From the moment she darkened the doorway of my tiny storefront office on Stark Street, I knew the dame was gonna be nothing but trouble. She was tall and blonde and half my age, and she wore a red dress that showed a little more than a little more than it should have of some mighty impressive assets. I had no problem keeping my face straight, but I was glad I was behind my desk where she couldn't see the rest of my reaction when she walked in. It was love at first sight...
Too bad love didn't hang around after the second glance.
She stopped in front of me with one hip cocked, and pulled out a long brown cigarette, a glossy black holder, and a silver lighter. She made one hell of a production out of lighting up, completely ignoring the "Thank you for not smoking" signs I'd put on the door. And on the walls, and on my desk.
I decided not to make a big deal about it, at least until I heard what she was here for.
"You Harry the Hypnotist?" she said, exhaling a plume of stinking French tobacco smoke. Her lipstick looked like Chinese lacquer on the holder. Little things like that jump out at me when I'm trying not to cough... and when I try not to look too eager. I could help this dame. I knew I could.
"HypnoTHERapist, dollface. You got a bad habit you're lookin' to break?"
"Yeah," she chuckled through the cloud. "My husband."
Figures she wouldn't see the light even when it was glowing two inches from her ruby lips. This kinda woman spent a lot of time hearing just what she wanted to hear. I could lean back in my chair now, no problem, and so I did.
"So what's your beef with the old man?"
"He's not... interested in me anymore."
She leaned forward, giving me a good long look down her low-cut dress. The tiny flakes of ash on her swelling curves kinda ruined the effect for me, though.
"I don't see how that could be," I said, halfway honestly. Swapping nicotine-flavored spit was never high on my personal list of priorities, but her frame did have some mighty fine upholstery.
"I'm afraid he's found someone else... and I've grown accustomed to the lifestyle he keeps me in, Harry."
"Listen," I said, "you sure I can't help you with, umm, you know..."
Her dark eyebrows went up.
"With what, Harry?"
All innocence... and I didn't believe it for a second.
"With the smokes. It ain't the most attractive habit for a lady."
Aw, now I'd made her mad, and we hadn't even talked about my fee. Her look was colder than the vodka in my freezer.
"I didn't come here to talk about me, Mister Coughlin. I want you to help my husband. I want you to help him - help him find his way back to me."
She let a few crocodile's tears slip down her cheeks.
"I can pay you well, you know. My husband's very generous to me... that way."
"I'm sure he is, Mrs....?"
"Profumo. Mrs. John Profumo. But you can call me Retta, Harry."
"Well, Miz Profumo, I don't come cheap. You say you have a generous allowance... how does five hundred a day sound?"
She didn't even blink.
She opened her purse without looking at it, one-handed, and pulled out an elegant leather wallet.
She blinked then, but slowly, just to show me how long and straight her lashes were. Five portraits of Benjamin Franklin appeared like magic in her hand, the hand that wasn't holding the cigarette. It was tobacco money, dirty money, but I knew I was gonna take it.
"Whatever you say, Harry."
I could never resist a dame who talked like that, no matter what her money smelled like. No matter what she smelled like.
"Okay, Miz Profumo. You got yourself a hypnotherapist."
I got out my little notebook and took down a few particulars of her husband's work address and schedule, then let her leave ahead of me. After watching her hips sway out the door, I shrugged into my trench coat and grabbed my battered gray fedora on my own way out. I wasn't sure yet how I'd convince John Profumo to come into my office for a session, but I knew I had to make myself known to him sooner or later.
I stepped out onto Stark Street. Something made me look back... but nothing was different. The yellow backlit marquee above my office door still overhung the sidewalk, just the way it had for at least the last dozen years. The black plastic letters hung on it still said the same thing, too:
"JUST CHANGE THE WORDING."
I wondered if anyone would ever notice.
My little car was parked on the left-hand side of Stark, right in front of my office, snugged up against the start of the red curb for the fire hydrant. That's the way I like to leave it so no one parks in front of me. I turned towards the driver's side and ran into something in the way. A wall of blue wool. Looking up, I could see a collar. A little further up, I saw the stub of a stogie sticking out of a snarl on the puss of someone so big and ugly he made the headquarters of Big Tobacco look like a seaside bungalow. The stogie stayed glued to this man-mountain's upper lip as he wheezed around it:
"Goin' somewhere, hyppo?"
