Thursday, September 20, 2007

Excerpt from the first Marlowe Black mystery "Beholden"


Soundview was quiet as I steered my 88 between rows of Quonset huts searching for the ex-GI. Petey, however, was as scarce as rooster teeth. The air raid shelter sign had been taken down and the hut where the girls had peddled flesh now stood empty, windows broken like the place had been abandoned for years. I parked in front of the entrance and walked inside.

The building's contents had been turned into trash. Furniture was smashed and overturned, dishes shattered. Glass lay in piles of shards and splinters, which caught and twisted sunlight into a painful array of needles. The sink had filled with ashes, as if a bonfire had been lit there. The body of the big woman who had patched my scalp wound lay wedged in the bathtub with a leather cord wrenched tightly around her neck. Rats had gnawed her toes, fingers and knees. She was a sight that would force a roach to vomit. I went outside to suck down a few gulps of air to quiet my stomach before I could dig through the rubble in what had been her living room and locate her telephone. I was surprised to hear an operator.

"Number please."

I recited Agent Haley's number and waited while the connection rang. Finally, as I decided to hang up I heard, "Haley."

Before he could say another word, I said, "I'm in Soundview," after identifying myself. "You'd best come up here and take a look around." Then I described what I'd found.

"Wait outside. I'll be there as quickly as possible." After I hung up, I decided to ignore his order and phoned Sergeant Dunbar. The man drove me crazy with his tough guy routine, do it by the book attitude, but you could not find a better cop anywhere in the city.

After he heard who called, he said, "What the hell'd you do this time?" I heard no humor in his voice. "Not enough would be my guess." "Which was what? Lose a witness?"

"Yup. She's been dead long enough to attract rats."

"Where the hell are you?"

"Soundview."

"Attracting rats in Soundview isn't surprising. Wouldn't take very long either. This witness got anything to do with Twiggs' murder?"

I caught myself nodding. "That's right. She claimed, when I talked to her a couple of days ago, that she planned to marry him." My fingers found, dug loose a Camel and my Zippo.

"Marry Twiggs? She a looker?"

I described her, before and after, and heard him clear his throat as I lit up.

"Well you never know what some men like in a woman," he said sounding cautious. "Why'd you call?"

"Needed to let you know about it, and that the Feds are taking charge of the scene."

"You working for them?"

"On and off. Nothing I can talk about, but you can call down there and check it out. I also wanted to know if you'd gotten any leads on who might've killed Twiggs."

He made a noise like an exasperated sigh, and I knew he believed me, which meant he also knew of my federal involvement before he asked about it. "No, nothing," he said after a minute, dropping the subject of me and the Feds like I figured he might. "We've run down the scant evidence we picked up in your office. Only prints we found belonged to you. You never have company in that place? How do you pay the rent?"

"I do what I can." I heard a car driving in my direction and told him, "Got to go. I've got company here."

"Before you do, listen to this. Twiggs had your business card in his inner pocket."

"Yeah, you told me earlier. How do you think he got it?"

"I had hoped you'd tell me."

"Don't know. I pass them around when I can. He must have picked it up somewhere and found out I was a GI who served in Europe. Guess he thought he could trust me."

"Guess so. You need anything give me a call." Dunbar hung up without a good bye.

I sat on the front stoop, a pile of concrete blocks, before the government sedan rolled to a stop six inches off the rear bumper of my Olds.

Haley climbed from behind the wheel and two other men from the back seat. He pointed at my car and asked, "Yours?"

"Yup. Picked it up late last year."

"Being a private cop must be pretty lucrative."

I thought of Dunbar's comment and grinned, deciding they were both jealous of my freedom. "It's got its ups and downs. Last year was an up." I dragged on my smoke as I walked out to join him while he went over and examined my set of wheels.

I offered him a Camel, which he declined. He opened the driver's door and slid in. I glanced at the whore's house and saw his companions inside examining and bagging evidence.

"She didn't have what your generals are looking for."

"How would you know?"

"Whoever tore the place up burned a pile of paper in the kitchen sink." I rub the wound on the back of my head.

