V.

 

                        The next morning, Loomis had just walked into the office to try and come up with a list of soft hits from his welsher file when the phone rang.  He wanted to let the machine take the call, but he couldn't.  He had long ago faced the truth about himself that he could not let a ringing phone go unanswered.  Martha could.  Martha actually preferred not to answer the phone and, if she didn't feel like dealing with it would let it ring for five minutes while she went right ahead doing whatever she was doing.  'What's wrong?' she would ask Loomis and he would say 'nothing', but, in truth, after five rings he had trouble getting oxygen.  His problem was he was an optimist.  He always assumed it was good news and the years had not put a dent in that asinine assumption.  Now, for instance, he assumed it was someone making sure of the spelling for the check they were about to send him.  As usual, he was wrong.

                        "Mr. Loomis?"

                        "Speaking."

                        "This is Sandra Fishbein."

                        "!?!"

                        "Mr. Loomis?"

                        "I'm here."

                        "I'd like to speak to you."

                        "I'm listening."

                        "Yes.  I have your office address.  How's one o'clock?"

                        "Well . . ."

                        "Fine."  Click, buzz.

                        He had thrown out a circular for a bullet-proof vest no more than a week earlier.  Just for something to do he started looking in his trash can, about 3/4 of the way down.  Ahh, who'm I kidding, he thought.  The thing was $395.  He began balling up the papers and slinging them back into the can while he chewed this over.

                        She was at least a suspect and everyone knows the odds on the spouse having done it.  The odds are good.  Maybe she shot him for the humiliation of their little photo session the other night.  If that was so, who would also be in line to pay?  Why, F.A. Loomis, that's who.  But then the obvious question is who calls to make an appointment to knock someone off?  Get a grip, he told himself.  Her intentions may be unpleasant -- and she would have every right to them -- but not lethal.  Probably.  He took one more lurch into paranoia -- imagining that she was outside the office expecting him to bolt -- and then dialed the Asbury Park Police Department.

                        Hiniker wasn't available, thank God, but an officer named Duell who had been at the Boardwalk the day before was.

                        "Oh yeah, you're the one with the pictures."

                        "That's right.  What's the status on the investigation?"

                        "It's over.  And let me tell you something, my friend.  You made a mistake yesterday."

                        "I made more than one.  Which mistake you talking about?"

                        "If you hadn't held out on Sargent Hiniker he would have owed you a bigtime favor."

                        "Held out?  What are you talking about?  I gave him everything but my inseam.  Are you telling me he closed it with what I gave him?"

                        "That's right, my friend.  Two hours flat.  But he had to fight you for it.  He owes you nothing."

                        It seems that cops have this very complicated accounting system.  If you understand it you can prosper and be well.  If you don't they're always calling you 'my friend' and standing too close to you.

                        "All right," said Loomis, "forget the favors.  The victim was my client.  I'll owe you one if you tell me what's going on."

                        He laughed at the thought of Loomis being able to repay a policefavor but he talked.  They'll always talk about a two hour investigation.

                        Apparently, by the time Loomis had gotten home, Hiniker had put the State Troopers onto Keever and they were taking his little trailer apart.  It had taken all of five minutes to find the gun (not a Colt at all, but an Auto Ordinance 10mm, an understandable mistake) which was at the State Trooper lab in Little Falls within an hour and which, before another hour passed, had yielded three important facts.  Whoever had killed Cap'n Fishbein had used that same gun; there was only one persons fingerprints on it; it was the same make and model pictured in Gallagher's shot.  The prints were taken from the grip, the trigger and most of the rest of the gun having been wiped.  Hiniker had considered the case closed right then and had issued an APB for Keever.  Of course it was unlikely in the extreme that Keever was by then anywhere in Asbury Park, but by being the first to officially name Keever as the primary suspect Loomis suspected Hiniker was maintaining what control he could over the investigation.  It was up to the troopers to bring him in. 

                        Meanwhile, it turns out the gun is registered to a Sandra Fishbein of Point Pleasant Borough.  She's brought in, she identifies the gun and says she brought the gun to the Mayflower at Keever's suggestion.  They hadn't met in almost two weeks because he claimed they were being followed.   After their tryst had been interrupted he volunteered to dispose of the gun for her.  He took her back to Point Pleasant and that's the last she saw of him or the gun.  She hadn't gone in to work yesterday morning. She volunteered that if she had had the gun when she got home she might well have killed her husband but that she hadn't and neither did she think Keever had.  She wouldn't say why.  She had been questioned for four hours and then released.  The Monmouth County Prosecutor was looking into charges.

