The Ruckus – an excerpt from The Good Girl (a Sterling Carcieri Mystery)


C1) The Ruckus

Wake Up
The sound of squealing brakes in the street shattered the tidal rhythm of the traffic that washed through the apartment bedroom just over the intersection at Spadina and King. A largish lump on the black steel frame bed shifted as the sound of crumpling metal erupted from below. The deco pattern of the rumpled sheet suddenly sprang to life, as the bed’s occupant sat bolt upright and struggled to get his bearings. The look of dissatisfaction on his face showed flashes of uncertainty and dismay, as if he were trying to remember who he was, and not liking the answers he was getting. Staring hopelessly around the room at dressers covered in old magazines, news clippings and empty liquor bottles didn’t promise much of a rebuttal. It all had an air of correctness, but that wasn’t a good thing.
The man decided to give up on name recognition games. He wasn’t much liking who his brain was identifying, and it looked like there was no getting out of it. The clock was bad news, too. 3:46 pm. Blanket Monster nearly won again. Bastard. Office should have opened hours ago. He was really going to have to invest in a better alarm clock. Or a dog. Dogs didn’t stand for late meals. They got surly and started in with the cold nose. Too bad he didn’t like dogs, either.
Lurching towards the open window nearest the sound, he glanced down into the street to see a small man in a blue uniform blasting hot air at a huge lunk of a guy who looked like clothing never fit him right, loose and tight in all the wrong places. He looked uncomfortable as the little man abraded him. Beside them, the brown sedan looked like the victim of a food chain experiment with the large delivery truck purporting to be from Broadman’s Furniture Emporium over on Hughson.
The car’s back bumper was impacted partway into the trunk space, and the hood had folded up and popped open, perhaps in response to the need to replace the blown front left hand tire. The big man had the hangdog look of someone who was settling into the familiar feeling of having no luck at all. The little man was pressing his advantage beyond all sense, since the front end of the truck was only slightly dented. The man in the window noted with satisfaction that no glass was broken. Then he heard something extraordinary: a wolf whistle.
On the corner nearest the accident, a pair of women in patterned summer dresses were looking up at him and waving excitedly. Looking down briefly, he noted that he had forgotten to put on some boxers. These tall windows were affording a view nice ladies really shouldn’t be enjoying. One of the gals, a blonde in a red-on-white floral pattern, looked a bit dismayed, but the brunette in the blue polka dots was positively animated, large grin splitting her candy apple red lips. Neither was looking away though, and the rest of the street’s denizens were starting to look up as well, so he decided to search for some pants. He distinctly heard another whistle behind his back before he found his clothing rumpled on the beat-up easy chair beside the window nearest the bedroom door. Something about this neighbourhood, he thought to himself sourly.

Pulling It Together
After the shirt was tucked in and the shoes were tied, the body made its way to the door at the other end of the hall. Visions of warm coffee were dancing in his head, and the raging debate was whether to take a trip down to Estelle’s Diner, or just conjure up some sludge in the office coffee percolator. Checking his pockets for loose change and coming up with the proverbial nickel and dime, he concluded that getting paid might be in order first.
Slipping carefully down the crooked stairs, he bent to retrieve the mail and daily paper jammed in the slot of the wooden door. Stuffing the loose bundle under his arm, he grappled with the door, which hung askew after an attempted burglary a few weeks earlier. He still hadn’t solved that particular mystery, but suspected it had been his landlord, whom he’d neglected to inform of the security measures he’d installed. They’d gone away empty handed, in any case. Everything of value was already in hock.
Balancing the door on its remaining hinge, he contorted his way around it and backed into the doorway alcove. He stopped to carefully lock the door behind him. No point giving his landlord an open invitation. He wouldn’t put it past that toad not to hold his furniture, given a chance. It was as if he’d never paid the rent on time before.
Stepping to the edge of the stoop, he stretched and soaked up a bit of afternoon sunlight. Glancing around the street, he noted that the bang-up had been cleared off and the ladies had likewise lost interest and gone away. It was a nice warm early summer day, and the shops were all buzzing with custom. Families were strolling, wives were haggling down fantastic prices, shopkeepers were saving their shirts, drivers were avoiding pedestrians, elderlies were seated on benches and waiting at crosswalks, the whole panoply of life was there before him. Almost awake just from the sight of it all, he stretched one more time, and then turned back to face the glass door angled into the other half of the alcove, leading to the storefront offices of Sterling Carcieri, Private Investigator.

