“You won’t mind if I ask to see some identification, I’m sure. It’s precinct policy.”
The cheerfulness of the property clerk behind the window told me her shift had only recently started. And she was new to the squad on top of that. I could only see her head and upper torso, but that told me she was a short woman, and stout. Black curls peeked out from under her uniform cap. I didn’t recognize her, and she apparently wasn’t familiar with me. So I produced my license and braced myself.
“Private investigator,” she remarked, skimming my card. But I just waited for her to give my credentials more than a cursory glance.
“Harrison Danger Bennett? Your middle name is literally ‘Danger’?”
“It’s Danger,” I said. “With a hard g. It’s a family name.”
Soon enough came the other question I was used to getting when I reclaimed my revolver at a police station.
“Never use ’em,” I confessed.
“You pack cold heat?”
“I don’t really want to shoot anyone. This way, I probably won’t.”
“Sure,” the clerk agreed, “but what’s that people say? Better to need ’em and… no, wait. Better to have ’em and not need ’em than to need ’em and not have ’em?”
“That’s what people say,” I confirmed. “But what can I say? I prefer to live dangerously.” I pronounced it with a hard g. The lady looked askance at me. “Have a good night,” I said, slid my gun into its holster under my arm, and walked out of the station house onto a chilly midtown street.
The misty face of my watch told me it was just shy of 3 a.m. Time for a hot cup of coffee, a congratulatory slice of pie, and some sleep. I’d get the food at a diner, but I’d wait until I was home to grab the shut-eye. In the morning — or the afternoon, if I was still celebrating — I’d tackle the paperwork for this most recent job well done.
* * * * * * *
I dropped onto a stool at the counter like a sandbag onto a pier. Despite the unholy hour I wasn’t alone in the diner. There were three other nighthawks, two men and a woman, but I made a point of noticing only that much about them. If a person’s haunting an eatery at that time, they’re not looking for company or attention. Besides, no one was paying me to pry into anyone else’s personal life just then, so I minded my own business and only that.
“Did ya get the number, Harry?”
The cook was making conversation as he poured me a cup of joe. Doxie was wizened, which is a fancy word for weather-beaten, which also described him pretty well. His creased skin was the color of a cup of coffee with three-quarters of a tablespoon of whole-fat cream and no sugar; it had taken me twenty-five minutes of quiet experimentation one afternoon at the diner counter to determine this. If Doxie’s apron had ever been clean, that was before I knew him. Sometimes, I liked to guess what a particular spot or splash of color might be — egg yolk? cranberry sauce? eye of newt? — but most of the time I was just happy to eat whatever came out of Doxie’s ancient cauldron in the kitchen.
“The number, Doxie?”
“Of the truck that fell on ya, Harry. You look like hell.”
“Just wrapped up a case. What’s your excuse?”
“I’m old,” Doxie said. “Pie?”
“Please,” I said. “Apple. Neat.”
While I ate, I jotted some notes on a napkin with a biro I found on the counter. By the time I’d swallowed my last bite of pie, the notes read: newspapers, barber, airplane, concussion, amnesia, identical twin, assassination attempt, uniforms, ducks, radio.
Finishing my coffee and looking over my list, I realized that those were plot points from Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator. I crumpled the napkin and left it with the crumbs on my plate.
“I’ll be seeing you, Doxie,” I called to the cook, who had disappeared again into the kitchen. I fished a couple of bucks out of my wallet… then realized I couldn’t go home just yet, damage it all.
* * * * * * *
“Nice to see you again, Harrison Danger Bennett,” said the property clerk. “I’ve been expecting you.” Still plenty cheerful.
On the ledge between us at her window was my identification. My private investigator credentials. The card I’d handed her an hour earlier and forgotten to take back when she’d given me my gun. I pocketed it.
“So why carry a heater at all?” she asked. Evidently, we weren’t done with this conversation. I was exhausted, but there didn’t seem to be any percentage in being rude. I mustered some strength and explained.
“The other guys, the guys who aren’t the nice guys, they expect a private eye to be packing heat,” I said. “If you’re not, they figure something’s up and they give you a harder time because of it. They frisk you a little longer. And a little rougher. So I carry a gun to save everybody some trouble. Now, if you’re wearing a gun, the assumption is it’s loaded. I’ve been relieved of my piece once or twice. The other guys didn’t look in the cylinder. They just stashed my gun out of my reach.”
“But,” the clerk started to ask me, then started again. “But those other guys will be carrying guns. And bullets.”
“I count on it,” I said.
“Well,” I told her, “as it happens I’ve got a disarming smile.”
I’d have shown her if I hadn’t been so thoroughly tired. I was already working pretty hard to stifle some insistent yawns.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Sergeant,” I said, “I’m going to get forty winks. And maybe a couple more for good luck.”
* * * * * * *
“Honey, I’m home,” I called to no one when I got in. If someone had answered, I’d have been more than a little surprised and none too pleased.
I dropped my gun onto a small table near the front door of my apartment, next to some mail I’d eventually open and read or else sweep into the trash. I hung my holster on a hook in my hall closet. I placed my watch and cufflinks into a felt-lined lockbox I keep out of sight, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t mention where. And the next thing I knew I was painting a picket fence with a pair of Ziegfeld Girls, so I must have fallen asleep. A couple of hours later, I finally crawled into bed.
What a Christmas.