Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (23 page)

What I found out wasn’t encouraging.

In the state of California, you’ve got to take an extensive training course, log six thousand hours of investigative experience, and pass a two-hour written exam covering laws and regulations before you get a license. By my calculations, it would be about three years before I could set up shop as a private detective.

Legally, that is.

But there wasn’t any law saying I couldn’t go into business as an “investigative advisor” or “professional problem solver.” I knew it could be done. Travis McGee didn’t have a license, he just called himself a “salvage expert” and asked for half the value of whatever he recovered. I decided that could work for me, too, though I wasn’t sure how I’d figure out the salvage price for, as an example, following someone’s wife. I decided my task for the month would be to reread the books and make a detailed report of exactly how McGee computed his commissions.

So that’s what I was doing on that sunny Wednesday afternoon, about a week after I got back. I was on my way out to the pool in a t-shirt and shorts with one of the McGee books when I saw him, sitting on a chaise lounge, waiting for me.

Little Billy held the baseball bat across his lap, tapping it gently on the open palm of his hand, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses that were squeezed into place between his bulbous nose and his Neanderthal brow.

I was stunned and terrified and feeling incredibly vulnerable with only a used paperback and a yellow highlighter for protection. I didn’t think I could muster the same tough guy swagger that enabled me to survive our last encounter.

I suppose the sensible thing to do would have been to run back into my apartment, lock the door, and hope my call to 911 would go through before Little Billy broke inside and killed me.

But curiosity and a suicidal sense of dignity got the better of me. I surrendered to the inevitability of my violent demise, smiled, and walked right over to him.

“How did you find me?” I asked.

“Arlo said he had a deal going in LA.” Little Billy shrugged. “You gave your name to the Wades. I looked it up in the LA phone book. There was only one Harvey Mapes.”

He had a bright future as a private eye, certainly a lot brighter than mine seemed at that moment. Then again, it occurred to me that he hadn’t mentioned Cyril Parkus or Lauren Parkus. He’d only come looking for me. Which, I deduced, meant he didn’t know what Arlo’s deal was in LA. That gave me a slight advantage.

I motioned to the baseball bat with a nod of my head. “You brought that all the way from Deerlick?”

“I never go anywhere without it.”

I guess you could call the bat his pacifier. Perhaps he just used it to pacify others. “So, when do you intend to start hitting me with it?”

“I don’t know yet.”

That offered me some hope. Even so, my mouth was suddenly so dry, I could hardly swallow without gagging.

“Mind if I have a Coke while you decide?” I asked.

He shrugged.

“You want anything?” I asked.

“Dr Pepper,” he replied.

I went to the machine, and as I fed coins into the slot, I was struck by the absurdity of offering refreshments to my executioner. I never had experiences like this before I became a private eye and, despite the jeopardy, I wasn’t sorry. I might be later, though, after a few whacks of that bat against my skull.

I brought back the drinks, reclined on the chaise lounge next to him, and took a big sip of Diet Coke.

He downed his Dr Pepper in one long gulp.

I waited for him to smash the empty can against his forehead, or crush it in his fist, or just take a bite out of it, but he didn’t. He set the empty can on the ground beside him and burped.

“I want to know what happened to Arlo,” Little Billy said. “He went out to the lake to kill you and didn’t come back.”

“Are you here to finish the job?” I asked, hoping my voice wouldn’t crack and reveal my terror.

“Depends,” Little Billy replied. “Did you kill my brother?”

“No.”

“Then how come you’re still alive?”

“Lucky, I guess.”

“Why were you looking for him?”

“I can’t tell you that,” I replied, though if he hit me a couple times with that bat, I probably would have changed my mind. I think he knew it, too.

“I could make you,” he said confidently.

“I wish you wouldn’t.” I tried to say that without sounding like I was pleading.

“Do you know where I can find Arlo?”

I shook my head because I didn’t think I could say no with conviction.

“The police came around a few days ago. They’re looking for him, too. They say he killed Jolene. Is it true?”

I nodded. “He slammed her head into a big-screen TV and left her there to die. Lovable guy, your brother.”

