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.
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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.”
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!