Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (12 page)

Anyway, the LeSabre, with its big bench seats, would be comfortable to sleep in if I had to. The engine had some guts, and the power steering was so loose, if I broke every finger except one, I’d still be able to turn the wheel.

That was good to know.

I didn’t have to drive far from Sea-Tac before I came upon a Borders bookstore off the freeway. I didn’t realize then that the only thing that outnumbered bookstores in Seattle were coffee houses or I might have kept on driving. Instead, I stopped there and bought an illustrated city guide and a detailed map book of Seattle-area streets.

I went back to my LeSabre, took out my list of retailers selling those replica Desert Eagle guns, and looked for the nearest store. I got lucky; there was one a few blocks away. It was called The Northwest Sportsman.

The sportsman at the counter was shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss and had one more chin than was absolutely necessary. He wanted to impress me with his encyclopedic knowledge of BB guns, which I was sure was only rivaled by his knowledge of comic books.

The sportsman held the plastic gun loosely in his hand and grinned at it in admiration as he spoke.

“This here is a spring-loaded, single-shot, low-volume air pistol. The real Desert Eagle is manufactured in Israel, but this baby comes to us straight from Tokyo. The styling is nearly indistinguishable from the genuine article,” he said, drawling out the pronunciation of those last two words so they came out as genu-wine art-eekle.

“The body is ABS plastic, the internal parts are metal,” he went on. “It’s got a 113-millimeter barrel and a muzzle velocity of two hundred thirty-five feet per second, firing .2-gram plastic BBs. But the beauty of this piece is the subtle tonal differences in the molding and coloring that?”

I interrupted him.

“I just want to shoot some bottles and look cool doing it,” I said. “I don’t need to know all the details.”

For a minute, I thought he was so offended that he wouldn’t sell it to me, but his commercial instincts easily overcame his personal pride and he finally forked the weapon over. He didn’t say a single word after that.

I bought a belt-clip holster to go with the gun and some BBs, so I’d appear to be a genu-wine enthusiast. The bill came to nearly a hundred bucks. I saved the receipt for my taxes.

On the way out, I spotted a hardware store across the street. I stowed my gun in the trunk, went to the store, and bought a roll of duct tape, a sledgehammer, and a can of black spray paint. I saved that receipt, too.

I was ready for action.

Once inside my two-star hotel room a few blocks away, I laid out some newspaper in the bathtub and spray-painted over the bright orange tip of the gun, adding my own subtle, tonal differences to the molding and coloring. I left the gun in the tub to dry.

I could hear the planes rumbling overhead, but it didn’t bother me much. It reminded me how much I was saving on accommodations and made me feel responsible. There’s no reason to spend more than thirty bucks a night for a mattress, a toilet, and a sink, especially for a hardened, professional private eye on assignment.

I sat down at the table, spread the map out in front of me, and located the address near Snohomish where Arlo Pelz lived. I put an X on the spot; then I took out a pen and traced the best route there. It was a small town on the Snohomish River in Snohomish County, about forty miles northeast of Seattle.

I also looked up Mona Harper’s address in the phone book, found it on the map, and put an X there, too. She lived in a Seattle neighborhood called Madison Park, on the shore of Lake Washington, near one of the city’s floating bridges. It sounded like a term a spokesman for the bridge might use to spin things after a disaster. “The bridge hasn’t really collapsed,” he’d say, “it’s just floating.”

I always thought bridges were supposed to go over the water, but what did I know? Up here, they probably called those flying bridges or something.

Now that I’d mastered the terrain, and had a vague idea of what I intended to do, I called Carol and told her my plan. I told her if she didn’t hear from me at the same time tomorrow, to call the Seattle police.

“And tell them what, exactly?” she asked.

“Tell them I’m dead,” I replied.

“That’s not going to do you much good.”

“Okay, so tell them I’m probably dead,” I said, “or I will be if they don’t rescue me.”

“You think the police will care?”

I was in uncharted territory here, since most private eyes I knew about never told anyone where they were going or what they were doing. But they were braver than me, and certainly never pissed themselves in a fistfight.

