10 Aralık 2023

Better Off Dead

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Anissa Kate

This is my third attempt to submit this rewrite of one of my very early stories; “The Big Pay Out’ which even I have to admit was a load of crap, but my previous attempts were rejected as it was deemed to be an edited version of that story. If you go to that story you will see that it is very short and that I somehow managed to have it repeated (it still only took up 2 pages). This is not an edited version of that story as it is now over three times as long and contains a great deal of new material. It is my feeble attempt to emulate the ‘noir’ style of such authors as Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. It is set in the 50’s when censorship laws meant that sex was implicit rather than explicit, and what there is of it in this story is something of a compromise. I hope you enjoy it. Cm.


Chapter 1

The wind blustered through the man made canyons of the city driving the morose rain before it, soaking the cuffs of my trousers. The reflection of the sad street light struggled out of a muddy puddle in the road. As I trudged this soggy street a bedraggled cat hissed at my feet from the equally soggy pile of cardboard that littered the sidewalk. This was Fifth Street not Fifth Avenue, and two in the morning wasn’t a good time to be here, but work is work.

In the distance a trumpet wailed its sorrow into the night. The note in my pocket had said to follow that sound. I turned my head from side to side trying to decide from which direction it came. Eventually I turned right into an even more depressing alley and the trumpet was joined by a double bass, drums, guitar and piano. From what I could hear of the notes that fought their way to my ears through the other night sounds, the band wasn’t half bad.

A flickering red neon led me to a bar at the very end of the alley. Pushing the door open I entered a world of stale cigar smoke, of stale beer smells and the sounds of despair. The trumpet player took his instrument from his lips and began to sing in a voice that told of too many cigarettes, too much bad whisky and too much sadness, the raw emotion rode through his music like the freight train that he rode away from the hard times in New Orleans or Chicago and the small crowd sat in rapt silence while he sang, lost in his lament.

I grabbed a stool at the bar, “What’s your poison?” The woman behind the bar matched the ambience of this place, her once blond hair tinted yellow by the smoke, her once pretty face scarred by age, a hard life and a lack of sleep, the only thing that seemed to have survived the ravages of time was her figure, or at least the part of it that I was allowed to see.

“Whisky, straight up.” I slapped a two spot on the bar.

“You want change or are you going to work your way through that?”

“Keep ’em coming. I don’t suppose you can tell me where I can find Laura Lee Jones?”

She served me an extra shot of whisky and passed the glass to me along with my money. “You’ve found her. You must be Gerry.”

I took a business card from my pocket and passed it over, “This card says I am and it’s my card so I guess I am.” I took a swig of the whisky and wished I hadn’t, I hated to think of the damage this was going to do to my guts on the way through. “Whew!” I winced to show my displeasure. “When was this made, yesterday?”

“Stick around, the band will be finishing their set in ten minutes or so and then the crowd will clear out and we can talk. Why don’t you take a load off in that booth over there.” Her nod indicated a booth occupied by a woman who looked as if she too had seen better days.

I slid in opposite this thing and put my glass down. A quivering hand reached out and grabbed it. The glass rattled against her teeth as her unsteady hand tilted it up, emptying it in one gulp.

“Help yourself, why don’t you.”

“I just did. Got a butt?” I shook a Camel out of the pack for her and one for myself. She grabbed it like it was her last and didn’t even bother to tap it on the table to tamp the tobacco before she stuffed it between her lipstick smeared lips. I took the Zippo out of my jacket and torched hers before I lit mine. Snapping it shut I tried to ignore her. “You looking for some action?”

“Nah, I gave it up for Lent.”

We sat in silence, each lost in our own separate world, me thinking about what Laura Lee wanted from me and she, well I couldn’t tell what world she inhabited.

The band finished their set and put down their instruments, the fact that they weren’t packing them away tells me that they were coming back soon or that this was their regular gig. Regular gig won out. The customers shuffled out as the band moved over to the bar for one last free drink before heading out to wherever.

My companion stood shakily to her feet, “You sure you don’t want to take me home?”

“Sorry Sweetheart, but I’ve gotta get home to the little lady.” It was a lie but she wasn’t to know that, in fact in an hour she will have forgotten all about me.

