Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Long Walk Home

I never met a morning I liked. That's why I preferred to sneak up on them slowly after midnight, easing my way to closing time and going home with the baker's trucks. I figured that way, the day already started right, so I had a leg up on whatever happened after sunrise.

But the moment she walked into my office, I knew she was trouble. She was the kind of trouble you ran into head-on and never regretted afterwards. It wasn't a matter of beauty, though she had it - legs that didn't stop until they reached the floor, trim, flowing lines, graceful arms, a mess of blonde hair that fell just that way on purpose - no, it was the eyes. The owner of those eyes was in charge. She knew things, and she wasn't going to tell you about them on any terms but hers.

Usually I end up hating a dame like that, because I love a dame like that, but hate myself for it. And you see that don't make sense at all, but it's the only way to say it. Trouble. I thought about kicking the case to my pal Tracer, before those eyes could suck me in too deep to care - but he was out of the game.

"So what's your story, sister?"

She looked at me like I was somebody she wanted to disappoint, but make it up to me later. "It's not a good story," she said.

"Babe," I said, "I've been a cop, a bartender, a soldier, a ditch digger, a cop again, a private dick - I know people that would turn you grayer than old carpet. Took down two palookas yesterday with nothing but the leg of the chair they hit me with. What can you tell me that's worse than that?"

"You're through," she replied.

My laugh smelled like bad scotch. "Sez you."

"No," she said, and she was quiet and sure. I began to get antsy. "I've got nothing to do with it. Take a look."

She slid a newspaper in front of me. The headline had to be a lie. I must have said so without knowing, 'cause she shook her head and said, "No lie, Mike. This is the real thing."

"No way," I muttered. Suddenly I felt a hell of a lot less hung over than I like in the morning. No way this guy bought it. I've met men harder-bitten than a bone at a wolf kill, but this guy was tough enough not to need to look like it. He just came around and did his business, and nobody hassled him. Nobody dared.

"It's true," she said. "That's how it is. You know it better than most guys, Mike."

"Yeah," I snapped. "I know how it is. I make it stay that way. That's why people come to me." At this point I would have lit a cigarette if I could have afforded to buy a pack; I settled for leaning back as if it wasn't such a big deal. "It ain't such a fun way to make a living, but it's my way, sister."

"A man's work lives on after him. It belongs to the world after he leaves the world behind." She came around my desk and stood over me, not quite too close, and looked at me with those eyes. Damn her. It was a big deal and she knew it. She was tough enough to face it, and I was backing down. "It's closing time, Mike. Time to hang up your hat and take down your shingle."

"And what am I supposed to do after that? Buy you a drink?"

"I prefer breakfast before nine-thirty," she said. And then she finally smiled, and I suddenly thought that, if I wanted to know anything else from her, I was going to have to take her up on it.

"Fine," I said. "But remember, you asked for it."

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