A Lance Sidesaddle Saga
Sundown. End of a hot July day in the high desert. But while work is over for most honest Preskitt folks, my job as defender of the peace is just beginning. Yah, you know me-Lance Sidesaddle, private detective.
So I’m here in my office in this fleabag hotel overlooking Whiskey Row. Once again, the air conditioner’s on the blink. Feet on the desk, toes of my snakeskin boots point accusingly at the motionless ceiling fan. My dark-stained chaps hang limply in the oppressive heat.
The door knocks. A blurry form visible through the clouded glass. I summon my most professional tone to call out, “Tain’t locked.”
Through the door waltzes this dame, this chick, this doll, this babe. All decked out in a snappy blue suit. Her hips have the smooth curves of a peach in brandy sauce. I slowly push my Shady Brady higher up my noggin, the better to see her with.
The brim of her matching hat brushes the doorframe on both sides. She’ll have to be careful in a high wind. But her blue suit fades to a pale shadow when I get a load of those eyes. Wowie-zow. One deep, soulful look into those sparkling blue orbs and a guy could hear wedding bells. I plug my ears, sparing her but the slightest glance.
“How do you do, Mr. Sidesaddle? My name is Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third. I would like to employ you to solve a um, er problem. With my husband. He’s been acting strangely.”
So. A society dame. Last thing I need. Somehow these cases always lead to a guy with a golf cap in a Mercedes convertible.
“Just throw the trash offa that chair,” I drawl with a casual gesture. But my detective senses are alert and racing wildly. The way she says um er problem tells me this is one a them cases. The kind you hafta solve without talking about. Yeah, them. As in with decorum, breeding, civility, dignity, respectability, etiquette, tact, punctilio-.
She parks her demure derriere primly in my beat-up guest chair but leaves the motor running. I know then she’s in a rush. As she talks about the um er problem I watch her closely for clues. But I also become aware of something else-that angelic face is calling up long-forgotten sensations. You know. Feelings. Yah, those. The kind you get when you whitewash your girlfriend’s name on a bridge abutment. I listen with professional aplomb.
“Mind if I light up?” she asks with a soft smile.
Surreptitiously, I switch on my No Smoking sign. “Naw,” I say graciously. In the rosy neon glow she pulls a white matchbook from her purse.
“Want one?” She holds the deck toward me.
I shake my head. “Swore I was gonna start this year, but ain’t yet got around to it.”
“This place could use a woman’s touch,” she remarks, looking around at my extensive collection of useful crime-solving trivia. Is she stalling, changing the subject from embarrassment? Or is she hinting at something deeper, more lasting? I smooth my moustache and cooly wait her out.
“Here,” she breathes seductively, handing me a crisp white card. My heart picks up the beat like hooves rounding the clubhouse turn at Yavapai Downs. Her private number, no doubt. I knew it. She’s making a pass. And she ain’t been in my office sixty seconds. I eyeball the card.
Alice’s Cleaning Service
“My cleaning lady,” she explains with a poignant smile. “Help you straighten this place up.”
To cover my disappointment, I stick the card in my shirt pocket. For her, I’d gladly toss half my stuff in the back of Ol’ Paint and haul it off to the dump. Yeah, rhymes with chump. But by then I know her type. She’s always had everything-the looks, the dough, the men to walk on. Bored. Jaded. Blasé. Achingly lonely deep inside, soothing her ego with thrill after reckless thrill.
“May I borrow your phone?” At my curt nod she picks up the antique receiver from my desk and speaks into it softly. “You know the address, you know the flavor,” she says cryptically, and hangs up.
“So you’ll follow him,” she turns to me hopefully, “find out about my-”
“Um er problem,” I supply with nonchalant punctilio.
“Yes,” she whispers gratefully, looking down at the soft feminine hands clasped tightly in her lap. After breathy but professional goodbyes she is gone, leaving only a fleeting waft of exotic perfume.
Tail her husband, she had said. But this is the technology age, and Lance Sidesaddle is nothing if not modern. My Shady Brady and stained chaps, the hand-tooled snakeskin boots with one spur missing, the green print kerchief dotted with soup du jour-my all-purpose formal wear, disguise, and pajamas-are merely a diversion. Add to this a miniature microphone in my left nostril, totally undetectable, and I am ready.
Where to start? I glance at the matchbook the dame left on my desk. Glistening white, with Roxy and a phone number written in a feminine hand. On a hunch, I dial it.
“Roxy’s Pizza,” says a rough voice at the other end. Interesting, but I’m not that hungry. I pocket the matchbook.
I walk downstairs and out onto Whiskey Row. The air is cooler but a little sticky from the afternoon monsoon. Evening shadows ooze among the trees of Courthouse Plaza like warm caramel. Night falls with a soft thump. The shops are closed and dark, only the bars and restaurants still show lights and laughter. Sitting on that iron bench outside Annalina’s, I muse over the matchbook cover in the feeble streetlight-no doubt it holds some valuable clue.
