by Derek Paterson
Available from Amazon

I read the announcement a second time, just to make sure I hadn't made a mistake. It was a handwritten, or I should say scrawled, on a sheet torn from a spiral notebook and taped to the locked office door. It informed me that I was now unemployed, because Mr. Harvey Rottweiler was no longer doing business at this address, and that I should contact my former boss's accountant to claim any due wages. It was the day before payday and my former boss owed me exactly one hundred and twenty-four bucks and fifty cents. I knew his accountant, Reginald Myers. Squeezing even a single dollar out of that tight-fisted ghoul would take time and energy I just didn't have.
"Well, isn't this just dandy," MaryBeth Archer said. She'd arrived a few seconds after me. "It's just like that jerk to screw us over. How'm I gonna pay my rent this month?"
I didn't have any answers. I didn't know how I was going to pay my rent either. We were in deep doo doo up to our knees, and no one was going to help us climb out of it.
"I gotta go find another job," she said. She turned and walked away, not looking back. She went downstairs and vanished around the landing corner. Her footsteps faded and I felt alone. I don't think she'd even heard my mumbled, "Good luck." Maybe that was for the best; I'd need all my good luck for myself today.
Standing there like an idiot wasn't going to get me anything. I followed MaryBeth downstairs and out onto the street. She was already gone, lost in the crowd, the crowd of employed people heading to their jobs, collars turned up, disinterested eyes staring ahead, not even seeing me. I rubbed my hands together and blew on them, trying to put some warmth into my fingers. The coffee shop across the street beckoned to me. The least I could do was treat myself to a hot cup of java before I started my job hunt.
So there I was, sipping my coffee at a window table, watching the world hurry by, when I noticed a bunch of cards stuck to the glass just inside the door. They were "situations vacant" job ads. Put there by people too cheap or too broke to pay for an ad in the newspapers, I guess. Some were sales jobs; the wording was subtle but they mostly suggested I'd need a good pair of shoes since a lot of door-to-door walking was involved. Another was looking to hire people to work in a fish canning factory, protective clothing would be provided, must not be allergic to fish. Had I ever considered a career in cleaning floors? I had not, but right now, with only loose change left in my purse, it sounded pretty good.
Then my eyes alighted on the prize. Wanted, personal secretary. Principal duties, answer telephones, take shorthand, make coffee. Must be good-looking. Apply in person to the following address.
Must be good-looking. I chuckled to myself, wondering what loser had come up with that ad. At least they hadn't written it like a semi-illiterate child on its first day in school. Capital letters, yes, but neatly formed, with the first letter of each sentence taller than the rest. And perhaps the author had used a ruler to keep his lines straight. Good for him. He was still a loser and very possibly a creep, though.
But who was I kidding, if he was offering real money then I was going to apply to be his personal secretary and I was going to get that job. Unless of course he turned out to have wandering hands, in which case I might be inclined to reject his advances using the medium of my right foot coming into contact with his nether region, if you know what I mean.
Nobody even noticed me pull the card off the glass and slip it into my coat pocket. I finished my coffee and left a small tip, which helped assuage the guilt of stealing the card. I had a vague idea of where the address on the card was, and set off in that general direction. Mama had told me not to talk to strangers but after I managed to lose myself twice, I asked a newspaper seller if he knew the way. Happily for me it turned out he did. While he told me to take a left, and then a right, and then another left, I glanced at the newspaper headlines. MORE BODIES WASHED ASHORE. Guaranteed to bring tourists flocking in. I said thanks and followed his directions.
In due time I found my would-be future employer's place of business, a run-down office block with a couple of windows on the first floor boarded up, which lent an elegance to the establishment. The offices overlooked a canning factory on the other side of the street, from which the powerfully pungent smell of fish drifted.
I let myself into a small, dark foyer. The elevator gate was closed and a cardboard sign said, USE AT YOUR OWN RISK. Dog-eared cards thumb-tacked to the door frame provided a list of the handful of companies or persons who did business here. Pretty classy. The one I wanted was at the bottom, perhaps symbolically. Richard Kruger, Private Investigations. No job too small. Competitive rates. Someone had thoughtfully added a hand-written notation, 3rd floor. I wondered if I was wasting my time. I wondered if the job had already been filled.
Just as I was thinking this, a girl perhaps my age came down the stairs. She was smart-looking with shiny auburn hair. She seemed upset, as if she'd been crying. She didn't even look at me as she exited the building. I wondered where she'd come from. I wondered if Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, had allowed his hands to wander where they ought not to.
