I really shouldn't..." She trailed off there and batted her eyes at me, expectant.
"I promise I won't take but five minutes of your time," I said soothingly. Something about her made me add, "Unless you really want me to."
Giggling, Evangeline McKenna flapped that hand at me. "Oh, you," she said. "I guess it wouldn't hurt anything if you just want to look."
"That's all I want," I promised. Again, that something about her made me add, "From the trunk."
It was just the right note to hit, apparently. Without further ado a giggling Evangeline unlocked her apartment door and sashayed on in, leaving me to show myself in behind her. Her place was small and cluttered with feminine nonsense, but clean. Tommy's trunk, black and battered, stood out like a locomotive amidst all the scattered frills. I brushed a handful of scarves and whatnots off its top and popped its perfunctory lock with my handy-dandy butter knife. Behind me a radio snapped on. I could hear Evangeline twittering around, putting away her groceries to the sudden rhumba beat.
Tommy owned a lot of clothing, and what he owned was quality, and he'd packed it carefully. A good suit folded away in butcher paper, a familiar-looking tweed jacket on the top of a pile of three, several shirts of varying colors, a thick fisherman's sweater, three pairs of pants, several neatly-rolled ties, and two pairs of shoes each in its own little cloth bag; a lady's hat-box proved to hold a homburg nicer than my fedora and a sporty little racing cap, nothing like the cheap stuff he'd modeled for his sister. By the time I got down to the bottom of the trunk I'd found his overcoat and a discreet box full of underthings, but absolutely nothing besides clothing. I put everything back in the trunk and shut the lid, closing the hasp of the lock again.
Dead end. For no reason that I could discern I picked up the scarves and dropped them back onto the trunk, where I'd found them. "Didja find what you needed, mister?" Evangeline said from behind me, putting more slant on the words than was strictly necessary.
"Haven't found it yet," I said, standing up and brushing myself off. "That's all right. Sometimes not finding a clue is almost as good as finding it, in this business."
I knew before I finished the sentence that I'd lost her. Her eyes were round with incomprehension and shiny with awe. She didn't know what I meant by that, but she thought it sounded awfully swell anyway. "I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help," she kittened at me, her little hands fluttering.
"Don't sweat it, kiddo," I told her. God help me, I may have chucked her under the chin. "If I leave you my card, will you swear to call me the minute you hear from Tommy?"
She was still giggling. "O.K.," she said. "And if you find him first, tell him to come get his lousy trunk, why don't you?"
I handed over my card. "It's a deal."
By the time I managed to extricate myself from Miss McKenna's clutches and get back out on the streets, it was long past dark. Skid Road's night spots would be jumping, soon, and a smart detective could find out everything he ever needed to know about Thomas Danvers just by finding the right one and asking the right questions.
I'm not a smart detective. Or maybe I am, and I chose not to be, that night. What little charge I'd picked up from talking to the ladies faded away, leaving me face to face with another long, grim, purposeless night.
Sneer at me all you want, but back then it was sometimes all a man could do just to make it through the day. A dime picked up off the street could mean the difference between eating and not eating, and I still had close to twenty dollars in my pocket. Serious green. Serious temptation. I was in the green, and that was good, but it was also bad, because I was in the green, and I was in Seattle, and it was January.
It doesn't rain in Seattle. Not like you think. Come summer every day is as clear and crisp as a man could want, blue skies stretching from the Cascades to the Olympics, Rainier himself deigning to come out every few days and take the airmore sun than you'd ever believe possible, damned near eighteen hours of it a day, and yet the breeze is cool and pleasant. Days like that make Seattle worthwhile.
Then comes the winter, and you remember why people think it rains in Seattle.
But it doesn't. Not really. It's a dull mist that we get, not honest rainfall. The water seems to rise up out of the ground at the same time it mists down from above, and it weasels its way in through your clothes to chill you to the bone, and what little light there is barely lasts for eight hours a day. It's dark when you leave home in the morning, and dark again by the time you get back. It's a miracle to me that more Seattlites don't drink. God knows I do, when I can afford to.
I was scrupulous about it. I went back to my own stomping grounds and I found a bar where they knew me. I put the money on the bar right up front and told the guy behind the counter to bring me drinks until it was gone or until I said 'when'. I made it last, but I didn't say 'when'. Too often 'when' leads to 'why', and 'why' is the last question you ever want to ask yourself.
I nursed my cheap whisky, every time savoring that crude rush of heat that insulated me against the chill. I burned every last one of my remaining cigarettes and then bought another pack off the bartender. I made my vices last, one in each fist, and I thought. I know what people say, but they're wrong. I can think, when I have to. McCrae may have been too smart for his own damn good, but he didn't always tell me how to go about things. Sometimes he just gave me a name and sent me out with my shovel to dig the dirt. And brother, I found it.
Thinking wasn't ever my strong suit, but I kept at it. I didn't know much, but what I knew, I wasn't likely to forget. I picked up my deck of cards and shuffled it and tried not to act surprised at the hand I dealt myself.
Sometimes I wish I were as stupid as people say.
By the time the money on the bar ran out it was damned near one in the morning. I'd been sitting there and feeling sorry for myself for hours, while outside it got colder, and darker, and wetter, always wetter. Drinking could be my full-time job, if I could afford it. I'd probably get into less trouble. My rear end was numb and dead. So was my mind. I tipped the bartender half a dollar and hunched out into the rain, scuffing through puddles, heading towards the only home I had left. The fog had rolled in, making the city even grayer than usual.
The businesses in my building may be sleazy, but even sleazy people have to eat and sleep. The place was locked up, tight as a drum. The photography studio was dark tonight, no fake 'French' nudie postcards being produced behind society's back. I trudged on past.
My office was dark, too, just like I'd left it. I moved to open the door, and then I stopped with my hand on the knob. I'm not a smart guy, and I'm not that perceptive a guy, but I know when a place is empty and when it isn't, and my office had that heavy, occupied feeling to it. Someone was waiting for me behind that door, and they were waiting in the dark. Nothing about that boded well.
I hoped I wouldn't have to shoot him. Bullets don't come cheap.
There was no way he hadn't heard me coming, whoever he was. The floors up here creaked underfoot and I hadn't made any effort to come along quietly. The only advantage I still had was that he didn't know that I knew he was thereI slid out my gun and stuck the key in the knob. I took a deep breath. I turned the key, shouldered open the door, and dove through, getting out of the doorway as quick as I could. I heard a gasp and a clatter and I wheeled around and the gun stabbed out
Seattle's prettiest redhead let out a little cry like a lost animal and fell back against the wall, her hands protecting her face.
It was with a sour taste in my mouth that I straightened up and put the gun away. She hugged herself and watched me owlishly while I closed and locked the outer door. Her face was drawn and pale with terror and I was a little too drunk to care. "I'm sorry," she finally said.
I didn't say anything.
"I meant to call out when you opened the door, but... you came in so fast," she said. "I left the lights off so no one else would know I was here."
I still didn't say anything. I felt a little ill.
She looked away, rubbing her upper arms with her hands. She looked cold, in that little green party dress. "I didn't know where else to go. I was frightened. I... I saw him. Tommy."
"I'm not surprised," I said, rubbing the back of my hand over my lips.
Now that she'd gotten started, the whole story poured out in a halting flood. "He came to Evangeline's tonightshe must have known how to get in touch with him all along, and called him to let him know about youhe cametwo other men followed himthey..." She swallowed. "One of them hit him in the stomach and the other hit him on the head with his gun and they dragged him off down the back stairsI saw it all through the keyhole!"
I closed my eyes and slumped back against the wall. She let out a little strangled sound, like a sob, and just kept going. "They said something about teaching him a lesson. I think they were going to kill him! I know I said I didn't like him, but nobody deserves to die that way"
"Put a cork in it," I said.
She shut up with a small squeak, like a mouse. For a moment we were both silent, there in the dark. "I'm sorry," she finally said, her voice more even. "I didn't mean to get hysterical."
"I thought I told you to shut up," I said, straightening up. "Unless you want to stop lying to me, Tommy."
She went very still. All the pretty fell right out of her face, then; her jaw relaxed and her plump lips thinned back out into their natural smirk, so sharp as to almost be a 'v'. "I take it back," Thomas Danvers said, all the dulcet and plush gone from his voice. "You're not sweet at all, Mr. Immanuel."
I pulled down the shades in my office before putting on the light and pointing the she-creature at the washbasin. Tommy crossed the room in that same no-nonsense shimmy that I'd last seen in Evangeline's apartment building. When he pulled off his cute little hat, his long hair in its neat updo came with it. He tossed the whole shebang negligently onto my battered armchair. His own hair was the same shade of strawberry blonde, but shorter, wavier, and held back with pins. "How'd you know?" he asked, stepping out of his high heels.
"Your clothes," I said.
Tommy paused and ran his fingers questioningly over the little green frock. "I hope you're not impugning my taste," he said archly. "Evangeline helped me pick it out, you know."
"Not the girl's clothes," I said. "Yours. In the trunk."
"This I've got to hear," he said, slipping neatly out of the upper half of his dress, like a magic trick. It fell to catch on the narrow gold belt at his waist and I lost my train of thought. As a girl Thomas Danvers had been slim and small-breasted; as a boy in girl's clothes he was equally slim, those small breasts proving to be two slight rubbery things in a little bandeau top. Without much ado he unstrapped the top and let it fall. His artful makeup looked even more out of place, now. "My clothes?"
"Yeah," I said. I looked away. I had to. "Your clothes. All of them. In the trunk. Including your winter coat. Even if you left everything else you owned with Evangeline, you would have kept at least the clothes on your backbut you didn't."
