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The International Writers Magazine
:Dreamscapes Detecive Fiction

The Squeaky Clean Girl - Part Two
Phil Mershon

Caroline Speaks worked in the men’s department at McCains, a somewhat elitist fashion hole redeemed by the fact that you didn’t need an appointment to get in. I made a mental note to keep my receipts. Lloyd Shircore was the kind of guy whose accountants would insist upon supporting documentation for expense reports.

 Finding her was easy. Hell, I could have just followed the trail of drool left by the school boys from other departments sniffing around her in heated delirium.
 “Excuse me, gentlemen, but the young lady has a customer.” I smiled. She blinked.
 The three stiffs fractured a bit, backed away in different directions, and appeared to make little effort to avoid knocking over merchandise.
 “Welcome to McCains,” she beamed. “My name is Caroline. How may I be of service?”
 I pretended to look around her. “I’m a man of many faces, Caroline. Such a man needs an appropriate wardrobe.”
 “Oh, I agree,” she replied, even though I had no idea what I’d meant by that. “Konkle’s the name. Dr. Douglas Konkle.”
 “What can I show you today, Doctor?”
 If one poured expensive molten chocolate into the finest brandy, and the mixture could speak, the sound would have tasted just like Caroline’s throaty voice.
 “For Monday’s, a lamb’s wool cardigan, perhaps a cotton shirt, silk tie, something from the Burberry London line, flannel trousers, a pair of Allen-Edmonds leather shoes. Tuesday’s I require a three-button wool jacket and matching blue trousers, something by Prada, I would think, perhaps some Berluti shoes. Ah, but Wednesday, such a problem. What would you recommend?”
 
She motioned me still and circled me. My earlier image of the car dealer came and went. “For a man like you, I think a tan double-breasted wool-and-cashmere coat. It stays chilly at night here until April, after all. Then I’d slip you into a pair of delicious black corduroy pants and a natural breathing shirt to show off those pectorals. And I would sponge your tired feet in a dark set of A. Testoni shoes.”
 
It had taken me half an hour to memorize what I would ask for and she topped me without a drop of perspiration.
 “I hope I didn’t offend your male colleagues.”
 “Boys,” she said, almost shrugging. “I keep explaining to them that I’m engaged”—she flittered the stone on her ring finger the way a butterfly fans its wings—“but they pretend to be deaf.”
 “Who’s the lucky fellow? Anyone I know?”
 She drew back for an instant, then relented. “Joel Shircore. I don’t recall him mentioning a Dr. Konkle.”
 “Joel Shircore? The private investor? That’s amazing. He and I haven’t been formally introduced, but I’m attending a function this evening at the Zanex Room.”
 “You are?”
 
If one compounded the musical drawl of every native West Virginian into two words, it would have sounded exactly the way Caroline Speaks spoke. She knew it, too, coughing afterwards, as if the twang had merely been some phlegm caught in her long neck.
 “Indeed so. My, look at the time. Send that Wednesday attire to my office this afternoon, will you?” I handed her one of my old cards and a plastic rectangle to make an imprint for charging.
 As I left, the boys resumed their sniffing escapades. It seemed to me that Ms. Speaks didn’t find their behavior all that objectionable.

 Three grown men, none of them clumsy in appearance, stood waiting for me by my Taurus. I thought about catching the security guard’s attention, or the valet’s, thought better of it, and soon enough regretted that thought.
 
All three men were in their forties and wore loose-fitting suits—one brown, one gray, one blue—none of which had been purchased at McCains. The smallest of the three men would have appeared large leaning against a mature Saguaro cactus. Brown Suit motioned me into my own car. He fell in through the passenger side. Gray and Blue sat together in the back. None of the tires exploded from the weight.
 Brown Suit said, “Start her up. Keep your hands on the wheel. Do like we tell you.”
 I turned the key. The motor purred. “You forgot to say: and nobody gets hurt.”
 He punched me behind my right ear, probably not as hard as possible, but hard enough that I still can’t remember the name of my high school.
 “I didn’t forget,” he said as we hit the road.
 
 
We arrived at the offices of Joel Shircore Investments, Limited, without further incident.
 The three men delivered me to Joel’s office. Although they didn’t come in with me, the earth did not tremble, so I knew they weren’t far beyond the closed door.
 
