Max Mann

 

I watched Cliff watch the waitress walk away.

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence.

“Jeeze, Cliff, you couldn’t be more obvious.” I sipped my coffee.

“Like you don’t appreciate a nice posterior?” He sopped up the remains of his egg yolks with his toast, and pointed the dripping mess at me in lieu of a finger. “I see you making eyes at Angie, over at Mable’s.”

I felt myself flush a little.

“Have you asked her out yet?” he asked as he delivered the final morsel to his mouth.

I shook my head, no.

“Why not?”

“I don’t need complications.” The waitress, Helen, came back with a coffee pot.

“You boys need any more coffee?”

We both slid our cups out toward her.

“Complications?” Cliff looked up and winked at Helen. She winked back.

“You know me. When I get close to people, bad things happen.” Seems to me everyone I’ve ever been close to dies. My mother. My sister. Probably my father…

Cliff snorted. “Bullshit. Nothing bad happened to Jen, except you letting her walk away, like a damn fool. Mary and I thought she was the real deal.”

I shook my head as we both started reaching for our wallets. “It just wasn’t going to work. She wanted something steady, someone who could give her a house with a picket fence, kids, a dog.”

“You should give it a try,” he said. It occurred to me I had just described Cliff’s house, his life.

Helen brought the check and we settled up between us, leaving her a nice tip. Helen always treats us well, so we always return the favor.

As we started to rise Cliff said, almost casually, “Did you hear Joe Hennessy died?”

I stopped, still not fully risen from the booth. “No. When?”

“Found him dead in his bed, early last week.”

I finished standing and gazed out the window. My reflection gazed back at me, looking beaten, worn.

“Do you know when the service will be?”

Cliff flinched. “Oh, jeeze, I’m sorry, Max. I should have called you as soon as I heard. They buried him on Monday. Down at Oak Grove. I just assumed you saw it in the paper.”

Not likely. I never check the obits.

“No one contacted you?”

I let out a bitter laugh. Who would contact me? No, my old work mates would just as soon shake hands with the devil. I didn’t exactly leave the force on good terms.

Cliff put a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and gently steered me toward the door.

“Everybody said he was crazy,” I reminisced as we navigated our way around incoming customers, a bus boy, and three children who had decided the floor made an excellent play station. “I guess he was, in a way.” We finally made our way outside and stood taking in the crisp autumn air.

“You know, he was in the Corregidor Death March. That might make you a little crazy,” I went on. Crazy Joe Hennessy – my first partner after I made Detective. I sat through many a tirade about the Japs, as he called them, while on stakeouts. His war experience made him bitter toward all things Japanese. Other than that one sore spot he had a good sense of humor, and he was a damn good detective. I could not have asked for a better mentor.

We worked together for two years before he retired.

After I left the force he called me on several occasions to see how I was holding up. We went out to lunch together occasionally. I lost track of him over the years, after he moved south of town, something I now regretted.

After Cliff pulled away I climbed into my Brougham and sat in quiet contemplation for a while. I roused myself from my reverie when I was starting sweating. Despite the cool weather, the closed car was getting hot. I fired up the engine and powered all four windows down.

I had a vague idea of where Oak Grove was, a small Baptist church south of town. I put the car in gear and headed for I-85. While idling at a light I played it safe and asked the GPS to give me turn-by-turn directions.

It was a pleasant drive, giving me time to be with my thoughts.

Once off the Interstate traffic was virtually nonexistent. I lowered the windows again and followed the directions my digital navigator gave me until I pulled into the nearly empty parking lot of the Oak Grove Baptist Church. There were three other cars in the lot.

It’s a small cemetery, so it was not hard to pick out the newest grave. I was surprised when I saw someone else standing near it. I knew almost immediately who it must be – Ami Motsomoto.

The old newspaper photo flashed though my mind: a busy front porch, several police officers milling about, and stepping out the front door, Joe Hennessy, holding a dark-haired little girl. The girl had her hands twined around Joe’s neck as if holding on for dear life.

The caption read: Corregidor survivor saves Japanese girl.

Technically, the caption was wrong. Her father was originally from Southern California, had spent his youth in an internment camp with his Japanese born parents. Until this case came along he would have just been another damn Jap as far was Joe was concerned.

None of that mattered anymore. There was a girl that needed saving.

She startled when my shadow fell across the grave, looked over to me with a wan smile on her face.

“I missed the funeral,” she explained, gesturing with the bouquet of grocery store flowers she held in her hand.

“I did too.”

She nodded sympathetically. “Did you know him?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“He was a good man,” she said, stooping to lay the flowers where the headstone would eventually stand.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, he was.”

© 2015 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I have been giving serious consideration to finally publishing my first Max Mann novella — Max Mann and the Black Widow. I finally have a cover concept I am happy with and thought I would bounce it off of you all to see what you think. This is a front and back cover for print. An ebook cover would be a slightly modified version of the right hand side of this graphic.

Max Mann cover concept

If the background is too dark I can adjust it to be lighter. I am also curious what you all think of the back cover blurb, both in terms of the text and if text over image works or not.

Max Mann and the Black Widow is a novella, so I was thinking of charging $5.95 instead of the more common $7.95. Does this price seem reasonable to you? Too high? Too low? I’m open to advice here as well. Thanks.

~jon

I am greatly indebted to Ken Thomas who has graciously released his photo of a black widow spider to the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Max could hear it coming, the blare of the horn, the sound of tires not so much skidding as sliding through the slushy snow. He braced for the impact, tightening up reflexively when he heard the sound of metal grinding into metal. But the jolt of a rear end’r never came. He glanced into his rearview mirror and saw two cars entangled some thirty feet behind him. A late model VW had slammed into the back of an older Chevy Malibu.

“There but by the grace of God go I,” he mumbled under his breath.

An inch and a half of snow had fallen right before dawn, and that was more than enough of the white stuff needed to spell disaster in Greenville, South Carolina. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to drive in it.

While he was still trying to decide if he was getting out to help, or if that choice would be suicidal, another car – a green Subaru – slid into the back VW. The VW, in turn, once again slammed into the rear of the Chevy. The Chevy then lurched forward toward Max, and his beloved red Cadillac. He hit he gas, hoping to add more distance, but the wheels just spun in the slush. Fortunately the secondary impact did not have enough force to push the Chevy any closer than ten feet away.

That settled it, he was getting the hell off the streets. Just as he was about to ease forward the door of the Chevy popped open and the driver, a man in his late teens or early twenties, jumped out and started running.

Almost as a reflex action Max threw his car into park, yanked the keys from the ignition, and jumped out in hot pursuit. Old habits die hard.

“Hey you! Stop!” He shouted, forcing himself not to yell “Police.” That gig was over, and had ended badly.

The man made no indication of stopping and when Max tried rounding the corner of the Insurance Exchange building at a dead run his feet skidded out from under him and he fell – hard. By the time he collected himself the guy was long gone.

Must be stolen, Max reasoned as he tried swiping most of the cold wet snow off his clothing. The actions only served to push frigid water deeper into the fabric and make his hands numb. Why else would the guy run?

His attention was yanked back to the scene of the accident by the scream of a woman. A crowd was gathering at the rear of the Chevy, eliciting startled cries of dismay. Max walked back, limping a bit, and worked his way through the crowd. The trunk of the Chevy stood open, popped up by the impact. Max peered in, then staggered back a step. A man’s body curled inside, his face frozen in a leering grimace, lifeless eyes staring out upon the world.

He heard sirens approaching. “Everybody stand back,” Max ordered the crowd. Old habits again. He did not look forward to seeing his old compatriots.

