A3Writer: Stuff of Dreams
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stuff of Dreams

Caveat: This story is somewhat odd. It's best if both Blood ans Stones and Vampire Shadows are read prior to this story. That said, I'm not going to stop you, but you can't get mad at me at the end.

Stuff of Dreams

     The City by the Bay was foggy, as was her habit, late at night with the horn blowing to warn off ships, but it wasn't that city. Belport was miles from Frisco, but the fog was something they shared.. The fog dampens everything down and hides things in the dark. If not for the fog, I would have been able to see the the framework of the Horowitz Tower being built to the north. The clouds and moon were visible from where I peeked out the window, while wisps of fog clung to the street lamps on the street. The light from the moon made shadows out of the letters painted on the windows. A full moon, where they said weird things happened. It was true, too. Weird people came out on these kinds of nights, which is why I expected to get a client any time now.
     My partner, Max Stein, kicked back in his desk chair with his hat on, jacket off, and shoulder harness exposed, showing his thirty-eight primed and ready. He wasn't a small guy, having a bit of a gut and cherubic cheeks, but with an oddly hooked nose beneath a crown of dark, curly hair. His upper lip was dark from where he had started growing in a moustache to look like Clark Gable. It Happened One Night had just come to the moving picture house, and Max loved it, the moustache more than the movie. Max held one of those society rags complete with snaps of the starlets in pin-up poses, to which he whistled at more than once.
     "Matt, you've gotta come look at this broad. I swear she—" he cut off as we both heard the outer door chime and the muffled voice of Jen talking with someone. Max immediately kicked his feet off the desk, tossed the rag into his drawer, the bottle of Jack following it in, and proceeded to straighten his tie. My desk was already cleaned up, and I just went to my desk to flip through the newspaper I had already left open.
     Finally, after all three minutes, Jen opens the door and comes in. Her long skirt swishes as she walks, and the heels clack on the wood floor as she comes in and puts a note on my desk. She's got great ankles shown off in those shoes. "You're going to like this one, Matt. She's got a fur on, practically reeks of money, not to mention she's your type," Jen said with a wink. The woman had just about the same savvy as me and Max after the years of working for us, and it was just because no one would hire a lady detective that she didn't join us in this room instead of stay out there. That, and these streets were no place for a lady at night, but then our client had come this late at night.
     "What about her shoes, kitten?"
     "Designer heels. Very expensive, and hard to walk in. Silk stockings, too. She's high society or wants to impress you. My money's on both."
     "I'm not going to be betting against you," Max said, slicking back his hair.
     "Careful, tiger, I heard the missus keeps you on a short leash," Jen said with a wink as she turned and went back to the door.
     "There's no harm in looking. That why you're throwing her to Matt?"
     "No; she asked for Matt by name. Of course, if she hadn't I'd give her to him over you, anyway."
     "That's a rotten thing to say to a man, Jen. Have you no heart?"
     "I got plenty of heart, Max, that's why I'm looking out for Esther. I'd hate for her to bruise her hand when she beats on your thick skull."
     I chuckled at that. "Show her in then," and then motioned for Jen to let the woman in.
     Jen left the door open, and I heard her say, "Mr. Allen will see you now."
     I was ready and looking calm and cool when I saw that first gorgeous gam slide into view. I was surprised because I wasn't used to seeing that much leg, sliding my eyes over shapely calves and on up to knee and a bit of thigh before it was all concealed under a red gown that was somewhere between crimson and vermillion. The show didn't stop there as the dress clung to hips and waist, which swayed back and forth with each step she took inside. I couldn't take my eyes off this knockout, wondering if the dress was painted on. Over her shoulders was draped a fox, a white one, with little gems for eyes instead of glass. The dame oozed sophistication, sex, and money, a combination I liked. She had on a veil of black netting attached to her little hat that didn't do much to conceal her brown hair swept up to reveal a slender neck with dangling diamonds also swaying with her steps. Her eyes, though, haunted me from behind that veil, blue, like the bay on a clear day. Usually I could read eyes, not like windows to the soul, but the shape of them, how the skin crinkled around them, and how the brows arched. There was something exotic, but also something dangerous. I wouldn't have it any other way.
     She stopped short of my desk, and moved her purse underneath an arm to take off her delicate, white gloves. That said something about her, too. She was clean. Not a speck of dust or a smudge of lipstick were on those gloves, even though her lips were rosy, wet, and alluring.
     "Mr. Allen?" she said in a voice like a sax.
     "You got him. And you are?" I retorted, noticing that she didn't extend one of those delicate hands with long nails painted red. She had the bearing of one of those high society girls, maybe even a motion picture star.
     "My name's Nikki Alexander. I'd like to hire your agency."
     "Suits us fine, we'd love to be hired by you," Max said from the side. Max's eyes were big as he took her in, no doubt comparing her to the girl he just ogled in the rag.
     "Have a seat, and tell us what the skinny is," I said, gesturing the chair in front of my desk, while Max came around to my desk and leaned against the wall next to me.
     She sat with an easy grace and crossed her gams at the knee, then she tugged off those gloves finger by finger, laying them neatly on her lap before she cracked her teeth.
     "Can I count on the two of you for complete confidentiality with regards to what I'm about to tell you?" She wasn't nervous. Every word was delivered crystal cool and just as smooth.
     I didn't even have to glance over at Max to know he noticed the same thing, though likely still while looking at her legs. "We generally don't squawk. Course, we're not lawyers, so you don't get the privilege." I said to her, striking the stick lighter on my desk and lighting the cigarette Max offered me, which he then shook out another from his pack, offering it to her. She took it from him with delicate fingers, and put it up to her wet, red lips, and leaned forward while I brought the lighter to her. She puffed once, then took it away to blow a long streamer as she leaned back.
     "Someone's trying to blackmail me," she said simply.
     Max and I didn't do anything, just waited. There was more. There had to be more or else she would have gone to the police.
     "I'd prefer the two of you stop that from happening."
     Again, we didn't do anything but puff our cigarettes.
     She didn't show any impatience, just took a long drag, then let out a slow streamer as she talked. "I got these letters in the mail. They want five thousand dollars in order to keep quiet. You dicks don't talk much, do you?"
     Max let out a grunt as I muttered, "Nope."
     "You got the letters?" Max asked.
     She opened up her purse and pulled out folded papers, then handed them over to me. I unfolded them and read through them. The letters were square and indistinct, written carefully so as not to give away anything, and my gut told me that the little jitter in some of the lines was from writing with the opposite hand. Someone went through quite a bit of trouble not to be identified. The first read:

I HAVE PICTURES OF WHAT YOU'VE DONE.

     And the other one read:

I WANT $5,000 OR INTERESTED PEOPLE WILL FIND OUT WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

     I passed them over to Max, who grunted and dropped them on the desk.
     "So what'd you do?" I asked.
     "Can't you find who's doing this without knowing that?"
     "Sure we can," I said with a smirk.
     "It'll take us longer, probably until after we read in the papers about what you did," Max picked it up.
     "Besides, this is a chance to get your side of things before we find out the truth."
     "What makes you think I wouldn't tell the truth?" She asked, switching her crossed legs.
     "Nothing personal," I tapped my ashes into the glass tray, "we don't think anyone tells us the truth."
     "Not that we won't give your story a good looking over," Max smiled.
     "Seems to me that's not the only thing you enjoy looking over," she said with a sly look that said she didn't mind being gawked at. "I guess you aren't going to help me unless I tell you my secret, but if I do, how do I know you won't go to the papers or blackmail me, too?"
     "You don't like being on the wrong side of things, doll. Too used to gettin' your own way, I'm guessing. You can tapdance all you want, but what it comes down to is you tell us and we decide whether or not we'll help you, or you don't and we go back to our thing."
     "And what would that be, a bottle of whiskey?"
     "Scotch, in my case. Max takes the whiskey around here."
     "If you don't tell us something soon, we'll have to bill you for the time you're taking up," Max said, leaning against the wall.
     "Besides, we need to know what it is we have to get back for you. Kind of hard to get pictures if we don't know what they're of."
