An Homage to The Maltese Falcon and Nick Forte #2: Prologue - Chapter 5 Worst Enemies
© Dana King 2015
THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF PROLOGUE The Good Samaritan Wind off the lake insinuated Chicago February into my down jacket. A damp cold I knew would nestle between my muscles and bones so not even a hot shower would get it out. My ears and forehead burned with numbness before I walked a block. I heard footsteps, maybe someone running, as I passed an alley near 35th and Prairie. Nothing special about that. Someone is always running away from something in that neighborhood. I stopped when I heard what might have been a muffled scream. Six years away from The Job didn’t negate the training. Satisfy your curiosity. If something attracts your attention enough for a second look, look at it a third time. Of course, they assume you’re armed and have access to backup when they tell you that. The alley was two shades brighter than a mine shaft. I sensed motion more than saw it, and couldn’t even do that well enough to know what was going on until a random sentence drifted out. “Give it up, bitch.” Never a good sign. I stayed on the balls of my feet and eased along the wall opposite the sound and motion. I stumbled over a trash can and drew no more attention than a passing cloud. There were three of them. The young white guy in the middle probably not as good- looking as he’d been ten minutes before. A black guy the size of three linebackers held him by the hair while a smaller one whose face I couldn’t see administered an efficient beating. Blood covered the lower part of the guest of honor’s face and whatever sounds had attracted my attention were reduced to whimpers. The other two didn’t seem hurt at all. Go figure. The big one had to go first. I needed surprise to take him and I couldn’t get much closer without being seen. I eased in as far as I dared and picked up what looked like a piece of a car’s exhaust system, about two feet long with some heft to it. It would do.  I kicked a trash can against a wall to make as much noise as I could. Both bruisers looked my way and I stepped up and clubbed the big one across the shoulders with his back still partially turned. It was like hitting a steel door. My club bent under the impact. He sagged and I bashed his midsection on the way down. I heard the air run out of him and nailed him once more in the belly to keep him down. He vomited straight into the air. I turned to look for his buddy. I didn’t have to look far. He stood right behind the piece of shit .32 revolver pointed at my nose, so close I smelled the gun oil. I kept my hands out from my sides so he wouldn’t think I might go for a gun. I had a .45 under my left arm I could have left at home for all the good it did me. I hadn’t wanted to raise the stakes by introducing a gun. All I’d done was to check to the dealer, who held cards. His face went out of focus as my eyes locked onto the little gun with the bore the size of a basketball. He was short, no more than five-six, with greasy dark bangs a foot long. Hispanic—or Asian—hard to tell in the dark. A few teeth short of a full set. Not what I hoped for as the last thing I’d ever see. “Tough guy, huh?” Edge to his voice, high on something, maybe adrenaline. “Suckered Marcel and now you’re a bad motherfucker. Let’s see who’s bad now.” He put his thumb on the hammer and I grabbed the cylinder in a thoughtless reflex, something else ingrained from six years as a cop. I hoped he’d spent some money on the gun. A cheap one might have enough play to fire even if I held the cylinder. Things started to turn and I squeezed tighter, trying to bend the metal, knowing I couldn’t and at the same time knowing that if I didn’t I’d never regret it. I felt the cylinder trying to move as he put pressure on the trigger. After three seconds that seemed liked minutes I knew I had him, moved the gun away from my face and twisted it in his hand until he let go. He turned to run but I grabbed him by the collar and pulled back to trip him over my extended leg. I caught him on the way down and spun him into the nearest wall, then  put him away with as hard a combination as I’ve ever thrown. With Jeff out of the game I turned my attention back to Mutt, propped on one arm cleaning vomit off of his face. I found the gun and let him see me cock it. He raised the hand he wasn’t leaning on and shook his head. The third member of the party unfolded himself from the wall looking like he’d witnessed the parting of the Red Sea. “That was incredible, man, I mean you just came out of nowhere. I’ve never seen anything like it, dude, you are The Man, you are The…Fucking...Man!” He seemed familiar, like the friend of a friend you met once, years ago. Took his shoulder in my hand and positioned him to catch some stray light. His nose covered a third of his face, left eye swollen shut. Blood and mucous dripped onto his black leather jacket. “Do I know you?” “Dude, I’m Frankie Calabra! You know, Danny D’Ambero from Deep Cover on TV? I came down here to do some research for the show and these two dudes tried to rip me off. You’re gonna be famous, man!” Swell. CHAPTER ONE A Handsome Woman There was a time when Sheila O’Donoghue would have been described as a handsome woman. She guarded the vestiges of the beauty she must once have considered her birthright the way a drunk protects his last bottle of gin. Her methods were paying off. I couldn’t guess how many hours on the Stair Master kept her legs in the