Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (2 page)

I picked a booth by the window so Parkus wouldn’t have any trouble spotting me. I ordered a Coke and decided to give him ten minutes before ordering, because the smell of sizzling bacon was making me drool.

I was halfway through my Coke and ten seconds away from flagging a waitress when Parkus showed up, looking like a kid sneaking into a topless bar. Not that I know much about topless bars. Well, not lately, anyway.

He smiled nervously and slid into the booth, smoothing his silk tie as if the simple act of sitting down would’ve wrinkled it all up. I smoothed my t-shirt, just in case sitting down had ruffled me up, too.

“Thanks for meeting me, Harvey,” Parkus smiled. “I appreciate it.”

I shrugged. His suit, even if he bought it at the outlet mall, was worth more than my car.

The waitress came to the table and, while I ordered a T-bone steak, fries, and another Coke, he picked up the laminated menu and made a show of looking through it. I don’t think he was used to a menu with pictures on it. His discomfort already made the meeting worthwhile for me. He ended up ordering a bagel and some coffee.

As soon as the waitress was gone, he smoothed his tie again and smiled at me. I smiled back and fought the urge to smooth my t-shirt. I had no idea sitting was so hard on clothes.

“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

I knew he’d say that.

I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.

I was now that guy.

It could happen that fast.

Then I realized that no, it couldn’t. I wasn’t that guy. I would never be that guy. There had to be a catch to this.

“Why me, Mr. Parkus? You could probably afford to hire a big PI firm that’s got a bunch of operatives and all the high-tech stuff.”

“You’re right, Harvey, I could. But that would make it official, so to speak, and I want to keep this low-key.”

Meaning he wanted to go cheap and pay cash out of his pocket, rather than leave a paper trail. At least that was my uneducated guess.

“Do you really want the guard out front knowing all your secrets?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t know all my secrets.” Parkus smiled, trying to be jovial, lighten things up. “The truth is, Harvey, I want someone I know, someone I can talk to without creating attention. You can give me your reports as I come through the gate. No phone calls, no memos, nothing anyone can ask questions about. It’s certainly not going to look strange if your car is parked outside the gate. And the great thing is, you can watch her day and night without raising any suspicion. Hell, half the time you’ll just be doing your job, right out front where everybody can see you.”

He’d obviously given this a lot of thought, but it still didn’t make sense to me.

“Aren’t you afraid she’ll recognize me?”

“She’s only seen you a couple of times, late at night, in the dark. I doubt she’d recognize you in the daylight, especially out of context. Besides, you’re not going to get that close to her, you’re too good at what you do.”

Either Parkus was trying to flatter me, or he was an idiot. He had to know the extent of my surveillance experience was sitting in a chair, watching the gate open and close.

The waitress arrived with our food, which gave me a few minutes to get my thoughts together. I bought another minute or two pouring A-1 sauce on my steak and chewing on a few bites of meat. I’m glad I did, because tasting that steak cleared my head. Why was I trying to talk this guy out of hiring me? If he thought I was qualified for the job, what did I care? He was offering me the chance to play detective, which by itself was exciting, and we hadn’t even started talking about the money yet.

“You think she’s having an affair?” I asked.

He carefully spread some cream cheese on his bagel while he considered his answer.

“I don’t think so, but something is going on. She’s been acting strange, aloof, very secretive. She’s evasive and can’t account for her time during the day.”

“I see,” I said, even though I didn’t. I knew more about molecular biology than I did about women, and I don’t even know what molecular biology is.

It occurred to me that I didn’t really know anything about this guy and that my steak was getting cold, so I said: “I’m going to need some background. What can you tell me about you and your wife?”

So, while I ate my steak and fries, Parkus told me that he worked in international distribution of movies, selling them to TV networks overseas. His office was in Studio City, a straight shot east on the Ventura Freeway. He said it took him about forty minutes in good traffic to get to work, which is where he met his wife Lauren ten years ago. She was temping as a receptionist. One day he just stepped out of the elevator and there she was. Bluebirds sang. The clouds parted. Their souls kissed. It was as if he’d known her his entire life.

