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Creepy And Musty
by Marvin Pinkis

My office is a converted custodian closet, which explains my slouchy posture. Just today I hear the joe what owns this rat-trap of a hell-hole of a hovel in the worst neighborhood in this two-bit Podunk burg on this God-forsaken planet in a far-flung universe, threatens to raise the rent to unheard of heights. Maybe I should leave and make a clean sweep of it.

Meanwhile I’m glomming through the Police Gazette which has been outta print for decades, still it's a thrill to go back to the good old days when the porn was softer than warm butter.

The phone in the hall rings jarringly, about a dozen times, maybe twelve. I take my good old time striding over to it. A grating, gutteral voice queries, "Are youse the private dick guys, Myles and Miles?"

Unsure if it's a bill collector or a real honest-to-goodness client, I take my chances and answer resoundingly, "Yes."

The voice asks, "Who do I got, Myles or Miles?"

I giggle. "Actually, I'm both."

"So why the two names? Are you a wise guy?"

"The two names imply a large staff, a firm to be reckoned with."

"Yeah, shoulda seen that myself. A while back you did some tailing for my goil Winnie, Winifred Winningham Willingham. You might remember her. She had a mole on her shoulder. The mole was trained which is more than you can say for Winnie."

"Sure, I remember Winnie. Not a pleasant memory. Pooh on Winnie."

"Har, har. Well, she's out of the slammer and wants to nail the guy who framed her, Charlie the Carpenter."

For no reason, I gasp discreetly and say, "I recall the judge ruled that Winnie was the culprit, not Charley."

"That's Charlie, not Charley. Look it up in your musty files, the ones under 'Musty Files- 1982 and the first quarter of '83 and call me at Express 968247803276. Got it? You better, buster, if you don't want some broken limbs. I'm an arboritist besides being a tough mug."

The caller sounds serious. I had neglected to discuss fees. No sooner than that thought transpires, the phone rings again.

It's the same voice. The same voice says, "I figured you'd get aroun' to fees. I'll give you a C note only if you wrap this up in no more than two weeks, weekends don't count."

I gulp. "Hard to pass up. How do you and I make contact?"

It says, "I won't call you. You call me."

"At the number previously given?"

"Naw, I changed it to an unlisted number. You figure it out."

"Gotcha. Now you want evidence that it was this woodsman who is the bad guy, not Winnie.”

The response is a click, an unmistakeable click. Even the line goes dead.

I reach up to a shelf, pull down a jug of Wild Mourning Dove in a used Drano container. I reflect on the case. A C-note for no more than two weeks work. I should be so lucky. Wait, how much IS a C note?

A real case. I could pinch myself if I thought I wasn't getting over-familiar. "Winsome Winnie", they called her. "Dirty bastards,” she called them back.

Soon after, Winnie stumbled into my life, and that of countless others. That was Winnie's way.

Winnie had been stringing an indiscernible wire across a sidewalk. As pedestrians stumbled, assuming they were still alive after a hard bump on the cement, Winnie would riffle through their pockets, or purses, feigning to be assisting the victim whilst she did her deed.

Well, she met her match in me. On previous strolls I couldn't help noticing scores of walkers falling, all in the same place. All of the fallees were attended to by the same woman, who would change wigs or affect different accents. Well, if she could feign aid, why couldn't I feign a fall?

To my chagrin, Winnie had pulled up stakes, that is wires, and had split the scene. There I was, the laughing stock of all who beheld me tripping on air. The only assistance I got was from Officer Wily who booked me for impersonating an accident victim. I saw Winnie look over her shoulder and smile at my misfortune, if you can call a hysterical laugh smiling.

At the station house I stood before a no-nonsense magistrate. He growled, "Good apprehending, Wily. We'll make an example of this one."

Every cell was occupied so they made me stand outside. Finally a policeman poked his head through a window and yelled, "Hey, Miles, we got an opening. Upper or lower bunk? Give us a sec to change linen and restock the fridge."

They let me make one phone call but it couldn't be to friends, family, attorney, neighbors or ex-classmates. So I got the weather report but it was a week old.

After an interminable incarceration I was released on my own recognizance. There at the jail gate awaited a shabbily-clad woman who approached and then tripped me. Looking down at me sprawled on the pavement, she chuckled and said, "Have a nice fall. Can I give you a lift?"

"If it isn't out of your way."

"I would go myles out of my way for you, Miles."

Such flattery. I couldn't say no.

