Butch Jackson’s body was still at the morgue when Maggie called in a painter to remove his name from the doors and windows of what had once been the Fractal Bob-Jackson Detective Agency.
When Maggie arrived at work that morning, Frack was sporting a long past five o’clock shadow, his breath smelled of bourbon and he needed a change of shirt. Detectives Raymond and Wagstaff were in Frack’s office, examining the .38 that Fractal Bob had taken off the little hood who’d broken into his office before dawn.
A Colt just like it had killed Butch, and Frack had once carried one, too, when he, Wagstaff and Raymond had been cops on the same beat.
“Don’t try to pin anything on me,” Frack said. “I haven’t carried a heater like that since I left the force. It’s too bulky for a man in my line of work.”
“Your line of work,” Raymond scoffed.
The trouble was, there were a lot of .38s mixed up in Butch’s untimely death. Too many. Not only did the little hood Joel Crock have one, but so did Butch himself. So did Councilman Finch—or rather the ex-councilman—the man Frack and Butch had been hired to protect.
“I didn’t know he was a cop, too.” Frack said.
“Finch had been trying to pass some law keeping thieves from fencing grandma’s stolen gold locket when somebody did him in,” Wagstaff said. “Councilmen Simpleton and Smirkle tried to keep it off the books.”
“If you ask me, only a couple of crooks would try to stymie a law like that,” Frack said. “But whoever killed old Butchie got the drop on him good and proper. He hadn’t drawn his own gun and his overcoat was still buttoned.”
“Somebody he knew,” Wagstaff said. “Or somebody he wasn’t afraid of.”
“That probably leaves out any hood,” Frack said. “Maybe a dame, a friend, a cop or somebody important.”
Raymond snapped his fingers. “That’s right! Councilman Simpleton used to be a cop, too, and he invented a bullet for this very gun.”
Frack laughed dryly. “If you say so. But it sounds like you boys better pay Simpleton a little visit, see if you can get to the bottom of this.”
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Raymond said.
“So I’ve heard. They tell me that’s what juries are for,” Frack said.
Just then Butch’s fiancée burst in. She was a knockout. The cops noticed.
“What’s with the painter outside, Frack? Butch has been gone less than a day, and you’ve already rubbed out all trace of him,” she said. “You’re a cold-hearted little bitch.”
“Butch’s girl,” Frack told Wagstaff and Raymond. “Miss Darlene Splendor. Evidence that Butch was at least lucky at something.”
Raymond stepped forward. “We may need to ask you some questions, Miss Splendor,” he said. “Where were you when Butch was plugged?”
Darlene made a fist. “Stow that patter or I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich.”
The boys were smitten. Wagstaff took Darlene by the arm. “You’ll need to come downtown with us.” He looked over his shoulder at Fractal Bob and winked. “But we’ll play nice. Scout’s honor.”
When the detectives had gone, Frack shed the day-old shirt and, in trousers and wife beater, shaved at the small sink in a corner of his office. Maggie produced a fresh shirt and a cup of coffee.
“What did you do with Miss Musucara?” he said.
“She’s with Mother,” Maggie said.
“Oh? And what does Mother think of that?” Frack said, wiping shaving cream from his face. He reached for his clean shirt.
“She was on the verge of a green hemorrhage,” Maggie said, tying Frack’s tie, “but I told her Musucara was a witness you needed to hide before somebody put a bullet in her.”
“That’s not far from the truth.”
There was a knock at the outer door and Maggie hurried to answer it. Frack had settled in behind his desk with his coffee when Maggie slipped back in.
“It’s the floogie from yesterday,” she said. “She insists on seeing you. I think she’s running away.”
Frack had Maggie send the woman in. She was in quite a state: peroxide curls whorled around a pale, angry face, and her tiny eyes were as wide as they would go. But she’d made an attempt to gussy up—in a new hat, flowered dress and open-toed pumps—and she carried a small battered suitcase.
“You told them what I told you,” she said as soon as she stepped inside. “Are you trying to get me killed?”
“Look, sister, I sent my partner to keep an eye on Councilman Finch on your word there was trouble in store, and he took a bullet for it, so don’t bother telling me what kind of danger you’re in,” Frack said. “Who are these people you’re mixed up with and what’s so important?”
Maggie stepped in to smooth things over. “Won’t you sit down, Miss—?” she said. “How about a cup of coffee?”
But Miss— wasn’t in the mood for a polite chat. She leaned over the desk and jabbed a red-nailed talon in Frack’s face. “I should have called the cops, but they’re in on it, too. Your people! Ransacking my place, going through my things. You think I don’t know what you’re looking for?”
