Posted on November 7, 2015
A little change of pace this time.
Here are the rules about First Friday Free Fiction:
1) This story (Port Arthur) is the intellectual property of and is copyrighted by me Jake MacMillan. You can read it here for free but don’t pass it around (if you want to share it with people send them here to read it) and definitely don’t share it or any part of it without attribution.
2) I’m not going to tell you anything about the story, i.e. – its genre or length or general subject matter, because as a genrista (a loyal follower of the Genrist), you are blind to such trappings and simply want to read a good story.
This month’s free story is called Port Arthur. Enjoy.
J. J. MacMillan
I had to keep my head down for a week or two, so I blew Los Angeles and drove east across the desert to a place I had last left in handcuffs. A small oil slick of a town on the Gulf Coast with more refineries than churches and more churches than would be good for anyone.
I guess you can call it home even if you never slowed down long enough for anyone to remember your name. Even if you never stopped moving from rented house to tent park to motor court one step ahead of a mangy sheriff out to dun your old man for some back rent. Because, in America, everyone gets to have a home, even stray dogs.
My old man followed the oil fields and my mother, brother and I followed him. That’s how it is in hard times. You follow the work even if it’s just a couple days of backbreaking labor for less than you can buy a bag of groceries.
But even bad homes have good memories. I drove straight to the town square with my stomach grumbling in anticipation of the sort of food I hadn’t had since before the war. The Elite Diner. Six tables and four bar stools where everything was sliced thin, breaded just right, fried golden brown and served hot. It was the kind of food that made you happy for no reason and sleepy in the afternoon.
I had just finished a plate of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and was tucking into a slice of pecan pie at the counter when I felt a large hand come down on my shoulder. I tensed for a fight.
“I’ll be darned,” the voice boomed from behind me. “Is this a Doyle I see in front of me?”
I looked up into the jowly, alcoholic face of Red Hopper. A superficially bucolic man, draped in sheets of fine wool large enough to have come straight from the sail maker. The town’s Mayor for life.
“Mayor,” I said.
“What in the world are you doing back here, son? I heard you and your brother were living out in the Los Angeles.”
“We are,” I said. “I just came back for a quick visit.”
He ogled the scars on the right side of my face and said, “What the hell happened to your face, son?”
“Well, doesn’t that just beat all?” As abruptly as he had brought it up, he dropped it.
“I’m having a party tonight and you, you big war hero, are going to attend. Don’t argue, I’m going to employ my gubernatorial powers to make it official. I will send a squad car after you, if need be.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him his powers were mayoral, not gubernatorial, and I had had my fill of being carried around in squad cars back in LA, so I told him I would go.
After he left, the waitress – a cute girl who couldn’t have been more than 18 – leaned in and said, “You watch yourself tonight. I heard about them parties. Orgies and stuff. Cops cover it up.”
I accepted the check from her, over-tipped, and said, “I’ll keep an eye out.”
Hopper’s house was a fake antebellum monstrosity that could have stood in for the mayoral mansion in a city large enough to actually have one. It was a white stone block with wrap-around porches on two floors supported by Roman revival columns. And that night, the long, circular driveway was clogged with knots of parked cars that spilled into the street.
I had been in this house once before, but that had only been so the mayor could officially drop all charges against me on the eve of my “enlistment.” Since then I’d made captain, picked up a medal to go with my scars, and gotten some ink in the Los Angeles Herald for breaking a big case. In the mayor’s mind, these things had promoted me from detainee to honored guest.
What surprised me most about the mayor’s party wasn’t the size of his house but the size of his guest list. How could Port Arthur have acquired enough middle-class and flat-out rich people to fill every room in the manse with men in tailored suits and women in fashionable dresses?
I was no virgin to drunken bashes, but I had never seen so many respectable people acting so unrespectable all at the same time in the same place. It bothered me in a way I didn’t really understand – like seeing your parents drunk – so I stayed sober just to spite them.
A woman caught my eye. She was beautiful but it was more the way she hung at the edge of the crowd that got me interested. We seemed to be watching the drunken saps with the same detached disdain. I made my way over to where she stood shaking her head at the inebriated shambling mass.
“Hi,” I said. It was my only come-on line.
She pretended not to notice me.
That was when I realized she wasn’t disdaining the crowd, she was worrying over it.
“You look concerned.”
“You have an amazing depth of perception.” She still hadn’t looked at me. For all I knew, that withering remark had been aimed at someone in the herd.
