Kenneth Lawson: A Night In L. A.


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A Night In L. A. 

Kenneth Lawson

By the time I finished another cup of coffee, the pills and caffeine had begun to work. My head had stopped pounding enough so I could sort of move without the room spinning. 

I did remember the girl—long black hair, kind of skinny. She was friendly, offered to buy me a drink. That was all I remembered, a fuzzy picture of her smiling and a beer set in front of me. 

Something else came to me. She made a nod to her right. There was no one there except the waiter, a kid barely old enough to drink. Then something else came to me. She’d pushed a mug toward me. The pounding in my head wasn’t from the beer but the Mickey I’d been given. I’d heard they could leave a hell of a headache. They were right.

She’d made sure I drank the beer with the Mickey in it. No wonder I didn’t remember anything, but knowing all this didn’t get me out of the jam I was in. No one would believe me anyway. Hell, I didn’t believe me.

I checked my holster. My gun was still there. At least she didn’t take it. I pulled it from my holster and dropped the magazine. Eight rounds. A full mag. Good. I checked my spare mag. It was missing a bullet. Seven rounds. I froze. 

It was all clear to me. There was a body somewhere with my bullet in it. 

I usually carry a spare magazine with me. Whoever replaced the magazine with the fresh mag knew it would appear I hadn’t fired any bullets. It wouldn’t be until they looked closer that they would find a slug missing. 

I considered what to do. Not carrying that gun was a good start. So, it and the magazines went into the safe. I slid a different pistol into the holster when the door rattled with a loud knock.

I spun the lock on the safe and left my office. “Coming.” The front door rattled in the frame.

“Yeah, what do you want?” 

Los Angeles Detective Lindsay plowed his way into the room as I stepped out of his way. He stopped in the middle of the room, chomped on a cigar, and eyed me. “St. James, where’ve you been since last night?”

I thought fast. “I met a client at the Long Arm Bar on Seventh street.”

“Yeah, right, a pretty one?” Lindsay insinuated.

“I didn’t notice. I was working. What do you care anyway?” Although I had a pretty good idea. I glanced at Brenda leaning against the kitchen door frame where the remains of last night’s spaghetti still sat on the table. I’d left in a hurry.

“We found a body with one of your bullets in it.”

“How do you know it’s mine?”

 “Ballistics matched it with the slug we recovered from your gun after last year’s shoot-out.”

“Who’d I kill today?”

Lindsay pulled his notebook from his coat pocket, flipped pages, muttering to himself as he tried to read his writing.

“Raymond Chambers. You know him?”

“Yeah, sorta. He tried to hire me months ago to do some work for him. I turned him down.” 

“My, you’re noble all of a sudden.” Lindsay sneered.

“I didn’t like the guy. He was mean, arrogant, and an asshole. So, I turned him down on the spot.”

“And came back to kill him.” 

“After six months? Get real. Even you don’t believe that.”

“I believe your bullet is in him. That is all that matters.”

I did meet with Chambers but left him in mid-martini. Who would have seen me there?

Branda went into the office and returned with my appointment book. “Here. He met Chambers at the bar and then left. He noted the time. If he’d accepted the case, we would track the hours he worked.” She shoved the book in front of Lindsay. He grabbed it and pawed through the pages. When the detective closed the book, Brenda snatched it from him and said she would return it to the office. With a glance at me, she left.

“See? I didn’t see him again after that.” I reminded him as I tried to think of who else I’d seen that morning.

Larry Pine. Yeah, he was there at a table not far from us. I passed him as I left. He had no love for Chambers or me. He’d had a couple of dames with him, but then he usually had a dame or two with him. 

But Lindsay was right. Why wait six months?

I leaned against the table nearest me, both to hide the safe and help keep me upright. Lindsay’s barging in here hadn’t helped my head any. I took a long swallow of half-cold coffee to buy myself some time to think. 

Lindsay fiddled with the notebook in his hands and acted like he was looking for something in one of the back pages of it.

“When did Chambers eat my bullet?” 

Lindsay glared. “About midnight as far as the doc can figure for now. And eat is right. You shoved the barrel of the gun in his mouth and blew half his head off. It was a god-awful mess.” 

I’d seen what a forty-five can do at close range. The bullets are big and slow, but they plow through bone like a battering ram. I didn’t need any more descriptions.

“Where’d you find the bullet?” 

“In the wall behind what’s left of his head. It hit a stud, or it’d kept going.”

“Look, it wasn’t me. Here.” I pulled the pistol from the holster and handed it to him. 

Lindsay dropped the mag and smelled the barrel. “Mmm, it’s clean.”

“Yeah, I keep ‘em clean. Hasn’t been fired in ages.” That was true.

He handed it back to me. I slid the mag back in and dropped it back into its holster and waited. 

“So?”

“So. You never answered my question. Where were you last night?”

“I told you, I met a dame down at the Long Arm Bar. She wanted to hire me.”

“To do what?”

 “Find her boyfriend. At least that’s what she said.”

“And?”

