Four O’Clock: Four Corners

– 1 –

 

Sit down, kid. Got something to tell you. You think you know everything, got all the facts on that little recorder you’ve got there; where’d it come from, anyway? Some Japanese piece of crap? Yeah. About what I thought. Don’t matter. You wanted to know about Zarelli, about what happened to the diamonds, right? Suppose it doesn’t matter if I tell you now; was twenty years ago, and everybody’s dead — or worse — by now.

I’ll tell you what you really want to know, straight out. The diamonds are gone, kid. Some dame, called herself Valerie, made off with ‘em in ’61. Probably hiding out somewhere in the French Rivera by now, if she hasn’t gotten herself killed yet. Yeah, yeah, that was only six years ago, I said it was twenty. Fourteen years before was the Zarelli business.

Yeah, you’re a smart one, aincha? That’s right, kid. I had ‘em before that. Took the ice off Zarelli’s body. Didn’t bother giving them back to the cops; they were all crooked anyway. So I sat on ‘em. I knew Val’d come back for ‘em, see. Figured, after what she’d been through, she deserved a little slice of the pie. And maybe I figured I deserved a payday after going through all that.

Come a little closer, kid. No, I ain’t gonna bite. I may be a nasty old cuss of a rot, but I ain’t no yeller. Think they’d be keeping me in this hospital if I was really a threat? Just tired of havin’ to raise my voice. You get as old as me, maybe you’ll understand.

How old? Shit, kid. I dunno. Memory’s been on the fritz since that business in ’61. I think I was born around 1900, if that matters for anything. Of course, by the thirties, I wasn’t exactly in the business of keeping track anymore, if you know what I mean.

Wouldn’t happen to have a flask on you, wouldja? They don’t let me have anything stronger than water in here. Like my liver’s gonna go south anytime soon, right? Ah, good. You’re a good kid. Thanks. Now where was I?

Right. The Zarelli business. Sure you don’t want to hear about the diamonds, or why I’m here? Oh. The Copperfield schtick. Start at the beginning, eh? Alright. Got enough tape? This’ll take a while.

Jeez, kid. I said it’d take a while, but I’m not givin’ you War and Peace or anything. How many tapes you got in that bag of yours? Thirty? Musta been a boy scout, huh? Whatever.

So, the Zarelli business. It was summer, 1947. L.A. in a heatwave.

 

– 2 –

 

L.A. in July, 1947. Picture it; the sky’s that special kind of orange even at noon, beating you down like the hammer of an uncaring God. The humidity so high that walking feels more like swimming, like you could reach out and squeeze blood out of the air. Anybody with a lick of sense has hung the Gone Fishin’ signs out and is hiding somewhere with all the fans on, not doing much but stirring the soupy air but still better than nothing. Anybody who suggests that it’ll cool down soon, maybe get some rain? Glared at like the idiots they are, or they get their ears boxed for jinxing it by bringing it up. Let me tell you kid, saying “It’s gonna rain soon” is a faster way to get your butt kicked in L.A. than saying “I think they’re goin’ for a no-hitter” in the 5th. You don’t talk about it; queers the deal, every time, mark my words.

Now, as for me… I never had much sense. Or maybe it was my good constitution. I’m sitting in my ratty chair, leaned back as far as I can go, thinking about napping — not like anybody’s gonna walk into the offices of Hanratty P. Morgan, Private Dick, on a day like this — when the door flies open with a bang and an amazing pair of gams struts in.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t just those legs that I noticed; this dame had gotten all sevens when she was rollin’ up her looks; those fabulous legs — thick and rounded in the right places, slender and tapered where it mattered, tanned from the back of her toes right on up to the knees where her skirt decided to get in the way — a pinched waist that fit just right into a severe green jacket… and the top half? Reminded me of that old joke. You know, the one about a pair of .38s and a gun? Top it off with a storm of siren’s hair, that deep red that says she’s either a pro or deep-thicket mick straight off the boat and a set of blue eyes, hiding behind a veil but still bright enough to light up even my dingy old office. The running mascara sort of ruined the effect — she’d been crying, looked like — but I have to say, both the Private Dick and the little dick in me stood up at attention when she walked in.

