As I slowly rolled past the address scribbled on my note pad, I couldn't help noticing the garage.
I'd always wondered about those double garages that are shared by two homeowners. The buildings sit between the houses at the end of a single driveway. This one was on a hill and had a little stairway that was poured between the two ribbons of concrete.
The garage building was divided right up the middle by a line separating the two colors of paint. The left half was painted the same color as the house on the left, and the right half matched the color of the address on my pad, 2712 E. Montecito.
I knew the garage was the reason I was here. The woman on the phone pleaded hysterically for me to help. Her husband was missing. She repeatedly mentioned the garage and the next-door neighbor.
I guess it was the way she said it. Or maybe it was the sound of her voice. Because, I hopped in my car and beat it over.
Of course, I hadn't had a case in a week. I had been sitting in my office downtown throwing darts at a picture of Humphrey Bogart on the wall, near my Stetson Tom Mix hat, which I hadn’t worn in a month. Hell, I hadn’t ridden my horse Largo in a month. Bogie was the reason I'd started out as a detective. Sam Spade my ass. The most exciting cases I'd ever had in Tucson were tracking runaway girls from the Country Club Estates and repossessing cars. The girls were usually found with their boyfriends in some cheap flop on East Speedway Blvd. Repo-ing the cars was just a matter of getting up earlier than the dead beats that hadn't made their payments. Phillip Marlowe my ass. The photograph of Bogart was placed in such a way that his nose was the bulls-eye. By now it was pock-marked and there was a cluster of darts sticking out of the middle of his face like the tail feathers of an unplucked Thanksgiving turkey.
When the phone rang, I didn't grab it on the first ring, even though I could have. You want to give the perception of being busy, so I threw a couple more darts before I answered. One of them went out the window.
She gave me her plea and her address. I got my Chevy Coupe out of the self-service lot on First and Eastland Street and headed down Broadway Blvd. It was raining again and the river was as gray as the sky.
The neighborhood was pretty typical for the near east side. Small, neat houses with well kept yards. The war had brought a lot of skilled laborers and had filled these neighborhoods to capacity. She had a scrawny pine tree in the front, probably the only survivor of the scrub forest that used to cover this part of the valley.
I didn't have to knock on her door, she came running out as I parked in front of her place.
She was dressed like a "bobbysoxer" even though she was thirty. Plaid skirt, saddle shoes and a tight white cashmere sweater. My mind began to wander.
She reminded me why I was there, and as I shook myself to attention, she gave me more details.
Her husband and the neighbor guy got in a fight over the divided garage. Apparently the plug next door was a drinker and was pretty sloppy about where he left his yard tools. His name was Dixon and he was a night watchman at the mill in Oro Valley. She told me that sometimes he would come home at seven a.m., get tanked up and mow the lawn in his undershirt. Her husband, on his way to his job as a bookkeeper, would have to move all Dixon's equipment to get his car out of the garage every morning. This had been going on for three years and was blowing up into major battles. One day the lawn mower, the next day the rakes and finally an old pickup truck that Dixon was using to haul stuff to the dump.
Of course the little woman liked to sleep in. She never got up and fixed her hubby breakfast, so she only heard the commotion. Beauty sleep. The previous morning she had heard a serious blow-up that culminated in what sounded like a brawl. By the time she finally made it to the window, she saw her husband's Plymouth drive off, but she hadn't seen him since. The receptionist at his office said he hadn't shown up for work and he was usually very regular.
"It's been twenty-four hours, I'm really getting worried." Jeezus I was having trouble concentrating. I hadn't seen a tan like this up close in a long time. "Paul just wouldn't leave without letting me know where he was going." she went on. "And we were getting along so well since I came back from Los Angeles."
"I'm going to have to talk to Dixon, do you think he's home?" I asked her. "I've heard him over there yelling at Irene all morning. You won't have any trouble finding him, follow the beer bottles," she said.
I knocked on the wooden fly screen door. Nobody answered. It squeaked as I pulled it open and let a couple of flies out. The front door was slightly open and I could hear a radio inside playing a Rinso jingle. I called out and immediately heard footsteps heading my way on the wooden floor.
Dixon looked like the cartoon character in a razor blade ad. No 12 sandpaper on a jaw that stuck out like an anvil. His two hundred and fifty pounds were evenly distributed around his middle. Before I could open my mouth to introduce myself, he bellowed out "Whaddaya want?" in a voice that was preceded by a wave of breath that nearly knocked me over. It was all I could do to smile and hand him my business card.
