Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (15 page)

“Are you done with your plate?” the waitress asked. Her name was Dede. A sticker on her shirt told me to ask about the senior citizen specials.

I saw the Nazis at the next table eyeing me over their Teriyaki chicken wings and tacos. I tried to remain casual.

“Are you serving the mini-corn dogs tonight?” I asked Dede.

“Only on Tuesdays,” she replied. “May I take your plate?”

I nodded. The people at the next table looked away, uninterested.

I would live, at least for the moment. They thought I was one of them. Only I knew that I wasn’t any more and I was damn happy about it.

I grabbed a fresh plate and got myself some cinnamon buns while they were still hot.

I called Carol as soon as I got to the motel room. It was a good thing I did, because she was about to call the police.

I told her what I’d learned, hoping that since Carol was smarter than me, she might see stuff that I’d missed. I left out the part in my story about telling Jolene which motel I was staying at, and the idea I stole from a book I’d read. I figured there was no sense getting Carol worried. She didn’t know yet how cool and professional I’d become, though I hoped telling her about my day at least gave her a hint.

I told her my theory, that Arlo and Lauren were both involved with drugs, and that he knew her before she ran away from home, disappeared, and got a new face. Arlo probably forgot all about her, until the fateful day his ex-wife Jolene got invited to her high school reunion and showed him her yearbook. He must have seen a photo of Lauren and shit himself. Then he read the “Where Are They Now?” newsletter, saw how she’d married a wealthy man and become an active fundraiser for charity, and saw a way to make himself some quick cash.

“Here’s a guy, a loser fresh out of prison, who lucks into a woman’s deep, dark secret,” I said. “If it wasn’t obvious that Lauren was rich, Arlo might have just laughed it all off. Instead, he took a plane to LA to soak her for as much as he could. Only he pushed her too hard and she dived off an overpass.”

“But you still don’t know what the deep, dark secret is,” Carol said, “except that it has to do with drugs.”

“Arlo was a drug dealer; Lauren’s mother and her boyfriend were addicts. At least that’s the self-serving story Lauren told the Harpers,” I replied. “Now that I’ve had some experience as a liar, I’ve discovered the most convincing lies are based on truth. So, I’m assuming there’s some truth to the story, only I don’t think Lauren was the wholesome, innocent victim or Arlo wouldn’t have anything on her.”

“Maybe Lauren’s mother wasn’t the addict,” Carol said. “Maybe it was Lauren. And maybe her mother’s boyfriend didn’t seduce Lauren, maybe it was the other way around, so she could get her hands on his drugs.”

“Where does Arlo fit into that?”

“Maybe Arlo was her boyfriend,” she said. “Maybe he didn’t like her fucking her mother’s boyfriend to get drugs.”

“Or maybe Arlo was the one who put her up to it, to get drugs for both of them,” I added. “Only Arlo began to think Lauren was enjoying doing Mommy’s boyfriend too much and maybe wasn’t sharing all the dope she got. So, Arlo gets pissed, and tells Lauren’s mother what’s going on.”

“Or arranges for her mother to catch them in the act.”

And then it hit me. It was so obvious.

“No, he did better than that.” I said. “He took pictures.”

“Yeah,” Carol said softly.

That was it. We both knew. It all fit.

“So, Lauren has to run, because her mother, or the boyfriend, or both of them want to wring her neck,” Carol said. “She ends up in a dive in Seattle, lucks into a job with the Harpers, and reinvents herself. She even gets a new face. After a while, it’s almost like none of it ever happened, or if it did, it was to a totally different person.”

“Until one day,” I said, “Arlo Pelz shows up at her door with the pictures and it all comes back to haunt her.”

“It makes sense,” Carol said.

“That doesn’t mean that’s what happened.”

“It’s probably close enough,” she said.

We tried knocking around a few other scenarios, but none of them worked as good as that one. It was fun talking about them anyway. We were really enjoying the call.

Two weeks ago, all she had to tell me was office gossip about people I didn’t know or care about. Even so, that was more than I usually could contribute to a conversation. Not much happened on the night shift in a guard shack. Now we were discussing blackmail and ex-convicts and drug dealers and secret lives.

