Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (16 page)

The ice bucket I’d grabbed on impulse turned out to be an inspiration. Just by carrying it around with me, I looked like a guy in shock. And it made a nice prop for my story, which was that I left my room to get some ice, heard a screech of tires, and then saw my room ablaze.

The deputy asked what I was doing in Snohomish, and if there was any reason someone might want to do me harm. I told him I was here on vacation and that I was a night-shift security guard in a gated community in Southern California. Why would anyone give a damn about me?

I didn’t have to sell him too hard on that one.

I could have told him I was investigating the blackmail and subsequent suicide of Lauren Parkus, and that I suspected ex-convict Arlo Pelz, a dark memory from her druggie past, was responsible for this. But like any half-decent private eye, I didn’t do that. I wanted Arlo Pelz for myself.

So, for the second time that week, I lied to the law and was surprised how easy it was for me.

I told the deputy I wouldn’t be in the Snohomish area very long and gave him my number in LA. He asked if there was anything he could do to help me. I said I still had my wallet in my pocket when I went to get the ice, so I was in decent shape. In fact, I explained, I’d already reserved a room across the street for the night, so they wouldn’t have to worry about me. Which was fine by him. He had plenty of other guests a lot worse off than me to deal with.

I managed to get an incident report number from him and the name of the officer who’d be in charge of the investigation to pass along to Swift Rent-A-Car. I had a feeling they’d want more than my word to explain how their LeSabre had become a giant ashtray.

I hung around for another hour or two, looking suitably spooked, watching them douse what was left of the fire, and then slipped back to my room.

I called Swift Rent-A-Car and gave them the bad news. Because I’d taken all the insurance they’d offered, I was off the hook as far as damages went. They asked, hesitantly, if I wanted another car and I passed. I didn’t want to press my luck with the company, especially since I couldn’t be sure my next car wouldn’t meet a dire fate, too. So I rang up one of their competitors, EconoCar, who agreed to send out their courtesy shuttle to pick me up in an hour.

I didn’t have much to pack in the meantime. I’d sacrificed a suitcase, my clothes, my shaving kit, and my copy of Anita Shreve’s book to the flames, all things that could be easily replaced or forgotten about. All I had left were the clothes on my back, my wallet, a return ticket to LA, a few pictures of Lauren, and my gun.

I had everything I needed.

So, I went and stood outside in the drizzle to wait for courtesy shuttle. As dawn broke over the top of the smoldering trees, I watched the firemen pick through the smoking rubble where the motel once stood.

The Sno-Inn was gone and all because Harvey Mapes came to town and asked a few questions. I can’t really explain why, and I know it’s sick, but it made me incredibly happy.

I picked out a blue Crown Victoria from EconoCar that looked just like an unmarked cop car, drove to a hardware store, and bought a sledgehammer and roll of duct tape to replace the ones I lost.

I drove out of town to the muddy road that led to Jolene’s mobile home and pulled off into the weeds. I took out the duct tape, dropped the roll around the handle of the sledgehammer, and went the rest of the way on foot.

I took my time, stopping every few moments to listen and look around. When I got to the clearing, I slipped behind a tree, pulled out my replica Desert Eagle handgun, and peered around the edge of the trunk.

Everything was exactly like it was the day before. Even the Lumina was parked in the same spot. The only sound I heard was the half-open front door of the mobile home creaking in the breeze.

My guess was that they were still asleep, and that Arlo accidentally left the door open when he crept back in after fire-bombing the Sno-Inn.

And now he was sleeping soundly, convinced his troubles were over. He was about to find out how wrong he was. Harvey Mapes was ready for payback.

I was light-headed with excitement, my heart pounding. This was the most exciting thing I’d ever done. And the most dangerous. But I had surprise on my side.

The front door was open, so I wouldn’t need the sledgehammer. I left it by the tree, took the duct tape, and made a break for one of the stripped cars. I waited a moment, then went forward a few yards to the discarded couch.

