An introduction for a crime novel (thought I would try something different)

THE DAY started as good as any other, with me slumped across my desk. My skull was pounding, and the air was heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke. The calendar on the wall showed December 31st hadn’t yet been marked. You’d be forgiven for thinking it was still December, maybe even January 1st, 1933. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’d let loose to celebrate the coming of the new year.

I hadn’t replaced the old calendar; hadn’t marked off the previous two days. The calendar was proof enough that I hadn’t found the time.

I stretched, rubbed at the back of my neck and lit a cigarette.

The clock said it was midmorning. Midmorning and the mercury had already climbed too high. All thoughts of sleeping through the hottest part of the day were discarded when there was a knock at the door.

I cleared my throat and said, “Come in.” The man who entered was dressed like a chauffeur. Tall and too skinny but I wasn’t easily fooled. There was more to him than driving somebody with money from place to place. This was a man that could take care of himself and, if you weren’t too careful, he’d take care of you. He surveyed the room with a look of contempt, finally allowing his eyes to focus on me. “Are you alone?” he asked.

“You caught me at just the right moment,” I said. “All the boys have just gone to make a liquor run. Hang around, they’ll be more than happy to share with you.”

Old happy looked at me and sneered; walked back out onto the landing and said, “There’s no one else,” to someone I was yet to see. She revealed herself the second he had spoken the last syllable, briskly walking into my office like she owned it. The woman was dressed in the best clothes and didn’t have a single hair out of place. She walked like she knew she could have bought the entire building if she wanted. Getting old but still easy on her feet, had probably married young and never had to work a day in her life.

“Wait outside,” she said on taking off her sunglasses. The driver nodded and walked out of the room, closed the door behind him without making a sound. She was already lighting a cigarette before she asked if she could sit.

“Please,” I said with a smile, “but I wouldn’t recommend you get too comfortable.”

“Oh?”

“I don’t know your husband from the next man,” I told her, “and maybe he is spending his time with that cute secretary of his- but what harm is it really doing? You look a lot like someone who is still being provided for, so it’s probably for the best you simply look away and wait for it to fizzle out- like it always does.

“And as for Junior,” I said, “sure he’s gotten into some trouble with the wrong boys, but he’s worth a lot more to them alive than he is missing. Pay off his debt and give him a slap on the wrist. Even have your driver keep at his side for the foreseeable future, just to make sure he doesn’t get himself in a hole all over again.”

The lady smiled and took a long drag on her cigarette. “Are you quite finished?”

“I could give you a couple of names,” I said, “but I’d rather not. You’ll get the same results, but the privilege will cost you more than it should.”

“Your name is Sam DeForest, former detective with the L.A.P.D. You were able to get out clean after ten years of service. You’re not divorced but your wife left California almost five years ago.”

“And my favourite colour is green,” I smirked, “but I like to tell people it’s orange.”

“You were too young to serve in the war,” she continued, “but your older brother wasn’t. His remains were never found. Your father survived the war- only to be killed in a home burglary.”

I could feel the smile on my face. It had turned stiff, unnatural.

“I hope that information didn’t cost you too much,” I said, taking the clear ashtray from the drawer.

“Information is priceless.”

“But some is more priceless than others,” I laughed, knocking dead ash into the bowl.

“You’re still to ask my name… Are you so sure I couldn’t interest you in a little work?”

“In case I didn’t make myself clear, I don’t work infidelities or spoiled brats.”

“Mr DeForest,” she said, “my name is Susan Thompson, and I am here because Nicolas Riding is a threat to my daughter’s life,” and as easy as that, something big was dropped onto my lap.

Alain Thompson had been born into money and had made even more of it thanks to wise investments and a keen business sense. Everybody in California had read his obituary just a few months previous. Road accident, leaving behind his dutiful wife, Susan, and an only child called Veronica.

Susan kept her eyes on me. She wanted to smile. She knew she had my interest; she just didn’t want to reveal that. She wanted me to believe my poker face had remained intact. Wanted me sitting there under the impression I still held some of the cards- stroking my ego. “What can you tell me about Mr Nicolas Riding?” she said.

“Businessman… Took control of a small radio station a couple of years back and carried on buying more all over the country.”

“Mobster!” she laughed immediately.

“Never been in any trouble with the law_”

“The L.A.P.D. makes too much money off of criminals like him!”

I stubbed out my cigarette and lit another. Once she was certain I wasn’t going to continue, she started from near enough the beginning as she felt was necessary.

“The California Mirror was on its knees when Alain took control of it and made a success of it. He was proud of it- and he had every right to be. But when I look back on it now, it’s clear to see that it was his first big mistake.”

