(DEAD MEN DON'T MAKE HOUSE-CALLS)
A DEACON BISHOP MYSTERY
Michael W. Paulson
A DEACON BISHOP MYSTERY
Copyright 2007 by Michael Paulson, all rights reserved.
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It was late-afternoon on a cloudy, July. I was in my office finalizing notes concerning the reuniting of a sixteen-year-old female with her bewildered father. He was delighted at my success. So much so, he vowed to chant it to the heavens. The girl was less enthusiastic. As was Ronny Platt, the musician with whom she fled. Ronny was charged with a variety of offenses, including statutory rape. All of which meant an expensive, embarrassing trial for him--along with a multitude of lies proffered to his wife.
I marked the case 'closed' but before I could file it, the office door banged open and a man stormed in.
The fellow was squat, fiftyish, and dressed in brown tweeds. His suit was wide across the shoulders and short in the leg. Thick, black hair abounded upon a head round enough to rattle bowling pins. The former was parted in the middle and greased back along each side. Four heavy strides took him across the room to my desk.
"Sign on your office says 'Deacon Bishop, Private Investigations,'" he said, glowering. His eyes were green and protruding. They stared snakelike and unblinking. "If you're such a hot-shit detective, why aren't you doing something?"
Based upon his heaving chest, red face, flailing arms and less than cheery tone of voice, it did not take much detecting to note the fellow's disagreeable mood.
"You just missed my latest performance," I remarked. I pushed the file folder off to one side and stared at a pockmarked face the color of an overripe plum. "Take a seat up close. I'm looking forward to your coronary."
He slumped into one of the customer chairs fronting the desk and leaned forward, one of his thick forearms resting upon the desktop. "Just find the goddamn bastard," he roared, in a gravelly snarl. His breath soured the air between us with each heaving gasp. His skin dripped with perspiration.
I rocked back in the swivel chair and lit a cigarette. "Why not?" I said. "I've got a few minutes. Have you been blessed with a name? Or should I call you 'asshole'?"
His chin dipped. Then he gave his head a dismal wag. "Goddamn wise-ass!" he grunted, the color of his face fading to its near-normal rustiness. "Albert Ferris. My name is Albert Ferris. Okay?"
"Very good, Mr. Ferris. Now which bastard would you like me to find? Austin has so many. I think it has to do with inbreeding and the ever-present, corrupt, political machine. My favorite bastard is the one who refers to himself as, 'The Judge'. He's quite easy to locate. All I have to do is ask for the nearest brain-dead bozo who couldn't cut it as a litigator. Would he do?"
Ferris' broad shoulders drooped. "Some days it ain't worth getting out of bed." Then he took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his face. "Jason Peterson is who I'm looking for."
"That's two for you. Now what's your plan for Jason, Mr. Ferris?"
The squat man stiffened upright, creaking the chair with the force of his movement. He shoved the wet handkerchief back into his trousers. Then he glanced back in the direction from which he came as if worried he might be set upon. After which, he returned his unblinking stare to me, tilting toward the desk. A flush rose in his face, like when an inexperienced tongue first tastes the fire from a Serrano pepper. I set myself for his next verbal volley.
"What do you care?" Ferris's voice rasped like dry bones sliding down a steel ramp. "I'm willin' to foot the goddamn bill, ain't I? Any price you say; okay? All you gotta' do is point-out the bastard!"
I blew smoke at him. "I don't crawl into deep, dark holes without a flashlight, Mr. Ferris."
His eyes finally blinked. Then his brow furrowed with confusion, squeezing out a fresh layer of sweat. "What in God's name are you talking about?"
"You're about to bust an artery. You're so tense the muscles in your neck are bulging. If I was to guess, you're planning to kill Jason Peterson. So what's he got on you, Mr. Ferris? Maybe there's an alternative to murder--considering Texas is infamous for executions."
Ferris started to rise, but caught himself. Then one stubby finger thumped the desktop as he shouted, "That's not part of the deal, Bishop!"
I rocked my chair forward. "It was nice chatting with you, Mr. Ferris. I particularly enjoyed your shouts. The vibration they set up cleared my sinuses. Let's do it again sometime soon."
