I was staying in a cheap room at a cheap motel, killing time, waiting for the insurance check to arrive. I was going to take the money and move to Mexico, drink strong beer and ravish a bunch of lovely Latinas. That, anyway, was The Plan.
My wife had died in the fire that destroyed our house. It was tragic, I guess, but we hadn't been getting along very well, so I wasn't exactly what you'd call devastated.
The house had been on one of those upscale cul-de-sacs. A little too upscale for our finances, but you have to put up a good front, no? Five houses arranged around the perimeter of a semi-circle of asphalt. Lots of trees and shrubs and landscaping.
The night of the fire, all the neighbors had been out to a city council meeting, protesting plans to erect an apartment building in the area. Even Patsy "Old Eagle Eye" Bremmer, the neighborhood busybody, was away from home that night.
I was out myself. At a bar. I'm not much of a joiner.
The house at the far end of the circle was robbed that night, too. Without Old Eagle Eye around, there were no witnesses. All in all, it was a bad night for the neighborhood.
The insurance money was pretty hefty--we'd each been covered by a million-dollar policy, double indemnity for an accidental (such as in a house fire) death. And the insurance on the house, after paying off the mortgage, would come to another 300 grand.
So I sat and waited, watched a lot of daytime television, closed a lot of bars, and fantasized about all the dark-haired beauties I was going to enjoy.
Someone knocked on the door as I was sitting at the little pressed-wood desk, filling in some forms for the estate lawyers. Typical lawyers, thought they were going to make a few hundred thousand bucks off this deal. But they didn't know about The Plan.
The knock was pretty forceful, and I jumped a bit and nearly knocked over my glass of Southern Comfort. I secured the glass and went to the door.
He was a tallish, maybe six feet, Hispanic, with long hair pulled straight back and tied at the nape of his neck and a scar on his left cheek. He looked at me with a strange little smirk on his face.
"Yes?" I said.
"I've come for my money."
"I've come for my cut of your insurance money," his smile broadened a little. "How about letting me in?"
Before I could answer, he pushed past me into the room and turned to face me.
"Maybe you'd better close that door," he said. "I don't like being where people walking by can see me."
"Listen you... " I was beginning to get a bit ticked off.
"I was there that night," he said, his smile gone now.
"The night your wife died, your house burned down. I was there, three doors down."
It didn't take a rocket scientist. The only person in the cul-de-sac that night had broken into the Robinson's place. It was three doors down from our house.
I closed the door. He smiled again.
"Better," he said.
"What's this all about? Who are you? What makes you think..." I had a couple of dozen questions trying to come out all at once.
"How about I get comfortable?" he asked, beginning to remove his leather jacket. "I think we're going to be here a while."
He pulled a cellular phone from the left-hand pocket of the jacket and clipped it to his belt.
"Just in case," he said.
"Just in case some junkie wants to make a buy?"
He gave me a hard look. "You got a problem?"
"I just hate cell phones."
He shrugged then removed a short-barreled revolver from the right jacket pocket, studied it for a moment and slipped it into his waistband. His right hand rested on the protruding butt of the weapon. With his left hand he tossed the jacket onto the couch.
I'm no firearms expert, but I suspected that little thing could blow a pretty big hole in my valuable self. I decided I'd better listen to this guy.
"It's simple," he began, "I was there that night, in the house at the end of the turnaround. You ever been in that place? Well, of course you have, you're neighbors. Anyway, there's a buffet in the dining room, just in front of the bay window. I was, like, exploring the contents of the buffet, looking for anything I could fence.
"I saw you coming up the street, sort of sneaky-like, it seemed to me. Watched you go into the house. Watched you come out again. Saw you sneaky-like go back down the street. Saw the house start smoking then shoot flames out the windows.
"Say, how'd you get the little woman to stay in bed like that? The news, they said something about a careless cigarette, terrible tragedy. So what, you gave her a couple of extra sleeping pills before you went out, that it?
"Anyway, let's talk turkey here."
He smiled again.
"You're crazy," I said. "My wife was an artist, a painter. A good one, too. Somehow some paint thinner or something in her studio caught fire--it was in all the papers."
"The funny pages are in all the papers, too."
So he wasn't buying the story. I figured it was time to switch tactics.
