Ray eyed the woman across the piles of paperwork on his desk. His stubby finger jabbed the only white sheet amongst the coffee and smoke stained. She twisted the buttons of her fox fur shawl. He sniffed, wondering what she were most afraid of. “Are you sure all of this is necessary?” Ray stared at the handsome woman, mildly intoxicated by her floral perfume. She snapped her purse shut and patted a wisp of hair back into place. “Of course” She glared at him. ”Are you saying now you won’t do it? We had an agreement.” She reached out and placed a hand on a fat envelope, drawing it towards her. “Unless that means nothing to you?”
Ray’s hand shot out and grasped the edge. They glared at each other. “Not at all. I’m just; concerned. Just how many people know about this?” She let the envelope go and watched him pull it back towards him. She flicked her purse open and fished a silver cigarette case. A red fingernail separated the jaws to reveal snowy factory made cigarettes. The heat beaded on Ray’s upper lip as she watched her tenderly pull one out and place it in her dark red lips. The tip flared as she drew a huge breath in and leisurely allowed it to whisper out of her mouth curling snake-like round her face. “Does it matter?”
Gripping the paper, he dropped his eye to the list of demands. “So the deadline is eight pm tonight. It doesn't give me much time to-”
“You have known about this for a long time. Don’t act as if its a surprise."She blew a cylinder of smoke over the desk. “You don't think you are up to it.”
“Not saying that. Its just its too quick, I have so much more to do. Its too soon.”
“Ray Beconsfeld. Private Eye and champion of the people. Your concerns are my concerns.” Jean pointed to the doorway. “ That’s what the sign says outside. Do I need to spell out what is at stake?” He kept his eyes lowered, avoiding the blistering glare from across the table and shook his head. “I don’t have to say that I don’t want any police involvement? The police have no sense of humour. With my brother now promoted as Chief sergeant, this matter is delicate. He wouldn't understand any of this - the reasons why - “
He put his hand over hers “Don’t worry I won’t involve police. Your brother and the rest of the establishment don't look on what I do as anything useful. I’ve always been made painfully aware of that.” Her chair scraped backwards as she stood. The discarded cigarette fell to the floor, her heel twisting it into the grimy carpet. She adjusted her fur shawl. “Tonight at 8 then. You’d better be there.”
“Jean. You shouldn’t have come here.” She stood with her back to him considering for a long moment, before grasping the door handle and sweeping out. The door shuddered and attempted to close, but the grime and fluff built up stopped it in its tracks inches from the jam. His fingers curled round the sheet. Ray considered crunching it in his fist before relaxing his grip and smoothing it out. “Why the hell are these always so complicated?” His picked a pencil up and used the broken nib to furiously scratch his head.
“Mr Beconsfeld, what would you like done with all this filing?” Gilda thrust her crimped hair though the doorway. Rays shoulders slumped. Twenty years of detective work, clues, contacts and leads. It aught to be handed on; to someone who would see the value in it and - Ray deliberately folded the snowy parchment in quarters and slipped it into his breast pocket. “Thanks Gilda. Box it up. I’ll put it in the archives.”
Her mouth twisted. “Mrs Beconsfeld won’t like that. She told me -” Jamming his limp hat firmly on his head, Ray growled, “Thank you, Mrs Schultz. I am well aware of that arrangement. Now box it up and do the job I pay you to do.” Her head disappeared. He breathed in. Musty paperwork, decades of dust, sour sweat, stale cigarettes assaulted his nostrils. Gilda Schultz was afraid. Though his nose couldn’t detect it; he knew.
Her head was bowed over a pile of paperwork as he stomped outside. Boxes were stacked in haphazard piles around the tiny waiting room. He put his hand on the word handle of the outer door ad stared through the frosted glass in the insert. His painted name on the reverse was chipped. “I’m going out. Close up would you Gilda? I won’t be returning. Got a few folk to see, things to do.” Her stifled sniffle caught him unawares. He swore under his breath and shoved a hand into his pocket, retrieving a small box. Ray shuffled over to her desk and cleared his throat. “A token. Something small.” He dropped in on her desk and felt his toes squirm inside his shoes. Silence hung between them uncomfortably, until Ray turned on his heel and escaped out onto the street.
