Max Noir PI: Case of the Corrupted Coeds

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Max Noir, Private Eye: Case of the Corrupted Coeds
I grab a paper and a cup of coffee that barely earns the name from Little Eddie at the newsstand outside my office. The coffee is hot enough, even if I know it's from yesterday's grounds. I don't hold it against Eddie. Man's gotta make a living, and sometimes you have to take a few shortcuts.
The stairway to my office is littered with peeling paint. The landlord only comes once a month, and it ain't to fix anything. I shuffle through and make my way down the hall. I can hear a couple flops in the offices near me, early risers on both accounts. Women gotta make a living too.
I open the door with my name on it and put down my things, then hang up my hat and coat. Spring hasn't quite handed it over to summer, but it's close enough that I'll be sweating soon. I turn on the fan and lay out the paper. There's a lot that goes on in this city, and in my line of work you have to know about all of it. There's the obvious stuff, someone killed someone, someone got robbed. Yankees win cause the world is shit. Then there's the other news, the stuff that you have to read between the lines. Who's hiring, who's lonely, and who died and had someone care enough to put their picture in the paper.
Jobs don't always come to you in this business. You have to do the work. Grandpa dies and some half kid wants their cut. Warehouse adds a hundred people and you wonder what exactly they're holding. People tell you their secrets all the time, you just gotta listen.
I'm making notes about dead folks when I hear a knock at the door.
"Come in." I say. I grab my gun under the desk because the nicer class of gangster likes to knock first.
The door opens and right away I know this ain't no gangsters. It's two pretty blondes, all poodle skirts and college sweaters. Cute little upturned noses and rosy cheeks. College girls, with no business down here on the shit side of the tracks.
"Are you lost? The subway station is a block down, you can get on the mainline and be back to school in an hour." I say.
The taller one moves forward, and the sweater works a bit of magic keeping the whole thing under control.
"I can only wish we were lost, sir. We've come into a bit of trouble and we need help. Ms. Petunia, our house mother, said that you could help us. That you have a soft spot for the wayward."
"Petunia's a friend of mine, but I don't work for free." I said. I soften my tone. "Not even for the wayward."
"Oh, we can pay! For now, anyway. It's my friend here, Agnes,"
At this the other blonde girl looked up. I could see she'd been crying, and I could tell she didn't want to show. Those blue eyes held a world of hurt in them. Too much for a girl so young.
"I made a mistake." she said, her voice shaking. "I fell in love with the wrong boy. He was so dangerous! With his motorcycle and his leather jacket. I got caught up in the romance of it all. But he was bad news. And he made me do things. Go places."
"So you're pregnant?" I asked.
"No!" she shouted. And now both women looked at me like the worst kind of man. Petunia might have called ahead so I don't make an ass of myself.
"I'm a good girl. I'm saving myself for marriage. No, he took me to places where men gamble. I was just there with him, and it was scary, but exciting! And he loved to play cards"
At this she cumbled. "But he wasn't very good. He got in a game with some rough folk and they took him. Took him for everything he had. But I knew he could turn it around! So when he asked to buy in again I said I'd cover him. Five hundred dollars. And he lost it. He lost it all. He took me home and then he disappeared. But those rough men, they stay around. They come to my school, they come to my classes, and they scare my friends." At this the tears came again. "They scare me."
Petunia was right. I can't say no to the wayward.
"How much do you owe?" I asked.
"That's the thing. I don't know. I've paid over a thousand dollars since this happened, but they just talk about the vig and tell me I owe more. I just want this to stop. I just want my life back."
"Who do you owe?" This is the big question. The biggest really. I can stop God from collecting, but Vinny the Axe is going to get what he's owed.
"Pauly Bones. I think that's who has it."
"Pauly Bones? Big guy, knuckles the drag on the ground?"
"That's him."
"He's bad news. But I think we can work something out. I charge fifty dollars a day, but this won't take me more than a couple days."
At this Agnes smiled, and it was like a rainbow coming out of a cloud.
"I can't tell you how much that would mean to me. Right Sherry?"
"How much it would mean to us." the tall girl said, coming closer. She leaned in and whispered.
"If you can fix this in two days, really fix it, I'll be very grateful. Agnes is special to me. Like a sister. And we have a way of showing gratitude that…" she smiled at me "Is hard to forget."
