August 20, 2012 by jamesessj
“The Pants Had Two Legs”
Hank Meriwether had hired me to find out why his wife Myrtle had cut him out of her will two days before she’d passed. “Were you seeing another woman?” I asked him. “No!” he assured me. “I was faithful to Myrtle for thirty-one years, and then she goes and does this to me.” The money was family money, all hers. Without it Hank would be a fifty-eight year old homeless man without a single marketable skill. He was spending the last three hundred dollars he had to his name to hire me. I told him I’d do what I could.
* * *
“That man!” Myrtle said. “If I never see him again it’ll be too soon!” Having some experience with the departed, I knew it was imperative to ask highly specific questions and to interrupt if ever they strayed off-topic, which was all the time. Eternity is not conducive to brevity. I repeated the question I’d just asked her, that being, “Why did you cut your husband out of your will?”
“Myrtle. Answer the question.”
“He was cheating on me.”
“He says he wasn’t.”
“How do you know he was cheating on you?”
“‘Was’? Probably still is!”
“He was cheating on me with — his pants.”
“His brown slacks.”
“Your husband was having an affair with a pair of pants?”
“He wore them every single day! And when he’d put them in the wash he’d set up a folding chair out by the washer and dryer and he’d sit there watching them! And how he’d lavish them with fabric softener, oh yes! Those pants must have been smoother than a baby’s behind! But I wouldn’t know, because he never let me touch them!”
“A pair of pants?”
“And you should have seen him ironing those pants! Whispering how he knew it hurt, but it’d all be over soon! And the pleats — talk about sharp! You could have used those pleats to cut a tire in two!”
“Did you ever…discuss…this with your husband?”
“Dozens of times! But he denied the whole thing. In the end I got fed up and changed my will. Maybe now Hank will admit that he should have been paying more attention to me and less to those 38/32s!”
* * *
I gave Hank Meriwether the bad news. He was wearing, I noticed, an old pair of jeans. He broke down as I related my conversation with his recently-deceased wife.
“Oh god!” he cried. “They left me! They left me because I have no money!”
He meant the pants, of course. As soon as they’d sussed to his pennilessness they’d bolted. They were accustomed to a certain standard of living. They were living with a podiatrist now, a successful, reliable professional. Meriwether suspected they’d been seeing one another for quite a while.
I returned Meriwether’s $300. No charge, I told him. Count this as a lesson learned. Pants don’t always put their men on one at a time.
“The Missing Mrs. Link”
The trial of Mickey Habasco was big news. His murder in the courtroom was bigger news. That it was Judge Earl Link who pulled the trigger was the biggest news of all. Until the next day, when Judge Link’s body was found in his cell, hung by the neck until dead. No one could figure it out. Why would a sitting Federal judge gun down a defendant in his own courtroom? There was no known connection between the two men.
The judge’s wife, Kelly Link, hired me to answer that question. She came to me in strict secrecy and insisted I share whatever information I gleaned only with her, no one else.
When I approached him, however, the judge was not in a talkative mood. I told him his wife was seeking answers. He replied, “I sought answers my entire life, and look where it got me.”
I tried Habasco instead. He was plenty willing to talk, but he had no more intimation of the judge’s motivation than I did. “You can’t think of anything?” I said. “You didn’t order a hit on a friend of his? Blow up a relative in a car bomb? Corrupt an innocent niece into a life of drugs and prostitution?” “I done all dose tings, lotsa times,” said Habasco, “but nevuh to my knowledge to duh judge or anyone of his acquaintance.”
I scoured Habasco’s record — and Judge Link’s — but this had already been done by every news organization on the planet, looking for that elusive missing link, and as expected I found nothing. Mickey Habasco had been a gangster to the nth degree, but none of his victims had had even a tangential relationship to Judge Earl Link.
I gave his daughter the bad news. She received it with a heartrending sob. Followed by a stomach-churning howl. Succeeded by a throat-tightening blubber.
