"The Price of Perfection"
By Cormac Brown
“Well, it’s been a hard day and I sure could use a highball,” I say in a way that is far warmer than I feel. I go to the liquor cabinet under the bar and I look for a bottle that isn’t there, since I already emptied it this morning.
I grimace. “Listen, Sweetheart, we’re all out of the good stuff. I am going to drive down the hill and get us a couple of bottles of rye.”
She just smiles that warm smile of hers, and instead of it making me feel good, I feel like her grin is a shot to my gut. Ah-oh, she sees something in my face and she looks concerned, ain’t she something? She’s so sweet, this is just killin’ me. There ain’t no two ways about it, this is just killin’ me.
“What’s wrong, did I say something?”
“Nothing, Doll…it’s nothing you want to know about. It’s just some dumb business stuff,” I put across to her like a starving used car salesman. That concerned look of hers isn’t going away.
“Henry, why me?”
“Why you?” ‘Why you’ what?”
“Henry, be serious for a second, please. The coat check girl last night…your latest client …”
“You mean “our” latest client. You’re part of the agency now. What about ‘em?”
“I see them looking at you, watching you, making eyes at you. That stupid hatcheck girl even tried to give you her phone number right in front of me.”
Damn it, I hate it when her lip trembles like that; she’s making this harder than it has to be. “Nuts to her, what’s your point?”
“Why me, Henry? Why did you choose me? Out of all these women, what makes me so special to you?”
It’s not gonna end like this; I can’t stand it. Toughen up, Hank, you’re almost there. Put a finger to her lips, cup her chin and get through this.
“All those mixed-up dames can’t hold a candle to a lady like you…” Damn, I don’t think she’s buying it but if you must know? It’s your eyes.”
Pull her a little closer.
“Things change; we’re all going to get older and our looks will go. But the eyes? When a woman has eyes like yours? Baby, that’s all I need. Besides, when you’re this close? It doesn’t matter if you are the prettiest girl in the world, or the ugliest, because this is all I see.”
Now, kiss her like it was the last time, because really? It will be.
Wow. She’s really responding. Her breaths are so deep; her pupils are dilating. One last kiss...a wink and let’s end this for good…on a happy note.
“I’ll be right back, Doll; you keep the place…and yourself, warm.”
Now, don’t appear nervous and don’t overdo it. Just walk towards the door and smile at her before you go out. Don’t let out a sigh or a loud exhale as you close the door.
Look at her…look at this house…I’m gonna miss them both. I worked hard to win her over, but I worked a hundred times harder to get this house and it took me ten years just to get into a position where I could even afford a down payment on this thing.
Cripes, Henry, look at her getting herself all pretty for you in the hallway mirror. Sure, she’s more than beautiful enough for any man, but I know why she asked that question. She thinks that she is not in my league, but she’s wrong. That ain’t what I’m about, and in a sense, how pretty she is really doesn’t really matter.
No, most guys would miss her the first time they looked around a room full of women, but to me? She’s perfect. I’m falling for her and that’s what’s eating me…I’ve only fallen for one other woman before like this and that’s how this poor gal got sucked into this situation.
The first time I saw Ella was nine months ago, New Year’s Eve. Here we are, in a new decade, and I’ll be damned if anybody wants to put The Depression behind us more than me. I was working a case that night at The Beverly Hills Hotel and Ella was there working for Laird Thompson, a rival detective and one of the cheapest bastards to ever walk the Earth. I should know. I started out working for him back in ’32 and I’ve since passed him by in business like I was a Ford Flat 8 and he was a Model T with four square wheels.
Every once in awhile he would try to poach or sabotage my business, and this looked to be one of those situations. I noticed Ella, not because of her strong resemblance to the woman that had just left me in a lurch, but because she was doing a bang-up job keeping Laird at bay. The man pitched woo like he ran his agency…dirty, shameless, unorganized, and all over the place.
Ella got tired of his gorilla antics and she flung a glass of champagne in his face. Laird reeled back like he was going to slap her, and she grabbed a pitcher of water from the bar and poured it on him. He stormed off and she made for the exit. I waited a moment, and then I went after her.
