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<LEATHER LACE AND LEAD BY DONALD HARRY ROBERTS i I stepped into the alley way, spit out the toothpick I was chewing on and watched it stick into a rotten apple laying on the ground and flicked the butt of my cig into a garbage can. Then I heard something scrape the cobblestone behind me. Night came like a light bulb burning out, a quick flash of light then thousands of falling stars coming down like rain. The night came at two in the Pm, induced with the help of a piece of re-bar slammed into my scull, from behind with enough force to K.O. an elephant. I went down like a rock smashing my head on the cobblestone base around the tree in Pigeon Park. (I’ll explain that place later.) Believe me you don’t wanna go there. It was the Ids of March. For a few painful seconds I could relate to Caesar. Not the dying part. I didn’t die. If I had I wouldn’t be writing this now. It was the betrayal I could relate to. I could not help wonder if the same thoughts went through his head that were going through mine as I plummeted into an abyss of pain, then the void of unconsciousness. Thain Morgan, Private Investigator. At least that’s what the sign reads on the street door entering my office. I’m the kind of citizen the papers like to call the anti-hero. Some fear me, but when they find themselves up to their ass in trouble and have nowhere else to turn they bravely come knocking at my door on Pandora Ave. They know I’ll get the job done no matter what bumps and whacks over the head I gotta take, as long as they’ve got my fee, a week up front and expenses. It all began in the middle of January. Like always it was raining in The Garden City. It was the kind of day the seagulls love and us humans try to ignore. It was a cold rain driven by an even colder wind that was coming from the North East, turning the city into a monster skating rink. There were more cars in the ditch than on the road and pedestrians fool enough to be out in that kind of weather were spending more time on their butts than walking, or doing the slip and slide tango trying to keep from landing on there derrière. I was sitting in my chair looking out the window at the show, getting a good chuckle out of the theatre of mishaps, wondering how no one was getting hurt. It was the day I met Alicia More. It was the day I met the devil posing as a gorgeous, black haired damsel in distress with a touch that could melt the polar ice cap or freeze a volcano instantly. All at the same time. She was sleek, with a body that could make a monk do back flips and pole vault sixteen feet, without a pole. The street door entering my office opened. I could feel the cold creep all the way into my private office. Heels clicked across the tile floor, the kind of click made by spike heels. Then they stopped and there was a few seconds of silence. My secretary, Gerty was out running errands. I drew out my gat and put it on the desk just in case I needed it. There are people in this city who would like to see me turned into maggot fodder and don’t care who does it. A few seconds later the clicking heels came to my private office door and it open wide. She stood there akimbo with her eyes fixed on mine. I couldn’t help but stare back, mesmerized by her wild, wind blown black hair and eyes, a deep chestnut colour. She had on a fur coat, but slipped out of it like a dancer in strip joint. Underneath she was wearing a white blouse and black skirt that clung to her curves like an eighth layer of skin. Her high heel shoes matched her eyes and her purse. She slinked across the room and perched on the corner of my desk like she owned it and me. At that moment maybe she could have. The curves of her top could have made the ice man pant and she showed enough of it to inspire a fantasy. The bottom curves could have made a blind man see. Her legs were so white they made me crave for a glass of milk. The hem of her skirt slipped half way up her thigh and she left it there as she crossed her legs. She caught me looking and seemed to read my mind. With a slow, sultry smile she cooed. “They go all the way up with nothing getting in the way.” I had a couple of dozen clever one liners to come back with but instead I replied. “I don’t go all the way up unless I can call a dame by name.” She grinned. “Alicia More, Allie to my friends.” I glanced quickly at her left hand. “Well Miss More. What brings you here on a day like this?” She got a sad look on her face. It did not fit. This dame had never been sad in her life and wasn’t very good at faking it, but I didn’t call her on it. I just let her talk. “It’s my brother Mr. Morgan. He is in trouble. He always seems to be in trouble but this time it is serious. The cops have arrested him for murder, a murder he didn’t commit.” The name More clicked in. I had read about Ralph More on the third page of the Chronicle, THE CRIME COLUMN. According to the news hounds the cops had him dead to rights. No smoking gun cause the kid used a knife but there were enough witness to put together a case and a collar on More. “What makes you think your brother is innocent?” I kept it all business