Haley leaned out the window as if driving out to Fire Island. "We need to gather up whatever we can regardless of whether it will bring us closer to finding information about Twiggs and Odessa. And we can't leave a trail."

Not commies, I thought, but Nazis. I gambled to find out if my thinking had brought me closer to the truth. "Which gives me the idea there's something about Odessa that the government doesn't want the public to know about. Like which one of them now lives here in New York City."

He scowled as if I jammed the barrel of my .45 hard into his right ear. "You do like you were hired to do. Nothing more than that understand?"

I felt that his answer was a confirmation and decided to not respond to his veiled threat. Screw you, pal.

After a long healthy pause while I stretched and yawned, I continued. "Come on, pal, spill it. You're not interested in stinking commies."

"No. They are not my problem."

"Finding Twiggs' killer is?" I did not really believe that it was that simple, but gave him a way out of telling me classified information.

"Right." He looked relieved.

"To do that I need to know what the hell he got killed over. Sure wasn't the dame ... money? Somehow, I don't think that could be the primary reason. That does not leave us with much to work with, Haley. Both he and the hooker got strangled after death." I paused to give him the opportunity to dispute my claim. He didn't.

"The strangulation was symbolic. A warning of some kind that I think is related to what Twiggs had or knew about that got him murdered. Twiggs had my business card in his pocket when he died," I told him.

"That explains why they left his body in your office. Warn you off."

"Right. They're first mistake. And if none of the usual things is the motive for two murders, what is the motive? Why were they killed? For the hell of it?" Haley reached out and crooked a finger. "I'll take that smoke."

For a second I thought his gesture was a ploy to sidetrack me, but his eyes told me otherwise. He lit up. "You're right. Twiggs had access to a list of names, escaped Odessa SS and Nazi scientists. Most of the scientists work for our government now. The Jewish community, and others, would be very interested in learning who is on the list and getting them deported to Israel, tried and executed. But we need their knowledge. The world's gone to hell. There's stuff happening in Eastern Europe and China that has forced us to make a lot of tough decisions, to accept the deplorable acts of a few men in hopes of preventing the deaths of thousands of citizens here in America as well as in Europe."

What I heard made sense. "Thanks for telling me that," I said. "The list written in a notebook, or what?"

"That's the big problem, we don't know. The list was hidden in an unknown war souvenir that Twiggs brought home with him."

"Did Twiggs know he had the list when he picked up his souvenir?"

"It's hard to say. The souvenir might be something he acquired to smuggle the list in. Maybe a book. Who'd suspect that? A year ago, he started trying to sell the list to the highest bidder. That's when we learned about his activities, but no one wanted to touch it."

"Maybe I should concentrate on finding the list, which could drag in the killer as well."

"The SS who are in hiding in New York are probably already aware of your involvement ... be careful. If any of those bastards are on the list, which I suspect they are ... they are not any nicer here than in the camps. In fact, they're very desperate to keep a low profile. I think they might kill you on sight under those circumstances."

"Where are they?"

"Anywhere. In places you would never think to look, a few of them run legitimate businesses with money gleaned from gold fillings."

The picture his words drew made me cringe inside. I nodded and said no more on the subject. It would be up to me now and my dying in the process would be my own responsibility.

We spent the next hour and a half talking baseball. Haley was also a Giants fan.

When his men left the metal hut, he shook my hand. "Don't call the police. I'll take care of her remains when I get back to the office."

"Right." I watched them leave. Then I went inside and leaned over the woman's torso, and smelled her. If she'd been poisoned, and the chemicals should have left an odor behind, I did not detect one. Something pretty crappy was going on when it included killing an innocent woman, hooker or not.

"The hell you say, Haley," I muttered, located a bed sheet and covered her nakedness. Excluding the expression of shocked outrage and absolute terror glued to her face, she looked a bit more dignified. But me? I thought. I feel like a total fool to have taken this long to learn what the hell's going on around me that has to do with Twiggs' life and death. I've been like a man drowning in his own thoughts.

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