The winter evening breeze clawed his face. Ray pulled his coat tighter and hunched as he strode along the main shopping precinct. The list Jean had left was nearly exhausted with nearly 45 mins to spare. He allowed himself a rueful smile. What sort of bizarre activities she intended with the items he’d procured was beyond him. He didn’t recognise the address she had scrawled at the bottom of the sheet, but knew enough of the darkened alleyways in old Chinatown to guess of its whereabouts. He checked his watch and picked up his stride. He intended to be early; just to see Jeans disbelieving face.
The sour stench of rotting vegetables permeated the wide alleyway as he continued into the depths of Chinatown. A door opened midway as a waterfall of steaming liquid was thrown out into the gutter. Ray swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. A shriek from behind him sent fingernails of dread down his spine. Pounding footfalls echoed closer as a male made his escape from the woman’s continued screams. Ray slumped his shoulders, but continued to walk, judging the distance between the approaching man and him. At the moment he passed, Ray stuck a foot out and grasped at the collar of the miscreant. The man groaned and rolled to an unsteady low crouch. Ray stared and exhaled as he recognised the figure. “Fred Bare. Tonight? Really?”
More footfalls thundered up the alleyway. “Grab that pervert Mister, don’t let him get away.” The new arrival pushed his foot on the Fred’s chest. “Thanks for stopping him. This dirty bastard flashed my girl.” He poked the prone figure. “Lucky for you there is a witness, otherwise I’d have to beat the bejezus out of you.” He stuck a hand out toward Ray. “James O’Donahugh. My thanks to you.”
The little mans beady eyes glitter murderously at Ray as his lip twisted in an uncomfortable grin. “ Caught me unawares. But not again, Ray. What ya doing bustin' my balls tonight for?”
James smoothed his moustache and pushed his foot harder on Fred’s chest. “Caught ya with your pants down too. Not that anyone would notice.” Ray put his hands up, hating the sound of his voice the moment he spoke. “Let the authorities deal with this weirdo, James. Just walk away.” James gave Fred an extra push and grunted as he left the figure to roll on the alleyway.
Cliperty clacks echoed up the alley as a tiny figure furtively called out to her boyfriend. “James? What’s going on? James?” With a flurry of movement, the flasher leapt to his feet and crouched low, growling animalistically. His coat flourished behind him, settling around him like a mist. James’s grin was wider that the harbour. “Now this is what I’m talking about. I’ll sort out this perv.” Ray sniffed. Wet bricks and putrid fish. “Not tonight. Of all days. Where the hell are the police when you need them?” he muttered under his breath the irony not lost on him. James’s youth shone like a stupid beacon. Ray put his hand on his shoulder “I got this.” He felt old and wrung out. “You run along with your girl. Let me talk to Fred. We go back a long way.”
Fred kicked a trashcan over sending the lid scattering across the cobblestoned pavement. He leered at both men beckoning with a hand. James leapt toward him and began to swing punches at his face. Both fell to the dirty street and began rolling in the grimy puddles. The flasher bucked and twisted, unsettling James’s position, forcing him to the ground. Fred fluidly stood and forced his coat back to display his naked glory. The coat theatrically swept upward again as he fumbled inside it. Too late, Ray spied slender stiletto knives being withdrawn from their secret spaces in the hemline. James’s face crumpled in disgust, but was immediately replaced with a look of blank shock. One of the knives appeared in his chest as seeping claret began to colour his shirt. Ray recognised the acrid thin scent of blood and wondered if this distinguished the smell of fear. James’ girlfriend began to scream as she clattered over to his body. Ray shook his head. Fred was a serial pervert, not a killer. “Has my world gone mad? I’m really losing my touch.”
