Story by Lee Blevins
Illustration by L.A.Spooner
After his factory exploded, Bertrand Click rented a corner office in an upscale complex downtown. It was the kind of place where fat cats lick themselves clean. Bertrand Click had himself a nice saucer of milk.
I didn’t call ahead to make an appointment because I like to make myself a nuisance. The secretary certainly thought so.
“Mr. Click is out to lunch,” she said. She was a short blonde with a pallid complexion and movie theater eyes.
“I’m real good at the wait.”
“He doesn’t care much for unexpected visitors.”
“Few do,” I said. “But most of ‘em answer the door eventually.”
She smiled. It was all muscle memory and no nerve endings. “The polite thing to do would be to leave me your information and what you wish to discuss and allow Mr. Click to call you back at his convenience.”
“I’m here about the factory. I’ll tell him the rest myself.”
The secretary sighed. “Mister, you chose his least favorite subject.”
“Lady, it chose me.”
I grabbed a seat and a cigarette. The secretary pretended she had work to do. Sounded like she was typing her memoirs but couldn’t quite remember what had brought her that far. I’d never run into a genuine amnesiac before.
Mr. Bertrand Click returned from lunch about five minutes after one o’clock. He came in with his jacket across his arm and his briefcase in hand. He gave me a peripheral glance and turned to the secretary.
“Any messages, Mrs. Flannery?”
She had sat up real straight when he walked in. One of those bosses. “They’re on your desk, sir.”
Click deigned to look at me directly. He had a receding hairline and advancing eyebrows. He reminded me of my least favorite drill instructor.
“Who is this gentleman?”
I didn’t like that he didn’t ask me myself. So, I told him. I made sure to draw out the occupation at the end.
Click didn’t care to make eye contact with me any further.
“Does he have an appointment?” he asked the secretary.
“No, sir.” There was nothing sadistic about it.
“Send him away.”
Then he marched across the lobby and into his office. He closed the door behind him, but I knew he was still standing there listening because I didn’t hear any other big business footsteps.
The expression the secretary wore made me feel better.
“You heard the man,” she said.
“I heard something.”
I stood and put my hat on. I had a feeling how it would go but I felt like seeing if my dignity had any limits.
“I’d like to make an appointment.”
She flipped open the calendar book and peered across the dates. I smiled when she turned the corner, then I made myself frown.
“Would Wednesday at 9:15 be adequate?”
I took it. You can take a lot of things when you’re playing nice.
— ♦♦♦ —
I don’t have a secretary or even a lobby. I just have a room I call an office, a second room I call a bedroom, and a broom closet I call the bath. I tend to keep the front door unlocked if I’m at my desk and I need the money. I need the money most of the time, whether I’m at my desk or not.
I was sitting staring out the good side of the window, the one that wasn’t cracked into surrealism, when two men in dark suits let themselves in.
The one on the left was broad-shouldered with a block of a chin. The one on the right was lithe and sharp-boned. He was the one who smiled.
“Gavel,” he said.
I didn’t say nothing. I wasn’t sure they weren’t there to evict me yet, either from the premises or from the wider world.
The hawk-featured man had the stage. “I’m Underwood and this is Pascall. We’re federal agents.”
“What branch?” I asked him.
I lit a cigarette for show.
“I thought they disbanded after the war.”
Underwood shrugged. “More or less. We’re the less.” He seemed real pleased with that line. “I hear you paid a visit to Bertrand Click.”
“We had things worth discussing. He didn’t agree.”
Pascall said, quick and tough, like he was in a back alley somewhere, “Neither does Uncle Sam.”
Underwood played it different, near casual. “You were in the Click Chemical Company before it went boom.”
“I didn’t spark it.”
“But you chased the guy in that did.”
I nodded. “He had that much coming.”
Underwood was done with the bob and weave. He went in for the declaration. “Best lay off the question and answer. Bertrand Click ain’t gonna talk and neither is anyone else. These are state secrets. You shake too hard and we might start wondering where your interests lay – with or without the American government.”
“I did my part overseas.”
“I never said you didn’t, I just said lay off.”
I chewed on it a bit. Too much fat. “I have an appointment Wednesday. I intend to keep it.”
Pascall scowled. Underwood smiled. I don’t know which expression was supposed to be more intimidating.
“Free country,” said Underwood.
