Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
We left. It was after one and I had the beginning of an idea about finding Bette Davis.
“Where are we going?” asked Jeremy.
“You can head home, Jeremy. I’ll pick up my car and some money, get a few hours’ sleep, and see if I can do something without getting a friend beaten or a client’s wife kidnapped.”
We walked past the bleeding boy, a woman who lay on a stretcher in the hall while a sweating nurse pushed a pipe down her throat, and assorted victims with bangs and whimpers.
“You are blaming yourself too much, Toby,” Jeremy observed.
“Only because I lost her. I let her get taken three times in two days,” I said as we walked into the night and out of the smell of medicine. “I’ve got to get her back before I set a new record for losing a client in a single week.”
“I’d like to help,” he said as we looked for an all-night cab in front of the hospital.
“I’ve got something they want, Jeremy,” I said. “I think I can do some trading with them.”
“If you can find them,” he said.
“I think maybe they’ll be trying to find me,” I said. A Black and White cab pulled up. “But I’m not going to wait for them.”
The cab driver took a quick look at us and kept on going.
It was a nice night for a walk.
woke up from a few hours of guilty sleep. What woke me was Mrs. Plaut clattering into my room to announce, “Mr. Peelers, a man with his hair parted down the middle, claiming to be the police, has been looking for you, and Arthur Godfrey is on the phone.”
I had slept in my dirty boxer shorts and no shirt, a fact which did not seem to interest Mrs. Plaut, who looked over the room quickly to be sure I hadn’t painted nude murals on the walls during the night.
“Arthur Godfrey?” I grunted over my cracked tongue as I tried to sit up, fell backward, and almost hit my head on the edge of the small table on which sat Mrs. Plaut’s manuscript.
“Mr. Peelers, you look a fright, if you do not mind my saying,” she said, holding up a stick she produced from behind her back. “And you have not been sleeping in your bed for two nights. If you do not mind, I must remind you that I do not cater to transients.”
“When, Mrs. P.,” I answered, managing to sit up in great agony, “have you ever been the least concerned about what I minded?”
I had been certain she would not and could not hear my question, but, as so often happened in my nearly half-century of error, I was wrong.
“I was raised to politeness,” she said. “And cleanliness.”
With this she pointed the stick toward the corners of the room.
“Spontaneous combustion,” she said.
I pulled myself up, using the sofa arm.
“The corners are so dirty that they’ll suddenly break out in flame?” I grunted.
“Dirt. Dirt breeds dirt.”
“Spontaneous generation, I think that is.”
“Dirt breeds dirt,” she repeated with satisfaction, returning her stick to her side.
I considered my crumpled trousers, an agonizing arm’s length away. “Will you tell Arthur Godfrey I’m on my way? I’ll be there within a generation.”
“I’ve seen it happen,” she said, straightening her blue dress with white flowers. “Room locked tight. Even a bottle locked tight. Nothing in it, nothing alive. Just some dust. Bang.”
She thumped the stick down on the wooden floor, and I had to grab for the sofa arm to keep from falling.
“Bang,” I said through tight teeth, as I put on my pants and wondered how long Godfrey would wait.
“Bang,” she repeated, complete with thumping stick. “These little flying living things were in the bottle or wherever.”
I despaired of getting a shirt or shoes on.
“Generation,” I corrected.
“Life goes on.”
“It’s not true, Mrs. Plaut.”
“Life doesn’t go on? Are you an insane madman, Mr. Peelers?”
“No,” I said, taking a tentative, barefooted step toward her. “Spontaneous generation. Living things from not-living things. It can’t happen.”
She shook her head tolerantly.
“Have you seen
“Yes,” I said.
“I think I will have seen everything when I see an elephant fly. That was a joke. But I’ve been around enough to have seen everything, including spontaneous …”
“… generation,” I aided.
I was at the door now, inching past her. At the end of the landing a few hundred yards away I could see the telephone receiver dangling. She held her stick up in front of my face.
“Mop handle,” she said.