“Well, I am a PI,” I said.
She finally turned my way. “The one from Los Angeles?”
“Well, I’m not looking for anyone and I’m certainly not missing him,” she said. “I can see him right there.”
I looked where she pointed and saw a brute of a man in a suit cut to show off his physique, trying to dance with a woman too drunk for her high heels. Looking at him a little closer, I could see that most of the musculature was covered in a layer of fat. He was a fullback gone to seed, a hometown hero going soft. “Cars or tables?”
“Your husband. Does he own a car lot or a restaurant?”
She looked at me as if I had been dropped whole cloth from another dimension.
“Neither. Anymore. He just puts his name on them. How did you know?”
“He has the look,” I said. “And you’re worried why?”
“It’s really none of your business,” she said, but then softened her attitude. “Look, I don’t want to bore you. It’s just the usual.”
The usual. It was the same everywhere, in every country and every culture. He was going to drink too much, get too fresh with the wrong woman, and call a man out for a fight. If he didn’t kick the living snot out of the husband or boyfriend in question, he’d force him to watch while he got slobbery with his woman.
However it played out, this woman, the linebacker’s wife, was going to be humiliated. She was a bird in a cage. I had always hated cages.
I made my way into the dance floor and slipped between the linebacker and the sloppy drunk wife of a man who’d passed out on a sofa near the front windows.
“Mind if I cut in?”
The linebacker grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around, his right fist cocked back like the projectile in a catapult. I gleaned from this that he wasn’t in the mood to talk about it.
I caught the punch with my right hand and twisted it until his wrist was close to breaking, then turned the arm until he was sitting on the floor. I expected him to get all sore and lash out but he just laughed, as if we had been clowning around.
“Hey, I know you. You’re that alley cat Doyle. Right? What the hell are you doing back in town?”
The woman he had been dancing with drifted back toward the party, looking for less controversial quarry, as the linebacker’s wife joined us. “What’s that? What’s an alley cat?”
I let him go. The linebacker got to his feet, still laughing, and said, “Bare knuckle boxer.”
“Bare knuckle? Why would anyone do that?” the woman asked.
“The Depression,” the linebacker said. “Remember? I think there was something in the papers about it.”
“I remember,” she said, her anger icing over into cold hatred.
“Guys had to do anything to make money.” Then he squinted and pointed me.
“You’re Roy, right? You fought. Your brother danced, right?”
“That’s pretty much how it broke out, yeah,” I said.
“Is that what happened to your face?”
“A lot of things happened to my face,” I said.
The linebacker stood unsteadily and ran his thumb and forefinger over his eyes.
“Man, I’m drunk. Take me home.”
It took a moment for me to realize he was talking to his wife. She got under him, supporting him with his arm draped over her shoulder.
“What’s your name?” I asked as she led him outside.
“Melissa Meadows,” she said, staggering under her husband’s weight.
“Charley Meadows!” her husband said as if affixing his name to this conversation the way he did with other people’s restaurants. “Come around one of my steak places and mention my name for a free meal!”
“I’ll do that.” I had no intention of doing that.
“Say, what did you end up doing? Are you a prize fighter?” he asked.
“PI,” I said.
“Motel peeper?” he laughed. “Really?”
His wife led him off while he was still laughing at me.
Charley Meadows. Yeah, that clicked. He was a few years younger than me, had been a big football hopeful in high school. The last I had heard of him, he had gone off to play for some college. Must have made at least a small ripple in the pond if he had been able to parlay his name into a chain of eateries – even if he didn’t own any of them.
I watched them stagger to a bruiser of a Mercury convertible parked with one whitewall tire on the curb. It had a long nose and a grill that looked like it ate coupes that got in its way.
And then, as I wondered about the car, I caught a bit of action out of the corner of my eye just in time to see him push her away and smack her so hard across the face that she fell to her knees.
I was in motion and, before he could deliver the finishing blow, I was between them. He froze, seeing me, and glared at me with bleary recognition. “I could break you in half.”
“Probably,” I said.
“This ain’t your business. Get out of my way.”
I hit him three times – jaw, eye, temple – before he knew I was going to do anything. Then I got busy guiding his collapse so he landed mostly in the backseat of his car.
Melissa came to stand just behind me, careful like she was watching a monster she wasn’t entirely sure was dead. “That’s the fastest… I’ve never seen anyone move like that.”
“Yeah, help me get him folded into the car so you can drive him home.”
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to drive.”
