Champagne Punch: Ch 1 A Pre-war Bloodstain

 

funtionalwithalcoholChampagne Punch: Chapter 1 A Pre-war Bloodstain

I said, “Jesus, Lou.”And then Lou said, “Sorry, Clark. I’m sorry. Jeez. Does it really smart?”

It did.
My face.

Or more specifically my nose having been more or less busted open against a cold, oak table (was it oak? I was never good at wood). The inner contents of said nose had pooled on said oak (?) into an unusual pattern inked out in a vibrant crimson color with flecks of gray and a mournful violet. The sharp line, the organic nature of the composition, the sense of movement and stasis, predicted decades of post-war American art. Lou was an action painter, I his brush and pallet, and the table his canvas. Lou- an artist before his time. But that evening, in the hot and damp interrogation room that smelled vaguely of sauerkraut (or maybe that was Lou), we had merely a typical example of a pre-war bloodstain. Except, of course, who the hell knew this was pre-war? Or, I guess, it’s kind of always pre-war, isn’t it?

“Nothing three more martinis wouldn’t fix,” I said as I pinched out little red clumps from my damn stylish pencil-thin mustache.

I wanted a peppermint candy I’d been saving but couldn’t quite get to my pocket with my wrists in shackles. So I had to do a kind of shimmy to wriggle the candy onto the floor where I could dip down and retrieve it.

The twitchy dance steps made the giant cop chuckle and shake his head. Good old Clark. I grinned, squinted and then sneezed out a bubble of red goo. Lou handed me a used hanky. Good old Lou.

“Nothing three more martinis wouldn’t fix,” I said as I pinched out little red clumps from my damn stylish pencil-thin mustache.

“Do you know where they’re holding my wife?”
“Nobody tells me nuthin’, Clark. You know that. But, Jeez, I’m sure Mrs. Runyon is safe.”

I shrugged. I couldn’t recall the last half hour or so of the party and consequently hadn’t the foggiest what state my wife was in when they took her away. I did remember ordering the sixth gin martini for each of us, so I had a guess. Either she was a bubbly delight or a thunderous disaster. Judging from the state of my nose and the dreary condition of my confinement, I reckoned it was the thunder.

“Well,” said I, “if she’s in a cell I hope it’s a padded one.”
“I probably should hit you again, Clark. Or I ain’t really doing my job.”
“Sure, Lou. Sure. Not the nose again, OK?”

Bam. Pop. Clunk.

Good night.

 


I came to a little while later.

A woman was standing opposite the table that was maybe made of oak (table and woman). She wore a distressed evening gown and a violent look. Her hair was wet and matted. The big red splotch on her green silk gown was beginning to dry. A dead fox hung lazily off her shoulders, his glassy eyes were a warning to future victims. “Look out,” he seemed to say, “this one’s a killer.”

I gave the old gal a friendly wink and a shackled wave.

“How are you, Doris? You look well.”
“You smell like the bottom of a lake,” she said.
“Then I’ve smelled worse.”
“Worse, huh?”

“Yeah. You know I used to be a mud wrestler. Semi-professional, the sport never really captured the public’s imagination. The matches were held in the back of a butcher’s shop.”
“You finished?”
“If you took a dive in a late round they’d serve you an extra bowl of cabbage and onion soup.”
“Okay…”
“This was in Cuba, so we’d all just sit there and sort of sweat it out…”

Another chuckle from the big fella.

Doris said, “You can wait outside, Lou.”
“You sure, boss?”
“Yeah. I can handle Clark Runyon without a babysitter.”
“Sure thing, boss.”

I pressed a thumb deep into the tissue at the dead center of my right temple in a vain attempt to chase off the bugler that was blowing taps between my ears. I gave Lou a cheery salute.

“You’re the best, Lou.”
“Gee, Clark, you’re the best. You know that.”

Doris dropped her head and groaned, “That’ll be all!”

The big guy nodded and made his exit.

 

thedetectivewpDoris took off her fur (“it’s not too late. RUN” said the fox) and took a seat. The chair creaked. The woman sighed. The bugler blew.
She sat with a lowered head for a damn long time. Maybe she’d fallen asleep. But then she leaned back cooly in her chair and propped her feet up on the table and gave a wry smile, her grey eyes crystalizing into metal sharp weaponry.

“How’s it hanging, Clark?”
“By a desperate cling.”

“My husband tells me he sees you more now that you’re “retired” than he did back in your PI days. Why is that?”

