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?”
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!