Little Billy was silent for a moment. I was expecting the bat to come swinging my way at any second. When he finally moved, I cringed, but he was only getting comfortable on the chaise lounge. If he noticed my cowardice, he didn’t show it.

“Arlo wasn’t always the fuck-up,” Little Billy said. “That was supposed to be my profession. But he had the hots for this girl at the lake who then went and drowned herself. After that, he didn’t give a shit about anything.”

Little Billy picked up the Dr Pepper can, got up, and dropped it in the trash can, then turned around and stood over me.

He was in the perfect position to swat my head right off my shoulders.

“I’m not saying what he’s done is right or wrong, that don’t matter to me,” Little Billy said. “He’s my brother, and I’m supposed to look out for him. If someone hurt him, I’m going to have to hurt them worse.”

I couldn’t see his eyes behind those sunglasses, but I was pretty sure he was staring at me, trying to decide if now was the time to carry out his responsibility. After a moment, he rested the baseball bat on his shoulder like a caveman’s club and walked out.

I stayed on the chaise lounge for another twenty minutes or so, thinking about my encounter with Little Billy.

It occurred to me that he’d make the perfect psychopathic sidekick for my new business venture—as long as he never found out that I’d helped murder his brother.

I started staking out the gate in front of Bel Vista Estates the same afternoon I had my visit from Little Billy. I told myself I was doing it to protect Cyril Parkus in case Little Billy came after him, but the truth is, I didn’t really think he was in any danger.

I told myself I’d watch him for a week, and if nothing happened, I’d leave him alone, but that wasn’t true, either.

I still felt different from everybody else, like they all had secrets and it was my job to find them out. I felt such a strong compulsion now to play detective that, if I didn’t have Cyril Parkus to follow, I probably would have picked somebody at random instead.

I didn’t tell Carol what I was doing, though I suppose I would have told her if she’d asked. She was smart enough not to.

I’d arrive around ten
A.M.
after dropping Carol off at work, and would stay until about five. Cyril wasn’t going to the office anymore; I’d made a call there before I started and discovered he was “on sabbatical” indefinitely. And he hardly ever came out of his house, and when he did, it was just to go down to the grocery store or drive through one of the fast-food places.

Cyril didn’t look the same to me. It’s not that he let himself go or anything, it was the way he walked, like he’d suddenly gained a hundred and fifty pounds, and the vacant expression on his face, like he was sleepwalking. More than once I saw him bump into a person, or collide with the edge of a grocery cart, or stumble off a curb, and not even realize it.

He was in mourning for his lost wife, his lost sister, his lost love.

I wondered if in his grief, he ever thought about what he did to Arlo, and if it mattered to him at all.

I hadn’t killed anyone yet, but I thought a lot about the beatings I gave Arlo and the highway robber. I thought about how both of them were helpless at the time, and how I enjoyed that almost as much as delivering the kicks and blows. I thought about what that said about me and if I’d been changed by it.

I also thought about Carol, and I wondered if maybe, out of all the things I’d seen and done over the last few weeks, if she was what had changed me most of all.

I’d been parked outside Bel Vista Estates for five days, and was nearly finished with my list of Travis McGee’s fees, on the afternoon that Cyril Parkus drove out of the gate in Lauren’s Range Rover. I liked it best when he chose that car; it was much easier to see in traffic than his sleek Jag.

I was hoping he was making another trip through Taco Bell, since my stomach was growling and I was in the mood for Mexican food, but instead he headed down towards the freeway.

I thought that maybe he’d finally decided to rejoin the world again.

Traffic was light, so I stayed about four cars behind him. I wasn’t worried about losing him, I could see the top of his enormous Range Rover from a block away.

He drove down to the freeway overpass that led to Old Town Camarillo, so I figured we were making a visit to the outlet mall, probably to Ralph Lauren, judging by what I’d seen of Cyril’s wardrobe. It was a good sign. If he was ready to shop, he was ready to forget.

But then I saw the cars in front of me suddenly brake, and was overcome with a horrible sense of déjà vu. I stopped the car, jumped out, and ran towards the overpass, knowing what I’d see before I saw it.

