A Slice of PI

by Joe Stein

Email: joe_r_stein@yahoo.co.uk

Jo Stein

Joe's superb new novel Cold Fire, Calm Rage is now available from Amazon

It was a dark LA evening when the door of my office flew open and she stood there, framed for a moment in the doorway, the picture of loveliness. It was only for a moment though. Maybe I shouldn't have put those rubber stops on the wall. The door rebounded and there was a muffled cry as it slammed shut in her face.

I stayed where I was. It could be a trap.

Seconds passed and the door opened again, but slowly this time. It's difficult to look good while you're holding a handkerchief to your swollen nose, but somehow she managed it.

"You looking for me, kid?" I said.

"Are you Mr Marlow?"

Her voice was muffled by the handkerchief, but I could tell it was low and throaty. Maybe she had a cold.

"That's Wolram, lady."

"Oh," she sounded surprised, they all do. "But on the door, it says. . . "

"Yeah, I know. The sign writer was dyslexic."

"Well that was a little careless of you, wasn't it?" She had lowered the handkerchief now and was recovering her poise.

"Uh-uh," I said, "guy couldn't tell where I put the decimal point on the cheque. I saved eighty-one fifty and for that you can call me anything you like."

We stared at each other for a while. She was the first to crack.

"May I sit down please?"

I examined the angles. It could be a trap. I would be alert.

"You go ahead, sister."

She gasped. "How did you know?"

"Lady, with your manners, you had to be either in the church or the medical profession."

Her eyes narrowed.

"Maybe you are a detective after all."

"That's what it says on the door, doll. ‘Detective - Private'."

"No," she replied. "Actually it says ‘Defective – Pervert’."

"Yeah, well the guy couldn't spell either and most of my clients can’t read, so I figured it wasn't too important. Now which is it, lady, nun or nurse?"

"Do I look like a nun?" she asked.

I considered that for a moment and then for a few moments more. She didn't look like a nun.

"What's this about, sugar?"

She didn't say anything, just bit her lower lip and jiggled her foot up and down a bit, like she was considering something. It would have looked cool, if her shoe hadn't have fallen off.

"What's anything about, Mr Wolram? Love, lost innocence, family betrayal -"

I cut in quickly before she could go on...and on.

"I get the picture, doll, it's about power, money and sex. Why don't you take it from the top?"

I sat back and lit a Camel. It makes the office a touch crowded, but the smell is better than most cigarettes.

"I'm looking for someone, Mr Wolram, I'm looking for my brother. He lived with me and Mother in a small town in the Mid-West, but he got into bad company. He was a pool player and he went off to the big city to make his fortune." Her voice started to crack. "We haven't seen him in over two years and now he's stopped writing -"

She broke down then, a convincing performance, but I wasn't buying a ticket. Something in the tilt of the head, the catch in the voice. Darken the blonde hair and...

"You will help me, Mr Wolram, won't you?"

I leaned back in my chair and took a deep breath. Not a good move, since I was even closer to the camel now.

"You haven't told me his name, sister," I said softly.

"His name's Steve..." she hesitated slightly, "Steve Morgan."

“So your name is Morgan too?"

"No, it's Browning. I got married."

"You've no ring."

"I'm divorced."

"You kept your married name?"

"Yes, it's better -”

She stopped herself and I jumped in.

"Better than your maiden name? Better than Morgan? What's wrong with Morgan? Except that it's not your maiden name, is it, lady?"

She gasped and started to speak, but I cut her off.

"Spare me the Browning version. You may be looking for Steve Morgan, but he's not your brother, sister. He's not any relation to you at all. In fact he's a slightly down at heel PI specialising in set-up divorces who calls himself Mike Wolram!"

She cried out and almost fainted. This time it wasn't an act.

"That's right, doll, don't ask for Steve Morgan, 'cos you'd have to whistle all night for him. I buried him long ago, when I was turned over by a dark-haired beauty called Maud Hummelrupher. She always hated the name, so she called herself Browning."

I was standing up now, leaning forwards on the desk.

"I always knew one day you'd come walking in through that door, I just didn't know you'd try it so literally. You couldn't make it without me, could you? You bled me dry as a pool hustler and then you threw me away and now you want to find me again."

She'd found her voice at last, but it was different, desperate now.

"Steve, we were good together, we made lots of money. I always looked after you, I cared about you, you know that's true."

I walked round the desk towards her.

"It's not true, baby, you never cared for me. You remember that night in the garden, Maud, you told me it wasn't my night. I had to throw the game against the New Yorker. Not my night! I

was so hot that night, I could have won playing left-handed with a car-jack tied round my wrist. Instead I lost and he went on to the national championships. What did I get? A one-way ticket to Snookerville. You should have looked out for me, Maud, you should have looked out for me."