Then Carol told me what she’d been doing at work, only for the first time I was interested. She’d been so revved up by the credit stuff she’d found on Arlo that she had to do something more. So, she sat down at her computer and found a couple dozen websites that searched public records and other databases for personal information about people. She didn’t find out anything more about Lauren, but she thought that now, based on what I’d told her, she might be able to dig up more on Arlo Pelz. She’d start with the Washington State Department of Corrections and work backward from there.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

“I want to,” she said. “I’m enjoying this. Besides, it’s the first thing we’ve really done together.”

“No, it’s not,” I said slyly.

“It’s the first thing that doesn’t involve a TV, a pizza, or a bed.”

Hearing her talk that way, I began to think seriously about starting a detective agency of my own. I’d do the exciting legwork, including the car chases and shoot-outs, while she did all the dull research, cleaned up the office, and fucked my brains out.

It sounded like a dream, only it wasn’t anymore. I was most of the way there. All that was left for me to do was win a houseboat in a poker game and I’d have the Travis McGee lifestyle I dreamed of, with some minor alterations. I wasn’t interested in rescuing those “wounded birds.” For some reason, I didn’t have any desire to do that part any more. Carol was enough for me and certainly more than I deserved.

“I love you, Carol.”

The words were out of my mouth before I knew I said them. And then, realizing what I’d done, I quickly added a friendly chuckle, so the remark would be taken casually, lightly, maybe even forgotten, shrugged off as just a tongue-in-cheek compliment to a chum. But like I said, Carol was smarter than me.

“I know you do, Harvey,” she said, surprising me with the matter-of-fact tone of her voice. “I’ve known for a while. I was beginning to wonder, though, when it would occur to you.”

I swallowed. I fidgeted. I shifted the receiver to my other ear.

“How long have you loved me?” I asked.

“You’re the detective now,” she replied. “You figure it out.”

There was a long moment of silence. I found myself imagining what she was wearing, where she was sitting, the expression on her face. For that moment, I didn’t give a shit about Lauren Parkus or her secret or why she killed herself. I wanted to go home and investigate this new mystery.

“Goodnight, Harvey,” she said softly. “I’d better hear from you tomorrow or I’m calling the police.”

It might have been the nicest thing anybody ever said to me.

I hung up the phone, closed the drapes, and turned off all the lights. I pulled a chair over to the window so I could peek between the drapes and not be seen. Then I sat down in the chair, took out my gun, and set it on the table next to my can of Diet Coke.

I sat there like James Bond in that scene from Dr. No and the one thirty-five years later in Tomorrow Never Dies. Just a man in a chair with his drink and his gun, waiting for danger to arrive.

It was a longer wait than I expected.

I was driving a ’50s T-bird convertible down the Las Vegas Strip. I made a left turn at the Desert Inn, and drove around back to my place.

I drove into the garage, which was also my living room and my office. You’d think a private eye living and working out of his garage would be pathetic, but it was actually very cool.

One of things that made it cool was my assistant Carol, who had breasts the size of watermelons, really big watermelons, and was waiting for me with a tropical drink.

I climbed over the door of my car instead of opening it. It was a lot more trouble, but it was one of the carefree, cool things I did that made me irresistible to women.

“The casino called for you, Dan. They’ve got trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

She showed me a picture of Lauren.

“They say she’s gonna jump, unless you can help her,” Carol said.

I took the drink and downed it in one gulp and suddenly I was on the roof of the Desert Inn, standing a few feet behind Lauren, who stood on the edge, her back to me, the wind whipping her dress.

I approached her slowly. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Arlo is back. He going to tell them everything.”

“I’ll find him,” I said. “I’ll stop him.”

“That’s not going to change anything.”

“Your secret will be safe,” I said. “No one will know anything.”

She turned her head and looked right at me. Her gaze was blinding.

“I will,” she said. “I can never forget it now.”

And then she jumped.

