Let Me Tell You the Story

He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

-- Raymond Chandler, on Obi Wan Kenobi


7:00 PM: It all began, as these things will, with a leggy dame in a run-down gin joint. The second I walked through the door, I could see Valentine was feeling low. I sat down beside her and asked what she was thinking -- and paid up to find out.

"Some apes down in Jamaica Plain want me to work for them," V said, pocketing the dough. "And they're not the sort to take no for an answer."

"Need some muscle?"

"At your rates? I don't have that kind of scratch."

"We can work something out. Payment in kind. You still do that fancy rhumba?"

"You know it." She grabbed my hand, and led me out onto the dance floor. "And after, a waltz?"

Two dances at the classic rate carved out of my fee, and she'd still be paying me just enough to get by, even though I wasn't going to bill her for the inevitable expenses. I gave in to temptation.

Midnight: Bruised, completely broke, and with feet aching from the long trudge back, I walked into that dive for the second time that evening. There was a dearth of red-headed taxi dancers around to show gratitude. The Doris Day blonde who came up to me at the bar looked like a real no-nonsense type. Pity -- I like nonsense.

"Hey there! You that whiz-kid shamus they talk about?"

"How'd you guess?" "You look nosy, and you've got a face like hamburger. Rough day at the office?"

"Rough commute. I had just enough to get in at Kendall Square, and when I tried to get out, three MTA goons jumped me. They wanted a little extra, I guess. I had to explain the situation with my knuckles."

"Striking a blow for the working man?"

"You might say that." I didn't know why you would, but I figured she was leading somewhere with this.

"Then this job should be right up your alley." With no gas can in sight, she plunked the cash down on the counter in front of me. "My union is on strike, and I think the company's going to pull something underhanded. You ever deal with Pinkerton finks?"

"Of course," I said, and grabbed the money. A full fee is worth a little fib. Looking for a quick way to avoid giving details, I searched around the room, and saw my cousin and his wife sitting in the corner. Even from a distance, it was clear she was telling him exactly what was wrong with him, mentally.

I decided to come to his rescue. As I sidled over, she apparently wound down; he handed her something, and she headed for the bar. She didn't like me. Some people are fussy. Plus, she's a doctor, and apparently she sees me as a germ.

"Good grief!" he said. "What happened to you?" He's never quite grasped what I do for a living. Back home in that two-delicatessen town, my dad had been a cop, and I saw the rough side of life early. His dad was a barber; what would he know? So I skipped over the bit about thrashing city employees, and implied that those JP hoodlums had done the job on my face. Actually, they had been cake.

"Nice shirt," I said, changing the subject. God as my witness, it looked like all of his other shirts, but it was new so we'd be sure to get some mileage out of that. I settled in for a long evening of talking about reinforced buttons.

10 AM: Next morning, I finally caught up with Valentine outside the bar, and gave her the news that it was all taken care of. She was thrilled, and when she hugged the stuffing out of me I felt a bit thrilled myself, but before anything more substantial could happen I spotted my cuz-in-law the doctor striding towards us with a murderous look in her eye.

"Hi, Doc," V said cheerfully, as she disengaged. "Say, you wouldn't happen to have change again, would you?" She got out her purse.

The good doctor exploded. Apparently, this was a frequent request on Valentine's part, and she had just asked one time too many. The rant concluded with "And why the hell are you always asking me for change?"

"Because I make twice what you do, so it breaks right in two," Valentine said guilelessly. She held up a danceworth.

Doc looked at her, decided against first doing some harm, and made change -- breaking it right in two, to use that somewhat loaded phrase. Once V had scampered off, those diagnostic peepers fell on me, and I had a bad feeling when she opened her purse again. All she did, though, was take out ninety-odd percent of the dough inside, and hand that to me with her right as she stashed Valentine's money with her left.

"I want you to find out what that hussy is doing with my husband," she said, as I accepted my third fee in 15 hours.

4 PM: Some detective. After looking for V in all the usual places, and having no luck, I went back to my office to catch some Zs. I hadn't nabbed even one, though, when the lady herself walked through the door, and took off her coat to reveal an item of sleepwear that her legs went all the way up to. "You like?"

