Here’s a Noir inspired story I wrote a while back. I hope you enjoy it!
The Big Detective
John Welles. Words: 3,773. Finished: 26/4/09.
Business was dead, as usual. I sat depressed on a dark, leather chair facing a desk that was cluttered with various bits of paper and pens, with an elegant light (the only expensive ornament in the office) looking at me. An old door, that had frosted glass covering the top half, was rotting away at its own quiet pace. I picked up one of my cards that I handed out to any person that cared to have one. It said:
A bug crawled across my desk, looking like Boris Karloff on a bad day. The bug got to the edge of the desk, and worked its way down the table’s leg.
The air was hot and stuffy, like the air you find in a sauna. I got up and went to open a window. All that did was let in more hot air than a politician, and the fumes from the Los Angeles traffic. I looked up at the Sun. It looked like a million light bulbs.
I went over to the customer waiting room, just to make sure no one was there. Nobody was.
I went to the adjoining room that contained all the toiletries and splashed my face with water. I saw my own face in the mirror. It was pretty ugly. A large nose curved down my face from two medium brown eyes that were covered by brushy eyebrows. Black hair was abundant on the top of my head. A weak and small mouth completed my face. You could also just see the beginning of my large body. Some less kind people would call it fat; others would simply call it big. I walked over to my desk and sat down again. I felt miserable. I hadn’t any work in well over a month. I was just living off the cash I had saved up since my last big job, which had been last fall, in ’47. Then, out of the blue, he walked in.
He was like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Dick Powell all rolled into one, but only better. The man had sleek black hair, dazzling blue eyes, a strong nose and chin, with a clear-cut mouth. I got up and greeted him.
“How do you do, Mr. Barrymore?” I said. You just can’t keep my wit down.
“My name is Philip Toland.” He said as cold as he could in that sort of weather, which wasn’t very cold at all.
“Please, sit down.” I replied, while giving him one of my smiles. It was supposed to be reassuring and confident. I think I failed, miserably.
“Thank you.” Toland sat down in the chair, facing me. “I have a rather delicate matter on my hands. As you probably already know-“
“No, I don’t know. Now let’s start from the beginning. What do you do?” I asked him, impatiently.
“I am a film producer at MGM. I have produced-“
“Okay, okay. Are you married?”
“Yes and my problem is not that my wife is unfaithful!” Toland cried angrily.
“Alright, you don’t have to get all fired up about it. It was just a guess. Now, what is your problem?”
“Well… If you won’t be vulgar about my wife…”
“I won’t, I won’t!”
“It’s about my brother, Jack. He’s been- well how should I put it? He’s the black sheep of the family. He’s been involved with gangsters and who knows what else. Jack also has an unfortunate habit of gambling, and every now and then he gets into debt and I have to bail him out. Well, about a week ago, he rung me up and asked me to come over to his apartment, because he said he needed money, and fast. So, I went over and nobody was there. That isn’t like Jack, especially if money was involved, so I waited there for a while, but he never came back.”
“Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“If I did, it would all have to come out, and the studio boss would probably fire me, as he wouldn’t want some gangster’s brother working at his studio. So you can see my dilemma can’t you?”
“Yes, a rather delicate problem. So you want me to find Jack Toland and bring him back?”
“If possible, yes.”
Toland gave me his address and phone number, along with his brother’s apartment number and key.
“Goodbye, Mr. Toland.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Grant.”
Later that day, I went to Jack Toland’s apartment.
It was a pretty seedy place, on Los Angeles’s bad side. I walked up to the tenth story, and found his place. Judging by the corridor outside, this was a very bad building to live in. Filth littered the floor; the paint had gone an unpleasant shade of green and everyone’s doors look liked something you would find in a rubbish dump. I went up to Jack’s door, and knocked on the door to make sure he hadn’t returned. I waited a minute or so, but no one came running. I out took out the key Toland had so thoughtfully given me and opened the door.
