I’d run into him a couple of times, leaving me wanting to take a long hot shower. As a PI, I often dealt with the underbelly of the City of Angels. But Spanky was in a league of his own. The cops had been trying to put his ass in jail since the war ended several years ago.
It was my search for a missing witness that had brought me to a lonely parking lot in the early hours of the morning to meet an informant named Larry, who claimed to have info for me.
“So, you’re St. James, eh?”
I nodded at the small figure partially hidden in the shadow.
“Heard you were a Big Deal or something.”
“Something.” I agreed coldly.
The sounds of a distant train reached us, mixing with the sounds of an awakening city.
“You got the information?” I pushed.
“Cash?” I nodded, reaching into my trench coat but not taking my hand out just yet. It could quickly move from the stack of bills to my revolver.
The sister of a hooker Spanky had allegedly killed hired me to find her other sister, who had witnessed the killing. There were a couple of problems finding her. Spanky knew about her and was looking for her, and she was drunk most of the time. Her sister told me she’d been on a binge for the last week and was likely sleeping it off in some dump. I had a list of her usual flops, but all I’d gotten was a run-around. She’d been here, there, everywhere except where I was. Eventually, I found someone who had just seen her, but he was hiding from Spanky too. He cost me a C-note, which, if he were smart, he’d used to leave town that night.
For almost the entire week, I sensed someone was following me. I saw a familiar coat disappear into the darkness several times.
At two in the morning, the dim light from a broken chandelier that hung haphazardly in the lobby barely reached the floor and about halfway to the walls, bathing the space in eerie shadows. Stale beer, cigarette smoke, and other smells I cared not to think about stung my nose. The elevator was a do-it-yourself affair. Sliding the safety cage closed, I punched the button for the fourth floor and listened while the motors groaned and came to life, with the gears and pullies working harder than they should. Somehow, it got me to the fourth floor without dropping me in a pile of steel and cable at the bottom of the shaft. The stench from the lobby followed me on the elevator. I tried to forget about it and keep on task. Room 403 was on the front side of the building. The door was old and weathered, the kind that could stop a shotgun pellet, but it’d never stop my thirty-eight. From the peppered plaster on the wall beside the door, I could tell it had already stopped some pellets in its day.
I put my ear to the door. All was quiet from the inside, so I tried the knob. It opened on my turn. Shit. She hadn’t bothered to lock the door.
I stepped to one side, slid my forty-five from its shoulder holster, and waited. Nothing. No shout of indignation or scream of passion, only silence. Shit.
Light from the streetlamps shone through the window. The blinking neon sign from the building across the street showed me all I needed to see— Debbie Malone passed out on the bed. Her slow regular breathing made her small breasts swell up and down as she slept. Occasionally she’d half snore or snort as she flung an arm to and fro. Other than that, she could have been dead—she might be soon.
Leaning against the door frame, I considered what to do. Leaving her here was tempting, but I’d spend a week trying to find her, and dodging Spanky’s boys was a chore. I knew what I had to do. Sighing heavily, I picked her up by the arms and managed to half haul and half walk her to the elevator. Balancing her between me and the wall, I opened the cage and maneuvered her into the elevator. Not sure which was worse, the stench wafting up the elevator shaft or from Malone, who I figured hadn’t had a shower in a few days.
Some days I hated this job.
She was a bit more awake but not very cooperative by the time I got her to the Packard and plopped her into the backseat. Slamming the door behind her, I hoped she didn’t puke on the backseat on the way to the bar.
Brenda met me at the back door. “You found her?”
I nodded, then kissed her hello. It took both of us to get her inside and into the room that we kept for such emergencies. It was comforting to be in the bar, a familiar, safe place. The feel of Brenda in my arms was equally comforting as I kissed her again.
I nursed a beer while I told her about meeting the man in the parking lot and the five twenties I’d given him for the location of Debbie Malone.
There was no point in trying to wake her up yet. One of us had to stay with her in case she woke up. I knew Brenda could handle her, but I volunteered to babysit her till morning. Brenda headed back to our place at three in the morning.
