He is my friend, this uniformed man who stands beside me, but if he stood, say, thirty yards away, I would not hesitate to kill him. We are armed alike; we look alike. He could be my brother, so close I feel to him. But he is not.
Not my brother.
Until a few weeks ago, he was a stranger.
He is just the guy who fights the Huns beside me in this trench – this godforsaken hell hole on foreign soil I do not call my own.
We have been ordered here, like so many others, from nations all over the globe. And we do not refuse. We follow orders and move inside these tunnels like the rats that live among us. We curse and swear, but we submit. We do not refuse.
Refusal will only reward us with a shot of lead and the label of coward. For the next four days, this crudely shoveled canal of mud and slime is our home.
So, here I lean against this wall beside my friend.
And he points up at the gray sky and smiles.
“I think we’ll be alright,” he says, “until night. I feel it in my bones.”
But, he is wrong.
We hear the whistle, the whine, the great boom of mortars, aimed to fire at a high angle and drop Death into our trench. We scurry and scramble into our little dugout, praying that somehow the gods of war will favor us today and let us live.
Cramped and stinking of fear, we huddle. We shiver and shake like naked babies abandoned in a snow storm.
Heads between our knees.
Praying, pleading, cursing.
The blast is close. The boom is loud. We scream, but no one hears us. We are deafened by the blast.
My friend and I.
But we are relieved. We have survived. Our knees are like water. Our prayers have been answered. We have survived this close call. We look up into the square little hole of light that filters into our man-made cave of earth.
Our little hole of safety.
It happens too quickly.
The second explosion.
The mountain of dirt and debris and shrapnel is thrown into our little hiding place.
We are trapped!
To experience a slow and agonizing death!
In utter blackness, over the din of bursting shells, I hear him scream! He is tearing at my flesh like a madman!
And there is no escape!
He woke, drenched in sweat, screaming as loudly as the soldier of his dreams.
The words, The Cupid/Archer Detective Agency, were painted in fine navy letters on a panel of frosted glass, accented by a thin outline of gold leaf – crisp, professional, and exactly the way Flix had pictured them in his mind. His partner, Phalen Archer, had thought that Flix was joking when he suggested the name.
But Flix/Archer, Florian & Phalen, Valentine/Archer, and any number of other combinations of their two names had not lit Flix’s fancy.
Florian Valentine Flix wanted a name that would stick in his customers’ minds. Not that his name would not, but Flix wished to incorporate his wartime friend and new business partner’s name into the enterprise too.
He wanted a name that was unusual, that hinted to the creative genius both men shared, and he didn’t mind if it held just a dash of humor.
Life was like that, Flix decided.
A heaping spoonful of hot yellow mustard with a bright red cherry on top.
Besides, he liked the play of Archer combined with Cupid, so Flix overrode his partner’s objections.
The city was enormous, Flix argued. It was paramount that the new detective agency set itself apart from all the rest.
“But, we will be the laughing stock of every professional operation in town.”
“Perhaps. In the beginning,” Flix said. “But think about it, if we can make it with this name, it
will prove to everyone we are head and shoulders above the rest.”
“And if we can’t? What then? What am I going to do if your plan fails, Cupid?” Phalen asked.
“Phalen. Phalen. Phalen. You fret about the future, but your worries are unfounded.”
“Easy for you to say,” Phalen said, “I don’t have a rich uncle who has died, naming me the sole beneficiary in his will, tucked away in the back corner of my closet. I have to worry about paying next month’s rent.”
“Next month’s rent will take care of itself, my friend. You are clever and hardworking,” Flix said, “and you left the police department in good standing when you resigned. You were a good detective, but your ability to fight crime was severely hampered when you killed Loro Bruno.”
“He was a thug and a brutal man, but a highly connected one,” Phalen said.
“They would have crucified you in the department if you had stayed. And from what I hear, without Bruno’s protection, the police commissioner is soon to be replaced. Your commissioner was bad enough, but who knows who will come after him?
Without Commissioner Lawrence to protect you, Phalen, you’d be thrown to the sharks. I fear there would be a thug’s bullet with your name on it within a week.”
“You’re right,” Phalen said. “If I’d stayed, I’d be a marked man. I still am, to some extent.
Prohibition has turned our world upside down. The bad guys are running the candy store.
Corruption is rampant everywhere. There’s no doubt about it.
And I can just imagine the big shields are shaking in their boots, right about now. Jimbo Corso is running the show in the streets, nowadays. He’s ten times worse than Loro ever was. The liquor racket isn’t enough for Corso. He’s looking to tie up prostitution, drugs, and who knows what else, all under one big umbrella.
