First Episode of The Misadventures of Slim O. Wittz, Soft-Boiled Detective,
A Mystery Short Story Series by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Episode 1
Shame City, U.S.A.

My name is Slim O. Wittz. I'm a shamus, a private eye, and I'm sitting at Voluptuous's desk signing reports. Yeah, Voluptuous! That's my secretary's name. Vo says she was born with that moniker. I give her the benefit of the doubt.

If you ain't out dodging bullets, you're dealing with the killer paperwork. Anyway, my pen bumps into something under the paper. I know what it is even before I look. Vo has been clipping her nails at her desk again. How many times do I gotta tell that dame it ain't dignified to do that in the office. I finish signing the top report and weigh the sheet in my hand, wondering whether Vo's extra coats of Wite-Out warrant more postage. I took her at her word when she said she could type. She once warned me that if I keep faulting her typing, she'll sue me for sexual harassment. And Vo could do it, too—she's a second year law student at the local diploma mill, and in my line of work, a mouthpiece, even an unfinished one can be an asset.

Vo and her screwy logic make damn good partners. The brain waves under that lovely platinum blonde hair don't always reach their destinations, but she sure can come up with some pretty clever observations along the way. On the other hand, screwy logic could be her M.O.—her way of handling a scary situation. We both know that I'll continue to stomach her steno screw—ups. After all, she runs a tight office, and I owe her too much back pay. And did I mention her hourglass measurements and absolutely gorgeous gams.

The godfather clock next door chimes nine times, and I can see from my office through the frosted glass to the corridor that the second floor is deserted. I tell clients to turn right when they step out of the elevator. It's the eighth door on the right. I gotta remind people to count correctly. You see, my ex-brother-in-law, Elmer, is a sign painter. He counted wrong and painted my name on the wrong glass door. You'd think he'd have had a clue when he had to scrape the word "MEN" off first. I gotta wonder how many clients I piddled down the drain that way.

I didn't learn my lesson with Elmer that time. Once I gave him fifty bucks to rent a bloodhound for a manhunt. Did he go to the reputable kennel I sent him to? No way, Jose. A friend of his lent him a broken-down hound and Elmer pocketed the fifty. The useless pooch had a sinus condition the size of Delaware. The only thing that hound could smell was hisself.

The office phone rings only once before I pick up: "Slim O. Wittz, Private Investigations: Neat, Complete, and Discreet! Oh, hi, Mom."

Mom ain't really my mother. Actually, she belongs to my ex-wife, Fawn. I got custody of Mom after the divorce. Mom likes me much better than she likes Fawn. To tell the truth, if she was twenty years younger, I'd have married her instead. But socializing ain't on her mind tonight. As I listen, I can feel an ulcer sprouting in my gut.

"Wait, Mom, I don't want anything more to do with Fawn. Mom.... No!"

It's useless to argue with a desperate woman. It seems that Fawn dumped her boyfriend. He was always beating up on her and messing with her head. She booted him out, but the guy won't leave her alone. She's afraid to go out and can't sleep at night. Mom wants me to lean on this creep and get him to move on. On the phone she coaches me. Like I really need lessons.

"I'm counting on you, Slim. Let him know he can't get away with that kind of behavior. Maybe even rough him up a bit. Get him to cease and desist, if you know what I mean. It's the least you can do for someone who once loved you."

Although I doubt any lingering love on Fawn's part, I shrug my shoulders, say I'll look into it, and hang up.

Intimidation calls for more than chewing the ape out, so I pull open the top drawer of my desk and reach for my piece. It's a vintage World War II .45 caliber automatic that I picked up at a yard sale—tagged: "As is. Ammo not included." I'm not sure it'll fire, even after a thorough cleaning. I scratch a memo to Vo to put bullets on my shopping list, along with a bottle of aspirin. I throw on my tweed sport coat, tuck the piece in the back of my belt, and head out.

My '92 Buick Regal sits at the back of the lot where I left it. The car is dull gray, with a bunch of matching duct-tape patches to hide the rust. I'd prefer a newer set of wheels, but the kind of work I do says I gotta stay inconspicuous-like. Yeah, sure, I'd rather drive one of them snazzy Eyetalian jobs. Maybe when business gets a little better.