Pascall nearly stammered, “We mean to keep it that way.”
“Let’s leave him to his whiskey.”
Pascall wheeled out without even so much as a goodbye nod. Underwood drew the door to him.
“You’re lucky you survived, Sam. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. You might find a rotten molar.”
He closed the door behind him. I went over and locked it. I had more sympathy for Bertrand Click’s secretary, then. Maybe I needed an appointment book and a small blonde with a big bark to guard it.
— ♦♦♦ —
I broke into Click’s office that night. I know how to use a lockpick, but I don’t need to use them anymore. I just turned into a plume of living smoke and slid in under the doorframe. I can do that these days.
I spent an hour or two going over the place. There were files in the desk and in the cabinet, but the good stuff must’ve gone up with the factory. All that was left was either mundane bookkeeping or rather above my school grade.
From what it showed, you would think all the Click Chemical Company made was pesticide and perfume. I knew better.
Tuesday, I phoned to confirm the appointment and Wednesday I went back.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the secretary informed me Mr. Click had to cancel. Still, I appreciated the gesture when she made me a new appointment for next week. I told her I’d see her then and left.
I sat in my car until I saw Bertrand Click hail a cab. I could’ve tailed him, probably should have, but I felt like spreading my weight around. So, I flew in through the window and made myself comfortable behind his desk.
I moved over to the chair on the other side of the desk before he came back from lunch. I’d decided to ease up some. Even bureaucrats have their buttons.
He looked disappointed to see me. It was almost paternal, the hate.
“Maude,” he said.
“Yes, Mr. Click?” She sounded real comfortable at her desk.
“How did this man get in here?”
“What man?” She sounded less comfortable. Still at her desk though.
I tried to ease her burden before it sank her heels into the mud. “I slipped in when she wasn’t looking.”
Maude made her way to the doorway. She peered over Click’s shoulder at me. She looked like she’d seen the ghost of her steady paycheck.
“Should I call security?” she asked.
I swung for it. “I survived the explosion.”
Bertrand Click blinked his eyes a bit, the bottom of his eyebrows dipping, until he regained control of his lids.
“That won’t be necessary, Mrs. Flannery.”
He closed the door behind him without looking back to watch her expression change. Click carried his jacket over to the coat rack by the filing cabinet and hung it on a peg. Then he walked around his desk and sat down. I don’t know if he noticed the seat was warm.
“How do you walk away from a thing like that? The other man was in pieces.”
I lit a cigarette. “I was lucky. Bruised and battered but blessed.”
Click looked about fit to cough but then he made himself stop watching my smoke roll upwards at his pristine ceiling.
“I’m told you didn’t wait for the authorities. No one knew who you were or that you were alive until the next day. Why didn’t you go forward?”
“I was disoriented,” I said. “And I had loose ends to untangle.”
The chemical man sank back into his chair. “Am I a loose end?”
“You’re a question mark.” I leaned forward. I think he would’ve burrowed through the back of his chair if he could have. “What was in those tanks? What was it you were making?”
Bertrand Click ran his thumb and index finger opposite ways across his mustache. Then he sat straight, like the robber baron he was, and placed both hands atop his desk, folded.
“Those matters are confidential, Mr. Gavel. I have neither the authority nor the inclination to share. You have cost me time, money, and publicity. You’ll be leaving now. In the future, we will see each other only by appointment, or I will have you arrested for trespassing. Do you understand?”
I stood swift, slammed my fedora on my skull, and stuck my hands in my pockets. He wavered, maybe, but he didn’t shrink.
“Clearly, Mr. Click.”
I’m capable of polite, especially when polite feels more like rude. I even closed the door behind me.
The secretary was typing bullets at me. I had the nerve to wink.
— ♦♦♦ —
I found Dale Moorcock down at the precinct. He hadn’t caught a corpse in a day or two. He was doing a crossword puzzle for the pain of it.
When he saw me he said, “I got chewed out cuz a you.”
I sat down in the two-bit electric chair in front of him.
“Click call the captain?”
He shook his head. There was a lot to shake. “The commissioner.”
“That seems his style.” I rubbed a spot on the tip of my tie. “He called some O.S.I. men on me.”
Moorcock tossed his puzzle book down beside a coffee cup that looked like it had been glued together and torn apart again. “I thought they disbanded after the war?”