Inside, it was a mess. Chairs and a table were overturned, a large settee was ripped to shreds and the wall paper had blood stains on them. I went through the living room, into the kitchen. It was the same story there. Pots and pans were lying on the floor along with some tins of food. I crossed the living space, and found his bedroom. In there, it was relatively untouched. Only a small bed-side table was overturned, with a photo of somebody on the floor. I pick up the picture. On the back of it, it said “Jack Toland”, the actual picture showing an unshaven man with long, dark, curly hair, smoking a cigarette. He was holding an expensive looking lighter, that was coated with something that looked like gold paint. You could also just make out initials on it, saying “J.T”. I took the photo out of its frame, and tucked it in my breast pocket. There didn’t seem to be anything else in the apartment, so I went out and locked the door.
I went across the hall, and knocked on the opposite door. A big, blurry man in his thirties opened the door. He had that look in his eyes that said: “Here was a man that you didn’t want your daughter to bring home.”
“What da’ya wants?” He muttered to me menacingly.
“Hello, friend. I’m a privet dick.” I handed him my card.
“A shamus, huh?”
“I was wondering, did you ever see any people go into that apartment across the hall a week or so ago? And has anybody been back there?”
“I might have, and then again, I might not have.”
I flashed him a couple of green backs. He grabbed the money greedily.
“Yeah, I did. About last week, in the evening, I heard a fight going on in there so I open the door, an’ I see some pug-uglies dragging dis guy down the hall. Course, I shut me’ door pretty fast, after seein’ dat. I don’t want no trouble, do I? No ones been back in there, as far as I can remember.”
“Thanks pal.” I told him.
It was night. Glaring neon lights jumped at you as you drove past them. The clubs were just starting to fill up, and bars started to get ready for the nightly deluge of alcoholics and regulars. Despite raining harder than usual, it didn’t stop anybody from getting drunk in some vice-ridded bar. A thin sheet of water covered the pavement and fast cars splashed you with more water than was in a swimming pool. Men turned there raincoat collars up trying to look like Humphrey Bogart, most of them failing. As some writer said: “It was a dark and stormy night.”
I was out that night; driving over to the Toland pace, up in Beverly Hills. I found there house, it wasn’t easy to miss. It was massive, with a porch that you could park a car in, windows that were big enough to fit Chinatown in, and large white washed walls. It was the sort of house that you boasted to your neighbours about.
I got out of my car and rung a bell, that sounded like a church bell ringing. A blonde woman opened the door. She wore blue slacks and had nice face, if you liked that sort of face, which most men did.
“Mrs. Toland?” I asked, politely.
“Yes. And you are-?” She had a nice voice.
“Mr. John Grant, the privet detective your husband has hired.”
“Ah, yes. Please come in.”
I went in. The reception room looked like it had cost a million dollars to get it looking like that. It probably had. There were nice, comfortable looking chairs, sitting round a sparkling glass coffee table. Large soft rugs covered the floor and expensive pictures hung on the wall. A balcony of the highest order looked over all this. Toland came down from the balcony, and greeted me.
“How do you do, Mr. Grant?” He asked me.
“Fine thanks, but its rotten outside.”
We sat down on the leather chairs.
“What did you come to see me about?”
I told him about everything that had happened when I went over to Jack Toland’s apartment.
“So what do you think happened?” He asked me.
“I think, Jack was in debt to some gangster, who got tired of waiting and decided to take him for a ride.”
“Do you think he’s dead?”
“He could be, but I’m not sure.”
“And how do you account for the fact that I went to him in the afternoon, and he wasn’t there, and yet the “kidnapping” didn’t take place until that evening. It’s hardly likely that he went out, after all, he would know some gangster was after him.”
“I’m still working on that bit.” I told him.
“By the way;” I asked Toland, “could you show me where Jack would go and places he went? I may be able to find some clues as to where he is.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m working tomorrow, but my wife could take you.”
“Thanks Toland.” I said.
It was a bright and breezy day. The sun shined down, and a cool wind stopped the day from getting to hot.
Mrs. Toland had parked her car on Los Angeles nastier side. Thugs hoofed about looking for a fight. Gambling joints were doing a roaring trade and drunks spent all there savings on buying one last drink. It was a nice day, for a bookie or a barman. I got out of her car and followed Mrs. Tolland down the street.
“Was this where Jack would go?” I asked her.
“I know he went here sometimes, because of the gambling parlours. I’ve had to pick him up sometimes when he’d lost all of his money and couldn’t afford a bus back to his apartment.” She told me.
“Right, sounds like a nice guy.” I said sarcastically.