What a way to start the New Year.
~

© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid
The Sister

Part 6

The Beagle

Part 7

The Waitress

I took Bruno down to the ruins of Plumb Orchard Fine Used Books and let him have another sniff of the shoes. He lead me right to the spot out back where the Lexus had been parked, and then up and down the alley a couple of times. Finally, he sat down and howled at the traffic going by on Glendale Road. This, he was telling me, was the end of the line.

I bought Bruno a burger on the way back to Ace Kennels as a reward. A reward for nothing, but that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a trooper, and I had taken a liking to the dog.

Well, I was stumped. I had a notebook full of suspects and motives and not a clue as to who had done old man Jones in. He was dead. Of that I was sure. But who had killed him, and why? I drove down to Mable’s Diner to ponder the dilemma.

Angie was on duty and gave me a friendly wave as I came in. She hustled on over and asked me what she could get.

“Baby, you don’t have what I need,” I told her glumly. “But in the mean time, I’ll have some coffee. What’s the special tonight?”

“Chicken fried steak and American fries.”

I could feel the indigestion starting already. “Screw the coffee,” I reconsidered. “Bring me a beer and some chips. I’ll order dinner in a bit.”

“Sure thing, Max.” She was gone in a flash.

I pulled out my notebook and pondered the facts. The missus was still my best suspect, but she really seemed intent on finding the guy. It just didn’t make sense. Her brother was just as likely, but not unless he had her in cahoots with him. So back to square one. The nerdy kid… I scratched a thick line through his name. Wasn’t even worth considering. Then there was Micky the Hammer. He’d be my number two suspect, if I had to scratch the missus. But then he had gone and hired me too. But, I knew, if Jonesy was making funny with the books, somehow cheating the boss… Well Micky wouldn’t hesitate to set things straight. And of course there was the Giacardo gang – Micky’s competition. Maybe I was witnessing the beginning of a mob war? I didn’t like that idea at all.

I was suddenly aware of someone standing next to the table, looking over my shoulder. I covered the notebook and looked up. Oh joy. Murphy.

“Hello, Max. Been busy?”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Not very friendly tonight, are we? Aren’t you going to ask me to join you?”

“No.”

He sat down opposite me. “So what’s in the little book?”

“My notes, if you don’t mind.”

“Oh no, I don’t mind. Not at all. Mind if I take a look?”

“Over my dead body.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Listen Murphy, you got something to say, say it, and leave me alone.”

“I heard you were sniffing around the arson site tonight. With a dog.”

“Yea. So?”

“Find anything?”

“No.”

“And at the house?”

“No. Listen, Murphy. You want to check for scents, go out and get you a dog. I can tell you a place to go.” I’d like to tell him where to go.

“That’s OK, Max. We have our own dogs. On retainer.”

“So what do you want?” He was becoming annoying.

“Your head on a spike?” He grinned, feigning a joke.

I was getting pretty fed up. Then Angie came back with a cup of coffee. She stumbled just as she approached the table and the coffee sloshed out, splattering on the table in front of Murphy. He jumped back to avoid being burned. Angie gushed with apologies and dabbed frantically at the wet spots on his sleeve. Murphy warded her off as he climbed out his side of the booth, cussing like a sailor. He shot me an evil look and stormed out, ignoring Angie as she trailed after him effusing her regrets. In a minute she was back, plunking a beer down in front of me.

“Thanks, babe.”

She gave me a wink. “I’ll be right back with those chips.”

#

I had three beers and two bowls of chips as the evening wore on. I was running out of time and knew it. And if my hunches were right, Mrs. Jones would be off on her cruise the day after tomorrow and I’d be left holding the bag with a $300 bill to Ace Kennels, not to mention the other expenses. I wouldn’t even break even on my $500 retainer. Sometimes life’s just a bitch.

I finally ordered a plate of fettuccine with clam sauce for dinner and switched to coffee. I needed a clear head and more time. More time would give me a clear head, but nothing would give me more time. Hell, Mrs. Jones would be gone as of Wednesday afternoon. Then what would I do? I picked at my fettuccine.

“Not hungry tonight, hon?” Angie looked at the cold plate of pasta and shook her head. She and I both knew that Mable didn’t like it when food came back uneaten. Mable took it sort of personal.

“It was good,” I assured her. “Tell Mable I’m just feeling down tonight.”

“What’s wrong, hon?” Angie slipped onto the bench opposite me.

“Nothing you can help me with,” I said.

“Is it Murphy? Max, are you in trouble?”

I laughed and patted her hand affectionately. “I’m OK, Angie. It’s just this case I’m working on. It’s got me stumped.”

“You mean the old man Jones case?”

I looked up at her, surprised. “You know about that?”

“Oh sure, hon. Mable told me all about it. It’s all the talk over at Betty’s. Mable got her hair done there today. The place smells of smoke!”

“I see,” I said. “So, what all did Mable tell you?”

“Oh, just that old lady Jones killed off another husband and burned down his store to cover the crime.”

“Oh?” I had to grin a little. “And where did she get that idea.”

“The black widow?” Now she patted my hand, as a mother pats the hand of a child that just doesn’t seem to understand. “Everybody knows about the Black Widow. What’s this now, her third husband?”

“Yea, her third husband.” I shook my head. It seemed obvious enough, shoot, even to Mable and Angie. But it just didn’t add up. Something was missing, but what? “I’ve got to admit it does look mighty suspicious for Mrs. Jones, Angie. But it just doesn’t add up.”

“Why’s that?”

“She hired me to find him. And she seems intent on me succeeding.”

Angie chewed on her lip over that one.

“But there’s only one common denominator,” I had to admit, ”And she’s heading for the Caribbean the day after tomorrow.” I sighed.

“Yea. Three husbands, one house,” Angie mused. “Funny, the more things change the more they stay the same. Like the butler, for example.”

I looked up from my coffee, stunned. “What?”

“Huh?” Angie looked confused.

“What did you just say?”

“Oh, about the butler? Yea, Mable tells me that the butler’s been there from the start. Worked for old man Abrams, before they even met.” She gave a little chuckle. “I guess you could say he came with the house. And he’s just devoted to her.”

I jumped up and kissed Angie on the lips. Hard. “Angie, you’re a doll!” I cried as I made for the door. Sometimes it’s just the most obvious thing.

The Collar

“Betsy! I need Betsy!” I pounded on the door again. The ruckus from the back of the kennel was enough to raise the dead. At last I was gratified to see a light come on down the hall.

“What in tarnation?” Ace opened the door to me despite his reservations. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Morgan, but this is an emergency. I need to hire Betsy, right away.”

He looked at me with a quizzical eye but turned to lead the way into the kennels. “So, you got a notion, do ya?”

“Oh yes, Mr. Morgan. I’ve got a notion all right.”

#

I pounded on the door again. Dogs in the neighborhood started barking. A few bedroom lights across the street came on. I tried the doorbell again. And again. At last the light in the hallway came on. I stood so that I could not be seen through the side panel in hopes Robert would not simply turn off the light and go back to bed. It didn’t work.

“Who is it?” A disembodied voice came out over a tiny speaker hidden somewhere in the overhang. It was Robert. He sounded quite annoyed.

“Max Mann. I need to speak to Mrs. Jones right away.”

“Go away! Do you have any idea what time it is? Come back in the morning.”

“No can do, Robert. I need to talk to Mrs. Jones. Now!” I was shouting through the door. More lights came on up and down the street.

“Go away or I’ll call the Police!” Now he was getting angry.

