PHIL’S FRIEND - JOSHUA L. SWAINSTON
Phil passed away last winter from a cheeseburger and since then the office hasn’t been the same. Shit, it took me three months just to open the front door. You work with someone as long as Phil and I had and it’s bound to happen. I think they call it a “bromance” or maybe a professional thing, I’m not sure. The front door reads PRIVATE EYES and under it Phil’s name is stenciled just above mine. Do I keep it up as a memorial? I’ve been debating it for months now. At first it didn’t seem right taking it down. Then it didn’t seem right leaving it up. But it’s kinda nice to see that some things don’t change.
I was there when it happened, over at Patty’s on 8th. It was lunch, maybe closer to two. When I was in the service, a lifetime ago, I had to go through a first aid class. They teach you how to put pressure on cuts and help treat shock victims. The class didn’t prepare me for what happened. I hadn’t seen anything like it before. I thought people fought when they choked on something. Like they made noise and went blue first. Phil took one bite of the burger and fell over. The ambulance came and went. Then Phil was gone.
I wish his mail would stop coming. Stacks of the shit come every day: Reader Digest promos, Field and Stream, credit card applications. It doesn’t stop. I asked Betty, she’s the gal that delivers the post, and she said she’d put in a stop request. No luck. Still getting piles of the stuff. Some weeks I’m taking out the trash bin just for his mail.
I was working late three nights ago. That is to say I’d been working on a cheating husband case. All those cases involve late nights. My Canon ate a whole roll of Kodachrome and I had to clean out the gunk before going back to the apartment where this guy was doing his wife’s baby sister. Anyway, I was at the office and this letter popped in through the mail slot. It was about eleven at night. I knew Betty hadn’t dropped it off. By the time the letter registered and I got to the door, the hallway was deserted.
The letter was addressed to Phil. The handwriting on the envelope was this sweet bubbly crap that could only have come from a young woman. The flowing arches of the “P” and “H” in Phil’s name carried whimsy. There wasn’t any return address. I tossed it into the bin and continued working on the camera. I had to get over to catch the cheating husband so I could wrap up this deal and collect the check. The camera got working again, but before I ran out the door to snap the incriminating shots, something stopped me. I can’t say it was a power greater than myself because, shit, when did anything spiritual help me? But I stayed. The cheating husband would have to wait. That letter was bugging me.
When you’re in the private dick game you get used to strange messages dropped on you. Anonymous calls, clandestine meetings, and random letters showing up in the middle of the night. Sometimes evidence that no one wants to admit they have. Other times it’s from people who want to hire you, but don’t know if it’s the right thing to do. Most of the time it’s lonely people who think the government is tracking them through robots in their teeth. You learn to ignore it. But this letter dug into me. If it was from a personal friend or someone related to Phil, then they would have known he was dead. If it was from a client, then why didn’t they just leave the envelope blank or just put the obligatory “to private eye”? No, Phil’s name was written out, along with the office address. The damn thing even had a stamp on it. Someone wanted this letter read, and now. I had to give it a look.
I took the little blade of my Swiss Army Knife and surgically slit the top of the envelope. Inside rested a pink lined sheet of paper. The note said something about a missing person. Cousin lost. Came all the way from Kansas. Tried to make it in the big city. I could almost hear her Mid-western accent in the gate of her penmanship. I’ve read this one before. Shit, I have a whole filing cabinet full of this exact letter. The part that made the case jump, made it interesting or, should I say, made it irresistible was this: “I know you are not Phil.”
If she knew Phil wouldn’t be getting the letter then why didn’t she address it to me? My name is scrawled on the door too. The ad is still listed in the phone book with both names. It’s not like I’m invisible. How did she know Phil wouldn’t be getting the letter?
At the end of the pink note there was an address. I knew it well. The Riverside Motel, a dive made famous for being cut-rate with little police involvement. I’d say an honest third of the missing person cases, and most of the surveillance gigs, have some run-in there. Definitely not the sort of place for a girl with bubbly handwriting.
