Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (7 page)

I ended up face-down on the floor, mouth open wide, unable to breathe, clutching my stomach, my body on top of his money. I was panicked. It wasn’t the pain as much as it was the shock and the inability to breathe.

That’s when he started kicking me in the ribs, again and again, screaming, “Get up! Get up you motherfucker!”

I wanted to say, “If you’ll stop kicking me, I will,” but I couldn’t breathe, much less form words. With each kick, I imagined bones shattering and internal organs bursting like water balloons. That’s what it felt like. He was killing me.

His foot must have finally got sore, or he got bored, because he stopped kicking me, grabbed me by my shirt, and rolled me over.

He hesitated for a moment, then picked up his money, scowling with disgust, holding it by its edges. The envelope was soiled with big, wet stains.

“Shit, you pissed all over my money!”

I wasn’t surprised. Somewhere between the punch and the third kick, I’d lost all control of my body. I was just a lump of pain and misery and I wanted to die.

“What the fuck’s the matter with you?” He kicked me sharply in the balls. I didn’t think I could hurt any more than I already did. I was wrong. It was a tsunami of pain that swamped my entire body, from my groin to the tips of the individual hairs on my head. “What am I supposed to do with money that smells like piss?”

I gagged and began to choke on my undigested pizza. I imagine Spenser would have had a wittier answer. He probably wouldn’t have started crying.

I did.

He glared at me with utter fury, breathing hard, his chin trembling. It’s hard work kicking a guy when he’s down.

“You can tell her this is what I’ll do to her face, if I ever see you or anybody else on my ass again.”

He lifted his foot back to give me a good kick in the face, one that would flatten my nose against the inside of my skull, and I closed my eyes, like that would actually give me any protection.

I heard a ding and felt nothing. I opened my eyes to blurrily see him shoving his way past a shocked family of six standing outside the elevator doors.

“The queer grabbed my balls,” he said by way of explanation.

“We’ll take the stairs, Martha,” the father told his family, hustling them away from me. I would have thanked them for their help if I’d been able to speak. Just by being there, they saved my face.

With the beating finished, I managed to suck in some air and cough out some puke. It cleared my vision enough for me to clearly see the number eight on a pillar outside, and to realize I was on the eighth floor. It would take the blackmailer some time to drive down to the street.

Now, this is when a very weird thing happened. My prehistoric monkey brain, the part of our minds that’s unchanged from the caveman days, must have been hardwired for detective work. I should have been curled up in a fetal position in my puddle of piss, puke, and tears, whimpering for help. Instead, I reached up and hit the button for the first floor, pain ricocheting around inside of me. The doors closed and my arm dropped. I felt the elevator descending. I willed myself to pull out my camera from my pocket and slid myself around to face the door.

When the doors opened, I dragged myself out on my stomach, propped the camera in front of me on the pavement, aimed the lens at the aisle, and waited for the blackmailer to drive down. I prayed the camera hadn’t been broken by one of his kicks.

A moment or two later, he came screeching by in a new Ford Focus. I don’t think he saw me. I managed to snap one or two pictures before he sped past on his way to the cashier. I hoped I got his license plate, though I had no idea what I would do with the information.

I was still there, soaked in my own urine and bile, when the family of six came out of the stairwell. They pretended not to see me. So did the lovely young couple that walked up five minutes later. They just stepped over me and got in the elevator, then immediately got out and stepped over me again to take the stairs instead.

It took me a good ten minutes before I’d gathered enough oxygen, and enough courage, to try sitting up. The pain was like a fresh kick, but at least I could breathe. Sort of. Each breath was like being stuck with knives. I’d broken a few ribs playing touch football in high school, and it felt just like this.

I propped myself up against the wall and sat there, clutching my sides, gathering strength, waiting for my pants to dry, and hoping the pain would wane.

More people passed me on their way to the elevator and tried not to look at me. I think if I hadn’t wet myself, I would have gotten more sympathy. As it was, I was written off as another one of Santa Monica’s ubiquitous homeless people.

Next time I took a beating, I would work harder at controlling my bladder. Next time, I wouldn’t cry, either.