“Who is it Robert?” I recognized her voice.

“Mrs. Jones! I need to talk to you! Max Mann, here. Please, open the door.”

I could tell the intercom was quickly switched off. Damn! I raised my fist to pound on the door again but then heard the sound of fumbling with the lock. The door opened slightly. This time Robert had his foot firmly planted to prevent me from pushing my way in. “This is an outrage!” he snipped.

“I need to see Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones, are you there.”

“Let him in!” Mrs. Jones ordered. Robert reluctantly acquiesced. As he opened the door his eyes fell on Betsy standing calmly at my side and he began to close the door again.

“You cannot bring in that animal!” He looked down his nose at the dog.

“Let them in, let them in.” Mrs. Jones countermanded.

“Oh for God sakes!” I saw Alex approaching from down the hall. “What the hell is he doing here? We’re trying to sleep, man!”

I stepped through the opening door before events could change the situation. Between Robert and Alex, they just may have prevailed upon her to keep me out.

“He’s brought the damned dog back!” Alex sneered.

“No,” Mrs. Jones said, bending to one knee to scratch Betsy behind the ear. “This is a bitch. The other dog was a male.”

Alex rolled his eyes and thew up his hands in resignation. “What the hell. We’ll never get back to sleep now. And we’ve got a lot to do tomorrow.” He shook his head and turned away. “I’ll put on some coffee.” He turned around and called for Helen.

“So, Mr. Mann, what brings you here at this hour?” She was standing again and had me fixed with steel hard eyes. This had better be good.

“I have a theory I need to test,” I told her.

“I see,” she said, and waited.

“I was wondering if I could go over the house again. With Betsy.”

“To what point!” Robert shot.

I ignored him. “But this time, we’ll be looking for something else.”

“Oh?” She crossed her arms, waiting for me to elucidate.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I know this is going to be difficult for you. But there is no easy way to say this.” I looked down at Betsy. “Betsy here, well, she’s what they call a cadaver dog.”

The blood drained from her face. Robert moved forward, as if to strike me, but she forestalled him with a hand on his forearm. She looked at me, tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips opened for one barely perceptible word, “Rodger?”

“No ma’am.”

“What?” Robert was now quite exasperated with me.

“Please ma’am, bear with me. I was wondering if you had anything from your first husband that we might get a scent from.”

“Are you mad?” Robert was virtually aquiver with rage. Mrs. Jones stepped back and slumped against the wall. Robert jumped to her side to support her. He shot me a hateful look. “You bastard.”

“I need to sit down,” Mrs. Jones murmured. Robert took her down the hall to the study. I followed along, with Betsy at my side.

She sat down at the desk and stared at the mahogany without seeing. Once settled, Robert returned his attention to me. “Let me throw the scoundrel out,” he pleaded to his mistress.

She raised a hand to dismiss the suggestion and looked up at me.

“Mr. Mann. You do have a way of upsetting me.” I apologized again. She dismissed that with a wave too. At that point, Helen came in with a tray with coffee. She went to the desk and poured her mistress a cup. Mrs. Jones ignored it.

“You bring a cadaver dog here and ask for something from my first husband?” Helen’s eyes widened at that news. She too looked at me like I was mad. “Do you know how long ago Jeremy went missing?”

“Yes ma’am. But Betsy is a very good dog.”

“I’m sure she is.” She looked at Betsy as if trying to appraise her worth. At length she gave a sigh, evidently having made her decision. She turned to the maid. “Helen, be a dear and go up to my room and bring down my lock box.”

“What!” Alex, who had come in to join us could not contain himself. She shot him a reproachful look.

“Helen, please.”

“Madame, this is ridiculous,” Robert objected.

“I will decide what is ridiculous here, Robert.”

“Yes, Madame.”

Helen was soon back with the lock box. Mrs. Jones took a key from her bodice and unlocked the desk. She retrieved another key from the desk and unlocked the box. She opened it and gazed at the contents for some moments, while her eyes teared up again. She reached in and considered several items before at last drawing forth an old leather wallet. She looked up at me with a fey smile. “This was Jerry’s wallet. Will it do?”

Alex banged his cup and saucer down on a side table and stalked out of the room.

“Yes ma’am.” I took the wallet from her with as much respect as possible. I held it to Betsy’s nose and let her smell it for a while. Then I began leading her around the house.

Unlike Bruno, Betsy gave no pull on her lead at all. There was no hot trail to follow, no recent treads to chase. All the scents of the late Mr. Abrams were long worn away. All, I hoped, but one. No, with Betsy, it was I who did the leading.

I took her to the most likely spot. We went to the cellar door. I lead the way down the stairs, followed by Betsy, then Mrs. Jones, and finally Robert. There was no sign of Alex. Robert stood at the bottom of the stairs like a sentinel while I lead Betsy around the basement, strewn with years of clutter. Mrs. Jones followed behind us at a distance, sometimes pausing to consider old items stuck away and long forgotten. There were a lot of them, it being a big basement.

“Madame, don’t you think this has gone on long enough?” Robert asked hopefully from his post near the stairs. She shushed him with a wave.

Suddenly, Betsy lunged forward and the lead grew taunt in my grip. She pulled me forward towards a large crate and sniffed at it intently. She circled it several times and began pawing at it. Before I could say anything Mrs. Jones was beside me with a crowbar in her hands. I caught my breath, expecting her to clobber me with it, but she handed it to me and stepped away, clutching her arms to her sides.

“Open it.” She shuddered as she said it.

I set my crutches aside and began to work on the crate. Soon I had the lid pried off. I threw the lid aside and began digging through the straw packing. I pulled out smaller boxes and opened them to find… books. Books, books, and more books. Before long I had the crate empty and naught to show for it but books.

“Those were Jerry’s books,” Mrs. Jones informed me. “He’s where I first learned the love of fine books.” She picked up one leather bound volume with a wistful look in her eye. Robert stood at the base of the stairs looking rather smug.

I couldn’t believe it. In frustration I hefted the crate onto its side to look at the bottom of it. Could there be a false bottom? I rapped on it with my knuckles, hoping for a hollow sound. Instead I heard a ruckus at the stairs.

“Down here, officers. I think he’s quite mad!” It was Alex. He had called the Police. Robert was now looking quite triumphant. God I hated that man.

We all looked up at the clatter on the stairs. Three uniforms were coming down, double quick. Alex was right behind them. They looked at me while fingering their nightsticks, almost daring me to resist. The lead officer approached and began to fumble for his handcuffs.

We all froze to the sound of a baying hound.

We turned our attention to Betsy. She howled again, a long and mournful wail, as if weeping for the dead, and then began to frantically paw at the dirt where the crate had stood. The officer paused, wondering what was going on. Mrs. Jones sank down to the ground with a groan of, “Oh my God.” The smile on Alex’s face died, replaced by a look of complete confusion.

“What the hell is going on here?” the lead cop demanded.

“Officer, get a shovel!” I exclaimed. “I think we are about to discover a body.”

Suddenly Mrs. Jones looked up, at last understanding. There was fire in her eyes. But she was not looking at me. “You!” She rose and pointed a long accusing finger at Robert. “You!” She grabbed the crowbar with intent to kill. Robert bolted up the stairs. The cops had their hands full trying to restrain her and it looked like Robert was going to make a clean get away. Then I heard him squawk, and heard an old familiar voice up in the kitchen.

“What’s your hurry, bud? Where is everybody?” It was Murphy. It appeared Robert had run smack into him.