When you build 'em that big and dumb, something's gotta get left out, and I knew this guy would be too slow to catch up if I faked around him.
I was right, too. Too bad he had a friend, a little weasel in brown corduroy with a nose almost as long as his own cigarillo. As I came around, Weasel grabbed my arms, just long enough for the human iceberg to latch on and spin me around into the brick wall beside my office, where we'd be out of sight of the traffic on Stark.
"You ain't goin' nowhere, hyppie freak," grated the big guy, punctuating each word with a slam of my back against the bricks.
"Guess not," I wheezed, sounding worse than he did. Then the little brown suit got into the act.
"Misser P., he don' need no behavior modifications, see? And if he did, he wouldn't be gettin' 'em from a two-bit hyppie hack like you. So you just go back into your office and put your feet up on your desk just like you was when the missus went in, and everything'll be just hunky-dory."
"Yeah," chimed in the moving mountain range, dropping ash on my shoulder.
They were kind to me. They let me open my door before the big guy gave me a love tap that sent me through it. I slumped to the floor behind my desk and turned on the big fan - lucky it had a floor switch - to blow the stink back out the door. Then... then I must've passed out.
The Profumo mansion was up on Mount Tabor, just outside the park, where the regular grid of streets that graces most of Portland proper starts getting distorted by the hill. Not too far away, even on foot, but a whole different world from the flats it overlooked. I had a gorgeous view eastward toward Mount Hood whenever I turned that way to check my progress. I could actually see the roof of my building off in the distance as I trudged up the steep sidewalk.
This wasn't an especially friendly neighborhood for pedestrians, especially badly-dressed pedestrians with big bruises on their cheeks, but that couldn't be helped. As an extra incentive for me to stay in my office, Profumo's goons had stolen the distributor cap - and the ashtray - right out of my little Valiant. At least it wasn't raining. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't rain here all the time... just most of it.
Decades-old spruce trees and Douglas-fir towered over the grounds. The black iron gate to Profumo's place was standing open, which was something of a surprise. Then it started rolling closed, and I slipped through just before it clanged shut. Someone must've just gone in - at least, I hadn't seen any cars passing me on the way out. Maybe I was in luck. Maybe I'd catch Profumo at home.
Or maybe he'd catch me. Of course Profumo's security staff had seen me on camera, slipping through the gate. I was just a little too fast for 'em, though. I scurried up to the side portico just in time to see the big man himself, climbing out of the back seat of a black Mercedes limousine.
It was a slow production... once I got within sight of him I had plenty of time to watch John Profumo, red-faced and wheezing even from that little bit of effort, hauling himself out of the limo. His stubby, stained brown fingers gripped the car door tightly as he emerged. I noticed he wasn't actually smoking anything at the time. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
Profumo eventually made it to the vertical and just stood there panting, an easy target if I could just get to him. Time to try the direct approach. I gave him as long as I could to catch his breath, but a couple of guards were already running up the steps on the other side of the portico so I had to move fast. I already had a business card in my hand as I stepped up to him.
"Mr. Profumo, sir - your wife's concerned about you. I can help. Please give me a call-URK!" I was yanked away by my collar just after slipping my card into Profumo's unoccupied hand. The last thing I saw before getting the bum's rush was Profumo sticking my card into his jacket without even looking at it.
I'd done all I could, for now.
I limped back down the hill from where they'd thrown me. Time to try the indirect approach.
When I finally made it back down the hill to my office - I'll admit I took a detour into one of the friendlier bars on the way - there was a cop car right out front, parked next to the fire hydrant in front of my little car. For me? Maybe it was just a coincidence... but coincidences like that don't make me very happy. Sure, they could've been scouting for hookers or hoods selling blow - my place isn't that far away from 82nd Avenue, after all, and I do see the occasional bust - but something told me I'd find a couple of flat feet in my office as soon as I opened the door.
