Inspiration is a funny thing. A friend of mine posted an assignment from her art school, a “line-trace and ink” drawing. I questioned whether it was “spy” or “noir”…and was challenged with the answer “BOTH.” The story below is the result…two-and-a-half hours, total writing time.
Oh, and I’m supposed to tell you that this drawing was inspired by Scott Campbell’s Abbey Chase, from his comic bo…er, graphic novel Danger Girl. So here’s my full disclosure…the images in my head while writing were, in no particular order: Harry Dresden. Casablanca (plus any Bogart noir role). Indiana Jones. Doc Savage.
I’ve stared down the barrel of a gun more than once. I guess you could say the novelty has worn off. Of course, I’ve never looked down one as bizarre as this one…just a hollow glassy-looking tube with a few rings around the end. It resembled nothing more than one of those ray guns from a Flash Gordon serial. Or maybe Buck Rogers…I was never much for the movies.
And, judging by the neat hole currently smoking in the steel girder next to my head, it was exactly that. A damned ray gun.
“And so, Mr. Stone” the figure holding the gun said, his accent making it sound more like Und zo, Meester Stone, “I believe you WILL be telling me how you found me here…and just who it was that hired you.” Even in the darkened gloom of the warehouse, I could see the smirk on his face, just above the gaping hole of the barrel. Seconds before, I’d seen that barrel spit out a bright green line, barely thicker than my finger…yet it had sliced a hole through the girder supporting the roof slicker than my grandfather could’ve put a needle through a hem. And Opa had been one hell of a tailor.
“Ri-i-i-ight,” I managed to say, drawing the word out slowly. I didn’t think I’d gain much by stalling—no one knew I was here and the docks down by the East River were pretty much the last place to expect a miracle—but it’s all part of the private investigator’s code or some such. You just don’t squeal any time some jerk asks you nicely. But some part of my brain way in the back kept thinking about that hole…and about how I wasn’t anywhere near as steely as my jaw might suggest.
“It’s like this…I wasn’t really following you. I was after the old guy.” I motioned toward the slack body, draped over the crate nearest my current partner in conversation. “It’s him I was looking for. He was the one holed up here. Finding you…well, that was just bad luck, I guess.”
The shadowy figure snorted. “Bad luck, yes. Bad for you, most definitely.” He glanced aside quickly at the dead body. “Herr Doktor Rosenberg”—his snarl managed to make even the guy’s name into some sort of insult—“will not, I’m afraid, be accompanying me back to the Fatherland.” Vaterland. “But his lovely little toy will be. I’m sure the Reich’s scientists will be able to figure it out. Rosenberg was a genius…but there are always other geniuses.”
I swallowed. “Really? Did you have to kill the old guy? He seemed rather nice, the last time I spoke to him.” Actually, he’d seemed rather terrified…which fit, if this nasty character had been after him.
The figure shifted slightly, moving away from the body by a few feet. “I had nothing to do with the doctor’s untimely demise. My orders were to bring him back to Berlin alive, the better to continue his work with the strahlkanone.” At this, he shrugged, the gun momentarily aiming away from my eyes…and then swiftly returning to point directly at my chest. “Upon seeing that I’d found his little hideaway, he grabbed his chest and died almost immediately. Juden…such a pitiful race.”
I bristled a little at that. If it hadn’t been for a lazy Ellis Island clerk when Oma and Opa arrived in America, I’d’ve hung out my shingle as Jakob Stein, not Jake Stone. Sure, maybe it’d been a while—a long while—since I’d gone to temple, or even talked with a rabbi about anything other than P.I. stuff. But I still remembered Passovers as a kid, Oma and Opa telling stories of the old country, and I didn’t like this guy’s attitude.
“And just who the hell are you, anyway?” I asked the guy, a little more grit in my voice than necessary. Whatever…it’s not like I was likely to leave this warehouse other than feet first on a coroner’s gurney. I might as well go out spitting in the guy’s eye…metaphorically, at least.
I got to see that smirk again. “Names…are so tedious in my line of work, I’m afraid. You may call me…Mister Sadler.”
At that, I heard a door shut, over to the side of the warehouse. And then I heard a voice…a voice whose silky smoothness I recognized all too well. I’d last heard it a few hours ago, at a society party in one of the ritzier parts of Manhattan.
“The ‘eagle’? Really? How droll. I see you as more of a Schwein. Or Hund. Or both.” And then she walked into the light, all slinky curves and clingy gown. It was the same dress I’d seen her in at the party…and I’d wondered then how she got away with it in front of all those society dames. It was light blue and clung to her body in all the right places…or wrong ones, if you were stuffy, I guess. Her long blond hair fell to her shoulders, swaying as she walked confidently into the brighter lights of the warehouse. A string of pearls was her only jewelry, encircling the pale skin of her throat. As she passed by me, she turned her head, giving me a dazzling smile that almost made me fail to notice the large semi-automatic pistol she held behind her back, a Browning I think. An accessory probably not common to the Upper West Side…but one I was a hell of a lot happier to see than a purse.
“Nein,” Sadler said, obviously shocked to see her here. And, I thought, with a sort of horrified recognition in his eyes. The barrel of the ray gun—the stahlkanone—swiveled to point at her. I thought I’d be glad to see it move away from my chest…but I wasn’t glad about its new target. He wasn’t happy to see her, not at all.
“Miss Deveraux,” I began. “Valerie. You really shouldn’t be here…” I trailed off. Hell, I was happy to see her.
