Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
“Hey, I told him I was deaf and dumb,” Niles said, wiping his face with the handkerchief in his right hand and holding out his left in the hope that the gesture would keep me from advancing.
“You told him?”
“I’m safe,” he whimpered. “I’m zipped tight.”
“Have a cookie,” I said, holding out the bag. “I recommend the Shirley Temples.”
Grover Niles didn’t want a cookie.
“The old lady downstairs has great ears,” he said, his back against the wall as I put my hand into the cookie bag. “She’ll hear.”
“She’ll hear me give you a cookie?”
“You’re toyin’ with me.” He almost wept. “Christ, don’t toy with me. You’re gonna shoot me, stab me, something.”
“Who you afraid of, Grover?” I asked, pulling out a Shirley Temple and a W. C. Fields and holding them out to him. “Take ’em.”
He took a cookie.
“I’m not supposed to eat sweets,” he said, putting the Fields to his mouth without looking at it. “Doctor says I’m a borderline diabetic, you know. This isn’t, you know, I mean these aren’t my last cookies? They’re not … you didn’t put something in ’em?”
“Rose-Rose Shale,” I said. “Remember?”
He dropped his cookie.
“Thirty-eight. You stiffed her for seventy-five bucks. I came for it. I don’t know what happened to Rose-Rose, but I know what happened to you. You turned into a lump of cranberry sauce.”
“You … you’re the shamus,” he said with sudden relief, moving to the receptionist’s chair and plopping down.
“You remember Rose-Rose?” I asked.
“Remember her? I married her,” said Grover Niles, letting out a deep breath of air. “Two great months. Then she left me. Only time I ever married, if you don’t count Yolanda.”
“Let’s not count Yolanda. Let’s talk business. A little after you met your future bride you bought a record from a man named Pinketts for ten thousand dollars.”
“I knew it,” screamed Niles, leaping to his feet. “Wiklund.”
“Who’s Wiklund? The guy you sold the record to?”
“I don’t know about any records. I don’t remember any records. Wiklund is an actor—lousy, two bit. Name just popped out. You know the way it is. I’ve been under a lot of strain since the war.”
“You paid ten thousand for the record. Bette Davis, Howard Hughes, and Ham Nelson in ‘Goodnight, Ladies.’ Grover, don’t tell me you forgot a ten-thousand-dollar deal.”
“My memory is bad,” he said, looking at the door behind me. “It’s the diabetes. I’m a sick man. I’ve never been a ten-thousand-dollar dealer.”
“Then you fronted for someone,” I tried. “I’ve got a guess. It’s wild and if I get it wrong, I want two more chances. Was his name Wiklund?”
Grover Niles lurched as if he had been given a jolt of electricity.
“Oh, Jesus,” he groaned, wiping his forehead and neck. “Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”
“No, I don’t think his name was Jesus. Let me make another guess. Pinketts told you I worked on that job bugging Bette Davis and Howard Hughes. You told Wiklund. And just before I came through that door, somebody, Pinketts maybe, called you and told you to get out.”
“No,” said Niles, fanning his arms in front of him. “No. No.”
“Maybe you should have stuck to bird whistlers, dialect comics, and accordion players, Grover,” I said. “You don’t lie well enough for this business.”
“I used to,” he said, shaking his head. “I used to lie with the best of ’em, the very best. Maybe we can make a deal here. Your brother’s the cop, what’s his name?…”
“Phil Pevsner, the Wilshire. How do you know?”
“How do I … I stay alive knowing things like that. Let’s deal here. You get me to your brother. I talk to him, tell him. Then you give me enough to get on a train for Cincy or even a bus to Reno. I got friends … well, maybe not friends, but people I know in Cincy, Reno.”
“Let’s just talk a while here,” I said.
“Let’s just talk someplace else,” he said, coming around the desk and trying to get past me. I grabbed his arm. I may have been musty from the rain, but Grover was wet with sweat and definitely ripe.
“We got to get out of here. First, Pinketts tells me to stay here, that he’ll be right over with a deal. Then you show up. You tell me he sent you. I figure he sold me out to you. He could sell me out to them.”
“The guys I middled for on the record.”
“Yeah. Jesus. I thought this was old history and now it’s back. What’s going on? Wait, who cares? These guys are not good guys, Peters. Let’s get the hell out of here. Pinketts is setting us both up.”