Gee, right again. One pair of the feet belonged to a guy I knew, at least - Police Detective Oscar Arrantia, to be precise. A former customer, actually; I'd helped him kick a couple of bad habits, including a tobacco addiction, back when he was still just a beat cop. He owed me, though I'm not sure he felt the same way about it. He looked pretty grim this time.
"I gotta take you in, Harry," was the first thing he said to me. He even had his handcuffs out.
"I knew those overdue library books would catch up with me someday, Oscar..."
He shook his head, annoyed, and I started to think this might be serious.
"No, Harry. I really gotta arrest you."
"You're kidding. Why?"
"On suspicion of murder."
I still couldn't believe it.
"Really?" I chuckled. "Who d'ya think I killed?"
Oscar was not amused.
"John Profumo's dead, Harry. And we have your business card in his pocket, and security camera footage puts you at the scene of the crime not ten minutes before the deed."
I came along quietly, of course, riding in the back of the black-and-white just like any perp. What else was I gonna do? I couldn't run away from this one. The ride wasn't long enough for a real heart-to-heart, just to the station a little way west on Burnside, but Oscar did get a chance to ask me, over his shoulder,
"So why'd you never join the force, Harry? You woulda made a good interrogator."
I laughed shortly, just enough pissed off to answer back,
"Well, ya know, ya give a guy a uniform, ya might as well give him a paper hat too, Oscar."
I don't think Oscar liked that... he cut the chat until we were at the station.
I'd always loved the name of this particular panda palace - Penumbra Kelly, whatever the hell that means - but somehow it seemed a lot scarier now that I was going into it in handcuffs, walking between two stone-faced officers of the law.
I had to laugh, though, when Oscar laid out the official police theory of how I did it.
"You hypnotized him, Harry, and he tipped himself out of a third-story window onto his head. Dead as soon as he hit the patio."
I couldn't believe it.
"Come on, Oscar, you know better than that. If I could do that sort of thing to a guy I would've frog-marched your ass off the Burnside Bridge the last time you tried to pull me in for those overdue library books. If I could do that... I'd be living up there where Profumo does - did - not down in the flats over a storefront on Stark. This is crazy."
He shook his head.
"Crazy it may be, but it's what we're going on. There's no evidence linking anybody else with the death, and Miz Profumo is sure it wasn't suicide."
Of course... Retta would have been involved. I just needed to figure out how deeply. It crossed my mind to ask why she wasn't headed to the cell next to mine, but decided that smacked a little too much of desperation to sound good.
"Oscar, Profumo didn't even look at my card, much less at me, before his goons threw me out. What's really going on here?"
He had the decency to look embarrassed, but he wouldn't tell me anything useful. Maybe he was still pissed about that crack in the squad car.
"I've gone too far already. We're supposed to be asking you the questions, dammit. Now get into the cell while we figure out what to do with you."
They'd taken just about everything from me - I had a receipt for Retta's five hundred, another one for my shoes, belt and gold pocket watch, and I still had a pack of business cards they figured were too worthless to take. I went into the cell, like a good little boy, stretched out on the bunk and tried to figure out what I could do.
As it happened, I didn't have to figure anything out. A whiff of stale smoke woke me from the doze I'd fallen into, and I opened my eyes to behold the newly-minted Widow Profumo.
Retta looked great, even if she didn't smell so good to me. She'd changed out of the red dress, of course - I must've been asleep on that bunk for a good twenty minutes, after all - but the little blue number she was sporting now covered even less. I could tell she was enjoying the attention... the cops and the other prisoners I could see were all checking her out. Somehow, though, I couldn't join in the fun.
"What do you want?" I asked.
She pouted prettily.
"Temper, temper. I've come to get you out of here, Mr. Coughlin. If you'll let me. The police tell me it's okay."
I had no idea how she'd worked that particular magic. Letting a murder suspect go was one thing, but letting me go free in the company of the deceased's widow was... pretty unusual, from my extensive working knowledge of the law.
I wasn't going to argue about it, though. I swung my legs to the floor and stood up, feeling only a bit like a crumpled cigarette butt after my little nap. Retta took my arm and wouldn't let it go as I retrieved my envelope of possessions from the uniform behind the window. We walked all the way out of the Penumbra Kelly station that way, followed by the jealous gazes of cop and crook alike. Little did they know what I was thinking... all I wanted was to get back to my office, pull out that bottle of Johnny Walker hidden in my bottom right-hand desk drawer, and consult with it until my aching head wouldn't leave the desktop.