     "I had an affair with a married man. The interested party would be his wife."
     "Makes sense. Chances are you're not the only one feeling the squeeze. I'm guessing you don't want your reputation sullied, but it's not like that would get out unless your John is someone important." Max said.
     "How dare you! I am not a whore!" She stood up, nearly knocking over the chair, the first signs of anything other than frost we saw out of her.
     "Cool your heels, Doll. We know you're not. We just needed to know you weren't made of ice," I said, motioning her to sit back down. "Can't be too careful in this business." She stayed standing, though, looking very angry. That didn't do anything to diminish her appeal, though. Those red lips were compressed in a tight rosebud while eyes stared like gun barrels, the cigarette in her hand completed the smoking gun. I motioned her back to the seat. "Listen, you got us curious—"
     "If not too much of it is lies," Max added.
     "So we might take your case. We just need to know a little more. And no, we won't talk about you or blackmail you. If word ever got out about it, we'd be finished in this business, and doing a bit in the pen. Cops, district attorneys, and judges don't take kindly to private dicks breaking the law. Plus, we're not those kind of guys, anyways."
     She sat down slowly, the anger never leaving her. In fact, it seemed to get worse as her foot bounced like she tapped it impatiently on the floor. It was a great leg, and those stockings wrinkled just so, confirming that she wore silk instead of nylons.
     "We'll take the case for you, just need you to answer something for us."
     Now it was her turn to keep quiet.
     "See, it strikes me odd that you're getting milked for five Gs for moving into another bird's nest instead of the guy, so how much is he getting milked for. It must mean that you're a lady of some importance, except neither of us recognizes you, but I don't read the rags like Max does."
     "She doesn't strike a bell, even though she's got the looks."
     "So we're thinking that your guy is a big wig, too, and if it gets out, it's bad for him all around. What do you think, Max, politician?"
     "Fits. Councilman I'd guess."
     "Not bad," I countered, grinding my butt into the tray, "I think it's someone a little higher up on the chain." I leaned back in my chair and waited.
     She didn't say anything, but her mouth had lost its rosebud shape, and she looked like she frowned a little bit.
     "She's good," Max nudged my shoulder.
     "Dangerous," I added. "So, you going to tell us who your guy is, or should we send out for pizza?"
     "Mario's is open. Said he'd give us a discount today," Max smiled.
     "Nothing like a pie with fresh sausage." I said back.
     "Why do you always have to say that. You know I'm not supposed to eat that stuff."
     "Not my fault that pork is delicious on pies."
     "Esther'll be mad if I show up with sausage on my breath again."
     "Mad you had it or mad you didn't bring her any?"
     "Both, probably, even though she tries to keep a kosher table."
     "So, what are going to get?" I asked, eyes still on her. She seemed somewhere between disconcerted and annoyed about our dinner discussion.
     "Chicken and mushrooms," Max said.
     "And you don't think Esther will notice the garlic chicken on your breath?"
     That's a fair point. I think we'll have to brave it."
     "What about Jen? She usually wants peppers and extra cheese."
     "I'm fine with that. Why don't we just go there. Set a reservation for seven thirty?"
     "Sounds good to me."
     Evidently her annoyance finally got the better of her, and the bombshell lost it again. "Shut up! Just be quiet. It's Congressman Auron. He's the one I'm having an affair with."
     "Nice," I said, even as Max let out a long whistle. "Little higher up than I was thinking. I was looking at local representative at best, but you got the guy who represents all of Belport in Congress. Good for you, Doll."
     "Are you quite finished?" that angry rosebud mouth was back.
     "Almost. I'm guessing the two of you don't meet up at his office or home, so where do you go, your place or a hotel?"
     "Sometimes at my place, but usually at a hotel. The Pierpont or the Bradbury. The rooms are always in my name, the penthouses, and he usually meets me there. Do you want me to go into details, or do you need more?"
     "Swanky places. I might need a demonstration, but that can wait until later. If you give us a retainer, then we'll go check things out. Leave the letter, too, and a number we can reach you at. You also better tell us if you get any more letters, especially if there are pictures."
     "He might have pictures of me and the congressman?"
     "That's usually the way blackmail works. Otherwise it's just gossip, but pictures talk a better game."
     "I see," she drew the words out slowly as she opened up her purse. "Will two hundred dollars be sufficient for a retainer?"
     "That'll be fine," I said with no hesitation. It was more than fine since we only charged twenty dollars a day plus expenses. It told me she had cash, but then her outfit had told that. She was worried, too, otherwise she wouldn't be coming here and flashing the cash around. "We'll go talk to your guy. Don't worry," I forestalled her with a hand as she opened her mouth and leaned forward, "we'll be discreet. We need some details from him, though." She wasn't happy about it, but then she shouldn't be. There was no other way, though. Chances were that he was more recognizable, and I was itching to find out if he was getting milked like she was. My gut told me he wasn't, but I didn't want to throw things out there without more to go off of than that.
     The dame counted out the C notes onto my desk, and I scratched out a receipt on a pad for her. She tucked it into her purse, put her dainty gloves back on, then clicked her heels in time to the slow music and dance of her hips as she left.
     "Ain't seen a looker like that in a long time," Max said, fanning himself and loosening his tie. "She's got an eye for you, too, Matt. Be a shame not to take advantage of it."
     "Not until the case is done, Max, maybe not even then. She's a bit of a vamp for me."
     "That's what you want, Matt. Take your tumbles, and a dame like that will leave you wondering which way is up afterwards."
     "Case first, Max. I'll head on up to Fairhaven tomorrow and meet with the congressman. How about you check out the hotels?"
     "Can do, Matt. I'll check out the Pierpont first, then go into the Bradbury, and you can meet me there."
     "That sounds fine . . ." I trailed off as Jen came in with a folded yellow paper in her hand.
     "Telegram from San Francisco," she said, handing the paper to me.
     I opened it up, seeing the neat type and the Western Union logo at the top of the page. Underneath the letter head were just a couple of simple lines.

Miles shot and killed. Sent the woman who did it up the river. Still in business. See you guys at next meet. Sam.

     I sighed and passed the note over to Max, who scanned it, then echoed my sigh then slid it forward on my desk toward Jen. "Wonder how Effie's taken it?" Max wondered aloud.
     "Probably better than Sam is handling Miles's widow." I said. Jen picked up the telegram from the desk and read it, a hand going to her mouth as she gasped. She shook her head and put the note back on the desk.
     We first met Sam when we had a case that needed us here and in Frisco. Since it was impossible to be in two places at once, and the insurance company that hired us had the scratch, we rang up a dick there to tail the guy we were after while we handled his wife up here. After that, we just naturally got along and agreed to throw each other cases. We passed on the MacDuffys to him and Miles, and they gave us Jonah Patterson. Once every couple of months we went down to Frisco to have a drink with him, though now that Belport was building up, there might be reason enough to get him up here.
     We took the rest of the night off, everyone going home, but at least Max had Esther to go to. I poured myself a scotch, a quick toast to Miles, and turned in for the night.
     The next morning I drove my Packard into Fairhaven, through the massive construction the was rapidly becoming the city center. Dozens of vehicles and people were hard at work constructing buildings. Steel girders reached into the sky, the skeletons of the future, and it was hard to imagine that sky scrapers were coming here. Belport was becoming real, like New York, Frisco, and Chicago, though it wouldn't be nearly as big. Fortunately, several roads had already been paved to connect Meriville with Fairhaven, so I didn't have to take the highway there. No doubt the congressman's headquarters would move here once the place took shape, but for now it was in Fairhaven.
     The congressman's office was a small, two story affair, and he only had a couple of offices on the second floor. The girl at the desk was pale and unassuming with her brown ponytail swaying as she shook her head no that I couldn't get in to see him since he was so busy. I glanced around at the empty office and got a glimpse at his calendar for the day on her desk, and the entire morning was empty.
     "I'm a constituent, and I need to see my congressman. It's really important. He'll want to see me. I have an issue that he needs to hear about."
     "I'm sorry, but the congressman is in an important meeting."