One of his wide hands became a fist and punched the air between us. "Look, I get you're taking extra risks working in the dark. So, charge me an extra price, Goddamn it! I've got money, okay? That's what money's for."
I nodded unsympathetically. "I'll send you a bill for listening."
Ferris splayed has hands entreatingly. "Do it!. I buy guys like you every day with pocket change."
I snuffed out my cigarette in the ashtray on the desk. His last remark thinned my patience. "Not me, Mr. Ferris."
"All right. I got out of line there." His voice once more went soft. "Look. I ain't a bad guy." Then as his word-count built so did the rage in his tone and the bulge to his eyes. "I just want you to find the lousy son-of-a-bitch! That's all you gotta' do. I ain't gonna' do him no harm! Fair enough, for Christ's sake?"
I was no longer interested in extending tolerance or understanding. "You expect me to believe you're trying to find Jason Peterson to add his address to your Christmas list, Mr. Ferris?"
The squat man slapped one hairy paw, on the desk with a resounding splat. "It ain't like I'm gonna' kill the louse--not like he don't deserve it!"
I leaned my elbows on the yellow notepad in front of me and made a teepee out of my fingers. "I've got a license to maintain, Mr. Ferris. There are rules. If I get careless and break those rules I'm out of business. And, despite your claims, I think you've got something unpleasant planned for Jason Peterson. I'll play no part in it."
"What kinda' Private Detective are you?"
I fought an urge to leap up and exercise my knuckles upon his left ear. "My kind, Mr. Ferris. Have a nice day."
He shook his round head as if trying to re-hook a lost connection, deep in his brain. "You got me all wrong," he pleaded. "I ain't the violent type. I'm just a building contractor. I put up high-rises and bridges. Sure, sometimes I get short-tempered. But it ain't like I bury bodies, for Christ's sake!"
"You don't have to. Not with all those deep concrete footings your constructs require."
"I ain't never killed nobody in my whole life--not on purpose, anyway!" he bellowed, throwing his big arms up, his fists balled into maces.
"Nevertheless, you're not leveling with me, Mr. Ferris."
He made it to his feet this time. "You calling me a liar?"
I leaned back and propped my feet upon the desk. "If the shoe fits, Mr. Ferris. Only if the shoe fits. Now, either tell me what's behind your need to find Jason, or take a hike. You're making me late for my needlepoint class."
Ferris's face pinked, and his eyes renewed their snakelike stare. "Sweet Jesus, what I go through for that girl! Okay. Maybe I ain't been on the square. Not, completely. Maybe I got plans for Peterson what ain't so nice. But they ain't what you're thinkin'." He stomped one big foot in frustration. "All I'm gonna' do is stuff his Goddamn pockets full of money and drag his skinny ass out of town! There ain't no law against that, is there?"
"I think the Attorney General might object to the dragging part. But we'll worry about it when the time comes. Exactly why does Jason Peterson deserve your special brand of financial consideration?"
"There you go again!" he bellowed. His thick fingers clawed at the back of his neck before collapsing to his sides in frustration. "Askin' unrelated questions. They ain't part of this deal!"
I got to my feet this time. Instead of lunging across the desk and battering him like I wanted, I spread my fingers upon the top and let my nails dig into the varnished oak. "The only deal we have is my letting you waste time, Mr. Ferris. Now, answer or get out."
"My daughter's why." He muttered a curse and kicked at the air. "She married that low-life, no good, scum-sucking bastard! He treats her like shit, I tell you. Well I've had enough. If he leaves for good, she'll come back home where she belongs. Now, if I ain't bein' reasonable I don't know who is!"
"And if Peterson turns down your offer, Mr. Ferris?"
I heard his molars crunch like boulders being dragged across tiny seashells. But Ferris did not reply. Slowly, he settled back into the chair, more sweat spreading across his pained face.
I continued, "If Peterson comes to harm, I'll have no choice but to go to the police with the details of all that's passed between us. Is he worth dying for, Mr. Ferris?"
His molars gritted some more.
