Al Capone once said you can always go farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. That’s the kind of wisdom that gets you places in my business.
The town of Justice is out in the Valley, and it’s hot. It’s always hot in Justice, they tell me; something about the weather, perhaps, though some people say it’s a feature of the moral climate there.
The mayor was a tall man with a dreamy look. “Samuel Taylor,” he said, sticking out his hand somewhere in my direction.
“No,” I said, giving him one of my cards.
“Jack A Ridder? You’re the PI from San Francisco?”
“That’s what it says. Investigations.”
“Oh, I see,” he said. “We have a misunderstanding. I’m Samuel Taylor. What’s the ‘A’ stand for?”
“It doesn’t stand for anything.”
“Of course not. What kind of a middle name would that be — Anything?”
“It’s pronounced ‘Ah.’ ”
“I don’t understand.”
“Folks seldom do. It’s my middle name. Ah. Jack A Ridder.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I doubt it, Mr. Taylor. What’s your problem? You said it was urgent.”
“Crime is the problem, Mr. Ridder.” He put his hand away. It was a neat trick; I couldn’t tell where it had gone.
“You have police, don’t you? If crime is the problem.”
“We do, but this isn’t a case for them. They’re baffled.”
“They always are.”
“Come with me,” he said. We went outside.
Justice is a small town, but like I said, hot. The black streets steamed and bubbled. Waves of heat danced over the sidewalks. Even the shop names were hard to read.
We stopped in front of a clothing store called The Cut of his Suit. “Take a look,” he said.
“So?” A mannequin in the window was wearing a coat. In this heat, it must have been unbearable, but the mannequin didn’t seem to mind.
“Coat’s on backwards,” Taylor said.
“Yes, I see that. Is there an ordinance?”
“OK, so there’s no ordinance. But that’s not all. Look at the sign.”
I looked at the sign.
TO SERVE JUSTICE BETTER
THIS STORE IS CLOSED
“So the store’s open. You can go in and buy things. The police don’t know what to do.”
“Why should the police do anything?”
“Mr. Ridder, Justice is a laughingstock.”
“Come clean with me, Taylor. This can’t be all.”
“Well, there is the matter of the bloody handkerchief.” He mopped his forehead. True, it was hot, but that was just weather. So we went into the Just Ice Lounge where he could tell me about it.
The waitress brought us drinks. She was a knockout: legs that wouldn’t quit and clothes that wouldn’t start. She said it was the heat, you had to dress down. “This is Jack A Ridder, Dolores.” He pronounced it right.
“Remember Jackie O? I’m Jack A.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ridder.” She shook my hand. When she did, there were seismic events as far away as the Bay Area.
“Tell Mr. Ridder about the handkerchief.” Taylor said, mopping his brow.
“Sure. I found the gun, too. The handkerchief was soaked with blood, wrapped around a .38 police special. Behind the bar.”
“Behind the bar?”
“Outside.” Her eyes were clear gray, level, appraising, delicately filmed with interest. I’d seen that look before. I wasn’t interested. Everyone was a suspect. “There’s an alley.”
“Of course there is,” I said.
“Amazing,” Taylor said, putting his handkerchief away. It was linen, very large, and had his initials embroidered on it in an intricate crimson monogram. I filed that fact away. “And then there was the clock, too.”
“Tell me about the clock.” I had my pen poised over my little book. Clients always like it when I take notes. I charge $600 a day and expenses, so I like to make them feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. I never write anything down, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
“The one on the Town Hall,” Dolores said. Her voice was low, with a little warble in it, like a song. I ignored it: the song was a lament.
“Backwards,” I said. “The clock runs backwards.”
Taylor sat up, amazed. “Fancy that! How did you know?”
“A pattern begins to emerge,” I assured him. “You sent it to the lab?”
The blood on the handkerchief was human, he said, handing me the lab report.
It was all beginning to fall into place. I pushed back my chair. “So. Is that it?”
“That’s it,” Taylor answered. “Will you take the case?”
