Episode 15: Year of the Rat – Conclusion

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

Jimmy Slick sat forward, eager. “You’re sure you want to hear this?” I asked.

“As a personal favor to you, I’ll deliver your message,” he said. He knew he was taking a chance, but the urge to know was driving him now. Hidden treasure didn’t matter to him, knowing about hidden treasure did.

“Then tell them, my so-called friends, whoever they are, that I don’t know where the map is, but I know someone who does. I’ll give them the name for a small slice of the pie.” Who’s the rat, now? I asked myself.

“A map, huh? Who has it?” asked Jimmy. I glared at him over the rim of my drink. He shrugged. “I had to try, didn’t I?”

“Just tell them that. By the time you get word to them I may already have the map. The price goes up then.”

“You’re playing with fire, Charley. Better to just come clean and duck out. They’ll still think well of you. Well enough to not kill you, anyway.”

“Now, Jimmy, I wouldn’t want to put you in a tough spot like that. A lot of people want that map, but there are others who don’t want it found at all. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of any of them. Just deliver the message.”

“How should they contact you?”

“Be back here tomorrow – alone – with the answer. If they’re interested in playing nice, my friends, my enemies, I don’t care who as long I get paid and I get my ass out of this mess, if they’re interested you bring your answer back here tomorrow.”

“All right.”

“Alone, Jimmy.”

He hesitated, but in the end he knew I already knew he couldn’t promise that. “That may not be my choice.”

“If you are not alone, I will know it, and I will take the map elsewhere.”

“You’ll bring the map tomorrow?”

“No. Tomorrow we talk about the price of the map. I will also be talking to some people who want it destroyed. I have no problem with lighting it on fire and leaving the treasure forever lost. I’m not getting any of it anyway.”

“So there really is treasure.”

I shrugged. “I haven’t seen it.”

“But there is a map.”

“I haven’t seen it.” It would go very badly for me if there was no map.

“But you smell it.”

“Yes.” Rats have a keen sense of smell, and I was the biggest rat of all. But Lola Fanutti hadn’t been particularly forthright either. She was going to hear about this conversation soon enough, and that wouldn’t go well for me. Shooting me would be as easy as blinking for her. She might not have counted on Alice, however. Mrs. Fanutti figured she could manipulate me, but her charms weren’t going to work on Alice. As long as my secretary could prevent her from contacting her people I would have room to work.

Jimmy Slick was watching me. “You do smell it.” He shook his head, trying to figure whether to admire me or pity me.

We sat in silence, sipping our booze, contemplating what the future held for us, if anything. Conversation in the bar ebbed and flowed, the same tired stories that are told in every bar everywhere. “And then I socked him,” one of the interchangeable patrons said. “That’s what I think of your clock!” I never seemed to have stories like that. All my stories are complicated and uncertain. I’d tried spinning a yarn at Jake’s a time or two, but I never got very far. A man getting blotto on gin doesn’t want to hear about your mistakes.

I was enjoying the quiet when Jimmy said, “I think there’s something you should know.” He took another sip, still not sure he was going to tell me. He decided. “A bunch of Europeans showed up recently. They have lots of guns. Cello’s not happy about it.”

“I imagine he wouldn’t be.”

“There’s something else I’ve heard,” he said. He lowered his voice. “I’m not sure if this is true or not. There’s always rumors like this going around, and usually they’re bullshit.”

I nodded. His business was spreading the fertilizer, mine was picking through it.

“Friend of mine said he saw Vittorio Fanutti. Last week. Fanutti was mixed up in this, so watch out for him. And whatever you do stay the hell away from his wife.”

I think I held my poker face. “The Contessa?”

“That’s the one. I don’t know much about her, but everything I have heard is ugly. She was Fanutti’s favorite assassin. If he’s gone then someone else will be pulling her strings. It doesn’t matter; if you see her, run the other way as fast as you can.”

“How would I know it was her?”

Jimmy nodded grimly. “When she slides a knife between your ribs.”

“That’s not very useful.”

He shrugged. “There’s nobody that scares me more. She has no soul at all.”

“She might be offended to hear you say that.”

“Nah. She likes that kind of story to get around. It’s good for business. You can’t buy a reputation like that. You have to earn it. Let’s have another round. On me.”

I held out my hand, palm forward. “I’m buying. You’ve earned it.”

He rocked back in his chair. “Damn, Charlie, you’re not dead yet.”

Tune in next time for: Never on a Sunday!

Episode 16: Never On Sunday – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

The ladies had reached some sort of truce, but it was an uneasy one. I stepped into sullen silence as the two watched each other from far sides of the room, two cats trapped in the same cage, both knowing that only one of them could be on top. Lola Fanutti had the position nearest the door; I had to push past her into the crossfire of sharp glances. I think that meant she was winning the battle.

Though with the blonde hair and simpler dress she didn’t really look like the wife of a deceased crime boss. “Not bad,” I said, and I wasn’t just making it up. She looked good. In the stifling heat of that room the thin fabric of her dress was clinging to her, making her curves all the more… curvaceous.

She flashed me a smile and said with her Meredith from Kentucky voice, “Thank you.”

The smile took on a hard-edged quality when Alice said, “How does it feel to be blonde again after all these years?”

“Rather refreshing, actually. You should try it some time, when you’re tired of looking like that.”

“Who’s hungry?” I asked. “Let’s get out of this oven and find a bite to eat.”

“I’m starving,” Meredith said, “What have you been up to all this time?”

“I’ll tell you later,” I said. I’d tell her as soon as I’d thought of something. She accepted that, assuming I meant that I didn’t want Alice to hear. By the scowl on Alice’s face, that’s how she took it, too.

“Come on,” I said. “Bring your things. We’re going to find a place farther out of town, where we won’t have to worry about running into people we know.” I handed Alice most of my remaining cash. “Put this somewhere safe,” I said. “We have more.” Meredith looked surprised but she didn’t contradict me.

“I have a car,” she said. “We can get as far as we need to.”

“We’re not going anywhere near anything that has the stink of Lola Fanutti on it,” I said. “That’s just asking for trouble. We’ll get our own wheels once we’re off the island.”

“And how are we going to pay for it?”

“Cash. Come on.”

“You don’t want me to come with you?” Alice asked.

“Not yet. I need you here for a stakeout.”

Her eyes got slightly rounder. “Really?”

“Yep. For this job I’m making you a full partner. After expenses you get half the dough.”

Poor girl, she was much more excited at the word ‘partner’ than at the word ‘dough’. “But I don’t have a license.”

I had to laugh at that. “You can make yourself one tonight if it will make you feel better.” I told her the bar to watch, what to watch for, and the signal to give if she saw anything. “Be careful, Alice,” I finished.

“I don’t think you’ve ever used my name before,” she said.

“Just be careful. Try not to go to any of the usual places, they’ll be watching for you. Stay on this side of town.”

“All right,” she said, happy. I’m not sure she heard my warning.

“We’re dealing with killers, here, Toots. Keep your head on straight.”

That calmed her down a bit. “Yes, sir.” I sent her on her way.

“Can you trust her?” Meredith asked. That was funny, coming from her.

“She’s very reliable.”

“She’s having money troubles, you know. Someone could buy her off.”

“It didn’t work when you tried it, did it?”

Her face darkened and she shot me a look that was pure Lola Fanutti. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I picked up the bags with her old clothing in it. I scanned the room for any remaining evidence that a quick-change had happened here. Satisfied I stepped out into the hall. Let’s get out or this steam bath,” I said. We went down the stairs to the lobby where we were watched by the ever-present manager. Nothing to be done about that. maybe the new look would confuse him. We stepped out into the sweltering afternoon heat and turned up the sidewalk. “I’m going to need some more of your cash.”

She didn’t like my new tactics, and tried to regain the upper hand. “I paid you all I had, and that should be plenty.”

“Look, Mrs. Fanutti, you’re playing a dangerous game. You need my help. If I’m going to help you, I need two things: money and answers. We’ll start with the money.”

“Honest, Charles…”

“It hurts my ears to hear you use that word.”

She stopped, knowing that there would be no more bluffing. “All right,” she said, reaching into her handbag. I wondered if she would pull out cash or her .45. I let out a breath when I saw the green. “I always intended to tell you,” she said. “When the time was right. It’s just, I was just —”

I took the dough. It was more than I expected, and I was confident she had more. “Spare me. All right. That was part one. Now for answers. Where’s the painting? The Blood of the Saint?”

“It was stolen, I told you.”

“Look, Mrs. Fanutti. I’m still willing to help you. I even like you, some of the time. But the lies are going to have to stop.”

“Don’t ever call me Mrs. Fanutti again. That man was a butcher and a bastard, and that is the absolute truth. I’m not Lola Fanutti anymore.” Her voice was rising in pitch. “That man — he did things to me. Made me do things. I don’t know who killed him, but if I ever meet the guy I want to shake his hand.” She was shaking now, and clinging to my arm.

Dames. Even the vicious killers are always blubbering. I didn’t let her distract me, though. “The painting?”

“It’s safe,” she said, drying up. “But we can’t get it for a few days. Not until Sunday. How did you know?”

“That whole thing was just a setup, wasn’t it? You staged a shootout just for me.”

“The wasn’t part of the plan. I lost some good friends last night.”

“You wanted there to be some trouble, though.”

I tensed as she opened her handbag again, until she pulled out a cigarette case. She held one to her lips and looked at me expectantly. I shrugged. She reached back into her handbag and produced a lighter, which she handed to me. Dutifully I flipped it open and held it up to allow her to light her cigarette. I flipped it shut and handed it back to her. “Keep it, you’ll need it again. Yes. I wanted there to be some excitement. That was why I was so slow to react when a real attack came. I really did intend to tell you when the time was right.”

“So you thought you could get me on the run, acting without thinking, and get you out of the frying pan. Then leave me behind or maybe kill me and have all the loot for yourself.”

“At first, maybe, before I knew you, I would have left you behind.”

I didn’t see the point of discussing that one. “Let’s find a place we can lay low until Sunday, then.” Sunday seemed like it was a long, long, way away.

Tune in next time for: Ambush!

Episode 17: Ambush

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

“If you use the phone, you will die.”

She paced in the close quarters of the cabin. “I need to reach my people.”

“You don’t have any people. You thinks it’s a coincidence they hit your warehouse when they did?”

“Some of my people must still be loyal.”

