Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 063 - Johnny Strike


Originally published in A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above (Rudos And Rubes Publishing, 2008)

All of my adult life, I’ve been getting the same line: “Dan Roscoe? Why, that sounds like a private eye.” Well, guess what, pal? I am a private eye.

I’m located in Miami, near the famous Coconut Grove, where I almost never venture, except for a stroll to the docks some nights when it’s too damn hot to sleep. Early one morning, I received a breathy call that made my mind wander. Topaz Tanning said she needed my help and wanted to come over right away.

“I can’t talk about it on the phone,” she said. I told her to stop by in an hour. As I was finishing a scotch neat, I heard a car pulling into the gravel driveway. I peeked out the blind to see a shapely blonde stepping out of a red Jaguar. She looked around. I was at the screen door when she arrived on my porch.

“Dan Roscoe?” she asked, behind red-tinted star-shaped sunglasses.

“That would be me. Please come in, Miss Tanning.”

She extended a perfectly manicured hand with a topaz ring I could’ve choked on.

“Have a seat,” I said, removing a newspaper and a plastic bag from the best chair in the room. She sat and crossed her legs––tan, shapely legs. She removed her sunglasses, revealing Barbie Doll eyes as blue as a Caribbean lagoon. I sat behind my old, steel desk and fiddled with a sharpened pencil.

“Alrighty, Ms. Tanning. What can I do for you?” I asked, poised to make some notes.

“Call me Topaz. And the first thing you can do is give me a good fuck.”

I snapped my pencil point and my jaw dropped. She laughed.

“That was just to break the ice,” she said. “I know the effect I have on men.” I nodded and picked up another pencil. She smiled. “I will have one of those,” she motioned toward the friendly, green bottle of J&B. I poured her one and another for myself.

After a sip, Topaz turned serious: “Mr. Roscoe, I think I’m in danger of being murdered. I broke off an affair a few months back with someone I believe is connected with organized crime. I think I’m being followed.” She tossed down her drink and I refilled her glass. “He said if I ever left him, he’d have me killed.” There was an audible choke in her voice at the end of that declarative sentence. She dug into her pocketbook and came up with a pack of Eve Lights. She lit one with a jeweled lighter and inhaled.

“Do you think you were followed here?”

“I don’t know.” She exhaled smoke out her pretty nose. “I don’t think so.”

“Have you been to the police?”

“Yes. They filed a report and stopped by a couple nights, but I got the feeling they were...well, just humoring me.”

“Have you considered moving?”

“Yes, but I figure he’d track me down.” She sipped scotch and crossed her legs again.

“Well, what makes you think he’s followed you? And that he’d actually go through with something a lot of unhinged, obsessed men might say after a steamy affair with the likes of you?”

I tried to pour her another drink but she covered the glass with her hand.

“Well, first, there’s the phone calls,” she said, “even though I’ve had my number changed. It’s always the same voice––a man with a lisp who says, ‘I’m still wathing you.’ Sometimes he laughs, and it’s a frightening laugh. I used to curse him, but now I hang up, pour a drink, and pop a couple pills. And then there’s the feeling.” Topaz gave me a funny look. “I can feel someone looking, maybe even filming or photographing me. And I’ve had awful dreams about someone with a huge knife.”

“Are you still in touch with Mister...?”

“Hoffman, Marty Hoffman. No, not at all. After I broke it off, he called and left a ton of messages––begging, pathetic messages and arrogant, hostile ones. Then he’d call and hang up. Finally, he left one last message with a lot of fuck yous. He’s too smart to say he’d kill me on a phone machine.” Topaz scrunched out her cigarette in my Little Havana ashtray. “Besides your usual fees, I’ll give you a bonus to stop him.”

I got out my standard contract. She fished around in her bag for her checkbook. I told her to go back to her place in South Beach and stay put, and that I’d see her again that afternoon.

As she left, I eyed her again through the blinds. This time, she didn’t look around: she just climbed into her car, and started the engine. As Topaz pulled away, I spotted the neighborhood brat crossing the lot with a small bow and a quiver of arrows on his back. The other day, I’d seen him throwing rocks at a couple of the feral cats until his father dragged him away. As the red Jaguar disappeared, I watched the kid walk back behind a vacant building. I finished my drink, locked the door, and headed out.

At the vacant building, I peered around the corner. The kid was eyeing a cat asleep in the sun, and reaching back for an arrow. I picked up a nice throwing rock, did my old college wind-up, and aimed at the kid’s side as if it were a strike zone.