“I’m intrigued,” I said. He knew what I meant. “I’ll be in touch.” I left without looking back, but I could feel Dolores burn holes in the back of my brain with those hot gray eyes of hers.
I walked around town to get the feel of the place.
At first, all I got was a general impression. The heatwaves over pavement hadn’t gone away and the signs sticking out from the buildings along Main held messages only a trained eye could decipher.
I took in the placement of town hall, hospital, park and shopping. Justice had it all: traffic lights, gas station, VFW hall, a Holiday Inn. I stopped at the gas station and bought a town map. I sat on a bench under the bronze statue of General Alistair Crowley de Man and opened the map. It only confirmed my theory.
You begin to notice the little things after a while, sitting on a bench in the central square of a small town in the Valley on a Thursday afternoon in late spring, when the grass is a richer emerald green than usual, and there are migratory birds overhead. No parking meters, for instance. A smile on everyone’s face. The kind words of strangers. The men who wore hats tipped them when they encountered women on the street. The smell of home cooking from the restaurant on Main drifted across the square.
I went into the bank and had a talk with the teller.
“I heard a scream,” she said. She was thin, with earrings shaped like spinning galaxies hidden inside large hair of that peculiar sunset orange some thin women find romantic. It reminds them of that ocean cruise they almost took. Her name was Madge.
The bank was a movie set out of W. C. Fields. I’d have said Philadelphia was preferable, but I didn’t have to work there. “Anything unusual about the scream, Madge?”
“Well, it was squealing tires, then a scream.”
“What kind of a scream?” I repeated. It was part of the form. I already knew.
“Kind of an A-A-A-A-H,” she demonstrated. Fortunately, the bank was deserted. Still, there was a bit of an echo, rather a nice effect.
“What time was this?”
“How could I say? The clock’s been running backwards lately.” She gestured at the tower on the town hall across the square. “And there was no traffic.”
“Figures.” It was all making a crazy kind of sense, but I didn’t have to like it.
I asked her how to get to the museum, and she told me. Oddly enough, it was right where the map said it was.
“Justice, Thirty-seven Years of History,” was the title of the current exhibit: a series of models of the town over the years, including the bus depot, now replaced by a microminimall down Emerson Street.
The next room contained a collection of paper matchbooks from the entire history of the Just Ice Lounge. In the early days, it had been the Re-Tire Wheel Care Center, catering to farm machinery from three counties. Briefly, it was the Re-Tire Lounge before turning into the Crossing the Bar, and then the Just Ice. I told you it was hot. But I wasn’t finding what I needed here. It was in the last room of the three-room museum.
Here the exhibit was empty, but the tag said it all: HISTORIC SIGN, LEGACY OF JUSTICE. Hand Carved by Alistair Crowley de Man, Our Founder. I called over the museum guard, a doughy moron who had to talk around a huge plug of chaw. “What’d the sign say?” I asked him.
“Drgnf eyegnm,” he answered.
And then it hit me like a six-hundred-year-old cliché. “Thanks, Pal.”
In the first room, I looked over the layout of the town. It was there, all right. You only had to compare. Justice through the years: at 5, 10, 15, 20, and so on. Right before your eyes.
That’s when it got tricky, so I found a phone booth and called my partner. “Sweets, it’s me.”
She’s the only one who ever called me that. “I need your help,” I told her.
“Really?” She sounded bored.
“Sweets, honest. I need you.”
“Ah, you bastard,” she said. “Like you to call. I should jump, right? Of course, you need my help. You’re at the end of your tether.”
“It’s not like that, honest. I’m in Justice.”
“Either you are, or you aren’t. Speak to me.”
“I love you, Sweets.”
“Music,” she said, “to my years.”
“I’ll be waiting. A lounge called the Just Ice. A pun.”
“I wasn’t born last night, A.”
I came in the back, from the alley. Dolores served me a drink and told me her problems. It was that kind of town. Hot, too.