I got comfortable in my office, caught up on paperwork, and generally kept busy and awake in case she rose from the dead in the bunk room. At about five in the morning, there was a quiet knock on the back door. I opened it and let my best friend, who I had called, inside and secured the door behind him. I pointed to the sleeping lady lying in the bunk room, then headed into my office, and I updated him on how I found Debbie. He then told me what he knew.
The sun was peeking through the bar’s front windows when I heard noises coming from the back room. I stood in the doorway while she tried to sit and not fall back over. The smell of her booze and bodily fluid reached me several feet away from her. I saw the puke look coming on and quickly moved to the side, pointing her towards the bathroom. She passed me quickly.
I sipped my coffee while the sounds of Debbie trying to return to the human race echoed through the bar. My friend stayed hidden in my office since e I’d conveniently left the door closed.
Eventually, she came out looking slightly better than she went in, but still not steady on her feet. The stench from a week’s worth of booze seeped from her at close range. I kept my distance and pointed her toward a chair at a table near the bar. I poured her a cup of coffee and slid into the chair across the table from her. I reached under the table, ensuring the shotgun I had placed there was within reach.
I pushed the coffee across the table, and she snarled. “Who the hell are you? And where am I?”
“And good morning to you too. I’m James St. James.”
“Who the hell is James St. James?”
“The PI your sister hired to find you and save your drunk ass before Spanky and his boys find you.”
“Mary? That goody-two-shoes? Tell her to go to hell.”
“Word is you saw him ice a dame last week. That dame was your other sister.”
“Yeah, so? I’m not talking.”
“You almost talked to the cops once already. That’s enough for Spanky, and you know it. He doesn’t like loose ends, especially drunk ones. Drink up.”
She sipped the coffee and looked at me over the top of the cup. I couldn’t tell if it was a good look or a get-dead look. I assumed it was a drop-dead look. Either way, it takes a lot more than a look by a half-drunk dame to do me in.
Debbie slouched, one arm on the table, the other slung over the back of the chair, the coffee cup in front of her. I didn’t offer food because I knew it wouldn’t stay down yet. But I was hungry.
Getting up, I headed for the kitchen. Come back a few minutes later with more coffee and toast. Resuming my seat across from her, I tried my toast.
“What, none for me?”
“Oh, you can have some when I think it’ll stay down. Meanwhile, sit and think about last week. What do you remember?” She played with her cup and sipped some more.
“Hell, I don’t know. I was pretty out of it.” I nodded for her to go on.
“Spanky and your sister?” I prompted.
‘Yeah, that. He always had a couple of hookers with him. Stupid Cherri thought he loved her. Hell, I tried to her that he always had the bitches around. She was just the latest in the line, and he’d toss her like the rest of them. She got mad at me and told me to get lost.”
That was Spanky. Heard he liked to use and abuse the girls he pimped out, then left them on the street. “Tell me what happened to Cherri.”
“Yeah, right.” She slumped back into the chair. It was down on Tenth street. One of those all-night dinners, you know? I’d been working for Izzy Lee, and I was tired, busy night, and needed food. I didn’t know she’d be there. She just glared at me when I walked in. I just thought what a bratty bitch she was.”
I nodded, munching more toast.
“Some guy came in, headed right to Spanky, yelling that he owed him for the girls. They were his girls, and he wanted his cut off their take. Something like that, I was pretty far away, but I got the gist of it. You know Spanky.”
“Not personally.” But I knew the type.
“Next thing I see, he’s pulled his gun from that fancy leather holster and waved it at the girls. He swore and told the other guy that he would just as soon shoot them than pay him for them again. The next thing, I heard a loud crack that kinda echoed off the walls. I tried not to scream when I realized it was Cherri that dropped to the floor. The other gal was gone in a second.”
She took another slug of coffee. I noticed her hands shaking. “What then?”
“The other guy is looking down Spanky’s barrel, and I hauled ass out of there. The guy comes out, running down past me into the night, Spanky on his heels. Then Spanky sees me in the streetlight and realized I’d seen the whole thing, and I panicked. I managed to hide, but the cops came and found me hiding. Yeah, I almost told them Spanky did the girl. I didn’t tell them she was my sister...” Debbie’s voice tailed off.