#

They exhumed the body of Jeremy Abrams the next day. Seems Robert was so taken with the beauty of the new Mrs. Abrams that he could not bear the thought of the man despoiling her night after night. At last he could take it no more, and he killed his former master and buried him in the basement. Since there was never any reason to suspect him, or Mrs. Abrams for that matter, the investigating detective (need I say who it was?) decided that they did not need to do more than a cursory search of the house. Then years passed and the grave became virtually indiscernible from the rest of the dirt floor. The crate of books had been a minor stroke of brilliance on the part of Robert. Just the thing to explain the late man’s scent, should anyone have the presence of mind to use a hound. The investigating detective had never bothered.

A couple of happy years passed with no one but Mrs. Jones and her loyal butler to grace the presence of #17 Park Avenue. But then the unthinkable happened. The woman remarried! It gnawed at Robert until he took measures into his own hands to set the world aright. All he had to do was loosen the fitting to the brake fluid reservoir. With the way Mr. Ferguson drove, he knew it was only a matter of time before the slow leak did its deed. Murphy, er I mean the investigating detective, didn’t think it was anything more than a mechanical failure. Mr. Ferguson was well known to tinker under the hood of his cars, after all.

Then, to Robert’s complete consternation, the woman he doted on married again!

#

The forensics team found some blood that matched Mr. Jones’ shortly after sunrise out in the gravel where Bruno had howled the night before. Seems Robert had been parking there since the Lexus had been impounded. They found blood in his trunk too.

“Yea, that’s the difference between us pros and you amateurs”, Murphy swaggered as I approached. “We’ve got hard evidence on him, and he’s singing like a bird. Buried the poor guy in a steamer trunk out in a corn field. What a nut.”

That Murphy. You gotta love him.
~

This concludes Max Mann and the Black Widow. Thank you for reading.
If you enjoyed this story, please tell your friends to drop by to read and comment. I have seven Max Mann novellas in all, and will consider posting more of them in the future if there appears to be an interest.

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid
The Sister

Part 6

The Beagle

As soon as she left the office I broke out the yellow pages and started searching for a dog. I had told the dame that I had picked up a scent hound, and she was expecting me at the house in less than an hour. I looked under Dog and found all manner of Dog Food Retailers, Dog Furnishings, Dog Groomers, and Dog Supplies but no entries that looked useful for my purposes. So I tried Hounds, but the book went right from Hotels to House and Building Movers. I’d have to keep that in mind if I ever wanted to move a house.

So who would know about dogs? A vet? Yea, that’s the ticket. I thumbed back to Veterinarians and dialed the first one I found – Acupuncture Veterinarian Care. I had to key myself through a mind numbing barrage of voice menus before an actual human being finally picked up the phone to ask how she could help me. From the sound of her voice next Saturday night came immediately to mind, but I stuck to business and laid out my tale of woe. She put me on hold and after a few minutes she came back on line to suggest that I try Ace Kennels. She even had the number for me.

Ace Kennels was named for Ace Morgan, a gruff sounding man that talked loud so that he could be heard over the sound of dogs yammering in the background. I told him what I needed, a scent hound – one that could be used to find a missing person. He said he had just what I needed and that I could rent him for just $300 a day.

#

Plus expenses, I kept telling myself as I drove over to Ace Kennels. I got there in about 20 minutes. If Mrs. Jones was expecting me within the hour, she was going to be disappointed. Ace was halfway across town from where she lived.

Ace met me at the door. He was sort of short and shriveled, with a face not far removed from that of a Basset Hound, but he had friendly eyes and an easy manner that made you warm up to him right away.

“So you’re the fella what needs a hound, eh?” He took my hand and shook it in a firm yet gentle handshake. “Ace Morgan.”

“Mann. Max Mann,” I introduced myself.

“Well come on in, Mr. Mann. I’ll show you the dogs. Got three or four that might do.” I hobbled after him down the hall. I could hear dogs yapping somewhere in back. Then he opened the door to the kennels and all hell broke loose.

Dogs jumped up and started barking and baying, some leaping up onto the chain link cage fronts, others dashing back and forth from one side of their cage to the other, all very interested in who was coming to see them. Despite their racket, I felt no sense of danger. The dogs all seemed friendly enough, just very excited to greet me.

“This here is Max,” Ace said pausing before a cage that housed a Basset Hound. At first I thought he was introducing me to the dog and began to wonder about his sanity, but then he said, “Max is three years old and has worked for the Police several times. Found the missing Kelly kid a year ago Autumn.”

“Wow.” Max. Nice name.

“And over here, I gots Charlie.” He stepped over to another cage and nodded appreciatively at what appeared to be some sort of Spaniel. “Charlie’s a mut,” Ace told me in a low voice so as not to insult the dog, “But he has a nose on him as good as any. He won’t do you wrong.”

“OK.”

Then he led me to a cage holding two dogs, both Beagles. “And over here we’s got Bruno and Betsy.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Bruno?”

“Yep. Heard of ‘em?”

“No, no… It’s just that…” Hell, it had to be fate. “300 dollars a day, you say?”

“Well, that’d just be for Bruno. If you want ‘em both, it would be 600.”

“No, no. I just need one. Is he a good scent hound?”

The man laughed in what sounded like a series of throaty barks. Bruno and Betsy both laughed back, with their eyes and tails, and danced merrily about each other. “Is he good? Mister, Bruno is the best.” Then he considered Betsy. “Or Betsy. They’s both the best, but Betsy’s better with the corpses.”

I hesitated. I was convinced I was looking for exactly that, a corpse. But Mrs. Jones still seemed to hold out hope. And I had told her the dog I had rented was named Bruno – how could I argue with such a coincidence?

“They work best as a team,” Mr. Morgan was telling me. “Bruno’s a little better at finding trace scents, you know – when the trail’s cold. But Betsy can find a dead’un like there’s no tomorrow. You looking for a live one or not, mister?”

“Hmm. Well, my client seems to hope he’s alive,” I told him.

“But you doubt it.” It wasn’t really a question.

“I’d be surprised.”

“How old’s the scent?”

“Well, he was last seen three days ago, around six o’clock pm.”

“I see,” he said. “Bruno’d be the one for you then. If you don’t want ‘em both. If’n he narrows the field for you, then you can always come back and get his sister.”

“That’s a plan,” I said. We shook hands and Ace opened the cage and put Bruno on a lead.

#

I’m not used to handling dogs and drove over to Park Avenue with some trepidation. I half expected Bruno to lunge into my lap, or get under the brake pedal, but he sat there in the passenger seat like a perfect gentleman, panting and dripping on my leather upholstery, with only an occasional soulful glance in my direction. When the car came to a halt in the the driveway at #17 he looked up attentively, as if knowing it was time to get to work.

Mrs. Jones had the front door open before I could get out of the car. I gave Bruno’s lead a little tug and he hopped right out, wagging his tail with enthusiasm. Mrs. Jones held the door open and let us in. She dropped to one knee and petted Bruno affectionately. “What a pretty dog, Mr. Mann.”

“Well, ma’am, you’re not really supposed to pet him,” I told her. She scoffed at that. “Not supposed to distract them from the job at hand.”

“I see,” she said and got up to lead us into the house. “What do you need from me?”

“You have something with Mr. Jones’ scent on it, ma’am? Something he wore recently? A dirty sock. Some dirty underwear?”

She looked offended. “Helen is very good at doing the laundry, Mr. Mann. Dirty underwear, indeed.”

“OK. How about a pair of shoes? She doesn’t wash his shoes, does she?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” she quipped. She lead me into the study, seemingly the only room in the house I was destined to know. Helen and Mr. Marino were both there. Alex was sitting at the desk. Helen stood discretely to the side of the door, ready to serve as needed.

