Romantic Shorts presents a visit to pre-WWII Portugal for some good old nostalgic charm. Canadian author Geoff LaCasse reminds us of a time when men were men and women were dames, and things weren’t always what they seemed. With some authentic flavour and a touch of who dunnit, LaCasse delivers.
Welcome. And enjoy!
The Dog, The Dame, and The (Private) Dick
by Geoff LaCasse
I caught another glimpse of her as I walked through the front entrance of the hotel. She was leaning casually against the restaurant balcony off to my left, the one overlooking the beach. Not a classic beauty by Miss America standards, but I had noticed right from the first those dark beautiful eyes, long slim hands. A pip. And that walk! More like a locomotion, all the parts moving in perfect harmony. Not many girls can claim that. But then not many girls get to watch themselves walk away. Like I watch them.
And most of those impressive features were obscured behind a rather unbecoming mid-calf length frilly dress in some horrible shade of off-green. Couple that with her odd hairstyle and wildly overdone makeup, and most wouldn’t believe that underneath all that was a real looker and not some trashy tramp. Well, probably some girls liked to put on that look, and by the hard stares and low whistles she was getting in the restaurant some guys certainly agreed.
I knew she had noticed me last night when I walked by her in the lobby as she talked in some working-class drawl (well nobody’s perfect) with some pumped up hotel flunky. In fact, she gave me a pretty good lookover – I hoped she was impressed with my aquiline mug, piercing blue eyes, and long lean frame, all topped by my latest rakish hat. I could tell she was interested but there was no time then to artfully introduce myself; perhaps over dinner at some later date. But no time right then. Things to do, places to go.
I loved this place. Not just the hotel, which was nice enough, but this beach, this area of southern Portugal, was stunning, the current owner having propitiously and fortuitously inherited all of it from a dearly departed English father with a foresight and brains completely lacking in his son. A son who seemed to have developed a taste for other kinds of businesses – not so honorable kinds of businesses according to unnamed sources – and who was now the focus of my current investigation.
“Any messages for John Smith, room 3?” I asked the desk clerk. Nothing, but I didn’t really expect any. My bosses had indicated strongly to me that I was on my own until I could come up with some real evidence to support my theories. And I didn’t expect my sources to get back to me yet. More importantly, I said it loud enough to attract the attention of the mystery girl so she would know where I was staying. I didn’t know her room number yet but that would come. I hoped.
Each day, I spent most of my time working on the case, looking for evidence, but in the evenings I liked to walk around the town that sprawled about the hotel. After nearly a week here I pretty much knew the town inside out. This part of Portugal was beautiful – beautiful beaches, beautiful towns, beautiful people. And best of all, sunny and hot. I liked that. A lot!
Girls wore a lot less clothes in places like here. When it was sunny. And hot. One of the few compensations for a most difficult job.
This evening turned out to be a little different from my norm. I admit I was momentarily distracted – and the direction I was looking purely accidental – by a couple of the local beauties in their rather brief and revealing bathing costumes on other other side of the street, walking seductively and giggling to themselves, when I tripped over the mutt. The poor fella yelped loudly, and limped away, looking back at me mournfully as if to suggest I was some sorta greaseball or jelly bean. I certainly hadn’t meant to do it. As I walked over to see if he was alright, I heard a voice from behind yell at me, “Hey, whatcha doing to that dawg!” Even without looking around, I knew who it was. The uneducated drawl, the nasal sound, the female voice. Could only be one person: the girl.
This time she wasn’t dressed as trashily or made up to look like a vamp. Well, not too much anyway; I thought still a little too much makeup. Rather trim in fact in a very tight white blouse, leaving her tanned midriff bare, and wearing short short pants. With the changes and despite the makeup she looked quite different, more down to earth, less exotic. Tasty. And madder than hell.
“Hey you, leave that dawg alone. He wasn’t bothering you none. Now you get over to him and say you’re sorry. Right now!” Her voice indicated her disgust even more so than her facial expression. Which was beautiful even under these circumstances.
