"Christ, Zeddicker," came the gruff voice from the doorway. "Do you ever clean up in here?"
"Ah, close your head, you old sap," I drawled, taking the Fedora from off my eyes to look Louden in the face. "Nice trip up north?" I slid a Lucky from the deck, lit it, then passed the deck and match book to Louden.
"Quarry's up state right now," grinned the squat man as he sat in the chair opposite mine. Louden's a part-time bounty hunter, one of the best. When he's not on the hunt, he works as my driver and body-guard. I like to joke that I'm the brains, he's the muscle. People don't like to believe that, naturally. But don't let Louden's height fool you. He's five-foot-five of pure Irish fury, and he's taken down men twice his size without breaking a sweat. Drives good, too.
"Sounds like you had some action," I said, sitting up and taking my feet off my desk.
"A bit," admitted Louden, lighting his own Lucky. "Find the girl?"
"Ah..." I paused. Louden was a little personally involved with this case, being a father himself and all. He'd want to hear that I'd found her, and she was back safe with her family. But I wasn't about to lie to him. "There was...a dust-up." I rubbed my eyes as I tried not to think too hard about what I'd seen the night before. That just wasn't something I was ready to talk about.
A guy like me, over 40, still single, involved with the law on one side or the other all his life, dealing with lowlifes and toughs on a daily basis...well, we see things. Lots of things. More than your average Joe, let me tell you. You start to feel like you've seen it all. I now knew that I had not, and part of me didn't know how to deal with that. Laying awake last night and counting the cracks in my ceiling, I started wondering just what else I didn't see. If a group of torpedo men can be torn apart by what my eyes and brain still told me was living hands of shadow, just what else was waiting in the darkness, in the silence? When half your world is dark and quiet, and you've never really liked either one, giving yourself another reason not to trust the two of them could be a short ride to whacky-town.
"Dust-up, huh?" came Louden's voice. The man's ruddy, flat face was full of concern. "She's still out there, isn't she?"
"My friend," I began, searching for the words. "Last night was supposed to be the deal going down. I had the cash, hidden close to the river. I was ready to make the trade, or at least see if she was alive and all right. Three-Fingers didn't show. He sent four goons to rub me out. I looked for the girl after it was done, but she wasn't there."
"Damn it," he hissed. He took off his newsie cap and ran a hand through his red hair. "This is gettin' big, Zed."
"You're tellin' me," I shot back, taking a long drag on the Lucky. "This one may be bigger than both of us, Loud."
The little man stood up, smoothed back his hair and put his cap back on. "You tell the father yet?"
"Tell him what? As far as we know, she's still drawing air. I'm gonna have to find a few of Frankie's thugs and lean on 'em a bit more. What happened last night wasn't planned on either side. They're likely running to ground right now. I should be able to flush out Frankie's hidey-hole, and from there, Betty Parkins."
Louden cocked an eyebrow. "What did happen last night, Zeddicker?"
I sighed. Time for some creativity. "They jumped me. Four of them, all armed. Pulled out some Chicago type-writers and were ready to pump me full of holes."
"And you got them first, am I right?" Louden knew how things usually went when people point Roscoes at me.
"They ain't poundin' pavement anymore, that's for damned sure," I said, relieved that I didn't have to lie but also didn't have to tell the whole truth.
"You couldn't have left one alive to squeeze for information?"
"Wasn't left much choice."
Louden nodded as if he understood. If only he really did.
"Listen, Zed, I got some place I gotta be. When you gonna need the old heap again?" The flivver I was driving last night is technically Louden's. He comes with the car. Out of town jobs he usually uses another, and lets me keep the Model M.
"Can you be back after lunch?" I asked. "I'll make the rounds and try and flush out Three-Fingers' boys, but after that we gotta do the hunt."
"Meet you back here," he said, tipping his lid my way. "Thanks for the snipe."
"Any time," I flipped a small salute back at him.
