“Your dad smoked three packs of cigarettes and gave hisself the cancer,” said the old man stinking up my office with the cheap aftershave he’d been bathing in. “Know what that makes him? It makes him a dumbass.”
The kid in the chair shrugged. He didn’t smell much better than his uncle, but at least he knew when to keep his mouth shut. Taking the old man’s bait would have only made it that much longer before we got to the part where I told them how much I was going to cost them.
“What can I do for you gentlemen today,” I asked, my tongue tripping over the ‘gentlemen’ part.
“We want you to solve a crime,” said the uncle. “That is what you do ain’t it?”
“That’s what the police do, and they’re free,” I said. “If you have a crime, you need to talk to them about it.
“We did talk to them,” he replied, pounding his dirty paw on my desk. “They said to come talk to you.”
Somebody at PD had a sense of humor and I had a pretty good idea of who. I made a note to let his wife know he wasn’t with me the next time she called me at three in the morning looking for him.
“OK,” I said. “Tell me about this crime.”
The old man leaned forward and spread open his maw to give me a good view of his shrunken gums.
“Somebody stole my teeth!” he shouted. “I had ‘em in the dish on my nightstand when I went to bed. In the morning they was gone. Wasn’t nothing but the water I was soak’n ‘em in.”
“Who else lives in the house?” I asked. “Any grandkids who might have wanted to play monster with granddad’s fangs?”
“Lunkhead here is the only other person in the house,” he said, gesturing toward his nephew. “I got stuck with him when his dad died.”
My first thought was that ‘Lunkhead’ had flushed the old man’s choppers down the toilet. I know I would have. A cursory examination of the kid told me it wasn’t likely, though. As I watched him stare at the glob of wax he’d just dug out of his ear, I decided he didn’t have that much imagination.
“I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses,” I said. “You could probably get a new set of teeth for less than what it will cost me to find your old ones.”
“That ain’t the point!” the uncle screamed, making me wonder if he had a setting for low volume. “I want the thief to pay for what he did! I expect justice!”
“Justice doesn’t come cheap, pops,” I said. “I need three hundred up front. After that the meter is running until I solve the case, or you call me off.”
“I can pay,” he said, taking it like a challenge. “How’s this sit with you?”
He tossed a brick of bills on the desk that would have made a dent if he’d put some force behind it. I gave it the finger test and found it was composed mostly of hundreds.
“When can I come by to conduct a search of the premises?” I asked, sliding the wad of green into the top drawer of the desk.
“I’ll expect you to be there at six sharp,” he said, using his cane to push himself up off the chair. He seemed taller than when he’d come in, like showing off his money had somehow inflated him. “We’re at 4423 Orchard Lane. There’ll be a red Buick in the driveway.”
I nodded, and he hobbled off, pausing to dress down Lunkhead for not being quick enough with the door. The money in my desk drawer smelled like the old man, but it would spend well enough.
I got to 4423 Orchard just in time to see a blonde in a red cashmere jacket feeling her way down the ice-covered steps of the front porch. She almost made it but slipped on the bottom step. Suddenly, she was a bowling ball and I was the pins. I cleared a path for her and she slid a few feet past me before running out of ice.
“I don’t know why they don’t at least put some salt down,” she said, staring up at me. She hadn’t been outside long enough for the cold to paint her cheeks red, but they were red all the same.
“You alright?” I asked, offering her a hand. She took it and pulled herself up my arm until we ended up hugging. Once I was sure she was steady, I let go and took a step back to take her in.
She was about five foot four, with blue eyes set just a tad too wide over an upturned nose. She wasn’t making the cover of Vogue, but there was something in the smile she gave me that had me thinking of white picket fences and Sunday barbecues. She could have been a Mata Hari for all I knew, but for the moment she was June Cleaver and nobody was telling me otherwise.
“If you’re here to see Mr. Pierce, you won’t find him very congenial,” she said, brushing the snow off her legs. “I just had to collect a blood sample from him, and got a piece of his mind in the process.”
“You don’t look like a vampire.”
“I work for the insurance agency,” she responded. “Mr. Pierce just took out a new policy and I was assigned to collect his samples.”
“Lucky you,” I said. “Don’t be surprised if his blood doesn’t come back ninety percent Old Spice.” The memories that conjured up made her wince.
“My nose is still burning. Why do you want to see him, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I’m here for the sparkling conversation,” I said, picking a dead leaf out of her hair.
