OUT OF TOWN A FEW DAYS:
15 Frank Johnson Short Stories
By Ed Lynskey
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Copyright May 2004 by Ed Lynskey, all rights reserved.
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Against the Season
I survived one rather nasty spill and a sprained wrist while skating across the Lake Sowego train platform. Gripping a steel railing down to the parking level, I did a hasty visual scan but no Ellen Barlowe. Contoured and attractive, she'd be hard to miss. Gazing about, I marched along the railroad tracks. Flocked at a burn barrel by the hardware store, several street toughs jeered at my confusion. A rabble of laughter erupted which I didn't bother to contest.
Stopping for a traffic light change, I fought off a vague fear seizing me. Far from home, I was on my own. Since Al, an old Army MP friend I hadn't seen in years, had been headed my way to visit his folks for Christmas, I'd hitched a ride with him. En route to Chicago, he'd bored me telling about his divorce. His wrath ran deep and dark. I didn't know Jill but, to hear him tell it, her lawyers had smelled blood. The worldly and wise Al advised me against matrimony. Even hometown girls like his ex were corrupt and conniving.
Having committed Ellen's street address -- 219 Buchanan Lane -- to memory, I decided to ask for directions. A clerk manned a liquor store cattycorner from me. The girl, somewhere between 21 and 24, arched a tweezed eyebrow in a puzzlement.
"You're yanking my chain?" she accused me. "You don't look the part, Billy Bob."
"I've never been more serious in my life." My patience was growing curt as my voice. Her radio blared. "That's where I want to go."
Blue-veined eyelids fluttered shut. Ellen's place on Buchanan Lane, the clerk remembered, was up four blocks.
Toeing the door a few inches wider, I said, "It's snowing harder."
"Why not lug along a fifth?" the clerk half-giggled. Cute, she was also blonde.
"Yeah. Bourbon fuels the old furnace." I tipped her three dollars before sallying forth.
A blast peppered me with icy shrapnel; my fleece-lined Wolverines crunched over plowed snow; and my suitcase bogged down. Did I spot any of those trashy hanging icicle lights? Not here I didn't. Not one Nativity scene cluttered a front lawn. No holly wreathes were nailed to gated lanes. Kids out slapping a hockey puck on an ice rink? Forget it. This was Lake Sowego -- a restrained decorum was the rule of order. Black wrought iron streetlights powered by gas jets cast a bluish candle glow. Through bone-crushing cold, I trudged on to Ellen who wouldn't now have to endure Christmas alone.
Buchanan Lane, a cul-de-sac, led to Ellen's mansion atop a gentle knoll. After butting open the frozen gate latch, I advanced up the lit curving walkway. Stupid me. So intent on planting one boot in front of the other, it never occurred to me to check what lay ahead. I dumped my suitcase by a Grecian column and my shaky thumb jabbed the doorbell button.
Just then, smoke smells registered. No response from the dud door chimes also clued me in. Retreating, I verified, yep, no interior lights, upstairs or downstairs. Right under my nose, the Fire Marshall had tacked a yellow Condemnation Notice. A fire had raged. Charred gaps for windows showed where flames had savaged the second floor. Disbelief, then frustration almost undid me.
I hefted the suitcase and plotted my next move. Backtracking didn't thrill me, but a more sensible alternative didn't spring to mind. The return trek to the liquor store went on and on. Yet, I made it, praise be. Sitting cross-legged on the countertop, the singing clerk accompanied the barking dogs to "Jingle Bells" on the radio.
"You're that bourbon-loving dude," she recognized me. She nudged down the volume.
"Except 219 Buchanan Lane was burnt to a crispy shell," I said, irritated.
Her nostrils twitched. "With everything going on, I'd forgotten," she said. "Sorry."
My stomach twisted. "How bad was it?" I managed to murmur.
"A neighbor smelled smoke and dialed 911," said the clerk. "Ms. Barlowe was asphyxiated when the EMTs crawled to her. Are you her relative? I mean the funeral was, like, two days ago."
"No. An old friend in town for the holidays."
"Sorry for your loss." The clerk's sympathy seemed genuine.
"What will you do now?" she wondered as the same problem crossed my mind.