condition she managed to show at every opportunity. Her eyes were aquamarine and barely possible to avoid staring at. She had a disconcerting habit of making eye contact without looking at me straight on, always showing a slight left profile. Must have been her good side. She sat in the chair across the desk not looking any more comfortable than anyone else who sat there. It’s wasn’t a bad chair. Getting comfortable shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe it was me. Good thing I’m not insecure. “Are you familiar with the name Russell Arbuthnot?” she asked in a resonant voice that must have given great phone. “No, sorry. Are you familiar with the name Larry Conway?” “No.” “Then we’re even.” I got a hard look for a few seconds before a smile snuck up on her. She let it have its way and I got a tease of what she must have looked like twenty years ago. Anyone would fight to keep looks like that. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That was businesslike to the point of coldness, wasn’t it? May we start over?” “No apology necessary. I understand no one really wants to come here to see me, so I don’t pay much mind to first impressions. I didn’t help matters by being a smartass. Now that we really are even, why don’t you tell me why you’re here?” She smiled a mouthful of even white teeth and relaxed her posture. “Thank you. I suppose I am a little nervous. I’m a theatrical agent. Russell Arbuthnot is one of my clients. I thought a man in your profession would be familiar with his one-man show. It opens at the Goodman Theater the day after tomorrow.” “Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell. Isn’t he doing that Maltese falcon show? What’s it called—The Black Bird? Is that him?” “Yes. He lives in Chicago. The Goodman performances are the beginning of a national tour.” “I read good things about it. I’ve been meaning to get tickets for next week.” “Would backstage passes be all right? Of course you’d be working, but you’d see every performance.” She sat forward, smoothing the skirt of her suit, directing my attention to her legs while letting me pretend I had a choice about it. “What’s the gig?” “Threats have been made.” She waited for eye contact before continuing. “Nothing specific. Some notes and a couple of phone calls.” “Death threats?” “As I said, they’re very vague. ‘Don’t sleep too soundly’ was one. ‘I want what’s mine.’ Things like that.” “Do you know of anyone with reason to hurt him?” She shifted in the chair and I saw exactly how well the suit that matched her eyes fit her. Sheila O’Donoghue didn’t just throw on any old thing when she left the house. “Russell has quite a taste for women, and his position and charm allow him to indulge himself regularly. He is not always as discrete as he might be.” “Anyone in particular?” “I’m his agent. We’re close, but I’m not privy to his extracurricular trysts.” Her tone left it open whether she disapproved of the trysts or of not knowing the details. “Have you seen any of the notes?” “No. Russell destroyed them as soon as he read them.” “Why? They could be useful to the police.” “He doesn’t take the threats seriously.” “He took them seriously enough to tell you.” “We’ve been together for over twenty years. There’s very little either of us doesn’t know about the other.” “Except for his extracurricular trysts.” She gave me the look I should have expected. Some day I’ll learn to think of that before I say whatever it is I shouldn’t have said to prompt that reaction. “You took the threats seriously enough to come to me. Why?” “Because I’m worried, and because I know Russell wants me to.” I gestured with my hand for her to continue. “Russell’s self-image won’t let him show any concern over something like this, even if he has some. By telling me, he’s tacitly admitting he’s worried enough to allow something to be done.” I didn’t answer right away and made myself look away from her eyes. My attention wound up on her knees, crossed demurely enough to deny purpose, even if we both knew better. “What do you want done?” “I want you to make sure no one carries out any threats until Russell leaves for his national tour in two weeks.” “Then what?” “We’re making arrangements with a national firm to provide security while he travels. We want someone local until then.” “Why me? I’m just a one-man operation. A firm that could handle him on tour could just as easily do it locally.” “You don’t want the job?” “I didn’t say that. I’m curious what you think I can offer that they can’t? I can’t give him twenty-four by seven protection. I have to sleep and go to the bathroom once in a while.” “Russell isn’t comfortable with the idea of a bodyguard. I’m hoping you’ll hit it off and get him used to having someone with him every waking minute. That should make everything more bearable for the four months he’ll be on the road.” “What makes you think we’ll bond?” She smiled without separating her lips. The victory of showing yet another man he had underestimated her filled her eyes. “Your background as a musician should make you better able to deal with an artistic temperament. At least that’s what I’m hoping.” My previous life as a musician is not common knowledge, for obvious reasons. “He wants a pansy for a bodyguard?” She sent me a more intense look. Her eyes were going to be a problem, as well as she knew how to use them. “Your adventure with Frankie Calabra was hardly the work of a pansy.” “Ah,” I said, like it meant something. We played coy for a few seconds. She let me