The wretch was Winnie who explained, "I took a rap for a Carpenter who I thought was square. I mean to give the neer-do-well his comeuppance. Let's talk over a drink. We'll split a milk of magnesia."

As we walked a crepuscular miasma settled on the city. Neither saw it as foreboding. At the dimly lit magnesia parlor she said demurely, "You help me get the goods on that scoundrel who besmirched my name and left a ketchup stain on my tablecloth, Myles, and there's something in it for you."

"What do you have in mind?"

"Half my kingdom?" she gulped.

"Deal. Anybody to be on the lookout for besides Charlie?"

"Yeah, his alter ego, verily his shadow, one 'Nails' Wood."

"One 'Nails' Wood? How many are there?"

She grinned sheepishly, then goatishly. "That's one tough hombre."

I answered grinning so intently my mouth hurt, "'Nails', tough, huh? Well, sister, I can be as hard as..."

Instantly she claps her hand over my mouth, as if to bade me to be still. I get the drift of her intent and quietly clam up, zip my lip, nod in understanding and fall asleep.

"Hush your mouth or I'll give you what for. Remarks like that are not conducive to getting to the bottom of this. Hell, we're not even at the middle. Anywho, I swear since I got sprung, Charley is following me or having me followed.

“ When I first met Charlie he was plying his trade as a professed carpenter and I hired him to build an addition to a linen closet in this dump I lived in. He impressed me as a plane guy and on the level, someone who measured up. I would bring him refreshments: catered dinners on Irish linen, a necktie, tickets to an already played Cleveland Browns game ."

"Anything else?"

"Yes, a sports car. I guess we got a little chummy. We exchanged blood and he promised to be mine forever and ever. But soon, he hammered me with questions as to why I lived in such squalor. I attributed it to modesty. He attributed it to a lack of gumption and I had to admit the guy was right. I wasn't ready for the world much less a guy who knew his way around wood. So, you see, even though he done me wrong I have to find out if there is a future for us or if it's back to my life as a wastrel and a missing page in society's book of people to invite to soirees and sleep-overs."

"How touching. What would you have me do?"

She sputters, "Draw your own conclusions."

"Draw my own conclusions? I can barely draw a straight line."

Winnie smirks. I try to smirk back but can't get it right.

“When can you start?” she asked.

"What time is it now?"

"Good. None too soon. I got places to go. Goodbye My(i)les," she says lyrically.

On that note she's gone. It 's up to me. My ticket to private dick fame. I can picture my induction into The Private Detectives Vestibule of Fame.

I trace Charley to his listed address in the phone book along with driving directions. I knock on the door of this average-looking house in this unpretentious neighborhood. I plan to pretend I'm delivering a pizza. A woman, possibly Charley's paramour, opens the door, gives me the onceover and voices a profound, "Yeah, what is it?"

I say, "I'm delivering a pizza."

She says, "Great, I got nothing ready for dinner. So, where's the pizza?"

Pizzaless, I explain, "Well, I'll be right back. By the way, where's Charley the Carpenter?"

"He told me to tell nobody where he is, but you look like a decent guy. He's at 'Rover's', a theme bar over on Clover. Do you know the place?"

I grunt something, so indiscernable I can't make it out.

She provides a connect-the-dots sketch of Charlie, and I wend my way to 'Rover's’. Its reputation was that of a waterfront dive. Not being on the waterfront was compensated for by a drainage ditch that ran in front of the place, approachable only by a draw bridge. Draw a bridge? I can't even draw a straight line.

The place is devoid of anybody except a guy at the far end of the bar and the ubiquitious bartender wiping glasses with the filthiest towel you ever saw.

I saunter up to the bar because sauntering is the only acceptable way to approach a bar. The bartender asks, "What'll it be?"

"It'll be I need to find Charley the Carpenter."

The bartender nods in the direction of the lone figure.

I saunter up to the lone figure and ask the big question, "Is you is or is you ain't Charley?"

The guy shakes his head and nods in the direction of the bartender. The nodding back and forth continues for the better part of twenty minutes and my tootsies are killing me. At least, the two guys seem to be having fun. I finally throw in the towel and the bartender picks it up and proceeds with his wiping.

I pose the question, "What exactly is the theme of this theme bar?"

The bartender roars uproariously as only jovial bartenders can, and with a devilish look informs me, "There's a theme all right. The theme is you go in and you're overcharged exorbitantly, shoved around and threatened if not worse. Customers like our one drink for the price of two special. Any lip and you get dragged outside in the alley and beaten by the bouncers, all banned professional wrestlers, for anywhere from forty-five minutes to overnight. Also, you get rolled."

