And now, Armed Forces Radio Service brings you:
A loud, jarring jangle of an ancient phone ringer resounded in the clean, modern lines of the studio apartment. A callused hand reached out, slapped at the scarred top of the nightstand and curled around the handset. It was picked up before it could ring a fourth time.
"Hi there, Johnnie, Matt Jalopnik at American Indemnity. Good to hear your voice again. Are you available?"
"I could be."
"We've been getting hinky accident reports out of our Poughkeepsie office."
"Vandalism? Some kids going on joyrides?"
"Totaling, in the middle of nowhere. At least twenty of them in the last eight months. Our local rep's flagged 'em but can't put a finger on just what's off about them."
A long low whistle sounded over the phone line. "How much are you in for?"
"If what's been flagged in total pans out, five million over the last two years." A beat passed in silence before Matt cleared his throat. "We'll pay your expense report. And we can toss in a commission if you can get this cleared up for us."
"I'll be there in the morning." The handset thunked down solidly.
And now, here's the exciting adventures of America's favorite freelance insurance investigator with the action packed expense account, Yours Truly, Johnnie Dollar! At solving mysteries, Johnnie is merely an expert. At filling out expense reports, Johnnie is an absolute genius!
Expense account submitted by special investigator Johnnie Dollar to Matt Jalopnik at American Indemnity Preferred, Hartford Connecticut. The following is an accounting of expenditures during my investigation of the Deer John Matter.
Expense account item one, three hundred and forty seven dollars and twenty two cents, car rental, mileage and incidentals between my home in Hartford and your branch office in Poughkeepsie, New York. When you called me to come take a look at the latest car crash pictures, I wasn't sure what I would find.
What I found was trouble.
Your offices in Poughkeepsie are nice enough. The furniture had that well worn look that said the renovations for the place were overdue by at least five years. I liked 'em. Took the stuffy edge off.
"Dollar? Johnnie Dollar?" I turned and stuck my hand out to the harried man that rushed out of the back room to greet me. He looked like he'd slept in his suit for a week solid, his tie somewhere up around his left ear. His handshake was firm. I immediately liked him.
"You're not what I expected." I didn't say anything, just stared at him for a long moment. He shrugged. "No matter. Your reputation precedes you. Did you really find out who was behind that fake swordfish racket?"
"Yep. Did some fishing down on the Keys once I wrapped it up."
"There's a great spot up north about an hour. I'll send over the info to you once we can get this wrapped up." He reached up and fiddled with his tie. It didn't help. "I've got the reports on my desk."
There wasn't much to the reports. Simple, straightforward write ups. The damages and repair cost estimates were more interesting. So were the pictures. It's not often you see that kind of carnage on a Ford. I glared at the pictures for a moment before looking back up at Matt.
"This address for the shop still good?"
He blinked at me, his mind ticking over what I'd said before he scrambled for his ancient Rolodex. "Uh, they just moved. Old shop's abandoned." He pulled out a card and held it out to me. "This is their new place." He fidgeted, his fingers twitching over the yellowed plastic of his Rolodex. "Would you be interested in a ride out there? I can show you the way."
I waved my hand is dismissal, gesturing with the card. "No need. I've got my backup."
Expense account item two, fourteen dollars and fifty three cents for a hammer and a flashlight. When I reached the abandoned shop, the ancient padlock on the door was rusted through. A quick hit from the hammer I bought at the hardware store down the street was enough to jolt the tumblers loose and let me in. I flicked on the flashlight and pulled the door closed behind me with a groan of metal scraping against rock and concrete. The air was musty and still, heavy with the dust of disuse.
It didn't look like anyone had been here for longer than the few days your local man had hinted at. I swung my flashlight around and caught a flash in the corner, half hidden under an old, dirty tarp.
When I removed the tarp, I held my breath. The smell assaulted me, crawling up inside my nose like a living thing. The long encrusted blood had darkened to a near black, and half the dessicated bits that clung to the grill that used to belong to a large Ford truck were shriveled to barely recognizable offal.
What was curious about it was that the grill, disgusting as it was, didn't have any dents.
Expense account item number three, one dollar and ten cents for a long distance phone call.
"Matt? Johnnie. Your man's right. I don't know yet how we can prove it, but these charges are fraud."
