Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (10 page)

But I already was.

Lauren told me as much with that look. She said:
I know you’re there. I know what you’ve seen. Now watch this, asshole.

Or maybe that wasn’t what she said. Maybe she was asking me a question: Why did you do this to me?

I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I just drove aimlessly. I wasn’t aware of the traffic, of the stoplights, or even the car itself. I was fleeing.

All I saw was that horrible moment again and again, on an endless-replay loop in my mind. And the more I thought about it, the more frightened I became, the more my stomach churned and ached and seized up.

I finally stopped the car and puked in the street, my broken ribs raging with pain with each deep, choking heave. When I was done, I leaned back against my car, clutching my sides, my whole body shaking, tears streaming down my checks.

And once again, I saw her head turning around slowly, her eyes intense, her lips curled in a tiny grimace.

She was looking for me. She wanted to be sure I was watching, that I would never forget.

And then Lauren was gone. Off the edge, taking me with her.

It was on the radio within the hour. I was somewhere out near Fillmore, driving aimlessly through the endless farmland, when I heard it.

They said a woman leaped to her death from a freeway overpass in Camarillo, causing a seventeen-car pile-up and injuring half a dozen people, two of them seriously.

Police had found her abandoned Range Rover and were withholding her identity until notification of next-of-kin.

Authorities said a full autopsy would be conducted to see if drugs or alcohol played a role in the horrific tragedy, but based on numerous witness accounts, they believed no foul play was involved.

They were calling it a suicide.

There was no mention of her looking at anybody first, or of the guy in the Kia Sephia who sped away from the scene.

No one was chasing me except my conscience, and that’s how it would stay.

I knew that Cyril Parkus wouldn’t tell them about her strange behavior, or that he’d hired a security guard to follow her around, or that somebody named Arlo Pelz was blackmailing her. I knew that despite the shock, the sorrow, and the disbelief, he would protect himself and her secret.

I had nothing to fear. And yet, I was terrified. Of what, I’m not sure. Maybe it was simply the knowledge that my presence alone could kill, that without even meeting someone, just by watching her, I could provoke death and injury.

That may have been why I was afraid, but it wasn’t why I felt guilty.

I didn’t really have a reason to be. I knew it wasn’t my idea to follow her. I knew I wasn’t the one blackmailing her and that I didn’t push her off that overpass. I knew I had nothing to do with the secret that haunted her.

But I still felt guilty.

Because I was there.

Because she wanted me to.

Fillmore was a Hollywood-perfect recreation of a small town from the ’30s, only with cars from the ’90s filling the diagonal parking spaces.

Actually, the town had always looked like this, until it was decimated by the 1994 earthquake. They quickly rebuilt the Main Street, faithfully restoring everything to the way it had been.

But it wasn’t really Fillmore any more, no matter how much they thought it was.

They had to know it, too; otherwise, why put historical placards on every building, detailing its history and rebirth?

It made the whole town feel like a museum exhibit. Because it was. An authentic recreation of a genuine California farming town.

Even so, walking down Main Street past the hardware store and pool hall and ice cream parlor was like stepping into an idealized, make-believe world, one more innocent and safe than the one we live in.

I don’t know how I ended up there, but it was the perfect place for me to be. It didn’t matter if Fillmore was real any more or not. In fact, it was probably better that it wasn’t.

For the rest of the day, and into the night, I walked up and down the three blocks of Main Street, stopping to admire each and every window display. I sat in the park and fed the birds. I walked along the train tracks and had a slice of homemade pie at the diner.

I found a way to escape. I went to a place that didn’t really exist. Where even the kids playing in the park looked like re-creations. I was half-tempted to see if they had historical placards around their necks.

I didn’t think about Lauren Parkus.

I didn’t think about myself.

I just went numb.

And then, when the clock tower above City Hall chimed at eleven
, I snapped out of it. It was time to return to the real world.

But I was going back a different man.

I became a re-creation of myself. I looked like Harvey Mapes once looked, but like Fillmore, something had been lost.