“You and me both, brother.”
He scratched his forehead. There was a lot to scratch. “Any closer to finding out why you picked up smoking?”
Yeah, Dale Moorcock knew my secret. What I didn’t know was why I had told him. There was liquor in the equation.
“About that,” I said. “Do you remember the name of that night watchman?”
He looked down at the graveyard of notes and pencil stubs that was his desk. “I have it written down somewhere.”
“Mind to slip it to me?”
He met my eye. I don’t have a joke to make about his eyes. That kind of gaze only belongs on two types: a killer or a killer of killers.
“If I was smart, I‘d say no.”
I slid my thumb along the edge of his desk and said, “Lucky you were held back in tenth grade.”
“Ninth. I dropped out before tenth.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Bertrand Click fired Prentiss Willars after the factory he was supposed to be guarding exploded. I felt bad about that even though it was only half my fault. The other half whose fault it was, they’d buried what of him they could find.
Willars wasn’t unemployed long. I found him eating a ham sandwich under a streetlight on his lunch break. The docks were still for once; all the longshoremen were watching the waves crash against their labor.
He didn’t recognize me at first. He had only seen me running, and in profile at that. I told him who I was and what I wanted. He looked fit to drown me.
“You already caused me too much trouble.”
“A man was dead. The killer was getting away. What was I supposed to do?”
Willars stomped the bottom of his boot against the pavement. “Chase him somewhere else.”
“He went there to lose me.”
Willars’ mustache shrugged. “You coulda’ let him go. You ain’t no cop.”
“This is the business I’ve chosen.”
He almost laid his sandwich on his lap, remembered what he had brushed up against lately, and thought better.
“Well, this ain’t mine.”
“Do you drink?” I asked him.
He looked at me with something like wounded pride.
“That ain’t gonna fix things.”
I held out a brand-new bottle of whiskey. Sure, it was a cheap, but he stowed it away, anyway.
“Can’t get sauced on the job,” Willars said. “I’m on probation.”
I lit a cigarette and sat down beside him. The wall was slick with fish guts and tobacco juice.
“I’m sorry it turned so sour. But I gotta know why that place went up the way it did. Closest call I ever had.”
Willards spit up something. “Same here, buster.”
“Bertrand Click stonewalled me. Any records they kept are ash. I ain’t asking you to betray nobody. I just need a name. One name. The name of someone might be able to explain something.”
Willars looked out over the slow, near uniform waves.
“I don’t owe Click nothing,” he said. “But I owe my country everything.”
“I’m no traitor, Mr. Willars. I spent three years in Europe dodging fascists and making ‘em dodge back.”
Willards drank from his thermos. “His name is Lang. The scientist. Friedrich Lang. He’s a Kraut. Knows all about those vats. Might be the only one who does.”
I tried to pay Prentiss Willars for his time and trouble. He wouldn’t have it.
“Get gone before I get the guilt,” he said. “Never met a private eye worth a handshake.”
Few men have.
— ♦♦♦ —
Dr. Friedrich Lang was listed in the directory. He would’ve died that night if he wasn’t. He lived on the ground floor of a rundown set of apartments near the river. He didn’t answer my knock, so I turned into smoke and let myself in.
Pascall was dead by the door. He had a bullet wound in the center of his forehead. His arms were up above his head like someone had dragged him inside. He looked pretty tough, then, with the life pooled out of him.
I floated around. The bedroom end table had been knocked over in a scuffle. The lamp, still lit, lay on its shade. There was a hole in the fold-in closet door where some boot had kicked it in.
I was putting it all in line when they forced the front door. I spread myself against the ceiling and wormed my way around the hall. Underwood stood with his gun drawn and another agent behind him.
“Check for Lang,” Underwood said.
The other agent strode past Pascall and turned beneath me into the bedroom. Underwood stared down into his partner’s dead open eyes. He looked at him like professional looks at a partner on the ground. I had a look like that once.
The other agent came back in beneath me. He threw open the bathroom door and called out to Underwood.
“They took him.”
Underwood slid his pistol into a holster under his jacket. He was all declaratives this night.
“You ask the neighbors what they heard. I’ll call it in.”
The other agent nodded and went out. Underwood closed the door behind him and walked over to the phone. Dialed a number.