Chapter Eighteen

’m not sure exactly which sound woke me up. It was either Lauren’s body hitting the pavement or the explosion from the motel across the highway.

I whipped open my blinds and saw flames engulfing the room I’d rented at the Sno-Inn Motel and licking the hood of my rented LeSabre, which I’d parked right out front.

It was a huge fire, so hot I could feel it from fifty yards away, behind a pane of glass. And I could hear it, howling in the night, embers snapping in the cold air like cicadas on PCP.

Even so, I still had a hard time believing it. This didn’t happen in real life. This didn’t happen to me. But that was my room and my car on fire. And once the reality sunk it, I was angry at myself, because I’d slept through it.

I’d missed my chance to catch Arlo by surprise when he came to hurt me. I’d missed the moment of glorious satisfaction when Arlo realized how I’d tricked him, and how much smarter I was than he’d ever be.

I’d missed my sweet victory.

I should have been looking out the window when Arlo sped by and lobbed his Molotov cocktail through the window of my empty motel room.

I should have been out there in the street firing my gun at his Lumina as he sped off. I should have shot out his tires and sent his car careening out of control. I should have dragged him from the wreckage, made a citizen’s arrest, and been a hero.

But that wasn’t what happened, because I was asleep, dreaming I was Dan Tana in Vega$. Dan wouldn’t have let this happen.

I looked out the window at the frightened people running out of their motel rooms in their underwear, and the flames igniting the Sno-Inn’s wood-shake roof, and I realized something else.

The flames were meant for me.

Jolene told Arlo where I was staying and he went there to kill me. No one had ever wanted to do that before.

I’d assumed that Arlo would try to scare me off with a good beating. My plan was to catch him when he snuck into my room across the street. When he came out, I was going to smack him on the head with my gun, then kick him once or twice after he hit the ground, just so he’d know what it felt like.

I didn’t expect Arlo to toss a bomb into my room.

And if I’d been awake when it happened, I know I would have run out in the street without thinking and started shooting BBs at his car. And he probably would have made a U-turn, mowed me down with his Lumina, and laughed about it all the way back to his mobile home.

So, maybe it was a good thing I slept through it.

I took a sip of my flat Diet Coke and watched the motel burn and my rental car get scorched and listened to the sirens in the distance.

Actually, it was kind of cool.

This was the kind of thing that happened to Matt Houston and Jim Rockford and Dan Tana all the time. And now it was happening to me.

The only thing left was to be knocked unconscious and get shot in the arm, and then I’d really be one of the guys; though, to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to either experience.

All in all, this turn of events wasn’t so bad. In fact, I decided I should be pleased with myself and my cleverness. The trick I played by renting two motel rooms, and sticking my car in front of the vacant one, had actually worked. I wasn’t in the room that was on fire. I was alive and unscathed. I’d outwitted my adversary.

I also knew for certain that I was really onto something, that Arlo Pelz was afraid of what I might know, what I’d detected.

Then I realized the most important thing of all.

Now Arlo Pelz thought I was dead.

I took my ice bucket and went outside to join the frightened Sno-Inn guests as they watched their rooms and their belongings burn.

No one noticed me blending in to the crowd; they were all busy watching the flames devour the motel. I moved among them, eavesdropping as they shared their stories with one another about what they heard and what they saw.

A couple people heard a car peeling out just before the fire. One guy actually saw what he thought was a Pontiac or a Chevy speeding away, but no one got a license number. No one saw anything that would lead the police to Arlo Pelz.

The gnomish manager of the Sno-Inn was the biggest help of all in distracting people from the real perpetrator. He was marching in front of the inferno in his underwear, screaming that the asshole motel-owner across the highway was responsible for the blaze. In fact, the enraged gnome had to be restrained by two men from beating up his competitor, a spindly old man who made the mistake of coming over to offer his condolences.

By the time the fire engines showed up, the motel had all but burned to the ground and the fire had spread to the trees, transforming them into enormous torches. While the firefighters battled to keep the fire from spreading into the surrounding forest, and sheriff’s deputies moved through the crowd taking statements, I worked on my story.

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