“Oof, owwww!” he yelled when the rock struck. The cat shot out of sight. The kid doubled over and dropped his bow. He sat on the ground holding his side, looking like he was going to cry or scream. He did a little of both.

I stepped back out of sight and yelled, “Leave the fucking cats alone!” Then I walked off down the street with the morning crowd, heading for my car, which was getting an oil change nearby.

Marty Hoffman owned and managed La Felecia, an old-style Italian restaurant on Collins Avenue. It wasn’t open yet, so I bought a Miami Herald and stopped at a bar across the street. I ordered a beer. I browsed a piece about a young mother who had drowned her kids and then had gone dancing at a disco. I had finished my second beer when I saw the doors of the restaurant swing open. A huge man wearing a black suit and a white apron stepped out, blinking in the sunlight. He lit a cigarette. The guy looked like an ex-boxer with a face even a mother might be reluctant to love. I crossed the street and approached the lug, who gave me a glare, then a half smile when I asked him what the specials were for the day.

“Everything is special,” he said, flicking a half-smoked butt into the street, just missing a skinny guy with blue hair and a silver helmet, who zipped by on roller blades.

“Do you like fish?” he asked.

“Well, sure, as long as it’s not gagging on mercury.”

He didn’t like my answer and gave me a dark look. “We only serve fresh fish,” he stated. “We have a very nice sea bass today, sautéed in oil and garlic, and it’s served with polenta or pasta and fresh asparagus.”

“Well, that does sound good,” I said. “But it’s still a little early for me. Listen, Marty wouldn’t be around, would he?” Something funny happened with the guy’s eyes: they went all steely, and then he looked at me closer.

“Who you with?” he asked in an intimidating manner.

“I’m with nobody. I’m a private investigator and would like to talk with Marty about a personal matter.” The giant thought about that for a moment and then invited me in. The interior was like a Godfather set and empty except for an old-timer behind the bar slicing limes. The waiter motioned toward a chair and I took it. He was back in few minutes with a lopsided smile I didn’t particularly care for.

“Follow me,” he said. We went into a back area past coat racks, some public phones, restrooms, and finally to a black metal door. The giant nodded toward the door and headed off in the direction of the john. I knocked and a voice said to come in. Behind a desk similar to my own sat a handsome, middle-aged man who stood and offered a hand and a smile.

“Marty Hoffman. What can I do for you?” He gestured toward a chair. We sat and I told him who I was and who my client was.

“Alright,” he said. “What’s the problem?”

I laid out the scenario. Marty listened and his expression went from curiosity to concern. When I was finished, he lit a cigarette. The barkeep came in and served us each a mug of beer.

“First, I have no mob connections,” Marty said after drinking off half of his brew. “Oh, I casually know a couple of wiseguys who dine here on occasion, but they don’t even give me tips on the dog races. I probably bragged to Topaz about knowing those guys. Yeah, I was upset when she broke it off. But, once I had some time on my own, I decided it was for the best. She’s a knockout, as you know. But there’s other baggage, that, uh, I won’t go into ’cos it’s personal. But, anyway, I decided that it’d been fun but definitely wasn’t meant for the long term.”

“The caller says ‘I’m wathing you,’” I repeated.

“I don’t know anyone with a speech impediment. Don’t have a clue who that could be.”

I finished my beer, wound up my talk with Marty, and gave him my card. On the way out, Vic Damone was singing “You Were Only Fooling.” The waiter was nowhere in sight––probably still on the crapper. The bartender was having a little nip.

Earlier I’d called a friend with the South Beach Police: Robert O’Connell in Criminal Investigations. I drove over to the main station on Washington Avenue and found a parking space after driving around for ten minutes. At the front entrance, a gang of motorcycle cops wearing short sleeves and shades sat on their bikes, talking.

Inside, the desk sergeant, a sullen, square-jawed guy with a band-aid on his neck, told me to have a seat while he called Detective O’Connell. A few moments later, O’Connell came out and gestured for me to follow him to his office. O’Connell was near my age, around thirty, with red hair, green eyes, and wearing a tie covered with happy faces that probably had been a gift. I told him about the case and my visit with Marty Hoffman, while he felt a spot on his chin that he’d missed shaving. He did some keyboarding on a laptop, stopped, opened a drawer, and produced a bottle of Early Times. O’Connell poured us each a belt into a couple of cloudy glasses.