We walked down a narrow alleyway, but not so narrow has to let two cars get down. Rubbish was abundant with litter sticking to your shoes. The tall, oppressive buildings on ether side seemed to block out the sunlight. Also, dog pooh irritatingly was everywhere. A man wearing a large brown overcoat walked just ahead of us.
“On one of the shops to our right will be a betting parlour. Jack use to hang around there a lot.” Mrs. Toland told me.
Suddenly, a black sedan car drove up the street at running pace. One of the widows slid down, and an automatic pistol appeared. It shot five times at the man wearing a brown overcoat. He dodged to the side and ducked behind Mrs. Toland. Four red marks jumped on to her chest. She fell down, like a ton of bricks. I dived into the shop that was nearest to my right. Ironically, it was a butchers shop. As soon as the car got to the end of the alleyway, I shot out like a gun, and grabbed hold of the man. I turned him around. He had the face of Jack Toland.
“Let go of me, you fool!” He screamed at my face. He elbowed me in the stomach, and ran off. I chased him to the end of the road, and turned the corner. Two mean looking men, wearing monkey suites were knocking Jack out with a blackjack. Too late, I heard the swish of a heavy object.
I woke up with a splitting headache. Pink elephants danced around on my eyelids. I opened them. I saw the big black sedan driving off. They mustn’t have hit me too hard; otherwise I would have been out longer. I pulled out my revolver, and fired fruitlessly at the speeding car. I went back to the dirty butchers shop. A great, big piece of fat looked up at me as I went in. He had two chins and probably weighed more than a truck. He wore a greasy apron that was miles to small.
“Have you called the police?” I asked him.
“Therese been a shooting outside!”
“Has there?” He replied.
“Oh, for goodness sake!” I stormed past him, and found a telephone in his office, that looked like a pigsty, which it probably was.
“Hello? Operator? Could you send the police over to Jackson Street…? There’s been a shooting… That’s right a shooting… Someone’s dead… Who killed the person? How should I know? It looks like the mob to me… You will send the cops over won’t you…Thank you.”
The police were down there in five minutes. I gave them some cock and bull story saying that I was just down there working for a client that I refused to name, and the women wasn’t connected to me whatsoever.
I rang Toland up from my office, and told him what happened. He didn’t take it to well.
“You were supposed to protect her!” He shouted at me.
“Listen Toland, that rat of your brother dived behind her, so the gangsters just fired. There wasn’t any thing I could do about it.”
“She was my wife!”
“I know, I know.”
“How much do I owe you for letting my wife die?” He said nastily.
“Well now… Let’s see… A hundred dollars a day… That makes it two hundred dollars.”
Tolland hung up.
It wasn’t going to be easy finding Jack, but I had a pretty good idea where I could find out.
My reasoning ran thus: the three hoods would have taken Jack somewhere quiet, and wait for all the fuss surrounding Mrs. Toland’s death to die down. So, they would hide out in one of the houses that were in the hills around Los Angeles. They wouldn’t risk going out any where in fear of being spotted and pick up by the police. That meant that someone would have to transport food to their hideout. The hoods almost certainly worked for Larry Webb, the largest mobster in town, who apparently bought the mayor’s election. Webb had a lot of gambling parlours so it was likely Jack got into debt with him. That meant Webb’s hoodlums would transport the food. His biggest warehouse was on the west side of the city, and the most likely one were food would be taken from. So, all I had to do was to spy on that particular warehouse, follow the car or whatever they took the food in and I would find Jack. I just hoped my reasoning was right.
I got into my Ford car and drove over to the west side.
The warehouse was a dump. Filthy puddles and odious fumes drifted in from the large factories close by. Litter covered the streets. The warehouse itself was nothing special. It was built with huge metal plates that had long since lost there shine.
I sat in my car round a corner at such an angle no one would see me, but I could see what they were loading in to the many cars and tucks that left the place. I sat there for a long time. It was three days of sheer boredom, only going home when the last man left.
On the third day, they finally loaded a car up with food. It speeded past me and I followed.
Whoever was driving it was keen not to get tailed, but he couldn’t beat me. Swerving in and out of alleyways and roads, he finally decided nobody was trailing him, and went on his way.
