Not Done Just Yet
by Roy Dorman
“Another beer, please, Eddie, and a couple shots of peppermint schnapps straight up on the side.”
Johnny Adams, a private investigator by trade, was about half-drunk at ten o’clock. As there were no likely prospects of the female persuasion in sight, he decided to call it a night.
“Puttin’ out the ‘NO VACANCY’ sign a little early tonight, ain’t ya?” asked Eddie Johnson.
Eddie had been tending bar at The Shot Glass for almost twelve years and had seen a lot from his side of the bar. The Shot Glass was a dive bar in a part of Queens yet to be gentrified, and most of Eddie’s customers were a little on the rough side. But Eddie liked Johnny.
“Whatever happened to Thursday night bein’ ‘the weekend starts now’ night?” groused Johnny. “Am I gonna have to start goin’ to church to find women to talk to?”
“We don’t get a lot of women in here Sunday night through Thursday night, Johnny. I think maybe they’re afraid they’ll look needy if they’re out on the prowl on a week night.”
“Well, here I sit, lookin’ all needy,” said Johnny, finishing his beer and downing his schnapps. “See ya, Eddie; I’m goin’ home.”
“Maybe tomorrow night, Johnny.”
* * *
Johnny’s private investigator business managed to bring in enough clients each month to pay his office rent with a little left over. Since his last girlfriend kicked him out two months ago, he’d also been living in his office. That was getting old fast.
He was between jobs right now, and that meant he was also going to have to eat on the cheap until somebody stepped into his office with a tale of woe. A tale of woe and a fat retainer.
Thinking about food caused Johnny’s stomach to rumble. It was only eleven o’clock, a little early for lunch, but he’d only had coffee for breakfast.
“Now if a client would just pop in, we could go for a business lunch and—”
“Hello? Anybody here?”
The tapping on the door had been so light Johnny almost didn’t hear it.
“Yeah, sure, come right in,” he said. “I’m Johnny, ma’am. How can I help ya?”
The woman looked thirty but could have been forty. Tall, brunette, and very nicely dressed. She sat down in the chair Johnny pointed out to her and took a second to gather herself for conversation.
“I seem to have misplaced my husband,” she said, looking at the wall behind Johnny.
“Makes him sound more like a set of keys than a husband. When did ya last see him?”
“Two months ago tomorrow,” she said, still not looking directly at Johnny. “He e-mailed every other day or so until two weeks ago. Since then, nothing.”
“Maybe we should back up a bit. I told you who I was, but you haven’t told me who you are.”
This time she did look at Johnny. “I’m sorry, I’m Jennifer Ralston. My husband is Allan Ralston. I’m afraid he might be dead. Murdered.”
After saying what she had just said, Johnny thought that tears and a handkerchief were next. He was wrong.
Instead, Jennifer Ralston chuckled a little. “I may have accidentally got him murdered.”
Being a character himself, Johnny was always pleased to run into another character. And he was thinking Jennifer Ralston was definitely a character.
“If you think he might have been murdered, you should probably go to the cops. Have ya reported him missin’? Or murdered?”
“I said I may have gotten him murdered. I don’t want to go to the police until I’m sure I didn’t. You do see my thinking here, don’t you?”
Johnny badly needed the retainer this client could give him, but withholding information from the police about a possible murder was going right up to the fine line he usually drew when dealing with the cops. Most of the time he worked with them on a “need to know” basis, but murder had a way of messing up people’s lives. Starting with the person who was murdered, of course.
“Listen, Mrs. Ralston—”
“Call me Jennifer, please.”
“Okay, Jennifer. I was just thinking about lunch when you stopped in. How about we go some place quiet and start from the beginning?”
“That’s fine with me, Johnny. I’d like to give you a good faith advance for any help you’ll be able to give me.”
Johnny watched as Jennifer counted out ten fifty dollar bills onto the desk in front of him.
“Would this be enough for a case like mine?” she asked.
“I don’t know what kind of case we have yet,” said Johnny. “But, yeah, this is enough for starters.”
* * *
Since Johnny now had a little walking-around money and could afford to pay for lunch, they went to the Blue Dahlia on 23rd Street. He figured he could always put it under expenses.