     "I can hear him back there, and it's not a meeting, it's a phone call since only he's doing the talking." I couldn't tell what he was saying, but I could tell it was the same voice paused time and again. "There's no one else here, so you can cut the blocking. I just want two minutes, and if he won't talk to me after that, I'll go."
     She rolled her eyes with a "Just a moment," and stepped into the office. I cooled my heels for a few seconds, then reached over and looked at the appointment book, I flipped through looking for odd appointments which would allow him to slip away with my client. Turns out it was thinly veiled as a meeting with a campaign contributor, at least once a week, too, though sometimes more. I wished I had one of those Polaroids so I could take a quick snap of it, but I just jotted something down in my pocket notepad on the quick, and the book was back in place before the girl had come back out. One of those meetings was for right now at the Bradbury, but obviously he wasn't there, and it had been crossed off.
     "You can go in," she said with a bit of a sneer. I walked into the well-lit, by the sun not the lamps, office with it's shining dark wood desk. Just about everything in the place was the same dark wood, and well-crafted. The man himself was tallish with a little extra weight around the middle, but not too much to be portly. He wore an elegant suit complete with vest and pocketwatch, which he was in the process of checking.
     "Two minutes, sir, as you stipulated, is all the time I will give you unless you make your case. Your time begins now, sir, so I suggest you make haste."
     The guy certainly could talk a mouthful. "That's just great," I said, sitting down in a leather chair. "This is nice stuff. How do they make it so soft?"
     "You had something of great import to tell me, sir, yet you waste my time with trivialities such as furniture. I say again to you, sir, your time is running out. By my count you are down to a minute and a half."
     "Thanks for the countdown. Truth is, I don't need more than thirty seconds, so let me know when I've got that left."
     "Ha ha, sir. You may be wasting my time, but you are quite the character. I admire your ability to make light in such a situation; however, I cannot afford to give up my precious time. I have reports to read, and campaigning to do in order to secure enough funding for the coming election."
     "Funny you mention that. I'm about to thirty seconds, right? Well, here you go: Nikki Alexander."
     His eyes lifted from the watch, and he closed the cover with a click, then dropped it into his vest pocket. He walked over to the door, pushed his head out of it, and said to the girl out there, "See to it, my dear, that we are not disturbed. The fellow and I must discuss matters of great import, and my full concentration is required." He didn't even wait for her response, just shut and locked the door. I guess that meant I was locked in, but that didn't concern me.
     "Well sir," he said, taking up position behind his desk. "Well sir, now we are too it. What do you know of Miss Alexander. After all, she is a constituent of mine, and a campaign contributor."
     "Yeah, I got that part. I love the euphemism, by the way. I noticed she makes regular contributions to you."
     "Well sir, what are your intentions, then? Do you intend to extort money from me in exchange for keeping quiet about it?"
     "That's generally how it works, isn't it?" I got the feeling that no one had sent him a letter. If they had, he would likely have asked if I was the blackmailer. "The guy with the dirt threatens to release it unless a good amount of money is given. How much do you think that's worth. After all, you're a United States Congressman, and dirt like this would probably ruin you, don't you think. Not to mention how it would affect your marriage."
     "Is that how you wish to play it, scoundrel. Very well, I will make an offer to endure this game, but I expect to receive all extant proof of the deeds, and will never hear from you again in the future." He took up his fountain pen and wrote on a slip of paper, then slid it across the desk to me. I leaned forward, grabbed the paper, and saw the offer for $25,000. That was a lot of clams, which meant he was really scared of the whole idea.
     "That is a big number, and I might be tempted to take it, except for two things. First, I'm not the guy who has it, and second, I'm the PI hired by Miss Alexander to find out who is blackmailing her. It's interesting that no one's putting the screws to you, especially after an offer of dough like that."
     "Sir, are you saying that the woman with whom I have, well, in the presence of polite company, established a relationship, is being extorted for money?"
     "That's what I'm saying. Obviously it's not you. There'd be no upside for you no matter what, especially since she's giving you quite a bit in 'campaign contributions.' I gotta know, though, who else knows or even suspects about your 'relationship'?"
     "Well, sir, as to that, I say that we have maintained the utmost in secrecy. My business puts frequent impositions on my time so that my wife doesn't have an inclination about the nature of my meetings, nor does my secretary, Miss Hanover, knows to what extent the contributions to my campaign go. Indeed, any time my wife has need of me, and I am not available, my assistant can quite honestly tell her that I am in a meeting with campaign contribtors who wish to have their agenda heard in exchange for their funds. It is the old political game, you see?"
     "Yeah, I got eyes. Your wife has never acted suspicious, or anything?"
     "Well, sir, as to that, who can say? Women are strange creatures that defy explanation even under the best of circumstances, and while I do know the moods and behaviors of my wife, she is ever a creature of closeness and privacy, often retreating within her shell. That is to say, sir, a reason for which my relations have become what they are with Ms. Alexander."
     "You got a gift for gab. Guess that's why you're a politician. So, it's possible your wife may suspect something, but you don't think she does. Is your wife the jealous type?"
     "Well sir, again I say that all women have jealousy in their nature, but I have noticed once or twice that my paramour did exhibit signs when a certain housemaid of ours expressed herself towards me in a manner that might be construed as flirtatious, though I believe the incident to be entirely innocuous, it was my wife's wish that we dismiss that servant in favor of another."
     "The maid a looker?"
     "A looker, sir? Indeed, I find your vocabulary quite refreshing. Yes, I do believe that one might conclude she was a 'looker' as you say, sir."
     "And how about your wife?"
     "Indeed sir, my wife is exceptionally attractive."
     "So why the shell game to sneak off with another dame?"
     "It's apparent, sir, that you've never been married, and do not understand the pressures which can exert upon it. I must confess a certain weakness of character, but only as a result of my wife's eccentricities. You see, she has the habit of remaining isolated for long stretches of time, and expresses a desire for the material things of this world, which I am quite happy to accommodate her in most respects, save that they take the place of our interactions together as she is so often out shopping with her circle of friends and putting on parties. There remains, therefore, little time between the two of us, and so, being a man who succumbed to the attraction and attentions of another woman, I found that there was little real choice to be made. Certainly I acknowledge the selfishness in it, but Miss Alexander's human touch was sorely missed, especially in my profession when dealing with experienced liars."
     "I'm not judging you, Max. I just needed the details. I think I've taken up more than my two minutes, so I'll be leaving you, thoughI may come back to clear things up."
     "If I might inquire, Mr. Allen, what is it you intend to do about this extortion?"
     "My job, Max. I investigate it. It may be that the only way to deal with it, though, is to pay up." I shook a cigarette out from the pack, and struck a match off my watchband.
     "Well, sir, if it comes to that, then I wish to volunteer my own funds to pay off the debt, sparing Miss Alexander the financial burden."
     "Seems to me the dame can afford it since she's got a fox on her shoulders. Besides, you'd be risking discovery. One whiff of this and your career goes up in smoke," I blew a smoke ring for emphasis. "Especially since you were going after some kind of family values angle for your platform. When's re-election?"
     "Indeed, sir, you are correct, though I suppose that I am becoming sentimental and wish to set things to rights with Miss Alexander. Perhaps I may even consider a divorce, since my wife refuses to acknowledge my personal plight."
     "That's up to you, but do me a favor and hold off on pursuing the divorce angle for a bit. If your wife does go jealous, then she might just come after my client."
     "As you say, sir, I shall be patient, and I would appreciate it if you keep me informed regarding this matter as much as possible."
     "I'll see what I can do, but my client is the one who gets the say so on that."
     "Well, then, sir, perhaps I can similarly pay your fee and the two of us can be your client together." He reached for his bill fold.
     "Doesn't work that way, Max. She's the boss, and that's it."
     "You are quite a character, sir, and I admire your tenacity. Very well, I shall abide by your strictures, though hopefully you will be allowed to let some word of what transpires to me from time to time."
     "Sure thing," I said, standing and extending my hand to him. He had a good, firm shake, and from the look of him I didn't think he would be the blackmailer. Again, it didn't make sense, but he did let me know who might be. "Thanks for your time, Congressman."