I grinned at her, not disguising my appreciation of her many assets. “I’m sorry m’am,” doffing my hat, “I was just walking over to your friend to say I am sorry, and to please forgive my clumsiness. A friend?” pointing to the dog.
“No .. well maybe … yes … I have been feeding him for the past few weeks, trying to fatten him up. The local twits around here treat their dawgs … well, like dawgs. And you?”
I deliberately misconstrued her question. “I always treat dogs like they are my best friends. But never saw this dog before. In fact, first time I’ve walked in this area of the town since I got here. Nice,” grinning at her like a twit. But then girls like her had that effect on me. Not that I minded. I always believed one needs to appreciate the beauty around us. “Very nice.”
She snorted. Not even a ladylike snort. “Not what I meant, prettyboy, but nevermind you. Since you are here and available, give me a hand, and let’s see what you did to Butch.”
I smiled again. “Butch?”
She glared at me. Definitely a dish. Even more so than the overpainted creature of my first week at the hotel. “What’s wrong with Butch? It’s a good name. It suits him. Look!”
I looked critically at the dog, still cowing slightly in the alley. To me a Butch should be a purebred, a leader, large, fearless, able to leap buildings in a single bound. This Butch met few of those characteristics – there was obviously several mixtures making up the whole, he wasn’t excessively large, didn’t remind me of a leader, and judging by the look on his face as we advanced on him, couldn’t be accused of fearlessness. He did have big weepy eyes, something that probably made for the girl’s attraction.
“Come on, don’t stand there like some crumb. Give me a hand. Oh, by the way, call me Jane … Jane Jones.”
“John Smith.” And shook her proffered hand. “Good to meet you,” I said in my best neutral voice. I could see her smile after I said my name. Much like I had responded to the way she stated hers.
One thing I would give the dog. Any dog. They can bring together people like no other way. Having a common interest gives two people something to talk about. And once one gets started, if there is any empathy between the two, the talk can go in any sort of direction. Interesting directions. And she seemed to be interested.
Close up she was a little younger than I first thought but even more beautiful, even with that rather untidy and unfashionable hairstyle. But perhaps she just liked the look, whatever it was.
She would crinkle her nose when thinking of something witty to say, and despite her rather lazy and slow way of speaking, she at times was decisive and incisive. An attractive package.
In my experience, most guys and girls that meet for the first time and are interested in each other either act like long lost siblings, or are like business partners at a board meeting in never really saying anything of consequence, bumping gums if you will. It all depends on the chemistry, or perhaps the chemical generated, between the two. At this point, she and I were definitely in the second category. Despite our obvious mutual attraction, as the saying goes, we were dancing around the maypole, never touching and never saying much but banalities.
For some reason, weather seems to play a large role in banalities. That and how beautiful it was around here. We exhausted those subjects in a very few minutes.
“So whatcha do to make a living,” she said carefully after a few minutes of contemplative silence.
“Oh, I’m a hard boiled private dick, beautiful … work for myself,” I replied.
“Like it?” she asked.
“Pays the bills, doll, pays the bills,” carelessly, and looking for a reaction.
“Kinda a sleazy type of work, ehh prettyboy.” Tit for tat. Score one for her.
I couldn’t resist a retort. “So, what do you do for a living? Something more dramatic than that? Say a contestant in the Miss America contest or world famous singer, or perhaps captain of an ocean going tug?”
She actually threw back her head and laughed a nasally laugh, although I am not sure it was at what I had said. The laugh echoed off the nearby buildings, a pleasant sound on a pleasant evening in a quiet street. “Oh, I admit it, I’m a gold-digger. Just your average girl looking for a rich bastard to make her life sweet and simple. And when he dies, and he will die, I will be left with a whole bunch of fun and games. And the means to enjoy it.”
“And you called me sleazy, doll. Anyone in mind around here?” I tried to keep my voice light hearted and witty. “And does he have to die, at least before you.”
“Everybody does, and I have some long-lived bones in this body. Who is it? Well, I have set my sights on the bastard who runs the hotel, Joel Schister. Why do you think I hang around this joint. For my health?” I could hear the sneer in her voice, but there was also something else, something not quite right. There was more to this girl than met the eye. And I didn’t really believe her when she talked about being on the prowl.