I didn’t want the man I was originally tailing to see me and he would have, as she had the attention of everyone in the room.
I called after her, “I hate to see what you do to people that are actually thirsty.”
She froze in her tracks and wheeled around with anger. “Are you a friend of that octopus?”
“No, I’m not as smart as you; it took me two whole years of working for that schmuck to get wise.”
“Well, when he comes back, tell him I quit!”
She wheeled off and I froze her feet again with, “Well, he and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms. Besides, you were probably here because you were supposed to distract me.”
She came up to me, gave me the once-over, tilted her head and said, “Come again?”
“I figure he hired you to distract me. He has always taken it hard that I spun off and started my own agency, so his favorite thing is to try and gum things up for me, here and there.”
“And you are?”
“I’m Henry Thompson, Laird’s cousin and former operative. Here’s my card. C’mon by if you’d actually like to work…as opposed to my cousin, who would rather that you be a working girl for him.”
Look at me, reminiscing like this and I only have eleven minutes to get down the hill!
She isn’t just a pretty face; she’s a pretty fair operative too. Hell, she even solved an employee theft case that I wouldn’t have figured out, even if you spotted me a hundred years. This will hurt twice as bad, losing both a detective and a good woman like Ella.
Wait until now…perfect. With exactly two minutes left, I ask the liquor store clerk for a bottle of Bushmills, but I already knew that the owner of the store is a Scot who hates all things Irish. The key is to argue with him, but not to growl at the poor bastard so that he doesn’t get so angry he will queer my alibi.
Let’s see, the store’s clock behind him is about five seconds fast, so now is the time to apologize. Good, let’s shake on it. C’mon, you mug, take my hand before I say out loud what a rat fink I really think you are. Atta boy, be a pal and let me stay on schedule here.
Hold the bottle just…so…as I come out of the store and when it goes off in a second, there will plenty of witnesses when I drop it because-
Mother of God! That was too much! That was no ordinary dynamite. That was Popeye on a spinach-bender, because I could see the explosion all the way down here! That Marty Martin is just that- a martin! A stupid weasel!
Don’t cry now, Hank, save it for when you get back up the hill.
Neither of you deserved this, but it was the only way.
Good, the fire department is already here, so now I can let it all go- “no…no…no! Lola!” Somebody grab me, please, before I run into the burning house, because I will. C’mon, you wimp, keep me down before I barbecue myself!
Now you are askin’ yourself “who the hell is Lola?” Well, I told ya, there ain’t no two ways about it, this is just killin’ me and Ella was perfect. I fell for her and I’ve only fallen this hard for one other woman like her this way before. That’s how this poor gal got sucked into this situation; she was the spittin’ image of my wife.
“He’s come to, Lieutenant.”
Ah, Sergeant Kowalski, your ugly mug is a sight for sore eyes, because that means that-
“Hey, Henry, how are you doing?”
“Did you find her, Lieutenant Mogahan?” Mogahan and Kowalski won’t give me the third degree; we play poker together for chrissakes. I’ve helped them out plenty with cases and, unlike other cops; they appreciate a hand here and there.
“First things first, Henry lad, are you okay?”
“Is she okay?”
“We have found nobody so far, but that doesn’t mean a thing. That was quite an explosion; I haven’t seen that kind of devastation since the Second Battle of Marne. Listen, me boyo, you mentioned a name and I just want to make sure that the fire captain had heard right…did you say “Lola” was there?”
“She came back; I don’t understand how they knew.”
“Dragna and Roselli would have eyes and ears all over the place…I don’t know how she stayed alive this long.”
By barely surviving in a god-forsaken, malaria-infested island in the Caribbean, while I live high on the hog at home. Lola is my wife, and the first thing that attracted me to Ella was her resemblance to the woman I walked down the aisle with.
Lola and me were at a party where I was keeping in touch with some contacts with Mickey Cohen’s mob when a couple of Jack Dragna’s men showed up and shot a couple of Cohen’s. One of them that was involved in the shooting was Johnny Roselli; Lola recognized his clothes, stature and voice from when he used to run shakedowns at the movie studios where Lola was an extra.
Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen were fighting for control of the gambling stakes for all of Southern California, and my wife was a witness that could tip the balance in the favor of Cohen. Not to mention the City of Los Angeles wanted Dragna put away too, so Lola did the only thing smart and fled to an island that I can’t even name without a map.
Right after she did, I put a plan in motion where Ella would, for all intents and purposes, become Lola. The two weren’t identical, mind you, but add a bomb and a house fire, and even Lola’s mom should be convinced by whatever was left over at 15 Loring Avenue.
My favorite bomber Marty Martin owed me big time. I had found somebody that gave him an alibi when everyone in the world knows that was him running away from his ex-girlfriend’s car just after it blew up. That alibi, plus one of the best defense attorneys that money can buy…or that blackmail can draft into service...got him off scot-free.
Now, you say, “Henry Thompson, the police surely are smarter than that. What about dental records?” And I say “what about ‘em?” I have Lola Thompson’s dental records and X-rays, but they are Ella’s. I was working on this even before Lola saw that hit; I’m always working angles. That is what makes a great detective and I’ve got this figured out down to the last letter.
All of the tears I shed right now, though...are real. I’ll miss Ella.
Well, it’s been four days and they haven’t asked me to come down to the morgue yet. My friend at the coroner’s office won’t return my calls, so that has me suspicious as hell. The police haven’t brought me in for a talk and that is the sole reason I haven’t scampered away. I can’t imagine why they would, though; I didn’t have an insurance policy on Lola and the one I had on the house will barely pay enough for a crew to clear away the debris.
Since a good portion of a house’s price comes from the land that it sits on, I just wanted to sell the lot off anyway. What funds I have in the bank are set to transfer to a Cayman Islands account and a friend will wire whatever is left over from the sale of the house lot. I’m all packed up here; all I need is suntan oil, which I’ll get at Union Station and I’m set.
Who the hell is it at the door this time of the night?
“Hank? It’s me, Lieutenant Mogahan.”
Damn it, Mogahan, you being here can’t be good. Put the stuff in the trash, answer the door and hopefully they won’t conduct a through search. Just get them out here and you can get somebody to fish it out of the trash later.
Just open the door and…a .38 in the face, now there’s a fine “how do you do?” “Easy Sgt. Kowalski, I’m unarmed.”
“Frisk him anyway, Sergeant.”
Look all you want, Lt. Mogahan, you won’t find anything other than a suitcase full of clothes. Uh-oh, I don’t like that smile on Kowalski, that’s his “full house smile.” You’re on the take, aren’t you Jake? They’ve got their claws into you. This changes everything.
You just need to ease up, Sarge, just a little bit. Give me a chance to tie all the loose ends up.
“How long have you known me, Sarge? Longer than you’ve known Mogahan, even.”
Shrug this off and wink at the mug, that same wink between friends that we always shared at the poker table. C’mon, Kowalski, I laid down all the time and let you win for your stupid wink. The least that you could do is just ease up a tad for mine. Atta boy.
“Would you mind telling me what this is all about, Lieutenant?”
“Sure. In a minute. But I’ll let you know right now that you might want to call up everyone you know in other countries and ask them if they know any attorneys, because there isn’t a lawyer in America that would take your case now.”
Tilt your head and smile at Kowalski. That’s it, Sarge; it’s me, your favorite poker patsy and source for good seats at the fights.
“Is it okay if I have a cigarette, Lieutenant?”
He waves the okay, Sarge, give me the cigarette.
“I see from your suitcase that you are planning on going on a trip, Hank.”
“Only to Mexico, I just needed some time by myself to forget Lola.”
“I don’t why you are bringing up your wife, because it sure as hell wasn’t her that you left in the house to die.”
“Have you gone nuts?” I say as calmly as possible, and it takes every bit of strength to keep my hands from shaking as I light this cigarette. “I don’t know what you are talking about, honestly. I would have thought that you would’ve been a little more sympathetic. If you had lost Carol, do you think that I would be over at your house, talking crazy?”