I'm used to big talkers, so she didn't throw me off my game. I pulled out a contract and wrote down names and got particulars. Agnes was loaded. Her father owned the local mill. If Pauly hadn't gotten greedy he'd have been able to milk that for years. Sherry was just an interested party, but when she put her hand on Agnes' back I think I figured out the interest. You don't have to be much of a detective when someone gives those kinds of tips.
The girls left and I took a sip of my cold coffee.
Stopping a shakedown. There's a trick to it. Do it right, everyone goes home happy. Do it wrong and you eat the wrong end of a lead pipe.
________________
I get on the road at noon. I stop by O'Malley's. O'Malley used to be a cop. A good one. He was as clean as they came. One day the other boys in blue got sick of him and broke every bone in his right hand. And after that he wasn't a cop anymore. Now he makes a mean burger and he doesn't pay any mind if a man wants to drink himself dead at lunch.
It's slow when I get in, so I sit at the bar.
"You know only losers and alkies come to a bar for lunch." O'Malley says as I sit down.
"Lucky for me I'm both. Give me a beer and a burger, cooked to hell and back." I said.
"You know that makes a burger taste like shit, right?"
"I know what I like."
"One shit on a bun, coming right up."
I wait for my burger before I ask any questions. I've learned to be careful, cause if I piss him off I get kicked out without lunch and without answers, and then I'm dumb and hungry.
He serves me the burger the way I like it, with a pickle and ketchup. The fries are in a pile next to it. I grab one and prepare the interrogation.
He grabs a rag and starts wiping the bar down. We've played the game before.
"You know anything about Pauly Bones?"
"Yeah. He's an asshole. But you know that too."
"He's an asshole, but he's just dumb muscle. I'm hearing stories that he's trying something new." I said.
"Yeah. You know Pauly. He's been eating dirt so long he shits rocks. So he's trying to move up. Some sharking, I heard. Maybe running numbers."
"Is he affiliated?" I ask.
"Naw. He's small time. Trying to make a name. He still busts heads on the side. You ain't thinking of fucking with him, are you? I know you can handle yourself in a fight, but Paulie is a brick wall." O'Malley has the audacity to look concerned for me. I appreciate it. Most everyone else in the world is happier to see the back of me.
"I ain't gonna go toe to toe with Bones. But you gotta know the lay of the land. How much do I owe you?"
"For the burger and beer, call it a buck. For the shit I just gave you make it an even ten."
"How about I make it twenty and you don't tell anyone we were talking about Pauly Bones?" I ask.
"Sounds like a fair deal. Enjoy your charcoal Max."
I put a twenty on the bar and proceed to do just that.
_____________
I get out of the bar after an hour or so, and get hit with too damn much sun. One beer in and the world seems like a better place. I make my way to the station and head on down to the college.
The train is full of students heading back and the people who clean up after them. Both tourists, I guess. Rich kids slumming it and poor folk catering to them. I ain't able to fix the world, so I just pull down my hat and take a nice little nap.
When I get to the station it's a short walk to the school. I take my time. You don't get sunny days like this in the city.
When I get to the sorority house I walk around to the back and knock. It ain't the kind of place that someone like me fits in.
The door opens and it's Petunia, looking lovely as ever. I brace myself for the slap. It stings. The second one doesn't feel much better.
"I'm going to pretend you didn't just hit me in the face and we're going to have a civil conversation." I say.
"We've never had a civil conversation." she says. It stings. The truth is a hell of a whip.
"Well, we can try. Besides you're the one that sent your girls to me."
"If I'd known you'd be here I wouldn't have done that." she says.
"Well then you've forgotten a lot of things about me. About how I work a case."
"I've tried real hard to forget you." she says.
"Same. Doesn't work. You got a chair I can sit in? I just walked from the station and my legs aren't getting any younger."
"We can sit in the kitchen. Don't take your coat off. I don't want you comfortable."
I follow her to a counter in the kitchen and sit down. I don't ask for a cup of coffee, but she starts making one anyway. She's nurturing like that. Wasted on me, of course. You water dirt and all you get is mud.
"Your girl has a real problem."
"She has a couple. Bad taste in men, to start. Not that I'm any better." she says.
"I can be charming."
"Between the bottle and the work it's a wonder you find the time."
"You make the time, when it matters." I say. And I did, once. But it's hard to be something for someone when you're barely enough for yourself. The bottle doesn't ask for much.
