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The Old Dick
by L.A. Morse

Category: Mystery/Crime Edgar Award Winner
Description: WINNER OF THE EDGAR ALLAN POE AWARD FOR BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL. --- Retired private eye Jake Spanner may have gotten old, but he hasn't gone soft. When an old gangster Jake put away some forty years ago shows up at his door, it's time for Jake to grab his hat and Browning automatic and get back to work. Old? Sure. Slower to catch his breath? Maybe. But, sharp as a tack and with a lifetime of investigating know-how, Jake Spanner has nothing to lose and everything to prove. Sniffing out leads between Sunset Boulevard and the Hollywood Hills, Jake pulls in old friends to help. The work is hard; it's gritty. So is Jake. And, with a three quarters of a million dollars ransom at stake, the bad guys don't stand a chance. With THE OLD DICK, author L.A. Morse creates a new kind of hero, one that laughs at death not because he's too young to understand it, but because it's right around the corner. It's time to face it head on and maybe go out swinging. For more from L.A. Morse, check out THE FLESH EATERS, THE BIG ENCHILADA, and SLEAZE, sizzling thrillers also published by E-Reads.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1981
eBookwise Release Date: November 2012

eBookeBook

Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [344 KB]
Words: 77765
Reading time: 222-311 min.


CHAPTER ONE

Duke Pachinko lay propped against the watt, a dripping red sponge where his face used to be. He wouldn't bother anyone again.

The blonde looked at the body, and then she looked back at me. Her eyes narrowed and her lips parted. Her tongue darted out of her mouth and moistened her lips. She reached out and took the gun from my hand. Her fingers closed around the barrel and moved up and down its length, caressing it slowly. Her skin looked very white against the blue-black metal. She raised the gun to her mouth. Her tongue came out again, and she ran the tip of it lightly along the barrel. Her mouth formed a moist circle and closed over the end of the gun. She kept her eyes locked on mine the whole time. Her eyes were slightly slanted and blue like those of a Siamese cat. Her breathing deepened.

She tossed the gun aside. She put her hands around my wrists. She slowly raised my hands and placed them on her breasts. At my touch, a brief cry escaped from her throat. Her breasts were firm and heavy beneath the thin silk of her dress. She wore no bra, and I could feel the temperature of her flesh rising behind the cool fabric as her breasts seemed to swell. She pressed herself against my hands. Her nipples grew hard in my palms.

Her breath was coming in deep shuddering gasps. I put my hands at the neck of her dress. A quick pull, and the silk tore apart with slithery ripping sound. The blonde moaned low as her dress fell around her ankles.

I stepped back to look at her. She was something to see. In a few years all that beautiful flesh would begin to sag, but right now she was as firm as a marble statue and as juicy as an overripe peach.

She stepped out of the remnants of her dress and walked across to me, moving like she was hypnotized, her eyes fastened on the bulge in my trousers. She undid the button at the waist and pulled down the zipper. She put her hand inside my pants. She gave a long sigh when she found me. I was huge and hard and burning hot. I...

* * * *

Shit.

I closed the book and put it down on the bench beside me. I really didn't need to read stuff like that. It wasn't that sex offended me; it was just that I couldn't see the point. After all, I was nearly seventy-eight years old, and I hadn't had an erection for five years. Hell, if my own fantasies couldn't get me up, I couldn't very well expect results from those of some pseudonymous hack.

I thought about the blonde fellating the gun and I smiled. If the detective had just finished emptying it into the face of Duke Pachinko, the barrel probably would have been uncomfortably hot to touch, not to mention the coating of machine oil that would have been on it. A mouthful of blisters and four-in-one wasn't my idea of an erotic sensation, but maybe the blonde knew something I didn't.

I turned to face the sun. I unbuttoned my shirt, revealing a seventy-eight-year-old chest with scraggly gray hairs covering half a dozen ugly scars--not a pleasant sight, but I didn't care. One of the few advantages of getting really old is that people don't talk to you. They cluck and they say, "Look at that. Isn't that disgusting? That old fart should be put away." But unless you go around waving your schlong at school kids, they keep away from you. They're probably afraid that old age is contagious.

A fair number of women had once liked my chest, scars and all, but that was a long time ago. It must have been three decades since I'd received a compliment. At least I wasn't fat. When you got old, you either went soft or you got dry. Fortunately, I had gotten dry.

