Here it is, the last chapter of the story. My summer of noir fiction is now complete. I hope you like how it turns out. Special thanks to all those who left great reviews that I couldn't reply to (roosterboy, reader, and lara).
I got my car out of the garage and circled the block tailing Meg Takani from a distance until she found a cab. She kept the katana close by her side until the cab pulled up so the driver didn't see it until she was already inside. He pulled away from the curb and drove to Bel Air where the mansion lawns come right down to the street and end in great big walls with gates instead of sidewalks.
The taxi driver dropped her off in front of one of those gates and she sent him on his way with a handful of bills to keep him happy. I drove past like I was going to the next estate. They didn't believe in sidewalks either. They also didn't believe in trimming their trees. A big weeping willow wept its way over the wall like a green theater curtain. I parked my car behind it and doubled back on foot.
The gate stood without Meg in front of it. A little black box with a button and a grill to speak into gave me my first clue as to how she got in. Peons like me would have to find another way. The top of the walls on either side of the gate had spikes in them, nasty things like the bayonet type finials the Huns used to put on top of their helmets.
I went back to the nice estate with the lazy gardeners. Their walls didn't have spikes, not the one facing the street, which I scaled in next to no time, and not the one between their estate and the one Meg Takani entered.
There may have been guard dogs. If so, I never saw any. Maybe they put them in their kennel for a nice rest when Meg called up at the gate and said she was coming. I snuck up to the house, keeping bushes and such between me and the windows as much as possible. It reminded me of the war, only bullets weren't flying. Not yet at least.
I got to the house and glued myself to the wall, ghosting down it until I came to an open window. There were no voices coming out of it, but someone was baking something. Crossing it off as the kitchen, I moved on. The next few windows were locked, the rooms dark. The last group of windows were the ones I wanted. There were two little ones and two big ones that acted like doors. One of the little ones was open and one of the door-like ones was ajar.
I pressed up against the edge of the little one and looked in.
Meg was there, sitting in an overstuffed chair. She looked tired. She was rubbing her hand like someone had rapped her knuckles good and hard. I shifted my angle and saw Kantrell leaning against a big oak desk. The katana and the gun Meg had pointed at me were on top of it.
"So, little Megan, where is it?"
"It's Megumi, not Megan." She sounded bone weary, defeated.
Kantrell's face was angular; some would say handsome even. I recognized him from the picture in the paper the last time he was indicted. The photo showed him gazing soft eyed off in the distance, his expression noble. He wasn't looking too noble now.
He walked over and grabbed her chin, running his thumb gently across her cheek, and then her lips, mashing them slightly.
"I don't like women who play games, Megumi." He emphasized her name sneeringly. "Now where is it?"
"I told you, it's in the sword, under the fuchi, the little metal tab at the very end of the hilt."
I grinned a little. I heard the touch of defiance in her voice, the sarcastic condescension. Kantrell did too. He growled a little under his breath before marching back to his desk and pulling the sword off it. He set the business end of the scabbard down on his oriental carpet and tugged at the little metal rectangle on the end of the hilt. It came off with a soft 'pop' and he dropped it on the floor.
Upending the sword, he shook until a little piece of paper fell out of the hollowed out cavity inside the sword's handle.
"Clever Dr. Shumei," he muttered, squinting at it. He dropped the sword carelessly on his desk and walked around it, out of my line of sight. I heard a drawer open then shut, and then he was back in front of the desk, arms crossed, looking at Meg.
"I've done my part," she said dully. "You've got what you want."
"That's right, my dear. I always get what I want. The trouble is, I don't need you anymore. Of course, I can't really get rid of you until tonight. The best places to lose a body can only be found at night, right off the coast. Isn't that right, Crowell?"
I couldn't see Crowell. He had to be standing back somewhere behind Meg. I wondered if he had any friends other than Hanson, and if they were there too. I had a feeling Hanson was at the bottom of the sea by now. Probably because he had the sword. Bad things happened to people who had things Kantrell wanted.
"Hmm, whatever will we do until tonight to pass the time?" Kantrell's voice didn't make it hard to figure what he wanted to do as he leered at Meg.
"If you touch me again, I'll scream and keep screaming," she said.
Kantrell just smiled. "Somehow, I don't think you will. Crowell!" he whipped out the man's name like an order.
I figured that was my cue. I walked through the glass paned door and trained my gun on Kantrell's chest.