He made it sound a lot more romantic and personal than that, but I was too jealous to pay attention to the exact words. You get the gist of it. They were married six months later up in Seattle, where she was from.

Lauren Parkus didn’t work, and they didn’t have any kids, so she spent her time on what he called the “charity and arts circuit,” working on fundraisers to stop diseases, feed Ethiopians, buy Picassos for the museum, that kind of thing. And when she wasn’t raising money and organizing parties, she was in charge of decorating and maintaining their home, which he told me was practically a full-time job in itself. I thought about asking him to hire me for that job when this was over, but that would have been getting ahead of myself.

Nothing, Cyril Parkus said, was more important to him than his wife and her happiness.

“Even if she’s cheating on you?” I asked, and from the tight look on his face, I’d gone too far. Before he could say anything I’d regret, I kept talking. More like babbling. “I guess that’s a question you won’t be able to ask yourself until I find out what, if anything, is going on.”

That lightened him up a little. “So you’ll take the job?” Parkus asked.

“For one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses.”

Jim Rockford used to ask for one hundred and twenty-five dollars a day, so I adjusted up for inflation. I probably hadn’t adjusted up enough, but anybody could see I wasn’t James Garner, or even Buddy Ebsen, and besides, it was more than double what I got paid to guard the gate.

“What expenses?” Parkus looked amused. I tried not to look embarrassed.

“You never know, sir.”

“No, I guess you don’t.”

Parkus reached into his pocket, pulled out a thick money clip, and peeled off five one-hundred-dollar bills onto the table.

“This should cover the first few days,” he said.

It was Tuesday, so the retainer would carry me through until the weekend when, I figured, we’d review the situation and make new arrangements.

“When will you get started?” Parkus asked.

“Tomorrow, after my shift. I need to get some things sorted out today, before I jump into this.”

“Of course,” he replied. “Do you have a camera?”

That was one of the things I had to get sorted, but instead of admitting that, I just nodded.

“Then I guess that’s it, Harvey.” Parkus peeled off a twenty to cover our dinner, slid out of the booth, and stood for a moment at the edge of the table, looking down at me. “I really hope this turns out to be nothing.”

I really hoped it would take a week or so to find out.

“Me, too,” I said as if I cared, which, at the time, I didn’t.

He walked away and I ordered a slice of Chocolate Chunks and Chips, the most expensive pie Denny’s had. I could afford it now.

Chapter Three

I
live in the Caribbean.

I love saying that, and I knew that I would, which is the only reason why I chose to live in that stucco box instead of the Manor, the Palms, or the Meadows. All the buildings in that area charged the same rent for a one-bedroom with a “kitchenette,” which is French for a crappy Formica counter and a strip of linoleum on the floor.

The Caribbean is built around a concrete courtyard that’s got a kidney-shaped pool, a sickly palm tree, a couple plastic chaise lounges repaired with duct tape, and a pretty decent Coke machine that keeps the drinks nearly frozen, just the way I like them. The whole courtyard smells of chlorine because the manager dumps the stuff into the pool by the bucket-load. Stepping into the water is like taking an acid bath.

The tenants are evenly split between retirees, Hispanic families, Cal State Northridge students, which I was when I first moved in, and young professionals, which is what I am now. It’s what losers like me like to call ourselves, so we don’t feel like losers.

Carol was already at the pool when I came into the courtyard around ten. She was a young professional like me. She was my age, worked at a mortgage company, and was probably a little too chunky in the middle to be wearing a two-piece bathing suit, but I certainly wasn’t going to say anything. She’d lived in the Caribbean about as long as I had and, when she was really lonely and desperate, we’d fuck sometimes. She wasn’t lonely and desperate nearly as often as I’d like. It wasn’t love, but we’d loaned each other money, taken care of each other when we were sick, and, like I said, fucked a few times, so you could say we were good friends.

