Not good – Not good at all.
Actually, it was a hell of a mess. A mess he’d have to do some fast explaining to the cops the moment they showed up.
Some fast talking if he got caught standing around. Which frankly wasn’t going to happen. Grunting to himself he could hear the sirens. A harsh cacophonic sound coming this way.
If he was lucky he had—at most—maybe three or four minutes to look around before he disappeared. Not much time. Not much time at all.
He stared at the body lying on the old tile floor. Blood covered the front of the man’s white shirt and puddle on the floor in front of him. A big hole directly into the chest where the heart should be had been the ticket out of this rat race.
He was a big man when he still breathed. Big—with the beefy heavy face of a prizefighter. With hams for fist. A jaw that looked like it had been poured out of cement. There were prize fighter’s scars etched in the man’s eyebrows and his nose looked like it had been hit a couple of times with a lead pipe. Yeah. When he was alive Leo Burns, private eye and the main muscle of a local crime boss by the name of Luigi Francone, was considered a tough guy. A bad hombre. But not big or bad enough to stop a .45 caliber bullet.
The gun was lying on the man’s desk looking every bit as if someone had casually tossed it away after pulling the trigger. The smell of cordite was still strong in the office. It was the gun his eyes came back to. The frown on his face deepened as he looked at it.
It was his gun. His—Benjamin ‘Beano’ Benvenutti’s. He recognized it the moment he walked into the dead man’s toilet bowl sized little office building. The Government Model Colt 1911 .45 semi-auto was his. It was supposed to be back in the apartment, locked away in a gun cabinet advertised to be impossible to be broken into. Obviously he would have to write a very irate letter to the cabinet manufacturer and chastise them severely for false advertising.
A grin broke across Beano’s lean features. A grin creating deep dimples in his cheeks in the process. The gun’s presence posed an interesting conundrum. Being framed for a murder he didn’t commit was definitely capturing his attention.
How the hell did it get here in Leo Burn’s office? Worse still—who had been the bastard who decided to use it to kill the low life lying behind the paper-cluttered desk? Shaking his head again the curly blond haired, brown eyed man glanced at the plate glass window. The sirens were closer. But no cops.
Reaching inside is light blue cotton sports coat he removed a white kerchief and picked his gun up off the desk. He wiped all prints off it before slipping it into the right side pocket of his coat. Swiftly and methodically he wiped the surface of everything he had touched. Doorknobs—chairs—the edge of the dead man’s desk—everything.
Just as the first cop car turned onto the street where the Burns Detective Agency resided Beano exited out of the building’s rear door. Taking his time he walked away and disappeared down an alley. Out of site from the cops, he slowed his pace somewhat and walked to his car, a black ’66 Pontiac GTO, and slid into the driver’s seat.
He glanced at his Rolex and frowned. Maybe a half hour. Not much more than that to get over to his apartment, strip the .45 out and clean it, remove the old barrel of the gun, along with the firing pin, and replace them with a new barrel and pin. If he knew the police here in this fine city it’d take them about a half hour to figure out he’d come down to visit Leo in his office.
Maybe sooner if somebody called’em and reported hearing gunshots. Grinning as he reached down and turned the ignition key he knew immediately that would exactly what had happened. Somebody had called the cops almost at the moment he walked into Leo’s office. Someone who knew he was going to be there.
How many ways could you spell ‘Set Up?’ He’d been deliberately set up to take the fall for killing Leo Burns. And he had an idea who that person was.
Backing out of the parking space he put the gearshift down into second and pulled away and blended into traffic. As he drove he found his cell phone and flipped it open.
“Gershwin, Shaw and Young, Attorneys at Law,” the sweet voice of Monica Davis, private secretary to Gerald Gershwin said with her usual erotic soft southern twang echoing in his ear. “How may we help you?”
“Monica, this is Beano. Is Gersh in?”
“Oh, no, not again, Beano! Are you chained inside a wretched holding cell down at the local constable’s office?”
He grinned as he eyed the rearview mirror and wove himself through the early afternoon traffic. Monica had such a dry sense of humor.
“The answer is—No, I am not in chains. Not yet at least. But yes, I may be in some trouble shortly. I’ll need to have Gersh come down and bail me out in about two or three hours.”