“Helen, be a dear,” said Mrs. Jones, “And go up and get a pair of Rodger’s shoes.”

“Some well worn ones,” I put in. Mrs. Jones tisked at that, as if the thought of anything being well worn in this house was beyond the pale.

Soon Helen returned with a pair of well worn running shoes. I shot Mrs. Jones a glance but held my tongue. According to Helen, Mr. Jones jogged in these shoes every morning. Perfect. I held them up to Bruno’s nose and waited for a second.

Soon enough Bruno was leading me on a merry chase, a neat trick on crutches. He led me all through the house. We went upstairs to the bedroom, down the hall to the bath, downstairs to the kitchen, to the dining room where he sniffed at the chair Mr. Jones usually sat at during dinner, off to the living room to take in his favorite arm chair. We even went down to the basement to check out his work shop. It was an old low ceilinged basement with a dirt floor, like many of the old historic houses still have. It always amazed me how these things stayed dry, but they did. But Bruno was not all that interested in the basement and he dragged me off again, clumping up the stairs to the kitchen. He sat down and wagged his tail, as if to say he was done.

“So what did that prove?” Alex Marino asked with acid in his voice.

“Well, I expected Bruno to get Mr. Jones’ scent around the house,” I told him.

“Well duh!”

“Yea, Yea.” Kiss my ass, I wanted to say, but couldn’t insult the client’s brother. “At least now we know that Mr. Jones is not in the house.”

He looked at me like I was daft.

“Well,” I treaded cautiously, “he could be hiding on the premises.” Or you could have stuffed him in a closet, I thought more likely.

“And you’re paying for this?” he asked his sister sarcastically.

“Oh stop it, Alex. Now what, Mr. Mann?”

“I guess I should check the grounds.” Alex rolled his eyes.

We went out the kitchen door and Bruno quickly dashed to the driveway. He circled around and around one patch of gavel then sat down and howled.

“That’s where Rodger parks his Lexus!” Mrs. Jones cried.

“Bravo!” Alex applauded and then turned back to the kitchen in disgust.

~

Next week – Chapter’s 12 & 13: The Waitress & The Collar

Next week I bring you the exciting final two chapters of Max Mann and the Black Widow. I changed the line up to present two chapters next week rather than one, as important clues are revealed in Chapter 12 that would not be good to let simmer for a full week. So, who do you think did it, or did anyone do anything? Is Mr. Jones dead or alive? Just who is up to no good here, anyway? Feel free to speculate. All will be reveled next week.

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part 4

The Boss
The Old Flame

Part 5

The Maid

I tooled on over to #17 to see what the results of my little conversation with the insurance agent would be. I parked on Oakwood, just around the corner, where I could keep a discrete eye on the driveway. Sure enough, before long Mr. Marino showed up, raising a cloud of dust as he whipped up the drive. He slid to a stop and flew out of the car and about bolted to the front door. I found it interesting that he didn’t need to knock – he let himself in with his own key. Hmm.

I wasn’t particularly surprised when my cell phone rang a few minutes later.

“Mann.”

“Mr. Mann?” It was Mrs. Jones. She sounded upset.

“Yes ma’am?”

“I’d like to talk to you.” Her voice was low and forced, like she was trying to keep control. Mr. Marino must have told her of my suspicions.

“Sure, ma’am. Talk away.”

“Not on the phone!”

“OK. You want me to drop by?”

“No.” That was definite. “Where are you? Are you at your office?”

“No ma’am, I’m out in the field following up some leads.”

“Well, I want to see you. Now.”

“Oh jeeze, ma’am. ‘Fraid I can’t get back to the office before, oh, three o’clock. Well, maybe two-thirtyish.” I looked at my watch. It was just before noon. I figured if I gave them some time to stew, they might do something foolish that I could follow up on.

“Two-thirty! Where on earth are you?”

“I’m heading out I-85 to see a man about a dog,” I lied.

“What?”

“Bruno.”

“What?”

“Best scent hound east of the Mississippi, ma’am. Bruno’s out on a farm in mid-state. I think he could help us find your husband. You do still want me to find your husband, don’t you?”

“Well, of course. Well, no. Why yes!” She was obviously flustered. “That is to say, I want my husband found, of course.” Ah. The subtext there was pretty obvious. Found, but not by me. She was going to fire my ass.

“I see,” I said. “Well, if I hurry, I can get back by two-thirty. Of course, any speeding tickets count towards expenses.” The phone clicked off in my ear. I hung up and watched the front door.

The door opened and Mr. Marino stepped out onto the stoop. Mrs. Jones stood on the threshold, and they talked – heads close together. Then she leaned forward and gave him a long and deep felt hug. As she closed the door he turned and dashed back to his car. He wasted no time hitting the road, again raising a cloud of dust. I put the key in the ignition, figuring to follow him when a car suddenly came out from behind the house. It was Mrs. Jones, driving her Mercedes. Unlike Mr. Marino, she seemed to be in no particular hurry. She turned the other way on Park and then, to my dismay, turned left onto Oakwood. I slunk down in my seat as she drove by, but she didn’t seem to have noticed me. Whew. That was close.

Now what to do? Follow Mr. M, or Mrs. Jones? Marino had already passed out of sight, so I figured I’d best follow Mrs. Jones. So once again I put the key to the ignition. Once again I stopped before firing her up. Another car was coming down the driveway!

This was one I hadn’t seen before, a late model Buick. It was driven by none other than my old friend Robert, and he seemed to be in a hurry. He squealed out onto Park and headed off in yet a third direction. Hell! What to do, what to do?

Then a thought struck me. This would be a great time to search the house.

#

I could see through the side panel beside the door that the security alarm had not been armed. They had all been in such a rush to leave they hadn’t bothered with it. That made my life simple. I tried the door knob, but it was locked. So I headed for the back door, where I was less likely to be seen. If Murphy couldn’t pin a homicide on me he’d be perfectly willing to settle for breaking and entering.

To my delight I found the back door was not even locked. I knocked, very lightly, just so I could say that I knocked, and pushed the door open. The kitchen was empty so I slid in as quiet as a cat. As I tried to close the door behind me I bobbled one of my crutches. To my dismay it clattered across the tiled floor. I winched and waited, but the house remained silent. So I closed the door and struggled to retrieve my crutch, trying not to bend too much in the middle. My ribs screamed in silent protest.

Once I was recrutched I considered what to do next. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, so I had no real plan of action. I’d just go over the whole place quickly and see if anything jumped out at me. I decided to start in the study, mostly because it was the one room in the house that I had seen before.

The study was sparsely furnished, lots of books, a desk and chair, and a few other scatterings of furniture. I went to the desk. It was locked. I decided against forcing it and browsed over the books on the shelves. Unlike the books at Mr. Jones’ bookstore, these were fine books indeed. Most were leather bound with titles like The Iliad, The Works of Shakespeare, A Tale of Two Cities and the like. No cheap mysteries or romances here. I pulled down a gilt-edged tome titled Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I flipped it open to the title page and saw it was printed in London by Bradbury & Evans in 1704. I don’t know Jack about rare books, but I’d be willing to bet this baby was a first edition.

“Who the hell are you?”

I about jumped out of my skin and the book went flying. I grabbed for it and bobbled it two or three times before snatching it from mid air. I whirled around to face a heavy set black woman in a white uniform, losing my crutches in the move. I was busted. By the maid.

