Rain was painting the windows of my office black. Or maybe that was the night, falling like someone had cut its strings. Not that it made much difference. The sun hadn't shown its face in this town for days. What we'd done to piss it off it I didn't know, but the constant rain was dead set on making us suffer for it.
The rain would be the least of my sorrows that night. Hell, if I'd known what was coming for me I'd have gone out there with my head back and my mouth open like a man catching fish.
They say hindsight is 20-20, but they never tell you when your foresight needs to put on its damn bifocals.
I heard him coming before I saw him. He must've been thinking about his umbrella instead of his feet. Rookie mistake. The crashing outside told a bitter tale of one man and the scrap he'd lost with my trashcans.
He slunk into the room like a drowned wolf, all snarl and soggy hair. I knew this palooka. Name of Alex Kralie, a man in the business of movies who'd passed me a buck or two to help him out when P.I. work was slow. I'd only seen him behind the blinking eye of a movie camera, and he'd kindly brought along the very same so's I'd recognise him better. It'd hogged the umbrella but he didn't seem to give a damn. One mystery cracked. Not a bird alive who can see where they're treading with the back end of a moving picture box in their eye.
"You wanna put that down so's I can see your face?" I said.
He just stood there. "I need it," he said.
Guy was cracked as a walnut at Christmas. I'd known it a long time, me and everyone with half their senses. Still, it was a kick in the gut to see the splinters.
"You got a reason you're here," I asked, "or you just trying not to drown?"
"Got a lead for you," he said.
Now that was a turn-up. Usually Kralie himself was the lead, or at least the dink who made guys like me need one. Trouble followed this cat like he was its long-lost daddy.
"On the O'Brian case?"
"Sure," he said. Then he looked over his shoulder like a guy on the run. 'Course, all he saw was the door behind him, with the rain beating at it like the hounds of Hell. From his dinner-plate eyes, he expected them to bust in here any minute.
Kralie was a man running scared. Wasn't anything new. But this time he had a lead for me. Whatever was on his mind, maybe it was in my jurisdiction.
"What's got you so twitchy, Kralie?" I said.
"I know the creep who did it," he said.
That got my attention quicker than a gunshot. The way he said it should've been warning enough. He knew the guy, didn't just know who he was. But I'd been working this case a whole summer, and damnit, I was a drowning man in a sea of shit-all clues. Kralie throwing me a hint would be like the lifeguard coming along with a raft.
Nobody hires a private eye who lets lost people stay lost. And besides, O'Brian and I had been drinking out of the same bottle since police academy. This wasn't just professional.
"Spill," I told him.
"He's an out-of-towner," said Kralie. "Six foot and change, and bald as a full moon. Dresses like a business guy, fights like a mama bear."
"You scrapped with this character?"
"Yeah, like a rabbit scraps with a puma. Ended up scrubbing my own bean juice outta the bed."
"Pull the other one," I said. "If he's such a big deal, how come you're still breathin' air?"
Kralie glared at me, with the one eye that wasn't glued to his movie camera. "It's the truth, pal. I don't remember how I got away. He did somethin' to me."
Bullshit. He might have had Kralie jumping at his shadow, but at the end of the day this character was just some nine-to-five nutbag who needed a sock in the jaw from the long arm of the law. If he'd snatched O'Brian, I was happy to make a fist and help him out with that.
I stood up from my desk. "Where do I find this cat? I'd like to ask him a few questions."
"Like I said, he's an out-of-towner. You drive, I'll be your map."
"You see him nab O'Brian? Did he bump him? You best say no."
Kralie shook his head. "No idea. I worked it out. Got some video of the creep hanging around."
"I ain't got a movie theatre in my office, Kralie," I told him. "You'll have to tell me about it."
And he did, as we drove through the storm. The rain was a battering ram that tried to throw my rusty Buick Special off the road. It was like a dog barking and biting to get me to turn back. It knew what I didn't: at the end of the line there was a whole pack of wolves.
Guy had rolled into town from who knows where at the start of summer, Kralie said. Kept himself to himself, or at least made damn sure that it looked that way. Friends: none. Cash: from no job that anyone knew about. Everything about this guy was a seafood dinner with extra fishy.
Could I trust Kralie's intel? I hoped so. Kid was a crackpot, but we'd been pals of a sort before he went off the rails. And I needed a lead on this case. Needed it so badly that I managed to pull the wool over my own eyes.
He was still filming. Even in the goddamn car. Put me on a razor's edge, the sense of everything I did being watched. The innocent have nothing to fear, they say. Whoever they are, they're talking outta some place where the sun doesn't shine.
"Could ya put that away?" I said. "I ain't Humphrey Bogart."
"It's protection," was all he said. Same thing he'd said before. Something had spooked the guy so bad he'd turned into a parrot.
"From what, the camera-shy?"
He shook his head.
"Listen, Kralie, if you want me to trust you you're gonna have to be straight with me. Okay?" I gave him an eyeballing, made sure he was listening real good. "Gimmie the facts or get outta here. Right now I'm going on nothing but your word, and that's for old times' sake. You gonna make me regret that?"