His pale eyebrows rose. "Aren't you a smart dick," he said, appreciatively. "Well, I suppose that's what I get for not wanting to part with any of my nice things."
"I'm not smart," I admitted. "I wouldn't have put it together if you hadn't always been there, paying attention to what was going on over at Evangeline's."
"Can you blame me?" he tossed off, stepping into the little bathroom.
My answer, whatever it would have been, was drowned out by the sudden rush of water. He bent over the sink, the bumps of his spine clear in the light, and sluiced the makeup off his face. I waited until he had blotted his face dry on the towel and starting picking the pins out of his hair to ask, "So, Evangeline...?"
"She's an actress," Tommy said, rolling his eyes.
"Yes, really." Tommy picked out the last hairpin and shook his head, sending his unpomaded curls cascading forward over his face. Slicked back, his hair would have been the height of sharp. Clean, it looked as soft as lamb's wool. Tommy pushed his curls back out of his eyes. "She's an actress, and a good one. I bet you fell for her 'dumb little girl' shtick, didn't you?" I didn't say anything, and after a moment, he laughed. "Don't take it too hard, shamus. She says she gets away with it because she looks so much like a dumb little girl to begin with."
"But she is a girl?" I said. "A real one? Just checking."
Tommy sniffed out a small laugh and brushed the palms of his hands over the skirt of his half-discarded frock. Small hands, for a man. Small feet, too, and narrow shoulders. As a girl, he was a natural. "I didn't think to bring my pajamas," he said. "Guess you're stuck with me like this."
I kicked open my own trunk and threw him a pair of my pajama pants, faded, but clean. He caught them easily. "So," I said. "Evangeline taught you how to be a girl."
"She did indeed teach me to pass," Tommy said, holding up the pants and frowning at them.
"Guess that brings me to my next question," I said. "Why?"
"You shouldn't ought to ask questions you don't want to know the answer to," said Tommy. He dropped my pajama pants over his arm and unbuckled his narrow belt.
He started to say something else, but I interrupted him by snapping my fingers and pointing to the bathroom. "Bathroom," I said. "I'm not interested in the tricks of your trade."
"Touchy," he sniffed, but he closed himself up in the bathroom all the same. The minute the door swung shut behind him I filched the purse that he'd dropped on my desk and popped it open. It was large, for a ladies' evening bag. It'd have to be. It was heavy. Cosmetics, pill bottles, a nice brassy hip flask, assorted junkI got tired of pawing through the mess after about ten seconds and dumped everything out on my desk. It made a hell of a racket. Stuff went everywhere. "What was that?" Tommy said from in the bathroom, but by the time he got the door open and stuck his head out, I'd already found what I was looking for, folded away in a lipstick-stained handkerchief.
For a moment we were both quiet, taking in my discovery. Eventually he came on out of the bathroom, a young man in ordinary pajama pants with an incongruous green dress draped over his arm. He was still smiling, despite everything. "Well, well," he said.
It was like holding on to a fistful of light. "These are the Amberdale diamonds," I said, letting them twine about my fingers.
"So they are," said Tommy, sidling closer. "Imagine that."
"Every cop in town is on the buzz about these." I couldn't put them down. "The insurance company is offering a two-thousand-dollar reward for their return, no questions asked."
Tommy was still smiling. "That's a lot of money," he said.
I picked up a glass from my desk and rubbed the necklace across it. The stones left behind long, thin scratches. "They're real, too."
"You don't say."
I slapped him with my free hand. Not hard, just hard enough to wipe the smile off his face, making it clear that I'd had enough sass. "How'd a kid like you get hold of these? According to the cops that safe was cracked with dynamite, by a professionaland kid, you're no safecracker. I figure you could barely blow your nose."
"It's a lie," Tommy said, sullenly rubbing his pinkened cheek. "All I had to do was walk down the hall and pick them up. The safe door wasn't even closed."
"Walk down the hall, huh? Were you a guest at one of his soirees? Awfully fancy company for a Skid Road showgirl to be keeping, isn't it?"
Instead of answering Tommy picked up his purse, scowling, and started stuffing things back into it. His narrow shoulders were tense. "Maybe I was a guest in his house, huh? You ever think of that?" His voice was thin and snide, but it didn't have that lying feel to it. There was a tube of lipstick on the floor by my foot. I picked it up and handed it to him. He stuffed it into the purse. "Because I was," he said. "Invited and everything."
He wanted me to ask. So I asked. "Maybe you better tell me the story from the beginning," I said.
He'd wanted just that, but still he heaved out a great big put-upon sigh. "Mind if I smoke?" he said, plucking a half-empty pack of cigarettes from the pile of his things.
"That may be the best idea you've had all day," I said.
He shuffled his things out of the armchair and curled up in it, the purse in his lap. I kept the diamonds. I'm not that stupid. For lack of anywhere else to sit I sat on my cot, fishing out my own half-empty pack and matches; I gave him sixty seconds to light up and enjoy his first drag, because I'm nice like that. "Go on," I said. "Spill it."
Tommy took another drag and blew out the smoke before he bothered to answer me. "You want the whole story, huh. From the very beginning."
"You can skip Genesis and Exodus, if you want."
He smirked at me for that one. "You want to know why Agatha's so hot to get me back?" Tommy said, gesturing at me with his lit cigarette. "I mean, that's what she hired you to do, isn't it?"
He looked at me for a long moment, one lip drawn up in a sneer. "Because she makes a lot of money off me," he finally said.
"Funny, way I heard it, it was the other way around."
"Boy, I'll bet it was." His laugh was a nasty, canny little thing. "I'll let you in on a little secret: if you go down to her studio and you flash enough green, that collection of headshots she's got on the wall turns into your own little private catalog. For enough green you can pick your poison and have it delivered. Tips extra."
I'm sorry to say that it barely fazed me. I'd gotten used to a lot in my years with McCrae, and it fit with what I knew of Agatha. Although roping her little brother into the scam, that was over the top. "Yeah?" I said, as neutrally as possible.
"I do pretty well," he said. "Lot of proper husbands in this town who have dirty little secrets. I do so well that she lets me keep some of it. Hell, I do so well that she can afford to buy a bloodhound to track me down when I run away."
He was starting to get garrulous, so I kept quiet and let him. After a moment Tommy looked away, sucking hungrily on his cigarette. "Anyway, that's why I got Evangeline to teach me how to pass. A lot of guys, they like it like that. Like it's all O.K. if they can pretend I'm a damehell, they take me out on the town, buy me dinner, pretend everything's on the level. It makes me more money. And, brother, let me tell you: I like money."
"Don't we all," I said.
"So guess what comes next," he said. "Maybe I'll buy you a drink, if you're right."
I didn't even have to think about it. "So what is it you call guys like Amberdaleyour clients?"
"Smart, smart dick," Tommy said, with a lazy little grin. "If you figured that much out, then you know the rest."
"Yeah, I think so." I turned my hand over, watching the diamonds sparkle. "But I think I want to hear it from you."
Tommy shrugged. "Yeah, he's a client. Tips well, too. I go over to his place when he calls and spend a couple of hours unbending his kinks for him. Amberdale likes it filthy." He paused there, his smirk widening, the tip of his tongue flicking over a sharply-pointed canine tooth. "You want to hear that part?"
"Not really," I said. "Do I need to?"
"Nah. I'll be good." He sucked down another lungful of smoke. "So, anyway, Amberdale gets his jollies, he's had a little too much whisky, he falls asleep. Servants are all downstairs. I decide to go exploring. His wife's got enough clothes to outfit a whole ladies' auxiliary, I'm nosing around in her closet, and that's when I notice that the jewel safe is open. Just a crack."
"So you took her diamonds."
Tommy shrugged, unconcerned. "Still not sure what came over me. Guess I was thinking I could maybe ransom them back to old man Amberdale on the q.t., make a couple of hundred bucks, keep the cops out of it because he wouldn't want them to know that he likes to Greek me on his own desk" He broke off there. His tongue ran over his fang again. "Oops. Sorry. I wasn't going to share that part, was I?"
I flapped my hand at him. "Skip it. Go on."
"Anyway, I take the stones and vamoose. Next thing I know there's cops everywhereguess his old lady made a stink he couldn't fan away. Now there's this whole tall tale surrounding the theft, makes it look good for the papers. So much for keeping this quiet, huh?"
"So what are you going to do?"
Tommy shrugged again, looking away. "I don't know. I still have the diamonds, at least."
"Fat lot of good they're going to do you," I said. "Maybe if you could get them to Europe."
"I'll think of something."
"Best hope so." I untangled the diamonds from around my hand and tossed them back to him. He fielded them with a snaky-quick snatch. I shook my head. "I'm staying out of that one. Matter of fact, I'm staying out of everything. This whole shuck-and-jive makes me sick. Tomorrow I'll go down and tell your sister I tracked you to Evangeline's, then I'll waste a couple of days asking about you in the dives in the Road. You're smart, you'll blow town."
The redheaded girl surfaced in Tommy's face for half a second. "Aren't you sweet," he cooed, wrapping the diamonds in that handkerchief and stowing them again. "Get your kicks playing knight in shining armor?"
"Like hell," I said. "What she did to you ought to get her locked up, but listening to you, I'm starting to think that maybe you don't mind it so much any more."
"Maybe I don't," he said, sneering at me. "Maybe I like the money too much. Maybe I just like it. Crook my little finger and have half the town fathers kissing my feet, what's not to like?"
"That money worth what you've got to do to get it?"