“You don’t know how to drive a car?” I had forgotten I was no longer in Los Angeles, where even dogs knew how to drive.
“Could you drive us? You could sleep on the divan…”
“My car is here…” I tried to beg off.
“I’ll have a cab bring you back for your car. Please?”
What I really wanted was to shake her and yell at her about being stupid enough to marry a man who beat her and got drunk and rubbed up against other women right in front of her. That was why I hated victims. They wove their lives out of bad choices and I ended up rescuing them from the consequences.
“Sure,” I said.
I should have gone back to LA right then. My bags were still in my car. I had a full tank and plenty of cash. But I was waiting on a phone call from a certain Polish immigrant mobster to tell me it was safe to return, and the only number he had for me was at the Sunrise Motor Court, just outside of town and mostly upwind of the refineries.
With the number of hired guns he had prowling LA looking for the guy who wanted to kill me, I figured I shouldn’t have to cool my heels in Port Podunk for more than a few days.
I noticed a second car in the garage when we got to her house. She caught what I was thinking and said, “Okay, so I lied. I just didn’t feel safe coming back alone. And I need your help getting him out of the car.” Then she got all doe-eyed on me.
“You could stay. He won’t wake up for hours and…”
“Call me a cab,” I said. “Let him wake up in the car tomorrow with a hangover and a black eye and a sore jaw. When he asks what happened, tell him he walked into a door.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t normally proposition strange men.”
“It’s been a strange night,” I said. “Call me that cab, okay?”
The Sunrise Motor Court was like every other motor court I had stayed in during my childhood. One step up from a tent camp. One step below a rent house. A sad gathering of rundown huts, sometimes adobe and sometimes wood, arranged around a parking lot that was more potholes than pavement.
When I was a kid, those places hadn’t had indoor plumbing. And even though this one had a private bathroom and a radio by the bed, I still felt like I hadn’t come very far. After all the miles I’d traveled and all the people I had become over the past five years, here I was sitting on the edge of a bed in my undershirt in a motor court drinking rye whisky and listening to the radio. It could have been Berlin or Los Angeles or the goddamn Frontier Motor Court, where I’d started the ball rolling in ’42 by killing a man with his own gun.
I pulled up my suspenders and stepped outside for a smoke in the fresh night air, hoping it would pick up my spirits. A black Ford coupe was parked in front of the unit next to mine. It looked like one of those cars that needed the constant application of tape and baling wire to keep it running. A big guy in hospital scrubs leaned against it, smoking a cigarette. He had the build of a wrestler and black hair that glinted in the red light of the vacancy sign.
“Howdy,” I said.
“Some place, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s a real dump,” he said.
“You a doctor?”
“Nurse,” he said. “I work over at St. Mary’s.”
St. Mary’s was an asylum where they needed big guys with nursing degrees who could both restrain the patients and inject them without punching a hole in a tendon. “Hard work.”
“What do you know about it?” he asked.
“My fiancée is in an asylum,” I said. “I spend a lot of time there, see how things are.”
“Everyone thinks I got hired because of my size, you know?” He crushed out his cigarette and pulled another one from the pack in his scrubs without offering me one. “But I got a real license. Not like some of those goons that just buy ‘em cheap off some sap at the border.”
“That’s tough,” I said. “Well, you’re helping people.”
“Yeah, right,” he said and dragged on his cigarette. I went into my room, turned on the radio to drown out all the other radios in all the other rooms, and went to bed.
The next day I quelled my hangover with a Mexican breakfast and some hair of the dog that bit me. Then I took in an afternoon matinee of “Murder, My Sweet” at the Palace – a print so scratchy it must have been on its fourth run. Later, I had dinner at the Elite and went back to my room to drink myself to sleep and listen to the radio some more.
I woke the next morning to the phone jangling in my ear. The hope that this was my freedom call, that I would soon be heading back to LA, propelled me from a dead sleep like a shocked cat. But it was Melissa Meadows on the line.
“Come now. You have to come right now,” she said.
I shook my head, repressed the urge to vomit, and remembered where I was and who she was. “Melissa?”
“You have to come right now. They’re going to tear up my rose bushes.”
“Who’s after your roses, Melissa?”
“The police! They think Charley is under there.”
The panic in her voice sobered me up. “Tell them your lawyer is on the way and they can’t do a thing until he’s seen the papers.”
“You’re bringing a lawyer?”
“Don’t ask questions.”