                        By evening they had obtained a match on the prints and Mr. Elroy Keever was a highly sought after individual.  They had the weapon and they had photographic evidence of motive.  What they didn't have was Keever.

                        "I thought you said it was closed," said Loomis.

                        "Where's the putz going to go?" said Duell.  "He shows his face in Asbury and I guarantee you we have him in ten minutes.  He tries to leave the area and the troopers will get him.  If he's sitting tight somewhere we'll find him.  It's closed."

                        "Look, I hate to be a drag, but if he's going to take off why the hell would he go back to his trailer and leave the murder weapon?  There's nothing in it for him."

                        "What can I tell you, Loomis?  He's a moron.  My gut instinct tells me anyone that tattoos a Slinky on his ass is not a master criminal."

                        It was difficult to frame a response to that, so Loomis thanked Duell and hung up.

                        Duell was as correct as it was possible to be without a signed confession, however.  People surprise you all the time with the foolish things they do.  The fact that it was stupid by no means meant he didn't do it.  It's even possible he had a good reason to leave the murder weapon at his home, or a reason that seemed good when he did it.  Probably not, though.  Sometimes it seemed like Loomis' job amounted to finding the right tree and waiting for the dopes to fall out.  The interesting part, though, is why this dope chooses that particular tree and whether or not the choice is part of an identifiable pattern.  Insight into that question was supposedly how he made a living.

                        At the moment he wished he had an insight into what was on Mrs. Fishbein's mind.  She arrived at one o'clock on the dot.  She moved through the door and across the floor and sat on the client's chair like a small, depressed bear.  Loomis had opened the door, ushered her to her seat and hopped about, murmuring like a salesman in a hat shop.  Finally he sat and managed a smile that wasn't too idiotic.  She lifted her chin and stared at him blankly.  She opened her mouth to speak and began crying instead.  She didn't cry prettily.  Her face turned purple and she began emitting soggy grunts and gasping howls, wrung from a place she hadn't the slightest control over.  Blinded, she would hold out first one hand and then the other for the tissues Loomis kept feeding her.  She would push them into her face wherever they were needed most, drop them on the desk and reach for another.  After five minutes he was out of tissues, but the color was lowering in her face and some regularity was returning to her breathing.  Finally she lifted her chin and stared blankly at Loomis, exactly as she had done five minutes before.

                        "I'm sorry."

                        "Mrs. Fishbein.  I'm sorry.  I'm really very sorry."

                        She took a great, sudden gasp of air and Loomis was afraid she was off again, but she let it out slowly and looked around the room.  She was done.  She looked, if anything, invigorated; ready to towel down after a good workout.  While Loomis topped off his wastebasket with the tissues she continued to take in her surroundings.

                        "Nice office."

                        "Thanks."

                        "I never noticed it before."

                        "Been here six months or so.  Seven."

                        "Huh.  I come down 35 all the time and I never noticed."

                        They sat silently until Loomis realized it was up to him.

                        "Mrs. Fishbein, I'm very sorry about your husband.  This must be a very difficult time for you.  I'm also very sorry about my part in this and whatever pain it may have caused you."

                        Her head swivelled and locked on him and her blank face registered genuine surprise.

                        "What did you have to do with it?"

                        Loomis felt his heart jump and he wondered suddenly if it was possible she wasn't aware he was the Midnight Photographer.  That it was merely a coincidence that she had called him.  There were, after all, less than a dozen licensed agencies in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.  He took the soft look off and replaced it with the business look.

                        "Nothing, I hope."  He pulled a notebook out of his top drawer and uncapped his pen.  "Why don't you tell me how I can help you."

                        Her face hadn't changed or moved a bit except to bore into Loomis more intensely.

                        "Well, Mr. Loomis?  Do you know who killed my husband?"

                        "I thought that was settled.  I thought . . ."

                        "No, Mr. Loomis.  It is not settled.  It is most definitely not settled."

                        Then, as if the wire holding her erect had been cut, she fell back limply into her chair and gave a mirthless laugh.

                        "Oh.  You meant the pictures.  That pain.  That seems like a very minor matter to me now.  Yesterday I would have cut your gizzard out if I knew who you were, but today . . . well, I would hardly be here if I gave a shit about that."

                        Loomis recapped his pen and set it down on the notebook.  He sat back in his chair.

                        "Coffee?"

                        "No."

                        "What's on your mind?"

                        "I want you to find Elroy before the police do."

                        "You don't think he killed your husband?"

                        "I know he didn't.  I know for certain he didn't."

