6a – The Detective

THE DETECTIVE

SIX
High Rear Window

all-the-seas-and-riversI retrieved the gat from the shower curtain hook. My hand thanked me.

“Okay,” I said, yanking my wet linen pants and cotton boxers from the rod. “Now we’re both armed.” I betrayed that by setting the pistol on the sink while I clothed myself.

“You move fast for an old man.”

She was breathing hard and trying even harder to be clever. I struggled to quietly slip the beige woven belt into my pants so she wouldn’t realize I was naked of fire-arms.

“So, let’s get to business. You have no case for me.”

“I have a case.”

“Not for me.” I slid my arms into my wet cotton shirt.

The door rattled from some fleshy part of her hitting it. The palm that didn’t have a gun in it, I guessed. I scooped up my own weapon and grabbed my white cotton jacket. One arm up the sleeve, switch the gun to that hand, and then the other arm.

“I have two cases. One maybe for you, the other to test you.”

I smiled to nobody, then glanced into the bathroom mirror so it wouldn’t be wasted. “Now you’re going to tell me I passed the test, let’s open the door and be partners again.”

“You failed the test,” she said. “I still want you to help with the other case.”

I shoved my feet into the loafers, a pair of wet squooshes. I suddenly realized my hat was in the other room. My head felt naked.

“Must be a hell of a case, then.” I stood staring at the door for a moment, cloth clinging to my body, fingers tapping the trigger guard. “Mind telling me about it?”

“Your Star case.”

I smiled again and was sure I knew what it looked like this time. “The Green Star steamer.”

“There were illicit goods on that freighter.”

“Don’t be naive. It doesn’t suit you. There are illicit goods on every freighter coming into San Caniche.”

I heard feet moving on kitchen tiles. Her voice was annoyed. “These were bound for Chayan. I came here to make sure they never arrived.”

That had the half-stink of a half-truth. “Intercepting a smuggler, huh? You say you came to Costilla. You were sent here. By whom?”

“That’s not part of your case.”

“I haven’t decided it is my case. Convince me.”

The door squeaked as she leaned on it. “The man you pinned the murder on was a pirate.”

Fucking Ricky. He always had a way of dragging inconvenient facts from the shadows. Typical ninja virtue, I suppose. I let my silence goad her on.

“He wanted the ship impounded for the investigation,” she said, “to keep the goods from moving.”

“And, I put an end to that impound when he was caught.”

I couldn’t hear her nod, but I knew she was. “Not right away. Red tape. But, they’ll be moving soon.”

“So, the pirate wanted to keep the goods from moving overland because his fleet wanted to steal them.”

“For God’s sake.”

“Wrong guess,” I guessed.

“Let me in.”

“Wrong guess,” I said.

“Damn.” It wasn’t a curse at me. I was still that smart. But, what was she cursing at? I heard feet against tiles, then the soft padding of toes on carpet. She had run to the door.

After a moment, her foot sounds reversed. She tapped quietly at the door. “Let me in, quick!”

“Wrong guess, again.” The whole thing could be a ruse to make me think someone was coming down the corridor.

There was a metallic shuffling sound, followed by seven little clicks and seven little thuds against the kitchen tiles. “You recognize that sound?” She had emptied the clip onto the floor. I raised my own pistol at where I guessed her bosoms would be, twisted the knob lock, and opened the door.

Without looking at me, she swept the bullets into the bathroom with her foot and followed them inside. Her eyes told me it was no ruse. She forced her hand under mine over the door knob and eased the door quietly closed. She locked it.

“What—”

She slapped a hand over my mouth. “Shh.” She rested her ear on the door. If she was acting, she deserved a Film Alliance Award.

I leaned over her shoulder and whispered: “What the hell?” Her wet hair smelled like coconut.

“Aristani.”

Men from the Pennant Cities? Why would that have her spooked? The Huntsman was a notorious haven for foreign dignitaries, including the staff of Pennant Sultans.

There was a sound in the suite beyond. Footsteps. Okay, someone was coming down the corridor. And, they hadn’t just come down the corridor. They had walked in. I had to admit that was a clue in Samantha’s favor.

There were voices. I am no linguist, but it sounded Aristani to me. It sounded like three men. Then it sounded like nine. Who was following this chica? I allowed myself a very quiet breathe in her soft brown ear: “Who?”

She turned to me with clenched teeth. Her mouth silently formed the word: “Ass-ass-ins.” That was a new twist.

She squatted to gather the bullets from the floor. I put a hand on her shoulder and she looked up. Reloading was going to be noisy. I tapped my ear, shook my head, and nodded toward the bathroom window. Her brows and shoulders sagged at once. I shrugged and started tiptoeing toward the window.

Thankfully, the window unlatched quietly. I glanced over my shoulder to see Miss Corazón holding up a single finger. Her ear was again at the door. I waited. Finally she pointed. I eased the window open and poked my head through.

