From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.
Continuing the story that began here.
“Wow!” said Billy. “Two in one day!”
“Two whats?” asked Facto.
“Two big bosses! You and that Canterbury guy.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Facto. “Kosciuszko told me he took you to see the Archbishop. He’s got a big operation, they tell me. But I don’t think it’s as big as mine. I own this town, Marlow.”
“So I hear,” I said warily.
“And by ‘this town,’ he continued, “I mean Sharpsburg. Not the whole Pittsburgh metropolitan area. I mean, that would be silly. I own this block of Sharpsburg, or at least I own this bar, which is at the end of the block. I have a one-third interest in this bar, shared with a certain number of investment partners. So you see, Marlow, I’m a big man around here.”
“Really? said Billy. “I would have said you were about five-foot—”
“Ixnay,” said Kosciuszko in a gravelly half-whisper.
“Wow!” said Billy. “You speak Latin, too!”
“So I think we can come to an agreement that would be good for both of us,” Facto continued. “Mutually beneficial, that’s what I’d call it.”
“I haven’t got any Croydons.” I figured it would be good to get that out there right away.
“Of course not,” said Facto. “I know you ain’t got it. I ain’t some small-timer, Marlow. I get information, and I get the good stuff. You ain’t got the Croydon, and I ain’t got it either. But a lot of people think you have it. You know that’s worth something, right?”
“What’s it worth?” I asked warily, because I usually ask questions warily.
“It gives you influence, Marlow. And influence is always a good thing to have. As long as people think you got the Croydon, you’re valuable. They may threaten you, but they can’t actually kill you, because then you couldn’t tell them where it is. You’re practically immortal! The worst they can do is torture you to make you talk, and we both know you’re tougher than that.”
“When you say ‘we both,’ ” I asked, “do you mean—”
“Yeah,” Billy interrupted, “he’s tougher than that. He’s tougher than anything. He’s tougher than my grandma’s roast beef.”
“Exactly,” said Facto. “And I could use a tough guy like you. See, we’re gonna have a lot of pick fanciers in town for the convention, and I figure some of them guys is bound to be rich.”
“Convention?” It seemed to me I’d heard that word somewhere before.
“The big pick convention. You know, the one where the Archbishop is the keynote speaker.”
“Oh, that convention,” I said, because I always try not to look dumber than people think I am.
“So here’s what I want you to do,” said Facto. “Next time one of them guys asks if you got the Croydon, you say, ‘No, but I know how to get it.’ Then you lead him to me.”
“And then what do you do?”
“I bonk him over the head and take his money.”
“Subtle,” I said.
“Well, I’ve always been clever. That’s what my mom tells me.”
“So your mom thinks you’re clever when you bonk people over the head?”
“Well, she’s the one who does the actual bonking. Mostly I just ransack their pockets once they’re bonked.”
“It sounds like a clever plan,” I admitted, “but I don’t know whether it’s ethical.”
“Oh, I can help you out there,” said Facto. “Kosciuszko here is a trained ethicist. Kosciuszko, it’s ethical, ain’t it?”
“Ethical as all get out,” said Kosciuszko. “I looked it up.”
“See? There you go,” said Facto. “I wouldn’t want to be a crime boss if I had to do anything unethical.”
“I still don’t think I can do it,” I said. “It would damage my reputation if everybody I talked to started getting bonked.”
“Your reputation? Marlow, your reputation is about to get you killed.”
“Killed?” I didn’t like the sound of that. I usually don’t like the sound of verbs that begin with K, like “killed” or “klobbered.”
“Every important pick collector in the world thinks you’ve got the Croydon. That’s your reputation, Marlow. It ain’t a healthy reputation to have. And every important pick collector in the world is going to be in town for the convention. They ain’t all nice guys like me. Some of ’em won’t stop at anything. Not even murder. Not even copyright infringement. There’s some real desperate characters in that crowd. I’m just givin’ you a chance to bonk them before they bonk you.”