Actually, considering that I was seventy-eight, slightly arthritic, and often insomniac, I wasn't in too bad shape. My health was pretty good, no major problems. My stomach acted up from time to time. My doctor at the clinic--a thirty-five-year-old with a weight problem, ulcers, fallen arches, a smoker's cough, and dandruff--told me to stop eating spicy food. Since that was one of my few remaining real pleasures, I usually ignored the advice. I also often regretted having done so, but what the hell. If I were going to go, a lethal chile verde seemed as good a way as any. "J. Spanner: Suddenly, in the night, from an exploding burrito." I could go along with that.

I exercised a fair amount, mostly walking, and I lifted some weights to keep up the strength in my arms. My muscles had shrunk, but they still almost worked, which was more than you could say for most of the people waddling around. Christ, a trip to the beach revealed so much excess weight that I was surprised the country didn't overbalance and tip into the sea.

Oh, I was a tough old bird, all right, as I once overheard someone say about me. Since I had just told that person to fuck off, I'm not sure it was meant as a compliment, but I took it as one. In fact, however, except for my nose, which is prominent and rather beaky, I thought of myself much more as a lizard. My skin was dry, and a lot of time in the sun had given it the color of old leather. Like a lizard, I thrived in the sun--the hotter, the better--and I didn't feel very good if the day turned cool or damp. I'd sit for hours, my shirt open, hardly moving, soaking up that warmth. I didn't even sweat any more, no matter how hot it was. Yes, I was very definitely saurian.

I always liked hot climates, and the older I got, the more I found I needed the heat. Summers in L.A. were fine, with the temperature often getting over a hundred in the sun, but the winters were starting to give me trouble. Even when the weather was good, it would feel too cold. I'd have liked to be able to move to Mexico or somewhere tropical, but my finances didn't permit it.

Finances. Shit. The ever-increasing erosion of my little bit of capital could hardly be dignified by that word. I was still managing to get by okay--at least I wasn't yet shoplifting or eating cat food--but nothing more than that, and I didn't know how much longer it would last. Somehow or other, I had gotten myself into the position that if I didn't die soon, I'd be broke. Well, I'd worry about it later ... which was probably the attitude that had gotten me into this situation in the first place.

I stretched my neck like an iguana and felt the sun on my forehead, which, for the last thirty years, had extended to the middle of my skull. The park I was in wasn't much more than a strip of brown grass next to and overlooking one of the huge, dry, concrete-lined canyons that are called rivers in L.A. I couldn't quite see the boxlike monolith of the May Co., but I could hear and smell the cars in the Sears and J. C. Penney parking lot. A real wilderness area.

There were some kids playing baseball across the park from me. There were white kids and black kids and Chinese and Japanese and Mexican and a couple I wasn't sure about. That was something you wouldn't have seen even ten years ago. Lots of people didn't like it; but then, lots of people are assholes.

There was a group of older kids sitting under some sad gray trees that didn't seem to be coping with exhaust fumes very well. What did? The kids were passing a joint around, and even though they were giggling, they didn't look very happy.

I watched as an immense shiny black limousine moved slowly along the road that ran next to the park. The road eventually ended up in the parking lot, and I figured the limo's owner had just come from picking up the weekly special at Thrifty Mart, spending three bucks on gas to save thirty-nine cents on razor blades. The car had those dark one-way-glass windows, and it looked more like some sleek experimental submarine than an automobile.

It glided to a stop directly opposite me and about fifty feet away. I couldn't see inside, but I had the feeling I was being watched. Maybe the chauffeur was going to get out and tell me that his employer--a wealthy elderly widow--admired the depth of my tan, and wanted to set me up in a villa in the Bahamas.

The chauffeur didn't get out, but the back door opened. A thin, very tall figure unfolded itself from the backseat. He wore a black three-piece suit, a brilliantly white shirt, a dark striped necktie, and heavy dark glasses that made his narrow face look like a death's head. It could have been a Madison Avenue version of the Grim Reaper.

When he took a couple of steps toward me, I suddenly realized that I wasn't far wrong. Instead of the benevolent dowager I had momentarily fantasized, I was seeing a ghost. A ghost who I didn't think would be especially friendly.

One of the reasons I'd made it to seventy-eight was that I usually had a good sense of when to bow out. This looked like one of those times.

He was still some distance from me, so I stood up casually, making like I hadn't really noticed him, and started to walk away. I planned to walk north through the park. The limo was pointing south, and there was no place nearby for it to turn around, so that took care of the car. If the guy followed on foot, I was going to go across to the parking lot, and then into the shopping center. If I didn't shake him, I wanted to be sure there were lots of people around when we met.