He was laughing at me almost before I finished the sentence. Hell, I was almost laughing at myself. "You shouldn't ought to knock it until you've tried it, shamus," he said. "There's a lot to like about it, even without the money attached."
"No sale, kid. Save it for someone who gives a damn."
I didn't like the silence that fell, then. I didn't like the way his eyes went narrow, either. He didn't say anything else, just leaned forward and ground out the butt of his cigarette in the standing ashtray. I eked one last drag out of my own butt before doing the same. "Chair's yours for the night, you want it," I said, my voice rough with smoke. "I'm not going to kick a lady out onto the streets at this time of night."
"Maybe you are sweet after all, Mr. Immanuel," Tommy said, curling back up in the chair.
I don't know what I expected, but Tommy was still there when I woke up the next morning.
Curled up in the armchair, face relaxed in sleep, he looked young and vulnerable. His curls hung in a big mess around his ears. My head was sore and my mouth tasted like death, I felt like I was a thousand years old, and he looked like he was about twelve. Life isn't fair.
He woke with a start when I sat up and swung my legs down off the cot. For a moment he still looked young, soft and confused in the morning light, and then the hardness slammed down on his face like a cell door clanging shut. "I like your chair," he said, his light voice raspy with sleep.
I grunted at him and managed to stand up on my second try. My office's little bathroom didn't boast a showerI used the YMCA for thatbut at least it gave me a private place to shit and shave, not that I was interested in doing either right at the moment. Instead I stuck my head under the cold tap and let it run until some of the fog in my brain thinned out. After that little eye-opener I drank some water off my palm, scrubbed my forefinger over my furry teeth, and straightened up to catch Tommy leaning in the doorway and watching me in the mirror.
I jumped. I admit it. The kid walked like a cat. "Shove off," I graveled, pushing my wet hair back out of my face. "A man deserves a little privacy for his ablutions."
"Guess a man should have shut the door, then," Tommy said lightly. The bathroom was the size of a shoebox. Even just lurking in the doorway put him almost right up against my back. I could damned near feel the heat of his skin against my spine.
I grabbed my towel from the rack and scrubbed my face dry, stubble catching at the loops of toweling. "I suppose I'm not accustomed to having houseguests."
"And yet I can't fault your hospitality," Tommy said. His little smile never wavered but his eyes went hot and greedy in the mirror. "So I've got a proposition for you, Mr. Immanuel."
"Let me guess." I dropped the towel back onto its rack. "It's got something to do with fifty thousand dollars' worth of hot diamonds."
His smile drew in and puckered up, becoming that wry rosebud again. "Smart dick," he purred, making it a pet name. I didn't like it much, not from him.
In order to postpone this conversation I didn't want to have, I ran a little water into my shaving mug and stirred up the soap. Tommy watched me do it, his eyes dropping about half-closed. I ignored him as best I could and lathered up my face, then picked up my straight razor and flicked it open. Having it in my hand made me feel bolder. I lifted my chin, met Tommy's eyes in the mirror, and scraped the first long swath of stubble from the underside of my jaw. "So let's have this proposition of yours, kid."
His eyes dropped to follow the stroke of the razor in the mirror. "You said the insurance company would pay out, no questions asked."
"They took out an ad that said so," I said, starting a second stroke.
"Do you think they're on the level?"
I gave that some thought while I polished my jaw. "They aren't the cops. They don't give a damn about anything but getting the necklace back. Otherwise they've got to pay out all fifty thousand dollars instead of just two thousand, and the one thing insurance oiks hate more than parting with money is parting with more money. I think that if you were smart, you could work a deal."
He went quiet again, long enough for me to shave over the tricky territory of my Adam's apple. His little smile was meaningless, his eyes half-lidded and heavy, like he was the only one in on the joke. "And you're awfully smart, aren't you?"
"I wouldn't say that," I said. I could see where this was going and I didn't know if I hated it or not. "Make your pitch, kid. Let's see if it rings the cash register."
"Handle the exchange for me and I'll give you half," said Tommy, watching me closely. "A thousand for you and a thousand for me, free and clear."
I wanted to laugh, but I couldn't. It was too good an offer, and he was too canny not to know it, but the sound of green was drowning out my good sense. Back then a thousand dollars could have cured the world's ills, almost, and it could definitely have cured mine. "And what's stopping me from taking all the money and turning you in?"
"You don't strike me as that kind of louse, Mr. Immanuel."
"Maybe, maybe not, but you'd better go into this assuming I am," I said. "So what's stopping me, kid?"
His eyes flicked away while he thought. "You're a private dick," he finally said. "Write me up a contract. I'll hire you all nice and legal."
"Then what? You run crying to the police if I don't deliver? Golly gee, help me, officer, that bad man won't pay me for the diamonds that I stole?"
"Maybe," Tommy said, his eyes rising again. "And maybe I figure you're the kind of guy who's too nice to throw a lady out in the cold, so maybe it'll all come out O.K."
I snorted and nearly cut a gash in one of my cheeks. "Guess you got me there," I said.
"And we'll fix it. Together. We'll set it up so neither of us can run out on the other. There's got to be a way."
There was a way. There were a thousand ways. Possibilities were already crowding into my mind, like moths attracted to the powerful light that a thousand bucks gives off. "All right. Fifty-fifty. But you do what I say and no backtalk, get me?"
"Yes, Marcus," he said, flashing that smirk of his, and he watched me shave until I was done.
I dressed in my office while Tommy reversed his transformation in the bathroom, producing hairpins and cosmetics from the depths of his purse like a magic trick. I made him shut the door. I still wasn't interested in the process. Instead I typed up a quick couple of pages and went down the hall to meet up with Agatha.
She was there. Sometimes I thought she was always there. There was a cheap beach-scene backdrop tacked to the wall, currently hosting a honey-haired cutie in a one-piece suit with a beach ball and a mouthful of gum; when Agatha told her to take five she rolled her eyes, pulled out a compact, and started primping. "So," Agatha said. "I don't see Tommy."
I handed her the papers. "This is what I found out yesterday. Kid stuff. Basic as hell. I'll hit up some of the night spots in your list tonight, see what I can find out there."
Agatha ran her eyes down the first page. "Not much here," she said.
"More than you had before," I said. "Unless you've been holding out on me."
Agatha flared her nostrils in disdain, but made the papers disappear all the same. "O.K., shamus, I guess you're not totally useless after all. I better get my money's worth, though, that's all."
I glanced over Agatha's shoulder. The wall behind her was studded with headshots, seventy-five, maybe a hundred of them. I couldn't pick out Tommy's. I didn't try too hard. "I'll see that you get everything that's coming to you, Agatha," I promised, and then I ran down to pick up a newspaper before the morning edition sold out.
Tommy was gone by the time I got back to my office. In his place was Seattle's prettiest redhead, a little overdressed for this time of the morning. Heshewas poking gingerly through my small stash of canned goods. "Gee, mister, don't you have any coffee in this joint?" the redhead asked, her voice once again a dulcet little splash of heaven.
"I get my coffee down at the luncheonette on the corner," I said, trying and failing not to treat the redhead like a lady. The illusion was damn near flawless. Houdini couldn't have done it better. I knew what lurked under that green dress and I was still having trouble remembering it. "So what's your name?" I asked, and eventually remembered to add, "Now?"
"They call me Honey Heavensent down at the hostess bar," she said, giving me a look that was a little too knowing to be a simper.
"I'll bet they do." I rubbed a hand down my face. "Think I'll call you Clara."
"Quit wrinkling your nose at me, sister, it's not that bad a name."
"All right," she said, giving in. "Clara it is. So now what?"
I kicked open my trunk and pulled out my trusty old camera. "First of all, Clara, I'm going to need to see those hot rocks again."
She popped open her purse and handed them to me without demur. I took the diamonds and I did what needed doing to them. Clara didn't kick once. I was starting to think that this scheme might pay off after all.
Once the diamonds were safely back in Clara's purse, I closed myself back up in the bathroom and flicked on the red light. The bathroom made a decent darkroom. Always had. Used to be its primary function, back when McCrae was still alive. I'd brought down half a hundred politicians with pictures I developed right here in this sink. Now I was sinking into a scheme that was little better than extortion. It barely gave me a twinge any more. Times, as they say, had changed.
Once I had two nice, clear photographs drying on the rack, I kicked the door open before I could choke to death on the fumes. "All right," I said, coughing. "Let's wrap ourselves around some lunch, what do you say?"
"In this?" she said, wrinkling her nose and brushing her skirt with her palm. "I want to go home first and change into something a little more appropriate."
Shaking my head, I picked up my fedora and put it on. "Sheesh, dames. Fine. We'll swing by your place and let you change, and then we'll get something to eat."
"Sounds swell," she said, tucking her hand into the crook of my arm. I forgot who she really was yet again. It was so damn easy to do.
She barely blinked as we went past the photography studio, although she was still on my arm and I could feel her getting tense. Agatha didn't poke her nose out, though, and we made it to the street without any problems. Heads turned. Even knowing what I knew, I still felt like a million bucks with her on my arm. Fake pearls and all.
It was a long way from my place to hers. We got lucky, though: it was downhill. There are a lot of jokes about how everything in Seattle is uphill from everything else, and for the most part, they're truebut it's always downhill to the Deadline, no matter where you are. Skid Road is named for the real skid road, the ugly bald dirt track left behind after the original settlers logged these hills bare and let the dead trees skid down the side of the hill to the barges waiting in the Sound. Now it's Yesler Way, and they don't slide trees down it any more. Now it's always downhill to the Deadline because you don't get much lower than that.