go first. “He’s on the road for four months. Then what?” “Then nothing, I hope. The threats can’t last forever.” “Depends on whether you’re dealing with a crank or someone with an obsession.” “You don’t seem very enthusiastic about this.” “I don’t like to disappoint clients. I’m not sure I can deliver what you’re looking for.” “Would ten thousand dollars make you any more sure?” It took considerable self-control to keep from sitting up too quickly and breaking a knee on the desk. “For two weeks’ work?” I don’t like doing protection. It’s as tedious as a stakeout and you have to put up with the subject, but my fifteen minutes of fame from saving Frankie Calabra were over and bills had to be paid. Five grand a week relieves a lot of tedium. “Yes.” She showed the same smile, but less of it. The full treatment would have looked smug. “I asked around and then talked to Russell. We think you’d be uniquely suited to ease his discomfort about having what he refers to as a ‘strong-arm man’ at his side.” “Is that another fruity musician reference? You don’t think I can do strong-arm?” This smile showed teeth. “Not at all. From where I sit, you seem admirably suited for it.” A lesser man would have blushed. “When do I start?” “You have to meet Russell first.” “When and where?” “Right now, at his home.” She stood and pretended to smooth her skirt again. That appeared to be her move, the way Michael Jordan liked to go right. When she turned for the door I saw a small lift scar under her jaw on the side she kept turned away. “He has a condo on Michigan Avenue near the theater. We’re expected.” Confidence is an attractive trait in a woman. I gave Sharon a few calls to return, some reports to file, and the usual instructions bosses leave with secretaries. Then Sheila and I left to meet my new client and his ten thousand dollars. CHAPTER TWO The Fat Man Russell Arbuthnot was well past heavy-set, if less than morbidly obese. His chest expanded from his shoulders to well below his waist, creating an impression of a light bulb with legs. His position and charm must have been considerable for him to be involved in any love triangles. Arbuthnot lived in the penthouse of a newly-renovated high rise between Adams and Jackson, south of the Santa Fe Building. The top few floors had been converted from offices and given their own entrance and elevators so the swells who lived there wouldn’t have to brush elbows with the stiffs working in the offices below. Grant Park spread out through a picture window across from the entry door, Buckingham Fountain visible to my right, if I stood at the perfect angle. No crowds or kids playing around it today; even the sculptures seemed to huddle together. Farther out, Lake Michigan was frozen hard as an auditor’s heart. Arbuthnot stood near a fireplace wearing an old-style smoking jacket. He let me see the pose for a few seconds, then made a production of summoning his consciousness from whatever Muse held it before he acknowledged me. His patrician smile showed his comfort with the common folk, and more than a little condescension. He presented three fingers as a handshake and offered me a brandy. I passed. It was ten o’clock in the morning. “Nicholas Forte, Professional Investigator,” he read from the card with “Nick” handed on it I handed him. His voice had a legato quality, with enough resonance to reach the back of any theater. “I can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting a professional investigator. Do sit down.” “There’s a first time for everything.” I sat in a wing chair upholstered with velvet. The room looked like an English baron’s study in a movie that would receive critical acclaim and no audience. “I understand you’re not comfortable with the idea of a strong-arm man.” I tossed a quick wink in Sheila’s direction on “strong-arm.” A laugh burbled up through his bulk like lava through a volcano. “I hope you didn’t take that comment too seriously.” He took some time positioning himself in his chair. A man his size couldn’t just sit in it. Arrangements had to be made. “I was merely trying to convey to Sheila my—how shall I put this?--uncertainty about a man in my position being accompanied by someone who looked like a well-dressed thug. I apologize if that’s blunt, sir, but there it is.” I held my arms away from my sides. “As you can see, ‘well-dressed’ doesn’t apply. You’ll have to make up your own mind about the rest.” “Yes, well, I see you have your own look, yes, you do, sir. Sheila attempted to put my mind at ease about your thuggishness by telling me you were once a professional musician. Is that true?” “Yes. BA from Northwestern, free-lanced around Chicago. Three years in an Army band.” “And that led you to becoming a professional investigator?” “That led me to becoming a cop.” That answer never satisfied anyone, Arbuthnot no exception. “I wasn’t good enough to play at the level I wanted to work at, so I got into teaching. Two years on the South Side made me sick of being the only unarmed person in the building, so I became a cop.” “But you left.” “Musicians don’t deal well with regimentation.” “I see. Yes, I really do see your point.” He looked at Sheila, then gave me a once-over. “You may not have the personality of a strong-arm man, Mr. Forte, but you certainly have the build for it.” “Six-foot-one, two hundred pounds of solid muscle.” I left out the fifteen pounds of other stuff hitching a ride at the time. “I use silverware when I eat and sometimes go entire days without assaulting