“Anthony’s dead,” he told them. “They snatched the German. We need everyone on the lookout. Even the cops. No, I don’t think they’re extracting him. Could be but more likely they got him somewhere. He’s a tough old b—— but he’s still an old b——. That’s a good idea. Send someone for him. Alright.”
He sat down the phone. Then he walked back to Pascall. He didn’t bend and close his eyes like they do in the horse operas. He just left.
I did, too.
I didn’t know who had Lang, but I had three guesses. I hovered on the street looking towards the river and asked myself if it was worth the trouble. I knew there would be plenty.
— ♦♦♦ —
She’s a city of millions but I know her well. I’ve walked these streets for twenty years, and, believe me, you cover more ground flying. I didn’t have to knock at each door or listen at each alley. I flew in through windows and cracks and keyholes.
I moved in a clockwork pattern. I saw lots of things. I saw junkies sprawled in rusted hallways, I saw hoods unloading contraband, and I saw bruised wives tending contrite husbands. I might have done something about some of those things now, but, back then, I didn’t have the time or even the impulse. I was a two-bit gumshoe at heart, the kind of man who helped bust up a union, the same guy who all but blackmailed a millionaire.
I had a case. I wasn’t getting paid for it, but it was mine. And I was working it.
There was a condemned tenement on 33rd Street. It has been torn down since. A hard-faced youth leaned against the railing on the steps. Two dark cars were parked out front. The youth scanned the street back and forth and so on. He didn’t think I was anything but smoke pouring up from a street vent.
He might have been doing it for the money, but he was far from a pro.
I floated above his head, parallel to the second floor, and into the tenement through a broken window. The last tenants had left behind what they couldn’t afford to carry. There was a busted baby crib in the corner.
I went out into the hall and listened. I couldn’t hear much except the rats scurrying behind the walls. I flew into the stairwell and zoomed down. Heard a sickening thunk from the basement. Knew it for what it was. I managed to squeeze beneath the door frame.
The boiler was near the stairs and beyond that the basement opened into one large cavern with abandoned furniture stacked on either side of a makeshift corridor. Yellow light hugged the end of the tunnel.
A bull of a man stepped into the light. His back was to me. He was stripped down to his undershirt.
I floated to the left, passing over mattresses, desks, ice boxes. The last one-third of the basement was free of clutter. That’s where they had Lang.
He was strapped to a column, upright. They had him tied there like a witch to a stake: his hands behind his back and a rope each across his chest, waist, and knees. The back of a chair was pushed into his stomach with a cinder block in its seat.
A dark-haired man in oval glasses pulled the doctor’s head back by his stringy gray hair. He looked like a librarian, but librarians don’t generally carry a straight razor. He had marked the old man’s face like the old man had accumulated a heck of a lot of late fees.
Three more men watched. Two of them stood on either side of the makeshift corridor, lanterns at their feet. They were about the same size, medium height, medium build, hats pulled low. The one on the left held a Tommy gun with its body leaned up against his shoulder.
The fourth man, the brute I spotted first, stood rubbing his hands together. He was all twisted, scarred muscle. His knuckles were cracked and bleeding.
The man with the straight razor spoke. He was Russian.
“I admire you, doctor. I have long admired your mind and this night I learned to admire your will. You have acquitted yourself admirably. Your people would be proud. But I have the men and the method.” He paused as if he expected one of the other men to go here, here.
“We could break a finger, but you have ten of those. We’ll take something you only have two of.” The doctor wrenched his head free, but the Russian yanked it back. “You will survive this.”
I took my chance. I turned man again on a broken tabletop and pulled my pistol free of its holster. This took all of two seconds.
Then I shot the man with the straight razor in the head. They heard that, alright. His brains splattered against the rear wall and he slumped back beyond the column. The straight razor clattered to the floor.
The man with the Tommy gun turned it loose on me but I went smoke again. The stream of hot bullets swam through my misty form. I flew over the makeshift corridor and popped into flesh behind the other gunman.
I pistol whipped him so hard his skull cracked.
The Tommy gunner saw. He turned his weapon on us, but I was smoke before he riddled his staggered partner. The eyes beneath the brim of his fedora went wide. I floated towards his face like a vengeful cloud.
His Tommy gun overheated and sputtered. I floated around his face like the exhale of a cheap cigar. He stepped back, out of my halo. I watched his left cheek explode in flesh and muscle and he collapsed back.
