Hard-boiled

Copyright 2006, Douglas Ross, All Rights Reserved. 

Hard-Boiled
Copyright 2006 Doug Ross, All Rights Reserved. 

I'd been bodily picked up and thrown into the black sedan so fast I almost didn't see it.  I stopped short of the inside of the other car door, barely.   I tasted blood in my mouth and smelled leather.   The car doors slammed shut and the driver floored the gas pedal.  We took off faster than one of Goddard's rockets and with a lot less noise.

I'd been walking to the bookmaker's joint, a pool hall, ready to lay five large on the Rams.  Didn't quite make it, though.  It would seem that Victor Dante had found me.  I'm a real winner that way, always looking to make a quick buck and seldom finding a buck in my pocket.  I'll admit it to you.  I have a problem.  I just need a couple more games to work it all out.

"Gimme your money," the giant said, glaring at me from the front seat.  He was about six feet seven and weighed just a little less than a Sherman tank.  He didn't ask again.  He didn't have to.  I forked over the money in my wallet, all hundreds.  I didn't use ones, not when I had bets to place.  I needed to get even.  Because I was down big.

Among my various bookies, I owed Victor Dante the most.  Seventy-five.  Grand.  It wasn't a real long time 'til we pulled up to the auto-body repair place on Hudson.  It felt like thirty seconds, though I knew it had to be closer to a quarter hour.  That's what a queasy stomach does to a man, pumping all kinds of acid into his system.  The muscle-bound freak pulled me out of the car by my collar and frog-marched me into the backroom.   Dante's office.

The only light was coming from Dante's desk.  A tiny bulb, a yellow light shining like an electric torch, sat a foot off his desk.  Given the angle, Dante's eyes were hooded, dark and inscrutable.  His cigarette glowed red for a second as he pulled hard on it, then faded.  His voice erupted and it wasn't pleasant to hear.  It sounded like an eighteen-wheeler on gravel, only not as musical.

"Do I need any more frickin' trouble in my life?," he asked no one in particular.  "It's not like things are going swimmingly for me."   Unexpectedly, he blurted out a question.  "Do you know A.J. Cohen?"

Surprised, I nodded.  I knew the slimebag.  He was a little less truthful than Pinnochio, if the puppet had both a drinking and a gambling problem.  You'd be hard-pressed to find a better liar if you went to a lawyers' convention and paid thousand-dollar bonuses for tall tales.

"AJ owes me five hundred.  Grand.  And now you of all people have to come up dry.  The one guy who always makes his nut."

I didn't say a word.  Just surveyed the scene with hooded eyes.  Victor's office was decorated in my favorite style.  Early American Gauche.  There was a glossy insurance calendar on the wall featuring a dowdy farm family.  A black-and-white picture of Eddie Arcaro crouched on Whirlaway after winning the '41 Derby.  A cheap reprint of a Rockwell barbershop scene set in a $5 frame.  And a desk that couldn't have cost twenty bucks.  On the desk was a well-worn set of brass knuckles.  Try as I might, my eyes kept drifting back to the knucks.

"Ted, Ted, Ted," he sighed.  "You're a nice-looking, smart young lad.  How in the name of... how the hell did you get yourself this far in the hole?"

The question was rhetorical.  He knew it as well as I did.  I had a problem.  A bad problem.

"You know my grandson?"

No.  I didn't.

"My grandson was riding his bike on Redwing yesterday."

Redwing Road.  A hilly suburban street where cars took turns playing roller-coaster while trying to avoid pedestrians.

"Some Hispanic slammed into my grandson with his pickup truck.  Both of his legs were broken, compound fractures.  A piece of glass sliced his hand damn near off.  Thank Christ he was wearing a helmet, cause he went through the windshield.  And guess what?  The driver pushed him right out of the window, onto the pavement and took off.  Hit and run."

He sucked on his cigarette, deep.  Blue tendrils of smoke seeped out of his nostrils and, with the light and his eyes hidden, he looked like a rendering of the devil himself.

"Lucky for me, his brother was with him.  He got a partial on the plate.  The cops showed up, but they've come up empty so far.  My grandson may never walk normal."

He made a noise that sounded like either a sniffle or a sniff.

"Ted, you're a former cop.  You know how to find people.  And you owe me.  You owe me big.  I want you to find this scumbag.  Call me when you have him.  I'll send someone to pick him up.  I don't want him even seen in the area of the shop."

