By Christopher Mills
Featuring Matthew Dain
I was sitting in my ’65 Ford Mustang with a thermos of hot coffee between my legs to keep my nuts from freezing, wincing at the icy wind that howled in off Casco Bay and through the half-open window. I hate stakeouts anyway, and sitting in a thirty-year old ragtop in the dead of winter — in Portland, Maine — was right up there with the stupidest things I could ever remember doing. But I had a client-for a change-and I had a job to do, so I rubbed my gloved hands together, poured another plastic capful of black coffee, and kept an eye on the house across the street.
I couldn’t run the engine without attracting attention, therefore, no heater. I couldn’t roll the window all the way up without fogging the windshield with my breath, so I sat under a wool army blanket with a ski cap pulled down low over my ears and waited for Dubay to brave the 15-below windchill and leave his warm, cozy apartment on Munjoy Hill.
As I huddled against the cold, my ass growing numb and my left leg falling asleep, I wondered for about the thousandth time why I insisted on owning a car that was so obviously inappropriate to both my profession and the climate. A red classic Mustang convertible is not the most inconspicuous of vehicles in the streamlined, minivan nineties. Nor is a cloth-top convertible the vehicle of choice in a state where the bitterly cold winters are legendary.
But who was I kidding? I would never get rid of that car. My dad bought it for himself the day I was born, and lovingly cared for it until the day he died. He passed away only a few years ago, at the impossibly young age of fifty. Cancer. My mom was going to sell it to a collector, but I took it instead. It was all I had-that and a cardboard box full of old detective paperbacks-to remember him by.
His name was Matthew Aaron Dain. Mine is, too. I dropped the “Junior” when I got back from the Army and opened the agency. He’d always loved detective stories, and I think he was secretly pleased when I became a private investigator, even if he had to constantly lecture me about the foolishness of such a financially insecure occupation. Once, I had to borrow some money from the folks to cover a few month’s rent, and he couldn’t write the check without a word or two about how it was time I got a “real” job. But I don’t think he really meant it.
I’m pretty sure he was proud of me. I hope so, anyway.
The front door of the three-story apartment house opened, and an old woman, at least seventy, shuffled out onto the stoop. She was bundled against the cold, bright red mittens clutched tightly around the handle of an aluminum cane. She gazed up at the threatening, gray sky, shook her head sadly, and cautiously made her way down the slick steps to the frozen sidewalk. At one point she lost her balance and I grabbed for the door handle, but she regained her footing and shuffled off down the street. I sat back, glad that I hadn’t had to play good Samaritan. It wouldn’t be good to be seen.
Today I was working for the state. Thomas Scott Dubay was a Department of Transportation employee who had been collecting Worker’s Compensation for almost a year due to an alleged back injury. My buddy at Worker’s Comp, Pat Doucette, suspected that Mister Dubay was pulling a con. I had been watching him for three days trying to prove it.
So far, I’d come up empty. Dubay hadn’t shown his face (or anything else) since I’d started my surveillance. He’d had a few pizzas delivered from the market down the street, each with a six-pack of Piels and a bag of Doritos, but he’d never come downstairs from his second-floor apartment to meet the drivers, buzzing them up instead.
I glanced at my watch. I’d been sitting in the frigid January air for almost four hours, and my lower back was complaining loudly. I was going to have to get up and stretch soon, or I was going to find myself permanently locked in a sitting position. I sure didn’t want that; it would play hell with my sex life. Well, it would if I had one.
I climbed out of the Ford, pounded my hands together, and stomped my L.L. Bean boots on the snow-dusted sidewalk. Slowly, circulation resumed in my left leg, and it felt like a pincushion shot through with a thousand sharp needles.
The sky was charcoal gray-there was probably only another hour or so of daylight left. If Dubay didn’t come out before then, I was going to grab a quick dinner at Burger King, go home, and take a long, hot shower. Then, maybe, I’d come back and do a couple more hours before calling it a night. I could afford a dinner break. All I wanted was to catch him doing something that he said he couldn’t do-like carry a couple bags of groceries, rollerblading, anything. If I missed him tonight, there would be other chances.
A couple of hours away from here couldn’t hurt much.
After life returned to my leg and I could feel my fingers again, I climbed back into my car and reached for the thermos. I shook it, gauging the contents. There was probably one cup left in it, and the caffeine would help keep me from falling asleep and freezing to death. I unscrewed the cap and poured it out. Even after half a day, it still steamed in the cold air.