“Probably, but you don’t know which.” I was telling the truth, but not the whole truth. I didn’t want her on the squawk box because she was using me and I was using her and the less contact she had with her dangerous friends the safer I was. The nearest phone was a couple of miles down the road, but I had no doubt about her resourcefulness. Lola Fanutti didn’t get where she was on good looks alone. But the dame had the looks, and she was trying to use them on me.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a shy little smile that complimented her newly-blonde hair, “I’m not used to having a man look out for me the way you do.” She took a step closer and I smelled the wildflowers, the first thing I had ever known about her a hundred years—or two days, depending on how you counted it—ago at Jake’s.

“I’m looking out for me,” I said.

She faltered. She turned slightly away from me and looked down at the floor. She spoke in a tiny voice, all Meredith, the simple girl from Kentucky. “I thought you liked me.” She was beautiful when she was hurt.

“I do like you. That’s why I don’t want you doing anything stupid. It would be a shame to see that pretty neck of yours get broken.”

She turned back to me, flashing her pearly whites. “You do like me?”

“Doll, you’re a piece of work. I’d probably fall in love with you if you weren’t so dangerous.”

“Don’t say that where Alice can hear you. She’s more dangerous than I am.”

I was tired of sparring with her. I was just plain tired. “I’ve got to get some sleep.” There was only one bed in the room; the place was supposed to be for newlyweds.
She looked tired as well, but she was just going to have to wait. “You can take your turn after I head back into town.” I laid down, on top of the covers, still in the same clothes I had put on two days ago. I was asleep in moments.

I dreamt, I think. I remember running, something dark and oppressive behind me, something else brittle and jagged in front of me, and pacing me on one side a lioness, on the other a wolf. That may not have been a dream, however. We ran, and even high in the mountains it was hot, and the air was filled with the smell of wildflowers. I came awake abruptly and she was next to me, asleep, one arm draped across my chest, the other curled against her head, her blonde hair spilling across the pillow, her lips slightly parted, a thin trail of saliva running down her cheek, creating an expanding dark area on the bedspread.

I watched her for a few minutes. She was peaceful, somehow smaller, in her sleep perhaps honest for the first time since I met her. Her arm on my chest was delicate and graceful, the delicate fuzz that covered it glowing in the light. Her knee was pulled up and rested on my thigh. The smell of wildflowers teased me. She was still dangerous.

She opened her eyes and caught me looking straight at her. She took a moment to come back from wherever she had been, then smiled. “Caught you,” she said, then blushed when she discovered the drool running down her face. She wiped it away with the hand that was not resting against my chest, and laughed, almost timidly. Almost. There was something else in the laugh as well. An offer. A promise.

I wanted to sit up, but her arm weighed a thousand pounds, and held me to the bed. I had dozed off for a few minutes and just like that I was ambushed. She moved her face closer to mine. I prepared myself to resist. Ambushed, cornered, but not lost yet. She was going to throw her best line at me and I was not going to fall for it.

She pulled closer yet; her eyelashes brushed my cheek, moist with tears, as I looked at the ceiling. “I’m frightened,” she said.

I never stood a chance. I turned to look at her and our noses bumped and out lips touched and I don’t remember much about what happened next, and even if I did I wouldn’t tell you.

Tune in next time for: Message from the Grave!

Episode 18: Message from the Grave

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

Jimmy Slick was at his table, just where I’d seen him last, but this time he was dead. I didn’t notice he was dead right away, and no one else in the joint was any wiser, but when I plunked a glass of gin down in front of him and he didn’t react, I knew something was up. Nothing else was amiss; Alice had been in her position outside The Bucket and gave me the all-clear signal as I approached. Jimmy had been alone when he went in, and whoever had done him hadn’t aroused her suspicions.

I sat next to what used to be Jimmy and looked him over, trying not to draw any attention. Cause of death was pretty easy to establish; there was a knife between his shoulder blades, the puncture neat and clean, hardly bleeding at all. An expert job. I got that crawling feeling that someone was right behind me at that moment, ready to do the same to me. When I turned around, however, there was no one there.

I looked around the place to see if anyone had taken an interest in my activities, but all the other people sat at the bar, staring into their drinks, as if the answers to life were to be found there. I leaned forward and put my head near Jimmy’s, as if speaking conspiratorially, while I went through his pockets. A fat wad of cash, a battered switchblade, some small change, driver’s permit, and a key ring with a house key and the key to a Ford.

I almost missed it. One of his hands was clenched tightly shut. With a shudder I pried open his cold fingers to find another key, a smaller one but finely crafted. I didn’t take the time to inspect it then, I just slipped it into my pocket. Somewhere there was a lock it fit into, and it couldn’t be coincidence he was holding it when he died.

I leaned back and looked at Jimmy. He hadn’t wanted to get involved, but I had talked him into it. He’d been a weasel, but an OK guy for that. Now he was dead, and his murder was going to be pinned on me. Just another problem on top of all the others. I tossed back my whiskey. Now I was angry.

Another figure entered the bar. He was dressed like just another Joe but he wasn’t there to drink. He crossed directly to my table and sat. “Did you find anything?” he asked.

“An unusual amount of cash,” I said. “This your work?”

“No, but I know the man who did it.”

“Guy knows his stuff.”

“Yes. He has many talents. How much cash?”

“I didn’t count.”

“Nothing else out of the ordinary?”

I shrugged. “A piece-of-junk blade, some small change, keys—”

The other’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of keys?” Bingo.

I stood. “Check for yourself.” I walked over to the bar and caught the attention of the barman. “A gin and a bourbon for my friends over there,” I said gesturing back to the table. I put some dough on the bartop and started for the door. I looked back and I saw the unblinking eye of a pistol pointed at me from under the table. “See you boys later,” I said, and neatly slid the murder rap onto my new friend.

“Yes, you will,” he said. “Soon.”

I had Jimmy’s address from his driving permit, but I suspected that if whatever the key had been there it wasn’t any longer, and whoever had it could just use a hammer to spring it open. No, the key itself was what mattered, not the lock it opened. Alice was going to have a lot of legwork to do.

I stepped out onto the street, blinking in the sun, cursing the heat, and turned up the avenue.

Alice wasn’t there.

Tune in next time for: Nest of Vipers!

Episode 19: Nest of Vipers – Part 1

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I tried to ignore the feeling that there was a bulls-eye painted on my back as I inspected the doorway where Alice had been standing. The only reason to take her, I told myself, was to force me to do something I didn’t want to do. That meant whoever had done it wanted me alive, and I would be hearing from them eventually. I looked back at the door of The Bucket in time to see the man I had been speaking with hurry down the street. It wouldn’t be long before the cops arrived, and I wasn’t eager to be talking to them at the moment.

It didn’t look like Alice had made it easy for them; the scuffs on the sidewalk told a story of struggle. She had managed to run two strides before they wrapped her up and dragged her to a car. Near the curb I saw dark spots on the pavement. I hunched down and confirmed that it was blood, fresh but quickly blistering and blackening in the heat. I surveyed the windows looking down on the street. Someone must have seen something. I made a note to have Alice ask around and then stopped myself.

Someone had crossed a line. I wanted to find out who they were before they had a chance to contact me, so I could drop in on them before they were ready.

I turned my head one way and then the other as I regarded the scuff marks. One, from a smaller shoe, seemed to be more complex, as if created with intent. A hastily-drawn arrow, perhaps, or maybe the letter ‘F’. Possibly nothing at all; it’s easy for a person to see patterns even when there are none. If it was an arrow it pointed up the street away from the bar and towards downtown. If it was a letter, perhaps F for Fanutti? An E she didn’t have time to finish? I moved my foot along the lines, imagining that I was being dragged to a car, and just trying to stay in one place long enough to finish my message, without anyone realizing what I was doing.

I heard a siren in the distance. Time to go. I turned and walked briskly away from the scene, by coincidence in the direction of the arrow, if that’s what it had been. I zigged and zagged a few blocks then bellied up to a phone. I pulled Cello’s card out of my pocket and regarded it grimly. This call could cost me. I threw a dime in and dialed.

The phone was answered almost before it rang. “Hendricks and Associates,” a competent female voice answered.

“Charles Lowell. Cello is expecting my call.”

“One moment.”

After somewhat more than a moment Cello came on the line. “Mr. Lowell. You have something for me?”

“Depends. Did you take her?”

“You have lost track of someone?”

“Yes. Did you take her?”

“I assume you wouldn’t bother to ask if it was Mrs. Fanutti you lost track of. Has something happened to your charming secretary?”


“You put her in harm’s way?”


“Most ungentlemanly, Mr. Lowell.” He hesitated. “I am not aware of anyone in my purview taking action against Miss Carruthers. I feel no need to coerce your actions.”


“It is likely that no matter who is holding her I could obtain Miss Carruthers’ release. I offer only because I admire the young lady. There are certain… ah… costs that I would incur, however. I think you already know what I would like in return. Shall I direct my people?”

“You already know who has her.”

He paused. “I have a theory.”

“They are not friends of yours.”


“Give me an address. I’ll pay you back by hurting them as much as I possibly can.”

“An interesting proposition. Unfortunately, there are three problems: first, ‘as much as you can’ likely will prove to be very little, second, once they brush you aside they will have no reason to keep Miss Carruthers alive any longer, and finally if they find out how you got that address, it could cause me a great deal of difficulty.”

“Then give me the name of someone else who knows the address, and I’ll get it from him.”

“One way or another.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s not your usual style, Mr. Lowell.”

“They crossed a line.”

“Hm. Did they cross the line, or did you? Are you responding this way because you blame yourself?”

“Does it matter?”

“I suppose not. Before you go charging off to your death, I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me Mrs. Fanutti’s whereabouts?”


“You have not yet recovered the Blood of the Saint?”

I didn’t answer that.

He sighed. “I am going to help you, Mr. Lowell, because you are an important asset to me right now. Please remember that and try to remain one. It is the only thing keeping you alive. I have a name for you. When you speak with him, be aware that he has already saved your life once.”

Tune in next time for the conclusion of: Nest of Vipers!

Episode 20: Nest of Vipers – Part 2

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are nearly certain with this episode.

One way or another. That’s what I’d told Cello and I meant it. There was a war going on, and I was in the middle of it. That’s all right, it’s what I’m paid to do, but now they had Alice, and good secretaries are hard to come by in this town. Lola Fanutti was stewing out in the boondocks and I knew she wouldn’t stay put forever, but I’d deal with that later if either of us were still alive.

My meeting with Bernie the Trigger was brief and businesslike. He was a nice enough guy, and he had once shot someone for my benefit, and soon I had an address. “It’s the Italians,” Bernie said, pronouncing it EYE-talians. “They’ve been coming over from the old country for about thee months now. They’re becoming a problem, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well, I’m about to be a problem for them.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that.” Bernie didn’t try to disguise his skepticism.