The Meadows house was large but not extravagant. I followed the driveway to where it split off for the garage in the backyard. It was obvious they entertained often. Charley had a brick patio with several wrought iron tables and a BBQ pit large enough to turn a full side of beef.
Half a dozen Negroes in coveralls leaned against their shovels while a man who looked like a police lieutenant paced the yard, frustration burning in his doughy face.
“You the goddamn lawyer?” he asked as I came around the corner.
Along the property line opposite the patio, a single row of rose bushes sprouted from soft, recently turned earth as if they had just been planted. Or re-planted.
“No, I’m not the lawyer,” I said. “I’m just a friend who would like to see that things are done right.”
“You’re a goddamn PI, aren’t you? Hell, you’re Roy Doyle. I recognize your damn scarred-up face. What’s your stick in this fire?” He towered over me and waved a sheaf of papers in my face. “I got everything right here says I can look wherever I want and I want to look under those bushes.”
“What’s your name?” I asked quietly.
“Police Lieutenant David Broadhurst.” He flashed a badge to reinforce that fact.
“Okay, David, that’s all fine with me, but I’d like to know what it is you’re looking for.”
“Charley,” the LT said. “Why the hell do you think I got half a dozen men standing around with shovels? We’re gone to dig Charley up and then we’re gone to take the Missus, here, downtown to book her for the murder of her husband.”
I rubbed my temples and looked from the LT to Melissa and back again. “I saw Charley two days ago – alive and kicking.”
“Yeah but he ain’t showed up for work since,” the LT said. “Man owns his own business don’t just take the day off without telling nobody.”
“And you think this rose bed has something to do with his disappearance? Maybe a tragic gardening accident?”
“Look how fresh turned that dirt is,” he said. “Those bushes have been there for years and that dirt is fresh as yesterday.”
I turned to Melissa, “Why?”
“I read that fresh soil spurs new growth, so I turned them and added some dirt and peat,” she said. “Please don’t let them dig them up, Roy. Please. We planted those roses when we got married.”
I said to the LT, “Listen to me, David. Don’t do this. You’re just going to make a fool out of yourself and waste the taxpayers’ money.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
“First off, you’ve got no motive for murder. Second, even an amateur would know better than to plant a body in such an obvious place.”
“We gone to dig or not?” one of the workmen asked. “We got potholes to fill Westside if we ain’t gone to work here.”
“You’re gone to dig, just hold your damn horses,” the LT said, locking eyes with me.
I figured I was done at that point. This was a prestige thing with him. He was junior, probably fresh off the test, not real smart and sadly lacking in education. In his head, he was already accepting some imaginary award from the mayor for solving the biggest murder in the town’s history.
“Can’t you stop them?” Melissa pleaded. “Don’t you have a gun or something?”
“I don’t carry a gun,” I said, more to the LT than to her. “And even when I do, I try not to shoot at the cops on account of how they shoot back.”
I took her by the shoulders and bent slightly to make eye contact. “Melissa, you’re worrying about the wrong thing. Let them dig up the roses. They’ll just have to put them back when they’re done. The real problem here is: where is Charley?”
She sniffed and said, “Oh, I know where Charley is.”
I took her by the arm and led her out of the LT’s earshot. “I need a moment to confer with my client.”
“Your client? You ain’t a lawyer and as far as the state of Texas is concerned, you ain’t a PI, neither.”
“Reciprocity,” I said. “The same reason my California driver’s license is good in Texas.”
He frowned and I led Melissa further out of earshot while he tried to figure out if I was lying.
“Is that true?” she asked.
“Stop asking me questions,” I said. “Where’s Charley? Is he alive?”
“Of course! He’s run off on a bender with that whore he keeps up in Grove. You know what she does? She runs a dress shop. She makes dresses.” The indignity in her voice seemed more pointed at how low her husband would stoop than the fact that he was cheating on her.
“And he’s done this before?”
“Whenever he wants to punish me,” she said. “He takes off for a few days of dirty sheets and then comes home like nothing happened. Make the police go up to Grove and look at the apartment above her shop before they dig up my roses. They’ll see.”
I turned back to the LT and saw that it was already too late. The shovels were turning the earth, pitching the rose bushes to the side. “Damn it, David, I was trying to help you.”
He snorted. “Yeah, a PI trying to help a cop. When pigs fly.”
“He’s having an affair with a woman in Grove. Every now and then, he runs off and spends a few days there to teach the wife a lesson.”
“Uh huh,” he said, watching the laborers dig.