The old building seemed to muffle all noise, which was something I noticed as I climbed those same stairs to the third floor. From the landing I could see several doors, mostly closed. The door at the end of the hallway lay ajar, allowing a pool of light out to spill out. I approached this door with caution, because I was in a building that muffled all sound, and I didn't know Richard Kruger. I hadn't told anyone I was coming here, which was, I now realized, perhaps not wise. Unless I counted the newspaper seller, who hadn't even given me a second glance. Not exactly a reliable witness when the cops came asking questions, after they found my dismembered corpse. Just when I was contemplating returning downstairs, because Mama's voice was telling me that maybe I shouldn't be here if I was thinking those kind of thoughts, his head appeared in the doorway. Somehow he'd heard me. I hadn't even heard me.
"Are you here about the phones?"
"Not really," I replied, caught by surprise. I fumbled for the card I'd slipped into my pocket. "If your name's Kruger, I'm here about the personal secretary position."
He smiled, revealing large, sharp-looking teeth. "You saw my card in the window." He stepped back and gestured for me to follow him inside. He didn't look like a creep, but it's always hard to tell until they do something creepy. His pinstripe suit hung loosely on him as if it had been cut for someone who was several sizes bigger. Maybe he'd lost weight, or maybe he'd picked it up for a couple of bucks at a thrift store. His shirt looked clean, anyway. His dark hair was slicked back from a high forehead. He wasn't quite what I'd call handsome. He made me think of a scruffy dog with a squished-up face that takes a liking to you, and you find yourself liking it back because it has a squished-up face and someone's gotta give the poor mutt a break.
I stepped past him and entered his office, whose walls were unappealing bare brick. The scuffed furniture had seen better days but was still functional. Lettering on the door's frosted glass panel said, "Parker & Kruger, Private Investigations", only the "Parker &" had been rubbed away. I wondered what had happened to Parker. The office was partitioned into two halves. The half nearest the door had a desk with a typewriter and a telephone. Another door led into the other half dominated by a larger desk that faced two chairs. So the personal secretary sat out here, while the boss sat in there. The position of the furniture meant the boss couldn't stare at his secretary's behind all day long. Little things, but they added up to "tolerable".
"What's wrong with the phones?" I asked.
"I keep getting crossed lines when I pick up the receiver. Someone mumbling about a racehorse. The phone company said they'd send someone to check it out. I'm Richard Kruger. Call me Dick. I didn't catch your name?"
"Jane Montgomery," I told Dick, trying not to giggle. "I met a girl downstairs in the lobby. She didn't look too happy. Was that your doing?"
Dick frowned. Maybe he was trying to remember. Or maybe he was thinking up a lie, as men so often do. I was prepared to disbelieve anything that came out of his mouth, but he shrugged and said, "Yeah, maybe. I didn't mean to upset her."
Curiouser and curiouser. "What did you say?"
"I just asked her when her baby was due. She got all weepy and got up and left. How was I to know she didn't know?"
I guessed she must have said or done something to clue him in. Or maybe she was just sensitive about putting on a couple of pounds and being mistaken for a pregnant woman.
"Why don't you come in and take a seat?"
If he was going to attack me then he would do it in the inner office, with both doors closed. Then again maybe he wasn't planning on doing that. Maybe he was a nice guy. I have some trust issues. I tried not to let them interfere with the fact I desperately needed money.
"Leave the doors open, will you?" I said.
"Is the smell that bad?" He sniffed the air and I realized he meant the stink from the cannery. The thought that I might end up working over there if I didn't get this job didn't fill me with joy. I entered his office and sat down in one of the chairs. He left the doors open.
"I don't have my resume with me," I said. "For which I apologize. I came here directly after I saw your job ad."
He sat down behind his desk and opened drawers and took out a notebook. From inside his jacket he took a pen, which he uncapped. He wrote something in the notebook. My first name, and the date. A promising start. "Well, Jane, maybe you could just tell me about your job experience?"
This I did, starting with my lowly beginnings in retail, selling knock-off clothes to the discerning lady shopper, and advancing to my lofty position as junior office clerk for Mr. Harvey Rottweiler, self-styled entrepreneur and dirty rat. As I spoke, my potential employer wrote more stuff down on his notepad. I thought he was intensely interested in what I was saying, going by his nods and his grunts, but when he shifted position I caught a glimpse of the notepad page. He was doodling what looked like dog heads. So he liked dogs, maybe that was a point in his favor? I wondered what would happen if I started talking about how I planned to do some laundry when I got home, and maybe clean the fridge. Would he even notice?