Cyril Parkus stood on the guardrail over the freeway, his head turned towards the street, waiting for me to show up.

He knew I’d be there, just like Lauren knew.

And when he saw me, he smiled and looked down at the traffic as if contemplating a jump into a tranquil pool.

I yelled his name, and it was still echoing in the air when Cyril simply stepped off the rail, his arms at his sides, his body perfectly straight.

I reached the rail in time to see the massive pile-up below, cars careening across the roadway like pinballs, smashing into one another, dragging pieces of Cyril’s body across the asphalt until he was lost amidst the carnage.

He’d told me in the cabin that he was going to do this, but I was so busy living out my private eye fantasy, so busy trying to plug him into the role of the big, rich, bad ugly, I didn’t hear what he said.

“I don’t care about anything now that she’s gone …”

The tragedy was complete now, sparing no one. Lauren, Cyril, and Arlo were all dead. There was no wrong that had been righted. There was no bad guy on his way to life in the big house. There was no happy client to thank me for what I’d done.

In over two hundred episodes, nothing like this had ever happened to Joe Mannix.

No one was following the rules.

I turned and walked back towards my car against the frantic tide of people rushing off the street and out of their cars to see what happened. When I was passed them, I saw one person standing on the sidewalk in front of my car, a baseball bat resting on his shoulder.

“Did Parkus kill my brother?” Little Billy asked.

I nodded. Some private eye I was. He must have been following me all week, and I never once saw him. Then again, I never thought to look.

“He tied Arlo to a boat anchor and dropped him in the middle of the lake,” I said, suddenly in the mood for honesty.

Little Billy took the news emotionlessly, as if I’d just told him about the weather.

“Could you have stopped him?” he asked.

“No more than I could have stopped this,” I replied.

Little Billy seemed to accept that and let me pass. I was about to get in the car, but then I looked back at him standing there, and felt the pain that he wasn’t showing.

The first instant I saw him, back in Deerlick, I assigned him his clichéd role in my detective story, just as I did with everybody else. He was the mindless, violent thug. The bone-breaker. One of the bad guys. Now I saw a guy whose only fault was that he cared about his brother and I didn’t.

“If you want to meet me back at my place, I’ll buy you another Dr Pepper and tell you everything I know,” I said.

Little Billy nodded.

We both became aware of the sirens approaching, and neither one of us wanted to be here when the police showed up. I tossed him the keys to my apartment.

“I have to stop on the way and pick up my girlfriend at work,” I added. “Make yourself at home.”

I got into my car and watched him go in my rearview mirror.

He walked over to a rusted-out pickup truck a couple cars behind me. He’d driven all the way down here in that junker to find out the truth.

His search had ended the way mine began.

I realized then that maybe we had more in common with each other than either of us knew. Maybe we’d get the chance to find out how much. Or maybe he’d just beat me to death with his bat. I didn’t know, and I didn’t particularly care. I was going with my gut.

As I drove back towards LA, I threw my Travis McGee books out the window. The guy didn’t know shit about being a private eye.

Preview: My Gun Has Bullets

E
ddie Planet pressed his face against the cold, tinted glass and looked ten stories below at the jerks on the Las Vegas Strip, standing around waiting for the Mirage volcano to erupt. Cheap Hollywood spectacle. Some flash and dash to lure ’em in to lose their money. Just like television, he thought. Give ’em enough ass, laughs, or bullets to hold ’em to the commercial.

He shook his glass, oddly reassured by the tinkling of the ice cubes. How many times had he told the sound guys to “jack up the cubes” when one of his characters carried a drink across a room? Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Tinkling cubes are very important to a scene. Whether it’s make-believe or real life. He checked his watch again. A Cartier. The Renault of fine watches. Two minutes until the volcano outside erupted—who knew how long until the one behind the closed master-suite doors blew.

He felt like one of the hick tourists, having their picture taken in front of the steaming fake fissure. Maybe he should hire somebody to take a snapshot of him, pacing in front of the bedroom door with his bourbon and water and tinkling cubes, waiting for Daddy Crofoot’s schlong to erupt.

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