“If I had a friend on the force, they would,” I said. “Getting myself one is at the top of my list of things to do, if I don’t get killed and decide to continue in this field.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, Harvey.”

It was probably way too late for that advice. “I never intend to,” I said.

There was an uncomfortable silence on the phone.

“Come back soon,” she said.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.”

I hung up and thought about all the implications of her last words. Then I wondered if it would be against the private eye code of conduct to watch a double feature of
The Horny Contortionist
Where The Boys Aren’t
on pay-per-view.

I decided it wouldn’t be and reached for the remote.

I didn’t sleep much. Part of the problem with working nights is that your biological clock, or whatever the hell they call it, gets all out of whack. Having a couple broken ribs didn’t help. So I only got a couple hours’ worth of sleep, mostly catnaps during the slow parts of the porn movies. I also slept a little bit sitting on the toilet, where I discovered the consequences of amateur pharmacology.

I was ready to check out and get going as soon as the sun came up, what little of it I could see through the gray, cloudy skies. I put on a jacket and tie and by seven
I was on Interstate 5, heading towards downtown Seattle.

I was struck by a couple things right away. The crisp, clean air to start with. My sinuses weren’t used to that, so I kept sneezing and my nose was running. If you can’t taste the air when you breathe it, it’s too clean.

Next thing I noticed was the drizzle. I seemed to be the only guy on the road with his windshield wipers on, so I guessed it was like this all the time and that people there were so used to it, they’d learned to see through the layer of water on the glass.

Finally, there was the green. There was so much vegetation everywhere, even along the freeway, it made LA seemed like nothing but concrete and asphalt, which I suppose it was.

As the freeway cut through downtown, I craned my neck like a tourist to get a few good looks at the Space Needle. It was actually the least impressive of the tall buildings that made up the skyline, but at least I was certain I was in Seattle.

The farther out of the city I got, the greener the landscape became. Just before reaching Everett, I took the turn-off for Highway 96. Things became what I’d call rural after that, the narrow highway passing through hilly forests, and lots of mailboxes on posts in front of dirt roads that led who-knows-where. Around the intersection with Highway 9, just outside Snohomish, there were a couple motels facing each other on either side of the road. I made a mental note of them and continued on towards town.

Snohomish wasn’t really a town anymore, it was more of a theme for a shopping center. The quaint, nineteenth-century buildings at the heart of the old logging town were almost all occupied by antique stores and indoor swap-meets. That’s what they do with dead towns now, they turn them into antique malls.

I drove through town and into the country again, past lots of rusted-out cars, rundown farms, and old, rotting houses until I came to a batch of mailboxes at a turn-off for a long, dirt road.

I drove up the muddy road, lined on both sides with tall weeds, and took a fork that was marked by a weather-beaten wood sign that’d been spray-painted with Pelz’s address.

I thought about stopping, and walking the rest of the way in, to be more stealthy, but figured I’d get bogged down in the mud. Besides, if things went bad, I didn’t want to be too far from my car and a quick escape. I decided to take my chances with a direct approach and I drove on.

The road curved and suddenly spilled out into a clearing. There was a faded mobile home, a ten-year-old, corroded Chevy Lumina parked beside it. A clothesline was loosely strung between two trees. There was a barbecue, a picnic table, a couple of lawn chairs in search of a lawn, and an old couch sinking in the mud. The stripped, sheet-metal carcasses of a few decaying cars were scattered amidst the weeds on the edges of the clearing. It all fit with my initial impression of Arlo Pelz.

I parked beside the Lumina and sat a minute, my heart racing. I don’t know which I felt more, terror or excitement, but I knew I couldn’t just sit there. I blew my nose into a napkin and tossed it on the floor. I took my toy gun out of the glove box, leaned forward, and slipped it into the holster that was clipped to my belt behind my back, underneath my jacket. That was the way Mannix used to do it.

I eased out of the car and approached the door, one hand behind my back, ready to whip out my gun if Arlo gave me trouble. I’d lead him to my car, tie his wrists up with duct tape, and then make him think I was going to execute him unless he talked. Once he told me everything, and wet his pants, I’d take him in. The wetting-his-pants part was real important to me.