"Why can't your people find him?"

"They're trying.  But they're not trained investigator-types.  They're hired muscle.  They haven't found jack squat so far.  And it's worth twenty-five gees of your debt if you can bring him to me in the next twenty-four hours.  I don't want the police getting their hands on him first."

I'll admit it.  I didn't think twice.  25K was 25K.

"What about the five K that the mutant took from me?"  I tilted my head at the giant whose frame filled the doorway.

"What about it?"

"That should count for something."

"It does.  It counts as a token of your appreciation for me not bouncing the knucks off your dome a couple dozen times."

"I'll need some of that for expenses.  A few hundred, at least."

He considered that.  I waited.  It wasn't like I had a choice.  After a while, he tilted his rear in the chair and pulled out a billfold.  He flipped me some fifties.  Then he picked up the phone.  I guess that gesture and the giant lifting me by my collar meant I was dismissed.

* * *

I had two numbers off the plate and a description that was as useless as an ashtray on a moped.  The kid's brother had said the pickup was either gray, brown, or green.  Old, beat up, and full-sized.  That made it American: Chevy, Ford or Dodge.  Really narrowed it down.  I was on a roll.  By 9am, I'd have collected the kid and picked up a hot dame to boot.

I left a voicemail for Danny, my old partner.  We still got along okay, especially when I bought him whiskey rocks at O'Reilly's after his shift.  On the machine, I asked him to run the list of pickups that matched the numbers, including for adjacent counties.  And a copy of the accident report.

I headed back to my apartment.  It was late and I needed a shave and a fresh start in the morning.  My one-bedroom palatial estate smelled a little musty.  A visit to the laundromat with the drapes and bedspread in tow would help.  Someday.  So I grabbed a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam instead and poured myself a quick taste.  Just two fingers worth.  It went down hard, then easy.  I decided on another.  That went down smooth.  I didn't feel any better about the musty smell, though, so I got up and rinsed the glass out.

I tried to sleep, but visions of a broken bicycle kept floating in my head.  At about three I gave up trying and shuffled into the "living room".  It was a box about twelve by ten with enough space for a lounger, a small couch and a bookshelf with a TV on it.  I watched a documentary on the endangered tern.  I couldn't muster a lot of sympathy.  I was an endangered species myself if I didn't get things turned around.

I started to wonder what Dante was going to do with the punk when I delivered him.  There was a drill press in the body shop.  Rumor had it it'd been used for more than just bodywork.  The thoughts came quick and ugly and I had to force myself to stop.  It could just as easily be me lashed onto a drill press.  After a while, I stopped thinking altogether and I slept.

The sun woke me up, angling between the drapes.  I got the coffee started and hit the shower.  A quick ten-minute scrub and I was shaving and combing my hair and beginning to resemble an actual human being.  Brushed my teeth so I wouldn't light up a smoke.  Poured some coffee and turned up the TV.  The local news was on.  No mention of the hit-and-run.

I hadn't heard from Danny so I got in the Buick and drove over to Redwing to check out the scene.  It was on the northwest side of town.  Suburbia central.  Cookie-cutter houses in cookie-cutter neighborhoods without a damn thing to distinguish one from the other except for the names on the overblown entrance signs.  Rolling Meadows.  Gramercy Farms.  Windermere Lake, where Redwing was located.  There wasn't a lake I could see, but there was a small, algae-green pond that was covered with a scummy film.  I drove the length of Redwing.  I didn't spot anything at first, so I did a U-turn and drove back slow.  There was no police tape to identify the spot.  In fact, there wasn't much left after the cops had cleaned up.  But a cluster of broken glass gave it away.  It was at the bottom of the deepest drop in the road, just off a cul-de-sac where the kids probably hung out and where cars would hit maximum speed.

I parked the car in the cul-de-sac and got out.  Looked carefully at the ground.  It wasn't glass, it was glittering plastic, all that remained of the kid's bike reflector.  Poor kid.  Didn't do anything to deserve getting hammered into a month-long stay in the hospital.  And here was all that was left of his bike.

"Excuse me."

I snapped out my reverie and turned to face the voice.  A woman, a blonde about five-feet seven and wearing sweats stood in the driveway across the cul-de-sac.  The house behind her was a tidy Cape Cod painted all white, spruced up with some annuals that were poking out of some decent mulch.

