Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (6 page)

“Lauren hocked her jewelry,” I concluded. “The question now is why? Debts? Drugs? Blackmail?”

“Collagen? Botox? Lipo?”

Carol smiled. I gave her a chastising look, or at least my best shot at one.

“You’re not helping,” I said. “I’m trying to work here.”

She looked at me, as if she’d just noticed a giant mole on my cheek or something. “You are, aren’t you? I mean, you really do want to find out what is going on.”

“Of course I do. It’s my job.”

“You know something, Harvey? You may have stumbled into your true calling.”

“You think so?” I wanted to believe she was right.

Instead of answering me, she did something totally unexpected.

She kissed me hard on the lips and thrust her hand inside my bathrobe. I forgot all about my calling and answered a new one.

Chapter Seven

guess something I learned from
was true. Being a private eye really is an aphrodisiac to women. Carol had never attacked me like that before.

I’m afraid the surprise and excitement were too much, because I came in about three minutes. But I don’t think Carol minded; it calmed me down and allowed me to concentrate real hard on getting her off. And believe me, it took my complete attention. Pleasing a woman, especially Carol, isn’t easy and with me, at least, there’s a lot of potential for embarrassment and humiliation.

She rewarded me for all my hard work with a nice, squealing, writhing orgasm that nearly broke my nose on her pubic bone, but I didn’t mind. I even jumped in, literally, to enjoy the last few squeals of it with her.

It was so dark, and things happened so fast, she never saw my cuts and bruises, so she mistook my occasional groans of pain for pleasure.

Carol fell right to sleep afterwards.

Between the sex, the pain, and the things on my mind, I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked. But I get laid so rarely, I’m willing to sacrifice just about anything for it, especially sleep, when I usually dream about having sex anyway.

Around eleven, I slipped out of bed, took four Advils, smeared a lot of Arrid Extra Dry under my arms to hide the smell of sex on me, and got into my clean uniform. I grabbed some fresh clothes, gathered up the photos, and left as quickly as I could.

To be honest, I was eager to get out of there. I was confused and more than a little bit ashamed and thought that leaving the apartment would change things.

It didn’t.

I just couldn’t understand why it had happened. Not the sex with Carol, that was great. It was what happened during the sex, and it was all I could think about afterward.

What was troubling me was this: when I was making love to Carol, it was Lauren that I saw.

The first thing I did when I got in the shack was check the surveillance tapes to reassure myself that Lauren Parkus didn’t leave between the time I abandoned my post and her husband came home.

She hadn’t.

The rest of the night I just watched TV, stared into the darkness, and guzzled Cokes to stay awake. I tried not to think about Lauren Parkus, or why I saw her while making love to Carol, or why I felt so guilty about it. So, naturally, that was all I thought about.

I figured there weren’t many men who could look at Lauren Parkus and not fantasize a little bit about her, especially while having sex. But that didn’t make me feel any better.

In fact, by seven forty-five
when Cyril Parkus came down, I was so wired on caffeine and so afraid he’d guess I was horny for his wife that my hands were shaking.

He rolled down the window of his Jag and looked up at me. “Anything new, Harvey?”

“I’m afraid there is, Mr. Parkus,” I handed him the packet of photos, my handwritten report, and receipts for the film developing, parking, and overpriced muffin. I’d left out certain photos, I’m pretty sure you can guess which ones.

“Your wife hocked her jewelry in Beverly Hills,” I said as he flipped through the photos.

Parkus stopped at the picture of her going into the Collateral Lender and shook his head in disagreement. “She’ll go anywhere for a bargain. How do you know she didn’t just go in there to shop?”

I was hoping he’d ask, so I could show off. “You’ll notice she’s wearing her jewelry when she goes in and not when she comes out. Ergo, she hocked it.”

He looked at those two pictures again, then back at me. His eyes were cold.

“Ergo, Harvey?”

I met his gaze, just to prove I had some balls, and wouldn’t always take his shit.

“Ergo, Mr. Parkus.”

He must have seen something in my eyes besides my lack of sleep, and if he did see something, I wished he’d held up a mirror so I could’ve seen it, too.

