Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (9 page)

“That’s it for now,” I replied. “But I’m just getting started.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Parkus shook his head and gathered up the photos. “You’ve done a really great job.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Parkus wanted me to stop. He wanted me to leave the mystery unsolved and go back to being a security guard.

“But there’s still a lot we don’t know,” I whined. I didn’t mean for it to come out that way, but it did. “I mean, this could be the first payment or the fifth. Who knows how long this has been going on?”

“I’ll take it from here, Harvey,” he interrupted.

Parkus reached into his pocket, pulled out his money clip, and peeled out ten one-hundred-dollar bills. “This should cover what I owe and a little bit more as a bonus.”

“But I still have to find out who Pelz is, where he came from, and get whatever he has on Lauren.”

He looked at me at the mention of her name, a strange expression on his face.

“Your wife,” I corrected, but the damage was done.

“I appreciate everything you’ve done, Harvey.” Parkus slid out of his seat, taking the pictures with him. “But I have the answers I wanted. I’m counting on you to keep our arrangement, and what you’ve found out, completely confidential.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, unable to hide the disappointment from my voice. “I’m a professional.”

He nodded and hurried out.

I watched him drive off in his Jag and then I looked down at the crisp one-hundred-dollar bills on the table.

I still didn’t know who Arlo Pelz was, or why he was blackmailing Lauren, or what her secret was, or why it scared her. But there in front of me was a thousand bucks from a satisfied client.

If he didn’t care, why should I?

I was officially a private detective now. There was the money to prove it. That should be enough for me.

I shoved the cash in my pocket and left. I could afford to eat at a nicer place.

I knocked on Carol’s door around seven
and asked her if she’d eaten yet. She said she hadn’t.

“Then I want you to get dressed in something nice, pick a very fancy place to eat, make a reservation, and meet me here in thirty minutes.”

“I can’t afford it,” she said.

“Did I ask you to pay?”

“You asked me to do everything else.”

“I’m taking you out tonight.”

She narrowed her eyes. “But I’m making all the arrangements.”

“Right,” I said. “Remember to pick someplace expensive.”

I hurried off before she could ask me any more questions. I went back to my apartment to class myself up. I slathered some Arrid Extra Dry Ultra Fresh Gel under my arms, ran some water through my hair, and brushed my teeth. I washed down a couple Advils with a gulp of Pepto Bismol, then realized I should have done that before I brushed my teeth. The Pepto leaves a chalky residue on your tongue, but it has a nice, minty scent, so I decided not to brush again.

I changed into the only suit I had. It was black; I bought it for my mother’s funeral two years ago. That was the last time I wore it, but it still fit, and black is always cool.

Carol was waiting outside when I opened my door. She was wearing a low-cut dress, a fake-pearl necklace, and high-heeled shoes. She was also wearing make-up and had done something different to her hair that made her face seem bolder and sharper. Her eyes sparkled and her lips seemed fuller and redder than ever before.

She was beautiful.

Better than that, she’d become a woman.

Carol must have been thinking the same about me, opposite sex-wise, because she gave me the once-over two or three times and then flashed me this big smile.

“We’ve never gone out before,” she said.

“We’ve gone out hundreds of times.”

“Not like this.”

I took her hand. “Then we should have.”

The Bistro Garden in Studio City was big, open, and airy. The place was alive with the tinkle of silverware, soft music, and the occasional trill of a cell phone. It was fancy without being snobby.

Well, that’s not entirely true. When I drove up in my Kia Sephia, the valet hesitated before opening Carol’s door, like a compact car with a sticker price under twenty thousand dollars carries some kind of infectious disease. But she gave him a look through the window that promised immediate emasculation unless he jumped to attention, so he did. That was the only bump in an otherwise perfect evening.

While we waited for our steaks and lobsters, and ogled the movie stars and agents at the other tables, she took my hand from across the table.

“You’re forgetting something,” she said.

“Would you like some wine?” I replied. “Order whatever you like.”

“Thank you, but that’s not it. Last night, you promised me an explanation,” she said. “I want to know what happened to you yesterday and what tonight is all about.”