anyone. I know not to split an infinitive and I can manage not to end a sentence with a preposition if I concentrate. I’ll spend as much time with you as is humanly possible and I’ll get help if your demands are greater than my ability to meet them. I can provide references. What else can I tell you?” Sheila O’Donoghue’s face was aghast that anyone would speak like that to Russell Arbuthnot. Her body language implied she thought such a person might have an undercarriage that bore investigation. This job was going to be a struggle for her. Arbuthnot looked at me like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop. He gave up before the pause became uncomfortable. “Yes, sir, you’ll do splendidly, that you will. I deal with so many actors and flesh peddlers that it’s rare for me to be able to take a man at his word.” Sheila flushed lightly at “flesh peddlers.” “I was waiting to see if your façade cracked at all after your little speech. You understand, of course.” “Of course. People lie to me more often than not. It’s an occupational hazard.” “Then we understand each other perfectly. Won’t you please come with me so I can show you the cause of all this turmoil?” He raised himself from his chair without block or tackle. He walked with surprising fluidity, if glacially, on legs that didn’t look substantial enough to support him. An enormous bed, at least king-sized, dominated the room we entered, the mattress a good three feet off the floor. I wondered how Arbuthnot hefted himself into the rack at night until I saw the small step stool partially hidden by the comforter. There was a mirror in the ceiling directly over the bed. Jesus Christ. The bed faced a mantel with a discretely lighted recess eighteen inches high and a foot wide. Inside the alcove stood a black statuette of a bird about a foot tall. Holy shit. CHAPTER THREE The Black Bird “There it is, in the flesh, so to speak. The Maltese falcon. Sidney Greenstreet never dreamt of a bird so valuable.” The bird glared into the room. A dull black, like unbuffed shoes, it drew all light and attention. No more than a piece of whatever it was made of, shaped to look like something that never existed, but a slice of living history if you were someone who cared about that sort of thing. Its aura hung over the three of us like crepe. I couldn’t guess how many times Sheila O’Donoghue must have seen the statue, and she couldn’t take her eyes off it. “Are you a devotee of motion pictures, Mr. Forte?” Arbuthnot’s accent shifted so little I might not have noticed if accents weren’t a hobby of mine. “Yes, I am, and since you’re about to ask me, The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorites. How did you come into this one?” “This one, sir?” He turned toward me, the scorn obvious in his voice. “This is the falcon, sir, the one Bogart and Greenstreet unwrapped, the one Walter Huston carried into to Spade’s office. This is the Maltese falcon, Mr. Forte, make no mistake.” “I heard they made three. Didn’t they use them all?” “You know more than you let on, my friend. Good. Shooting schedules were such that time could not be wasted if another bird had to be obtained, so supernumeraries were needed. Three birds were produced, should any accident befall the primary. There has been much dispute over the whereabouts of the others, but rest assured this is the falcon that millions of eyes have seen for over sixty years.” That story and six bucks would buy a venti frappu-something at Starbucks. The conviction in his voice and manner were still unnerving. I caught myself looking at the bird again, its blank eyes suddenly more riveting than Sheila O’Donoghue’s aquamarines. Arbuthnot’s voice broke my reverie. “Mr. Forte, have you any idea of the bird’s worth?” I shook my head. “Well, sir, if I told you, you’d think me a liar. In fact, if I reduced it by half, you’d think the same. I’d like to tell you a story, but I must know more about you first.” “Ask away.” “But only if you’ll share a drink with me. I insist. I’m going to have another and I don’t like to talk to a man who won’t drink with me.” Ten thirty-five. What the hell, it was five o’clock somewhere. “Okay, I’ll have whatever you’re having.” “Very good, yes, sir, very good.” He made a one-act play out of pouring whatever was in the bottle on the mantel. I let him pour me as much as he wanted. I knew where the scene was going. Arbuthnot handed me a half-full snifter before reseating himself. He swirled the liquid around his glass and took a short drink. Sheila O’Donoghue might have been in Malta for all the attention he paid her. “I like drinking with a man who doesn’t say ‘when’,” he said when he was good and ready. “A man who has to watch how much he drinks isn’t to be trusted. Cigar, sir?” “No, thank you.” It took him at least a minute to get the cigar burning to his satisfaction. He sat back and took a long, satisfying puff, projecting the image of having completed an extraordinary sexual experience. He picked up the conversation where I knew he would. “Are you a close-mouthed man, Mr. Forte?” “No, I like to talk.” Arbuthnot was willing to pay me ten grand for two weeks of walking around beside him. If he wanted to play Sidney Greenstreet, I could be Bogart. “Splendid. I like to talk with a man who likes to talk. A close-mouthed man never knows how much to talk when he must.” He wasn’t getting it word for word, but close enough. “You haven’t touched your drink. Is it not to your liking?” “I have to be careful, don’t I? How do I