I was in a fix and then some. I'd been a sap, and a dope and probably a couple of dozen of those ten-doubloon words that you pay top dollar for in fancy clinics. And I was in deep.
It had started with a dame - don't it always? She had shimmied into my office about the time when all the good little girls and boys go and turn into bad little girls and boys for the evening. The first thing I noticed was her dress. It was a nice shape and not much of that was the fault of the tailoring. She'd said all the right things in pretty much the right order and had shown enough of a pretty nice leg for me not to be too particular about how much dough she had in that purse of hers. She needed someone finding. A name: "Gerry" and a little something he'd left behind for her to remember him by. It wasn't much to go by but it was enough to make me promise to do something foolish.
Donovan's Bar on Seventh and Main was the sort of bar where girls like her met guys like him. It was the sort of joint where you could pay two dollars for a shot that was twelve parts Canada Dry and still come out with a headache. It was quiet, too early for the out-of-towners and too late for local gentry. I ordered a Scotch and got something which almost might have been one. The barman was an old Pole who used to kick about with the Paderewski mob on the East Side until the top rollers found themselves in a field with more than their fair share of metal in their insides. He knew me and wasn't surprised when I got to asking him questions. A little prompting and he told me about a place someplace that wasn't a place. I thanked him kindly and left him to clean up the glass as I went to get my flivver.
Coolidge Boulevard was as quiet as it could be without actually having cemetery gates either end. The apartment blocks were set just off the wide sidewalks, with thin ribbons of greenery to tell the folks inside what they were getting for that extra twenty bucks. I parked up a block down from the place I wanted and walked up. The celluloid strip from my shirt collar got me into the building without my having to bother the concierge any. I soft-shoed up the stairs. I reckoned the apartment I wanted was on the second floor, near the fire escape and so far it hadn't been my night to be disappointed. The light was out but I knocked gently anyway, just to be polite. Just to be extra polite I kept my right hand on the gat in the pocket of my topcoat.
The apartment wasn't much you'd care to write home to your ma about. Three rooms, if you count a bathroom that doubled as a damp armpit. I had a look round anyway, just in case I needed the exercise. I found it underneath a card table by the bedside. As clues go it wouldn't scorch any records on a salt flat but I'll take them as they come and act grateful.
Which is how I came to be in this fix. The Greek guy prodded my shin with the stubby toe of his shiny brown shoes.
"Hey, let's keep you in the here and now, eh?" he spat.
"Sure, why not?" I drawled.
He shook his head.
"You guys," he spat again. "You guys, you make me sick. You think just because you've got an office with some fancy nameplate and a desk with a Smith Corona you think you're the bee's pajamas."
Cat's pajamas. Cat's. I didn't offer to correct him. I reckoned he was good for another one-fifty and the blackjack in his hand didn't look in the mood for wordplay.
"You see, that's the trouble with you penny-a-word guys," he was saying. You have to go in for some dumb coincidence to get your cheap sensationalist plot movement."
"Says you dumb coincidence!" I would have curled my lip into a snarl but it was pretty well busy keeping a few teeth in one place.
"Says me! Now, a business card, or a packet of matches, well that's kinda traditional round these parts. You'd have to follow a clue like that, hell it would be downright unprofessional of you not to!"
All the time he was talking he was rolling an unlit cigarette from one corner of his mouth to another. This was fine by me. I was having more than enough fun without the smell of cheap tobacco. He was just getting to the point where he was going to list my saintly attributes when he stopped all of a sudden and glared at me. The light on his forehead bounced back like a sunlit day in Malibu. He leaned over and spat again.
"What sort of a dumb ox follows a clue like that, eh? You think you can come here to The Bag O'Nails and play gangbusters when the place is packed and the guys are loaded? You're lucky you can still feel where your teeth used to be."
He turned his back on me and shrugged.
"Ah, you poor dumb mutt!"
As he walked away I realised what a dope I'd been.
The Card Table was a dive just three blocks down from here.