“Thanks.” I had an extra shot of scotch to steady my shooting hand and stepped back out into the night. It’s supposed to get cooler at night, I thought, but the air was 96% water and held the heat of the day the way a woman retains water after too many pretzels. There was something different about the air that night, however, something pent-up, waiting to explode. A storm was coming. I patted my pocket and was reassured by the weight of my gun.

It was only a few blocks to where the Italians were holed up, but I took my time, sticking to the shadows and trying not to think about rifles taking aim between my shoulder blades.

The two toughs on the doorstep to the apartment building didn’t even bother trying not to look like guards. They’d pumped a lot of cash into the local police retirement fund, and expected to be left alone. Bernie had been disgusted with the cops. “No loyalty, you know?” he said. “They’re your best friends until someone offers them more money. How can you do business with anyone like that? Take away their uniforms and they wouldn’t last a minute.”

There was a curious silence on the street, as if the residents knew that something was brewing and hid away in their apartments, or, more likely, got the hell out of town. I had no idea how to get past these goons, and the others sure to be inside. I had no idea what I would do, even if I did make it inside.

I held my gun in my pocket and walked past the doorway, trying to act casual, hoping the thugs wouldn’t recognize me. They eyed me warily as I approached. I pulled out a cigarette and asked the first one, “Got a light?”

“Beat it,” he said.

At the same moment a voice came from a window upstairs, and echoed up the deserted street. Alice, belligerent frightened. “He’s coming for me, you know.”

“I said, beat it,” said the goon. I started walking.

“For the love of God, shut up,” replied a voice above with a heavy Italian accent.

“Come near me and I’ll bite you again. You think he’s going to come in the front door and say ‘how do you do?’ You think he’s that stupid? Not Mr. Lowell. He’ll find a trap door on the roof or—” It’s lucky my back was to the guards so they couldn’t see my face when I heard the slap echo down the street. “Close the window,” the Italian said. “I don’t care how hot it is.” The window slammed shut with a bang, but not before I didn’t hear Alice crying. A dame who’d cry over a run in her stocking swallowing her teeth without a peep. Sometimes, I guess, you have to light someone on fire to find out what they’re really made of. I decided to go find the trap door before the Italian chose to listen to what she said.

* * *

The top floor was dark and deserted. The next floor had a few people but with patience I managed to look around a bit, springing myself into the rooms along the quiet hallway. One place stood out, furnished lavishly and smelling of the perfume of a dozen dames. This was the lair of the man I was here to meet. I moved an overstuffed chair into the darkest corner of the bedroom and put my gun in my lap.

While I waited I juggled names and faces, trying to make sense of it all. Nobody knew everything, that was obvious, or they’d have the Blood of the Saint by now and the rest of us would just be corpses. But some people knew more than most. My life — Alice’s life — rested in the hope that I knew more than the Italian. Or, at the very least, the Italian thought I knew more than he did.

At the center was one name. Fanutti. One name, two people. One feeding the eels at the bottom of the East River, the other holding the key to fantastic wealth, a treasure beyond imagining. Fanutti. An Italian name.

The outer door opened. There was a patch of low conversation I didn’t catch that ended with, “I am tired. When I wake up in the morning, I expect to hear that you have found him.” He said something else in what I assume was Italian and the outer door closed. The Italian spent some time in the kitchen while I exercised all the will at my disposal to stay put. The greatest advantage goes to the hunter who waits for his prey to come to him.

Finally the Italian’s silhouette was in the doorway to the bedroom. “Don’t even twitch,” I said as he reached for the light switch.

He froze, then slowly moved his hands away from his body, where I could see them clearly. “Mr. Lowell, perhaps?”


“I have been looking forward to speaking with you. My name is Fanutti.”

“Like hell it is. I killed Fanutti myself.”

He chuckled. “Luckily for both of us I know that you are bluffing. I know who killed my brother, Mr. Lowell. If I thought it was you this conversation would be over. My name is Paolo Fanutti, and I am here to recover what rightfully belonged to my brother. I would like to secure your cooperation.”

“Ah-ah-ah!” I said and Fanutti number three lifted his hands back up to an acceptable level. “Abusing my secretary is hardly a way to win my heart.”

“I find that people like you respond much better to threats than to promises.”

“Oh? Well if people like you respond to promises, here’s one for you. For every bruise on her, you get two. For every tooth missing, I knock out three of yours. If you run out of teeth, I’ll start on fingers. That’s a promise. I keep my promises.”

Paolo Fanutti was silent for a moment. “What do you propose? If it is her safety you are concerned about, then you need me.”

I stood. I’m not a small man and I loomed over Fanutti. “I propose a trade.”

“What sort of trade?” His question was just a formality; he already knew the answer.

“I walk out of here tonight with Alice, get her safely away, and I’ll give you Lola Fanutti.”

He made a face. “Don’t call her that. She stains the family name.”

“Stain removal is your department.”

He smiled. “It seems we can do business after all.”

“In the end, it’s all business.” I shrugged. Lola was going to cut him to shreds. I just hoped she left enough so that I could keep my promise.

Tune in next time for: Cold Water!

Episode 21: Cold Water

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.

Alice was tied to a chair. Her face was puffy from being hit. Her nose had been bleeding but wasn’t any more. “Mr. Lowell!” She was glad to see me.

“We’re leaving,” I said. Punching Paolo Fanutti in the face right there and then was the most difficult thing I’ve ever not done. I had made a promise, that was enough.

“There’s something you must give me first,” Fanutti said.

I glared at him. “I don’t trust a man who hits girls.”

Paolo squinted at me with his little weasel eyes. He probably needed glasses but wouldn’t wear them because it would undermine his image. Like being blind was good for one’s standing. “You are not in a position to make demands,” he said.

I pulled out my penknife and cut the ropes binding Alice’s hands. Her fingers were purple and cold. She groaned as I helped her to her feet. “I’m not demanding anything. We’re leaving.” I caught Fanutti’s gesture and felt the presence of the meat moving in behind me. I turned, leading with my fist, and put everything I had behind it. As God is my choreographer lightning flashed in the window and there was a crash of thunder just as my fist hit the other man’s face. I caught him square in the mug and broke my hand but I broke his face worse.

The goon dropped like a bag of nickels in Atlantic City on new year’s eve. The room froze as he fell, blinded by the flash and ears ringing. Everyone except me, and by the time I completed my turn my gun was on Fanutti again, reasonably steady in my broken hand. “Paolo, you are a stupid man. I told you I keep my promises.”

He watched the gun carefully. “You will pay for this.” It was his turn for the dramatic thunder crash; the storm was in full fury, trying to wash the city into the river so Manhattan could start over again.

“But now, you see, I am in the position to make demands. And now I must demand that you stop being stupid and let me give you what you want.”

“You mean…”

“I think I should introduce you to your sister-in-law.”

He smiled cautiously. “Perhaps we can do business after all.”

Apparently I’d reached the limit of his vocabulary. “No, Paolo, we can not do business. Somewhere there’s another Fanutti behind you who’s smarter than you are, who doesn’t hit helpless dames, and knows that when two people shoot square then business gets done.” I wondered how this other Fanutti would react when I beat Paolo to a pulp. “We are not doing business, we have a mutual problem that is best solved if I tell you where Lola Fanutti is.”

Alice turned to look at me with an expression behind her blackening eyes that simultaneously said, “how could you possibly sell out your client?” and “it’s about time you got rid of that bitch.” Alice was going to be disappointed when she saw how things went down, but at that moment, she provided the necessary authenticity to shift the negotiation my way.

“Where is she?”

I lowered the gun but didn’t put it away. “Well, see, I knew this morning, but I’ve spent the day tracking down my secretary, and now I haven’t the slightest idea where she is. It’s going to take me a while to find her, or more specifically, for her to find me. If she sees any of your people near me, you can kiss her goodbye.”


“So stay the hell out of my way and I’ll contact you.”

He didn’t want to trust me, but in the end he had no choice. And technically, I hadn’t lied at all. “All right.”

“We’re walking out of here now. Give me your card and wait.”

Fanutti frowned, nodded, and provided a card. We followed him to the front door. He opened it to find two miserable guards standing in the deluge. “Umbrella” Alice said. Fanutti produced one and we were on the street, but moving slowly.

It took a while to get a safe distance and at least try to see who was following us. Alice was having a tough time of it; I took her arm to help steady her. We turned a couple of corners and I stopped our little parade. I tugger her elbow to stop her and said, “Let me take a look.” The umbrella was barely adequate, and we were getting soaked as we stood there, but now that we were away from the apartment house I wanted to see just how much I owed Paolo Fanutti. Alice didn’t want to open her mouth. Sure enough, she’d lost a tooth.

“I spit it into my blouse,” she said. “Maybe a dentist can put it back.” She smiled up at me with her swollen face. “I bit him, Mr. Lowell. Hard.”

“Don’t call me Mr. Lowell anymore.”


“You’re not my secretary anymore.”

“Y-your’e fining me?” her voice was tiny.

The wind shifted, lashing us with rain. She staggered and in her condition I worried that the storm would be too much for her. But God wasn’t done with his little production yet, and with His next flash and bang, two long black cars pulled up, carefully not splashing us. A door opened on each. “Mr. Lowell,” a man said from the lead limousine, “would you come with us, please?” He was shortish, with dark hair, but there was no Fanuutti family resemblance.

“Sorry, pal, I’m taking the lady home.”

“That’s very noble of you. Please allow Jorge the honor of providing her warm, dry transport, and… perhaps we could provide medical attention as well.”

“I just got her back. I’m not letting her go again.”

He looked me straight in the eye. “Mr. Lowell, when two people shoot square, then business gets done. Allow me to gain your trust by affording your employee care that you cannot possibly provide.”

Alice’s grip tightened on my arm. She’d had enough of strangers. “We’re partners,” I said. “Anything you can tell me, you can tell her.”

Alice gasped. Since she did the books she must have known that she’d just taken a pay cut. She pulled herself together in a moment. “You’re Spanish,” she said.

“That is mostly correct. Maps can be deceiving; within one nation, many peoples can exist.”

Standing in the rain, trying to keep the umbrella where it could best protect Alice, I had a feeling I already knew the answer to my question. “And you are….”

“We are the blood of the saint.”

Tune in next time for: Never on Sunday – Reprise!

Episode 22: Never on Sunday – Reprise

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.

It was a little too warm for comfort in the limo, but at least it was dry. Jorge offered a clean handkerchief to Alice, the one I had given her was now covered with spots of blood. He gave instructions to the driver and pulled out into the teeth of the storm. We had the streets to ourselves, if you could still call them that; the cars might have benefitted from pontoons. The wind howled up the boulevards, driving the rain before like bullets, hammering against the windows loudly enough to make conversation difficult. We moved slowly, which was fine with me. I was pretty sure things were not going to get better when we reached our destination.