I was in good company, at least. She didn't talk too much, but she didn't talk too little, either. It was nice. Ordinary. Pleasant. Her part of the Road was a little more lively, now that it was closer to noon than nine, and heads turned to follow her here, too. She grandly ignored them all and, I was interested to note, led me right around the hotel to its unlocked back door. "You go in and out like this a lot?" I asked.
"Only when I've got a boyfriend I don't want Mabel to see," Clara shot back, with one of those throaty little laughs of hers, and by God I forgot about her little secret again. We went up the back stairs and let ourselves into her apartment.
It was a lady's apartment, through and through. It wasn't as froo-froo as Evangeline's place, but there wasn't anything masculine about it, not even in the little details that I'd never thought about before. The furniture was cheap, and probably used, but it all had that fancy, fragile look to it. It looked comfortable, though. There was at least that. "Make yourself at home," Clara said, putting her purse on the little table by the door and vanishing into the bedroom. The door closed behind her.
I took her at her word. I'm most comfortable when I'm real familiar with my surroundings, so I poked around. I didn't find anything of much interest until I found the liquor cabinet, and I didn't actually get much further than that. It was early, so I restricted myself to two fingers of mediocre whisky, which I carried around while I looked at the pictures on Clara's walls.
She let herself back out ten minutes later, looking fetching in a little gray-and-white pantsuit with a peplum that made the most of the hourglass figure she didn't have. She'd changed her hair, too, tying it in a loose knot at the nape of her neck. She spotted the lowball glass in my hand and her mouth twisted into that little wry smile. "And feel free to help yourself to a drink while you wait," she said.
"Thanks, I will," I said, toasting her with my mostly-empty glass. "You ready to go, or do you have to go powder your nose or whatever it is you do?"
"I think my nose is powdery enough," she said. Plopping an empty gray purse onto the table, she rapidly transferred the contents of her evening bag into it, including a certain little bundle still wrapped in its lipstick-stained handkerchief. "There we are," said Clara, snapping her new bag shut. "Shall we have lunch? There's a decent lunch counter just a couple of blocks away."
"I think I know just the place," I said. I put down my empty glass. "But first, you and me, we need to visit a train station."
Her eyes widened in curiosity, but she didn't buck. "Whatever you say, Marcus," she said instead, taking my arm again.
By the time we got to the station I'd stopped bothering to remind myself that the girl on my arm wasn't. As long as Clara had her war-paint on, she was a dame through and through. So this was 'passing'. It was a neat trick. I still didn't want to know how it was done, though.
I led her over to the wall of coin lockers. "Pick one," I said.
Again, she didn't hesitate. She scanned over the lockers and eventually put two fingers on a door. "This one."
I plugged in a dime and turned the key. "I think it's time we found our little friends a new home," I said, opening the locker door. "Why don't you show them around the place?"
Her hand darted into her purse and came out with a familiar little bundle. Shielding the open locker with her body Clara thrust in her hand and poured out a river of light. She'd no sooner pulled the empty handkerchief out than I pushed the locker door shut, twisted the key, and claimed it. "Present for you," I said, dropping the key into her open bag.
"Just what I've always wanted," she said, with a little roll of her eyes. "Feel better?"
"You know what, sister, I think I do. Now, how about that grub?" Right on cue, my stomach muttered. I've got to start eating better.
She snapped her handbag shut and took my arm again, and we went back uptown to the same little lunch counter I'd eaten at yesterday. Suited me fine. First thing I did was hunt up the waitress and give her two bucks to cover the meal I hadn't had time to pay for yesterday, plus a little extra for the trouble. By the look she gave me, I'd say she thought I was crazy. Who knows, maybe I was.
The chicken was just as overcooked as the meatloaf, but it still tasted like glory to me. I got it down my throat and watched Clara daintily apply herself to the same thing. Somehow she did it without messing up her lipstick. I'll never get how dames do that.
I actually got the time to put down half a slice of that apple pie before that same damn hand fell heavily onto my shoulder. "Again, pee-eye?" Dickie said with a snickering little laugh. "You must really like it here in the Road."
"It has its charms," I said, as evenly as I could manage.
"So I see, brother. So I see!" Dickie tipped his head towards Clara, positively salivating. "Ain'tcha gonna introduce us, Immanuel?"
It might almost have been funny, except for the fact that nothing about this was funny. "Dickie, this is Clara. Clara, this is Officer Cragthorne. Dickie, to his friends."
"And hey, any friend of Marcus' is a friend of mine," Dickie said, touching two fingers to his hat brim.
That Clara was a cool customer. Cop or no cop she gave Dickie her hand, neat as you please, and a sweet little smile. "It's a pleasure, officer," she said, turning up the silk in her voice. "Mr. Immanuel is helping me with a... little matter."
"This is your client, Immanuel?" Dickie pushed his hat back and scratched his head. "I take back everything I said yesterday. Ain't no way this little lady can be guilty of anything."
Clara's eyes grazed across mine, and in that electric flash I saw Tommy, plain as day. I don't know what Tommy read in my eyes, but he was gone again in a heartbeat and Clara looked back up at Dickie, smiling prettily. "Actually, I'm glad you've happened by, officer," she said. "Mr. Immanuel needs to get back to work before the records offices closewould you mind seeing me safely back to my place? Normally I'm not frightened of anything the Road has to offer, but recently..." She trailed off there.
She'd hooked him as neatly as a brook trout. "It'd be a pleasure," Dickie proclaimed, thrilled to see me get cut out of the running so neatly. "Just think of me as your own private public servant."
I thought about warning Clara about him. I thought about warning Dickie about Clara. In the end I did neither, just stood up and pressed Clara's hand as she excused herself. Clara could take care of herself. She could take care of big dumb Dickie, too. She left, hanging demurely on Dickie's arm, her little heels clacking on the diner's tiled floor.
Me, I sat down and finished my pie. Had a third cup of coffee. Clara had saved me from Dickie's attentions, so picking up the tab was the least I could do.
I spent the rest of the day hard at work on nothing. I did go to the records office, and turned up exactly nothing on Thomas Danvers, as I'd expected. Still, it'd make another page that I could turn over to Agatha, that nothing.
By the time they pitched me out, it was almost dark. I made my way back to my own neighborhood and ate an early dinner at the greasy spoon by the office. Twice in one day. With a thousand bucks on the way, I could even get used to eating like that, if I wanted to.
I went back up to my office, spent half an hour at the typewriter, then bundled up some clean clothes and toted my bundle down to the YMCA. I don't clean up all that well, but Clara was a neatly-put-together broad and I thought maybe I ought to try, if only to avoid feeling like a slob when she was around. I had a shower, splurged on a shave and a haircut, got my jaws slapped with some bay rum, and put on a suit that was pretty close to clean. I didn't look like a million bucks, but I didn't look like two ninety-five any more, either. I took my dirty clothes back to the office, dropped them off, and headed back south of the Deadline.
By the Road's standard it was still early by the time I got there, but it was late enough. Repeal was barely dry on the books, but nobody down here had ever given two hoots about the opinions of the law: Seattle was a port town with Canada just a stone's throw away, and no puny Prohibition had ever stopped anyone from finding anything they wanted in Skid Road. If they wanted booze, hookers, or a fight, anyway. Me, I wanted information, or at least to look like I wanted information, and so I trailed from one saloon to the next, nursing drinks and asking questions, flashing that picture of Tommy and feeling like a con man.
I found out nothing. I wasn't expecting to. Even those people who knew Tommy hadn't seen him in a week, didn't know where he'd gone, and didn't care. My inquiries were met with shrugs, at best. Whether Agatha's prejudices were fair or not, they also seemed pretty spot-on: Tommy did indeed run with a careless, crooked, hell-bent party crowd, and not a one of them gave a damn about anything but themselves. I was too young to feel that old, but I stuck it out.
I hit every saloon and former speakeasy on Agatha's list. I hit a few she hadn't mentioned. I hit one just because my throat was getting dry. Three more typewritten pages of nothing added up. By the time midnight rolled around I was half-drunk and all footsore. Time to go home, I thought. Instead I found myself standing outside Clara's apartment building, looking up. Her window was dark. The lady was smarter than I was. I stood there for five minutes and argued with myself before turning for home, determined to walk off the drunk.
It was still a long, uphill walk. I still didn't like it much. But I'll say this much for it: it sobered me up. By the time I got back to my building I was ready for a good night's sleep. I plugged up the stairs towards my own floor, going past several dark and shuttered businesses on the way. A single lamp still burned in the photography studio, but I didn't even slow down. Agatha could wait until tomorrow.
My office was dark and quiet, but I didn't even have to put my hand on the doorknob to know that someone was in there. That sixth sense of mine was getting a workout lately. I loosened my gun in its holster, just in case it was someone unfriendly, and let myself in. The outer office was dark and deserted, as well it ought to be, but a thin line of dim light leaked out from under the closed door to my inner sanctum. I could just barely hear the tinny sound of my radio, playing its heart out, the volume turned low. The list of potential visitors shrank considerably. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew who was waiting for me.
I was right, and at the same time, I was wrong.
The lighted yellow panel on the front of my radio console was the only light around, but brother, it was enough. She was pretty as hell, all right, and 'scantily clad' did not even begin to describe the few wisps of stuff she was almost wearing, but what really caught my eye was fifty thousand dollars' worth of diamonds, the glittering rivulets wrapping three times around her neck before cascading down over her chest nearly to her navel. She held her arms out to me, pretty as a pinup and wanton as a whore, her hair down and around her shoulders, her makeup perfect. It wasn't Clara, though. The little smirk on that face was Tommy, through and through. "I thought maybe you could stand a little more convincing," Tommy said, not bothering with the voice, either, and in that second the illusion fell apart.