The building muffled sound, and that was how the man I came to know as Rocco Vincenza was able to make his way up to the office of Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, without my knowing he was there. The first clue I got was when Dick stared at the doorway and bared his teeth. I looked back over my shoulder and there was this big guy, so big his shoulders seemed stuck in the door frame. My legs wanted to start running, but where would they run to? This solid lump of muscle was blocking the only exit. The window wasn't an option, three floors up.
"Mickey warned you to keep out of his business," the big guy said in a voice made of coarse gravel, the kind that crunches underfoot and skins your knees when you trip and fall. He pulled out a cannon and pointed it at Dick.
"Do you mind? I'm trying to conduct a job interview here."
The big guy's gaze flickered in my direction. I tried to force a hello-I'm-very-pleased-to-meet-you smile but I think I failed. If that cannon fired, I'd be a witness to Dick's murder, and witnesses don't get to live long in this town, take it from me. His eyes narrowed and hoo boy, I knew he was thinking: Yep, might as well shoot her while I'm at it. Keep things tidy. Save me some problems later.
He returned his attention to Dick. "This is what happens when you stick your nose where it don't belong, smart guy."
That was when things got very loud. I screwed my eyes tight shut and clapped my hands over my ears, but not before I got the impression that the desk had come apart. I mean literally. Like it exploded.
I didn't want to open my eyes again, but when the ringing in my ears began to subside and the floor stopped shaking, I took a little peek. Dick wasn't behind his desk any more. It was all bust up, the wood splintered as if a giant buzz-saw had ripped through it. I turned and saw him kneeling over the big guy, who was lying flat on his back, his feet still in the doorway, the rest of him in the outer office. Dick held a gun in his hand, not as big as the big guy's cannon, but it was no pea shooter. My brain slowly caught up with what had happened. While the big guy was looking at me, Dick had reached into his desk drawer, where he kept his own gun, and he shot the big guy through the desk top. He shot him six times. Even through my terror, I'd counted the number of shots. They'd come very fast, like blamblamblamblamblamblam.
I slowly rose from my chair, waited until I was certain I wasn't going to fall over, then stepped past Dick and over the big guy and kept going, heading for the door.
"Wait a minute," he called after me. I stopped with one foot in the hallway. "The cops are going to want to talk to you. Why don't you rustle us up some coffee while I give them a call? And maybe a ham and cheese sandwich. Plenty of mustard."
I turned to face him. "How can you think about eating at a time like this? He was going to shoot you. He was probably going to shoot me, too."
Dick straightened and slipped his gun inside his jacket. "Well, yeah. But that didn't happen. I'm okay and so are you. He's the one leaking all over the floor."
He opened a leather wallet and offered me a twenty dollar bill. "There's a coffee shop on the corner. Get one for yourself. And a bite. You're looking a little pale."
He kept his arm extended, offering me the twenty bucks. I snatched it from his hand. I was angry, I was angry at him, I was angry at the big guy lying on the floor. I was angry at me for taking the twenty bucks.
"Who is he? Why'd he want to shoot you?"
"His name's Vincenza. Rocco Vincenza. He works for Mickey Ferro. Maybe you heard of him."
Zing, the mention of that name stung me between the eyes like an angry bee. I didn't know who Rocco Vincenza was but I sure as heck had heard of Mickey "Iron Man" Ferro. He was head of the rackets in Mean City. The D.A. had been trying to nail him for years but never managed to make the charges stick. Why? Because anyone who turned state's evidence against Ferro ended up in the City Morgue with a tag on their big toe.
So here was one of his goons, lying dead on the floor of the same room I happened to be in. I did not want to be in that room. I didn't want to be in the same building. Heck, I didn't want to be in the same city any more. It occurred to me that the twenty bucks I held in my sweating hand could buy me a train ticket to somewhere, anywhere, except here. I had cousins I could visit in Albuquerque. They'd let me sleep on their couch, help me find another job. Hide me until the cops and Mickey Ferro forgot about me. Which might take some time.
"You might want to sit down," Dick said. He pulled the chair from behind the secretary's desk and brought it around to this side. I did want to sit, given as how my legs had turned to jelly. He must have seen how this was affecting me. He patted my shoulder sympathetically. "Take it easy. The coffee can wait."
