I’m laying here on the pavement, bleeding to death. So, this is how it ends. I start wondering where the Hell I went wrong. My first mistake was probably taking this case in the first place.
Two days ago, there I was, sitting at my desk, and there she was, with tears in her eyes, standing across from me, begging for me to help her. “For old times’ sakes,” she’d said. Old times, huh? What were the old times to me nowadays but broken promises and lethal memories? The kind of memories that come to haunt you in the witching hours of the night while you’re tossing and turning... as they often did... as I often did.
As much as she was a sight for sore eyes, I also knew it meant running into an old friend, Trouble. Every time she walked into the picture, there he was, waltzing in as if he owned the place, getting his grubby little mitts on everything, turning your whole life upside down and then disappearing into the dead of night... along with her. You’d wake up one morning only to find a cold side of the bed and a hastily written note stained with tears, always saying the same thing, “I’m sorry.”
And now, she was back, whistling an awfully sad tune for the beautiful love bird she was but you’d think it was an Italian aria from the way I was listening. I tried to look aloof but I couldn’t feign disinterest, not with her. I’m a level-headed guy, always breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth and firing with both eyes open but when I catch a whiff of that perfume or whatever it is about her – the scent of sorrow, I’d like to think it is – I lose it all and caution is mercilessly thrown to the wind. She had burst in saying, “Rex, I need your help,” but she’d already had me at the stifled sob outside the door. The door that read, "Rex Manning, Private Investigator."
That's my name by the way, Rex Manning, but nobody ever called me by my first name. The only people who ever called me Rex were people who were close to me... damn close... and seeing as how proximity didn’t pay in my line of work, that didn’t make many. So, save for an unfortunate few, I was known to the world as Danger, my middle name.... No, really, it is. If you were to give my birth certificate the up-and-down, it would read, “Rex Danger Manning.” Yes, a cruel joke at my expense, I know, but it’s the only thing the folks I never knew ever gave me so I kept it... the gift that keeps on giving.
The doll before me, her name was Mary Standish. We’d met so long ago that we often joked that neither of us remember how or when it happened but the truth of the matter was it was a day that neither of us could ever forget: It was a Thursday. I was nothing but a fresh face on the force; you couldn’t find a cockier thing on two legs if you tried... short of a rooster, that is. I was supposed give the third to some number we nailed that night, the only surviving witness to the biggest knockover this town had ever seen. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the room expecting some dead pan palooka and, instead, found a looker.
“What’re you in for?” I asked.
“Nothin’,” came the reply.
“Really, how much nothin’?”
She may not have been singing like I wanted her too, but her eyes told me everything I needed to know. I think they’re going to be what I miss most. I don’t even think I ever really knew what they were. Her eyes were like trucks that came out of nowhere and plowed into you. They were eyes no man could say no to. Dangerous, that’s what they were. A man could either drown or get lost in those kinds of eyes and I knew it... but did I care? I would look into her eyes every morning because I knew it would take me the rest of the day just to find my way back. So we did nothing... all day... stroll, laugh, talk, joke... stall for more time until I could finally find my way back in the evening, after the sun had gone down and I could navigate by starlight... by her light.
Listen to me jaw... by listening you’d say I was pretty out of it, jingle-brained for some redhot kitten with a rap sheet. Pretty out of it was right; I was out of everything, determined to keep my nose clean of any messy business... my kind of business... the kind of business based on deception so deeply rooted within half-truths and whole lies that the web it wove could easily ensnare any innocent bystander, including her... In a word: Trouble. But if there’s any other word that could describe Trouble, it’s incorrigible. You could pick him up, give him the Broderick, throw him out on his ear, and then, just when you think he’s out for the count, he’d come back at you, swinging.
Anyway, after she had come and gone enough times to make me lose count, each time promising to be the last, she was back again, this time, not with open arms but with news... big news...
“I’m getting married...”
There were a million things I wanted to say to that... but it was either all or none, so I went with the latter. Boy, talk about shocking news... it was news enough to knock me for a loop, but that wasn’t all she’d had – oh, no – last but not least, she had a huge favor to ask of me: Get her hubby-to-be out of a jam; apparently, for the last couple of months, he had been blackmailed by some hombre who had been in the wrong place at the right time. My job? Find out who and, if possible, silence the goose.
“Consider it your wedding gift.”
God damnit, I was like putty in her paws. I should have said no. I know it now and I knew it then. So, why didn’t I?... Like I said before: her eyes.
