My poppa used to always say life just ain’t fair, and I guess of all the things he ever taught me, that makes more sense than anything else. At least it helps to explain what follows.
If I was lucky Debra Singer was still in Denver, and if she was, East Colfax would be a good bet. East Colfax was always a good bet for runaway teenagers.
Every major city’s got its East Colfax. In Los Angeles it’s Hollywood Boulevard, in New York it’s Times Square. In Denver it’s East Colfax. As I drove down it, I spotted Rude at the corner of Nineteenth Street smoking a cigarette and staring into the distance. Rude works as a bouncer at a strip club a few doors down. He also pimps for a couple of the dancers. When he was in Vietnam he was assigned to an elite unit where he’d be let loose into the jungle to return two or three months later with a bunch of Vietcong ears tied to a rope. Now he can’t stay cooped up for too long, needs to get out every half hour or so for some fresh air. I once tried arguing that the air inside his strip club was a hell of a lot fresher than the smog around Denver, but he failed to see the logic of it.
I pulled up alongside him. He looked past me, inhaled deeply on his cigarette, held the smoke in, and let it out slowly through his nose. “If it isn’t the famous celebrity detective, Johnny Lane,” he said in a soft, menacing growl. “Read your piece in the Examiner. Used it to mop up some coffee.”
“Well now, everyone’s a critic these days.”
I parked and got out of the car. As I approached him, I noticed his handlebar mustache had gotten thicker and grayer, looking more like a steel brush than ever. He took in another lungful of smoke and swallowed it down.
“I hear there’s dissension in the ranks,” he said. “One of the private dicks you hire was bitching to me. Thinks you’re taking advantage of him.”
I waited for him to go on but he was finished. He spat on the sidewalk before turning back to me. His face had the hard, dispassionate look of a granite block.
“I got to tell you,” I said, “that’s just not true. I’m upfront with everyone I hire. And you know, Rude, it’s really just generosity on my part that I subcontract my overflow cases. But you’re always going to have your complainers no matter how good you are to people.”
“He told me you take sixty percent off the top. That’s not very generous, Lane.”
“Yeah, well, I disagree.” I was starting to feel a little hot under the collar. “Look, I don’t put a gun to anyone, understand? If your guy can do better, let him.”
A thin smile cracked Rude’s face. “Hey man, don’t get excited. Just telling you what was said. You don’t have to convince me of anything.”
“Who’s complaining about me?”
“I’m not going to betray a confidence.” He took a final deep drag and flicked his cigarette away, his eyes half-closed and peering off into the distance.
“Sure. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here.” I handed him a photo of Debra Singer. “Know her?”
Rude studied it slowly. “Fresh meat,” he said, nodding. “In a few months, though, there’ll be maggots coursing through her flesh.” His eyes shifted to meet mine and for the first time in all the years I’d known him I saw a glint of life in them. “That’s a hell of a lot better prose than the crud you write,” he added sourly.
“I won’t disagree with you.”
“Maybe I should talk to your editor. If he’s going to publish crap like ‘Fast Lane’, maybe he’d be interested in something good. Something real. The Rude Streets, stories of the Hardluck.”
“Won’t sell,” I said. “You need a sympathetic hero. Someone for the reader to relate to. Not too many folks are going to relate to a sociopathic, sleazebag pimp.”
“But they relate to you, huh?”
A blond teenage girl wearing a belly shirt and hot pants walked out of a massage parlor across the street. I made sure she wasn’t Debra Singer before turning back to Rude. “Look,” I said. “I’m not making up the rules. Just telling you what they are.”
“I’m a war hero, godammit!”
“Yeah, you’re a fine, upstanding citizen.” I took Debra Singer’s photo from him. “How about the girl? Where can I find her?”
Rude pressed his eyes shut. Lines of concentration ran down his forehead like grooves running down granite. “She’s working at a peep show across from the Cabaret Club,” he said after a while. “Fresh meat’s working the private booths. For a buck she’ll take her panties off. After that, a buck a minute and she’ll play with herself so you can jerk off.”
I felt a little sick hearing it, but it could’ve been worse. At least she wasn’t working the streets. I thanked Rude and handed him forty bucks. He looked at his watch.
“Tanya’s on stage in five minutes,” he said. “You should come in for the show, Lane. This girl’s really something. She can pick up a roll of quarters and count the change.”
“Yeah, well, I got more than enough change as it is. And as my poppa used to say-”
He groaned. “Not one of your folksy little sayings, Lane. It’s too early in the day.”
“Funny you say that, cause my poppa-”
“Cut it out.”
“Well now, it’s too bad you feel that way. Cause, as my poppa used to say, maybe you would’ve learned something. But-”
There was no point going on. He had already shut himself off to me. As I moved away, his gaze shifted, staring into some godforsaken world that not too many people were privy to.
* * * * *
It bothered me that someone was complaining about me, and it didn’t make any sense. At least none that I could see. My one-man operation handles a large caseload, larger than most ten-man agencies, and the way I do it is by subcontracting my overload cases. Of course, ideally my clients want me to handle things personally, but they’re usually satisfied with knowing I’m involved, even if it’s only at a supervisory level. I guess it comes from the trust they develop reading about me over the years in the Denver Examiner.
Regardless of what Rude thought, the forty percent I pay when I subcontract a case is more than fair, especially when you consider that forty percent of my four-hundred-a-day charge is roughly what the smaller operatives can get on their own. You see, what my clients are paying for is my name, reputation, and expertise. Not for some nameless private dick they couldn’t care less about.
I decided I couldn’t help it if someone was going to be unreasonable, and I put it out of my mind.
* * * * *
The peep show Rude pointed out was a quarter of a mile further down East Colfax. There weren’t any parking spaces out front so I double-parked next to a Mercedes with an MD license plate. Before I made it into the establishment, a huge hog-like farm boy came puffing out of the peep show and blocked me.
“Hey, Buddy,” he said. “You gotta move your car.”
He wore a stained tee shirt and dungaree overalls that probably could’ve held ten forty-pound sacks of potatoes. They fit snugly on him. I told him I was just going to be a minute.
“Sorry.” He nudged me with his belly. I couldn’t help noticing his small pink rat’s eyes. “The cops will be down