The life of a PI in this town is full of ups and downs. Long, boring stretches where not much happens. You mostly keep your own hours, and decide for yourself how many people to bring into the business with you. I kept Louden on retainer, but he was really his own man. If he wasn't available, I couldn't make him be. My only full time staffer was Glenda, my girl Friday. She answered the telephone, handled my account books, brought me coffee, the works. She was presently at her desk, sorting through expense reports, a Pall Mall in her other hand and the radio on, playing something with a lot of swing to it.
I stood and went to the window. Somewhere in this city, a fifteen-year-old girl was sitting in a locked room, probably at least one Bruno with a gat sitting with her. Lord alone knows what she'd been put through by now. Three-Fingers claimed she wasn't harmed, but who knew what that meant? Mentally tortured may or may not be "harming" her, same with raping her. Could Three-Fingers be that sick? Could one of his goons? I didn't like thinking about that.
I heard the intercom buzz twice before I answered it. "Zeddicker," I said.
Glenda's voice sounded tinny and buzzy like it always did when she used that contraption. "There's a lady to see you," she said.
"I don't have anybody on my docket," I answered.
"She doesn't have an appointment, but says it's urgent," Glenda replied.
She. Glenda knows I don't need a name. I'm not about to turn away a dame without at least hearing her out. "Go ahead and send her in," I sighed into the mic.
Women. They're all over the place. I've known my fair share, and I like dames just find. But they can be trouble. Most of them are, even the ones that don't look like it. This one looked like trouble. She was slim built, lithe, filled out her skirt like a second skin, honey-blonde hair playing over her shoulders in lazy half-curls. Eye-lashes longer fourteen to eighteen and probably left as many men devastated in their wake. Tiny mouth like you'd find on a China doll, but call this one "doll" and you'd probably find your next words muffled by your own feet.
"You're Zeddicker?" she asked, with faint disdain in her voice. This broad was cold. That was a voice hardened by life.
"On my best days," I answered.
Inwardly, I frowned. I could see this shaping up to be bad news. See, women like this walk through my door and I'm usually pretty sure I know how it will end; poorly, and for both of us. Not all my clients are dames, but when they are, things take a different path. A few of those dames aren't above ground anymore. Sometimes it's because I couldn't protect them, and sometimes...well, let's just say not all my clients have my well-being at heart. I've had to defend myself against women scorned, and husbands and lovers angered. Women like the skirt in front of me are both my specialty and my downfall, and I ain't proud of either end of that.
"They told me you're good at the kind of help I need," she said, the flat tone still in her voice.
"Well," I said. "That all depends on what it is you're after." I pulled a Lucky part-way out of the deck and extended it to her. She waved a hand, declining.
"I need something found," she said. "The police would be...unhelpful in this matter. Discretion and caution are needed, but must be coupled with ruthlessness when it comes to tracking this item down."
I motioned for her to sit. She had piqued my interest, in spite of myself. "And I assume," I said, taking my own chair. "That you feel the police's level of discretion and caution are, shall we say, lacking."
"To say the least," she said. "And their ruthlessness is not at all what our local mob might have you believe. At least not in the matter of finding items of uncountable worth."
This woman was clearly in a lather. Whatever it was she lost, it was beyond vital that she get it back. Clearly the item's value wasn't the issue. She probably had a few things worth as much as whatever she lost, but I could tell from the change of tone in her voice when she began talking about it that this was bigger than money to her.
"I didn't catch the name, Miss...?"
"Vanderhoff," she said. "VivianVanderhoff. So, Mr. Zeddicker? Have I come to the right man?" She had lowered her voice and put some extra breathiness to it. Oh, no, this was not going to go right for me at all.
"You've hardly told me anything yet," I said. "But so far, I hear enough to make me want to listen to the rest. Can you tell me more about this lost item?"
"It wasn't lost," she said, irritation marring her voice. "It was stolen from me. Something like this I would not allow to simply go missing. It was taken. From my home and right under my nose. The situation is intolerable, and I would see it rectified."
