Copyright © 2016 Pierre Manchot
All rights reserved by author.
I want my copy of The Big Sleep back.
Whenever you’re done reading it.
I find it very strange that I’m out of bed on a Wednesday before noon and even stranger that I’m sitting on an airplane headed for St. Louis, one of the first commercial flights in America, I’m told. I’m not one to leave my house for anything less than a redhead in a seven o’clock dress. And I’m heading to St. Louis. Of all the sad sack towns in the world, of all the grime-soaked metropolitan wastelands, well… fine. It’s better than Sacramento.
Accommodations are nice. I sit first class, understand. I’m a real prince to these people. That means free alcohol. I’m sure you guys know nothing about that, but this is 1955, a thirsty year. I’m on my third bourbon and soda when we land.
The client asked for me a week ago. Called my home, also on a Wednesday. Pretty consistent guy in that way. Asked me to look into something for him. I told him what, you ain’t got any private dicks in Missouri? He said, none that I can trust, and your reputation precedes even the finest of yada-yada-yada. I hate a lot of smoke up places where smoke don’t belong. But he sent a check in the mail along with the plane ticket, so I can’t complain. They ask me to put out my cigarette and to pull my seat upright. I don’t think that’s anyway to treat a prince, but then again I ain’t a steward.
Plane lands and I find a car’s been arranged to take me to the man. The man: Corey McCallister. Ain’t that just a bastard of a name? He sounded all right on the phone. A bit rich in his manners, but that’s okay by me. Rich people’s money doesn’t spoil in the presence of good manners. And who knows? Maybe some of those manners might rub off on me every time I throw a nickel down for a coffee.
By God it’s a long drive to the estate. Nothing to see out here other than quarries and corn and perfectly manicured, square lawns. What’s the matter with ‘em, is what I want to know. The people, not the lawns, that want to make their lawns look that way. In California, we don’t worry about that. We don’t have to. We ain’t got no water to worry about, much less water our lawns with, much less drink.
“Hey Hombre,” I say to the driver. “I smoke in here?”
He waves his head no. I tell him, “Christ, you midwesterners are a clean people. Squeaky, even.”
He tells me not to blaspheme, either. “OK, boss. Ain’t my car. Just passing the time with one or two observations. That’s what I get paid to do. I’m sorry if it leached into our transaction here.”
The driver shakes his head. “You talk too much.”
“I get paid to do that too.”
To get to the man McCallister, first we got to get to his house and let me tell you, his house looked like it could have eaten mine for lunch and still be hungry for a nice apartment for desert. We’re talking huge in the way that you could see it from the moon. The driveway itself is about a mile long and its got all the trappings of a wealthy estate: a couple of servants walking horses, the wife out doing some roadwork with her red hair bouncing in the sun and about half a dozen cars, each one a color of the rainbow. I’m not passing any judgement upon the luckier class, I’m just saying that life ain’t for me is all. When you need to feed the guy who feeds your horse, well it probably means you don’t need the horse, now don’t ya.
The running wife waves her fat old hand at me. I figured her arm would just up and fall off, lugging around a rock that big on her finger. I give her a little salute. The driver pulls up to the house, finally, and asks for a tip.
“What, your man don’t pay you good enough? Get another job.”
“Think you get a house like that holding onto your money? He pays me dirt. Come on. Tip.” Now I could see that this guy was the same as me, just some working Joe doing his job for the big man in the house. I felt sorry for the guy. I threw a handful of nickels through the window.
“Make you happy? Go scratch for change somewhere else like a good little chicken.”
I rang the doorbell and waited. The air’s got an invisible mist to it. Makes a man sweat bullets if he has to stand outside in it longer than a minute I sweat shotgun shells, cannon balls. A big house means a lot of square footage from one room to the front door and my hunch is the waitstaff ain’t big on running.
A placid maid opens the door. She’s a redhead too. I start thinking I hadn’t wasted a trip.