After a moment, I recollected myself enough to shut the door. Remembered to take my hat off, too, skimming it neatly past Tommy's hip to land on the desk. "That's really how you want to play this?" I asked, sounding just about as tired as I felt.
He misunderstood. "The light's low," he breathed, "you'll never notice the difference"
I grabbed his arm and jerked him away from my desk. He stumbled towards me, still in those little heels, expressions flickering across his face as he tried to decide how I wanted him to react. He settled on sultry, but lost it again as I ripped the wig from his head and tossed it onto my desk. Hairpins went everywhere. His own, natural curls fell into his startled face. It was better, but not yet good enough, and I dragged him into the little washroom, pinning him against the wall with my hip and grabbing the wet rag from the washbasin.
He yelped and spluttered as I scrubbed the makeup from his face, trying to fend me off and failing. His struggles were at least half in earnest. I had to add an arm across his throat before I could get at the rest of that waxy crap. His lipstick smeared across his cheek like a bloodstain and I didn't let up until I got every last bit of it, until there was nothing but Tommy's outraged face under the rag, bright fiery pink from the rough scrubbing. Somehow, in the struggle, his narrow bandeau top had gotten jerked down to his waist, spilling his little fake breasts onto the floor. Suddenly, he looked ridiculous. "I don't sleep with whores," I growled, spelling it out, just in case.
"My face," Tommy shrilled, slapping awkwardly at me. I warded off the blow with my free arm and his hand jumped to his face, instead, patting at his reddened skin. He winced and hissed. "That hurt, you son of a bitch"
"You're not bleeding anywhere," I said. He'd calmed down somewhat, giving over struggling for rubbing at his face, instead. Still, I didn't feel comfortable letting him go. Crazy kid like this, who knew what he'd do?
Tommy patted at his face until the fire lessened somewhat, then ran that hand through his damp curls, getting them out of his reddened eyes. Eventually he heaved a sigh and all of the fight fell out of his frame. "O.K.," he said dully, looking away. "You've made your point. Let me go already."
"You going to behave this time?"
He still wouldn't look at me. "Yeah, I'm done."
I loosened up a little, but didn't let him go all the way, just in case he was shamming it. He used his new freedom to remove the useless top from about his waist, pulling it out from under my arm with a little snap and tossing it in the general direction of the main room. It left him in a pair of cheap pink satin panties and those little gray heels; that, and fifty thousand dollars' worth of stolen diamonds, still glimmering around his neck. He kicked off his shoes, one after the other.
It got quiet. Quiet enough that I could hear the radio, channeling a far-off dance band. I pulled my arm away from his throat, but left my hip where it was. Whatever crazy alchemy normally powered him, it was gone, and he was just a too-thin curly-headed kid, soft and in over his head. A cute kid. He glanced up at me from under the sweep of his blond lashes, so fine as to almost be invisible. "You going to let me go or what?"
"See, here's the thing," I said, trying to keep the roughness out of my voice. "I don't trust you."
A little of the fire came back to him. "Guess you're too smart for me, shamus," he said, shifting.
I made another mistake: I didn't say anything. Tommy lifted his eyes to mine in confusion. Then the confusion fell away and the life ran back into him all at once, revitalizing his limbs and putting the wicked light back in his eyes. He showed me the tight 'v' of his smirk. "Oh," he said. "Is that how it is?"
"Don't even start," I started to say, but he put both arms around my neck and I gave in and kissed hell out of him, bouncing the back of his head off the bathroom wall.
It tore the breath from both of us, that kiss. I crushed that kid against my chest and took what I was after, ignoring the part of me that knew that male or female, he was still a whore. Sure he was. This was still a trick. I knew it, and I didn't care.
I hated wanting it like this, but I'd been ignoring that little voice in my head for so many years, and now that voice was getting some of its own back, laughing like a loon in the back of my mind. "Never figured this was how you liked it," Tommy gasped when we broke apart. "You don't read like a fairy."
"That's because I'm not one," I said, my voice like a pit full of gravel. "I like dames fine."
"You like boys too," he said, in a mocking accusation.
He was right, so I shrugged. "Let's just say that the army taught me a lot of things, kid."
"Yeah?" There was fire in his eyes now and he wrapped one leg around mine, twisting himself around me like ivy choking a tree. "What else did it teach you? Want to show me?"
"Not that." I tried to put him away from myself, just a little. There was a wall behind him. He had no place to go. "Just because I like looking doesn't mean I've ever touched. It's not worth the price of admission."
He smirked and bit my chin, hard enough to sting. "Poor Marcus," he breathed, widening his eyes, all full of fake sympathy. "So many years of keeping it under wraps."
"Kid," I started to say, even as my hand flattened out on his chest.
"Live it up a little," he urged me, hoarse now. "I don't mind."
My fingers slid up into the loops of the stolen Amberdale diamonds. "I'll bet you don't."
"Give me a week and I'll show you the world," Tommy promised, sinking his fingers into my hair. I couldn't help but think of the parts of the world that he meant. "Or just give me tonight and take a little taste of what you're missing."
I brought up my handful of diamonds and smacked his cheek with them, just hard enough to get his attention. "Quit acting the whore."
"I am a whore," he said, his voice sullen, his breathing heavy. The diamonds left a handful of raised pink scratches on his cheek, already fading.
"Then pretend you're not," I said. "I don't like whores."
It almost worked. I was bigger than him, and older than him, and smarter than himbut in this one area he was canny as hell. "Maybe you just never met a whore like me," Tommy said, panting through his grin, and his hand slipped out of my hair and fell down to catch me where I lived.
I shouted out some kind of hoarse sound and slung him away, out the bathroom door and into the office. He went reeling backwards until he fetched up hard against the edge of my desk, this scrawny kid in diamonds and those ridiculous pink satin panties, distended now in a way that was impossible to miss. He caught himself and there was triumph in his smirk as he spread himself out against the edge of my desk, holding out his arms again. "Come here," he said, and like a shambling bear in a circus, I went.
He kissed me and stripped my suit jacket from me. He kissed me again and pulled my tie loose, and by that time I'd caught on and started to unbutton my shirt. He unbuckled my belt and I pulled off my shoulder holster and tossed it away before he could get his hands on my gun, but after that I lost track of who undid what. It didn't matter. Once the two of us got me down to my shorts, I was putty in his hands.
We raged back and forth, the two of us, grappling like two drunks trying to fight outside a speak. You've seen them: two poor bastards too drunk to stand, leaning into each other and shambling around in a clinch, bawling profanities and taking wild swings at each other, until it looks more like a drunken dance than a fight. It felt like that, but the swearing was of the softer sort and my opponent was the graceful type. He put his mouth on anything he could reach and showed me where I ought to be putting my hands and rubbed up against me until I thought one or both of us would lose it.
When he broke away, I groaned like I was dying, and he grinned like he'd won something. "Just a taste," he wheezed, snatching up the open hip flask that he'd left in a prominent place on my desk. Tapping it against his palm left a melting puddle of something slick and sweet-smelling in his hand, and when he rolled that hand into a fist the stuff squeezed out between his fingers and oozed down along his wrist. I watched him do it and I didn't understand, staring at him as dumb as a dog. He bent forward and knuckled the front of his ridiculous panties, leaving behind an oily smear on the pink satin, then shoved his fist between his narrow thighs and gave his balls a little jostle. I still didn't get it. All I could think was that he'd ruined those cheap panties and it wasn't much of a loss.
He rolled over then and bent forward over my desk, presenting me with his ass, still all bound up in satin. I could see the shadow of his ass-crack showing through the cheap fabric. For some reason that got me worse than anything else so far. "Take it out and bring it here," Tommy breathed, his grin gone crazy. The tips of his fingers wiggled at me, poking out from between his thighs, pressed up tight against the never-never land behind his balls. I got it then, and I shoved down my shorts with trembling hands.
It was hotter than anything I'd ever felt, sliding into that tight and secret space between his thighs, slick with grease and damp with perspiration, sodden satin slipping frictionless along the top of my cock like a burning runway straight to hell. His fingers pushed me up and into place and then his thighs held me tighter that I'd ever dreamed. I grabbed the desk in one hand and his hip in the other and gave his balls a little jostle myself, and at the end of that long and slippery slide I touched something hard as wood and hotter yet, and then his fingers pushed in between his thighs and his belly and gave us both a squeeze.
It was a filthy, nasty business, and I loved it. I fucked him hard against the edge of my deskI fucked him until the cheap pink satin of his panties bunched up in his ass-crack and went dark with sweat and oil. I fucked him so hard that his balls pushed out of the satin and dragged his hot little cock after, and then it was his against mine and his hand worked us both to make up for where his thighs weren't enough. I could hear him making those whorish noises, but suddenly, I didn't care.
Towards the end he crossed his legs at the ankles and bore down hard and I took my hand off the edge of my desk and got it tangled up with his. The satin stroked me and his thighs squeezed me and his hand took mine and pressed it down. I came all over that ruined satin with a thick and tearing grunt, and he cried out as he shot onto my desk, and then it was just a sweaty, gaspy mess, but that was all right, I thought.