You’re probably wondering how this squares with my earlier comment that I don’t know anything about women. I didn’t really consider Carol a woman, for one thing. I mean, she was definitely female and she was straight, but to me a woman was more beautiful, more mysterious, more aloof than Carol. A woman was unattainable, and Carol was eager to be attained, only by a better guy than me, which I didn’t blame her for. That isn’t to say I understood her. I’ve known Carol six or seven years and she still doesn’t make sense to me.

So, like I said, Carol was by the pool when I came in. I was carrying a Sav-On bag, because on the way home I’d stopped to buy myself three disposable cameras, some candy bars, two six-packs of Coke, a spiral notebook, and a couple pens. I even treated myself to the latest Spenser novel at full cover price. That’s how good I felt.

I sat down on the chaise lounge next to her and set my bag on the ground between us.

“You know what’s in this bag?” I asked her.

“This is not like the time you bought me some magazines with the idea I’d look in the bag and also see the big box of Trojans and think you were some kind of stud and be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to hump you.”

“That was years ago. When are you gonna forget about that?”

“Never,” she replied. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m sunbathing on a weekday, instead of going to work?”

“No, I want you to ask me what’s in this bag.”

She sighed. “Okay, what’s in the bag?”

“My private eye kit.” I leaned back and smiled. “Everything I need for long-term surveillance.”

She leaned over and peeked in the bag. I couldn’t help stealing a look at her cleavage.

“Snickers bars and a paperback.” Carol leaned back on the chaise again, giving me a look. She knew where my eyes had been. “Isn’t this the same as your security guard kit?”

“It’s a little different,” I said. “For one thing, this job pays one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses.”

It was an awkward segue, but I was eager to get to the big news. I took out the hundreds and waved them in front of her face. That made her sit up again.

“Where did you get that?”

“It’s my retainer.”

“The only retainer you know anything about is the one you wore in high school, so you can drop the bullshit. Are you doing something illegal?”

I didn’t think so. And after I told Carol all the details, neither did she. But she did have questions.

“What do you know about detective work?” she asked.

“What’s there to know? All I have to do is follow her,” I replied. Besides, I intended to brush up on my skills that night. There was a
Mannix
marathon on TVLand I was going to watch, and I’d have the new Spenser book to refer to during the lulls in my surveillance.

“So you’re going to keep working your midnight-to-eight shift and follow her during the day.”

“That’s right.”

“If you’re supposed to watch her all day, when are you going to sleep?”

“At one hundred and fifty dollars a day plus expenses, who needs sleep?”

“This should be interesting.”

“Which is why I’m doing it. When was the last time my life was interesting?”

Carol smiled. “You have a point.”

She wasn’t lonely or desperate or in the mood to help me celebrate in the lusty way I thought we should, so I went to my apartment to prepare for my new job.

My apartment is a second-floor unit with a “lanai,” which is Hawaiian for a tiny little deck you can barely fit a lawn chair on, and has a spectacular view of our dumpster, which is usually left wide open. So I use the “lanai” to store stuff, like a bike I haven’t used in four years, a Hibachi grill, and that lawn chair I mentioned.

My place is decorated in a casual style I like to call Thrift Shop Chic. Most of my furniture comes from garage sales and hand-me-down stores, with the exception of my bed, which is just a mattress and box spring on a wrought-iron frame. I practically live on this big, black, leather couch I bought at the Salvation Army for a hundred bucks that’d been softened up and creased all over by years of pounding by heavy butts long before I got it.

I’ve also got a bunch of those white particle-board bookcases, the kind you put together with those little, L-shaped, screw-in-tool thingies that come in the box. Most of the shelves are sagging under the weight of books, videos, and stereo components, but it doesn’t bother me as long as the bookcases don’t collapse.

I took a frosty can of Coke from the fridge, a bag of chips from the cupboard, and settled on my couch, put my feet up on the coffee table, and turned on the TV set.

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