"Does your daughter know about your plans for Jason?"
"How much money do you intend to offer Jason?" I asked, despairing for any kind of verbal response.
He leaned forward the veins in his neck sticking out like squirming purple worms. "Fifty grand!" he roared. There was a pause. After another session of grinding dentition he said, "Okay. We'll do it your way. I don't have to know where the skinny son-of-a-bitch is. You just find the bastard. When you do, you tell him about my offer. If he goes for it, you can even deliver the money. If he turns you down--well, the bastard had better not!"
I settled back into the swivel chair, took out my pen and began jotting notes on the yellow pad. "Okay, Mr. Ferris. Before I can start I'll need more information. What does Peterson do for a living?"
"He doesn't. He's a goddamn doper!"
"Jason must get money some way to manage all this hiding-out where you can't find him."
His brow furrowed, pinching his eyes nearly closed as if a steel nail was being driven into his skull. "Plays jazz, or so he calls it. I bought him a Goddamn horn. Everybody says he great." He batted the air with one palm." "I don't much like it."
"The doping, or the music?" I jibed.
Ferris slapped my desktop, again. "There you go with them damn unnecessary questions!"
"It's hard not to do when I'm dealing with a man of your unique intellect, Mr. Ferris."
He took my remark as a compliment, and nodded appreciatively.
"How did your daughter meet Jason?" I asked.
Ferris leaned against the back of the chair, far from being relaxed. "Ellie? I'll be damned if I know. She just showed up with the bastard, ten or twelve years ago. I'm lookin' at my Baby-girl standing next to a dirty dog. And she's telling me they're married." His voice was now soft with sorrow, and disappointment. "Peterson is nothing but a long haired, filthy scum-bag who doesn't have brains enough to blow his own goddamn nose. But, from the look on Baby-girl's face you'd think she'd won the lottery. Great God almighty, I don't understand women."
"Neither do I. But their built-ins keep me trying. Does Jason belong to a musician's union?"
Ferris shrugged his huge shoulders. "How the hell would I know? Maybe. I suppose. Ellie'd know."
"Where does your daughter live?"
"Why, for Christ's sake?"
I returned his unblinking stare. "Because she probably knows where Jason hangs out and who his friends are, Mr. Ferris."
His green eyes narrowed sharply. "That's not part of the deal, either."
"The fact you're here proves you don't have a clue as to where Jason might be. Ellie probably does."
"Damn it all! I didn't figure on you talking to Ellie." He made an overwhelmed gesture. "I guess there ain't no way 'round it." His finger pierced the air between us. "But, I don't want her to know the deal, understand?" His cold green eyes gave me another going over as if I were a rat crawling around a python's cage. "Not, the, deal. Clear?"
"Ellie lives over on Calumet Avenue, in Lampasas," he said. "Number 2137, apartment 311. It's a goddamn dump. She won't come home, where she belongs. And I'll be damned if I'll hand out cash to that horn-playin' shit-headed, low-life, no-good bastard unless it's walkin' money!" He raked his sausage-like fingers through his greased-back hair as if his scalp was on fire. "I got a deal with the landlord, okay? She falls behind in the rent he talks to me, not her, okay? I take care of it, okay? You're gonna' do this, then?"
I stood up and nodded.
Ferris dragged out a money-clip loaded with hundred-dollar bills. Then he pulled the green pile from the clip and tossed it onto the desk. "Draw against that. When you need more let me know."
Ferris stuffed the clip back into his pocket and got to his feet. His heavy legs shook. His neck twisted one way and then another, like a turkey at a shoot waiting for its turn in the target area. However he did not move. There was something more Ferris wanted to say, but he did not know how to go about it.
"I'll find Jason, Mr. Ferris," I warned. "If anything unpleasant happens to him afterward, you and I will have another discussion. But there won't be a desk between us then That's the other part of our deal. Understood?"
Ferris stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets, clinching his fingers against the bottoms. "You got a daughter, Mr. Bishop?"
I wagged my head.
He scratched one of his big ears thoughtfully as if trying to decide whether to give me some additional information. Then he turned and slogged out, like a man walking away from everything but what was on his back.