Yes, I was thinking about the next time.

Because as miserable as I felt, as humiliated as I was, as much pain as I was in, I was elated.

I had just gotten my first professional beating.

Someone had just pounded the piss out of me because my investigation had gotten me too close. It didn’t matter that my bungled surveillance was what got me in that elevator and got me thrashed. Nor did it matter that I didn’t even get in a punch of my own. With each kick, he acknowledged that I was on a case and I was a threat to him.

It was no different from Syndicate thugs trying to run over Jim Rockford. Or a hired sniper taking a shot at Dan Tana. Or someone waiting in Travis McGee’s houseboat to ambush him.

I was one of them now. I wasn’t simply a detective. I was Harvey Mapes, private eye.

I may have considered myself a private dick, but as I sat in my car stripping off my piss-soaked pants and underwear, I certainly didn’t feel like a sex machine to all the chicks.

I left my soiled clothes on the pier, rolled down the window, and drove back to the Valley naked from the waist down, hoping to air myself out a little. I figured if anyone could see I was half-naked, they were too damn close to my car anyway.

I decided against going to the ER. I knew I had a few broken ribs, but a doctor wouldn’t do anything for me I couldn’t do myself, besides prescribe some strong painkillers. I would have to make do with handfuls of Advils, which I could buy in bulk from Costco for what a pharmacist charged for two pills of something fancier.

After I dropped off my film for developing, I’d buy some Ace bandages and a big jug of Pepto Bismol, since eating Advils like M&Ms ravages your stomach. The only thing more humiliating than a detective who pisses his pants is one who can’t be more than five feet away from a toilet for fear he’ll shit himself.

I got off the freeway at the Ventura Boulevard exit and parked behind the first gas station I saw. I put on my uniform, got out of the car, and limped into the men’s room. Those simple actions hurt more than I can describe. Suffice it to say that every move I made was painful, so I won’t belabor the point from now on. Take it as a given.

I shoved my blood-and-puke-stained shirt in the trash, washed my face in the sink, and took a pee to see if there was any blood in my urine. There wasn’t, which I took to mean there wasn’t any internal bleeding, not that I had the slightest bit of medical knowledge.

Still, I was relieved.

I got back in the car and drove to the Thrifty on the way to my place, dropping the film off at their one-hour photo counter. I bought my medical supplies and went to my apartment.

As soon as I got home, I stripped and showered. After that, I wrapped the Ace bandages tightly around my waist, washed down six Advils with a couple gulps of Pepto Bismol, and lay down on my bed to rest for a few minutes.

I awoke to pounding in my head from inside and out.

The apartment was dark. Pain pulsed in my head, keeping time with the sound of a fist banging on my front door.

I sat up slowly, pleased that the tight bandages were providing some support and a slight easing of my pain.

I put on my bathrobe and dragged myself to the front door. I could have stayed where I was and yelled to Carol to stop her damn knocking, but I was afraid it would hurt me more than walking across the apartment.

I unlocked the door and swung it open.

“Oh my God, what happened to you?” Carol said as she came in, closing the door behind her.

“Nothing,” I said. “I’d love to talk, but I got some errands to run before I go to work.”

“Harvey, it’s after midnight.” She turned on the light. “I just got back from the movies.”

“Shit!” I yelled, and confirmed my earlier fears. Yelling did hurt more than walking across the room. I clutched myself and wanted to cry. I’d slept over ten hours.

I wasn’t so concerned about being late to work; Clay would cover for me. But Thrifty was closed now, which meant I wouldn’t be able to pick up the pictures until after my shift Saturday morning. I’d have nothing to show Cyril Parkus. I put both hands on the kitchen counter and groaned. Now I felt like a failure. This hurt worse than the beating.

Carol turned the light off again.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because right now you look a lot better in the dark,” She came up behind me and tenderly caressed my back. She’d never touched me like that before. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said. “I have to go to work.”

“You’re in no condition to work.”

“You could be in a coma and do my job,” I said and shuffled off to the bedroom.

“Then you’re certainly qualified,” she replied.

