I had barely seen the motion on the far side of the warehouse when the .45 detonated with a roar right next to me. I turned in time to see a man flopping over backwards, arms flailing, his hat doing cart-wheels through the air. It was hard to tell in the low light, but it looked like part of his face was missing.
Lola Fanutti held the smoking pistol with confidence as she scanned the shadows for more of them.
“I hope that wasn’t a friend,” I said.
“If he knew me, he would have known to say something before stepping out like that.” She touched the chest of her dead friend, over his heart, next to his empty holster. She stood. “We need to get out of here.”
“I know a place we can go,” I said.
I reached the side door as she said, “Not the back room at Jake’s. Nothing personal, Mr. Lowell, but it is very easy to find you.”
I started trying to think of another place. “Up to now I’ve wanted to be found.” I flexed my aching legs and tried the door. It wasn’t locked. “Wait here,” I said, and stepped out into the alley. Over my head the sky was getting lighter. In the distance there was a siren; I couldn’t tell if it was heading this way or not. I stuck my head back in and was looking into the unblinking eye of a gun. I’m glad she hesitated a little longer this time before firing. “Let’s go,” I said.
We walked a few blocks and caught a cab, changed cabs, got out and walked a few more blocks to one of the little dive motels on the East Side. On the way over Lola handed me a respectable wad of cash.
The guy at the front desk didn’t bat an eye when we checked in. I signed the register with someone else’s name and we headed up the stairs. The room was small; the twin beds and the tiny writing desk took up almost all the floor space, making us walk sideways over the tattered rug. It was the kind of room used by unsavory people to do unsavory things. Hookers, junkies, and fugutives. Lola crinkled her nose at the musty smell that told stories of sex, blood, and vomit. It was already uncomfortably warm in there, residual heat left over from the previous day. If today was as hot as yesterday had been, it was going to be unbearable in that room. I tried the window but it was jammed or nailed shut. The bathroom was like the rest of the place but worse in every way.
Lola took the only chair in the room and sat heavily. I sat on the edge of one bed. Looking at the chair I wouldn’t have trusted it with my bulk anyway. She laid her bag on the desk with a heavy thud. That was a big chunk of iron she was handling so casually. As she allowed herself to relax fatigue overtook her and she sagged visibly. She rubbed her eyes and seemed to shed Lola Fanutti like a skin, somehow becoming smaller. She was Meredith from Kentucky once more. This dame changed personalities the way I change shirts. “Now what?” she asked.
“We’ll be safe here for a little while,” I said. “It’ll take them time to check all the hotels. By then we need to change the way you look. Different clothes, different hair. Alice can help.”
“What if they follow her? Can you trust her?”
I didn’t bother with the second question. “This won’t be the first time she’s done field work for me. There’s a phone on the corner. I’ll knock one-two-three, one-two when I get back. Any other knock, start shooting.” I didn’t think I needed to tell her that part.
I slid a dime into the phone and dialed the office. Alice picked up on the first ring. “Charles Lowell, Detective,” she said professionally.
“It’s me. Listen, doll, I don’t have much time—”
“I was worried last night. And then I heard about some shootings—”
She’d missed her calling, that was for sure. She scooped all the papers on a daily basis. “I’m fine. Meredith and I have to lay low for a while—”
“Mrs. Fanutti. Our new employer. I need you to get some things—”
“You call her Meredith?”
“You’ll meet her soon enough. We need a new dress for her, something that won’t stand out too much.”
“I don’t know. About the same as you, I guess. Maybe a little more…” I stopped myself.
Alice’s tone got a little icier. “More what?”
“Taller. We need some hair coloring, too. We need to turn a brunette into a blonde.”
“It’ll look fake.”
“As long as it looks different I’ll take it. I’m just hoping she can pass the first-glance test. If anyone really looks they’ll recognize her anyway.”
“Why is that?”
“Never mind. You know our emergency meeting place?”
“Go in the front, out the back and meet me where I knocked that guy’s tooth out.”
“How am I supposed to buy this stuff with no money?”
“Can you borrow any? I have cash now.”
“I’ll try. I’ll bring one of my dresses. They don’t stand out too much, apparently.”
“That’s a good girl. I’ll meet you in two hours.”
I hung up and looked around. The street was quiet; what traffic there was not acting suspiciously.
* * *
The guy at the desk snorted and shook his head when we came in. Alice glared at him. I had my hands full with the bags she had brought, but I managed to haul her up the stairs.
I knocked three and two and after a few moments the door unlatched and opened a crack. When she saw who it was she opened it further and we squeezed into the room. She set the gun back down on the table and turned to face us. The two women sized each other up. Meredith had been sleeping, it looked like. Her hair was wild and a few strands clung to her moist face and neck. Her dress was partly unbuttoned; she was holding it together with slender fingers. Her eyes still carried the dark circles of exhaustion. Meredith’s perfume was mingling with the other smells now, a strange combination of life and decay.
“You must be Alice,” she said and extended the hand that had held her dress closed. I studiously looked anywhere but there, but I was aware of pale skin and black lace. “Charles speaks highly of you.”
“Thank you. I’ve been with Mr. Lowell for a long time.” Alice was looking daggers at me. “He told me you needed clothes.”
“Yes, I need something plainer. Charles told me you were loaning me one of your dresses. I can’t thank you enough. I’ll reimburse you, of course.”
Dames. I moved to keep things businesslike before the claws came out. I opened up one of the bags and pulled out a navy blue number. “we don’t have all day,” I said.
“Let’s start with the hair,” Alice said. Meredith nodded and began to unbutton her dress further. While Alice tried to turn her toward the bathroom door I suddenly realized it was almost noon and I hadn’t had a drink yet. Now seemed like a good time for one.
“Where are you going?” Meredith asked. I had to climb over the bed to avoid squeezing past the two women.
“I’ve got some other business to take care of.”
“What if they come here while you’re gone?” She asked in a tiny voice. “I’m frightened.” She had more to worry about from Alice at that moment than all the crooks in the city. My secretary forcefully turned her and marched her into the bathroom. “Mr. Lowell will make sure you’re safe,” she said as the bathroom door slammed shut. It would be close quarters in there; I only hoped two people came back out.
Meredith’s fancy dress lay on the floor where it had slid off her shoulders and down over her round hips. The image of stockings over long legs as she disappeared into the bathroom was seared into my retinas. I really needed that drink.
Tune in next time for: Year of the Rat!