but I had other thing wrangling round in my mind, the open blouse and…………!!! “My brother is no angel. I know that. He’s a thief and a con Mr. Rouge but he is not a violent man, and he is clever, too clever to resort to killing a man for a couple of hundred dollars. He would have picked the guys pocket, not go sticking him with a shiv.” “Maybe things got out of hand.” “No. Ralphy never carried a knife. He never carried any weapon. If you must know he considered himself an artist. He’s always said ” “Skip it lady. I get the point. Just tell me what you have in mind.” “I think it is obvious. My brother was set up. Sure he took the guys money but he didn’t kill him. He tried to tell the cops that but they wouldn’t listen.” For the first time since Alicia More walked in the room I believed she believed what she was saying. “Okay. Let say Ralphy didn’t stick the guy. If not, who did?” Miss More shrugged her shoulders. “Who ever wanted to set him up I guess.” “If some one wanted him set up he must have done something. Or maybe Ralphy knows something that somebody don’t like that he knows and is afraid he might blab.” “I don’t know Mr. Rouge. That’s why I need you.” She got sultry again and showed me a little more top. “The cops get real up set when I mess around in their business.” I looked out the window at the cold rain and pretended I was taking a cold shower. “It was a cop that sent me here. A sergeant out of Central named Gil Langstaff.” More told me more than she knew. If Gil sent her to me it meant he agreed that Ralphy didn’t stick the stiff and wanted my help, back door style. “All right Miss More. Since you’ve got a good reference I’ll look into it. It’ll cost you a C-note a day and expenses.” Alicia More took an envelope out of her purse and handed it to me. She leaned forward giving me a birds eye view of the twin hills of West Britany. Will five hundred do for starters?” She cooed then added, “And fringe benefits.” I took the cash and took a rain check on the fringies. It don’t pay to play with a client. Alicia More smiled. It was the kind of smile you see in a dream that says a lot of stuff that would make me blush even to write it down here. Then she walked out of my office and I figured that was the last I would see of her. She wasn’t the kind of dame that hung around waiting. I was wrong, but that comes later in the story. I picked up the phone and called Gil Langstaff. He was waiting for my call. It was the second step of this nightmare with a road that went straight to Lucifer’s parlour Langstaff looked at me like I was a half baked and half frozen candy apple. I dropped on to a chair and leaned back. Don’t guff me Bud. You need help so choke it out and don’t waste my time” “Whataya talking about Morgan?” McCloud asked with feigned innocence. “Come on Tom. This isn’t the time for games. You sent that dame to me. Alicia More. So quit your dancing and give me the dope.” Tommy got that familiar grin on his ugly mug that says he wants me to squirm a little. “You know damn well I can’t talk to a gumshoe about it.” “Yah, yah, Buddy and you don’t carry a back up gat either.” I played his cat and mouse game like always. It made him feel better about breaking the rules. The file on my client’s brother was sitting on his desk, open for all the world to see. “Want a coffee.” He offered as he stood from the chair. “Sure Buddy. Strong and black.” I said as he walked away. As soon as his back was turned I perused the file. It only took a couple of minutes to figure out More was tagged dead to rights, at least on the surface. But there was a snag in the fabric of the investigation. A snag that gave me an idea and it should have been a warning too, but I didn’t pick up on it until I was into the case, up to my belt in bull without a shovel to dig my way out. By the time McCloud got back I was loping out the door to slip and slide back to my office. I had walked to the cop shop and was wishing on the way back to the office I had driven. Walking turned into muscle wrenching exercise I knew would come back on me tomorrow and I’d be aching from ankle bone to noggin. Twice my feet slid out from under me and I landed square on my butt. By the time I got back to the office I was soaked from the belt loops down and shivering like a leaf in a March wind. As soon as I was inside I stripped off my wet clothes, poured a shot of liquid belly warmer and dropped into the sofa chair in my private office. Then I closed my peepers and reviewed the More file. I got one of those memories that don’t quit. I see something and it stays there until I erase it. Like I said there was snag in the report. Most people would have missed it because of its subtlety. Sgt. Landstaff had seen it too, and underlined it in pencil. That was why he sent Alicia More to me and had doubts that her brother had committed murder. “The suspect is left handed.” It was only five words but spoke volumes when one had read the coroner’s report that determined the assailant was likely right handed. Beside all that the case profile was immaculately worded. In my opinion it was nearly perfect, too perfect, and there was a lot more to the crime