I am jerked from my crime-solving reverie by sudden raucous laughter and the metallic clunk of coins into the metal ashtray beside me. I look up alertly as two young guys walk by toting a pizza carton.
“Free cowboy hats on North Cortez,” one says leeringly. His partner howls with evil merriment as they make their way down the Row.
Free cowboy hats. Hmmm. When I have time I’ll check that out. I peer into the metal bucket. Two quarters and a dime. But there’s also a piece of pocket lint and a matchbook. Hmmm. White and shiny. Kinda like the one my client left behind, only this one has oddball numbers written on it. 33-45-78. Strange, looks like her handwriting too.
I’m running that curious string of numbers through my lock-box data bank when I spot him. That guy. The type I knew would be mixed up in this from the first. Just up the street hopping out of a gold Mercedes ragtop. The man in the golf cap. Four-Woody III. Yah, him. I try to look innocuous, but from the corner of my eye I see he’s studying me as he approaches. He hesitates. Durn-hope he ain’t seen through my disguise. He drops a few coins in the metal ashtray at my elbow, walks down Montezuma and hangs a left on Gurley.
Whew, that was close. But I’m up $1.45 for the night, and the night is young. I turn the corner on foot as quickly as I can without seeming out of character. A rustler’s moon hangs ominously over Thumb Butte. Golf Cap is just ahead, making his way through swarms of everybodys calling Preskitt their hometown. As I pass the alley entrance behind the hotel I hear voices and evil laughter. Familiar evil laughter. Three men step from the inky blackness, blocking my path. From somewhere, a horse neighs nervously.
“Hey, it’s the twerp with the microphone in his nose.” Sneering giggles accompany this utterance as the three surround me in the doleful shadows.
I throw out the line I know will put them off balance, give me an edge, a leg up, an unfair advantage. “It’s your party, you light the candles.”
But they are at me like ants on a glazed picnic ham. I see a pizza box coming toward me. These are no ordinary muggers. Lying on my back while they pummel me senseless, I view with alarm a dark squarish shape plummeting from the velvet starry night high above.
“Look out,” I yell, rolling out of the way. My pummelers leap aside in a flurry of curses not suitable for a family publication. With a resounding whump, the massive object shakes the ground scant inches from my noggin.
When I regain consciousness, my assailants have fled and I’m once again alone in the dark. I sit up and look at the cubical mass sunk cornerwise into the warm asphalt. Dark green with gold trim. A lever and combination lock glint in the passing headlights. A safe. How odd. I have more important things to pursue at the moment, but who would be moving a safe at this hour? On a hunch, I look in the pizza box. Three pieces, still warm. I won’t be leaving those behind.
Voices just outside the alley. My keen detective instincts tell me I’m in luck. It’s Golf Cap talking to a blonde woman in a big white Lexus. He gets in beside her and they drive off, luckily for me toward where I’d parked Ol’ Paint. Laughing off the bruises and contusions, I’m able to limp through the Friday night crowds to my trusty steed and pull out right on her bumper. Of her car. They’ll never shake me now.
Oddly, as soon as I follow them south on Mt. Vernon, the shiny sedan somehow grows smaller in the distance and vanishes around the first curve. Gol durn! The blonde musta hit the gas. I hunt around for 15 minutes to a quarter of an hour, then park my rig on a quiet side street. Two-tone, primer red and primer gray, Ol’ Paint is the perfect camouflage for surveillance day or night. Highly modern for a ’77, she-or he-has a custom 8-track stereo, with a metal speaker in each window reminiscent of Senator Drive-in days.
Deep in thought, I open the pizza box.
Jackpot. Three slightly-mussed pieces of large with extra cheese. Yum. While I nibble at one I peruse the receipt. Hmmm. Anchovies, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, feta cheese. Not bad. Chewy though-sometimes instant gratification takes too gol durn long. But there, at the bottom of the receipt, an address on City Lights drive.
I drop Ol’ Paint into gear, and before you can say Magnum P.I. 38 times in fluent Hopi I’m parked next door to a ritzy palazzo, on the wrong side of the street but so what this is urgent. The blonde’s car stands silent in the driveway. The fancy place is quiet, too quiet, a dark outline against the velvety desert night. There are some cars parked a ways up the street, but not a soul around. I try the door of the gal’s Lexus. Fortunately she hasn’t set the alarm. On the passenger seat is a note:
For your wife I suggest something long and flowing
Long and flowing. Hmmm. I begin to assemble the available clues. My lovely client’s obvious agitation, her husband acting strangely lately. Husband vanishing into night with blonde in fancy car, ending up at this place in the dark. Suddenly it all adds up. I immediately see to the bottom of their fiendish scheme. Something long and flowing-they’re going to toss my shiny new client in the Agua Fria!