"Hey, Jake!" he called. "Wait up."

I didn't turn around, but started to walk faster.

He called my name again. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that he was starting to run. With his coat flapping behind him and his long arms and legs working, he looked like a great black stork trying to lift off the ground. I started to run.

I said I was in pretty good shape, but that was relative. Even though my body still more or less functioned, it didn't mean I was ready for a cross-country run, and I hadn't gone very far before I started to feel lousy.

I looked back. He wasn't moving any better than I was, but his legs were longer, so he gained a little with every step.

I ran by the dope-smoking kids, who laughingly shouted encouragement. We must have looked funny, all right, two old coots, gasping and flailing along. Inside, I felt like I was racing like the wind, but I knew from the outside that we must have seemed like a slow-motion pantomime.

Ordinarily, you wouldn't notice it, but there was a slight upgrade to the park. Now it felt like a forty-five degree slope, Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon. My legs grew heavy and my chest burned. The air seemed viscous, resistant, like I was running through molasses. The pounding of my heart was all I could hear. It sounded like death approaching. I figured I had gone all of fifty yards. Old age sure is swell.

I turned my head to look back, my foot caught on a sprinkler, and I fell on my face. I tried to get up, but my legs were leaden jelly, so I rolled onto my back and waited.

He came up and stood over me. He put his hands on his knees, taking deep breaths. We panted at each other for about five minutes. Every so often one of us tried to say something, but nothing came out. Finally, he managed some intelligible sounds.

"What were you trying to do, Jake, give us both coronaries? You stupid son of a bitch."

"Hello, Sal," I said.

His name was Sal Piccolo. In the old days, he'd been known as Sal the Salami, because of the size of his sexual organ. I didn't know what he was called these days. I couldn't place it, but somehow I had the idea that he was supposed to be dead. On the other hand, at my age you naturally tended to assume that most of your contemporaries were dead, so maybe that was how I'd gotten the idea. In any case, I wasn't exactly pleased to be wrong.

"What'd you run for?" Sal said.

"You know very well why I ran."

"What? You don't mean that--"

"Yeah. I mean exactly that."

"But that was--what?--forty-two, forty-three years ago?"

"About that."

"Come on, Jake. I'm seventy-five now."

"So?"

"So you think I still hold that grudge?"

"Why not? You always were a vindictive bastard."

Forty-something years ago, Sal Piccolo was a hell of a lot more than a vindictive bastard. He was very nearly The Man. He'd managed to get a pretty good-sized piece of most of the rackets in town. There was very little he didn't have a finger in, and even less that he didn't know about. He had a good thing going for himself, but--naturally--he wanted more, and eventually he wanted too much. He tried to muscle his way into a large interest in one of the studios. The studio boss was an old-time New York street fighter who wasn't about to put up with any shit like that, and he hired me to muscle Sal back out. Not only did I get him out of the studio, but I got him into prison for a good long stretch. Obviously, Sal wasn't very happy about that turn of events, and--in true Hollywood fashion--swore he'd get me.

He very nearly kept his promise. One of his boys, an eight-foot-tall monster named Dinky O'Grady, came after me with a meat cleaver. Dinky had arms like a gorilla and a brain the size of a walnut. He gave me two of the worst scars I carry, and I gave him a third eye in the center of his forehead.

That's the kind of stuff that's known as the good old days. Shit

Sal had been strictly an independent, and when he went up, his organization didn't last very long. Some well-connected boys from back East came out, divided up his action, and that was that. None of the new guys had anything against me, so I was able to stop ducking for cover every time I heard a car backfire. In the last forty years, I probably hadn't thought about Sal Piccolo more than a handful of times. But I figured he'd thought about me a lot more. He'd certainly had plenty of time for reflection. And now there he was, smiling over me like a grinning skull.

"If you're going to do it, do it," I said. "I'm not going to beg or squeal or whimper. I'm too old and too tired. I want to live as much as anybody, but if the last few years have been any indication of what the next few will be like, you won't be taking anything very valuable from me."

"Not like you took from me, you mean?"

"That's right"

Sal smiled and shook his head. "Same old Jake Spanner. Hard as nails, and never give an inch."

"This is the old Jake Spanner, not the same one. But why don't you just get it over with, okay?"