"You mean they take your money too?"

"No, you get rolled down a steep embankment."

He smiles as if to imply, "You're outta yer league." The smile over, he says, "You're outta yer league."

I believe the best defense against impossible odds is a transparent bravado. "Get this and get it straight. When you see that varmint Charlie the Carpenter tell him, the varmint that is, that before it's all over, I'll take his measure."

The bartender cowers and I reassure him, "It's not you I'm after. The sooner the world, or at least this neighborhood is done with the likes of Charlie the Carpenter, the sooner we can all face the future unafraid."

Once outside in skies leadened by nearby belching smokestacks of giant steel mills and the stench of slaughter yards, I feel clean, reinvigorated. Time to re-visit the musty files to find that one thing to put it all together, that one thing right under your nose, so obvious yet so easy to miss. I pick up a pizza, the usual, pickled herring and Cheese Whiz topping, and settle in on the ominous task.

Nothing cheerier than riffling through musty files. I hear something behind me and my lips perk up. Nothing happens until my ears perk up. Just like that, there's a heavy thud behind me and I whip around to get a gander of what's going on. The heavy thud is a heavy thug who had apparently snuck up behind me and passed out from the dust of the files.

I frisk the guy and find a membership card from the Brotherhood of Pileated Woodpeckers, Wheeling, West Virginia Chapter, also a business card that reads "Madam Lulu Devine, Palms Red, Green or Orange." Along with some lines of poesy. Could there be a connection between the Chapter and the verse?

The guy's name, according to the Woodpecker card is, strangely enough, Charlie the Carpenter. Coincidental, but not quite there. The only Carpenter I knew was Charley. Of course, he uses aliases, like variations of his first name, but the similarity is an aberration, utterly insignificant.

What's with this goon coming after me? Anything to do with the phone call from the voice that hired me? My attraction to Winnie? What gives with "Nails" Wood? To say nothing of "Rover's" or the chickie at Charley's house.

The shmuck on the floor starts coming to. I know he's coming to because he opens his eyes, looks around which doesn't take long in this place, and asks, "Where am I? I must have been overcome by musty files.”

I give the lug a swig of Drano which seems to perk him up, after which he whirls around and retchs. I decide to be aggressive. "I know your name is bogus. For your information, I know Madam Lulu Devine and you, sir, are no palmist. Better blab why you're here and who you really are."

"Why not. The name's Nathan Wood. I sometimes pretend to be Charlie the Carpenter even though it goes against my grain. The compulsion to lurk on the fringes of this scoundrel's milieu hammers at my very being. You see, I've always wanted to be despicable. Early on, I decided that my dream could only happen vicariously."

"You poor sucker. Is it worth it?"

Before he could answer, a hush falls over us. Wood asks as he loosens what would have been a tie if he had worn one, "Is it usually this hushy in here?"

"I'll tell you when you give me the lowdown on what's behind all this business. And, why you are called 'Nails’."

"That's a moniker to imply a correlation between Charlie the Carpenter and yours truly. Again, we have that vicarious issue. I salivate basking in the penumbra of shadowy personages. As far as the other matters are concerned, I'll spill the beans."

"Now we're getting somewhere. Hark, I hear noises outside. Look, the door is opening. Oh, oh, there's the muzzle of a gun protruding from the hall. Well, whattya know, it's shooting, yelling, 'Myles, duck.' Does it mean that we're having duck for dinner? Nails, you all right? Maybe we can fix that gaping hole in your heart region. Hang in there, old man. What's that you're mumbling? Bust no one? Lust no one? Golly, if you can't articulate, how's a person going to know your parting words?”

One less suspect. I decide to go back to "Rover's." I better have a palaver with that bozo at the bar. I couldn't make out what he looked like in the dim light as he covered his face with a newspaper, although his nodding was obvious as it was so energetic. Yet, it could have been just another bar nodder.

As I’m about to hit the street, who's ahead of me, going out of the building’s revolving door, none other than Winifred. What's she up to? Aw, she probably knows someone else in the building. Just the same I'm getting a whiff of gunpowder, like somebody just shot a gun.

Why was Winnie weturning? Whence goest she? Who bumped off Nails yet spared me? Who was the unknown voice on the phone? Male or woman? Female or man? Were these issues ever to be resolved? ?

Ah, a park bench, in a park at that. I'll just plop down and cogitate. What have we here? A bothersome pigeon on the bench cooing away. A guy can't even cogitate in peace.

