<Author’s Note: My one and only attempt at Noir fiction, or at least a tribute to it. I like the genre, and I think every crime novelist owes it a debt, but I couldn’t write in it all the time. Still, I had fun with this one.>
<The Marshall household, 1:30 AM. Laptop is daydreaming.>
It was a dark and stormy night. I knew it was going to be trouble when she walked in…but there she was, in all her glory. I was caught off guard, I hadn’t seen her in so long…she’d changed. I’d be lying if I didn’t say so. But underneath it all, she was still the same beautiful woman…Cell Phone. I said so as she sat across from me.
“It’s Ms. Phone now, Laptop,” she said in that smoky voice I still remembered…in my dreams.
So that was how it was going to be, then. Just business. Well, two could play that game. “Absolutely, Ma’am,” I said. “What brings you here tonight?”
She fixed me with a baleful glare. When she spoke, it was one word, and it hung on the air like a cloud before a storm. “Murder.”
She told me the grim story, her voice quiet and dead in the gloom of my office. She had married since I last saw her, an older man, a mover and shaker in the communication world. She called him IPad, and I felt a tug at my memory. Something…a minute later I placed it. He was one of the victims in the Apple Maps fiasco a while back, but it seemed he had come back strong. I wanted to ask if she really loved him…but that wasn’t in the gameplan now.
IPad was in the habit of going to a coffee shop in the area most mornings; I knew the place, called Starbucks, had even been there myself once or twice. Well, three days ago, it seems, he got more than coffee and wifi—seems he got himself good and dead. When the fuzz got there, it was unclear whether it was the smashed screen that did it, or the busted battery. Either way, he was a goner.
No one was sure who did it, it seemed. But that place was in a good neighborhood, no known mob connections, not much crime…and what’s more, IPad had no enemies. He was a junior player in the Maps fiasco, and nobody got hurt because of him. The cops wrote it off as random violence, just a gang member making his bones. But she didn’t buy it, and neither did I.
Like it or not, I had myself a case.
The first stop was the scene of the crime. It was late, but that was good; anyone in a coffee shop at nine pm wouldn’t be the type to hurry out when they saw us. I figured on them being the regulars…the ones who would have been there the night of the murder. People like this were one kind of good for guys like me; a bad life at home, sure, but they didn’t want to admit it. They didn’t drink the hard stuff, and they took that as proof positive that things weren’t so bad, that they had it together. People like that wanted to talk, wanted to make sure you understood them. That was what I needed.
Some wouldn’t talk. Too scared, maybe, or too self-absorbed. Doesn’t matter, it’s all the same thing to me. But I got lucky here–not one, but two stories. The first was a patron, a little squirrely guy called Iron. I noticed he was dead sober, not even putting away coffee–the only thing going into him tonight was water. Guess he was here for the atmosphere. “Sure, I saw it happen,” he said, just loud enough to make it plain he was cooperating. “The bullets came in right there.” He pointed to a spiderwebbed window pane, with three bullet holes halfway up. When he lifted his hand, I saw that he was covering a framed photo, streaked with tears. Pathetic. “I didn’t see the fella that did it.” He downed the rest of his glass, then looked me in the eye. “But you wanna know what I think? I think it was that dame he was with. I hear she was REAL unhappy with him after that Maps thing.” He gestured for a refill. “Dames. Just can’t trust ’em at all. Like that one I was with…man, the stories I could tell you.” He seemed oblivious to Ms. Phone’s presence; and maybe that was just as well.
On the way out the door, I got my second story. The Refrigerator, the other staff called him; he was a big ol’ boy, and he looked like he had more than a few meals in him. He waved us over, and whispered. “Don’t pay no attention to him,” he said, looking at Iron. “Poor guy, his girlfriend left him. Got a room at a hotel downtown. Now he blames her for everything–even this mess. Kinda pushes it off on any other woman he thinks of too. But I’ll tell ya,” he said, “I don’t know much, but if you ask me…well, I got one word for you.” He was too spooked to even whisper; he just mouthed the word. “Blender.”
Well, wasn’t that something.
