MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
They say you should never start with the weather, but look, it was a dark and stormy night and I don’t care who knows it.
I was sitting in my car and my car was sitting in a parking lot, and me and the car and the parking lot were all gathered together for this little meeting in Hollywood, California. It was raining, and when I say the rain was heavy, think pounding waves and crashing seas and a full couple of inches of water being buffeted into an impressive surf all across the flat tarmacadam that surrounded my car and all the other cars that were lined up outside the restaurant.
There had been a warning about the weather. Apparently it was on the television. Ada had told me about it. The day was one for the books, the television said. I didn’t know if that was true. I didn’t remember the weather earlier than six this morning. It had been raining then too and the rain had only gotten worse.
I didn’t much like the rain but Ada said it was good for business, and as I sat in the car and listened to the tempest I had to say I agreed with her. People move fast in the rain—they move fast and they keep their heads down and they don’t have much on their minds except getting from point A to point B without getting their ankles wet. Whatever else was going on around them could take a hike, at least while the heavens were open and the angels were rinsing their togas.
I had put the radio on when I had set off out of the garage underneath the building on the corner of Cahuenga Pass and Hollywood Boulevard where I had my office and no sooner had I taken a right turn when the deejay told me to turn back around and park my car and settle in for an evening of hot cocoa and cold show tunes from decades past.
I ignored his advice and I kept driving. I had a job to do and tonight was the best night to do it and come hell or high water I was going to get it done.
High water it was. The drive across town had been long and arduous and the capabilities of my Buick’s windshield wipers were now sorely in question.
The restaurant was a diner called—according to the huge construction of multicolored neon letters that floated in the black, wet air some distance over the roof of the establishment—Pepi’s. The sign flashed and strobed and buzzed in the rain, the electrified gases within those tubes producing the illusion of a moving arrow pointing down into the parking lot. The sign also featured a series of concentric ellipses expanding outward around what looked like a representation of the owner’s signature. The sign was so bright it lit up the rain around it, making a whole patch of night air glow, surrounding itself with a fuzzy halo.
I liked the sign. It wasn’t just a functional piece of street furniture. The sign was a work of art by someone who clearly loved their job. I thought it was great and it was actually pretty welcoming, particularly with the greater Los Angeles area apparently engulfed in a cyclone, although the way the sign was buffeted in the wind was less than comforting. The whole thing was stuck on a pole so thin and insubstantial I was of half a mind to move my car in case it came down on top of it.
I didn’t. The wind blew up and then it calmed down into a kind of rhythm and the sign wobbled but stayed up. As I sat in my car watching the restaurant, I found myself watching the sign almost as often. I wondered if I could have a sign like that for my office. Something smaller, of course, but I had some wall space available. Maybe I’d need to move the filing cabinet. Sure, it would be a strange thing, but then the only person who was ever in the office was me because it wasn’t a real office, not really. It was a hangover, nothing more, from a previous life when the Electromatic Detective Agency had been exactly that and nothing more and I was an electronic private eye and nothing more.
Now I was an electronic private killer, and nobody came to the office, but I still thought a neon sign would be a nice thing to have. Call it an art installation. It was 1965, after all. Maybe Ada would like it too.
Then I focused my optics on the job at hand. Things were starting to happen in the diner, and I hadn’t come out in a flood just to get my tires wet while I admired a street sign.
Pepi’s was a long, low building made out of curved aluminum siding with a mirrorlike finish, the metal and the water that flowed down it reflecting the multicolored wonder of the neon sign. The walls were ridged like a trailer, although as far as I could tell the building wasn’t built to move. It had a red roof that wasn’t quite flat and big red double doors and windows all around three sides that were also big and also framed in red. There was an awning stretched out along the whole front of the joint. The awning bounced in the wind and the rain sprayed back up into the air in a mist so thick that when the neon sign flashed red it looked like Pepi had set his grill too high and lit the place afire.
I checked my watch and then I checked my internal chronometer just to be sure. They both told me it was coming up on nine in the evening. But despite the hour and despite the weather the place was doing steady business. From my position behind the wheel I could see into Pepi’s pretty well, the rain so heavy it ran what was effectively a single, solid sheet down the windshield, which did nothing to my view except to make it ripple a little.
Inside the restaurant were five occupied tables, three by the front windows and two farther back, and I could see three waitresses moving around in red-and-white uniforms. There was a young man in white busy behind the main counter and behind him there was another man working the grill. My view was so good I could even read the menus that hung over the counter if I zoomed in a little.