I thought about it for a minute. I thought about what I should leave out, what I should exaggerate, and what I should invent. In the end, I decided to tell her the truth and only leave out the part about wetting myself and everything related to that.

Even without that part, as I told the story I kept waiting to see the disappointment, disgust, and pity on her face, or for her to just start laughing at me. But instead she did something strange. She kept her hand on mine and, every so often, gave it a little squeeze.

Our dinner arrived, and while we ate, I told her the rest, about breaking into Pelz’s car and presenting my case to Parkus and getting paid the bonus.

“I was right, Harvey,” she said when I’d finished. “You’re good at this.”

“Even though I let Arlo Pelz beat me up?”

“The thing is you didn’t give up; you stuck to it and succeeded in what you were hired to do.”

I shrugged. “I suppose you’re right.”

“But more importantly, you proved something to yourself.”

“I did?”

“It’s changed everything about you. You’re proud of yourself, maybe for the first time,” she said. “Isn’t that what we’re here celebrating?”

I didn’t really know what we were doing. I just knew I didn’t want to eat dinner at Denny’s and that I didn’t want to be alone that night and there was only one person I really wanted to be with.

So, that’s what I tried to tell her.

“I don’t know what we’re doing,” I said. “I’m just glad we’re doing it together.”

Something seemed to melt in her. Me, too, if you want to know the truth.

Carol put her hand on mine. “Let’s go home, Harvey.”

It was the best sex of my life. It was like that moment when she buttoned up my shirt, only with intercourse thrown in.

I don’t know if it was because we had to go real slow because of my broken ribs, or because we’d dressed up nice and had a fancy dinner first, or because I’d finished a job and had some real money in my pocket.

All I know is that it lasted a long time, it felt real good, and afterwards I didn’t want to be anywhere else but in her bed and in her arms.

So, why the hell couldn’t I get Lauren Parkus out of my head?

I slipped out of bed, closed the door, and went into the kitchen. I picked up the phone, called the Universal Sheraton, and asked for Arlo Pelz’s room.

It was after midnight, and I had no idea what I was going to say to him, so it was probably a good thing that he’d already checked out.

I hung up the phone and stood there for a moment in the dark before I realized Carol was standing in the bedroom doorway in her bathrobe, looking at me. A tomato would have been wearing my shirt and nothing else.

“What are you doing, Harvey?” she asked.

I’d actually been asking myself the same question.

“Nothing.” I suddenly realized that I was naked and I wished I wasn’t.

“You’ve been paid,” Carol said. “The case is closed.”

“I don’t really feel like it is,” I replied. “I don’t know the answers to a lot of questions.”

“The answers are none of your business.”

“I know that, but I still want to know,” I said. Now I saw the look of disappointment on her face that I’d been expecting before. “I’m just doing my job.”

“No one is paying you anymore,” she said.

No one ever paid Spenser, either—the Robert Urich TV Spenser, I mean. All that mattered was justice, honor, and duty. That duty was to solve the mystery. Hell, even Encyclopedia Brown always did that, regardless of whether or not somebody plunked a quarter down on his table.

“But I only did half the work,” I said, trying to make her understand. “I didn’t solve the mystery. I don’t know who Arlo Pelz is or what Lauren Parkus is getting blackmailed about.”

“You were hired to follow her and find out why she was acting strange. You did that. The client is happy and you got paid.”

“Why do you think Cyril Parkus paid me so much? To buy me off. To get me to stop investigating. He knows who Pelz is.”

“Then there’s nothing left for you to investigate, is there? If he knows Pelz, then Parkus probably already knows what his wife’s secret is, or if he doesn’t, you gave him the leverage to get her to tell him.”

She stood there, looking at me. I really wished I had some clothes on.

“This isn’t about doing the job,” Carol said. “It’s about your curiosity.”

“That’s not true,” I argued, feeling very exposed. I stepped behind the kitchen counter for some cover. “Maybe I can help her.”

I was more exposed than I thought. I quickly corrected myself. “Maybe I can help both of them.”