Below was a strip of landscaping that spread down the hillside between terraces of balconies. The bushes growing there looked green and angry. The drop was a dizzying two floors. Not one of my better ideas. But, better perhaps that facing a team of assassins. I stuffed the pistol into my pants pocket.

I felt her hands shoving me to one side. Before I could protest, she had slipped her body out the window and was holding onto the sill with two hands, looking up at me in anticipation. I thrust my shoulders through the window and held out my hand. She took it.

“Who are they?” I whispered.

“Assassins,” she hissed.

“Got that. How are they involved?”

“They’re the ones smuggling the goods to Puertobueno.”

I relaxed my arm to let her ease lower down the wall. Once she released her other hand, I tightened my grip and my stare.

“For what?”

She yanked at my hand. It didn’t give.

“Let me go!” she spat.

I shook my head. “Why did you pull a gun on me?”

Her answer was to set her bare feet against the wall and jerk me out the window.

There was a sick moment where I was spinning helpless through the air. I think I prayed that I wouldn’t land on my neck, but quick prayers are easy to forget. I landed on my feet, but that did no good. The momentum sent me face first into a bush. Then, over and over down the slope, knees and elbows taking most of the abuse. I saw her tumbling behind me, a crack of late lightning from the storm giving her form a sharp contrast.

When I stopped rolling, well down the hill and mottled with mud, I was sitting on my ass between two bushes. I tossed a look over my shoulder. Samantha Corazón was gone, gone, gone.

I got to my feet, found the pistol still in my pocket. Not my best day, but still not a total loss. I crossed a balcony to the edge of the hotel and climbed the alley to the main street.

By the time I had climbed up the alleyway to Park Terrace, the clouds had moved on and the San Caniche sun was drying my clothes in the muggiest and most uncomfortable manner imaginable. My hair refused to yield to my fingers and demanded a new hat.

I found my way to the Punch-Bolt and felt my chest deflate noisily as I saw my fare was again sitting in the back seat. I opened the door, threw myself into the driver’s seat, muddy as I was, and slammed the door closed.

“You were right about the pirate.”

He smiled serenely in the rear-view. “That’s not why I’m back. But thanks, chum.”

“Your tie is crooked.” It was. He straightened it. “So why are you back?”

“Your case called a cab.”

“Did she?”

“I was in it when she called.”

“Were you?” The pattern wearied me. “Lucky break. Where’s she going?”

“Should I tell you?” He paused. I turned back to look at him. Over his shoulder, I saw a taxi pulling up to the door of the Huntsman. Miss Corazón rushed from the hotel wearing a new dress and carrying a small bag. Probably stashed at the front desk. “Or should we follow her?”

I wrapped my fingers around the ignition. “Both. You tell me and we’ll follow her to confirm.”

She went to the train station, just as Ricky had said. I filled him in with an expurgated version of the intervening events during the tail.

“You think she’s in league with the pirates?” he asked after we had sat in silence outside the train station thinking about the mysterious, well-dressed woman we’d just watched vanish into the rail-bound crowds.

“God, Ricky. Not that. Not now.”

“It’s not the feud. You said she was here to keep the goods from being smuggled into Chayan. The pirate also wanted the goods stuck in port. Common interests.”

“Her interest in preventing smugglers speaks of an official position in the Chayano government. An agent of some sort. Not exactly the sort to throw in with buccaneers.”

Ricky’s face was twisted in thwartation. I made up that word to signify the debunking of his ever-ready pirate conspiracies.

“What now, then?”

I ran my hand through damp hair. “First, buy a new hat. Second, keep the Green Star money with which I plan to buy that hat.”

“You’re going to tail her into Chayan?”

“I’m going to tail those smuggled goods into Chayan.”

Ricky grinned in renewed insight. “That’ll be rough. They’ll be shipping stuff in every direction once the red tape is cleared.”

I started up the car again. “Yes. But, if it’s headed for Puertobueno by rail, it’ll have to take one of two routes, both of which have a single intersection.”

“La Torre.”

I chewed my lips and wished I had a cigarette. “Yes. They could send it along the north route through Preston and Sarleton, or along the south route through Rio de Cabra. Those railroads diverge at La Torre.”

There was a warning whistle from the rail station. Last call for boarders.

“Get on that train,” I said. “Meet me at La Torre.”

Ricky’s mouth fell open. “Travel like a Shou hobo?”

The rivalry between Ricky’s Streamer Kingdoms and the Empire of Shou was nearly as strong as the feud between ninjas and pirates. I turned to look at him. “You’ll manage the irony.”

“If I’m to travel as a Shou monk, let me use your suitcase.”

I let out a sigh. It was a familiar sigh, which I had used too often. It was a familiar request, which Ricky had used too often.

He wanted my imported suitcase from Huandu, a secret weapon I had kept in reserve for years. Mainly because I didn’t know how to use it. It had blades hidden in its shell, released by a second latch on the handle.

“I will instruct Miss Delacaye to retrieve it from storage as I pack. With any luck, we’ll meet at the intersection before the smuggled goods.”

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