A Matt Vaughn, P.I. Novel
By C.A. Bennett
“Nothing is easier than denouncing the evildoer.
Nothing more difficult than understanding him.”
There were three things I had on my mind that night; How many times had she cheated on me, who was she cheating with, and how much bourbon could I drink without dying? Okay, four—Did I really care if I did die? The display on my watch showed three pm.
“Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere…” I muttered to no one in particular as I exited the lobby of the office building. I stuffed the Kodak envelope full of photographs of my wife in compromising positions with another man into the breast pocket of my dark blue suit and hailed a cab. Ellen had left a few weeks before when she found out I had been having her followed, but the photos from my partner and surveillance guy Sam Locke had just come in that morning. The developing process moved slower than molasses in January.
As the yellow sedan with the checkerboard design pulled up, it occurred to me how utterly cliché this whole situation really was. I chuckled as I got in the stuffy cab and shut the door.
“Something funny mister?” the cabbie asked from the rear view mirror.
“Not really. I was just thinking about ironies,” I replied and settled myself into the backseat.
“Oh. Well, I don’t know nuthin’ ’bout ironies,” said the cabbie in a thick Brooklyn accent that made me wonder how the hell he’d ended up here in San Francisco.
“The irony in this situation, my good man, is that I’m the guy people hire to find out if their husband or wife is cheating, not the guy who gets cheated on.” I flashed the cabbie a cheesy smile I wasn’t even close to feeling. The cabbie gave me a blank stare in return.
“Uh-huh… Uh—Where to, mister?”
“Yes, of course.” I sighed, shifting to adjust my suit jacket, “Just take me to the Cobra Club, please.” I said, smiling at yet another cliché, taking the last cigarette from the silver case bearing my initials, M.V., and lighting it with the matching Zippo lighter. The set had been an anniversary gift from Ellen. Rolling down the window, I made a mental note to buy a new set as soon as I sobered up, and tossed them out the cab window into midday traffic. I watched out the back window as a diesel truck ran over the case and flattened it in the street. Satisfied with the result, I sat back, inhaled deeply and exhaled three smoke rings and a straight shot through the center of them; one small step toward closure, a million more to go.
“Shame to see something so nice get wasted like that, mister.” said the cabbie from the rear-view mirror. I looked up to see the beady black eyes with heavy brows glancing between me and the street ahead and smiled as I wondered why I couldn’t get the silent type interested in getting the job done and getting paid.
“Yeah, well—I never really liked it anyway,” I lied.
In fact, when Ellen gave me the set years ago, I had been thrilled. It marked not only our first anniversary but the beginning of my new career as a San Francisco Police Officer. That was before Sam and I became P.I.’s. The memory of that morning flooded my mind. I had been awakened by her climbing on top of me, and we had made love in the early morning light. Afterward, she stared down at me and smiled. Her platinum blonde hair fell in a tumble of waves and curls and hung past her shoulders onto her slim, naked body.
”Happy Anniversary.” She brushed a kiss across my lips. “Oh! I have something for you!” Still hovering above me, she leaned across to the night table, opened the drawer, and pulled out a little box wrapped in blue and white striped paper, with a tiny silver bow on top. She sat back and wrapped the sheet around herself like a towel.
“What’s this? I should think you’re gift enough, Ellen.” I patted her bottom.
“Open it!” she exclaimed, her bright blue eyes danced with excitement, as she smiled at me.
“God, you’re beautiful,” I said, and ripped open the paper, and took the lid off the box with the Macy’s star logo on top. Lying in black velvet, the glimmering silver case and lighter winked at me in the early morning light of the bedroom. It had been exactly the perfect gift—just what I had told her I wanted someday, back when we were dating, and I still had dreams of finishing college and joining the police force.
“It’s perfect, Ellen! It’s just what I’ve always imagined,” I said, pulling her down against my naked body to kiss her.
A horn blared outside the taxi cab, jolting me back to reality. I shook my head and tried hard to push the memory back into the depths of my mind where it belonged, lest I dwell too long on the old days of our marriage. The good times, before I drank too much and stayed gone for days—sometimes weeks at a crack while working on a case. The days before she’d screamed how much she hated me and threw things across the apartment at me. Before she sought companionship in the arms of a man who wanted to be there for her, while I lied to myself and tried to pretend I didn’t know about it.
