I don’t have no truck with ghosts. All that nonsense is for films and fairy stories. A stupid guy with a .45 - that’s scary. But a floaty white sheet going ‘Wooo’. I didn’t buy it.
But things as they were, me tied to some scaffolding in the dark and someone - or something - giggling like a crazed loon, I might have got a bit nervous.
When in doubt - brazen it out.
“Hey, listen - thanks! Sounds like my friend there has knocked himself out... err...”
Suddenly, behind me, I felt rough hands with sharp nails grabbing at my wrists. Lesser men would have jumped a mile and maybe had a little accident. Not me. And I defy you to find a witness to contradict that.
‘Who are you?” I called out. Under the circumstances it seemed like a reasonable question. I was pretty sure it was the figure I’d seen earlier, but Smithers had been adamant that there was no-one here but him.
In reply I got an almost girlish giggle, but nothing else. Suddenly my hands were free!
“Thanks!” I said to the darkness, but I got the distinct impression that I was alone.
It took me a few minutes, working blind, to untie the ropes around me, but finally I managed it. Massaging my wrists, I walked, very slowly, feeling each step with the toe of my shoe, in the direction of the door. Somewhere round here was Floyd. After about a minute, I kicked a girder that was lying on the floor. This must have been what sent Floyd flying. I stepped over it, and sure enough, a few feet further on, I found a large prone figure. He was breathing ok, and when I felt around his head, there was a small cut where he’d hit the concrete, but there didn’t seem to be any permanent damage. I crawled around in front of him on my hands and knees, and eventually found the revolver. Then I went back to Floyd, and with a dint of very hard work, managed to drag him over to the scaffold that I’d been tied to.
I leaned him up against it, tied his wrists behind his back, and then put several loops of rope under his arms and fastened them behind the scaffold. I tied his legs together too. If all went well, Floyd wouldn’t be trussed up here as long as I would have been.
Feeling a bit stupid, I shouted into the dark.
“Look. I’m er... I’m one of the good guys. And this here, he’s one of the bad guys, so, like... if you could leave him tied up for a while, I’ll be back for him later.”
And then for good measure, added, ‘Thanks!”
Slowly, and carefully, I made my way out of the building, and back into the daylight. This was turning into one of the crazier days I’d had recently.
I made my way round the side of the studio buildings and went over to Smithers’ trailer. The door was shut, so I hammered on it, but there was no answer. Looking around, I could see that the door in the large studio was still standing open from earlier.
I walked over, stuck my head inside and yelled.
“Hello! Mr Smithers?”
“What’s all this hollerin’ about?” said a voice behind me. Smithers had appeared out of nowhere. For the third or fourth time today, I was very cool and didn’t jump.
“Jeez, Mr Smithers,” I said, clutching at my chest.
“Whaddya want? ‘m busy.”
“Mr Smithers. Earlier on you said that you were the only one here, right?” I said.
He peered at me.
“Because I know I saw someone earlier today. Upon the scaffolding in here. Figure in white, laughing.”
“Just your eyes playing tricks and the sound of the wind, thass all.” he replied flatly.
“Well your trick just untied my hands after a couple of hoodlums roped me up like a steer at a rodeo. What’s going on?”
He looked at me.
“Who’d you say you were, son?”
“Able. Chuck Able. I’m a private eye. I’m working for one of the people coming for the reading of the will tonight - looks like the family are trying to swindle her, and I’m just trying to see that things get put right, that’s all.”
“Nothing to do with the studio?”
“I swear. Never been near the place before this morning. Probably never set foot in the place again after tonight.”
He thought for a minute.
‘She’s harmless, y’know.” he said. “Just a bit...” He span his finger against his temple in the internationally recognised sign language for ‘Nutter’.
“Who is?” I asked.
“Ma Colwell. ‘Crazy’ Colwell they used to call her, apparently. Locked her up in a home backaways,” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the road, “and then her family either died or upped and moved away.”
He stared into the distance for a while.
“Found her wanderin’ around here about twenty-odd years back. Don’t know how she’d gotten out of that place, but looked like she’d been walkin’ for hours. Gave her some food and she cleared out. Turned up again the next day like some stray cat. Gave her some more food. Didn’t say a word for three weeks.”
He looked at me. “Some days she’s as normal as you and me. Not offen, mind, but now and again. Most of the time, though...”
He looked wistful.
“Most of the time, she ain’t of this world. I get her clothes, leave food for her. Sometimes she comes and talks. No idea whether she’s talkin’ about her life or jus’ summen she’s ‘magined. Kinda got used to havin’ her around. She don’t bother me, and since the stories of this place bein’ haunted started goin’ around, it’s kept some of those darned kids away, so...”
He looked up at me.
“I won’t say a word.” I said.
He studied my face.
“Reckon you won’t. ‘ppreciate it.”
I looked at my watch - just gone five.
“Mr Smithers, is there a phone here I can use?” I asked.