Tommy lay sprawled face-down on my desk in a puddle of diamonds and come, wheezing for breath. His other hand was tangled in the diamonds like he couldn't bear to let them go. I managed to let go of his hip after two tries and tottered straight back, collapsing into the armchair when it struck the back of my knees. Eventually Tommy rolled himself over, the falling diamonds swiping through the sweat and other things on his chest. I got a good look at the kid, disheveled and sweaty, wearing nothing but those diamonds and a pair of rucked-up, shoved-aside, stained and ruined pink satin panties. They didn't cover a damned thing any more. Despite my exhaustion I felt myself give a little twitch.
With a shaky laugh Tommy stumbled over and joined me in the armchair, curling up in my lap. He had a pink handprint on his hip. "I signed the contract you left," he whispered, brushing my hair back.
I roused myself enough to give him a woozy little "... huh?"
"The contract," he repeated. "I signed it. So I guess I'm your client for real."
I closed my eyes. I thought I'd kill for a cigarette. "Good," I said. Tinned applause burst softly from the radio as the band crashed to the end of its number.
"Guess we're both whores now," he said, and he kissed me before I could say anything else.
I never did get that cigarette. I fell asleep in the armchair instead.
I woke up the next morning still mother-naked and sticky, but alone in the chair. He'd thrown a blanket over me, at least, and straightened up the worst of the mess before taking my cot for himself. He was still there, still asleep, his face young and serene in the morning light. He didn't wake when I stood, and he didn't wake when I shut myself in the bathroom, but by the time I'd scrubbed myself clean I could hear him stirring. I put on my shorts and went to face the music.
He was sitting up on the cot, still furled in the sheets, rubbing sleep from his eyes. His curls were everywhere. He opened his mouth to say something and I jumped to get in the first word, before he could say anything I'd hate. "Up, kid," I said. "Put your glad rags on. Big day today."
"Go sit on your thumb," he grumbled, but all the same he wobbled to his feet and closed himself up in the bathroom. I hustled back into yesterday's suit and went out into the outer room, closing the door to give him an extra helping of privacy.
By the time I finished typing up four pages of nothing for Agatha, the noise of his passage had faded. Clara let herself out of the back room, neat as a pin in a light blue suit, toting a little overnight bag I'd failed to notice during the hubbub of the night before. "So what's the plan?" she asked.
"Stay here," I said, and I ran down the hallway long enough to poke the report under Agatha's door. Clara was perched on the desk when I got back, looking pertly through the contract that Tommy had signed last night. "Up," I said, and up she got. "Seems we've got another train station to visit."
"So it would seem," Clara agreed, a little flash of wickedness deep in the back of her sea-green eyes.
We went to the train station by my office, this time. I let her pick the locker again, but this time I put the necklace in myself, rinsed clean and packed away in my old Dopp kit for safekeeping. She held out her hand for the key. I didn't hand it over. "Seems you can't be trusted with this," I said, putting the key on my keyring instead.
"What can I say?" she said, pecking me on the cheek. "I had an urge."
I felt so sick I almost laughed. "You said it, sister."
"What do we do next, Marcus?"
"We? What we? I've got work to do. You, on the other hand, should go home and stay there. Lie low. Plead a headache, if you have to."
She hesitated, nibbling on her lower lip as she looked at me. "You'll call me if there are any developments?"
"If I don't hear from you by five, I'll call you," she threatened.
I told her that was fair and left her there, standing on the platform with her overnight bag clutched demurely in both gloved hands. The place on my cheek where she'd kissed me tingled, slightly. I don't know where she went from there; me, I headed downtown.
The Pratcock Insurance Group had a nice office suite right off Pioneer Square, all done up in maplewood, brass, and dark red upholstery. The brassy-haired receptionist was also upholstered in dark red. I wondered if she'd come with the place. "I'd like to speak to someone about the Amberdale diamonds," I informed her.
She was too classy to say it, but I could read it in her eyes: you and every other bum that's been in here this week. "Do you have an appointment?" she said instead, her voice cool.
"Yes, ma'am, I do," I said. I pulled out a photograph and held it up where she could see it. "Here it is."
Her face changed as she looked at the picture, hardening into place like cooling wax. My camera was a good one, bought back when McCrae was footing the bills. You could read yesterday's headlines right off the photograph, although all those diamonds spread out across the newspaper sure got in the way. "Just a moment," the receptionist said. "May I... take your card?"
I couldn't help but smile. I let her have the picture. She disappeared into the back. I waited for five minutes while increasingly agitated voices buzzed back and forth like upset honeybees. When the receptionist came back, she was no longer carrying the photograph. "Mr. Brandlestock will see you now," she informed me, ever so slightly out of breath, her eyes now alive with excitement.
She led me through a warren of quiet, plush offices, filled with people hard at work. The office that she led me to was one of the larger ones, which didn't surprise me at all; Mr. Brandlestock was a portly older gentleman with a silver brush mustache and a watch chain, which didn't surprise me either. He was standing at the window, holding the photograph up to the light, and he didn't look up when I came in. "Thank you, Muriel, that will be all," he said, and the receptionist vanished without a trace. He looked at me then, finally. "I'm Ned Brandlestock," he said. He didn't offer to shake hands. "Please explain where you got this photograph."
"I took it yesterday, as the date on the newspaper ought to show you," I said. He didn't invite me to sit, either, but I sat anyway. "Name's Marcus Immanuel. I'm a private detective." I showed him my license, for form's sake.
Ned's demeanor didn't thaw at all, but something ancient and crafty came to life in his eyes. "I see," he said, moving to sit opposite me. "And I am to assume that you represent a client."
"That's the long and short of it, yes."
"And your client just so happens to have... found the Amberdale diamonds, and wishes to turn them in for the offered reward, but wishes to do so anonymously."
"Is that a problem?"
Ned stroked his little mustache with one pudgy pinky finger. "Absolutely not, Mr. Immanuel, assuming the goods in question are the real thing. I'll admit that the necklace in this photograph appears to be the Amberdale diamonds"
"Let's cut to the chase," I said, as gently as possible. I stuck two fingers into my coat pocket and withdrew half a platinum clasp, with a single, tiny diamond still chained to one end of it. "I'll leave this with you, in earnest of our good intentions," I said, putting it on his desk blotter. "Feel free to authenticate it however you see fit. Once you're satisfied, you can call me and we'll make arrangements for the trade."
He stared at the clasp like it was a poisonous snake, then dropped one heavy hand onto it. He seemed to have nothing to say.
"I undid that link with pliers," I added, because I could. "Shouldn't take a jeweler more than five minutes to put it back on." He still seemed to have nothing to say, so I stood up and put my hat back on. "My client would appreciate his reward in used singles and fives," I said, digging out one of my business cards and putting it on his desk.
"That can be done," Ned Brandlestock said, coming back to life at least a little. His hand closed into a fist around the clasp. "Someone should be in touch with you by this evening."
"I'll look forward to it," I said. Touching the brim of my hat, I showed myself out.
It was already raining by the time I got back to my office. Real rain, for once, little droplets making hollow plunking sounds as they struck my hat. It happens less often than you'd think, but when rain like that blows in, it's there to stay. I resigned myself to a long, damp night and trundled up the stairs.
Agatha was waiting for me in the hall, wearing green this time, like seaweed. "So," she said, right off. "I still don't see Tommy."
"Did you see my report, at least?" I asked, slipping past that question.
"Yeah." She slapped the bundled-up papers against her hand. "Starting to look more like you're doing real work, Immanuel. Only, you know, I still don't see Tommy."
"I'm starting to think he blew town," I said. "My net doesn't stretch that far."
Agatha snorted. "I don't like it," she said. "Even if he left town, he'd be calling for touch me for cash. If there's one thing Tommy loves, it's money."
I tried not to let on how well I knew that. "That's what I hear," I said instead. "That's not all I hear."
"Yeah?" She gave me a sideways, jaundiced look, then glanced at the stairs. "Maybe you better come in for a second."
"Maybe I better," I said, following her into the studio.
It was dim in there, all the lights off, only the dull gray light from outside serving as illumination. A tall and precarious pile of fat manila envelopes balanced on the desk by the door, nearly capsizing as I shut the door behind myself. This week's hat catalogs, no doubt. Agatha's jaw looked tight. "All right," she said. "Let's have it."
Well, she'd asked. "You were whoring Tommy out," I said. "Him and the others."
"Yeah," Agatha said, not bothering to deny it, rolling her jaw like she was sucking on her teeth. "The others, that's business, and in this town nobody cares, least of all me. Tommy, though... I don't like it."
"Funny, I don't like it much either."
She dismissed that with a little flap of her square, mannish hand. "He came to live with me when my pa lost the farm," she said. "He was barely here for six weeks before he got rounded up on a morals charge. Three weeks later, he got busted on another one, pulling some cute trick in an alley. So I tell him, look, if you're going to do it, I can set you up. I run a class joint here, Immanuel, though I doubt you'll believe me."
I looked at the wall of headshots. The kids in them looked hard, but clean. Attractive, mostly. Canny as hell. "Have to take your word for it, Agatha."
"So... I run him. Keep his nose clean for him. It keeps him out of trouble." Agatha drifted over to the window and glared out at the rain, arms folding across her massive bosom. "Little bastard wants to do the Greek for money, at least I can make sure he's not doing it with alley-cats. I don't know what the hell else to do. I got no leverage. I can't make him stop."
She went quiet. Quiet enough that I could hear the rain drumming against the window. I waited a minute before breaking the silence. "I can keep looking, Agatha, but... it puts things in a new light."
"Keep looking," Agatha grated out. "He's my kid brother and I love him, God damn it, despite all the hell he's put me and my folks through." She paused, then wheezed out an unhappy little laugh. "Maybe I ought to offer a reward for his safe return. Tommy'd come back from the dead if he thought he could earn a hundred bucks for it."