“Inspector DeLon?” she asks. I nod. She tells me to give her my coat and once I’m in the foyer, she asks for my hat. “My what?”
“Sorry,” I say, “I’m not big on leaving my scalp bare before a business meeting, see? Makes me feel naked.” The maid ain’t placid no more. Looks more bull than human.
“In this house, Mr. DeLon, we all pay our respects to Mr. McCallister. Mr. McCallister pays his respects to God, as we all do. A covered head in this house is a hidden soul from the Lord.” She doesn’t budge. I take my hat off and hand it to her. I wipe down my forehead with a handkerchief.
“Forgive me, miss, I didn’t want to presume that this was a house of the God fearing kind. Back home, it’s considered rude to make those presumptions. As it stands, I’m a bit of a God-botherer myself. Although, I tend to do my worshipping on Saturday mornings, if you catch my meaning.”
“I’m sure I don’t.” She takes my things and finds a hook for them. “Mr. McCallister is on the range. A member of our staff will be with you shortly to take you to him.”
“Oh, I can wait here, miss. I’m very good at waiting. Call it a special skill I have. I’m no stranger to the old waiting game. But to satisfy my curiosity, as I’m very curious, another one of my super powers, why would it be that you couldn’t show me to Mr. McCallister yourself?”
“As I’ve told you, he’s on the range.”
“Pardon me again, miss, but I don’t golf. I find the sport tedious and, forgive me again, a pretentious waste of time. If you’d be so kind as to explain—”
“Women aren’t allowed on the range.”
“Some ranges, I’ve heard, entertain that notion. McCallister is a man who upholds that rule?”
“Hardly seems fair.”
“It isn’t my place to decide the rules of this estate, Mr. DeLon. It is my place to inform you that a member of our staff will be with you shortly.”
I tap a cigarette against its silver case. The maid says, “We’d thank you very much for not smoking on the premises.” The case goes back into the breast pocket. I must have seen a million foyers just like this one in my time. Ancient European paintings hang on the wall—no nudes, which ain’t too surprising given the prudent nature of the people working here. God forbid a little nipple should distract you from your labor. There’s also a grandfather clock gathering dust in the corner, sitting silent. The floor’s marble tile—I’m not a man who’s too keen on the expensive delights of this earth, but I do love to hear my heels clack against the sound of marble. Mm-hmm.
A waifish creature, half-dead by any reasonable calendar, appears behind me, interrupting my little tap-dance exhibition. My guess is that this walking cadaver is supposed to be some sort of butler.
“This way, Mr. Delon.” He extends an arm towards a hallway. “Mr. McCallister is waiting for you.”
“Well, that’s funny,” I say. “I thought I was waiting for Mr. McCallister.”
The creature insists I follow him. “Sure,” I tell him. Down the hallway towards a back door, back into the sunlight and me without my hat. The old man kneels to pull some weeds out of a flower bed. You gotta be kidding me.
“You work here a long time, mister?”
Old man’s answer is barely a whisper above a wheeze. “No, sir. I’ve been in Mr. McCallister’s employ only a few years.”
“You do anything interesting before working here? Something interesting like retirement?”
“I don’t believe in charity, Mr. DeLon and neither does Mr. McCallister. And yet he was charitable enough to give an old man a chance to prove himself capable of work. I’d have it no other way than a life of service. That is all I will say on the subject of my employment, Mr. DeLon. On the subject of anything prior to my employment, I will say nothing. Right this way.”
The old man walks me towards a strange little vehicle. It kind of looked like a cherry-red tricycle fell in love with a manatee and this was the maligned couple’s godforsaken offspring.
“What do you call that?”
“It’s an electric golf kart, sir. The height of luxury, if I’m to understand correctly.”
“But you don’t agree that it is the height of luxury.”
“If you’ll permit me my own opinion, then no. I do not.” I like this walking, talking corpse more and more.
