It had been raining all morning. My head was buzzing from the previous night’s booze fest, and the relentless rain beat a steady tattoo against my thinning hair. The sour taste in my mouth matched my mood.
Just another day in paradise, I remember thinking as I approached the door to my office. It once sported bright, frosted glass but now it was grimy, yellow with age and neglect. Faded black letters annonced
I was on my third cup of joe when my client showed up. She was late but I overlooked it when I got a look at her.
Tall, voluptuous, Velma Washington had the best pair of legs I’d ever seen. She looked expensive, real expensive. A black, tailored suit fit her snugly in all the right places. An ermine stole was draped carelessly over one shoulder. It was white, almost as white as the platinum hair that fell in thick waves around her shoulders. She wore a small black hat with an attached veil.
The spidery veil teased me, beguiling me with the way it hugged the contours of her face, ending just at the jawline.
“Miss Washington?” I offered my hand.
Coal-black eyes observed me from behind the netting. Her gloved hand briefly touched mine. “Call me Velma,” she said, her voice rich like honey.
“Velma,” I acknowledged, pointing toward the chair. “Won’t you sit down?”
She sat, never once taking her eyes off me, letting her slender legs do the talking as she slowly crossed them, one over the other, giving me an eyeful.
“I hope you can help me, Mr. Beard.”
“I’ll try. What’s the problem?”
“It’s my dog, Fifi.”
“You’ve heard of Sal Rosato?”
Who hadn’t? ‘Fat Sal’ Rosato was a member of the ‘syndicate,’ a thug who managed to evade imprisonment by letting others do his dirty work.
“Sal’s my fiancé.” I saw the frown behind the veil. “Was my fiancé,” she amended. “That’s over. I left him a few nights ago, but couldn’t take Fifi. I want her back.”
“So ask for her,” I said, bored. Business wasn’t so bad I had to play dogcatcher for a mobster’s ex-girlfriend.
“It’s not that easy.” Her gloved fingers slowly lifted the veil.
I gasped when Velma’s naked face came into view. The sight was horrific, mottled flesh, with shiny, oozing sores. Before I could hide my revulsion, she saw it, and quickly lowered the veil.
“Sal did it,” she said. “He got angry and threw a pot of coffee in my face. I’ll wear the scars of his temper tantrum for life. The bastard!”
I wanted to weep for that beautiful body and its poor, ruined face.
“He’s holding Fifi because he knows I love her,” she continued. “I wouldn’t put it past him to kill her just to get back at me. I love Fifi, Mr. Beard. Sal can keep his money.
“I just want my dog.”
I’ve always been a patsy for beautiful women – especially those mistreated. When I saw Velma’s face and thought about what Rosato had done, I was determined to get the dog back.
A greasy-haired guy, six feet tall, built like a rock, answered Rosato’s door.
“Well, Shorty, I want to see your boss.”
I could see he didn’t like being called ‘Shorty,’ but one thing I’ve learned in this business is belligerence is effective.
Shorty grabbed me by the back of my neck, yanking me close. I gagged at his breath, a bouquet of garlic and cigarettes.
“You wanna see the boss? Who the hell are you? I’m in a good mood today so I’m just gonna kick your ass back into the street. Normally, I’d shove your head into a drainpipe, but it’s my ma’s birthday and I’m feeling generous. So, was I you, I’d take advantage of my good nature… while you can.”
“You got a mother? Bet she’s real proud of you, you being such a choir boy and all.”
The hand at my neck tightened.
“Look, Shorty, I don’t want no trouble. Just tell your boss I want to see him. It’s about Velma Washington.”
“Frankie,” called a voice from within, “invite our guest inside. He’s going to think we’re unfriendly.”
Shorty grunted, but released me.
‘Fat Sal’ Rosato stood in the hallway, a large turkey drumstick in his hand. A smear of turkey grease coated the black hairs of his mustache.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Peter Beard. I’m a private investigator.”
“What’s your connection to Velma? I’m the one who needs a dick, not her.”
I chose to let that colorful remark pass. “Can we talk?” I looked at Shorty, hovering in the doorway. “Privately.”
Rosato shrugged. “We’ll speak in my study.”
The large room was ringed on three sides by bookcases. The remaining wall had French doors leading to a garden. It was a nice room, not what I expected.
“You read all these books?” I asked.
He grinned. “Nah… they’re for show.”
A large poodle appeared suddenly at the French doors, pawing at the panes.
“Goddam dog,” grumbled Rosato. “Can’t get a moment’s peace.”
He let the animal in, and it jumped him, wagging its tail frenetically.
“Get down, Fifi… ya hear?” He shoved the animal, and she quickly lost enthusiasm, slinking off to a corner.
“Goddam dog,” repeated Rosato. He looked at his turkey drumstick and took a bite.
“Okay, where’s Velma? I’ve been trying to find her.”
“After what you did to her face, ever figure she might not want to be found?”
Rosato waved a greasy finger at me. “The bitch had it coming, always screwing around. Gave her everything – money, clothes, a car. All she had to do was keep her legs closed around other men. Instead, she’s screwing everything that moves.
“I shoulda killed her.”
He took another bite of the turkey, chewing furiously.
“She’s got something of mine, and I want it back.”