than a simple mugging. Tommy wanted me to find out what that something was, without becoming involved. My stomach grumbled. I hadn’t fed it since mid-morning and then only a stale onion bagel and a cup of old coffee. I pulled on a dry pair of socks and trousers and went across town to Big Bad Johns, my haunt and sometimes office. Slip sliding across along the streets in my old jalopy, my taste buds started watering for a burger and fries with vinegar and ketchup and a cold draft beer. I was at the door ready to walk in when a big black limo slid to a stop at the curb and this man who resembled a six foot gorilla with and attitude bulged out the driver’s door and aped toward me. I turned sideways to make a smaller target and waited for the fists to start flying. Instead he stopped three feet short of reaching me and said in a crazy, out of place child like voice, “The Boss wants to talk to you Mr. Morgan.” I took a gander at the back, passenger window but all I could see was the tip of a nose and a bit of chin. “Tell your boss my office door is always open to clients.” I didn’t wait for an answer out there in the cold and rain and the gorilla didn’t try to stop me. I went inside and straight to the bar and ordered supper….and waited. I knew who ever owned the nose and chin would follow. People don’t come out in weather like that just to give up and go home. The only real question was, why did they come looking for me? Johns’ was in its usual late afternoon mood. Ivory Manx was at his big black baby grand easing his way through his own arrangements of some Robert Johnson tunes and stylized versions of Al Jolson and Glenn Miller. Perched on a stool at the end of the long side of the L shaped bar was the owner, Mandy, a middle aged, blue eyed, buxom blond whose rapport with the customer was one step short of private intimacy with a lot of sugar and spice added for some. She’s the type that has a heart of gold but she ain’t no knock over. Razor, the bartender was whizzing about serving up drinks and chatting to everyone at once and somehow managing to keep all the conversations straight. Mostly there were regulars filling up the tables, or trying there luck at the pinball machines and pool table but there were a few strangers milling about. I gave the place the once over then fixed my eyes on the door. Razor was just setting a beer in front of me when the street door opened and the gorilla came in, followed by an old man who picked his steps carefully but navigated the steps down easily enough. He glanced around the room until he found me then, keeping his eyes fixed on mine, shuffled around the tables toward me. When he reached the bar he lifted himself on to the stool beside me and beckoned the bartender with a subtle wave of his scrawny hand. “Beer my friend.” He requested amiably. Then, without looking at me he asked. “Do you know who I am?” I grinned and answered amusedly. “Only from the newspapers Mr. Raynyard, and that was a few years back. “You have a reputation some folks find intriguing.” Raynyard smiled. “Yah. Mostly the cops but they never did get enough scuttlebutt on me to haul me in. Now they don’t care, me being too old to bother with. any more.” “Ok Mr Rayyard. What brings you out in weather like this?” I got to the point. “No chit-chat. I like that Mr. Rouge. Straight to the meat of things. So I’ll get to it. It is about my niece and nephew. She visited you earlier today.” “Ah. Miss More and her brother Ralph.” I replied , seeing no point in denying the fact. “She hired me to help Ralph. You gotta problem with that Mr Raynyard?” “Not with that. Any thing you can do to help my nephew is alright by me, but there is a problem, you may or may not have picked up on. I figured the least I could do is give you fair warning.” “I got my own ideas but I can always use the information?” Razor delivered Raynyard’s beer and my burger and fries. “On yer tab QJ.?” he asked. “I’m buying.” Raynyard announced and flipped the bartender a sawbuck. “Keep the change.” He instructed, then turned his attention back to me. “You’re good at your job Rouge so I figure you know Ralphie is being railroaded.” “I got that.” I answered before stuffing my mouth full of burger. “Do you have any idea why?” Raynyard asked then waited patiently while I chewed and swallowed. “Don’t have a clue yet, but I figure the dearly departed is someone more important than a victim of an alleyway mugging.” I replied after the burger went down. Then I wet my whistle with a gob full of beer. “Not really Rouge. At least not until a few weeks ago. That’s when he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got an ear full of things he shouldn’t have. He found out stuff about people in the city and they got nervous.” The benefactor of my free supper explained quietly. “My nephew is a fool, an amateur and every one knows it. He was a perfect mark for getting rid of some excess baggage.. Now my niece is involved and I fear she might get hurt. She’s become a loose end Rouge, a dangerous loose end.” “That still doesn’t explain why you are coming to me.” I replied and mowed down on my burger again. Raynyard reached over