“So, let’s begin again; you last saw your husband two months ago—”
“He was throwing his bags into a cab and heading for the airport. My husband’s in the import-export business. Most of his work is spent on the road. Often he has to go directly to the seller’s place of business to seal the deal. He went to Iran to try and purchase some antique Persian rugs.
“Iran’s a pretty dangerous place to do business these days, isn’t it? I would think—”
“Jennifer, how good to see you,” said a tall, good-looking man in an expensive suit. He bent over and kissed Jennifer on both cheeks in what Johnny called the “European pecking” style.
He didn’t acknowledge Johnny’s presence at the table. In fact, he turned his back on him completely and took one of Jennifer’s hands in his.
“Hello, Richard, good to see you, too,” said Jennifer. “Richard, this is Johnny. Johnny, this is an old friend of Allan’s and mine, Richard Payton.”
Johnny stood up and held out his hand to Richard. Richard spared him a quick glance, pointedly ignored his outstretched hand, and turned back to Jennifer.
Movie scenes with the ignored hand ran through Johnny’s mind. A number of them ended with a glass of water in the face or a punch in the mouth. If they had been at The Shot Glass instead of the Blue Dahlia, Johnny would have gone with the punch in the mouth option.
He briefly considered dumping his ice water on Richard, but then dismissed the idea.
Instead, he sat back down and reflected on what he had learned so far. He definitely did not want to go Iran, even if the Ralstons were paying for it. He had a passport, but knew there would be all kinds of red tape for someone with his checkered background to get clearance into Iran. And maybe a lot more red tape getting back into the United States.
In addition to those concerns, Johnny thought something about this case already smelled like four day-old fish.
“Now that Allan’s back in town we can—” Richard was saying. This brought Johnny back to the here and now.
So, this guy thinks Allan’s back in the States. I need to get rid of him so I can get more of this story from Jennifer.
“Mrs. Ralston? We do have a lot to discuss; maybe we should get back at it and let Richard be on his merry way.”
Richard turned to Johnny and gave him what he thought was a withering stare. Johnny, who had been on the receiving end of many a withering stare, said, “So, it’s been great, Richard; see ya next time.”
“Johnny’s right, Richard,” said Jennifer. “You see, Allan’s missing and I’ve enlisted Johnny to try and help me find him.”
Johnny was looking at Richard when Jennifer delivered this bit of news and was surprised to see him pale visibly. He hadn’t thought a cold fish like Richard had a full set of emotions.
“Missing?” said Richard.
“Yeah, like ‘not here’ missing,” said Johnny, standing again. “So unless you know where he is, I suggest you let Jennifer and me work on findin’ him.”
A sheen of sweat had broken out on Richard’s forehead and he gulped once before saying, “Yes, yes, I better be on my way. I’ve a lot of things to attend to. Good seeing you, Jennifer. Say ‘Hi’ to Allan.... I mean, well.... bye.”
He bumped into the waiter who was bringing Jennifer’s and Johnny’s drinks, mumbled apologies, and headed for the door.
“I’m sorry, I’ll get new drinks,” said the waiter.
“Not necessary, friend,” said Johnny. “None spilled, right? No harm, no foul.”
Johnny and Jennifer both ordered the special, and as soon as the waiter left, Johnny launched into the questions he had. He had decided he would have to be a little more aggressive in his approach to Jennifer.
“So, first, off, I need to know if you were involved in your husband’s murder,” he said. “That’s assuming he was murdered and hasn’t just skipped out on you for some reason. I also need to know who this Richard guy is and why he thinks Allan’s back from wherever he was.”
“Gee, Johnny, I thought we were off to a good start. And now you start treating me like you’re a cop and I’m a suspect...”
“Look, Jennifer, this is not a first date. You’re my client. I won’t take a case unless my client is completely honest with me. I’m not interested in gettin’ into a fight with one hand tied behind my back.”
“Okay. In addition to being a very savvy businessman, my husband is also a compulsive gambler. He always has unsavory people looking for him trying to get money he owes.