“I suspected the truth all along,” she wept. “I have ever since I found…this.”
She handed me a blurry photograph of a pretty young brunette and what looked like a young Mickey Habasco. They were in a nightclub, in one another’s arms.
“I found that in Earl’s desk,” she said.
“Look closely at the woman.”
I did. She was pretty, but in a nondescript way. Nothing too remarkable about her…except, when I looked more closely…her eyes.
“Her eyes,” I said. “One of them is–”
Mrs. Link removed the sunglasses she’d worn each time she’d visited my office, even though it was forty-two degrees Fahrenheit outside. Her left eye was–
“A cube,” she said, “instead of a sphere. A rare birth defect.”
“Then this woman in the photo is–”
“Me. You see, Mr. Monroe, I am the missing link between Judge Earl Link and Mickey Habasco.”
“Earl was not my first husband. When I was young, and foolish, and impetuous, and stupid, and dumb, and foolish, I married a gangster.”
“Back then he was known as ‘the Mickster.’ And I was known as Loretta Lund. I knew Mickey was a bad man…but I loved him unreservedly. Until the day he laid a hand on me.”
“He hit you?”
“No. I had a cold, and he was trying to heal me. He was Pentecostal.”
“I couldn’t be with a man who’d put his hand on me like that. So I ran. But I knew Mickey had connections everywhere, and I knew he’d find me eventually. Unless I changed everything about myself — my face, my name, my nail polish.”
“You became Kelly.”
“Yes. But then Mickey was arrested and Earl was assigned the case…and in going through Mickey’s file Earl must have come across that photo. And recognized me…even though I’d changed my face, my name, and switched from Cherries Jubilee to Ramblin’ Rose.”
She blew her nose into a handkerchief.
“But I couldn’t change my eye, you see. I wore sunglasses whenever I was in public, but I couldn’t hide my deformity from Earl…and when he saw that photo, he knew the truth. I had been a gangster’s moll.”
She sniffed. “It must have driven him crazy. He shot Mickey and then took his own life.” She looked at me. “What he said to you…is the final confirmation.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Link.”
She put her sunglasses back on. “We can’t ever undo the past, can we, Mr. Monroe.”
“No,” I said.
She stood and walked out. I watched her go. Then I looked out the window, into the rain and the shadows. Beyond, the lights of the city glittered like a promise. Sometimes I hated my job.
“The D.I.Y. Murders”
Three of the four founders of the Home Service Center, the world’s foremost do-it-yourself supply chain, were dead. The fourth was standing in front of me.
“These were no accidents,” he said. “Those men were murdered.”
“What makes you think so, Mr. Gruber?”
Handley Gruber was a big man. He wasn’t used to being questioned. “Those men were do-it-yourself experts,” he explained. “They couldn’t have died the way they did.”
I thought back over the news accounts of the deaths. The first of the three, Gerrold Waxman, had died in his $2 million mansion, constructed entirely of bathroom tiles. He’d drowned while installing a new toilet.
“Gerry couldn’t have drowned in two inches of water,” said Gruber. “His nose was three inches long.”
The second of the three men, Arnold Theopides, had died while building an addition to his children’s treehouse. He’d fallen two hundred eight-three feet to his death. The treehouse was in a sequoia.
“Arnie always used a safety harness,” said Gruber.
The third of the three men, Roscoe Inskeep, had died as a result of burns suffered when the handcrafted moon rocket he’d been working on ignited prematurely. The rocket made it into lunar orbit, but without Inskeep.
“Insie would never have walked behind a lit candle,” said Gruber.
“It is suspicious,” I agreed. “Three of the four founders of Home Service Club dying within days of each other.”
“Suspicious is right!” said Clarence Cutter, Gruber’s well-dressed, well-manicured, but weaselly right-hand man as he dabbed a handkerchief across his bald forehead. “You’ve got to protect Mr. Gruber! He’s undoubtedly next on the list!”
