Pal let me have it, one barrel at a time: "Poubelle's playmates have left town, along with Loretta Mason, I presume. Don't ask me where. You can read all about it in the paper. I'll have ‘em send one up.
"Poubelle was slain execution style, as newspaper people like to call it. Gun at the back of the head, forehead and brains blown all over the nice used-brick fireplace. A neighbor heard the gunshot and called us.
"The perps are long gone, of course. I think. I hope. Los Angeles, probably. I want this whole mess to be not Santa Barbara's problem anymore."
"I wonder why," I said.
"You wonder why what?"
"Why would they suddenly kill Poubelle and leave town - if they left. Carlos and Jose Diego."
Pal looked puzzled. "Who's Jose Diego?" he asked.
"I think he's Carlos's muscle."
Pal winced at my too-cool jargon.
"He's the one who chased me into an oak tree, and I'm pretty sure he's also the one who drives around in a black Caddie looking for a target," I said. "He's probably the one who shot Poubelle."
Pal could have said thanks for the info, but he didn't. He only said, "I'll pass that on to LAPD. Meanwhile, my guess is that your snoopin' around spooked ‘em, and they needed to go away. That would be the bright side to this thing.
"As for Poubelle, they probably simply didn't need him anymore. We interviewed your fishing boat captain, Bard Purtch. He told us how they worked the pickup out in the channel. Now the drug smugglers will have to make their Mexico connection some other way. So that's why we figure your friends from South America have probably gone to L.A."
What? Purtch? "How did Purtch get into the picture?"
"He called us," Pal said. "Said he got to thinking that maybe you were playing with dynamite. He was right, wasn't he?"
Pal looked down at me in an odd way. Maybe measuring me for a coffin? I didn't like the look.
"Well, I gotta go," he said. "Get your vagaries reading the newspaper. ‘Extra, extra, read all about it.' "
He shook my hand, still without smiling, and said, "Good luck, Dick. I really do hope we continue to have lunches together." And then he left.
I waited impatiently for the newspaper. Finally asked the nurse for one while she took my temperature and pulse.
She said, "I'll have a Pink Lady bring one right up." Kept smiling. Nice.
I said, "I thought a pink lady was some kind of drink."
She said, "Well, maybe it is, but it's also a kind of volunteer. Retired women, teen-agers interested in nursing … they're great."
"Good," I said. "I don't care what color they are. Pink is fine."
Soon an elderly woman, smiling like everyone else and wearing an attractive outfit with thin pink vertical stripes, brought me the local newsrag.
Well, isn't this just ducky, I thought. My morning newspaper, even if it IS afternoon, and lunch coming up soon. All the comforts of home, and I could read about myself.
"Private Eye Shot," the headline read. They missed a good pun. Something about bloodshot eye would have been good.
The short story, written in breathless tones, made it sound like a gang of killers had invaded the community and, since Pal had refused to comment on anything, the reporter used the word "rumored" to suggest the possibility of the assailant, whoever he was, having connections to the narcotics trade. Police, of course, were "investigating" the crime against the private investigator.
The story concluded with the note that in an earlier case I, Dick McNabb, had shot and killed a wanted murderer. The implication was that I was really in the thick of the on-going anti-drug war, and that I was a deadly sonuvabitch.
Maybe I WAS involved. I thought about Pal's remarks. No smiles, no jokes, no soothing words. Damn, now he had me scared. My legs were twitching as I thought of what might be waiting for me on the outside.
I had a "hamburger" for lunch. At least I didn't have to worry about dying from it, as there was nothing in it that had once been alive. They had wheeled me into a wardroom with three other men. The old guy next to me looked dead already. Bald, hawk nose pointed ceiling-ward, mouth agape, snoring like a saw snagged in hard wood. And it wasn't even evening yet! What would the night bring? Why is the snore the last part of an old fart to die?
A second guy waved from his bed and smiled weakly. He looked very ill. Bad color in his face. The fourth was asleep, without snoring.
The room had a telephone beside the bed, unlike the intensive care joint I was wheeled out of, and I was allowed to receive calls. It rang shortly after I arrived. It was Margie. Of course. Showed she really loved me. Phooey.
But she did sound genuinely concerned: "Oh Dick, My God, will you EVER get out of that awful business? Didn't I warn you? Didn't you KNOW it was dangerous? Oh, my God..."
I calmed her down and assured her that things would be different from now on. That wasn't completely a lie. But I WOULD drop any job that carried a whiff of danger (if I knew it ahead of time).
"We'll get together soon," I said. Don't know why I said it. I didn't especially mean it.
"OK," she said in a small, frightened voice, "call me."
Ted, Gene, Ron . . . some of the fellas from old high school teaching days called. As did my son, one of whose local classmates had called him with the news. Then he called my daughter and she was out, so he said he'd call her soon with the good news: that I was alive and looking for other work.
Etc, etc - Nice to have friends, but - my secret: I was still on the job, although I was now also badly scared. I had to find that woman I'd been hired to find in the first place: poor Loretta Stone. Or find her remains. What had the drug guys done with her? Now it was personal. I was too caught up in this investigation to let it go while her life was still in danger.
Then Loretta's husband Mason called and said, quietly and sadly, "Sorry you got hurt, Dick."
I assured him it was "only a flesh wound", as they say in the movies, and that everything was fine. He sounded as though he hadn't heard me.
"But now it's over," he continued. "We're giving up. She's Carlos's woman now. I guess." He sounded distant, faint . . . beaten.
"Wrong!" I replied, "We're not giving up, Mason. There must be a way to find Loretta, and I'm just the guy to do it. I promise to give it my best shot - if you'll pardon the pun."
I secretly congratulated myself for being so tough and brave, my legs meanwhile twitching with fear. I hoped that nervous feeling would pass soon. I wondered if I was suffering from Restless Leg Syndrome.
I talked Mason into a meeting to reassess everything. He agreed to meet with me when I got out of this place. Meanwhile I would consider various possibilities for locating those bastards - or at least the hit man with the big Caddie.
But the man I really wanted to find was Carlos, the guy who had dragged Loretta down in the first place.
To be continued...
# # # #
Gene Cates is a Santa Barbara writer, author of a series
of crime novels involving Dick McNabb, private investigator. McNabb is a retired teacher with a craving for excitement -- which he finds.