I thought for a minute. “I told her no. I didn’t believe her. Her story didn’t add up, and she had too much cash on her.” I made that part up. We never got that far before I had the beer with the Mickey in it, but Lindsay wouldn’t believe me, so I didn’t try to tell him—yet. 

“This girl, she have a name?” 

I fumbled around on the table next to me and found the notes I made when she called. “Yeah, Lori something or other, I couldn’t understand what she said. It was over the phone.” Again, I was making part of the story up as I went along.

“So, this Lori calls you, and you go running to her?”

“Well, no, I told her I was busy, and couldn’t meet her right away, so we met later at the bar.” 

“What time?” 

I glanced at the small clock on the far side of the room and tried to remember. “’Round ten-ish, I think.” 

“Okay, for now. Find this Lori and get her to back your story.”

With that, Lindsay left, not bothering to close the door. I stared at the open door, cold coffee in my hand, and wondered what had just happened. Shit. I was in trouble.

Brenda came into the living room and kissed me on the cheek. “I know you didn’t do it.” 

“Thanks, hun.” I pulled her closer and gave her a proper kiss. 

Releasing Brenda, I slid the bolt home to lock the door. I didn’t need any more uninvited guests. As a PI, I often worked on the wrong side of town and Lori from last night was definitely from that side. Right now, I needed to find out more about the Chamber killing. An eyewitness would seal the deal and get me in the slammer for a long time. I needed to find them too. 