“I’ll have him call the lock up the moment he gets out of court later this afternoon, dar’lin. Don’t you worry your pretty little head over it.”
“Thank you, love. Talk to you later.”
Flipping his phone closed he dropped into the inside pocket of his sports coat and concentrated on getting back to his apartment as fast as he could without arousing anyone’s interest.
Forty-five minutes later his front door exploded with the sound of a heavy fist pounding on it demandingly. Wiping hands clean of the light oil he used to clean his gun as he walked across his apartment’s living room. With one smooth motion, he opened the door and stepped to one side. Two big forms walked through the door. Both were dressed in hot looking dark business suits and bad attitudes clearly written on their faces. Both were chewing toothpicks. Both eyed him oddly as they walked past him entering his apartment.
“Well, well if it’s not Dick and Jane out playing cops again. What are you two fine representatives of the city’s best doing over here?”
Sergeant Stuart Nivens frowned and stared at Beano before moving deeper into the apartment. His partner, Sergeant Chuck Stiles, followed. Each looked as if they had had one taco too many for lunch. Each was taller than Beano and about twenty pounds heavier. Each looked like they were waiting for an excuse to throw the blond-haired PI up against the wall and work him over.
Nivens was the first to see the gun-cleaning kit lying on the dining room table. He elbowed his partner and nodded his head toward the dining room. Stiles glanced over to the table and nodded, a smile beginning to crease his thick lips.
“Spring cleaning the hardware, Beano?”
Beano grinned and continued to make a show of wiping his hands with the rag and nodded.
“Sure. Been out plinking cans in the desert, Stew. Thought I’d clean it before I locked it away. You know I don’t carry a gun when I work. Never have.”
“Yeah, I bet,” grunted Stiles, the grin on his lips widening. “Betcha’ said that to Burns just before you plugged him.”
“You know who, Beano,” Nivens grunted, his hands curling into fists as he turned and faced Beano. “Let’s go. Give the key to your gun locker to Chuck. We need to take your gun downtown and run some tests on it.”
“Sure,” Beano nodded, reaching inside his slacks and coming out with a small key ring and tossing it to the smiling homicide detective. “But could you give me a clue here? What’s this all about?”
“Leo Burns is dead. Got a call about an hour ago from a citizen walking by Burn’s office saying he heard gunshots inside. Two shots. Said he saw a guy with curly blond hair walking out of the back door and disappearing down an alley.”
“Gee, how convenient. This guy just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” the brown eyed private eye said, grinning. “I suppose you didn’t get this guy’s name did you?”
“Grab you coat, Beano. We’ll be the ones asking the questions for a while,” Nivens grunted.
Four hours and twenty minutes later—and after a rather long and not so friendly grilling session from both Nivens and Stuart—Beano walked out of the jail complex with a small, portly man dressed in an expensively tailed light colored cotton suit and lugging a very heavy looking briefcase at his side.
“This does not look good, my friend.”
“In what way?”
“My boy, as you have so often told me, doesn’t bullshit a bull shitter. You know what I mean. Burns and you have a long history of confrontation and hostility going all the way back to when you two worked on the police department. Everyone knows you couldn’t stand Leo Burns. He reciprocated those sentiments toward you. Secondly, your dislike for Burn’s employer, Luigi Francone, is well known. In fact, I seem to recall I had to bail you out of jail just a few weeks ago because you took offense to something Francone said to you. Fortunately, it was a simple Battery charge.”
Beano grinned as the two men stopped beside the white caddy convertible owned by his lawyer. He continued grinning as he watched the white-clad, treble chinned legal mind toss his briefcase in the back seat of his car and then turn to glare at the taller curly blond man.
The desert air in the late afternoon was hot and dry. It had a sandy desert aroma in it. An aroma what made Beano feel at ease. In the distance, he could just see the pale blue haze of the mountains. Standing beside his old friend and sometimes employer half listened to the evening traffic going home on Lanyard Street two blocks away.
Beauty and death all in one day.
“And then there is this unfortunate choice of murder weapon, Beano. Your gun? If you had to kill Leo why in the world would you use your own gun?”