I got in my car and drove back through the orchards and up through the hills and down into Camarillo again.

I went to work.

I didn’t know what else to do or where else to go. I just sat there and stared out into the night.

Around two
the coyote showed up, stepping cautiously into the circle of light cast by the streetlamp. We looked at each other for a long moment, and then the telephone rang, startling us both.

The coyote ran away. I answered the phone.

“Front gate,” I replied.

“I saw you this morning.”

It was Cyril Parkus’ voice.

It sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a deep, dark pit.

“You were parked on the side of the road,” he said. “You tried to hide from me, but I knew you were there. Your windows were fogged up.”

Maybe he should have been a detective. He could have saved me a lot of pain.

“If you knew,” I asked, “why didn’t you do something about it?”

There was a long silence. I didn’t say anything, I just held the phone, listening to him breathe. His voice, when he finally spoke again, was almost a whisper.

“What did you see?”

“I saw her standing on the rail,” I replied. “Lauren looked at me, and then she dove off as casually as if she were taking a swim.”

“What did she want from you?”

“She wanted to make sure I was looking.”

I was surprised by my own answer. It was simpler than the other explanations I’d run through my head. I wondered when I’d settled on this one.

“No, Harvey, she wanted to be sure that I was.”

And then he hung up. I kept the phone to my ear.

I said, “Good night, Mr. Parkus.” And then I hung up, too.

It took me fifteen minutes to walk up the steep hill to Cyril Parkus’ house. I suppose a man in better shape would have made it in five, but I had to stop and rest a few times and clutch my sides in pain. I wasn’t being a very good patient. I wasn’t being much of a security guard, either.

I’d left the guard shack empty and the gate closed, but I knew from experience there was rarely anybody coming or going at two fifteen
on a weeknight. I wasn’t too worried.

We’re also not supposed to enter the community, even though we guard it. Don’t ask me why. So, to get in without ending up on the surveillance tape, I climbed over the gate at a spot where I know the camera’s view is obstructed by an overgrown tree.

As I trudged up the steep hill, which would have been a chore for me even without the broken ribs, I tried to distract myself from the pain by looking at all the big houses I was theoretically protecting, with their detached garages and red-tile roofs and dramatic, outdoor lighting. It was as if the exterior of each house was decoratively pre-lit in case the cover photographer from Architectural Digest just happened to drive by, or maybe a busload of tourists, neither of which was likely to happen with the gate out front and my constant vigilance.

Well, almost constant.

All the lights were on inside and out at the Parkus house, and I heard the burbling of at least three different fountains as I walked across the cobblestones of the motor court.

The front door was almost entirely glass, so I could see straight through the circular, marble entry area into the huge, two-story living room, its floor-to-ceiling windows affording a commanding view of the entire valley.

But the view was lost on Cyril Parkus, who was sitting on the floor, staring blankly into the whiskey bottle between his legs. He was still dressed in his business suit, leaning against a wrought-iron and glass coffee table.

I knocked on the door. He looked over and didn’t seem too surprised to see me.

He motioned me inside. I opened the door and went in. The house smelled like a rose garden, but there wasn’t a single flower in sight.

“Come to check up on me?” Parkus asked.

“You didn’t sound too good.”

“Afraid I was gonna stick a gun in my mouth?”

I shrugged. There was alot of antique furniture and maritime oil paintings, but the room was dominated by an old, rotting, wooden sign above the fireplace. The faded, peeling paint read: Big Rock Lake Resort. It couldn’t have been worth much, and didn’t fit in with the rest of the décor, so I figured its value was sentimental.

“I could never do it, even though it’s the Parkus family tradition.” He shook his head and took a big swig from his bottle. “First my mom, then my sister, now my wife. All killed themselves. I must be a real horrible person to live with.”

“You’re not the reason she jumped.”

Parkus cocked his head. “Really? And how the fuck would you know that? You’ve never even talked to her.”