Niles tried to pull away.
“You’ve got an active imagination.”
“I’ve got no goddamn imagination at all,” he bleated. “That’s why I’m broke and tryin’ to mooch a bus ticket to Cincy or Reno. Humor me.”
“Okay,” I said, letting him go. “Let’s find someplace else to talk.”
He hurried past me and opened the door. I tucked the cookie bag in the pocket of my zip-up and followed him.
The first shot came when he stepped onto the landing outside the door. The second shot came when I stepped back from the door and watched Grover Niles turn toward me as his knees gave way. His handkerchief was in his hand and he was reaching up to mop his brow.
The second shot took him somewhere on the right side. He spun toward it and disappeared down the stairwell. I heard his body clumping.
There was no point in wishing I had taken my .38 out of the glove compartment. There had been no reason to think I might need it. It hadn’t done me much good the few times I had called on it in the past. In the best of situations I was a lousy shot, but a few bullets fired in a situation like this might make a killer pause instead of rushing up a stairway like Dillinger.
I listened, back against the wall. He didn’t rush up the stairs.
He would probably just turn around and run. No self- respecting killer would jump over a victim and go up a flight of stairs to a possible dead end when a beat cop who heard some shots might be right behind him.
I was wrong. This was a highly motivated killer who didn’t want to leave any witnesses. I could hear his footsteps coming up the stairs: steady, light, and even. I grabbed the biggest framed photograph on the wall, Claudette Colbert. She was smiling sweetly and looking over her right shoulder.
The footsteps were almost at the top of the stairs. The door was open slightly. I stuck my left foot out, eased the door open with it, and stepped onto the landing, swinging Claudette with two hands. If he was a step too low I’d hit air and take a bullet.
The picture hit him dead solid on the side of his head. He got off one shot that went up somewhere as he tumbled backward. I started after him and watched him lose his gun and sprawl over the body of Grover Niles, who hadn’t quite made it to the bottom.
He came up with a bloody face and a dazed look. The gun was on a step midway between us. The difference was he’d have to scramble over the late Grover Niles to get to it first. I didn’t get a good look at him, but it was enough. I was sure I’d recognize him again if I saw him, especially if I saw him in the next few weeks before his face healed.
I went for the gun and he went for the door.
When I came up with the gun and took ten steps down, a figure appeared in the doorway below. I came close to shooting the cop, but he came just as close to shooting me.
“Put it down easy, you son of a bitch,” he called.
I bent my knees and put the gun on the steps.
“A guy just ran out of here with …”
“Hands in the air and down the stairs slow,” he said.
He sounded scared. Not as scared as Grover Niles had sounded, apparently with good reason, but scared. I put my hands up and moved down slowly.
I stepped around Niles’s body, which was no easy trick on the narrow stairway, and said gently, “You know what I’m going to say?”
“You didn’t do it,” he guessed.
I guessed the cop’s age at twelve, but I didn’t tell him. He had the gun and I had the problem.
He backed away, gun leveled at my stomach. We went out into the street and found a small crowd waiting in the drizzle. The crowd included the old lady from the bakery.
“First homicide?” I said softly to the young cop.
“Yes,” he said, wondering what to do next. It wasn’t that tough, but when you suddenly find a corpse and a homely man with a gun in his hand, your memory sometimes goes for a walk.
“Ask one of the bystanders to call for backup,” I suggested. “Wilshire’s not far. I suggest they ask for Captain Pevsner or Lieutenant Seidman.”
The young cop looked bewildered.
“I’ll call,” said the bakery lady. “Pevsner and Seidman.”
“Right,” I said.
The rain started again and the crowd reluctantly moved on. The cop and I were alone, and the cookies in my pocket were getting soggy.
“How about we go inside the bakery?” I suggested.
“We stay here,” he said, blinking his eyes. “We stay right here till I get backup.”
And that’s what we did. We stood in the drizzle till Steven Seidman pulled up in an unmarked Ford coupe, looked at the cop and then at me, and shook his head.
Ten minutes later, after Seidman had looked at Niles’s corpse, heard the young cop’s tale and told him to write a 243 Report, Seidman pointed me toward the Ford. I got in and we drove off, leaving the young cop bewildered in the rain.
