The address on the envelope was in the city, possibly Mapes’ last residence before his arrest and incarceration at San Quentin. It wasn’t sealed, the flap tucked inside. It was creased in the middle and folded in two, very neatly, and a short message was handwritten with one of those new fangled pens some guy in Argentina invented, name of Biro. The ink was smudged on the thin writing paper, but I could just make out these words:
Hi, Al. I hope this gets to you before the cops find it. It’s what I took from Yvonne, the bitch!
Short and sweet.
I studied the letter for a little while, trying to imagine this woman, Joy, with no last name and with Al Mapes for a friend. What did she have against Yvonne? Professional jealousy? Or was it the money? Did she feel left out, determined to snatch a piece of the pie for herself?
I didn’t know about Mapes.
And I didn’t know why Joy moved to Minneapolis, or why she had left the money behind. And somehow nobody else knew about it, two years later. That just didn’t make sense.
The money was still in the drawer and I hadn’t counted it. Now that I had it, I suddenly wished I’d never seen it. I felt the pull of it, like gravity. It distracted me.
I counted it: thirty six thousand dollars, mostly in fifties and hundreds. No one had laid claim to it; Lt Cordell didn’t know it existed; Mapes was in San Quentin, Yvonne was possibly out in Nevada, and Joy was in Minneapolis if Sheldon was telling the truth.
As for Yvonne’s sister, my client, I guessed I could tell her anything.
I sat and stared at the money spread out on the bed, paralyzed. I asked myself if I was actually considering taking it? The worm of doubt began eating away at my gut.
I thought about it for a long time.
Then I put the money back in the envelope. It wouldn’t be safe in the drawer, and I wasn’t going to trust the hotel safe. This hotel wasn’t exactly top of the line, and even if it had been I knew that hotel safes were a nice target for burglars.
I went outside to stand in the noonday sun, smoking, trying to decide on my next move. I had never been so tempted before. The slight bulge in my inside jacket pocket felt unusually bulky. I felt sure everyone knew what it was, and I felt conspicuous standing there by the semaphore, at Seventh and Alvarado, as I could tell from the street sign. In the middle distance I could see a park. Maybe I could relax there.
A faint tug on my sleeve brought me round. I turned halfway toward the person who was right next to me, a small, dapper man in a fedora, and wearing a raincoat, despite the weather being mild at 75 degrees.
“You don’t know me,” he said, looking up at me with bleary, watery eyes. “My name is Bronson.”
He held out a hand, but I just looked at it.
“I was the insurance investigator on the armed robbery at Wrigley Field two years ago,” he said. “I was given your name by Lieutenant Cordell.”
Great, I thought. What the hell does this wise-head want? Insurance? The package felt heavier than ever in my armpit, and I squeezed my arm closer to my body, as if expecting him to lunge for it.
“Uh-huh,” I said, looking away toward the park; it seemed like a sanctuary. In the middle of all this commerce, there was this oasis, with palm trees and a lake that shimmered in the late afternoon sun.
“We have to talk, Mister Power.”
“I think you know. You’re after the same thing I am. From the day of the robbery, I’ve been following the events. My efforts to locate the missing money have been unsuccessful, but they have been tireless, Mister Power. Whatever is left, still belongs to the Pacific States Insurance Company.”
I bit my lip. An unforeseen obstacle. The man had popped out of from behind the scenery. I was in the land of make-believe, after all. Was he a bit player, or someone serious?
“Lieutenant Cordell never mentioned you,” I said.
“No, but he mentioned you,” he replied, poking me lightly in the chest with his index finger.
He had an air of self-satisfied conceit, or irritating smugness. Did he know anything about the money Joy had stolen from Yvonne?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, in my exaggerated Boston twang, a feeble attempt at intimidation.
Two seconds later, I got a sharper perspective on the little chiseler, masquerading as a solid citizen in broad daylight. In a nice suit, yet, and a green, fluorescent tie, which seemed at odds with his otherwise conservative appearance, under his topcoat. He looked like a weasel, with a scrappy, thin mustache under his aquiline nose.
I had been ready to believe he was legit, until I felt the barrel of a gun in my side.
I was taller than he was, by a long shot. Taller and tougher. I was a private eye, and I’d been a boxer. I ran through all the possible scenarios that might work to set Mr Bronson on his ass, because the little man was undoubtedly as ferocious as a ferret. A bureaucrat, a pencil-pusher, a company man through and through, he’d pursue his objective till he found it. He had a nose for finding money, though now for himself alone. That was written all over his face.
“Let’s just go somewhere and have a talk, a quiet talk,” he said.
He was jamming me in the ribs while talking under his breath, with his teeth clenched. He looked like a real lollypop, but a lollypop with teeth, like a vicious ferret, pretending to be a gangster, and I wondered if he’d done this before, or was this his first time at this.