I wasn't quite as bored as I sounded. In fact I was scared, but I was also damned if I was going to play mouse to his cat. Given the choice, I'd. always tried never to give any satisfaction to assholes. A few years earlier I might have been able to perform some nifty physical move to get myself out of this situation, like kicking him in the crotch and then stomping on his face, but now that was out of the question. About all I could still do was to diminish his pleasure by acting cooler than I felt

Sal shook his head again. "You really think I came here to kill you?"

"It wouldn't be the first stupid thing you've done."

A spasm of anger contorted his face, but he quickly regained control. In the old days, Sal, like most people who usually got their own way, had had a short fuse. He still seemed to, but now there was also more control than I remembered.

"Thirty years is a long time," he said.

"That how long you did?"

"Yeah."

"That's a long time." I looked up at him standing over me. "But maybe not long enough."

"It was long enough, Jake. For the first ten years, I thought about you all the time. I hated you more than I ever hated anyone or anything. Each night I went to sleep thinking about what I would do when I finally caught up with you. My hatred was the thing that kept me going. I wanted to make you suffer the way you made me suffer."

"I didn't do it to you, Sal. You did it to yourself."

Even as I said it, I groaned inside. Shit. Sal bad made an honest expression of what he had thought and felt, I had made an honest reply, and we both sounded like we were mouthing dialogue from some hideously bad movie. I could hear the hoots of laughter coming from the darkened theater. That was the problem with trash: not only was it awful in itself, but it also made perfectly legitimate ideas and feelings seem ridiculous.

Sal, however, seemed untroubled by the aesthetics of the scene, as he slowly nodded his head. "It took me ten years to realize that."

"Oh?"

"You're right. I'd been stupid--stupid and greedy. I finally saw that you weren't to blame. I was."

"You got religion?"

"No, not religion. You might say I got..."

He paused, searching for the right word, and I was certain he was going to say "self-knowledge."

"...I got self-knowledge," he said with absolute seriousness.

Under the circumstances, I thought it best not to laugh. Instead, I said, "Oh?"

"Yeah. I had a lot of time, and I used it. I changed, Jake ... What's the matter? You look like you don't believe me. Don't you think a man can change?"

I looked up at Sal. He seemed sincere, but he had always been a good actor when he kept his temper under control. He'd also always been one of the most devious sons of bitches I'd ever met. Did I believe him? Did I think a man could change? I answered honestly. "I don't know," I said.

"What about you, Jake? It's been over forty years, more than half your life. Haven't you changed in that time?"

I shrugged. I really didn't know. Oh, I could look in the mirror and see the wrinkles and the sags, and I could feel everything slowing down, but inside I felt the same. I could remember being sixteen and putting my hand on a woman's breast for the first time, and I was still that same kid. I was the same twenty-five-year-old who was in Paris when Paris was the place to be. I still knew how I felt the first time I shot a man, and the first time I was shot. But even more than specific memories, I was still looking at things with the same eyes, responding with the same brain. Maybe I knew some more stuff, and maybe I understood some things a little better, and maybe a few ideas had changed, but the basics were still the same. Inside, I was still essentially the young, sharp, tough kid I'd always been. That was maybe the greatest humiliation of growing old--the discrepancy between the internal reality and the exterior one. Even though I'd had a lot of practice by now, I still had trouble reconciling them. I've heard that's what happens to athletes at the end of their careers. In their heads they still have all the moves, they still think their bodies are the perfectly conditioned, superbly functioning, completely responsive machines they were when they were twenty. But they're not twenty anymore, and their reactions are fractionally slower, and that fraction is enough for failure. It must be a little bit sad to be a fine athlete, because you grow old twice.

Shit. I wasn't usually so introspective. Sal was going to get his revenge by making me maudlin. What a way to go. "J. Spanner: Finally, after a lingering bout of morbid solemnity."

"So you came here to tell me I could stop worrying about you, is that it?" I said.

"No, Jake, that's not it" He seemed to grow more serious. He looked around. The dope smokers were still watching us, though without much interest "But this isn't a very dignified position for two old men to have a conversation in."

He held out his hand. I took it and got to my feet, but not before I had almost pulled him down on top of me. The line between dignity and slapstick can be very fine.

We went over and sat down on opposite sides of a dusty picnic table next to the chain link fence that guarded the river.

"Every time I see this," I said, pointing into the concrete gully, "I keep expecting to see giant ants."

"What?"

"You know, from the movie Them. Giant mutant ants that lived in the storm drains."

"Never heard of it."

"Sure, you must've. About twenty-five years ago. Starred James Whitmore, I think."

"I was in the joint then."

"That's right, of course. Well, you didn't miss much ... the movie, I mean."