Laura Lee locked the door and came almanbahis and sat down in the booth. “I see you hit it off with Sadie.” She put another glass of whisky in front of me, “That’s to replace the one she took.”

“You did that on purpose didn’t you?” I held it to my nose, it didn’t singe my nose hairs so I knew it was a different batch to the other stuff, probably last week’s. I took a sip and it slid down smoothly. “Nice, private stock is it?”

“Yeah, I keep this for special clients.”

“How can I help you?”

“I want you to find my no-good husband.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that there was no love lost between her and her missing husband.

“I gather that you would prefer it if he came up dead.”

“You gather right, but that’s not to say you should kill him if you find him alive. The no-good son-of-a-bitch was not only stealing money from me but he was putting it about with just about anyone and he didn’t care if I knew it. He even screwed your friend that just left.”

“You’re kidding me right?”

“No. I went out into the alleyway out back to toss some trash in the dumpster and there he was up to his balls in that scrawny whore.”

I got the picture. “When was the last time you saw him?”

“Right after I chucked him out the door Monday last week. I had just had a visit from a couple of very big and mean looking guys who told me they were collecting on behalf of one of the local bookies. It seems he was into them for several grand and these guys suggested that if he didn’t pay up, and soon, he would regret it.”

“I don’t suppose you know the name of this bookie do you?”

“Benny someone or other, I didn’t quite get the last name if in fact they mentioned it, but I gather he is big time.”

“They don’t come much bigger. There’s a good chance your husband is currently feeding the sharks at the bottom of the ocean and I don’t mean that he’s down there with a copper ball over his head holding out lumps of halibut for them either.”

“If he is can you prove it?”

“Probably not, but I might get lucky you never know. I don’t suppose you filed a Missing Persons report.”

“I did, but it’s probably not much use, they didn’t seem terribly interested, especially after I told them that he owed Benny money. I figure they came to the same conclusion you did.”

“I’ll call by tomorrow night to let you know how my investigation is getting on.” I got up and walked out into a night of misery. It had come to this; Tony Goode, my ex-partner, had left to set up his own agency about six months ago taking my ex-wife with him. He was the money man of the Pretty Goode Detective Agency, (Discretion guaranteed), I am the Pretty part and before you come up with a smart-arsed remark about the name let me tell you I’ve heard them all. I was the poor schmuck who did all the detecting. I drew wages and he drew what was left, that wasn’t the deal when we started out but after he left I found out that he had done a damn sight better from the business than I had.

I went home and grabbed a couple of hour’s shut-eye before hitting the pavements. It didn’t take long for me to find out that my man had run up a large tab with several bookies and was stalling for time hoping for the big payout so that he could clear his debts. Like all gambling fools he had lost sight of the fact that his chances of that big payout was on the same level as a snowball’s chance of survival in hell. I got the impression that Benny had lost patience with him, and I knew what that meant. All I had to do was prove it. So I paid a visit to Benny.

My first hurdle was to get by the goon at the front door of Benny’s office. “Whachewant?” He made the Neanderthal man look intelligent.

“I wish to see your Boss.” Straight forward enough request I thought.

“The boss ain’t seeing no-one, so shove off.”

I hit him with a hard right to the bread basket that doubled him over, followed by a swift knee to the face, he stood there with blood streaming from his nose and a bewildered look on his ugly puss. He thought about having a slug at me, a minute later he had a second thought and decided against it. “Why don’t you be a good person and go and speak to your boss, all you have to do is tell him that Gerry Pretty would like a chat.” I could hear him muttering my name over and over as he left. After several minutes he came back.

“The boss’ll see ya.” He looked hurt but like a good boy he let me by.

I didn’t knock, “Hiya Benny, long time no see.” I held out my paw for him to shake. He ignored it and nodded towards a chair. I sat.

“What do you want?” He made it sound as if I was wasting my time even talking to him, which I probably was. “Didn’t you used to be Pretty Goode?”

“I’m still pretty good, ask Neanderthal man at the front door. I’m looking for one of your clients who’s gone missing. You wouldn’t happen to know where Andy Jones is, would you.”

“Why would I, I don’t get involved with petty hustlers like him.”