She’d lived in Justice all her life. It wasn’t much, but it was home. She went to work at the bar. Then things had started going wrong. Tourism dropped off. The economy went to hell. People got real polite. They ran ads, held a contest.
“We couldn’t understand it,” she confided. “The ads said Come to Justice, and people did the opposite. Samuel Taylor hired a professional…”
“Yeah. Old-fashioned guy, sideburns, kind of a rolling gait when he walked.”
“Like he had nettles in his underwear?”
“You know him?”
“Yeah, I know him. A rhetorician. Go on.”
“Never does,” I told her.
She went to the bar and got herself a drink. Beads formed around the glass. Like I said, it was hot. She used a lot of ice. Just ice. When she sat down again I asked her when the clues started turning up.
“Hard to say,” she answered thoughtfully. “Right before the clock went funny, I think. Must’ve been the coat on the mannequin. No one noticed at first. Then one or two folks mentioned it — you know, regulars?”
“Sure, regulars.” I watched her close, but she was good. Real good.
That’s when Sweets came in. A sight for sorry guys, I don’t mind telling you. I stood up.
“Don’t stand up for me,” she said, talking around her cigarette. I’d known her all my life, longer, and she’d never lit the cigarette. Always the same cigarette, a Winston, she’d bought it in 1959, when she was a kid. Neither of us was getting younger, but we were good. The best. I sat down.
“This’s Dolores.” They shook hands. Sweets took one of Dolores’ little ones in both her big ones and gave them a squeeze. They were friends right off, you could tell.
“The mayor’ll be here soon,” I said.
“Must be an election year,” Sweets said, sitting down. She still looked good — her blue hair perfectly coiffed, her nails metallic red, her tongue sharp as ever.
“You look good, Sweets,” I told her.
“You look good, too, A,” she answered, squinting against the smoke that didn’t rise from her cigarette. You could never tell what she meant when she said stuff like that. Irony was one of her weapons.
Samuel Taylor walked in then, and our little party was almost complete.
“We all here?” Taylor asked.
“Another minute or two,” I told him. “We’ll have it all wrapped up.”
They came in together, the Madge from the bank and the guard from the museum. He may not have been articulate, but he understood when I told him to come.
“Now,” I said.
They sat down.
“Here it is.” I started to pace. “First, his honor the mayor here calls me at my office in San Francisco. It was Tuesday. My mother had sent a case of chardonnay from Napa, where she takes the wine tour every Wednesday, and it had just arrived a few minutes earlier. She’d found this new winery, and I was opening a bottle when the phone rang. I could tell it was trouble because the wine was warm. Hot, even. I didn’t know then how hot.”
“Get to the point, Jack,” Taylor said.
“Bear with me,” I told him. “The voice says come to Justice. There’s a problem. The voice belonged to someone who knew I can’t stay away from a problem. So I drove out here.”
Sweets was enjoying this. She held her purse in her lap, her hand inside. I gave her the smile, and she smiled back. It lit the place up and cooled it off, at the same time. I realized then I did love her.
“What did we have? We had clues. A coat on a mannequin backwards. Clock running the wrong way. A .38 police special, wrapped in a bloody handkerchief. And the blood was A positive. That’s when it all started to make sense. We had clues, but no crime. It was up to me to find it.”
I had their attention now, for sure.
“So the question was, who stood to benefit? What’s the payoff? First, tourism drops off. Of course tourism drops off! We have a town full of lunatics. The Cut of his Suit puts clothes backwards on the dummies. Who would buy, unless there was another meaning? And there was.”
I looked expectantly. Samuel Taylor was working hard: he wanted to be distantly interested, aloof, detached, perhaps a little bored by it all. But he was hooked, for certain. His lower lip twitched.
“What is it?” Madge said. Her head looked like a model of the Big Bang, galaxies spinning inside.
“I’m glad you asked. The clothing store’s a front, of course. This is justice. The store is closed, yet open. Who owns that store, Mr. Taylor?”
“As I suspected. You do. Well, enough of that. Let’s move on to the next item. The squeal of brakes, a scream. What did the scream mean?”