I shrugged. "So, what, you made up a story and tracked me down. Gonna blackmail me, that it?"
"You believe in coincidence, man?"
"Wasn't looking for you at all. But, y'know, you like to hang out in bars. I like to hang out in bars, too. Do the math."
I was getting edgy.
"You've got no proof of anything."
"Don't need no proof," he replied. "You don't give me what I want, I tell the cops what I know. That's my proof."
"They're going to believe you, a burglar, a...a drug dealer, right? Besides, you'll put yourself right in jail, you admit to being in the Robinson's place that night."
He looked at me like I was a small child. "You don't think the cops'll give me immunity? Trade a small-time heist for a big-time murderer? I know the cops, man. Hell, the insurance company might even give me a reward, saving them all that money you're trying to scam 'em out of. Wake up, dude. Smell the coffee."
He had me dead to rights, pardon the pun, but I wasn't going to let him know it. I took a deep breath, exhaled, ran my fingers through my hair, down the back of my neck.
Stalling. He just smiled up at me.
"Let's just suppose," I said, "that you're right. Let's assume, for a while, that I did it--"
"Ain't no assuming necessary, my man."
"--As I was saying, let's assume, just for the sake of talking, that I did what you think I did. Just assuming, okay?"
"Play it your way, friend."
"Okay. Assuming. How do I know you're not a cop, hey? Some grungy undercover cop, trying to get me to own up to a murder?"
"Me? A cop? Hah!"
"So how do I know you're not?" I asked.
"You got my word, man. My word. I ain't no cop."
"Your word? That's it? No proof?"
"Look, dude, in my line of work, all a guy's got is his word. Y'know? You can't trust a dude, he doesn't last long. Maybe doesn't live long. Your word's, like, sacred. See? Don't question my word, man."
He seemed a little agitated. I didn't know if that was good or bad. If he was a bit hot under the collar, would he be easier to deal with? I decided to see what came next.
"Okay, okay. You're not a cop. So, assuming again, I give you, what? Ten grand...?"
He cocked his head to one side, showed me a "you've got to be kidding" grin.
"Fifty grand, whatever. What's to stop you from coming back tomorrow and demanding a hundred?"
"My word." He gave me a look that said, are you believing me this time?
I sighed. I didn't know what to do next. This definitely wasn't part of The Plan. I needed a drink.
A drink--that gave me an inspiration.
"All right, um... say, what's your name, anyway?"
"Miguel. Friends call me Mickey. I expect we're gonna be friends here, so you call me Mickey, too."
"Right. Mickey. Okay. You want a drink? I got some Southern Comfort here."
"Sure, man. Sounds good."
Nodding, I turned to the little table, looked at the bottle.
It was about three-quarters full. I grabbed it by the neck with my right hand, swiveled around to my left and slammed the barrel of it against Mickey's forehead.
It stunned him, but that's all. His head flew backwards, hit the couch and rebounded. He reached for the butt of the pistol in his belt. I swung again, backhanded this time, and caught him flush on the right temple.
His head snapped to the left. He sat there for a long second and then slowly fell over and slid to the floor.
I was trembling. I put the bottle down on the table and knelt over Mickey's crumpled body. There was surprisingly little blood, just a few drops on his forehead. I checked--no pulse. Mickey wasn't going to bother me anymore.
The Plan was back on track.
Now I just had to get rid of him. But first I decided to have that drink. Calm down, think this through.
I poured a couple of fingers of whiskey, sat down on the couch, and stared at my erstwhile partner's corpse.
I figured it would be simple--wait until dark, dump old Mickey into his car, drive off a ways, find a dark alley, and leave 'em both. Walk back to the motel. Let the cops figure it was a drug deal gone bad or something along those lines. Simple and clean.
The knock on the door startled me, again. What now? I glanced at Mickey. What to do? I put my hand over my mouth to muffle my voice a little, make it sound like maybe I was in the bathroom or something. "Just a minute, please," I said.
I rolled Mickey's limp body under the couch. It just barely fit and I had to push pretty hard to get it back from the front edge. I laid on my back on the floor and jabbed at it with both feet. I jumped up, grabbed his jacket off the couch and threw it under there as well.
I took out my handkerchief, wiped up the little spot of blood Mickey had left in front of the sofa, and put it back in my pocket. Hustling to the bathroom I grabbed a towel, then went to the door, making like I was drying my hands.
