It was the fifth day of the heatwave with no end in sight. 1955 was the hottest year since River City had been incorporated in 1891. Old timers shook their heads, religious types said it was a sign of the Apocalypse, the beatniks snapped their fingers and nodded out, ignoring the whole thing. The entire Black River valley lay under a steamy blanket of humidity and foul temper, and the sound of sirens pierced the sultry haze of the city non-stop as police and fire struggled to keep up with demand. Even in my fifth floor office the banshee wailing grated at my nerves, already frayed and singed by the unrelenting heat.
Sitting in the half gloom with the lights off and all three fans going, I took another swallow of my vodka tonic and tried to make my accounts look better than the steaming sidewalk slider they actually were. I gave it to the bottom of the glass before I shut the ledger and tossed it back into the bottom drawer of my desk next to the fifth of booze. The bottle came out and I poured another finger in, capped the fifth and stowed it next to it's roommate. Adding a splash of bottled lemon juice, ice cubes from the rapidly melting pile in the ice bucket I had liberated from a Howard Johnson motel a couple years ago, and topping it with tonic water, I kicked back with my new drink and got to thinking.
My finances were bad...not just weak, but I was on the brink of living and working out of my car. If it didn't get repoed. I only had five more payments on the Studebaker and I hated like poison to lose it. Not only because I needed it for my work, but because my Marie had loved it so.
Marie. True, our savings had all been eaten up by the medical bills incurred in the futile battle against the cancer that ultimately took her life. But I couldn't feel any bitterness towards her for it. She fought so hard, felt so lousy but tried to always be upbeat for me. By the time she was gone, all I could feel was numb. I would have given my own life to spare hers, but the cancer killed me in a way, too.
Two months after Marie's death, I left the River City police force. I had taken an extended leave during the last few weeks of Marie's illness and had come back a week after her passing, but nothing was the same. Nobody was surprised when I passed in my resignation, but the few close friends I had on the force were sorry to see me go. My C. O. said he felt it was for the best. "A man who can't feel anything is going to be a danger to himself and his partner in the field." That hurt, but he was right.
I drifted for a few months, living off what remained from our savings, scrounged meals at friends and relatives houses and booze. Lots of booze. I put the furniture in storage, gave Marie's parakeet to her Aunt Louise and put the house on the market. It sold in about three months. The realtor did all the work...I barely showed up to sign the papers. I put the money in the bank and got blackout drunk for a week. My brother Joe came by the flophouse I was staying at and read me the riot act. I pretended that I cared.
I couldn't say what made me decide to become a P.I., or even what woke me up. One afternoon not long after Joe's visit I came to with the mother of all hangovers and started vomiting blood. I don't know why I didn't go to the hospital, but I lay on the cracked linoleum in my tiny bathroom and prayed for the first time since Marie's death.
I prayed for my own death. I wept, begged, vomited some more, writhed with pain, passed out. This went on for hours. The last time I woke up, I was limp as a dishrag and burning with thirst. I dragged myself to my knees and sipped water from the faucet, cupping it in a hand shaking so hard I could barely get a sip before it spilled out. I got one swallow down, and it stayed put. I got another. Eventually I got enough, crawled into the bed and fell asleep. I never could figure out how many days I lost, but when I woke up I was sober and done with being a drunk.
Oh, I still drank, but not like that ever since that bad bout. I was weeks before I could eat normally. My abused stomach couldn't tolerate much...I lived on oatmeal porridge and scrambled eggs.
At some point, I also decided to become a private investigator and put my background to good use. I think Joe might have suggested it, but he said he didn't remember exactly what he said, just that he was about to punch me in the mouth so he left. At any rate, I looked into it, got my license, leased the office in the old DeMore` building on South Street and was moved in by the end of the month.
The two rooms were on the top floor, a former dentist's office, freezing in winter and sweltering in the summer, but the view from the massive front window with it's fan shaped top panel was spectacular. The suite also had a private bathroom, which was the main reason I took it. I planned to live there for a while, just until I found another apartment. Two years later I was still there. Entering the office, there was a narrow vestibule with a door to the rear. I had the vestibule set up as a waiting room, as it had been when I leased it. The former tenant had died, and most of the furnishings were still there, which suited me fine. I agreed to do my own remodelling and to dispose of the old furnishings for a discount on the rent, which suited the landlord just fine. He was just happy to get rid of a white elephant. The reception desk and chairs were still in good shape, but I sold the chair and the rest of the equipment to a young dentist just starting out. Getting that chair unbolted from the floor and wrestling it to the freight elevator was a job. I was just grateful we didn't have to carry it down five stories.
I sat at my desk now, the fans churning at the muggy air oozing through the open bottom panels of the massive window. Being on the east side of the building meant brilliant early morning sunshine, high temperatures from seven o'clock onward and fierce winter winds. It also meant beautiful sunrises and a view of the river that was worth a fortune. I wondered how long it would be before some smart developer got the idea to make the building over into luxury apartments. I hoped it would be a couple more years at least.
The ringing of the phone jolted me awake and the half empty glass in my hand twitched, dumping the contents in my lap. Cursing under my breath, I grabbed the phone on the third ring.