     "A pleasure, sir. I shall inform my secretary that appointments from you are to be accepted."
     "That's nice. I hate wrangling with the help to see people." I took my hat from the rack, and headed out. It was time for lunch, then I'd meet up with Max at the hotel to compare notes.
     Thanks to the dame I had the scratch to get a meal in Fairhaven, even though I really craved one of those weird sandwiches from this guy Kairos who had just set up shop in Meriville. Sure, his accent was thick, but he made a damn fine sandwich with that roasted meat and that sauce. One day I'd get him to tell me all about what it was I was eating, though part of me didn't want to know. I decided on a pizza, which turned out to be pretty flat. Meriville had much better pizzas, and I'd heard that some of them up in Shadow Valley put my home's to shame. Still, there was no need to go up there unless we had a case, and they were pretty tight-lipped and wanted to handle things on their own. I downed my pizza with a Coca-Cola, and dropped the bottle into the tub beside it. The bottling plant in Dante would reimburse people for returning the bottles, and during these times, everyone was trying to save a nickel.
     Now semi-satisfied, I took off for the Bradbury hotel. As I figured, it was one of these upscale jobs with five different floors, though that would be nothing when all of the high rises in City Center were done. Still, it topped the buildings around it by a couple of floors. I parked my Packard across the street instead of letting the valet take it for me. The dame dropped us some bread, but not enough so I wanted a guy driving my car. Standing there on the street, I realized that anyone over here had a perfect view of what went on over at the hotel. It wouldn't take much for a guy to stand on the corner with the paper, conveniently gotten from a kid on the corner, and watch what went on.
     I went over to the kid, who was hawking his paper nice and proper, the headline about some guy in Europe stirring up trouble, but we had our own problems. I went up to the kid, he looked about eight and with sandy hair that was a little lopsided in front, and I gave him my two cents, but kept his attention. "Hey kid, you here all the time?"
     "Sure, Mister. I stay here until I get the papers sold, then I give the money to Mr. Caruthers in the stand down the way, and he lets me take my pay home to my Ma right away." He pointed down the street away from the hotel. The guy in the stand would be no help at all.
     "So you get to see lots of things going on around here?"
     "Sure, all the time. One day there was a crash in the middle of the street. The cars got all bent up, and then the police came to sort it all out." His eyes lit up when he reenacted the sound."
     "Exciting stuff. What's your name, kid?"
     "Brian. Brian Gershwin."
     "Well, Brian, I'm a P.I. You know what that is?" He shook his head. I pulled out my license, which was only useful for situations like this, and flashed it to him. "I'm a private investigator," I said, "and I think you can help me out. What do you say?" I tucked my license back in my pocket, and pulled out a dime for him to look at. It wasn't all that much, but every bit helped during these times, and a dime would likely get him and his family a meal, so it was worth it for him.
     "Sure thing, Mister. What can I do?"
     "Just need you to answer a few questions for me, Brian, and call me Matt." I handed over the dime to him. "First, I want to know if you've seen a couple of people come around here." I described Nikki and the congressman to the kid, and could already see the recognition in his eyes.
     "Yeah, I remember them! Especially her. Wow she's pretty. Sometimes they're here together, and sometimes they come at different times."
     "That's good, kid. Now, you ever see anyone watching them. Maybe someone buys a paper from you then watches them instead of reading it? Maybe over there?" I pointed to the walk near where my Packard was."
     "Yeah, I seen 'em do that. Quite a few people. There's a guy and a woman who do it a lot, though, and only when the people you talked about are here."
     "A guy and a woman, you say? Think you can describe them for me?" Two people kind of complicated things. It could be the pair of them were extorting Nikki, but it didn't sound like they were together.
     The kid had a decent memory and eye, describing the woman as blonde and pretty, wearing fancy clothes. The guy was a little harder for him, and he said he just kind of blended in and looked like everyone else: medium height, medium build, medium face, no beard or moustache, short hair always under a hat, and brown eyes. Could have been any of a thousand people. I'd have to stick with the dame if I wanted to get anywhere. I already had my suspicions, though. I gave the kid a second dime. "Keep your eyes open. Use that to give me a ring at this number," I passed him my card, "you see the woman or the guy again, you let me know, and next time you'll get a quarter. If you don't see 'em in a day or so, go ahead an keep the dime."
     "Okay, Mister Matt, but I saw the woman and the guy a couple of hours ago. He went inside, too. Never saw him do that before. The woman went in lots of times, but not him."
     I looked back at the hotel, gave a quick, "Thanks, kid," and walked across the street. If the guy was inside, this might be a lucky break. On the other hand, it could be trouble, and I was banking on that since Max was already inside.
     The doorman tipped his cap and held the door for me with a, "Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to the Bradbury."
     I went in and was a little awestruck by the place. Fancy barely began to describe it. I saw marble and polished antique brass just about everywhere. The light was muted and indirect, giving everything a soft feel. I didn't stand around gawking, though. I went to the bank of elevators, and the guy inside rang me up to the fifth floor. The guy in the elevator looked at me pretty oddly, I didn't fit the bill of the usual people that came through, but during the ride up I gave him the same grilling as the kid, but with the promise of a dollar instead of a dime.
     He knew the two people pretty well, saw them often, and had lots to say about Nikki's legs. I couldn't fault him there, I had lots to say about those legs, too. He confirmed that they seemed to be together, which if I was able to get the skinny from him, anyone could. Nikki and Max weren't as careful as they thought they were, and I wondered if my buddy, Max—that was getting confusing even in my head—had found anything useful in the room.
     "Anyone else ask about them?"
     "Yes sir. A blonde, also leggy, a real looker. I couldn't tell you who was prettier, her or the first one."
     I nodded. The guy let me out when the bell run for the penthouse, and he smiled at me for the dollar. I went straight to the room, and knocked softly. No answer. I tried again. No answer. I wished I had given the guy downstairs a story to get a key, but I thought Max would be up here waiting for me. I tested the knob. It was locked. I sighed and pulled out the thin wires of my lockpicks. I wasn't very good at it, but in my business it was always a good idea to know how to get in and out of a place with only a little fuss. It took me a few minutes to get the knob to turn, but no one came my way, so I slipped in without a problem.
     The place wasn't kosher, as Max would sometimes say. My gut told me something was wrong, but I didn't know what yet. Just the same, I opened up my jacket and put a hand on my thirty-eight. The place was huge. It was a full suite. Two couches and two chairs around a coffee table, a kitchen, and a bathroom next to the bedroom. The bathroom and the bedroom door were closed.
     "Max? You in here?" No answer.
     I moved over to the bathroom door, and pushed it open slowly. I caught the reflection of the mirror, and saw the whole room with the door still mostly closed. It was empty. There was another door in here that connected up to the bedroom, and I decided to use it to go in. I pulled the door open, and peeked around. The bed was rumpled, but nothing else was disturbed until I saw a man's shoe sticking out of the blanket on the floor. Size eleven. That was Max. I scanned the room quickly, and didn't see anyone else, so I rushed in.
     "Max! Wake up!"
     "Matt?" he said groggily.
     I went around to him, and saw him laying, more or less on his back, with blood on his jacket around a hole in his shoulder. His gun sat in his left hand, pointed towards the bed. He had cocked the hammer back.
     "What'd you go and let yourself get shot for?" I chided him.
     "I got dropped on. I was in here looking around, and then the door opens. Next thing I know, as I'm turning around, I get shot in the shoulder. Didn't even have a chance to see who shot me. I kept waiting for him to come around to finish me off, but he never came. Think I passed out there for awhile."
     "Might have something to do with the blood loss, buddy. Come on, we need to get you patched up."
     "No witch doctors! You know how I feel about those guys."
     "Yeah, yeah. So, what, you want me to just bundle you up and give you to Esther?"
     His mouth writhed, and then he nodded. "Yeah, better a tongue lashing from her then those damn doctors. Bunch of quacks if you ask me."