know you didn’t slip me a mickey and Wilmer’s behind that door waiting to kick me in the head?” His throaty burble of a laugh would sound nasty in different circumstances. “Yes, indeed, you’ll do very well, if I do say. You’re quite the character, Mr. Forte. Take that from a man who is quite a character himself and knows a kindred spirit when he sees one.” His laughter subsided in a steady slope, punctuated by minor aftershocks. “Now, sir, shall I tell you a story?” “It’s not going to be the one about the knights and the king of Spain, is it?” “No, sir, it’s not, but I dare say it’s an even better story because it’s true. I swear to you on my children every word I am about to speak is true.” “How many children do you have?” More laughter. “To my knowledge, none. But I am not so old that I can’t still have hopes, am I?” I arched my eyebrows in a noncommittal gesture. “I take it I have the gig?” “Why, yes, I think that should be clear by now. Would you care to shake hands on it?” He moved as though he might get out of the chair; we both knew better. I leaned out of mine far enough to grip his fingers again. “There will have to be some paperwork, and some kind of retainer to make everything legal, but this will do for story purposes,” I said. “Very good, sir. Sheila, please make out a check for Mr. Forte,” he said without looking at her. “Will one thousand dollars do for a retainer?” “Admirably,” I said. “Excellent,” he said. “Sheila, I daresay you’ve heard this story many times, you may as well run along for Mr. Forte’s check.” She got up and left the room without a word. Her expression never changed, maybe a hint of red on her cheeks. “Are you comfortable, Mr. Forte?” Arbuthnot said. “I’m all ears.” CHAPTER FOUR The Falcon’s Tale “You already know there were originally three falcons. Two are of no significance, but this one was actually used in the film. This is the bird Humphrey Bogart tore from the parcel and Sidney Greenstreet nicked with his pen knife. Look closely, you can see the scratches from here.” A few scrapes on the bird’s feet looked to be painted over. “Well, sir, as you may know, there was not the value placed on memorabilia in those days as there is today. John Huston took a liking to the son of one of the property masters, a Japanese youth named Akiro. Akiro took the bird – ” “Huston didn’t want the bird for himself? It was his first directing job.” A frown creased Arbuthnot’s face for a second, a dimple disappearing behind a jowl that ran almost to his eye. He pulled his good humor together and went on. “You do know your stuff, sir. Yes, it was Huston’s first picture, but, as I said, memorabilia was not in vogue at the time, and the young John Huston was not a sentimental man. The boy expressed an interest in the bird, and Huston gave it to him. It was simple as that.” He paused to savor the cigar, going on only when satisfied I didn’t have another question. “Akiro’s family was interned after Pearl Harbor and the bird was lost to them when one of the officials tasked with locking them up noticed it among the boy’s possessions. The man had seen the film several times and thought the falcon would make a good conversation piece. He kept it on his mantel for several years until the novelty wore off and he gave it to an aspiring actress as part of a seduction. “The girl used it to prove her alleged bona fides as an industry insider. I believe she was able to parlay it onto a few B picture roles. She moved in with a producer who said he’d make her a star. She left the statue behind when their relationship broke off over a younger, prettier girl.” I watched his lips while he spoke, hoping to look like I was hanging on every word. No matter his story had as much truth as the one in the movie. I had fun watching him spin it. “The producer combined the uses of the bird’s previous owners. He would show it to new girls in town to prove how well-connected he was. They would leverage their bodies for his dubious support, he would grow tired of each of them in turn, and then bring it out of the closet to entice his next paramour.” Arbuthnot couldn’t keep himself from making it a speech even though we were no more than four feet apart. His voice filled the room without overt projection, much the way a television announcer speaks louder than necessary with a microphone a foot from his mouth. “The producer died in 1957 and the statue was sold as part of the estate to a woman with more money than taste who thought it looked kitschy.” He said the word as though it passed through his mouth wrapped in mucous. “The stupid cow kept it like a knick-knack with an eclectic assortment of junk until word of it came to an executive at Warner Brothers. He’d worked on the original picture as a gofer, and his star had risen consistently from that point forward. The bird had a certain nostalgic appeal to him, and he bought it from her. This would have been around 1962 or ’63.” His tale wound through the executive to a rock musician, a drug dealer, and finally a memorabilia aficionado who actually understood the true value of the falcon. “Neville Taylor- Smythe finally accorded the falcon its due. It was from him I learned of its existence when I was performing in San Francisco.” “How did you wind up with it?” I asked. “Neville had a passion for anything to do with the theater, and I have become somewhat of a theatrical artifact myself, if I may be permitted to say so. We became fast friends. Neville died without heirs, and was gracious enough to give