So, next thing I know, I’m on a rattler to Atlantic City, “America’s playground.” Over the course of the next few hours, she had filled me in on all the details, careful to leave the past out of it, where it belonged. Even though I managed to keep my trap shut, there was a part of me that wanted nothing more than to talk about "it," all of “it.” The rest of me was glad that she was in control of our “conversation.”
Her man’s name is Miles Lancaster... He had some dough to it, too, about a hundred large, give or take... Mostly take, thanks to our Johnny Do-Wrong. I just sat there, absorbing each and every detail like a dry sponge, careful to commit it all to memory, keeping in mind that “facts” were seldom the same going into a case as they were coming out.
Meeting Miles for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised, not to mention, relieved, to find that he was, all in all, a right gee. However, I couldn’t help but shake the sneaky suspicion that he wasn’t tipping his mitt all the way.... I don’t know whether it was the look of worry that wasn’t in his eyes or the bullets he wasn’t sweating, but something about him just wasn’t completely square. After Mary flopped, I decided it was time to catch wise to the part of the story he’d skipped with the dame present. Miles made his way to his own private gin mill and poured himself a snort.
“What’s your poison, Manning?”
“All right, enough bumping gums, sing... I wanna hear the notes you skipped.”
“You’re still dizzy with her, aren’t you?”
“Say, who’s grilling who around here?” I shot back coolly, having no good answer to that particular question... Well, I had an answer, just one I didn’t care to tell him.
“‘Course you are... You’re helping us, aren’t you? Frankly, can’t say I blame you...Dolls like Mary aren’t exactly a dime a dozen...”
“I know, which is why you’d better be shooting straight with her and me or else be sure to lam off and hide in a place where no man will be able to find you because I will and when I do, I’ll really hide you. Savvy?”
“Relax, Danger... I know you got me doped as a ringer, but I’m telling you now that nothing could be further from the truth.”
I looked into his eyes searching for anything I might not be able to trust... Nothing. I relaxed a little, the tension leaving my balled up fists. “Listen, I’m sorry for getting so bent out of shape. It’s just that when it comes to Mary... The kid’s been through a lot. I don’t think she could take another wrong gee.”
“Forget it, I’d be exactly the same if I were in your shoes: some cat lousy with cabbage walks into the picture, covers her in glad rags, gives her everything she’s ever wanted... except peace of mind...” He paused and looked up from his tiger milk. “I don’t think she would’ve gone through with it if you didn’t know. I guess she wouldn’t feel right. That’s the real reason you’re here... that and...” He heaved a sigh of accepting reluctance before proceeding. “I haven’t been completely square with Mary.” The small knot in my stomach grew. “I told her that I don’t know who’s blackmailing me... I do... It’s Raymond Mandella.”
The name dug an icy shiv into my pump. A beat passed.
My throat decided to let me speak again. The first thing out was, “Raymond Mandella, eh?” Mandella and I went way back... maybe too far back. It was thanks to him I walked with a slight limp, lead poisoning courtesy of Mandella himself. I had been tracking him down, realizing that his migration pattern coincided with a traveling circus. Turns out he’d been living under the big top as a trapeze artist for months without anyone suspecting a thing... except for me. When we came mono e mono, he managed to plug me with three slugs before I finally squeezed off a few. I was lucky enough to have the first two whiz right through me; the third one stuck.... Croakers never were able to get it out; they said it was too close to my left kneecap.... No biggie, I ain’t no Nance. In the end, however, Mandella took it on the lam and I haven’t seen him since.
“I think I’ll take that drink now, Miles.”
“Stiff hooker of whiskey?”
“Make it two.”
“Figured,” he said, smiling and pouring. “You know you can tell a lot about a fellow from his drink. Whiskey... it’s a no-nonsense, straight to business drink.” He brought it over and handed it to me. Sensing a question that ought to have been asked but wasn’t, he went on to say, “I used to be a bartender – and I know what you’re thinking, ‘You, Miles, a bartender?’... But, hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere, eh?” He took a sip of his and I took gulp of mine. It was good stuff.
“So, what’s the dirt Mandella’s got on you?”
He sighed. “I said everybody’s gotta start somewhere, right? Well, sometimes that somewhere is worse than nowhere, if you catch my drift.” I nodded. “Cuz at least nowhere doesn’t get you thrown in jail. Nowhere doesn’t get you thrown in with the wrong crowd. Nowhere... doesn’t lead you to the wrong dame -- dames.” It was starting to make more sense.
“So, what? All this is just so that she doesn’t find out about your dark past?”