I was changing carefully into my uniform when Carol came into the bedroom and, without saying a word, helped me put on my pants and button my shirt. It was the most intimate moment of my adult life. For some reason I couldn’t figure out, I wanted to cry, but I brought all my manly resources to bear and controlled myself. When she was done, she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek.

In the glow of my clock radio, I could see the concern on her face when she spoke.

“I’ll be waiting for you tomorrow.”

And I knew, no matter what, she would be.

Chapter Nine

t was after one
by the time I got to Bel Vista Estates with some burgers from McDonalds for Clay and me. Clay took one look at me and offered to work the next shift in my place, but I told him I needed the money.

I also told him I’d been mugged, which is why I looked like shit.

He asked me where it happened, and when I told him it was in a parking structure, he demanded to know which one, so he could scope it out for a redesign to enhance safety.

After Clay left, I checked the surveillance tapes. Lauren came home around two Friday afternoon and didn’t come out again. I wasn’t surprised.

I spent the rest of the night swallowing Advils, guzzling Pepto Bismol, and going over the events of the previous day in my mind.

I wondered how he discovered that I was following him. As much as I tried, I couldn’t isolate the fuck-up, maybe because it wasn’t just one thing, but my entire performance. Maybe I was the fuck-up.

I wondered why he was driving a brand new Ford Focus, which didn’t strike me as his kind of car, not that I knew him that well. I knew his foot pretty good, though, and it seemed like it belonged in a pickup truck or a used Firebird.

I wondered how he knew Lauren Parkus and what he could know about her that she was afraid of.

And I wondered how I would find him so I could do to him what he did to me.

By sunrise, I didn’t have any better understanding than I did before, but I promised myself that by the end of the day, I would.

It would require a radical change in approach. So far, all I’d been doing was following people. So I decided that today, on my day off, I would blaze a trail of my own.

“Jesus Christ, Harvey, you’re a security officer,” Sergeant Victor Banos said after I told him what I told Clay. “You should have been able to take the guy.”

“He caught me by surprise.”

“You still should have taken him,” Victor said. “I would have taken him. I know how to handle myself.”

“I bet you do,” I said. “Probably half a dozen times a day, too.”

“You’re a worthless piece of shit, Mapes. You don’t deserve to wear the badge.”

“It’s not a badge,” I said, “It’s a patch.”

“What’s the fucking difference?”

I walked out before he could humiliate me any further. I was almost at my car when Cyril Parkus drove out of the gate and came up beside me in his wife’s Range Rover.

“What happened to you, Harvey?” Parkus asked.

That question was becoming my theme song. It was a shame Sammy Davis, Jr. wasn’t around any more to do the vocals.

“I took the elevator when I should have taken the stairs,” I replied. “Look, Mr. Parkus, I don’t have anything to tell you right now.”

“What do you mean?” he snapped. “She did something yesterday, and I want to know what it was. That’s what I paid you for.”

“Your wife is being blackmailed,” I replied. “If you give me a few hours, I can tell you who’s doing it and maybe even why. Just stay close to her today; don’t let her leave the house alone. Then come up with an excuse to meet me at Denny’s around six.”

He studied me for a long moment. “I hope you know what the fuck you’re doing, Harvey.”

So did I. Because at that precise moment, watching him make a U-turn and drive back up to the house, I didn’t have the slightest idea how I was going to pull off what I’d just promised.

I rushed back to Thrifty in Northridge and went through the photos right there at the counter.

Even with Lauren’s eyes hidden by her sunglasses, her anger and her fear still came through, maybe even stronger than it did when I saw her on the Pier. Pictures are funny that way.

I pulled out my magnifying glass and studied the guy who kicked my ass, hoping to spot a tattoo or fraternal ring or something else I might use to find out who he was. No such luck.

I’d have to rely on the license plate and come up with some scam to get the DMV to spit out his name and address for me.

In theory, anyway, that was a good idea. What I really needed was a plugged-in techno-buddy who could hack into anything anywhere. Just about every private eye, secret agent, and suave adventurer has a buddy like that these days.

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