“You met with my father early this afternoon, Dr. Konkle,” the young Shircore assured me from within a suit too good for McCains. His screamed Rodeo Drive. “You used to earn your living as a psychologist, but the phone book has far better ones in it than you, some of whom still hold a license in this state. Your gambling proclivities are too insignificant to fall under my father’s gaze. The only logical conclusion is that he employed you as a private investigator. I want to know why.”
 Joel gripped the lip of his office desk as if he expected his skinny frame could actually shatter it.
 “You’re very well informed.”
 “Answer my question, won’t you, Dr. Konkle?”
 “Why not ask your father?”
 The young guy possessed his father’s knack for facial expressions. “Last chance, Doctor. Next time I ask, you can answer to the men who brought you here.”
 “Let me make a suggestion. Why don’t we ring up your dad on your speaker phone there? You can hear the entire conversation. I’ll tell him I screwed up and you’re onto our meeting. If he spills the beans, you get your answer.”
 He lessened his grip on the desk. I’ve learned to sweat on the inside and I was set to overflow.
 “My father has been apprehended. One of his assistants murdered in the process.”
 “Lefty?”
 He nodded.
 “You notify the police? This can’t have happened more than two hours ago.”
 “It happened,” he said with a sigh, “While you were at McCains. Another matter we’ll discuss later. Perhaps.”
 “You said apprehended. How do you mean?”
 He slid down the front of his desk, leaned against it and sat on the floor. “Did I? Kidnapped is a better word. No ransom, of course, but these weren’t the police. Not even in this town. Now, will you please answer my question?”
 “Your father employed me to do research on your fiancée.”
 Joel tipped his head forward and brought it up with a snap. “And what have you learned?”
 I patted myself down for a cigarette and came up empty. “Not much. If I had to guess, which it looks as if I do, I’d say your dad’s just being overly protective.”
 The young man glared and smiled at the same time, a trick I for one have never mastered. “You’re quite mistaken,” he said. “For instance, I’ll wager you assumed I’ve helped finance her lifestyle? Well, she won’t take my help and lives as if she doesn’t need it. Her parents can’t afford to help her. She’s an hourly employee at McCains. Very hourly.”
 “No commissions?”
 He shook his head. “I’ll tell you what I suspect, Konkle. I suspect she could tell us quite a lot about father’sdisappearance. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
 
It didn’t to me, but I nodded. “Tentatively, let’s assume you’re right. My advice is still to call the police. You can’t sit on Lefty’s murder forever.”
 I received the glare and smile combo again. “Of course I can. My business interests differ from father’s more in appearance than in reality. I doubt the corpus delecti will surface any time soon.”
 I really wanted that cigarette. I suspected where the conversation was headed. Joel didn’t keep me waiting long.
 “You will investigate father’s disappearance.”
 
I spoke with all the candor I could muster. “You have a habit of putting me in situations where I have to refuse you. I don’t like refusing a man in your position.”
 “My three associates will provide you with all the assistance you need. What was father paying you?”
 “He mentioned six thousand.”
 Joel stood and pressed a button on his phone. “Dusty! Bring ten K from petty cash. Sign the receipt on my behalf.” He dropped back to the floor. “The advantage, Konkle, of paying in advance is that the other person owes you.”
 
 I picked Tamla up at 8:30 sharp. She looked so good it bothered me a little. His hair was curled and the color of pineapple. It didn’t just catch the light; it waved it in. But as she had pointed out, she worked for me. We arrived at the Zanex Room at 9:05 and it cost me twenty bucks just to get a guy to think about parking the Taurus.
 I asked Tamla if she’d rather stick together or mingle. She looked around at the sweep of one million lights refracted in gold and surprised me by taking my arm. You never knew about some people.
 Someone had laid out the other guests like bumpers on a pinball machine. We manage to avoid tilting and made our way to the bar. Tamla called for a cosmopolitan. I stayed with gin and tonic. The bartender inhaled as if he were about to offer me a quote on the drinks when something behind me caught his eye and he went back to cleaning the bar with a dry rag.
 Tamla tugged at my elbow. We turned around just in time to catch the cool breeze of Caroline Speaks.
 
I thought of a song lyric I’d not heard in decades. It went: “And she asks how are you? as she offers them a drink. The countess of the social grace who never seems to blink. And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think.” I mopped the grin from my face and said hello.
 “Dr. Konkle! You’re wearing the clothes I sent over. And it isn’t even Wednesday! Won’t you introduce me to your companion?”
 I introduced them.
 