                        "Do you know who did?"

                        "I have some ideas.  But they're just ideas.  They don't really make sense even to me.  No.  I don't know who or why."

                        "But you know it wasn't Keever."

                        She nodded.  If Loomis was reading her right she thought she knew.  She knew she thought it wasn't Keever.

                        "Mrs. Fishbein, how about this?  You tell me all about Keever and you.  About this divorce thing.  Tell me everything I ought to know.  Then we'll talk about it."

                        She gave herself a little drum roll on Loomis' desk while she looked on the wall for the place to begin.

                        "How long were you following us?"

                        "About a week."

                        "So you only saw me and Elroy together the once.  I've been seeing him, I've been sleeping with him for more than two years now.  In case you didn't notice, the guy's no Cary Grant.  I'm gonna be frank with you.  It was strictly physical at first.  Same as Larry and Arlene.  That's right.  I knew all about that and I told the cops about it.  But I started it.  Listen, Larry and me, we're friends.  We were friends.  We had a hell of a time together, the past twenty-five years.  You wouldn't know it to look at him but he was the horniest guy I ever met.  Probably still was when he died, for all I know.  Ask Arlene.  We're both that way.  Physical.  But we struggled so hard, we worked so damn hard all our lives.  We bought the new boat about seven, eight years ago and we paid that son of a bitch off two years ago.  You know how hard that is?  That's a $240,000 boat, mister.  We got $70,000 for the old one and paid the rest off in less than six years.  You got no idea what that means.  You couldn't."

                        "You're right.  All I know is, I couldn't do it."

                        "True.  This is what I'm saying.  We weren't safe.  We didn't have it made.  The mercury levels go up and we're in the shitcan again.  But we were ahead and getting further ahead.  For the first time.  And if things went bad, if they started finding hypodermics out in the ocean again, hell, we could always sell the boat.  It's like we climbed the mountain, took a breath, looked at each other and we were like brother and sister.  That thing had gone, you know.  I don't know why.  It was just gone.  We went on like that for a year or two.  We were neither of us happy about it, really, but we're not the kind to go running around, either.  We had too much, I don't know, respect for each other.  Then we hired Elroy and Arlene.  Listen, he's not that smart, he's not that good looking.  Larry was worth a half a dozen of him.  But he wasn't a bad guy, he loved the work and for some goddam reason I took a look at him and it clicked.  I knew it, he knew it, Larry knew it.  What can I tell you, Mr. Loomis?  I held out for about six months.  Maybe that'll count for something when I die.  We were careful.  I didn't want to rub Larry's his face in it, but I had no doubt that he knew.  Just like I knew a few months later when Larry got that look.  We all took a trip down to Florida.  Nobody said anything.  There were no scenes.  Everybody just started doing what came naturally and minding their own business.  I thought it was great.  Here I was married to my best friend with a great piece on the side.  Everybody's getting it and everybody's happy.  We even started taking time off regular.  Couple of times a year we'd close up and the four of us would take a trip down the Inland Waterway to Florida.  Live it up for a few days and choogle on home."

                        "Except you're the one that brought up the divorce."

                        "Larry tell you that?  Of course he did.  Well, let's be adults, Mr. Loomis.  That can't go on forever.  It's just not nature.  Larry and I, we talked about divorce.  We talked about just splitting up and not bothering with the hassle.  I didn't know what I wanted to do.  He didn't seem to care much one way or the other.  Then I woke up one morning a couple weeks ago and I thought, what are we, dead?  This just isn't good enough.  I want to have a little motion in my life, you know?  I looked around and I realized that Larry would be happier with her, getting it all the time and me, I was getting really hung up on this kid.  He wanted to marry me.  I actually went to a lawyer, but the whole thing made me sick so I fired him.  I decided to bring it straight to Larry.  Do it friendly and clean.  The way I figured it, Larry would be retiring in a couple years anyway.  Why don't I give him everything and take the boat.  I could mortgage off his half of it, make Elroy the captain and pay off Larry in a couple years.  Then maybe Elroy and me could sail it down to Florida and take it easy."

                        "Let me get this straight.  You wanted to divide the boat in half and pay Cap'n Fishbein for his half."

                        "That's right."

                        "Is that the way you presented it to him?"