He held it up in the light to read it, turned it over to see what was on the other side, wadded it up and threw it back at me.
"I'm here at the request of your neighbor, Mrs. Price."
"Tell that bitch to turn down that jungle music."
This guy could scratch his belly and talk at the same time. Progress.
"She wondered if you had seen her husband Paul?"
"Yeah, I seen him. He was heading off to work, with his tail between his legs yesterday."
With that he laughed. It was a witticism. He should be writing for Jack Benny.
"You haven't seen him since?"
"He wouldn't have the nerve to show his face around here."
"Was there some sort of fight between the two of you?"
"Yeah. Two hits. I hit him and he hit the ground."
More laughter. He started to choke. Benny's ratings would soar.
"Look, smart-ass, I don't have time to waste on corn." I had to be the tough guy once in a while.
His face turned as sour as a kosher dill. Then it started to turn red. When he went from scarlet to crimson, his face exploded like the noon whistle down at the train yards. He sent a haymaker right at my head. I dodged and came at him down low with a quick one-two. His stomach collapsed and he began gasping for air. Some yellow-green liquid spilled from his mouth and nose as he went down on his knees on the wooden front porch.
"Like I said, I don't have time for this." I gave him in my best Bogart. "What happened yesterday morning?"
"We had a scrap. He was pissed about the truck blocking his way. I knocked him down. He limped over to his car and then drove across my yard and down the street. That's the last I saw of him."
"If I find out there's any more to this, I'm coming back. And, pick up my card, if you think of anything else, I'm gonna hear from you. Right?"
"I'll call you. Just get the hell off of my property." He had definitely lost his bravado. He'd probably go in and slap Irene around as soon as I left.
When I walked back to the Price house, she was standing there watching me. I think she was aroused by the violence, because she had turned very flirtatious.
"I can see I called the right guy. You really get things done, don't you?" she purred.
"We'll see about that."
I told her I would check out some sources, but, that her husband had probably gone to see a doctor or had rented a hotel room to hide out and lick his wounds for a while. I asked her for a photo of him and she went back into the house. I could hear her rummaging around in the roll-top desk near the front door. She came back out with one of those amusement park strips, four shots for a quarter. They were both in the photographs. In each frame, she struck a different pose. In each frame, he looked straight into the camera, without a smile.
I went back downtown to the Sherlock Building and rode the cage elevator up to my office on the third floor. I dug my office bottle of Jim Beam out of the bottom desk drawer and picked up the telephone. After I called my friend Marty down at the DMV and asked him to check out the license plate number that Mrs. Price had given me for her husband’s Plymouth, I poured two fingers in a fairly clean glass and downed it neat.
Days like this made me want to go sign up at Chaparral College and study economics. Another domestic violence situation, only this time between two neighbors. Over a lousy shared double garage. It was still raining outside and I was starting to get depressed. I kept thinking about that cashmere sweater. I went back down to the newsstand in the lobby and picked up a pack of Camels. Just as I reached my outer office door the phone started ringing. I got inside on the third ring and Marty was on the other end.
"I just got a call from Lieutenant Barnes down at homicide." Marty sounded a little stressed, it wasn't his day either. "He asked me to look up the registered owner of a car. Funny thing is, it was the same license you just asked me to look up. I stalled him off, I didn't want him to think I got the number from the files too quickly."
"Why was he calling?" I was hoping Barnes had given him an incentive to work quickly.
"It seems they are just now dragging that Plymouth out of an arroyo down by the Air Force base” he said.
"Jeezus, was there anyone in it?"
"He didn't say. But I gotta go, I've got to call him back, right now."
I hung up and went down to the parking lot again. I drove straight down the East Barraza-Aviation Parkway. The Parkway took me a couple of miles south and down to Avernon Way. As I drove over the bridge I could see the tow-truck and two black-and-whites parked right at the edge of the arroyo. The tow-truck had the Plymouth on its hook like a thirty-pound salmon. As I took a left off of the bridge and drove down towards the arroyo, I could hear the rides over at the amusement park to the north. Never too early for a thrill.
Lt. Barnes stopped me with a raised palm as I got too close.
"What the hell are you doing here, gumshoe?"
"It seems you've picked up a car I was looking for."
"So, were you also looking for the stiff that was crammed in behind the wheel?"
"Have you I.D.'d him yet?"
"No, maybe you can help us with that, smart guy."
Stephen H. Sasser