“I’m the victim of a puritanical society.”
“The dry laws ended only two months ago, and yet you and Clara are wetter than ever.”
“I honestly can’t remember prohibition. I was drunk during most of it. Speaking of your husband, where is our police chief?”
“Letting off a little steam at the firing range.”
“Every man needs a hobby.”
“It’s so he doesn’t murder you.”
“Is he charging us with something?”
“Drunk and disorderly.”
“How do you figure?”
“Your wife dumped an entire dish of shrimp cocktail on my head.”
“Do you have any witnesses—?”
“—Every guest at the gala– “
“— cuz I can honestly say that I didn’t see a thing—“
“—You were passed out on the table—”
“—I would call that drunk but hardly disorderly—”
“—But your wife—”
“Tell the chief to charge her! Have Mac keep her in jail for the night. It’ll do her good. Then tomorrow she’ll pay a fine – again- and we’ll be on our way. She’s the ideal citizen – rich and constantly in trouble. A terrific revenue stream for the NYC Police Department.”

She dropped her feet and leaned forward propping herself up on her bony elbows. Those grey eyes turned serious, even, it seemed to me, sympathetic.

She said, “he wants to charge her with assault.”
I said, “assault? How do you figure?”
She said, “a piece of the glass dish cut my head.”I said, “eh, you’re a spoilsport.” “Yeah,” she said, “but I’m also the CHIEF’S WIFE!!!”

She was standing now. Both fists clinched. A big blue vein throbbed at the left corner of her forehead. Her chair had fallen and must have caught the back of her neckless somehow because pearl-shaped pearls were rolling in every direction across the concrete floor. They were the color of pearls.

I held up a hand as if to surrender.

“You’re getting all heated. Is it time to call Lou back in to rough me up some more?”
“My husband wants you locked up. I can change his mind but it means pulling some really big strings, and if I pull some really big strings I’m gonna need you to do something for me.”
“If this is about the money you should go to my wife. She’s the rich one. If it’s a sexual request then I’m the better bet.”
“I don’t want money.“
“Sex then. All right. Let me take off my pants. Can we play some music?”

The punch came hard and fast, locating the center of my busted nose liberating another expressionistic masterpiece. Everyone’s a goddamn painter. I fell back in my chair and let out a manly scream pitched slightly above an A5.

I said “OWWWWWW!”
Then I said, “Now, what can I do for you?”

Doris crossed to the corner of the room and recovered her handbag. She took out two letters and slapped them on the table. I scanned the messages and then glanced back at her. She fanned them out and then tapped the left one three times with the long red nail of her left index finger.

“I’m assuming you would like me to read that one.”I picked up the letter and began to read.

Mommy – I think I may have made an awful mistake. England is dreary, and the weather is miserable. I’m constantly left alone in this large house with his frightening mother. And he — well, mommy, he’s grown distant and quite angry. I’m frightened, and I don’t know what to do. I know it’s so far to travel with dad’s work and your bunions, but I want to see you. I need to know what you think. There’s an engagement party in late February for one of the daughters. I’ve attached the invitation. Can you come? Please? I know it’s an awful expense, but can you?

Lovingly, Gertrude.

I set the letter down and shrugged.

“So?”
Doris tapped the letter on the right. This was getting old.

“Shall I read this one as well?”

Mommy – things are swell here. Please disregard my last correspondence. I’ve never been happier. No need to make the journey. Truly. Do not come. All my love to dad.

“So, the kid changed her mind.”

Doris righted the chair and sat. She leaned in and made like a conspirator. I followed suit.

“I don’t think she did” she whispered, “I think she’s in danger and she was forced to write the second note.”
“OK,” I whispered back.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“You’re a world-famous detective. Say something smart.”

“You say she’s in danger. In danger of what?”
“Something sinister. Or someone.”

“You’re a world-famous detective. Say something smart.”

She stood up and paced around the tiny room, pausing long enough to light a cigarette.

“I’ve never approved of this boy. He’s from a bizarre family that all live together in some dusty old estate in England. She began seeing him while they were at NYU. They got engaged and soon after graduation, she followed the boy to England. I have reason to believe he was fleeing charges.”
“What charges?”
“Murder.”
“The kid murdered someone? Here in New York? Quick call the chief of police!” “His roommate died of a sudden and tragic heart attack during the graduation ceremony.”
“That’ll ruin a party.”
“They escaped from New York the following week.”
“What did he do? Jump out from a hidden spot and scare the kid to death?”
“His parents begged for an autopsy. While no traces of poison were found, the doctor did say that the death was consistent with poisoning.”
“Flimsy.”
“Maybe, but Mac believed it was enough to bring the kid in for questioning. But by that point, he made his escape.”
“I don’t understand. You want me to re-open the case?”
“No. I want you to go to England.”
That bugler was back.
“I’m sorry, hon, my ears are still ringing from the severe concussion I recently suffered. Did you say that you want me to go to England?”
“There’s a boat that leaves at seven a.m. I’ll write to my daughter that her long-lost Uncle Clark just happens to be traveling to England and would love to stop by and see her and that I’ve happily extended my party invitation to him. You’ll show up, sniff around, find out if she’s in danger, and if she is, you’ll get her out of there and safely back home to me.”
“Why not go yourself? Why the scheme?
“We can’t afford it. Mac thinks I’m insane to even consider it. And maybe I am insane. Hell, if someone brought me this, I’d tell them they’re delusional. But I can’t sleep, and I can’t shake the feeling that something about this ain’t right. I know her. ‘Do not come.’ That’s a warning. I just know it. That’s why I’m sending you. You can afford it. You have nothing holding you here. And you’re between a rock and a hard place if you don’t.”