“Where are we going?” Alice asked over the storm.

“To visit a friend of mine,” our host answered. “A doctor. We need to get all your teeth back in before you need to bite someone again.” He chuckled inaudibly. “He is quite experienced at treating wounds like yours, and he should also be able to do something about Mr. Lowell’s damaged hand. He is also skilled at not asking questions.”

“What’s your name?” Alice was not skilled at not asking questions, and probably never would be.

“Please pardon my manners.” He offered her his hand. “My name is Santiago.”

“What’s this about a Saint? I thought that was a painting.”

“There is a painting with that name, but we are the true blood of the saint.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It is not important. For now the painting is the matter of concern. It was taken from us, and we would like it back. Your partner will be helping us.”

“I don’t recall seeing you in the client book.”

“Of course we will pay for his services.”

“Our rates have gone up recently. We just gave the staff raises.” I held my breath as a scowl stole across Santiago’s face. Alice had a lot of good qualities, but diplomacy was not one of them. There was still no guarantee that our payment would not take the form of a one-way trip to the bottom of the river.

Santiago calmed himself, leaning back in the seat facing ours, watching us with brown eyes just a little too close together, framing a nose that had been broken at least once. He had a scar on one cheek. Santiago had been around the block once or twice himself. When he smiled he revealed a gold tooth. “I like her,” he said to me. “Tell me, what have the various parties offered for the painting?”

“I’m not even sure who all the parties are.”

“Where is the painting now, Mr. Lowell?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you know someone who does.”

“I know someone who says she does.”

“Where is she now?”

“You already know I don’t know.”

“I just know you say you don’t know. I wanted to hear you say it with my own ears.”

“I don’t know. I know where I left her. I chose the place to keep her away from her own people, but it’s been too long. She won’t sit still that long.”

“But it’s possible she’s still there, or that she might go back. You are still useful to her. She might even want to be with you for… other reasons.”

I didn’t dare look at Alice, but I felt that side of my head get warm. “If she wants to, she will find a way to contact me.” If she didn’t decide to kill me instead.

“Where did you leave her?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Why not? You already agreed to give her to Paolo Fanutti.”

“Because she’ll kill Fanutti. He doesn’t stand a chance. This way any reprisals won’t come my way.”

Santiago laughed. “A creative way to solve your problem. What if I warn him?”

“You know Paolo, apparently. Do you know his sister-in-law?”

“Only by reputation.”

“That reputation is well-deserved.”

Alice was watching me, her face inscrutable behind the handkerchief. “I think we should drop her as a client. She’s nothing but trouble.”

I didn’t think Alice was being entirely objective. “If we refuse clients just because they’re trouble, we’ll go hungry,” I pointed out. Now wasn’t the time to go into that, however. “Tell you what,” I said to Santiago. “Lola Fanutti doesn’t have the painting right now. She’s the only one I know of who can get it. Just wait, let her get the painting back, then you can kill each other over it all you want. Just leave me out of it.”

“Mr. Lowell, even if I were to agree to such a thing, what makes you think the others would? Lola Fanutti still requires your services. Mr. Cello expects you to help him. There are others you have angered. None of them have the power that we do. Only we can offer you a way out of the predicament you find yourself in. Give us Lola Fanutti.”

“You think you’ll be able to get the painting out of her?”

“We can be quite persuasive.”

“In my professional judgement, you’re much better off waiting until after Sunday.” Alice elbowed me.

“That advice was free,” she said, “but any further consultation requires a retainer. Five thousand dollars.”

Santiago paused, then reached into his coat. He produced a gun and laid it in his lap, pointing directly at Alice. She froze, whatever she was going to say next trapped in her throat. It was, perhaps, the first time Alice had ever been without words. “I recommend,” Santiago said to me, “that you advise your partner to be a little more careful.”

More threats. I’d had enough of them. “I’m afraid I can’t comment,” I said, “until you are a client in good standing. My partner sets the rates. Put that gun away before the price goes up.”

Slowly Santiago put the gun away. “Ten thousand,” Alice said. Santiago shot me a look and I shrugged. Too late.

The car pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript brownstone. I watched as the occupants of the lead car got out and took up positions before we opened our doors. I got out and opened the umbrella while helping Alice up and out. I stood close to her as we crossed to the front steps.

I heard the shot even as the bullet punched me in the shoulder and spun me to the ground. Subsonic, I thought, but a good punch. Probably a .45. I lay on the ground and felt the rain on my face as my vision narrowed. People were moving around me; they seemed to be excited about something.

Lots of people use .45s.

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River!

Episode 23: Reunion by the River, part one.

Our Story So Far: Um… heck, I’m not even sure myself. There’s this thing, something really valuable, and lots of people are willing to do just about anything to get it. One key to the location of this treasure might be a painting, and Charles Lowell has been hired to protect the person with that painting. He’s also been hired to recover it, and to keep it from being recovered. It was last seen in the company of Lola Fanutti (neé Meredith Baxter), widow of a major figure in the mob and herself a crack shot with a .45. Lowell has been through some difficult scrapes with Fanutti; perhaps the most dangerous was being alone with her in a hotel outside the city. Lowell’s faithful and spunky assistant Alice really doesn’t like Lola Fanutti. Paolo Fanutti, Lola’s former brother-in-law and the man most anxious to see her dead, recently beat up Alice, and Lowell isn’t going to let that slide. He has agreed to hand Lola over to Paolo, mostly because he’s pretty sure she’ll kill him.

As well as the Fanutti family, there is a ruthless and powerful man named Cello, a group that may or may not answer to Lola, and a secretive group of Spaniards known as the Blood of the Saint. That is also the name of the painting….

This episode has a little more thinking in it than its predecessors, as I wrote it in two hours instead of the traditional one. The lack of thought in constructing the narrative gives the whole thing only a little more structure than the TV show “Lost” (from what I hear they must write that thing with the same amount of planning and attention to continuity). And wow! Who thought Charlie would get shot last episode? When I started writing it, I certainly had no idea. But there he was, bleeding on the sidewalk, shot with a .45. I didn’t want to split Reunion up, but it’s taking a lot of words to get from bleeding on the sidewalk to a confrontation at the waterfront. That’s what happens when I pick a title for the following episode more or less at random.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. Continuity issues are probably starting to pile up, but so it goes.

My ears began to work before my eyes did. I lay still, strange apparitions scattering back to the darker corners of my mind like cockroaches when you turn on the kitchen light. They’re not gone, but best forgotten, at least until the lights go out again. In the final lingering image I was staring down a gun held by Lola Fanutti. “Trust me,” I thought I heard her say.

“Oh, I trust you completely,” another voice said, a man’s voice from outside my head, and I realized that the first voice I had heard was not Lola’s, but Alice’s. I forced my eyes open.

Alice was there, talking to a dark-haird man in a suit. His back was to me, and I was still foggy; I couldn’t place him. Alice saw that I was awake and stepped to my side. Her hand was smooth and cool against my fevered brow. In her eyes was relief. “Charlie! Thank goodness! I was so frightened.”

I tried to say something witty, but my throat felt like the sahara during a dry spell. It probably wouldn’t have been funny anyway. Alice took a glass of water from the table by the bed and helped me drink. I reached up to guide the glass to my parched lips and that’s when I discovered that my right arm wasn’t working. That’s when I remembered being shot.

“It’s OK, now,” Alice said. “We’re safe.”

I was pretty sure Alice was wrong about that, but I didn’t have the strength to argue. I looked around for the man Alice had been talking to, but we were alone. I filed it under “potential hallucination” until I could think of the right question to ask. Trust me, Alice had told him. “Anybody see who did this?” I asked her.

Alice shook her head. “He got away.”

“It was a pistol, he must have been pretty close.”

“He was probably trying to hit Mr. Santiago. No one knew we would be there.”

“Whoever told Santiago how to find us could have told other people.”

Alice digested that. “Mr. Santiago did know a lot about what happened with Paolo Fanutti.”

“It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that Santiago would take you to his pet doctor.” Alice wasn’t looking that good; her face had had time to puff up and her bruises were in full bloom. She had bandages here and there where she had been stiched up. “How are you doing, anyway?” I asked.

“OK. They said the scars shouldn’t be too bad.” She traced her finger along one of the bandages on her face. “I must look horrible.”

“You look great, doll,” I lied. “A couple of scars just add character.” That’s what I told myself each time I collected a new one, anyway.

“Thanks.” It looked like she was about to start blubbering. “You think the guy was really after you?”

“There are plenty of people who want me out of the picture. There might be some in this building. Santiago seems square, but he’s got leaks of his own. We need to get out of here. Without Santiago knowing where we went.”

“I got you some new clothes,” Alice said. “The other ones were all bloody. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t let anyone see you,” I said to the closing door, though that seemed optimistic.

While she was gone I took stock of my condition. My right shoulder was bandaged and very stiff, my right hand was taped up as well. It seemed like a long time since I had broken it on the goon’s face. I paused, then looked around the room for any indication of what day it might be. How long had I been out? Lola was supposed to get the painting on Sunday. Had I missed it?

Alice returned with a suit that was considerably nicer than anything I had worn before. Shirt and tie were silk, and fit me perfectly, as far as I could tell. “I don’t suppose there’s any whiskey in the pockets,” I said.

I guess that’s not the reaction she was hoping for. Her look darkened and I clammed up and got dressed. She had to help me get my arm down the shirt sleeve and then into the jacket. She stood close to me while she tied on my tie, and I watched her eyes as she kept them resolutely fixed on her task. A little crease formed between her eyebrows when she concentrated. I was a little disappointed when she finished.

“Now a sling,” she said. She folded a large white bandage into a triangle and helped me settle my arm into it. When I was at a less-uncomfortable position she took the ends of the the bandage and reached up around my neck.

“How’s your mouth?” I asked.

“My…? Oh!” She blushed and looked away shyly, conscious of her bruised lips. “It’ll be all right. They’re not sure about the tooth.” She turned back to look at me, and her lips were very close to mine. Her hands were still resting on the back of my neck. “I’m not supposed to… um…” We held that tableau for a terrifying second before she whispered, “we should go. Mr. Santiago will be coming to check on you soon.”

“Right,” I said. Alice held a coat for me and I slipped my good arm through the sleeve. She draped it over my other shoulder. I wasn’t going to be moving very quickly, but I was moving, and that’s all that mattered. The next move would be mine. I kept saying that, and one of these days I would be right.

I made an awkward attempt to help her into her own coat, really only making things more difficult with my left hand. “We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?” I asked when we were ready to go.