I inspected the stick and found it a reasonable conclusion.
“It is recalcitrant,” she said. “It does not yield to my attempts to reattach it to the mop head.”
From behind her back, in her other hand, there came the head of a mop. I took handle and head like a good soldier as she examined my face.
“You need a poultice,” she said.
The last poultice Mrs. Plaut had prepared and given me to apply to my body had been remarkably effective. It had also smelled like dead ancient underwater things, and the smell had clung lovingly to me for weeks. Pain and I were old neighbors I could live with, but the prospect of that smell, on the other hand, was not something I wanted to wear into the semicivilized land of Angeles.
Mrs. Plaut shook her head again, turned, and hurried across the landing and down the stairs.
“Peters,” I said, when I finally got to the phone.
“Where is she?”
It wasn’t Arthur Godfrey. It was Arthur Farnsworth.
“I don’t know,” I answered, looking for something besides the wall to lean on. The only thing within reach was the railing, which I didn’t trust.
“They called me,” he said. “A few hours ago. Bette wasn’t home. They said they would let her go if I gave them the plans to the bombsight I’m working on. Peters, they know what I’m working on. That’s top secret.”
“And?” I prompted when he hesitated.
“And,” he went on, after a deep sigh, “they want the record. They say you’ve got it. I give them the plans and the record and they let Bette go. Why the hell do they want the record if I give them the bombsight plans?”
“So you won’t tell anyone,” I said, leaning against the wall and discovering that deep breaths were not a good idea. “Makes perfect sense. They don’t want you telling your boss, the FBI, anyone, that you made the trade. The record keeps you in line. It must mean their buyer raised the price he’d pay.”
“I can’t give them the plans,” he said.
Mrs. Plaut’s bird, Dexter, went wild below. There was a rattling of cage, a fluttering of feather, the voice of Mrs. Plaut shouting, “Naughty, naughty.” This was followed by the bird, a yellow canary, zipping into view over the railing with a mad flutter of wings. Mrs. Plaut shouted, “Dexter, you are imperiling yourself.”
“I’ll get her back,” I called downstairs.
“How are they getting in touch with you and when?” I asked into the receiver, as Dexter kamikazied in my general direction and then veered off toward the bathroom. Mrs. Plaut ambled back upstairs.
“They’ll call at noon. That’s when they’ll tell me where to bring the record and the plans.”
As she passed me in pursuit of Dexter, Mrs. Plaut gave me a grim look and muttered, “He is sometimes a trial and a tribulation.” Then she padded down the hall in the direction of the frantic clapping of tiny wings in the bathroom.
“Agree to anything they ask,” I said. “I’ll call you at twelve-thirty.”
“I think it’s time for the FBI,” Farnsworth said. “My wife’s life …”
“Fine with me,” I said.
“The man on the phone told me what happened, what’s been going on,” Farnsworth said. “And if he’s even …”
“I messed up, Arthur,” I said. “I let your wife get kidnapped, not once, not twice, but three times. And it gets worse, Art. I got beaten so badly I can hardly move, and the police are looking for me.”
“I’m sorry, but under the circumstances …”
“Got you,” squealed Mrs. Plaut triumphantly, amidst bird screeches.
“I’m calling you at half past noon,” I said. “I’ll have the record. You do what you have to do.”
I hung up and watched Mrs. Plaut exit the upstairs bath, beaming, clasping Dexter gently in her hands. “When I was a child,” she said, moving past me and down the stairs, “we had goldfish in a bowl. Brother and father were allergic to feathers and fur.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“I’ll have the poultice up to you in six minutes,” she called.
“That won’t be—” I started, but Mrs. Plaut kicked her door and the sentence shut.
I made two more calls and then began the long treacherous journey back to my room. Half an hour later, neatly lathered in Mrs. Plaut’s pungent family poultice, I stepped into the morning sun and headed for my Crosley.
“Mind if I make an observation here?” asked the turnkey with the sagging gut and ham arms, as we walked through the windowless echo of the L.A. County lockup.