I heard a scraping, clicking sound and looked for the source. There was that old lady again, making her way home, her aluminum cane scraping on the sidewalk, an overflowing plastic grocery bag hanging from one bright mitten. As I watched her determinedly climb the hill, I was tempted to go give her a hand, but I was torn between my desire to remain incognito and my chivalrous impulses.
What the hell. The odds that Dubay would be looking out his window at the same time I helped the old woman with her bag were too remote to consider. I set my coffee on the dash, opened the door, and stepped out of the car.
As I started around the hood of the Mustang, I heard a truck approaching from up the street. I stopped at the curb and looked back up the hill as a brown Chevy pick-up with a white cap came roaring down towards me, far exceeding the thirty-five mile-per-hour speed limit. The driver was all over the road, barely missing the parked cars that lined both sides of the street. I couldn’t make out their features, but there were two men in the cab wearing orange hunting caps and bulky plaid coats. A gun rack hung behind them in the window, loaded down with a pair of rifles.
I could see what was going to happen, and even as realization dawned, it was all over. I watched in horror as the pick-up smashed into the side of a parked Escort. The impact slammed the compact up over the curb and into the old woman, who disappeared from sight under half a ton of Detroit steel. The Chevy screeched to a halt, laying black streaks on the pavement. Other vehicles slowed and stopped as I dashed across the street. I saw the passenger door of the truck open and an unshaven, dark-haired guy lean out and look back. A Coors beer can rolled out and onto the street.
I reached the old woman. Groceries littered the sidewalk, street, and snow-covered lawn. A half-gallon plastic jug of milk had burst on the concrete. Milk and blood mixed. People were coming out of houses and climbing out of stopped cars, and I yelled for someone to call 911. I pulled off my gloves, tore away the old woman’s scarf and lay my fingers against a neck so skinny and wrinkled that the artery was easy to see.
She had no pulse.
I looked up at the truck and my eyes locked with the dark-haired passenger. Something he saw there scared him, and he ducked back into the cab and slammed the door shut. I heard him yelling, and the driver put the truck into gear and shot off down the hill.
I ran back to my car, jumped in, pumped the gas, and turned the key. The engine caught, blue smoke erupted from the exhaust, and with all six cylinders firing, I slammed the transmission into first and took off after the brown Chevy. The red plastic top from my thermos leapt off the dash, splattering cold coffee all over the back seat. I took the corner at the bottom of Munjoy Hill at forty-five, and scanned the traffic for my prey.
There, a block and a half ahead, heading for Congress Avenue.
I braked twice to avoid collisions, and reached for the cell phone on the floor of the passenger’s side. I hit the autodial and drove one-handed as I waited for someone to answer. I may have cursed a bit, too; I can’t remember.
“Nine-one-one. What is the nature of your emergency?”
I told her. She assured me that units were on their way. When she asked for my name, I switched off and dropped the handset on the seat. I was too busy to waste time on the phone. I down-shifted, and hung a sharp right, my back end swinging around widely and scaring the hell out of a bunch of kids playing on the sidewalk.
It scared the hell out of me, too. I was this close to being guilty of the same recklessness that had killed the old woman. I slowly applied pressure to the brakes and took a couple of deep breaths, getting my anger under control.
It was almost dark now. I kept my eyes locked on the pick-up’s tail lights and smiled every time they flashed. I was gaining on the bastards.
Suddenly, the pick-up took a sharp left turn across two lanes of on-coming traffic. Horns blared, tires screeched, and I heard vehicles collide in a shattering crash of metal. I yanked the wheel hard and followed, carefully weaving around the stopped cars, one tire briefly on the sidewalk. Then I followed the Chevy as it barreled down the one-lane street, the speeding pick-up scraping paint and trim off the occasional parked car.
I slowed a bit, but kept them in sight. I had to find some way to stop them before they killed someone else.
We emerged from the alley and the driver of the pick-up finally lost it. Either that or he hit a patch of black ice. The pick-up slid through a chain-link fence, flipped, and rolled into a pay-by-the-hour parking lot. I rolled to a stop as the Chevy came to rest atop a brand new Mercedes.