The sound of rain hitting the roof of the cab broke the spell her memory held over me, and I came to my senses. Jeeze, man, get a grip. It’s been weeks. It’s over and she’s gone. I looked around and saw that I would be arriving at my destination in a couple of minutes. I took the wallet from my pocket and pulled out a twenty. The Cobra Club loomed into sight through the rain-spattered windshield, and I cursed myself for not grabbing an umbrella. I flipped my collar up and glanced at the meter and the cab driver’s name on his license—James Towery —as the cab pulled up to the curb.
“Thanks for the ride, Mr. Towery—keep the change,” and handed him the money.
“Jimmy. Just call me Jimmy. Anytime mister—thanks!”
I nodded at Jimmy Towery, opened the door and climbed out into the rain. The cab pulled away from the curb, as I headed for the double doors of the lounge.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Vaughn. How are you today, sir?” Bill, the doorman greeted me.
“Afternoon, Bill—good, thanks. You?” I liked old Bill and sometimes got info from him when working on a case, so I was always careful to be polite to the old man and stop to chat if he felt like it.
“Very good, sir, thank you for asking. You have a nice visit, Mr. Vaughn.” Bill said with a smile and a salute. I nodded and went in the door he held open for me. Once inside, I stopped a moment to let my eyes adjust to the low lighting. The valet—a new kid with slicked-back dark hair and cold grey eyes, took my coat.
“Thanks, kid,” I said, making a mental note of this new hire.
“Matt!” called a well-dressed man at the bar, “C’mon over, buddy!” I sighed—I was not
in the mood for social pleasantries but when in a bar…
“Tom, old friend,” I replied as I strode to the bar and extended a hand in greeting.
“How ya doin, buddy?” Asked Tom,
“Good, good. Thanks. I thought you were still out of town?” I said and motioned to the bartender.
“Bourbon, Mac—Make it a double.” Mac—as he preferred to be called instead of his given name, Malcolm—nodded, set a clean glass on the bar and poured. I lifted the glass and held it up a moment, admiring the amber liquid as the bar lights glanced off the rocks glass, and raised it to my lips. The satisfying burning sensation as it went down my throat had the soothing effect I’d hoped for. I motioned to Mac to keep ‘em coming as I felt my shoulders begin to relax.
“The wife’s mother passed suddenly, so the trip ended a little early,” said Tom.
“Ah—sorry to hear it.”
“She wasn’t bad as far as mothers-in-law go, I guess. But what can you do? We all die
someday, don’t we?”
One can only hope, I thought and tossed back my second bourbon and watched as Mac poured another, “Indeed we do, my friend,” I replied instead.
“Say, it’s a little early for you, isn’t it? Everything okay?” Tom asked.
“Eh—rough day, no big deal.”
“Mmph—Ellen, huh? It’s been weeks, buddy… ya gotta let her go. It won’t do to dwell on things of the past, you know.”
“Yeah… yeah. Listen, Tom—ya got a cigarette?”
“Oh, now I know something’s wrong!” Tom frowned. “You never go anywhere without that cigarette case of yours.”
“Hey, I thought I was the private eye here.”
“Alright, alright.” Tom held up a hand “I’ll stay out of it. I’ve gotta get going anyway. I promised I’d help the wife with the arrangements, and all that.” Tom tossed a half-full pack of Camels on the bar and slapped me on the back, “Take it easy, buddy. You know where to find me.”
I nodded and turned to focus on the bar, and keeping my glass filled. I’d always enjoyed coming to the Cobra Club because it was classy and quiet. A man can think here, I always said. Or not think, whichever the preference of the day happened to be. The point is, it’s not some seedy bar on the south side, with belligerent drunks and brawls every night. I lit up the Camel, took a long drag and inhaled deeply.
Nothing like a good smoke. I thought, glancing around. The lounge was roomy but kind of cozy too. There was lots of space to move around, even when the place was busy and was lit by dimmed chandeliers. There were several comfortable, chocolate-brown leather armchairs with small tables next to them—each of those with personal lamps atop them. A few small chess tables with padded chairs were scattered about, so the more cerebral clientele could enjoy a rousing game in relative comfort. In the corner, I saw two men, heavily engaged in a serious game of chess, and mildly registered that I didn’t recognize the gentlemen, but that they occasionally glanced my way and back to their game again. Odd—I thought I knew everyone who came in here, I thought, exhaling the smoke as I turned to crush out the Camel in the crystal ashtray on the bar.
“See? Classy. Not like that dump we used to go to in the old days.” I said aloud to no one in particular.
“You okay, Mr. Vaughn?” asked Mac.