Blender. Not a name I expected to hear; but maybe I should have. Blender ran the biggest crime ring in town. The man was a legend. You name it, he had his plug in it: money laundering, gambling, drugs, guns, bootleg smoothies…Blender did it all. And that was exactly why I didn’t think he had anything to do with this–there was no angle in it for him, nothing to gain. IPad made a comfortable living, but he was hardly rich. And his old favors were all cashed in after the Maps fiasco. So, why? It made no sense. But it was all I had; unless I wanted to believe the water-drinker’s crazy story about Cell Phone. No way I believed that.
I thought for a minute about why I trusted her. It was hard to say. And after all, she was the logical suspect; she was there when it happened, but that just gave her an alibi. Nobody expected a dame to do her own killing, that’s what hitmen were for. Still, I couldn’t see it. It didn’t fit with the woman I knew. She was practical, pragmatic even, but vengeful? Never. And not for something with so little purpose behind it.
On the way to Blender’s place, she turned to me. “How are we gonna get in to see him?”
How, indeed. “It’s simple. We’ll use the direct approach. We’ll walk in the front door.”
She frowned at me; I just grinned back. It wasn’t a story I wanted to tell her; I wasn’t proud of it. But Blender owed me a favor. A little local election once, a while back, and he was on the ballot. As fate would have it, I was the swing vote. I had some pressures of my own, and there was no way I could put him in office–but I kept his rival out, by voting for a write-in candidate. He was infuriated at first, but he came around; and now he saw that as a watershed moment in his, ah, career. I thought it was enough to get us a hearing.
His two trained goons, Oven and Microwave, met us at the door. Oven was pure thug; he liked to joke about putting the heat on people, and that was exactly what he did. Microwave played at the same thing, but with him, it was just play; I had always had a feeling he was smarter than he let on. Probably why he let Oven make the how-do-you-do’s. “What do you want?”
“Not much,” I said. “Just a word with your boss. Which is probably one word more than your brain can handle,” I added, then started counting to myself. Living up to expectations, he took a full five-count to look offended.
He went for his gun, if a bit slowly. “Now, just a min–”
“Oven,” Microwave said, “settle down. He’s on the list, right? Until the boss says otherwise. Now get the door.” The thug looked unhappy, but he knew when to shut up, I’ll give him that. A minute later, we were across a desk from the boss himself–Blender.
“You got a lot of nerve, coming here,” he said. “This’ll be the last time, y’see? After this we’re quits. No more favors.”
“I got it,” I said. “So let’s make it a good one. Tell me about the IPad murder.”
His face was hard already, but it got harder. “Not my doing, old boy. Maybe a year or two back, but now? Not worth my time. Nothing in it for me.”
“That was my thinking too. But maybe somebody didn’t get that memo. Maybe some young buck trying to make his bones? They’re saying one of the gangs, but I don’t buy it. Not their style, if you ask me.” I was thinking of a certain surly thug who was sulking outside a dimly-lit doorway right now.
“Maybe,” he said. “I can think of a few likely ones. And I might even be persuaded to part with a couple of names, seeing as the last thing I need is a lone wolf in my ranks. But let me ask you this first.”
His steely gaze seemed to look through me. “You really think one of my boys acted alone? For brawn, yeah, they’re good, but who’s the brains of the outfit?”
That really was the question, wasn’t it?
Blender’s “few likely ones” consisted of exactly one name, and I had already guessed it. I was sure I had my murderer, but Blender’s question still nagged at me. Reluctantly, I put my back to Oven, and walked away.
The worst part of all was, I was beginning to think that maybe that Iron character was right. Maybe it really was Ms. Phone. It was all about the motivation, see. It wasn’t money, or power…it had to be personal. I looked at her as I drove; she didn’t know what I was thinking. But before I could be sure, I needed another point of view. IPad had some friends…and as fate would have it, it was poker night.
Ms. Phone knew the way. We found ’em gathered around the card table, the room filled with smoke and bad music. She had filled me in on who to expect, and they were all there. There was Television, the man in charge; he ran the show. There was DVR; they say he never forgets anything. And there was Printer, the honorary dame in the group; they say she wasn’t, well, all there. She was the bouncy type, I guess. Not my type; I liked ’em a little more serious. But then, if you know Cell Phone, you already know that.