I decided right then that the only help I was going to offer was to help him dig a hole he couldn’t climb out of.
An hour later, the workmen were standing hip deep in a trench with hard earth under their feet. The roses were cast aside and dying too quickly to be replanted.
And no corpse.
I figured that if they were going to destroy something of Melissa’s in this dimwitted quest, there should be a way to even things out. “David,” I said, catching him up while he stared into the empty trench. “If I were going to hide a body I’d give you something obvious to dig up, something so obvious you’d overlook the real hiding place.”
He stared at me.
“The BBQ pit, David. I’d put him in the BBQ pit.”
“Get your sledges,” David called to the laborers. And they proceeded to destroy the BBQ pit, beating on it until it was nothing but a pile of broken bricks and ash.
“He’s not there!” the LT cried at me. “We just busted up his pit for nothing.”
“I said that’s what I would do if I wanted to hide a body,” I said. “I didn’t say there was a corpse there. Charley is up in Grove making sweet, sweet heat with his girlfriend while you terrorize his wife and leave the city wide open to a lawsuit for wrongful prosecution.”
“Is that true?” she whispered to me. “Can I do that?”
“Stop asking me questions,” I whispered back.
They left like a pack of jackals moving on to the next bit of carrion. There wouldn’t be any parties in the back yard for a while.
Melissa thanked me for the little help I had been – she seemed particularly pleased with the destruction of Charlie’s BBQ pit – and I went back to my motor court, hoping word had come that it was all right to go back to LA.
The next night, sometime after midnight, I heard noise outside my door. Nervous about the contract with my name on it, I went to the window and pulled back the curtains a little to see who might be messing around out there. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t some guy from Kansas City with grease in his hair and a gun in his hand.
I couldn’t see anything. It was too damn dark. The motor court owner was too cheap to leave the lights on all night, so there was little but inky blackness even to my dark adapted eye.
But then I was able to make out Melissa’s car parked right next to mine. She’d come to try again.
I opened the door and turned on the porch light, catching her in the act of getting into her car. She looked like an animal caught in a trap.
She looked away, embarrassed, and said, “You caught me.”
“Doing what, exactly?” I asked.
“Something stupid.” She still wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“And that is?”
She hung her head. “I was coming to see you. I thought maybe…”
“Come inside,” I said. “Have a drink. Relax. Get it off your chest.”
She shook her head. “I’ve changed my mind. It was a stupid thing. I just get so lonely sometimes. I made a mistake.”
“I get that,” I said. “No problem here.”
“Thanks.” She opened her car door and slid behind the wheel. “Thanks for not taking advantage. Twice.” Then she pushed the starter button, turned on the lights, and backed out of the motor court.
The next knock on my door came not from a Western Union courier with a telegram telling me it was safe to go home, but rather from my new best friend the Mayor, followed closely by the idiot Lt. David Broadhurst, doing his best to look sullen.
“As long as you’re in town,” the Mayor began and then proceeded to prevail upon my professional experience just to make sure everything was on the up and up, or some such nonsense.
“First, you tell me what you’re talking about,” I said, sliding into my pants and reaching for a cigarette.
“It’s not unusual for small town police departments to engage the services of a private detective in extraordinary cases,” he said.
“And why is this an extraordinary case?” I asked.
“Because we don’t know what the hell is going on,” the LT blurted out. “It’s the damnedest thing…”
“Shut up, Broadhurst, you’re already into me for a dozen rose bushes and a brick BBQ pit,” the Mayor snapped. Then he turned to me and said, “Charley is gone. His money is gone. His business has been sold. It appears that he and this chippie he’s been seeing up in Grove burned down her dress shop for the insurance money, and the two of them caught a flight for Cuba.”
That was a lot of information to take in all at once for a man with a hangover and no shirt. I sucked on the cigarette and thought about LA for a moment. Beaches. Sunny days. Cool romantic nights. My almost-wife locked away in an asylum, and my one true love waiting for me to return once the price had come off my head. Paradise, compared to this shithole.
I said, “First off, Charley didn’t have a business. His chain of steak houses was sold a long time ago. All he had left was the fee he charged for them to use his name.”
“Really?” the Mayor asked. “How did you…”
“It’s what I do. I find out stuff,” I said. One thing I’d learned in all the stories I’d read in Black Mask was that you had to make everything appear as if you did it on purpose. Once they saw there was just a confused ex-GI/ex-con behind the curtain, they started doubting you. “Secondly, did he divorce his wife?”
