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!

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