DH finished an opening to his story Undead Gumshoe. We met in a creative writing class, and he has been writing for as long or longer than I have. This blog and my own endeavors have inspired him to write again, and I am excited he’s letting me share this update!
Ace of Diamonds
Even though the August heat had already won the battle, the air conditioner in the window of my third-floor office refused to give up when faced with a lost cause. I could sympathize. No offense to the appliance’s hard work, but I needed to find another way to cool off. Something involving ice cubes in a glass. Maybe a little bourbon poured over ’em. Checking the bottom drawer of my desk leads to the discovery of a bottle that’s still half full. No ice or glasses though. Shame, but it’ll have to do.
A couple of swigs later I put the bottle down and loosen my tie. It’s important to look professional when a client could come in at any time. Or so I’m told. Which is why I’ve stopped caring about my tie.
Clients have been scarce since Boss Malone started scaring ’em off. Apparently he doesn’t like me getting enough honest work. Fair enough. I don’t like him getting plenty of dishonest work. Guess it’s my fault for starting our feud, busting up his money-laundering and diamond-smuggling operations the way I did.
Maybe calling it a feud isn’t right. I’m still breathing when a lot of folks think I ought to be a dead man. All Malone’s doing is scaring away my clients. Maybe he’s enjoying killing me slowly.
That’d fit his twisted mob boss code-of-honor nonsense. I may have shut down his operations, but I couldn’t get enough evidence to prove he was the brains behind ’em. It cut off a big hunk of his revenue stream, but he’s still a free man. So now he’s cutting off my revenue stream, but I’m still breathing.
Like I said, killing me slowly. So he can enjoy my suffering. Well I don’t give up that easily. You and me, air conditioner. Together, we’ll show ’em.
A knock on the office door wakes me up. I guess smooth bourbon on a hot August day wasn’t the best way to stay awake. The dark outside the windows tells me I’ve been out longer than it felt like. A distant rumble of thunder counters that it might just be dark clouds gathering rather than nightfall.
Maybe feeling competition from the thunder, the knocking turns to pounding. Adrenaline sobers me up quick as I take my thirty-eight out of its holster and clear my throat. Looks like I may have given Malone too much credit. To enjoy watching an enemy die slowly requires patience, after all.
“Come in,” I say, ready for it to be some of Malone’s goons. The knob turns and the door opens….
…And It’s Lana, my secretary. I put my thirty-eight back in its holster.
“Lana, what are you still doing here?”
“Working late. Your case files are a mess, Drake.”
“Lana, there are no case files. There are no cases. Go home.” I’ve told her she’s fired a half-dozen times this week. Not that there’s anything wrong with her work. I just can’t afford to pay her anything without clients. She refuses to listen.
Lana prattles some nonsense about ordering more paper clips and file folders, but she takes a pen and a piece of scrap from my desk and writes: FIRE ESCAPE GO NOW
She makes urgent gestures towards the windows, but keeps her voice calmly discussing office supplies. Damn it, there’s no way I’m running away to save my own ass while she’s still here.
I nod, take another pen, and write: YOU FIRST. And while you’re at it, keep going. Don’t come back, Lana. You’re one in a million. Find someone who deserves you.
Someone else clears their throat this time. Ignoring the feeling of a sinking ball of lead in my stomach, I look up at the open door to see none other than Boss Sonny Malone himself casting his shadow. Well, well. Either he wanted the pleasure of pulling the trigger himself, or he didn’t trust his boys to do the job properly.
“Mr. Drake Diamond,” he grumbles, “Private Investigator.” He squints at me, and looks around my office like he’s disappointed in it. His lower jaw thrusts out and he frowns like he’s chewing on earwax.
Seconds pass like hours, and nothing happens. Lana’s discreetly glaring at me for the audacity of being in my own office, in my own chair, behind my own desk. The nerve of me. She’s a good secretary, so I know for a fact she can read the words “YOU FIRST” and know what they mean. I do some glaring of my own right back at her. It doesn’t work. Meanwhile, Malone is just standing there, opening his mouth, then closing it again. He does this a few more times, and I realize he’s trying to say something but can’t seem to get the words out.
The lead ball in my stomach untwists. I reach for a cigarette…slowly. Malone doesn’t react. His hands are in his pockets. It occurs to me that he may not actually have a gun on him. Of course, his goons do. Maybe he told them to wait downstairs.
I put the cigarette in my mouth, light it, and take a long slow drag. I exhale through my nose, blowing two columns of smoke down my face, then lean back in my chair.
“Lana,” I say calmly, “go put on a pot of coffee.”
“Lana, you know it’s polite to serve coffee for our…” Guests? No. “…clients.”
Malone looks at the floor. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t say anything.
Lana’s eyes go wide for second, then narrow. She looks at Malone, then at me, then back at Malone. She frowns, and walks out past Malone. He’s still staring at the floor and doesn’t seem to notice she even exists. In a few moments, I hear her fussing with the coffee-maker.
Malone continues frowning at the floor. His nostrils flare.
“Mr. Malone, can I offer you a seat?”
He finally responds, looking me in the eye.
“I’d rather stand.” I give a half-shrug to show that’s fine by me.
“Cigarette?” He nods. I take one and hold it out for him. He takes it and I flick my lighter, holding it out at arm’s length. He lights it and raises it to his lips, taking a few puffs as he starts pacing. Several times he’s got his back turned to me. Tempting. But I ain’t no cold-blooded murderer.
“I’ve always hated you, Diamond.”
“I…I need your help.”
“And yet you open with how you’ve always hated me.”
I shrug. He’s being honest. That’s worth something, I guess. I lean forward and put my elbows on the desk, arms crossed. My chair creaks.