                        "I never got a chance.  We got home one night, the end of last week.  We pulled up to the house and I said "Larry, I think we should get a divorce," and he goes straight out of the cake.  The next thing I know Elroy tells me he's being followed, I'm living with the Loch Ness Monster and I don't know what to do.  I'll tell you the truth, if I knew I would lose Larry as a friend I would never have brought it up, but it was too late.  We were both acting crazy.  Some nights it was like it never happened.  We'd just have an evening at home.  We'd talk and be friends.  But if I bring up the D-word or the boat -- forget about it.  He'd go crazy.  I was afraid.  You were watching.  You know all this.  Am I right?"

                        Loomis nodded.

                        "Sounds familiar."

                        "So does the part where Elroy and I finally say fuck it and take a night together but it turns into a photo opportunity.  Am I right?"

                        Loomis nodded.

                        "We never got to sleep together that night, did you know that?"

                        Loomis nodded.

                        "Elroy was too scared.  I don't know why.  He's the one that told me to take my gun along that night.  He's the one that took it afterwards.  I just wanted to be rid of it and he said he'd ditch it.  I wish to hell he had."

                        "He drove you home?"

                        "I wanted a drink, but he said no.  The pussy was too shook up.  He just wanted to go home.  He dropped me at Cianilli's in Point.  Go ask them.  I took a cab home."

                        "Didn't you tell the cops he took you home?"

                        "No.  I just said he took me back to Point.  What the fuck's the difference?"

                        They sat silently for a few moments before Loomis coughed and looked at her.

                        "Which brings us to the big question."

                        She looked at him.

                        "What the hell makes you think he didn't kill your husband?"

                        "I never got a chance to tell Larry my plan, but I told Elroy.  When I told him I was going to make him captain of the Carousel it was like I took every bad thing that ever happened to him and made it go away.  Nobody ever did anything like that for him before.  Nobody ever liked him that much before.  I made that man as happy as a man can be made.  There's nothing in the world Elroy Keever wanted more than what I was offering him."

                        "Okay."

                        "Think about it, Mr. Loomis.  What were Elroy's chances of being captain if I get a divorce?  I could probably get the boat outright if I wanted to.  Any lawyer will tell you that.  With the deal I was offering it was a sure thing.  What are Elroy's chances of being captain if he killed Larry?  You see my point?"

                        "I see.  You tell all this to the cops?"

                        "Most of it."

                        "You mind my asking what you left out?"

                        She hesitated only for a second.

                        "Just the part about telling Elroy about my plans."

                        "Did they ask you if Elroy knew?"

                        "Yes."

                        "And you denied it?"

                        "Yes."

                        "I can see why you would.  Here's a guy that is caught sleeping with the Cap'n's wife.  Pictures to prove it.  The pictures mean, to me, anyway, that the wife can kiss the boat goodby and the thing this guy wanted more than anything else in the world is snatched out of his hands.  The Cap'n is murdered the next day and the weapon is found in the guy's house with the guy's fingerprints all over it.  The guy goes on the lam."

                        Loomis closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, as if giving the facts one more look-over.  He opened his eyes and smiled at her.

                        "Let's be adults, Mrs. Fishbein.  Maybe you loved the guy, maybe you wanted to start over with him, but if I had any doubts who killed your husband before, this conversation has ended them."

                        She reached into her handbag and retrieved a small package wrapped with a single sheet of typewriter paper, sealed with scotch tape and set it on the desk.  Loomis slid his Roberto Clemente letter opener under the seal and the package fell open.  Six snapshots, commercially developed.  They showed various scenes on board the Carousel, featuring the Cap'n and Arlene Babayev.  Four of them a lawyer could make most anything out of since the two were simply standing close together, leaning in towards what the last two showed.  It was a kiss.  A nice looking kiss, kind of sweet and all, but a kiss.  Not avuncular, not platonic, not consoling or congratulatory.  It was hungry.  In the last one the Cap'n's hand had strayed up and seemed to be hefting Arlene's right breast.

                        "Who took these?"

                        "Elroy."

                        "When?"

                        "I'm not sure.  Last Wednesday or Thursday, I think.  He told me he was being followed.  He said that it had to be someone hired by Larry.  I just told him I wanted a divorce a week before.  Elroy said someone was going to try to take pictures of us and we should be very careful for awhile.  Meanwhile he was going to keep a camera on the boat and if he got a chance he was going to get some insurance.  It may not be up to your standards, but I think they do the job."

                        "When did he give these to you?"

                        "Tuesday night."

                        "Same night we took pictures of you."

                        "I knew there was a reason it stuck in my mind."

                        Loomis spread the photos out and then stacked them up and handed them back.  She was right, of course.  The snaps effectively neutralized the Mayflower photos, and for about five dollars.  You never knew how a divorce settlement would come out, but Keever had put them back on square one by taking these pictures.  The chances were quite good of Mrs. Fishbein getting what she wanted.  Better than fifty-fifty.  Either Keever was very stupid or something else was going on that made him shoot the Cap'n.  Or someone else did it.

