The Fox and the Snake (part 3 of 5)

Posted in The Fox and the Snake with tags , , on April 28, 2008 by Ben

The meeting was a few days away. I figured I might use that time to dig up a few of my contacts, see if anyone had heard anything about a big H racket operating in the area. I made a regular bus tour of the dirtiest bars and nightclubs in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, talking to 4 or 5 of the folks I figured might know something about a racket like this. They’d all heard about it, sure, but no one was willing to dish out any information I could use. I wasn’t particularly motivated, in any case. I can be pretty persuasive when I need to be, and I was willing to bet even money that once I got my hands on this “Harry” creep I’d be able to get the information I needed out of him.

The only information of value I obtained was more of an analysis than a tip, but I filed it away all the same. “Jack” was a guy that I’d talk to once every couple of months. Usually the price of a drink or two was enough to get him to talk, and once he’d had a few he talked a good bit. I ran into him at Rick’s Tavern, a building so old and dirty that I was always surprised not to see a “Condemned” sign next to the sputtering neon martini glass. When I walked in I saw Jack sitting towards the back, clutching an empty glass. I wended my way through the lowlifes, nearly getting knocked into by a particularly belligerent customer having an argument with a fellow patron.

“I don’t know him personally, but this guy sounds like an amateur,” a sufficiently tipsy Jack tosses off. “Going after kids, rich kids, you know it makes sense, but I tell ya, he ain’t done no time. You gotta know you’ll get too high of a profile doing something like that. Somebody who knew the business would be going after the slums, places where people expect it. This guy sounds like, you know, a doctor or pharmacist or somebody, somebody who thought and thought and says to himself, I could make some good money. He’s smart, sure, ain’t he still running free? But if he was that smart you wouldn’t know about him. It’s like stealing from City Hall, you do something different, something unexpected, high profile, you know, and you’re sticking your neck out. That’s all I know.”

That was about all I knew, too, but I had a pretty good idea that I’d be meeting this amateur soon enough. Thursday night rolled around, and I took a cab out to Marina Del Rey. I had the driver let me off a few blocks from the meeting place, a drive-in movie theater that had closed up hours ago. The note had said 3am; it was 2:15 when I arrived and found a dark corner to hole up in. The moon was bright, and the illuminated pavement made the theater look as eerie and deserted as the moon itself.

The kid showed up first, pulling into the lot in an older model coupe. He looked even more nervous than the last time I had seen him. Maybe he needed a fix, hard to tell from that far away. He parked his car a good 50 yards from me and waited nervously.

3am came and went. I wondered whether “Harry” might have stopped using that drop and the kid didn’t know. He had probably heard about those two kids getting booked, but I didn’t guess that fear would trump greed for a guy like him. He’d have to talk to the kid.

I wasn’t wrong, either. The creep pulled in about 3:30 or so. He parked his car next to the kid’s, and I slowly made my way over to them. I didn’t guess there was much chance of them spotting me, but I was careful all the same. I could see that “Harry” was pretty angry with the kid about something, and the closer I got the more plain it was that the kid was definitely in need of a hit. He was trembling slightly, and his voice was panicked, though I couldn’t quite make out the words.

I pulled up to Harry’s car silently and smoothly, and he turned as I unlatched the door. With one swift movement I pulled him out of the car and threw him against the side, denting the rear door. I shut the driver’s door and smashed the handle. The kid took off. He was well shot of it now, in any case … Harry had slumped to the ground and I went to grab him again, but he came up quick and I felt a sharp pain in my stomach. I cursed loudly … he’d got me with a short knife or something. I was bleeding pretty bad; I hit him, knocked him down, but I’d need to stop that blood flow fast. I didn’t probably pay as much attention to him as I should’ve; I guess I panicked a little. I made a quick tourniquet to stop the blood. When I turned again, he was trying to climb over the back seat, I guess he couldn’t get the driver door open.

I tore off the driver door. “You’re gonna be sorry you did that,” I snarled at him as I grabbed him out of the car again. This time when I hit him he collapsed. I checked his vitals, he was fine, just unconscious. I picked him up and headed for a quiet spot where we could talk.

The Fox and the Snake (part 2 of 5)

Posted in The Fox and the Snake with tags , , on April 2, 2008 by Ben

There was a haunted look in their eyes. Bloodshot and hollow. As little as six months ago, they could have been facing a bright future, limitless and untainted — the gleaming prospect of a happy, meaningful life. In a moment of weakness they had passed out of the land of the living forever. How well do I remember it — the panic and immediacy of pain and loss not yet hardened to despair. The fall of man, the cringing fear of betrayal and self-betrayal, the pitiless justice of self-hatred. I knew it all by heart.