     I grabbed a cloth from the bathroom and slid it under his jacket over the hole in him, and he growled in pain. "You find anything useful before you got plugged?"
     "I went through the place and found nothing. Either the cleaning people are really good here, or nothing was left." I sat him up and leaned him forward, and saw the blood on the carpet. The bullet went through him. That was probably best. Bullets in the body could be bad. Unfortunately, there was no way to cover this up.
     "Sorry, Max. I gotta call the cops in on this. Some maid will find the blood you left and it will start up a big thing. We better get a jump on it or it'll blow up on us."
     "I figured. Put another cloth on my back and lay me back down, then call 'em in. I'll be all right."
     I got the second cloth, laid him down, and then got on the phone.
     "Police. Yeah, this is Matt Allen over at the Bradbury. My partner got plugged in the shoulder. Yeah, we want you guys to look things over to keep things kosher. Fine. See you soon."
     I didn't have that long to wait, but I couldn't pass the time with Max, since he passed out again. Instead I walked around the place, seeing if Max had missed anything. He didn't. I traced things out the way I thought it went down, though. The shooter saw Max in the bedroom, and then took the shot, then closed the door before Max could see him. I looked at the knob, but I had the sneaking feeling gloves had been used. Someone who plugged a guy with no preamble was looking to shoot someone. The guy high-tailed it out of here after that, locking the door on the way out. It was pretty neat, and there weren't any clues except for the bullet in the bed's headboard.
     It didn't take too long for the cops to get there. The uniforms made sure nothing was touched, and a lanky guy by the name of Collins with a slate grey hat, suit, and trench coat took charge and made notes of things and questioned Max and I separately. I told my piece quick enough. I wasn't really in it so it didn't take long, though he started poking about other things.
     "Why are you two even in here?"
     "We're working a case."
     "What kind of case? Who for?"
     "I can't say. That whole client thing, you know? If our client wanted you guys to know about it, you would've been called in already."
     "I don't like you shamuses. You keep yourselves out of my business or else we're going to have trouble. Because of you two, I have to investigate a possible murder, now."
     "You don't like your job, quit. You might have a decent shot of being one of us," I smiled at him.
     "I had my way and you guys would all be run out of business."
     "Glad it's not your way, then. Can I take my partner home? he's losing a little bit of blood."
     "Scram, but we're going to be keeping our eyes on you two. My work always gets more difficult when people like you are involved, and I will find out what you guys are doing here."
     "Sure thing, detective. No need to get yourself bent out of joint. We're nice and cooperative, see?" Max said as I hauled him to his feet. He needed to lay off the pastries. He was getting a bit of a gut that made it hard to support him.
     "Get 'em out of here." Collins told a couple of uniformed guys, who tailed us all the way to the elevator.
     The guy I talked to was still there, but he looked really nervous now, and didn't say anything to either of us.
     "Keep your teeth together and everything will be fine," I told him as Max gave him a smile and a wink. Max seemed to be in pretty good spirits when he got shot. Usually he was as stoic as they came unless there was a woman involved, but now it was like he had . . .
     "Max, where's your flask?" I asked.
     "On my hip where it belongs," he said cheerily.
     "You had a few nips?"
     "Damn straight I did. I've got a hole in my shoulder. Esther sure isn't going to give me anything to kill the pain. I'd appreciate it if you stop by and pick me up a bottle on the way home, too. I need a little more medicating to take the edge off."
     "No deal. Esther's not going to blame me for you smelling like a distillery."
     We popped out of the hotel, the doorman giving us a funny look as I supported Max under one arm. I got us across the street when the kid came running over to me.
     "Mr. Allen. I saw him again! I saw the man. He was drinking a soda when the police cars came up, then he finished the soda real quick and left."
     "Who's the kid?" Max asked.
     "My new partner at this rate. He's worth more than you are. Here's your quarter, kid. Good work and keep an eye out."
     "I trained you up from nothing, and you throw me over for some kid. That's gratitude. A dame I could understand, but not a kid."
     "Come on. It's time to get you home to your dame. I'll have Jen bring me back here to pick up my car. Give me your keys."
     It wasn't long until I had Max home and in the not-so-tender cares of his wife Esther, who looked at both of us long and hard while she bustled about retrieving bandages and various potions she swore by that could cure everything from hangnails to bullet wounds. I guess we'd find out. I used the phone to call Jen so she could pick me up and take me back to the hotel for my own car. Merriville's trolley didn't come all the way out here, and it was a fair hike back to the office. While I waited I had to put up with Max complaining about the pain, and Esther complaining about him putting himself in danger, and sometimes giving me the eye, too, even though I didn't do anything wrong this time. Esther was a pretty gal with long, dark curly hair, and dark eyes. She wasn't more than just over five feet tall, but her small size didn't stop her from bossing people around. She was a good egg, though, especially for putting up with Max; I did think she was giving Max a little extra pain for all the trouble he was putting her through.
     Jen showed up just as Esther brought out the needle and thread to stitch Max up. She warned him not to move around much or he'd make it worse and there'd be a nasty scar. I took my leave of the two of them and hustled out of the house before Max started to scream through the stick between his teeth.
     "Thanks, Jen, you're a doll."
     "Esther giving it to him good?"
     "Yeah, she's got him down for the count. It'll just be you and me for the rest of this case."
     "Getting a little dangerous isn't it, Matt? Maybe you should just drop it and let the dame go? If you back off, they may leave you alone."
     "Not an option any more, Kitten. They upped the wager, and I've got to see the hand through. It's really bad for business for us to let someone get shot. Sam knew it, so does Max, and so do I. Just make sure you come up aces instead of the other guy, Matt. I don't want to go looking for a new job."
     "You're all heart, doll." I smiled at her, and she smiled back.
     A storm broke when we were half way through the construction area, rendering most of the cleared ground into mud almost instantly. It wasn't light, either, but a real downpour so Jen's wipers barely cleared the water away to see the road before it was a blur again. The sky was dark grey, almost black, so it looked like night. In the streets that was fine, since the lights there gave some semblance of something else, but the space between Meriville and Fairhaven was pitch dark, and we weren't close enough to Fairhaven to see its lights yet.
     "How's it all going to end, Matt?" There was something, I didn't know what, yet, that made people think more in the dark.
     "I'll solve it, kitten. Solve it, get the guy who shot Max, and collect a roll from the client. Then the next day, well, we see who walks through the door, don't we?"
     Fairhaven was even more drenched, so the short time I spent moving from Jen's car to mine soaked through my clothes, and left my hat dripping water inside the Packard. I tailed Jen back to the office, but stopped her when she was going to get out and head up.
     "Go on home, Jen. I'm just going to look a few things over then close up myself. There's nothing left to do today but think things over."
     "Sure thing, Matt. Max is going to be okay, right?"
     "Yeah, if he survives Esther, anyway. Go home, kitten. I'll see you tomorrow."
     She smiled and rolled her window back up. I walked to the building. After so much rain, it didn't matter if I tried to rush through it. Once under the awning, I took a little time to wring my hat and my coat of the extra water, then went inside. Trudging up the steps, I didn't want the elevator right now, gave me time to think. Before Max got shot this was a simple blackmailing. Blackmailers were interested in money, and the more the better. This whole case took a wrong turn now that Max had been shot. Not that many things had been right about it. The dame got squeezed while the congressman was free and clear. That didn't make sense at all. Nikki might have a bigger secret, which was why she was the target. Maybe she was an heiress or something. Possibly something dark in her past. It was plausible. A lot of people would disappear and move to find a new life; why not this broad? There was no reason other than my gut telling me it wouldn't hold water.
     I got up to my office, but stopped reaching for my keys when I saw the door was already slightly ajar. I exchanged keys for my thirty-eight, and pushed in the door with my foot. I didn't like the idea of plugging someone, but I sure wasn't going to get plugged. Inside Nikki sat calmly on the same chair she had occupied earlier, though te red dress appeared darker for being wet, and her hair, once in beautiful waves, was damp and showed a little curliness. Being drenched in the water did nothing to diminish her beauty. I wondered if it was intentional.
