“Hello, My Lovelies”
As it happens, that actually is my name, although I don’t always use it. In my line of work, it’s not always prudent to use your real name. I had been using it more often lately, though, because I hadn’t been working lately. I hadn’t needed to.
I had earned a significant fee tracking down the murderer of a ship’s captain for the Green Star steamer line. Turned out it wasn’t anything as dramatic as the company bosses thought. The killer wasn’t a ninja, or an assassin, or a gunslinger from the Territories. He was just a street thug who wanted a woman who wanted the captain more.
And, for my account, it was ten grand clean, in Flag Dollars, plus expenses.
That’s more than I typically make in a year, even a good year, and the cushion had made me lazy. Over the past few months, I had turned down half a dozen cases that would have had me wetting my lips before the Green Star job. These days, I mostly just drove the streets of San Caniche in my powder blue convertible Punch-Bolt roadster and pretended to make valuable business contacts while swallowing whiskey sours and burning through cigars too expensive for a Sultan.
I was losing my edge. I knew it, and I couldn’t give an eye lash. Every man needs a vacation.
It was mid-October, and it had been raining on and off for weeks, turning the hills behind San Caniche an uncharacteristically flame-resistant shade of brilliant emerald, but that Thursday was bright and sunny and relatively dry and perfect for wasting time in tony bars normally above my budget by a few miles. For some reason, I chose that Thursday to stop wasting time and check in at the office instead. I parked the Punch-Bolt in front of my building and lit up a cigarette before stepping out.
My loafers left the car first, a combination of canvas and suede in a beach-sand tone. The linen pants were a similar shade, a bit lighter. They were held in place by a beige woven belt with leather fittings as pink as a seashell’s lip. I had on a white cotton shirt under a white cotton jacket with a seafoam display handkerchief. On my curly blond hair perched a cream fedora with a coffee-colored band held together by a brass button in the shape of two men on a horse.
As I dragged deep on the cigarette in the brash heat of noon, I hoped that my secretary had no messages, no calls, no new cases. I had become everything a well-dressed private eye ought not to be. I blinked into the sunshine and tried to care. I failed.
Nobody opened the door to my building. That was fine with me. I was a big boy, and I’d been opening doors for myself since I was five years old. I opened it. The lobby was the same dirty little affair it always was: a wall of mailboxes on one side, an empty reception desk on the other, and in the middle a table with a wooden top scratched and stained like it had been hosting weekend cockfights for three generations.
Four old Huanese fellows whose names I never bothered to learn were sitting at the table playing a Huanese tile game called Sparrow. It was a matching game like rummy, but with a whole bunch of extra Jokers. I never bothered to learn it, either. The only four regular players I knew didn’t have enough money to bother taking any of it.
“How’s the world, shamus?” one of the old fellows asked. He was the one who was supposed to be behind the reception desk. Another one was the doorman who didn’t open the door. The other two surely had jobs they were also not doing.
“The world is a mess, gentlemen. All four corners of it.”
“We’re in the middle,” said not-a-doorman with a wink. “So we should be okay, yes?”
I chuckled in spite of myself. I punched the elevator call button. “If San Caniche is the middle of the world, I feel sorry for the people living in the corners.”
After a short elevator ride and an even shorter conversation with a smartly decked elevator attendant named Paulo who had a few things to say about the weather and none of them interesting, I pushed open the front door to the office and my secretary looked up at me as if I had been coming in every day at this hour and nothing at all was out of the ordinary.
“Good morning, Miss Delacaye,” I would have said, but I sneezed instead.
“Bless you, Mr. Finister.”
“It’s been tried.” I hung the hat on the coat rack. “It didn’t take.”
“It’s the rains, Mr. Finister.” She was organizing bills. She was always organizing bills, but now she had the wherewithal to pay them.
“I was unblessable long before the rains, Miss Delacaye.”
“I meant your sneezing, Mr. Finister.”
I knew. She knew I knew. “Tell me there’s no new cases.”
“There are no new cases.”
“Tell me you’re not just correcting my grammar.”
“There’s a new case,” she said, “if you want one.”
“I don’t want one.” I stubbed out the cigarette in the waiting area ashtray and took a seat like a customer. “Tell me about it.”
She looked up at me again, this time over the top of her glasses. It had an effect on me that she probably did not intend. “You’ve spent a third of the Green Star money in less than two months.”
Whiskey sours don’t come cheap in this town. Not when you order enough of them in all the right places. “Now, you’ve got my undivided attention.”
“Stop tilting your eyebrow like that. It’s a tell.”
I hadn’t noticed that I was tilting my eyebrow. “Thanks for the tip. There’s a case?”
“A young lady came in yesterday afternoon, wanting you to find someone she doesn’t know.”
Someone she doesn’t know? That’s always a good sign. “How young is young?”
“Young enough that you shouldn’t be asking. Old enough to hire you.” She scribbled something final in the account book and squared off a stack of bills I was hoping was the paid-in-full pile.
“You could have called my house.”
“Would you have been there?”
“Which one of us is the detective, again?”
“Bad habits rub off.”
“Not enough of them.” I tried not to cock my eyebrow.
She gave me a cool look that told me we were back to business. “Her name is Samantha Corazón. Chayana girl from somewhere across the border.”
“That’s where most Chayanos are from.”
She ignored me. “Miss Corazón came in on the train from Rio de Cabra, and she’s staying at the Huntsman. She said she would wait for you, but not long.”
The Huntsman was a hotel, and not a run-down slag house. It was where visiting dignitaries, and less-than-dignitaries with stuffed wallets, liked to hang out while spinning their fingers in the local frosting bowl. It was a bit coincidental that I hadn’t spent any time in the bar there over the past few weeks, considering my recent posh bender.
“Rio de Cabra is a long train ride. And, it’s a port on the steamer lines. They have homegrown detectives there, licensed and everything.”
“She said the man she’s looking for is here in Costilla.”
This new job didn’t know the man she wanted me to find, but she knew where he was? I tapped out another nail from the pack and set in on my lip. “The Great State of Costilla, you mean.” Miss Delacaye shrugged off my political joke and glanced pointedly at the unsquared-off pile of bills. I needed to get serious about my income, I guess.
“She still should have gotten a referral.” Detectives were a far-flung guild, only licensed in a dozen or so cities throughout the known world, nominally civilized places where roads were paved, horses were rare, and ships had smokestacks rather than sails. Most of us were lone wolves and touchy individualists. Even so, there was a code to follow. I might find myself on business in Chayan someday and need a friend.
“You can discuss professional ethics with Miss Corazón at the Huntsman. She’s in room 112.”
“You’re a doll, Miss Delacaye,” I said around the unlit cigarette. “Add a dressmaker’s bill to that stack.”
“I’ll do no such thing. I have a salary, Mr. Finister.” She was tough as a cowboy steak, but she managed to grin with one corner of her mouth as I gathered my fedora from the coatrack and stepped out.