Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (4 page)

She was gone.

I couldn’t believe it. I’d only been away a few seconds and she’d disappeared. I looked for her car. It was still there, so she couldn’t have gone far.

Unless she got into her lover’s car.

I told myself there wasn’t time for that to happen. She’d been down by the water, she couldn’t have gotten back to the parking lot that quickly.

I ran out towards the water, looking everywhere for her as I went.

And that’s when I almost stepped on her.

She was right where she was supposed to be, only now she was lying down, which is how I’d missed her. I quickly spun around, turning my back to her, and hoped for the second time that day that she hadn’t noticed me.

I walked quickly back to my car, got inside, and gave some thought to how to avoid pissing on duty in the future.

I passed the time reading the Spenser book and noticed he never had bladder issues on the job, which I now knew from experience wasn’t very realistic. I was thinking about writing a letter on the subject to the author when Lauren got up off the sand and trudged back towards her car.

I made a notation of the time and started my car up in anticipation.

As Lauren got closer, I could see the sadness on her face. Perhaps it was longing for the lover who never showed up. I briefly considered volunteering to take his place, but ethically, it just wasn’t the right thing to do. I also lacked the courage, the looks, and the charm to pull it off. But there was a light, cool breeze buffeting her blouse, making her nipples big and hard, so I couldn’t help at least fantasizing about the possibility.

I took another picture. This one was also for me.

She got in her car, backed out slowly, and drove off. I took it easy and let a couple cars pass before leaving the parking lot and following her down the street the way we came.

It was going just fine until we were nearly at the freeway. She went through the intersection and the light turned yellow on the car that was between us.

There was only one way to stay with her.

I ran the red light.

The only thing I really remember about the accident was the sound of the impact when the van clipped me.

I don’t know what it felt like when the car rolled over all those times, or what I was thinking when I unbuckled my seat belt, crawled out of my upside-down Sentra, and vomited on the pavement.

What is real clear to me was the terror on the face of the van’s Mexican driver as he slowed to look at me, and then the sound of his tires squealing as he sped off, dragging his front grill along the pavement.

Chapter Five

n a strange way, it was my lucky day.

The driver of the van that hit me must have been an illegal alien or a wanted criminal or something, because he didn’t stick around to accuse me of running the red light and causing the accident.

That wasn’t the only break I got.

The witnesses were totally unreliable. Because the driver of the van fled, in their minds that made him the bad guy, even though they must have seen me run the red light. They resolved the conflict between what they saw and what really happened by simply changing what they saw.

I helped things along by looking as pitiful and pained as I possibly could, hoping to appeal to their compassion and gullibility.

It worked.

To the police, I was the poor victim of a hit-and-run driver and he became the asshole who hit me. Obviously, I didn’t say anything that would change their minds, but now I know what eyewitness testimony is really worth.

I also made sure to describe the Hispanic driver as black, and say, with absolute certainty, that his Chevy van was a Ford. The last thing I wanted the police to do was find the guy, and the witnesses helped me again. One witness described the driver as Asian, another saw a white woman, and no one knew what kind of van it was.

The paramedics insisted that I go to the hospital, but I didn’t want to make a bad day worse by adding a medical deductible to my problems. Besides, all I had were a few cuts and bruises, which they’d already doctored up just fine. So I swallowed four Advils, thanked them, and walked away to inspect what was left of my Sentra.

There was no question that my car was totaled. I was insured, but I had a thousand-dollar deductible to keep my rates down. I doubted my car was worth much more than two grand, and with only seven hundred eighty-eight dollars in the bank, I saw financial disaster in my future.

I borrowed a cop’s cell phone and called my insurance agent, and discovered my luck was still holding. The deductible didn’t apply in this situation. The insurance company had a deal with a body shop in Santa Barbara; all I’d have to do is have my car towed there and they’d take care of everything, even give me a free rental until they could cut me a check for the negligible market value of my heap.

I figured if I kept working for the next week or so at both jobs, I could still come out of this ahead financially and with a car no worse than what I had before.