"The girl owes Pauly Bones," I say, "He's dumb and mean. But he ain't going anywhere. So I'm trying to figure this out."
"What's to figure? Put a scare in him. Make him turn tail. It ain't that hard." she says.
"It'd be nice, but he ain't scared of me. He's small time. I'm smaller. What about the girls?"
"Agnes and Sherry? They're school friends. Both a little bit of trouble. Sneaking out, seeing boys. Agnes has parents with money. And she's a bossy one. Like her shit don't stink. Sherry's a scholarship kid, good head on her shoulders. I do my best to keep them in line, but there's thirty girls in this house, and only one me."
"Are all the girls this much trouble?" I ask.
"No. Most are more. They're a lot of little rich girls, backed up by a pile of daddy's money. You can't tell them anything. But I try. That's what they pay me for. Why, you trying to drum up business?" she asks.
"No. Just trying to figure out a plan."
"You always did love the plan. Too bad they always go to shit."
"Just the ones I make for my tomorrows. But for this sort of thing I usually have a knack. How often are the shakedown guys here?"
"Used to be once a week. Now it's twice. You know how it is. Once they got a sucker on the line they keep reeling."
"Mind if I take a look around?"
"You want to see girls in tight sweaters?"
"Only when I'm off the clock."
"Sure. Let's take a walk."
I cover the house in half an hour. Most of the girls are at class, so we don't get bothered. I don't get to see the rooms, but I read the names. Petunia and I don't talk. I think she said everything she wanted to say the day she left. Everything else is just chit chat.
There's a book on the table by the door. I pick it up and skim.
"What's this?" I ask.
"Oh, it's a face book. All the girls in the sorority are in there. They put it together once a year, write each other notes and the like."
"Can I borrow it for a couple days?" I ask.
"Can't hurt." she says. "But maybe mail it back. You don't fit in here."
I don't say anything. She's right. But I still walk slow back to the station. It's a beautiful day all the same, even if by rights it's someone' else's.
I nap on the train ride back. For what's going to happen next I want to be well rested. I wake up at the station and head out to the only part of town worse than mine. The name of the bar is Old Joe's. Joe has been dead for years. Nothing bad. Natural causes. They tried other names, but they never stuck.
When he passed the bar lived on. Someone paid for the license, though I don't know who. It didn't matter overly much. The bar made some money on drinks. But the rest of it was made in the back room. I walk to the bar.
"Game tonight?" I ask the bartender. I'm sure the guy could mix a drink if you asked him, but based on his lack of a neck and the scars on his hand he's a heavy that just happens to pour.
"Game's full," he says.
"Can I get a glass of the cheapest thing you have on tap?"
He grunts and pours one out for me. I don't know what kind it is. I don't particularly care. I need to get some courage from somewhere, and the bottom of a glass certainly seems like the easiest way. I leave a buck on the counter. I know I'm overpaying, but I don't think this is a guy I want to negotiate with.
"Any chance I could talk to Pauly?" I ask.
"Pauly is not seeing guests at this time." the no neck says.
"Can you do me a favor then. Can you give him a message? If he hears it and says nothing, I'll skip. If he wants to hear more you can call me back."
"Fine. What's the message."
"Phi Mu says hello."
The bartender grunts. I take my time drinking the beer. I figure Pauly is a busy guy.
I was wrong. The bartender came back out and waved me over.
"Pauly has made time for you." he said.
"How generous." I say.
The bartender ushers me in the back, past a couple tables playing cards. I see some folks I know, but none that want people to know me, so nobody waves. We just make a beeline for a small office with a glass window. The door opens and I know what I'm going to see in there.
Pauly Bones is straining the shit out of some poor chair. He stands up as I come in. It's like watching a mountain stretch. Pauly is wearing a suit, but there are some things not even the best tailor could hide. And Pauly was making off the rack money. The sleeves barely made it to the end of his arms. I can't imagine how he got his fists through them. It was open around his waist, and there was a belt doing God's work. Pauly Bones had started as a longshoreman and never gave the muscles back.
He offers me a handshake. I take it, knowing I'll be regretting it for weeks. My knuckles feel like they're crushed between two bricks, and it lasts way longer than it should have.
"Have a seat Max." he says. It ain't a question. I squeeze into a little chair, and Pauly rumbles back into his.
