Friday, December 18, 2009

The Moontown Palooka: Chapter Three

Longstreet sat on the corner of Louise’s desk. The wastepaper basket was relatively empty but Louise seemed to be on pace to fill it within the next few minutes.

They had someone in to look at the elevator again. I swear with all the chanting and candles it was unsightly. It kept me from getting anything done.

“How were things last night?”

Louise paused for a moment to snap the paper out of the typewriter. Longstreet bent over to pick up the paper and toss it in the trashcan. By the time he straightened, the carriage was reloaded.

The building itself was quiet, but there was such a ruckus outside. Why couldn’t you put me in a room with a window or something?

“You can walk through walls?”

Yes, but I’d like to look out the window while I worked.

“I barely make enough money to keep this place open. Your only option is the view I have. If you find alleyways scenic, by all means…”

It doesn’t matter. I got the story from one of the cleaning imps. Miller staged one of his breakdowns in front of the office and his passenger almost killed him. Again.

Longstreet shook his head. “Running spook tours out of Lugosi’s Row is low but pretending the car gets a flat and having some of your buddies put the mark’s feet to the fire is even lower.”

Especially when the mark has a silver-plated penknife.

“Ouch. Is Mattias okay?”

He hasn’t has to deal with silver burns in a while but I heard him grumbling past the office this morning.

“It is cons like that that make my job tougher.”

Planning to run for office, boss?

“Hardly. I just hate having to deal with clients that think I’m gonna wiggle my fingers and make their wallets disappear.”

You ever think of giving it up and getting an office outside of Moontown?

“What, and actually pay a pretty girl to sit here and flirt with me while clients ignore me?”

The front door opened. Longstreet snapped to his feet like a lover caught by a parent. A man walked in, staring intently at a scrap of paper. He had skin the color of whiskey and a slight stoop. He was wearing a short porkpie hat, a dress shirt that had seen better days, and work trousers. His hair was short on the sides, black with the first frost of old age settling in. His build was an impressive one sliding into mud. When he realized he wasn’t alone, he put the piece of paper into a long metal lunchbox he was carrying with him.

“You must be Mister Longstreet,” the man said, with a slight nasal twang that shaved the ‘I’ in ‘mister’ to the ‘e’ in ‘me’.

“I must be,” Longstreet said, and offered his hand. The man’s shake was firm, and his hands were rough.

“I have heard good things about you,” the man said. “You are reliable?”

Longstreet found himself glancing at the typewriter and said, “Reliably is one of my best qualities. But please, if you are looking to employ me, let’s move to someplace more comfortable.”

Longstreet swept his arm broadly and opened the door to his office. He directed the man inside. As the man went inside, Louise put her two cents on paper.

Reliability? I better keep typing or he’s going to hear the landlord laughing.

Longstreet’s office seemed smaller than Louise’s, but that was due to the large oak desk in the center of the room. A pair of shaded windows offered the advertised view. There were two chairs, one on either side of the desk. Longstreet always offered the nicer chair to the clients. That chair was still well put together with no stains or stuffing trying to escape. The man sat heavily, like he was unloading a truck full of bricks. Longstreet circled to the other side and lowered himself into his chair. Longstreet’s chair had a few cuts and nicks in the finish but he always made sure to position himself in a way that hid them from the client’s view. The sun was tumbling through the window, caught by the specks of dust both men had kicked up by sitting.

“Would you care for something to drink?” asked Longstreet, leaning forward as if to stand again.

“No thank you,” said the man, “I’m here on lunch and having a drink might be dangerous.”

“You wouldn’t want your reflexes dulled when running a jackhammer,” said Longstreet as he leaned back in his chair.

“How did you know I worked in construction?”

“I am a detective,” Longstreet said with a smile. The man laughed. The ice was cracked.

“The lunch pail, mostly. But your have a decent build and a pair of work boots on.”

The office faded into quiet.

”These dealings go a lot faster once you tell me your name.”

“I’m sorry,” said the man as he removed his hat. “I am Oscar Ramirez.”

“What can I do for you, Mister Ramirez?”

“Someone has been threatening me,” Oscar said into his chest, “I would like for you to find out who it is.”

“Alright. My first question’s free. Why not go to the police?”

“I don’t trust the police,” Oscar said, glancing back to Longstreet.

“A valid concern,” Longstreet said, leaning forward a bit.

“The police aren’t very concerned with what happens to people like me. Most of them think that I’m taking my job away from a white man that deserves it.”

“I’ll bite. Second question. Why did you pick me?”

“To be frank, Mister Longstreet, your services are what I can afford.”

Longstreet rubbed his chin. Oscar fiddled with his hat.

“You won’t offend me by calling me a cheap detective. I am. Five dollars a day, plus basic necessities like food and gas. Retainer preferred.”