“What makes you say that?”

“If Alain hadn’t pulled that damned newspaper out from the gutter, he would never have been of any interest to Nicolas Riding. We were at a fundraising gala, and he introduced himself... Said he was impressed at the Mirror’s newfound success and increased quality. Even had the audacity to say he applauded the expose on organised crime, if you can believe it. That’s what he’s like,” she continued, “to begin with... All compliments and smiles. Has you believe he shares all of your values, all of your hopes for this great country. And I fell for it,” she said, “it’s just that Alain fell a lot longer and harder.

She told me all about the favours they were willing to accept from Riding… His connections to the growing movie picture industry provided them with stars eager to give their first major interview and the Mirror’s journalists were always welcome to feature on the most popular of radio shows and Riding, it seemed, wanted nothing in return. The two men remained inseparable- right up until Nicolas Riding’s offer of buying the newspaper was turned down. When the first threats were made, friends of the successful couple said the two must have had some idea to what he was like. One even suggested they sell up and get out of California. In the end, Alain made a drunken phone call and told Riding he would have his best journalists look into him- if he didn’t stand down. He thought it had worked.

She said, “Alain died in a car accident a matter of weeks later. Someone told me the mechanic who had last worked on his car had business dealings of one kind or another with Nicolas… I tried to put it down to gossip and then I found out Alain, in the event of his demise, had signed over his majority ownership of The California Mirror to me. I didn’t say a thing about it to anyone... Didn’t even think about it, I was too distraught over my beloved husband’s death.

“Nicolas called one evening to try and encourage me into selling my shares over to him... I made excuses and hung up. I avoided him as best as possible until he turned up at my house one day with a couple of rough-looking men. He told me I could have a long and happy life if I signed my part of the newspaper over to him right there and then. I tried telling him that it was all I really had left of Alain, that it was to be a part of Veronica’s future, and he just smiled and walked away without another word.

“Over the following weeks, he began to ‘bump into’ Veronica. He must have had somebody watching her, but I couldn’t tell her that... Couldn’t tell her what he was really like. And she fell for him. I begged him to keep away from her and he said he would, all I had to do was give him what he wanted! I begged her to stop seeing him and she wouldn’t listen, she thought I was just scared of being left alone. In the end, our disagreements drove her out of our home.

“Recently,” Susan said, and she stopped to loudly swallow, “he made a threat against her life. He told me that I had until the next full moon to have my lawyer start the proceedings of placing the Mirror under his ownership, otherwise I would never hear from Veronica again. Never see her again. Do you know when the next full moon is, Mr DeForest? It is a little over one week from now.”

I took a deep breath and slowly released it.

“Miss Thompson,” I started and she immediately interrupted.

Mrs Thompson,” she said to correct me. “Happily married until recently.”

“Mrs Thompson,” I said, “you’ve given me every available detail, but I have no idea what it is you want me to do… You want me to convince him to set his sights on another newspaper? You want me to abduct your daughter, get her away from the bad man and get her to see he’s rotten? What is it you’re here for?”

“I want you to keep my daughter safe,” she said, “and I want you to find enough evidence to see Nicolas Riding imprisoned for a very long time.”

“It would take a lot longer than one week to get anything useful enough to go against a man like Nicolas Riding,” I said. “He didn’t get to be where he is by being stupid.”

“You follow him. You see who he’s meeting- cops, judges, anything that can’t be swept under the carpet- and you write it all down. That way,” she said, “we have a list of people to approach once he’s facing charges. We tell them we know they’re in his pocket and they either side with us, or they face a sentence alongside him.”

“Did you not hear what I just said? Say he happens to meet every influential figure in the whole of California over the next few days, what good will it do us? I’ll tell you,” I said, “nada. You want more than a list of people- you want him to slip up. That could take years, and only if you’re lucky.”

“Well, what would you have me do?” she screamed. “My daughter’s life is in danger!”

I cracked my knuckles, leaned back in my chair. “I don’t think he was threatening to kill her,” I said to put her mind at ease, “only threatening to turn her against you. But your daughter,” I asked, “where is she now?”

“One of his homes,” she said, “I have no idea which one. She never gave anything away on the rare occasions she called.”

“Well, now we have somewhere we can start,” I smiled, “you want me to find your daughter.”

“Find her- and keep her safe.”

“I’ll watch over her, be her guardian angel and if anybody tries anything- and that’s a really big if, remember- I’ll get her straight out of there.”