“Mann. Max Mann.” I had to talk fast before she called the cops. “Mrs. Jones hired me to find her husband.” She folded her arms and scowled, unimpressed. “I dropped by to talk to Mrs. Jones and… well it looks like she’s out, so I thought I’d read a book while I waited for her to get back.”

She marched across the room and firmly removed the book from my grasp. She inspected it, wiped off the binding as if I had contaminated it, and carefully put it back on the shelf. She turned to find me struggling to bend down for my crutches. Bless the woman for she took pity on me, picked them up, and handed them back. “Well if you mess up her books she’ll fire your sorry ass. Damn, she doesn’t like anyone messing with her books.”

“These are hers?”

She folded her arms again and looked at me like I was stupid.

“I just thought… well with the bookstore and all…”

“Hell no. Mr. Jones don’t know a first edition from the Sunday paper.” She lovingly caressed the spine of Hard Times with her rag and smiled. “Oh, he buys ‘em for her all right, but it’s Mrs. Jones that finds ‘em. On the web. Yea, she do love her books.”

“She reads these?”

“What the hell do you think? Of course she doesn’t read them. Hell, she’d get her finger oils on the pages. Shit mister, that book costs over a thousand dollars. You don’t read books like that!”

“Oh.” I decided to change the subject. “So tell me, um… I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Helen.”

“So tell me, Helen, do you know when Mrs. Jones will be back?”

She shrugged. “Hard to say. You just missed her. She had to run out to the store to get another steamer trunk.”

“A steamer trunk?”

“Yea. She’s gonna take a trip and damned if one of the steamer trunks isn’t missing.”

A lump formed in my stomach.

“A trip?”

“Yea. She’s going on a cruise. With Mr. Marino.”

“Oh?” Now wasn’t that interesting.

#

I headed back to the office convinced Mrs. Jones had killed her husband and was now preparing to flee the country. According to the maid, she and the insurance agent were going on a ten day Caribbean cruise. Due to leave the day after tomorrow. They could drop out of site at any port along the way and never be seen again. Just one thing bothered me. Why the hell did she hire me?

The Sister

I swung by Carl’s for a burger and fries before heading back to the office. I had plenty of time on my hands, since I wasn’t expecting Mrs. Jones till around 2:30. So I took my time and had an extra cup of coffee. As I sat there drinking my joe, I ran over the facts in my head. Over and over. And the more I looked at it the more I began to think my old buddy Cliff was right. But no dame was going to stick me for a murder I didn’t commit. Still, I’d have to be careful and watch out for the set up.

I killed a little more time so that I could get back to the office fashionably late. After all, I was supposed to be out in the field. If Mrs. J showed up early I didn’t want to have to explain why I was already there.

I drove past the office and sure enough the red Mercedes was parked out front. Nobody in it. I drove around to the alley and parked in my usual spot out back. I would have liked to hoof it up the back stairs to make a show of trying to be on time, but my leg thought better of it and I grabbed the elevator instead.

She was waiting for me out in the hallway. She whirled around at the sound of the elevator dinging. I hustled out, but before I could say anything she closed the gap between us and took a slap at my face.

I grabbed her wrist in mid swing, and to heck with the crutches. This dame had slapped me once. She wasn’t going to get away with it a second time. “What the hell is that all about!” I panted.

She struggled to free herself and tried to slap me again. Again, I caught her wrist and this time she let loose like a bobcat, flailing at me wildly with both hands. I had a good hundred pounds on her, and there was no way she was going to get to me. She tried a knee to the groin, but expecting it, I turned my hip in time and blocked her. She stopped as suddenly as she had started and all at once collapsed against my chest, bursting out in tears.

Now I felt awkward and helpless. Mrs. Arens, the accountant across the hall opened the door to see what all the ruckus was. I gave her a hapless look while Mrs. Jones continued to weep into my chest. Mrs. Arens retreated with a slam of the door.

“Come on, lady, what’s this all about?” I cajoled.

“You… you,” she gasped between sobs. “You’re a beast, Mr. Mann!”

I held her away from me and looked her in the eye. “And how ya figure that?” I asked.

“I talked to Alex,” she was finally beginning to compose herself again. She jerked away, and tidied herself, daubing at her eyes. “He told me what you said.”

“I see,” I said.

“How could you?” Her face began clouding up again. I made a move towards the office hoping to avoid another scene out in the hallway. “Alex told me that you think I killed my husband!” She gasped for air and managed not to cry.

“Well, ma’am, I’ve got to consider all the possibilities.”

“All the possibilities!” she shrieked. Several of the office doors popped open and heads poked out. I tried to shush her, but she would have none of that. “All the possibilities! How could you? How could you even think it! He’s my husband, Mr. Mann. And I love him very much.”

“All right, I understand.”

“No you don’t! And then,” she got even louder, “you accuse me of sleeping with Alex!” Her arm tightened and I could see another slap coming. But she managed to restrain herself. Barely.

“Well, ma’am, you gotta admit it looks a little suspicious…”

“What looks a little suspicious?” she demanded.

“Well, you and Alex seem to go way back,” I said. “Through three husbands, it seems. And he seemed mighty at home by the pool the other day. And now you’re going on a cruise together? Come on. What am I supposed to think?”

“You men are all the same!” Her lip began to tremble again. Tears were welling up in her eyes. “Your minds are in the gutter.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t see, Mr. Mann. You can’t see beyond your tawdry little…” Tears began flowing and she collapsed against my chest. She looked up into my face with the most wounded look I think I’ve ever seen on a person. “He’s my brother, Mr. Mann!”

You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

#

I finally got her into the office and managed to calm her down. I apologized to her for accusing her of sleeping with her brother, and tried to explain that seeing as I did not have all the facts, it just looked pretty bad. Then I asked her about the sudden Caribbean cruise. She explained that there was nothing sudden about it at all. She and her brother always took a Caribbean cruise around this time of year and had booked the tickets months ago. Seems Murphy had already questioned her about the cruise and by the tone of her voice I could tell she did not think much of my pal. But he had cleared her to go. Evidently Murphy was satisfied that she was not a risk to flee. Again, I explained that I had not had all the facts, so things looked bad, and told her she could have been a little more forthcoming and have avoided all this discomfort. At length we hashed out all our differences and she rose to go. She looked around the office and seemed a little puzzled.

“Well, where’s the dog?” she asked.

“The dog?”

“Bruno. Aren’t you going to bring him over to the house to get the scent?”

“You want me to bring Bruno over to the house?”

“Oh course, Mr. Mann. I want you to find my husband.”

Man, was I confused.

~

Next week – Chapter’s 11 & 12: The Beagle, and The Waitress

Just two more installments. Yet to come: Part 5 – The Beagle, and The Waitress; and Part 6 – The Collar

You can find other exciting serialized fiction on the web via the #TuesdaySerial tag on Twitter, or visit Inspired by Real Life, for a weekly listing.
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

 

Part 1 (to start at the beginning)

The Client
The Butler

Part 2

The Associate
The Notebook

Part 3

The Cop
The Reporter

Part Four

The Boss

I dropped Cliff off back at the strip mall so he could pick up his car. Murphy was still there, and eyed me like a shark scenting blood. Cliff’s theory began to take on more substance in that cold stare. But I had a hard time accepting that Mrs. Jones was trying to set me up. For one thing, I didn’t think she was bright enough to do it. And then there were those baby blues.

Still, that didn’t mean Murphy wouldn’t try to pin something on me anyway. He’d been known not to let little things like the facts get in his way before. The sooner I got out of his sight the better, so I bid Cliff goodnight and drove off.

I picked up the tail right away.