What’s that kid? Tone it back a little? Jeez, who’s tellin’ this story? Just keep the reels spinnin’, alright?

Anyway. In she comes, practically throws herself into the chair across from me.

“Mr. Morgan? I need your help.” Her voice says too much about her habits — fond of menthols and more than a ladies’ share of whiskey — but my keen detective senses tell me that she’s in trouble, and not the kind a dame’ll take a quick trip down to Tijuana for, either.

Bein’ the gentleman that I am, I rummage in the bottom drawer of my desk and drop the bottle of bourbon on the blotter, alongside a couple of glasses that were probably last washed during the Hoover administration. The last dame willing to take dictation from me’d skipped out back in January; Ms. Short said she had some kinda hot ticket to ride. Hot ticket’s right, if getting cut in half and turned into some kinda poster-girl for chickies-in-trouble qualifies.

Anyway, without Liz around to dust and pretend to file when she wasn’t giving me the eye and maybe wondering what it was like to go dead, my office wasn’t in the best of shape. Didn’t stop the dame across from me pouring her own shot and knocking it back with a practiced hand, though. I took my time with my own shot — that Harper’s didn’t come cheap for someone like me, you know — and eyed her through the mesh of her ridiculous little veil.

She stared back, still sniffing but without the waterworks that’d been in full swing when she came in; when the tremble in her hands quit, I figured that was long enough for the high beams.

“Why don’t you tell me what kind of help you need, honey?”

She dug through her purse for a moment — a nice purse, real leather, none of that plastic crap the wannabe starlets cart around with ‘em — and came up with a tissue. Took a long moment to blot around her eyes, turning the lifting of her veil into something like a peep show. Believe me, I was watchin’.

“It’s my husband,” she finally whispered, her deep-red coated lips forming the words slow and careful, making sure where my attention was. “I think he’s been killed.”

Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I leaned back in my chair again, lacing my hands behind my head and asked the million-dollar question.

“And who’s your husband?”

She rummaged in her purse again, not answering right away. She pulled out one of those long smokes, the kind that are supposed to last longer but just burn faster. Tamped it on the edge of the desk while she twitched her blue eyes coyly at me. She put it between her lips and leaned forward — being a man, I couldn’t help but notice the strain doing so put on the top of her shirt, or that the buttons were maybe just a little undone maybe-on-purpose — “Got a light?”

I was a Boy Scout — at one point, anyway — and I did have a light. Flicking my battered Zippo in the general direction of her smoke, I got it going. She leaned back as far as her chair would allow, taking a deep drag and blowing it out in a French inhale with perfectly pursed lips. She crossed her legs to great effect and let the smoke hover around her head for a moment, then indulged my curiosity.

“John Zarelli.”

Well, hell. Of all the PIs, all the offices she could have walked into… she had to walk into mine.

 

– 3 – 

 

You know how the rest of that washed out. If you don’t, there’s plenty of police reports and a couple of novels on the subject. What, kid? Yeah, it’s true. At least the broad strokes. Zarelli disappeared himself, pulled the Houdini so he wouldn’t have to split the take from the diamond heist with the mooks further up the ladder.

Was a great idea, really. Then he gets his wife to hire a schmuck like me, someone nobody’ll miss. Figures I’m just smart enough to follow the clues to Hodgins — yeah, he’s the stiff they drug out of the Hudson, the one what had Zarelli’s ID and the empty diamond case — and sell the idea that he’s dead. Then, either Contini’s gang puts me on ice for meddling with their business, or his wife waxes me — and who’s gonna look for one redead dick, am I right? — and they can sail into the sunset together.

Too bad I’m a little more stubborn than they counted on. Sure, I found Hodgins, but somethin’ about it just seemed hinky to me. I kept digging, even when Val showed up — this time with a split skirt that went all the way up, you know what I’m sayin’, kid? — and offered me twice my usual fee, playing the poor widow act for all it’s worth. Ended up following her one night, right to Zarelli. I’m tellin’ ya, kid, you think I’m hard to look at, or some of those little rotters that hang out down on Broadway and 6th? Try lookin’ a guy in the eye when he’s literally fresh off the table from some facial reconstruction. Now that’s nasty.