the statue to me when he became aware his health was failing, to save problems with the probate court.” How very thoughtful and convenient of old Neville. No one Arbuthnot mentioned could claim anything like clear title to the statue, let alone vouch for its authenticity. The bird staring through us had as much chance of being the one true falcon as I had of being descended from the Romanov family. Arbuthnot’s belief in its provenance radiated from him like heat waves off an asphalt parking lot. He had no doubt about the authenticity of his statue, and I didn’t care. Real or not, he was paying me to protect him, and probably it, too. People with too much money have all kinds of ideas. The story had taken over twenty minutes in its telling, Arbuthnot stopping a time or three to come up for air, sip his drink, or draw on the cigar. Finished, he sat back and pulled an oversized handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sheen of sweat from his face and forehead. He took a healthy swig of his brandy before speaking again. “Well, sir, isn’t that quite the story? All of it true. I dare say that no one could make up such a tale as the truth of the Maltese falcon.” “I dare say.” I raised my glass to him and drank a miniscule toast. Company policy forbids a pre-noon buzz. I could nurse this snifter of brandy for three weeks at the rate I was going. “Now, at the risk of sounding mercenary, why am I here?” “Why, sir? To protect me, and the falcon. You know of the threats. That’s why you’re here.” “Let’s talk about the threats. When did they start?” “About two weeks ago, I should say.” His tone diminished in resonance and the rhythm of his speech lost its flourish. “One day in the post I received a note telling me that my time was at hand.” “Do you have the note?” “No. I threw it away immediately.” “Why?” “Disgusting, macabre thing it was.” His shudder shook the chair. “I wanted it away from me as quickly as possible.” “Didn’t it occur to you there might be some use for it?” “Use? Of what use could it be?” I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice and succeeded pretty well, by my standards. “To the police, maybe. What you had there is called a clue. The police are pretty good at putting them together and finding things out. Such as who was threatening you, for instance.” If the sarcasm leaked through to Arbuthnot, it didn’t show. “It never occurred to me to go to the police at the time. I assumed I was dealing with a crank. I threw away the note and didn’t think of it again.” “Until the next one came.” “Yes, quite. Until the next one.” His tone lost exuberance with each exchange, and the accent was slipping. “That was about five days later. It was in the form of a greeting card. Sheila says it was probably made on a computer. The one after that was four days later, then three, then two…” “And now they’re coming every day. How many days in a row?” “Two. Today will be the third.” “Assuming one comes today.” “Yes, but I am sure one will arrive in the afternoon’s post.” “Why so sure?” “It’s the pattern, isn’t it? Steadily decreasing until they come daily. Now they will come every day.” “Or maybe they’re done threatening. The next number in your steadily decreasing pattern is zero.” Arbuthnot leaned forward in his chair as much as his bulk would allow. “So you think they’ve stopped?” “Why should they? You haven’t done anything about them. May I see one of the recent ones?” A voice that seemed too small to be his said, “I haven’t any, I’m afraid. I’ve been destroying them as soon as I got them.” He sounded like he was telling me the dog ate them. “You threw them all away? Even when they started coming closer together? Even after you decided to hire personal protection? What were you thinking?” That got some color back into his cheeks and voice. “Look here, sir, let’s not forget who is employed by whom. You are being paid very well, very well indeed, and I’ll not be spoken to in that manner by an – an – ” “An employee?” He leaned back so quickly I thought the chair might go over. “No, please, you misunderstand me. I meant no insult. I –” “No insult taken. You’re absolutely right: an employee is what I am. Let’s get one thing straight early on. I may be an employee, but I’m not like the maid or your dresser. You’re paying me good money because you’re afraid. Assuming what you’re telling me is true, you should be afraid.” He started to interrupt but I kept talking and he gave it up. “You didn’t keep any proof, so I have to assume things,. You’re paying me to protect you from physical violence, which means my ass is on the line, too. Your money buys that, but the risks I may have to take buy me some insubordination. Are you all right with that?” The look on his face told me he wasn’t, but he knew to keep it to himself. “Okay,” I said. “What I’m getting at is, maybe he’s tired of threatening you. Maybe it’s time to either leave you alone or get to work. We have to assume it’s the latter.” “Why?” The struggle to recover his bearings had begun, but had a ways to go. His eyes darted about as if small birds were loose in the room. I shook my head. “Because if we do that and we’re wrong, you’re just out ten grand. If we assume he’s finished and we’re wrong, you save the money but aren’t around to spend it.” “Very well, sir. What do you—I should say what do we—propose to do about it?” Any insecurity had disappeared, a passing shower in the sunshine of his persona. I couldn’t tell how much of it was an act. He did this for a