She smiled a bit. “I hear black and blue is the new black.”

It hurt to laugh. “That’s the spirit, kid. Ready for the ballet?”

“Let’s go.”

We walked past the protesting sawbones and his pretty assistant, past a bulky but disinterested man reading a paper in the outer room, down a dimly-lit hallway, through a heavy wood door and onto the city street. The rain had stopped, days ago for all I knew. It was early afternoon and the sun was back in command. The air was gravid with the moisture from the rain; the streets were sweating, so were the buildings, the people and the cars. Everything except Alice.

I paused, triangulating on visible skyscrapers. I turned toward Jake’s. Lola would expect me there. So would Cello, but I didn’t think he had reason to kill me at the moment. There would be booze there. “What day is it?” I asked as we walked.

Alice hesitated. “Sunday.”

“Listen, I’ve got to meet with someone. Alone.”


“Yeah, her. I need you to back me up.”

“I didn’t do so good last time.”

I gave her an address. “Ask for Artemis. You ever shoot a gun?”

“Me? No.”

“We’ll leave that for another time, then. Get me a .38 – Artemis knows what I like. Get plenty of ammunition.”

“Where should I meet you?”

“Be at the diner tonight at eleven p.m.”

“Be careful, Charlie.”

“What could possibly go wrong?”

It looked like she wanted to say something else, but instead she squeezed my good arm once, hesitated, and turned to head up the street. The man who was following us stayed with me. There wasn’t much else I could to keep her out of the fray. “Good luck, doll,” I muttered as I turned and continued toward Jake’s. I could taste the whiskey already.

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 2!

Episode 24: Reunion by the River, part two

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a private detective in some-time-in-the-past New York. A few days ago he didn’t know how he was going to pay his secretary or even where his next bottle of booze was going to come from. Now he looks back on that time nostalgically. He’s got clients now — several of them — and cash, and not much nope of living until tomorrow morning.

The problem is that his clients all want the same thing, exclusively, and they’re the sorts of people who express displeasure in creative and violent ways. No matter what Lowell does, someone is going to be angry. He already has a broken gun hand and a fresh bullet wound, among other aches and pains. Now it is Sunday evening, and it is time for him to find Lola Fanutti, widow of a crime boss, client, and possibly the person who shot him.

What will happen next? Heck, I don’t know. If I planned this story would there be five different factions who all want slightly different things, people with the same last names fighting on different sides, one character that is massively schizophrenic, and characters who are built up only to fade away again? Nope. This is all about having a good time spewing prose that’s in the classic noir voice. I also rather like the schizophrenic.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. I’m sure there are some continuity issues, but life is that way.

I opened the door and stepped into the darkened taproom, imagining an arsenal pointed at me as my eyes adjusted. I wasn’t sure who would be there waiting for me, but there would be someone. And there would be whiskey.

No bullets came my direction, just the low murmur of conversation and the reek of stale gin. I was home. When I could see well enough I shuffled past the row of losers and boozers lined up along the bar until I came to my spot at the end, empty and waiting for me. Before I sat I scanned the tables with their odd assortment of punks and schmoes, listened to the low mumbles of deals being made and promises being broken. If the city was a machine then here was the grease, doing the messy job of keeping things moving.

It’s no accident that the table in the corner is in the deepest shadow. The small-time hoods at the other tables knew instinctively that the corner was for only the most serious of business, and most dangerous of businessmen. I couldn’t see who was sitting there, but I smelled lilacs. I sat on my stool. She could wait while I had a drink.

Jake looked over at me, his eyebrows raised, his hand poised halfway toward the top shelf. You still drinking the good stuff? I nodded and he pulled down a new bottle single malt. He poured a tall one and set it in front of me. With my good hand I held the glass to my nose and let the graveyard smell of the peat fill my sinuses.

“So I guess they found you,” Jake said, glancing significantly at my sling and my bandages.

“Who would ‘they’ be, Jake?”

“Didn’t say. They looked like trouble, though. Big guys.”

“Trouble? Yeah, then they found me.”

“The way they looked, I thought you might be at the bottom of the river by now.”

“Nope, still treading water. Anybody come around I might recognize?”

“Just the regulars, and…” he gestured with his eyes to the darkened corner.

I nodded. I’d been hoping to find her here, but that wasn’t going to make it easy. “Pour me another, would you?”

While Jake poured he asked, “Heard you were mixed up in that shootout.”

“You can’t believe everything you hear.”

“Yeah, I guess not.” Jake paused for another moment, hoping for more, then turned back to his other customers. I took a sip and stood, gathering my strength. I felt the eyes of the small fry on me as I walked back to the shark tank.

“It’s not polite to keep a lady waiting.” Lola Fanutti’s eyes were just two sparks in the gloom.

“I’m not generally considered a polite man.” I took a seat opposite her.

There was a moment of silence, then, “that’s it? That’s all you have to say? Not even ‘hello’?”

“Nice to see you again Mrs. Fanutti.”

“Mrs… Jesus, Charlie, what’s got into you?”

“A .45 full metal jacket slug got into me, that’s what.”

“Oh, my gosh!” A bit of Kentucky slipped into her voice. Whether she did it intentionally I wasn’t prepared to guess. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll live.”

She reached across the table and touched my hand where it touched my glass. “Don’t worry, Charlie, we’ll find whoever did this.”

I watched her for a moment. “What makes you think I haven’t already?”

She rocked back in her seat. “What the… you think I did it?”

“I’ve got to consider the possibility.”

“But… after all we’ve been through? No, Charlie, no.” She sounded like she was about to cry. “I could never…” Even as she held back the tears, there was something else growing in her voice. Anger, but not the cold stiletto anger of Lola Fanutti, but the Kentucky heartbreak of Meredith. “Didn’t our time together mean anything to you?”

It meant something all right; I just had no idea what. “Okay, Okay, I’m sorry. I’ve had a bad couple of days. I don’t know who to trust anymore. But I know you didn’t do this.”

Her voice changed again, still the Kentucky girl, but with the hard, cold edge of a killer. It sent a chill through me and I knew that for the first time I was talking to the actual woman, not some facade she erected for the occasion, and I knew she was speaking the absolute truth. It was Meredith Baxter, assassin, who said, “I don’t miss. If it had been me, you’d be dead.”

“That’s very reassuring.” I had meant to be glib, but it was also true. Here was one person who didn’t want me dead — yet.

“It was good, though, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. If I ever meet that girl again I’ll have to buy her flowers.”

Her posture relaxed; I was forgiven. She tapped a cigarette and waited for me to light it, steadying my awkward left hand with her own. She blew the smoke out in a long plume, the smell of tobacco mingling with her perfume, becoming something exotic. She shifted and the light played over the black silk that clung to her like a second skin. I took a sip of whiskey to moisten my throat.

“Who else have you spoken with about this matter, Mr. Lowell?”

“Well, there haven’t been any eskimos, but just about everyone else.”


“He was onto me the minute I met you.”

“Don’t worry about him. He just wants his cut of any business that passes through here. My in-laws?”

“I promised Paolo that I’d give you to him. I plan to keep that promise.”


“I am very unhappy with him.”

Meredith gave a ghost of a smile. “I see. You are a clever man, Mr. Lowell. Anyone else?”

“A couple of people I don’t know who they worked for, and some people who call themselves the Blood of the Saint.”

Meredith froze for an instant, then her cigarette resumed its arc up to meet her red lips. “I see. I should have expected that. They might pose a problem.” She stubbed out the cigarette with violence. “Damn Vic! Why couldn’t he just keep his mouth shut? Whoever whacked him, I just wish they did it a little sooner.”

“I heard a rumor he wasn’t dead.”

“I started that rumor. Should have told you. Sorry.” She fished out another cigarette and in her distraction lit it herself. “Who else knows the Blood is here?”

“Not sure. I heard people talking about Spaniards. And Alice knows, of course.”

“Of course.” Her eyes were scanning the room, but I knew she was watching me. “I don’t like her.”

“Don’t be fooled by that meek exterior,” I said. “She’s got the heart of a lion.”

“Oh, I’m not fooled at all. How are you shooting left-handed?”

“Even worse than with my right.”

“Well, I didn’t hire you for your shooting skills, I suppose.”

“Why did you hire me?”

“Would you believe your rugged good looks?”

I almost snorted my whiskey. “No.”

“I’m afraid that’s the only answer I have for you right now.” She thought for a moment. “Except this. You’re still alive. I think that shows I made a good choice.” She lifted her Colt from where it had been resting in her lap and slid me a little automatic from her handbag. “Just try to make some noise and not shoot me,” she said. “It’s time to blast our way out of here.”

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 3!

Episode 25: Reunion by the River, part three

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective who thought he was down on his luck, until his luck changed. He has a client now, Meredith Baxter, a beautiful if quite dangerous woman who holds the key to find something, a treasure of some sort, that is badly wanted by every underworld figure on the planet. For a while the various factions wanted Lowell alive, hoping that he would help them find the treasure for themselves. He can’t make them all happy, however, and the ones who come out on the losing end will not hesitate to express their displeasure with a bullet. Lowell has already been shot once, and his spunky assistant Alice was badly beaten.

Tonight Meredith will be recovering a painting called Blood of the Saint, in which her husband found the key to the location of the treasure. He was pulled from the East River soon after that. Lowell and Meredith are at Jake’s, a dive bar favored by the disreputable crowd. Meredith is certain that there are killers waiting for them outside.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I picked up the gun where it sat in front of me on the table and tested the feel in my left hand. It was a Walther, a .32, not the sort of gat you picture blasting your way out of a building with. Subtlety was Walther’s bag. Still, it was a good choice for my sinister hand, and dexter wasn’t going to be any use. I checked the safety and the magazine. The whole time I was looking for alternatives. “This isn’t like last time, is it?” I asked.

She hesitated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean the warehouse, where you had your own people attack us.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“The people inside with us, they knew something, didn’t they? Something you didn’t want to get around. Staging the attack while I was there was a nice touch. It kept me from quitting, and got us on the run together.”

She set her gun back down in her lap. “This is what I get for hiring clever men. I suppose another drink wouldn’t hurt before we go.”

I figured she was probably right about that. Booze in here, killers waiting outside. Not a tough decision. I went to fetch the booze. By now the area around the bar was uncomfortably bright, and I felt eyes peering at me from the darker recesses.

“Another round?” asked Jake.

“That’s right. Pour one for yourself, while you’re at it.”

Jake hesitated. “Crap, Charley, It’s that bad, then?”