“Why Schister?” I said. She must have caught something in my voice because she stared at me for a second before turning her head away.
“Why not? He’s rolling in dough, he owns lots of pretty trinkets, and can give me all the things that I could want.”
I laughed. “God, the man is about 150 pounds overweight, has the face of a warthog, and the brains of a broken piece of Canadian fir. He’s a flig.”
“Yah … so! … what’s your point? He’s a perfect mutt. Not the brightest bulb so easy to control, likes his women cheap and trashy and I can fit that if I hafta, and not likely to last a long time at the rate he is consuming most of the illegal liquids and powders around here and chows down his food. I figure he’s good for maybe 5 years max at this rate. I could be an opossum without even thinking.” I could see her smiling as she spoke. A confident babe.
“What about his current moll? She seems pretty much ensconced in his life.”
I think I momentarily confused her with the word ensconced. At least judging by that attractive crinkle in her forehead again. “She’s what? Are you making fun of me? Again? Anyway, so what. Rita’s just a trashy cheapie. Who would want to wake up to that in the morning? Dresses like crap, doesn’t know how to apply makeup properly if her life depended on it, and has the body of an overweight rhino. No competition there, buddy, not at all.”
I had seen Miss Rita Saller wandering around her castle, I mean the hotel, like a queen surveying her kingdom, a stuck up broad as far as I was concerned. She hadn’t given me the time of day when I had tried to talk to her. Schister absolutely doted on her. And despite all of Jane’s criticisms, I couldn’t see a spit of difference between how Rita looked as she patrolled her lair, and how Jane looked each time I had seen her in the same surroundings. Scarey the similarities, although I had to admit that Jane carried it better in certain places. Like here.
There was an indefinable air of faith about her.
Jane spoke up. “I can handle the bitch. Can you imagine? She’s dumb as an ox and almost as large. And what are you laughing about? I could take her any day of the week. Why? What do you care? Got a sweet spot for that overdressed fem? Good luck on that.” This time her laugh sounded like the braying of a donkey than anything else. Appropriate in the circumstances.
Jane peered at me with a definitely shrewd (or was that shrewish?) expression. Like Rita, at times she might not come off as the brightest when talking to her, but there seemed to be nothing wrong with her focus on life. This seemed to be a person who knew what she wanted, and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way to get it. A dangerous person in the wrong circumstances. I looked at her speculatively again. This may not be a person, a girl, someone would want to mess with.
She must have caught my look as well, because she added, “You know prettyboy, you might be able to help me out. If you really are a private dick, you might have some useful skills beyond chasing down two-timing cheats and taking pictures of sleazy undressed bitches on all night stakeouts. If you’re interested in making some serious sawbucks, meet me at the Brothers-in-Arms Cafe around the corner in an hour. I’ll look after my friend here,” petting a now much happier and rambunctious Butch. “Meet me there if you want more in your life.” I have to say her laugh was infectious, even if sometimes it also sounded a little evil. But then perhaps that is part of her charm.
I find most girls I know believe a time to meet as a mere suggestion, and not to be taken too seriously. If I added up the hours I had spent waiting for them to turn up, I could probably have written a bestseller novel or traveled around the world, or spent it in some other useful purpose in life. Obviously Jane was not one of those ‘most’ girls. And a healthy one at that.
She had already ordered an appetizer and drinks and was going at the food like there would be no tomorrow. I have to say, I like girls with healthy appetite although it was a bit frightening watching her dig into the food like a ravenous seal in the midst of a school of fish.
“I’m hungry,” in response to my raised eyebrow and a nod to the food. “Don’t you ever get hungry? I haven’t eaten anything all day. Sit down and order something. I gotcha a drink.”
It looked like a sarsaparilla in front of my chair, and I wondered how she knew what to order. I didn’t drink alcohol, but that isn’t widely known.
She continued. “Now, who are you really? Actually, I don’t really need to ask you since I already know from your file, but I wanted you to tell me personally. And lose the accent.”
