Authors: Loren D. Estleman
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Loren D. Estleman
To Rob Kantner
in memory of
Stones in the Sky, Mad Dog
and other stillborns in the age of awakening.
Call him Ralph.
Better yet, don't call him. At least not before noon, because if you do he's liable to answer on about the eighth ring and say something like:
“Whoever you are, you'd better hang up right now, or I'll find out where you park your car and do something in the gas tank you won't like.”
The caller on this occasion paused. “I don't own a car.”
“Then I'll do it to you.”
“Is this Ralph?”
The voice belonged to a woman. He could tell, because on mornings like this anything higher than a male tenor set his hangover on edge. “Who the hell is this?”
“This is Lyla.”
“Who the hell is Lyla?”
“Lyla Dane. I live in the apartment above you, for chrissake. We see each other every day.”
“You live over a dirty bookstore. What do you expect for a neighbor, a frigging rocket scientist?”
Ralph Poteet sat up in bed and rumpled his mouse-colored hair. His head felt like grout. He fumbled the alarm clock off the night table and held it very close to his good eye. He laid it face down and whined into the receiver, “It's two-thirty ayem!”
“Hey, thanks. My watch stopped and I knew if I called you you'd tell me what time it is. Listen, you're like a cop, right?”
“Not at two-thirty ayem.”
“I'll give you a hundred bucks to come up here now.”
He blew his nose on the sheet. “Ain't that supposed to work the other way around?”
“Jesus Christ. You coming up or not? You ain't the only dick in town. I just called you because you're handy.”
“What's the squeal?”
“I got a dead priest in my bed.”
When she had repeated the statement, he said he was on his way and hung up. He sat there for a minute moving his tongue around inside his mouth. It reminded him of an armpit. When he moved, a square gin bottle slid off the blanket. He caught it before it hit the floor, saw it was empty, and dropped it. He shambled into the bathroom, which had started out as a closet and seemed determined to stay that way, and emptied his swollen bladder into the toilet with his forehead resting against the slope of the ceiling. While thus engaged he went through his morning catechism, asking himself his name, his address, and where he had spent the evening. He got the first right, wasn't sure about the second, and drew a blank on the third. He was doing better than usual.
Back in the bedroom he put on his Tyrolean hat with an orange feather in the band and after a brief search found his suitpants on the floor half under the bed. These he pulled on over his pajamas. He stuck bare feet into his loafers and because it was October he tugged on his suitcoat, grunting with the effort. He was forty-three years old and forty pounds overweight. He looked for his gun just because it was 2:40
in Detroit, but it was a halfhearted attempt; he hadn't seen it in weeks. He gave up and went out. The hallway smelled of condoms and cooked cabbage.
Lyla Dane's buzzer was the only one in the building that worked, not counting the one on the ground floor that the landlord used during police raids in election years. The door snapped open. Lyla was just five feet and ninety pounds in a red kimono and pink satin slippers with white butterflies on the toes. She wore her black hair very short.
“You look like shit,” she said.
“That's what two hours' sleep will do for you. Where's the hundred?”
“Don't you want to see the stiff first?”
“What do I look like, a pervert?”
“Yeah.” Stepping away from the door she drew a key from the pocket of the kimono and unlocked a drawer in the lamp table. Inside was a metal box, from which she took a brick of paper currency and counted a hundred dollars in twenties and tens into Ralph's palm. She put the rest back in the box.
“I thought broads always kept their valuables in the bedroom.” He counted the money again and pocketed it.
“That's why I keep mine here.”
She locked the drawer and led him through a small living room decorated by K mart into a smaller bedroom containing a Queen Anne bed that had cost twice as much as all the other furniture combined and took up most of the space in the room. The rest of the space was taken up by Monsignor John Breame, pastor of St. Balthazar downtown, a cathedral Ralph sometimes used to exchange pictures for money in his favorite pew, although not so much lately because the divorce business was on the slide; no-fault was killing his livelihood. He recognized the monsignor's pontifical belly holding up the flesh-colored satin sheet. The monsignor's face was purple.