Matt let out a long sigh. "See what you can find, Johnnie. And try not to break the bank."
Expense account item four, fifty seven dollars for a stay at a rat trap motel off the highway. It wasn't much, but it was clean enough for a night's rest. I figured I might be able to find out something at the attached diner over breakfast.
Too bad I never got the chance.
It was about two A.M. when it happened. I'd just fallen asleep after going over the files again and I'd left them on the cheap table near the door. It had rocked when I'd shifted back from it to lay on the bed and catch some shuteye. I didn't hear the car drive up, or the hushed voices outside.
What I did hear was the breaking glass as a brick smashed through the large double window, immediately followed by a bottle that exploded against the flea market painting that took up wall space at the foot of the bed. I startled awake at the crash, dropping off the edge of the bed to lay on the floor, my hand already wrapped around my pistol. Not that I needed it. Their tires squealed as they ran off. Just in time, too.
The fire was catching on the curtains and had already caught on the painting.
The only reason why I didn't have to burst through the door in my underwear was because all I'd taken off was my shoes. If I'd left the file scattered around, it would have been a total loss. Instead, I was able to grab it as I bolted from the room.
It didn't take long for the cops and the fire department to show. Between the night manager and I, we'd gotten everyone out of bed to stand shivering in the parking lot.
"Your name Dollar?"
"Yeah." The local cop squinted at me in the firelight before shrugging.
"Your room was the one where it started."
"Yeah, on account of someone throwing a molotov cocktail through my window."
"You got enemies?"
"Dozens of 'em. I'm in insurance."
The cop shook his head. "Gonna need your info and a full statement."
Expense account item five, six dollars and fifty cents for coffee, breakfast and a phone call. The cops had cut me loose as the sun was coming up. I think they didn't want to spring for my breakfast. Given the state of their coffee, I'm glad to have missed it.
I checked the phone book and double checked the address I needed. I wasn't going to find a place a crash. Sleep could wait. I was going to find a way to end this. I'd had enough of this.
The shop was as small and dingy as I expected. There were dimly lit hulking shadows of the cars being worked on that filled the shop. I drew my pistol and went in on silent feet.
A ping of metal near my ear sounded at almost the same time as the gunshot. I ducked my head down farther.
"Give it up, Moretti! I know exactly how you've been running your scam!"
"You'll never get a chance to tell!" More shots ricocheted off the half dismantled cars, raining on the floor with quiet metallic clinks. From the angle of the shots and his shout, I could tell exactly where he was hiding. If I could get forward a little more, I'd be able to get at least a partially clear shot at him.
"Must have started easy, huh, Moretti? Someone brings in a car with minor damage from a deer hit and you dress it up so it looks good for the insurance pictures." I glanced down, beneath the cars. His ankles were obstructed by a tire. "Then you start doing it again, and again, covering the parts with just enough deer guts that no one's going to think twice about issuing you a payout!"
"Shut up! You'll never get out of-urk!" His shout was suddenly silenced by a loud thud. I stood and made my way over to where a familiar tall figure stood in the shadowed light.
"Still as good as ever with the butt of a gun, I see."
His deeply lined face spread into a grin and he raised an arm to drape it over my shoulders. "Still following in my footsteps. Rest of the place is clear. Think the local cops are in on it?"
I gave him a one armed hug before nudging at the knocked out Moretti at our feet. "Probably. This scale of op is too damned much for just him to be in on it. Its not like they were eager to figure out who'd tried to smoke me out last night, either."
He shook his head and tightened his arm briefly before releasing me. "I'll call in a favor from the State. They owe me after the Never Mined Matter." Within a half hour, we'd been able to turn over Moretti and his shop over to the state police, the lieutenant that had arrived to be in charge very keen to hear of our suspicions of the local police. Turns out this was the final piece they needed to close their own case on just why the town had seen odd numbers in their crime stats.
I spent the rest of the long weekend fishing before heading home. Your local man was right. The fishing up there is the real thing. Caught myself a trout big enough to feed me and my uncle for a week. I've definitely solidified my status as Johnny Dollar's favorite niece.
Expense account item total, including travel back home to Hartford and incidentals, seven hundred twenty six dollars and thirty five cents.
Yours Truly, Johnnie (and Johnny) Dollar.