She wished me luck and we went our separate ways. Hers led to a BMW that made me wonder if I was in the wrong line of work. Mine led to a set of icy stairs and the doorway to crazy town. I would have much rather gone her way. By the time I reached the top of Pierce’s death trap, clinging to a wobbly railing that would have probably come with me if I’d slipped; he was glaring at me from the doorway.
“Hurry it up,” he snarled. “You’re making me let all the heat out.”
“Nice to see you too,” I said, stepping into a house that looked like a dump and smelled like a litter box. The furniture, if it existed, was it was buried under stacks of old newspapers and broken toys. A doorless green refrigerator stood in one corner of the room, its shelves stuffed with old record albums and paperback books. A radiator, from what I guessed was a truck, sat on top under a globe spray painted yellow. One corner of the room was full of headless baby dolls.
“I guess you’ll want to look around,” Pierce said leading me through the path to what should have been the kitchen. “I don’t like people going through my stuff, but I guess it can’t be helped.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t steal anything.”
There was a table and three chairs, though one of them was full of what turned out to be old phone books. The table was piled high with junk in the middle, leaving just enough room around the edges to squeeze in a plate. The thought of anybody eating in the place made me queasy.
“Have a seat,” he commanded, kicking away some paint cans from behind one of the chairs so he could pull it out for me.
“I think I’ll stand,” I said, noting the crack in the seat.
“Suit yourself,” he said, taking the seat himself. He sat there for a minute, tapping dirty fingers on the table, and then said: “I think we should start in Irving’s room.”
“Why Irving’s room?” I asked. “Shouldn’t we start at the scene of the crime?”
“I didn’t want to say anything while he was sitting next to me,” he said, glancing toward the door and lowering his voice to what I assume he thought was a whisper, “but I suspect my nephew has something to do with this.”
“OK,” I said. “We start in Irving’s room.”
“Don’t ya even want to know why I suspect him?” he asked, disappointed I had given in so easily.
“Because he was the only other person in the house?”
“Because he hates me,” he said. “He blames me for his daddy’s death, always has. It’s all about revenge.”
“Why would he blame you for his father’s death?”
“We were both in love with a girl named Anabel, but she chose me,” he said. “This was, of course, after Irving’s mother had passed. Anyway, my brother was so distraught he killed hisself, leaving me to tend to the boy.”
“I thought you said he died of cancer,” I said.
“Yep. Suicide by cancer. He smoked hisself to death. The joke was on me though. Turns out he’d knocked up Anabel before kicking off. There was no way I was raising two of his children. I had to show her to the door.”
This had to be some kind of a set up, I thought. At any minute, somebody was going to pop out from around a corner and tell me I was on a prank show. Still, the money in my desk drawer was real enough. I decided to let it play out.
“I ran into the lady from the insurance agency on the way in,” I said. “Is Irving the beneficiary of the policy by any chance?”
“As a matter of fact he is,” Pierce said. “You don’t think that has anything to do with it, do you?”
“Not unless he thought stealing your dentures would cause you to starve to death,” I said.
I let him lead me down a hallway I had to walk sideways to get through because of the stacks of junk lining the walls. The room we ended up in smelled like stale sweat, but had obviously had a different decorator. Aside from the mattress on the floor and a dresser propped up on one side by a paperback romance novel, the room was empty. Pierce hobbled over to the mattress and lifted the corner just enough to reveal the spank mag hidden underneath.
“The boy’s a filthy pervert,” he said. “No tell’n what kind of depravity goes on in here. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found drugs.”
The old man was working hard to sell the nephew as a less than reputable character. It made me wonder what the payoff was. Maybe he just hated the kid, but more likely he hated everybody.
“What’s that doing here?” he asked, drawing my attention to a yellow box with a cartoon rat printed on the front. The big red letters near the top said whatever was in the box was supposed to kill rats and mice. Pierce snatched the box off the dresser and peered inside. From his expression I could tell he didn’t find that decoder ring he’d always wanted.
“That murdering bastard!” he exclaimed. “Take a look!”
He shoved the box at me so I could see the white and pink mixed in with the blue pellets.
“Looks like you found your dentures,” I said.
“Looks like I found a killer!” he shouted. “He was letting them absorb all that poison so he could pretend to find them later and kill me with ‘em.”
It was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was wrong. Stupid killers make stupid plans. Still, it didn’t sit right with me. There was nothing subtle about the way the old man had led me right to the dentures.
“I guess I owe you some money back,” I said. “You didn’t need me after all. You can pick up your money, minus my retainer, at your convenience. Just give me a call to let me know you’re stopping by so I can make sure I’m at the office.”