Five minutes later he stopped in front of the Peppy Pup hot-dog stand, which was shaped like a big dog. We got out and walked over to the outdoor table.
My brother Phil was eating a Peppy Pup hot-dog sandwich. He waved the tail end at a second one on a plate in front of him. Fries surrounded it. I wasn’t hungry, but there was an outside chance, far outside, that this was a kind of peace offering, a gesture of good will from my brother the cop. At least that’s what I wanted to think.
“Yeah, thanks,” I said and reached for the dog.
Phil was sitting at the metal table painted white in front of the Peppy Pup. I sat across from him. An umbrella was over us, but we didn’t need it at the moment. The rain had stopped. Steve Seidman, my brother’s partner for the past two decades, stood behind Phil, pale, bored, his arms folded, his hat tilted back to show his high forehead.
I took a bite of the sandwich and looked out at the traffic on Melrose swishing by. The mustard, onions, and relish were fine, but it needed texture. I started to stuff fries into what remained of the dog.
“Don’t do that,” Phil said, a wad of sandwich in his cheek.
I stopped stuffing fries and ate.
My brother is five years older than I am, forty pounds heavier, and much less friendly. He looks something like a big standing steamer trunk. His short hair is gray. His tie is usually loose and his collar open. He always looks as if he ate a few seconds ago and it didn’t agree with him.
Phil had two passions. First, he hated criminals, believed it was his mission, his duty, to destroy them all without a trial. His dedication had earned him a wartime promotion as a district captain. His nearly religious fury had booted him back to Wilshire. Phil’s second passion was his family: his suffering, smiling stick of a wife, Ruth, with her mop of straw-yellow hair, and his three kids, Dave, Nate, and Lucy. Sometimes I was included. Usually not. I owed my smashed nose to Phil. He wasn’t the only one who had broken it, but he held the record, twice. I think he wanted me to make something of my life, be a violinist or sell muddy lots in Sherman Oaks. I was a great disappointment to him the day I was born, which happened to be the same day our mother died.
Phil finished his sandwich and watched me finish mine and play with the fries. I was in no hurry. I looked at the Peppy Pup behind Seidman and my brother. The pup was big and happy in spite of the chips of paint that had been taken from him by wind, heat, and rain. From the hole in his belly a guy with a worry was doling out hot dogs and Green Rivers.
“Finished?” asked Phil.
I looked up at him and then at Seidman.
“Finished,” I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin. “What are we doing here?”
“Having dinner, conducting business,” said Phil, resting his big hands on the table. “Wilshire’s being painted.”
“Your allergies,” I said.
“It’ll take two, maybe three days before I can go back in. Steve and I have been moving around.”
I nodded in understanding. Phil had suffered from allergies all his life. His favorite was fresh paint, which closed his sinuses and made him itch. Next came strawberries, which made his hands swell, and finally came fresh coconut, which made him throw up.
“Sorry,” I said. “How are?…”
“Don’t,” Phil said with a warning smile, holding up his right hand.
“Don’t, Toby,” Seidman added.
I had been about to say, “How are Ruth and the kids?” a question that sent my brother into a rage. I’m not sure why. I don’t think he is, either, but it’s a fact that has to be honored except when I’m feeling lucky or there’s a mischief in me. I wasn’t feeling either.
“Toby,” Phil said, pushing the empty plates out of the way and leaning toward me. “Ruth’s surgery had some problems. It’s taking her a little longer to recover than the asshole of a doctor promised us. Now, with your cooperation here there is a chance I might be able to get home tonight before the kids get to sleep. You gonna help me?”
“Absolutely,” I said amiably.
“Good,” said Phil. “Tell us what happened. Whole thing. No lies. No bullshit about protecting clients. Tell it fast. Tell it convincing. And then we decide what to do.”
“Give me a second to think about this,” I said.
“No,” Phil answered with a pained, knowing smile. “You don’t understand, Tobias. It was not a request. Talk or suffer.”
“You’re going to beat your own brother on a public street in front of a giant puppy?”
“I’ve done things which have shown even less control,” said Phil. “You’ve seen some of them. Steve has seen a few more.”
“I’ve seen more than I want to see, Phil,” Seidman said.
“Started around lunchtime today,” I said. “Client.”
“Name of client?” said Phil softly, as Seidman took notes.
“Arthur? That a first or last name?”