“Not that we’re aware of, but that takes…”
“About fifteen minutes in Mexico,” I said. “And if you have enough money, you don’t need your spouse’s consent or even her presence.” I stood up and pulled on a shirt and tie. “Who handled the transactions?”
“The ones that drained his bank accounts.”
“His accountant. Bill Desalvo. Good man. Straight and narrow all the way. Treasurer of the Rotary Club,” the LT said.
“I guess I ought to talk to him first,” I said. “That is, if you’re hiring me.”
The Mayor found something interesting on the floor to look at. “We were sort of hoping, for old time’s sake…”
“My rate is 25 dollars a day plus expenses. I’m not a charity and for the old time’s sake we have here, I should charge you extra,” I said.
“That’s fine,” the Mayor said. “We’ll get the council to fund it.”
“I’m going to need a $100 retainer before I start.”
“A hundred dollars?” he barked. “That may be the way they do things out there in that Los Angeles…”
“It’s the way I do things wherever I am,” I said. “I’m going to talk with good old Bill Desalvo and when I get back to your office after, I want a hundred in cash or I’m dropping the case until I know you’re serious.”
The Mayor, who rightly thought I was using his disadvantage to get back at him for the way he and his bunch had treated me before the war, ground his teeth into an unpleasant smile. “I’ll make sure it’s ready for you.”
“Good,” I said.
“Just to make sure everything is on the up and up,” he added, “I’ll want Broadhurst, here, to be with you. Maybe he’ll pick up some investigative tips.”
“Fine with me,” I said, though I hated the idea of dragging that lardass around with me. In my line of work I had to be agile with the truth, and this guy was a clodhopper. “Just hold on while I finish getting dressed, and then we’ll go see him.”
Good old Bill Desalvo was a small man with a bald head and a nervous nature who made his living in a cramped room above an office supply store downtown. Every horizontal surface was covered with stacks of papers and the room was crammed full of file cabinets of various heights and colors.
“You’ll have to excuse the mess,” he said. “It’s tax season.”
“That’s all right,” I said even though tax season had passed four months ago. “I never trust a man with a clean desk. I figure he either doesn’t have enough to do or he’s hiding something.”
“I only did what I was told,” he blurted out with a nervous glance at Broadhurst.
“He wanted to move his money, so I moved it.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Some accounts in Cuban banks.” He tried to shrug, as if this were something that happened every day. As if moving your money offshore wasn’t a prelude to disappearance.
“He sent you a letter?” I asked.
Desalvo nodded. “And then he called me and said to do it.”
“Can I see the letter?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” Desalvo whined. “You can’t… that’s privileged…”
Broadhurst justified his presence by shoving over a filing cabinet. It landed with a bang, spilling its guts as the drawers rolled open on impact.
“We can get a warrant,” I said. “But that’ll mean we’ll toss the whole place looking for what we want. On the other hand, you can give it to us and we’ll just go away.”
Desalvo stared at the toppled file cabinet as if at something precious that had been disemboweled. “I’ll get the file for you.”
The letter was interesting. It was a sort of power of attorney that gave Desalvo the right to act on telephone instructions without written authorization.
“He called you to authorize these transfers?”
Desalvo nodded. “I was worried about fulfilling the order, he sounded so drunk, but he wouldn’t let me argue with him. He insisted I do it. He can be very belligerent.”
“You got an account number?”
“Of course,” he said. “It won’t do you any good, though. It’s a one-time-use number. I transfer the money to that account, it gets transferred to another account, and then the first account gets deleted.” He shrugged again. “It’s just how you do it.”
Back in the squad car, I said, “For Charley to pull this off, he had to be planning it for months. He had to put the insurance policy on that dress shop into his name so the funds would get transferred to his offshore account, he had to empower his accountant, and he had to have Cuban banks lined up to receive the funds — which means bribes.”
“So that wraps it up?” the LT asked.
“No, there’s still a loose thread. Why take all these precautions to ensure your anonymity and then charter a plane to Cuba with your girlfriend? They could have driven to Florida and taken a boat over. No one would have noticed them, but here? Right here in Port Arthur, at the municipal airport? That’s like taking out an advertisement saying you’re headed off to Cuba to disappear.”
“Well,” Broadhurst said, “Charley was never all that smart.”
“And that’s the loose string,” I said. “How did he get so clever that he planned all this months in advance, and then makes one stupid mistake at the last minute?”
“Maybe it was the girl, the dress shop owner.”