After taking more headache pills with my cold coffee, I grabbed my old sports coat and headed out. My car was an old Ford with mostly rust and gumption holding it together, but it always started.

~~~

I considered some options, one being that Lori probably left town right after I passed out, but I headed for the Long Arm Bar anyway. Hopefully, someone would remember me being there last night and who she was. I expected the bar to be closed, but I knocked anyway. I heard noises inside, so I banged louder. 

“Yeah, what do you want?” The muffled voice sounded aggravated. 

“I need to talk to you.”

The door cracked open, and a short skinny bald man peered out at me. “What’s so important?”

I pulled my ID from my pocket and showed it to him. 

“PI—big wow.” He didn’t move the door.

“You were working here last night?”

“No. I decided to sleep here just for the hell of it. Yeah, I was here, so what?”

“I was here last night. You remember seeing me here? About ten-ish?”

“Why should I remember you? The place was packed. I don’t even remember crashing in the back room.” 

That I understood, a busy night is a long night, and it all runs together. “Look, I need to see if anyone remembered me here last night. I met a girl…”

“Good for you.” 

‘Not that kind of girl. She was supposed to be a client. Tall, skinny, long black hair?”

“Shit, that describes half the dames here.” 

I decided to stop being polite. I leaned against the door, pushing it open a little more. I remembered the kid, the waiter.

“Look, I’ve had a bad night and morning. I’m not in the mood for your games. I was here last night. A tall skinny kid, barely legal age, served me the beer. You got a kid like that working here?” I shifted my weight a bit to show my holster enough that the butt of my pistol was visible. 

“Yeah, a new kid, just started a couple of days ago. Benny, I think his name is.”

I pushed the door open further, and he stepped back to let me pass. Standing in the doorway, I looked around and spotted the back corner booth where I’d been. I walked over. “I was in this booth. Benny served me a beer. Where did he come from?”

“Hell, he served a lot of beers last night.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He followed me to the booth and stood off to one side as I slid in and looked around. Trying to remember as much as I could, but most of it was a blur. 

“You want something to drink?”

“Coffee?”

“Yeah, I got that.” He disappeared, leaving me to try to remember more about Benny or Lori.

He returned with two cups of coffee. I nodded at the seat across from me, and he sat down.

“You never said where Benny came from,” I sniped.

“Oh yeah, sorry, He walked in off the street looking for a job, had an ID that said he was over eighteen. I was short a bar hand, so I hired him.”

I sipped the coffee. “What time’s he coming in today?”

“About four, to help open up.”

“He won’t be back.”

“Huh?” 

I let it lie. “You got paper on him?”

“Yeah,”

“Get it.”

He slid out of the booth and returned with an employment record for one Benny Long. I copied all the information on it and handed it back to him.

“What do you mean he won’t be back?”

I didn’t answer him. He’d find out soon enough. Thanking him for the coffee and information, I left.

I figured the address was fake, but I had to check it out anyway. The address was on the far side of town. It took me a while to get there. 

Pulling in the driveway, I noticed the lawns were unkempt, and the entire street appeared abandoned except for a couple of houses. Cars and remains of cars sat in the driveways and lawns were half-buried in weeds.

I loosened the pistol in its holster as I got out of the Ford and focused on the address listed on Benny’s employment record. I eased onto the half-rotted porch, and a familiar aroma greeted me. Great, he was probably as high as a kite by now.

Listening at the door, I slid my pistol from its holster and dropped the safety. After a couple of deep breaths, I banged on the door. 

“Benny!” I yelled over the radio blaring inside. I heard a scuffling noise, and the radio stopped. I banged on the door so hard that it shook the window next to it.

“Benny! Open up, or I’m coming in!” 

The door screeched as it slowly opened, revealing Benny wearing only a set of undershorts. I ignored his lack of clothes and pushed the door the rest of the way open and led with the pistol as I barged in. Lori was on the bed in the corner, covered up only by a sheet. That I didn’t expect.

I motioned for Benny to sit on the bed. He stumbled to the bed and sat down.

“I’m assuming you know me.” They nodded yes.

There was no point in lecturing them, so I cut to the chase. “Who hired you to frame me last night?” 

They looked at each other, and I continued. “Come on, you two didn’t cook this up all by yourselves. Someone put you up to it. Once done with you, you’ll end up as Chambers did. Think, man!” I half-shouted to cut through the fog that was their brains. 

They were too out of it to comprehend anything, so I ignored them and searched the room. A table held a pile of weed and other drug stuff on it. I didn’t touch it at all.

A dresser sat in the corner. In the bottom drawer, I found a pile of bills. Pine paid them enough to keep them high for quite a while. Along with the cash was a slip of paper with a name and phone number. I copied it down. 

Benny and Lori remained on the bed, half-naked as I closed the door. Five minutes from now, they would forget I was there.

The name on the paper was familiar—Larry Pine. He was at the club when I met Chambers and ran drugs and hookers for the last couple of years. I’d run into him a couple of times, and when he sent his goons after me, I beat the crap out of his men. Pine didn’t like me at all because I couldn’t be bullied or bought. 

As for Chambers, I knew his reputation for being mean as hell, and while technically most of his operations were legal, he did put up a good public front. I knew better. I’d cleaned up after a couple of his messes. He’d tried to hire me as a bodyguard six months ago. I don’t usually do that work, and while money was tight, it wasn’t so tight that I wanted to be around him. Word was Pine was trying to move in on Chambers’s operations, likely prompting a mob war. He knew I would be all over him if he started a war, and framing me would get me out of his hair—all the better for him.

Larry Pine’s base of operations was downtown. I parked in front of the commercial building where he had his headquarters. Shoppers wandered in and out of the shops along the tree-lined street, shadows cast by the late morning LA sun. They were unaware that Larry Pine operated a gambling, loansharking, and prostitution business three floors above them. An operation I was about to shut down.

I opened the trunk on the Ford and pulled the shotgun from the rack. I fed twelve-gauge slugs into the bottom loading gate, pumping the slide and chambering a round. I glanced around as I slammed the lid down on the trunk. No one paid any attention. 

I glanced behind me as I heard a car pull up. I’d made a call for backup and to protect myself. A man exited the car and walked toward me. “Ready?”

I nodded yes, and we went inside the building and took an elevator to the third floor. A hard kick opened the door to Pine’s office and surprised the two guards carrying shotguns. I swung my shotgun to the right, catching the first one on the left shoulder, snapping bone, pushing him against the wall. His gun hit the floor as I kicked it away. Another kick with my boot and his face turned red as blood poured from his nose and mouth and he lost consciousness. 

The second guard tried to raise his gun, but I shoved my barrel into his stomach so hard he lost his breath and stumbled back into the hall. Leveling my shotgun at him, I mouthed for him to be quiet. He nodded and dropped his gun. My partner tugged the guard’s tie off, used it to tie his hands behind him, and hung his hands over the fire hose wheel in the hallway. 

I motioned to my accomplice to follow me down the hall toward Larry Pine’s office. We stood on either side of the door, listening as the sound of laughter filtered through the door.

I nodded and leaned in to kick the door open. The door banged against the wall behind it as we stepped inside. A glance around the living room told me we had been right about the drugs. I ignored the girls sitting on the couch. The guard inside tried to charge me, but my shotgun bucked in my hands, and a slug found its way into his gut, sending him falling back to the nearest lounge chair, dead. The girls screamed and fled to the other side of the room.

Larry sat at a small table digging into a heaping plate of spaghetti. He knocked over a glass of wine as we burst into the room. He said something but my ears were still ringing from the shotgun blast. I got the gist of it—Larry was not happy.

I ordered him to stand up, and he did so without a fight. Detective Lindsay pushed Pine into the hallway, yanked his hands behind him, and cuffed him, informing him he was under arrest for the murder of Raymond Chambers and attempting to frame me. 

Officers took Chambers away, and Lindsay turned toward me. “I was sure you were guilty, but after you called, I had Benny and Lori picked up, and recovered the cash and the note you found. That convinced me you were telling the truth, and they admitted they drugged you and gave Pine your gun. Pine returned it after he killed Chambers, and Benny drove your car home. Lori followed and picked him up.”

“Thanks, Lindsay.”

As he walked away, he called out, “Until next time, St. James. Watch yourself.”

I always do.

Author Note: This short noir mystery is based on Kenneth Lawson’s continuing character, Private Investigator James St. James. Enjoy and please check out Kenneth’s blog for more James St. James mysteries.

Kenneth’s blog: http://kennethlawson.weebly.com/

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