“I don’t ransack, sister, and neither do my ‘people.’ You got me confused with the hoods and gunsels you hang around with,” Frack said. “I’d take this up with them.”
“I’m leaving,” the woman said. “I’m going far, far away from here so none of you can touch me. Maybe I’ll get into the pictures and one day, you’ll all see me on the silver screen and feel sorry for how you treated me.”
Then she hoisted the small suitcase, which she dropped on Frack’s desk. “You people want it so bad, you can have it.”
“What’s this?” he said.
“You’re so smart, you figure it out,” Miss— said, and then she turned on her heels, leaving the case on the desk.
“Good night, nurse,” Maggie said after Miss— had slammed the door behind her.
“Poor sob sister. She’s all right,” Frack said. “She thought she’d finally made the big time only to find out she’d been used again.”
“Open it, Frack,” Maggie said.
“You open it, angel,” he said. “If it’s full of her unmentionables, I don’t want to know. I haven’t had my breakfast yet.”
“Let’s hope it’s not locked,” Maggie said.
It wasn’t. Maggie opened the suitcase and whatever was inside cast a bright light over her face, bathing it in a queer absinthe green glow. Frack looked on in alarm as Maggie’s eyes almost burst from their sockets and her mouth dropped open.
“What is it?” he said.
Maggie turned the suitcase around so Frack could see for himself. He felt the same greenish glow on his face as his jaw, too, went slack with surprise, his eyes widened and the muscles in his gut knotted. He snapped the case shut. “Quick, precious, lock this in the safe.”
. . .
Carissa Musucara appeared, looking stunning in a crisply tailored red suit—even though she had not slept a wink after having been spirited from her well-appointed room at the Belvedere and dumped in a small bedroom in Maggie’s mother’s flat a few blocks uptown.
Maggie opened the suitcase for Carissa, and Frack noted that the green glow no longer phased him, not like the way in which awe transformed Carissa’s soft eyes and bow-shaped lips. Stricken with shock, Carissa closed the case gently.
“So—what do you make of it?” Frack said.
“We must call the Colonel,” Carissa said, removing her hat and then her gloves. “Immediately.”
But Frack didn’t know the Colonel, so he insisted on making the first call, this one to Maggie’s brother, Hi Landsman, a retired newsman with more than his fair share of horse sense. Landsman left his backyard project to take the trolley downtown. As soon as he arrived, Maggie pulled the suitcase from the safe and threw it open. “What is it, Hi?” she said. “We’re all very nonplussed.”
Hi looked up from the suitcase, stroking his chin. He smiled. “You actually used that word correctly. Most people think it means ‘nonchalant’ or ‘blasé’ but it actually means ‘bewildered,’ as in ‘stopped in one’s tracks.’ It’s French for ‘no more.’ ”
“Incroyable!” Carissa muttered impatiently under her breath.
Hi closed the suitcase. “It’s stamped right here: ‘Property of the City.’ It’s the plans for the perfect public project. It’s exactly what the city needs, it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime, it will create hundreds of good jobs, it will be flawlessly executed by staff and contractors who know what they’re doing, and nobody can speak out against it without looking like a petty, delusional Scrooge. Whoever pushes this through will term-limit out as a city councilman and get a plaque nailed to it in his honor. This, my friends, is the stuff of dreams.”
So what was the floogie doing with it?” Frack said.
“What’s a ‘floogie?’ ” Hi said.
“This has to go straight back to City Hall,” Maggie said, grabbing the suitcase by the handle. But Frack, Hi and Carissa rushed to stop her.
“Look, angel, somebody lost or traded or stole this, then somebody found it and then somebody died over it,” Frack said. “Something smells fishy here. If it’s just a good piece of public policy, why all the hubbub? What the hell kind of town is this anyway?”
“A rotten one. I’ve been telling you that for years,” Hi said. “Got anything to drink?”
. . .
It took the Colonel hours to assemble his team in the gritty, dimly lit offices of Fractal Bob’s Detective Agency. Maggie entered Frack’s office to announce the leader of the motley crew of political eccentrics. “Col. Reginald E. Lighthouse,” she said.
Frack stood, extending his hand, “An honor, sir.”
“Ah, yes,” Lighthouse said as the others in his entourage gathered around. “It’s a pleasure to meet a man of service. You were wounded at the Western Front?”
“Just a little shrapnel in the hind quarters,” Frack said. “It only hurts when I sit down.