Parkus blinked and turned back to the pictures. “Lauren doesn’t need to hock anything, Harvey. She has plenty of money.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want you to know what she’s spending it on.” I pressed my advantage. “How much was the jewelry worth?”

“About thirty thousand, give or take.” He stuffed the pictures back into their envelope.

“Any idea what she’d need that kind of money for?”

“If I did, I wouldn’t need you, would I?” He tossed the envelope back to me and drove off without waiting for my reply.

It’s nice to be needed, especially at one hundred fifty dollars a day plus expenses.

I almost slept through the most important day in the investigation.

If Lauren Parkus hadn’t been in such a hurry coming out of the gate at ten
, and if she hadn’t cut off a Lincoln, and if the old geezer driving it hadn’t honked at her long and loud to show how angry he was, I wouldn’t have woken up. I’d have still been sitting there waiting for her to come out when she came home later that afternoon.

But the guy did honk, I woke up, and I was able to follow her. We headed south again on the Ventura Freeway, getting off in Calabasas and taking Malibu Canyon towards the sea.

It’s a real nice drive through the Santa Monica Mountains, with lots of charred trees and blackened earth from the annual wildfires to look at. You also pass some dramatic gouges and gashes in the hillside from the seasonal mudslides. It’s not the place I’d pick to build my secluded mansion, but I’m not a rich movie star or studio executive.

When we hit the Pacific Coast Highway, she turned left towards Santa Monica, traveling south along the beaches.

It’s amazing how beautiful the ocean is, especially when you consider it’s just a giant toilet that’s been used by millions of people and never been flushed. There’s only a few months out of the year when stepping in it is actually hazardous to your health. The rest of the time, you’ll just get a rash that we let the tourists think is sunburn. But despite its variable toxicity, the sea along the Southern California coastline is always nice to look at and that’s got to count for something.

Lauren took the off-ramp up to Ocean Avenue, but instead of going into Santa Monica, she surprised me by making a hard left onto the Pier.

I was surprised for a lot of reasons, but mainly because it was such a cliché. Once again,
got it right, or maybe we just can’t help but imitate it. Maybe the clichés and conventions are so ingrained, they’ve become instinctive behavior.

In old TV cop shows, people are always having their clandestine meetings in decrepit warehouses and abandoned amusement parks. I guess since most of the decrepit warehouses in LA were converted to soundstages, and the last abandoned amusement park was paved over decades ago, the Santa Monica Pier was the perfect compromise.

Beyond the landmark carousel, the Pier has all the allure of one of those traveling carnivals that set up for a weekend or two in a vacant field or shopping center parking lot. The big attractions are a Ferris wheel, a rinky-dink roller coaster, and a noisy pinball arcade where old Pac Man machines go to die.

I didn’t know much about Lauren Parkus, but I was willing to bet she hadn’t picked this spot, which already told me a lot about the person she was going to meet. Whoever he was, he wasn’t in her class.

He was in mine.

Lauren paid the ten bucks and parked behind the arcade and near the ticket booth for the rides. I parked two rows over, across from her, so I could see her face. She sat in her car for a moment, looking at the line of weary Hispanic nannies waiting for tickets, pushing elaborate strollers full of plump, white kids dribbling drool and snot onto their Izod polo shirts and Guess overalls.

I wondered what she was thinking and snapped a few pictures on the chance I might see the answer on her face later, under a magnifying glass.

After a few moments, Lauren put on a pair of sunglasses and got out, carrying a large purse. She’d dressed down for this, wearing jeans and a big, untucked blouse loosely buttoned over a blue t-shirt.

She walked slowly and deliberately towards the rides and I followed a few yards behind, trying to look inconspicuous, which wasn’t easy without a kid, a stroller, or a date. I pretended to take pictures, like I was a tourist who loved seedy amusement parks.

I was pretty excited, and nervous, too, because I could feel that I was coming up on the big moment I’d been waiting for, the key revelation in the case. But I was hoping it wouldn’t be the end, but rather send things in a new direction. I was enjoying this job too much for it to finish so soon.