“I almanbahis giriş didn’t ask if you know him, what I asked was if you know where he is?”

“What makes you think I’d know where he is?”

“I would hazard a guess that he has met an untimely death and is shark bait, I could be wrong mind you, but it seems that when anyone owes you as much as he did they seem to end up that way, or at least there are rumors to that effect.”

“Wise guy aren’t you. Okay, let’s just say that I know what happened to him but I don’t know where he is. You should ask your ex-partner about that.”

“Why, what has he got to do with this?”

“He was contracted to carry out the hit, and I won’t say who requested it, and dispose of the body.”

I thanked him for his information and left, getting a nasty stare from the gorilla at the door. For fun I shaped as if to have another shot at him and he cowered against the wall. Benny will probably have to look for another goon.

My next port of call was at the new, swish, modern office of my former partner. His receptionist looked familiar, after all I had been married to her for several years. “You look great doll, now can I have a chat to Tony?” Her real name was Dolores but I’d squeezed it down to Doll and she hated me for that, among other things. The look that she gave me told me that she still couldn’t stand my efforts at humor. She flicked a switch on the gizmo on her desk, I’d get one for myself if I had someone to flick the switch, and his voice came through the speaker, “Yes Sweetheart, what is it?”

“Gerry is here and wants to speak to you.”

“Send him in.” I went in and found him sitting at his desk trying to look as if he was flat out with work. I knew better and it didn’t fool me.

“What do you want?” He said angrily. I don’t know why he should be angry with me, I didn’t walk out on him and take his wife with me, I didn’t take the company’s client records with me, thinking that I had all of the business sewn up, and I’m not having to live with the fact that the clients remained loyal to me and when he called on them they told him to shove his agency up his arse.

“Nice place you’ve got here, must be costing you a fortune, more than you’re earning, but even I didn’t think that you’d even sink so low as to do Benny’s dirty work for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I understand that you took Andy Jones for a ride and fed him to the fishes.”

“Who told you that?” I noticed that he didn’t deny it.

“A little canary sang an interesting song.”

“Why are you telling me this, what’s in it for you.”

“I figured that I’m due for a big pay out.”

“Is this blackmail?”

“No, I’ve got bigger fish to fry, if you’ll pardon the pun.” I could have stayed a little longer exchanging witty repartee but I couldn’t be bothered wasting my time. I left him there puzzling about my next move. I wouldn’t keep him in suspense long. I called into see my friend Lieutenant Callaway at the precinct house. I copped the usual bullshit from the troops as I walked through the squad room, “Who’s the pretty boy then?” “Didn’t you used to be pretty good? Now you’re no good.” Crap like that. I hear it every time I come into the station.

“Hey Lou, did you ever find Andy Jones?” Lou was staring at a file on his desk, a dead cigar hanging from his lips and a mug of tepid coffee feeling neglected beside his hand.

“No, we figured if we ever found him there would be so little left of him that he’d be just another John Doe with no means of identification. What do you know?” Lou would have been good looking if fate hadn’t stepped in. His face bore the scars of a few too many hits from his college boxing days, his bouts with the bottle and his worries about the fidelity of the woman who calls herself his wife.

His wife, and she still was in the legal sense, got tired of waiting for him to stagger home after a day of saving the world from itself and being too tired to perform his conjugal duties, so she took to finding relief elsewhere, the knowledge of which found its way to Callaway’s attention. He would have divorced her if he could be bothered and she didn’t want a divorce because he brought home a regular pay check which was more than could be said for many of her lovers.

“I don’t know where he is but I do know who took him there, and probably rubbed him out as well. I think you should go take a look and Tony’s Chevy, if you look around in the trunk you might find some blood which will probably match Andy’s blood type.”

“What makes you think your old partner had anything to do with this?”

“Business hasn’t been all that good for him lately and he needs money badly, badly enough to do this job for Benny. If you can finger him for it you might get Benny as well, so lean on him a little and he’ll squeal like a stuck pig.”

“Sure thing.” I knew that Lou had been trying to pin some sort of rap on Benny for a long time but every time he thought he had him, Benny showed almanbahis yeni giriş up with his lawyer and a whole bunch of people who were prepared to swear on a stack of Bibles that Benny, the upright citizen, was somewhere else at the time the crime was committed.