It was a close call, but out of the two I’d say that Joseph looked less the crushed spirit and dead soul, so I chose to interview him first. I asked him a few questions about how he’d got the stuff, how he’d gotten hooked initially. Apparently a friend at another school, Benny Heidlinger, had introduced them to “Harry”, a man who had given them one of those “free samples”. The story was pretty predictable from there.

I had hoped to speak with Benny, their initial contact, but he had suffered an overdose and died a little less than a month earlier. The two boys became increasingly emotional as they indicated that Benny’s death had been something of a motivator for them to come to the cops. It might help them steer clear of doing too much time, but I still didn’t figure their chances of success in later life too high. The vacant expression in their eyes wasn’t just misery and despair.

What I really needed to know was how they had got in contact with “Harry”. Chances were he knew they’d been hauled in, and had changed his patterns, but it might give me something to go on. From the sound of it, he had been careful, but not quite careful enough. At first, he had met with them only through Benny, but after supply ran low and they couldn’t get in contact with him, he had designated a drop point for the boys, where they could leave a note saying where they’d be and when if they needed to meet him. They had successfully used this means of communication several times. This drop point was in the bathroom of a bar out towards Marina Del Rey. This was the first good sign in the case: if he was sloppy enough to suggest a place where the kids would attract attention like that, chances were it was a place he knew well and chose for convenience.

Well, I didn’t figure I was going to get any more information out of those kids, so I had Lt. Becker see me out. It wasn’t too far from there to the bar in question, so I walked. The night was damp and cold, but I didn’t mind so much. It was about midnight when I rolled into the bar, got my drink and sat down with it at a table in the back. I figured the first night I could just look and listen. Chances were that “Harry” wouldn’t use this place again, but I figured I might get a feel for how much traffic came through here, see what questions I might ask, and most importantly, see how much I might stand out if I showed up two nights in a row.

I sat there for a few hours, not touching my drink. This may have excited some curiosity among the relatively sober in attendance, but no one seemed interested enough to bother me. When four o clock rolled around, I figured I had sat there long enough and used the phone booth outside to call a cab. I hadn’t learned much, but I hadn’t expected to. The bar hadn’t seen too many people coming in and out. I guessed that it was primarily populated by “regulars”; so much the better.

When I came back the next night I could definitely tell there was some interest on the bartender’s part. From ten to eleven or so, I sat nursing my drink, or pretending to. I was thinking it was about time to get up and talk with the bartender, when I noticed a kid, maybe 16, walk in and get a real dirty look from the bartender. He muttered something like “use the restroom” and rushed by, obviously very nervous. Which was understandable in any case, but somehow I figured I had struck gold … maybe it was just luck, but I was surprised the cops hadn’t tried this already. A few minutes after the kid left, I trotted in there to search for the drop. It didn’t take too long. I noted the time and place and returned the note.

As I returned to the bar, I saw a similar dirty look directed at me from the bartender and figured I ought to at least make some attempt to throw him off the scent. So, I sat down, gave him my sickliest grin, and informed him that my employer, Tri-State Restaurant Furniture, would be very interested in replacing the contents of the room, and could offer him an unbeatable discount. His look got dirtier and dirtier and I figured he came close enough to buying the line that it didn’t matter. He told me to get out and I did a reasonable impression of a salesman trying to get a few words in while speedily exiting the premises.

The Fox and the Snake (part 1 of 5)

Posted in The Fox and the Snake with tags , , on March 14, 2008 by Ben

My name is Petrescu. People don’t call me if their kitten’s up a tree. I’m a private detective. I charge $15 a day, plus expenses. I get the job done, but don’t come by my office before twilight. That’s when I get out of bed.

My phone rang. Out of habit, I let it ring a couple extra times before bringing it to my ear. “This is Petrescu,” I said lazily into the receiver.

“Petrescu, this is Lt. Becker in Narcotics. I’ve got a little job for you,” began an oily voice on the other end of the line. “Maybe you haven’t heard, Becker. I don’t work for cops,” I spat back. He took it in stride, though — “Oh, I don’t know, there are compensations you might find in this job. I figure we want this guy bad enough that maybe we don’t look at the autopsy too careful when he come in. I don’t think we’d even notice, say for instance, if he was shriveled up like a raisin. Not a drop of blood in his body. You know, in a normal autopsy that might surprise us, but I have a feeling we wouldn’t be looking too careful this time, on account of how glad we’d be,” he tossed off, with irony dripping off the receiver. I must have got sloppy with that blackmailer, it’d been two years at least since I’d heard from the cops. “Smarter than you look, eh? Well, spill it, maybe I can do something for you in exchange for a little carelessness.”