“Poultice,” I said.
“Poultice,” he repeated.
“The smell,” I explained. “Banged-up ribs. My landlady covered me with a poultice and bandaged me up.”
“How’s it feel?” he asked.
“Not great,” I said. “But it works.”
“No offense, but I wouldn’t go to the dump smelling like that.”
“How could anybody be offended by that observation?” I said.
Their names were Matthew Stevens and Robert Gray. Hans was Stevens. Fritz was Gray.
I found this out when the turnkey called each of them as we stood in front of their cell. There was another guy in the cell with them, a thin guy who needed a shave and coughed every fifteen or twenty seconds. The thin guy sat on the edge of a bunk and looked out at me and the turnkey with no interest in his eyes.
Lockups and prisons have their own odors. Lockups are worse. They smell like sweet old food or leftover griddle grease. I don’t know why, but they all have the one smell or the other. Even Mrs. Plaut’s poultice didn’t completely cover that aroma.
“Which one?” asked the turnkey.
Stevens and Gray looked at each other, reasonably puzzled.
“That one,” I said. “Stevens.”
It was a toss-up, but I took the blond. There was something that might have been mistaken for emotion on his face.
“Right,” said the turnkey, opening the cell door.
The coughing man on the cot said something no one could understand.
“What is this?” asked Stevens.
“Pal here with the perfume put up bail,” said the turnkey.
“What about me?” asked Gray.
“Answer a question,” I said, “and you walk with us to the plane waiting to fly your partner to Singapore. Where did Jeffers take her?”
“Take who?” asked the turnkey.
Gray shook his head slowly. “Not worth it,” he said.
Stevens watched Gray and added, “I’m staying in.”
“No one’s asking you, Trigger,” said the turnkey. “Man here wants to pay, you walk. County’s not giving out vacations. Now come on out or I call for help that’s not nice like yours truly.”
Stevens reluctantly stepped out and looked back at Gray.
“Why’re you looking at me like that?” asked Stevens. “This isn’t my damned idea.”
Gray turned away.
“Hey,” shouted Stevens, grabbing the bars. “I’m not asking for this.”
Gray snorted, his back turned. The coughing man coughed.
The turnkey pushed the door shut and nudged Stevens down the corridor.
“You’ll get nothing from me,” Stevens said.
“Can’t hurt to try,” I said.
“Yes, it can. You’re walking slow,” he said. “We can make you walk a lot slower.”
“No,” I said. “This’ll do just fine, Matt. Let’s go get a cup of coffee and talk about the good old days. I’ve got an offer that could make you rich.”
We drove to Levy’s on Spring. He could have jumped out at any stop. There was no way I could catch him, no way I could hold him if I did, but the suggestion of sudden wealth kept Stevens in his seat and quiet.
“How about here?” I said, parking in front of Levy’s.
Stevens said nothing.
“They’ve got a sixty-five-cent lunch till four in the afternoon,” I said.
We got out and went into Levy’s. It was a little after nine, late for the breakfast crowd, early for the lunch trade. Carmen the cashier wouldn’t be on duty for another hour and a half. I sat at a table with my back to the door, and Stevens sat across from me.
“What’ll it be?” said Rusty the dyspeptic waiter, his check pad at the ready. He twitched his nose as if he smelled something disagreeable, but kept it to himself. This man was a pro.
“Coffee,” I said. “You got Wheaties?”
“We got Wheaties,” he said.
“Wheaties,” I said. “Matt?”
“Coffee,” he said.
“That all?” Rusty asked, as if Stevens owed him at least the blue-plate special.
“That’s all,” Stevens said.
He walked toward the kitchen and I surveyed the empty tables. Someone had left a
on the table next to us. I reached for it. It hurt.
“Not hungry?” I asked, looking at the headline. The U.S. had opened two drives on the Nazis in Tunisia, and Churchill was in Turkey, and the Japanese were tasting minor victory in their drive on the Solomon Islands. It was a light news day.