Crowell was standing behind Meg's chair, poised to put his hand over her mouth. He had a bunch of rags in the other hand to use as a gag. Crowell was the big guy in the brown jacket who'd sat in my office with a gun and tried to warn me off the case.
"If he touches her, I'll start screaming too," I told Kantrell, dipping my head in Crowell's direction. "Now tell him to take out his gun and drop it on the floor."
"Do it," Kantrell spat. His lips got so thin you couldn't stick so much as a piece of paper between them, he was pressing them together so hard.
Crowell obeyed, then kicked the gun over to me when I told him to. It got stuck on the edge of the oriental carpet so I had Kantrell and Crowell back up against some bookcases and leaned over to get it. I stuck it on the desk next to the gun Meg brought. She sat completely still in her chair, wide-eyed.
"Get up," I told her. She obeyed, still looking at me like she couldn't believe I was there.
"Take the bullets out of the guns, but don't cross in front of me." I didn't want anything between my gun and Kantrell and his hired hand.
Meg nodded, walked behind me to the desk and unloaded both of the weapons.
"What do I do with them?" she asked.
"Throw them out on the lawn," I suggested. I meant the bullets only, but she picked up the guns too and heaved them out the window.
"You won't get away with this," Kantrell said.
I smirked. "You're just sore your gardener's going to have to buy a new lawnmower when he tries to mow slugs up from your grass." I let my smile drop and got serious. "Grab the sword, Meg, and whatever was inside it."
She moved to obey, starting to pass in front of me, then she remembered and went the other way around the desk, opened the top drawer and got out the little piece of paper.
Of all the things I'd done, that made Kantrell the maddest. He almost charged me, but Crowell said something to calm him down. I nodded approvingly.
"Now I'll be taking the girl, the sword, and the paper. If I see anyone coming out of the house to follow us, you'll be burying them."
Meg's voice stopped me. She grabbed my arm, the one that wasn't holding the gun.
"What about my brother?"
She looked away from me when she saw I wasn't following and turned to Kantrell.
"You said you'd trade this," she held up the paper, "for my brother."
Kantrell smiled. It wasn't the sort of smile he'd give for the newspaper photos. It was the sort of smile that made your skin crawl and made you want to take a bath.
"He's dead. Dr. Shumei made one last batch so we used it on him. I guess we used too much," he shrugged in mock sympathy.
Meg made a noise somewhere between grief and rage and fell down. She was still holding my arm, dragging me down with her until I shrugged her off, but it was too late. Crowell was on the move. He shoved a chair at my legs just as another guy came in from the rear window and started shooting. Dodging the chair saved me.
Kantrell wasn't so lucky. The first bullet caught him in the throat. The second took part of the top of his skull off. He was shoved back against the bookcase by the force of the slugs, then he slid down it and landed in a heap at the bottom. I'd been standing directly in front of Kantrell so the shooter couldn't see him, he could only see me pointing a gun toward Crowell.
Crowell looked down at his dead boss in shock. Rage blossomed and he charged, not at me, but at the shooter. I was on the floor shielding Meg while trying to twist around to fire.
That was when I saw that the shooter was just some punk kid, probably new to Kantrell's operation. He still had acne on his face and he was staring at Kantrell's body with the sick shock of someone who's never killed before. The gun still had grass sticking to it. It was one of the ones Meg threw out the window.
Crowell's bellow snapped the punk out of his trance. The man charged across the room like he was about to tackle the quarterback of a rival team. I thought suddenly that his old football coach would've been proud.
The kid fired twice into Crowell's torso. The big man went down. The kid was nearly hysterical by now, eyes shooting wildly around the room. He saw I had my gun trained on him, dropped his own, and ran.
Meg was OK, shaking but not bleeding. I crawled over to Crowell. Blood was coming out of his mouth, mixed with bubbles. One of the bullets got his lung. The other wound was low in his belly. He'd been gut shot.
He was trying to laugh around the blood in his mouth.
"Guess I'll be the next stiff to hit the water," he said. "That's where we put 'em, you know. Weigh 'em down with rocks and dump them in the ocean. It's where I put Pete when I found out he stole something without Kantrell's say-so."
"You shot Peter Hanson?" I asked softly, just to be sure.
Crowell's eyes pleaded with me. "It was better that way, see. Kantrell, he would've tortured the guy, just because Pete liked pretty things and sometimes he'd lift them even when it wasn't part of the plan. I'll be with Pete soon, I want…"
I never found out what Crowell wanted. His eyes got all unfocussed and he slumped and didn't move or breathe anymore.