"Hmm," Sal said, not really paying much attention. He seemed kind of uneasy. He glanced around at the limo, which was gleaming darkly in the sun. The driver was leaning against it smoking a cigarette.

"Looks like you're doing okay," I said.

"What?" He turned back around. "Oh, yeah. I'm all right. I may have been stupid, but I wasn't a jerk."

"What do you mean?"

"I was putting dough away, banking it buying things, investing a little. Not a lot, but some. So when I got out, I had something waiting for me. Not like most of the punks inside, who have to start pulling jobs the moment they're released. Thirty years' of compound interest adds up."

"I guess it does."

"How about yourself?"

I couldn't see his eyes behind his dark glasses, but I didn't need to. I could imagine the expression in them. I was wearing a loose-fitting fifties Hawaiian floral print shirt in some shiny fabric, baggy trousers of the same vintage, and much-repaired sandals, without socks. I would've been a hot number on Skid Row, but as it was, I looked like a senile beachcomber who had misplaced the ocean. I had better clothes. I just didn't bother to wear them very often.

"Today's board of directors' meeting for General Motors was canceled, so I decided to take it easy," I said.

"No, really. How are things?"

I looked at him for a long minute. "I wasn't stupid, but I was a jerk."

Sal nodded. "I see ... Rough?"

I shrugged. "It could be worse. It probably will be."

"This'll sound dumb, but today I'd trade places with you."

He was right: it sounded dumb, and I laughed. "Okay I'll give you this swell shirt, and you give me your limo."

He tried a smile, and then looked down at the long line of ants that were traversing the picnic table. I watched him watch the ants for a while. Fascinating.

"Sal, what're you doing here?" I finally said.

He looked to each side, and then over his shoulder, and then at me. He took off his glasses. His eyes were tired and strained. "I need help, Jake."

"In what?"

He paused. "You got a family?"

"Not really."

I had a daughter in Kansas--Kansas!--who wrote me a note every few years, and a couple of grandkids I'd never seen. It was to be expected. After my wife left me to go home to her folks, I didn't see my daughter for nearly twenty years. Now she didn't see any reason to see me, and I couldn't blame her. Besides, she didn't approve of me, and that was only natural, since she supported Ronald Reagan, Anita Bryant, and any repressive, fascistic causes that came along. Imagine having a child like that! It just shows how little influence heredity has on personality. But maybe these things skip a generation, like diabetes, and her kids'll get back on track.

"Too bad," Sal said. "I've got a grandson. Seventeen. He's a great kid. Going to be a doctor."

"That's really nice, Sal. I'm happy for you."

He looked down at the table. He put a bony finger across the line of ants and watched as they panicked, regrouped, and then went around the obstruction. He looked up.

"He's been grabbed," he said.

"What! Kidnapped?"

"Yeah. A week ago."

"Shit, Sal. You go to the police?"

He gave me a look that said it was a stupid question.

"Why not?" I said. "You're not still connected with anything, are you?"

"No. I've been clean since I got out"

"Then why not tell the cops? This is their kind of thing."

"Hell, Jake, I can't do that. Habit for one thing. I never went to the cops for a problem. I can't start now. For another, I'm an old villain. What kind of attention would they give me?"

"You might be surprised."

"I doubt it. Anyway, I couldn't trust them not to screw up."

I thought Sal was wrong, but I wasn't going to argue with him about it. "So what are you going to do?"

"Give those bastards exactly what they want."

"Which is?"

"Money."

"How much?"

"Three-quarters of a million."

"Jesus Christ! You got that much?"

"Just. By getting rid of everything I have, I can just make it."

"Shit. You won't have anything left"

"I'll have my grandson."

"Maybe."

Sal's fist hit the table. "I'll have my grandson," he repeated, as though saying it again would make it true.

I didn't share his confidence; but then, it wasn't my grandson's neck on the line. Sal had no choice but to believe it would work.

"What about the boy's parents?" I said.

"His father's dead. His mother--my daughter--is a cheap tramp screwing her way around Europe, trying to pretend she's not pushing fifty."

"At least she's not a neo-fascist."

"What?"

"Nothing. Go on."

"Even if I knew where to reach her--which I don't--she wouldn't be any help. Tommy's been my responsibility since his father died. I've looked after him, sent him to the best schools. He's going to go to Harvard. Think about that. A grandson of mine at Harvard. And now..."