An obscurely familiar voice yells from a nearby clump of tree stumps, "Check what's in the bird's beak, stupid." Looking around I'm the only cogitator in the park. It must mean me. There is a small piece of paper in the creature's mouth. I feel icky in taking the paper from that thing's mouth, clue or not. I do retrieve it, wipe it best I can on my sleeve, tip the bird, it flies off, I unfold the paper. It is a note, but in code. Lucky for me, I recognize it as a secret Dick Tracy code. Lucky I always carry my Dick Tracy decoder ring with me . The message is simply, "Check your musty files under 'P.' Expect a call at your, for lack of a better term, office, in two hours, allowing you enough time to check the guy in the bar, have a chat with the bartender, (watch out for him), grab a corned beef and chocolate phosphate, no mustard, at the corner deli. Go home and get out of those sweaty duds. Think of it as a fresh start. And remember, a clear mind is the exception to the rule but it doesn't hurt to look nice. Someone may drop in."

Fine, just fine, I think. I hie to "Rover's." The guy is there, still shrouded in a cloak of mystery. No newspaper this time but a scrambled image impedes identity. This time it talks, responds to my interrogation. Unfortunately, the words are garbled.

"What's with Mumbles?" I query of the barkeep.

"Look, Myles," as he glances furtively in all five directions, "this case is dynamite. You're dealing with explosive folks. Charlie is out to get Winnie who, in turn, is out to get..."

What could be enlightening is thwarted by the unmistakeable swish of a wicked knife on its way to a bartender's back. Quickly, I whirl around but the guy at the bar is gone. Back where I started. I'm gonna leave this stiff here for the service that disposes of dead bodies in the crime genre.

I unlock the open door to my office. Everything is in shambles. What isn't in shambles is enveloped in a hush. I check my files only to find all the files gone, except for "P." Somebody trying to tell me something, or what? I have no choice but to determine what "P" has to do with all this. Mentally, I go through my list of suspects but no "P's", unless fate intends for me to meet one. At the same time I need to discover why the place was ransacked. Come to think of it, the figure that could have been Winnie was lugging a large bundle of, could it have been, file folders? Yes, file folders. It's starting to add up. I just have to do the math. I do but the teacher marks it wrong.

Just like that, the phone rings. A voice starts speaking but it's garbled. The guy at the bar? I ask the voice if it belongs to the guy at the bar. The voice says, "Maybe yes, maybe no."

I ask, having heard the line in a movie, "What's your game?"

"Does the name 'Joe Chimes' ring a bell?"

I'm thinking. Joe Chimes, huh? The only Joe Chimes I knew was a two-bit counterfeiter who specialized in phony quarters. He was very bitter that I had busted his operation. At his sentencing he was led out of the courtroom by fourteen burly guards, screaming. Joe was screaming. If the guards had been screaming it would have been deafening . "I was framed, framed, I tell ya. I'll get you for this, you gosh darn so-and-so." He did a stretch in the big house where he fulfilled a wish to change genders. Changed his name too. The new one began with "W' or maybe "P.". Learned shop in the can. When he got sprung he amassed an enormous wardrobe that could easily be considered unisexual. Most people saw it as a jail-acquired quirk, nothing more.

I'm thinking. Way too many suspects. Group some together, eliminate the duplicates and the odds should improve. Cunningly, trying to trap the caller, I say, "Why don’t you ask, Winnie?" Next I hear the sound of a horse neighing, then uproarious laughter. I scream into the receiver, "What's so funny, Winnie?"

More neighing, more laughter. Finally, a voice, almost human, chortles, " You private eyes need a ton of bricks to fall on you before you get the subtle nuances of life."

I recall Joe. Supposedly he vanished. Or should I say, she vanished?:

"I believe there's only two to pick from."

"Everywhere I look there's a new player. I'm befuddled."

"Don't forget. He's a master of disguise and can effect a myriad of dialects and regional accents."

"Just my luck. A multi-linguist on top of everything else. Ah, but we digress. What is everyone after?"

The caller says, "I'll help you out, in a fashion. Gimme a character and I will decipher it."

"Nails, for instance."

"Simple. Nails was too smart for his own good."


"Nails had his fingers into everything and got the best grades in eighth grade, resulting in uncontrollable envy from his classmates, even to this very day. Charley protected him like Nails was his own brother, which, coincidentally he was. A tale for another day."

I grunt as if I got the picture.

A sound emanates on the phone, a car backfire or a shot. More. Could be more cars backfiring or more shots being fired. At any rate, the line is dead.