I'm hoping the pit bull what owns the parking lot has left for the night. But as I reach for my door handle, two rows of busted teeth leer at me from the driver's seat: "You owe me three months' parking and you ain't leaving with this tin beast 'til you pay up."

"Have a heart. I ain't slept in my own bed for a week now."

He shakes his eight-ball head.

It's then that I notice he's parked another jalopy in front of mine, so I can't get the Buick out anyway. I figure on pulling the smug S.O.B. out of my front seat and working him over. The runt reads my mind. He's got a fist wrapped around a tire iron, tapping it gently against his other palm like a cop with an itchy night stick. I decide to reconnoiter another strategy. I hotfoot it back to the office, where I wrestle another night with my Castro Convertible couch. At some point the half-nelsons, headlocks, and mattress-pins put me down for the count.

Next thing I know, Vo is leaning over me, shaking the living daylights out of me. The powerful aroma of cologne, lipstick, and hairspray almost knocks me out for good. I pop one eye open and find myself staring at the Appalachians. I didn't know the Cumberland Gap was that deep.

"Hey, sleepyhead. Ya wanna talk with your ex? She's on the phone."

"Not really." But I shuffle to the phone in my socks anyway. "Yeah!" I grouch into the mouthpiece, taking my miserable night out on her. "Yeah, so it's morning. What of it? . . . Don't thank me—I ain't done nothing yet. . . . Fawn, I said I would. What's the matter—my word ain't no good anymore? . . . Where do I find this schlemiel? . . . What's that address again?" I write it down. "I'll let you know. . . . Now don't go trying all that sweet stuff on me. . . . Yeah, yeah, I'll call you." I hang up.

Mom told Fawn I'd take care of her stalking ex-boyfriend, so she's making sure I won't change my mind. That's the trouble with dames. They think you forget them as soon as they're out of sight. They're wrong. I think about dames all the time.

But how come my back feels so achy? I finally figure it out. I fell asleep with the gun still tucked in my belt. It left a bad impression on me, and now I'll be sore all day with this .45 caliber pain in my backside. I tell Vo to add a shoulder holster to the shopping list—just as soon as we collect a few more receivables.

A shave and fresh shirt help me feel human again. Plus, Mom promised me a meal later, seeing as how I'm doing her this favor. Mom's cooking, that's something to look forward to.

I shove the piece into my jacket pocket and head for the elevator. On the way down, I glance at the address Mom gave me. As luck would have it, it's walking distance, about five blocks away— Pinsky's Haberdashery. Mom told me the ex-boyfriend has two jobs The haberdashery is his day job. I didn't ask what Rocco's other job was. Yeah, Rocco, at least that's what Mom thought his name was. Probably a harmless nickname.

I push open the glass door into Pinskys and waltz up to the only salesman in sight, a short, chunky character I make out to be in his late thirties. Good looking and a sharp dresser, too. Kind of resembles me. Hmm . . . I can see why she'd fall for this dude.

I'm thinking this intimidation job is gonna be a cinch. I can't figure how Fawn could be afraid of someone like this. "You Rocco Vinnelli?" I ask in the gruffest voice I can muster.

"Naw, I'm Max Pinsky, the owner. That's him coming in now."

It takes seconds for this image to register. The locomotive entering the store comes at me in chugs. I decide Guv Swartzenbagel's got nothing on Mister Vinnelli. That is, except for the hair. Rocco's Saint Bernard mane would make even Beethoven jealous.

"Hey, Rocco," Max greets him. "This gentleman's been asking for you."

"Hi. What can I do you for? Hey, just a joke, pal. How can I help you?"

I clear my throat and throttle back the gruff tone. "A friend told me you'd fix me up with a new sport jacket. Said you'd treat me right."

The gray pin-striped suit grins broadly and motions for me to follow him to a rack of sport coats. I shed my threadbare jacket and hang it on a hook while he opens a spiffy tan job with brass buttons for me to try on. As I slip into it, the key question mulling around in my mind is: how do you intimidate anyone six-four and 250-plus pounds? The jacket's tailored for Godzilla, but he insists that it's right for me. I feel his paws gripping extra material behind my back.

"As close to a perfect fit as you can get for your kind of figure," he says smugly. "Room to grow, too. You don't want to take all the sport out of sport coat, do you?"