“You get her straight out of California and let me know where I can meet you both. Veronica will tell the police everything,” she insisted, “I’ll make sure she does.”

“Don’t be jumping to any conclusions, don’t be putting yourself under any unnecessary stress... Just leave all the worrying to me, okay? I’ll find her, I’ll watch over her.”

Susan Thompson smiled and said, “You could be the man who brought Nicolas Riding to justice.”

“You’re hiring me to find your daughter and to convince you she isn’t in any harm, not to bring Nicolas Riding before a court of law,” I smiled back at her. “Now, I think we’ve reached the part concerning my pay.”

“Of course,” she said. She looked back over her shoulder and shrieked, “Dashiell!”

The door swung open right away, her driver rushing back into the room with a sealed

envelope in his gloved hand. He stopped at her side and tossed the envelope onto my desk like it was nothing.

“Thank you, Dashiell,” she said to him with a smile. “Mr DeForest,” she explained, “there’s a photograph of my daughter inside that envelope, along with a cheque for one hundred and fifty dollars… That should be enough for one week of your life, shouldn’t it? And of course, I’ll gladly reimburse your expenses.”

I swallowed a lot louder than I should have.

“It’s more than enough. But as well as finding your daughter, it would be a wise idea

to keep a tail on Riding. My bet is he has another girl on the side, and we could maybe use that to make her leave him sooner rather than later. Keeping watch over Veronica and following Nicolas Riding at all hours is a little too much work for one man. I’m going to have to take on another pair of eyes- just a couple of hours a day and night.”

“That’s understandable,” she told me, “just write down whatever you’re paying them and I’ll make sure you have all costs repaid.”

The telephone company hadn’t disconnected the line. It was a pleasant surprise, given the run of bad luck I’d had. The operator put me through to an old friend of mine- one of the few names I had left to trust out here.

“Hello,” he said, “this is Detective Chandler.”

“John, the fact you were sitting behind your desk when I called speaks volumes.”

“You struck lucky,” he laughed, “it’s good to hear your voice. What can I do for you?”

“Help me shoot the breeze. Are you free to meet up and talk?”

“I’m not in any trouble,” he laughed, “am I?”

“No more than usual. How about it- you think you can make the usual time and place?”

“Sure. Is there anything I should bring?”

“Yourself,” I said, “see you soon.”

I hung up, lit a cigarette and stretched; walked over to the window and lifted one of the shutters with my fingers so that I could look out onto the street and the rain just starting to fall. A cute redhead was shouting into the payphone receiver. She slammed it down and took four paces from it before stopping. I watched her for three seconds, then I watched her rush back to the payphone. Everything else was passing cars and people walking along with their heads bowed, hoping they wouldn’t run into someone they know.

*

There was only one other car in the parking lot of the motel and that was the owner’s. This was a place for married men to bring their secretaries. This was a place they wouldn’t park their car because of people like me. The owner was sat in a folding chair outside his office- shirt buttons undone like he wanted to catch a decent tan all over his greasy chest. Sometimes I wondered if he remembered me, sometimes I wondered why I should care.

“Morning.”

“Afternoon.”

He kept his eyes on the road, counting the passing cars.

“I need a room for an hour.”

“Hour costs the same as it does for the whole day,” he said.

“I'll be gone within the hour- I’m just letting you know out of courtesy- in case the place gets real busy and you need every room going.”

I looked over the empty parking lot as if to prove a point. He didn’t notice, he just went on looking at the road.

“Keys are on the office wall,” he said. “Go pick any number you like.”

Every key was there apart from the one for number eleven- my lucky number. I tried telling myself superstition was just something you pin your supposed bad luck on, took the key for number eight and went and showered. I handed the key back over to the owner along with the money I owed when I was leaving.

“You waiting for somebody?” I asked.

“A street preacher said Jesus was returning.”

“I’m sure this is the first place he’ll visit.”

I made it to Tom’s Diner for a little after seven. The place would stay open until midnight but remain quiet for those final hours, the only customers being the occasional long-distance driver looking for a quick coffee before he made tracks. Detective John Chandler was already there, sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee and a folded newspaper in front of him. I claimed the seat beside him, ordered a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette of my own. He looked to me and said, “You’re looking good.” The egg-stain on his overcoat was more than enough to tell me he was having troubles with Amelia.

“So are you, Jack. You growing a beard?” I said, bringing attention to the four-day stubble he had on his face. White whiskers to compliment the silver streaks claiming the colour of his hair.

“Just been busy. It’s this heat… It causes everybody to lose their senses. You know how it goes- starts with an increase in petty vandalism but escalates soon enough.