“I thought you said they wouldn’t murder me,” I reminded him.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. But I’ve been on the level with you, Marlow. I think you’re a valuable property, and I’m offering you a way to squeeze that value out without getting squeezed. I think you should take me up on it.”
“Sorry,” I said. “No bonking when I’m around.”
Facto was silent for a moment. Then he put his hands flat on the table “Well, Marlow, all I can say is, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking down at my feet, “I’ve been meaning to get new ones, but what with—”
“No, I don’t mean your literal shoes! Criminy! It’s a metaphor. A what-do-you-call-it. It’s an idiotism. I mean that I wouldn’t want to be in your position vis-à-vis the unscrupulous pick collectors out there. I’m giving you a final offer, Marlow. Fifty-fifty. You rope ’em in, Mom bonks ’em, and whatever falls out when they hit the floor, you take half and I take half, and Mom takes half ’cause she bonked ’em. I can’t be any fairer than that.”
“No bonking,” I repeated, turning around to leave.
“Fine,” I heard him saying as Billy and I walked out. “I guess you don’t want to do your bit for a neighbor. I guess you don’t care about a poor honest crook just trying to scrape by. Well, if I were you, I’d be careful, ’cause—”
But we were out in the street by this time, so I didn’t hear the rest.
“You sure showed him,” Billy said as we walked down the street toward the main business district of Sharpsburg. “Now what are we doing next? Another crime boss?”
“Actually, there’s a shoe store on Main Street that I was thinking of stopping in, and—
“You two need a ride?” came a familiar voice from the street beside us.
“Well, actually,” I said, “I was headed for Wagner’s Shoes, and it’s just around the—
The doors opened, and once again thugs poured out of the DeSoto. Once again Billy and I were bundled into the back. Once again I ended up on my head.
“Don’t you think you’re overdoing this moonlighting thing?” I asked. “Three bosses seems like two too many.”
“This one ain’t a job,” said Kosciuszko. “It’s more a personal favor.”
“Favor? Who for? Another crime boss? A Byzantine archeparch?”
“Gee, Mr. Marlow, it’s almost like you don’t trust me. Now, that ain’t fair.”
“If I’m supposed to trust you, how come you keep grabbing me and throwing me into the car?”
“’Cause I don’t trust you.”
“Well,” said Billy, ”that seems fair.”
We were heading over the bridge again, and it occurred to me to say, “You know, maybe you ought to get out a map and plot your route. Then you could take me to all the mob bosses on the north side of the Allegheny in the morning, and all the ones between the rivers in the afternoon, and then you’d still have the evening for the ones on the South Side.”
“Hey, that’s a good idea,” said Kosciuszko. He reached into the glove box and pulled out a map.
“Told you he was smart,” said Billy.
For the rest of the trip, Kosciuszko was busy making marks on his map, so I just sat there and watched out the window until the car rolled to a stop right in front of the building where I had my office.
“Now we’re gonna get out and walk in nice and casual-like,” said Kosciuszko. “Just as if we did it every day.”
“I do do it every day,” I said. “This is my building.”
“Then it oughta be a snap,” said Kosciuszko, and I suppose he was right.
We all walked up the stairs to my office, and Kosciuszko held the door open for me.
“There you are,” said Betty. “About time. Thanks, Koz. There’s a bag of oatmeal cookies on my desk over there.”
“Oh boy!” said Kosciuszko. “With raisins?”
“Just the way you like them.”
Kosciuszko snatched up the bag, pulled out an oatmeal cookie, and bit into it with an expression of pure bliss.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re my next big crime boss?”
“I owed her a favor,” Kosciuszko explained with his mouth full. “And your secretary makes the best oatmeal cookies.”
“So what’s this about?”
“I called the Backstreet Bar in Sharpsburg and told Koz I needed you back right away,” Betty said.
“How did you even know I was there?”
“Somebody in this office has to be a detective,” said Betty. “Anyway, your client is in your office. She says it’s a matter of life and death.”
“Somebody threatened her? Facto was right. They really will stop at nothing.”
“Well, actually,” Betty said, “I got the impression it was your death she was talking about.”