Stories, poems and other musings from the mind of a writer who suffers from World Builder's Disease
Chapter Three of You Can’t Live Forever
This is the first draft and obviously is in need of editing.
The dressing room was a dingy, musty, oversized closet. But C.J. Knight would brighten any room, even one as cramped and squalid as this.
“That’ll be my cue to make like a bee and buzz off,” said a wiry, slickly dressed chump. He leaned in and hugged C.J. As he turned around, I recognized him. I aught to. He was the very same chump I’d been trying to catch in the act for a week now. What was he doing here? With Ceej?
“Raymond, sugar, have you met Bernie Winchester?” C.J. asked. With that sweet Tennessee drawl, she could say just about anything and it would sound charming as hell… even that rat Winchester’s name, added syllable and all. Man, her voice was sweet as honey. So was the color of her hair. She wore a lovely yellow summer dress covered in flowers—petunias or some such. Beneath the dress she sported denim jeans, torn and frayed in all the right places–very popular in the last thirty years–tucked into dark brown cowboy-style boots. Atop the dress she had on a faded denim vest, embroidered and sequined with flowers, bumblebees and robins. For a dame in her forties, she wore her age well and could give women half her age a run for their money. As long as he’d know her, her smile always included her wide an sparkling eyes. But tonight, despite her effervescence, when she gazed at me, I swear I saw a dark tinge of fear there. Fear and worry.
“I’ve heard the Winchester name,” I told her, “but we’ve never met face to face. Although it is a familiar face.” Familiar because I’ve been tailing you around town and photographing your thin-jawed mug for the last week.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Bernard Winchester said, his words sounding like he’d coated them with colored sugar from those straw-tube candy sticks. “You’re that private investigator my wife speaks highly of. She was very impressed how you rescued old Widow Willow’s cat from those terrible kidnappers.”
“Cat-nappers,” C.J. giggled. The sound of her mirth soothed my blithe displeasure of that embarrassing incident. “Yes, I heard about that,” she continued. “There’s a dozen memes goin’ ‘round, with a picture of you holding the precious cat.
“Clever fellow, you.” added Winchester, “I heard you earned more for rescuing the feline than the actual ransom demand.
“Expenses on that one ran high,” I said, “and the ransom wasn’t that much.”
“Ten thousand dollars ain’t nothing to sneeze at, Swage.” I was liking this Winchester less and less.
“Sure, ten thousand clams ain’t chump change,” I added, “but the Widow was very grateful. Besides, the crooks bought thirteen calicos to throw me off the trail.”
With that, I patted ol’ Bernie on the back, saying, “Good to finally put a face to the name, pal. Miss Knight and I have some catching up before she hits the stage. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around, very soon.”
Winchester laughed, smiling. How a fella can lace a laugh with smarm is beyond me, but Bernie had the knack of it. A salesman, through and through, that one.
As Winchester left, I noted that the big goon had remained standing outside the dressing room… er, closet… door. I wondered who was paying him to drop eaves on me. He hadn’t been there listening to Bernie, so it must be on account of me.
I shoved a bulky metal desk chair under the doorknob. C.J. gave me a curious look. Of all the dames I’ve met over my many, many years, I can count on one hand the number of them who grabbed me by the heart. This doll was at the top of the list.
I whispered as I gave a head-bob toward the door, “ears.” Then I took her gently by the arm and ushered her to the end of the lone couch in the room. It looked like a thousand-and-one skanks had performed marathons on it. I pulled off my overcoat and draped it over the cushions, dry side up and motioned for C.J. to take a seat.
“What’s up, Sugar?” She asked.
“I don’t like this place, or the men who work here. I don’t trust them.”
She smirked. “Darlin, you don’t trust nobody.” She had a point. “But I’m with you on this one. I must say, this ain’t my venue of choice.”
“Then why-” I began, but she cut me off.
“Why is because I was booked here without my consent. Chucky is on another of his benders. He did this last time we were in Sactown… took off to Tahoe without telling me. Lost all the expense money in the card rooms. So he wasn’t here to fix this lil hitch in my git along.”
Good old Chucky Blue. Charles Blumstein, C.J.’s agent, son of a shister lawyer who was gunned down in a gang dispute… by the gang members he’d represented. In Chucky’s case, the dog shit didn’t roll far from the tree.