“Someone got run over?” Dolores asked. Sweets snickered. She does that well. Dolores glared at her.
“Get to the point, man,” Samuel Taylor burst out.
I held up my hand. “In due course, Mr. Taylor. The scream could have meant someone was in trouble. Or it could have meant someone was having fun. It was that kind of scream.”
“What kind of scream?” Dolores asked.
“That kind. Fun. Someone was having fun. Show them, Madge.”
Madge demonstrated the scream again. It didn’t echo this time, but it was fine.
“Who?” the mayor wanted to know.
“I’m getting to that. This was a tough case. There were ambiguities, ramifications, complexities…. I bought a map. It told me what I wanted to know, but to be certain, I went to the museum. Justice, Thirty-seven Years of History. There were models. They matched. It was perfect. Only one piece was missing.”
“What?” Even Taylor was leaning forward in his seat. I had them now. I smiled at Sweets again.
“The crime. We still didn’t have a crime. No wonder the police were baffled. But it was there, all right. Or, rather, it wasn’t there.”
“What?” Dolores wanted to know. She was perfect. I was beginning to love her, too. Not as much as I loved Sweets, of course. But some.
“The sign. The sign was missing. The sign carved by Alistair Crowley de Man. A general without a horse. All I had to do then was look at the models of the history of the town again. It was spelled out.”
“What was spelled out?” Oh, she was perfect. I loved her even more, but then I saw Sweets looking at me.
“Why, the contents of the sign. See, I looked at the map. A grid, of course, each square containing a building.” I unfolded the map of Justice. “Here,” I pointed, “was the theater. So that was the first letter. The theater was replaced, four years later, by a hotel. Damned if that didn’t fit! So of course the hotel was torn down and replaced by an insurance company. It was rolling along.”
“Wait a minute,” Taylor interrupted. “That’s where the bank is now.”
“Right you are, your honor.”
“So what does that mean? You just spelled out T-H-I-B. What’s that mean?”
“No!” I shouted triumphantly. “It was a savings and loan. It spells out THIS.”
“Fancy that!” Taylor exclaimed, all awe and perspiration.
“Go on,” Sweets urged me. I was on a roll, and she loved me, too.
“So we move to the next square on the grid. A synagogue went broke, became an asylum, then a grocery store, and finally a nursing home, which it is today.”
“Let me see if I have this right,” Samuel Taylor said. “It started with s, then a, g, n. That spells SAGN. I don’t get it.”
“Neither did I, at first, Mr. Taylor. Excuse me, Dolores, could you turn on the air-conditioning or something. The heat is really terrific.”
“We like it,” she said, but she did turn up the cooler. Outside night had crept up on us, and the lights of Justice were shining. It was a depressing sight.
“I had to think about that one. Obviously, SAGN is wrong. Then I realized…”
“Insane!” Sweets exclaimed.
I pointed at her and winked. “Right, Sweets. It was an Insane Asylum.”
“S-I-G-N?” Dolores figured it out.
Madge sighed. “I still don’t understand. You’re saying the progression of buildings in Justice are spelling out words with their first letters?”
“That’s precisely what I’m saying. The object carved by General Alistair Crowley de Man is missing from the museum. Mayor Taylor said the problem in Justice was crime. It all fits together, you see?”
“I’m afraid I’m still in the dark,” the mayor said. Despite the air-conditioning, his forehead glistened.
“All right, so far Justice has spelled out ‘This sign.’ Any ideas?” I looked around the group. I didn’t expect much from the museum guard, but he surprised me.
“No,” he said. “But there must be some reason you’ve been brought to Justice.” We could understand every word. He looked at the mayor.
“I was worried. The economy…” He wouldn’t meet my eyes. I winked at Sweets again. She still had her hand in her purse.