I picked up the money and counted it. There was nearly two thousand dollars in recently-printed greenbacks. They felt crisply pleasurable in my hands. I went over to the safe, opened it and stuffed the cash inside. Then I shut it, spun the dial and returned to my chair. I could not help but smile as I sat down. There was nothing like a money-pile to give an old man young ideas.
I leaned back in the chair and propped my feet upon the desktop. I was about to close my eyes for a well-deserved nap when a woman entered. She was tall, dark, thin and graying. Her pretty face was completely lacking in makeup. She was dressed in a faded Sisters of Compassion uniform. Clasped within the grasp of one hand was a bundle of green cards. The other reached out to me.
"I am Lydia Pinkham," she announced, waving the bundle. "I'm selling pancake-supper tickets. It's a fundraiser for the homeless. How many would you like to buy?"
I sat up with a start, my feet hitting the floor with a bang. "You mean with money?"
"It's for the less-fortunate," she said, a soft plea in her voice. "Each ticket costs $5.00. It's all you can eat."
I stood. "What about promotional items? I could use a toaster."
Her head wagged. "But we're serving sausages."
Lydia Pinkham reminded me of a girl I went to school with: Edna Larkin. Both were the goody-two-shoes type who was always chasing dreams, always thinking the best of people, always giving her time and dedication to anyone in need. I seduced Edna the night of our senior prom with empty promises of love-everlasting. More out of guilt over Edna than compassion for the unfortunate, I took out my money clip and peeled off a five-dollar bill.
"Instead of sausages, how about a prayer at your next gathering?" I asked. "There's a slight stain on my errant soul. Nothing serious. But a little outside help would be appreciated. I'd ask my priest. Unfortunately, Father Drapula went off-track due to circumstances of the six-legged kind."
"Off-track?" she echoed in confusion.
"I'm told he's taken quite a shine to his padded cell."
"You expect me to believe your priest has six legs?"
"Father Drapula's very fond of spiders. The caretakers of the asylum let him draw pictures of his favorites on the floor. He's in a straightjacket so he has to fit the crayons between his toes."
She glanced at the money-clip before offering me a nervous smile. "Prayers are limited to purchases of two or more tickets."
I peeled off two more five spots. Her eyes went to the three bills in my hand, her mouth slightly parted, as if I held the world within my grasp.
"I will also say a prayer for your priest's recovery," Lydia declared, her voice lilting slightly with anticipation.
I went over and handed her the bills. She smelled of scented soap and innocence. "Father Drapula's problem is temporary," I explained. "Apparently the members of his congregation objected to receiving little critters in the mail. Mine is ongoing."
Lydia Pinkham laughed softly, her voice giving my heart a tug. She was not the type of woman I preferred. In fact she was just the opposite. My idea for a good time was a sexpot with few brains, fewer morals and no inhibitions. However there was something special about Lydia's unselfish dedication to others. It created a strong allure--not unlike Edna on the night of the prom.
"I hope you're not skipping Mass because of his absence," she softly scolded.
I wagged my head. "With my leanings, I can't afford to. That's why I visit Father Drapula each Sunday. I receive a personal sermon and he gets a pint of gin. However, I find it hard to accept absolution from a man in a straight jacket. His hands can't move. And there's something unnerving about seeing the sign-of-the-cross made below-the-waist."
Lydia gave me another confused, questioning look.
"It's a guy thing," I explained.
Her cheeks pinked at the implication. Nevertheless, she took three green cards from the bundle and handed them to me.
"I suppose you're married," I said.
She tittered nervously, giving her head a wag. After a heartfelt "Bless you, Sir!" Lydia turned and hurried out.
I stuffed the tickets into my wallet, went back to the chair behind the desk, and sat. "You would have squandered the fifteen bucks anyway," I mused. I flopped my feet onto the desktop and closed my eyes. "You would have tossed it away on women, horses and other wanton forms of frivolity! Well, maybe one very cheap woman." I drifted off dreaming about trumpet-playing blondes, brunettes blowing licorice-sticks and redheads riding thoroughbreds--naked, of course.
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