I got back to my feet and looked over at Meg. She was still on the floor staring at Crowell with quiet horror. When women get that pale, they need a drink. I looked at the collection of cut glass bottles on Kantrell's side table. Then I thought of the piece of paper in Meg's hand, of what it might be, and I didn't want his liquor.
I pulled Meg to her feet and got the piece of paper away from her and into my pocket.
"Here," I said, sheathing the sword and putting it in her hand. "Take care of this for me."
She looked down at it, nodded, and followed me out the door and into the sunlight.
We got out of Kantrell's place by walking down the front drive and pressing a button on the wall to open the gate. I put Meg into the passenger seat of my Packard. I made her put my jacket over her shoulders. She was shaking, holding on to the scabbard of the katana so hard her knuckles were white.
When we got back to the office Ken, the gunmen, and the police were gone. They were probably all down at the station having a merry old time filling out forms and getting to know each other better. The glass on the floor was gone too. Knowing Ken he'd probably swept it up. I never met a guy who took the old 'cleanliness is next to godliness' saying so seriously. I swear he even liked doing laundry, voluntarily.
I sat Meg down in one of the leather chairs by my desk, then went into my apartment for the bottle of scotch and two glasses. She tried to refuse, but I insisted. She coughed and sputtered but got a little down. It put some color in her cheeks and she stopped shaking so much. I sipped my drink and started talking, telling it slowly so as not to spook her.
"The way I see it is this. Kantrell got your boss, Shumei, to work up a new drug for him. Shumei crossed him somehow, wanted more money, a bigger cut, or whatever. Kantrell objected. Shumei wound up dead, but somehow Kantrell didn't get the formula for the new drug."
"I didn't know what Dr. Shumei was up to," she said, her voice low and throaty from the liquor. "The first thing I knew about it was when Kantrell's men brought me to his house after work. Dr. Shumei hadn't shown up that day. The secretary said there was a message on her desk that he was taking a sabbatical, some sort of family emergency. I thought it was strange because he was an orphan and his wife died during the war. Kantrell told me he'd killed Dr. Shumei, and he wanted me to take his place making the drug, but Dr. Shumei hid the formula and Kantrell didn't know where it was."
Meg took another gulp of her scotch then set it on the desk and drew my jacket tighter around her. "He didn't believe me at first when I said I didn't know anything about the formula. He'd had his men search Dr. Shumei's house, but they couldn't search the lab at the university. It's too public and they wouldn't know what they were looking at if he hid it in one of the files with his other formulas, the ones he used for classes. So they…they…"
"They snatched your brother and told you that you had to find the formula, right?" I asked softly.
"Yes," Meg lowered her head. "They brought him in, after Kantrell tried to make me tell him where the formula was." She didn't look me in the eye. I could imagine how Kantrell tried to persuade her. "They'd roughed him up a little, to scare me, I think. They took him out again and Kantrell said I had one week to find the formula or…" She bit her lip and took another sip from her glass.
"So you went to Shumei's house, saw that the swords were stolen, and figured out that's where he hid the formula. You talked to the neighbor so you knew what the thief looked like and came up with a story that Shumei had described him to you. Then you hired me to get the swords back, while you searched the lab at the university."
"Dr. Shumei had hundreds of files that he'd brought from Japan after the war. The university hired him because of his expertise, and because the state department promised him a job here if he cooperated with them after the war, which he did. I tried to tell Kantrell it would take more than a week to go through everything, but he wouldn't listen."
"He had a tail on you," I told her. "He didn't trust you to come through, or he'd already killed your brother and knew you'd never give him the formula once you found out. That's how he knew to send someone here to get the sword before you could. Your department secretary, she talks a lot, right?"
Meg looked at me, lips parted. "She's the biggest gossip in the university."
"So all a guy would have to do is ask her nicely and she'd tell them everything about every phone call you ever made."
Wordlessly, Meg nodded.
"It may have been Crowell, or it may have been the other guy, but they found out about you hiring me. Crowell was probably the one who killed Shumei, ditched the body and searched his house, but his friend Pete Hanson was with him. Hanson lifted the swords, because he was into that sort of thing. Crowell knew that it was only a matter of time before Kantrell found out the swords were gone, and that's probably where Shumei hid the formula. Either he didn't want to go down with Hanson, or he really did want to kill him clean to save him from Kantrell. Kantrell, Crowell, and Hanson are all dead, so's your brother, and all for this."