“Next on the list of victims, perhaps,” I said. “But first on the list of suspects.” Gruber gave me a hard look. Cutter’s mouth made a perfect circle of indignation. “Didn’t Waxman’s, Theopides’, and Inskeep’s shares in the company revert to you upon their deaths, Mr. Gruber? Wasn’t that the deal the four of you made when you started the company?”
“Now see here–” said Cutter, but Gruber put up his arm to quiet his subordinate.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “That’s why I came to you, Mr. Monroe. You can communicate with Gerry — with Arnie — with Insie — you can ask them what they remember of their final moments. I’m not afraid of what you’ll find. I want to know who killed them — and I want him punished.”
“Or her,” said Cutter.
“Or her,” said Gruber. “Women form a significant percentage of our customer base. I wouldn’t want to discriminate by considering them incapable of murder.”
I said, “I’ll see what I can do, Mr. Gruber.”
* * *
Three days later Gruber and Cutter were back in my office. I presented the findings of my investigation.
“Gerrold Waxman,” I said, “remembers nothing except seeing a shadow just before his death. A shadow of a man wearing a fedora.
“Arnold Theopides,” I said, “remembers a shadow, as well. A shadow of a man wearing a trilby.
“And Roscoe Inskeep,” I said, “remembers the shadow of a man wearing a bowler.”
“So they were murdered,” said Gruber. “By three different men.”
“Or,” I said, “by one man wearing three different hats.”
“But what sort of fellow wears a fedora, a trilby, and a bowler?”
“A fashion plate,” I said, my eyes trailing over to settle on Clarence Cutter. “Whose head” — my eyes trailed up to his bald dome — “gets cold.”
Before I could react Cutter had drawn a pistol from his pocket.
“Clarence, what are you–”
A gunshot rang out. Gruber slumped to the floor. Cutter trained the gun on me.
“Four for four,” he said. “Not bad, eh?”
“You won’t get away with this, Cutter.”
“No? You’ve provided me with the perfect story: when you informed Mr. Gruber that his three dead partners had fingered him for their murders, he drew his gun and shot you. Then he tried to shoot me, but in the struggle for the gun I shot him instead.”
“But why?” I asked. “Why kill Waxman, Theopides, Inskeep, and now Gruber?”
“Revenge,” Cutter growled. “On the evening Waxman and Theopides and Inskeep and Gruber began their partnership, thirty-six years ago, they celebrated by inviting a young lady of the evening to their offices. Each of them took his turn with her. Then they tossed her aside without a second thought.”
“You’re thirty-five years old, aren’t you, Cutter? That lady of the evening was your mother.”
“Yes!” he shrieked. “And one of those four men was my father! But I never knew which! I had Waxman’s ears, and Theopides’ eyebrows, and Inskeep’s nose, and Gruber’s lips! I could have been son to any of them!”
“That doesn’t explain why you killed them,” I said.
“They left my mother destitute, Mr. Monroe. She begged for money to help raise me and they ignored her! I grew up without Legos…without G.I. Joes…without Transformers…without Hot Wheels…without Masters of the Universe!”
He leaned in close. His breath was hot and smelled of jalapeno. “I didn’t play a video game until I was in grad school,” he snarled. “Do you know what that’s like? Can you imagine?”
“No,” I said. My parents had been poor, too, but they’d scrimped and saved and bought me an Intellivision for my eighth birthday. No games, just the console. But I’d play with the controller as if I was piloting a B-17 or fighting orcs in a dungeon deep underground. I’d turned out all right. But Cutter hadn’t.
“Looks like you’ve got it all wrapped up in a neat little package,” I said. “Only loose end — is me.”
He smiled. “That’s right, Mr. Monroe.” He raised his gun. “Say hello to my four daddies for me!”
A second gunshot rang out. But this one didn’t come from Cutter’s pistol. He looked down, at the red hole in his shirt. He looked up at me, and the gun in my hand, smoke curling up from its barrel.
“Do it yourself,” I said.