“I didn’t use it, Gersh. But I don’t think it’s a big issue. Ballistics won’t match once they do the test. I . . . .”
“No, no! Don’t tell me what you did, my boy. I don’t want to know anything which would legally compel me to march back into the police department and make a report. Remember, even though I am your legal defense, I am also an officer of the court. But what I do want to know is how you got involved in this tawdry little affair.”
“Leo’s ex came to my office yesterday. Said she had a problem and wanted me to fix it.”
“Leo’s ex,” the little man behind wire rim glasses repeated, his forehead wrinkling in thought. “What’s her name? Helen, isn’t it? She’s a stripper over in one of Francone’s clubs isn’t she?”
“Yep. The Golden Kitten.”
“She hired you do to what?”
“She told me Leo had some photos of him and her doing something kinky in bed. She needed the photos and the negatives destroyed. She’s supposed to be talking to Hollywood producer about staring in a movie. She said she was afraid if she made good in the movies Leo would come knocking on her door a few years from now to blackmail her.”
“You believed her?”
“Is she smart enough to come up with a plan like this? Tough enough to murder Leo?”
“Maybe smart enough. But I don’t think she pulled the trigger. Nivens said they got an anonymous tip of a shooting. The caller said he saw me leaving Burn’s office. The caller was a male.”
“So she had an accomplice. Hmmm, it sounds like an excellent frame-up, Beano. What’s your next move?”
“Right now I’m going home and taking a shower. After that I’m going to find Helen and ask her a few questions.”
“Yes, that would seemingly be your only move available,” the rotund little lawyer said, nodding and frowning. “But I would be expeditious, my boy. Nivens and his partner are salivating over the thought they finally have you cornered. They would like nothing better than be one of the witnesses at your execution.”
“Yeah, I got that impression,” the brown eyed detective nodded, grinning.
The two shook hands before Beano turned and walked to his ’66 GTO. It didn’t take more than ten minutes to drive over to his apartment. It took less time for two men dressed in flashy clothes and lots of gold chains to step out from behind the manicured evergreen trees flanking the front door of his apartment building and brace the blond haired Beano. Each had a hand in a pocket of their sport coats and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what they were gripping.
“Let’s go,” the one with the dark complexion of a Hispanic said as he tilted his head toward Beano’s GTO.
“Why Miguel, nice to see you showing up like this. I was just thinking about you. Why does Francone want to see me so soon after getting bailed out of jail?”
“You’ll find out. Now turn and walk to your car.”
“And if I refuse this invitation to drinks and a friendly chat?”
Miguel and the other dark skinned thug both shrugged. One even grinned.
“He said take you to him or to shoot you. Personally, I like the second choice. Which is it gonna be, tough guy?”
He drove the GTO over to the Golden Kitten and parked the car in the alley behind the club. The three of them walked through the kitchen of the club and then down a small but dark hall before the silent one stepped around Beano and quickly knocked on a closed office door. Miguel stayed two steps behind Beano and kept his hand in his pocket and his hands on the back of Beano’s head at all times.
Entering an office of shadows and dark oak, silent thug slid a chair in front of Francone’s desk and then pointed to it as Beano stepped in. Smiling, the brown eyed detective sat down in the chair and crossed one leg over the other and laid his hands in lap casually while Miguel and his partner took up positions on either side of him and slightly behind him.
Luigi Francone was not a happy club owner. From the looks of his scared, darkly suntanned face and the little dark pen-points for eyes glaring at him Beano got the impression the man wearing a thousand dollar silk suit was in a very irritable mood.
“Let’s cut the bullshit and get straight to it, asshole. Where’s my quarter of a million?”
“And nice to see you too, Francone,” Beano answered, nodding pleasantly. “How’s the wife and kids? Well, I hope.”
Miguel stepped up behind him and slapped him hard across the back of his head. It wasn’t a pleasant love-tap. Francone blinked his eyes a couple of times and said nothing as he glared at the man setting in the chair. With a measured, even almost restrained effort, the big man opened a desk drawer and pulled out a set of brass knuckles and laid them on the desk in front of him. Laid them down carefully making sure Beano saw them.