"Can I help you?"

I didn't respond for a second, because I was taking in the sight of her.  She was athletic, lithe, about 30.  Her hair was tied high back into a pony-tail which swung behind an elegant neck.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," I immediately reverted to cop-mode, "I'm a licensed private investigator."  I fished around in my back pocket for business cards and I hooked one with two fingers.  I glanced at it -- a little worn in the corners, but the best I could come up with on short notice.  I walked over to where she was standing.  She smelled good, like she'd just spritzed herself with something nice but not overpowering.  I handed her the card.  Her ring finger was bare.  Her eyes were hazel and her teeth were straight and white.  She read the card for a moment.

"Mister... Huston, I'm sorry for bothering you, but we have a quiet neighborhood here.  We don't get strange people out wandering the street every day."

"No problem.  And I don't get called strange every day either.  I was asked to investigate a hit-and-run accident that occurred here yesterday.  A boy on a bicycle... was almost killed."

She took a step back and covered her mouth with long, slender fingers.  "No... are you serious?"

"I was going to canvas the houses around here to see if some of the folks saw something.  I take it you didn't?"

"I work all day.  Most folks in the cul-de-sac do as well.  What time did it happen?"

"Early afternoon.  Two-ish."

"I was at work.  And I know the neighbors on either side of me were as well.  Mr. Garibaldi, I mean the older gentleman in 6684," she pointed to a ranch dominated by a two-car garage, "is retired.  He might have seen what happened."

"Thanks, Ms. ..."

"Clay.  Elenore Clay."

"Thanks, Ms. Clay.  If you happen to hear or see anything relevant to the case, please feel free to call me anytime."

As if on cue, my phone burbled.  I excused myself and unholstered it.  The caller ID was the fifth precinct house.  Danny.

"Hey."

"Yo, hombre.  Whatcha into now?"

"Did you pull the list for me?"

"Yeah, I got the list of trucks.  All surrounding counties.  There are only about 200 that match the digits.  Twelve pages of printouts."

"What about the report?"

"Nada.  Can't find it.  Redwing, right?  Was it picked up by County?"

He meant the Sheriff's office.  Depending upon who arrived on the scene first -- and, in an emergency, it could be anyone -- the case could have gone straight to County.

"Dunno."

"Want me to get someone over there to look it up?"

"Nah.  The list is good for now.  Can you just fax it to me?"

"No problemo.  O'Reilly's tonight?"

"You old lush.  I'll try and make it over there about eight.  That is, if I can get this cleaned up, the odds of which are a little less than Ethel Merman getting selected for flight school."

"Shit.  That bad?"

"You don't know the half of it.  Okay, maybe see you later."

Elenore was walking back into her garage.  It was a nice view.  I called out to her.

"Thanks again, Ms. Clay."

She executed an efficient, backhanded wave without looking back and then the garage door came down.

Garibaldi was of less help than Elenore.  He'd been out during the time in question, visiting his mother in the nursing home.  Garibaldi looked like he could have fought in the Civil War, so I was having a hard time picturing his Mom.  She had to be closing in on Methusela.

I knocked on a few more doors.  Everyone was playing "Hide from the Traveling Salesman" or were out.  This was getting me nowhere fast.  I walked back to my car.  It was starting to get steamy.  I lit up a smoke and glanced over at Elenore's tidy little Cape.  I thought I saw a curtain move, but it could've been my imagination.

I drove back up Redwing, took a few turns to head back into town and immediately ran into heavy traffic near Formosa.  I slowly crept my way into the city.  Everything was bleached in the sun.  People.  Cars.  Buildings.  Even asphalt and dirt.  My eyes hurt and perspiration started to form on the back of my neck.  It was partly the rising temperature and partly thinking about a drill press.

My office was located in a cheap rental building a few blocks too far from downtown.  It was on the west side, where vacancies were frequent.  It was the kind of neighborhood where everyone used coupons or food stamps or didn't eat at all, because they were junkies.  I parked semi-legally and headed up to my second-floor office.

The painted caption on the glass pane in the door read, "Huston Investigations, LLC" and it needed a touchup.  I unlocked the office door and it squeaked open.  I caught a whiff of the same odor of age that permeated my apartment.  Not overwhelming, just - there.  It smelled like dust and old leather and maybe some gun-cleaning fluid.  While wading through my overwhelming book of messages, I field-stripped and cleaned my .45 1911.  Old habits die hard.

