It was a dark and stormy night.
I turned the collar of my trenchcoat up against the weather and stared across the rain slicked street at a pool of light coming from a streetlamp. One hand wiped the water from my face while the other fingered the .45 in my pocket. It was loaded, and so was I. There were five slugs in me, one of ‘em lead, and four of ‘em bourbon.
Suddenly, out of the darkness a figure emerged. They paused for a split second in the island of orange, cast by the streetlight, beckoned me with a jerk of the head, and moved on.
I crossed the street and hurried after the figure. Over the pounding of the rain on the sidewalk I could hear the clacking of high heels. Either my contact was a dame or it was a short guy with issues. As I got closer, they passed under another streetlamp and I clocked the legs, clad in seamed stockings.
I really hoped it wasn’t a short guy.
For about ten minutes I trailed the legs, going this way and that, occasionally crossing a street and doubling back. Whoever this was, they were paranoid. Mind you, in my line of business, paranoid ain’t a bad way to be. All I knew was I’d had a note pushed under my office door, telling me where to be, what time, and to follow the person who beckoned me. Could be a paying job. Could be a set up job. Hence me bringing along my good friends, Mr Smith and Mr Wesson.
A moment later and the click of the heels slowed, then stopped outside a coffee shop. They went in. I looked around, then pushed the door open and stepped inside. There was a woman wiping the counter who looked up as I let the door shut behind me. She nodded a welcome and went back to wiping. As I stood there dripping, I looked around the shop. It was a smallish kinda place, with a line of stools at the counter and a line of high backed booths against the wall. The stools were empty, and I couldn’t see into the cubicles. Trailing a stream of small puddles behind me, I slowly walked along the line of booths, one hand gripping my piece.
The first was empty. So was the second. Just as I went to check the third, a stocking clad leg emerged from the last booth. I wasn’t so dumb as to not check the other booths as I walked past, just in case. Plenty of guys have died because of stockings, and not all of ‘em were strangled.
I reached the final booth.
All I saw was a flash of red lipstick and she was on me, arms around my neck, kissing me so hard I thought my…
“Jeez, who writes this crap?”
I slammed the book shut and flung it across the room where it landed on the sofa and woke the cat.
“And more to the point, who reads this crap?”
Lady Ella didn’t answer, but gave me a filthy look for disturbing her, then, having sniffed the book to make sure it wasn’t something she could eat, curled up and went back to sleep, with her back turned towards me this time, in case I hadn’t got the message.
I hauled myself out of my chair, walked over and tickled her ears by way of apology. She arched her back at first, but after a couple of minutes she was purring enough for me to think I’d been forgiven.
I picked the book up from where it had landed and took another look at it. ‘The Case of the Woman with the Nice Legs - A Jack Hammer Novel’ by Randy LeStrange. I shook my head.
If I was a plumber, I wouldn’t expect people to buy me books about guys fixing faucets, but because I’m a Private Eye, everybody thinks they’ve come up with the most original idea ever when they buy me novels about hardbitten gumshoes. I get them for Christmas. I get them for birthday presents. And let me tell you. For every one that’s half as good as Chandler, there’s a hundred guys who ain’t got a clue.
And I’ve got books by all of ‘em.
I gave Ella one more scratch behind the ears, then walked over and put the book on the shelf with all the others. When the shelf was full, I’d bag them up and take them down to the goodwill store on Hamilton and Third. They knew me pretty well by now.
I stretched out and cracked my spine as I looked around. I had big dreams when I finally hung that sign on the office door : ‘Chuck Able - Private Investigator’. I figured a few years paying my dues and earning a reputation and I’d move out of this shabby little place into somewhere a little smarter, a little more upmarket. And with that would come the fancy clientele with their fancy cases and their fancy wallets.
But here I was.
Don’t get me wrong - I don’t starve, but if I ever do move premises, I’ll be looking at a place on Austerity Row, just down from the school of hard knocks, rather than a plush pad on Easy Street.