“There’s been a lot of high-quality H running around this town lately. There’s not a lot we can do to stop the stuff coming over the border, but usually any operation on this side’ll get too big for its britches and make a mistake before long. Since, let’s see, we made that first bust in January? There’s this new operator working out around Santa Monica, we got a good bust on him, but we haven’t been able to trace any of it back to the source. No idea who he is, he’s slick enough that his operation runs without exposing himself too much. And just so you don’t think this guy’s a good neighbor, he’s been targeting the local high schools, getting his pushers to get the kids hooked, you know? And you do that enough and kids start dying, two that we know of in six months. We’ve tried going undercover and watching the schools, but somehow he’s doing it right under our noses and is smart enough to keep out of sight.”

“Alright,” I said. “Where do I come in?”

“Easy. Find out who this guy is, maybe how he’s getting it over the border, shut down his operation. Get us what we want and we’ll give you a free rein — off the record, of course. And if you run into any of his pushers along the way, it ain’t no problem for us.”

“Fair enough,” I murmured. “When can you come by with the case file?”

“I thought you’d never ask. I can be there in twenty minutes.”

I hung up the phone and leaned back in my chair. I didn’t like working for the cops on principle, and I certainly would prefer that they forget about my existence altogether, but there was something to be said for not needing to cover my tracks. And honestly, I couldn’t stomach another small fish like that blackmailer. At least this time I had a prey worth blotting out from the earth. It had taken me so long to feel half human again, that I didn’t relish the idea of throwing it away on another waste of time like that rat. The law of nature has the ascendancy, but I do what I can to serve two masters.

Out in the window the darkness was setting in, but I knew in a hour it would be light again, as the streetlamps polluted the sky, giving the decaying buildings an unhealthy, diseased pallor. I hadn’t seen the sun in so long, and though I knew what terror it held for me, I couldn’t help missing it. The light and warmth, that wholesome feeling. But this city and I are under the same curse. We come alive at night, and must do our evil work before sunrise.

I looked out and saw Becker’s car pull up in front of the building. In a few minutes he was at my door.

“Here’s everything we’ve got. Your best line is probably to start with these two kids, they might help you to find one of the pushers. They said they knew the pusher as Harry, but we haven’t turned up anything on him and we’re pretty sure it’s an alias he doesn’t use except with the kids. Medium height, medium build, sandy brown hair, scar on his hand, kind of mumbled. That’s the best description they could give us.”

Becker had aged a lot since I had seen him last. He couldn’t have been more than 35, but I definitely saw the beginnings of gray hair, for all his casual demeanor. I wondered how many gray hairs this case had given him.

“Mind if I smoke?” he asked as he lit up. I don’t think he really expected an answer and I didn’t give him one. I sat there for a few minutes, filling my head with as many details as would fit. “They’ve got those two kids down at Juvenile Hall, then?” I asked without looking up. “Yeah,” Becker replied as he brought down his cigarette. “Bobby Jenkins and Joseph Martinez. You sure didn’t want to be there when we put them through detox. Those poor kids. Of course, it’s sympathy for the devil, you know … they took the stuff and gave it to their friends … ” I nodded. Didn’t I know about that. It seems like there ain’t a single way of being hurt in this world that doesn’t turn out as a mirror in the end. From victim to villian there’s only the tiniest nudge. I asked Becker if it would be possible for me to see these kids tonight. He nodded.

“We can take my car down to the Hall right now if you want,” he said quietly, staring off into space. “Sure,” I said, and he gave his cigarette another big puff before starting out the door.

We Seek the Darkness (part 3 of 3)

Posted in We Seek the Darkness with tags , on March 12, 2008 by Ben

I think he saw me following him in, so I took a seat at the bar and ordered a scotch. There weren’t too many people in there, just the late crowd of sleepy drunks, and the bartenders waiting for them to pass out. I think I was a little obvious, but this was one fish I figured wouldn’t get away. The little rat looked just smart enough to type those letters and no smarter. When did I start with blackmailers anyway? When I was on the force, I would have never done a blackmailer. Toss ’em back. Too small. I was getting bored, but I figured he was too scared to sit there long without trying to give me the slip. I figured right. He headed for the bathroom, and I headed out the front door and back to the alley.

