Someone had nailed a sheet of plywood to the inside doorframe, so I pushed on it with my shoulder and it came loose with a screech of pulled nails and crashed to the floor. The smoke was thick and I could just make out eight figures slouched around a Turkish water pipe.
"I'm lookin' for Danny Hewlitt, you guys seen him?"
"Naw, man," said one, "He might be on the fourth floor though, that's where the hard stuff is."
"Is Danny cokey?"
"They don't call him 'Hoover' for nothing, babe," this time it was a woman's voice, followed by a childish giggle.
I turned to leave and someone said "Wanna close the door, man?"
I ignored him.
The tenement had been abandoned for years; eight stories of crumbling brick, rotted wood and peeling paint and, like dozens of others, home sweet home to dope heads, runaways, squatters and rats as big as lap dogs.
I was doin' a favor for 'Jimmy the Squint' Hewlitt, an old buddy of mine who owns a string of pawn shops throughout the city. He was dying as the Big C ate him a cell at a time and before he went on the wrong side of the grass he wanted me to find his little brother who'd dropped out of sight five years ago. The photos he had of Danny were several years old, but it was something to go on.
I traced Danny through half the smoke parlors and shooting galleries in town finally winding up here in the Cockroach Hilton. The rotted wooden stairs creaked like an old barn door as I made my way up three flights, trying not to breathe hard and hugging the wall. It was a long way down.
Most of the once apartments were empty and trashed, but at the end of the hall one door was still intact and as I came closer it opened and a dude wearing a stocking cap stuck his head out and said "Didja bring the shit, 'cause we're..." then he saw me.
He tried to slam the door and I grabbed him by his greasy long blond hair and used him as a doorstop. There were four guys in the room sitting or lying on what had once been expensive furniture.
"Who the fuck are you?" said a fat guy sprawled in a filthy recliner.
"Lookin' for Danny Hewlett, Porky, you seen him?"
A dude with a beard and mustache lying on a wrecked couch said "I'm Danny, whadda ya want?"
"Your brother Jim wants to see you, Danny. You're comin' with me."
"What's he want with me anyway? He's got no time for me. Not for anybody except his damn business."
"He needs you, he's sick and he needs you. Now, c'mon before this dump comes down around our ears."
Porky heaved himself up from his recliner, a .38 Colt Police Special in his hand. "He ain't goin' nowhere and neither are you unless I get the two fifty large he owes me."
Danny jumped up from the couch, "Put that away, Beano, I gotta go see my brother, I'll get it from him, I promise."
Porky shook his head, "No fuckin' way. I get my money or you ain't goin' nowhere."
He looked away for a second and I snatched a piece of heavy glass from a table and scaled it at him. It caught him edge on in the forehead and shattered as blood flew everywhere.
He screamed, grabbed at his face and dropped the Colt. I picked it up, threw it across the room, grabbed Danny and we ran down the hall and down the stairs, praying they would hold. We were down two flights when a shot boomed and a slug hit the banister.
Porky was a flight above us taking aim. He could move fast for a fat guy. We ducked and made it down to the next floor, hearing him thundering down after us. The stairs were heavily rotted at the top of the landing, so I shooed Danny down until he was clear, then kicked at them 'till four hung loose exposing the risers.
I crossed my fingers and ran down, feeling the staircase shiver under my weight. As we made a dash to the street, there was a screech of wood coming apart, a shriek and then a sickening thud below us.
Porky had fallen through the staircase, then through the rotted flooring into the basement onto the cement; it was like dropping a ripe watermelon on the sidewalk.
Last I heard, Danny and Jim had reconciled, Danny had been clean for months and was learning the business he once despised.
Hammer's the name, Michelle Hammer. My friends call me Puss. Yeah, I'll tell ya sometime. I'm an ex-cop turned P.I and I enjoy what I'm doing. Once the law gets in your blood, it stays there. Despite what you read in novels and see on TV and in the movies, a P.I.'s life is not that exciting. It's steady work though, because there'll always be cheating spouses, thieving employees and other odds and ends that keep me busy and pay the bills.
I was in my office going through some old case files and feeding them to the shredder when the 'phone chirped. The ID said it was from Kildare Pharmaceuticals. They had a laboratory and manufacturing complex on the Columbiana River south of city and employed a third of the area's labor force.
"Is that you Puss?"
"Yeah, who are you?"
"It's Brendan, Brendan Rafferty, remember me, the old one-nine?"
"Brendan? Sure I do. How ya doin'? Long time no talk. I thought you retired in '07."
"More like shoved out; anyway I got bored so I took this job as head of plant security at Kildare. It's pretty cushy compared to riding in a cruiser for ten hours."
"So, what's up, Bren?"
"There's some weird stuff goin' on here at the plant and the suits upstairs want some answers. I need someone to go undercover and see if they can get a line on what's going on. Interested?"