Talk about control issues.
Corso wants the whole cigar, and from what I know about the guy, he’s got the balls to make it happen. He’s setting himself up to become the biggest gangster this city has ever seen. If the chips fall in his corner, he may be above the law.”
“Yes,” Flix said.
“I hear Stubby Lincada is set to replace the commissioner. If Lawrence is smart, he’s booked a steamer passage to South America by now. Stubby’s been in Corso’s pocket for decades. If Stubby gets the job, Lawrence is toast.”
“And you and Lincada haven’t had the best relationship over the years.”
“You can say that, again,” Phalen said.
“Then pour your worries in a jar and set them on a shelf,” Flix said. “You and I can make a go of this. I know it.
Give our partnership a little more time. I cannot make this happen alone.
The gang war that was sparked by Bruno’s death shows no sign of letting up. Bruno’s men will
not go down without a fight. You know that, as well as I.
The police department is in a shambles. Everyone is scrambling to make sure that when the fire dies down, they are on the winning side. Bruno’s men are tearing up this city. They are like loose cannons, but their days are numbered.
Corso will see to that.
Those thugs must learn to bend to Corso’s rule or be wiped out.”
“It’s going to be brutal,” Phalen said.
“When the chaos settles,” Flix continued, “the pressure will be off. You will be forgotten. No one will care who snuffed out Bruno. It is a dog-eat-dog world. And once Corso’s top dog, Bruno will be a fading memory. It is just the way of their kind. Besides, I have great plans. This agency can be successful. I know it. But it won’t happen overnight.”
“I know,” said Phalen. “We survived the war. I’ll survive this.”
Phalen lit a cigarette and looked silently out the window. He rubbed his chin.
“If worst comes to worst,” he said, “I suppose I could move out West and take a job with a small town department. I wonder how I’d look in cowboy boots.”
“It won’t,” said Flix. “Call it a sixth sense, but I know you and I can do good things here. I have the
capital. You have the expertise. All we need is patience. And you’d look like a bumpkin in a speakeasy.”
Flix wondered if his arguments would be enough to keep his friend from abandoning ship. At the moment, they didn’t seem to be holding water with Phalen. Flix felt like he was blowing hot air.
There were several legal documents that the agency had been contracted to deliver, and one client who wanted her husband followed to prove he was having an affair, but these were not the kinds of cases that both men wanted to pursue.
Flix knew Phalen was itching for some ‘real’ detective work. If an interesting case didn’t materialize soon, a nagging tickle in the pit of his stomach told Flix that half of The Cupid Archer Detective Agency would fly the coop.
The sun was shining through her window like a radiant spotlight. The white lace curtains billowed in the warm breeze. Sophie heard the birds singing, heralding the new day with a chorus of riotous song.
She looked down at her brand new shoes. They were beautiful, she decided. And her little white socks with the pink bows matched the bow in her hair perfectly. Her old shoes had been okay, but these were just like Molly’s, and everyone knew Molly had the prettiest shoes in the whole class. Sophie felt like she would burst with joy, she was so happy inside.
“Sophie, don’t forget your sweater,” Mommie said. “I know it’s beautiful outside, but you had the sniffles last week. If you get hot, take it off later, but for now, I want you to wear it.”
“Yes, Mommie,” Sophie said.
“Now, here’s your lunch. I packed some extra pieces of taffy for your friend, Molly.”
Sophie smiled lovingly at her mother.
“Now, scoot. You’re going to be late. Remember to be a good girl. Daddy’s promised to take us both on a picnic this weekend. I do hope the weather is as beautiful as it is today. I love you, Sweet. Now, scoot.”
Sophie kissed her mother lightly and skipped out the door.
“Look at this headline!” Phalen said. “Have you seen this morning’s edition?”
“No,” said Flix, “I haven’t had time.”
Phalen handed Flix the paper.
“My word! This is horrendous,” Flix said, reading the article. “I always think the worst when I see this kind of headline.”
“It’s hard,” Phalen said, “to be optimistic the way the world is.”
“Umm,” Flix said. “No witnesses. And if I read between the lines correctly, no one’s sure exactly when she went missing.”
“I know. She didn’t report to school.”
“Who knows if she decided to go play the day away because the weather was so beautiful or if she was snatched by some monster and never made it to school. It appears that no one knew she was missing until late afternoon.”
“Kids are so unpredictable. You know, she favors my youngest sister at that age,” said Phalen. “Police think she’s a runaway. Parents deny it.”
“And that’s perfectly natural,” Flix said. “What parent worth his salt wants the world to think his home is not a happy one?”
“I know, but there must be some reason the cops believe she’s run away.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. They are awfully busy these days.