“Keep it,” he said, waving me off. “I might need you if he tries something else.”
I left him there with his rat poison and his plastic teeth, and headed back to my apartment to see if I could wash the smell off. It wasn’t just the house that stank, it was the whole set up. It was obvious Pierce had planted those dentures in Irving’s room and put on the whole show for my benefit. He didn’t hire a detective; he hired a high-priced witness. Letting me keep the money was his way of ensuring I was in the right corner. Now I just had to wait for the end of the round to find out who else was on the ticket, and the value of the purse Pierce was going for.
I didn’t have to wait long. The very next morning the voice of Glenn Kraft was coming out of my phone, pulling me out of a dream involving a certain blonde reporter, to invite me down to police headquarters to share what I knew about Irving’s homicidal tendencies. Not ready to quit the dream just yet, I called up my reporter friend to see if she wanted in on the fun. Maybe she could make more sense out of it all than I could.
Maggie was waiting for me on the curb outside of her apartment when I pulled up. I got a big kiss on the cheek as soon as she climbed in, proving dreams do sometimes come true, and we headed for the police station, breaking the seat belt laws to take full advantage of the Nova’s bench seats.
“So, what’s this all about?” she asked, breathing it into my ear while she stirred my hair with her fingers.
“I’m pretty sure one of my clients is trying to set up his nephew and wants me to play a part in the scheme,” I said. “I just haven’t figured out why yet.”
“Sure your cop friends won’t mind me tagging along?” she asked.
“Glenn Kraft is running the case,” I said. “I’ve never known Glenn to run off female company.
“I swear to God, Doverman, if you brought me along just to keep your lecherous cop pals occupied while you collect clues I’m going to put all your dirty secrets on the front page of tomorrow’s paper, print and online editions,” Maggie said, scooting far enough away to punch me on the shoulder.
“All my dirty secrets?” I asked.
“Well, maybe not all of them,” she said, returning my grin.
Despite being the one with the invite, I suddenly turned invisible as soon as we walked into the office Glenn was borrowing for our little get-together. The way he ogled Maggie you would have thought she was the first woman he’d seen after doing a twenty-year stint in solitary. I wasn’t worried though, Maggie liked her men a lot less thick and a lot less married.
“So what’s the special occasion?” I asked, letting him know I was in the room.
“We have one of your clients in ICU over at Christ’s,” he said, gesturing to two uncomfortable looking slabs of wood. Maggie and I sat. Glenn sat too, but on the corner of the desk where he had the best chance of sneaking peeks down Maggie’s blouse.
“Let me guess,” I said. “The nephew tried to kill him.”
“That’s what he claims,” Glenn said, “and he has a stab wound in the belly to back it up. The knife missed all the important parts though. The guy will be in a regular room by dinner time. He said you might have some background info, some bull about an attempted poisoning.”
I could tell by the way Glenn laid it out he had doubts. Glenn was a good cop, despite being a lousy husband. If he wasn’t taking Pierce’s story seriously, it was probably because he’d already spotted the holes in it.
“The old guy paid me to attend a production he put on,” I said. “It had set up written all over it. I assume you have the nephew in custody. What’s he got to say?”
“He says he’s innocent,” Glenn said.
“You believe him?” I asked.
“The old guy suggested the kid did it in part to get some insurance money. That would only work out for him if somebody else killed the old man, and we didn’t see any attempt to stage a break in.”
“So it all hangs on the kid being an idiot,” I said. “Like the story about the dentures, it falls apart when you consider anybody with a brain could have been behind it.”
“The kid does come across as being on the slow side,” Glenn said, “You notice the Velcro shoes? I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with him not being able to tie a knot.”
“If this guy is that dumb, wouldn’t you be able to tell if he is lying?” Maggie asked. “Could he pull off a believable denial?”
“He’s been pretty convincing,” Glenn said, discovering Maggie’s eyes for the first time. “The only thing making me wonder is the fiancée. She sounds pretty sharp.”
“Fiancée?” I asked. “What’s her story?”
“I haven’t seen her in person,” Glenn said. “She’s called several times to check on him, and hired him an attorney. Like I said, she seems pretty sharp. She asks all the right questions.”
“I’d like to meet this fiancée,” I said. “You got a name?”
“Tiffany Hughes,” Glen said, reading off a paper he picked up off the desk. She lives over in Terrace Park.
“What would a girl from Terrace Park be doing with a half wit living in a health code violation?” I said as Maggie slid up next to me in the Nova.