“I don’t know nothin’,” Television said. “That guy…he was a friend, you know? I gotta tell you, it hurt to see him there like that. On the news, you know. I wasn’t there.” He shrugged. “I wish I had been. I’da took a bullet for him. He was just a good guy, you know?”
Now, DVR…he was cool as a cucumber. “IPad owed me money, I’ll tell ya that right now,” he said. “But it was chump change. Not enough to even think about. He’da paid up eventually. It wasn’t me, you know? But whoever it was…probably did him a favor. Guy was just destined for hard luck. My apologies, Ms. Phone,” he said, tipping his hat to her.
The Printer, well, she was just oblivious. “Oh, IPad!” she said–cried, really. “That was so sad! I miss him so much. He was always nice to me. Hey, do you think they’ll let me talk in his funeral?”
It was time to lay out the bait. I started to speak, and then I stopped and checked my messages. “Looks like it won’t matter now anyway,” I said. “The coroner says he got a final image off IPad’s webcam. Looks like our murderer and his accomplice both get their fifteen minutes of fame. Nice talking to you folks.” I headed for the door.
Outside, I paused; it wouldn’t be long now. I wasn’t disappointed. I saw the glint of a streetlight on the barrel of the gun…and raised my own. “I knew it was you,” I said. My only answer was a woman’s laugh.
“Step on out here in the light,” I said. “I might have the drop on you, but I won’t shoot you if you don’t give me a reason.” As she stepped into the light, I caught a hint of motion from my left, and pulled my second gun, my holdout weapon. “You too, Oven. And you can drop that shooting iron right there. The game’s already over.” With a clunk of dropped metal, he stepped out of the shadows.
Printer laughed again. “I guess you got me,” she said. “They said you were good, but silly me, I had to see for myself.”
Cell Phone was almost in shock; I could hear her breathing fast behind me. “How did you know?” she said.
“Simple,” I said. “It was the motivation. The oldest one in the book. Jealousy.” I saw she didn’t see it yet. “Refrigerator pointed us in the right direction, but it was that sad sack Iron that really clinched it. He had a picture.” I gestured to Printer. “A picture of you.”
She sneered. “Shoulda known he would get me in trouble.”
“So he did. You left him because you thought you could get with IPad. Simple as that. You thought it was a sure thing. But he surprised you, right? He stayed with Ms. Phone, here. You just couldn’t handle that. So you got rid of him.”
“And it was the perfect crime, too,” she said. “Oven was more than happy to do the work. Good for his career and all. And if I had been able to trust you–” she said it to Oven–“I coulda got away with it. I wouldn’;t have had to be there where he could get me on camera.”
“Camera?” I said. “Oh, he didn’t get you on camera. I made that part up. But it doesn’t matter. With your confession, I don’t need that. For once, a word is worth a thousand pictures.”
After the fuzz carted off our two conspirators, I did her the courtesy of walking her home. The sun would be up soon, but the streets are what they are, no matter the hour.
“You know, my husband would be grateful,” she said.
“Too bad he’s not here,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I’m grateful too. What do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” I said. “This one’s on the house. For old times’ sake.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Old times.” But she didn’t sound happy about that.
At her door, I finally got the words out. “Will I see you again?”
She smiled–the same old smile I could never forget. “We’ll see.” And wasn’t that enough? No, no, I decided, it really wasn’t. She didn’t think so either, apparently; she raised up toward me, and I leaned in closer–
Printer: Laptop! Laptop? Are you listening? You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?!
Laptop: <blinking> Huh? Oh…yeah. Sorry, Printer. What, now? <sigh> I guess it was a good story… <glances across the room at Cell Phone. She catches his eye, and smiles back.> Everybody deserves a good story every once in a while.
Laptop: Never mind, Printer. Too hard to explain. So tell me your story again?
Printer: Wait…why are you being so nice all of a sudden? Who are you and what did you do with Laptop?
Laptop: Well, you know, Printer…sometimes things aren’t what they seem to be. <sees her blank look> It’s not important. Come on, tell me your story.
Printer: <shrugs> If you say so. Well…it’s kind of like this… <starts story>