The day started like every other damn one had started since Hoover and I had parted company. Two fingers of rot gut whiskey, the hair of the dog that bit me and dragged me through the gutters every night and I was good to go or at least conscious enough to open the office for business. After losing twelve assistants in a row — three dead in mysterious circumstances, two quitting to go to college, four married to ex-clients, two setting up housekeeping together in Dearborn and one still on the lam from the law – it wasn't like there was anyone else to do it.
Then he walked in. Of all the run-down PI firms, in all the towns, in all the world, he had to walk into mine.
I'd underestimated him at first, an average Joe with an average face and build, nothing to mark him any different from all the other average Joes in Battle Creek. But the joke was on me, such a sap not to know right off the bat that it was the moment that everything changed.
"I want to hire you." 'Joe' sat down like he owned the place. Hell, if he had enough dough in his pockets it was his, before Bromberg threw me out on my ear for failing to make rent on this roach infested palace.
"To do what, exactly?" 'Short of murder, I'm your man' might not have struck the right chord.
"Find a missing woman for me."
"No, just a friend."
That's what 'Joe' said but I knew from his face that she was a lot more than that.
Milt, you've got to stay with me, buddy.
There is was again that ringing in my ears, nothing the whisky wouldn't take care of and fast. I offered 'Joe' a slug of rye but he waved me off.
"Isn't it a little early for that?"
"Yeah." I drained the glass and poured another. It was too late to improve my manners now. "I didn't catch your name?"
"I didn't pitch it." 'Joe' didn't look happy but then no one did anymore when they were looking at me. "My name's Agnew, Russ Agnew."
It was an unprepossessing name to go with that unprepossessing mug of his but it rang a bell anyway.
"Why would you need my help to find a missing person, detective?"
"Because Miss Dale, Holly Dale—"
He paused like I was gonna write the name down. He was in for disappointment.
"—would hate it if she knew I had the department out looking for her."
It didn't matter to me anyway. I had more important things on my mind. "My going rate—"
Agnew slapped two twenties down on the desk and I nodded. That would get me going all right, at least for a while.
"And when I find your Miss Dale?" I hoped the message wouldn't be too long. My shorthand was atrocious.
"I just want to know she's safe."
"Why'd she leave?"
I watched Agnew struggle with whether he wanted to tell me the truth about why. The truth won out I guess from how embarrassing his answer was.
"I proposed. It's enough to drive any woman off or so Font— Detective White, tells me."
Whether Agnew stared me down because he thought I was going to agree or disagree with him I didn't know. Now I've known him a lot longer, long enough to know he thought I'd disagree and he'd have to argue his point.
He'd have been wrong but then if I'd had any idea at the time what he'd come to mean to me I'd have taken a very long walk off a very short pier.
"You've got to hold on, Milt. They're coming. Please, Milt, please."
I drank some more whisky. I wasn't right in the head if I was imagining Agnew saying please.
It took me two days to find Holly Dale. I'd learned the hard way that I should ask questions before I turned over anyone's whereabouts to a supposed loved one after I'd found a woman for her husband who'd then blown her brains out with a forty-five. So I spent another day trying to figure out what was really going on with her and Agnew. No joy. I'd have to get it from the horse's mouth.
Dale was a clerk in the Detroit courthouse, a sweet faced kid with a wicked jaw and great gams. Agnew had been a lucky son of a bitch before she'd walked out on him, but why'd she done it?
It wasn't difficult to come up with a plan. I kept it simple, I played me, a role I was eminently over-qualified for as I'd been faking it for years. I enlisted her help in researching the ownership of a piece of property off Michigan Avenue. Then I'd slipped in a few questions about her love life by means of spilling the beans about my own star-crossed and completely fictitious love affair.
She'd sighed heavily. "Some men love their job more than they'll ever love anyone and I'm done playing second fiddle." She pushed the hair back out of her eyes. "I work here during the day and I go to school at night. I'm going to be a lawyer."
I liked her, the girl had moxie, and my gut said she'd succeed and hang out her shingle one day. Agnew, the poor sap. Life was funny that way, never dealing a guy an inside straight.
When I called Agnew to let him know I'd found her he offered to buy me a beer at Eddie Mars' so I could fill him in and he could settle up. I couldn't say no, didn't want to say no.
Mars' bar was its usual charming blend of smoke, watered down scotch and rummy cops, ex-cops and some of the people they'd put away over the years. At least by the smell of it they'd broken down and changed the urinal cakes.
Mars nodded at me from behind the bar and gestured to where Agnew was enthroned in an orange Naugahyde booth, his back to the wall. With Agnew I was guessing it was less that he was cautious and more that he knew life was out to get him.
I hung up my trench coat and hat on the booth hooks and slid in on the opposite side to him. He'd set us up with a bottle and there was a second cleanish glass for me.
I was touched that he'd remembered what I like. "Aww, you shouldn't have. Roses would have been enough."
I poured myself a stiff drink as Agnew's eyes attempted to roll out of his head. "You're a funny guy, Chamberlain."
"I've been called worse."
Don't die on me now, you smug asshole.
Agnew's lips hadn't even moved. Now that was a hidden talent. He sipped his whisky, his fingers tightening on the glass. "How is she?"