Oscar nodded and retrieved the metal lunchbox by his feet. It creaked open, and shortly afterward Oscar laid a twenty dollar bill on the desk.

“Will this do?”

“Nicely,” said Longstreet as he slid the bill across the blotter.

“I hope you are worth it. I won’t be able to eat out for a month.”

“We all have to make sacrifices,” Longstreet said as he placed the bill in his pocket.

“You’ve never tasted my sister’s cooking,” Oscar said with a laugh. Longstreet laughed along politely. Now was the time when he had to find the client engaging and hilarious.

“Now that you’ve paid for my time,” said Longstreet, leaning forward and planting his elbows on the desk, “you can tell me your tale.”

“It began three weeks ago,” said Oscar as he put the lunchbox back down. “Someone started calling my place late at night and would hang up. Then the same thing would happen again a few minutes later. It kept me up at night, and I would be very tired for work the next morning. After a few days, that stopped, but then the letters began.”

“Do you have one of these letters?”

Oscar shook his head sheepishly. “I threw them away. They made me angry even to look at them. They said awful nasty things about me and what I should do to myself. Then they started talking about what they were going to do to me. They would come every few days. I burned most of them.”

“And what was the last straw that made you come to me?”

“I think someone broke into my apartment,” Oscar sighed. “I’ve been working a big site uptown, which means my trek back home has become longer. These days, I usually don’t get home until after dark. When I got home a few nights ago, things were out of place. My place isn’t neat and tidy, but you know when someone goes through your piles. I don’t think anything was taken.”

“How did they get in?”

“My bedroom window, I think.”

Longstreet took a moment to lean back in his chair and swivel it slightly. He stared out the window for a few moments and let Oscar’s story sink in. He swiveled the chair back.

“Who do you think it is?”

“If I knew who it was, I wouldn’t come to you, Mister Longstreet.”

“I’m sure you still have an idea or two. If you’re smart enough to come to me, you’re smart enough to have suspects.”

“There’s a guy on the site that really rubs my nose in it. All the other guys pick on him because he’s small and he gives me the haze because they’ll back him. His name is Ernest but everyone calls him Donny because he talks like Donald Duck. It might also be my landlady Mrs. Hughes. I was out of town last month when the rent was due. I paid her right when I got back but ever since then she’s not smiled whenever I’ve said hello to her. And she was so nice.”

“I’ll bet she was lovey-dovey,” said Longstreet. He dug through the desk to find paper and quickly wrote the names on an old check from the diner.

“Do you need anything else, Mister Longstreet?”

“I’m good for now. I suggest you room elsewhere until we figure out who’s on your case besides me.”

“I’m staying with my sister for now. She’s on Nackett Street.”

“At least you’ll lose a little weight,” Longstreet said as he stood. Oscar laughed.

“They never said you were funny,” Oscar said as he shook Longstreet’s hand. The twang wrestled the ‘u’ in ‘funny’ into the ‘o’ in ‘on’.

“I save the jokes for paying customers,” said Longstreet as he escorted Oscar from his office. “Please leave your apartment’s address and how to contact you at your sister’s with my secretary.”

Oscar craned his neck around the front office. “You have a secretary?”

Longstreet stayed silent as he shut the door. A moment later, the clacking of Louise’s keys let him know she was explaining herself. He returned to his chair and spun fully toward the window, folding his hands on his chest. Ramirez was telling more of the truth up front that his other clients did. Being a detective was a game of feints and counters. People hired detectives to pry into someone’s life but hoped they didn’t pry too deeply to see the strands of web that connected back to the client. You dig deep enough, you hit a water pipe and everyone’s hot water goes away. Waving the smoke away from someone’s mystery was satisfying, but discovering a client’s motives were just as important. The more light Longstreet had at the entrance of the maze, the easier it would be to find the golden strand that would lead him back out again.

Louise’s typing stopped and the outer door opened and shut. Longstreet opened the desk drawer on his right hand side and found a cigar box. He opened it and the rank scent of cheap cigars wrinkled his nose. He whispered something, and the cigars inside disappeared, replaced with a scattering of cash, slips of paper, and matchboxes. He put in the twenty and removed some smaller bills. He shut it, crossed the office, and opened the door. The paper in the typewriter floated out of the carriage and into his hands. He leaned on the door frame and read it while Louise reloaded and began typing again.

Fantastic, boss. Looks like you’re getting paid for a case for once.

Longstreet leaned over the typewriter. “I learned my lesson after last night. I really should teach you how to frisk people for any magic items.”

No thanks. You stick with the sorcery, I’ll handle the typing.

“So what did you think of him?”

He seemed normal. Though really, if he gives you a retainer, I wouldn’t ask too many questions.

“He paid me to ask questions. Unfortunately, the first one on his dime is about him.”

What’s so strange about a guy that works hard labor for a living?

Longstreet tapped the paper he was holding. “If he’s so normal, why is his apartment located in Moontown?”