"Miss Vanderhoff," I said. "If you could describe the item, or..." I got no further. The small handbag at her side was suddenly in her hand, and she was pulling out a pair of rather large photographs. I took them and looked at them incredulously.
"A book?" I asked. "What could thieves possibly want with a book?" The thing looked old, even ancient, and crumbling. The binding looked like old leather, and the pages, brittle and tattered, the ink looked faded. There might be antique value in such a thing but nothing a thief would find worth the effort of stealing.
"Mr. Zeddicker," she began. "There is not another book like this in the world. It has always been owned by my family, and is currently my prize possession. Nothing is worth more to me."
"Yes, you've made that clear," I replied. "What's this second item?" I had only just noticed that the second photo was different. It looked to be a long, oak staff, carved in a way that made little and less sense to me the more I looked at it. It ended in a splayed, golden head in the shape of a grasping talon (or a claw), holding a large sphere of what looked like pure glass. The black and white copy made it hard to see if the orb had any color to it. "You only mentioned one missing possession."
"That's the second piece to it," she replied as if that answered everything. "Without it, the book is useless. I'm certain that wherever the book is, you will find that as well."
"What exactly is it?" I asked, leaning forward to get a better look.
"Its name would mean nothing to you," she said. "Call it the Claw of Hargon if you must call it anything. It matters little that you know what it is, just that you find it."
"Claw," I repeated. "Of Hargon. And I assume this book is some kind of...foreign folklore?"
"Again, Mr. Zeddicker," she said. The coldness was back. "What this book is has nothing to do with the matter at hand. It is gone, and it must be recovered. I was told you were the man for this sort of work. I need a good man for this. Are you that good man, or are you not?"
I put the photo down on my desk and stood. I snubbed out the butt of my Lucky and went back to the window. I could feel her eyes on me from behind. I heard her rise from her chair and come to stand nearer to me. I turned back to her.
"Miss Vanderhoff," I began. "I already have one active case, and it's a pretty high priority one. In light of that case, you'll forgive me if this one seems slightly...inconsequential. You're missing a valuable. My current client is missing his child."
"I'm not made of stone," she said. Could have fooled me, sister. "I understand that I would not be your only client. But if there were someone better I would be in his office right now. Instead I'm here."
"You'll understand, then, if I do take this case, it won't, in fact can't, be my top priority?"
Her mouth tightened at my words, but she was in a bind, and I could tell. She needed my services, and she'd probably tried other avenues first. That meant the cards were in my hand, and I'm good at cards.
"As long as you understand," she began. "That this matter is time sensitive. I require the book and the claw back in my possession prior to Friday evening."
"You never said anything about that," I said, eyes narrowing. I didn't like this. It was already Tuesday. What could this broad need this stuff for? "You're putting me behind the eight ball. You understand my services don't come cheap."
"I should hope not," she sniffed. "I'm prepared to double your usual fee." This broad was serious. My standard fee is two C's per job, plus expenses. If my case load were heavier, I'd be a rich man. She bit her lower lip and waited for my reply.
"So," I said. "When did you see them last?"
"Wednesday the nineteenth," she said. "Of course, I can prove nothing, but my ex-husband has been after me for these items for the past three years. He's the only lead I can offer you, but it should be enough to start."
"Ex-husband?" I said. Inwardly, the alarm I always ignore started clanging. "How long has he been outta the picture?"
"In terms of our marriage, it ended two and a half years ago," she said. "At least, officially. But it's been almost a decade since I walked out on him. If you do meet him, you'll understand why I did. He's a rude man, a graspy man. He cares for little but himself. He made pretenses of being a man of good standing and breeding, and he may well have been at one time, but it was only after marrying him that I discovered he was little more than a small time grifter by that point. He was plainly and obviously after my money, and began spending it like a Roman, including on expensive ladies of the evening, and if he paid me any attention it was usually the wrong kind, if you understand me."