Not caring to argue with this hulk towering half a foot over me, I ask whether he has something in blue, something that will take a few years off. He nods, and I try on a few—that is, I actually try to try them on, but I can't even get both shoulders in at the same time.

"A bit skimpy," he admits, "but that's the style these days, especially with the younger bunch. You did say you wanted younger." He figures he's lost the sale by now, and his glued-on smile begins to fade.

Just so Rocco won't think I've come in here for any other reason, I ask if he expects new merchandise soon. He tells me maybe next Wednesday. He reaches for my own jacket to help me into it. But as he picks it up, he feels the added weight. His pork-sausage fingers fumble through the pockets and he comes up with my .45 automatic.

He levels it at me. "Who the hell are you? No one goes this kind of shopping with artillery in their pocket. What're you up to?"

Max, who had been quietly arranging ties on a display table, beats a retreat into the back room.

Rocco is one angry goon. He spins me around and slams me, face forward, over the counter so he can get at my wallet. My P.I. badge and private investigator's identification take him to another level of furious. "Who sent you? Was it Angel? Does he have a contract out on me?"

If this is a test, I don't have any answers. I speculate about Rocco's second job. He endures ten seconds of my silence, then shoves me toward the front door.

"Hey, Max," he shouts in the direction of the back room. "Cover for me. Gotta go out for a few minutes." And me he asks, "Where's your car, scumbag?"

He ain't at all happy when I explain that I didn't drive over. He prods me toward a red Coupe de Ville parked at the curb. It has that dazzling look of a brand-new, freshly heisted car.

"Get in," he snarls. "No, stupid, on the driver's side."

Rocco reaches under the driver's seat and comes up with the keys. He hands them to me. I start the engine, slip into gear, and roll the Caddy away from the curb. It's the first time I've ever driven one of these pimp-mobiles. He points the piece at me as he gives directions on how to get out of town. I comply. What else can I do? I keep glancing at the gun, which looks a helluva lot more menacing now than it did in my desk drawer. I don't mind being pistol whipped with my own gun so much as I dread the dental bills afterward—worse even than Novocain. You see, I let my dental insurance lapse. Not a good idea for a person in my profession.

After driving for thirty-five minutes, he has me turn onto a deserted road, full of switchbacks and steep grades. Not a house in sight. I follow the road uphill for another three or four minutes, and then he tells me to pull over and stop the car. I choose my place just beyond the crest of the hill, with a panoramic view of the town in the distance, and pull way over onto the grass. I turn off the engine.

"Okay, Bozo, get out. You didn't come into the store for no sport jacket. What's this all about?"

"It's about Fawn, Rocco. She may be my ex, but I still don't tolerate anybody beating her up. You hurt her. Gave her two black eyes. Slapped her around in public. She called it quits with you, but you won't take no for an answer."

"Get this straight, Bozo. Someone's tellin' you stories. But just to keep the record straight, I never laid a hand on her. That babe's too independent to stick around a bad dude. You ought to know. Fawn left you, didn't she? And, as far as I'm concerned, she's still my woman."

Rocco puts the gun to my head. He's taken the safety off, but I know for sure there are no bullets in the clip, so I hustle out of the driver's seat and slam the door. The thug tries to get out on his side, but I've pulled so close to the guardrail that he can't get the passenger door open. He swears big time—nothing I ain't heard, mind you, but he does it with such pizzazz. From his passenger seat he again aims the piece at me, but awkwardly now. Pulling the trigger several times, he gets click, click, and click for his efforts. He flings the gun through the open window. Lucky for me, his pea-size brain doesn't think of it as an excellent blunt instrument.

Now he wants to come after me, but because of his bulk, he's got trouble maneuvering across the console to the driver's side. It'll be minutes before the gorilla can perform that trick.

I don't stick around to find out how long it's gonna take him. I dash around to the Caddy's trunk and heave my sizable backside into it to budge the car down the hill. I don't know if it's the adrenaline pulsing through me or the Cream of Steroids I ate for breakfast, but the beautiful red machine begins to roll. You see, I had a bit of a plan when I got out. I deliberately didn't set the parking brake and intentionally threw the shift into neutral.