He turned his head away. This was all very strange. A guy I had sent to prison forty years before was sitting across from me, spilling his guts out. Sal Piccolo was nothing to me, one way or the other, just another ghost. But I felt sorry for him, or at least for his predicament. There aren't many things that are uglier than kidnapping, and I understood why Sal had said he'd trade places with me today. Under the circumstances, I wouldn't have accepted. The way it looked, Sal would probably lose his money and the kid. Fucking ugly. But why come to me?

That's what I asked him.

"I've got the money," Sal said, "and I'm going to make the drop tonight. I want you to come along."

What! The man was clearly unraveled. "You're crazy," I said.

"No, I mean it."

"Why?"

"The usual reasons. Backup. Moral support. Whatever."

"No--I meant, why me?"

"Why not you?"

"Sal, you're not only crazy, you're blind. Maybe you haven't noticed, but I'm about a million years old. I just ran fifty yards in around two minutes, and nearly killed myself in the process. What the hell good would I be if there was any trouble? Come on, Sal, don't play this thing any dumber than necessary."

"I don't think I'm being dumb. What do you think I should do?"

"I think you should go to the cops. But since you won't do that, get somebody young, somebody strong, somebody whose body still works, for Christ sake. It shouldn't be that hard. If you don't know anyone--hell--the phone book is full of P.I.s and security agencies who are professionals at being bodyguards."

Sal shook his head. "No good."

"Why not?"

"You know as well as I do, Jake. You must run into it all the time. We're old men, and nobody takes old men very seriously. We're just easy marks--to be played with or ripped off or fucked around ... Look. A while back I hired an investigator for something. He was young and strong and tough, just like you said. He was highly recommended. Well, when the dust cleared, he had taken me for about ten grand. When I called him on it, he laughed. It was a joke. As far as he was concerned, I was old, and therefore I didn't count. I wasn't there, I wasn't a man, I could be fucked around with."

"So you were unlucky. Not everyone's like that."

"Oh?" he said, his thin lips curling in disgust.

I knew what he meant. Every day, I was treated to the feeling that I was invisible, or useless, or taking up space--that I was senile, or feeble, or incompetent, or stupid. It wasn't necessarily in big things, it was just a general attitude, and it took a lot of effort to overcome it. Mostly, it was too much trouble to try, so you lived up to people's preconceptions and eventually their preconceptions became valid. You became feeble and stupid; you took up space. People have always divided the world into "us" and "them," but when you're old, you never fit in, so you're always "them." You can never be sure about, never really trust anyone a lot younger; the gulf in attitude is too great.

I looked at Sal and shook my head. I was being maneuvered into some place I didn't want to be, and I didn't like it.

"Jake," he said, "there's nothing between us. No love, no friendship, nothing except maybe some understanding. You're the guy that sent me up. Okay, so what? Maybe that's why I can come to you. You were a son of a bitch, but you were a straight son of a bitch. I need someone who I know won't fuck me."

"Sal, I--"

"Jake, I'm scared. This is my grandson, my life. Put yourself in my place."

Shit. He had touched all the bases, pulled all the strings. The old times, fraternity, pride, guilt, and now straight-out sentiment. He was still pretty good. What the hell could I say?

"All right, Sal. I think you're making a real big mistake, but if you want me to go along, I will. I don't see how I can be any help, but if you want company, you've got it."

Sal looked at me and nodded. "Thanks, Jake." He reached in his jacket and took out a slender wallet. Alligator, I thought.

"What are you doing?" I said.

"I'm going to pay you."

"I don't want your money."

"I'm not some asshole who asks for favors and doesn't give anything in return. I never worked like that. I pay my way."

"Look, I--"

"Don't be a schmuck, Jake. You told me to hire someone. That's what I'm doing. Does five hundred dollars seem fair for the evening?"

"I'm not doing this for money."

Why the hell was I doing it? Certainly not out of friendship. Maybe I felt sorry for him? Maybe it sounded like fun, a last bit of action? Shit, I didn't know. But I did realize that Sal was the kind of person who had to pay. If he hadn't bought you, he didn't feel right about it, in control. There are a lot of people like that, who don't trust relationships unless they can be clarified by cash.

"Five hundred okay?" he asked, pushing five crisp bills across to me.

I looked down at the money. If that was the way he wanted it, why not? It would put off cat food for a little while longer.

"Yeah, five hundred's fine."

I shook my head and laughed. It was actually kind of funny. After fifteen years, I was working again. For one night, I would be the world's oldest private eye.

Take that, Duke Pachinko.

Shit.


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