I liked, but business is business. "I've been hired to do some shamusing, Valentine, and this time you're the lucky shamusee. But I'm feeling lazy, so let's just skip to the questioning. Have you been messing around with any baldheaded blockheads named after major Boston waterways?"

Her face turned redder than her hair, but it was fury rather than shame. "That loud-mouthed ball-pulling fussbudget! How dare she -- I mean, I never even danced with the guy till just this afternoon, right after I saw you last."

"You went dancing in that?"

"No, no -- I went dancing so I could buy this. Thanks to that round-headed loser, I got two hours with a seamstress, and I can still buy --"

"Three fizzy drinks, or two tickets to the opera. If you liked seltzer or Brecht." I looked at her schmatta again. Clearly a custom job, but yet there was something oddly familiar about the styling . . .

"I gotta go," I said. "Time to turn to the end of the book."

5:00 PM: The blonde -- looking more like Janis Paige today -- walked into the old gin joint, cozied up beside me, and asked what I was thinking. I got deja vu along with the cash.

"I've been doing a bunch of thinking," I said. "Mainly about how a dame on strike has the dough to pay a gumshoe to look for imaginary Pinkertons." She flinched. "At first, I thought you were skimming, but it turns out there's a certain sum of money that'll get you back to work. Enough for you to be living like a king, if you keep at it."

"Nothing wrong with that."

"Yeah, we all want a Scrabble board with letters made of gold. Of course, you might have made more if you were taking the whole paycheck instead of just the pay raise, but that would have priced you right out of the market, wouldn't it, Babe?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"The hell you don't. It's not much of a family secret that Cuz's shirts are all pajama tops, with that big zig-zag stripe, and last night he had a new one. Said he had it made special, from 8-10 last night, and the seamstress didn't even charge him overtime. That retainer you gave me come from him?"

"Could be. It's a fifty-fifty shot."

"And today you spent another two hours making a certain taxi dancer another kind of pajama top altogether."

"I keep busy."

"And I couldn't figure why. None of us is rolling in it. When this whole shindig started, none of us five had two of anything that matched, and you already had almost a third of the whole pot. But you weren't trying to get rich; you were trying to get him poor. Think about it: The money he gave you, the money he gave Valentine that went to you, and what I saw him give the missus . . . By the way, I take it the other half of the change she gave V came from you?"

"Yeah, I needed to talk to that headshrinker after she left the bar last night, and she charged me a consultation fee, same as him."

"Of course -- you had to put the idea in her head that he was fooling around with a certain cute little redhead. Keep her distracted while you planned to ruin him."

"I'm telling you, you're nuts."

"Get in line. A few minutes before you showed up, my cousin got up, stuck what little cash he had left into his pocket, and kissed his wife goodbye. So I kissed him full on the lips, too. Got some interesting looks. But it distracted him enough that I could slip a note in his pocket. Tells the whole story."

"You mean this note?" She held up the paper. "You'd be surprised what a seamstress can make off with when she meets a client coming out of a bar and wants to 'check a seam.'"

"So I'll just catch him later," I said.

"Catch him?" She chuckled. "Fat chance. He was headed down to the T, heading for Jamaica Plain, with exactly what he needs to get on." I went pale. "And while you, as Jim Croce would put it, are a bad, bad man, he's a good one, and he's not going to get off of that train the way you did. No, that lovable loser will be riding a good long time -- and it's going to get Walter A. O'Brien elected, with me riding his coattails. Goodbye, small-town unions; hello, big city politics!"

I raced for the pay phone. The phone in that dive cost a fortune, but I shoved the two coins in. The guy couldn't possibly be at the`turnstile for another 5 minutes, and if I could reach someone at the T stop, they might be able to stop him. Besides, I thought ruefully, it wasn't just me shelling out to the phone company. All of us -- me, the blonde, the redhead, the brunette, and the bald guy -- were poorer at the end than at the start, so we were all chipping in for this 50-cent call; four bits that should be enough to convey all the info I needed to.