“Leave my wife out of this, Thompson…you think that I’m talking crazy, eh? Let’s try this on for size. Let’s say a good friend of mine goes loony because the Mafia wants his wife rubbed out. So he decides the best way to keep her alive is to make it look like someone has done her in, by having a woman that could pass for this wife’s sister or cousin, killed by a bomb. Are you with me so far?”
“‘With you?’ I have no idea what you are talking about. Not only are we not on the same page, we’re not even in the same library. You must have had a suspect hit you on the head just a little too hard, because you are positively punch-drunk.”
“Yeah, that’s right, I’m all slap-happy and you are as innocent as a newborn, but the fact is that you weren’t counting on a little gray dog throwing a wrench in your works. This poor woman that you left to be killed by the bomb in the house, Miss Ella Dumas, heard the whimpering of the wounded mutt. It seems that this dog was almost done in by a pack of coyotes, but he got away. Miss Dumas heard his cries and she went to check on him. That’s when the bomb went off.”
“She was found the next morning by the groundskeeper up at the Bel Air Country Club. The Club called an ambulance and it took her a whole day to regain consciousness. And then it took her another two hours to remember what happened.”
“The thing is, good a detective as you were and as many enemies as you have made over the years, I didn’t think twice about your version of the events. They all seemed to fit. But when her story got back to me? It wasn’t that hard for me to put together the rest.”
That’s right Mogahan, keep poking me in the chest, three more puffs of this cigarette and we’re all done.
“I inquired as to whom Marty Martin’s mouthpiece was, and sure enough, you had been seen in that same country club that Miss Dumas was found at, pressing him on something. So I told Marty that his lawyer had been caught doing something wrong with someone not of age and that he was telling stories on Marty, to trick it out of him.”
“I told Marty if he came clean before the lawyer finished his deposition, that I would put in a good word for him, seeing as all we wanted was you, Hank. He gave you up like a Catholic gives up meat on Fridays.”
That’s right; poke me this last time because I’m poking back, Mogahan. “Where do you get off, shoving me like some two-bit hood in his first interrogation?” I step toward Mogahan and Kowalski grabs me…neither of them seem to have noticed that I have flung my cigarette into the wastebasket. Now the dash into the bedroom to draw them away.
“Don’t make me shoot you, Hank!”
I’ll just dive under the bed and make like I’m pulling a gun-
Wow, I gotta hand it to Mogahan, he didn’t shoot me in the back and he waited until I turned around. That’s odd…I only heard one shot, but he put two slugs in me…the sting of a bullet from a friend can be the worst of all.
“Jeez, Mogahan, I though you checked the room for guns!”
“I did! He didn’t have a gun! Damn it, Hank, what were you trying to pull?”
“You smell something?”
“The trash can! He set it on fire, Kowalski! Put it out!”
“Crap, Lieutenant, everything is ashes except for this train ticket to Florida! Is he still breathing?”
“Only just, Kowalski, only just. C’mon, Hank, death-bed confession time.”
“I don’t have anything to say with Kowalski here,” I sputter. It’s awfully hard to talk with a couple glasses of blood in your lungs.
“You know me Thompson, if you say it to me, you can say in front of my partner.”
“Mogahan, I’ve played poker with the two of you for how many years now? It was all over your face, you know damn well that you didn’t get all that information out of Marty Martin. You could hit him all day with phone books and billy clubs, but he didn’t cave under police pressure last time and he damn well didn’t this time, either. You know that Kowalski gave you all of that info, but what you don’t know is that he got it from the mob.”
“What? Don’t kid around, Thompson, you don’t have that much time left-“
“C’mon, Thompson, where is she?!”
“What are you doing, Sergeant? Get back!”
“Get out of the way, Lieutenant, either he tells us where she is or there will be hell to pay for all three of us!”
That’s right, Kowalski, keep arguing. I’m not long for this world and I know I’m going nowhere but down. I hope that Lola will be able to live off of that little Cayman Island account, and that maybe if I’m lucky in the distant future that they let angels have one-day passes to Hell.