I give him my own opinion. “Seems strange to me that a game that parodies the luxury of a promenade around a garden to chase a little white ball into a hole would negate the already threadbare athleticism of the activity and replace it with a car.”
“If I was able to provide another opinion, sir, then I would agree whole heartily.”
The old man starts the kart, a little rabbity at first, and takes us down a paved path, green acreage on both sides for as long as the eye could see and shrouded in a halcyon haze.
Old man introduces himself as Dennis. Doesn’t sound like an old man’s name and I tell him so. He tells me he wasn’t an old man when his parents named him Dennis. I’m not so sure anyone as old as him was ever born so young. Maybe freshly born, he was at least in his 20s.
Dennis drives us over a small little hill and brought us to the range. 400 yards of pure green surrounded by a giant net. I can’t even see the damn house from here, that’s how big the estate is. The land’s wide enough, you can hide a whole driving range in the back yard and that tells me that this used to be a farm. Mr. McCallister doesn’t lift his head up to greet us. He places a ball on the tee and settles into his knees. Knocks the ball clean, up into the air. It falls behind the 200 yard sign. Maybe that’s impressive. I don’t golf. He queues up another ball with his club as Dennis and I walk towards him. He knocks that ball pretty far too. Only then does he turn to look at us.
He looks about what I’d imagined. At a glance, I’d take him to be late 40s. I wouldn’t call him fat, but he’s got a lot of that good American corn in his stomach. He’s bespectacled, too, but not in a way that promoted any sentiment of natural intellect like glasses normally do. As far as his clothes, he’s wearing shorts and a collared T-shirt and one of them ludicrous golfing chapeaus. He holds onto his club while he shakes my hand.
“Mr. DeLon, glad you could make it. I trust your flight was well?”
“First class was a real treat, Mr. McCallister. You sure know how to make a guy feel special.”
“It’s good business to be generous, Mr. DeLon. Speaking of which, has Dennis offered anything to increase our hospitality?” I do detect the tone of derision. The old man keeps his back straight, although his face betrays a wince. “Not since I haven’t asked for anything, but he’s taken perfect care of me in every other regard.”
“Well, now’s the time to ask. Dennis, would you bring me a tonic water with lime and anything our guest desires?”
“I’ll have a bourbon and soda, heavy on the ice. And if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like my hat to brace the sun. Wonderful as the day may be, my eyes are a little sensitive.”
“No doubt the sign of a good private investigator. Very well, Dennis. Bring the man a hat and a proper drink.” Dennis aways in that ridiculous machine. McCallister sits on a lawn chair and invites me to join him, nodding towards the seat opposite him.
“I apologize for my father-in-law. I’m afraid he’s new to the whole butler thing.”
“That’s your father-in-law?”
“Indeed. It’s family tradition for the father to submit to the son, once the son is capable to manage the business and the father no longer contains the vivacious spirit necessary to conduct good business.”
“Your wife’s father was willing to do this?”
“He leapt at the opportunity. I think it feeds his youthful disposition.”
“And you’ll do the same once you yourself grow old and gray, is that it?”
“If God would have granted me a son, then yes. I would have no qualms about it. Things as they are, I believe this tradition is likely to end with me in the business seat and my father-in-law in a tuxedo.”
“God gave you a daughter instead.”
“Yes… and if God had granted me any other daughter, maybe I’d forward the company into her name.”
“She wouldn’t happen to be the maid that answered the door, would she?”
“She takes on many chores. It wouldn’t surprise me, if she was the one who greeted you. How’d you know she was my daughter?”
“She’s got the same slate hue in her eyes as you do, McCallister. And she’s the spitting image of your ex-wife I passed by on my way to your door.”
“That would be Michelle. You presume we’re divorced?”