“No mob. No nothing,” he said. “Hoffman is clean.” He punched some more keys, then studied the screen some more. “No record of domestic violence. Not even a friggin’ parking ticket. No, wait––there is something...minor altercation in front of a queer bar. Guy whistled at Hoffman. He gave the guy a black eye. No charges. Settled out of court. But, yeah, I do remember Topaz Tanning. Who wouldn’t? We watched her place for a while but there was no activity. Whattya think, Dan?”

“Oh, maybe she’s got some sorry stalker who harasses her and then backs off. She’s a woman to try even a sane man’s disposition.”

“Yeah, one of those honeys who just oozes the stuff, eh?” O’Connell winked, looked at his bourbon, and finished it. I finished mine, too.

“Well, thanks for checking. And for the drink.”

“No problemo, Dan. Anytime. And if you nail this nut, call us quick.”

Now I was hungry, but not in the mood for oily sea bass with a giant leering at me. There was a Cuban restaurant I liked, not far from the beach. I headed in that direction.

After lunch, I tried to finish up the paper but it was a hard read: “Grisly find in suburban Florida home...mummified bodies of a woman, son, dog...” I tossed it aside, punched in Topaz’s number on my cell, and she picked up right away. I told her I’d be over within a half-hour.

Topaz Tanning’s house wasn’t far––a left turn on 20th, inland almost to Dade Boulevard. I pulled into the driveway and looked down a declining, grassy hillside that ended at a pool glistening in the midday heat. The house was French Colonial style. I could see part of a garage in the back.

An S-shaped walkway of rose-colored flagstone led to the front door. I pressed the doorbell button; I didn’t hear it ring, but a few moments later, the door swung open to a tall, bald guy with beady eyes and a thin mouth. He was wearing a butler’s uniform, of sorts: a dark jacket––too small––and a yellow tie. His slacks were black-and-white checked chef pants––also a bad fit. In his mismatched outfit, he reminded me of a vaudeville comedian, but with an aura of brutishness. I introduced myself.

“Madame will see you in the sun room, Mr. Roscoe,” he said in a surprisingly pleasant voice, making a sweep with his arm. “Straight ahead, sir.”

I found “Madame” lounging with her shoes off on a velvet couch having a cocktail. On a tray before her were glasses, olives, toothpicks, and a tall shaker of martinis. She said hello and motioned for me to help myself. I did and took in the opulent room that looked out onto a patio filled with flowers.

“Who’s your butler?” I asked, and tried to pour her another.

“Ivan is more than my butler,” she said, covering her glass. “He does...well, a lot.”

“He looks like he could offer protection as well.”

“Yes, but he’s not that bright, and I have him busy all the time, anyway. But, yes, his presence gives me some comfort.”

I told Topaz about my conversations with Marty and Detective O’Connell, and my conclusion that she was probably dealing with a stalker who might be dangerous––not just annoying. Topaz chewed on a gin-soaked olive and thought about it. She asked if I would stay in the guesthouse above the garage for a few nights. I said sure, but that I’d have to go back to Coco for a few things.

At my apartment, I threw a bag together and loaded a few other items into the car. As I was finishing up, Ralph, a nosy old geezer from next door, came over with something on his mind.
“Hey, did ya hear about the kid?”

“What kid?”

“Ya know, the little shit that runs around here throwing rocks? Dicky Coleman? Dirty Dicky?”

“What about him?”

“Oh, he got some of his own medicine, I reckon. Somebody hit him with a rock and it caused some internal bleeding or something and they rushed him over to Mercy.”

“Well, that’s a shame,” I said, wanting to get on my way.

“Going on a little trip?” Ralph asked.

“A very little trip. Just a few days in SoBe on a case. Well, gotta go, Ralph.”

I punched in the number for Mercy Hospital on my cell. I gave the switchboard operator the brat’s name and, after a couple of clicks and beeps, I got a ring and a little boy’s voice answered: “Hello?"

“Leave the fucking cats alone.” I said.

There was dead silence, then he screamed, “Mommy!” I guess she was there in the room. I hung up. Back on the causeway, the lights of Miami’s skyline twinkled in the sultry evening. I sipped from my flask and laughed.

The guesthouse above the garage was splendid. I stretched out on the king-size bed and flipped channels on the large-screen TV. Topaz would phone if anything unusual happened or if she got another call from the creep. I had a nightcap, turned in early, and left my cellphone on a stand next to the bed.