“Of course you were worried. The coat on backwards, screams in the street, a bloody handkerchief. And the problem of crime.” I started pacing again. “You see, everything has two meanings, sometimes more. It was a linguistic puzzle here. Alistair Crowley de Man, a general without a horse who spent his time whittling, founded the town. Zoning spelled out the content of the sign General de Man carved. And who controlled zoning and ordinances?”
“The mayor,” Madge said quietly. She gave Taylor a look that would have withered weeds.
“Precisely. Samuel Taylor has been mayor of Justice since it was founded, thirty-seven years ago.” I turned to the museum guard. “He is the man who brought me to justice.”
“But why?” It was a reasonable question.
“Let’s finish with the sign. We move to block three, and we find only two uses for the land. It started as an industrial park and turned into a shopping mall.”
“Is,” Sweets said.
“This sign is?” Madge touched her hair, sent the galaxies spinning.
“This sign is what?” the guard asked. Dolores pushed out her lower lip. The effect was electric.
“Feed store, office building, realtor,” Dolores said. “That’s the block down one from where I live. I remember everything.”
“This sign is for… somebody?” the teller began, but mayor Taylor interrupted by jumping to his feet.
“That’s enough!” he shouted. He had something in his hand, and it wasn’t his damp handkerchief.
“Is that a .38 police special?” I asked, leaning back against the bar.
“Yes, it is,” he answered, pointing it in my direction. “Wanna make something of it?”
I shrugged. “You took the sign, didn’t you, Taylor? You own the clothing store, the Cut of his Suit. But you’re a lawyer, Taylor. It wasn’t clothes you sell, but litigation, lawsuits. Everything has two meanings. Even when you said crime is the problem. Crime was the problem because there had been no crime. So you stole the sign. You brought me to Justice, as our friend from the museum so picturesquely put it. You put the coat on backwards, played the tape of the squealing brakes and the scream, planted the gun and the handkerchief.”
“But why?” Dolores wanted to know.
“To get me here. He knew I couldn’t resist a case like this. But I guessed when I found out the blood type on the handkerchief.”
The teller was frowning. “I don’t understand.”
But Sweets was smiling. She always likes this part.
“It was type A.”
“So?” She was still frowning.
“It’s my middle name, you see. And it was positive.”
“You are sure of yourself, aren’t you, Ridder?” Taylor had backed toward the door, but the gun was still pointed my way.
“Of course. It was all an elaborate trap. Thirty years ago I sent your brother Zachary up for perjury. Sweets brought me the file. You’ve been planning this little linguistic trap ever since. You’re insane, Taylor. Crazy, loco, cuckoo, nuts.”
“Don’t say that!” he shouted and pulled the trigger.
The slug caught me just under the wallet in my inside jacket pocket, and I fell sideways. Sweets pulled the trigger then, too, and the smell of cordite hit me even before the sound of Taylor’s body hitting the floor.
I found myself with my head in Dolores’ lap, so I didn’t let on I was wearing my bulletproof vest, not for a while.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“It was the signs,” I told her, with another wink at Sweets. “First the sign in the clothing store window: To Serve Justice Better, This Store is Closed. And then the bar: they changed the name from Crossing the Bar to the Just Ice Lounge the day Taylor called me. He didn’t want me to know. And Alistair Crowley de Man carved a sign, and it was a joke, see. Once I figured out the last word, I knew Taylor was going to try to kill me. The real crime was going to be murder.
“The last square in the grid gave it away. The first occupant there was a sign painter, then they sold auto parts before it became the library. Now it belongs to an electrician. The sign spelled out: This Sign Is For Sale. Only Samuel Taylor would want to steal a sign like that, a sign that doesn’t mean anything. For revenge.”
“Amazing,” Dolores breathed. She had nice breath, and I liked her attitude.
“Remember,” I said. “I’d caught Taylor’s brother committing perjury. The whole case revolved around language.”
“Our mayor wanted to kill you over a little thing like that?” Dolores breathed in my ear.
I breathed back, “I think I love you.”
“Liar,” Sweets growled. She always had a kind word, but she carried the gun for both of us.
Photo by stokkete/Adobe Stock