“First of all—and not to make a judgement about the madame’s portly figure, hell, take a look at the paunch I’m packing—she ain’t a runner. Second of all, if she were a runner, I highly doubt she’d take the route from the driveway to the highway, not when you got the acreage here to run a mile loop. Third of all, it’s good business to put your family front and center during a business transaction. Fake, forced, cliché but obligatory. That woman I passed must hate your guts. A gal won’t deign to enter a home she don’t want to, but maybe she’s open to a compromise. My take is you two play chummy when it suits you: she gets an allowance, perhaps, liberal visitation rights, and gets to wear that rock on her finger to ward off money-hungry suitors. Meanwhile you get the faint illusion that I’m walking into a home.”
Dennis arrives and delivers a tray with our beverages. He returns to the kart and produces another of those ludicrous golf hats and leaves it on the table next to my drink. I leave it there. Corey McCallister clears Dennis away with the flick of his hand and sips his drink. I wolf mine down.
“What do you make of me?” In his words lies a challenging ring, a smug certainty.
“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t see how that—”
“I don’t want to assault your professional dignity, but you must’ve looked me up before getting on that plane. You’ve seen my house and what remains of my family. And I want to know what do you make of me?” He takes a long slurp of his tonic.
“You don’t like me,” McCallister says. “You don’t like the way I live.” I put the glass of ice back onto the table.
“You didn’t fly me half-way across the country to be your buddy, did you? For all I care, my client’s lives are their own. It’s got nothing to do with me except the timespan in which my services are rendered. Let’s get to it.” McCallister’s face drops in disappointment. I sigh.
“Fine, I’ll bite. I think you’re like that grandfather clock in your foyer.” This amuses him. “How so, Mr. DeLon?”
“I think you have a weakness for vanity. You like to show off your wealth and use it as an intimidation technique, especially with this sprawling acreage you call a back yard. I take it you do a lot of business out of the home?” He nods. “And you get your family to behave like your waitstaff. Or you get your ex-wife to come around to prowl the grounds to keep up appearances. What I make of you, Mr. McCallister, is that you haven’t been this wealthy for very long. This estate is one big pageant to make up for lost time after your previous failures. Just like that grandfather clock. It can’t be a recent acquisition, because it’s too dusty. It’s too dusty because you don’t really have the waitstaff you pretend you do and it’s fallen into dusty disrepair. You keep it around because it looks fancy, like something you should have in a rich man’s foyer. But it’s broken on the inside because you probably can’t afford to fix it and you don’t know how to do it yourself. The clock is a symbol of your life, Corey, because you’ve an extravagant exterior with nothing going on inside.” I pull a cigarette out and light it. McCallister starts to reprimand my smoking, but settles back into his chair. “But then again, I could be wrong.”
McCallister plays with his fingers, disguising a mischievous smile. “I’m afraid I’ve gone and angered you. I should know better than to have provoked a private investigator, but you see, I wanted to make sure I had hired the best and brightest. I will tell you that you are half-right, DeLon. Intimidation via vast wealth is the oldest trick in the book, even by means of facade. It’s why the Egyptians built the pyramids, why France has all of those Catholic cathedrals… And you’re not wrong that I don’t have the slightest clue how to fix clockwork. I doubt it’s one of my biggest faults. And you’re correct in assuming that was not a recent acquisition. It was my father’s left to me in his will, and I have yet to employ a man to service it. You were, however, inaccurate in your conjecture that I enjoy my money with any sort of vanity. It is merely good business to appear as blessed as I am, and, furthermore, it’s an honest expression of my legitimate stake to wealth—the family’s finances have been sound for generations. But I’ll forgive those oversights as personal conjectures do not blind your keen sense of observation. In fact, I think your assumptions probably cajole you along to get to the bottom of some elemental truth. That’s it. You’re hired.”
McCallister removes a glove to extend his hand.
“Not so fast, Amigo. Now, with all due respect, I can appreciate a ploy to understand my professional instincts, but that still doesn’t mean I sign a contract or shake a hand on a deal if I don’t know what the deal is.”