 

She held what seemed to me to be a somewhat stagey pause. So I held it too. Mine wasn’t as dramatic on account of the sound of crunching peppermint.

Finally, I said, “I’d like to speak to my wife.”
“Give me an answer.”
“I will. After I speak to my wife.”

After a moment, she walked over to the metal door and gave it a good knock. “Lou! Send in Mrs. Runyan.”

I picked up the two letters and studied them side-by-side. There was nothing here. Nothing at all. A damn fool’s errand. We should really drink less, I thought. Maybe only in the evenings from now on. Take off every other Monday, or something.

I said, “I’ll be way out of my depth. In Manhattan, I have connections, snitches, a running tab at a dozen bars. I don’t know anyone in England. Everything’s different over there. Do you have any idea how hard it is to drive drunk on the WRONG side of the road?”
“I bet you’ll manage.”
“I’ve been out of the game a long time. There’s are a hundred PI’s in this city. Why me?”

“You’re a drunk and a wise ass, but Mac says you’re the best he ever met and I’m willing to bet you’ve got one more case in you.”

Lou entered the room arm-in-arm with Clara. She was in handcuffs and remained astonishingly drunk. Her green eyes were gay and glittery. She was having the time of her life. She fell into my lap and gave me a big kiss on the lips.

I said “Hello Bunny.”

“Hello, you! Lou and I were just discussing your mustache, and we both agree that you should never ever shave it. Promise us you won’t.”
“I promise.”

She crinkled her nose at me.

“Promise Lou.”

I turned to the big fella.

“Lou, my dear friend, I promise to never ever shave my mustache.”
Lou gave me a goofy wave
Doris said, “what do you say, Clark?”Clara said, “Yeah, what do you say?”
I gave Clara a gentle little head bump.
“I say… that if you want me to go then, Clara has to come too.”
“Absolutely not!”, said Doris, turning a strange color.
“Go where?” said Clara.
“To England. On an adventure.”
“What kind of an adventure?!”
“Under no circumstances—”
“A case, Clara. A real whodunit.”
“Oh, Clark! And you want me to help?”
“Steadiest gal I know.”

Clara flung both arms around my neck and gave me a much less gentle head bump.

“Hey,” said Lou, “where’d her handcuffs go?”
Clara retrieved the metal cuffs from her lap and tossed them on the table.
“I’m getting better, aren’t I hon?”
“You sure are.”
Clara swiveled toward Lou and displayed her bare wrists like a magician.
“Clark taught me! Didn’t you, hon?”
“Sure did,” I said, having now slipped out of my own handcuffs and set to work on straightening my bow tie. It was made of pink silk and pretty goddamn expensive. It had somehow escaped the evening’s adventures unspoiled but was nonetheless topsy-turvy at this point. Lou scratched his head and grunted to himself.

Doris could sense it all unraveling.

“Hello, you! Lou and I were just discussing your mustache and we both agree that you should never ever shave it. Promise us you won’t.”
“I promise.”

“She is not part of the deal.”
“It’s her money buying the ticket, and I just won’t leave her behind. Not after the untimely death of our poor sweet puppy.”

“Who she shot with a pistol!” said Doris. Clara burst into weeping.
“It was an accident!”
“She was aiming at the Swiss clock,” said I.“It wouldn’t stop chiming!”

I flashed a smile at Doris. This was fun. The party was back on.

I said, “No her. No me. I’d rather see her locked up than leave her behind on an adventure.”

Clara said, “Exactly.” and then “What?”

I waved my free hands at Doris and grinned.

“What’ll it be, Doris?” I said.

Clara giggled and waved her hands too.

Doris chewed her lip, stomped a foot, and huffed and puffed. Finally, she said, “Just make sure my daughter is safe.”

“Aye, aye,” said I, “You’ve got the right men for the job.”

Clara gave a “thumbs up” and then passed out on the table sending another thousand pearl-shaped pearls rolling across the floor.

Doris chewed her lip, stomped a foot, and huffed and puffed.

Finally, she said, “Just make sure my daughter is safe.”
“Aye, aye,” said I, “You’ve got the right men for the job.”

Clara gave a “thumbs up” and then passed out on the table sending another thousand pearl-shaped pearls rolling across the floor.

Published by

Cy Runyon

Genre, baby.

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