He took more money out of the leather wallet and put it into his pocket, which puzzled me. Then he slipped the wallet inside the jacket of Rocco Vincenza, R.I.P. It took me a couple of seconds to figure it out. He was robbing a dead man—the twenty bucks he'd given me had belonged to the big guy. I thought about throwing the bill at his face and storming out of there. Then I thought about keeping it because who would ever know? Sorry Mama, I know you brought me up better than that.
Dick picked up the telephone receiver and said, "Operator? I need to talk to the police. Someone's been shot."
I only listened with half an ear while the operator connected him and he talked to the cops, giving his name and address. They asked him some questions. He told them who had been shot and admitted that he'd done the shooting, in self-defense, and he had a witness who would testify to this. He'd turned away so his back was to me. He nudged Rocco Vincenza with his shoe and said, "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he's dead. He took six sizzlers in the chest. Hey, it was him or me, pal. I'm glad it was him."
I got up and tip-toed out without his noticing. I skipped downstairs and into the lobby and out into the street, half-expecting him to come running after me, but he didn't, which suited me just fine. I pulled my coat collar up and walked away quickly and didn't look back. He knew my name, so what, there were plenty of Montgomeries in the phone book, and maybe even a few Janes, but I wasn't one of them, see? Montgomery was my maiden name, which I'd gone back to using after, you know.
I walked past the coffee shop on the corner and crossed the street just in time to catch a bus heading for Westchester, which was only five minutes from my apartment. I'd pack a small suitcase, head for the train station, buy that ticket and blow this town. Yep, that seemed like a plan.
The bus had only gone about twenty yards or so before it stopped. Something had happened up ahead. Passengers craned their necks to see. I was in a seat near the front, just behind the driver, so I had a pretty good view, although I wished I hadn't. Someone was lying in the street. People were crowding around her. As the bodies shifted I caught a glimpse of the girl with shiny auburn hair who'd come downstairs after seeing Richard Kruger, Private Investigations. She lay twisted, so her head was turned towards me. I saw she had very nice green eyes. They stared right at me for a couple of seconds, not blinking and not really seeing, before the shifting sea of legs hid her face. A cop pushed the gawkers back, not gently.
The bus driver leaned out his window to talk to someone. I was close enough to hear what they said. A black sedan had come around the corner too fast and hit her. She didn't stand a chance. And the son of a bitch kept on going! Hopefully the cops would catch him.
Life is full of tragedies. Here was another, and it just happened that I'd briefly come into contact with this person before she checked out. Listen to me, "checked out." Regular tough guy talk, like in the movies. Except I wasn't feeling like a tough guy, I wasn't feeling like a tough anything, because in my heart I knew, somehow, that this was no coincidence. Where had Rocco Vincenza come from? Had he walked? No, mobsters didn't walk. Someone must have dropped him off. A taxi cab? No, mobsters didn't take taxi cabs, they drove around in big black sedans. Get it? Black sedans.
Electrical connections kept sparking in my brain as I sat there, ignoring the hubbub of voices puzzling over the hit-and-run. After she left the building, had the girl with auburn hair seen Rocco Vincenza pulling up in his sedan and climbing out? Had they locked gazes for a moment, and had he seen something in her intelligent green eyes that told him she would recognize him again if the cops ever put him in a line-up and asked her to point out the guy she saw on the day Richard Kruger, Private Investigations, was shot to death in his office?
Pure conjecture, Your Honor, no evidence! Except the accused would be placed at the scene of the crime and had known links to a notorious mobster who had every reason to wish Dick Kruger to be deceased. Yeah, Rocco Vincenza would have thought these same thoughts. It was all too easy to imagine him going back outside, leaning into the waiting sedan, pointing to the girl with shiny auburn hair, and telling his driver to make it look like an accident.
I thought back to when I'd left the building and walked quickly along the street. I'd turned my coat collar up and didn't look back, but didn't I catch something out the corner of my eye? A car had been sitting further along the street, just past the cannery entrance. A black sedan, with its engine running. Just sitting there, waiting. Waiting for Rocco Vincenza to exit the building after he'd done a number on Richard Kruger, Private Investigations.
Breathing, something I'd never really given much consideration to before that moment, since it was one of those things that just happened on its own without any input from me, became very difficult. Whoever was in that sedan would have seen me come out of the entrance and hurry away. They'd no reason to be suspicious, not yet, but when the cops arrived and the body of Rocco Vincenza was carried out into the meat wagon in a black bag, they would remember me, all right. I thought about the girl with the shiny auburn hair. I wondered if she'd seen it coming. I wondered if I'd see it coming when it was my turn. All the more reason for me to visit my cousins in Albuquerque, you betcha.

End of sample

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