When I stepped outside, my smoke was lit, the city was still San Caniche, my Punch-Bolt roadster was still powder blue, and the sun was still spitting dry heat on the heads of everyone on the sidewalk. But, over the tops of the beach-side hotels to the west was a smudge of white and gray promising another afternoon of seaborne rain. En la vida hay dos cosas ciertas: la Firmeza y el Cambio. Continuity and Change.
To confirm Miss Delacaye’s amateur diagnosis, I sneezed again. The cigarette fell from my mouth, despite my efforts to hold it in the corner of my lips. It rolled in a lazy loop on the sidewalk and came to rest against an old toilet token. I looked around. Nobody had seen.
I crushed it into the sidewalk with my loafer and stepped into the car. I set my hat in the passenger seat and adjusted the rear view mirror. I thought about dropping the top, but remembered the rain clouds. Out of habit, I twisted the volume knob down on the chatterbox before cranking the ignition. No need to blow my ears out.
Once the engine was idling nicely, I turned the sound up. It was the Tammy Grace Orchestra playing a swing rendition of “That Day’s a-Coming.” Sweetest lead horn on the Hit Parade, and pumped out by a dame. I tapped another cigarette into my mouth. On an impulse I adjusted the rear-view mirror again.
A man was sitting in the back seat.
“Good morning, Marshall.” He grinned.
“Futz, Ricky!” The cigarette was gone. I looked for it in my lap, then on the seat between my legs, then on the floorboard between my feet. I heard the scratch-and-click of a lighter and looked over my shoulder. Ricky was holding my cigarette out to me, lit.
“You know I don’t like it when you pull that ninja hoo-ha around me.” I took the butt anyway, and puffed on it. “You lose an earring back there or are you just trying to ruin my day?”
“Don’t get yourself in a lather, old boy.” He slipped the black lighter smoothly into the breast pocket of his black blazer. “I have some interesting news about your last case. Also, I wouldn’t mind a ride downtown.”
That meant he wanted a drive-and-jive. Ricky might be a ninja-in-exile, shinobi-without-a-clan, shipped out of the Streamer Kingdoms with the harbor gates slammed behind him on the way out—for some hush-hush reason—but even here in the Flag Lands he was still a ninja. He didn’t need a ride downtown. He could hop any trolley or taxi he wanted, on the sly, and never pay a fare.
I turned the radio off. “The Green Star job is a shut case, and this ain’t no jitney I’m driving.”
“If I don’t change your mind about the former with what I have to say, I’ll change your mind about the latter with a drink at the Huntsman. A martini for a short trip?”
I pulled away from the curb. I puffed on the cig and propped it between the fingers of my driving hand, slipping the elbow of my other arm out the window.
“A drink sounds like a fair … fare.” I rounded the intersection and cursed my vocabulary. “How long have you been tailing me, anyway?”
“Only this morning. I do have a life outside of providing you information.”
“A life, maybe. What about an income? How do I know you’re not trying to pare off some of the Green Star take?”
He was silent. Moments passed. I glanced in the rear-view, half expecting him to be gone even though I was rolling down Cuentista Boulevard at a good clip. He was still sitting there, his black bow tie perfectly level under his perfectly level expression.
“Sorry about that, chum,” I said. “Having a bit of money in my bank can change a guy, make him paranoid. I guess I’m not immune to it.”
“Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll give you another opportunity to doubt my motivations.”
“That’s awfully friendly of you, Ricky.”
“The man you fingered as the killer …” He let it hang. Ricky liked to test my detective skills. I made the obvious connection.
“Isn’t really the killer? That’s not likely. He had motive, he had the right gun, he was seen going into the captain’s cabin, and he confessed. If they hadn’t stretched his neck for him, I bet he’d confess again. He seemed pretty proud of himself.”
“Pirates are boastful,” Ricky said. I checked the rear-view. His face had a coolly satisfied look.
“Oh, we’re back on that again.” The eternal struggle between pirates and ninjas. Granted, I understood the feud. Pirates raid the ninja homeland more than any other part of the civilized world, simply because it’s an archipelago. And, every time a pirate fleet turns its greedy, henna-rimmed peepers to the Streamer Kingdoms, the shinobi are cornered on their islands. When buccaneers rove the shores of Costilla, or any other place in the world, even if you don’t trust the steamers to outrun their copper-bottomed schooners, you can always take the train overland.
It was all about options. Everyone else has them, but the Streamer Kingdoms don’t.
“It is what it is, Marshall,” he said. “I didn’t mean to dig your case out of the grave. I just stumbled onto the information. As I said, I have my own snooping around to do when I’m not helping you snoop.”
I decided to heed an amber light, and slowed as it blinked to a sunset red.
We sat there at the crosswalk for a moment. A hot dish brushed by the grill of the roadster. She had smooth sepia skin, a tight periwinkle dress, and curves like a draft lever, only if you pulled those curves you’d get something tastier than beer. She smiled and giggled, and for a split second I allowed myself the conceit that she was giggling at my blond handsomeness. Then, I noticed in the rear-view that Ricky was making the bow tie wiggle back and forth as if by magic. He grinned wide, my lit cigarette pinched between his teeth.