So, while I waited for the tow truck, I salvaged my uniform, cameras, and notebook from the car and tried to figure out how I was going to hide this huge fuck-up from Cyril Parkus.

I glanced at my watch. It was five twenty-five.

Lauren Parkus could be anywhere. Fucking her lover or robbing banks or hopping a jet to Rio, for all I knew.

Cyril Parkus was going to want a complete account of his wife’s activities, and if I made something up, I stood a good chance of being caught.

What would happen, for example, if I reported that she went to the movies at three, but when Cyril Parkus got home he discovered his wife had bought a couple stone lions for their back door? Her shopping trip wouldn’t be in my report and I’d be outed as a moron.

The last time I’d seen Lauren was two hours ago, getting onto the southbound Ventura Freeway. If I was very, very, very lucky, she went straight home, but I didn’t hold out much hope.

It was after eight by the time I got out of Santa Barbara in my rented Kia Sephia, Korea’s idea of an automotive practical joke. I was certain if I hit a speed bump too fast, I would be killed instantly.

Even so, I drove the car as fast as it would go, managing to nudge the speedometer all the way up to fifty-six miles per hour without the engine bursting into flames and covering the freeway with bits of charred hamster.

All in all, my first day doing detective work wasn’t quite what I’d hoped it would be. There was no glamour. There was no action. And the only nipples I saw were from a distance. It was a complete disaster. Even so, I was exhilarated in way I hadn’t been since, well, since ever.

I knew I wasn’t going to have time to go home before starting my shift, so I stopped at Target and reluctantly parted with fifty bucks. I bought a fresh shirt and pants, a battery-operated alarm clock, a bunch of snack food, and some personal hygiene stuff.

I stopped at a Chevron station and cleaned myself in the restroom. I shaved, brushed my teeth, and washed my hair in the corroded sink. I slathered Arid Extra Dry Ultra Fresh Gel under my arms, shook the broken glass off my uniform, and put it on, hoping no one would notice in the dark just how wrinkled and dirty it was.

Exuding ultra-freshness, I got back in my car and drove to Spanish Hills, parking down the block from Bel Vista Estates. I set the alarm clock for eleven fifty, put it on the dash, and closed my eyes.

The alarm rang on time. I swiped it off the dash and stuck it in the glove box, which I discovered was roomier than the trunk. I made a mental note to myself to scratch the Kia Sephia off my list of possible new cars.

Every part of my body ached from the accident and within seconds of waking up, my stomach started cramping with anxiety. I still had no idea what I was going to tell Cyril Parkus. I didn’t want him to find out I was incompetent, at least not until I got more of his money, which I needed more now than ever.

I got out of the car, told myself I was as ultra-fresh as I smelled, and walked up to the shack to relieve Clay Denbo, sort of a younger version of me, only black and two hundred pounds heavier. I weight one ninety, so you get the picture.

Clay worked part-time while going to community college in Moorpark, the way I did, only I went to Cal State Northridge, which is a better school.

He was thinking of either becoming a radio psychologist or a parking concepts engineer. Redesigning the layout of parking lots to add more spaces was kind of his hobby. He had a whole sketchpad of ideas he carried around with him and was always asking me to keep my eyes open for problem parking areas he could visit.

Clay was packing up his textbooks and sketchpad as I walked up. One of the books was called
History of Vehicle Parking in the Urban Landscape
, a real grabber. He took one look at me and his mouth kind of hung open.

“Jesus Christ, Harvey, what happened to you?” he asked.

“A woman,” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but the implication was certainly dishonest.

Clay broke out in a big grin, and I realized he’d make a terrific black Santa Claus and, with the political correctness and diversity thing being trendy at the time, I thought it might even be a money-making idea for him. But I kept the idea to myself, not sure if it’d be taken as some kind of racist jab. You can’t be too sure these days.

“Hot damn,” Clay said. “Looks like she crawled all over you.”

“She really likes a man in uniform.” I smiled.

“Think she’d go for a lot more man in a lot more uniform?”

“I hope not.”

Clay gave me a jolly slap on the back as he stepped out of the shack. “See you tomorrow, stud.”