“Of course. Forgive me. First, let me explain the rate.”
“I’m sure you can afford it. I need details on this little project and why you felt the need to fly a man like myself out to your home, instead of relying on one of the more than sufficient investigators at St. Louis’s disposal.”
“Humor me. It’s customary to settle the monetary details up front. I’ll give you a per diem of fifty dollars a day. In St. Louis, that should cover bed and board with a little left over for some entertainment, I’d imagine. You follow through with our arrangement and you’ll receive a check for 1,500 dollars. Whether you decide to take my offer or not, I will fly you back to your home in California, all expenses paid, first class.” McCallister leans forward with a grunt, no doubt straining that corn fed stomach of his.
“Now, the matter at hand. I expect you know what business I’m in?”
“You’re in the textile manufacturing business.”
“Yes, and textiles has treated us very well indeed, historically. But it’s time to expand, and expand we have. My enterprise has recently acquired manufacturing facilities for automotive implements and a research department for technological advancements.”
“Congratulations. Though I heard it was more of a conglomeration of interests instead of a buyout.”
“Thank you. And it’s true, what you say. All parties have cooperated to come together under one corporate roof—mine, to be exact. Kirkland Technologies and Westfield Automotive still operate under their own supervision and at their own headquarters. It’s just that now there’s a fluidity of resources between us three.”
“And you’re the bank. That it?”
“We’ve got a lot of innovative minds working on a better future that should impress even the most cynical of thinkers.” He means me. I can tell because of the way his nostrils are flaring in my direction. “But I didn’t call you here to brag about my company’s recent accomplishments…”
“Oh, I don’t think you did, but I wouldn’t say you refrained either.” Me and the man share a smile.
“I want to hire you to protect my accomplishments, Mr. DeLon. I don’t need to spell out that the acquisition of these new departments required the heavy mergers of the aforementioned companies.”
“Who have cooperated, willingly I hope, to form a single aggregate. Fluid assets. Yes.”
“Which means you have two new partners. I think I got it, Corey. You want me to snoop on your new bedfellows, make sure they ain’t screwing you in the mud.”
“In so many words, yes.”
“You’ll forgive me, Corey, if I point out that usually when I get offered a job to dig up dirt, I find it. Makes me wonder why you want dirt on these guys, them being so cooperative and all. Which makes me wonder if you’re not the kind of guy who likes sharing the bed with other fellas. Makes me think of the word extortion, Corey. Makes me dream of free drinks in a first class seat back home.”
“You’ve every right to be wary. I can tell your instincts are in the right place. As far as I’m concerned, however, I can assure that I have no intention of overtaking their shares, for I do not want their responsibilities thrust into my lap. It should be of some assurance that in the case of their dismissal a replacement will be considered by a board of top shareholders and then chosen by means of impartial vote, of which, I can cast only one and I myself cannot be considered. Does that help?”
“It doesn’t hurt. But then tell me, why are you so interested in their dirty laundry?”
“Because, Mr. DeLon, some of the contracts we wish to pursue with our research team would require, shall we say, assurances of national security.” It clicks.
“You think one of your new buddies is a ruskie.”
“Precisely. Well, no, not a Russian, per se. But a communist perhaps.”
“You wired me, because you think that any PI in town could have been compromised, these guys being as rich as you.”
“You’re very good. Yes, an impartial third party is required. One with an unwavering conviction for the job. One who holds truth in a higher regard than money. That you’re honest enough to tell me why you dislike me, to the point of threatening your potential employment, why, that only adds to your credibility. So what do you say, Mr. DeLon? Do we have a deal?”
“Well, I don’t see why not. And it’d be dumb of me to back out now, knowing that it’s a matter of national security and all. What the hell. Sure, McCallister. You’ve got me intrigued.” I put out my cigarette in my melting glass of ice. It sizzles. “I presume you’ve got some materials for me to work with? Names, addresses, phone numbers.”