“My protégé,” Lighthouse said, introducing a young man in uniform, “Lt. Ken Dahl. He’s only stateside for a short time.” The handsome young soldier blushed as Carissa batted her lashes at him. Then Lighthouse seized upon the suitcase. “And how is it that you came by this interesting artifact, Fractal Bob?”
“It’s a mystery,” Maggie said. “Some no-name floogie brought it to us.”
“What’s a floogie?” Hi said.
Then, just as they had all gathered around the suitcase to open it, Frack’s favorite associate, Little Sister, bolted in wearing an overcoat and moth-bitten fedora pulled down over her loose chestnut locks.
“Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in,” Frack said.
“Let’s see how you look after twelve hours on a Mexican train,” she said as she shed the hat and coat and hung them next to Frack’s on the stand at the window.
“Mexican train?” said Lt. Dahl. “What were you doing in Mexico?”
“Don’t ask,” Frack said.
And then they opened the suitcase. Frack stepped back to watch them gaze inside. Hi joined them. “You know what you’re looking at, don’t you?” he said.
Lighthouse began wringing his hands. “This is bad, very bad.” Carissa put her hand on the colonel’s arm to calm him. “No, it’s good, very good. We’ll return it to the best, most honest city councilman we have left and tell them we support it.”
“And the rest of the council will shoot it down,” Little Sister said. “They won’t let it see the light of day unless some fat cat can make a lot of dough out of the deal.”
“But wouldn’t that sap it completely of its power?” Frack said.
“Exactly,” Lighthouse said. “They won’t touch this. They can’t.”
“Not their orders,” Dahl said. “Not why they were elected.”
“They were elected to make rich people richer and this only benefits the taxpayers and local businesses and the generations of them to come,” Lighthouse said.
“Now you know why the floogie had it,” Maggie said. “It was all but worthless to Councilmen Smirkle and Simpleton and their friends. Maybe she was smart enough to see its value.”
“What’s a ‘floogie?’ ” Hi said, pulling a small dictionary from the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“What value?” Carissa said. “They won’t use it, and we can’t either. We don’t have enough seats on any council or commission, so we’ve got no power and no leverage.”
“And no public support,” Frack said, “because as far as the citizens know, you’re not for anything. You’re only against things. A golf course, a swimming pool, a research park, better schools, enough safe drinking water, a new highway, new shopping centers.”
Carissa bristled, and her cheeks flushed. “We’re not against any of those things. We’re against the graft and corruption—”
“The slush funds of taxpayer dollars, the illegal awards of bids, the shoddy construction, the open meetings act violations, the walking quorums, the conflicts of interest, the character assassination,” Lighthouse and his crew said. “Arson, murder, specially trained killer deer.”
“Listen to yourselves,” Frack said. “You sound like you escaped from the loony bin. Who can blame the rest of the town for dismissing you?”
“Shut up, Bob,” Little Sister said. “Whose side are you on?”
“The side of the little people, all Americans under one flag regardless of color or creed. Mom and Pop and their three kids. Our boys in PT boats in the South Pacific. Cops on the beat, firemen in firehouses. College students, senior citizens, widows and orphans, furry little critters that eat out of garbage cans. I’m even for the rights of fat cats, though they’re not for mine,” Frack said. “Whose side are you on?”
They fell silent for a moment, each pondering what to do with the suitcase.
“It’s a good thing the other side is so arrogant and stupid,” Hi said. “Can you imagine what would happen if they actually used this? If they, for once in their lives, thought about what’s best for the city rather than what’s best for the greedheads and fat cats?”
They shuddered in union.
“It would mean they could do whatever they wanted forever and ever, and no one would listen to the likes of us again,” Carissa said. “There would be no hope for our candidates and no reason to bother writing another letter to the editor. They could pass any bond they wanted. They could give out our tax dollars to any shyster who stepped up to the podium in Council Chambers and asked for them.”
“The gratitude of a grateful city. Trust in government. A golden shield,” Little Sister said, “for every backroom deal to come.”
“Quick, Frack,” Maggie said. “Put that damn case back in your safe.”
And everyone agreed.
“Better change the combination,” Lighthouse said. “Just to be on the safe side.”
Frack crouched next to the safe with his hand on the dial. “To what?”
“Something easy to remember,” Maggie said.
Frack looked up at Carissa’s beautiful face, her huge green eyes doleful and tragic. Then he grinned at her, a tad too wolfishly for the somber mood of the room. “Say, sweetheart,” he said, “tell me your measurements.”
The author wishes to salute the memory of Dashiell Hammett, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart and to give a slight nod to the short-lived career of Quentin Tarantino.