And so I went, from tree to junked car to picnic table, slowly working my way closer, copying moves I saw Don Johnson use a thousand times on
Miami Vice.
I dashed and I spun and I crouched my way to the mobile home and up the steps to the door. I flattened myself against the wall and tried to catch my breath.

This was the big moment. Time to burst in and take Arlo Pelz down. I’d force Jolene at gunpoint to bind Arlo’s wrists with the duct tape and then I’d lead him away. I’d do that bit I’d planned earlier, where I’d threaten to execute him unless he talked, and then once he told me everything he knew about Lauren, about the drugs and whatever else, I’d deliver him to the police, where he’d be charged with attempted murder, blackmail, and extortion. Lauren would be avenged and I’d be well on my way to a successful career as a private detective.

All I had to do was step through that door, where Arlo could be waiting with a sawed-off shotgun to blow me in half.

That wasn’t going to happen, I assured myself. Arlo thought I was dead. He wasn’t expecting any more trouble.

Unless he heard me drive up. Unless he saw my ridiculous Don Johnson dance across the clearing. Unless he knew I was standing right outside his door.

My mouth was dry, my body was covered with sweat, and, much to my surprise, I was hard. I looked down and I could see my erection, poking against my pants.

It had to be the adrenaline, because I certainly wasn’t horny, so thinking about grilled cheese sandwiches and dog shit and Roseanne wouldn’t make this untimely tumescence go away. I didn’t want to stand there and wait for the adrenaline rush to go, because I needed it to overcome my fear and insecurity. I had to go in, hard-on or not.

But did I really want to confront Arlo with a big boner? How could he take me seriously with that poking out?

Because, I told myself, you’ll be holding a big, fucking gun.

A toy gun, I countered.

Yes, I agreed, but he doesn’t know that.

I decided I had a good point. Fuck the boner. It’s not like I’d wet myself. The hard-on simply meant I was surging with manhood. Dangerous manhood.

Maybe it would scare him. Maybe it would make him think I got off on the violence. And if it didn’t, I could always pistol-whip the son-of-a-bitch. God knows he deserved it.

I took a deep breath.

I eased open the door with the toe of my muddy shoe and spun into the room in a firing stance, my toy gun and my stiff penis aimed directly at Jolene’s corpse.

Chapter Nineteen

omebody had shoved Jolene’s head through the big-screen TV, slashing her neck open on the jagged, broken glass. There was blood everywhere, only now it was no longer red, but black and flaky.

She was still wearing her bathrobe, which was now drenched in the shit and piss she expelled when she died, which also accounted for the horrible smell that suddenly hit me and the fat horseflies that buzzed around the room.

I started to gag and, without even bothering to check if I was alone, I ran into the bathroom and vomited in the toilet. I kept gagging until there was absolutely nothing left inside me and I was hugging myself in agony, my cheek resting against the rim of the toilet.

My ribs felt as if they’d splintered apart, sending shards of bone ricocheting into my internal organs. The pain was so bad I thought I was going to faint, my face in the toilet.

But in a few minutes, the worst of the pain ebbed, and I reached out to the sink for support and staggered to my feet. I ran some cold water and splashed my face to revive myself. At least my hard-on was gone, and I feared it might never return.

I stood very still.

I could hear the flies buzzing around and the front door creaking.

I was alone. Except that outside the bathroom, and three steps down the hall, there was a corpse in the living room. A woman I knew, who was alive and talking and drinking coffee just twenty-four hours ago, was dead because of me.

No, murdered, because of me.

If she hadn’t met Harvey Mapes, she’d be alive. She wouldn’t be sticking out of a TV set, her body rotting in her own blood, shit, and piss.

The thought made me gag again, and I hunched over the sink, my mouth wide open, but there was nothing left to heave, except maybe what was left of my rib cage.

This was a nightmare. I’d been hired to follow a cheating wife. That’s it. Now I was in a mobile home in Snohomish, Washington, with a corpse. This was the life of adventure I’d always wanted but I never thought it would feel, look, or smell like this.

I straightened up, looked at my reflection in the mirror, and ordered myself to leave the bathroom. I couldn’t stay here, as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t hide from what was in the living room. It had happened. Now I had to deal with it. Coolly. Calmly. Professionally.