It fit what I knew about Tommy a little too well for my comfort. Like getting slapped, it knocked me out of my mental groove and back on track. "It's a thought," I said. "You've still got three more days coming on that retainer. Give it that long."
"Yeah," she said. "Get out of here, shamus. Go do something useful."
"See you later, Agatha." I let myself out. She never turned around.
I went back to my office. It was empty, for once.
I ran a hand over my jaw and decided I didn't feel like shaving. I tidied things up a little, listening to the rain outside, and then went to sit at the typewriter. The past couple of days were burned into my mind like they'd been etched there with acid, and it didn't take me more than an hour to write the whole thing down, from start to finish. I put in every fact that I knew. I didn't bother lying about any of it, although I left out some of the juicier details.
Once that was done, I peeled off the carbon copy and stashed it in my file cabinet, in the folder marked DANVERS, THOMAS (HEAVENSENT, HONEY). On a whim I grabbed a pen and added (CLARA) to the tab, even though it was only ever me who'd called her that. The original I folded and stuck in an envelope. I addressed it to my own post-office box, put a stamp on it, and ran down to put the letter in the mailbox on the corner, getting rained on for my troubles. It'd be the first action my box had seen in a month, but if anything happened to me, it'd be there, safe, waiting for the authorities. It made me feel better even as it fed my paranoia.
I heated up a tin of soup on the hot plate, then parked my heels on my desk and settled in with a bottle of rye. I let my mind go empty. I filled it back up with whisky. I burned a couple, and I thought, still listening to the rain. I had a bad feeling about this, and I couldn't shake it, so eventually I stubbed out my last butt and dozed for a while instead.
Ned Brandlestock kept me waiting until close to four PM. I was still dozing when the phone rang, something I hadn't heard in so long that it nearly startled me into falling off my chair. I managed not to. I grabbed the receiver. "Immanuel."
"Mr. Immanuel," Ned said, sounding doubly ponderous in his attempt not to sound excited. "The appraisers tell me that that is indeed half of the clasp from the missing necklace and that the diamond attached to it is real."
"I could have told you that," I said, sitting up. "Can we deal, then?"
His hesitation came through loud and clear. "I believe we can," he finally said. "I'll need, erm, some assurances."
"Tell you what, Ned," I said. "You get together that cash and have it ready by tonight, and I'll bend over backwards to make this thing go smoothly. You have my word that my intentions are good."
"Ah, hm," he said, which told me a lot about what he thought of my word. "Our accountant is arranging for the cash now. If you'll come by my office at... shall we say, seven PM? We can discuss this matter further."
"Seven PM," I said. "Have the money somewhere you can get at it."
He said his goodbyes and clicked off. I hung up the phone, lit another gasper, and picked the receiver up again to call Clara's hotel. Mabel connected us and Clara snatched up the phone on the first ring, her voice breathless with excitement. "Marcus?"
"None other," I said.
"Well?" Her voice nearly shook. "What's the news?"
"Sounds like the appraisal went fine," I said, blowing smoke at the ceiling. "Mr. Brandlestock is eager to deal. I'll be heading that way in a couple of hours."
"Oh, Marcus," she said, her voice rich with the thrill of it. "That's wonderfulshould I come over there?"
"No. You want to help?"
"I want to help."
I told her what she could do. She was so eager to get to it that she hung up on me without saying goodbye.
I had a couple of hours to kill, so I ate an early dinner and ran down to the YMCA for another shower. After last night, I thought I could probably use it. Ten minutes with a washrag hadn't quite gotten all of the smell of Tommy off my skin this morning, and every time I caught a whiff of him it set my mind back a little. I had a good long shower, I thought about Tommy, and I got dressed again in a reflective mood.
It was dark by five-thirty and that rain was proving persistent. I made my way to the train station with my hat pulled low to shield my eyes.
Clara sat on one of the benches, her little overnight bag parked beside her, her nose in a movie magazine. She pretended not to see me as I went past and stuck my key in the locker. The Dopp kit still sat there. The diamonds were still inside, sparkling up at me like little stars. I shut the Dopp, closed the locker, plugged in another dime, and took my key again. So far, so good. I let my eyes graze over Clara as I turned to go, and if I dropped one eye shut in a wink, well, she was a good-looking dame, after all.
On my way out of the station I turned into the men's and got rid of the rye I'd drunk earlier. The place was deserted, empty enough to echo, and I'd just shaken the rain off my hat and put it back on when the door opened and Clara popped in, bold as brass, turning the thumb-lock on the door behind her. I should have known. "Hey, sister, can't you read?" I jerked a thumb at the urinals. "Men's room."
Clara's jaw relaxed and Tommy smirked out at me from under the paint. "Don't act cute, Marcus. It doesn't suit you."
"I could say the same for you," I growled. "What's the big idea? You want to get busted on another morals charge? That it?"
I knew it was the wrong thing to say even when I was saying it. That crazy light flicked on in Tommy's eyes like someone had lit a match in there. "Maybe," he said, crowding me back into a corner, his little heels ticking on the tiled floor like a bomb. "You've been talking to Agatha."
"She's my client," I pointed out. "She'd figure out something was screwy if I didn't talk to her. Now blow, before we get caught in here."
"Don't be like that, Marcus," Tommy said sulkily. "I just wanted to give you a little something for luck." His hands flashed up and grabbed my face, and he kissed me so hard I thought he'd punched me instead. While I was still reeling from it, those little gloved hands of his got sneaky. I came back from my daze in a big hurry when he got hold of something he shouldn't have, and before I could shove him away he flicked his tongue over that pointed canine tooth of his and went delicately to his knees on the dirty bathroom tiles.
What he did to me then was something off a filthy French postcard. I stopped fighting it pretty quickly and just fell back against the wall, clutching at his shoulders to avoid disheveling his wig or mangling his pretty little hat. No human being ought to know dirty tricks like that one. Unable to stop myself I called him a whore over and over, until the bathroom walls rang with it. Eventually I had to let go and stuff the heel of my hand into my mouth to avoid making unnecessary noise, and when I was done with that he put me back to rights and stood up, every last little bit of his lipstick gone. I thought I knew where I'd find it. "Good luck," he said, and he kissed me with a mouth that tasted like dirty seawater.
I left him there, reapplying his lipstick in the mirror. His eyes followed me in the mirror as I left. I could feel them on the back of my neck, like ants.
Pioneer Square was still crowded, even after dark. Most of the lights in Pratcock's building were out, but there was one still burning on the seventh floor. I made it out to be Brandlestock's office. I let myself in to the darkened lobby and trudged up seven flights of stairs, unwilling to waste time hunting up the elevator boy.
Pratcock's main door was locked, but it opened to my knock. The guy behind the door was a big piece of work with his suit jacket cut just right to hide the bulge under one arm. He looked at me like I was something he'd stepped in. "You Immanuel?"
"Me Immanuel," I said, flashing him my license just to prove it. "You Jane?"
"Funny, funny guy," he said in a toneless voice, opening the door just wide enough. I slid past him. He shut the door.
Once he had the door locked again Jane put me up against the wall and patted me down, running his hands under my jacket and down my legs. He didn't know me from Adam and wouldn't have cared if he did, but with Clara's little performance fresh on my mind, I was inclined to take it the wrong way. I'd have embarrassed myself if I'd been able to, but fortunately Clara's trick had left me disinclined to rise to the occasion. I thought about warning Jane not to get any lipstick on his hands, but in the end, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
He took my gun from its holster without comment. I let him. He waited a minute to see if I was going to smart off. When I didn't, he nodded and stuck my gun into his waistband. "Come on. Mr. Brandlestock's waiting."
It was quiet in here now, after everyone else had gone home. Quiet, and dark. I followed my guide through the darkened hallways towards the single point of light that was Brandlestock's office. Ned Brandlestock was waiting for us there, standing by the window and watching the tide of humanity surge through Pioneer Square, absently stroking his little mustache. "Mr. Immanuel," he said. He sounded nervous. Excited. Something. Jane went to lean against the wall where he could see us both.
"Ned," I said in return, taking the same chair I'd sat in earlier and putting my hat on my knee. "Could I see the money, please?"
My guide stirred at that. "Listen, buddy, if you think we're going to just hand that money over"
"I don't," I said. "I just want to make sure that it's here, that's all."
Ned exchanged looks with my guide, then nodded. "I suppose I don't see the harm in it," he said. The safe that sat by his file cabinets was a squat and heavy thing that looked to be bolted to the floor; he knelt in front of it and turned the dial, shielding the combination from me with his body. Jane pushed his jacket open and put a hand none too discreetly on the butt of his gun. I thought I should maybe be insulted, but I decided to save it up for later. Eventually Ned got the safe open. He stood up and put a canvas deposit bag on his desk.
It made a comfortable little stack, two thousand dollars in used ones and fives. The bills didn't lie so neatly together, being used, but I thought they were still awfully pretty. "That's nice," I said. "Why don't you go ahead and put it away again? I don't want to make Jane here nervous."
"Jane?" Ned said, confused, but instead of pursuing that line of questioning he started packing the money away again. "Mr. Immanuel"
"Here's what I propose," I said, hustling to keep charge of this event. I fished around in my pants pocket and put the locker key on the desk. "This is the key to a locker at the Westlake train station. The diamonds are in it, in an old Dopp kit."
Ned picked up the key and looked at it. My guide rumbled out a disgusted little sound. "And I suppose we're supposed to just hand over the money in exchange for this key."