“I’ve been by your place a couple of times. Haven’t seen you there... The lock is still busted. I was going to repair it for you, but I haven’t had the time.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve been busy... Staying at the office, showering at motels... I only go back when I have to pick something up.”

Three bullet holes in the davenport, dried blood on the carpet...

“I went to see you… When you were still at the hospital. You were sleeping.”

“I know,” I grinned, “nobody else would have brought me oranges. I'm working again.”

“That’s good,” he said, “good you’re keeping busy. Keeping the mind active.”

“My thoughts exactly. I could do with a little information.”

“I thought you might. What can I help you with?”

“Nicolas Riding.”

“Nicolas Riding,” he laughed, “talk about throwing yourself straight into the deep end. I don’t think I can offer much assistance,” he said, “never crossed paths with the man.”

“But you’ve heard stuff.”

“We’ve all heard stuff,” he said, “it doesn’t mean any of it is gospel.”

“All I need is an address,” I said. “He’s set up home with a girl and the mother isn’t too happy about it.”

Chandler laughed again. “So, you’re wanting to knock at his door and leave with the daughter? I can’t see this one playing out the way you’d like it to.”

“All I’m wanting to do right about now is get my eyes on her,” I said. “You have any ideas where to start?”

Chandler took a deep breath and held it a while longer than necessary. “He has an apartment,” he said, “in that club he runs off Giffords Avenue. I don’t know if he would set up home there- I always heard that was where he took his favourite dancers.”

“That could be useful… Getting proof that he isn’t being too faithful.”

Chandler laughed once again. “I can’t see Riding being too pleased,” he said, “putting your nose into his private life.”

“I bet he wouldn’t even expect it,” I grinned. “Man has been too busy keeping an eye on his business ventures.”

“I wouldn’t know what you’re suggesting,” Chandler smirked, “there’s no law against supplying entertainment and news coverage.”

“Man’s a real saint,” I said. We sat in silence for a while. “How often does he meet with the chief?”

“Best of my knowledge, the chief never has gotten into the habit of meeting with him,” he said, “Chief poses for pictures with him when he’s raising funds for some noble cause but only ever plays golf with other influential figures a couple of times a month. No one tries to hide their association with Nicolas Riding,” he shrugged, “you’ll see them all having a swell time at any of their favoured clubs.”

“I bet.”

“You want my advice? Leave him and the girl be. He’ll get tired of her soon enough.”

“Maybe,” I said, “maybe not. Just let me know if anything comes up, would you?”

“Like what,” he laughed, “a fundraiser for the city’s orphans?”

“Like you happen to hear where he sleeps at night,” I said, “or where he’s going.”

“I’ll tell you, but you better hope he doesn’t see you. Man makes too much money for some dangerous people,” he warned, “and they won’t like you getting close to their business.”

“He won’t see me coming. There’s one more thing.”

“Yeah?”

“You know where the Kid is?”

“I know where he is.”

“You going to tell me?”

“Honestly,” he said, “I don’t think this is something you should be pulling him into.”

“Come on,” I said, “he can handle himself and I’ll keep him out of trouble.”

“You tell him you’re looking to bring Nicolas Riding down and he won’t be able to resist. He’ll be dreaming of fame and fortune.”

“Who’s bringing anybody down? All I’m looking for is an extra pair of eyes.”

“Well, you’re out of luck- he’s working already.”

“I’ll be paying him more.”

“Danger money.”

“He’s smart,” I said, “you know that as well as I do. Tell me where he is; I’ll explain what’s on offer and if he isn’t interested, I won’t bother him again. You have my word.”

Chandler drank his coffee and sat looking at the bottom of the cup.

“Well?”

“He’s working for the Darwin brothers.”

“Are you serious?” I laughed. “The Kid’s too good to be with either one of those, let alone both!”

“From what he’s told me, it’s steady pay. Easy, regular money.”

“Divorce cases,” I laughed again, “spoiled brats in debt to pushovers.”

“You’ve never made things as easy as they can be... All you need to do is make the money that keeps a roof over your head and bread on the table.”

“You’ve said something like that to me before,” I said, “around the time I was looking to leave the force.”

“It’s as true now as it was then.”

“So why do I get the feeling I sleep a whole lot easier at night?”

Chandler grinned, killed his cigarette and rose to his feet. “I’d put that down to not having a dame. It was good to see you, Sam. I’ll let you know if I hear anything that won’t get you into too much trouble.”

written by/copyright A.C. Aerie, 2022


Submitted: January 17, 2022

© Copyright 2022 A.C. Aerie. All rights reserved.

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