“A month ago, while he was still in Iran, two thugs stopped me coming out of a clothing store and told me they needed some of the money Allan owed or they would cut my face. I told them Allan was in Iran making a purchase and would undoubtedly make a big profit from the deal.
“They told me if I was lying, they would be back. They also said that depending on how big this alleged profit was, they expected Allan to pay off most or all of his debt.”
“That helps,” said Johnny. “But when money is owed to the mob and not paid, murder is often the likely outcome. If Allan came back to town and wasn’t able to convince these guys they would soon be paid off, they might have whacked him.
“And who is Richard Payton, Jennifer? Why’d he get that sick look when you told him Allan was missin’ and then hurry off like he’d left a burner on at home?”
Jennifer looked over at the bar and Johnny followed her gaze. Richard hadn’t left the restaurant. He was sitting at the far end of the bar, partially hidden behind a decorative pillar, hunched over and texting into his phone.
“I had no idea Allan was back in town,” said Jennifer. “Richard isn’t really an old friend; he’s actually one of Allan’s gambling buddies.”
“Hold it, Jennifer,” whispered Johnny. “Now do exactly as I say and don’t ask any questions. Do you have Payton’s cell phone number?”
“No, I don’t. Why do you need—?”
“Stop; it sounded like you were starting a question there. Okay, I want you to send this text to your husband’s phone: WALK BACK TO OUR TABLE NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO GET HURT. Send it now.”
Jennifer looked puzzled, but started texting. Johnny watched as Richard read the incoming text and then looked over at their table. He then slowly looked around the bar until he saw two nasty looking characters sitting a dozen stools from him.
Richard looked to the restaurant’s entrance and saw he would have to walk past those two to get out. He got up and walked over to Johnny and Jennifer with a sick look on his face.
“Why do you have Allan’s phone, Richard?” said Jennifer. “What’s going on?”
“Pull up a chair, Richard,” said Johnny. “You’ve got some explainin’ to do.”
The two goons didn’t get up but watched the table closely. The maitre d’ was watching these two just as closely. In the Blue Dahlia, they stuck out like two flies in sour cream dip.
Johnny pointed to them and said to Jennifer, “Are those the two guys who stopped you last month?”
“They are,” said Jennifer. “What should we do?”
“They’re Russian Mafia,” said Johnny. “If they get up and start this way, call 911 and say there’s a fight at the Blue Dahlia. Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s no fight goin’ on right now, but there could be by the time the cops get here.
“Now, Richard, let me throw some stuff out here. Allan never went to Iran. There was no Persian rug deal, and he’s been dead for two months.”
Jennifer had let out a gasp when Johnny had said that Allan was dead and now she slapped Richard hard in the face. “You killed Allan and sent those e-mails from his laptop!” she yelled at him, turning heads in the usually quiet restaurant.
Richard looked from Johnny to the two at the bar and then to his hands on the table.
“You and Allan were in deep to the mob and he came up with this Iran dodge,” said Johnny. “You didn’t believe it and were pretty sure the mob wouldn’t buy it, either. If Allan skipped to someplace far away and safe, like South America, for example, he would leave you to face the creditors alone. The only reason the mob held off after talking to Jennifer was that you texted a contact now and then from Allan’s phone, pretending to be him.”
Johnny saw the two goons put their heads together, agree on something, and step from their stools.
“Make the call, Jennifer, and make it sound convincing.”
Johnny stood up as the two reached the table. They got there just in time to hear Jennifer’s side of the 911 call.
“What is this you are doing here?” asked one of the thugs.
“Allan Ralston is dead,” said Johnny. “He never went to Iran. It was probably Richard here who killed him, or he could’ve hired a couple of goons like you to do it. There’s not gonna be any more money comin’ from the Ralston family. You got a bone to pick, pick it with Richard.”
The police arrived. Jennifer and Johnny met them at the door. Johnny handed one of the officers his card. “It’s those three back there, officers. One of them, the tall, well dressed one, may have murdered this woman’s husband. The other two are just thugs lookin’ to collect gamblin’ debts for their sleazy boss. We’ll wait in the lobby while you sort it out.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Roy Dorman