Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (5 page)

Lauren drove into one of the city-owned, valet parking lots. I pulled in a couple of cars behind her, then ducked down to put on my shoes as she walked past me. When I gave my keys to the valet, he looked like I dropped a turd in his hand.

I walked about a half-block behind Lauren and carried my Kodak disposable camera out in the open, figuring that way I’d look like a tourist and wouldn’t raise any suspicions if people saw me taking pictures. Not that anyone was going to notice me with so many boob jobs walking by.

These tomatoes were mostly plastic fruit. The women here seemed to be walking around for the sole purpose of modeling their new hooters. I wondered how many of them would sleep with me if I had white hair and white eyebrows. They’d probably just run screaming. I gladly took in the show, but was careful not to let my attention stray too long.

Besides, it wasn’t like watching Lauren was painful on the eyes. She was wearing trim, black linen pants and a sleeveless, white top, and I found the aggressive, don’t-give-me-shit way she was walking down the street incredibly sexy. Gone was any of the pensiveness she seemed to have yesterday. Today she seemed pissed off and in a hurry.

I liked it.

Remember how earlier I was talking about what a woman was? Lauren Parkus was a woman. No doubt about it.

She marched up to the door of Beverly Hills Collateral Lenders and hesitated. Just for a moment. Like she’d changed her mind. She made a quarter-turn in my direction, and that’s when I snapped a picture.

I only saw her face for an instant, but I thought I saw fear, anger, and sadness all mixed together. I felt the surprising urge to hold her. Not for sex, either, which was the most surprising part about it. In the time it took for the shutter to click, whatever doubts Lauren had disappeared and she went inside.

I stood where I was and took a good look at Beverly Hills Collateral Lenders. There were no windows, just a sign in elegant script and a door squeezed between a clothing store and an overpriced muffin place. Although I couldn’t see inside, I could guess what she was doing and it made me angry.

I bought a five-dollar cranberry muffin and a two-dollar cup of coffee, sat down at a table out front, and waited to see what happened next.

Chapter Six

“C
ollateral Lender” is just a fancy way of saying “Pawn Shop.”

I know a few things about pawn shops. I’ve never been inside one myself, but my father was a regular customer and that’s how I acquired my knowledge and a healthy hatred of the places.

My father, Kingston “King” Mapes, was a gambler. I tell that to most people, and they imagine some suave guy in a tuxedo, striding into a ritzy casino. Or they think of that Kenny Rogers song.

He was nothing like either one, and I suspect that’s true of most people who play cards and call themselves gamblers like it’s something to be proud of.

I suppose I should have been angry about paying seven dollars for a muffin and a cup of coffee, instead of things that happened in the past. I was stuck with the past, I couldn’t do anything about that, but I certainly wasn’t going to patronize that muffin place again. You could get two big breakfasts at Denny’s for the same price.

Like I said, rich people sometimes aren’t very bright when it comes to spending what they’ve earned. It’s a good thing I was on an expense account.

I glared some more at the Beverly Hills Collateral Lenders sign and wondered what Lauren’s problem was. Maybe her lover needed some quick cash. Maybe it wasn’t a lover, maybe it was drugs. Or maybe she was a gambler like my dad. If she was, pretty soon Cyril’s house would be stripped clean of anything of value. When I was a kid, my dad once stole my watch and clock radio while I was sleeping. I woke up one morning and they were gone. That’s why, to this day, I sleep with my watch on.

After staring at the building for a while, it occurred to me I hadn’t seen her go in carrying anything but her purse. Maybe she wasn’t there to hock stuff, maybe she was there to buy things. Could be I’d totally misjudged her. Could be she was actually being a crafty shopper. The goods here had to be better than the stuff at your average pawn shop.

That thought made me feel a lot better, until she walked out ten minutes later, empty-handed. Lauren stood outside the door for a minute, looking kind of dazed. I took a couple pictures. I didn’t want to hug her any more. I wanted to slap her. But I didn’t have to call Dr. Laura to know I really wanted to slap my father.