“Of course.” I shake his hand.
I pull out a standard contract form. “You can have someone bring it to me tomorrow morning. I’ll call with the motel address.”
“That will be fine, Mr. DeLon. Dennis will show you out and provide you the necessary documents to get started. Feel free to keep the hat.” I leave the hat where it sits.
“You keep the hat, amigo.”
McCallister puts his gloves back on and returns to hitting golf balls. Dennis arrives some minutes later and karts me back to the house. He hands me an envelope containing the contact information of McCallister’s associates and another envelope holding $300 cash, the assumed per diem cost paid in advance. I fold the money into my breast pocket. Dennis hands me my coat.
“What about my hat?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but there was no hat on the hook.” The daughter must have thrown it out.
“Perhaps, if I may offer, sir, you could use some of that generous per diem to purchase a new hat.”
“I liked that hat. Time had perfectly weathered it to the contours of my cranium.”
“A shame, then, that it hasn’t been returned to you. I shall keep a stalwart eye out for it.”
“Shove the butler accent, Dennis.”
Dennis, the old bag of skin and organ failure, leaves to attend to Lord only knows. The same driver as before waits for me out front.
“Where to, money bags?”
“Just take me to a motel in the city that has locking doors.”
“Sure you can afford it?” I tickle his ear with a ten dollar bill. “There’s another ten in it for you if you keep your clap shut, hombre.” I light a cigarette. “Another five if you don’t say boo about this.”
I book a room in a sweaty motel. They cut the rate in half due to the ceiling fan crapping out on them. I drop my bag on the bed and make for the nearest, darkest, coolest bar I can find. I get the fish and a sazerac. I use the bar’s phone to drop my address to Dennis. I take a look at the envelope McCallister gave me. Associate number one, majority shareholder of Westfield Automotive, Robert Westfield. Catchy name for a company. Newspaper clipping of the merger had a photo of him standing with McCallister and another guy. Westfield looks fairly healthy, stocky around the neck, but solid. Kind of like a golem or like a professional boxer coerced into running a company. The other guy is Francis Kirkland, associate number two, comically thin, like a broomstick with glasses. The biggest thing about Kirkland is his mustache and is in all other aspects, a sickly, forgettable man. The article itself doesn’t contain much else that McCallister hadn’t already told me.
“How was your fish?” Waiters. They never know when to leave you alone, do they? I tell him, “Tasted like wet cardboard.” He’s sorry to hear that. What about the drink? “I’ve had better cough syrup.” Would I care for another? “Well, now you’re just trying to be useful. Make it a whiskey rye and scram.”
Wait. I should soak up the local color, not just their booze. “Wait, I’m sorry kid. Hold up a moment.”
The kid freezes, unsure of what to do. “You read the papers?”
“Sometimes,” he says. I hold up the clipping. “You read this?” He nods. “You know these guys?”
He tells me they’re important men. That they run some industries in town.
“Make that a double whiskey rye and put rocks in it.” The boy takes off like a rabbit at a dog race. I smoke to subdue the lingering taste of foul catfish in my mouth. My whiskey arrives and finishes the job. The waiter asks if there will be anything else.
“You know where these important men work?”
He lets me know that the big guy works at the building on the east side, near the river.
“It’s a brick one.”
“Which brick one?”
“The brick one with a brass revolving door. It’s across from First National.”
“You been inside?”
“No. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Stay in school, kid. Let’s hope you make a better accountant than you do a waiter.” He scrams.
I finish my drink and take a look around at the other patrons. I spot a familiar face sitting at the bar, a woman with red-hair. She’s nearly unrecognizable wearing a dress instead of a maid’s outfit, with an untouched glass of gin and bitters before her. I squeeze into a stool next to her.
“I’d take off my hat, but someone seems to have stolen it from me.”
“Mr. DeLon,” she says.
“Miss McCallister, what a surprise. And I thought Christians didn’t drink.”