"Happy." There wasn't any point in lying to him.
I didn't need to be The Amazing Dunninger to know what was on his mind but he didn't ask the question burning him up, the 'why' of it all. Why had she left him? Was she that horrified by the idea of spending the rest of her life with him? Did he kiss like a dead fish? I could see it in his eyes, but he was good to his word when he'd hired me and he'd settle for knowing she was happy. I liked him, Agnew was a stand-up guy and I bet he didn't kiss like a dead fish.
Where the hell had that come from? I looked deep into my glass. I should probably ease up but I drained it instead. I'd only had four shots in the last eight hours and yet I was oddly light-headed.
Easy there, Milt.
I stared him down but he looked puzzled, like he had no idea why. It made even less sense when he poured us both another drink.
"Hear you used to be with the FBI, over in Detroit." The way he was staring at me gave lie to his casual tone.
"I heard that too."
"Why'd you end up here then?"
"It'll take more than a few drinks, detective, to get me—" into bed. I choked briefly on my drink, sputtering. I might well be going mad. "—to talk."
He shrugged. "We're short a detective, that's all. If you weren't on the take—"
"I wasn't." Was there any worse drunk than an indignant drunk?
"—I was going to offer you a job. Captain Guziewicz puts a lot of stock in my say so." He grinned at me and just like that he was an above average Joe, well on his way to being exceptional.
I'd been doing my best to ignore my instincts, it had got me in too much trouble in the past and nowadays I was living a different way, but my gut told me to trust him, even on such brief acquaintance. It made no damn sense at all.
"I got a kid killed. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time because I'd put him there."
"And the Feds kicked you out."
"No, they loved the results." I drained my glass even though Agnew was going in and out of focus. "I kicked me out." With any luck I'd black out before I told him anything more.
No, Milt, you've got to keep your eyes open. Look at me, you son of a bitch, look at me. You're not putting me through this again, not again.
Agnew stood up slightly and reached out right there, in the middle of a dive bar filled with cops and lowlifes, to draw me slowly towards him, careful to telegraph his intentions. As first kisses went it was awkward and clumsy, the angle was all wrong, his lips were chapped and we both reeked of smoke and tasted of cheap whiskey. It was one of the worst kisses I'd ever had and yet I knew I'd never get a better one.
As the sound of sirens grew louder and louder he wrenched himself away, blood on his chin and shirt collar. "Milt, you have to wake up!"
I woke up in a hospital bed to the sound of monitoring equipment but I couldn't remember how I'd got there. I'd been in Mars' bar with Russ and— Eddie Mars.
Now I remembered everything. I'd been at a screening of 'The Big Sleep' when all hell had broke loose. I wished I didn't remember. The kiss hadn't been real.
"Awake at last." Russ' voice sounded rough and gravelly, like he hadn't slept any. He handed me a glass of water which I sipped at slowly, wary of throwing it back up. Unfortunately, this wasn't my first rodeo.
I turned my head slightly on the pillow. "How long?"
"You've been out for a day." Russ pulled his chair in closer so I could see him without having to turn any more than I already had. "It was a little touch and go there for a while but I told them you'd come through this smelling like roses, just like you always do."
I felt more like the stuff roses grow in. Even my hair hurt.
As I blinked and focused better it became obvious Russ hadn't been home. The stubble, the dried blood on his chin and collar, the rumpled suit, well, even more rumpled than usual. He usually looked like an unmade bed but— the dried blood on his chin and collar.
"You kissed me."
"They've still got you on the good stuff." Russ grinned weakly at me.
I might have bought it but Russ started looking at something real interesting somewhere off behind my shoulder. He always made direct eye contact. It was part of what made him such a good cop, so bad at undercover work and such a pain in my ass.
"I remember it."
Russ subconsciously dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. "You've never heard of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?"
"Yes, but only when the victim stops breathing. Did I stop breathing, Russ?"
He was a terrible liar and he knew it. "No, you didn't." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I thought you were dying."
"So you kissed me?"
"Stop saying that."
For a moment I thought he was going to get up and leave but then he manned up. "I'm not sorry I did it but I swear it won't happen again."
"Because of Holly."
"What?" Confused was a good look on Russ. "I would never cheat on anyone, least of all Holly."
That's what I'd always assumed. Russ was an old fashioned kind of guy, kind of a great one in fact.
"I told you last night, at the theater, that we broke up over a month ago. Too much distance and she wants to put school first. I was going to tell you that I wanted us—" He stood up. "I should be going, the doc says you need your rest."
A few more minutes and Russ would be gone and my brief chance at this, whatever this was, would be gone with him. "I'm glad."
"What?" Russ bristled. "You always thought Holly could do better than me."
"No, that's what you always thought." With a Herculean effort I raised my hand three inches off the bed and flexed my fingers in a 'come here' gesture. Russ sat back down. "I know you think you're the biggest sad sack around. God knows you're a miserable bastard who only ever sees the worst in people—"
"We haven't all led charmed lives, Chamberlain."
"—but you're my miserable bastard, if you'll have me."
I raised my hand again and Russ took it. A shit eating grin was a real good look on him.