     "You want to explain to me why you're in my office?"
     "I convinced the janitor to let me in so I could dry off," she said softly, huskily.
     "That wasn't the question, doll. Now spill or I'll get on the horn to the cops, and you won't like that."
     "Over trespassing?" she filled that with mocking laughter.
     "Over attempted murder. My partner was shot, and you're on the list of who did it, and now I find you in my office illegally. It doesn't look good for you. It especially won't look good when I tell the cops about you and Max Auron."
     "Mr. Stein was shot?" she said with just the right amount of sincerity and surprise that I believed her. For now. "You have to believe me, Mr. Allen, I had nothing to do with it. I would never do anything to—"
     "Don't push it. You've already got me leaning towards your side, so don't ruin it now. Now, if we can get back to the question."
     "I came to find out what progress you made, and . . . I received another note," her voice dropped at the end. She didn't want to face it.
     I holstered my piece, then hung up my coat and hat. Her coat hang from the rack with drops of water in a pool underneath it. She had been here a little while, then. I brushed the extra water from my hair, then sat down at the desk, tossing the damp paper I had gotten from the kid on the desk. She pushed the folded paper at me, and pulled her hand back like the thing was poisonous. I unfolded it, and it was that same, block letters.

TONIGHT 10 P.M. PIER 4, SHOREWARD. BEHIND THE BAIT SHOP. BRING ALL THE MONEY OR READ ABOUT IT IN THE PAPERS.

     Of course there was no signature, but part of me wanted something like "The Stranger" or "Your Friendly Blackmailer" like what some of the pulps had.
     "I just . . . I just wanted to know if you had solved this so it would all be over."
     "Not yet, Doll. Not yet. I hope to by the time we make the drop. You've got the money?"
     "Y-yes. I'm unused to this, Mr. Allen. And now that you said your partner was shot, I'm really unsure of things." It was the voice that caught me, and I looked up at her, saw her dabbing a handkerchief at her eyes as if she was crying.
     "Don't. You're not one to fall apart like a little girl, so don't even try the damsel in distress act on me. I ain't interested, and I'm not playing. You want that act, go get another gumshoe to drive your heels into. You want me to help, then you be the woman I know you are.
     "I think you are a very dangerous man, Matthew Allen. A very dangerous man."
     "Back at you, doll. Now, are you ready to do this?"
     She nodded.
     "You know that someone out there has a gun with bullets probably for the both of us?"
     "Yes, I do."
     "Right, then. I guess all we do now is wait." I pushed the note back to her, which she grabbed and tucked into her purse. I unfolded the wet paper, and began to look through it. I was looking for something specific, but didn't know if it would be in here. I figured I'd tap my client as well. "Tell me about Max's wife. What's she look like?"
     "Elise? Well, I haven't met her In person, but I have seen her whenever Max gave a speech. She's about my height, slim, leggy like you like them, pouty mouth with blue eyes that do the same, and she's blonde. Not out of a bottle."
     And there she was on page three, just as Nikki described her. She stood next to Max, a fake, sweet smile on her face as he pounded his fist on a podium in mock indignation at something. She was a knockout, like Nikki, but that poutiness could become annoying. She also had a viperish quality about her, looking like she preyed on men and sucked the life out of them. No wonder Max had let his eyes wander to Nikki.
     Elise wasn't the only one in the picture with Max. It was a wide panoramic shot that caught people behind and around, too. One of those guys looked pretty ordinary. Which made me pay attention. He was close enough to Max that he wasn't just riff-raff, but I didn't know exactly what he was. Of course, a picture by itself was nothing.
     "Why do you want to know about Elise? She doesn't know about me and Max."
     I flipped the paper around and tossed it down in front of her. "Yeah she does. She's your blackmailer. Only she doesn't want the money, she wants to kill you. The news kid that sold me this paper has seen her standing outside your hotel quite a few times. She's been tailing you two and you didn't even know it. It got to be too much for her and she snapped. She went to kill you, and maybe Max, at the Bradbury earlier, but she got my partner instead."
     "Max and I weren't supposed to meet at the Bradbury until Thursday," Nikki replied with her face screwed into a question.
     It was beginning to make more sense to me, but that was something different, and for later. "Well, that's why she's stepped up meeting for the blackmail. She's impatient and scared of what's going on, so she wants to finish you off and toss you in the drink. With a little weight you could be at the bottom of the pier for years and no one would know."
     "How do you know it's her? It could still be anyone."
     "This is what you pay me for, doll. First, it's just you. You've got the dough, sure, but not nearly as much as Max has, but he doesn't have anyone putting screws to him. If someone is going to blackmail you, then they're going to get him, too. He offered me twenty-five Gs to buy my silence, so he's got the scratch that you don't. So we have to ask why it's just you, and that's because it's personal. She doesn't want the money, she wants you out of the picture. The money is all pretense to get you in a place where you can be killed with no fuss, and most people would just assume that you got scared and blew town. It would be awhile before someone really started to miss you. Max wouldn't say anything because he'd be exposing himself if he did. So, she's your blackmailer.
     "My God. I never suspected. I thought that if she ever found out that she would get angry, maybe even divorce Max, but not murder, and not so thought out."
     "It takes all kinds. The question I've got for you, doll, is how much you want her to go down?"
     "What do you mean?"
     "Even though the handwriting in the notes is all blocky, the cops have guys that look at that stuff and can tell. They might be able to pin the blackmailing on her. They should be able to match the bullet that went through my partner to her gun, though, which would be attempted murder or something else. Her lawyer will probably make it all go away quietly, though. Things get really touchy when the wife of a congressman is involved. A DA may end up slitting his own throat if he tries to put Elise away for good."
     "So she can get away scot-free?"
     "That's what I'm guessing. She may do a little bit. My partner will probably press charges. Getting a hole in the shoulder is pretty painful. So if we make some noise we might get her a little more. Of course, the other option is if you do go down to the pier and we set up the drop but catch her before she's going to kill you. Cops witnessing attempted murder is a lot stronger case, so the DA would have more bargaining power."
     "N-no. No, Matthew. I think I just want this to end as quietly as possible. I thought I loved Max, but it's wrong for me to go through all this. I drove this woman to this, so maybe she should be given a fair chance. Just end it quickly. I don't want her to go away forever. I'll end it with Max, and they can try and save their marriage."
     "Suits me fine. I'll call Collins and tell him where he can pick up Elise at on the pier. I may go along with him to hand over the notes."
     "Yes, just do that. I don't want to think about this any longer. I just want it to end."
     "All right. I'll call Collins." I grabbed the phone off the receiver, and told the operator the number I wanted. Collins answered the phone, and I told him in short sentences where he would find his attempted murderer, and that she was connected to attempted blackmailing as well, and where he could pick her up tonight. I told him I'd meet him at the station shortly, and give him the blackmailing notes, and that he could take it from there. I didn't tell him he was bagging a congressman's wife, though. I was sure he'd figure that out in time.
     "All taken care of. If you want we can square things away now, and you won't have to see me or think about this again."
     "Yes, Matthew. I think that would be best."
     I grabbed my receipt pad, and wrote it out for her, bringing the bill to a C note. I figured Max getting shot was worth a little in the expense department, so that would cover all of it. I pushed the receipt and the extra hundred she had given as deposit to her.
     "No, Matthew. I owe you more than just that. You saved my life."
     "You're my client. It's what I do. You got one day of work out of us. Max got a little extra for being shot, but that's it. Take yourself home, open a fancy bottle of wine and count your troubles over. You may even be able to read about it in tomorrow's paper."
     "You are a most unexpected man, Matthew Allen. I expected something closer to a criminal, but there seems to be something noble about you."
     "Nothing doing. I'm just an honest working stiff. The guys up in Fairhaven are ones who fleece people. Go on, I need to meet up with Collins or he won't arrest the wife." I stood and held her coat open for her.
     "Thank you, Matthew. I won't forget this," she said, and I just knew she was wanted me to kiss her, and I wanted to; everything about this woman was designed to draw a man, but I had a job to do. Instead, I just grabbed my own hat and coat, then held the door open for her. She gave no sign of things either way, then simply walked out.      I grabbed the paper from my desk before dousing the light and locking up. The echo of her heels had long since faded, and it was just me.