"Thanks for making the time Pauly."
"You come here to talk to me Max? About my business?"
"I did Pauly. I didn't come for no trouble."
At this Pauly grinned. Years of breaking bodies had taken its toll, and based on the number of teeth he was missing several people had got in some lucky shots. Pauly knew I didn't want trouble because I didn't want to be dead.
"You come here poking in my business and don't want trouble?"
"I want to help you Pauly. And the only way I know to do that is to tell you to stay away from Phi Mu. Stay away from the university entirely. It's bad news."
"So you come here to tell me how to do my business. That is going to lead to trouble."
"Agnes, the girl? She's paid you twice over."
"You know that ain't how it works. The vig is always running."
"The vig she took on from a bum."
"She's a big girl. She made her choices."
"And she was good for them. I know you got a sucker on the line and you're reeling with all you got, but I'm telling you Pauly, it's not right."
At this Pauly chuckles. It sounds like gravel rolling down a hill.
"If it puts money in my pocket it's right. This ain't complicated. And I don't appreciate you coming here to tell me what to do."
"If you keep this up you're going to get raided. Or killed."
At this Pauly stopped pretending to be friendly. He stood up with a speed that made no sense for his frame and hoisted me against the wall.
"You threatening me Max? Here, where I call the shots? Cause some pretty little blonde thing got into trouble? You make a lot of shit decisions when it comes to girls Max, but this is gonna me your last one."
My feet barely touched the ground.
"It ain't me." I squeaked.
Pauly leaned in and I could smell the whole shelf of liquor on his breath
"What's that?"
"It ain't me."
He lowered me, but his hand was still on my collar.
"Then who the fuck is going to mess with my business?"
"The girls, Pauly."
"Why would I be scared of a bunch of little girls." he was confused. But confused is better than enraged.
"Because when you started your shakedown you didn't cross your T's and dot your I's. You saw the big money and that was it. I'm going to reach into my jacket and take out a book. I'm going to do it real slow so you don't accidentally snap my neck." I paused. "With your permission."
He nodded.
I reached into my jacket real slow and pulled out the face book, then I handed it to him.
He let go of my neck and took it. He opened it and flipped through it.
"So what? A bunch of pretty blondes."
"Look at the names Pauly. Maggie Powers, Marjorie O'Brien, Jenny Caravelli. These are her friends. And friends talk."
"You are wasting my time. Why do I give a damn about girls talking?"
"Maggie Powers, daughter of Harold Powers, Chief of Police of our own fair city. When he finds out his daughter is in danger from rough men? Marjorie O'Brien, daughter of Patrick O'Brien, senator. A man who has access to the feds. And that's just the clean heat. Jenny Caravelli?"
"Shit."
"Vinny 'The Axe' Carvelli's daughter. You think he's busting down the doors? Or is he just going to burn the place down with you in it. You and me, we can do what we want down here. But once you get on the train it's a different world. A world that does not want us. And a world that will bury us before they let us disturb their peace. And it is only a matter of time before poor Agnes cracks and spills her heart out. And once those girls know they'll tell their daddies, and then we are all royally fucked."
Pauly sat back down in his chair, the wood groaning to hold him. He thought for a moment, ideas moving across his face like glaciers racing across the tundra. Then he came to a decision.
"I appreciate you bringing these…complications…to my attention. It occurs to me that the fair thing to do will be to consider her debt to me paid in full."
"You're a fair man Pauly."
"I am not. Now get the fuck out of my office. And if you ever tell anyone about this I will finish crushing your throat."
I got the fuck out of there. It's nice to win. It's better to live to enjoy it.
I headed home, double checking everyone I passed to make sure that it wasn't someone Pauly sent to educate me. I got home and called Petunia. Told her the debt was gone, and that"d like my check by the end of the week. Then I washed my face and crashed.
It was only a day's worth of work, but it was a lifetime's worth of stress.
The next day I got to my office with my cheap coffee and a paper. I was doing my research when I heard a knock at the door.
"Come in." I say, handle in my hand. Most hitters don't knock, but it would be just my luck to get the polite one.
The door opens and it's the girls again. I slip the gun back into the drawer.
"Agnes, Sherry. Nice to see you again." And it was nice. They were both wearing the pink sorority sweaters and nice black skirts. They were far too bright for my dingy office.

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