"Hanscomb Investigations". There was a pause on the other end, and I used the space to mop at my wet crotch. I was wearing khaki trousers against the heat and it now looked like I had peed myself. I threw the wet handkerchief in the utility sink and sighed. "Hello?" I prompted. She finally spoke.
"I need help...I think someone is plotting to kill me."
I sat back down and took up a pencil and pad for notes. The woman on the other end of the line was borderline drunk and scared out of her wits, but I eventually got the particulars out of her. Some person or persons unknown were harassing her... leaving cryptic notes, moving things around in the house, turning off the fuse box in the basement. The latest thing was taking all the food out of her refrigerator and leaving it on the kitchen floor. Some of it was missing, the rest was a smelly, melted pile swarming with ants. Nasty pranks aimed at keeping her off balance. She suspected her late husband's family...she was his sole inheritor, and there was a considerable amount of money involved. He had been a successful doctor, and had made a lot of money through stocks and other investments. She thought the in-laws were trying to gaslight her and get guardianship of the estate. Either that, or trying to force her into suicide. Despite having the locks changed twice, the intrusions kept occurring and she was afraid to stay in the house. I agreed to take the case, and told her my fee, which I jacked up accordingly given the nature of the job and her obvious wealth. She didn't balk and we set up a time for me to come to the house. I told her I needed a week in advance as a retainer and she readily agreed. After writing down the address, I hung up and went to change my clothes. This job would keep me afloat for the next few weeks, buying me much needed time.
I drove up to the address she had given me, a new mid century modern house with a circular drive and a manicured front lawn the size of a golf course in the swanky Westbrook neighborhood. Floor to ceiling windows were covered by heavy curtains, and I could hear the hum of a central air conditioner as I walked up the paved path to the front door. Ringing the bell, I looked around at the surrounding area. There were other houses, but the artful landscaping and deep driveway set the house back from view of the neighbors. It was easy to see how a determined individual could get in and out with no witnesses. She had told me that although the police had come to file reports on the break-ins, they were beginning to act as though she were "looking for attention" as she put it. Having been on the job myself, I figured they thought she was mentally ill and doing the damage herself and forgetting about it. I rang the doorbell again and waited.
The woman who answered was whippet thin, expensively dressed and drunk. I sighed. Getting a drunk to cooperate or answer questions coherently was like herding cats.
She was also one of the most unlikable people I had ever met. I could see why she didn't get along with her in-laws and had few friends. She showed me around the house, gave me the notes that she had gotten. She said that the police had photographed them...I thought it odd that they didn't put them in an active file with the incident reports from the responding officers, but made a note to ask at the shop Monday morning. I prodded for details, she got whiney. Finally, I convinced her to check into a hotel for a few days and I would stay in the house and try to figure how they were gaining entry. She poured herself into the bedroom and started packing. I looked over the kitchen, which looked spotless and had no odor of food, spoiled or otherwise. No ants, either.
I had asked her about servants...she had a cook housekeeper that came in, but had fired her when the pranks had started. She hadn't replaced her yet, but had not only gotten back the keys but had changed the locks. The yard was maintained by a service. They had no access to the house. Ditto the pool cleaner. I gazed out the sliding doors to the in-ground pool. I checked the door locks. They were also new and solid.
She finally emerged with her cases and I escorted her to my car. I loaded her in, drove her to the upscale Hotel Seychelles (a hideous pink stucco building on Lake Worth) and having gotten her house keys I made the drive back and secured the perimeter before entering the house.
Once inside, I crossed to the mirrored bar and poured myself a very expensive scotch. Sitting down on the sofa, I used the remote control to switch on the massive 27" console TV and found a music program. Listening to the band playing "Begin the Beguine", I finally allowed myself to smile. Everything had gone exactly as planned. She hadn't even remembered that night six months ago when she tried to pick me up in the Pollywog Lounge, and she had been gloating over her well funded "freedom" from old Charlie.
You see, I was the one who had been playing all those dirty tricks on the shallow bitch. Dr. Charles Bartow had been my wife's surgeon, and had failed to get all of the evil growth out of her. He had been fighting with his wife over her many affairs and had been hungover when he performed the surgery on my sweet Marie. I had no reason to doubt his confession, and he seemed genuinely upset that Marie ultimately paid the price for his negligence. He had committed suicide shortly after Marie's funeral, driven off the Black River bridge by guilt and shame. His wife being a slut didn't help. The two together was more than he could bear. He truly loved Sandra Bartow, and just couldn't understand why she didn't feel the same. But I knew why. I'd seen it before more times than I could count over the last two years of divorce cases. Selfishness and boredom don't mix well. Add in good looks and it's a lethal combination to most relationships. Wealth doesn't help either, but it's not a requirement.
So this was my way of making amends to Dr. Bartow, for blaming him for Marie's death. I would play his wife like a prize bass, reeling her in... letting the line out a bit...give her her head before pulling her back. Drawing her ever closer to the net.
Would I succeed in driving her to madness? Maybe. Was I evil to try? Perhaps. Either way, I would get a great deal of satisfaction out of seeing a person who caused a great deal of suffering get a good dose of it herself. In the meantime, I was getting paid well to snoop around her house for a few days and get some ideas for the next phase of the operation.
Although I don't think Marie would have approved, I like to think that she would have understood. And so I raise my glass to my beloved Marie, may she rest in peace.
I know that I never will.