I walked the five blocks from the station house to my office, pausing just long enough to grab a cup of what the street vendor laughingly described as coffee and a paper from the news stand. I glanced at the headlines but nothing grabbed my attention so I folded it and stuffed it under my arm, there would be plenty of time to read it in detail back at the office.

I was good at what happened next; I opened the door and as I walked into the front office I took off my hat and threw it in the general direction of the hat stand. As usual it stuck but as I took off my coat I found myself grabbed from behind, that’s not usual. A voice came from the stuffed chair I had thoughtfully provided, back in the days when I had a partner and a wife in reception, for clients to rest comfortably while they waited for me to attend to them. “Very well done, a man of some skill. Nigel you may release Mister Pretty.”

As I was released I turned to face the man who had held me. Nigel? The Neanderthal was called Nigel? The irony of this revelation took me by surprise to the point that I almost missed the telegraph message that came just before the punch was thrown. Like I said I almost missed it, unfortunately for the ponderous Nigel. I hit him low down in the body and, as he lurched forward, chopped him with a looping left to the jaw. He went down like a pole-axed steer and I filed away in my memory that Nigel had a glass jaw.

“What do you want Benny?”

“A word to the wise Mister Pretty, a word to the wise. After our little meeting this morning I couldn’t help but ask; why would you be interested in the whereabouts of a loser such as Andy Jones? Could it be that his wife, the beautiful Laura Lee had hired you to find him? Or could it be that she hired you to confirm that he was no longer among us, having retired to that track in the sky where every horse is a winner? Or could there be another, very dangerous for me, reason? I told myself that I should call by just to reassure myself that you are no threat to my operations. Reassure me, Mister Pretty.”

This was a whole different Benny to the surly bookie that I confronted earlier this morning, he was positively loquacious, he was positively polite, and he was positively scary. I hated it when people who could harm me were polite, it usually meant that I was in danger of being harmed. A smack in the head I could understand, that was the language of the streets where I lived, but this was alien and I had this premonition that I was going to be harmed, and soon, if I made a wrong move.

“If you must know I have been hired to found him, dead or alive.”

“So be it. I must, however, warn you that if ever I should hear that you are encroaching on my territory my vengeance will be swift and total. Do I make myself clear?”

“Sure. I won’t even ask if it was you or one of the other of several bookies that Andy owed money to who had him stiffed.”

“I’m glad that you didn’t ask, you have saved me the bother of lying to you.” He stood, it was the first time I had ever seen him erect and for a big man he was surprisingly short, no more than five feet tall. My attention was on Benny as he walked to the door and it wasn’t until I heard the slight noise behind me that I realized the danger I was in. The lights went out and I didn’t hear Benny tell Nigel that he shouldn’t have done that.

“Gee sorry Boss, I thought you wanted him roughed up.”

“That thought was about five minutes too late. In future you don’t hit someone unless I tell you to. I can’t have you thinking for yourself.”

Chapter 2

I don’t know whether I was awake or not but there was a ringing in my ears. As consciousness returned I realized that it was the telephone making a racket on the desk. I crawled over and grabbed the cord, the phone came off the desk and must have hit me on the head because when I woke up again I thought I was dead and gone to heaven. My head was resting in a beautiful and soft lap and my brow was being wiped by a soft, damp cloth held in a beautiful hand. An angelic voice wafted down from above, “Are you alright?”

“I can’t hear any harp music but I must be in heaven.” It was the best that I could think of at the time.

“What happened to you? I came past your door and found you laying there on the floor.”

“Are there any truck tire marks on the carpet left by the eighteen wheeler that ran me down?”

“You must be feeling better, your sense of humor has returned.”

“I never lost it. In this business if you take life too seriously it will grind you into an early grave.”

“Do you think you can stand up?”

“I’ll need some assistance.” She was a tall, slender blond and all of her bumps were in the right place. She smelt really nice, unlike the cheap dime store scent used by the women that I usually met. She was also strong and I found myself almost being lifted bodily by this angel. Of course I had to stagger a little as I got to my fee and of course she had to hold me more firmly. I was in heaven.

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