I could slap him any time I wanted. He’s in his sixties now, living in Palm Springs, near the Indian casinos. I actually visit him sometimes, in his crummy little bachelor unit at the Tropic Palms apartments. He likes to call me Prince.

I’ve never slapped him, but my sister Becky once slapped me when she found out I went down there. I don’t think she was slapping me, really, but maybe I’m over-analyzing things. People who know my father and me, and there aren’t many, say I look just like him.

But none of this has anything to do with Lauren Parkus, or the terrible things that happened later, and that’s what I’m supposed to be talking about.

Lauren walked slowly back to her car. Whatever was pushing her along before was gone. I think she didn’t want to go back. I took more pictures. It was really just an excuse to look at her some more, like I’d be able to understand her better through the lens than with the naked eye. Which was stupid. It was a disposable camera, not a fucking microscope.

She paid the valet, got in her car, and drove off. I did the same.

Lauren Parkus got back to Bel Vista Estates before lunchtime. I parked in my usual spot alongside the embankment, where I was out of sight of the guard shack but could still see if anyone left or entered the community.

After about two hours, I slid over to the passenger seat, opened the door a crack, and pissed onto the street from a sitting position. I didn’t want some homeowner driving by and seeing me taking a leak; that would get me fired for sure. So there I was, in my Sephia, sitting there pissing out the door, which isn’t as easy as you might think if you don’t want to wet yourself or the car.

Being in that vulnerable position, I was certain that’s when Lauren would decide to leave again, but she didn’t. I didn’t know it then, but I was in for a long, boring afternoon.

I listened to Dr. Laura, reread my two-line report a few times, ate a box of Ritz Crackers, a bag of beef jerky, and a package of Ding Dongs, and tried hard not to fall asleep.

I’d been up over twelve hours already and hadn’t had much sleep the day before, which was when I really could have used it, after that accident and all.

At five o’clock, I decided to leave.

Now that might not sound very professional to you, but here was my thinking: Her husband usually came home between six and eight, and occasionally later, so she wasn’t likely to run off during that period. The only risk was that she would sneak out in the hour between five and six.

But I needed to get my film developed, and most of those one-hour photo places closed by six or seven. I also needed to get my uniform cleaned and pressed and go home for a nap, a shower, and fresh clothes.

And I was exhausted and felt like shit.

All things considered, I was willing to take the risk.

Maybe Spenser wouldn’t do it, but he has Hawk to help him out. It’s easy to be a complete professional when you’ve got some big, black muscle to back you up with the unpleasant and tedious aspects of the job.

I dropped off my film at the Thrifty near my house, and my uniform at the dry cleaner next door, then went into Ralph’s and browsed through the magazines while I waited for both items to be ready.

The photos were done first, so I took them with me over to Fat Burger for a quick dinner. I was careful not to dribble anything on the pictures as I looked through them.

The first thing that struck we was how her eyes blazed, even in a photograph. The moment was frozen but her eyes were alive.

I felt the irrational fear that she might actually be able to see me and then I found, weirdly, that I wished she could.

I attributed the feelings to hunger and lack of sleep, because otherwise they didn’t make any sense.

I studied the pictures, first because I thought she was beautiful, and I was surprised that a cheapo camera like the Kodak disposable managed to capture the darkness of her hard nipples under her blouse. But then I studied the pictures for another reason. Something had changed about her over the two days, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Her clothes were different, of course, and the expressions on her face covered a lot of emotional range, but otherwise I couldn’t tell what had changed. But I knew something had. I could feel it.

I finished my burger, and went back to Thrifty and bought a magnifying glass before picking up my uniform next door.

When I got back to my car, I hung my uniform up in the backseat, got inside, and looked at the pictures again, this time with the magnifying glass. I had no idea what I was looking for, but it seemed like the professional thing to do. I figured there must be a reason why the magnifying glass is the universal logo for private eyes.

I looked her over real good. She may have been the most beautiful woman with the most perfect body I’d ever seen. And then there were those eyes, like the tractor beams Captain Kirk was always using to capture objects in space. Once you were locked in a tractor beam, good luck escaping without a fight.