Prohibition has not made their jobs any easier. They are up to their eyeballs in gang crime, over their heads in payoffs, and entangled in a web of who to go after and who-paid-their-protection-money-this-month-so-we-leave-them-alone.
A lot of our police are finding it hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad. It’s not black and white. Especially, since so many of the men in blue are just about as corrupt as the bad guys.
How old is she?”
“Ten,” Phalen said. “But she looks younger, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps,” Flix said, “that’s not a current picture.”
“You’re right. It probably isn’t,” Phalen said. “Still, it must be murder on her parents. As bad as it is to find your child has come to a horrible end, I’d imagine not knowing whether she was alive or dead is worse.”
“You can say that again,” Flix said.
There was a knock a the door.
“Sir,” the secretary said, “your appointment is here.”
“Send her in, Mrs. Glenny,” Flix said.
Flix glanced over at Phalen. The sour look on his partner’s face said it all.
It was going to be a long day.
“It doesn’t matter what you say, sir. I know Henry is cheating on me. A woman, especially a wife, knows these things, and if she doesn’t, well then, shame on her,” the lady said, lightly plopping down in front of Flix and Archer. “Oh, please, tell me you have a cigarette? I am just dying for a smoke.”
Flix immediately opened a handsome box on his desk and handed her a cigarette.
“Oh, what a perfectly exquisite desk accessory! Art glass, isn’t it? You know the color of smoky blue in that glass is gorgeous against those trailing vines. The metal work blends perfectly, I think” she asked.
“Well, yes. I suppose,” said Flix.
“Where did you get it?” she asked.
“I think it came from Tiffany’s,” Flix said.
“Umm. Thought so,” she said.
The woman’s hands trembled a little as she placed her cigarette into a long holder. Flix lit the end, watching as her red lips chomped hard on the holder – a land shark biting down on a tasty morsel.
He hoped the thing would not shatter between her lipstick-stained teeth.
“Who are you?” the woman asked, looking at Phalen.
“Mrs. Marion Lime,” Flix said, “have you met my partner, Mr. Archer?”
“Perhaps. I don’t remember. Faces. Faces. So many faces. Life is a pageant of them, a silly line of never-ending people. How do you do,” Mrs. Lime said, shoving a gloved hand into Phalen’s face.
Phalen edged back the tiniest bit, trying unsuccessfully to get a bit of fresh air between him and the woman’s boozy breath.
“Quite well, thank you. Now, if you both will excuse me, I really am late for an appointment,” Phalen said, exiting the room as if he had a lit match in his union suit.
He heard Flix’s quiet voice trying to convince the lady that the agency’s continued efforts were fruitless.
“Mrs. Lime, both my partner and I have discussed the surveillance of your husband. We have been quite thorough, I assure you. Yet, I am sorry to tell you, we have turned up nothing that suggests your husband is being unfaithful to you.”
“What!” Mrs. Lime said. “I don’t believe it! I do not believe it! It cannot be! You see, Mr. Flix, I’m absolutely certain Henry has been seeing someone! He just has to be! You are wrong. You are absolutely wrong in what you are saying.
Unless . . . unless . . .
Oh, I see! I see! It is perfectly clear what you’re doing! Oh, I cannot believe this!
You men are all alike, aren’t you! You all belong to the same club. Oh, don’t look so innocent!
You protect each other!
Oh, don’t think I don’t know how this works!
All for one! One for all and all that rot! This is outrageous!”
“Mrs. Lime, I don’t begin to know what you’re talking about. Please, calm down,” Flix said.
Mrs. Lime grabbed the arms of the chair. Her knuckles were white. She looked like a tea kettle about to blow, but suddenly, her demeanor changed. She looked out of the window, became calm, and a smile broke her lips.
It was a strange thing to watch. Flix was suddenly uneasy at the quickness Mrs. Lime’s anger was extinguished.
He cleared his throat, hoping to break Mrs. Lime’s reverie.
“What is it, Mrs. Lime?” Flix asked.
“Cupid. He called you, Cupid,” Mrs. Lime said, turning to look at Flix. “That was the reason I picked this agency, you know. I thought that name was so cute. Clever. Modern.”
“Oh, that is just a nickname Mr. Archer calls me, Mrs. Lime. A holdover from the war.”
Mrs. Lime suddenly looked as if she’d been stuck with a pin. She sat up in her chair. She drew deeply on her cigarette holder and released a thick plume of gray smoke from her nostrils.
Through the dense cloud, her ruby lips formed a grotesque grin. Her laugh was deep, throaty and raspy, and it sounded like a rusty well pump called into action after a long drought.