Val ended up going out the window — never found the body, imagine that — and Zarelli thought he’d try out the wiseguy routine. Dumb bastard; he had enough rots on his payroll that he shoulda known plugging us in the chest isn’t gonna stop one of us; aim for the melon, that’s the ticket. We fought over it, I got ahold of the gun, and popped him right in the gut. Called the cops, case closed. And yeah, I took the glass, figured it’d help cover my expenses, since Val’s check mysteriously bounced and I was gonna have to get some surgery of my own unless I wanted to walk around with a chest wound suckin’ air for the rest of my life. Hanratty P. Morgan becomes a local celebrity, business picks up, happy ending for everyone.

Except it wasn’t, not really. Val’s stage dive seemed just a little too convenient, you catch my drift? Plus the whole question of just where her body went. Common assumption is she lasted just long enough to stagger to the bay and either tossed herself in or slipped and fell. Nobody found her, because nobody was lookin’ too hard. But I knew better.

See, kid… our relationship wasn’t entirely professional. Oh, come on. Spare me the shocked face. Like you’ve never come across a dame when you’re scribbling that crap you call news, maybe got a little friendlier than you should have? Val and I had an understandin’.

Yeah, kid. She was a deader. A lot more obsessed with lookin’ good and keepin’ it quiet than some of us — had to be, given what she did for a living — but still a rot like me. Sometimes I thought she’d led me to the surgeon’s, just to get rid of her husband. Not like there was much goin’ on there, anyway. So while she was probably hurt — and bad — from that tumble out the window, I didn’t think for a minute she was really gone. Even if she did throw herself into the Hudson, it ain’t like we can really drown, you know?

So, when I kicked the bag full of ice under the desk and shook my head like a little lost lambikins to the cops when they showed, then got ‘em back to my office and stashed ‘em in my second wall safe — oh, right, like I’m gonna put something like that in the normal deposit safe? Liz might have been taking the big sleep, but I went through a lot of Girl Fridays, and didn’t want them seein’ something like that when they went to drop the day’s take off, you know? — well, I wasn’t just doin’ it for me. I knew she’d turn up. Eventually.

Of course, took her fourteen years to get around to it. Ain’t that just like a woman? What? Now you wanna hear about it? Alright, kid. Gimme another hit off that flask, and a smoke if you’ve got one. No, I ain’t gonna tell the nurses; ain’t like they’ve cared what I do in here for the last three years or so. Ahhhh. Thanks, kid.

 

– 4 –

 

So, L.A., 1961. November, not that it matters much. Still hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk, if you want, and snow? Yeah, right. Not that I’m complaining. The joker on Pennsylvania Avenue’s starting to get a handle on things, people are settling down about the idea of a mick Catholic runnin’ the show, but his little bro’s making waves for the folks in the Organization, and that’s cutting into my bottom line a bit. Not that I’m complaining about that, either. Here’s me, Hanratty P. Morgan, still sittin’ in the same chair, still drinkin’ the same booze. Different girl at the front, same bad habits of makin’ herself scarce as soon as two o’clock rolls around.

Since it was already four, Kathy Maddox — or so she said; I had it on good authority her last name was Manson, and if you want a real story, try lookin’ her up sometime, kid — had already bugged out and I was leaning back and sipping at a shot while a cigar smoldered at the edge of my desk. Just when I’m about ready to stub the smoke and call it a day — got Jimmy the Beak coming by tomorrow, says he finally got the pictures from my last wandering husband gig developed, so at least I’ll be catching a payday — the door opens.

Peepin’ out from under the brim of my hat and through the smog rising from my cigar, I see a pair of legs I haven’t seen for more than a decade. Still the best things you’ve ever seen, and still going all the way up. Same figure, though in a new dress. Some slinky green thing, like the ones the orientals wear. Wide-brimmed hat that clouds the face at first, but she raises her head to look at me and those same bright blue eyes are looking at me. The hair’s a little different — cut shorter and slicked down, the way the girls in the frou-frou mags do it — but still that same red, the color of sin. Still the gal that’s danced through my dreams for almost fifteen years.