The Jane here was a completely different person, still beautiful, perhaps even more so, but now decisive and obviously intelligent, the drawl and lazy voice replaced with a crisp French accented English. She looked at me directly when I didn’t answer right away, “Well, prettyboy, goin’ to tell me?” reverting back to her previous voice.
“Davis Richards, m’am. At your service. RCMP Special Branch. Here on assignment.” And I doffed my hat. “And you? Like you, I already know the details but would like to hear it from those beautiful lips.”
“Angela Markston, Interpol, Angie for short. Pleased to meet you, Davis Richards.” She smiled up at me demurely, a far different look from any previous, and obviously not part of her real character. “I thought that was some file on you,” she said with obvious admiration. “I particularly liked the section on your choice of girls in your life. That one from Berlin, the crazy one … what was her name … Hannah if I remember correctly … daughter of the local high official … shalI I leave it at that. And that stunt you pulled in Lisbon? Wow, that was a piece of work. You do get around. I think I am going to like working with you.”
Hannah, yes Hannah had been something else. Lucky to get away with my soul intact on that one. And uninjured. “Yours reads very pretty too. Let’s see if I get the details right. Born 1910 to French parents, recruited at age 19 by Interpol, no reasons given. Married twice by age 24. Now 28 and officially divorced from both. Separately I hope. No reasons given. Considered a first-class agent by your bosses, now working on a case that involves our esteemed hotel owner, Joel Schister, who also happens to be my target for fraud against the Canadian government. That is, he is causing us a lot of grief by implying that our government is complicit in the sale of military arms to Austria. We are a polite group of people generally but my bosses take a dim view of the loss of our reputation. To say nothing of the loss to the economy. What’s your angle, babe?”
“No angle, prettyboy. And let me say that my first two husbands didn’t have what it takes. I know nothing about your arms smuggling case but Interpol is interested in Schister as a kingpin in the local illegal drug business. A flood of packets of cadillacs have been appearing locally in the last year and seem to be spreading. Might even be the new big player behind sales in the rest of Europe we have been hearing about. My colleagues are coordinating an investigation for a number of European nations, including Germany if you’re interested, but Portugal is my focus at this time. Like the music?”
That change in topic took me off guard for a second. “What?”
“I said, do you like the music?” More aggressive.
“Yeah, it’s alright. I prefer Gregorian chants or the music from the Bolivian Altiplano but this has a decent beat and makes one just want to tap their toes. Why?”
She just laughed at my choices before saying, “Ask me to dance,” reverting to the uneducated voice of the original Jane.
“I’m a dead hoofer, babe.”
Like most men, I have this fear of dancing. It has always seemed to me a rather stupid exercise, reminding me of people stumbling around like drunken squirrels on a busy highway. Not a pretty sight, especially when the drunken squirrel (not that I drank) was me. Didn’t matter whether it was ballroom dancing or waltz or foxtrot or jitterbug. Or maybe fear is not the correct word. Maybe apathy or indifference is closer to the truth for most men. But fear for me.
“Alright but I hope you don’t mind your feet being tromped on, your nice new dress – which looks good on you by the way – wrinkled, and your hairdo messed.”
“I will take care of my feet and dress and hair, thanks. I will survive. Just dance.”
I have to say it wasn’t the worse dancing I had done in my life. Maybe because of the girl in my arms. Not great, as I said, but I left few bruises in places where they wouldn’t show. Unless of course, she was wearing one of those fashionable new bathing suits. That I would pay to see, without the bruises of course. Then again, I thought I heard a few muffled sounds of pain and suffering as we skittered over the floor. I also thought that the dance floor was a place away from work. Obviously not for Angie.
“Why are you really here, Dave?”
Nobody calls me Dave, not any of my now ex-girlfriends, not my sister, not even my parents.
“I told you Ange, my government wants me to deal with Schister one way or another, although legally. I have been sniffing around for the past week or so, hoping to find something that leads us to his source in Canada, and perhaps from there to his customers. He isn’t the brightest person on the planet but smart enough to know that he has to protect his sources.