“I guess we’ll have to go ask her,” Maggie said. “I’m free for the rest of the day. We can make a party of it.”
“That’s the plan,” I answered, “but we have a few stops to make along the way.”
One of those stops was Christ’s hospital where Mr. Pierce had just been moved to a room on the second floor.”
“Did you tell them how he tried to kill me?” Pierce asked as soon as we were in the room. “We need to make sure he doesn’t get away with this.”
“Sure,” I said. “I told them all about it. They have a few questions though, little details they need to work out before they bring charges.”
“Like what?” Pierce roared, sitting up in the bed. “It’s a clear-cut case! Irving’s a killer!”
“He claims he was with his fiancée when you were attacked, and she’s backing him up. Is there anyway you might be mistaken about the identity of your attacker?”
“Fiancée? What fiancée?” he asked. “The only women Irving’s ever talked to are the ones in his porno magazines.”
“The boys down at PD say there is,” I said. “They say she even hired a lawyer to get him off.”
“That’s impossible!” he said, bolting up, groaning as the stitches in his gut objected to his gymnastics. He fell back onto his pillow and let out a long sigh.
“Better take it easy, Mr. Pierce,” I told him. “I’ll get to the bottom of it. Does the name Tiffany Hughes mean anything to you?”
He shook his head.
“Irving ever seem to have any extra money?” I asked. “He ever come home with new clothes or anything he shouldn’t have been able to afford?”
“All Irving’s money is in a trust fund left to him by his father,” Pierce said. “He can’t touch it.”
Maggie and I exchanged knowing glances. With Irving in jail, or possibly a mental institution, his guardian might be able to get his hands on that trust fund. Now I had a motive for the set up. Like all the rest of it, it wasn’t a good plan, but Pierce was operating on brain power just a few volts higher than his nephew’s, and he was crazy on top of it. We left him there and headed for the address in Terrace Park Glenn had provided.
The house was a Colonial style mansion. Maggie pushed some buttons on her phone and a picture of the house came up, along with the name of the owner, Roger Hughes; the date it was constructed, 1892; and its estimated value, $2,295,000. Whoever Rodger Hughes was, he had money. The groundskeeper arranging the strings of Christmas lights on the hedges out front was dressed better than I was. Parking my battered 1978 Nova in the red-brick circular drive seemed a little like littering. The grounds keeper looked up from his hedges to sneer at us like we were a couple of old rags blown onto the lawn after falling from a passing garbage truck, but he didn’t bother us. That was the job of the stern-faced giant who answered the chimes I’d set off when I pushed the gold button by the stained glass door. Red faced and stiff, he looked like a man who only breathed when he was sure nobody was looking. Maybe it was just the uniform. It couldn’t have been easy stretching the collar and bow tie around that neck.
“Can I help you?” he asked, looking down at us with an expression that said the only help he wanted to offer was directions off the property.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said, trying to sound sincere and only falling a little short. “We’d like to have a few words with Tiffany Hughes. I’m a private investigator employed by her fiancée.”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong residence,” he said. “The only Mrs. Hughes residing here is happily married to the owner of this house.”
“Maybe I have the name wrong,” I said. It wouldn’t have been the first time Glenn’s penmanship had failed me. “Do Mr. and Mrs. Hughes have a daughter?”
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “Good day.”
The door closed, leaving me alone with my unanswered questions. I’d turned to Maggie, ready to dazzle her with a witty quip, but she wasn’t there. It seemed she preferred the conversation of the gardener. I sulked back to the Nova and polluted my lungs with what turned out to be two cigarettes before she slid in next to me.
“Made a new friend?” I asked, putting the Nova into gear.
“I could see you weren’t getting anywhere with Lurch,” she said, taking the cigarette out of my mouth and grinding it out in the ash tray.
“The garden was my next stop,” I said. “I would have got something out of your friend.”
“You couldn’t have afforded him,” she responded. “He probably makes more than you.”
That stung a little, but I knew she was right. My wallet probably wasn’t going to open any doors for me at that place.
“So, what did your charms get us that my money wouldn’t?” I asked.
“Only that Mrs. Hughes is considerably younger than Mr. Hughes and possesses a very independent nature,” she said. “The people around there hardly ever see her. Oh, and you had the name right. It’s Tiffany.”
“That helps a little,” I said, but it doesn’t get us any closer to her.”
“He did mention she works for an insurance agency,” she said. “He couldn’t give me a name though.”
“Dial up Christ’s Hospital for me,” I said. “See if you can get Pierce on the phone.”