and lifted a couple of fries. “I am getting to that kid.” He said then popped the fries in his mouth chewed them up and wash them down with half a glass of beer. “I don’t care what you have to do but get my nephew out of this mess. But there is more. I want you to take him and my niece away for a while. Getting him off is only half the problem. If you clear his name the people who set him up are going to get real nervous. I’ll pay you five grand, up front and any expenses to pull this off.” “I never figured myself to be a baby sitter or life saver Mr. Raynyard.” I did a little dance to gain time so I could make up my mind how far I was going with this escalating intrigue. “You’re bucking for more money Mr. Rouge. Ok I’ll bite. Ten grand.” “I wasn’t but since you offered I’ll take it, but get this, I can’t promise anything. By the sounds of things I am heading down a blind alleyway with the devil on my heels. I won’t get myself killed over it.” “Fair enough Mr. Rouge.” Raynyard accepted my terms easily, maybe a little too easy. I think the old man was genuinely scared for his nephew and niece. “One more thing Rouge. Don’t tell my niece about this and don’t tell anyone I am involved.” “Lips are zipped Mr. Raynyard. I’ll keep you informed if you like.” “No. No contact. If I need to know anything I can get hold of you, but I doubt I will. I’ll know how things went when all this is washed into the gutter.” Raynard replied as he slid off the stool. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of hundreds, counted out ten grand as quick as a wink and handed it to me. “Get the job done Mr. Rouge.” he ordered then walked away. I stuffed the cash in my coat pocket then went on to finished my burger and fries and had another beer before heading back to my office. The freezing rain had turned to snow and the wind had gotten colder. My blood suddenly ran just as cold. It came from my gut, that dark little voice of warning. I should have listened. Back at the office, perched in my chair with my feet propped up on the desk and nursing a coffee laced with hooch I closed my eyes and sorted out the day’s mess bouncing around in my brain. I noted the names of the three eye witnesses against Ralph More, then neatly stored the rest of the information in the files at the back of my mind for future references. Then with things all tidied up I glanced at the wall clock. It was just after ten. A few minutes later I fell asleep. It was a bad move that almost got me a free ride up town…to the morgue. I didn’t hear the street door open. I didn’t hear anything until the door of my private office crashed open and two mountain sized thugs charged in and grabbed me before I could grab my gat off the desk. Then, unceremoniously one of the creeps gave me a love tap across the jaw with the butt of his gun and out went the lights. I don’t know how long I was out. I came too strapped to a wooden arm chair and blind folded. The air was thick with fresh cigar smoke, but it was as quiet as a church on Wednesday morning. The only sound that broke the silence was an annoying leaky tap drip, drip, dripping. Even though I was blind folded I sensed there was a light, very bright and close because I could feel the heat from it. My first instinct was to try and get free and yell. I stifled the urge to yell deciding it would probably be a waste of time and energy. My attempt to get free was cut short when a door opened and heavy footsteps came toward me. “Who is there?” I demanded. “Shut up Rouge and listen. I could put you out of my misery right now but the boss don’t want that.” The voice had a vicious blood thirsty note to it. Wisdom kicked in and I clammed up. If your next word out of your mouth is yes you walk out of here up-right and breathing. Say no and I carve you up like a turkey on thanksgiving.” “Get religion did you.” I shot back with a wise crack. That got me a back-hander in the chops hard enough to give me an instant fat lip and a taste of blood in my mouth. It shut me up and I listened “Stay out of the More case Rouge. It ain’t none of your business.” The creep doing all the talking warned. I didn’t have to be told twice that the thug meant business. “Yes. You got it Pal. It’s none of my business.” I replied. It was a load of crap but I wasn’t ready to get myself snuffed. I couldn’t get the job done from a shallow grave in some rank swamp some where. The creep cut the ropes off my left wrist. “Stay put til I’m gone Rouge.” The talker ordered. A few seconds later I was surrounded by silence again. I tore off the blind fold and untied my right wrist. A smart man would have backed off. For me all the warning did was make me mad and even more curious. Besides I had ten grand motivating me. It was 2:18 AM when I found my way back to civilization. I had been locked up in that little room for hours only two blocks from my office in a empty store that use to sell used books. I got the message. But from who? The list of people who wanted me off the case read like a stage play cast. I was already up to my earlobes in a mess and hardly out of the starting gate. I walked back to the office and settled into my desk