As soon as he was gone, the first thing I did was rewind the tapes from the gate’s surveillance cameras until I came across Lauren Parkus returning home.

I froze the tape on her Range Rover going through the gate. According to the time code, she drove in at four seventeen, not even an hour after I last saw her.

That meant she drove straight home. She couldn’t have stopped anywhere between Santa Barbara and the gate in that amount of time.

I fell into the chair and nearly cried with relief.

I had a second chance.

Cyril Parkus drove out of the community and up to the shack around seven thirty in the morning.

“So?” he asked.

I gave him my handwritten report. “She had coffee, took a walk on the beach, and came home.”

Parkus didn’t look up from the piece of notebook paper, as if staring at it real hard would reveal new details even I had missed.

“She didn’t see anybody all day?” he asked.

“Not unless you count the guy who served her coffee.”

“I see you noted the seven dollars you paid for parking,” he said. “That would be one of the expenses you were talking about.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The one hundred and fifty dollars a day doesn’t cover parking?”

I couldn’t tell if he was playing with me, or just being cheap. He didn’t wait for me to answer, he just handed the paper back to me.

“Thanks, Harvey,” he said. “Keep up the good work.”

And with that, Cyril Parkus drove off, the smell of leather upholstery lingering in his wake.

He didn’t even say anything about how lousy I looked. Maybe I really was ultra-fresh. Or maybe he just didn’t give a damn.

Sergeant Victor Banos showed up a few minutes later, and he made up for Parkus’ oversight regarding my appearance. I won’t share all the snide remarks he made, they really aren’t pertinent to the story. Needless to say, I got out of there as fast as I could, returned to my Sephia, and changed into my new clothes.

I’d just got my pants on when Lauren Parkus drove out of the gate. She was getting a very early start. I turned the key in the ignition, hit the gas pedal in my stocking feet, and followed after her.

Lauren didn’t make it difficult for me this time. She went right down to the freeway and headed south. We hit the tail end of rush hour traffic, so keeping up with her was easy, though my Sephia struggled mightily going up the Conejo Pass between Camarillo and Newbury Park. The car was such a little shitcan, I was afraid if a bug slammed into the windshield the car would be totaled.

She took me across the San Fernando Valley to Studio City, where she got off at Coldwater Canyon and headed south towards the Hollywood Hills.

I stayed one car behind her on Coldwater and tailgated the guy in front of me. I was afraid of another intersection mishap like the day before. If this guy raced into the intersection on a yellow, I was going too, hanging right onto his bumper. We crossed Ventura Boulevard without incident, but the guy in front of me got spooked and made a sharp, last-minute right turn onto a side street.

I bet the idiot thought I was following him.

She led me up Coldwater and I relaxed a bit because I had a general idea where we were headed. Coldwater weaves through the Hollywood Hills and is basically used as a shortcut between the Valley and Beverly Hills.

So I settled back and enjoyed the drive. We passed one big mansion after another. They aren’t so much homes as they are billboards. The only reason anybody that wealthy would want to live on a busy, narrow street like that is to show everybody how much money he has.

So for the opportunity to brag, these rich-ass people get to breathe exhaust fumes and listen to traffic going by all day.

In other words, they’re paying millions to experience what it’s like living in a cardboard box beside a freeway.

Just because the rich have money, it doesn’t mean they’ve got brains.

I followed Lauren Parkus across Sunset, where Coldwater becomes Beverly Boulevard and widens quite a bit. The houses are every bit as expensive and just as showy. You’ll also find a lot more of those mysterious stone lions.

She crossed Santa Monica Boulevard and entered the fancy shopping district known in all the tourist guides as the Golden Triangle, which sounds like a sleazy euphemism for a woman’s crotch. Based on the name, you’d expect to find topless bars and nudie shows instead of Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Tiffany’s. Then again, the most famous street in the area is Rodeo Drive, but you won’t find anything that even remotely has to do with rodeos, cattle, or cowboys. So right away you know nothing in Beverly Hills is what it says it is, or appears to be.

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