Desert Songbird and the Stagecoach Bust
A Lance Sidesaddle Saga
Sundown. End of another busy day on Whiskey Row. But while the day was ending for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace was just beginning. Yeah, you’ve heard about me.
Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.
As evening shadows stretched across the Plaza, I was having a double-wide vanilla latte with cinnamon in Saint Mike’s. My finely tuned hearing picked up furtive, whispered talk from three men at a nearby table. Something about a stage to the Valley. Ridiculous! There hadn’t been a stage run out of Preskitt for nigh unto 80 years. The three mugs caught me staring, and quickly left. Not so quick that I didn’t catch a few miniscule but telling details. One carried a stand-up bass. Another wore a single red boot and one dancing slipper. I filed these facts in my lock-box memory.
I stepped over to the table they had vacated, its surface slick with café mocha and a clutter of empty cups. There, written on a cappuccino-stained napkin, were strange cluelike symbols. It looked like a tic-tac-toe layout before the X’s and O’s were filled in. Just the words “Gurley,” “Montezuma,” and “stage.” That word again. Symbolic, piquant even, harking back to Preskitt’s storied past. But what could it mean? Then it came to me with the force of a stampede: this was code! My unerring detective sense was ringing like the firehouse alarm. These guys were up to no good. I marched up the Row for a chat with my friend Dick.
Dick tended bar at the Jersey Lilly, heard all the talk, the rumors. I puffed up the stairs (they really should get rid of those). The room was crowded and the music was fast. I squeezed in at the bar beside the old county doctor. Doc had just requested his usual, an almond daquiri. He took his first sip and frowned. He waved Dick over.
“Is this an almond daquiri, Dick?”
“Um, no… it’s a hickory daquiri, Doc.”
Finally I got a chance to ask about what I’d heard, about who would be interested in a stagecoach. I flashed the napkin and Dick nodded knowingly. But somehow tonight he’d lost his usual composure, and his answer was cryptic.
“Check out 129 ½,” he suggested furtively, not meeting my eyes.
“AM or FM?” I asked. But all I got was a quizzical look and a view of Dick’s broad back as he headed down the crowded bar. No matter, I would make quick work of this clue. At the top of the stairs I turned to survey the noisy room, looking for possible clues while calling no attention to myself. Next thing I knew I was tumbling in a heap to the stained sidewalk far below. Gol-durn! They really should get rid of them stairs.
I limped across the darkened Plaza and down Cortez to where I’d parked my truck, Ol’ Paint, conveniently in the center lane for a quick getaway. The cops knew my game and left me alone. I fiddled with that fool radio for musta been ten minutes but all I got was static. Where was that station? Finally I asked a couple cruising back to their car if they could help me find one twenty nine point five. They said I was parked right in front of it.
“Knew that,” I bantered. “Jes’ wanted to see if you wuz locals.” I missed the guy’s reply but his lady friend giggled all the way down the block.
Inside the joint it was all tables full of dressed-up folks, loud conversation amid the popping of corks, and aromas of chicken parmesan. From the jazz trio up front, the soothing sibilant syllables of a sexy songster. Wow. Her green satin gown was tight in all the right places. Long hair flowed over her bare shoulders with the luxuriant sheen of chicken gravy. Wanda Homefree, the night club singer. Her glistening red lips massaged the sultry lyrics of Love for Sale. I gave her a cursory glance.
The hostess blocked my path between the tables, enviously eying my authentic Western garb the shapeless straw hat and greasy chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, my green print kerchief flecked with this morning’s scrambled egg. She hinted rather broadly that the soup kitchen was in the next block. I didn’t argue. In this game ya can’t afford ta blow yer cover.
I’d just been smacked in the butt by the door when I saw him. That guy. The man with one red boot. Yeah, him. He was rolling a cigarette one-handed and giving me the old stinkeye. Over his shoulder I could see Ol’ Paint parked in the center lane. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.
I ankled over to where he stood, reaching for the one-liner that would stop him in his tracks. Make him think. Catch him off guard. Give me the advantage. In the blink of an eye, I ground my shin into his boot, smashed my cheek into his fist, and before he knew it, I was gracefully laid out upon cold concrete.
He laughed at me. That was all. Laughed at me. It was then I knew that he was afraid of me.
When I regained consciousness the sidewalk was empty. Undeterred, I was limping up what I fondly called The Hill when this dainty hand snaked out of a darkened alleyway and yanked me in. She was only an outline in the dimness but she had an iron grip on my vest. I was just trying to recall the name of her expensive Parisian perfume when a loud clang made me jump into her arms. A beer keg had crashed to the pavement where I’d been the instant before. Rolling down the sidewalk with a metallic sound, it finally fetched up in the doorway of an antique shop, hissing suds. I made a note of the address in case I got thirsty later.
“Thanks,” I said as she put me down.
“Don’t mention it,” she said. “I like a man who can express his inner terror.”
That unmistakable voice. It was the singer. You know, the chirper, the tweeter, the warbler. Homefree. Yeah, her.
I dusted off my most dependable line. “What’s a swell kid like you doing in ”
“We don’t have time for that now,” she said quickly. “There’s something you need to know.”