But Retta had other ideas. She was impeccably turned out, but her voice was rough from more than cigarettes and her eyes were redder than hot coals. Maybe she'd actually loved her husband a little bit after all, despite what I was still morally certain was the actual manner of his untimely demise. People are complicated... they don't always have the purity and singleness of purpose that I have, at least what I have when I'm thinking about Johnny Walker.
She handed me into her Italian sports car, long and lean as a cigarette boat, and we roared back up Burnside. She shifted gears smoothly, like a professional - not at all what I would've expected from the rest of her personal style. All the while, she kept up a steady stream of smoke and chatter, the latter exactly as substantial as the former. Every now and then, though, her voice got less steady and she took a deeper drag on her cigarette.
We did not discuss the return of her fee.
I expected her to turn up towards the park and head to the Profumo mansion, but she stayed on Burnside until she crossed 82nd, then zoomed around a block or two to pull up in front of my office again. The sports car, engine burbling, idled at the curb behind my derelict Plymouth.
"Doorstep service, Mr. Coughlin."
I tipped my hat.
"Thank you, Miz Profumo. And... I'm sorry about your loss."
The sound she made could've been a sob, but she choked it back.
"He was a good man, Mr. Coughlin. Good to me, anyway, and I always appreciated that. I wouldn't have done him in."
"I never said you would have... Retta."
She took another long trembling drag on her long cigarette, then took the holder out of her mouth and stared at it with something like loathing.
"It was these that killed him, Mr. Coughlin. He was standing near the window and started coughing, uncontrollably... I was there but I couldn't get to him in time, before he lost his balance and fell. Maybe if he hadn't been such a heavy smoker... he was trying to give 'em up, I know he wanted to, there towards the end, he really would have... oh, I don't know!"
She did sob this time, not holding back at all, and leaned into my arms. I let her do it. Her hair didn't smell half bad after all.
After awhile, Retta reached up and turned the engine off. Then she turned her tear-stained face up to mine.
"I want... I want to quit, Harry. I do. It's why I really came to you. I just didn't want to admit it before, not even to myself."
I patted her shoulder.
"C'mon inside, Retta. Let's see what we can do."
We got out of the car and went under the marquee. I unlocked the door and let her go ahead of me, so I didn't see the mess the place was in until she gasped. And kept gasping, and wheezing - I think she'd swallowed some ashes. I let her choke for longer than I should have... I was staring myself at the shambles someone had made of my digs.
Every piece of furniture had been turned on its side or upside-down. My files were all over the floor. The place smelled like a distillery, too - that bottle of Johnny Walker, the one I'd been looking forward to, was sitting on the overturned desk, half-empty, with a cigar butt stuck down its throat and another floating in the remains.
That was no way to treat good liquor.
I turned the couch right-side up again and shoved most of the stuffing back into a couple of cushions, so Retta could sit down and I could do some thinking. This didn't look like anything the cops would've done, even if they were trying to make it look like a break-in. The former Mister Profumo's goons had obviously come back and trashed the place with their usual tender loving care, but my question was why? Were they just pissed off, or were they looking for something in particular from me? And, if so... did they find it, or were they still looking?
I shook my aching head and put that problem on the back burner for now. I had a pretty girl sobbing in my office again, and I wasn't going to be able to do anything about helping her here, whatever else might be going on. I dug through the mess on the floor in front of the file cabinet and found a few things I'd need, then took Retta by the elbow.
"C'mon, doll. Let's go to your place."
She gazed up at me through lashes glittering with tears. For once, she had nothing in her mouth to spoil the view. She'd never looked lovelier to me.
"All right, Harry."
She let me lift her up off the couch but stood apart from me afterwards, while she brushed the bits of stuffing off herself. Then she led the way back to her shiny red car. I cast a glance back at my rusted little Valiant as we pulled away. Four flat tires now. Those thugs were nothing if not thorough.
Retta drove us quietly and efficiently back up the hill.