What’s that kid? Yes, we dream. Christ on a sidecar, what d’they teach you kids these days? And yeah, so I was carryin’ the torch for her, what of it? Wouldja stop interupptin’ me, let me finish?

Right, so in she walks, twists her lips into that smile and sits down in front of me. I’m still sitting there looking like the world’s biggest dope, half-full glass forgotten at the midpoint between the desk and my kisser, and she just tilts her head all sly like.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Mr. Morgan.”

Same voice. She might have just been a two-bit moll who dolled herself up real good, trying to hide being dead… but that voice could charm birdies down from the trees, and she knew it. When I didn’t say anything, she cocked her head a little further, spread her lips a little wider.

“You know what I’m here for. Don’t you?”

I managed to get my arm to obey me, and knocked back the slug of Harper’s in the glass and stubbed out my cigar on the corner of my desk, grinding it to shreds amongst the scorchmarks of previous victims. I tried to smile; best I could, anyway. It ain’t easy to do when your mouth’s on a little sideways — never did get that plastique done for myself, not like Val obviously had — and shook my head.

“Well, I’m guessing it wasn’t for me, dollface. Don’t hurt a guy none to hope, though. Shoulda called.”

Her shoulders went up, a little shrug. She started rummaging in her bag — obviously new, obviously pricey. Probably the cat’s meow in whatever fancy place she called home these days — and I reached for my lighter, figuring that was what was coming out.

Remember what I said earlier, kid? About a pair of 38s and a gun? Well, all three of ‘em were pointed squarely at my dome when her hand came out of that bag. She wasn’t a stupid mook like her deceased husband, either. She knew to aim for the head.

I think the sad part is I could see doing this bugged her. Something in her eyes, didn’t look like a cold-jobber. Looked scared. Didn’t make much difference — was still a Saturday night special pointed at me — but it made me feel a little better just the same. “Hanratty. Please. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.” She gestured with the piece, towards the portrait of Hammett that sat a little askew on one wall. Yeah, it’s a joke, kid. Can’t let go of my image, you know? “The diamonds.”

Far be it from me to deny her anything. I stood up — real slow, like — and put my hands in the air, shuffling over to the portrait. Slid it aside, and started dialing in the combo on the safe behind it. “Things coulda been different, Valerie. Still could.”

I didn’t realize she’d gotten up and was standing beside me until the safe popped open. I started to look over my shoulder at her, and that’s when she brought the pistol down on the back of my neck, dropping me like a ton of bricks.

Dames. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em.

 

– 5 –

 

The first thing I realize when I wake up is that I’m not in my office anymore. There’s gravel beneath my back, I can see stars that aren’t streaking through my head. Then, to coin a phrase, I realize I’m not in Kansas anymore, either; the air’s too dry, the volume’s turned down.

Some toothless yokel with Dumbo ears and a walleye comes into view, blocking out the night sky. “Oh, looks like he’s wakin’ up, boys!” he sprays into my face. I go to sock him in the kisser, but my arm doesn’t want to obey. Then I notice the most important part of my situation; I’m shackled at the wrists and ankles. Heavy chains anchored to something heavy enough that my last ex-wife couldn’t match it.

What, kid? Yeah, I’ve been married. Three times. Telling me you dug up all the rest of this old crap and hadn’t found that? No, it doesn’t matter; they didn’t have anything to do with this. Turns out, neither did Val, which is what I thought at first.

Until a slightly more together looking mook nudged into my field of vision. This one had all his teeth, at least, and didn’t look like his parents met at a family reunion.

“Tell you what, pally. You’re in the shit, now. We know Miz Zarelli’s been in touch. We know she’s got the glass. You tell us where she is, we kill you fast.”

He giggled, the sound ripping through my eardrums like scratching on a chalkboard. “On the other hand, don’t tell us, and we… uh. Well. Make an example outta yas.”

“Cram it, Bucky. I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” I tell him, tugging at the chains again.