“I saw her face when she met Arlo Pelz,” I said. “I bet if he’d never shown up, she’d still be alive.”

“We’ll never know, will we?”

“We could try.”

“Un-fucking-believable.” He glared at me, set his bottle down on the floor, and struggled to his feet. “Is that what you came here for, Harvey, to shake me down for a few more bucks?”

Parkus reached into his pocket, pulled out his money-clip, and threw the cash at me.

“Go ahead,” he yelled, “take it!”

“I want to earn it, Mr. Parkus. I want to bring Arlo Pelz to justice.”

“Jesus Christ,” he snorted in disbelief. “I hired you do to something anybody with a driver’s license and a two-digit IQ could pull off, and now you think you’re fucking Batman.”

“Arlo Pelz might as well have pushed your wife off that overpass,” I said. “And you’re going to let him just walk away. Well, maybe you can, but I can’t.”

It was true. At that moment, I felt like I was channeling Joe Mannix, Frank Cannon, Barnaby Jones, Thomas Magnum, and all the great private eyes who came before me. Even Parkus seemed to sense that.

“Who the fuck are you?” Parkus yelled, his voice echoing off the walls of his big, wide living room. “You’re not a police officer, you’re not even a security guard. You’re barely even a man. You’re just a clown with an iron-on badge.”

He looked so disgusted at the sight of me, I thought he might vomit right there. But I felt stronger and more sure of myself than I ever had in my life.

Parkus marched over to the front door and held it open.

“Get out of my house, Harvey. Go back down to your little shack and pick your nose for a few more hours. And if you ever butt into my life again, if you so much as wave to me as I drive by, I’ll have you fired. Do we understand each other?”

I understood, all right.

The only reason he wasn’t going to have me fired the next day was because he was still afraid of what I knew, or might know, or could figure out. He couldn’t take the risk that I might go to the police with my story.

I walked out.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said as I left.

He slammed the door behind me.

I was glad I came up. I’d learned a lot and, without even realizing it, made some decisions.

In a way, Arlo Pelz and I now had something in common. We both had something on Cyril Parkus. Arlo had Lauren’s secret, whatever it was, and I knew that she was being blackmailed, and that her husband knew the guy who was doing it.

It didn’t seem like I had all that much, but it was enough to make Cyril Parkus very nervous. Enough to try buying me off and, when that failed, using intimidation to get his way.

Neither worked. If anything, he’d encouraged me.

I was going to find Arlo Pelz and whatever it was that Lauren killed herself to escape.

The only trouble was, I had no idea how I was going to do it.

Chapter Twelve

arol was waiting for me at the Caribbean, sitting on a chaise lounge facing the entrance. She was in her business clothes, and she had the morning paper on the chaise lounge next to her.

“Shouldn’t you be on your way to work?” I asked.

“I thought you’d want to talk.”

“About what?”

She held up the Valley section of the Los Angeles Times. On the front page was a picture of Lauren, which I guessed was taken at a party, a picture of the wrecked cars on the freeway, and an article about the suicide.

I took the paper and quickly scanned the article. It was mostly about the traffic accident she caused, and the people in the hospital, who were in satisfactory condition with all kinds of broken bones. There was a little bit about Lauren and how shocked the community was by her suicide. The article said she was an active fundraiser for local charities and was survived by her husband in Camarillo and a mother in Seattle.

I handed the paper back to Carol. “I told you she needed help.”

Carol nodded. “I’m sorry, Harvey.”

“It’s not your fault.” I was saying that a lot lately.

“It’s not yours, either.”

I nodded, but really only to be polite. I wasn’t sure she was right. I told her that I saw the suicide, and that I’d talked to Cyril Parkus, and that even though he threatened me, I was going to continue my investigation.

Carol smiled, which I thought was kind of odd.

“I knew you would,” she said, like she was glad, or proud of me, when just the other night she was scowling with disapproval over the idea that I hadn’t walked away from it. I’ll never understand women.

“I think I can help you,” she said. “Do you still have that car rental agreement?”

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