     I drove down to the precinct where Collins was waiting for me, and I gave him the notes.
     "Where's your client? This would be a lot easier if we could set up an operation to catch this guy in the act. As it is things are pretty flimsy. Your statements, the notes, and maybe some ballistics from the gun, if we get it."
     "Woman," I clarified.
     "What?"
     "Your gunman is a gun woman. Jilted wife wants revenge on the woman who had an affair, so she sets up the blackmail scheme to lure the woman out, then off her."
     "Whatever. Listen, do you know how many favors I have to call in and owe to people? Shoreward cops don't exactly like us in Fairhaven. They've got a chip on their shoulder, saying we don't do any real cop work."
     "Gee, sounds almost like how some cops treat PIs, doesn't it?"
     Collins gave me a look that could drill through steel, but I just smirked. "Listen, you get the dame and you should have her cold. Not like she's a hardened criminal. She'll probably crack under the lights."
     "You better be right because I'm going to owe these people whether or not this pans out. Damn lot to ask for such a small case."
     I wanted to tell him how much bigger it would become as soon as he found out who the woman was, or rather who the woman's husband was. I thought it might scare him off, though, so I didn't say anything. I did ask if I could tag along as he made the arrest. Lucky for me, he said no. That suited me fine, anyway. I really didn't want to tag along on this. The woman was going to be irrational, and maybe even shoot some people before they got her.
     I went home with my newspaper. My apartment wasn't much, but it was mine, and I enjoyed it. I turned on the radio, listening to relax a little bit. I didn't have wine like my client, but I had a nice bottle of scotch I'd been saving. Not for celebration, but to work things out. The pieces were all in place, and it made a tiny picture, but there were pieces left over.
     I supposed that Elise could have just become naturally suspicious and tailed her husband, but it didn't strike me as being that simple. I sipped at my scotch. The smooth smoky liquid went down and didn't do anything to ease me. The appointment in Max's book was the big one, and the guy. I was going to have to do something about it, too, but not until morning. I took a pen from my jacket and circled the face of the man.
     The next morning I went back to Fairhaven; I had to make a side stop for one last little bit of evidence. My hunch was almost certainly dead on, but when I needed a little bit more than my hunch. I went straight back to the Bradbury, but the hotel wasn't why I was here. The cops would probably still be looking it over to see if they missed anything. Fairhaven didn't get much in the way of crime, and they took offense to it when someone got shot. Meriville wasn't used to it either, but life would just get back to normal. Dante and Shoreward never blinked at gunfire, and this new shanty town people were calling the Grind didn't pause for a body on the street. I didn't see any cops, but that didn't mean there wasn't tape across the room.
     I gave the hotel a shake of my head, and turned towards the corner. The kid was there again, and I went up to him.
     "Kid, come here."
     "Yeah, Mr. Allen?" he said, walking over with the bundle of papers under his arm.
     "You recognize him as the guy?" I pointed to the face I had circled in yesterday's paper.
     "Yeah, that's him, and that's the blonde woman, and that's the guy who always goes in there! Wow. I carry these things around, and I don't even look inside them."
     "Might want to do something about that sometime, kid. You've got a good eye for details. What's your name?"
     "Brian. Brian Gershwin."
     "Well, Brian, stay sharp and keep those eyes open. Give me one of those papers," I nodded to the bundle under his arm. He passed me one, and I passed him a dollar. "Keep the change, kid."
     "A dollar! Wow, Mr. Allen! Thanks!"
     I left, but I didn't leave Fairhaven. This time I went to Max Auron's office. The woman behind the desk still didn't look happy to see me, but that didn't stop her from telling him I was here, or her from sneering at me when Max welcomed me back in.
     "Mr. Allen, sir, a most auspicious occassion, surely, if you come back to my office. What can I, your humble congressman, do on your behalf this day?"
     "Not curious about how the case went?"
     "Indeed no, sir," his tone fell dramatically. "That has been quite resolved, thanks to you in no small part, I am sure, though I wish to God that my dear wife had not been involved. My own fault, surely, for my involvement with Nikki." He went to the side of the room and poured a drink.     "Bourbon, sir?"
     "No thanks. Little early for me."
     "I hope you will not take it amiss if I indulge, for the occasion certainly does merit it."
     "You can drop the act, Max. I know."
     "And what act, sir, do you refer to?"
     "You planned the whole thing. You set your wife up for a fall. You let her find out about you and Nikki."
     He laughed out loud. "Sir, you are quite a character. If I did not know you as such, I would be quite offended at your comment, and have you removed from my office. As it is, you have lightened my heart a bit, but please do not make intimations like that."
     He sat down in a chair, and offered me one. I dropped yesterday's paper on the low table in front of him, the man's face circled. "That's your man. He works for you or he wouldn't be that close to you in the photograph. I got people who have seen him around the Bradbury and the Pierpont. He was just keeping an eye on things, and he looks so ordinary that people can't help but overlook him until they see a picture of him. I'm guessing your wife was too focused on what you and Nikki were doing to even notice him, too."
     I sat down then, but I didn't stop. "The biggest thing was the appointment on your calendar. It showed you were going to meet with a contributor at the Bradbury the same time you and I were talking. It wasn't crossed off or anything. Right around that time my partner got shot, too, by someone in the Bradbury, and witnesses say your wife went in there around the same time, too. You set her up. You wanted her to snap and try and kill Nikki."
     "Sir, you are quite imaginative, I must say, but even in your fanciful telling of the tale, you neglect some important things. First, what is my motivation for such an action? Second, assuming that I was behind it, how would I know what my wife's reaction would be?"
     "You've been married for awhile, so you know your own dame pretty well. As for the first thing, you wanted your name in the paper with some sympathy. Congressman having an affair is bad, sure, but if she was caught murdering someone else then your affair becomes nothing. Everyone would see her as unhinged, and you get to play the good guy. You get a lot of publicity to help you in the polls. Probably have some speech all lined up about how she should be treated with pity and kindness to heal her ailment instead of severely punished. I bet you'd even shed real tears if she got the chair, too."
     "As I said, sir, your imagination is quite compelling, but you've no proof to really back up your allegations. The words of a few witnesses can be easily squashed. You have no, as they say in your line of work, smoking gun."
     "Oh, I'm not here about that. The only thing I want to know is about the girl. Would you have really let her die?"
     "Assuming, sir, that I was behind such a plot as you conceive, which I am not, there is hardly a thing that could be done to save the woman from her plight. After all, there is not nearly as much sympathy for a man wedded to an attempted murderess."
     "You son of a bitch!" Nikki said and then the door hit the wall. I turned to look, and was surprised to see her there. She was wearing black, this time. A black silk blouse snug in the right places and a black skirt in the new style that only went to her calves. Almost like she was in mourning, but any trace of that was gone now as her face raged. That sexy rosebud mouth wasn't there like it was the last time I saw her angry. Instead it was a hard line as her eyes burned a hole in Max.
     "Nikki, my dear, as I said to Mr. Allen, we are speaking hypothetically as I—"
     "Shut up!" she cut him off, "I know you, Max. You're clever and conniving. You're every bit capable of this. I thought at some point you would leave your wife or leave me, and I was fine with that, but I never suspected you would resort to killing me and making Elise the killer all for you own political career." Her eyes narrowed on Auron, and her voice dropped from the yell to a dangerous quiet, "I should kill you for this."
     "Such a threat, my dear, is not to be made against an official such as myself, but I can forgive you since you are in the heat of passions, such as some women are subject too."
     "Yes, I am in passion, but rest assured that I will be calm, later." Her eyes were still fire on him.
     Max, though, chuckled, and so I got up in between them because she was a breath away from lunging at him right there, and my money was on her even though he had the size on her. I knew she should have better than that, though. If she did attack him, then she would be taken care of as well.