                        "Who would want to set up Keever for this?"

                        "I really don't know.  He owed somebody money.  He said a lot of money, but a lot to him might have been a couple of hundred."

                        "No idea who?"

                        "None.  But about two weeks ago he got beat up.  He said it was a bar fight, but I don't think it was.  He likes to think of himself as a hellraiser, but Elroy is not the type to let things get that far.  He's something of chicken."

                        "Uh-huh."

                        "Which is the way I like them, by the way.  Larry was like that."

                        So was Loomis, but he didn't say so.

                        "Some guys really do like violence and that holds a certain fascination for some women.  But if they'll hit another man, sooner or later they'll figure out that it's safer to hit you.  No.  Elroy isn't a fighter and he isn't a murderer.  I think some asshole beat him up because he owed him money."

                        "And if it really is a lot of money, they might have set him up for the Cap'n's murder?"

                        "They might have."

                        "Not a very good way to collect.  But it's worth a look."

                        Mrs. Fishbein pounded once on Loomis' desk.

                        "You'll take the case."

                        "Hold on.  Why not let the cops handle it?  Why hire a detective at all?"

                        "No, Mr. Loomis.  I can't do that.  First of all, there's always the chance that he won't be taken alive.  The cops are saying 'armed and dangerous', they're talking like he's a desperate criminal.  It's crazy.  They're talking about drugs and . . ."

                        "Drugs?"

                        "They found some grass in his trailer.  Enough to charge him as a dealer.  You know how that goes.  One seed over an ounce, but the troopers and the Asbury cops and the Ocean County and Monmouth County Prosecutors office and everyone in the world is out there looking for a drug-crazed murderer.  I want you to find him and I want you to call me and let me take him in.  He doesn't stand a chance out there, believe me.  Don't approach him, just call me.  I don't want to take a chance on him running again.  There's another thing."

                        "Yes?"

                        "Me.  I have to worry about myself here.  It was my gun.  I was in the picture too.  If it weren't for the fingerprints they never would have released me.  They'd love to make me an accessory.  Before or after, they don't care, but unless I get Elroy back I may never be able to prove what really happened.  And you know what?"

                        "What?"

                        "I still think it's going to happen the way I planned.  I still think that asshole wants to marry me and that when the truth comes out I'll take the boat and Elroy and sail down south.  That's all I want to do.  He's all I got left, Mr. Loomis.  Just Elroy and the boat.  If you don't find him for me, if I don't find out what really happened, what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?  That's the point, Mr. Loomis.  Now, is there anything else?"

                        "I have to wonder why you called me, specifically."

                        She rubbed her temples and rested her elbows on the desk.

                        "You mean considering how we met?  That's easy.  Larry hired you, he must have had his reasons.  I always trusted his judgement and, in fact, you certainly got results.  You've been watching us for a week.  You know more than anyone else about this business.  I don't have to explain things to you.  I want this done fast.  Time is very important.  Anything else?"

                        "Yeah.  There's just one other thing.  When did you find out about Arlene and Elroy?"

                        "What about them?"

                        "That they were having an affair."

                        There was no mistaking the stunned, shocked gape with which she received this for artifice.  And when she stood, red faced and shaking and leaned across the desk into Loomis' face, that was real, too.

                        "What is this, some fucking detective game?  Some technique you're using?  Whatever it is, Loomis, its bullshit and if you try it again I'll pull your lungs out and strangle you with them.  You hear me?  You hear me, Mr. Loomis?"

                        Loomis managed to withstand this without flinching.  He waited a moment and then nodded.

                        "I hear you.  Now listen to me.  I could be wrong, but this is not bullshit.  I followed her one night.  She went to Keever's trailer.  I did not actually see the two of them going at it.  Maybe he just needs a lot of work on the suspension, but that's not the way it looked to me."

                        She stood staring at Loomis for several moments.  Not for an instant did she entertain his suggestion seriously.  She sat, reached into her bag and pulled out another white package, a little longer and higher than the first.  This time, Roberto found a stack of twenties that added up to $1,000.

                        "If you find him, Mr. Loomis, I will make him turn himself in.  We will prove his innocence, you and I.  I will get the boat and everything else.  You will get another $5,000 plus whatever expenses come up."

                        Loomis stared at the little pile for only a second.  He opened his drawer and pulled out a contract form and his receipt book.