In the morning, there were a couple knocks at the door. I looked out to see Ivan bearing a breakfast tray and a single white rose in a little cut-glass vase. I let him in and he set the table, handed me a linen napkin, and let himself out. I covered the waffles and fruit medley with the napkin. I dumped the glass of water into the sink but saved the ice cubes and poured some scotch over them. I called Topaz and told her I was going to take a look around the neighborhood. She wanted to know if I’d be back by ten, since she planned to sunbathe and swim. I said I’d be back by ten; I knew I didn’t want to miss that.

On my walk around the neighborhood, I found the usual: art galleries, boutiques, a vintage clothing store, a bakery, a gas station. I also spotted a spooky Haitian restaurant.

Coming down the street toward me were three adult men with Down syndrome being minded by a middle-aged Hispanic woman and a flashy, young Hispanic man with a camera around his neck. The male caretaker looked out of place with his headband, baggy rapper clothing, gold chains and mustache. The Down syndrome trio was led by a Caucasian male with gray hair who kept closing his eyes and rubbing them. Behind him was a Negro who stared gloomily at the ground. The third was another male Cauc, short, with an expression as though he were witnessing a mind-boggling scene wherever he looked. He’d occasionally wander off from the pack and the male caretaker would steer him back and say something to him. As they passed near me, heading toward the bakery, the little guy wandered off again. The minder herded him back and warned: “Stay put, Billy. I’m wathing you.”


The caretakers and their three charges finally came out of the bakery and walked back in the direction they’d come from. I followed them and, after a few blocks, they headed into a white stucco house surrounded by a yard that needed mowing a month ago. A plaque on the front door read: ASA, Advocates of Special Adults; it listed a phone number and the director’s name. I wrote it all down.

At 9:30 A.M., I called Topaz and told her I was onto something and would be back as soon as I could. In the meantime, I asked her to write down the names of all the organizations that she’d made donations to in the last two years. She started to complain, but finally agreed. I heard her calling for Ivan as she hung up the phone. When I got back to her place, I took the list Topaz handed me and checked it, sitting at her small writing desk. Sure enough, there was ASA, twice.

“Well?” she asked, standing above me in a red bikini.

“I’m still working on it,” I said. “Go back to the pool and enjoy yourself. I’ll be close by.”

I set up a chair in the shade alongside the guesthouse and opened a long leather case I’d brought with me. I was hidden from sight yet still had a good view of her stretched out on a lounger. I was just about to put a call in to the director of ASA when I saw the Hispanic minder coming down the hillside. He was bare-chested, and snapping pictures of Topaz as he approached. I stood and took aim with my tranquilizer rifle—waiting as he drew closer. But he stopped and, from a hidden sheath in back of him, produced a machete. I fired and hit him smack in the chest. He yelled, fell to his knees, and collapsed. Topaz sat up and screamed. I made my way to her, still with my rifle, like some suburban Great White Hunter. After calming her down, and calling O’Connell, I told her the story.

A police van soon arrived and they hauled off the assailant, who was just then coming around, mumbling in Spanish. O’Connell checked off a few items on a clipboard, wrote down my PI number, then winked and nudged me before he left. Topaz was feeling better after finishing off my flask. She sent a nervous-looking Ivan off to buy a case of Bombay Sapphire gin.

Now we’ll do some serious drinking, I was thinking. And...

“Now, Danny boy,” Topaz purred, placing a hand on my arm. “About that bonus.”

That night was an orgy of drinking and delightful perversion. When I woke up in the wee hours, I found Topaz in a deep sleep. I heard something outside and went to the window. There below, in a semi-secluded area, was a sight that I couldn’t believe: on the exercise mat was Ivan the butler riding Marty Hoffman. Marty’s teeth were bared and Ivan’s expression shifted between maniacal and moronic. They moved off behind some bushes and I went back to bed.

BIO: Johnny Strike is the author of Ports of Hell, and A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above and the founding member of the legendary San Francisco punk band, Crime.


Chris O'Grady said...

I sure as apples can't compete with that story, although parts of my just-published hard-boiled private eye mystery novel THE FOREVER GIRL do give it the old reform school try. It's set in Las Vegas and is about Jim Brandon's unlucky involvement with a badly beaten man he comes across in the sage flats east of The Strip one night, who recovers, disappears, and starts a one-man guerrilla war against the new hotel/casino, Florian's. So many hard cases think Brandon is hooked up with the guy that Jim has to re-up in the private dick racket just to survive.

Joe King said...

I love the line:

I stepped back out of sight and yelled, "Leave the fucking cats alone!"

And, it happens again later in the story, via telephone:

"Leave the fucking cats alone!"

So nice to have the oral tradition throw its weight around in the written tradition, once in awhile.

Make that twice in awhile, in this story.