I showed my ID to the guard and drove in. Kildare Pharmaceuticals complex was huge and it took me awhile to find the Headquarters building. After a high-speed elevator ride and a long walk I found Bren's office. He welcomed me in, offered me some coffee which I took and we sat together on a leather sofa in his spacious office.
"Nice little place you have here."
"It's a long way from the 19th Precinct, that's for certain."
We talked about old times and then got down to business. There were minor, but annoying discrepancies in the amounts of drugs that were being manufactured and the amounts that shipped. Not all drugs either, only those that relieved nasal congestion and asthma attacks.
They were prescription, not OTC and not expensive, so there wasn't a black market for them like the ones that put lead in your pencil. It was a puzzle what was being done with them and Bren wanted me to find out what was going on.
He'd set me up with a phony ID as a representative from a conglomerate overseas that was thinking of acquiring the company and wanted to see what made it tick. That'd give me a chance to snoop around and a reason for doing so. I could walk in anywhere, even the restricted areas like accounting and the pharm labs.
I'd brought a change of clothes in my tote bag and changed in Bren's private washroom. My sweatshirt, jeans and sneaks went in the bag, a dress, stockings and heels came out. A touch of makeup and some brushing of hair and it was time to go to work.
Bren gave me the rundown on what was where in the complex and a map in case I forgot. He introduced me to his crew so they wouldn't try to bust me for being where I shouldn't and I was off.
In the week that followed, I stuck my nose into everything, asked lots of questions and generally made a pest of myself. It got so employees would see me and not think twice about it which is what I intended. People tend to relax around the familiar and when they relax, they get careless.
I was taking a short cut to the admin offices through the testing labs when I saw a guy pushing a flat with a bunch of boxes on it heading my way. About then one of the boxes fell off a stack and landed with a crash of broken glass on the tile floor.
I walked up and said "Need a hand there, friend?"
"Naw, but thanks," was the reply. He picked up the box and shook it, glass tinkled and he muttered "Shit. What's he need with all these bottles anyway?"
"Who would that be?" I said conversationally.
"Doc Peebles, who else? He's got this thing about evaluatin' the quality control of nasal spray bottles and metered dose inhalers. He's always testin' 'em for somethin' or another; seems like I'm always bringin' a load up here. Funny thing is, he never gets me to return 'em to supply. I guess his lab assistant does it."
"Doc Peebles, huh, I don't think I know him."
"You must be new here. Everybody knows the Doc. He's an oddball, but he keeps inventin' new drugs so he stays on. He's got his own lab and everything."
"Yeah, I'm new. Where's his lab anyway?"
"Follow me, my names Danny."
"Hi Danny, I'm Pamela, folks call me Pam."
We chatted as he wheeled his flat down several corridors until we came to a metal door with a big 'No Admittance. Restricted area' sign on it.
Danny knocked and a plain looking girl in a lab coat opened it. She was young, with thick glasses, a sallow complexion, chopped off mousy brown hair and no makeup.
"Where have you been Danny, the doctors been waiting for..." then she saw me "Who are you, I don't..."
I pushed the door all the way open saying "Hi, I'm Pam with Continental Chemicals. Didn't you get the e-memo?"
She dithered while Danny pulled his flat through and headed down the hall.
"Memo, I ... I ... don't think the doctor told me about any memo..."
"I have clearance to examine every facility in this building," I said impatiently. "What do you do here Ms... ?"
"Simms, Althea Simms. I must have left my name tag on the..."
"Please show me around Ms. Simms," I said breezily. "I have a schedule to keep."
"I don't know if I should unless I ask the doctor..."
"Nonsense, I have full clearance, please show me around Ms. Simms."
I began striding down the hall; she ran after me and began the standard visiting VIP tour. There wasn't much to see until we got to the main lab where Danny was stacking boxes under the watchful eye of Doctor Peebles.
He looked to be in his late fifties, tall and stoop shouldered, balding, wearing a dirty lab coat with black socks and sandals. When he turned to face me, his hooked nose, watery brown eyes behind thick lenses and Van Dyke beard gave him the appearance of a nearsighted vulture. I wanted to laugh, but didn't.
I extended my hand "Hello Doctor Peebles, I'm Pamela Gleason, Continental Chemicals. Your assistant here has been showing me around."
He grasped my hand in a limp sweaty palm, jerked it up and down twice and let it drop to his side. I resisted the urge to wipe my hand on something and smiled at him. I've gotten better handshakes from an Irish Setter.
"We don't get many visitors here," he said in a voice that reminded me of fingernails on a blackboard, "Much of what we do is conducted under secure conditions."
He glared at Althea and continued "Formulating new pharmaceuticals is a complicated business and we need to be on our guard against spies who may wish to steal the formulas."
"I'll getcha' another box of those spray bottles, doc," Danny said as he passed by pushing the flat, "Sorry about that. Bye Pam."
I said "Bye Danny," Peebles only grunted and turned away. "I am quite busy, Ms. Gleason, if you'll excuse me..."
"Of course, Doctor," I replied. I'd seen enough, for now anyway, "Another time perhaps."