"The next commuter rail to Chicago is six in the morning so I'll need a motel."
Adjusting a gold loop earring, the incredulous clerk crinkled her nose. "A motel? In Lake Sowego? Right. You don't strike me as an axe murderer. I own a couch you can crash on."
To allay any doubts she might still have, I produced my PI license and photo I.D. "My name is Frank Johnson. Back East, I'm a private eye. Ages before that I was a military cop."
The blonde girl studied my mug shot, me, then the mug shot. Satisfied, she laughed a little. "Give me a sec to lock up and keep out the riffraff. By the way, you can call me, uh, well . . . Noel will do."
Noel's words, however, fell on my ears as dim and distant. I was stuck in the moment with images of a hungry house fire consuming its sleeping occupant. Was Ellen's death quick? I prayed it was.
"Ho-ho. Merry Christmas, Frank."
Yawning, I stretched my arms on the lumpy orange couch inside Noel's three-room apartment. She bunked one floor above a dry cleaner and overlooked a BMW dealership lot. All smiles, she offered me a topaz tumbler three fingers full.
"Right back at you. How does my bourbon taste?"
"Actually, it does fuel the old furnace," she said, before sampling from her own tumbler.
"Down the hatch." I too cherished its scalding track before it exploded on an empty stomach. "Is it still snowing out?"
Noel's fingers tipped up the monks cloth curtains. She shuddered a bit. "Nope. A lake wind has revved up. I wish it would blow away all the riffraff lurking out there.
"Do they hassle you much?"
"Just the usual crap. Whistling, stalking, groping me in the launderette." She clucked the tip of her tongue. "Oh, listen to me bitch. Hungry?"
"Sure. But I can't eat up your groceries," I protested.
"Why not? I've been guzzling your booze. I'll fix us omelets." Noel sauntered into the kitchenette to clang pots and pans. I followed to lower myself into a cane-bottom chair dragged away from the table.
"Did you ever hear of Doctor H. H. Holmes?" Noel asked.
"No. Did he die in a fire like Ellen?"
Noel cracked a freckled egg. "Worse. He was hanged. You see, back in 1893, the good doctor erected a chateau near the main depot. It featured torture chambers, trap doors, lime pits, fake bookcases, and underground passageways. He rented our rooms, strangled his boarders, and played the real Dr. Frankenstein with their corpses."
"A giant among men. And your point is . . . "
Plying a spatula, Noel scraped the scrambled eggs into a hot frying pan. "My point is simple. Maybe all is not what it appears to be, including at 219 Buchanan Lane."
"You almost make it sound as if Ellen's accident was arson."
With a wan smile, Noel rescued a strand of hair slanted across her gray eyes. "Since moving here three months ago, I've heard about some less than pleasant things. Winos don't lie."
"Ellen's death, was it a murder?"
As I weighed the possibility, Noel flicked her wrist as if to dismiss my anxiety. "Maybe it is only gossip I hear in the store. Hey, it's Christmas and I'm Miss Morbid. So, no more talk of that. Let's enjoy the day."
"I don't meet my ride home for a couple days."
"So, stick around here," Noel offered. "It'll be a comfort having you."
"Meantime I'm fresh out of cigarettes. Only the Korean mini-mart behind the car lot is open today. Be a sweetheart and go snare me a carton of B&Hs."
"Right after this feast," I replied as she joined me at the table. "This omelet is a $25 meal. You make good wife material."
Noel winced. "Been there, done that. It was a total disaster from the get-go."
Though curious, I bridled my tongue. It was Christmas, a time for peace. Placing a telephone call to wish Al season greetings also got vetoed. I'd leave the tiresome bastard to sulk alone.
Finished my second snort of bourbon, I smoothed the ski mask over my nose and mouth while clumping down the stairs. The snowfall had ceased; sunrays splintered gray mangy clouds. I slogged down the street backward, my hunched shoulders braving the squalls. The ground accumulation was knee-deep and tramping past the snow-capped autos left my lungs aching. At the lot's far edge, angry for always doing people dumb favors, I ducked down a narrow alleyway.