“I don’t know why you wanted to kill Leo, other than the fact you didn’t like him. But taking the quarter million from him was stupid, Beano. Stupid. “
“Hell, Francone. I don’t like you. But I haven’t killed you. At least, not yet. And as far as the money goes, why did Burns have a quarter million of your dough lying around?”
“Leo was a stupid bastard, I’ll grant you. But he had his talents. One of them was his ability to make money disappear. In that he was a genius. But no more talking. I want my money. I don’t get it back in the next five minutes the boys and I are going to work you over for about an hour or so before we take you out in the desert and shoot you in the gut and leave you there to die.”
Francone wasn’t kidding. He was known as a mean sonofabitch when it came to money. Beano didn’t doubt the man in front of him would do exactly what he said he would do.
“Now who’s stupid?” Beano grunted, laughing softly. “Think I’d take a quarter million from you and still be in town? Think I’d take the money and leave you behind alive? I’m not the brightest light bulb in the room, Francone. But I’m not that dumb.”
Francone’s little pig’s eyes narrowed somewhat as he continued to stare at Beano. Behind him Beano heard one of Francone’s men stirring nervously.
“Boss, this asshole is playing with you. He’s gotta have the money? Who else would try something this dumb and think he could get away with it?”
Beano half turned to look over his shoulder at the silent gunsel standing beside Miguel. But Miguel’s hand slapped him hard again across the back of his head and told him to stay still. Beano smiled, nodded, and returned his eyes to Francone.
“Yeah, I’m stupid enough to take a quarter million from the mob, frame myself of a murder I didn’t commit, and then think I could whistle my way through all this shit and walk out of it smelling like a bottle of cheap perfume. Does that make sense to you?”
Francone grunted as a finger came up and rubbed the right side of his bulbous nose. For a second or two the Mafioso captain looked at Beano as he rubbed his nose. And then the hand returned to the desk and he nodded.
“No. Can’t say it does. You’re not stupid, I’ll give you that. But if you didn’t kill Leo and take the money, who did?”
“Don’t know. But I plan to find out.”
“Uh huh, you’d better. I’ll give you twenty-four hours, Beano. No more. After that you and the desert are going to be become friends for eternity. Now get out of here!”
Beano grinned and stood up. Turning, he glanced at Miguel and then at his partner. Miguel’s face was like a rock. Only the eyes watching Beano said anything. And it wasn’t friendly.
Miguel’s partner looked both upset and astonished at the same time. He kept darting his eyes to Francone and then back to Beano. But he kept his mouth shut. Stepping between the two, Beano’s grin widened as his feet padded across the thick carpet of the office and opened the door.
Climbing into the GTO he started the engine and paused. Setting back in the seat, hands on the car’s steering wheel, he glanced at the back door of the Golden Kitten and stared at it thoughtfully.
Who would be dumb enough to steal money from Luigi Francone? Dumb enough to think he could get away with it? Or maybe, just maybe, smart enough to come up with a plan a lot of people would immediately accept as gospel. A plan that made Beano the fall guy for a perfect crime. It would have to be someone who knew the history between him and Leo Burns. Someone who knew Burns worked for Francone—laundered money for Francone. Someone Francone would never suspect. Like maybe someone perhaps who worked for him.
Pulling out of the alley behind the club Beano drove across the street and pulled the car into a parking stall of a local pharmacy. Getting out he reached for his cell phone and flipped it open. Ten minutes later a yellow cab rolled up and he climbed in quickly. Rolling out three twenties from a fat money clip, Beano handed the dough to the cabbie and told him to sit back and take a nap. He’d wake him up and tell him to drive when the right time came.
It didn’t take long. He saw his prime suspect walk out of the club and move across the half empty club parking lot and slid into a black BMW sedan. Shaking the cabbie awake Beano told him to follow the Beemer. Fifteen minutes later the black BMW tuned into the drive a small cottage out in the city’s western suburbs. As the cabbie drove by Beano watched the man get out of his car and walk to the front door of the house. On the second step of the porch the door opened.
Leo’s wife, Helen, held the door as the man stepped in, taking his sport coat off in the process.