“Nope - sorry son. No phone here - who’s gonna call me?”
“Then I need to get into town - it’s urgent. Have you got any transport?”
“I guess I can give you a ride,” he said. “Come on.”
o o o o o
About an hour later, we wheezed into town in Smithers’ rusting and arthritic pick-up truck. I got him to drop me near Gina’s.
“Listen, Mr Smithers’? I’d appreciate it if tonight, you didn’t say anything about me being up there today. There’s some bad folks involved in this mess, and I need all the edge I can get.”
“Never saw ya.” he called over his shoulder, and waved as he pulled back into the traffic.
It was six fifteen. I made for the store with the payphone and dialled Flint.
“Chuck. Was beginning to think you weren’t going to call.”
“Been one of those days.” I said. “So? Get anything?”
“Don’t I always?”
I took out my pocketbook, and scribbled furiously as Flint started talking.
A few minutes later I hung up and read the notes back. Suddenly, things were starting to fall into place.
I picked up the phone again, rang the hotel and asked to be put through to Chastity’s room. After a couple of rings, she picked up.
“Ms Lillywhite? It’s me.”
“Listen. I think things are looking up. Just got some info that...
“That’s right, I’ll be checking out this afternoon.”
“What?” I said.
“Yes, something’s come up so I’m flying back to New York this afternoon.”
“Ummm.” I was baffled.
“I shall be down at 8.00pm to settle the bill.”
The penny suddenly dropped.
“Are you in trouble?” I said.
“Yes, that’s right.” said Chastity, brightly.
“I’m on my way.”
“Thank you so much.”
I hung up.
Clearly Smith, or whoever was issuing his orders, had got fed up with problems cropping up. They’d - so they thought - taken me out of the picture after several attempts. I guess they wanted to be doubly sure by getting Chastity away from the reading too.
“Ms Lillywhite? No, I’ve no idea why she didn’t want to come - it’s very strange.”
I couldn’t risk Smith seeing me. He had to believe that I was still tied up, bending Floyd’s ear. I sat and racked my brains. How could I get Chastity out of there without actually being there. I needed to be someone else...
...and I stopped that thought right there. I’d only tried the disguise route a couple of time in the past, and ‘crash and burn’ would sum them both up pretty good.
If I couldn’t be someone else, then I needed someone else. I thought for a minute, then pushed some more dimes into the phone and started dialling. I could count the list of candidates on the fingers of one hand, and still have four fingers left over.
“It’s Able. Got trouble and I need a favour, fast.”
I explained the Chastity situation.
“So.” said Rick. “Beautiful dame needs rescuing from the bad guys by the dashing Private ‘tec, right?”
“That’s it. Only I’m tied up, so you’ll have to do it. But the guy she’s with has gotta buy it. If he thinks this is a rescue, my cover’s blown. And you’ve only got ninety minutes before he walks her out of the hotel.”
“No problemo, amigo,” said Rick. Secretly I thought he said that to everybody, every time. “How about this...” He explained a plan that sounded like he was making it up as he went along.
It wasn’t great, but hey! When the devil’s driving, you don’t start complaining about the route. Just hope you get to the end of the road in one piece. We chewed over a few of the details and came up with something that might just work.
“Ok,” I said. “Well good luck, pal. Hope you can pull it off - I owe you one.”
“Trust me,” said Rick with a confidence that I didn’t entirely share. “Piece of cake.”
For the next hour I sat in Gina’s drinking coffee and working out what was going to happen tonight. Bottom line - I hadn’t got a clue.
I checked my watch. Eventually it said 7.45pm, so I left the diner and walked round to the hotel. It was pretty dark by the time I reached the front, and I found myself some convenient shadows to lurk in across the street.
Smith’s sedan was parked on the street outside. If he got Chastity in the car, I wasn’t going to see her again tonight, if at all. I crossed my fingers and hoped that O’Shea had been able to call in the necessary favour.
The lobby of the hotel was brightly lit, and even from the other side of the street, I could see what was going on through the big glass doors. A couple of minutes before eight, Chastity got out of the lift with Smith by her side. A bellhop came out with them, carrying her luggage. They crossed to the desk and spent a couple of minutes doing the check out paperwork.
I looked up and down the street. ‘Come on Rick’ I thought. ‘You’re cutting this very fine.’
I started checking my pockets. If it came to it, was there any way I could disable Smith’s car? Sugar in the fuel tank? No sugar, and no way of getting the gas tank open. Banana in the tailpipe? Despite checking every pocket, I seemed to have come out without a banana. I’d got a pocket knife. I guess I could slash a tire, but that would make Smith suspicious. I really needed Rick to get his butt in gear.
I looked back to the lobby and grimaced. They’d finished up the paperwork, and Smith was steering Chastity towards the door. The doorman saluted as he held the door open for them, and Smith, with a firm hold on Chastity’s arm, started walking her down towards the sedan.
Rick had about thirty seconds to show up.
And it didn’t look like he was going to make it.