Office Hours
Flipping through the mail as he came through the office door, Sterling grunted and mumbled unintelligibly and headed straight for the percolator. A moment and a curse later, it was clear that coffee would not be forthcoming. Tossing the empty tin in the wastebasket, Sterling grumbled some more and parked himself behind his desk. Lifting the receiver from the cradle of the black dial phone, he rang up a number mechanically and waited for signs of life on the other end.
“Good afternoon. Iris Answer Service. Jeannie speaking. How may I help you today?” the earpiece offered breathlessly.
“Hello, Jeannie. It’s Sterling. Any messages for me today?”
“Well hello yourself. Or should I say ‘Good morning, Mr. Carcieri’?” she lilted at him breathily.
“Only two reasons I’d want to hear you saying good morning in that tone of voice, darling, and you don’t work for me, so that’s one scratched off right there. For the other, I’ll have to find a way to convince you not to end it at ‘good night’ every time I take you out for drinks.”
“Well, whatever you do, don’t stop trying. A woman can’t hold out against those eyes forever.”
“These eyes are more likely to get me a date with a hospital bed than breakfast in bed with you. Still, how does Friday night at the Parthenon sound?”
“Divine. I imagine you’re expecting to be paid any day now,” she inquired knowingly.
“I’m heading round to pick up payment for the Parry case around five.”
“I think I’d better make a date to see you before Friday if I don’t want to pay the bill myself.”
“Cut me to the quick, darling. I promise that’ll never happen again.”
“Right. Well, it was a lovely night anyhow.”
“Oh! Three messages, Mister Carcieri, sir. One from Mr. Askew concerning his missing movie reel. Another from a Michael Olive, solicitor and executor to the Wooldridge estate. And the last is from a Miss Dorinda Arcella. Competition, Sterling?”
“Not to you, my precious. Ms. Arcella used to work for someone who handled the books for some very unfriendly people. She’s in need of some financial assistance.”
“Ohhh… planning on being her sugar daddy, are you?”
“Not with the money I make. I’m just going to help her get back pay from her former employer’s office.”
“Resorting to blackmail, I don’t doubt.”
“Not yet, but it might be just as illegal. Her former employer is out of business, on account of being dead.”
“You get the most interesting clientele, Sterling.”
“You’re telling me. Let me know when you want to come over and work for me full time, Jeannie. There’s always room for a girl like you here.”
“Ha! You can’t afford me.”
“True, but a man can dream. Okay, tell me about the message from the lawyer.”
“Mr. Olive requests that you contact him during business hours to schedule an appointment. He would like to discuss employing you to look into some matters concerning the will of Myles Wooldridge Sr. Sounds like a plum job, Sterling.”
“More likely some bit of dirty work to convince his offspring to accept the will as stands, so Fluffy inherits the house uncontested.”
“Ha! Wooldridge didn’t own a dog. Still, the Wooldridge Estate is beautiful. I can see someone wanting it to themselves. I’ve seen pictures in Life.”
“I’ve been there in person, several times. Come work for me and I’ll show you around the place sometime.”
“Tempting, but I think I’d better see to my paying job first.”
“You do that. Meanwhile, I’ve got to see a man about a dog. I’ll call you on Friday before you get off work, okay?”
“No. Pick me up after work tonight. You owe me dinner, and I aim to collect before you blow the whole wad on something pointless,” she insisted.
“Like rent?” he retorted.
“Exactly. Your landlord still hasn’t made those repairs, has he? If I were you, I wouldn’t pay him until he does the work.”
“The last time I held back rent for repairs, he shut off my hot water and electricity, Jeannie. I don’t enjoy cold showers, and I definitely don’t enjoy hot summer nights with no electricity for the fan.”