This time around, the Profumo mansion was quiet and deserted-looking. The automatic gate rolled back on its rubber tires at the sports car's approach, and Retta parked on the other side of the pad from the black Mercedes. She hadn't said much on the ride, and I was starting to worry that she'd gotten cold feet again. But she opened the door and waved me inside, anyway.
I followed her up a short flight of stairs into a room with a white couch and a couple of white chairs in it, some artworks on the wall that looked both ugly and expensive, and a television the size of the state of Montana on the wall. I faced the TV and said,
"All right, Miz Profumo. Make yourself comfortable and we'll get--mmph."
My arms were suddenly filled with warm woman flesh, and my lips stopped with hers. The aftertaste of tobacco wasn't so bad this time, for some reason. We spent a lot of time locked in each others' arms before she pulled back from me and gazed into my eyes as soulfully as they've ever been gazed into.
"I'm sorry, Harry," she murmured. "I couldn't help myself."
I took a deep breath before I could say anything.
"Yeah... yeah, I could tell from the start that you've got some... issues with impulse control."
Her eyes were dark and wide.
"Can you help me, Harry? Can you help me... forget?"
This time my lips found hers. I didn't know whether I could help her with anything, but... I knew I wanted to.
Someone tapped a cinder block on my shoulder. I pulled away from Retta and turned around to meet the cinder block again, this time running into my face. I focused blearily on a ham-sized fist at the end of an arm clad in blue wool as it drew back for another try at ruining my movie-star good looks. Then I looked a little farther up the blue sleeve.
Yeah, it was the big guy who'd done such eloquent explaining to me back at my office, too. Seems he couldn't get enough of my company. I fumbled for the antique gold watch in my pocket, then reconsidered. Even a ten-second induction would take too long for this clown, and he didn't seem to be too keen on relaxing anyhow. So I punched him in the gut as hard as I could to slow him down... then obligingly dropped to the floor and rolled around a little when he hit me again. I'm nothing if not accommodating.
Retta ran towards us and I tried waving my arms to warn her away, till I realized that she was talking to the goon, calling him baby and telling him she was just trying to make him jealous. That hurt. Okay, a lot hurt, not just her bad taste in men, and all the fast talking Retta was doing didn't seem to be convincing the goon to lay off of me.
So I finally put two and two together about what happened to John Profumo and why Retta had come to me in the first place, but... what could I do, anyway? I'm a hypnotherapist, not a detective. Anyway, Retta's boyfriend was still talking to me.
"Ain't you had enough, hyppie? Don't you know it ain't good for you to be here?"
I couldn't reply; my jaw was hurting too much.
"Now I'm gonna have to hurt ya."
I would've laughed if I could; he'd already put a hurt on me that'd take me a long time to get over. He pulled back one big black shoe for a kick that, I knew, would send me to the hospital for a couple of weeks at least. There was only one thing I could do.
I fumbled the antique gold watch out of my pocket and held it by its chain in front of his eyes, then dropped it on the floor and fell on top of it in a heap when the thug hit me one more time on top of the head before I could finish the induction.
Okay, so there were two things I could do.
Three, if you count falling unconscious as a thing.
I was still trying to pry my left eyelid open when Retta knelt next to me and sighed,
"I guess we're just too different, you and I. Sorry, Mr. Coughlin. I wish we... I'm sorry."
She patted my cheek and walked out of my field of view, arm in arm with a wall of blue wool.
I stood up a long while later and left the quiet mansion. Nobody stopped me as I limped down the hill. Nobody stopped me as I went into the wreckage of my office and pulled out the other bottle of whiskey, the one Profumo's buddies hadn't found because I'd been hiding it even from myself, and took a deep drink of old-fashioned liquid therapy.
The most hardy perennial of all is disappointment, and I had a whole garden full. I told myself over and over again that it didn't matter, that she was just another dame. The loose ends didn't bother me; even the loose teeth didn't bother me. I told myself that, often enough to put myself into a trance. I almost hypnotized myself into believing it. Almost.
I took another drink, and dreamed of Retta.
Edit history: 9/17/2003-9/25/2009
Grateful acknowledgement is made to advance reader Matt Marchese for his encouragement and suggestions.
©2002-2009 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.
Last updated September 27, 2009.