The first thing I had to do was make sure I was really alone.

I picked up my gun off the floor and, breathing through my nose to avoid the stench, stepped out into the hall. I didn’t look in the living room. I put it off by checking out the bedroom first. The only thing that’d changed since I’d last seen it was that Arlo’s tennis shoes were gone. I checked the closet and behind the bureau. There was no place for Arlo to hide in here, and I was reasonably certain he wasn’t outside.

Now there was only one more place I could go.

I put my gun in my holster and, breathing through my mouth, staggered back into the living room. Again, I tried not to look at the body. I studied the room.

My coffee cup was where I’d left it and so was hers. It didn’t take a forensic expert to see that she’d died only a few minutes after I was gone.

Arlo must have been hiding outside when I showed up that day and he recognized me. After I left, he must have come in, found out what she’d told me, and got so mad that he smashed Jolene’s face into the big-screen TV.

I wondered if he really meant to kill her or if he’d even stuck around long enough afterwards to know that he had. Not that it mattered. Jolene was dead. And Arlo killed her, just as surely as he killed Lauren Parkus.

And I was his unwitting accomplice both times.

I thought about what I should do next.

The right thing to do, ethically and morally, was to call the police, report the murder, and tell them everything I knew.

If I did that, I would probably be charged with something for misleading them about the fire last night and maybe, if they were really sharp, about the accident in Santa Barbara. Everything I did would get back to Westland Security, and they’d fire me. And then there would be the reports in the press, and the embarrassment that came with it, which would be hard to live down and make it difficult for me to get future employment as a security guard, much less as a private eye.

The only good that would come out of calling the police was that it might get Arlo arrested faster for Jolene’s murder. But I didn’t see the hurry, not if it meant my life would get totally destroyed.

So, I didn’t call.

I decided to stick to my mission and bring in Arlo Pelz myself for what he’d done to Lauren. At that point, I could suggest to the authorities that he was responsible for the fire at the Sno-Inn. As for Jolene’s murder, by then they’d have discovered her body and, if they hadn’t, I could always point them in the right direction without admitting ever having been here myself.

To pull that off, I had to clean things up, so there was nothing that linked me to the crime scene.

I thought back to my conversation with Jolene and tried to remember everything I did and what I’d touched. I’d seen CSI, I’d read those Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reich novels, I knew how they could nail me on microscopic evidence I didn’t even know I’d left. Carpet fibers, lint, hairs, dirt particles, footprints, it was almost too much to comprehend. I’d have to just wash down everything.

Which meant that not only would I be removing any trace of myself, but probably important evidence about Arlo being there, too.

There was no way around that. I was sorry Jolene was dead, but I had to look out for myself.

I found a pair of rubber dish gloves draped over the edge of the kitchen sink. They were too small for my hands, but they covered my fingertips, which was all that mattered. I opened a few drawers and cupboards, found plenty of cleanser and Hefty trash bags, and got to work.

I scrubbed down every surface I touched or might have touched. I vacuumed the couch and the carpets. I removed the vacuum bag and I shoved it into the trash, along with my coffee cup. I mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors, then took the sponge off the end of the mop and put it in the trash, too.

When I was done, I was drenched with sweat and my ribs were a row of jagged knives that stabbed me with each breath.

I felt I deserved it.

I gave the mobile home a quick once-over. I’d covered everything I could. The only thing left inside that I might have touched was the high school yearbook, but I was taking that with me. I shoved it in the trash bag for now. Then I remembered my roll of duct tape. I found it on the bathroom floor and stuck it in the bag, too.

The only trace of me that remained now were my footprints and tire tracks outside, and any fingerprints I might have left where I took cover. I grabbed some Lysol spray and a rag and stuck them in the bag, too.

Careful not to look at Jolene again, I carried the trash bag outside and closed the door behind me. I sprayed Lysol on the screen door, the wall, and the handrail along the steps to remove any fingerprints I might have left. I spotted a hose, which I used to wash muddy footprints and any microscopic stuff I might have left on the steps.

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