“Listen, she thinks I’m different. I’m the first Mr. Right in long line of Mr. Wrongs. If she finds out that I’m the same mistake she’s made in the past...”
“But you’re not. You got outta the biz. You could have stayed on Easy Street, but you winged out on your own to do it all the right way. Mary’s smart enough to see that.”
“Yeah, but the rest of the world isn’t. That’s the other part of it. See, if Mary finds out, at least I know she’ll be willing to listen. I might be able to salvage us because she still sees me, but out there...” He pointed out the window with his free hand, beginning to display real emotion for the first time. “...all they see is ‘ex-con’, ‘ex-bootlegger’, ‘ex-money launderer’. You’re only your past. Present and future don’t count for anything.” Miles realized where he had taken himself to and came back. “Funny... you’d figure that two to one are pretty good odds...” I chuckled; I had taken bigger gambles on a lot less.
“So, lemme get this straight: you want me to stop Raymond Mandella from costing you your dame, your name, and your riches ‘n’ fame?”
He looked up at me, puzzled. “Fame?”
I shrugged. “I needed to find something that rhymed with dame and name.”
He laughed, got up, and walked over to shake my hand. “Danger, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
I accepted and shook his hand. “Call me Rex.”
Time was of the essence, the next drop was in a day, today, and Miles wanted me to nail the bastard before then; he couldn’t afford to lose any more money, not with a wedding in the works. And so, I disappeared into the world I had lived in for the greater part of my life, doing my best to track down Mandella, a feat in and of itself, as people seldom found Mandella; he found them. Being called out by Mandella was like being subpoenaed for jury duty, you hated doing it but you knew damn well your name was coming out of the hat sooner or later.
After spending the entire night playing half of Cops and Robbers, I decided to call it a day and headed back to my hotel room. Boy, was I in for a treat. I was walking down the hallway when I looked up and who should I see but ol’ Jimmy Halsworth.
“Uh-oh,” I said, loud enough for him to her, “Somebody better get the manager; I think I see a rat.” Jimmy was a rat, all right; rat by nature, personality, and profession. If all you had was a missing part of the equation and a century in your pocket, Jimmy was the guy to see. He had the knack of knowing everything – well, almost everything – and what he didn’t know, he could find out easily enough. Sure, knowing that much can get you into a lot of trouble, but it can get you out of it, too.
I started towards him.
“Danger, thank God, I—” The smile of relief on his face changed with a gunshot that rang out into the hallway. I stooped to catch him as he fell to the ground. It was then that I noticed the corner of a dark trench coat disappearing around the corner. I laid Jimmy down as fast as I could and dashed over to peek around the corner. I was too late, whoever it was had split. The detective in me told me to take it on the heel and toe after the gun, but the human in me told me to take care of the man bleeding to death outside of my hotel room. I managed to convince myself that Jimmy might have some useful information for me and started back to my room.
When Jimmy finally came to, he awoke to find himself bandaged in the bathroom.
“Morning, Mary Sunshine... did you have a nice nap?”
His mitt shot down to his side, only to find he was missing something. He spun around and saw me standing in the doorway.
“Looking for something?” I asked, holding a small roscoe out towards him. He sighed and cupped his noggin with both flippers.
“Thank God, I thought I’d dropped it looking for you.” He gratefully took it back. “You know, there’s only one thing worse than losing your heat.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, moving to the edge of the bathtub, “what’s that?”
“Losing your spare,” he said, withdrawing an even more miniscule make from his ankle-holster and aiming it straight at me. When I didn’t even so much as flinch, he looked from me to his rod then back to me again. He uncocked it and laid it on the open palm of his paw, as if weighing it. “So, what’d you do, pinch all my shells? What’s the matter, don’t trust me?”
“I could ask you the same question.” I fished around in my pocket for all the lead I knicked, “Frankly, I’m surprised you even noticed with a pathetic excuse of a pea-shooter like that.” I forked them over.
“Hey, it’s not easy for this thing to get any lighter,” he said, taking them, “So when it does, you notice.” He started reloading.
“What do you carry the damn thing around for anyway? You couldn’t kill a fly with it, much less protect yourself.”
“Hey, it’s not the size that counts; it’s how you use it.”
I rolled my eyes and started walking away, turning on the shower head on the way out. A cascade awakened, drenching Jimmy. He frantically tried to get out of the tub, only to slip on the wet porcelain.