chair. “Think Rouge. Think. There is a simple solution. There always is. All you have to do is think.” I talked out loud and tried to put two and two together but kept coming up with five. Then I fell asleep again only this time I was awakened by my secretary at 8:00AM with a smile and a pot of coffee. “Morning.” I grumbled, partly because I was stiff and sore from sleeping in the chair, partly because I was surprised it was morning and partly because I had been dreaming about Alicia More. It was one of those dreams that made no sense and bordered on a nightmare. “You look terrible Boss.” Gerty said sympathetically. “You must have had a rough night.” She went on in a soft voice and poured me a coffee. “Yah. Rough. I’ve been around the block a couple of times. Get hold of Sgt. Langstaff. I gotta have a conflab before I end up one of his unsolved murders.” “No need to call him. He’s on his way. Looks like you are stepping on some pretty big toes this time QJ.” Gerty only got personal when she was worried. I caught her in a, “Don’t worry about me.” gaze and grinned. “Some day Mr. QJ. Rouge I am going to be wearing black and crying because you were to damn dumb to know when to back off.” She said pouting. “Maybe someday but not any time soon I think.” I replied in a re-assuring tone, but it did not help much. She glared at me then turned and marched out of my office muttering something inaudible, but the vibrato of her voice was unmistakable. My nonchalant attitude always made her angry. Ten minutes later the street door opened and I heard Langstaff say something about holding any incoming calls. Then he rushed into my private domain, closing and locking the door behind him. Before I could greet him he said, “Look Buddy I am sorry I got you into this, so I have come to tell you to clear out while you still have your skin. This is much bigger than I thought and…” “Too late Gil. I’m already into it up to my collar.” I cut him off and filled him in on what happened over night. When I finished he snarled and leaned on my desk and fixed his, ‘I am a cop’ stare on me. “Rouge. Ya better listen to me because if you don’t I’ll be putting flowers on your grave. If More doesn’t go down for this there’s gonna be a blood bath.” It didn’t sound like my friend talking. I’d never heard him scared like that. He never backed down when his instincts told him something smelled like dead rats in the sewer. I glared back at him. “Things will get worse if I don’t Sergeant Langstaff. There will be a war if More goes down, and me , you and a lot of others are going to get caught in the middle of it and there won’t be enough people left to put flowers on any one’s grave. So you better fill me in on what you know, crap that ain’t in that file of yours.” I demanded. Here next time Gil smiled. “Just giving you the option to back out QJ. I can’t tell you any thing right now. I have to do some digging first. Meet me tonight at Jazzy Blues and I will give you what I find…and what ever you do, watch your back.” Langstaff didn’t wait for a reply. He just turned and rushed out the door. The next time I saw him wasn’t at Jazzy’s. It was in a hospital bed fighting for his life. A minute later Gerty came in. “What’s with Gil. He didn’t even give me a glance on the way out. Are you in trouble again?” She asked worriedly. “I got one foot in the grave and the other one is slipping on mud Dolly.” I answered then headed out my self Outside, the world of ice had melted away with a warm, bright sun. Somehow it felt refreshing and seemed to make my brain clear out. As I drove across the city, not quite knowing where I was going, images formed in my mind. Even though they came across like a big maze I understood what they meant. Some one was purposely confusing the issues at hand, putting up a huge block so some one like me would not be able to push through. I decided not to get discouraged and to push harder and more aggressively, hopefully making the people behind this mess show their hand. That decision came back on me like a ten ton wrecking ball at a demolition site. But in the end, well, I’ll let you decide whether the results were worth it or not. My first job was to cut through the cloud of sand being thrown in my eyes and find the motive behind the murder, besides a simple mugging. Why would someone like Ralphy, who consisdered himself an artist resort to something that crude, something any drunk with a thirst could have pulled off. The answer was he wouldn't, but the only way I was going to find out the real ‘WHY?’ was to make a lot of noise and make people think I knew a lot more than I did which at that moment was a big fat nothing. My thoughts drifted back to the three witnesses, the three perfect witnesses with the same story, the kind of story neatly arrange to paint a slightly different picture to make them appear to have come from different points and angles of view. But that made things look even more manufactured. I figured since a little time had passed those three eye witnesses would have another story to tell, ones that got a little twisted and drawn away from what they told the cops. Gil went looking for one part of