I looked up at the tall, good-looking if somewhat blurry African-American man in front
of me. “Hmm? What’s that, Mac?” I slurred.
“Are you okay, Mr. Vaughn? You’ve had quite a few—you don’t usually drink quite this
much, sir. You want me to call a cab, or Miss Ellen to come pick you up?”
I laughed sardonically. Call Ellen and tell her what? ‘Your soon-to-be ex-husband got some naughty pictures of you this morning, and now he’s trying to set a new world’s record in how fast he can put the bourbon away. Can you pick him up before we run out?’ “Naw! I’m alright Mac. Listen—” I said, leaning closer to the bartender, “Those two guys on the chess game over there—” I jerked my head in the direction I was talking about, “Who are they? I don’t recall seeing them here before.”
Mac glanced in the direction I indicated, looked a moment and pursing his lips said, “Sorry, Mr. Vaughn, I don’t recognize them. Are they bothering you, sir?”
“Oh, no… I just wondered who they are. Thought I knew everyone who comes in here.” I said. “Say, what’s with the new kid at the door? The new valet?” I slurred and motioned for Mac to pour me a double.
“Oh, that’s the owners’ nephew,” said Mac, pursing his lips disapprovingly.
“Ah. And uh… I gather you don’t like him, eh Mac?”
“Naw, can’t say as I do. He’s just a rich boy working here because his daddy said he needs to be out in the world. See how things be for the so-called “regular folks.” Got a big attitude, and a big mouth to go with it. No work ethic, if you catch my meaning. Lazy as all get out. Sometimes I even find him sleeping in the storeroom,” He finished, shaking his head in disgust.
“Well, maybe you can teach the boy some manners, eh Mac?” I winked.
“I’d sure like to teach him something, Mr. Vaughn, you’re right about that. Lose my job though, no thank you, sir. I’ll just mind my own business, and keep the boat from rockin’.”
“Probably for the best, Mac. Sounds like he won’t be around too long anyway.” I smiled and gulped down another shot.
I don’t know how long I sat there drinking, but I was far too hammered and had been busy drowning my sorrows for quite a while when the lounge door opened and I heard a mixture of voices but paid it no mind until my name was called.
“Vaughn! My God, man, are they still letting you in here after what happened last time?” came a deep voice and a hard smack on the shoulder, which caused my bourbon to slosh just slightly, spattering on the dark ebony bar. Mac quickly wiped the spill and refilled my glass.
”Hello, Tony,” I said without looking.
”Aw c’mon, you’re not still sore at me, are you? I won fair and square and you know it.”
”Yeah, well… I guess that’ll teach me to gamble against you when I’ve had too much of this stuff, won’t it?” I grumbled and took another drink. “How is my car, anyway? Enjoying it, are you?” I asked, begrudging him the loss of my 1974 Dodge Charger.
“Ah she’s a sweet ride, Matty-boy, I do admit,” said Tony, settling up to the bar next to me. “I almost feel bad for taking her from you so easily. She’s a beauty, that one.”
I glanced over at the man beside me and wondered why a guy his size would want a Charger, anyway. Tony was six-foot-five if he was an inch. And weighed close to three hundred pounds. “Funny—I’d have thought a guy your size would rather drive a tank,” I said and lit another cigarette. Not that Tony was fat, by any means. He was as big as a tree trunk and as solid as one. Bulky muscles everywhere. Looked damn silly driving off in my car a couple of weeks ago.
“Well, I’ve already got my Caddy Eldorado, don’t I? It’s a beauty too, I admit—nice to put the top down on sunny days, but I like your car. It rides real nice,” Tony put his fingers to his lips and kissed them to emphasize his affection for his new ride.
I took another drag. “Yeah—me too.” I knew I shouldn’t be mad—it was my own fault I’d lost the car. That was the night Ellen left me. I knew better than to play cards against Tony in the frame of mind I’d been in, but the booze and Tony’s persuasive personality had talked me into it, and as a result, I’d been taking cabs ever since.
”Say, Matty—” said Tony eyeing the bubbles in the lager Mac had just brought him. “How ‘bout I give ya a chance to win her back?” he looked at me and winked.
“In exchange for?” said I, my full attention on Tony, instead of the ice in my glass. The
“Nothing. I just—ya know—kind of feel bad for taking her from you, and at a bad time too.”
“Bad time?” said I with a bit of an edge to my voice.