“How long have you been in town, hon? And how long’s old Chuck been gone?”
I played the Powerhouse Sunday last, and was booked at the Torch last night. But I haven’t seen Chucky all week, not since dinner after the Folsom show.”
“Last week, huh?” And she hadn’t called me till she needed something. Now was not the place or time for bent feelings so I let it drop. “So the Agency put you on the billing for tonight, without your say-so? And Chuck wasn’t here to okay it?”
“He wasn’t here to tell them to shove it!”
She took what looked to be a steadying breath, then continued. “I was phoning around this morning trying to find Chucky. I needed to now when he’d booked our flight home. He’s not answering his phone, and his voicemailbox is full. Then I get a call from Stagger Lee. It was Bernie Winchester. He told me I had a gig tonight. Here at this slick dump. It was some last-minute thing. The closing act was MIA and the other group he got couldn’t make it till 11. So here I am,” she spread her hands wide and forced a smile, “in a night club. A night club, Raymond. I don’t do night clubs. Roadhouses, divey bars, sure. But I ain’t done a night club since the late 80s. In Vegas.” She scrunched her little button nose.
“Yup,” I agreed, “Here you are. So…” So that explained why Winchester was here. And why C.J. had been upset on the phone.
I swallowed and looked directly into her lovely amber eyes, “I take it you want me to find Chucky for you? Standard fees and terms?”
She nodded, golden curls bobbing. “I’m sure it’s nothing. He’s fine and I am worrying for no good reason. But you know I don’t like being ordered around, contract or not. The Stagger Lee Agency doesn’t own me, and Chucky had no right to make that kind of arrangement on my behalf without my knowledge. You can guess I was pretty pissed by the time I called your office. But after my talk with Bernie just now, in person, I feel a smidge better. I’m going to Stagger Lee on Monday to work things out on that end. But if you can find Chucky before then, I’d be eternally grateful. If I find him first, I might just ring his fat, blue turtle-necked neck.”
“I’ll do my standard missing persons search, Ceej. I’ll check the morgues, do a bank and credit card check, check the busses and trains. Tahoe is usually too close and too expensive to fly into, but I will make a few calls. I’ll have to check Reno, too.”
When I looked up from my thoughts, there were tears in C.J.’s eyes. She delicately wiped at them with a handkerchief. It came away blackened, but her make-up was otherwise intact.
“What?” I asked.
“He’s fine. I am sure of it. Maybe he’s on a bender. He probably lost his phone, got drunk and walked away from it. Or ditched it in his room for fear of my needling him. Raymond, you are going to find him and he will be okay. Right?
I let out a deep breath. “You are a sweet doll, Ceej. You know I think the world of you. But you have to stop thinking like a naive little girl. People are shit, and giving them the benefit of the doubt only leads to disappointment.”
Her eyes flared from sorrow to spite in a flash. “How can you think that way, Raymond? How can you be such a cynical pessimist? Have you no kindness in you?”
I shrugged. Maybe not. “Ceej. I have to think that way. Over the years I’ve learned… that is part of the reason…” Damned if I couldn’t explain it to her. “Such attitudes are what has kept me alive. You can’t trust anyone in this world. If they’re not actively out to stab you in the back, they’ll sure as shit is brown let you down.”
She’d turned and faced the wall. “Even me, Raymond? You think I’m aiming to let you down?”
“Of course, not you,” I said, but I didn’t truly believe it. It’s in the nature of people to act in their own best interests, not yours. Sweet as she was, strong-willed as she was, she was still a frail. I’d no doubt she wouldn’t intentionally turn on me, but if it came down to brass tacks, she’d do what was right for her, not me.
“I’ll find Chucky Blue for you, but I have no flowery, powderpuff ideas that he’ll be fine and dandy when I do.”
She drew a breath, sharp as any knife and spun on me, anger like daggers in her eyes. Her jaw was set, and I tensed for a tongue-lashing.
The door swung open. The chair I’d propped there slid away with ease. It was goon.
“Five minutes, Ms. Knight,” his voice gutted like a torch scraping on stone.
C.J. smiled at him. “I’ll be there in a jiff, sugar,” she said, her anger melting willfully. To me she whispered as she grabbed her acoustic guitar from its case, “I have to get ready for my show. You… have a big blue manager to find.”
She hugged me, then, and kissed me on the cheek. “Please, Raymond, find him alive.”