Ralph found a Blue Diamond matchstick in his suitcoat and stuck the end between his teeth. He was beginning to feel better already. “He a regular?”
“That's the kind of question I don't answer. Tonight I thought he was breathing a little hard after. Then he wasn't.”
“Well, he's deader'n Pope John.”
“Thanks again. I thought he was imitating a fucking Buick.”
“At least he wasn't a fag.” He rubbed his bad eye. “I guess you wouldn't know where I was last night.”
She hesitated. “It sure wasn't here.”
“It'll come back. So what do you want me to do?”
“Get rid of him, what else? Cops find him here the Christers'll run me out on a cross. I just got nicely established.”
“Cost you another hundred.”
“I just gave you a hundred.”
“That was for coming up. You're lucky I don't charge by the pound. Look at that gut.”
look at it. He liked the missionary position.”
“That fits. What's a hundred? You don't even take 'em all the way off for that.”
“Son of a bitch.”
She left the room and came back with the second hundred. This time he didn't bother to count it. “Take a walk,” he said. “Come back at dawn.”
“Where'll I go?”
“There's beds all over town. You probably been in half of them. Or go find an all-night movie if you don't feel like working. What am I, a cruise director? Use your head for something besides head.”
“Funny. That's new since Coolidge.” She started to untie the kimono, stopped. “You going to watch?”
“What's the matter, you work with the lights off?”
“You didn't pay to find out. Move it or lose it.”
He moved it. She slammed the bedroom door. In the living room, still chewing on the matchstick, he wandered over to the lamp table and tried the drawer. It was locked. He picked at the mechanism with the matchstick. Lyla, in white panties and a peach-colored bra, came out of the bedroom carrying the key, opened the drawer, and took the metal box with her into the bedroom. He admired the English in her tight backside.
Five minutes later she emerged wearing a canary jumpsuit, tan jacket and a red wig that needed an aircraft light. She had on working makeup; her lashes were longer and twice as thick, her face less round and not as puffy under the eyes. Something about the way she handled her brown shoulderbag told Ralph he would find the metal box empty.
“So it's work.”
“I got to make back two hundred by sunup.” She paused at the door to the hallway. “What are you going to do with him?”
“You really want to know?”
“I guess not. Hell, no.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
When she had gone, he helped himself to a can of Budweiser from the refrigerator in the kitchenette. He helped himself to another and then he went back into the bedroom and looked up a number in the metropolitan directory. He sat down on the edge of the bed and used the pink telephone on the night table. He was feeling better by the minute.
While he was waiting for someone to answer, he patted the monsignor's sheet-covered foot. “What do you say, Father? She worth it?”
He swallowed his matchstick. When he finished coughing it up, he realized someone was on the line. He cleared his throat. “Is this Bishop Steelcase?”
“It's three ayem,” said Bishop Steelcase.
“Thank you. My name is Ralph Poteet. I'm a private detective. I'm sorry to have to inform you Monsignor Breame is dead.”
“Mary mother of God!” The harshness went out of the bishop's voice like air. “What happened?”
“I'm no expert. It looks like a coronary.”
“Mary mother of God. In bed?”
“Was heâdo you know if he was in a state of grace?”
Ralph produced another matchstick. “See, that's what I called to talk to you about,” he said.
He had time to kill. When he was through talking with the bishop, he worked the plunger and dialed the number of the adult bookstore downstairs. It rang a long time before a voice like ground glass answered.
“Jesus Christ. Hello.”
“Vinnie, this is Ralph.”
“It's three-thirty ayem!”
“Thanks. Listen, I'm up here at Lyla's.”
“Oh yeah?” There was a leer in his voice; but then there was generally.
“I need my camera.”
Pause. “Who you going to get to take the pictures?”
“Cut the crap. Can you bring it up?”
“You going to pay me the rent you owe?”
“I just want to borrow it.”
“Last time you borrowed something from me I had to buy it back from a fence.”
“It got stolen from my car. We been through that.”
“What was you doing with a five-year run of
magazine in your car?”