“You’re a slave to your creature comforts, Sterling. You’ll still have gas, won’t you? Take a bath with boiled water. Open the windows and leave the back door to the fire escape open, to get a draft to blow through the apartment. And while you’re at it, leave the water in the bathtub, add ice, and let it sit over night. It’ll draw off the worst of the heat.”
“That doesn’t work,” Sterling asserted, and then less certain of himself, asked, “does it?”
“That’s what I do every night, except that I don’t have a door on my fire escape.” Jeannie replied. “Only thing I worry about is someone climbing into my apartment during the night and catching me in bed.”
“That sounds like something I read in a trashy dimestore novel once. I think it was called ‘Night Sweats’. It featured a dashing cat burglar and a jilted wife half asleep in a see-through negligé.”
“Well, I’m not in the habit of wearing lingerie to bed. Or anything else, for that matter,” she added suggestively.
“Scandalous. A woman after my own heart. Why aren’t we married, Jeannie?”
“I figure it’s because you’re saving yourself for some millionaire’s daughter.”
“Could be. Problem is, all the good ones are regular clients.”
“Daddy always told me never to mix business with pleasure,” she advised, “which is why I never take you around to meet him.”
“Just as well. Parents have a bad habit of asking me when I’m going to get a respectable job.”
“Yes, and I’m sure Daddy wouldn’t approve of me seeing a penniless shamus.”
“Only one thing for it: I’m going to have to go to work,” he sighed.
“Ha! Not likely. You’d ruin your rep, and where would that get you?”
“Penniless and overworked, no doubt. Okay, so what time do you get off work, precious?”
“I’m here until eight o’clock. Don’t keep me waiting, or I’ll go home with another man.”
“Don’t pass up a better offer on my account, angel. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Sure. Hey, wait! What about Zane Askew?”
“I’ve got my feet propped up on his filthy stag film right now, and he can have it back when the check clears.”
“Ha ha ha… I swear I would come work for you if you only had a health plan.”
“I don’t even have dental. I must be in the wrong racket. I should start an answer service of my own.”
“Not without me, you don’t.”
“It’s a deal. We’ll discuss your benefits package over dinner.”
“Nice doing business with you, Mr. Carcieri.”
“We’ll see how much you like your new position come breakfast.”
Another burst of musical laughter, and Sterling let Jeannie go. He smiled to himself at the thought of having her to run the place for him. Looking around the office confirmed that he could use a hand. Jeanne Kinneman might take several minutes with her favourite customers, but she was generally all business, and had an organizational mind like no other. Iris Messenger Services would be out of business in a week without her, which would serve them right, the fees they charged.

Sterling opened a legal pad on the desk, picked a number out of his address book, and scrawled it out onto the pad. There were no names attached to the numbers in his book. The number was in a list of similar numbers, all arranged to the right of a list of initials. The initials didn’t correspond to the numbers directly across from them, but rather the number about nine lines down, as measured easily by his left hand forefinger underlining the initials and his thumb underlining the number. The first eight numbers corresponded to the last eight sets of initials at the bottom of the page, which required his other hand to read out properly. It was a page of informants he used, and the initials didn’t stand for their names, but for descriptions of their most remarkable features. His forefinger was now parked under N.G. And they were.
He swung out from the desk and reached for his shoulder holster, which wasn’t hanging on its hook behind his chair. Right. He’d have to remember to pick that up where he left it later. Clucking irritably, he swiped up his favourite brown tweed jacket. Plucking the tan fedora from the coat rack, he headed out the door, locking up as he left.

© 2013 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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