The three tables at the front were booths. The one nearest the restaurant’s doors was occupied by a trio, two teenage girls dressed like cheerleaders and one teenage boy dressed like a jock. He had red hair and one of the girls was a blonde and the other a brunette and they laughed and drank their milkshakes and all was right with the world.
In the next booth along sat an older couple. She was blond and wore a dress almost the same color as her hair. What hair the man had left was mouse brown and he wore glasses and they were both more interested in their chicken salads than each other.
The next booth was empty. The one after that had, until a minute ago, been home to just one man. He was wearing a black suit with a black tie and white shirt. I’d gotten into position after he had come in, but I assumed the long, wet black coat hanging on the chromium hook by the doors was his, as was the black hat with black band that sat on the table in front of him. He’d been there awhile, and despite the persuasive nature of Pepi’s servers, he had yet to order anything and any conversation he’d had with the staff had been short and to the point, but on a night like this Pepi and his staff were clearly pleased enough to have some company so the black-suited customer had been permitted to stay without giving the place his custom.
A couple of times the man in the booth had looked out of the windows and he had looked straight at me, but I knew I was safe. The lights inside the restaurant were bright and white, and while the parking lot was lit in moving reds and yellows and blues by Pepi’s magical neon sign, that helped me a great deal, given I was sitting inside a dark car behind a windshield slick with water. I didn’t need to breathe, on account of the fact that I was a wonder of electronic wizardry and mechanical genius, so none of the windows were in any danger of fogging up. If the guy at the booth had been looking at me all he would have seen was the shape of a largish car like all the other largish cars in the lot and the mirrored shapes of the big neon letters reflected back at him from the windshield.
The man had piloted his booth solo for a good half hour when he was joined by someone, although it wasn’t that someone that had got my attention. It was the reaction of everyone else in the restaurant when he walked through the doors.
He’d driven into the lot in a small, low car with a sharp front and big wheels and no backseat to speak of. He’d parked close to the main doors, not in a slot allocated for vehicles but at an angle that suggested he either owned the place or thought he did. That left him only a few yards to swim to the entrance, which he did with a beige trench coat pulled up and over his head. That coat made it onto the chromium hook alongside the black coat, and that’s when people started getting excited.
It was the teenagers first. The two girls had their backs toward the door and their eyes locked on the jock, and when I zoomed in I could see the disappointed confusion scudding across their faces as the jock’s eyes went up, followed by his chin, followed by his athletic behind as he lifted himself up, just a few inches, to get a better look at the newcomer. Of the two girls, the blond one turned first, and then almost as quickly her hand shot out and she grabbed the shoulder of her friend and pulled her around too. Their milkshake nearly went over but the trio had suddenly lost all interest in it.
The object of their attention walked across the length of the diner, from my right to my left. As he passed the booth of kids I zoomed out, my optics skipping as they tried to get a focus on the newcomer’s jacket. It was plaid, yellow and white and black, and there was some red too and maybe some green and it played merry havoc with my vertical hold. No wonder the kids were mesmerized by him. The CIA could use the pattern of the fabric to brainwash a foreign agent.
There was something about him that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. As I watched I reached for the yellow legal pad on the passenger seat next to me and with a mechanical pencil I made a note or two.
Memory like mine, I found it paid to take notes.
The older lady in the middle booth saw the newcomer from the corner of her eye and those eyes followed him as he made his way across the restaurant. While the jock stared and the cheerleaders whispered to each other, the woman just smiled, and she looked happy and relaxed and she looked like she was remembering an old story from long ago and maybe she was imagining she wasn’t in Pepi’s diner on a wet and wild night with a man, perhaps her husband, who continued to work at his salad and didn’t look up.
The newcomer reached the man in the booth. He gave a nod and slid in sideways. His jaw was as square as cut glass and when he spoke about a million white teeth did their best to outshine what I supposed he thought was a sport coat. He smiled as he talked and when the waitress came over he smiled some more. The waitress took an awful long time with the order, and when she went back to the diner’s counter her first port of call wasn’t the kitchen but the other servers, who were all standing and looking and smiling with shoulders hunched, heads ducked down, their bodies together in a way that was not entirely dissimilar to the reaction of the cheerleaders at the first booth. The older guy with the glasses was missing out. I wondered if I should walk up to the glass and knock, tell him to stop fussing with his lettuce and mayo and take a good look behind him.
As for me, who the newcomer was I didn’t know and I didn’t care. But the other guy in the booth, the man with the black hair and expression as friendly as the weather, I knew three things about.
First, that his name was Touch Daley.
Second, that he was a G-man.
Third, that I was going to kill him.
Copyright © 2018 by Seven Wonders Limited