As I moved through the crowd, I kept my eye open for thugs from the Syndicate, European hitmen, and Ninja assassins, because that’s what Joe Mannix would do. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if I spotted any of them, though, since, unlike Mannix, I don’t carry a gun and hadn’t been in a fistfight since the fourth grade. Luckily for me, they seemed to be busy elsewhere that day.

She took a seat at a table in front of a hot dog place. A moment later, a guy sat down across from her and she seemed to recoil. I couldn’t blame her.

He looked like the kind of character Martin Sheen used to play on “Cannon” and “Barnaby Jones” before he became the President of the United States on TV. The guy had a thick, bushy mustache on his thin face that hung over his leering grin and must’ve got stuck in everything he ate. His deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks made him look older than he probably was, which I pegged at around thirty-four. He let the stringy, black hair on the back of his head grow over his shoulders in a botched attempt to make you forget his receding hairline.

She wasn’t fucking this guy, I was certain of that. Her whole body screamed out her repulsion. He had this relaxed, cocky air about him. I wanted to beat the shit out of the guy and I didn’t even know him.

I snapped a bunch of pictures and, since I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I tried to read their expressions and body language instead. It was like watching one of those soap operas on the Spanish channel.

I could tell she was angry, but pleading at the same time. He was enjoying himself way too much. He liked looking at her, but he liked torturing her even more, which is why I knew even before she gave him the bulging envelope from her purse that this was about blackmail.

The package was a half-filled manila envelope folded over itself and taped together that I guessed held about thirty thousand dollars.

He stuck the money inside his shirt, said something, and grinned.

“You promised!” she yelled in fury, startling me.

But he didn’t even flinch. He kissed the air between them, stood up, and strode off, relaxed and happy with himself.

Lauren Parkus stayed there, staring at the space where he’d been, tears streaming from beneath her dark, impenetrable glasses.

Chapter Eight

was right about food getting stuck in his mustache. From where I sat, a couple tables away from him in the food court of the Santa Monica Place mall, I could see the grains of fried rice getting trapped in the tangle above his lip as he stuffed himself with Chinese food.

Back on the pier, I had five seconds to choose between staying with Lauren or following her blackmailer. I figured since her business was done, I wouldn’t miss anything if I left her.

Lauren’s blackmailer strode up the pier to the mall, patting his stomach every so often to feel the thirty grand underneath his shirt. I’d probably have done the same thing, if I was him. As soon as he was in the mall, he went straight to the food court and got himself the three ninety-nine combo plate at the Wok Inn.

As long as I was there, I bought myself a slice of pizza and a Coke, got a table where I could see him, and thought about things. I wondered what he had on Lauren, and if there were pictures or recordings somewhere that Cyril Parkus might pay me to get back. And if I did get hired to do it, I wondered how the hell I’d pull it off.

Things were getting complicated and scary and exciting, words I never could have used before to describe my life. I liked it.

He finished his lunch and got up without bussing his table. I thought about snagging his fork for fingerprints, but I realized I didn’t have an irascible friend on The Force to run them for me. I made a mental note to myself: if I stayed in this business, I’d have to cultivate a love-hate relationship with a police officer right away.

The blackmailer crossed Broadway, then walked down to the corner of Second Street and disappeared. I waited a minute, shoved the camera in my pants pocket, then ran across the street. I hurried up to the corner and peered around the edge of the building, just in time to see him enter the municipal parking structure, where you get the first three hours free. This guy and I had at least one thing in common. If I had the choice, I would have saved the ten bucks and parked there, too, even if I knew I’d be coming back to the car with thirty thousand dollars.

I jogged up to the parking structure, and when I got there, he was just stepping into the elevator, leaving me with a split-second choice to make. I could either go in the elevator with him, or run up the stairs and somehow try to meet him at whatever floor he stopped at. It wasn’t that hard a choice to make.

I rushed into the elevator.

He grabbed me as I came in, threw me back against the wall, and slammed his fist into my stomach. I keeled over, grasping at his shirt as I went down, pulling it out of his pants. The packet of money hit the floor just before I did.

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