A Slice of PI
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
"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
"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?"
I considered that for a
moment and then for a few moments more. She didn't look like a nun.
"What's this about,
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
I sat back and lit a Camel.
It makes the office a touch crowded, but the smell is better than most
"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
"No, it's Browning.
I got married."
"You've no ring."
"You kept your married
"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
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
"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
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."
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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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.