“Only the wrong Christians abstain, Mr. DeLon.”
“Always got to be a denominational difference about something, I suppose.” I ordered bourbon, shaking the remains of my last drink at the bartender and hiccuping softly. “Tell me, miss. Do the wrong Christians also abstain from petty thievery?”
She gives me an irritated look and I have to say I enjoy it very much. She pulls my hat out of her wicker bag and puts it on the table.
“You disappoint me, Mr. DeLon, that one as observant as you could miss when a girl’s being coy.” I pick up the hat and set it down in front of me, inspecting it for damages.
“Maybe I just have a preternatural ability to know when a gal’s determined enough to follow me into a dingy bar.” I salute the bartender. “No offense.” The bartender shrugs. “What do you want, Miss McCallister?”
“Madeleine.” I say her name back to her. Doesn’t mix with the whiskey so I ask if I can call her Maddie.
“If you please. Now, I know what my father asked you to do.”
“And it bothers you.”
“It does not.”
“You want me to dig up dirt on your father, in a bid to get his company chair, is that it?”
“It is not.”
“Then why would you go through the trouble of stealing my hat and following me here?”
“You’re seeing one of your father’s associates.” That spooks her. Her eyes grow into luminous orbs. O Luna. “Huh. I was just guessing. I bet it’s Westfield. Am I right?”
“Because Francis Kirkland looks about as handsome as a limp slug. Robert Westfield, huh? No kidding.”
“We’ve been together a while now, long before the merger.”
“And you think your intimacy with Westfield could, what, compromise your father’s business relationship with him? He’d pull out of the deal? At this point?”
“No. But he would makes things difficult for us. You were bound to discover that, and I wished to speak with you privately to leave that information out of your report on Westfield.”
“And you want to convince me that he’s not a red.”
“Well, he isn’t. But I’d let you get to that conclusion yourself.”
“And what makes you so sure he doesn’t have any Trotskyistic fancies floating around in his head?” I burp.
“Well, he was in the war.”
“So was I. Doesn’t mean I don’t think the commies make an attractive point or two.” I smile at the bartender, who’s eyeing us suspiciously.
“Anyway, I’ll leave you to it.” She takes one dainty sip of her drink and pushes it away from her. She straps on her wicker bag around her shoulder. “Give me a quote on what you think a secret is worth and I’ll pay it.”
“I don’t need the money. And besides, McCallister didn’t hire me to shake out the crumbs from your bedsheets.” She turns to leave.
“By the way, Maddie, if I find out anything interesting about Westfield’s dirty bedsheets, would you like me to keep that a secret as well?” She pauses, her hand on the door and looks at the ground. She leaves without looking back at me.
The brass rotating door gleams a little too bright for someone who’s eaten nothing but whiskey and fish all day. The inside is only a shade easier on the eyes, but an outright delight on the ears. Marble tile, I love you. I clackety-clack all the way up to the front desk and whoa there, wouldn’t you know it, a surly secretary awaits.
“I take it you’re not a music fan.”
“Name and purpose of visit?”
“Ronald Dwight, here to see Robert Westfield.”
“And your business with Mr. Westfield?”
“Combat history! We’re doing biographies on veterans who served during the big one. Or the other big one, the first big one, depending on who’s still alive. I know Robert to be a commendable servant to the armed forces, and would like just five minutes of his time.”
“That sounds like something you could have accomplished with a phone call.”
“It does sound like that, doesn’t it? I don’t do well on the phone. My hearing’s a little impaired thanks to an Italian grenade.”
“Wait over there.” She points to a bench under a painting which, unlike the pieces at Casa De McCallister, had more than a few bare bosoms. “Scandalous painting, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wouldn’t.” She clears her throat. “Ahem.”
I point to the cigarette in my mouth. She nods with her eyelids open to the roof. “Sorry,” I say stamping it out on her desk. “Just nervous about the book is all.”