But I wasn’t about to take any chances, not with a heater next to my heart.
“Okay, where?” I asked.
“How about we take a stroll over to MacArthur Park, Mister Power. You were looking in that direction, weren’t you?”
He pushed the gat harder into my side as a signal to get going, so we crossed the street.
“I daresay you’re from Boston, Mister Power. Am I right?”
We walked along, Bronson beside me very close. He held the firearm inside his coat pocket, so nobody could tell.
“A little warm for an overcoat, isn’t it, Mister Bronson?”
“It has its uses, as you can see.”
We walked along further, and I asked him, “You got any slugs in that gun?”
“Oh, you bet.”
“From the feel of it, I think it’s a .38 Colt. Police Special. Am I right?”
“It’s a Luger, which I kept as a souvenir from the war. I picked it up in Germany from a dead Nazi officer with a Death’s Head insignia on his cap. He didn’t need it anymore.”
Well, so I wasn’t good at blindly identifying weaponry.
“Robbing corpses came easy to you, huh?”
We’d reached the entrance to the park, and we followed the path to the boats. Some people were milling around, getting in and out of those little put-puts with the canvas tops, some of which were out on the pond, while others were being dispatched by the boat-handler. He pulled them in with a long pole and shepherded the customers in and out of them.
We walked along the outskirts of the lake. A fountain in the middle of it sprouted water upwards like a geyser, and all manner of ducks and geese were cavorting near the spray. A Mexican peasant woman was tossing breadcrumbs at them.
“We c’n stop here,” he said.
It was a bench near the monument to General Douglas MacArthur, a curved wall about fifteen feet high in the shape of a half moon, enclosing a ramrod straight statue of the man. There was a plaque on either side of him; writ in large block letters were two quotes attributed to him.
“Your hero?” I asked.
Bronson glanced at the monument and shrugged. “I was a sergeant, but I was with the forces in Europe. You?”
He squinted into the setting sun as a white child of about ten ran by, casting quick looks behind him, laughing mischievously. He soon disappeared behind a grove of small trees at the edge of the park, and a moment later a large black woman of about fifty, emerged from hiding somewhere and was in hot pursuit, yelling.
She ran past, out of breath. We both watched, for some reason focused on this little domestic drama.
“I was in the Navy,” I told him, but I didn’t think he heard me.
He was sitting to my left, still absorbed by the chase. His right hand was in his pocket, which is where the gun was. I could see how I could take him down. My attention had been drawn away from the scene, my eyes now focused on the slight oval opening in his coat pocket.
I moved quickly but quietly. I let my left hand hover over the gap, then I let it drop into the pocket. I seized the gat, applying a vice-like grip, an exercise that took me back to my boxing days, when I was featherweight champion of Barnstable Country, Massachusetts two years running, back when I was in my twenties.
The little man reacted immediately; in a split second, his torso swiveled toward me, his eyes ahead of his hand by a fraction of time, and landed on top of my hand, his grip firm.
“Let go!” he warned, in a fierce whisper.
“I’m not gonna let go,” I said, with great equanimity.
My left hand had gripped the butt of the gun, but now I shifted my fingers, extending them forward toward the trigger guard. I didn’t know if it was loaded, or if the safety catch was on, so I had no option but to bluff.
My finger was on the trigger now, and I twisted the barrel toward his torso, and I said to him, “Let go, or I’ll blast your balls of!”
Unfortunately, just at that moment a beat cop appeared from behind the monument, on patrol with a nightstick, which he twirled by its strap.
“Hold it,” I told Bronson, “there’s a cop!”
He looked over and visibly stiffened. “He’ll think we’re a couple of queers!”
He had been pushing on my hand with his own, but now he withdrew it, which didn’t help much as I still had my hand in there.
Bronson was on the point of sheer panic. “You know what they do to fags in the county jail?”
The policeman approached, leisurely, apparently enjoying his route, as a good-natured expression dignified his face. But we were safe for the moment, because he hadn’t noticed us yet.
“Get your hand outta there!” Bronson cried, in a thick, hoarse whisper.
But I kept it in there. I figured I had the “upper hand,” so to speak, because I had no fear of being arrested, whereas Bronson obviously did.
Then I remembered about the money I was carrying, and wondered how I’d explain such an amount of cash if I were searched, and the possibility reared its ugly head, if the man in blue decided to take a closer look.
It was fortunate that he missed seeing us. He stopped for a languid moment, seemingly in a peaceful state of mind. He took in the environs and appeared to take a long breath, and he turned away still swinging his stick, so pleased with himself and the world.
At that moment, I pulled my hand out, and pointed the barrel right into the little man’s chest.
“Okay, so what’s your story?”
To Be Continued