I moved the magnifying glass slowly down her slender neck, almost like a caress, to professionally scrutinize the rest of her perfect body.

And then I noticed it, and I went back quickly over all the pictures to make sure.

I sat back and smiled at myself in the rearview mirror. I had just accomplished my first piece of true detecting based on instinct, investigation, and deduction.

In my mind, at that moment, I became a detective.

I was drying off from my shower and getting ready for bed around seven
P.M.
when there was a knock at my door. I could tell from the knock it was Carol, so I just yelled for her to come in.

It’s not that we had a secret knock or anything like that, she just knocks a certain way. Maybe there’s a rhythm to it or something.

I put on my terrycloth robe and walked into the living room, which means I also walked into the kitchen, den, and library at the same time.

“How’s it going, Magnum?” Carol smiled. She was still in her Anne Klein suit, the one she bought on sale and was so proud of, so I knew she’d just come from work without even stopping by her apartment first.

Actually, I didn’t know she did that. I deduced it. I wondered if maybe I’d been a detective longer than I’d thought.

“You weren’t home last night,” she said. “Did you get lucky?”

“I was on the case.”

“Uh-huh,” She went to the fridge and helped herself to a Coke. “What happened to your car?”

“What do you mean?” I asked quickly. For a minute, I was afraid that somehow she’d found out about the accident.

“There’s a new car parked in your spot.” She sat down on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table.

“It’s just something I rented so I wouldn’t be noticed,” I said, trying to sound casual. “But I am thinking, when this is over, of getting rid of my junker.”

I added that last part to cover the inevitable purchase of a new ride.

“What happened to your forehead?” she asked.

I reached up and felt a little lump on my brow, probably a bruise from the accident.

“Nothing. It’s just what happens when I think too hard,” I said. I really was in a hurry to get to the parts of my story that would impress her, not the stuff that made me look like an oaf. “So, do you want to hear about the case or not?”

“If it wouldn’t be breaching any rules about client confidentiality.”

She was teasing me, but I didn’t mind. I was eager to have someone to share my brilliance with. I wanted her to know I’d become a detective, to be my corroborating witness. I grabbed the packet of photos off the kitchen counter, plopped myself down on the couch next to her, and spread the pictures out on the table.

“I’ve laid these out in chronological order,” I said. “Take a look and tell me what you see.”

She took her feet off the table and leaned forward. “Is there something to see?”

“If you know where to look.”

She examined the pictures, then gave me a disapproving look. “You’re not talking about her nipples, are you?”

“I’m only interested in what’s pertinent to the case,” I said, trying to sound offended and superior at the same time. “Try and focus.”

“You’re serious about this.”

I handed her the magnifying glass. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Carol took the magnifying glass and leaned over the photos again. “Because you’ve never been serious about anything else before.”

I didn’t think that was true, and I wasn’t quite sure how to take the comment.

“She’s obviously got money,” Carol said, still scrutinizing the pictures. “Aside from the car, the clothes, and the jewelry, she’s had a lot of work done.”

“What work?” I asked like I already knew.

“Her nose, her eyes, her chin,” Carol replied.

No wonder Lauren looked sculpted to me. I’d have to learn to listen to myself. I was more observant than I thought.

“Maybe even her breasts, too,” she added, “mainly because I hate to think anyone was born that way.”

“That’s the obvious stuff,” I said. “The real story is more subtle.”

I was enjoying the hell out of this and feeling very smart. Because if Carol hadn’t spotted it yet, and I considered her a lot more intelligent than me, then my deduction must really have been clever.

She smiled at me.

I’d never seen a smile like that on Carol before. It was as if she was intrigued and amused and surprised all at once.

“You’re sure pleased with yourself. That’s a first, too,” she said. “Why don’t you just tell me, and save me the hard work and suspense.”

So I did. I showed her that Lauren wore a gold necklace, tiny earrings, and her wedding ring during her day at the beach. She was also wearing them when she went to Beverly Hills Collateral Lenders—but she was only wearing her wedding ring when she came out.

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