Some filing cabinets had been pushed against the single room's far wall.  My desk faced out from the windows.  There was a stellar view of Hobart Street and a similar office building across Hobart.  I walked over to the card table upon which an old fax machine sat.  A sheaf of papers had spilled out of the tray.  It was a couple of junk-faxes and Danny's list of partial matches.

I grabbed the papers and sat heavily in my leather office chair.  The rollers didn't work real well.  I urged the chair over to the right side of my desk and eased open the bottom drawer.  I pulled out a glass and a bottle of Jack Daniels Green that was a third full.  I poured two fingers into the glass and began to read.

I was looking for Hispanic names.  Using a pencil, I underlined one after another.  Silva.  Chavez.  Javier.  I took a sip of Jack.  Vazquez.  Padilla.  Bolivar.  Another sip.  There were quite a few.  It took about twenty minutes.

I taped a message on my second phone line, the "cold line."  The message went:

"Thank you for calling Edwards' Automotive and Truck Repair.  We're away from the desk right now, but if you leave your name, home address and phone number, we'll call you back with scheduling options for your free repair work."

The cold line wasn't in the reverse lookup directory.  Using the same line, I called the first number on the list.  It rang a while and then clicked over to the machine.

"Hi, this is Eddie over at Edwards' Auto Repair.  We have an emergency recall notice for your pickup truck.  The truck has defective wiring that could result in a fire or explosion.  Because of the danger involved, the manufacturer is paying us to come to your home and repair the wiring free of charge.  The repair should take no longer than ten minutes.  Please call us as soon as possible.  There is a risk that your truck could catch fire..."

I repeated this call a dozen times and never once reached a live person.  I needed a break from the phone, so I took a sip of Jack.  My main phone rang.  I answered, "Investigations."

A female voice was on the line.  "Is this Mr. Huston?" 

"Hold on and I'll check."

"Mr. Huston, this is Elenore Clay.  Is this really your office?"

"No, but now that you've called, I'll go out and rent one."

"My, you're a snide man."

"It whiles the time away, in between all the calls and letters."

She sighed.  "Perhaps I shouldn't have called.  It's too much work trying to talk with you."

"I'll behave.  How can I help?"

"It's my ex-husband.  He took something from me.  Something valuable.  And I'd like you to help me get it back."

I almost banged my head on the desk.  A divorce case.

"It's three hundred a day plus expenses."

"How many days would this typically take?"

"What's the item and how do you know he has it?"

"We divorced three years ago and I received a piece of artwork as part of the settlement.  I think he's been having money trouble lately.  And this is a very valuable piece of art.  I think he broke into my house and may be trying to sell it.  Nothing else was taken and he knew exactly where to find it.  I mean, it wasn't exactly hanging in the living room."

"What's the art?"

"It's an M.C. Escher lithograph called 'Belvedere #426.'  It's worth, I'm not sure, but a great deal of money.  Hundreds of thousands."

I whistled.  Not so much over the price as the art.  I'm an Escher fan.  I knew the piece.  You've probably seen it:  a beautiful, double-decker gazebo with a ladder that defies the laws of physics.  The ladder lays flat against the outer wall and yet it stretches from inside to outside the gazebo.

"Well.  If the artwork is on the premises, I might be able to secure it in a day.  Not on the premises, it could take longer.  I'd have to tail him.  Obviously, we'll have to get the cops involved, though."

The phone was silent for a while.

"No police, please.  A.J.'s...  A.J.'s a wanted man," she was pleading.  "I don't want him in jail.  He loves our son."

I gulped.  "What's his full name?"

"A.J. Cohen.  He's a former art dealer and -- really -- a good dad."

A.J. Cohen.  The same guy that Victor Dante was after.  Way too much of a coincidence.  Dante sends me out to investigate his grandson's accident and I just happen to meet Elenore Clay, the ex-wife of A.J. Cohen.  But why?  Something wasn't adding up, but I wasn't going to comprehend it while bantering on the phone.

"Tell you what, let's grab a drink and we can talk it over.  Do you know where O'Reilly's is on Bay Street?"

"Yes, the corner of Queen & Bay."

"That's it.  Does 8 work for you?"

"I should be able to get the girl next door to baby-sit, so... yes.  I'll see you then."