the puzzle. Maybe I could find another and together we would have enough of the puzzle to figure every thing out. I closed my eyes and the page of the police report with the names of the witnesses flashed on the back of my eye lids, like a dreamy swirl. Barker. Thadious Melvin Barker was the first one to pop up. It took a couple of hours but I tracked Barker down to a run-down gin joint on Wharf Ave where the big city's drunks could get cheap booze and curl up in a nearby alleyway. No one knew Thadious but when I described him the response was, "Ah. You must mean Soggy Barker. You'll find him down at the Anchor Bar, or close by." I found him in the bar, at the bar hugging a highball of gin and tonic and swaying back and forth like a skiff in a heavy wind. I wondered where he got the money for a fancy drink and the answer rushed into my head like a freight train. Pay off. But what comes to mind ain't proof so I elected to get proof the way a cop would understand. "G'day Soggy." I greeted with a smile as I pulled up the stool beside him and ordered a beer and another gin and tonic. Lazily he looked up at me and said. "Thanks Pal. What do you want?" I smiled. "No foolin you I see so I'll get right down to it. I want you to tell me what you saw Ralph More do?" “I'll tell you the same thing I told the cops. I saw this guy go into an alleyway up on twenty third Ave. A minute later another guy went in. The second guy came out a minute later cool and calm like. Then I went to the alleyway and saw the first guy layin on the ground. Didn't go in for a closer look. I just ran and got a cop." "How'd you know it was Ralph More who ran out?" "Didn't until the cops showed me a picture." "You saw his face." "Na, but the guy was wearin the same kind of coat and hat, same colour and all." "You saw all that but not his face." "That's it Bud. Hey. You ain't no cop. Are you one of them reporter fellas or something?" "Or something covers it." I answered. "You told the cops you saw the guys face." "Sure, but that was later. That was after some guy offered me a reward for sayin I did and I did sort of, in that picture." "Was it a cop who gave you the reward?" I pushed. "Nope. It was some fella in a fancy blue suite. Said he was a friend of the deceased. A while later the cops picked me up again and that's when I remembered seeing the guys face. Easiest two hundred I ever got since the war. Gotta drink to keep the noise of them guns out of my head ya know. Shell shock they call it." "The guy in the blue suite. Did he give his name?" "Yah. Maybe. I guess so, but I can't remember. "Soggy slurred the words out. I could feel him getting nervous and that told me a lot more than the words. Then after a minute he added, "No. He didn't give his name. I remember him saying I didn't need to know who he was." Suddenly his eyes filled with fear and I could see in his blood shot peepers that he remembered something else and from then on he wouldn't talk. It didn't take genius to figure out he'd blabbed something he was suppose to keep secret. "Don't worry Mr. Barker. No one will know you talked to me." I assured, then slipped a double sawbuck into his hand and left him to his booze. As I left the dive I figured the other two witnesses would have similar stories but just in case they didn't I decided to track them down any way. The second one on the list was Amie Blanc. She was a waitress who worked a greasy spoon across the street from the alley way and saw the whole thing go down out the window. It took me two days to find her, but when I did I got the cold shoulder and a "Buzz off creep." But I got something from the visit. It was after dark. When I looked out the window I could barely see the alley way and figured the dame couldn't have seen much. Maybe she saw the two men go into the alley and one come out but that was it. Rounding up witness number three was interesting. His name was Bill Comers. He was out on bail on a break and enter beef . It never went back to court because the charges were dropped. It seems key evidence was lost and there was not enough left over to get a conviction. I found him in an Apartment Hotel downtown living the life of Riley with a couple of hundred dollar ladies. When he saw me and realized I was looking for him he bolted and ran like a rabbit. I didn't bother giving chase. Running off like that told me all I needed to know. Like the other two his statement was probably bought. I surmised that Ralph More was indeed set up. The only questions now were, why and by who....whom I guess it should be. I got to my office I was mad enough to chew the tires off a truck. I left Gil Langstaff sucking air into his lungs through a tube and lost in that world they call a coma. Gil was a good cop, the best in my books and some gun happy creep tried real hard to keep my friend from getting any closer to proving just how good a detective he was, before he could tell me what he had found out. The only thing I got from the phone call from him a few seconds before he was gunned down was that we had been played for dupes in a game that goes all the way to the top of the heap. "What heap?" I asked just as