"That wouldn't be very smart of you, would it, Jane?" I was sort of enjoying myself now. "No, what you're supposed to do is take this key, go to the Westlake station, and check the locker. Meanwhile, I'll stay here with Ned, all nice and comfortable. Once you've got the diamonds, you call and say so, and then Ned can hand over the cash and I'll take my leave. Hell, I'll even sign a receipt, if you want."
"And if they're not there?"
"Then I guess I don't get any cash," I said, spreading my hands. "They were there an hour ago, though, and a friend of mine is there right now, keeping an eye on the locker. Just to make sure no one pulls a fast one." Including my new friend Jane, although I didn't add that part out loud.
Ned licked his lips and rubbed a fat thumb over the key. "If you wouldn't mind, Timothy...?"
"Sure. Why not? Nice night for a walk, huh? Cold and rainy." JaneTimothytook the key from Ned and ran his own thumb over the engraved numbers.
"And since one little gesture of trust deserves another, I'll even let you put my gun in the safe with the money," I added, before anyone could get any ideas about that. It wasn't a great gun, but it was the only one I had, and Timothy didn't need to keep it.
Timothy's lip rose in a little sneer, but he fished my gun out of his waistband and dropped it onto the canvas deposit bag. The sight of it made Ned look a little ill, but he gingerly picked up the whole bundle and shoved it back in the safe.
Timothy glanced out of the window, gauging the rain. "Shouldn't be more than half an hour. Don't make any trouble," he added, aimed mostly at me, and for the hell of it he rumpled my hair before he left.
It got quiet, then. I raked my hair flat and lit a cigarette. Ned got up and went to stare out the window again, patting at his little mustache. Eventually he pulled a thin cigar out of his shirt pocket and lit it. It gave him a rakish air, which he sorely needed, and good manners nudged him into offering me one, to boot. All we needed was a bottle of something and things would have becomed downright convivial in here, except for the bit where we'd barely said ten words since Timothy left. Ned smoked hard, like he was nervous. I couldn't imagine why.
It took most of forever. I'd smoked two of Ned's little cigars and four of my own cigarettes by the time the phone on the desk rang, making us both jump like a couple of hop-heads. Ned scrambled for it. "Yes," he said, holding the receiver in both hands. "Yes. You're sure?" He listened for a moment, then closed his eyes. "All right. Thank you, Timothy. Bring them back here, please." He hung up the phone.
"Well?" I said, trying not to enjoy this too much.
"Well," Ned said, with a little shrug, and for the second time that night he got down on his knees in front of his safe.
I put my gun back into my shoulder holster, then took that fat deposit bag with hands that weren't quite shaking. "Pleasure doing business," I said, and touching the brim of my hat, I once again showed myself out of Ned Brandlestock's office.
The powerful rush of success leaked away almost before I got out of Pioneer Square. The walk home was harrowing. I was carrying two thousand dollars in cash at a time when damned near any man in Seattle would cut my throat for fifty bucks. I went with both my coat and my suit jacket open, so that my hand could hover as close to the gun under my arm as possible. I got a little wet. I preferred it to the alternative.
Despite my need to get out of the rain before someone signed the death warrant under my arm, I caught my feet dragging when I was no more than halfway there. I don't like myself much when I'm feeling superstitious, and right about then I was feeling superstitious as hell. I told myself it was just the money. I told myself that long and hard. I hiked up the deposit bag, touched the butt of my gun, and hunched my shoulders, hurrying on towards my office and the momentary illusion of safety.
It was still a long walk. Uphill. I'd never hated it more.
It ended well, though. Clara was waiting for me under the overhang of my office building, clutching at the collar of her raincoat like she was trying to choke herself to death. Her hair shone like gold even under the dim streetlights. Her face shone like fire. She was so eager to get her hands on that money that she ran to me the moment I turned the corner, turning our meeting into a collision in the middle of the street. "Marcus?" Clara said, her voice hushed with anticipation.
"Yeah," I said tiredly. I hooked the canvas bag out of my coat, just a little, and showed her the corner. "Job well done, I'd say."
Her little gloved hands fluttered to her face, fingertips pressed to her lips. Above them her eyes went wide. I wished I could believe that it was me, instead of the money, that made her look that way. "Oh, Marcus," she said, and she grabbed my collar right there in the middle of the street and kissed me so hard I thought my ears might pop.
I made yet another mistake: I let her. Even in demure-damsel mode those kisses were something else. A kiss to die for, I guess you might say, if you thought you were funny.
She let her fingertips trail down over my chest and so help me, the only thing I thought was that she was maybe going to go for my pants again, and that maybe I was inclined to let her. Even when she put her arms around me, snaking them under my coat, I didn't think so much of it, as the kiss had made me gorilla-stupid. When she pulled away and drew those hands back out, though, she made little snatching motions with both of them. Suddenly she had my gun in one hand and the deposit bag in the other, and she hopped back a couple of quick paces like a crow. "Now!" she snapped.
Part of the loitering darkness detached itself from the side of my building. Light gleamed dully on a handful of blued steel. "Well, well, pee-eye," Dickie said, almost obscenely cheerful as he ambled over to complete our little triangle. "In receivership of stolen goods! Who woulda thunk it?"
I cursed myself for a God-damned fool even as I put my hands up. I'd figured that Clara could handle big dumb Dickie, but I hadn't known just how right I was. She'd handled him, all right. She'd handled him right into being her stooge. She'd double-crossed me but good, and the night's fun wasn't anywhere near over. Clara turned on Dickie, stamping her foot, her face ablaze with rage. "You were supposed to shoot him right away, you louse! I told you to shoot him right away!"
"Aw, dollface," Dickie said, affably condescending. He started to say something else, probably to tell her not to worry her pretty little head about it, but right about then Clara pointed my gun at me and pulled the trigger. Thunder cracked the world and the fist of God smote me square in the ribs, putting me down for the count.
The wet bricks came up to kiss me on the face. I couldn't hear anything but the echoing roar of my gun. Dimly, I could see the two of them raging at each other. Why wasn't I dead? There was a radiating ache in my chest that made it hard to breathe except in shallow gasps, and I knew it to be a broken rib at the very least, but I still didn't seem to be dead. With an effort I stuck my numbed hand into my jacket and found the sacrificial victim, my dead soldier, once a perfectly good steel butter knife, now a bent piece of metal with a flattened bullet mashed hard into the bend. I grabbed a handful of curb and started levering myself upright.
My hearing was coming back to me now, although both Dickie and Clara sounded like they were shouting from the other side of sixty feet of tin culvert. "not gonna jump every time some dizzy doll says 'frog'," Dickie snapped. "I shoot him now, I shoot him later, he's still dead, ain't he? What's the big rush, sister? Why the hurry?"
The rain was pounding down all around us, and the streetlights were flickering, and they thought I was fish food, but still I have no idea how I got so close before they noticed that I was still breathing. "Because I know something you don't," I wheezed, and then I fell down again, but as I went I grabbed a handful of strawberry-blonde hair and dragged it after me.
Clara's ridiculous little round hat hit the ground and rolled. Her hair was a dead animal still mauling my hand. Hairpins hit the ground with tiny ringing sounds, like bells, and under his curls Tommy's face blazed out at both of us with hate and rage and greed.
Dickie fell back a step, his face contorting. I'd never seen repugnance so clear on a man's face before, as Dickie figured out just a few hours too late that the girl he'd pinned his hopes on wasn't. Disgusted, he spat on the ground instead of bringing up his gun, and so when Tommy shrieked his rage and shot Dickie in the gut, Dickie couldn't do much else except sit down hard on the roadway, his mouth white-lipped and working. Tommy wheeled on me, mad-eyed. "Look what you made me do!" he screamed, kicking me in the ribs hard enough to flip me halfway over. I choked on a scream too large for my throat. Tommy hauled off and kicked me again. "Now look what you've done!"
Dickie got his gun up, then, a little too late. The slug slammed into Tommy's chest just under one of those little rubber breasts and turned the expression on his face from insane hate to comical surprise. He staggered for a moment, then fell down beside me. Ten feet away Dickie collapsed as well, putting us all on the same level.
Somehow I got my legs under me and crawled over to the bleeding she-creature gasping out her life in the middle of the road. Every breath that Tommy gasped in shook his whole body, and his eyes were fixed on some point far, far away. He never saw me again, not even when I hauled his head into my lap; he stared off at something I couldn't see for a little while, then made a thick rattling sound and died.
Lowering his head back to the pavement and standing up took just about all the strength I had left. I didn't feel much. Sore, mostly, and underneath the soreness, hollowed out. I hadn't loved him. I hadn't even liked him very much. I couldn't figure out why I felt so damned empty. Maybe because he'd given me something I'd thought I'd never be able to have, even if he'd only done it to serve his own twisted ends. He'd let go of the money bag when he died, so I took it. Two thousand dollars was just too much money to pass up. I tried to tell myself that I'd use it to blow this town, but I knew I was lying. My gun, I didn't care to take.
In the end? I left him there, on the ground, in the rain, and I limped away, and I didn't look back. Because I knew that no matter what I wanted, no matter how hard I hoped, no matter how much I clapped and believed in fairies, he'd still be there, lying dead in the cold Seattle rain.
Let me tell you, unhappy endings are not a common thing in SSB*B, and some people were taken aback that this story didn't come out all right in the end. The problem was that it couldn't, not without betraying its grim noir-ish origins. I could have tacked on a half-decent happy ending, maybe, but it would have felt dishonest; the ending that the story has now is pretty much the only real ending I could have given it.
That being said, I loved writing this story, despite knowing all along how it was going to come out.