I sat quietly, contemplating my navel and A.J. Cohen's entrance into my world.  I resisted the urge to walk down to the corner newsstand, buy a newspaper, throw everything away but the Sports section, and check the NFL betting line.  Placing another bet was certain to land me a date with Dante's drill press.

I sipped my Jack for a while and tried to figure out the Cohen equation.  It didn't add up and, yet, there it was.  Thinking about it made my head hurt.  I unlocked the top drawer and pulled out the 1911.  Switched off the safety, released the magazine, then racked the slide.  I caught the ejected round in the air.  It was a Federal cartridge, a hollow-point, designed to inflict maximum damage to the human body.  I'd never even fired a live round at a human being.  Even as a Marine.

On auto-pilot, I stripped the weapon and cleaned each component, with special attention to the slide.  I reassembled it, wiped it clean with a rag, then deposited it back in the drawer.  I locked the drawer.  I wouldn't typically carry a weapon, though Dante and his crew might get me to reconsider that quaint notion.

The cold line sat silent.  None of the fish were biting.  I put my feet up on the desk, folded my arms, and closed my eyes.

I awoke sometime later in the afternoon when my office door opened.  The mutant filled the doorway.  Then a sneering, wannabe tough-guy walked in.  They positioned themselves on either side of my desk.  The smaller of the two had a gangster stroll, a thin black mustache, and a bad attitude.  He stood at the right side of my desk.

"Mr. Dante wants to know your progress, shamus.  So spill it."

"I've got 24 hours.  You need some crayons to do the arithmetic?"

The sneer on the little guy widened and I watched his hips swivel.  As he began his right-footed kick at my legs, I pulled a desk drawer out.  His shin slammed into it, full force.  He groaned and doubled over, massaging his lower leg.

"Maybe him," I nodded at the behemoth, "but not you."

I looked at the big guy.  "Why are you hanging around with Freddie Mercury here?"

The behemoth just looked sheepish and shrugged.  I turned back to Mercury, who was still caressing his shin.

"Tell Mr. Dante I've got several leads, which are being actively pursued.  I'll call him with an update by the deadline.  Now, beat it."

A moment of silence was interrupted by a ring on the cold line.  I put my index finger to my lips to silence the audience.

"Eddie's Automotive, Eddie speaking."

The voice on the other end was female and sounded anxious.  She wanted to get her truck fixed.  I asked her some facts about the owner, address, and best time for a look-see.  I recorded it on the list and hung up.

"Now are you starting to get the picture?  Is the fog lifting over Marblehead?  I'm running a scam on Mr. Dante's targets and they're calling in to me.  You're interrupting the process.  What would your boss think -- say, should we call and ask him?

The pair looked at each other and then sidled out.  As he left, the little guy fixed his idea of a scary-mean sneer on his puss and shot me the evil eye.  "You haven't seen the last of me, wiseguy."

"I know.  I couldn't get that lucky." The door slammed shut, rattling the glass.

I made a few more calls to the remaining targets on the list.  As I finished things up, my main phone line rang.  I answered, only to have the caller hang up.  Wrong number or, perhaps, someone checking to see where I was.  I folded the list and put it in my pocket.

I emptied the glass, locked up the office and headed out.  On the way back to my car, a subtle and ominous movement caught my eye.  It was a low-slung Cadillac sedan with 80% tinted windows.  It rolled noiselessly to the corner of Hobart and 93rd.  It was as out of place in this neighborhood as a Cirque de Soleil.  I sidled over to my car, unlocked it, and slid in.  Headed down Hobart and took a quick right on Lexington.  The Caddy was following, albeit at a distance. 

I ran through a few scenarios and came up dry.  Dante's crew knew where I was - they'd just paid a housecall.  It wasn't likely they were tailing me.  And cops don''t drive Cadillacs, at least not when I was on the force.  So the odds of this being just another friendly party paying a visit were around the same as me hosting the Westminster Dog Show in my apartment.

I slid into a narrow alley I knew from my days on the force, then hit the gas.  I watched in the rear-view as the Caddy attempted to make the turn and missed the angle.  As it backed up to try again, it was out of sight.  I sliced a fast right turn, pounding down a steep ramp that led to an ancient loading dock.  Slammed the brakes just before the front bumper hit two weathered dock doors at the bottom of the ramp.

