Monday, May 16, 2011

FICTION: Heaven Can Be Hell by Evelyn A. Archer, P.I.

           I understand addiction.  For two years I was hooked on unhappiness.  Otherwise known as marriage.  Chuck Bainbridge's wife, however, apparently had a habit that was harder to kick.
"Angel did coke in college," he told me two days ago in my office at Undercover Operations. "Years ago, see. Then booze and some weed, but nothing what I would call heavy.  This time's different, you can bet on it."
He was worried about the kids--so he said--ages five and eight.  Boys.  But it took him a sec to remember their names, which meant protecting his money was his primary goal.  Once he proved she was an addict, he'd demand divorce and full custody.  And a charitable chunk of child support, no doubt. 
"I don't want her busted or anything, just some pictures, maybe an eyewitness or something."  His beady little eyes glistened like a cliché from a Raymond Chandler chapter.  "She'll agree to anything then to keep C.J. and Benny from finding out.  Wouldn't want to ruin her reputation as Super Mom."  He grunted in disgust.

Meanwhile he was playing the devoted spouse so she wouldn't suspect.
Nice guy.
So I put Undercover operative Harley Meeks on the case.  He plays the nervous, twitchy type to perfection--he'd pass for a junkie any day.  As arranged, we met at midnight on a neon-colored corner outside the apartment of Angel's best friend and dope dealer, Marla Dickson.  Chuck Bainbridge had made a point of telling me he believed Marla was the zookeeper feeding Angel's bad habit. 
I was wearing my best leather dress that fit so tight my breasts threatened to pop out the top.  I fit right into the crowd on this lively LA strip where "strip" had more than one meaning.
"Bainbridge was right about Marla, at least," Harley told me.  "She sold me a handful of meth yesterday.  Made it in her bathroom, she said."  He picked at his lip and his eyes flicked back and forth.
"Stop shifting from foot to foot, will you?" I told him.  "You look like a Hindu on a bed of hot coals."
He saluted me.  Cocky bastard. "Angel hasn't shown up yet, but everybody else in the neighborhood has."
"Angel's not getting the dope delivered, either," I told him.  "I've been sunbathing in the park by their building from dawn to dark and the only thing I've figured out is that SPF15 tanning oil might as well be used to fry chicken for all the good it does.  Chuckie boy, however, seems rather fond of fried chicken.  He must have jogged by my spot half a dozen times.  Checking up on me or checking me out--one or the other."

"He's a breast man, all right.  He strolled pretty slow through here the last two nights."
"Doing what?"
"Besides ogle, you mean?  Don't know.  He sort of loiters around and then the next time I look, he's gone.  If it wasn't for the fact he doesn't know I'm working for him, I'd say he was keeping an eye on me, too."
"Has he been here yet tonight?"
"About half an hour ago.  Disappeared right before you got here."
I looked up at the lighted third floor window that belonged to Marla Dickson.  A shadow moved across the shade and was gone.
"What's she like?" I asked.
"Blond.  Big busted.  Hard body--cold heart.  Tests her stuff herself, she says."
"You look like you need some sleep."
"And a shower.  Playing a low life sure smells bad."
"Might as well go home, then.  I'm putting you on the Conner case tomorrow night.  You get to wear a tux with a silver cummerbund."
Harley grinned.  "This one's wrapped up then, eh?"  After three years together, Harley could read me pretty well.
"Just about.  A few minor threads left to stitch in place, is all.  I'll fill you in tomorrow."
I walked across the street when he left.  By the time I made my way to the alley behind Marla's building, I'd had to tell two johns I was well beyond their price range.
I was in luck.  I only had to hike my dress up a couple of inches in order to climb the fire escape stapled to the brick wall in back.  Hanging from the third floor landing, years of practice made it easy to hold on with one hand and snap award-winning photos of Marla's bathroom with the other.
Satisfied, and tired of feeling like a hot wing wrapped in licorice, I called it a night.

I resorted to the jogging bit myself the next day--courting skin cancer wasn't figured into my daily fee.  At 12:30, as usual, Angel came out with the boys and went over to the playground.  I stopped under an oak tree for a sec, sipping a few squirts from my water bottle and watching.  Benny wanted Mom to push the swing harder and C.J. was trying to get her to watch how high he could throw the ball and still catch it.  Somehow she managed to do both.  When the kids ran off to join some friends, I walked over and sat next to Angel on her bench.
"You might want to take the boys out for ice cream in a little while," I said to her.
"Hmm?"  She turned her eyes away from her kids with a slight smile still on her lips.  "Do I know you?"
"I'm a friend of your husband, so he thinks.  In about five minutes he's going to meet me here to collect these photos he paid me to take."  I pulled a corner of the envelope out of my fanny pack to show her what I meant.  "He thinks these are the pictures I snapped day before yesterday when he took the kids out for supper so you could juice up."
"Oh, gosh."  Her face darkened and her shoulders sagged.  The loving mother took on the haunted look of a meth-head.
"But they're not."
She looked up with a question, but no hope, in her eyes.

"They're the pictures I took last night through the window when he bought more dope from his girlfriend, Marla.  How long has he been supplying you?"
She shrugged.  The lines around her eyes gave her a twenty-three going on forty-three look.  "A few weeks, I guess.  I was clean for years, even before we got married.  I knew he still got high once in a while, but not at home, not in front of the boys. He knew better."  Fire lit up her eyes.  "Then Marla had a party one night.  I thought, what the heck, the boys were both staying overnight at Grandma's.  So I let Chuck talk me into it.  After that--"
She sighed and looked across to where C.J. and Benny were arguing about whether Benny was old enough to join the big boys' baseball game.  "I never did it in front of them.  Chuck always took them out somewhere for a while."  She laughed bitterly.  "I told myself at least now he was spending some time with them."
"Well, now he'll be doing time.  Before he takes these pictures from my nicely tanned hand, Lieutenant Smentek is going to move in with his lapdogs."
"What about--" She glanced to her sons and back again.
"I hear the Hagen Däz on
Hayes Street
has a special on Cherry Chocolate Sundae Splits.  The kids should love them."
I rezipped my fanny pack and grabbed my water as I stood up.  "You can't miss it," I said, looking down at her.  "It's right next to the Berkley building--where they hold Narcotics Anonymous meetings every Thursday night."

The mother battled with the junkie in the look she gave me, but it was the mother who won out.  "Thanks."
No sooner had they exited stage left than Chuck Bainbridge jogged in from the right.  He grinned like a lecher on his way to a love-in when he stopped, and didn't notice how the old man on the next bench stood up when I leaned over to tie my Nikes.
"You made good time, Archer."  He held out his hand for the photos. "And if you're ever in the market for an even better time. . ."
Instead of photographs, he got a solid steel bracelet clicked on his wrist.  His smile faded fast as Lieutenant Smentek droned on.
"You have the right to remain silent, if you give up these rights, you have . . ."
I plugged my walkman back into my ears and jogged off, scattering a flock of pigeons into flight.  On oldies station WKTU, Phil Collins was singing It's Just Another Day in Paradise.

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