He laughs some more, shaking his head. “I like this guy, he cracks me up.” He leaned in, grabbed my chin — with a reduced grip; felt like he was missing a finger or two on his paw — and got right up in my face.

“Ever hear of Four Corners, pally? Where you can be in four states at once?” Another titter. “It’s where you’re at, now. Not quite in all the states, yet… I think your left arm’s just shy of Colorado. But we’re gonna fix that.”

Capping off his statement, I heard several engines start up. Rumbling, bestial things that belonged in some old forest instead of the roads of America. Felt a pop as my shoulders came out of the sockets when something yanked the chains taut.

“Best body removal idea I’ve had all year, pally,” the mook says, as he shoves his toothless cousin to one side. “They’re gonna find bits of you everywhere when we’re done. Only question is if you’re dead before we start pullin’. Ready to talk, yet?”

Ever heard of being drawn and quartered, kid? Real popular in the middle ages. Tie a schmuck up to a bunch of horses, slap them ponies on the ass and watch ‘em bolt. Tears him apart.

Substitute some gap-toothed yokels for the local baron, and trade the horses for American rolling iron that should have been retired three presidents ago, and you know what they were going to do to me.

Real observant, kid. Yeah, that’s why the lumps beneath the sheets stop six inches below my crotch. I fought ‘em for a while, while they got the chains tight. When I felt my hip go, I’d have started singing just as sweet as a bird, but I didn’t know what they wanted me to tell ‘em.

Yeah, I’d have sold out Val at that point. Let’s see you get into that position, see how you do, kid. I bet you’re screaming whatever they want soon as they start the engines. I at least held out until both arms and one booster were out of the sockets. Pretty sure they’d gotten me into all four states at that point — hell, my left leg was almost touching the “Welcome to Arizona” sign — but, like I said. I couldn’t tell ‘em what I didn’t know.

The one who still had his teeth shrugged, made a cranking gesture in the air. I figured that mean they were done playing, and bit down best I could. I’d screamed and cried already, sure. But now that the moment was here, I decided I wanted to hold on to at least a little of my pride and dignity.

Felt my left leg go, tearing off with a wet, growling sound, and that was the end of the resolution to die well. I screamed bloody murder, and it was almost loud enough to blot out the other sound that happened at that moment; the crack of a rifle. Fearless Leader’s dome popped like an egg, splattering the road with oatmeal and that old claret the boxers are always on about.

Bad idea, for my apparent rescuer; seeing their bosses’ head go up like a rotten pumpkin spooked the drivers, and they all tried to peel out. My right leg went next, trailing after the truck like a string of “Just Married” cans from a ghoul’s celebration. Probably saved my life, but I don’t quite feel like sending the guy any thank you cards, capisce?

Another pair of rifle-cracks; pretty sure whoever it was either had two guns or was toting a stolen semi-auto, they were that close to each other. The pressure on my arms relaxed, and I think I must have fainted, because next thing I know, I’m sitting in this room.

Yeah. I’ve been here since then. Colorado Hospital for the Untreatable. Place used to be just a kids hospital, you know? Then they added a wing to keep the nutters, the yellers, the poor dumb mooks like me. Expensive as hell, but someone’s paying the bills.

Oh, good job, kid. Next you’ll guess what number I’m thinking of. Of course it was Valerie. Here. Take a look at that, then get outta here. It’s time for my nap, and I’m through talking. But a bit of advice; don’t go looking for Val, or for the goons who did this to me. Sometimes a story’s just not worth it, you know?

 

 – 6 –

 

Hanratty: I’m sorry it ended this way, darling. Looks like Contini’s boys are still on the lookout. It’s just too hot here, and they’re watching you too close. I wish things were different, I really do; better luck next life, maybe?

I still think of you when the right song comes on the radio, or when the light hits the Riviera just right. I’m sorry it took so long to come back, and sorrier still that I won’t be staying. Maybe you’ll be able to forgive me one day, maybe not. But I meant everything I told you that night by the sign. There’s never going to be anyone else for me.

Stay safe, Hanratty.

 

All my love,

V.

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