Engaging the shift, I put the car in reverse and waited.  It didn't take long.  A minute later, the Caddy went by, gingerly navigating the decrepit alley.  I backed up and out of the dock to my left.  Trailed the Caddy in reverse until it hit the alley's dead end: a massive, rusty dumpster.  The giant container was filled with refuse, blocking the Caddy's progress.  It had only one way to go, in reverse, and my car was in the way.

I backed in towards the Caddy until I got close enough to smell cigarette smoke.  I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the driver, but the Caddy's tinted windows weren't helping.  I scratched its license number down on a post-it pad taped to the dash.  That's when the Caddy's front passenger window rolled down.  A squared-off, black automatic handgun was pointing out the window, aimed at me.  At that moment, coincidentally, I deemed a moral victory sufficient.

I floored the car and zoomed down the alley.  I took some hangers-on with me, in the form of boxes, scrap paper, and rotting food.  The narrow alley was crammed with every type of refuse known to man - and probably some scientists had yet to discover.  I was sliding on garbage, smashing boxes, and probably pancaking some rats.  I heard a crack -- a single shot from the handgun -- and had no idea where it went.  My rear glass didn't explode, I wasn't bleeding, and my fuzzy dice were intact.  Heart pounding, I blasted out of the alley, took a quick turn onto Lexington, another on Randolph, and was suddenly in the midst of downtown traffic flow.  The Caddy was somewhere behind, out of sight, and probably still trying to back its way out of garbage alley.

I wiped my brow.  Traffic was nearly stopped, all three lanes going north.  I was slowly making my way uptown, back to my apartment, but at this rate would die of natural causes before arriving.  I decided to head crosstown, to the Western suburbs, where a few of the trucks on the list were located.  I cut over to Victory Boulevard, which was actually moving, then the Parkway.  This would take me to the wannabe suburbs, where DINK couples -- double-income no kids -- lived close-in to the city.

Three of the trucks on the list were located there, in the up-and-coming neighborhood called the Heights.  With a little help from the county auditor's survey map, I visited all three residences within thirty minutes.  Two of the trucks were parked outside their respective houses and they were clean.  No damage and they didn't exactly fit the description.  The third listing -- an apartment complex -- was missing its truck.  I'd have to pay another visit - later that night and preferably before 11 when the drill press got fired up.

This just kept getting better and better.  I was hot, tired, and looking nastier than ever.  I fought rush hour traffic like an out-of-condition heavyweight all the way uptown to my apartment.

At 7:45, I showed at O'Reilly's looking nearly respectable.  A blue Jos. A. Bank athletic-cut traveler's shirt with steel gray slacks.  Black belt and loafers.  And a subdued GAP blazer (yes, such things exist).  I looked like a college professor who might have boxed Golden Gloves once, primarily due to the repeatedly broken nose.  I'd showed up early to talk to Danny, my ex-partner with a bad attitude.

As expected -- with my dubious outfit -- he whistled when I walked in.  "Hey, sailor!", he yelled, "going my way?".  Every head in the bar turned and I grimaced at the attention.  Fortunately, they were all cops, so they couldn't care less.  I wanted to call him a fag, but ruled it out since that's as politically incorrect as shotgunning penguins in the Arctic.

Instead, I decamped in the bar-stool next to him.  He was staked out in his usual location, the last stool at the end of the bar.  That was the best location for scoping babes and watching TV -- not necessarily in that order.  He was sipping the remains of a house whiskey rocks, probably waiting for me to show up and spring for the good stuff.

I called out to Daryl, the bartender.  Held up two fingers.  "Jack - black and straight."

"What, no ice, you heathen?" Danny complained.

"Those who pay set the rules, my friend.  It's the way of the big city."

We waited quietly for our setups.  I glanced sidelong at my partner of six years.  Danny appeared a little wearier than usual.  He was a good-looking Hispanic detective who had never had any problems with the ladies.  Imagine Erik Estrada from CHIPS with a mustache and ten extra pounds and you've got the general picture.  But the rims of his eyes were lined and his chin was sagging.

"Hey, compadre, you're looking a little down in the dumps.  Let's have it."

"Oh, for the love of...  I don't need this shit."  He was talking into his glass, ice swirling around the last tendrils of whiskey.  He paused and then talked quietly, looking down.

"A week ago we got paged to a double-187," he sighed.  "A woman and her eight year-old daughter were forced to drink Liquid Plumber, suffer a while, and then were shot in the head after they'd hit the point of no return.  It was ugly.  The perp is the ex-husband.  We haven't tracked him down yet.  He's out there running around."