Caroline lacked a male entourage this evening. I’d no more than filed that observation for later review than I noticed that the Zanex Room, at least for this evening, was a couple’s venue. As far as I could see, Caroline was the only one in the room without a “companion.” She may have surmised my thoughts.
 “Joel will be here any moment. It is the funniest thing. After I selected your wardrobe this afternoon—” She turned to Tamla. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to admit there’s nothing more exciting than dressing a handsome man?”
 Secretary didn’t flinch. “I dress all my handsome men.”
Caroline’s forehead crinkled at that. “Yes, well, I was going to say, after you left the store today, I suddenly remembered who you are. Didn’t you write a book called Intuition and Other Parlor Tricks? I loved that book. Was that you?”
 I motioned a refill from the bar. “In my more self-important days. Yes, I wrote it.”
 For reasons unexplained, that courageous admission attracted some small attention. Tamla and I began growing onlookers from both arms.
 Within a few minutes, Tamla was telling the story to anyone who would listen and to several who probably preferred not to hear. “Yes, he can talk to you for just a few minutes and tell you things about yourself—not everything, I mean, he’s no magician—that would surprise you.”
 This intrigued Caroline. “What can you tell about me?”
 I was ready for that one. “Nothing you’d want repeated in here,” I said around my lime.

 “Are you having a good time, dear?”
 Joel stepped up from behind us and clasped Caroline’s hand in his own.
 I introduced Tamla and she informed Mr. Shircore that she was indeed pleased to make his acquaintance.
 Joel suggested that he and I should speak privately. I left Tamla in Caroline’s care, or perhaps the other way around.
 “I don’t suppose you have any news for me?”
 I shrugged. “A bit. You won’t like most of it.”
 “I don’t care for sugarcoating. Or for stalling.”
 “Your father’s dead.”
 That stopped him. I didn’t care for the shrimpy big shot wannabe, but I hadn’t wanted to tell him that. I plunged ahead. “You were right about him being kidnapped. They killed Lefty first, I imagine.”
 “They?”
 The cigarette wouldn’t wait this time. “Look, I know your father had Caroline checked out before he contacted me. She looked swell on paper, but there was something about her he didn’t like. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.”
 “And you could?”
 I blew out a cloud that would have choked Boston. “She was blackmailing your father, except he didn’t know she was the one doing it. Not because he was stupid, but because she was good. You’re smart. You wouldn’t talk your dad’s business around her. But face it, she could find out what she wanted through people near you, or near your father.”
 “Lefty! That squirrel-headed—”
 “It makes sense. Why else kill the little guy? They could’ve gotten to the old man without offing anyone else. But Lefty was a loose end.”
 Joel watched me smoke for a moment. Then he said, “You can’t prove any of this, can you?”
 “I think I can. We’ll know pretty soon. But think about it. The old man starts checking her out, she finds out about that from Lefty, and worries your dad will find out it’s her who’s blackmailing him.”
 
Joel watched me savor my cigarette.
 “I decided to put your boys to work, since you offered.”
Joel took a drag and handed the stick back to me.
 “The one in the brown suit, the one you call Arthur? He’s not that dumb. We got to talking about Caroline’s dad.”
 “The coal miner? What about him?”
 
I offered him another hit but he wasn’t interested. All he wanted now was to hear my story. I didn’t keep him waiting. “Arthur used to work for your father. And when I suggested that ole Artie check out your bride-to-be’s family history, he remarks that your pop used to make business loans to the West Virginia mine owners. Never had much trouble getting paid back. But just about nine years ago, this one guy had his visible assets frozen during a routine government inquiry. So he wouldn’t pay. Or couldn’t. Then your father applies pressure. When that didn’t work, the mine owner found himself dead. His name was Elmore Gates, the man your intended called daddy. Step-daddy, it turns out. Speaks is the mother’s name.”
 
I ground out my cigarette on the shiny hardwood floor. Joel crossed and uncrossed his arms. “Caroline put father together in this, came out here to extort that information without revealing her connection.”
 “Blackmail was just a means. Revenge was her motive.”
 “Knowing she was on borrowed time, she had father and Lefty murdered.”
 “And lives happily ever after. Pretty neat.”
 Joel found a place for his hands. They parked on his hips. “You will repeat this in Caroline’s presence.”
 I said I’d rather not. He said he didn’t care.
 