A few minutes later, after another unpleasant conversation with Pierce, I was having her look up the address for the Heartland Insurance Agency. It turned out they only had one office in the area, and it was right around the corner. If my hunch was right, we’d be meeting Mrs. Tiffany Hughes in about fifteen minutes.
We found her in the lobby, leaning against the front counter chatting with the receptionist. The smile she gave us did nothing to dispel my previous impression of her. She was still all puppy dogs and sunshine.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk.
“We’re hear to speak with Mrs. Hughes,” I said, extending a hand toward everybody’s ideal housewife.
If me knowing her name rattled her, she didn’t show it. She gave my hand a polite squeeze and invited us back to her office where we settled into chairs a lot more comfortable than the ones Glenn had provided.
“What can I do for you?” she asked, showing no sign she remembered our encounter in front of Pierce’s place.
“I’d like to ask you about your fiancée,” I said. “I understand you’ve hired an attorney?”
The wholesome, good natured look faded as her blue eyes narrowed.
“How’d you find me?” She asked. “I paid the lawyer a lot of money to keep my name out of it.”
“Don’t cancel the check,” I said. “We haven’t talked to him. We didn’t need to. You probably shouldn’t have called the police station. That was sloppy.”
“I was concerned,” she said. “I needed to know Irving was alright.”
“Why?” I asked. “I know you’re not leaving your husband in Terrace Park to go live with the junk man’s nephew. Why the interest in Irving?”
“Because he’s my brother,” she said with a sigh. “Half-brother really.”
“Now it’s starting to make some sense,” I said, though from the look she gave me I’d say Maggie didn’t agree. “Your mother’s name wouldn’t happen to be Annabel would it?”
“It was,” Tiffany said. “She died when I was ten. She never got over what Pierce did to her.”
“And you decided to even the score for her,” I added. “You put the idea of framing your brother into Pierce’s head, and probably helped him set it up. I’m just not clear on what you were trying to accomplish.”
“She wanted Pierce to get caught,” Maggie said. “Pierce would get sent away, and Irving would be appointed a new guardian. Only she didn’t have enough faith in the intelligence of our boys in blue to produce the desired outcome, so she brought in the lawyer.”
“You should have had more faith in your own scheme,” I said. “Pierce’s story would have never held up. About the only flaw I can see is he could have implicated you, but that would involve admitting his guilt, and I can’t see a man like Pierce going that route.”
“He never knew my real name,” Tiffany said. “He doesn’t even know the name of this agency. All the forms he filled out were fakes.”
“Which would have meant he had no policy, and his claim Irving was out for the insurance money would fall flat. That bull about Irving wanting revenge because his dad died of cancer wasn’t going to get him anywhere to begin with.”
“So, what happens now,” Tiffany asked. “You turn me in?”
“I think we’ll just let it play out,” I said. “After all, Pierce is guilty. If for some reason it all falls apart and it looks like Irving’s going to take the fall, I’ll have to step in, but I can’t see that happening. You screwed up with that fiancée bit, but I think we can play that off.”
“I can’t thank you enough for this.” Tiffany said, reaching across the desk to grab my hand. “You probably think I’m crazy,”
“Maybe a little,” I said. “Just make sure you look after Irving. You’ve put him through hell, but I suppose it was no worse than the hell Pierce put him through on a daily basis.”
Maggie and I left her there to wonder who else might show up with questions she didn’t want to answer, and whether they’d be as understanding. The receptionist would probably be the first, judging from the way she’d asked if everything was alright as we were leaving, but Tiffany could handle her.
“So, how are you going to ‘play off’ the fiancée thing?” Maggie asked as we climbed into the Nova.
“I’ll tell Glenn she turned out to be a wealthy older woman who’d been having an affair with Irving and doesn’t want her name dragged into it. Glenn will sympathize with that. He’s been in plenty of spots like that before.”
“You made the right call,” Maggie said. “You got more heart than people give you credit for.”
“And I have enough sense to know it’s good to have friends with money. I just made one. Besides, I didn’t have time to deal with all the questions I’d have to answer if I turned her in. I have a hot date with my favorite reporter tonight.”
“Assuming that’s me,” she said. “I think that date should include dinner at Primavista’s”
Primavista’s was more upscale than the eateries I usually frequented, but I didn’t sweat it. I knew where there was a desk drawer full of money.
Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, "Souls In A Blender" was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021.
11/16/2022 07:50:49 pm
I got 1969 Nova by marriage.
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