That Murphy, what a jerk. He didn’t have anything and he knew it, but that wouldn’t stop him from harassing me. I sped up to test my theory, and sure enough, the unmarked car behind me kept pace. Great. Well, I’d just take them for a merry chase.

The Brougham stuck out like a sore thumb so my only hope to ditch them was to tie ‘em up in traffic and make a couple of quick turns to get out of their line of sight. So I headed down Jackson towards the business district where traffic would be heavier. I blasted through a couple of late yellows, but they came on through on the early reds. With luck, at 5th Street traffic really bunched up. A delivery van was double parked. As the flow merged into the left lane to get by the obstruction my tail got stuck at least seven cars to the rear. I looked at the light just ahead, and paused briefly along side the truck. The guy behind me started blasting the horn, but I ignored him. When I saw the Don’t Walk lights start flashing I gunned it and turned onto 5th just as the lights changed. The traffic behind me all got caught on the red and I was home free. I turned left on Monroe, then right on 4th and right on Jefferson. Here I picked up the on ramp to the Interstate and blew out of town.

By now it was getting dark and I was getting hungry. So I took the exit on old State Route 11 and headed for a little trout lodge I knew down in Lewiston. It was a quaint little place, set up like a 1950′s roadside diner, with china plates thick enough to be used as boat anchors and silverware made out of real silver. The china was generally chipped and the silverware slightly bent, but the fish was out of this world. I must have been deep in thought about my anticipated meal because it was some time before I realized I had picked up the tail again. Damn! That Murphy was going too far. I was out of his jurisdiction and he had no right to be harassing me now. I was tempted to pull over and give the jerks a piece of my mind.

I must have been deep in thought about the tail, for it was a while before I realized the car in front of me was consistently slowing down, to the point that we were just creeping along. Suddenly he jammed on his brakes and I stopped just inches from his bumper. Too late, I realized what was going down. The tail stopped on my bumper, ensuring I was going nowhere, and two big lunks jumped out, one on each side. The guy on the driver’s side yanked open my door and hauled me out by my shirt. He wasn’t a cop.

“The Boss wants to talk to you,” he informed me, inviting me to his car. Considering his size, and the fact that his three friends were just as big, I thought it best to accept the ride. He patted me down and once satisfied that I wasn’t packing, hauled me to the rear door of his Lincoln and shoved me in. My leg throbbed with pain, and the ribs felt no better. At least I wasn’t riding in the trunk, and I thanked God for small favors. They took my keys and one of his friends drove off in my car. I figured I’d never see the Brougham again.

We pulled up in the alley behind Rabeno’s on the far south side of town within a half an hour. Rabeno’s was a great Italian restaurant with some of the best linguine east of the Mississippi. It was also the favorite haunt of Micky Malone. Why a good Irish boy like Micky choose to eat at an Italian joint was beyond me, but I think it had something to do with the ambiance.

When the Lincoln pulled to a stop another large fellow was waiting and yanked open the door and hauled me out, again by my shirt. I told him to take it easy on my knee and hobbled along as best I could. He held my arm against his own like a steel trap, to make sure I couldn’t run. Like running was an option. I was actually glad for the support, since they had left my crutches in the Brougham. He steered me into Rabeno’s via the back door and I was hustled into a private room.

Micky was having dinner. He paused, looking up to see what the cat had drug in, and then continued to eat, making small talk with his companions. The blond on his right laughed obsequiously at all his jokes. The two “gentlemen” seated at the table looked vaguely familiar. I recognized the guy standing behind him, my old friend with the pipe. He glared at me.

I could see Micky was going to let me stand there for a good long time before he deigned to turn his attention to me, and since my knee was killing me, I decided to break the ice myself. “Evening, Micky. These gents told me you wanted to talk to me.”

He put down his fork and waved off the thug behind me, who evidently was about to teach me a lesson in manners. He took a long slow drink from his wine glass and then wiped his lips with his cloth napkin.

“Yea, Max. How ya doing? Sorry to hear about your little accident.” He looked at my knee with exaggerated sympathy. The blond giggled. “You should be more careful. Falling down steps can be fatal.”

“Yea. I changed the light bulb,” I told him.

“That’s good.” He didn’t offer me a seat. I was beginning to sweat from the effort of standing on my bum knee. “Listen, Max. I hear you’ve been poking around Jonesey’s place. Looking for anything in particular?”

“Mr. Jones,” I answered frankly.

The blond’s giggle died abruptly and the two guys at the table looked a little surprised. But Micky didn’t miss a beat. “Any particular reason?”

“Yea. Mrs. Jones hired me to find him. She’s worried about him.”

“Oh Yea?” He rocked back in his chair and lit a cigar. “Well that’s good. That’s good that she’s worried about him. She’s a good wife.” He puffed on his cigar for a few seconds and then looked back up to me. “I hope you find him, Max. Cause me and the boys, we’re worried about him too. Jonesy’s doing a little work for me.” At this he pulled a little notebook out of his vest pocket and laid it squarely on the table between us. I recognized it as the notebook Pipes had taken from me the night before. “It’s a shame the bookstore burned down last night. But bookstore’s can be replaced, ‘ya know? But people, good people like Jonesy, well they’re hard to replace. I’d sure like to find him. All safe and sound like. So you keep on looking for Jonesy, Max. And if you find him there will be a little extra in your Christmas stocking this year. And,” he added punctuating the air with his cigar, “If he’s dead, and you can find out who killed him, then I’ll really make it worth your while.”

I was confused. “You mean you didn’t…”

“Course not!” he scoffed. “I need Jonesy. He’s a vital part of my operation. See, Alice here likes to read the classics.” He winked. Alice laughed like a hyena. Then he turned to the thug behind me. “See Mr. Mann back to his car.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Malone.” The hulk behind me grabbed me by the arm letting me know in no uncertain terms that my chat with Micky was over.

“Careful of his knee,” Mickey grinned, turning his attention back to his linguine.

The Old Flame

I was escorted to my car, which had conveniently found its way to the alley behind Rabeno’s. I was handed the keys and the big gorilla walked away with a, “Have a nice day,” thrown over his shoulder as he left me standing there. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. No pipes to the knee. No punch to the gut. No cement shoes. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I had just been hired by Micky Malone to find Rodger Jones. I did know better, and I had just been hired by Micky Malone to find Rodger Jones. It didn’t make any sense. My head was swimming.

I got in the car and hesitated slightly before inserting the key in the ignition. I closed my eyes and turned the key. The old Brougham fired right up, the motor purring like a kitten – no explosion. I let out a long breath, relieved. I sat there for a few minutes trying to sort things out. The two people I suspected most of doing away with Rodger Jones were now both counting on me to find him. Up to about an hour ago, the way I had it figured was that if Mrs. Jones didn’t kill her husband, then Micky must of done it. If Micky didn’t do it, then I figured it must have been the dame. But damned if they weren’t both paying me to find the guy. Or at least I think Micky was going to pay me, if I followed the conversation correctly. My head was beginning to spin.

At last I put the car in gear and as I pulled away I noticed two of Mickey’s boys standing behind the dumpster, where they were keeping an eye on me. I gave them a wave and a nod, but they just watched me pass, stony faced. It didn’t exactly give me a warm fuzzy feeling that we were all on the same side.

Once back out on the street I remembered that I hadn’t eaten and decided to grab something quick, preferably from someplace that had a well lighted parking lot. I headed over to Cousin Charlie’s, a little bar on 7th Street that was renowned for roast beef sandwiches and slaw to die for. Fortunately, it was also on a busy street and had it’s own well lit and guarded lot. With luck, I’d be able to satisfy an appetite that had come roaring back without getting piped, kidnapped or killed.