“Maybe.” I hated it when my thoughts ran around inside my head. The answer was there, in the middle of the hornets’ nest, but I couldn’t see it.
“What are you thinking?” Broadhurst asked.
“I’m thinking about a girl who said she had come to my hotel room for some illicit lovemaking and then changed her mind.”
“Well, that’s pretty good stuff to be thinking about, but I was talking about the case.”
“Me, too,” I said. “Let’s go talk to Mrs. Meadows.”
“She ain’t around. Charley sold the house right out from under her, even had her evicted. She’s living with her mother in Center, about three hours from here.”
“In that case, let’s go have the proprietor of the Sunrise Motor Court open the room next to mine for us, what do you say?”
“If it means I get to lean on somebody,” Broadhurst said, “I’m all for it.”
“That’s good. A man should embrace his qualities.”
“Oh, I got qualities,” Broadhurst said. “I practically got ‘em coming out of my ears.”
Room #4, the one next to mine, was empty and had been for some time, but room #3 had been rented for the whole month and had a strict “do not disturb” policy. Even the maids weren’t allowed inside.
The air in that room was thick with a cloying smell and looked as if it had been hastily cleaned by someone other than the maids. I found a large hypodermic needle on the floor next to one of the beds and a red spot of blood on the sheets.
“What’s that smell?”
“Dope,” I said, remembering the odor of dying flowers from my fiancé’s room at the asylum. “This is where she kept them while we were looking for their bodies and she was liquidating their estates. She kept them doped to the gills until she needed them. That’s why Charley sounded so drunk when he gave Desalvo the order to transfer the funds. He was doped out of his mind.”
“She who? The dress shop girl?”
“Melissa Meadows,” I said. “I would go with ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’, but I think she had been planning this for a very long time. Probably even before she married him. She probably even engineered that business at the party where he hit her in front of me. That was the hook.”
“But Mrs. Meadows couldn’t have been here enough to keep them doped…”
“She had a partner. A male nurse. The two of them dressed up like Charley and his mistress and hired the plane to Cuba when they were done.”
“But where’s Charley?”
“Now is the time to dig up the roses,” I told him. “Charley and his dress shop mistress will be there.”
“And Mrs. Meadows?”
“Cuba. Far out of our reach.”
I left him to convince the Mayor they needed to dig up the roses again, then returned to my motel room to find a note tacked to my door. I had missed a long distance call from LA.
Your fingers never fumble quite like when you’re desperate to dial a number.
The operator inquired as to whether I had reached the party to whom I was speaking. Kamila, my one true love and the second oldest daughter of the most powerful mobster in Los Angeles, answered. “Yes?”
“You called?” I asked.
“Daddy asked me to tell you it was okay to come home.”
“You’re not going to believe this…”
“…but I’m on a case.”
“In the middle of nowhere? You found a case in the middle of nowhere? First you get engaged to a crazed murderer, then you get a price put on your head protecting your secretary? Now you find a case in the middle of Oklahoma…”
“Whatever, I’m beginning to think you’re avoiding me.”
“Listen to me,” I said, “I will be there as soon as I possibly can – One day. Maybe two. – and then it’s you and me and a bottle of vodka. I swear.”
She hung up on me. That was a good sign. When Kamila cared enough to get mad at you, you still had a shot.
I had the operator place the call again. Kamila answered, “What’s the matter? Did I cut you off before you had a chance to pledge your undying love for me?”
“Actually, I need a favor.”
Cuba was hot and wet, like Houston but with more gangsters. While life revolved around oil in Houston, every building and person in Havana was dedicated to tourist hospitality in the form of casinos. Cabbies leapt from their cars and called out fares when I exited the Havana airport. They were like fish jumping for bait, except I was the one who would end up on the hook. Each of them wanted to take me to a particular casino or hotel; it was how they got their kickbacks, how they made their real living.
I knew exactly where I wanted to go and when I wanted to get there so I chose an unaffiliated cab and had him take me to Bar Western, a dive outside the capital district where things got a bit dodgy. Then I had him wait across the street until a long black Chevrolet pulled up to the curb and Melissa Meadows, accompanied by four vicious looking bodyguards, got out and went inside.
I paid the driver and followed them in.
When I sat down across the table from her, she seemed completely unsurprised. “You came.”
“I figured you wanted me to. That’s why you and the now dearly-departed nurse made such a show of leaving for Cuba, and why all the account transfers were to Cuban banks. You wanted me to find you where I couldn’t do anything about it.”