“Hey, Danger! C’mon, Bo, this is a nice suit!” He finally managed to turn off the water before drowning. “Eh, no matter, you’ll be buying me a new one when you find out the dope I got for you.”
“Oh, and what do you have for me? It better be bonafide.”
“Danger, you know me, my tips are backed by a guarantee of authenticity. Where are the towels around here?” One flew in and hit him square in the mug. “Thanks.” He started drying himself off. “Anyways, as I was saying, what I have for you ain’t gonna come cheap.”
“How much?” I asked, fixing myself a drink.
He stuck his head out of the Lou. “You might wanna pour yourself another one of those...hell, pour me one...” He went back to drying himself. “Half a large.”
I nearly gagged on my corn. “Half a grand?!”
He grinned. “Yup.”
“We’re talking 5 C’s?”
“What the hell could you know that’s worth that much Jack?”
He emerged from the head and waltzed over to where I was. “A little something about one Miles Lancaster, currently engaged to one Mary Standish...”
I nearly gagged again. I poured him a drink and slid it towards him. “You’ve earned it; How did you know I was asking about Miles?”
“I’m Jimmy the Rat,” he answered, as if that explained everything. “The real question is: how didn’t I know sooner? Of all the people I should’ve been keeping tabs on: Mary? I mean, Jesus H. Christ, Danger, the dame’s always in Dutch.”
“Yeah, I know. But what the hell was I supposed to do, say no? It’s one last favor, Jimmy.”
“If you’re not careful, it could be your very last. This rabbit-hole goes a hell of a lot deeper than you know, I learned the hard way.” He placed a mitt on the bandages.
“You know, you’re lucky. Looks like the pill pushed clean through, no traffic with nothing. It still hurt?”
“A piece of lead penetrated my dorsal muscles, pierced through my body, and exited out the other end through my abdominal wall; what do you think?”
“All right, sorry, no need to get all snooty.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that... well, I’m afraid I have some rather devastating news...”
“Promise you won’t shoot the messenger?”
“I can promise that I will shoot you if you don’t tell me; Spill.”
He sighed. “Someone knocked off Danny Boyle.”
This got my attention. “What?! Damnit, I wanted to ice him.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
I sat down into a nice comfortable chair which offered very little comfort. In pursuit of Mandella last year, I happened across Danny Boyle, wanted in several states for embezzlement. So I clamped the bracelets on him, but the slippery snake managed to cop the sneak once I handed him over to the proper authorities.
“What happened? Did it have anything to do with my lay?”
“Harlem sunset... and it’s hard to say,” he said, pretending to struggle with his words, “without the whole five yards.” He extended an empty paw.
“Mary and Joseph,” I beefed, “Come on, Jimmy, we’ve known each other for how many years now, couldn’t I get a discounted rate or something?”
He looked at me, astounded. “500 berries is the discounted rate... you don’t think I charge that little for just anybody, now do you? No way José. This price is reserved for close and personal friends of Jimmy the Rat.”
“Jeez, with friends like you...”
“...Who needs enemies? Yeah, I know, just fork over the dough.”
I reached into my skin and pulled out a couple centuries. “Tell you what, here’s $250... you’ll get the rest, when I hear the rest.”
“Fair enough,” he said, shrugging. He took his glass and sat down in the other chair opposite mine. “So, you want the abridged version or the whole fairy tale?”
“For a portrait of Madison, I’d better get the whole damn story. Start spilling.”
“15 years ago, our Miles Lancaster stumbles into a bar—”
“Wait a minute, what about Danny?”
“Hold on, he fits into the picture later.”
I decided to be patient for once in my life and listened.
“Anyway, as I was saying: 15 years ago, our Miles Lancaster stumbles into a bar owned by Darrell Hammett in need of a stiff drink and an ear to bend. He starts singing about some dream business he would start, one that would keep him on the road and earn enough dough to keep anyone happy, if only he had the capital means. Darrell being the sympathetic – or gullible, as I like to call them – type, agrees to go into business with him. So, Darrell the Bartender closes down his joint, his only possession in the world, and goes into cahoots with Mr. Lancaster. One day, Darrell takes the air. Poof, he’s gone. Miles becomes the sole proprietor of their little lay and nobody’s seen Darrell since. Now, word has it that there was an invisible hand in the game: Danny Boyle.”
“You’re saying Miles and Danny grifted Darrell before bumping him off and fiftying the cush? And now, years later, Miles has to do the same to Danny? But why? Did Danny want more after tossing all his cabbage to the wind?”
“Hey, I’m just a rat; you’re the private dick.”