“Well, Mr. Malone, I’ve got to tell you, business has been so bad lately I’ve been thinking of getting out of the private investigations business altogether. Maybe you should go to someone else with whatever problem it is that you have.”
He stops pacing and turns to face me, hands in his pockets, cigarette hanging from his lips, shoulders slumped.
“My daughter’s been kidnapped, Diamond.”
“So go to the police.”
“I can’t trust the police.”
“I thought you bought the police.”
“I thought so too, Diamond,” he snarls. “Turns out those rat bastards can be bought by anybody.”
I can’t help but chuckle a little at that. “Well ain’t that a damn shame,” I say through a smug grin. “When you can’t trust a cop on the take, who can you trust?”
“The kind of man who quits being a cop when he learns all the others are bought.”
I take a drag and exhale it out my nostrils again.
“Isn’t that why you hate me, Malone? Because you couldn’t buy me?”
He frowns thoughtfully, then nods. “Yeah. But I got no one else I can to turn to for this.” He drops his cigarette onto my rug and crushes it out with his foot, thoughtlessly smearing hot ash into the carpet fiber. Classy.
Lana nudges the door open with her foot, carrying two ceramic cups and a pot of fresh brewed hot coffee. She looks at me, and I can tell what she’s thinking. I’ve just known her that long.
Her plan was to throw a pot of scalding hot coffee right into Malone’s face, and maybe follow up by hitting the back of his skull with a cup, then we’d make a break for it out the fire escape. But I’ve taught her the practical virtues of eavesdropping. She overheard about Malone’s daughter. I frown at her and shake my head “no” ever so slightly. She nods and approaches my desk, not looking at him.
Malone’s not the kind of guy who opens up easily about his own vulnerabilities. And here he is doing just that to me, one of his bitterest enemies. Lana wisely chooses not to make it even harder for him by making him do it in front of an audience. She puts the pot and cups down on my desk, and leaves without saying a word. Good girl.
Of course, what I’d like for her to do is go somewhere safe and stay there. Like maybe back home to Nebraska. But she never had the good sense to back down from a dangerous situation.
If Malone even noticed she’d come and gone, he shows no sign of it. He’s got a faraway look in his eyes, and not a happy, wistful one.
“Can I offer you some coffee, Mr. Malone?”
“I don’t care, Diamond.” He thrusts his hands into his pockets.
I shrug. “It wasn’t a sincere offer. I just wanted to hurry this along to the part where you get the Hell outta my office. If you wanna sulk because you hate me but need my help, I’m gonna start charging a sulking fee.”
“You’re enjoying this aren’t you, Diamond?”
“Enjoying this!?” Bourbon I enjoy. A leisurely cigarette after a meal I enjoy. A Drama Queen wasting my time I do not enjoy. “Did you hear the part where I want you the Hell outta my office? Or did I accidentally say that part in Mandarin Chinese?” That would be particularly impressive, on account of my not knowing a word of it.
Malone grits his teeth and his face turns beet red. He smashes his fist into an open hand. “I want to know where she is! I want her back! I want whoever took her to suffer!”
“I’m not one of your goons, Malone. Making people suffer isn’t a service I offer.” I calmly crush my cigarette out in the ashtray and pour myself a cup of coffee.
“Fine. I guess two outta three ain’t bad. I can handle the suffering part myself. But if… you can find her, Diamond…” Oh for crying out loud. He’s starting to get tears in his eyes. “If you can find my little girl…then as far as I’m concerned everything is square between us. I’ll make sure none of my boys ever hassle you again.”
Lana’s coffee goes down almost as smooth as bourbon. I put the cup down, and consider his offer. Square things between us? His idea of ‘square’ is to call off his thugs, and expect me to be grateful enough to stop trying to put him behind bars. My idea of square is him and his thugs all put away for the crimes they’ve committed. Not having goons hounding you isn’t a reward. It’s a basic expectation of civilized society. Would you go to work for someone if your paycheck consisted of your boss not punching you in the face?
I take out another cigarette, place it in my lips, and flick my lighter. I’m still gonna take the job. But I’m gonna be crystal clear as to why. And as to my rates. I raise the lighter’s flame to my cigarette, then flick it closed. A slow deep inhale makes the end glow warmly, then fade as thin curls of gray rise through the air.
“Malone, I am taking this job. If your daughter is still alive, I will find her and return her to you. If she’s dead…well, then I will still find her. And I will still return her to you. For a proper burial if nothing else….”
He grits his teeth again. He’s trying not to face that she might be dead already. He opens his mouth to say something, so I raise my voice. I ain’t finished.
“But you will pay me in cash, just like all my other clients.” I take out my cigarette and point at Malone with it. “My standard daily rate, plus expenses. Non-negotiable. I will not accept ‘squaring things between us’ as payment. Because I ain’t doing this for you, you dirty son-of-a-bitch. You ain’t worth it. You’ve brought so much pain and suffering to this city, the way I see it you deserve plenty of your own.”
“Your daughter, on the other hand, has not.” I stand, and take another puff before I continue. “It ain’t her fault she was born with you as her old man. She’s innocent. And I won’t turn my back on an innocent, no matter how vile their relatives may be. The fact that finding her might actually help a rat bastard like you feel better is an ugly fact I’m just gonna have to stomach.”
Malone glares at me angrily, his mouth screwed up into a wrinkled frown. He flares his nostrils.
“Thank you, Diamond,” he sneers with a voice like gravel. “I hope you can find my girl. She means the world to me. But you’re right. This’ll be easier for both of us if we can keep hating each other.”
“I never let my professional obligations mix with my personal feelings, or vice versa. I ain’t about to start on your account.”