     "He's right. It's all hypothetical. Even if it was real, then he'd be able to squash the real story. So since it's all hypothetical, we'll just leave you to your grief, Max." I tipped my hat to him, then I turned and hustled Nikki out, even though she whispered hard in my ear several things which were unladylike.
     It wasn't until the elevator that she slapped me hard in the face. "I thought you were a hard man, but now I see you're just a coward," she said acidly to me.
     "Not a coward," I rubbed my cheek, "but not stupid. There was no way to win that. He holds all the cards, and the pot is bigger than we can bet. At least for now. You can't win going up right against him, and you'd be taken out just as easily as his wife. Probably even easier."
     "So you intend to simply let him get away with it?"
     "I don't have a whole lot of compelling reasons to go up against him," I said adjusting my hat," but nothing says that I have to be the one to go up against him."
     "I think, Matthew, you are more devious than I gave you credit for."
     "I'm just a working stiff. I'm not cut out for politics, but that doesn't mean I don't' know who would be. I think that Mr. Anthony Kimball might appreciate it. Sure he's young, but I think he's got the general idea of things. You go back to doing your thing, and let him take on Max, and I'll go on doing what I do."
     She smiled at me, and there was a different kind of fire in her eyes: revenge. I didn't have much use for it myself, but it was only right. The man was indirectly responsible for my partner getting shot, and that's not the sort of thing I was going to just let happen.
     She left the elevator, and I watched her walk, hips moving in a dance her heels made the tempo to. A woman like that was trouble; probably more trouble than I wanted to get into, but I sure could enjoy watching her.
     I left and took the long drive back to Meriville. I didn't stop back at the office since it was Saturday. If I had a client I would work, but we didn't keep the office open very long on Saturday, and Jen would have already gone home. Technically I wasn't even working today since Nikki had already paid up.
     When I got in my phone was ringing, so I picked it up.
     "You solved it," Max said.
     "Yup," I answered.
     "The wife, right? The ransom was phony and she was going to kill Nikki."
     "You got it."
     "Damn we're good," Max congratulated.
     "Quick, too. I had to give one of the C notes back."
     "Damn shame, but that's the life. Well, have a drink and catch some sleep and I'll see you Monday. Esther's got me pretty well patched up now."
     "Good to hear, I—" I cut off as my apartment door swung open and Nikki was standing there,"I gotta go." Max started to say something else, but the phone was already away from my head so I couldn't make it out. I didn't care to, either, and clicked the phone down.
     She looked the same as before in black silk blouse and skirt to her calves; the only difference was that a few of the buttons on the blouse were undone so she showed some cleavage to me. As soon as the phone clicked down she took quick steps at me, and I at her. There was no talking as our mouths were too busy elsewhere, but out hands spoke quite a lot, shouting to remove clothing from one another. We bumped into furniture and walls as we made a curious dance to the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothing along the way until there was nothing but our two bodies in my bed locked in a different kind of dance, one in which the band struck up the music for more than once.

     I opened my eyes and had no idea where I was. I should be in my apartment and in bed, preferably with Nikki right next to me. Except, I didn't have an apartment, not one like that, and Nikki was someone I wouldn't even let through the door much less into my bed. Well, I had been curious from time to time, but not that much. I drew a hand over my face, rubbing my eyes. I felt like I had a hangover, but I hadn't had enough to drink to give myself a hangover since my early college days.
     I shook my head, trying to banish the feeling that I was in a nonexistant apartment. I was on my couch in my office. Jen was real, but she wasn't here today. It was Saturday; that much was true. At least, I thought it was. Everything felt strange. The dream, it had to be a dream, was more vivid than anything I could remember having before.
     All the people, all the faces, personalities, and names were real. Almost, anyway. Max Stein had been dead for three years, and he never had a wife. Things were gradually resolving to where I could remember what was real and what was dream, but it was a struggle.
     "God that was intense," I mumbled.
     "Good. You are awake," a low voice said from somewhere in the room.
     I looked over and saw a man sitting in one of the chairs near my desk look up from a book. He wore a loose fitting shirt and baggy trousers with sandals. His hair was dark and somewhat curly. He had a large moustache and nose that was just shy of a joke. His skin was swarthy, and looked leathery, like he had spent a lot of time out in the elements. He was lean, too, and he looked familiar. My brain started to kick start and I recognized him as my client, Saoul or something. He wanted me to find something for him.
     "I was concerned. I have been here for hours. Did I not warn you of the power of the statue?"
     Statue? Yes, a statue. Sandstone. Looked like a young man holding a poppy flower.
     "Yeah, you said it had dream powers, but you didn't say it would make me want to sleep or that it would affect me just by being on the desk there," I nodded to the desk where the statue stood, but now covered by a black cloth that had little pinpricks of brightness, making it look like the night sky, which was almost ridiculous. But only almost.
     "I apologize. I underestimated its power. I, too, thought it necessary for the object to be in possession or even closer. You see, though, the danger of it?"
     I blinked. Not really. I had one heck of a dream, sure, but I woke up just fine from it, though trying to get thoughts of Nikki wrapped in my arms out of my skull was proving more difficult than I'd like. I couldn't remember having such a vivid dream in all my life. "Could have been worse. It wasn't a nightmare."
     "Ahh, those would come from the statues of the other brothers Phobetor and Phantasos. This is the statue of Morpheus, and it simply is dreams, mostly pleasant dreams, but even they can be too much for a person. You see, the man who stole it from me wanted nothing more than to dream all the time. When I found him, he was quite mad. He would only talk of the dream and getting back to it. He took drugs to make him sleep, but even they weren't enough, and he would talk about them as if they were real."
     "Sounds rough. Yeah, I guess I can see why it's so dangerous." Part of me really did want to turn back over and sleep, hoping for Nikki in my arms and the chance to be the kind of detective I wanted to be instead of investigating the supernatural. I wanted to work with Max Stein again, too. "You best keep the thing safe. I won't help you find it again if it gets away from you. I don't want anything to do with it."
     "That is acceptable. I have left your payment on your desk, and I thank you for your help. If you venture to Greece, do not hesitate to look me up. We shall share some ouzo." He gathered up his things, including the statue still covered in the black cloth.
     "Hold up. I'm still fuzzy on things; still trying to clear the sleep from my eyes," which I use my fingers to get rid of the grit in my eyes.
     "Ahh, the stuff of dreams."
     "Huh?"
     "It is said that the sleep is from the Sandman, and that the sprinkling of such sand on a person would cause deep sleep and deep dreams. I believe that is why the creator of this statue used sandstone in its making.
     "Uh huh. I'm not as interested in that," well, I was somewhat, but not enough right now. "One question. Why didn't you wake me up or just take the statue and leave my payment?"
     "Ahh. According to what I know, the people cannot be easily woken, and possibly damaging to them if they do not wake on their own. As to taking the statue, I have heard some say that the spirit of the dreamer is in the statue, so I dared not to remove it for fear that your spirit would never find its way back."
     "I'm not a big believer in the whole out of body thing, but thanks for sticking around." I rubbed a temple, trying to banish the grogginess and headache. "Any idea why I feel so lousy?"
     "You slept when you were not supposed to. You have slept for much of the day, and will likely feel the effects for the rest of the day."
     "Yeah, that's just great. Listen, please take that thing out of here, and don't come asking me to look for the other two you mentioned. I've had more than enough of dreams and nightmares for a lifetime." That was the truth, all right. Nikki had plagued my dreams enough without having something this vivid.
     "One last thing, Mr. Allen, the dreams you had are a reflection of what you desire. The siren lure is because you really do desire it. I ask that you remember the dreams and inspect them. Perhaps you will discover something about yourself." He placed the covered statue in his satchel, and walked out.
     Were the dreams what I desired most? Certainly I missed Max, and Nikki was a knockout, but what I wanted and what was realistic were two different things. I didn't think examining my dreams would help much. In fact, I needed a way to banish some of them. It was safer to go back to dreaming of Lauren Baccall than Nikki. I rubbed at my eyes again, pulling the sleep off. I looked at it, and remembered the statue made of sandstone. "The stuff of dreams," I mumbled and flicked it from my finger.

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