I heard the guns start blasting. The curve of a bright red sun was just cresting the horizon when I reached the top of Lookout Hill that over looked the city. I climbed out of the car and limped to the crest. Everything I owned hurt like hell, especially my brain. Sooner or later I would have to go back to the Cop Shop and explain everything but not yet. There was still one puzzle to be solved. Who killed my client and why? I was hoping the killer would take the bait I set out and show up to get rid of a loose end. Me. I had an educated guess in mind who would come all the while hoping I was wrong, but at this stage of the game with most every one else eliminated that hope was as thin. I didn't try to hide but I positioned myself in a vantage point that I could watch the road climbing the hill and obscured enough that no one could get a clear shot at me from a distance. I had my gat ready to pull out of the shoulder holster quickly. Waiting has never been my strong suit. I like to make things happen, but this time all i could do was wait. Maybe a few minutes, or an hour, or all morning. I watched the sun climb completely over the horizon, remembering that some one had told me once that it took seven minutes and thinking how funny it is what people think about when they are waiting...especially to die. Twenty minutes passed. Nothing happened. Then the cracking of a dried out branch came from behind me. I drew my gat and turned all at the same time. I was ready to start blasting but drew back when I saw Gil Langstaff standing there with his hands up. "Don't shoot the hired help Pal." He said calmly. "What the hell are you doing here?" I demanded angrily as I holstered my gun. "I know why you came here Rouge and I figured you stood a good chance of getting yourself aced. I need you alive because if you are dead I don't stand a bugs chance in a Raid raid of making my case stick with the prosecutor." "Then you figured it out too?" I asked "Not really but after our talk last night I figured you had so I've been tailing you ever since." Langstaff replied smartly. " I should have have known, but this won't work if someone sees you. Get out of sight. Go down there by those bushes." I pointed. "And stay there until I give you the word to come charging out." Gil did like I told him and we waited another hour. It was a good thing he was there because, though I had it partly right I got a big surprise. It was just after nine when I saw a car, one of those fancy limos rich folk show off with, turn off the main road onto the dirt road ascending Lookout Hill. That told me that there was going to be two visitors, which made sense. The person I was guessing who wanted to tie up the loose ends would not do the dirty work, like snuffing me out. I lit a smoke, took a couple of drags and flicked it over the edge of the hill watching arc into pile of rocks. It reminded me how fragile life is and that no matter who you think you are every life is expendable and replaceable. "Car coming." I told Langstaff who shook the bushes to let me know he heard me. For a second time I unhooked the retainer hook on my Gat, knowing this time it was the real thing. One way or another some one was going to meet their maker and i was going to do anything necessary to make sure that some one wasn't me, even if it meant adding another notch to my belt. I could already hear the judge chewing me out and calling me the devil's spawn and wishing he could bend the rules enough to sack me away in prison for the rest of my natural life. I recall him once saying, "You have an Investigators license not an exterminators." The limo was half way up the hill when it came to a stop. From my vantage point, with the help of the car's headlights I saw two shadows exit the vehicle and slip into the shadows. That changed everything. I ran to the bushes where Jed was hiding and warned him. "There are at least four, maybe more. We might have a small war on our hands Buddy." Langstaff grimaced then produce a two gats. "We might be out numbered but not out gunned." I went back to my vantage point but this time made sure I had some cover handy and put my back to the slope of the hill. The two creeps on foot couldn't get to me that way without being seen by me or Gil. After that all I could do is wait and watch the limo continue up the hill. It came slowly. Too slowly. Making me nervous. That's when the surprise came. The limo stopped. The driver climbed out quickly and opened the the back passenger door. Who I thought would get out didn't. I stood there staring in disbelief. Two people exited. A man and a woman both who were suppose to be dead and buried. Alicia More and her Brother Ralphy. "So that's it. A con game with more subplots than a bad Dick novel." I thought. "I thought you were smarter than this Mr. Rouge. I figured after I was killed you would back off. No client no case." That was Alicia talking. "You left too many unanswered questions behind Sweet cheeks." I replied. Now there's another one. Who's in those caskets with your names on them?" "Beats me. I hire people to do that stuff. I don't care how the job gets done as long as it gets