He flared up just like I'd put the bellows to a dying fire. "Look here, pal, I'm telling you all I can. I've seen the guy around, doesn't mean I've read his secret diary."
"What's that got to do with the damn camera?"
"Take a left here," said Kralie, in a voice as flat as roadkill.
I polished up my best glare and gave it to him. I doubted that he only knew the perp from arm's length. He ran with a pretty hinky crowd these days. Timmy the Mask, who everyone suspected led a double life as a hitman for the mob. Some roundheel called Sarah who had a face like the world owed her entertainment and wasn't delivering. And a guy I only knew by his initial, J. Never trusted that cat. His eyes were too far apart.
"You gonna give it to me?" I said. "Or you gonna make me stop this car? Throw me a bone, hombre."
"Keep driving the car," he said, "and I'll throw you a whole graveyard."
"Goddamnit, Kralie!" I slammed my hand on the wheel. The guy had been chewing on my last nerve ever since he stepped in out of the storm, and now he was about to bite right through. "You shoot off so many riddles it's like trying to get sense outta the New York Times crossword! You're keeping something close to your chest. Now either you tell me what that is, or I start asking awkward questions about where you were the night O'Brian took a bunk."
I guess something about it got through to him. He licked his lips and took in a breath like a guy about to spill his darkest secret. Finally. I thought it'd give me an answer or two, but instead it just shunted me further up Endless Questions Avenue.
"This camera's my memory," he said, not a trace of a joke on his face. "That creep's got some mental eraser he breaks out if he thinks you're gonna get the jump on him. He's done it to me. He did it to O'Brian. This town's lousy with people he's done it to. Hell, Seth, he's even done it to you."
I stared at the guy, waiting for him to laugh and say I should've seen my face. But he didn't. He had a stare that went for a thousand yards.
"You don't need a P.I., buster," I told him. "You need a head doctor. I'm turning this bucket around."
"But we're here," he said.
I narrowed my eyes and stared out the window. The rain was a curtain, but I could still see through it to the squatting concrete house. Some kinda broken-down club, it looked like. Bright with ancient neon and years of young palookas tagging their names on the walls. Colourful like an oil stain. I trod on the brakes and the old ride choked to a standstill. But I left the engine muttering.
"And how do I know here's where I want to be?" I said.
"Trust me," said Kralie. "For old times' sake."
The third from last stupid mistake I ever made was following my old friend into that godforsaken scrap-heap building.
Inside was like a Commie block had met its maker. Concrete, concrete, spray paint and a stink like an unloved toilet. Would've taken a stronger stomach than mine to stay here long, and a broader imagination to call it home.
"Hold this," said Kralie. I'd not even had a chance to step through the door, and he was thrusting his goddamned movie camera at me.
"You gotta be kidding," I said.
He shook his head. "Take the camera, keep shooting pictures, I'll show you where your guy is holing up."
I took the damn thing to keep him happy. Maybe I could catch some evidence with it. Maybe even a confession if we caught my suspect off-guard.
Kralie and I strode into the concrete wreck. The corpses of copper pipes lay everywhere. The air was choking on dust and dark.
The second from last stupid mistake I ever made was not turning tail the moment I saw the blood. But I was a P.I., and P.I.s don't run from unfortunate stains.
"Know anything about this, Kralie?" I snapped.
"Hell no." He swore it like it was on a Bible. Then he stretched out a finger to see if he couldn't wipe some gore from the brick wall. It came away dry.
Never did find out who the hell left that little gift for us. Maybe I was too late, and the creep I was after had put some lead in O'Brian. Maybe I'd gotten a good hand and the juice was someone else's. Either way, I knew if I went further in I'd find a guy overdue for his date behind bars.
I put Kralie's camera up on my shoulder, the better to hold it with one hand. The other I kept in patting distance of my old pals Smith and Wesson. They'd seen me through a scrap or ten better than I trusted crazy Kralie to. If anyone messed with us, they knew a few convincing arguments in favour of the other guy sprouting spare holes.
"If it turns out he put O'Brian in the ground," I muttered, "he's gonna have a little digging to do himself."
"Sure is," said Kralie. "Best guess is, he'll be just through that door over there."
Good news. I had an itchy trigger finger but I wanted to do this right, make sure I had my man, bring him back to where the law could be the lead slug. And the sooner I found this guy, the less time my itch had to grow.
Everything was quiet. Deaf to our arrival - or listening to it. I closed my fingers round the handle of my pea-shooter, and made my last stupid mistake. I nudged open the splintery door in front of us. There was a bang and I saw the ceiling. Kralie threw himself down like a man trying to take a bullet - and rescued his camera out of my falling hand. The scummy rat, he never had reflexes that sharp. He'd known I'd be greeted with lead before we got here.
Funny, I couldn't find my new hole. Just felt like I'd been dry-gulched with everything in a twelve-gauge.
The hatchetman stood over me, sharp-dressed, something white over his face so I couldn't get a mug-shot. Hard to tell what. It was all fuzzing up. Couldn't move.
Kralie yelled, "You gonna let me alone now, huh? We square?"
The guy ignored him, leaned down. He had a hand as white and skinny as a skeleton's. I watched him put it over my eyes. Then sight went, and so did everything else.