“Valerie?” Sadler blurted. “Valerie?” He seemed genuinely surprised, his cool unflappability of a few minutes before completely gone.
“Oh, you know how it is, Sadler.” Now it was her turn to smirk. “Names are so tedious in our line of work.” She moved slightly to the side, her eyes never leaving his. Now she was standing directly under one of the bare bulbs, a pool of light surrounding her while Sadler and I remained in shadows. I was suddenly struck by the image of a goddess come down from Olympus, shining brightly among the dark clay of humanity. Maybe that’s too poetic…call it the benefits of a classical education, courtesy of my mother the Latin teacher.
Evidently, Sadler didn’t feel the same awe. He moved to the side as well, getting her more directly in his line of sight…and the line of that ray gun. “You made a grave mistake, coming here. Now I will have some success to report back to…”
“Thor. Drop the hammer.” The voice of the woman I knew as Valerie Deveraux never rose, never rushed. But those few words held a finality I’d heard only once before, in the quiet voice of a mob boss ordering a hit on his own brother.
There was a crash, glass shattering in one of the windows on the far wall of the warehouse. Then, a split second later, Sadler’s head…just came apart, vanishing in a spray of blood, bones, and brain. The rest of him dropped to the ground like a rock, thudding to the wooden planks of the warehouse floor. His hand still gripped the ray gun bonelessly, never managing to pull the trigger. I never even heard the shot that killed Sadler, not even as a far-off echo.
“How…? Who…?” I managed. Yup, that’s me…Jake Stone, professional stammerer.
Valerie turned her head to me, even as she strode forward, picking up the ray gun in the hand that didn’t hold her other gun. It had never moved from behind her back, so I knew it hadn’t fired.
“Sniper. Across the street.” As she spoke, her hand, now empty, gestured at the pearls at her throat. “Radio transceiver. Hell of a time making one this small…but oh so worth it.” She smiled at me, that dazzling smile again. I consider it a small victory that even part of my brain was able to think about something other than that smile: just where had she stashed the ray gun?
“No…not that. I mean, OK, that,” and I pointed at Sadler’s body, the blood slowly pooling around what was left of his neck. “But how did you find me here? And just what the hell is this all about?”
Her smile lost a little of the dazzle as she turned to inspect Dr. Rosenberg’s body. “It was all about Rosenberg. I may have lied about some things”—she’d told me he was an old family friend, a dentist visiting from Germany who’d gone missing in the big city—“but I really did want you to find him. Alive. That’s why I hired you. Quite the reputation as the best private eye in the city.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly. The best private eye in New York, fooled by a dame. A dame with great gams, sure…but a dame nonetheless. The boys down at Mac’s would never let me forget that…if they ever found out, that is. “So who are you, really?”
She looked over at me again, a smirk on her lips once more, way prettier than Sadler’s smirk had managed. “Oh, I don’t think we should worry about ‘really.’ Just call me Valerie Deveraux. I rather like that name.” The door to the warehouse opened again and I could hear several men moving quickly inside. “And that would be my boss.”
Several minutes later, I had to admit I was impressed. Three men—obviously G-men, judging by their cheap suits and identical bland expressions—had swept in, picked up Sadler and Rosenberg, and departed just as swiftly out the door. Then they’d returned with some rags and cleaned up the floor and nearby crates until you could hardly tell there’d been any disturbance. Like the Heinzelmannchen in Oma’s stories. They’d poured some sort of liquid on the floor where Sadler’s blood had stained it and it smoked where it landed. I’d put down even money that the bloodstain would be gone by the time the sun rose.
Valerie’s boss was even more impressive. A short, gray-bearded man with a steely smile…and, I swear, an eyepatch, like he was some kind of pirate. He even had a scar like a pirate, a straight ugly line that traveled from his forehead, under the patch, emerging to run down his cheekbone. Not hard to figure why he wore the patch.
I couldn’t remember the exact words he’d said to me…but he’d managed to convey in a quiet, hard voice that I had the thanks of a grateful nation, worthy of some sort of medal even. And that I should never, ever, say a word about any part of this case, not unless I wanted to discover that there were deeper, darker holes than Alcatraz, that is. And then he’d glided over to the area where Sadler and Rosenberg had been, inspecting it with a practiced eye. Pun not intended.
Valerie appeared at my side, still incongruous in her fancy gown. I looked her in the eye…not hard to do, as she was almost as tall as my own six feet.
“Well, I guess this is good-bye.” I said. Yeah, I’m a real charmer with the ladies.
“You never know,” she said, a soft smile dancing across her lips. “We might need your help again. I might need your help again.” Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought I heard a faint emphasis on the ‘I’ in that last sentence.
“Valkyrie.” That was the bearded man’s voice, calling to her from the door. I’d never even heard him move away.
“Right away, chief.” With a last smile at me, she turned and walked smoothly out the door, leaving me alone in the warehouse. Hard to believe this had all happened in less than a half an hour. And that’s when it hit me…she’d never explained just how it was that she’d found me. Just showed up at the docks, saved my life, and then ran off again.
I was at the door when another thought struck me. I’d only gotten half up front for this job. The other half…well, it wasn’t like I could send the bill to J. Edgar Hoover, now could I? With a sigh, I opened the door and out into the empty night.
Just another typical night for Jake Stone, private investigator. At least my tab at Mac’s was still good.