In front of the Korean mini-market, the same three street toughs yesterday at the burn barrel swapped around a paper sack containing their Yuletide cheer. Malice, I sensed, was their other addiction. Wishing no trouble, my eyes studied the packed snow as I angled for the door.
"Got any spare change?" one tough challenged me.
"Sorry, all mine is spent," I said. That remark cued the other two to sidestep and block my rear exit. The gregarious tough shifting right completed the encirclement. My mouth sucked dry. Sighing, I peeled off the ski mask to pad my fist.
"Gimme your wallet," he growled, "and you might walk away. Otherwise . . ."
A moment more and the door swung on its unoiled hinges. My glance traveled up to the wiry, balding Korean merchant on the top step. The toughs also looked. Our interest focused on a sawed-off shotgun he leveled at their midsections.
"You three." His stumpy hand gestured. "No loitering here. Beat it!"
Resentment intensifying, the toughs brushed by, their glowers assuring me they nursed long-term grudges. Picking up the pace, they scattered behind a delivery van.
"What do you want, cowboy?" he demanded. The weapon slackened between his hands was still trained on me.
"A carton of cigarettes. She smokes Benson and Hedges," I replied. "A six-pack of Black Label, too."
"Coffin nails, okay. No hooch. Not today. Green money only. After that, you scram, too."
Inside, the Korean merchant plucked a cigarette carton from a wire rack over the cash register and rang me up. I deposited the money on the countertop and he whisked it up. We understood each other.
"Say, do you stock any extra hardware?" My head chin-jut indicated the sawed-off shotgun he'd stacked against the counter.
"That depends." His grin broadened. "Do you stock any extra green?"
After fishing out my money clip, I riffled through twenties before his eyes beady bright with interest. Out of a cigar box from under the coffee-making machine, he extracted a .38 Iver Johnson snub-nose swaddled in tin foil.
"Forty smackeroos," he stated his price. "For you, I throw in the bullets for free because I'm a nice guy."
Trapped in the raw elements again, I twirled the .38's cylinder and curled a finger around its trigger. It was a honey. Reversing my route, I struck out on a more circuitous path. The wind had diminished. Halfway to Noel's I gave in to temptation. I pried into the cardboard carton, split apart a pack's cellophane, and indulged in a nicotine moment. The much-missed infusion of tobacco smoke calmed me. I'd use "The Patch" to quit again as a New Year's Resolution. Through the wintry hush, a blue-top taxi girded in tire chains clinked by me. The lone large passenger in the rear seat also wore a ski mask.
Just who, I marveled, would summon a cab on Christmas morning?
A snow blower had cleared the sidewalk in front of Noel's walkup. I invaded the stairwell, a cigarette drooping to my chin. That noirish pose would crack her up. With her apartment door ajar, I strode straight into the kitchenette saying, "Rocko is back."
Noel greeted me with a cold, quiet smile -- the cold, quiet smile of the dead. My grocery bag spilled to the floor.
Noel sat slouched in a chair. She sported two holes drilled in the upper chest. Eyes were affixed to the clock ticking on the table. Slim hands were clasped in her lap and her hair was a wet tangle. Naked, she was a victim of evil on a holy day. I lifted her body to the shag carpet and not knowing any better covered her with the gingham tablecloth. After a hasty inspection, I noted a ransacked purse and empty wallet. Fresh tool marks marred the doorknob lock. Only then did I consider notifying the local authorities.
A desk corporal fielded my call. He grumbled something about having one foot out the door. That and didn't I respect what day it was. Matching his sardonic inflection, I enlightened him how murder wasn't picky about its days. He barked at me to give him an hour. I countered, sure, I didn't mind babysitting a corpse, but then it became his baby to deal with.
Three impassive men slouched outside the door a century later when I admitted them. The tall one in workaday slacks and a plaid woolen coat took charge.
"Lieutenant Crow, Homicide. Where's the decedent? Ben and Mack, get the lead out. Make this snappy. Hear me?"
"Yes boss," they said in unison.
"Noel's lying in the den." I ushered them to the crime scene. "She'd been shot in the shower." My lie was deliberate.
"Why did you move her?" Crow sounded accusatory, which I took exception to.
"Because she deserved better than you weenies gawking at her."