Tony squirmed and shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah, you know… I mean, what with you being a little too wasted, and with the wife and all…”
“Yeah—” I said, starting to get a little edgy, “I get it. You feel sorry for old Matt, is that it? Figure you’ll give the old boy a chance to get the car back, ‘cuz he sure hasn’t got a snowball’s chance in hell with the wife, right?” I got off my barstool and stumbled. Tony caught me just before I hit the floor and helped me back to my feet, where I wobbled to and fro a bit before steadying myself against the bar.
I poked Tony in the chest—had to look up a ways to do it, “Now you listen here, bub,” I slurred, “I don’t need your pity. I want another car, I’ll go buy another car, see? I got the money,” I said, pulling out my wallet. “I don’t need your pity,” I repeated.
“Alright, I—I’m sorry, Matt. I didn’t mean anything by it, I just figured—” but I held up my hand and cut him off before he could finish. It occurred to me that Tony’s a nice guy and a good friend—lucky for me, too. He could snap me like a twig if he had a mind to.
Mac came over, and put a hand on my arm, “Mr. Vaughn, you alright, sir? Want me to call you a cab?”
I was having a hard time focusing on Mac’s face. Somewhere in my head, I knew I’d had enough for one night. “Just maybe need some fresh air. Say, Mac, you’re a little blurry. You ought to have that looked at.” I said with one eye closed, the other squinted in an effort to get a better look at the bartender. With great difficulty, I took money from my wallet, paid my tab, and headed for the door.
“You sure you don’t want a ride, Matt?” asked Tony, but I just squinted at him, waved my hand, wrestled my coat from the new valet, and staggered toward the door.
“You be careful out there, Mr. Vaughn,” called Mac, and I waved without turning around. I stumbled out onto the sidewalk and wobbled again as the rain-spattered on my head. “Damn—no umbrella,” I said, squinting into the night sky, wondering when it had gotten dark. It didn’t seem like I’d been in the Cobra Club long enough for night to fall, but I’d had quite a few drinks, after all. Even Bill the doorman had gone home for the night.
“Whew! That’s gonna hurt tomorrow,” I said, contemplating the hangover I would surely have. I thought of whistling for a cab, but decided a walk might do me good; the cool October rain might clear my head a bit. I flipped my collar up, hunching my shoulders, and stuffed both hands into the pockets of my black wool pea coat, and headed for home.
The rain pattered lightly on the city street, turning it into a mirror with thousands of shimmering lights dancing on the surface from cars and traffic signals. I heard the uneven scuff and splash of my shoes on the wet sidewalk as I staggered my way toward home. Although I was warm and dry within my coat, my head and neck were uncomfortably cold and wet. Rainwater dripped from my drenched hair onto my face. The occasional chilly gust on my wet cheeks had a slightly sobering effect, and I was thankful for it.
As I rounded the corner, I had the oddest sense of being watched. It’s just the booze, old man. I told myself, You know the hard stuff does funny things with your head. Yet, the feeling was still there—like I was being followed. I glanced over my shoulder and saw two men walking side by side—hands in their pockets, about twenty feet back. Though they didn’t appear to be doing anything suspicious, there was something oddly familiar and unsettling about them.
“Hey, buddy!” called a deep, male voice as a van pulled up to the sidewalk next to me, “Hey—ya got the time?” asked the voice from the van.
I stopped walking, and glanced at my watch, trying to focus on the numbers obscured by the rain and the fog of booze in my head, “Uh… Yeah, it’s—” I cut off as a billion stars exploded before my eyes. Something had hit me at the base of my skull and a hood was yanked down over my head.
Next thing I knew, I felt as if I was being stuffed into a metal box. I tried my damnedest to remain conscious, but between the booze and the smack on the head, it wasn’t easy. The sliding door, revving engine and sudden violent movement that tossed me backward and onto the hard metal floor, along with a bruised shoulder, gave credence to my theory and I realized I was being kidnapped.
“What the hell is this all about?” I yelled as I grabbed the back of my head, feeling the rapidly growing lump.
“Quiet, Vaughn!” came the rough voice with a heavy accent. A set of hands grabbed me and pushed me face-first into the metal van wall, and I tasted blood from my freshly split lip. Another set tied my hands behind my back, then tossed me onto the floor of the van as it sped along.
“Son of a bitch!” I shouted and suddenly felt nauseous. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”
“Either gag him or knock him out. I am trying to concentrate on driving these crazy San Francisco streets!”
The last thing I remembered was recognizing a Russian accent in the way the driver pronounced “him” as “heem” before the smell of chloroform permeated the damp, musty air of the van and engulfed my mouth and nose. And then everything went black.