I was standing over her by this time and she had shrunk back in her chair, but the anger had left me. All I wanted to do now was to somehow get her out of my office. The window seemed the preferable option, but I turned away from her. The next sound I heard was the click of a revolver being cocked.

"You shouldn't have spoken to me like that, Steve," she said. "You don't know what I've been through in the last two years."

I didn't turn around.

"Why don’t you tell me, sugar, I ain't going no place. But I would like to sit down."

"Sure, Steve, but not at the desk, over in the straight chair there, by the little table. I don't want you hiding where I can't see you."

I sat down on the wooden chair next to the small table with the bird ornament on it. It was a special piece given to me by a grateful chocolate manufacturer after I'd found out who was stealing his special formula for crispy nut candy blocks. It wasn't valuable, the Malteser Sparrow, but it was special...

Maud was still talking, rambling through the last two and a half years. I started to pay attention; after all I still didn't know what she wanted from me. I sat still. That's what you do in a trap.

“- and then I met John. After all the years of scraping the barrel, at last I was up in society. No more seedy bars, hustling with lowlifes like you, no more cheap drinks and greasy diners. I would be up there at last."

"Senator Johnathan Lynn," I said. "Now it begins to make sense. He's got a reputation as a churchgoer, a man of principle, a stalwart of society."

"And I married him."

"And got all of that pillar-of-the-community baggage with him, eh? Maud Lynn! You can't have been too happy about that!"

"I was ecstatic!" she almost screamed at me. "I was finally mixing with classy people, people who used handkerchiefs instead of spittoons and went to the theatre instead of the drive-in."

I tried my soothing tone to calm her down. I didn’t want the gun to go off by accident, while she was spitting fire.

"So what happened, doll-face, what went wrong?"

"Nothing went wrong, Steve, but the rumours started. Who is she? Where did she come from? What did she do?"

"They wouldn't buy the small-town schoolteacher line, huh?"

She moved closer to me.

"I couldn’t even use that one. They would have checked. And eventually someone would come crawling out of the woodwork and wreck my life."

I knew now what the score was. I could hear it on the radio coming from the office next door. The Rams were up in the third and playing a passing game. That was no good for me. I had to run with the ball.

"So you started going back, didn’t you, baby? Back through the old address book, killing off your old acquaintances, anyone who could bring you down." As I spoke, I edged my hand nearer the sparrow on the table next to me.

"That explains the recent murders across the State, doll, but did you have to kill the priest? He wasn’t anything but an old broken man."

"Yes, I had to." Her face was hard now, a mask of hate and desperation. "He could have recognised me. Who do you think it was who broke him in the first place?"

"So it was you who killed Thursday." My hand was at the base of the ornament now and creeping up.

"Yes, I killed Thursday on Wednesday, leaving me enough time to drive to Reno by Friday and team up with John for Saturday's opening of the Sunday schoolhouse. I didn't think it would merit a mention in the press here."

"It didn't, babe, but I got a call from Thursday's widow asking me to look into it. She didn't know that me and Thursday had a common connection called Maud Hummelrupher. It took me a day to work that one out, but once I had that, I knew I was onto something. We've been working this case from opposite sides, honey and now we've met in the middle. Tell me, how did you find me?"

She hesitated, shrugged and shifted the gun slightly. After all this time it must have been getting heavy.

"I didn't. Coming here was chance. I was going to hire you, to find you. It's turned out to be a cheap transaction. I don't regret this, Steve, we had some good times, but most of them were lousy."

She took aim with the revolver. I needed to throw her off balance for a second.

"Wait, Maud! Don't do it! You may not regret it now, but one day you will and maybe for the rest of your life. We're just two people who've been something else on the way up this hill of life and we don't really amount to anything, but -"

"Stop it ,Steve, there's nothing you can say that will make any difference. This is just the roll of the dice."

"Chance eh?" I said. "Well, c’est la vie, baby, or even, c'est la mort."

I hit the switch at the back of the sparrow and the dart tipped with curare sped out of the bird's mouth and buried itself in her stomach. At the same time I threw myself sideways off the chair as her reflex action triggered the gun. A hole the size of my fist appeared in the back of the chair. When I looked around, Maud was lying in a heap on the floor.

The cops were going to go doolally about this one. As I reached for the phone I looked back at her. All she'd wanted was to swap a place in the bars for a place in the stars. But it ain't that easy.

As the man said, when you hustle, you use muscle and when you're straight, you use weight. She hadn't understood the difference between the two.


©2002 Joe Stein

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