Setting back in the seat Beano told the cabbie to stop and let him out. Waving the cabby away he turned and walked back up the shaded, quiet neighborhood street and then cut through the yard of a house next to the one occupied by Leo’s wife. Nobody was home and the backyard pool was empty of life as he hopped over a small picket fence and into the back yard of Leo’s house. Lush dark green grass filled the back yard. Lining the picket fence was a bed of brightly colored azalea’s and yellow marigolds. But Beano wasn’t interested with flowers as he stepped up the cottage’s back door and tried the door knob. It turned and he quickly let himself in.
He found himself standing in a small but brightly clean kitchen. In front of him, through a door, he heard the muffled sound of voices. Quietly he moved across the kitchen room floor and put his ear to the door to listen.
“Dammit! The sonofabitch didn’t take the bait. He actually believed the bastard. Let him just get up and walk out of the office. Hell, so much for your brilliant fucking plan, Benvenutti is free and we’re stuck with the dough and can’t do a damn thing with it!”
“Shut up, you idiot,” Helen snapped irritably. “Keep quiet while I think this through. We’re in the clear. We have the money and no one suspects us. We just figure out another way to put the finger back on the stupid flat foot and we’ll be okay.”
“Yeah, but what if he does suspect something? What if he suspects you, bitch? What then?”
Beano grinned and pushed the two-way door open and stepped into the small dining room where Helen and the silent partner of Miguel stood facing each other. Both heard the door open and turned to stare at Beano at the same time. Astonishment and turning to panic lit their faces.
“Goddamn!” the dark man yelled, a hand coming up to reach inside his sport coat for his gun.
“Shoot him, Paco! Shoot the bastard!” Helen screamed, running into the living room behind him and toward a large purse setting on a red velvet recliner.
The gun was half way out of Paco’s coat when Beano’s curled fingers slammed into the gunsel’s throat viciously. Color drained from the man’s face as he coughed and bent over in pain. But Beano wasn’t finished. A leg came up and the dark eyed private eye kicked hard into the back of the gunsel’s left knee. The man went down with a thud onto the hardwood floor of the dining room, bending into a fetal position with both hands grabbing his neck as he fought to breath.
Paco wasn’t going anywhere. Bending down to remove the gun from Paco’s coat Beano turned just as the long legged, bosom-heavy Helen in her dark blue bikini started to pull a small .380 caliber Walther automatic from her purse.
She found herself too slow. Blind panic filled her beautiful face as she saw the brown eyed detective move across the room toward her. A powerful slap of a hand and the automatic flew from her grip. The same hand came up and slapped her hard across the face. She fell, her head hitting a coffee table and knocking her out.
Stepping back Beano looked down at the semi-nude form of Helen. She had all the tools to seduce any man she wanted. It wouldn’t have taken much to entice a dumb shit like Paco. His eyes moved to the large bag lying on the floor in front of the couch. Using the toe of his right shoe he opened the bag. A couple stacks of one hundred dollar bills slid out onto the hardwood floor.
A slow smiled crept onto Beano’s thin lips. Pulling out his cell phone he thumbed a phone number and held the phone up to his ear.
“Yes?” Miguel’s voice clipped harshly.
“Found your boss’s money and the ones who clipped Leo.”
“Wait a minute,” the gunsel grunted. Two seconds later Francone grunted.
“Here’s the deal,” Beano said. “It’ll cost you a cool twenty-five G’s to clean this mess up. Call it a finder’s fee.”
“Yeah? What have you got?”
It was simple. Beano would call the cops. They’d come to Helen’s house and find Paco and Helen lying on the floor unconscious. They’d be a hell of a confrontation. She’d claim innocence. Paco wouldn’t be able to say a thing. Beano would tell them about a stupid love triangle and Helen’s desire to get rid of Leo. He’d make sure Helen would confess to the cops and admit Paco killed her husband. The story would be true. But certain details would be left out. There would be no mention of the two hundred fifty G’s.
To his surprise, Francone agreed immediately and hung up. Too quickly, Beano thought as he dialed the police. He wouldn’t be surprised later on to hear Helen and Paco having nasty and fatal accidents while in the pen.
Oh, well. Who said life was fair? Worse. Who cared?