Rocco is bellowing, roaring now. He's made it across the console and is struggling to reach the driver's door. I throw my whole weight against the trunk and shove once more, straining, sore back and all. The car continues to roll.

The grade falls more steeply here. Now the car takes on a life of its own. With the steering wheel still angled slightly toward the guardrail, the car scrapes against it, creating sparks and a terrible rasping noise. In spite of the friction, the vehicle picks up speed. Suddenly, it slams into a guardrail post and careens back onto the open road. I watch the coupe build momentum to ten, maybe fifteen miles an hour toward the next downhill switchback. Blam! Crunch! It cuts clean through the fence and disappears from view.

The impact, then the silence kinda spook me. I'm not proud of what I've done. Not that I feel for that creep, mind you. It's just that normally I don't do the killing thing. When it comes to him or me, you gotta know whose corner I'm in.

As I drag my out-of-shape carcass back up the hill, I spy my .45 lying in the road where Rocco had tossed it. I pick the piece up, dust it off, and check it over. It feels lighter—the ammo clip is missing. I search all over the road and shoulder, but the clip's gone like yesterday's supper.

I slip what's left of the piece into my pocket and continue walking. Now I'm thinking about the dinner Mom promised to make for me. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, I hope. It's her specialty. Before long, I'm sweating like some perp collared in the act, and the idea of a cold shower nudges any thoughts of food aside. When I reach the main road, a semi stops for me and I hitch a ride back to town.

* * * *

Eight hours later, scrubbed like Mr. Clean, I ring Mom's doorbell. She lets me in, but slowly. No hello—just an annoyed look on her puss like I'm a Hoover salesman. Voices from the dining room reach my ears. I go in and find Fawn already seated at the table. And sitting across from her is the individual I least expect to see in Mom's house, or anywhere: Rocco. He rears up out of his chair. Hell, t'ain't my night to get pulverized, so I pivot and skedaddle to the front door as quickly as my stocky legs allow.

"Wait!" Mom cries. "Come back! I can explain everything."

I gotta be nuts cuz I shuffle back into the dining room, shaking worse than Fawn's personal vibrator. Mom points to a chair across from my ex, whose baby blues and pouting lips still get to me. I lower myself into the chair and listen to Mom. Turns out, Rocco isn't the guy I was supposed to intimidate. He's Fawn's new boyfriend! Rocco's boss, Max, is the abuser, only Mom got the names all twisted, and I went after the wrong galoot. Rocco's face is decorated with a scratch from one ear to his mouth. But the rest of him looks to be in perfect health for a gorilla in captivity. He does me the honor of an explanation.

Would you believe Rocco says he just wanted to put the squeeze on me some and teach me a lesson, so he took me out in the country just to make me walk back. He was madder than a bee without a hive when I made my break for it. Sure, he fired the piece to stop me, but he knew all along the gun wasn't loaded—he'd put the clip in his pants pocket.

"What about the wheels?" I ask.

Chomping down on a carrot stick, Rocco grumbles, "The Caddy kept goin' through the fence at the switchback. On the other side of the fence it slowed down and mugged a tree."

Fawn pipes up in her usual sorrowful squeak: "And you got hurt, too."

"It ain't so bad, toots," Rocco tosses off. "Just a scratch." He turns and wags his finger at me. "Hell, it ain't my car. It's Max's. He knows you're the guy responsible for totaling it."

Oh-oh! I figure Max will be siccing his lawyers on me by morning.

Rocco enjoys the doomed look on my face. He smirks and tells me, "No sweat, I gave Max your message, and he won't be bothering Fawn any more. He says he ain't suing and he don't want to mess with Slim O. Wittz neither."

It seems that Max thinks I play too rough, and I'm not about to change his mind. I ask Rocco: "Ain't your boss pissed at you? You still got a job?"

"Yeah, but I'm more pissed at Max for what he done to Fawn. Besides, I got something else lined up." Rocco offers his red-knuckled mitt across the table. "How 'bout you and me calling it even?"

We shake on it, and I assure him that Fawn is his turf from now on. If she wants to be, of course. He grins and pushes the empty ammo clip across the table at me. Somewhere between navy bean soup and Mom's main attraction, I learn that Rocco's second job is arranging centerpieces for a florist.

I help myself to a slab of roast beef.