He didn’t see me as he climbed out, leaving that hat in the dumpster where it belonged. I followed him for a few more blocks through the dark, empty street. The grim, decaying apartment buildings cast opaque shadows in the odd twilight of smog and streelamps. He was huffing loudly now, but I didn’t have any trouble keeping up, just far enough behind him. After a good mile or two he panted up to a particularly bleak apartment building. With more than a few panicked, furtive looks, he uncovered a small ladder, which he used to gain the fire escape and pulled up after him. As I watched him scurry up the forbidding edifice I made sure to make a mental note of which window he entered.

I gave him a few minutes to get comfortable before I came up. It wasn’t too tough to get through the service door and up the stairs. I could feel every nerve in his body light up as I knocked on the door with a smile. He waited a few minutes, trying not to make a sound. Did he expect me to just leave? I knocked on the door again and this time I guess he figured he’d better deal with it before someone else woke up. With a good deal of clanking and sliding, the door opened with the chain latch in place. “Yes, can I help you?” he asked, his voice as ratty as his face, and his bald, veined head shining with sweat. He barely came up to my shoulders.

“I figure we have a business proposition to discuss, friend,” I said, with unmistakeable menace in my voice. He shook his head violently and said, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, please leave before I call the police.” I grinned at him. “Sure, call the police! Why not? Let’s talk to them. There’s a hat and handbag with your fingerprints all over them I could probably show them, and come to think of it, those prints might be on some letters back at my office … ” He looked stunned and in shock, and stammered out something like “don’t know what you’re talking about.” He cringed as I moved forward; he looked as if he expected me to burst the door in. I figured this was getting me nowhere, and I tried softening my tone a bit. “Listen … no one wants the cops involved, do we? My client is looking into making an investment. Renting silence is a pricey proposition over time … she thinks she might be more interested in buying. Why don’t you let me in, friend?” I could see greed, self-preservation and fear struggling within him. Finally, he shut the door and opened the latch. That was good enough for me.

“You’ve still got the money on you from the drop tonight? That’s right, I thought so.” I glanced around. He looked as if he very much regretted letting me in, and I could definitely see fear winning out. “You didn’t know what you were getting into, did you? You creeps never do.” Now his fear was definitely at the forefront. He staggered back a little bit, shuffling his feet, wide-eyed.

I looked at him with disgust. As the years have dragged on I’ve lowered my standards, but I never thought I’d sink to this. A blackmailer. I should just toss him back. But nature must take its course. He saw it in my eyes, this time, and he ran to the bathroom, locking the door. That couldn’t stop me now, though — I gave it a good hard knock and it swung open. He gasped, but the real shriek of fear was frozen on his lips when he saw the empty mirror …

***

The next night I sat at my desk. I had a feeling there just might be a bit more color in my cheeks now. I gave the dial a spin, and rang up my client. “You can rest easy. Your friend has left town,” I spoke with what might have almost been courtesy. I invited her to pick up the dough from her drop when she came to pay my bill. She seemed a little agitated as she asked, “But you say he’s left town? How can you be sure …” I chuckled a little as I told her, “Oh, he’s left town permanently.”

People come into the darkness for all kinds of reasons, none of them good. They lurk in the shadows, forgetting themselves in their greed. But there’s a reason that people are afraid of the dark. I’m that reason.

Till next time,

Nick Petrescu

We Seek the Darkness (part 2 of 3)

Posted in We Seek the Darkness with tags , on March 11, 2008 by Ben

The night is a deep, untameable ocean. The crooks and lowlifes of this town use it to get what they want. But every ocean contains its share of storms, and monsters …

Her name was Stockheath. Mrs. Archibald Stockheath of Beverly Hills. I laughed a bit at it all as I read through the letters. Once, just once, one of these guys is going to write an original blackmail note, and I’m going to die of shock. Metaphorically speaking. Mrs. Stockheath looked like the kind of dame who burned money. My guess was Archibald held the family doubloons, so she couldn’t afford to get caught with her hand in the cookie jar. The letter was full of prosaic phrases like “information of a sensitive nature” and “newspapers would be interested”.

There wasn’t much chance of catching him before the drop, but I made a few inquiries all the same. None of her servants had a record from what I could find out. Which probably made it some scumbag, acquaintance or otherwise, who put two and two together and decided to profit by the addition. One night that week I followed her to a posh apartment building in North Hollywood, and I hung around to see if our blackmailer might be hanging around, too. I didn’t expect it to work, and there were no deviations from the formula there.