In the darkness she took my hand in both of hers. For a few fleeting seconds in the life of this vast universe, a strange tickling sensation danced its way across my astonished palm. Her gentle touch withdrew, a last fragrant waft of her perfume, and she was gone. There was more I needed to ask her. Much more. A few fading clicks of her stiletto heels and I was once again alone in the dark. Alone, that is, except for my mission and the memory of her touch.
I stepped over the trail of foamy beer and headed toward the Courthouse, working my way along Gurley toward Montezuma, deep in thought. Just a minute those names! In the dim halo of a streetlight, I pulled out the napkin. It still had the tic-tac-toe thingy and the words Gurley and Montezuma. Could mean something. On a hunch, I turned the napkin over. My eyes widened in wild surmise as I read the list:
1 Do laundry
2 Meet at Italian place
3 Midnight stage
Jackpot. But there was something else. The streetlight shone on my open palm, revealing three words in a flowing, feminine script:
Follow the garlic
That strange tickling sensation Homefree had written a message on my hand! How did that fit in?
But no matter, I had the napkin. It was all there, notes on their fiendish plan. Gurley. Montezuma. On a hunch, I walked to the corner of Gurley and Montezuma and eased myself back into the shadows. I didn’t have to wait long. Three men walked up and stood waiting for the light to change. One carried a double bass. Another had garlic on his breath. Follow the garlic. The trio was nervously eyeing something across the street while attempting to look casual. I followed their gaze. At the curb outside Saint Mike’s stood a big van with a white trailer hooked up to it. I was still running the various clues through my lock-box mind: stage, the street names, garlic. But I saw nothing suspicious.
The light changed, I followed the three across the street. Something fell to the asphalt in the middle of the crosswalk. On a hunch, I picked it up. A recipe book, Fifty Italian Dishes. I walked up to the three men who stood talking quietly in the shadows beside the van. I held out the recipe book.
“Say, fellas, one of you dropped your ”
“Gwan, scram,” they said in three-part harmony.
The man with one red boot eyed me nervously. I was ready to forgive and forget but he wasn’t having any. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed nervously.
At that moment an unmarked car screeched to a stop at the corner. Two plainclothes got out. Walking purposefully toward us, one of them shouted, “Halt! Stop right there! Chill, dude. Don’t move a muscle! Freeze!” And so on.
The three men looked frantically at one another, then sidled away quickly, ducking into the nearest alley. One whistled a merry tune. As they rounded the corner the guy with the double bass had a slim lead, but that wouldn’t last. The plainclothes walked right up to me.
“Alright Sidesaddle, the game is up.”
“Did you see those guys?” I exclaimed, pointing. “They were going to hold up the stage.”
The cops looked at each other, rolling their eyes. “Don’t change the subject, Sidesaddle, we’re onto your tricks.”
“Yeah,” the other said. He was looking down, writing something. A ripping sound and he shoved a piece of paper hard against my chest. On a hunch, I looked at it. A parking ticket. Say! Must be some kind of clue.
“Listen Sidesaddle, this is the last time we go easy. If you want to park your truck, do put it in a parking place. Once in a while. Humor us, okay? And one more thing.”
I affected my most nonchalant drawl when I rejoined, “Yeah, and what might that be?”
“There is no center lane on Cortez.”
I was just formulating a penetrating comeback when a crowd of folks flooded from the hotel lobby and shoved past me, climbing into the van. Some tossed bags into the trailer. That’s when it struck me. Even with no thanks from the cops for my sleuth work, I knew these honest folks could go peacefully about their innocent lives, unaware that they had been shielded from the forces of evil.
“Hi there,” a cool voice said in my ear. The dame. The girl singer. Homefree. Yeah, her. She placed a warm hand on my arm.
“I don’t know how you did it, but thanks for getting rid of them. I’m riding standby and that creep had a double bass.”
I offered her the book, Fifty Italian Dishes.
“You should keep that as a reward,” she said with a cute little smirk. “How can I ever thank you?”
I was just beginning to count the ways when she stepped past me and vanished inside the van. As they pulled away, I had one fleeting glimpse of that angelic face in the lights from the hotel. They headed east on Gurley and faded into the night, taillights flickering out of sight past the Hassayampa.
I was heading back to my truck when fate played a hand. In the distant streetlights, I saw a towtruck cross the intersection. Good ole boys, keeping our fair city neat and tidy, removing all the scofflaw junkers. But then I did a double take. Ol’ Paint was hooked up to the back, dragging its muffler on the pavement. The rig headed noisily off into the night. No matter, it saved me the walk. I turned back up Whiskey Row, heading for my office. The streets were deserted now, only a couple cars stood mute in the soft nighttime breezes.
The girl was gone, but the bad guys’ devious plan had been foiled. And I would never, ever wash away her cryptic message.
Alone again, I felt the warm glow of satisfaction, the feeling of lending a helping hand, the quiet pride of the unsung hero. Preskitt, the town I loved, would pass another night in peaceful dreams.
My single spur chimed a contented rhythm as I headed for my office in the quiet street.