“You two are lovers,” Mrs. Lime said. “I should have guessed.”
The words slipped through her ruby lips like greasy pats of butter.
Flix paled. For an instant, he was speechless.
“I knew it,” Mrs. Lime said. “I knew it.”
“No, Mrs. Lime,” Flix sputtered, “we most certainly are not. How could you ever think that? That is the most ridiculous statement I have ever heard in my life. That’s an absurd accusation. Why it’s criminal! Mr. Archer and I are war-time friends and business partners. That is all we are. Your idea is preposterous!”
“Is it?” said Mrs. Lime, pinching the stub of her cigarette from its holder and smashing it out in the ashtray in front of her. “Absurd, perhaps. Preposterous, maybe. Criminal, absolutely.”
She looked up, coyly.
“But,” Marion Lime said, “I bet I’m right! Another, if you don’t mind.”
Flix dutifully opened the box on his desk and retrieved another cigarette. He handed it to Mrs. Lime.
“Thank you,” she said, deftly placing it into the holder.
“But it doesn’t matter to me. Not one bit. I could care less what others do in the privacy of their own boudoir. I just want you to get the goods on Henry!”
Flix lit it for her.
Mrs. Lime took the sleek purse from her lap and placed it squarely on top of Flix’s desk. She opened the clasp and her gloved hand disappeared. A second later, it held a flask. She laid the flask beside her purse and daintily pinched the cigarette holder between her two fingers. She pulled hard on the end, releasing another cloud of curly smoke. She focused on the flask, deftly unscrewing the top.
“No thanks,” Flix said to Mrs. Lime’s silent offer, her gloved hand moving the thin metal container his way.
The silver caught the sunlight, blinding Flix for a second.
Mrs. Lime smiled.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “It’s your loss. I only drink the finest.”
She tipped the flask, taking a couple of quick swallows, and returned it to her purse. As Flix watched her screw the top back on, he noticed the red lipstick that stained its opening. Like blood, he was reminded.
The blood from a barracuda nipping a tasty morsel.
“Tell me,” Mrs. Lime said, her teeth stained with the red smear of lipstick, “was the attraction instantaneous?”
“Dear lady,” Flix said, “I give you my word of honor, you are totally mistaken. You could not be more wrong, Mrs. Lime. My middle name is Valentine. Mr. Archer and I fought in the trenches in the Great War. The soldiers thought it most entertaining to nickname everyone. ‘Cupid’ is nothing more than that. It is just a nickname I was called overseas.”
“Um. A likely story. But you cannot fool me, dear man. Ha! Ha! Sinners all. We are sinners all. Do not apologize, Mr. Flix. No one is perfect. Not even you!” Mrs. Lime mumbled.
She seemed even calmer after her second cigarette and her little nip from her flask.
“Henry is smarter than I thought,” Mrs. Lime said. “That is all. I know him. I’ve been married to the man long enough to know him! And you mark my words the man is cheating on me.
Some cheap floozy has caught his eye, turned his head, and has visions of taking him from me. Well, I may not want Henry, but no other saucy little strumpet is going take him from me. She’ll see who holds a candle to the devil and gets incinerated if she wants to mess with Henry!”
“Mrs. Lime. Mrs. Lime. Please, calm yourself. You have not been listening. We have found no evidence that Henry is having an extramarital affair. None whatsoever.
Mrs. Lime, I know I sound like a broken record, but you should consider the fact that we have found nothing to incriminate Henry Lime. Perhaps another agency could better assist you with your problem,” Flix offered.
“Certainly not,” Mrs. Lime said. “I will not go through the humiliation of airing my dirty laundry again to total strangers. You cannot imagine how demeaning that is.
It was bad enough this first time.
No. Once in a lifetime is quite enough. Quite enough.
I will continue to retain you for this dirty business if you don’t mind. Just look harder. She is there under Henry’s bedspread, somewhere. I know it! Call it a woman’s intuition!”
She stood to leave, and Flix rose from his seat.
“Two weeks, Mr. Cupid, or whatever it is you call yourself,” she said. “I give you two weeks to come up with the dirt on Henry. After that . . .”
Mrs. Lime let her voice trail off into silence.
“After that,” said Flix, “what?”
“After that,” she said, “I shall think of something. There simply has to be a way of nailing Henry. There has to be!”
Mrs. Lime’s eyes widened.
“You must help me! You two! You are my only hope! Find out everything you can on Henry! Everything! My lawyer says that my husband will feed me to the dogs if I cannot prove unfaithfulness. You simply must prove adultery! You must! You must!”
“We will do our very best, Mrs. Lime, but you understand, we will not fabricate evidence against your husband where none exists.”