Talking of not starving, I hadn’t eaten since I left my apartment this morning, so I slipped my jacket on, grabbed my trenchcoat off the coatrack and headed out. As usual, I didn’t have a crowd of clients to fight my way through as I locked the door behind me and headed down the corridor.
I followed my nose to Ninth Street, and a few minutes later, slid into a booth at the Cup ‘O’ Joe. Somehow, the people who do the Michelin guide keep overlooking the place, but most of the regulars wouldn’t trade one of Lee’s fried breakfasts for a few lines in a posh book.
As I got settled, Lucy, one of the regular waitresses came over.
“What’ll it be, Chuck?” she said, chewing on her ever present gum.
“Coffee please, Luce, and a hamburger and fries.”
“Comin’ right up, sweets.” she replied, and hollered the order through the hatch to the kitchen. A few minutes later she came over with a large cup of black coffee strong enough to run its own protection racket. As I sipped my java, I fished the morning’s paper out of my coat pocket and spread it out in front of me. On more than one occasion I’d got a break on a case because of some seemingly unrelated bit of information that I’d read, overheard or found, so it paid to keep abreast of the news.
I was still flicking through when my food arrived. The paper wasn’t going to be much use unless I suddenly found myself on the case of ‘the Taxpayer whose Money had been wasted on refurbishing the Mayor’s office’.
“So how’s tricks, Chuck?” asked Lucy, when she brought my lunch over. “Busy?”
I laughed as I took a bite of hamburger. Which isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Haven’t had a client in weeks,” I said through a mouthful of what Lee has sworn to me is prime beef. “Might have to go begging to the 18th at this rate.”
“Lemme see your coffee cup.” she said. I frowned, but handed her the empty cup.
Lucy narrowed her eyes and stared hard at the inside of the cup, and then at me. I looked back baffled.
“You will get a client today!” she announced.
A frown tried to cross my face, but had to wait, as the baffled look wasn’t going anywhere.
“Well, I hope you’re right.” I said.
“There’s no hopin’ about it,” said Lucy in a serious voice. ‘I can see it in the coffee!”
She pronounced it cawfee.
“Er, ok…” I said.
She looked around and whispered,
“All the women in my family have… the gift.”
She winked conspiratorially at me and sallied off to see to a customer that had just walked in. I went back to my lunch, still baffled. Fifteen minutes later I folded my paper, pushed the empty plate away and left some cash on the table.
“Bye.” I called.
“See ya!” Called Lucy. “Don’t forget what I told ya.”
As I walked down 9th, I thought about what she’d said. It’s safe to say that I know some crazy people, but I’d never have put Lucy in that bracket. Sweet, yes. Honest as the day is long, yes. But I didn’t have her down as a member of the fruitloop brigade. Ah well. People can surprise you.
I pulled my coat closer around me as I walked. Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away, and the New York winter had arrived early this year. The chill in the air made me shiver. Or was it Lucy and her fortune telling?
A gust of wind slapped me in the face and that settled it. It was the weather.
I stopped at the Korean Bodega on the way back to the office to pick up some cans of tuna for Lady Ella and had a chat with the guy behind the counter. I’d been coming in here for years, but still hadn’t got a clue what his name was, and I suspected he didn’t know mine, but it didn’t stop us chewing the fat every now and again.
It was getting on for two o’clock when I finally made it back to the shabby block that contained my office. I climbed the stairs to the third floor, partly because I needed the exercise, and partly because the elevator hadn’t worked in all the time I’d been there. The landlord had made it clear that I shouldn’t hold my breath while I waited for it to start working again unless I was looking to develop an interest in asphyxiation.
So I’d completely forgotten about Lucy’s little premonition.
Right up until the point, that was, that I reached the third floor and saw someone waiting outside my door. They had their back to me, but below a three-quarter length coat I could see seamed stockings and high heels.
“Don’t,” I inadvertantly thought to myself, “be a short guy with issues…”