I need to dope this out. Some life this is. Cooped up in an office that's really a broom closet. People getting shot, assuming numerous identities, tricksters everywhere.

And more. Worktime over, what then? Back to my flop in Ma Milldew's Boarding Establishment. And, my tiny room there, is it better than a closet? No wonder I'm constantly chided for slouching. When you think of cramped, I'm the first one to come to mind.

Only good part is once in awhile I run into the cookie who recently moved in. She lives on the first floor in the rear. Miss Plaine. Miss Jane Plaine. Quiet, yes. Mousy, definitely. Everyone says, get a dame. I never could mix. Guess I'm not blameless for being dameless. Tonight's going to be different.

I'm sitting on the front stoop. She comes out the front door and starts down the steps and smiles at me, slightly, but any fool could see she's smiling demurely, perhaps beguilingly. If this isn't a come hither gesture, I don't know what is.

I don't have a hat to tip so I salute her smartly and click my heels. She smiles again, this time "coy" and "vixenish" are written all over her puss.

Sophisticated me says, "Hey, toots, I'll walk miles for a broad like youse. Can I escort you?"

Miss Plaine devastates me with another of her patented smiles and replies, "Sure thing, kiddo. However, and I will say this only once, keep your mitts off me or I'll knock you into the middle of next week."

"Fair enough, but Wednesday's bad."

The walk itself is uneventful except for encountering a pack of wolves, a sudden blizzard that just as quickly turns to blistering heat. Did I mention raging rivers?

Back at the boarding house I thank her profusely for permitting me to accompany her. And how does she respond?

"Allowing you to walk with me is so intimate an event you are compelled to do the right thing and announce our bethrothal. I'll be your steady for an appropriate period, no funny stuff. Then we'll get to using personal names and innocuous data concerning your idiosyncrocies, the unspeakable skeletons in your closet, nothing lurid, mind you. Of course, we will continue to live separately at Ma Milldew's."

"As long as we're on suppressed matters," I ask, "do you know I'm a private dick?"

"It is not my intention to butt in, 'butt', get it," she grimaces, "your anatomical secrets will never be an issue. Therefore, if you have any ideas about, shall we say, intimacy, you will do well to dismiss them and I mean forever. I view your calling as sordid, nothing less, and a change will be in order.

"My own profession is that of a junior book stacker in the library of the 'Acme Museum of Dangerous Predators and Bowling Memorablia.' As it turns out, we very recently lost a staff member and..."

"You lost a staff member?"

"Yes, he was last seen in the section of the larger, vicious members of the cat family. They're stuffed you know, but one hears of strange goings-on. Back to the job. My employer owes me favors, as it were. I can get you in as..."

"Doing what?"

"You'll be on the evening shift, patrolling the large medieval gallery. Suits of armor, maces, shields, an occasional lance, gallant figures astride handsomely bedecked steeds."

"And the job's name?"

"Knight watchman."

I can't believe it. At long last, an exit out of private eyeing, private dicking, oh to be an ex-sleuth. A job with regular hours. Not scintillating company, mind you, but I'd be the first one to admit a lack of social graces.

I take a good hard look at Miss Plaine, my promised one. Who cares how it came about? I know it's the detective in me but I discern a resemblance in her to the revolving door person, and if her voice was garbled slightly, it could be that... But enough. Not my concern. Even is she’s really the infamous Winnie, at least I got a steady. If she chooses to make life grievous for me, well, she's a smart cookie and has her reasons and I hate to judge others. A new future beckons.

Screwing up courage, I flat out ask why subject me to an arduous path ahead (not that I won’t comply).

“I ferreted out your whereabouts and seized the opportunity for revenge whilst gaining your favor, knowing how you yearned for acceptance and I for twisted vindication. Ah, you ask, revenge for what? Simple, you sent my sister, Veri Plaine, to the chair."

I murmur, "the chair? What chair?"

" It was your testimony that convinced Judge Meaney to sentence Veri to the chair. Or, at least, that's what everyone thought. An illiterate clerk transcribed in the court records, 'choir' not 'chair’. She joined a church choir where she was doomed to stay forever in the grips of inspirational music.”

"Gosh," I gasp.

"Gasp away," she sneers. "If that business with Veri wasn't enough, you poor excuse for a stereotyped private investigator, try this for ironic fate. He set me up to call you, and he contrived to get the heat off me and focused in lieu on you. Clever by half, you fool. Still, the way your hair is tousled, how your ears wag, that annoying blink every time you hear the score from ‘Sound of Music’, make you one heck of a lovable guy. I'm yours forever, within the bounds of propriety."