It took an hour of driving through congested traffic jams and large, empty roads, before we arrived at our destination. I had been right; the house was taken away out in the foothills surrounding Los Angeles. I left my car at the bottom of a track and
concealed my car behind some trees. When the car came down; I got out and went up the track, which was full of pot holes and large puddles, that it was a wonder that the car actually got up there at all. The house itself was two stories high, set back from the road, and up the short beaten track. The walls were made from red brick and a solid oaken looking door heralded wanted visitors. I doubted very much that I was wanted.
I crept up to one of the ground floor windows, and looked through. I saw a neat little room that had fake leather three chairs, some cheap ornaments on a mantelpiece that was over a fireplace and an ugly rug lay on the floor. Two hoods were sitting down, on ether side of Jack Toland. They wore smart black suits, identical grey ties and dark shoes. The first one had a squashed nose, a thin mouth and curly fair hair. The other had black hair, a straight, sharp nose and a thick, unlovely looking mouth. He was as ugly as a chimpanzee. Jack looked like he had been dragged through a hedge backwards. He had a grim expression and his clothes were a mess, consisting of a navy blue jacket and jet-black pants. One of the hoodlums got up and went out of the room. The other came over and stared out the window. If he had looked an inch lower, he would have seen me. He turned his back and lent against the window. I whipped out my pistol faster than a speeding bullet, smashed the window with the butt of the gun and hit the man on the back of his head. He dropped a sack of potatoes. I jump into the room, rushed to the door as the other gangster came out, with a gun that looked inhumanly large. I put my pistol to his back and said:
“Reach for the sky, gorilla.” I growled at him.
You don’t ague with a 38. , so he did as he was told, like a good little boy. Only good little boys don’t kidnap people. I tied the two gun monkeys up with some rope supplied by the captive. I turned to Jack.
“It’s… you…” He managed to crock out.
“Come on!” I dragged him out of the house and into my car. When we got in, I gave a shot of gin from my hip bottle. He drank like a man who had been in the desert for week.
“Thanks. I feel much better now.”
After I told him who I was, and what I was there for, I asked him:
“Don’t mention it. Now, how about telling me what happened?”
“Well, (he said) it’s like this. I was in debt with Larry Webb, that’s why I wanted money from Phil. The day I got pinched I was hanging around this bar, because I knew hoods would be around there. But, some of Webb’s mobsters came in so, I had to scooter back to my apartment. There, I ran in to those guys (he glanced back to the house) and the bandits got me, after we had a fight in the apartment. The crooks were going to wait for about a week for all the fuss to die down before they would kill me (I told him why the police didn’t look for him). I managed to escape the day the hoodlums were going to plug me, and flagged a car back into town. But, the thugs caught up with me, and accidentally shot that woman. I saw you there but at the time I just wanted to get away. They got me and waited. The gangsters were going to shoot me tomorrow.”
“Thanks for telling me Jack.” I then told him what had happened to me.
“Good old Phil;” He said when I finished. “I always knew he’d get help some how! I suppose you’re going to take me back to Phil’s house?”
I took him back downtown. Toland’s home actually looked quite nice by daylight. The sun’s rays reflected off the large windows and the exhaust fumes hadn’t reached up there yet. It was a nice looking place, if you liked that sort of thing. I wondered whether David O. Selznick ever visited the place. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had. It was the sort of place you show other producers to show how rich you are.
“Hello, Mr.Toland.” I said after I had ringed the bell and waited for the door to open. His jaw dropped about three feet.
“You got Jack back.” He said in disbelief. “Have you told him about my wife?” He asked sternly.
“What happened to your wife?” Jack asked. Toland told him. “And your paying-? “
“Five hundred dollars.”
“You’re not paying five hundred dollars to him, are you?” Jack said. He was a real nice guy.
“Listen, I risked my neck to get you out of there! I could have left you. But I didn’t. It’s not my fault Toland’s wife was shot up, I’m sorry and so are you. At least I deserve my pay.” I shouted at both of them.
Toland grudgingly took out his wallet and gave me five notes. I counted them slowly, before putting them in my pocket.
“Thanks, but next time, get some other poor sap to do your dirty work.” I walked off. I never saw them again. I read a year or so later that Jack had been brutally murdered. It looked liked he never cracked his gambling habit.