“We, or rather I, think he is not the mastermind but rather it’s someone amongst his inner circle. The few friends he has been able to keep, his hotel manager, his cousin, the barman, the bellhop, the desk clerk, her assistant, and a dozen others.”
She looked so euphoric dancing on the floor. Maybe it was the music, maybe the energy from other dancers – were the other men enjoying this as much as me? – perhaps from me, but more likely her own personality. Hard to not feel good in her presence. I grinned at her.
“You’ve been here for a couple of weeks scouting out the place. And judging by what I saw this week, you have had a pretty clear run of the place, even if your attempts to separate Rita from Joel didn’t look all that successful to me. Possibilities?”
“Well loverboy, buy me a drink. I’m thirsty from all my hard work with you out there,” and she waved vaguely towards the dance floor. “I think I might be able to help you there. Interpol, me actually, did a thorough investigation of his operation. We agree with you that Schister himself is merely the figurehead. He barely has the brains to order a coffee, much less run a multi-million dollar business. Who could it be? His business manager goes back to the days after the war when Schister’s father first owned the hotel. We are sure he is not involved in anything illegal. Nothing in his records, no changes to the bank accounts. So we scratched him off. The hotel manager? We had our doubts about him but it turned out that he was skimming from the old man, most likely with the tacit approval of a young Joel. Not a drug pusher, just a small-time crook. His cousin? If possible his cousin is even more stupid than Joel. He is having an affair with his best friend’s wife and thinks no one knows. That’s hilarious. The bellhop? Not a chance. He’s our snitch inside young Joel’s organization, and he came to us to tell us his suspicions. Had worked for Schister’s old man who he regarded as tough but honest. He is not close to anything serious but gave us some valuable clues. The rest of Schister’s people we discounted as penny ante. They know nothing. And Joel really doesn’t have friends. They are more like blood-sucking parasites, as stupid as him, and more interested in picking over whatever is left of women, wine, and song after Joel is through. And that’s not a lot.”
She stared at me, for the first time a serious look on her face, and placed a hand on my wrist.
It felt warm to the touch but I don’t think she was really aware of it. “Interpol also ran into the same problem you ran into. No one in that inner circle could have done what we are investigating, and based on that I think none of them could have been involved with your case either. We are stumped and that is why I was posing as a lady on the make, and trying to separate Rita from Joel. If I could get closer, I might be able to find out more.” She sounded and looked frustrated by her failure. “So far no such luck. Rita has him wrapped around her fat little finger.”
And changed directions and tone once again. “So our dog seems to be doing better after his little run-in with you. I have him at a friends’ place a few blocks away. Weren’t you going to ask about him?”
I shook my head in astonishment at her ability to jump to seemingly unrelated topics in the blink of an eye. “Our dog? Friend’s place?”
She grinned broadly at me. “Which would you like answered first? Dog? Friend? Of course the dog is our friend. I befriended him first, and you announced your interest by knocking him over. But he has told me that he forgives you. And accepts you for what you are. I left him with my friend Giselle who is working as a singer at the hotel. She has a yard at her place where Butch can run. Simple as that. Huh! … Jealous type, ehh! I think I like that! Neither of my old men had any guts, or brains for that matter. But that’s a story for another time.”
I don’t know what it is. Girls always think that guys get jealous over every little thing … like for example other guys. Not true incidentally. At least not in my case; I am looking for information at this point, even with this beautiful girl beside me. At least I didn’t think I was jealous. But something she had said previously struck me at that very moment, and I think her at the exact same time.
“You know … I think I know who did it.” We said this simultaneously, looked at each other, and burst out laughing.
She beat me to the punch about our next step. “Do you want to get on the blower and tell your office first, or do you want me to call mine?”
I looked at my watch. “It’s late now, we can wait until the morning. Besides, we need to do a little sleuthing together for at least a couple of days to confirm our suspicions. Two husbands, eh?”
She smiled back. “Just practicing, prettyboy, just practicing. You know I was thinking that tomorrow evening before dinner we should get the dog and go for a nice long walk along the beach. I am sure we can think of things to talk about while we are enjoying the sun and sand and water.”
So a dog has more uses than only being a pet.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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