Mrs. Lime sighed. Her shoulders sank.
“Very well,” she said. “I understand. But do your best, please. For my sake!”
“We will do our best, Mrs. Lime,” said Flix. “But I make no promises that it will turn out as you wish. We will only present the truth to you.”
Flix listened as her heels tapped her retreat.
“If only I’d thrown that damn card away that came with those flowers,” Mrs. Lime muttered as she exited the office.
“That dame is something else, Cupid,” Phalen said. “Is the coast clear?”
“Yes. It is, you coward.”
“You got that right,” said Phalen. “I don’t think the Huns were nearly as persistent as your Mrs. Lime. She is quite something, that one is. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wife who wanted her spouse to be messing around as much as your Mrs. Lime.”
“My Mrs. Lime, as you call her,” Flix said, “has a guilty conscience. It is written in her every action and heard in her every word. And I daresay Henry has the goods on her.
She mentioned the fact that her husband was going to throw her to the dogs if we didn’t come up with evidence that he is cheating on her. From all indications, it looks like Mrs. Lime has been caught red-handed with her painted nails in the cookie jar.”
“And let me guess,” said Phalen, “she’s absolutely determined that we come to her rescue, uncover the dirt on her hubby, and allow her thin, delicate neck to slither out of the noose that is there of her own making.”
“I’m afraid that’s about the size of it.”
“So, what’s your plan? I take it we’re still at Mrs. Lime’s beck and call.”
“You’re exactly correct. No matter how much I suggested some other firm would be better, Mrs.
Lime would not hear me. It is like she turns her hearing on and off like a light switch.
She’s retained us for the next two weeks. Two weeks! I don’t know if we will live through it! Oh, but whining doesn’t help. We’re stuck with Mrs. Lime, whether we like it or not.
You take tonight, and I’ll take tomorrow and tomorrow night,” Flix said.
“That works for me,” Phalen said. “I have an appointment with Tom after work tomorrow.”
“Are you okay?” Flix asked.
“I’m fine. I’m meeting with a priest,” Phalen said.
“Yes,” Phalen said. “I guess it’s about time I got my house in order, Cupid. I’ve been thinking lately about all those promises I made in the trenches.”
“Didn’t we all?” Flix asked.
“Well, anyway, I feel kind of, well, I don’t know, guilty. I’m ashamed to say that, until recently, I’d sort of shoved all that to the back of my mind. But the memories keep dogging me. I thought if I could talk to someone about the promises, maybe I could sort some of them out.”
“Let me know if he helps,” Flix said.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Phalen said. “I haven’t been faithful for a very, very long time.
Father Tom has agreed to meet with me, though.
I plan to see him, tomorrow. I’m lucky he could work me in on such short notice. The man is incredibly busy; it’s almost impossible to get an appointment with him. I think he’s batting for Pope before he’s forty. Ha ha.
But it was good of him to make time for me. I have so many things I want to discuss. They say he’s quite an extraordinary fellow.”
“Then, you don’t know him?”
“No. I’ve only heard about him. I hope he can help me. We saw too much over there, Cupid. Way too much. I think we were all damaged by it, somehow. I might feel better about the whole thing if I talked it out with somebody who is closer to the Almighty than I’ll ever be.
Not that I think he can do much good. I dunno. I don’t really know what to expect.
I don’t think Tom’s going to have the answers to anything earth shattering. But, we’ll see.”
Phalen studied his friend.
“Do I shock you, Cupid? Wanting to reconnect with my faith? You are awfully quiet. Not like you at all. You look rather pale, like the cat that has just swallowed the canary, and it has stuck in his throat.”
“No. No. It’s nothing,” Flix said. “Nothing you have said about the war and what it did to those of us who served is shocking. I feel it, too. It’s Mrs. Lime.”
“Mrs. Lime,” Phalen said.
“Yes. She threw me for a loop. That’s all. That woman is crazy, Phalen. Her moods swing from one end of the spectrum to the other with amazing speed. She seems, well, a bit unbalanced.”
“Unbalanced. You’re joking, right Cupid?”
“No. I’m not. I just hope she’s not dangerous.”
“Oh, don’t fret about Mrs. Lime,” Phalen said. “She’s about as dangerous as a goldfish. I think I’ve actually dated a few like her. Leave you feeling like you’ve just been to the butchers and been skinned to the bone. That kind of gal is only out for herself. She’s dramatic and colorful, and nine times out of ten, she always gets her way. Like I said, Cupid, a flashy goldfish.”
Phalen closed the door behind him.
“A goldfish, my Aunt Betsy! A piranha in a goldfish suit!”