The bruiser had pulled his pistol. He caught on quick. He put one more bullet through my smoke form and then he turned his aim towards the doctor.
“Stay back, whatever you are.” He wasn’t Russian, he was Italian. “I’ll end him, you c———.”
I stayed insubstantial. I talked to him that way. “You got nothing to gain by doing that. Your commie masters won’t be paying, and you wouldn’t understand what he said if he told you.” I paused for effect. “Leave now and I’ll let you live.”
The bruiser stared through me. The gun barrel shrugged. He backed out into the corridor. I waited until I heard footfalls slamming against concrete. The basement door scraped outwards.
I turned man again. My pistol was still in hand. I went over to the doctor. He stared at me, breathing hard. The Russian had left red rivulets across his weathered basin.
“I’ll get you out of here,” I told him.
“What are you?” His accent was thick.
“I was in the factory when it exploded.” I couldn’t help myself even if he wasn’t ready for it. “What was in those vats?”
The doctor trembled. I slid my pistol into my holster and freed my knife. I stepped behind him and started cutting his bonds.
“Fuel,” Lang said. “For a bomb that would leave no trace. A vaporizer. Marko, the man you shot, he wanted the formula. He was my student before the war.”
Once I freed his chafed hands he pulled them forward and rested them on the back of the chair. I bent down and started in on the rope around his knees.
“What the hell happened to me?”
“I have no idea,” he said. “The fuel was not yet perfected. Now it never will be. The project has been canceled. There was too much debris. You -”
The rope snapped. His knees buckled but he steadied himself against the chair. I stood to cut the cord around his waist.
“You do not belong to science.”
A platoon of footsteps rushed down the stairwell. “This way,” someone said, muffled.
I walked around the column. The doctor met my gaze.
“I saved your life,” I said. “Don’t make me a lab rat, doc. You didn’t see the man who did this.”
Lang managed to nod.
I closed my knife and slid it into my pocket and turned to smoke. Underwood led his men down the corridor with guns drawn. I floated away.
“Doctor,” Underwood said, “What the h— went on here?”
I flew over the man they had left to guard the stairs. I heard the doctor say, “I couldn’t see his face.”
I went up the stairwell and out the tenement door. City policemen watched the steps. Squad cars were next to unmarked cars on the street. Dale Moorcock stood outside one in which the cruiser sat handcuffed. He had surrendered in the end.
The lookout must have run. I didn’t see him anywhere. Moorcock held a lit cigarette to the bruiser’s lips.
“How’d ya get yourself wrapped up in this mess, Enzio?” he asked him. “Never struck me as the political type.”
I floated far into the night sky and blew through the twisted streets towards home. I turned man again inside my bathroom. I splashed water on my face over the sink and then I walked to the nearest bar.
I hadn’t killed a man since the surrender.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next I was waiting for a potential client to arrive when Underwood walked in instead. He was alone for once.
“Close it,” I said. “Got business coming.”
Underwood locked it of his own accord. I leaned back in my chair and lit a cigarette.
“The doctor told me.” He shrugged at how I shook my head. “Don’t blame the man, not hard, anyway. He’s a patriot. We pulled him out of a bad spot once.”
“What do you want?”
“Nothing.” Underwood smiled, all homespun. “You did good work last night. Necessary work. This city could use a man like you. This country, too.”
I stubbed out my cigarette. “I’m no assassin.”
“Who said assassin? You’re a free man, Gavel. The secret is safe with me, won’t even tell the cops – long as you stay true. But there might come a day when I ask you to serve your country again.”
“Will you ask nice?”
Underwood gave me the look that he gave Pascall at the end. “I’ll say pretty please. Take care till then. I got to get Lang back to Washington.”
He turned and unlocked the door.
I spoke steadily. “It might not be a good idea to make more men like me. Anything you can build, somebody else will want.”
Underwood glanced back over his shoulder. “I learned that lesson a long time ago.” Then he left.
I sat there awhile and asked myself how much of a mistake I’d made. I found out, eventually.
A detective always does.
— ♦♦♦ —
It was after seven in the evening. Ten hours earlier, Dennis Brody’s body had been found at Hangtree Crossing. It was up to Marshal Farrar to discover what had really happened to Brody. If he didn’t figure it out soon, there’d be war. After all, killing a man is a hanging matter.