I dug the piece of paper out of my pocket and held it up.
"So now you know everything," Meg said.
Not everything. Not what Kantrell did to her when he was persuading her to talk, not what made her go limp when I kissed her, like she wanted to be anywhere but in a man's arms. It wasn't the sort of thing you could make a woman talk about if she wasn't ready to talk. I wasn't Kantrell. Meg could tell me about it one day when she was good and ready to, not before. She'd had enough of gorillas pawing her and telling her what to do.
"What do you want to do with this?" I asked, setting the paper on the desk.
Her lips twisted. "I never want to see it again."
"Sure," I said.
I pulled out my cigarette lighter, thumbed on the flame and set it to the paper. Once it caught I put it in the ashtray. Together we watched it burn.
"You're a fool, you know," she said softly. "You could've sold that to any drug dealer in Los Angeles and made a fortune."
"So could you," I told her.
She shook her head. "I could never do that. I worked as a nurse in a hospital during the war. Some of the doctors gave too much pain medication to the men, because they didn't expect them to survive. They lived, but they were hooked. One of them told me it would've been better if he'd died. I never forgot it."
Meg watched my face carefully. "Were you in the war?"
I took another sip of scotch. "Yeah."
"Is there anything you want to forget? Things that make you feel sick remembering?"
Broken bodies, friends of mine, buddies, torn apart and no way to put them back together. Stupid decisions by generals who weren't there, who didn't know. Shattered lives, emaciated bodies left behind by the Nazis. There were plenty of memories. Ken had memories too, locked away. We didn't talk about them.
"Yeah, I do." I stared back, refusing to say more.
Understanding dawned. "If you can't talk about them, what do you do to forget them?"
Setting my glass down on the desk, I leaned in close, keeping my eyes on hers, ready to pull back at the first sign of panic.
"I make new memories," I said softly against her lips. I kissed her. This time, she put her arms around my neck and kissed back.
Epilogue: Echo Park Lake on a Sunday afternoon wasn't the sort of place I ever thought I'd be. Lying on a blanket under a tree next to Meg made me realize what a chump I'd been for sneering at the Sunday afternoon crowd with their picnic baskets and kids. Speaking of kids…
I cracked an eyelid to watch Kaoru chase her little brother down by the lake. He'd called her ugly, again, and as usual she responded by threatening to kill him. Kenshin sat cross-legged at the far end of the blanket sipping iced tea from a thermos cup watching them happily.
"Don't you think you should do something?"
Meg's voice came from above me. I opened my eyes all the way and shifted my head a bit in her lap to look at her. Meg was sitting with her back against a palm tree, graciously allowing me to use her legs as my personal pillow. She was looking at Ken, who smiled back.
"Miss Kaoru would never really hurt Yahiko, much." Ken winced as Yahiko changed direction and dodged past the blanket with his sister in hot pursuit. Kaoru found a branch from off a bush and was running with it, shrieking like the kendo master she was.
Concern began to creep into Ken's expression as he set his cup down on the blanket.
"Perhaps I should go," he muttered and took off after his sort-of girlfriend.
"What he sees in that smelly tomboy I'll never know," Meg muttered, shaking her head.
I liked it. Meg was wearing her hair down today, and when she moved her head the sunlight filtered through it.
"Me either," I said, catching hold of her hand and threading my fingers through hers.
Meg leaned over a bit, arching one of her perfect eyebrows in surprise.
I kissed her fingers lightly. "I've got what I want right here," I told her. "Besides, you smell a heck of a lot better than she does, especially after one of her kendo classes."
"Idiot," Meg said fondly, then leaned over even further and kissed me.
We stayed late, long after Kenshin escorted a triumphant Kaoru and a waterlogged Yahiko home on the bus. Kaoru had chased her brother into the lake. He came out wearing a lily pad the size of a hubcap. We donated the blanket for him to dry off and retreated to a stone bench to watch the sun set. We didn't need the blanket anyhow. We kept each other warm.
Twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses may not buy much, and Meg's job as research assistant to the new chemistry professor at the university would never make her rich either, but for now we had each other, and life was good.
A/N: Please leave a review and let me know what you think – especially about the epilogue. It was a last minute addition since I felt the story ended too abruptly. It's kind of sappy, but I'm a sucker for a happy ending.