She was a different person now. No longer the mousy wife who occasionally walked into doors, she was more powerful, more glossy. And a hell of a lot more attractive.
“I won’t deny that it’s good to see you,” she said. She raised a hand and motioned for the bartender to bring us a tray of drinks. “I hope you like rum. They drink it chilled with mint leaves in it.”
“Sounds fine, but it’s too bad a guy can’t get a decent cigar,” I said. It was a joke, but a moment later a girl with a tray of hand rolled cigars appeared at our table. She cut one for me, lit it for me, puffed it alight in a fashion that bordered on eroticism, and then handed it over. It was one of the most sensual things I’d ever seen.
I turned to Melissa and said, “They were alive, weren’t they?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
It was the thing she wanted me to bring up, the perfection of her vengeance. It was why she’d brought me all this way to a place where American law couldn’t touch her, and why she had a phalanx of bodyguards to protect her. Someone had to know. Someone from back home had to understand her quest for perfection.
“When you buried Charley and his girl, they were still alive. I figure you let them come out of their stupor just enough to realize what was happening, but still too paralyzed to do anything about it.”
“And then you had your male nurse friend do the shoveling. You know the funny part? The part I can’t get out of my mind because I can’t decide if you did it on purpose or not?”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Initially, you just went out in the middle of the night and turned the soil around the rose bushes. Even you and your boyfriend couldn’t have dug a trench deep enough and long enough to bury two bodies in one night, but then here comes Lieutenant Dimwit and his gang of laborers and they dig it out for you, looking for bodies that aren’t there. Later, all your boyfriend had to do was shovel the loose earth back into the trench on top of your… victims.”
“On purpose,” she said. “It was one of the more difficult things I had to figure out, because I didn’t want to involve more than one other person.”
“Because you didn’t want to have to kill more than one accomplice?”
She smiled and took a sip of her drink. I knew that she didn’t care how many people she had to kill. Her real concern had been that the more people she told, the more likely someone would let something slip. This one nurse she could keep dangling at the end of a sexual thrall until it was time to get rid of him.
“Did you kill the nurse yourself, or have your boys do it?”
“He went for a ride with one of my boys,” she said, “and there was an accident. You know how dangerous it is to have firearms around.”
“I do know that. And so, I’m here and I’ve said the thing you wanted me to say and taken note of the perfection of your planning. What happens now?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We have a drink. You go home and tell everyone how you found me and how they can’t touch me. We’ll even give you a ride to the airport.”
Ah, a ride to the airport. The ride to nowhere.
I said, “Let’s do it right now.”
“I’ve seen you move,” she said. “I know how fast you are, but I also know you don’t carry a gun. Do you really think you’re fast enough to beat up my four guys before one of them puts a bullet in you?”
“That night I caught you outside my room, you were coming from checking on the stiffs, not coming to my room, right?”
She laughed in answer. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You. It tells me a lot about you. About how easily you responded to what must have been a giant shock, when you realized I was staying two doors down from your operation.”
“And what does that tell you?”
“It tells me you don’t have a soul,” I said. “And anyone who trusts you – like Charley and the nurse – does so at his peril.”
This angered her. Her expression hardened and she nodded at her boys, saying, “Let’s go.”
At the surrounding tables, her four bodyguards stood from their chairs, then walked out of the bar without a word or a look back.
When Melissa dropped her jaw, it was the first honest expression I had seen on her face.
I said, “The thing about Cuba is that it’s like Vegas, you know, it’s run by various mobs. And these mob guys are no different from corporations or governments or packs of dogs. They know when to bare their teeth and when to roll over.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she snapped.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is that my gangster can beat up your gangster. I had your protection removed before I came down.”
She slipped a silver revolver from her purse and pointed it at me. Immediately, three bystanders – who happened to be Texas Rangers in plain clothes – drew their guns and turned them on her.
“I didn’t come alone,” I said. “We’re all taking the next flight back to Port Arthur.”
She pressed the gun under her jaw and pulled the trigger. The resulting explosion from the top of her head splattered all of us, but didn’t disturb business in the bar for more than a moment.
She slumped forward and slammed her dead face against the table, allowing me to get more than an eyeful of the hole in the top of her head. I looked down at my suit and saw that I had gore on my coat, shirt, and tie. Which was fine. I could burn the lot and buy new at a local haberdashery when I got back to LA. Because, in a way, she’d done me a favor. Now I could fly directly back to Los Angeles. I was done with Port Arthur.