Well, luck was with me. I made it into Cousin Charlie’s without incident and took a booth in the back, where I could keep an eye on things. It paid off. I saw Cliff Williams come in just after the waitress left for my beer. I gave him a wave and he came over to join me.

“How’s it been going?” he asked as he slid onto the bench opposite me. “A Mich,” he told the waitress as she plunked my beer on the table. “In the bottle.”

“Don’t ask,” I replied.

“Tough day?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“Any closer to finding old man Jones?”

“Nope. I’m shooting blanks, Cliff. I just about had Micky Malone pegged for it, what with the shop getting torched last night.”

“Yea? So what changed your mind?”

I told him of my little encounter with the Malone boys. “Shit Cliff, he’s gone and hired me!”

“So’s the dame,” he observed. I could tell by his tone that he didn’t think a little thing like paying me would exempt someone from suspicion.

“So, you still think it’s the wife?”

He took a long pull off his Michalobe and nodded. “I’d look into the insurance angle if I was you.” The waitress came back and we ordered our food, and more beer. Cliff watched her retreat towards the kitchen before coming back around to the conversation. “Hey, good news,” he told me.

“What’s that?”

“The Fire Marshall has cleared the scene. Definitely arson. But,” he grinned over his beer, “definitely no signs of a corpse. Murphy’s beside himself. He sure wanted to nail your ass.”

So the next day I decided to take Cliff’s advise and began digging into the insurance angle. I got on the phone and called my old buddy, Jenny Andrews. Jen was an insurance fraud investigator for one of the big east coast agencies. We went way back – Jenny and me – when she was still Jenny Carter. But things didn’t exactly work out. When we realized that we weren’t exactly simpatico, we went our separate ways. It had been many years ago, but we parted with no hard feelings.

Jenny was glad to hear from me and asked me when I was going to get a real job. She always asked and I always said when Hell freezes over. Then I asked her how Jim and the two kids were doing. They were doing great. Jim had gotten a promotion and they had moved into a new house – one with two and a half baths. It was just what she had always wanted, she told me. And it was. That was what had made us incompatible. Jenny had wanted security and stability, something a private dick can’t exactly promise, and I had wanted the freedom to be my own boss, to set my own hours. The feast or famine lifestyle, the lack of fringe benefits, no hope of ever having a house with a yard drove the final wedge between us. We had made a great team, and still had the utmost respect for each other. It took me two years to get around to scrapping the “Carter &” off the door so that now it read simply, Mann ~ Private Investigations.

I explained the current case to her and she said she would see what she could do. In less than an hour she called me back. It was beginning to look like Cliff was right. The insurance trail on this dame stuck out like an iceberg in the desert.

Her first husband, Jeremy Abrams, was insured for a cool one million dollars. The insurance company did not want to pay off, since no body was ever found, but after years of stalling and haggling between their respective lawyers, they had finally caved and paid out in full. Plus there was the house, listed at a cool 750 grand.

Her second husband, the car dealer, was insured for 2.5 million. The insurance investigators were all over that one like flies to honey, but they could never prove any foul play. Eventually, they had to settle without a fight. Plus she got the dealership, worth an estimated 25 million.

So I was a little surprised when Jen told me that her latest husband, Rodger Jones, was only insured for 200K. “That’s odd,” I observed.

“Well, Yea,” she agreed, “but there’s more.”

“Oh?”

“Yea. That bookstore of his – the one that just burned down… It’s insured for three million dollars.”

“Whoa!” It didn’t compare to 25 mil, but still three mil was nothing to sneeze at. Then a notion crossed my mind. “So tell me, Jen, what insurance agent in their right mind would sell a policy to anyone related to this dame?” I already knew the answer.

#

The Independent Insurance Agency was on the east side. It only took me a few minutes to get there. I called ahead to be sure he was in, giving the secretary a false name for my appointment, to insure that he’d still be in when I got there. He was.

“Mr. Hensley to see you.” She stepped aside to allow me to enter. Alex Marino was in the process of raising to greet a prospect when his smile froze and his handshake withdrew. So did the secretary.

“You?” His smile was replaced by a frown. “What’s with the bogus ID?” He sat back down, all signs of warmth now gone.

“I just wanted to make sure you would see me,” I said.

He scoffed at that. “And why wouldn’t I see you, Mr. Mann?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged, helping myself to a seat that was not offered. I picked up a large crystal snow globe and gave it a shake. It had a little scene of a cottage in the woods, and the snow swirled all around. “Cute,” I observed. “Real crystal?”

“Waterford.”

I looked around the office. It was quite nicely furnished. The paintings on the walls really were paintings, not prints. And they were framed in expensive wooden frames. His desk was solid cherry, and the rug on the floor a genuine Persian. Mr. Marino was doing quite well for himself, it seemed.

“Nice place you’ve got here. Insurance business must treat you pretty well.”

“I don’t do too badly,” he conceded.

“I must be in the wrong business,” I said. I rocked back and forth in the visitor’s chair – solid as a rock. No need for a matchbook wedge under the leg of this chair. “I used to have a secretary.” I jerked my thumb back towards the reception area.

“That’s nice.”

“Yes sir, it must take a hell of a lot of sales to afford an office in this suite. Or maybe just a few really big sales will do the trick, eh?”

He sighed in exasperation. “I’m a very busy man, Mr. Mann. How can I help you?”

“I understand that you sold the insurance policy on Mrs. Jones’ husband.”

His eyes narrowed. “Yes, I did.”

“And you sold the policy on her late husband, Henry Ferguson.”

He just stared at me, irritably.

“And on Jeremy Abrams – her first husband, as well.”

“Indeed. It helps if you know someone in the life insurance business, Mr. Mann. Someone you can trust.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

Again, he just stared at me.

“And in the fire insurance business too, I assume?”

“Just what are you getting at, Mr. Mann?” His gaze was cold as steel.

“Well, Mr. Marino, don’t you think it looks just a little suspicious that you keep selling bigger and bigger insurance policies to the husbands of Mrs. Jones and that bad things keep happening to them?

At this he leaned forward and locked me in a cold glare. “Be very careful, Mr. Mann. Liable can be a nasty business.”

“Yes, it can, “ I said. “So is murder, Mr. Marino. And fraud.”

“Quit playing your little game, Mr. Mann. If you have something to say, just say it.”

“OK, Mr. Marino. The way I see it you and Mrs. Jones have a thing going. She marries a rich guy, you sell the big insurance policy, the rich guy dies, and you make sure the policy pays off.” He looked at me in a complete deadpan. If I had hoped to strike a nerve, I had failed miserably. I may as well have suggested that I did not care for the office decor for all the rise I got out of him. “And maybe you two have got a little something else going on the side?”

His eyebrows knit at this. So I gigged a little deeper.

“You sacking up with her?”

At this Alex Marino rose from his desk wound up tighter than a spring. Both jaw and fist were clenched. The veins on his temples throbbed, threatening to pop. I’d certainly struck a nerve there. “Get out of my office.” He managed to speak without shouting – just barely. I rose, keeping the desk between us. His hand grasped the crystal snow globe as I edged toward the door.

“Hit a nerve?” I asked with a wicked grin. I heard the crystal shatter as I slammed the door on my way out.
~

Next week – Chapter’s 9 & 10: The Maid, and The Sister

Just three more installments. Yet to come: Part 5 – The Beagle, and The Waitress; and Part 6 – The Collar
(c) 2010, by J. M. Strother – All rights reserved.

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