“Just do it.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

I paid him. Along with the bills was a card I had been given long before, on a Tuesday. It wasn’t as clean and white as it had been then, the rigor of the last five days had taken its toll. It was, I reflected, the only thing on me that I had owned for that long. It felt like I was parting with on old friend, or at least a rival. Five days since I had decided never to call that number. Jake looked at it quizzically but kept his yap shut. “Tell your mother Charlie says ‘hello’,” I said.

“Will do, Charlie.” Jake seemed almost mournful; the bags under his eyes even heavier than usual, his pale skin and hollow cheeks reminding me of a mournful spirit, not the Reaper himself but one who follows in his wake cleaning up the mess. One like that never forgets anything, no matter how hard it tries. He picked up his glass. “Here’s to ya.”

I drank with him and got a refill before returning to the table in the corner.

“What was that all about?” Meridith Baxter asked.

“Just saying goodbye,” I said. “Heading to San Fran in the morning.”

She seemed almost amused. “Are you, now?”

“Given the chance.” I was serious.

“Well, good luck to you out there.”

“Thanks.” I took a sip of what was maybe my last drink, to stretch what was maybe my last conversation. I looked across at perhaps the last dame I’d ever see and waited for her to tell me the last lie I might ever hear. Time was stretched and folded; the past, the whole of human history was nothing, a blink of a bat’s eye, while the future didn’t exist at all. Only the now was real, the moment between the vanishing past and the nonexistent future. It stretched to infinity, wrapped back on itself, and the world froze, locked in that moment. A moment drinking top-shelf liquor with a top-shelf killer who looked damn good in black.

She took a sip from her own drink and looked me in the eye. “You’re right, of course. Those were my people who attacked the warehouse. What you don’t understand is that I was for all intents and purposes a prisoner. While obstensibly part of my organization, the people ‘protecting’ me were loyal to someone else. My ex-husband’s family, I expect.

“It is true I timed the attack to make sure you were swept along in the events. I’m sorry about that, but I needed your help and I still do.” She leaned back in her chair and her face was lost in the shadows. “They laugh at you, Charlie, the thugs and goons and hoodlums, the politicians and the lawyers, the cops and the reporters and even the drunks. You’re the biggest joke in this whole damn town. ‘Charlie Lowell,’ one will say, and they all share a chuckle. Nothing else need be said.”

“Well, that explains why you hired me, then.”

“Shut up, Charles. You’re the worst of all of them. You want to know why you drink so much? Every other two-bit gumshoe in this four-bit town is just looking for the next bit of dirty work to make a quick buck. But not Charles Lowell. You spend your life looking for truth. You’re the only honest person in town, Charley, the only one not on the take or two-timing or double-dipping or working some sort of scam. You can’t lie, you can’t cheat, you can’t steal. The only other way to survive in this town, the only way to stay sane, is to be drunk. That’s why they laugh. You are the strangest fish in the fishbowl. I’m not laughing, though.” She paused and smirked. “Except when you think San Francisco would be different.”

I though of a few retorts, but discarded them all. It didn’t matter whether San Fran was better or worse, as long as it was far from here. Maybe it was all the same everywhere, but I didn’t think so. Not for me. This town was dried up, dead, it had nothing left to tell me, no secrets to whisper in my ear as I walked the streets at night. Somewhere else, it would take a while before I could see past the empty faces of the buildings and of the people to see the deeper emptiness beneath. Anywhere was better than here.

I thought of the business card I had just given Jake. “Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think,” I finally said.

She finished her drink and stood, holding her canon with casual familiarity. “If we’re still alive tomorrow, you can explain to me how wrong I am.”

I stood also, the little Walther small and awkward in my large left hand. “Back door?”

She shrugged. “Good as any.”

Three toughs stood also, and reached for their weapons.

I wheeled on them, pushing my client behind me.

“Those are ours,” she said. Quietly she added “Probably.”

I glanced over at Jake. He had picked up the bar phone and was dialing carefully.

“Great,” Meredith said. “Now we’ll have the cops here as well. Better get going.” I led the way to the back door, where Meredith took charge. “We go out fast, and ready to shoot. With any luck we still have a man on the rooftop across the alley.” We exploded through the door, goons in front, looking for targets, waiting for bullets.

There were neither. We moved quickly through the deepening twilight, bristling with guns but with nothing to shoot. We piled into two cars waiting at the end of the alley and were away.

“That was fortunate,” I said.

Meredith was scowling. “Something’s

Tune in next time for: Reunion by the River, Part 4!

Episode 26: Reunion by the River, part four

Our story so far: There is a thing, an object of some sort, of incalculable value. Many people want this treasure, want it enough to kill for it. Others are equally willing to perform violence to ensure the treasure is NOT found by anyone. Charles Lowell doesn’t give a damn about the object; but people are trying to kill him anyway. He has been hired by Lola Fanutti, neé Meredith Baxter, wife of a now-dead crime lord, and she holds a vital clue to the location of the object. Well, she doesn’t actually have the clue, but she knows where it is. Or, at least, she says she does. She’s not very good at the truth, sometimes, and it often seems that Lola Fanutti and Meredith Baxter are two different people, and she changes without warning.

It is now Sunday, the day Meredith said she could recover the Blood of the Saint, a stolen painting which contains the key to finding the treasure. Many factions have asked Charlie, with varying degrees of politeness, if he would tip them off when she had the painting, so that they might take it from her. Charlie can’t satisfy them all, and those he doesn’t help are not going to be happy. In this crowd, “anger management” means “stay calm so you don’t miss your target.”

Charlie is now in a limo with Meredith, speeding toward the East River, there perhaps to recover the painting. They are protected by a group of toughs who may or may not be loyal to them, and unbeknownst to Ms. Fanutti, Charlie has sent word to one Mr. Cello, self-made lord of the underworld. Meredith thinks something is not quite right, but she can’t put her finger on it.

Those new to the blog should be aware that this story is not planned out — not even the episode I’m writing at the time. I just try to get into voice and let the ideas hit the page unfiltered and barely edited. Inconsistencies, oddities, and questionable actions are par for the course.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

She looked out the window as we sped along, her brow creased in concentration, concern, or both. I watched her; there wasn’t much I could hope to do cooped up in the car if it turned out the people around us weren’t loyal. In the end, she was my problem, the hub of the wheel that threatened to run me over. She felt my gaze and looked across the car at me. “A penny for your thoughts,” she said.

“I don’t think you’d be getting your money’s worth,” I said.

She smiled, more out of courtesy than any found humor. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“I think maybe it’s time to make a deal.”

“With whom?”

“Whoever gives us the best chance of getting out of this with our skins. Cello could protect us.”

“You want out?”

“I never wanted in.”

She sighed and looked back out the window. “Do you know what it’s like, Charlie? Being on top?”


“You get used to it in a hurry. I can’t live at the bottom of the whole shit-pile that is humanity any more, Charlie. I just can’t. Not after tasting the good life at the top. I’ll take a swift death reaching for the stars over the slow death stretched out over decades while lying in the mud.”

“There will always be another chance.”

“Not like this one, Charlie. There will never be another chance like this, ever again. Whoever controls this treasure will never have to worry again. About anything. I’m going to be that person, Charlie. I’m going to sit at the very top of the pile and I’m going to run the show. But… it would be better if you were there with me.”

“All those fancy clothes and people fetching things for me makes me nervous.”

She laughed. “Is that what you think it’s about? The mansions, the servants, the people standing in line to kiss your ass? Those mean nothing. Just money. I like money, and I plan to have a lot of it, but that’s not what this is about.”


“For the few at the top this isn’t just the world, Charlie, it is their world. The world you see out there has been shaped by them, according to their rules. You’re just a little rat in a maze, running about looking for a bit of cheese. But they built the maze, and they decide which rats get fed. You are just here for their amusement, and it will always be that way, unless you knock someone off the top and take their place.”

“That doesn’t sound very fun.”

She shrugged, but she was looking into my eyes with intensity. “You don’t have to do any of that, Charlie. Not if you don’t want to. That’s what it means to be on top. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re with me. Booze? Cars? Travel? Women? Your affairs wouldn’t bother me, as long as you came home afterward.”

“Or I might die trying to get there.”

“Or we might die. Yes. Do you still want out? Do you want to go back to that dreary, desperate life you used to think was your own?”

I thought of that dreary, desperate life. I thought of waking up each morning not knowing how I was going to pay for the next bottle of rot-gut whiskey, wondering if this would be the day some random thug punched my ticket or some philandering husband thought a gun would be the best way to shut me up. I thought about nights alone with only a bottle to console me, never quite deep enough for me to fall all the way in and never surface again. I was a rat in a maze, and the cheese was always just out of reach. A pathetic, hopeless existence. An existence that, somehow, was me. I liked me, though Lord knows there wasn’t much to like.

Meredith shifted her position, to better display her shapely leg. There were certainly some benefits to sharing her life at the top.

The car eased to a stop. Out the windows I could see the wharves, silent in the dark of the night. It was too late to quit. It had been too late for a long time. “What’s the plan?” I asked.

She checked her watch. “We wait. There’s a boat arriving in fifteen minutes. They will have a small crate. No one touches it except you or me. No one.”

“What if there’s trouble?”

“Protect the box. Let me and my boys handle the shooting.”

I nodded. With only one hand I wasn’t going to be able to do both, and she was much better at shooting than I was. Her men began to issue from the cars and take up positions around the wharf, trying with varying success to blend with the shadows. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered what was going on up in her head, and what that meant for me. What was I to her? Stooge? Pawn? Lover? Perhaps to her they were all the same thing.

“It’s time,” she said without looking at her watch. I opened my door and levered myself up out of the car, wincing with pain as my shoulder protested.

“Are you all right?” she asked. Her concern sounded genuine.

I steadied myself. “Never better,” I said.

She touched my arm gently where it lay in the sling. “Everything will be all right, soon,” she said. She stepped closer, started to say something more, when her eyes narrowed, looking past me. “It’s here. Let’s get this done as quickly as possible.” She stepped past me and I turned and followed one pace behind. I could hear the soft putt-putt-putt of a boat motor out on the river, but I could see nothing. The far shore of the river was just a dim blur; fog was rolling in, shrinking the world until there was just me and Meredith. Still I felt exposed as we walked out on the dock, our shoes reverberating with dull thuds on the wooden planks. Meredith had her pistol out and was making no effort to hide it.

The engine noise came closer and I caught a whiff of diesel. A scraping noise just ahead announced the arrival of the boat. Meredith quickened her pace before stopping at the top of a ladder. She pointed her gun down into the shadows. “Benny?” she asked softly.

A muffled voice rose from below. “He went for pancakes,” I thought I heard. That must have been some sort of countersign; Meredith relaxed fractionally. “got something for you, Ms. Fanutti,” the voice said again.