If she caught my slip, she didn’t mention it.

“Harvey, you’ve done a good job. It could be the start of something. Of a lot of things. Don’t screw it up now.”

Carol turned around and went back to bed. I stood there for a moment, thinking about our conversation, weighing what she’d said. I also thought about what Spenser, Elvis Cole, Travis McGee, and Joe Mannix might say.

I knew what I had to do. I really didn’t have any other choice.

I was parked down the street from the Bel Vista Estates gate by seven thirty the next morning.

I couldn’t park in my usual spot, because Sergeant Victor Banos was sure to notice my car when he arrived to take over from Stanley Gertz, the old guy who handles my shift on my night off.

Even so, I could see who came and went from where I was, and had plenty of time to duck down under my dash when Cyril Parkus left at eight twenty and drove right past me.

I knew that Carol was right, but she just didn’t get it. She wasn’t immersed in the case the way I was. I couldn’t go back to sitting in my shack, watching Cyril and Lauren Parkus come and go, without knowing the truth.

I didn’t care whether it was my business or not.

And I was certain that most private eyes, at least most fictional ones, would agree with me on this, with the possible exception of Jim Rockford, who never did anything unless he was paid to or was forced into it at gunpoint.

So I sat there, waiting for something to happen.

As the hours passed, I found myself enjoying the wait, just sitting there watching the gate. There was something about being a private eye that gave even the simplest things in life more intensity. Even doing nothing suddenly had a thrilling edge to it.

It was certainly different from the experience of sitting in the shack and doing nothing.

I thought about going back to Swift Rent-A-Car and trying to talk the lady behind the counter into giving me more on Arlo Pelz. I felt I handled myself well last time, and that maybe we connected in some way towards the end.

Then again, there might be something in the computer about what happened to Arlo’s car, and if I walked in asking more questions, she might just call the cops on me.

I really had to find myself a big, brutal sidekick who wouldn’t care about ethics, morality, or the law, and would be glad to do all the dangerous or tricky stuff that I didn’t want to. I could send him to talk to her. He’d just walk in, stick his gun in the woman’s face, and leave with a complete printout of the information I wanted.

I imagined him. A huge, bald, Asian guy with a dragon tattoo on his face. His name would be Drago. We’d engage in lots of witty, tough-guy repartee. We’d share a manly code of honor. He’d pick up my uniform at the dry cleaners’.

Around eleven, Lauren sped through the gate in her Range Rover. I started the car and really had to floor it to keep up with her, inadvertently letting a couple cars slip in between us. She was in a hurry to go somewhere, and I had a feeling it wasn’t to get a cup of coffee.

I was excited. I had a hunch that my extra, added surveillance was going to have an immediate payoff. And then I was excited simply because I’d had a hunch. Before I became a private eye, I never had hunches.

Lauren raced down the hill towards the freeway. I wondered whether we’d be heading down to LA or up to Santa Barbara. I wondered if we’d be seeing Arlo Pelz again and if I’d have an opportunity to ambush him. When she passed the onramp, I knew we were going south.

But she suddenly came to a screeching stop in the middle of the freeway overpass, causing a domino-like chain reaction in the lane behind her. Everyone slammed on his brakes to avoid rear-ending the car in front of him. I was so busy trying not to become a Kia stain on the truck in front of me, I didn’t even see Lauren get out of her car.

When I saw her again, she was already standing on the rail above the freeway.

She turned her head and looked right at me, her eyes blazing with the intensity of spotlights, exposing me and everything I ever thought or felt.

And then, before I could even blink, Lauren faced straight ahead and dove gracefully into the traffic below.

Chapter Eleven

never saw what happened next. But I heard it. The scraping and sliding and tearing and mashing of metal, glass, and flesh, and the moment afterward of unnatural stillness, when even time seemed shocked into immobility and silence, a stillness shattered by screams everywhere and the blur of people abandoning their cars, running down to the freeway to help the injured and the dead and to see the mess that one human being can make.

I backed up, made a screeching U-turn, and drove away. I didn’t want to be any part of it.

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