Riverside Motel reeked of desperation and chaos this time of night so I wanted to put it off until morning. But the note, the entire idea of it, wasn’t going to let me go until I checked it out. So I hopped into the Chevy and cruised down towards the docks. The summer’s night air helped clear my head before I got there.
When I rolled up, the motel was all lit up like Christmas for the unwashed. A neon sign showcased local cheap beer. A woman in a red mini skirt asked, “Baby, wanna go around the world?” I wasn’t sure if that was a reference to drugs or sex.
The room number specified in the note led me to a door on the second floor. From the peep hole I could see that the light was on inside. I knocked. Shuffling sounds on the other side of the door. The peep hole went dark. A gruff male voice coughed, “What the fuck you want asshole?”
This was not the voice of a person with bubbly handwriting. I didn’t answer. Bust, I guess. If she’d been at the joint earlier, then she wasn’t there now. It happens. I had played a long shot, or a random shot, or a shot in the dark. Whatever, it hadn’t paid off.
I got into the Chevy and drove. It wasn’t hard to convince myself to get out of the shithole as fast as I could. Not too late yet, so I headed back to the office to snag my camera. Might still be able to get a few scathing photos of the cheating couple.
When I returned to the office I got that crimp in the back of my neck that tells me something’s fishy. It’s like when old guys can tell you if it’s going to rain by their bum knee.
From the sight of the office door I could tell this was going to be a very long night. The door frame had been manhandled by a crowbar. Funny, I was pretty sure I hadn’t locked up when I left.
She was thirty, maybe younger. I had never been good at telling ages. She dressed in an expensive get up. A long black evening gown like Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A black trench coat draped around her shoulders flowed around her like a cape as she searched my office. She rooted through a section of files that I hadn’t thought about since Phil died. Just old cases. Nothing special. Well maybe not special to me, but special enough to stage a ruse and break in to an unlocked office. There was a methodical quality about the whole thing that made me want to observe the specimen rather than barge in right away. I stood in the doorway and watched. She was so intent on what she was looking for she didn’t see me.
“What you looking for? I could help and make it loads easier on both of us.”
She stopped. “Oh, I didn’t expect you back so soon.”
“Well, that’s the thing about a red herring. When they don’t pan out there isn’t much to keep it going.”
“You’re going to call the cops, I guess.” I could tell she was eyeing the door.
“Not yet. Why don’t you tell me what you’re looking for first?”
She let out a big sigh. Her eyes fell to the floor. I could tell whatever she was going to say it was going to be a lie. “It’s a paternity case. Phil helped me out a few years a back. I need the medical records that prove all of it.”
“Did the case get wrapped up? You should have any information my partner found for you.”
“I had it, but I lost it.” She started to scratch under her left ear. The nervous tick reminded me of late night televised poker players. They call it a “tell”, I think.
“Let me see what I can do for you. When was the case?” She knew something more than she let on.
“April, three years ago.”
I started over to the file cabinet and was immediately shocked that she didn’t rocket out of the room. “April. Well there’s your problem. You’ve been looking in November.”
“Did I say April? I must have meant November.” She scratched her ear again.
I pulled the entire month of November of that year and set it on the desk. A six-inch stack of paper and manila file folders. Taking a seat at my desk, I started from the beginning. She stood on the other side leaning over me.
As I worked, I made small talk. “What’d you say your name was again?”
“I didn’t. You can call me Ashley.”
“That was a pretty good trick writing that fake note.”
“I wasn’t sure that it’d get your attention.”
“It did.” I flipped through the files one by one. Missing persons. Insurance fraud. Infidelity. The occasional high-end theft. A lot of pictures of a lot of people doing unscrupulous things. “You know, the door wasn’t locked.”
“It wasn’t? Oh that’s all right. I always wanted to bust into a place. Haven’t had many opportunities. It always looks fun in the movies.”