A wailing siren he had dreaded hearing for twenty years resounded; blue and red lights bouncing off the alley walls. He turned to the weeping girl. Blood crept across the cobblestones and licked at her shoes. He averted his eyes, hating his lying voice as he tried to calm her, “He’ll be fine. Miss. The police are here now, they’ll take care of everything.” His breath caught in his throat. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” His mouth twisted as the last few words left his lips. He’d never walked away from a scene before.
Fred crouched in the shadows. Another knife flashed, burying itself in the girls back. With a whimper she slumped over James’ body. Fred and Ray exchanged stares momentarily before the flasher plunged into the darkness. Ray rubbed his chin and ran his fingers up his face. “Why tonight Fred? Why didn’t you just stay with flashing?”
Police whistles peeped. Ray slunk into the shadows and slipped away. With heavy heart, Ray continued down the alleyway, searching for the address Jean had impressed the time sensitive importance on. Perhaps everyone was right. He as getting too old for this game any longer. Ray argued with himself along the alley, desperately unhappy he had not been able to foresee or prevent the attack.
He stood in front of the Empire Theatre, once grand old gentleman; now tattered in disrepair and relic in modern times. Jean had always been one with the theatrics, so it was not a surprise, now he stood on the empty street, that this was the place she had chosen. The case he carried suddenly weighed a ton. He heaved it with a grunt as he walked round to the side and pushed his way into the old theatres back door. It relented with a creaking groan. Ray fancied he heard hushed voices a a burble of laughter echoed from the darkened beams. Cobwebs hung testament that no-one had passed through the corridors for years. “Damn it Jean, why do you always have to be so.” He caught himself as movement from the side flicked his senses. A board creaked. The voices had stopped. Ray cocked his head as if positioning his ear would in some way assist him hearing anything more. She was meant to be alone. A thrill of emotion ran through him. His heart hammered. He grunted, angry at himself again. There was a time, he’d have leapt forward, fists swinging to face whatever was behind the velvet curtaining.
A feint waft of grease paint and sale cigar smoke wafted around his head. The frayed side wing curtains rippled. He was certain someone was waiting beyond on stage. He shivered brushing off old superstitions. Grasping the curtain, he strode onto stage. Spotlights clicked on, their searing beam scorching brilliant white light into his eyes. “Surprise!” More lights blinked on as champagne corks popped and streamers fell from the rigging. Jean sashayed toward him, offering a champagne flute and shy smile. A huge banner floated down across the stage proclaiming the joys of retirement. “Damn it Jean. No-one was supposed to know. We were meant to just meet up and go -” A bead of condensation trickled down the flute.
Jean thrust it into Rays hand. “Happy Retirement Darling. I trust you enjoyed your last day?” He shrugged. ”Nothing out of the ordinary.” A barrel chested man put his arm around Jean and gave her a kiss on the cheek. He held his hand out to Ray. “Finally getting you off the streets then, Ray? Don’t go giving those folk in Hawaii any trouble will you?”
Ray gave Jeans brother a thin smile. “Still jealous I get the results I do? ”
Straightening his shoulders, Brian jutted his chin outward. “Still deluded that your Private Eye business solved anything. Nothing more than a vigilante pestilence.”
Ray growled “My methods give people answers.”
Eyeballing him, Brian countered, “You don’t know anything about a flasher seen on 32nd Street about an hour ago? He’s more your type of investigation isn’t he?”
Rays grip on the champagne glass tightened. “More than you can guess.” Jean put a hand on her brothers chest. “Come on now Brian. Its a party, not some back street brawling match. Let’s be nice.” Puffing his cheeks out, Ray gazed around at the small group of friends and family gathered on the stage holding drinks and laughing. “I thought we agreed not to make a fuss about me closing shop; that we could go on vacation without all this fanfare.” She took a swig. ”If its worth doing, its worth a party. Our taxi leaves in an hour. You’d better have brought everything on that list.” She looked down at the suitcase at his side. Ray drained his glass and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Let say some of the things were murder to get.”
Jean put her small hand on his and smiled. Her floral perfume surrounded him. "I can't beleive it. At last you've left that stupid agency and we will be together in retirement."
Ray choked. He knew what fear now smelt like.