 The five of us—Joel, Caroline, Arthur, Tamla and myself—met in a private room upstairs. You could hardly hear the clinking and laughter from beneath us. I repeated the story. Tamla fidgeted. Arthur held a canary in his belly, trying to look dutiful and grim while remaining very pleased with himself. Joel eyed Caroline. Caroline stared at me. When I finished, she commented, “That is an incredible story.”
 Joel’s bony frame vibrated. “How much of it does he have right?”
 “Want me to handle that one, honey?”
 I knew who had spoken before I saw her holding the Colt single-action on us. I knew because I’d heard a similar drawl earlier in the day.
 “Mrs. Speaks,” I declared. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list.”
 She tapped a glossy fingernail against her gun. “I brought an invitation,” she said.
 
Loretta Speaks didn’t conform to my idea of a seamstress. Someone had poured her into a tight red dress. She wore her hair just a bit shorter and just a bit lighter than her daughter’s. Otherwise she stood out as a tall drink of water from the same gene pool as Caroline. She also stood out as the only one in the room holding a firearm. I’d found out earlier that Arthur ported a shoulder holster, but if he planned on drawing, he’d waited too long.
 
“Tarnished, not ruined,” Mrs. Speaks observed. “Our plans, I mean. Caroline won’t be able to marry the runt because now he knows what we’re up to, and besides, he’ll be dead. But we squeezed enough out of the old guy to get us into a new set up. Honey, you did real fine. Don’t you worry.”
 Caroline sashayed over to stand by her mother. She turned and looked back at the rest of us as if someone had passed wind and tried to blame it on her.
 
Joel stood. I didn’t thank that was such a hot idea. He had his back to me, and I could see the skin along his neckline glow. I guess he’d had enough.
 He took three steps forward. “Don’t point that gun at me, you hillbilly bitch.”
 Mrs. Speaks didn’t let him take a fourth step.
 
The gun’s muzzle roared, a spark lit up the barrel, and Joel flopped backwards, landed, and was still. He hadn’t hit the ground before Arthur dragged a Mag from beneath his brown jacket. With her gun at waste level, Loretta Speaks turned a few degrees, just before the top of her head exploded from Arthur’s blast. Her gun discharged all the same, hitting the big man between his shoulder and chest.
 
I wished someone would scream. I couldn’t have been the only one fighting the impulse.
 
Joel was too motionless to be anything but dead. Loretta wasn’t gong to target shoot tin cans off fence posts anymore, either. Arthur looked to be in bad shape. His gun had dropped between his feet and Caroline had caught her mother’s Colt before it even had a chance to touch the carpet. She pointed that gun at me.
 “Shame to mess up such nice clothes,” Caroline said, her natural twang accented with a dash of hysteria. “But I got to shoot you all and be on my way.”
 
My body uncurled until I was standing up. I said, “Do you mind if I check to make sure Joel’s not alive?”
 She twitched the Colt in his direction and I inched my way over to his breathless body. I placed my thumb and fingers along his neck. There was never going to be a pulse there again. So I lied.
 “He’s tougher than he looks,” was all I had a chance to say before she shot him again.
 
Those two seconds was all the time Tamla needed to grab Arthur’s Magnum, pull back the hammer, and squeeze the trigger. Unfortunately, she omitted aiming from her equation. She did buy me enough distraction to grab the .38 from Joel’s jacket and fire one round through Caroline’s abdomen.
 
Caroline Speaks didn’t shoot anyone else that night. They DOA’d her upon arrival at Good Samaritan.
 
The homicide detectives had a long night. From their point of view it was bad enough they had to keep all the non-witnesses downstairs from slipping away. Worse yet for them they had to wrestle with the Organized Crime Bureau to maintain jurisdiction over the case. Compared to that, accepting our version of events must have been easy.
 
 After checking with the hospital and learning that Arthur would live to sucker-punch another day, I drove Tamla to her apartment. She still looked good, especially having saved my life. Before she touched the door handle, I tapped her wrist and kissed her quick on the cheek.
 
“It’s a little after five. Take today off.”
 
She chuckled and shook just a bit. “I’ll be in by nine,” she said. She surprised me with a return peck on the cheek. “Apparently I need to protect you,” she said on her way out of the car. I watched her climb the stairs to her apartment, slip a key into the lock, step inside and close the door.
 
You never knew about some people.
 I drove on home with my windows down, relishing the cool early morning air.
 
 © Phil Mershon December 2004
mershonphil@hotmail.com

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