living. Underestimating his ability would be as dumb as his misunderstanding my ability to protect him, even from his own stupidity. “First, who would have motive to do you harm, possibly even kill you?” “I am an actor, sir. I am not a criminal, nor am I a politician or businessman who might inspire jealousy or revenge over a promise reneged. I am beloved of my audience.” “And how about the significant others of your conquests? Are you beloved of them, too?” Sheila walked into the room just as I said it. I swore I heard her jaw hit the floor. “My conquests?” He didn’t quite manage to look indignant before producing a smug smile. “I see my Sheila briefed you in more detail than I expected.” He flashed her a look I couldn’t read and she blushed all the way to her artfully displayed décolletage. “Yes, I will admit to having well-developed tastes in the fairer sex, and I have not been reluctant to avail myself of the ample opportunities good fortune has placed before me.” We’d be there all day if he started riffing on his sexual prowess. “So maybe you stuck it somewhere you shouldn’t and some hubby got the red ass.” His smile was as self-satisfied as I had ever seen. “My good man, I have been responsible for many cases of the red ass, as you so plainly put it, but, I assure you, it has never been the husband I have so afflicted.” Sheila made a quick exit without being too careful about how hard she closed the door. I did a quick calculation and decided my bank balance could tolerate him for two weeks, pig or not. “Any husbands, boyfriends, fathers, ever make threats before? Even if they haven’t, can you think of any who might?” He started to answer, then checked his watch so dramatically someone in the back row of Soldier Field could see what he was doing. “Oh, I say, I must get dressed, it’s nearly time for my daily constitutional. We can continue this conversation in the car.” He paused while he rose, the exertion too much for him to talk and get to his feet at the same time. “Sheila! Will you please tell Jorge to get the car ready? I’ll need him in twenty minutes. That’s a good girl.” He was gone without another word, his tiny legs scuttling him across the room quicker than I would have thought possible. Sheila didn’t come back. I stretched out in my chair and toasted the falcon, staring with eternal vigilance into the almost empty room. “You have to work with him every day, huh? Well, then, I guess I can stand him for two weeks.” I finished my drink. It was three minutes till noon.   CHAPTER FIVE Cold Comfort Jorge was a Mexican with more oil in his hair than Alaska. The gold in his left front tooth caught the sun whenever he smiled, which was often. His eyes betrayed him. Raymond Chandler once wrote there was nothing sadder than the eyes of a sad Mexican. He must have known Jorge’s grandfather.  He waited at the curb when Arbuthnot and I exited the building, the rear door of the Lincoln Town Car already open. Arbuthnot squeezed in back; I sat beside Jorge. Arbuthnot didn’t like it; I would be harder to regale in the front seat. I got over it. I was there for protection, not to bond with him. We drove to a small gated community across the street from the Halsted-Clybourne- North Avenue triangle. An enclave within the block with its own little street pattern weaving between about twenty brick buildings. Each building had a small driveway and built-in garage. Steps led up past the garages to the front doors. The buildings were neat, but too new to be elegant. I got out and held open the rear door. The car groaned with what sounded like relief as Arbuthnot removed himself. He leaned in, said a few words to Jorge, closed his door. Jorge reached over, closed mine, and drove away. “He’ll be back in ninety minutes,” Arbuthnot said. “His mother lives in Wicker Park, and he uses this time to pay her occasional visits. He appreciates that I give him not only an opportunity to see her, but an excuse to cut short his stay.” “What are we doing while Jorge visits Mom?” Arbuthnot paused on the step he was ascending before answering. I would be surprised if he could talk and climb stairs at the same time. “Mr. Forte, I am sure you have determined that I am a man of keen appetites. Among my appetites is an appreciation of the finer aspects of the fairer sex. I find that my performances suffer if I do not indulge this need regularly. My acting, as well.” I think he  chuckled. I didn’t hear a thing, but his chins bounced. “The lovely Amber takes quite good care of me in this regard. She has certain, shall we say, talents, that maintain my virility at a healthy peak. You may indulge yourself when I am finished, if you like. My treat.” Russell Arbuthnot’s sloppy seconds were right behind rectal surgery on my bucket list. “Thanks. I’ll wait out here.” He had started up, now paused again, using the conversation as an excuse to take a breather. “Are you sure? Jorge won’t be back for some time, and it’s devilishly cold out here. You would be far more comfortable in Amber’s living room.” “Unless you think Amber’s going to take a run at you, I’m better off out here. I’m more likely to see anyone who might be laying for you.” That was true, in its way. A better reason was my lack of stomach for hearing any trace of what went on in Amber’s office. I couldn’t bear it if he was a screamer. He looked at me, a question clearly unasked on his lips. Then he shrugged and made his way to the summit to plant his flag in Mount Amber. I didn’t see anyone inside as the door opened