“Sure does.” I smiled at her. She was different from the regular chicks that come around here. It was refreshing. “But now I gotta get a guy down here tomorrow. So, why the fancy get up?”
“Passersby don’t question a woman in an evening gown. If I wore a ski mask while prying open your door, then someone might get suspicious. A dress like this, no one cares what I’m doing. It makes it look legitimate.”
“What was that?” She pointed at an eight-by-ten still of Phil scoping out a torn up hotel room.
“I know that. What’s the picture for?”
I scanned the rest of the papers in the file. “It’s from a case where a stripper tossed a room after a drug binge and split on the tab. Looks like we went after the room fees for the owners. No evidence per se. Just a fake credit card. A few descriptions from the other guests. Standard stuff.”
“Did you ever get a look at the girl?” She scratched her ear again.
“The stripper? Not that I remember.”
Ashley’s back and neck went ridged. She took a step back. Out of her matching handbag she pulled a Luger P08. Don’t ask how I know that. Even though I was in the service, I can only pick out maybe three handguns by sight. This just happened to be one of them. She didn’t hold the gun limp wristed like an amateur. No, she held the weapon firm and straight. She had it trained on my center mass.
“What’s that for?”
“This is nothing.”
“Looks like a gun.”
“You’re smart. Why don’t you figure the rest out?”
I leaned back in my desk chair. “You could be the stripper in question. But with those clothes, I wouldn’t bet on it.”
“Yeah. Girls that trash up hotel rooms on a drug binge usually don’t wear cocktail dresses or carry German handguns. But then again, women dressed like you are capable of some strange things.”
“You’re right. I’m not the stripper.”
“I figure you were sent by someone. Maybe someone connected.”
“Right. You know I’m not going to like killing you.”
“So what’s the story? I’ve been a good boy. I’ve played along. Give me the run down.”
“Hired by a prominent family. They want to clean up all the records of their daughter’s earlier, let’s call them, mishaps.” She flashed a smile. “Just tying up loose ends.”
“Is daddy running for president or something?”
“Something like that.”
It was three o’clock. I could hear the bells from St. Anthony’s on “I” street. “The next move?”
“I take the file. Probably burn it.”
“But there isn’t any evidence. The file has nothing.”
“It has eyewitness accounts. It has pictures. That’s enough for my client to be concerned.”
“I’m still not getting all this. Why all the trouble? The deception? The old file?”
“I was hoping my little trick would throw you off for a while but you came back before I could get what I needed. Everything else is simple really. See, we all have a job to do. I’m just a hired hand like you.”
“Huh. You’re not going to let me just hand you the file, are you? There isn’t any way you’re not going to shoot me?”
“No. Having told you all this, you’re now a loose end.”
“That blows. I thought you were kinda cute.”
“Thanks.” And with that gesture of gratitude the lying bitch shot me, the bullet smashing into my right shoulder.
I faded in and out for a long while. I might have pissed myself or it might have been blood running down the front of my slacks. Either way it was wet where it shouldn’t have been.
The sun came up and the room took on the hum of natural morning light. At some point I was shaken awake and I remember seeing Betty hovering above me in her blue postwoman’s get up. She looked like an angel. That’s how I knew I was still kicking. I’m pretty sure after I die, if there is an afterlife for me, it’s going to be some place without angels.
I’ve been sitting in the hospital since then. One of the nurses tells me I’m at Harbor View. The whole time I lay here in the bed with tubes hanging out of me, I’m thinking that Ashley could have killed me if she wanted. I guess I should be thankful.
There might be more to the story. I can’t be too sure. I’ve lost a lot of blood.
BIO: Half the year Joshua lives in Tacoma, Washington, with his wonderful wife and child. The other half of the year he works on tug boats in Alaska. Frequently he writes for the Weekly Volcano, Tacoma’s local arts paper, as a features writer. His fiction work can be seen in the spring 2012 edition of The First Line. For fun he also posts a monthly blog Purge.