As Ben and Mack knocked about discharging their grim duties, Lieutenant Crow and I chatted. Suddenly bashful, I volunteered only cryptic answers to his questions.
"What's your alibi, bourbon breath?" he asked me pointblank.
"The Korean merchant will vouch for me."
"You wouldn't be stupid enough to conceal a handgun on you, would you?" His livid eyes fixed on me.
The lump of gunmetal in my parka almost burst into flames. "Nope," I bluffed without missing a beat. I stood up, outstretched my arms in scarecrow-fashion. "Frisk me. I dare you."
Lieutenant Crow relished such a show of deference. "You'd like that, huh? Any theories on who did this?"
"Street toughs tried to mug me earlier. Noel's apartment was tossed. I figure them for a robbery-homicide."
"Gee, golly, gosh. Thugs, robbery, homicide. An engrossing tale, yet I sit on mine. Are you staying near or will I have to hunt you down later?"
"I'm easy. My buddy is staying with his parents just off The Loop." I flipped a matchbook to Crow. "Here's their street address and phone number."
"Tomorrow morning when I call, you better be there," Lieutenant Crow warned. "For the tiniest excuse, I'd arrest you. That I don't now you can count as a Christmas gift."
Yeah, and goodwill to you, I thought as we descended the stairs behind the draped gurney Ben and Mack conveyed down between them. Brooding, I gaped at their vehicles, red-blue roof bars and toneless sirens activated, pulling away. In view of the fact that I was the last to see Noel alive, to Crow, I was a prime suspect. How long before he pinned Noel's homicide on me?
First thing tomorrow, he'd finagle an arrest warrant. My mind raced on. Was there a link between Ellen and Noel's deaths? If so, I couldn't connect any fuzzy dots. For the time being, I opted to proceed as if there was none. My gut instinct told me to start where I'd left off earlier.
Trotting, I knifed through the alleyway clutching the .38 inside my parka to draw out firing if necessary. By now flat-ass stoned on the dope bought with Noel's stolen cash, no street toughs intercepted me. The Korean mini-mart looked deserted.
"Say hey, cowboy," the Korean merchant shouted from behind his pyramid built of lima bean cans. He emerged into the aisle. "You need more bullets?"
"Nope. This time I need information. The gang-banger wannabes out front earlier. Where do they hang?"
The Korean merchant, palms flat on the table, leaned in to whisper, "They hot-wired a new BMW off the lot and ripped out of here."
"They went on a Santa Claus joyride. No matter. State troopers should scoop them up in short order." Piqued, I frowned a tense moment before I went at it from a different angle. "That girl, the one who smokes B&Hs . . . is she a steady customer?"
"Who you mean, Jill? Yep, she very loyal, stop and say hello every afternoon."
"Jill, you say? Uh, does she shop alone?"
The merchant squinted one eye, nestled his chin on a fist. "Lemme see . . . yep . . . Jill come by herself. Peculiar thing this morning, though."
"How so, sir?"
"No sooner than you left, a different cowboy rode up in a taxi. He asked if Jill lived near."
"Can you describe him?" Excitement animated my query.
"I do you one better. I show him to you." The Korean merchant raised two fingers to point out a security camera.
The videocassette the Korean merchant ejected from the camera whined as he rewound it on a VCR player. He fast-forwarded it and resumed normal speed when a lean, rangy man hobbled into the frame. My heart stalled. I knew him.
"Look sharp," the Korean merchant said.
We observed Al approach the cash register with his wallet out. No audio, but I could read his thin lips wanting directions to Noel's apartment. No, her real identity was Jill. My pal Al -- he'd stoked enough venom for his ex to boil over into a murderous rage. Moreover, I was convinced nothing linked Ellen and Jill's deaths.
"Here, take this twenty." I shoved the banknote in the Korean's pocket. "You stash that video somewhere safe. Lieutenant Crow will be by to collect it. Tell him I've split for Chicago to see an ex-friend."
I hope you enjoyed 'Against the Season' by Ed Lynskey. This is only one of 15
Frank Johnson short stories in the OUT OF TOWN A FEW DAYS collection.
You can buy the entire collection for only $2.99. Click the Buy Now button here