“Well, you have something of hers that she wants back.”
“I ain’t got nothing of hers.”
“What about Fifi?” I asked, eyeing the poodle. “She wants the dog back.”
Rosato stared at me. “The dog? You were hired to pick up the dog?”
Rosato broke into laughter. “She hires a dick to bring back the dog. That’s rich! Well, you tell Velma I’ll kill the goddam dog before giving it to her. Business good for you, huh, taking on an important case like this?”
Guffaws of laughter mixed with turkey spittle. Fifi raised her head, watching the fat man wave the drumstick.
Suddenly, Rosato stopped laughing. His eyes bulged while his face grew red, and he dropped the drumstick, weaving around the room, gasping. Fifi ran for the discarded drumstick, and I ran to Rosato.
Rosato grunted. I thought he was choking, but then he grabbed at his chest. “Hurts,” he whispered.
I shouted for Shorty, who was nowhere to be found. By now, Rosato had fallen to his knees, his brow slick with perspiration. I reached for the telephone, dialed the operator, told her I needed an ambulance quick. Then I stared at Rosato. He’d fallen face-forward into the carpet. I touched his neck, trying to locate a pulse.
Fifi approached the body, cautiously nosing it.
“Hey Fifi,” I said softly. “Want to go for a ride?”
The dog wagged her tail. She was beautiful, having a long elegant neck accentuated by a wide, velvet collar.
“C’mon, Fifi. We’re done here.”
Velma opened the door, and the dog at my side went crazy, jumping the blonde, licking her face.
Velma wasn’t wearing a veil, but her face didn’t seem so horrifying when lit with joy. She laughed, and asked me in while she got her checkbook.
I spied the bottle of bourbon sitting on an end-table. “Help yourself,” she said.
Velma looked at Fifi. “You okay, sweetheart?” Her slim fingers caressed the dog, then rested lightly on the collar. “You seem okay. I was worried!”
Ecstatic, the dog’s tail whipped back and forth like a windshield wiper set on high. “Fifi seems happy to be home,” I said, pouring a shot of bourbon.
“How much do I owe you, Mr. Beard?” she asked, preparing to write the check.
“This one’s on the house.” I downed the bourbon.
“Rosato said something odd…”
She didn’t look up, continuing to scratch Fifi’s ears. “Oh? What was that?”
“Said you had something of his, and he wanted it back.”
Her fingers froze on the dog’s collar. She looked at me then. There was something new in her eyes, something hard. “I can’t imagine what he meant, Mr. Beard. Look around – does this look like the place of someone who had anything of interest to Sal Rosato?”
She had a point. The place wasn’t a dump, but it wasn’t Park Avenue either.
Her fingers began moving in the dog’s fur again. “Thank you, Mr. Beard, for returning Fifi. I’m grateful – more than you know.”
I could see I was dismissed. I set the glass on the table and left.
Years went by and I forgot about Velma until I saw an article in a newspaper.
Ernie Gennaro, one of Sal’s old gang, was an old thug with a smartass attitude who mouthed off once too often. He was paid for his trouble by an inmate with a switchblade. Here’s the interesting part. Before he died, the old man told a tale of a safe deposit box and diamonds. Diamonds meant to be picked up by Sal Rosato. Problem arose when Sal wasn’t home when the messenger arrived with a package containing the location and combination of the safe deposit box. Sal scoured the house looking for the missing package. Never found it.
I chewed on that.
The banker smiled warmly. “Yes, Miss Washington did all her banking here. She still maintains a safe deposit box. She said you’d be coming in one day and left instructions that when you did, we should let you have access to it.”
Well, now, how about that?
It wasn’t hard figuring out this was the bank where the safe deposit box was. I remembered that check I didn’t accept, and the bank listed in the left-hand corner. Playing a hunch, I wound up here. Velma had me figured from the get-go.
The banker took me to a private room. Resting in the center of a table was a large metal box.
“Here’s the combination to the box, sir,” said the banker, handing me a slip of paper. “I’ll leave you alone.”
I entered the combination, and opened the box.
No diamonds. I hadn’t expected any.
Inside I found the velvet collar. I picked it up, feeling its softness as I probed with my fingers. I soon found the hidden seam where Velma had once hidden the deposit box combination.
Now hidden inside was a small piece of paper, folded twice.
If you’re looking at this note, you’ve figured out I did have something belonging to Sal. I knew the combination to the deposit box would be safe buried in Fifi’s collar; Sal hated Fifi, never bothered with her.
I hated leaving her behind the night I left, but I had no choice – I had to leave fast. I don’t regret stealing from Sal, not after what he did to me. Fifi and I will have a good life. Please don’t think too badly of me.
I couldn’t help grinning as I stuffed the collar and Velma’s note inside my pocket.
After what Rosato had done to her, she deserved whatever she could get.
And me? I got what I deserved, too. As I was leaving the bank, the manager handed me a large envelope.
“Miss Washington left this for you.”
I opened the envelope. Inside was $100,000.
I walked out of that bank a happy man.
Maybe playing dogcatcher for Velma hadn’t been such a bad day’s work after all.
Author’s Note – This story was written in response to a challenge by Chuck Wendig’s TerribleMinds blog to write a 2,000 word story about ‘noir / body horrific.’