"I get you," I drawled. "Sounds like a real prince. What's he been up to lately?"
"Oh, his usual game," she said. "He runs his little cons on everyone he meets, and has had several women on the string at any given time. But when he learned of the book, he became obsessed. In the divorce settlement he tried to claim it, but I won. Since then, I hear from him at least once a month. He makes up reasons to come by, usually demanding a larger share of my estate than the settlement granted him, other times making overtures at mending fences, even rekindling the romance. But he's transparently after the book. He mentions it at some point every time. This month, I have yet to hear from him. Odd, coming this late. And then, this past Wednesday, the book and claw both vanish quite mysteriously."
"You're right," I said. "That does sound like a good place to start. Okay, Miss Vanderhoff, consider my services retained. I'll need a carrot to start, plus your ex-husband's name and where I can find him."
"Arnold Probst," she said. "Goes by Arnie. And you can generally find him in the evening at..." The note of disdain came strongly back into her voice. "Racks. It's a combination pool hall and...male entertainment facility. He's usually there, watching women whore themselves for money and running his confidence game."
Arnie Probst. Shouldn't be a hard man to find. He sounded like every other penny-ante card shark hustler I'd ever met up with. Ought to be duck soup to get the wire on a goose like that.
"As for your retainer," continued Miss Vanderhoff. "How much do you require?"
"Half," I said. "Standard."
"Half of double," she said flatly. "So your full fee, then. Very well, Mr. Zeddicker. I've made it plain how urgent a matter this is. You can expect my first check at the end of the day. When can you begin?"
"I can start this evening," I told her. "Again, I'm taking on this job in addition to the ongoing case, so I can't make any guarantees as to how long this takes."
"Understood." Her demeanor relaxed a bit and she put a bit of sway into the hips as she sauntered for the door. Gams like that, it was no wonder the con man came a-callin'. But something told me she hadn't been hurting for play since giving that crumb the gate. I gave my head a shake and went to get the door for her. "If that's all for now, Mr. Zeddicker, then I leave you to it. I will be in touch." I noted she had neglected to give me any means of contacting her. She wanted some measure of control in all this.
"That'll be aces," I said. "But there is one more thing. I know you don't want to tell me too much, Miss Vanderhoff, and I won't ask much more than this. But in my line of work, you gotta keep your ear to the ground. And that only works if you know what to listen for. So I gotta know; what's this book called?"
She looked annoyed. Her nose rose a bit and when she spoke that low, smokey tone had left her voice. "Very well," she said. "I suppose there was no avoiding it. But careful how you toss this name around. If the wrong people heard it..." She stopped and took a breath. "The Codex Rusembrae. Again, in the wrong ears..." She left her words hanging, but I got her.
"Mum's the word," I assured her. She seemed to accept that. The relaxed stance she'd adopted came back. She gave my disheveled office a once-over and tossed a last glance my way.
"I can only hope you're as good as I've been told," she murmured. She turned and sauntered through my outer office, barely acknowledging Glenda's presence.
I paused by Glenda's desk and reflected on my last twenty-four hours. Shadows of eyes and teeth made of shadow. A book with an eldritch title and ancient look. The Claw of Hargon. What on earth had I gotten myself into?
"You glom the pins on that chippy?" she snarked. Glenda and I have an understanding. I understand she herself is a fine tomato that would prefer to remain on the vine and she understands that I understand that. Glenda's a fair dish in her own right, even could take on Vivian Vanderhoff, but she and I kept our relationship above board. It was better for everyone that way.
"Her?" I replied, grinning. "Oh, you know how they are. Danger in a skirt."
"Yeah," she said. "I know how they are. And I know how you are. You like danger. And judging by the way she walked out of here, she got what she came for."
"Jealous, dollface?" I smirked.
"Wouldn't you just love that," she said, smirking just as broadly. "But you know what I mean. You took her case, didn't you?"
"You know me," I admitted. "I could never say no to a dame."