The key to my plan was the assumption that Arlo would be unarmed. That didn’t seem like a big assumption until I approached the mobile home.

What if he burst out right now with a sawed-off shotgun in his hands? Did I really believe I could hold him off with my state-of-the-art BB gun?

I was about to go back to my car and drive away until I could come up with a better plan, when the door opened and Jolene Pelz stepped out in a pink bathrobe, wrapped tight around what I presumed was her naked body, looking tired and pissed-off.

“Who the hell are you and what are you doing here so God-damn early in the morning?” she said.

Jolene Pelz had the basic framework for beauty, a nice body and attractive face, but her attributes were eroded by a lifetime of bitter disappointment, which she wore on her skin, carried on her back, and expressed with a weariness that marbled her voice. No amount of make-up, perfume, jewelry, or designer clothing would ever hide it, not that she was even trying.

“I’m looking for Arlo Pelz,” I said.

“He isn’t here. In fact, he doesn’t live here anymore.”

“That’s not what it says on his credit card bills, Mrs. Pelz.”

“What kind of cop are you?”

I was so flattered that I almost smiled. I actually radiated copliness now. Wow. That had to say something fundamental about how much I’d changed, about the self-confidence I now radiated, even if I didn’t feel it.

“Credit card,” I said. “My name is Frank Furillo. I’m a fraud investigator for VISA.”

She leaned against her door. “The cop on
Hill Street Blues
was named Furillo.”

If I was going to continue in this business, I had to stop assuming I was the only guy who watched TV and read books.

“I know,” I said wearily. “But it’s not so bad. I grew up with a kid named James Bond. He got his ass kicked every day of the week.”

“Probably by a guy like Arlo,” she said. “You want some coffee?”

“That would be nice.”

“All I got is instant,” she said and went back inside.

I took my hand off my toy gun and followed her in.

Chapter Fourteen

he place was laid out a lot like Jim Rockford’s mobile home, only where his desk would be there was a tan, pseudo-suede couch, the kind that had bulging cushions when you bought it but that flattened to the width of typing paper within a month after you got it home. The cushions were still plump.

That caught my eye, and so did the big-screen TV that dominated the boxy living room.

Jolene asked me to sit down on the couch while she made the coffee, but I couldn’t. I was afraid my clip-on holster would come off and that, with my broken ribs, I’d have a hard time getting up again after I sunk into the cushions.

So I stood at the low, chipped Formica counter that separated the kitchen area from the living room and watched her set the water to boil. There were bills, magazines, and a high school yearbook cluttering the countertop. I resisted the urge to rummage through them.

Jolene washed out two coffee mugs and dried them off.

“What’s this about?” she asked.

This was my first time questioning somebody, and my second attempt at subterfuge, and I didn’t want to blow it. I reminded myself that when she first saw me, she thought I was a cop. Everything I said and did now had to reinforce that first impression. I couldn’t show any doubt or hesitation. I couldn’t let my nose run and I couldn’t sniffle.

“We noticed an unusual flurry of activity on your account in a very short period of time,” I said. “Were you aware that your husband stayed at the Universal Sheraton in Los Angeles last week and ran up a bill of twelve hundred and fifteen dollars?”

“No,” she cinched the robe even tighter around herself. I looked past her to the open door of the bedroom. I could see one corner of an unmade bed and a pair of tennis shoes on the floor. I’d seen them before, coming at my face.

“Did you know he rented a Ford Focus from Swift Rent-A-Car, which he returned after a week with two thousand three hundred and eighty-seven dollars in uninsured body damage?”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“His name is on the account, which makes you responsible for his charges and the damage to the vehicle.”

I glanced at the yearbook on the counter. On the cover it read: Marcus Whitman High School, 1986.

“It’s a mistake,” Jolene said, cinching her robe again, even though it hadn’t loosened up any in the last twenty seconds. “I put his name on the account when we got married and I forgot it was there, or I would have taken it off when he went to prison. I certainly would have taken it off after the divorce.”

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