Friday rolled around and I started my stakeout. It was a lonely corner of MacArthur Park, and she had left the handbag on a bench. I was sure he wouldn’t see me, so I waited. And waited. Around 2 or 3 am I started to get nervous … what if he didn’t show? I figured he wouldn’t want to risk it being picked up by a stranger, so he’d have to grab it before sunrise, but all the same … my throat was getting pretty dry …

And then, there he was. What a stupid hat. Panama hat. He took the bag, his fleshy, flabby arms grasping it nervously. He was in a hurry to leave, but I didn’t have much trouble following him on foot. He must have taken out the cash somewhere along the way, because when we ended up at a rotting nightclub a few blocks away, he ditched the purse in a dumpster out back, and then walked in through the front door. I followed him in.

We Seek the Darkness (part 1 of 3)

Posted in We Seek the Darkness with tags on March 11, 2008 by Ben

The police know me as Petrescu. There’s an office in West Los Angeles with my name on the door. If you want to find me, you roll in about the time the bars open and you bring cash. I charge $15 a day, plus expenses. It’s a rat of a job. I’m still not sure why I do it. There’s a part of me that says “give up” everytime another high-class heel walks in through that door. But that’s where I fall in the food chain, I guess. There are those in this city who will cheat, lie, murder, blackmail, whatever it takes to survive. They take and ruin lives to live, or live better. I’ve seen it a thousand times — greed, lust, desperation, it all ends the same way. These lowlifes prey on the evil and good in this city one and the same, and in my own way I prey on them, too.

I’ve seen her type a million times before. Trying to act tough. For all I know, she’s worse than the guy she’s going to pay me to protect her from. She’s just the one bringing me the cash. A firm, overconfident, belligerent knock on the door tells me she’s scared out of her wits, and just as scared that I’ll pick up on it. I’ve found that in these situations, a non-commital grunt works just as well as a doorman.

“You’re Mr. Petrescu?” she asked, her voice sweet and cruel like a screwdriver with too much vodka. Forgoing the pleasantries, I merely motioned to the hard wooden chair in front of my desk. Darkness can hide a lot, but I could see that she’d seen better years. Not old, not young, but she’d lived too hard and too fast not to see it. “Do you mind if I smoke?” she asked brusquely, her voice shaking a bit. That veneer of confidence was ready to crack. Again, just a nod was to her as eloquent discourse.

“I heard that you have a knack for finding people that don’t want to be found. I have a — problem,” she spoke huskily, drawing deeply from her cigarette between phrases. “Someone — someone unprincipled — claims to have discovered — it’s not true, of course,” she added in response to my widening smirk, but that only made it wider. Hadn’t I heard that one before. “But the publicity, you know. He’s demanded rather a lot of money — I’ve given him what I can,” she drew an extra long breath and coughed a bit, “but, well, obviously I don’t want this to get out, and, it’s just –”

“I get the picture. I charge $15 a day plus expenses,” I said in a slightly bored voice.

“I understand … I can provide you with the letters, if you need them,” she replied, letting her cigarette fall for the first time. I nodded and asked quietly, “And the drops? How do you get him the money?” She told me as she handed over a few typed letters, the same kind I had seen a hundred times before. “I leave the money in a — in a handbag. I buy a new one every time. I leave it on a bench, a different bench each time also, that he tells me, you can see in the letters.” I nodded and stifled a small yawn. The night was young, and I had just woken up. “One more thing … don’t tell me about it, I don’t want to know. Just tell me if you have anyone you suspect, or if there’s anyone who might know that you don’t suspect.” She swore up and down that she had no idea, and it wasn’t true, and etc. Unscrupulous. Being taken advantage of. I stifled another yawn. “All right, that should settle things, then. I see here you’ve got another drop this weekend; you got the greenbacks to make good? Don’t worry, you’ll get them back,” I snapped, in response to her sharp intake of breath. She did, and that was that.

I stood up to let her out and she gasped again. “Are you all right, Mr. Petrescu? You look — so — pale,” she staggered back a little, frightened. I must have looked at her wrong or something, because her veneer was gone for good now. She was terrified — of me, of the blackmailer, probably of herself. “Haven’t had dinner yet, must be it,” I said with another mirthless smirk. I showed her out.

Well, I’ll eat this week, at least.