and closed. It took me all of two minutes to appreciate my situation. The wind blew straight out of the north, which was, of course, the direction in which Amber’s building faced. It didn’t waste time making me cold, numbing my forehead as quickly as if a blind dentist stuck me there with a shot of Novocain. After ten minutes I realized I should have checked out the interior at least long enough to pee. I shifted my weight from foot to foot to hold it as best I could, but I’d never make an hour and a half in this cold. Knocking on Amber’s door never entered my mind. I walked around her building and found hedges butting up against the fence that separated the property from Clybourne Street. No one could see me from the street, and if someone happened to look out from any of the nearby homes all they’d see was a man leaning into a shrub. There wouldn’t be much question about what the man was doing, but I wouldn’t be putting on a show. I could see through the hedges onto Clybourne enough to notice a Thunderbird standing at the curb with the motor running no more than twenty feet away. This one looked cherry, though Ford had stopped making them ten years ago. The man behind the wheel didn’t do anything to draw attention to himself, but I couldn’t think of a reason for him to be there. Amber’s block was fenced in. Across the street was Cubs Care Park, and not even Cubs fans were goofy enough to be over there today. I finished my business and zipped up before backing away so I wouldn’t disturb the hedges. I couldn’t get a look at the license plate without being seen and I didn’t want to show myself to the man in the T-Bird. Paranoia is a side effect of being a detective. I’d been one long enough to know that being paranoid doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I walked back around the far side of Amber’s place and found a spot that kept me somewhat out of the wind and still afforded a view of her driveway and front stairs. I couldn’t see the car from there, but I didn’t see it leave, either. Jorge came back an hour later with a smile on his face and a cup of Seven-Eleven coffee. “You didn’t look like a man who would wait inside while the boss did his business,” he said, handing me the coffee. “I’ll stay and we can wait together in the car tomorrow if you like.” “Tomorrow?” I cradled the cup in my hands to warm them before I dared to drink any. I hated coffee, but Jorge was on my Christmas card list for bringing me this one. Si. The boss, he comes here just about every day. I don’t think Amber works on Sundays, so sometimes he has delivery.” He smiled again. “Like he says, he is a man of great appetites.” Jorge was impossible not to like. “I see that. Thank you, Jorge. You are a true humanitarian.” I sipped some of the coffee. It tasted like recycled motor oil, as expected. “How long have you worked for Arbuthnot?” I said, more to make conversation than anything else. “Long time now, off and on. I work regular for a limousine service. They rent me out to Mr. A when he’s in town.” “Do you like working for him?” “It’s okay, I guess. The hours are strange, but I don’t have to wait around for him much. When I take him someplace he’s usually there a long time, so I can do what I want, he don’t care. Like when I take him to the theater. I know after I drop him off, I don’t have to be back until eleven. It keeps my evenings pretty free, but I’m still on the clock.” His speech had no accent, but the inflections and cadence of Spanish were evident. “Ever see anyone give him a hard time when you take him somewhere?” “No, but I don’t go in where he goes. I hold the door and he gets out. I stay or go, then I hold the door so he can get back in. I don’t see what he does after he gets out.” He nodded toward Amber’s door and smiled. “I don’t think I want to.” I couldn’t argue with that. “How about between the car and the street? Ever see or hear of anyone hassling him?” Jorge’s smile faded for a few seconds while he thought about it. “No, I don’t think so. See, the boss, he don’t go places where people aren’t gonna like him. He tries to keep everything all friendly, no bad vibes, you know what I mean?” I knew. Arbuthnot would go where he was in the spotlight and everyone he dealt with would be his audience. I’d known him for three hours, plenty of time to figure that out. Jorge and I spent another fifteen minutes wondering when spring training started and if the White Sox would ever be good two years in a row. I got enough cream and sugar in the coffee to make it palatable while Jorge ran the heater. I had feeling in my feet by the time Amber’s front door opened, caught a glimpse of blond hair over Arbuthnot’s shoulder before the door closed. Arbuthnot lumbered down the stairs with the aplomb of an arthritic walrus. I told Jorge to stay where he was and opened the door for myself. His face lit up when he saw me. “Ah! Mr. Forte, I hope it wasn’t too cold out here for you. You must let Amber warm you up sometime. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.” “Thanks, but I think the cold parts are somewhat outside of Amber’s expertise.” “She could surprise you there – oh, yes, I see what you mean. Yes, I do see what you mean.” He cradled his chin in his hand in a thinking pose. “She might still surprise you, sir. Amber has many talents. Even I have yet to explore them all.” I closed the door before he could go any further. Lunch approached and no one’s stomach is that strong.
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