“I’m sending someone down for it,” she said. She looked at me and indicated with a nod that I was to climb down. Coming back up with a package of any size would be tricky. Oh, well. I stepped to the top of the ladder, turned, and groped with my foot in the darkness for the top rung. Hanging on tightly with my one hand, I made my way slowly down.

“Easy, Chief,” someone said behind me a few moments later. “Almost there.” I grit my teeth as someone took my bad elbow and helped me into the boat. When the man realized I was wearing a sling he let go quickly, and I almost fell into the boat. “Sorry, Chief,” he muttered. The boat splashed quietly on the glassy water as I recovered my balance.

“You got something for me?”

“Yeah. Right over there.” He pointed to a wooden box, maybe a foot square and three inches deep. Such a small thing for all this trouble. I walked over and saw that it was sealed all around, and that a wire held it to the bench. “We didn’t touch it, just like Ms. Fanutti told us,” the man said.

I lifted the box, breaking the wire. I stepped back over to the ladder and looked up. I could see the outline of Meredith’s head as she peered down at me. I juggled with the package and finally wedged it into my sling. “Thanks,” I said to the men in the boat. As soon as I was off the dec
k the putt-putt accelerated slightly and the boat slid out into the river. I looked up, but from the ladder I could see nothing. I began my slow climb.

By the time I got to the top the fog was thick as cat’s breath. I could make out a few lights over toward land, and in the other direction a single glow marked the light on the shed at the end of the dock. Meredith materialized next to me, moving as silently as death. “You got it?” she asked.

“I got a box,” I said. “No telling what’s inside.”

“My husband died for that box, Charlie. Let’s get out of here.”

We began walking back to the cars, slowly, the blanket of fog hiding us and giving the scene a mysterious and furtive air, making me want to walk as quietly as possible. Meredith was to my left, a few feet away, little more than a vague shape in the darkness.

We reached the base of the dock and stopped when we saw a figure blocking our way. The short man stepped forward.

“Good evening, Ms. Fanutti,” he said softly. He took a careful pull on his cigar, the glow from the tip lighting his face in a hellish cast. Cello. “Good evening, Mr. Lowell.”

“You can’t have it.” Meredith said. “It’s mine.”

In the gloom behind Cello I could make out several more figures, all of them big, all of them armed. Cello just smiled patiently. “I believe the object is currently in Mr. Lowell’s possession,” Cello said.

“Same thing,” Meredith said.

“Is it? After all, it was Mr. Lowell who invited me here tonight.”

“W—what?” Meredith looked over at me and my guilt must have been etched in my face. She staggered as if punched, then recovered, but still she looked at me until I couldn’t meet her gaze any longer. “Charlie…” she said, quietly, then nothing more. With a swift motion she raised her gun and shot Cello in the chest. He staggered back, a dark stain blooming over his white shirt, as the men behind him opened fire and Meredith’s men arrayed around the dock fired into the group.

Meredith fired once more, then twitched, staggered, and spun as another bullet found her, and another. Nobody was shooting at me yet, but I wasn’t going to depend on things staying that way. I ran.

I ran, but all I could think about was the look of hurt in her eyes as she decided to die.

Tune in next time for: Day of Reckoning!

Episode 27: Day of Reckoning

Our story so far: There is something a lot of people are prepared to do a lot of bad things to get, a thing of such value that for its possessor it renders the idea of money inconsequential. Charles Lowell does not have that thing, but he and his faithful assistant Alice have been caught in the middle of a struggle for the possession of a painting that is said to contain a map to the fabulous treasure.

Now Charley has the painting, and people around him are starting to kill each other at an alarming rate. Meredith Baxter, a.k.a Lola Fanutti, his employer and one-time lover, has fallen in the opening stages of a shootout on a pier over the East River.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I ran through the pea-soup fog, hunched over, the package wedged close to my chest. Behind me guns cracked and chattered furiously, and more than once I heard grunts, coughs, and cries of pain choked with blood.

Ahead loomed the glow of the single bulb, and my running was finished. The light cast a feeble glow over the door of the shack that seemed to hover in the darkness, the entire world reduced to me, a weathered wooden door, and a few rough planks between us.

Behind me, the intensity of the gunfire was decreasing; I figured that most of the men still standing must be running out of ammunition by now. If only they could all kill each other. Someone would survive, however, and once the opposing faction was eliminated, they would start looking for the package I carried. A painting, Meredith had said, that carried in its imagery the key to a treasure worth dying for. Plenty of people had done just that. I wondered if there was anyone alive anymore who even knew how to read the damn clues I supposedly carried.

Meredith lay back there, dead. I thought of the look she had given me before she pulled her trigger. Did Meredith die — kill herself, really — because of me? Because I had contacted Cello?

It didn’t matter, I told myself. Dead is dead, and the top priority now was not becoming one of the dead myself. There would be time for second-guessing later, on the long nights when the whiskey wasn’t enough. Remorse is a luxury reserved for the living.

Cello. He was dead now as well. How had he found us? I had passed word to him, but nothing specific. Obviously he had other sources of information as well. In the end, all I had done was give him a way to get under Meredith’s skin, a tool he used at the cost of his own life. He hadn’t thought Meredith would fire, either. She was colder than that, not prone to such an emotional response.

Damn, I wanted a drink.

Silence had fallen over the pier. I listened to the gentle sloshing of the water below me, smelled pungency of decay and life and fuel oil. There was a whiff of something else as well, something that didn’t belong here.

With my pistol I smashed the light bulb, but I didn’t try the door to the shack. It wouldn’t protect me in any case, and that’s the first place anyone would look for me. The first place and the last place; there was nowhere else to hide except in the darkness itself.

I groped my way to the left, careful not to fall off the pier. My hands met the rough wood of a pylon and I crouched down, thinking, waiting, hovering between earth and the dark water below, the water that held the secrets of this mad city, the people and things lost and forgotten save for quiet whispers and legends. Gone, now, all of them, all those people, gone along with their hopes and dreams, reduced to lunch for the eels who lived in the darkness. In the end, that’s all any of us could hope for. We were born to feed the eels.

Footsteps approaching, heavy on the planks; two people, one’s shuffling gait betrayed injury. They moved cautiously, and carried no light that would make them a target. I considered trying to slip past them, hugging one edge of the pier. I decided to make a move when they were checking the shed; the noise they made might help mask my own movements. It was about the only chance I was going to get. Despite the chill air my palm was wet where I held my little Walther.

It seemed an eternity for the footfalls to come close; the silence and the heavy air played tricks with the sound, making them seem closer than they were. In the distance I heard a siren.

The footsteps stopped, only a few feet from me but the source still invisible. There was a pause as the two men sized up the shack in the darkness. After a few seconds the silence became absolute once more. Finally one of the men cleared his throat.

“Charley?” he said. “You in there? Mr. Lowell? It’s OK, it’s just us.” He didn’t specify who just us referred to. I waited.

“Mr. Lowell,” the other man said, “Ms. Fanutti told us to look after you if things went wrong. Told us to do what you said.”

The sound of sirens was close now, and I heard the screeching of brakes. I could convince myself that back down the pier I could make out the throb of flashing red lights.

“Mr. Lowell?” one of the men said. “Listen, we’ve got to get out of here.” I heard a rustling sound from within the shed. The door opened with a soft moan. Suddenly light shone from within. “Who?” was all the first man said before four more shots cracked out in the night, the four muzzle flashes turning the surrounding fog brilliant white for an instant. The light from the shack went out before the two had even hit the ground. The door of the shed closed quietly. From shore came more excited voices as the police prepared to assault the pier.

“Charley,” a voice said, quietly, in control. A woman’s voice. “I’m glad you’re all right. There’s not much time. I have a boat over here.”

“Alice,” I said. “I thought that was your perfume.”

Tune in next time for: The Invisible Hand!


Episode 28: The Invisible Hand

Our story so far: There’s a thing that people want. Or maybe it’s a pile of things. Fact is, no one seems to know what the thing is, but it’s big. Big enough to kill for. Big enough to die for. Meredith Baxter just made that choice right in front of Charlie’s eyes. Whatever the thing is, Charles Lowell does not have it, and he really isn’t that interested in having it. That’s what makes him a valuable ally. Now several factions are banking on Lowell to bring them the goods, and he’s not going to be able to please all of them. There is a painting which contains clues as to the location of the treasure, and now Lowell has has the painting – or a least he has a box that everyone assumes contains the painting. He is trapped at the end of a pier after a gangland shootout, and who should turn up but his faithful and plucky assistant Alice…

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, but then settles down. This is all written in brain-dump style, so you get what you paid for it.

From the far end of the pier, the end connected to land and to safety, a search light erupted. At this distance the beam was muted by the fog into a dull glow, and I knew that it was doing little more than lighting up the fog. We were safe for a few more moments.

“You have a boat?” I asked.

“Of course. Come on.” Alice gestured with her gun but didn’t put it away. She hesitated. “What do you think the distance is to that searchlight?”

“You’re thinking about shooting it?”

“It would buy us time.”

It seemed there was a lot I didn’t know about Alice, but there are limits. She was not going to hit her target with her 9mm pistol when she didn’t even know the range. “Yeah, they’ll hold back and send bullets instead. A lot of bullets.”

She nodded. “This way,” she said. I followed to another cold metal ladder vanishing over the edge of the pier. “You first.”

Once more I negotiated a ladder with the package wedged in my sling. At the bottom was a dinghy, deceptively still in the water until I tried to put my foot into it. It swung around and I almost wound up in the drink. If I fell in, which would Alice rescue first, me or the package? I chuckled at my own naivety.

Right then, I might have been able to destroy the painting. Sea water certainly couldn’t have been good for it. I could have taken a dive, gone deep, and cracked open the box. I didn’t.

I pulled the dinghy closer with my foot and managed to fall into it without capsizing it. “What the hell are you doing down there?” Alice hissed.

“I never got the seamanship merit badge,” I grumbled back.

She responded by snapping off four quick shots with her pistol. A second later the spotlight went out and the cops opened up with their own arsenal. By then Alice was halfway down the ladder, her tight polka-dot skirt hiked up to her thighs. With my good arm I steadied the boat against the ladder as she stepped in. Yeah, she had gams all right. She pulled her dress back down with a little shimmy and fixed me with a glare more dangerous that any gun. “Some gentleman you are,” she said. Her anger evaporated and she turned away, suddenly shy. Then just as fast she was all business. “Looks like I’m rowing,” she said. I will never understand dames.