Daryl showed up with the two Jacks, glanced up at us for a pregnant second, and then exited stage left.

Still looking down, Danny whispered, "I ain't been able to sleep right since.  Every time I close my eyes, I'm seein' the pair of them."

He slammed back a solid belt of Jack and seemed to perk up a bit.

"Anyhow, I asked County for the report on the hit-and-run.  That should come back tomorrow."

"Appreciate it, compadre."  I raised my glass and extended a toast.  We clinked glasses.  His arm froze in mid-air.  He was looking past me toward the door, not moving a muscle.  I swiveled around.

Elenore Clay had walked in.  She was wearing an elegant pants-suit, gun-metal gray with a tropical blue oxford shirt.  Business casual - and she looked all business.  Her blonde hair was down, straight, and really quite fetching.  Her tiny earrings were pearl.  She had enough looks for two women and she was headed right for me.

She extended her hand.  It was firm and dry.  "Mr. Huston."

"Ms. Clay.  I'd like to introduce you to my ex-partner, Detective Danny Sanchez.  Danny, Elenore Clay."

The two shook hands.  Danny spoke up, wise-cracking.  "Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, damned glad to meet you."  He grinned, exposing a mega-watt smile that could serve as a poster for cosmetic dentistry.

I stood up.  "That was Eric Stratton, Rush Chairman, and he was damned glad to meet you.  Let's grab a booth,"  I turned to Danny.  "Later, compadre - call you tomorrow."

Elenore's arm reached out and fingered Danny's sleeve.  "90% rayon, very nice," she deadpanned.  Danny laughed.  We turned and I led her to a booth in the back.

We slid simultaneously into a booth at the far end of the place, facing each other.  It was all class - fake wood countertops and red vinyl seats that had been taped over.  She looked serious, her hands clasped together and her eyes fixed right on me without a trace of a grin.

"Let's get this straight, Mr. Huston.  I need discrete, professional help to retrieve my art.  That means no cops, period.  Are you capable of that?"

"Look, I understand where you're coming from, but your ex-husband is a... he's very well-known around town.  Not in a good way.  A lot of people are hunting for him.  Some of those people want to hurt him.  Or worse."

She looked down and exhaled.  "Yes, I know all that.  He's got a gambling problem and he's gone 'underground.'"  She fingered quotes on the word with either sarcasm or disgust.

"Do you have any idea how bad a problem?"

She looked at me uncertainly and her chin quavered -- the first hint of weakness I'd seen -- and shook her head.  Her hazel eyes got a little brighter.

"At least three-quarters of a million.  Probably more.  To all the wrong people."

Her head lolled back for a second and then returned to attention.

"I can't..." she paused.  "No cops.  I don't want my son visiting his dad in prison.  That's... not going to happen."

The barmaid arrived.  Elenore shook her head with a tiny movement.  I said we were okay and she left.  When she was out of earshot I continued.

"Would you prefer your son visit his dad when he's dead?  Would the cemetary be better than prison?"

Her eyes flashed angrily.  "Don't. You. Dare. Tell me... how to raise my son."

"Don't take it out on me and don't take it out on yourself.  A.J. did a real good job wrapping himself around the axle... all on his own."

She loosened up, nodded and her eyes were watering.

"Look, let's get out of this dump and walk over to Kona's.  Best coffee in the district.  Artsy crowd, if you can handle that."

She nodded again and we slid out, waving at Danny as we hit the door.  The street was noisy, the air hot and sticky, and an eclectic collection of people were out walking.  Gentrification had brought a rejuvenated spirit to the old neighborhood near the precinct house.  A bizarre stew of restaurants, nudie bars, art houses, and coffee shops were scattered haphazardly; imagine Salvador Dali as a city planner.

Weaving through the crowd, we were early enough to catch the last small outdoor table at Kona's.  Inside, you could find poetry readings, revolutionary manifestos, and more piercings and tattoos than the Sturgis Harley Festival.  Outside, you could do some world-class people watching.  The patio faced the street and we were in the far corner, backed up against the large picture windows, with a view of everyone wandering by.

Within minutes, she was sipping a styrofoam double cappucino and I had an espresso.  With my long night ahead and the short hand flying towards eleven, mainlining caffeine made sense.

"So, how'd you meet A.J.?"