The girl stopped in the crosswalk and turned. She bent over, but not quite low enough for that neckline to do my eyes a favor. “Cabbie, your fare’s a hoot! Is he a circuit comic or something?”
“Not a fare, cutie. I just make him sit in the back seat because he can’t behave himself. I’d be happy for you to trade places with him, though, if you need a ride somewhere.”
She psh’d me and strutted off, laughing. It was a gorgeous laugh, and that time it was for me, but not how I wanted it. I reached over my shoulder and snatched the cigarette back. I stared at it for a second. It was half-gone anyway, so I stubbed it out in the ashtray. I glared at Ricky, who looked back impassively. The girl was gone, so his performance was over. Back to business.
“So, you’re not angling for a piece of the Green Star money. You’re angling for a way back into the good graces of your clan. You reckon that fingering a pirate in a Star Line murder might put points on your ninja scorecard.”
He just sat there, in that perfectly level manner of his. As far as I knew, that was how all ninjas sat, although I doubt most of them sat that way dressed in a blazer and a bow tie.
“Green,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “The Green Star line.”
“No,” he said. “The light is green.”
I looked at the signal. He was right. “Right.” I eased off the clutch.
“Green means Go,” Ricky said.
“I know.” The jalopy behind us honked as loud as an angel’s trumpet. “I know!” I shouted out the window.
I pulled into the intersection, remembered halfway across that I wanted to turn left, and swung the Punch-Bolt in a wide arc that made me look like a school kid on a joy ride. The newspaper hawker on the corner backed into a street lamp and gave me the finger. I straightened the roadster out, and we were cruising down Park Terrace with only a few blocks to go.
“Okay, Ricky, I’ll give you your vendetta. Let’s say the Green Star killer was a pirate, all dressed down—or dressed up, depending on how you look at it—and gunning for someone in the big city. How does his being a pirate change the case if he’s still the killer? They hired me to find the man who murdered the captain, not to find out what he does for a living. I figured he was a street thug, and I was half right.”
“You were right about the confession, about him going into the captain’s cabin. And about the gun.”
The gun had always been suspicious to me. It was a clumsy five-bullet Model V with a removable cylinder, what city crooks call a fin and gunslingers, in their characteristic simplicity, call a five-shooter. It’s made that way so you can reload faster, five at a time, but carrying spare loaded cylinders around can get bulky.
Pirates call the Model V a quinster and, even though they’re more prone to carry one than a street thug or a cowboy, I never considered it a possibility. Give a buccaneer plumber’s slacks, a button-up shirt, and a haircut and the whole formula goes screwy.
“The gun was right,” I considered out loud, “but the meaning of the gun was wrong.” I chewed on the no cigarette I no longer had in my mouth. “And if the meaning of the murder weapon was wrong, maybe the meaning of the murder was wrong. You think the motive is off, too?”
“I think pirates don’t have sweethearts. Not ones they love more than they hate steamer lines. A woman is just another prize to a pirate. I figure he was only seeing her to get the straight dirt on the captain.”
“That’s a fine polemic, Ricky, but it’s always about a woman.” The generalization left a bad taste on my tongue. It was the weakest part of the case. I knew that the whole time, and now I found myself doubting it. “It can’t be about the steamer itself, because it was stuck in port while the murder was being investigated. That’s why the Green Star boys hired me, because they didn’t trust the police to be snappy and they wanted to ship out quick to keep something resembling a schedule. And, you can’t pirate a ship in port.”
I glanced back at Ricky with a guilty face. My generalization was wrong, and insensitive. Pirates hit ports in his homeland all the time. Thus the feud. “At least they can’t pirate a steamer port as big and well-fortified as San Caniche. So, why would a pirate kill a steamer captain, unless it was about the girl?”
“Just to keep the ship from sailing?” Ricky guessed. “Or from steaming, as it were.”
“Nah. There’s no … booty in that.” The pirate word felt out-of-place in my detective’s mouth.
“To be honest, I don’t understand that part either. Yet.” He nodded out the window. “Here’s the Huntsman.”
There it was, indeed. Sixteen floors of bright pink marble slicing into the darkening and rain-threatened sky, straight up out of the sidewalk. At least, that was what the building looked like on the street side. On the downhill side, facing the sea, it sloped off in a series of balconies like an ancient ziggurat, its seashell stone mottled with blue tiles, green shrubbery, and turquoise swimming pools. Nobody would be out on those balconies with the storm looming overhead, though.
I drove past the valet stand, eased up to the curb, and squared the roadster off in an empty spot. Or roughly so.
“Sorry, Marshall,” Ricky said. “I know you hate open questions.”
“My clients hate them more. If the company has reason to suspect there’s a bigger plot behind the murder, they might consider the case not closed.” I let my hand rest on the top of the fedora in the passenger seat. “Or my fee not fully earned.”
“I thought I should keep you in the loop.”
“Thanks, Ricky.” I opened the door, pushed the hat onto my head, and set one loafer on the pavement. I could immediately feel the heat of it through the sole. “I suppose you can show yourself out.”
He was already gone.
I sneezed and looked up into the cloud. A drop of rain hit me right in the eye. It was going to be one of those days.