Bullets cracked and snapped throught the air over our heads, digging into the wood of the pier with dull thuds and smashing into the little shed. In the heavy air the reports from the guns seemed dull, like they were happening in someone else’s life. Alice began to row.

I sat in the back of the boat, facing her. She wore a dark number with white polka-dots that seemed to glow on their own in the low light. The pale skin of her arms disappeared into dark gloves which hardly seemed adequate for protecting her soft hands. Her strokes on the oars were smooth and what she lacked in strength she made up for in skill. Occasionally a light would penetrate the pea soup around us and I could tell that we were making good time; the tide was sweeping us right along.

Her hands were full; I had a gun. We both knew that, so there was no need to pull it out.

“Fancy meeting you here,” I said.

She hesitated for a fraction on the oars, then began pulling again. “Does it have to be now?” she asked.

“You lied to me, Alice.”

“No!” She controlled her voice. “Only about small things.”

“You brought Cello to the pier tonight.”


“And now Meredith is dead.”

“I didn’t think—”

“Think what?”

“I thought she’d handle it better.”

“Better, huh? Perhaps kill me instead, for selling her out.”

Alice stopped rowing and put her face in her hands. “It was Cello I wanted dead. Sooner or later he was going to kill you. And… I wanted her to take the fall.”

“You got your wish.”

Her sobs were getting louder. “You made me your partner, Charlie. You can’t imagine what that meant to me. You made me your partner.”

“Who do you work for?”


“Who else?”

“No one. Not any more.” She took up the oars and began to row again. The splashing as the oars lifted from the water was the only sound for a while. A breeze kissed my cheek; the fog would break up soon. Alice looked tired. She spoke between strokes. “Before… I worked for Vittorio Fanutti. My father.”

That was a dot I wasn’t ready to connect. The eels had barely started on Vic’s carcass when she came to work for me, for peanuts on a good day. And somehow her stepmother had come to me. I’d been on this case much longer than I had realized. Alice had singled me out. I tried to feel fortunate.

“Meredith didn’t know, did she?”

“Of course not. That bitch was ruthless.”

High praise coming from this girl. In the wash of shock one thing became clear. “You good with a rifle?” I asked.

“I prefer low-calibre, high-velocity,” she said.

“I guess I owe you one, then.”

“No,” she said. She smiled and in the dimness I saw the dark gap where her front tooth should have been. “We’re partners.”

Tune in next time for: Clear as Mud!

Episode 29: Clear as Mud

Our story so far: A lot of stuff has happened. Charlie Lowell is an aberration in the city, an honest man in a dirty job. He’s a private investigator. He was hired by Lola Fanutti to help her recover an item of great value. She’s dead now, shot down right after she killed Mr. Cello, a man crime lords and presidents bowed before. Cello had also wanted the treasure. Charlie is now in posession of a painting that supposedly contains the key to how to find the treasure, and he’s just discovered that Alice, newly promoted from being his secretary to his partner, was wrapped up in the intrigue long before she came to work for him.

There remains a fairly long list of dangerous people who would like to get their hands on the treasure, and another bunch, perhaps even more dangerous, who don’t want anyone to find the treasure at all. It’s going to be difficult to please eveyone, and these people don’t handle disappointment well.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here. It starts out quite silly, has a rough episode or two, and then settles down. Writing stuff like this is something I do when others might watch TV; it’s a brain-switched-off style, though I must admit that I am doing a little extra thinking lately just to maintain some sham of continuity.

We took a break from gabbing while Alice pulled quietly on the oars. In the predawn light a stillness fell across the world; the surface of the water was smooth as a glass pool table. I watched the ripples from the oars radiate away from us, still discernible until lost in the mist. In the silence I imagined that the gentle splash of the oars could be heard in China. It was the only sound in the gray world.

Everything I could call my own was in that boat with me: a painting called the Blood of the Saint, a partner with more secrets than a Swiss bank, and a gun. I didn’t think the shooting was over yet.

Alice was watching me, waiting to see how I reacted to her revelations. My partner, daughter of a famously dead mobster. Somewhere on the other side of the world a ship sounded its horn. The mist began to glow with the coming morning. “We’d better get off the water,” I said. “We’ll be sitting ducks out here.”

Alice nodded. “We’re pretty close, I think.” Even as she spoke I started to hear shore noises, muffled by the mist. She took a few more strokes and stopped, letting the boat glide across the water. “What are you going to do now, Charlie?”

I adjusted the package wedged in my sling, the package a dozen people or more had died for two hours before. “Take a look at this painting, I guess. See what I see.”

“I meant long term.”

“Sister, that is long term, the way things are going.” I thought for another moment. “And I need to beat the crap out of your uncle. I was going to let Meredith take care of that.”

Alice’s face went through every emotion in the book in a flash and settled back on caution. “I know you liked her,” Alice said, “but sooner or later she would have killed you.” She began to row again, and soon I could see the shore. “You weren’t her first lover.”

“Did she kill your father?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who did?”

“I’m… not sure. It could have been anyone who knows about the Blood of the Saint. The same people who want to kill you now.”

“That’s reassuring.”

She allowed herself a ghost of a smile. “There aren’t as many now.”

“So what’s your angle, doll? What do you want out of all of this?”

She spoke quietly, looking straight through me into a world all her own, her eyes as vacant as 34th street after the parade is gone. “I want them all dead,” she said. The boat nudged against a stone dock and she smiled. “Here we are.” She hopped from the boat and I followed, feeling clumsy once more. I wanted to keep my gun in my hand — not that I could shoot it worth a damn southpaw anyway — but I had to put it away or fall overboard. I told myself that if Alice wanted me dead I’d already be in the long line waiting at the undertaker’s, and any other threat she could handle better than I could. I resolved to break my habit of spending time with dangerous women.

The thought made me chuckle. Was there any other kind?

“What’s funny?” Alice asked.

“I was just thinking about how nice this painting will look in my living room in San Fran,” I said.

“You haven’t even seen it yet.”

“I’m not that particular.”

We climbed gray stone steps slick with morning dew and reached street level. “I know where we are,” we said at the same time. Alice colored and smiled behind her hand. It was a gray world, robbed of color by the mist, dingy boats immobile in the still of the morning, the few people moving about wraithlike, the only color anywhere the red of Alice’s lips.

A truck roared past, six cylinders banging, a cloud of hydrocarbons in its wake, a staggering dinosaur refusing to die. Another followed, better tuned. Harbingers of the vibrant life the docks would know soon. “We need a place to flop,” I said.

Alice nodded. “The farther from here the better,” she said.

“How about San Fran?”

She smiled. Maybe she read more into my invitation than I intended. Maybe she was right. “Not yet. We have to finish here first.”

Not yet. I wondered how many people lay at the bottom of the river because they didn’t cut and run while they still had a chance. Not yet. Just a little longer. We’re so close. We’ve come too far to turn back now. The last words of saps and suckers and losers and lowlifes, the dregs of the world willing to trade life for hope. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got a score to settle.”

She took my arm and we strolled away from the shore, just a couple heading home after a longer-than-expected night. “Let’s find some breakfast,” she said. Three blocks up we found a diner, deserted except for a pair of drunks struggling to stay awake at the end of the counter. We chose a booth and sat across from each other while a tired-looking waitress in a pale blue dress dropped menus in front of us. She flipped our cups and poured coffee without asking. I guess we had that look. The waitress turned and left, and while Alice studied the menu I studied her.

She looked the same as always, only now everything was different. Her makeup was carefully applied to cover the fading bruises, red lipstick perfectly defined her full lips. The tightness at the corners of her mouth didn’t seem pensive anymore, more like determined. The way she narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the menu looked calculating. Her movements were compact and precise. She looked up and caught me looking at her; I didn’t look away. She smiled, a little sadly I thought, careful not to show the gap in her teeth. “I wanted to tell you sooner,” she said, “but things started moving so fast.”

“It’s going to take some getting used to,” I said. “How many people know who you are?”

“Not many. Some people know that my father had a daughter, but they don’t know anything about me. Daddy told everyone I was going to school in Paris. They’re looking for me.”

“You have any other siblings?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

The waitress was back. I ordered steak and eggs, pancakes, and potatoes. I was hungry, I decided. Alice had the belgian waffles. At least her sweet tooth hadn’t been knocked out.

“Collecting your inheritance might be tricky,” I said.

She nodded. “There’s lawyers and detectives crawling all over it. Plus, my uncles would rather have Daddy’s money for themselves.”

More people came in, laborers grabbing a bite before going out to build the next architectural marvel. Must be nice, I thoug
ht, to build something that will still be there when you’re gone. Outside the morning was getting brighter and traffic was starting to pick up. The city was carrying on, the way it always did, indifferent to the lives that had ended in the night. Meredith Baxter, my client — perhaps even my lover, it was difficult to tell with her — was one of those lives. I should do like the city, I thought. Just move on, the way I always did. But right then I didn’t feel like I could move at all. I was beat, tired down to the center of my bones, a weariness that went beyond fatigue and weighed on my soul. My shoulder hurt.

Alice was inspecting me the way I had her. What did she see? If I looked in a mirror would I see the same person she was looking at now?

Breakfast arrived. I struggled with the cutlery until Alice cut my steak into bite-size pieces. She smiled as she did it, concentrating on her task, and briefly I saw the Alice I had always known. Her cheeks colored and she returned to her own breakfast without meeting my eyes. “Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

We ate in silence for a minute or two, then still not looking up she stopped, her hands hovering over her plate, and said, “Are we… are we still partners?”

I thought for a moment and nodded. “We’re in this together. No point worrying about what comes after till we see who gets out of it alive.”

She nodded, not smiling, and returned to her waffle.

“It’s the Spaniards that worry me the most,” Alice said, watching as I shoveled pancakes down my gullet. “All the others are motivated by greed. I’m not sure what the Spaniards are looking for.”

“Maybe we should ask them. They seemed reasonable. They were even going to hire us. What happened about that, anyway?”

“We couldn’t come to terms on a price.”

“You made Santiago mad again, didn’t you?”

I thought I detected a hint of a smile. “Mabye. But the main thing is that I don’t think he’s going to be content just taking the painting back. He’s not going to rest easy until it’s forgotten. He won’t leave people around who know what the painting signifies.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“He never came out and said it, of course. Just a feeling I got.”

“Secrets are a difficult currency to spend,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“They’re only worth something if you keep them to yourself. The Spaniards are spending a lot of resources just to maintain the value of their secret. Not a good investment, unless they get a return some other way.”

Alice nodded. “If we can figure that out, it might give us some leverage.”

I put down my fork and signaled for the check. “Let’s find someplace quiet and take a look at this painting.”

Tune in next time for: The Eye of the Beholder!