“You ducked out when a cop got called away, and you’ve been running and drinking ever since then.” I finished. She nodded.
The front door rattled and then swung open. I grabbed the shogun from the table and pulled Debbie behind the bar next to me.
By now, the front door was hanging open, and Spanky Arnold, accompanied by two thugs, stood with the morning sun behind him, glaring at me with a shotgun in his hands. I leveled my shotgun at him. Neither of us said anything for a second.
“You’re later than I figured.”
“Yeah, that idiot Larry wouldn’t talk for a while, But eventually, he told me about the hotel.”
“Is he still talking?”
“Hell, no, he’s feeding the fish in the bay right now.” Spanky grinned. “You did good, St. James. You found her when my guys couldn’t.” Spanky nodded towards Debbie and grinned.
“I figured it was one of your boys following me this week.” I wanted him to know I Knew they were following me the whole time.
“So now you’re just going kill her and let me go?”
“Hell no, I’m going to kill both of you.”
“I see you have to have help killing anything more than one woman.”
Spanky worked his way into the room with his two men now on either side of him.
“Why don’t we even the odds a bit there, Spanky?”
He looked at me, puzzled for a second. “Now, how could you even these odds?”
My friend, Bob, stepped from behind the kitchen door into the bar, his gold shield hung from his jacket pocket, holding a shotgun.
“Spanky, meet my buddy, Detective Bob Crane,” I announced. “You heard him?”
“Yeah, we found Larry floating in the bay a little while ago. Somebody broke most of his bones.” Bob confirmed what Spanky had bragged.
Spanky aimed his shotgun at Debbie.
“You’ll be dead before she hits the floor,” I told him.
Spanky spun to his right and lunged at me. I stepped to my left and buried the barrel of my shotgun in his gut. At the same instant, Bob rushed the thugs and pushed them back against the far wall with his shogun.
“Let’s keep this fair.” Bob shifted around so he could see both the thugs and me.
Spanky doubled over, holding his stomach. He swung at me when he straightened up, his face red with anger and pain. I was too slow, and his fist caught me in the jaw, knocking me back against the bar. I felt warm blood trickle down my face from a cut above my left eye. The shotguns clattered on the floor as he regained his balance and shifted around to hit me again.
I stood up and was ready for him. I didn’t wait for him to lead. Stepping close, I could smell the stale beer on him as I buried my fist into his gut again. I followed with another fist to his face, connected with his jaw, and turned his head sideways as he fell against the chairs and table.
Something glinted in the sun. Spanky stood up, a switchblade in his hand, and pointed at me.
“I’m gonna cut your balls off and feed them to you.” He grinned manically.
I didn’t wait. I rushed him again and pushed the knife hand to the side while landing two more blows into his gut. Then I twisted his knife hand and twisted it hard to the opposite way it wanted to go, forcing him to drop the knife. At the same time, I pushed him away from me. We circled each other, the knife lying on the floor between us like a prize waiting for capture. I got close to it, but instead of reaching for it, I kicked it back under the bar out of reach.
By now, both of us were breathing hard. My eyes watered from the sweat and blood from the fall against the bar. My hands hurt, and my fingers stopped working after the first punch. I’d forgotten hard it was to fight.
Spanky was slowing down a little, but I had to keep on him and not let him get his second wind.
He lunged at me, head down. I shifted to the side and caught his head in a headlock, holding him bent over. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I squeezed just enough so he couldn’t move. I released him and pushed him away. He dropped to the floor, half out of it.
I was panting and sweating. “Had enough?”
Spanky shook his head no and started to get up. All my weight bore down on him as I kicked him in the face, breaking his jaw. I lunged on top of him and buried my fist into his gut again, then rolled him over and caught the handcuffs Bob tossed me. I snapped them on his wrists and stood up. My breathing was jagged as Bob moved around to cover everyone with his shotgun.
The LA police charged Spanky Arnold with the murders of Cherri and Larry and a host of other related charges. His thugs quickly started talking, backing up Debbie’s version of events.
Brenda and I decided to help Debbie start over again. We helped her get dried out and arranged for her to reunite with her sister, Mary. Hopefully, we got a murderer and a mixed-up gal off the streets.
Just another morning in LA.