“Perhaps you can come back later when you aren’t, ahem, so nervous.”
“Oh no, don’t worry about me. If he’s available now, I’m available now.” I get the same response I’d get from a dispassionate frog. “Say, you wouldn’t mind buzzing Robert for me, would ya?”
“I’ll see if Mr. Westfield is available.” She keeps her finger on the button until I’ve moved out of earshot. After talking into a box for fifteen seconds she motions me back towards her desk.
“You can have five minutes with him, no more. He’s got a meeting at 3 o’clock.”
The elevator takes me all the way to the top. My fellows on our vertical journey are not what you would call social. The bell dings. Another waiting room, another desk with another secretary. This one’s younger, more attractive, and yet somehow more curt.
“That’s me.” All smiles.
Robert Westfield is on the phone, or at least, pretends to be on the phone. He motions for me to take a seat. He adjusts his hair while looking at his reflection in the window. His neck, or lack thereof, is in great danger of breaking the knot in his tie. He hangs up.
“Mr. Dwight, I don’t believe we’ve met.” He extends his hand over the desk and nearly breaks my fingers in his grip. I say, “Nice handshake.” For a minotaur. “Congratulations on the merger with McCallister Enterprises.”
“Thank you. We’re definitely proud with where our shared company interests are going. Now, I understand you’re, what, getting biographies on war veterans?”
“Yeah, kind of a ‘where are they now’ piece. Those are big in this region. You’re definitely a success story, worthy of mention. How’d you come to be the primary shareholder of Westfield Automotive?”
“Family business. Inherited my shares from my father. My grandfather started it in, oh, 1914. We were in the business of producing looms back then. Company got retooled into automotive production during the second world war. We liked it that way and have sustained its purpose.”
“Interesting,” I nearly yawn. “I didn’t know that.”
“Listen, five minutes is a brief amount of time to get into all this, do you think we could sit down at a later time?”
“Oh sure, I’d love that. But let’s hit the bullet points real quick, give me something to send my editor, you know how they can be.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Oh, well, they’re incorrigible lunatics. Now, your take on Russia.”
“Say you’re back in the military. What kind of action would you take with Malenkov, if you were in charge.”
“I think it’s a pity we weren’t the ones to kill Stalin. I want to know what Eisenhower’s waiting for.”
“Next bullet point. You’re a successful businessman now. Surely you’ve got a home, a wife…”
“Really? Handsome man like you, unmarried. Well, I better not print that, else your door’d be backed up from here to New York with women.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Well, I have to print something. You seeing anyone?” Agitation, thy name is Robert Westfield.
“I’m perfectly content devoting all my time to business matters. Listen, I have a meeting—”
“At 3 o’clock, I know. One more question, and then I’m out of your lustrous hair. You’re a war hero, a business tycoon. But the other servicemen need to know you put your pants on one leg at a time.”
“Let’s say you have a long day at work. What do you do when you get home?”
“I take a shower. Then I lift weights at the gym. I get dinner and then I go home.””
“You have a private gym?”
“Oh, lord, no, I don’t go to a private gym.”
“And at home, what do you generally get up to there?”
“Nothing exciting. I read or go over accounts. Is that all you need today? I’m really in a hurry.”
“Sure thing. Thanks for your time, Westfield. I can call back in the future, right? Maybe get a good long story from ya about the Germany times, how bout that?”
“That’d be fine. Thank you.”
“I can call the branch to glance at your service record. You don’t mind, right? You remember your infantry number?”
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St. Louis, 1955. Roy DeLon is hired to drag a manâ€™s name through the mud. He doesnâ€™t have a problem with that. Royâ€™s got a problem with the string of untimely deaths that occur after he comes to town. The police arenâ€™t doing what theyâ€™re supposed to and sleazy business owners are eager for olâ€™ Roy to leave their fair city. Itâ€™s a rough game, this PI business, but Roy knew that going in.