The guy at the door was a uniformed policeman, big and brawny with a bulbous nose and bags under his eyes. His partner, I presumed that's who it was, another uniformed cop, stood behind him. The second guy was smaller but had a meaner look about him. The first one smiled; the second one just glared.
"Good day, sir. I'm Officer Mulrooney, and this is my partner, Officer Downes. We're here on official business."
"Yes, sir." He seemed to be making an effort to be pleasant. "An automobile reported stolen from Duke's Used Cars appears to be parked right outside in the motel lot. Would you know anything about that, sir?"
"No. Of course not. Why would I?"
"Well, sir, Mrs. O'Doul, from the room just across the courtyard there, says she saw the driver enter this room here. And, she says, he hasn't come out. Mrs. O'Doul likes to keep an eye on things, you see. Doesn't wish to be surprised by the unknown, I guess."
Great, another Old Eagle Eye, right here in River City.
"Yeah, well, Mrs. O'Doul is wrong, I'm afraid. I've been here, alone, all day, working on legal papers and such. Mrs. O'Doul doesn't drink, does she?"
"I wouldn't know, sir. So, you've had no visitors today?"
"Nope. No one. Just me, my bottle, and a bunch of papers."
Mulrooney reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a photograph. He held it up for me to see. It was Mickey, all right. Downes stared at me. I kept my face impassive, I think.
"This is the man in question, sir. Mickey O. Miguel Orestes y Sanchez. He's quite well known down at the station. Mrs. O'Doul is certain this is the man she saw leaving the car, approaching and entering this room, sir."
"I tell you, officer, Mrs. O'Doul is wrong."
"That might be, sir. But, just to round out our report here, do you mind if we step inside and take a look around?"
"Do you have a warrant, officer?"
Downes pulled a face at that. Mulrooney just shrugged.
"No, sir. I could run down to the courthouse and get one--I've got sufficient cause with Mrs. O'Doul's identification. But, I have to tell you, sir, that if I do go down to the courthouse, I'll be leaving my partner here in the parking lot to keep watch over this room. Just in case Mickey O were to happen to actually be here and actually try to sneak away. It would be much simpler for all of us if you just let the two of us in." He looked the epitome of reasonableness, but his partner was smirking.
"Very well, Officer Mulrooney. Please. Come in." I stepped from the door. As I moved back I noticed a small spot of blood on the couch. Damn, I'd thought I'd gotten it all earlier. Quickly I flipped the towel onto the sofa, a casual move a man would do when done drying his hands, and managed to land it right over that bloody spot.
They came in. Mulrooney moved to the middle of the room. Downes stood just inside the door, sideways, I presume so that he could see outside as well as in. Mulrooney took in the room, what there was of it. He bent over and looked under the bed. I prayed he wouldn't do the same with the couch. He didn't.
"Mind if I have a look in the bathroom, sir?"
"Be my guest, officer."
He walked to the bathroom door. Before entering the little room he unsnapped the flap of his holster and drew out his service revolver. I noted that Downes had done the same.
Mulrooney stepped back into the main room. He glanced at his partner, shrugged and said, "All clear in there, Scottie." They both put their weapons back.
He turned to me. "Sorry to have troubled you, sir. It looks like Mrs. O'Doul was wrong after all."
"That's okay. No harm done."
"My apologies again, sir. Just so you know, though, we'll be keeping an eye on that vehicle for a day or so. If no one comes for it, we'll tow it..."
I jumped. So did Downes. Mulrooney glared at me. No one moved for a long moment.
Mulrooney said, "Sounds like a cell phone."
"Uh, yeah. It is. Startled me, " I said, thinking furiously. God, I hate those things.
He inclined his head towards the sofa. "You always keep your cell phone under the couch, do you?"
I didn't reply right away. He glanced at his partner and they both drew their weapons again.
Brrrreeeep. It stopped in mid-ring.
Mulrooney squatted down in front of the couch. He reached underneath. Withdrew his hand. Looked up at me. Nodded to Downes, who pointed his pistol in my general direction.
Mulrooney moved to his knees and peered under the sofa. He looked up at Downes and grinned.
"Good old Mrs. O'Doul," he said.
I think I'm going to need a New Plan.