Now I know enough to bust them but good. And somehow I have to alert the cops.
Car lights lance up the quiet street. I have just enough time to hunker down inside the Lexus when a low-slung sports job pulls into the driveway right behind. Even in the dark, I know. There’s no mistaking that hat! The broad-brimmed dress hat makes its way to the front door, my client wiggling along beneath it to keep up. I need to do something! In just seconds she’ll walk in on a steamy scene and get herself tossed in the drink. I’m just about to shout out when a squad car with flashing reds slashes to a halt right beside me. Two uniforms get out and advance menacingly.
“Thank goodness you’re in time,” I say, pointing at the house, at the woman ringing the doorbell on the darkened porch. I’m groping for the most precise and professional words that will sum up the situation. “Her husband is sending her to swim class.”
But my refined detective senses tell me they aren’t buying it. This time, their heaters point right at me. Gol durn! The blonde’s Lexus has a silent alarm.
“Your name Lance?”
“Not really,” I reply with jocularity, “I’m just testing it prior to shipment overseas.”
“Alright Widewaddle,” one of them says over the dark wicked barrel, “Just can it, we know your little game.”
“Sidesaddle,” I correct the nice officer. “Stop her! If she goes through that door she’ll be-”
At that instant the door opens, all the lights in the house come on, and a chorus of voices yells, “Surprise!” The door slams, cutting off the babble of happy party chitchat and reggae music. I turn to face the cops.
“Lissen-” I begin.
“Now you listen, Slap-saddle. Somebody tried to boost a safe out of the hotel tonight. You were seen leaving the scene. A call came from your office to a pizza joint-a coded signal to start the robbery. The pizza was delivered to this address. The pizza box is in your truck. And here you are with anchovies on yer breath.”
“Dum-da-dum-dum,” the other cop hums with a menacing smirk.
“I was going to mention that,” I say earnestly. “Somebody tried to drop a safe on me in that alley behind the hotel. Three men-”
“Add to that attempted grand theft auto,” the other cop interjects.
I’m still holding the piece of paper from the blonde’s car. The cop takes it and reads aloud, “Sherri’s Dress Shop, Scottsdale.” Durn, he’s looking at the wrong side.
Through the front window I see my client parading among the partygoers. She’s changed clothes, and now wears a floor-length chiffon gown. A nice look for her, but it doesn’t add up.
“Here,” I say, thinking quickly. “Her handwriting.” I hand over the two white matchbooks. The cop peruses the feminine penmanship:
“Roxy? 33 – 45 – 78?”
My sidekick powers wake briefly from their snooze to impart a quick news flash: Mrs. Delbert Four-Woody The Third is just the type to charm a safe combo out of lonely hotel managers anywhere.
“Say,” I drawl. “What if that wuz the combo to that safe?”
The cops exchange glances of stark disbelief. “That’s incredible. Did he just make a useful suggestion?”
“Call Dispatch,” the other replies with resignation, “check it out.”
My head’s reeling. This all points to a very bad girl indeed. Tragic-all the looks, prestige and money she could want, yet she’s running a safecracking operation. Pluswhich the irony-her husband’s throwing her a surprise party and she thinks he’s up to something fishy!
In minutes it’s all over. Mrs. Four-Woody The Third, attired smartly for the occasion in a long flowing gown with matching handcuffs, disappears into the back of a police cruiser. She has enough time to toss a vicious barb my way.
“Here’s booking at you, kid,” I reply curtly.
I don’t mind if she’s a little peeved with me. If you can’t annoy bad guys, there’s little point to being a defender of the peace. The dish thought she had a clean sneak but ole Lance blew her house down, dropped the dime, chilled her caper. She won’t fry, but she’ll have plenty of time to cool off.
Oddly, I find myself thinking of fish and chips with a cold beer.
Can’t help but wonder though, why it is. Every time I meet someone I could really go for, she’s just about to be arrested.
As I walk tiredly back to Ol’ Paint, a note on the windshield flaps in the fitful night breeze. Most likely a thank-you from the cops for busting her little scheme wide open. They’re good ole boys, but they have a few issues about accepting help. Well, it’s a love note alright, but it involves a chat with the nice judge downtown. Parking on the wrong side of the street. Indeed. Resolutely I shoulder my burden-just one more lesson in humility.
Alone again in the dark, I nonetheless feel the warm glow of satisfaction, the sense of lending a helping hand, the humble pride of the unsung hero. The girl is gone, but her devious plan has been foiled. Preskitt, the town I love, will pass another night in peaceful slumber. It’s not that late. Maybe I’ve got time to check out those free cowboy hats.
The twin pipes of Ol’ Paint burble contentedly as I ghost through the streets of my quiet town.