I popped the glove compartment and pulled out the 9mm Browning. I stuck it in my belt and climbed from the Mustang. Far away I could hear sirens. I made my way carefully through the twisted remains of the fence and walked across the icy parking lot. The Chevy was on its side. The white fiberglass cap had been crushed when they rolled, and I could smell gasoline. The truck’s tail lights reflected red on the ice and snowbanks that abutted the lot.
I hurried to the cab. Someone was climbing out of the driver’s side window. It was the dark-haired guy I’d seen before. His hat was gone, and blood trickled down his face from a gash in his forehead. When he saw me, his eyes went wide. He was scared, disoriented, high on adrenaline, and, if I was any judge, completely shit-faced.
“Leave me alone, man,” he yelled.
“Come on, asshole. Get out of there. Can’t you smell the gas?”
He disappeared back into the cab for a moment, and when he popped out again, he had a 30-06 Remington in his hands. “I said fuck off, man!”
“Don’t be stupid. Drop the gun and get your ass out of there before you burn.”
The sirens were louder now. Closer.
I took a step forward, hands apart. “C’mon. Let me help you out of there.”
He raised the Remington to his shoulder. “LEAVE ME ALONE!”
I hit the pavement and rolled behind a silver Oldsmobile as the rifle cracked. I pulled the Browning out of my belt, flicked off the safety, worked the slide. I never keep a round in the chamber. It means I only get thirteen shots instead of fourteen, but it also substantially reduces the chances of me blowing my dick off when pulling it from my belt.
Mister Gun Safety, that’s me.
I rose to one knee and peered around the Olds’ fender. Wild Bill was still poking out of the overturned cab, rifle in his hands, bouncing up and down like some manic jack-in-the-box. I hadn’t seen any sign of the driver. He was either dead or unconscious.
I saw the parking lot attendant in his booth on the edge of the lot talking frantically into a phone. Good. The cops would be here in a minute or two.
I looked back over at the Chevy. Wild Bill was crawling up out of the window, the rifle held in one hand. I waited until he was clear, then stood, my Browning aimed at his head.
“Drop the rifle, cowboy. It’s all over,” I called.
He glared at me. “I told you to go away, man. I don’t need this shit.”
“This is nothing. In a minute the cops are going to be here, and that’s when the serious shit’s going to start. You don’t want to start a firefight with them. That truck’s leaking gas-one stray bullet’s all it’ll take to blow you to hell.” I cocked the Browning. “C’mon. Give it up.”
“We didn’t mean to kill the old lady, man. We were just screwin’ around.” Of course they were. Just a couple of good ol’ boys out for a good time, armed with a deadly, two-ton bullet, and loaded up on alcohol and god-knows-what-else. Goddamned idiots.
The old woman had died the most senseless of deaths: the random victim of pure, unadulterated stupidity. “Get down from there. Now.”
He stood on the Chevy’s door and raised the rifle. My trigger finger tensed. Behind me I heard cars pulling into the lot.
“Fuck you!” he screamed, and then-
He fell from the truck’s cab, let out a short scream, and the rifle went off.
I heard the bullet hit metal and I dropped down behind the Olds as the night sky became brighter and hotter than the deepest pits of Hell. The flames shot so high that it seemed that they licked the clouds. Thick black smoke burned my eyes and my ears were filled with a roaring noise.
Sweat beaded on my forehead, and for the first time in four hours, I didn’t feel cold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (October 1998)
Christopher Mills is 33 years-old, born and raised in Central Maine, and has been a fan of hardboiled fiction since he read his first Donald Hamilton and Mickey Spillane novels at age fifteen. For the last decade he’s worked in publishing as a designer, cartoonist, writer, editor and publisher. As an editor, he’s been lucky enough to work with Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collins, Ed Gorman, Wendi Lee, William F. Nolan, C.J. Henderson and a host of other mystery writers on such projects as the comic book series Mickey Spillane’s Mike Danger and Lady Justice; the one-shot comics anthology, The Detectives; and the short-lived illustrated crime fiction magazine, Noir. His writing credits include eleven issues of the sci-fi comic book Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals (hand-picked by Mr. Spock himself!), and several comic books and short stories featuring his own creation, Nightmark (a.k.a Gideon King, a hard-boiled PI in a gothic horror setting). Chris is currently living and working in South Florida as Design Editor for the national weekly tabloid, The Sun, and is also co-founder of Shadow House Press, publishers of the horror anthology comic Shadow House, and several upcoming graphic novels. Chris promises more Matthew Dain are on the way.