A Case for Keeps (2012)


I was down on the docks looking for a man named Finch.  I didn’t know him.  I had never met him.  My client, the Mrs. Lionel Cope – a sweet old thing of 145 or so – told me he looked like “a rouge”.  I declare she turned red under her powder at the mere thought.  Finch had drifted in with the fog at the forty room mausoleum she called home.  He had a sob story: parents lost at sea, sold to pirates.  I think I read all about it in Boys Life magazine.  She had been charmed and he rolled out on the tide with fifty grand she kept around the house for incidentals.

“I won’t get it back, of course,” she said placing her hand confidentially on my knee.  “I just want to see him.  I want to give him the chance to apologize.”  I might have arched an eyebrow at that, but she could call it whatever she wanted.  She was paying me fifteen bucks a day plus expenses and I am anything if not a professional.  It even says so on my business card next to my name: FRANK BLAINE.

Mrs. Cope called in a few favors from her late husband’s friends.  A tramp steamer by the name of Robert Dollar had made for Java the morning Finch pulled his Houdini act.  It was two months to Java and two months back.  I got fifteen dollars, paid in cash every day in person under the stern painted glare of Mr. Lionel Cope in the library.  What can I say?  It kept me in butter and eggs.  Things are tough and the gum-shoe racket is tight in the best of the times.

I heard from a little bird the Robert Dollar was back in port Friday afternoon.  I dressed down and caught a fare to the bay.  By nightfall I nursed a dozen drinks in a dive called Sam’s.  It was the kind of place that stuck to your shoes.  It was popular with the swabs though.  I kept my head down and listened.  There’s one rule to follow down on the docks: never argue with a sailor on shore.  After being cramped up aboard ship for months, always following orders, seeing the same mugs everyday; that energy has to go somewhere.  There isn’t enough booze in the world.  If I had been drinking American, I would have been all right.  I generally get along with whiskey, but tequila and I don’t frank each other’s lingo.  I think I might have mumbled something about the Dodgers.

“Aw, whadda you know about it?” said the blur somewhere next to me.  A shoal sized fist of granite slammed into my gut and I felt myself go aground.  Two pals of mine whom I had never met jumped to my defense and the place blew open like a hand grenade.  Two gorillas grabbed my arms and escorted me through the melee.  I tried to explain the door they were trying to push me out of was actually a PULL.  My mistake, my face kept covering the sign.

I lay outside on the rough sidewalk for about a year and a half.  I don’t know how long he was standing there.  I didn’t notice until he began tapping his foot, a nail in his sole hitting the bricks like a bullet.  I looked up.  He wasn’t a cop.  He wasn’t dressed nice enough to be on the take.  He wore a cheap suit and a hat pulled down low enough to cover his eyes.   He stooped down and offered me a hand.

“You lose a nickel, pal?”

“Funny,” I said, getting to my feet.  “You could teach Bob Hope a thing or two.”

“Who says I haven’t?”

I shrugged.  It was taking too much of my time to remain in an upright position.  He put an arm around my shoulder to help me along.

“With tequila, the worm always wins,” he said.  “Come on, I’ll put on a pot of coffee and we can watch the cops take this place apart.”

He worked out of a tired building at the end of the street, three floors up, no elevator service.  The front room was clean if a little threadbare.  The desk was neat and two file cabinets stood guard.  I glanced backwards at the name on the glass.

FINCH AND RANKIN

My guardian angel’s office was less clean, his desk less neat.  He flipped on a wall light and I fell back into a beat up couch against the wall.  He plugged in a hot plate and placed a tin pot on it.

“You Rankin or Finch?” I asked.  He didn’t answer right away.

“Name is Finch, Leonard Finch.”  He handed me a cup of hot ink.  I cut off a slice and rolled it around my mouth a bit before swallowing.  Finch sat at his desk.  He took a drink from his cup and made a face every four year old tries once with his mother.  He fumbled through a couple drawers and came up with a flask worn dull.  He subdued his coffee with a dollop and offered it to me.  The tequila had lost the battle of my head, but was still waging war in my belly.  I declined.

“You’re a shamus,” he said.  “Who are you looking for?”

I sat up, holding my cup with both hands.  “Funny story.  You’ll like it, being pals with Bob Hope and all.  I’m looking for a man named Finch.”  He paused over his coffee and set it down at his desk.  I kept my eyes steady and hands on my cup.  I didn’t have a piece.

“That so?” he said.  “Nice to be wanted in this cold, cold world.  What did I do?”

“Sweet talked a dame out of fifty grand,” I said.  To my surprise Finch laughed.

“Mrs. Lionel Cope?” he asked.  My cup rattled against the saucer in response.  He laughed again.  “Fifty grand?  You think I would be in this dump if I had fifty grand?”  He laughed a little more to himself and took another sip.  “No, all Mrs. Lionel Cope gave me was twenty bucks a day.”

“What were you doing for that?” I asked.

“What are you doing for it?” he asked back.  I didn’t have an answer.  Finch sat back in his chair and told me a tale of a chauffeur named Franklin who had run off with some priceless artifacts her late husband collected in the wild.  Finch looked for six months, reporting in every day and collecting his fee.

“Never thought to look Franklin up under Private Eye,” he added.   Eventually, he got wise to the scheme and lammed on Mrs. Lionel Cope.

“I’m working on a case now with a rich gal south of here,” he said.  “She says someone is trying to kill her.  Pays one fifty a week plus…”  He made a Coke bottle gesture.

“Can you believe that?” asked Finch.  I looked out the tall windows behind him.  Three paddy wagons crowded the street in front of Sam’s.

I poured myself some more coffee as penance.   “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” I said.  “Other than I believe I’d like some of your special creamer there.”  Finch laughed and handed me the flask.

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