done." Alicia More replied with a short laugh. "You're pretty dumb for a smart gumshoe Rouge." Ralphy put said in a slow voice as he drew out a gat. "Now you are going to pay for it. You are the last person a live that will keep pushing until all the worms are out of the can." Just then the two shadows came out of the dark next to the bushes where Langstaff was waiting and watching. Luckily they didn't spot him and that gave us a little advantage. They kept their distance but were still in pistol range if either of them was a good shot. Ralphy laughed. "The papers say you got a lot of luck. No one has ever been able to plug the Big cities hardnose private Dick. Looks to me like your luck just ran out." I drew out my gun and aimed it at him. "Maybe creep but I won't be going alone. I'll blast you out of existence before I hit the ground and this time no one will care cause I can't be called for wasting a dead man." I fix my eyes on Gerty More. Here blues glinted cold as ice and the feint smile on her lips taunted me with "I dare you." It was the kind of stand off that could explode any second or hang on until someone got the guts to start blasting and see who would be left standing. I was playing hard but I knew, even if I managed to level a piece of lead into Ralph More one of them would hit me and I would be playing a harp in the after life. The other problem was, I'd never shot a woman and didn't know if I could do it then even if Gerty More took a shot at me. I decided to try and keep the stand off going as long as possible and said. "The cops know all about you two now. Even if you kill me you won't get away with this." "We have friends in high places and they will make sure we walk away to avoid being found out." Alicia More replied with a fell confidence. "You mean you had. They have already been discovered and even as we speak they are being rounded up. You two are on your own tonight and all the bribe money in the world won't help you now." I challenged, though it was all a bluff. I had no idea what was going on. The two men standing off to the side came closer. The stand off was getting weak. I got ready to dive for cover, but Langstaff moved in. "Drop the guns boys and put your hands up high if you don't want to die." His voice was hard and angry and a little nervous. No one budged. We all stood there frozen like ice statues for a long, excruciating minute. A twitch, blink diverted gaze, even the chirrup of a bird could have set us off on a blazing gun fight and I am sure it would have come to that but Langstaff, in his simple wisdom broke the spell in a soft authoritative voice. "Don't make things worse. Don't make me kill one of you or both. I know you. I don't think either of you want this to come to blood shed. I think you would rather take your knocks in jail than end up very dead. Put the guns down." He was talking to the two men he had his weapon levelled on. I didn't look. I was smart enough to keep my eye on the Mores who were more likely to start blasting. A few seconds later I heard the unmistakable thud of two gat hitting the ground. Then, without their back up henchmen Ralphy and Alicia lost their nerve, but instead of surrendering the made a dash for the car and in seconds they were turned around and racing down the hill. Langstaff quickly cuffed the two men. A minute later a sound ripped through the night that told its own story. It was one of those sounds that once you hear it, you never forget it. The sound of crunching metal and shattering glass of a car crash. It was followed by an flash of flames a half second before the explosion came. Sgt. Langstaff herded the two men away. "Bad cops make our job harder than it already is. I hope you two get the book thrown at you." He muttered angrily. Then to me he said. "I'll radio in for help. You get out of here Rouge. We will sort everything out later." "Sorry Buddy. I ain't leaving you here to hold the bag. I'm clear and we both know it." I declined the opportunity to save my own hide. It would take both our statements to explain the mess. I drove my jalopy down the hill to the scene of the car crash figuring to find three incinerated bodies, but there were only two. Alicia More came stagering on to the road, beat up and bloody but alive. I picked her up and drove her to Langstaff's car. Langstaff showed up a few minutes later. While we waited Alicia More told me she jumped just before the driver lost control. Twenty minutes later the place was lit up with flashing lights from a dozen police and Fire department vehicles and flash cameras from the news hounds. For me the case was closed. The next day I gave my statement to the Assistant Crown attorney. It took most of the day. Gil Langstaff was officially raked over the coals but behind closed doors he was given a pat on the back and later, a few weeks he was given a commendation. The rest was up to the courts to clean up the mess in the city's official offices. Funny thing. I found out later that the whole fiasco started out on the oldest twist of all and Alicia More lit the match...the match of illicit passion.
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