By Christopher Mills
Featuring Matthew Dain
“I‘m afraid the son of a bitch is going to kill me.”
Her voice was hard, cold; as completely devoid of emotion as a telephone operator’s. She took another long drag on her cigarette and closed her eyes as she exhaled. I took another sip of coffee and shifted slightly on my side of the booth to avoid getting the smoke in my face. I don’t smoke myself, but I try not to be a jerk about it.
Diane Smallforest and I had dated for a few months back in high school, God, fifteen years ago. She hadn’t changed much; her brown hair was cut shorter but she hadn’t put on any weight that I could see. She was still pretty, thin, and petite in build. There were a few wrinkles around her deep brown eyes, and there was a general hardness about her features that hadn’t been there before, but then, life has a way of beating the softness out of everyone, and none of us could stay seventeen forever.
My name’s Matthew Dain; you can call me Matt, most people do. I’m not sure I’ve ever been soft — seems I’ve been a bitter, cynical bastard for as long as I can remember. Of course, my occupation doesn’t help much. As a private investigator who spends most of my time sniffing out insurance fraud, tracing bail jumpers, and repossessing cars from deadbeats, I don’t often get to see people at their best.
Diane and I were sharing a booth at the Denny’s in Portland. It was a little after two in the morning and I’d just finished a three-buck Grand Slam breakfast and was working my way through my third cup of coffee. Diane had stuck to coffee… and nicotine.
She’d found me at Gino’s, a small bar down near the waterfront. I’d been sitting in with my pal Tony’s band, Blondes With Baggage, playing bass guitar through two sets of three-chord rock and electric blues. Their regular bass player was out of town, so I’d dusted off my guitar and filled in, demonstrating once and for all that whatever meager musical talent I might have once possessed had further atrophied from disuse. We hadn’t been very good, but then, the audience hadn’t been very demanding. Aside from a couple of drunks at the bar, the “crowd” had consisted of Diane and Tony’s current girlfriend, Kate.
Between sets Diane had come up to me at the bar and reintroduced herself. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, and it’d been a hell of a surprise. After the second set, I’d suggested we meet at the restaurant and catch up on old times. It hadn’t taken long. As it turned out, she knew most of my story already. She’d been keeping tabs on me from a distance, it seems, and she’d come to Gino’s that night to talk to me.
“Who’s going to kill you?”
“Larry. My ex.”
“No. Jimmy’s my ex-husband. He married a blonde and moved to Colorado. Larry and I just lived together for a while.” She snubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and signaled the waitress for a refill. “Larry’s got… problems.”
“What kind of problems?”
“He drinks… and he’s been in jail a few times, too.”
“Does he have a history of violence?”
She lit another cigarette. “You could say that. When he’s on the wagon, he’s a great guy. Thoughtful, responsible…even kind of sweet. But when falls off… well, he tends to express himself with his fists.”
“Has he beat you?”
Hesitation, then: “When we were together, sometimes, yeah.”
The waitress showed up and refilled our mugs. I gave her a smile, and she walked away without acknowledging it. “When did you two break up?”
“We didn’t. I kicked his sorry ass out. He’d been drinking again, and was getting rough with Jennifer, so I threw his clothes into the street and had the landlord change the locks. That was two weeks ago.”
“Jennifer’s your daughter?”
“Yeah. She’s nine,” she said with the first trace of emotion. “I love her so much. She’s the only good thing my husband ever gave me.”
“Has Larry made any threats?”
“A few nasty phone calls. He called again today… I mean yesterday,” she took another deep drag off her cigarette and looked at me. Her eyes were full of all the emotion absent in her voice. She was scared. Scared to death.
“Do you really think he’s capable of murder?”
“I pretty much think every man is.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Under the right circumstances, any man can take a life. And it can take less than you’d think to push someone who’s already prone to violence that little extra distance into the killing zone. “What do you want from me?”
“I need help, Matt.”
I wasn’t sure what I could do. I said as much.
“Maybe you could talk to him? Scare him away?”
“If he’s as unstable as you say, I’m not sure that’d do much good… but if you really want me to, I’ll try. Do you know where he’s living?”
“Well, that makes it harder.” I looked at my watch. It was almost three. “Look, Diane, I’m beat. It’s been a long day, and I’m not used to being out this late anymore. Can I call you tomorrow?”
She shifted in her seat uncomfortably, and gazed out the window at the parking lot. She finished her cigarette and crushed the butt out. When she turned back to me, I was startled. All the hardness in her face had disappeared. She had her eyes fixed on the table, avoiding mine. “Actually…” she began.
“I was hoping you might come home with me.”
Oh, hell. “Diane…”
“Matt, I’m really scared. I don’t want to be alone tonight,” she looked up, and our eyes met. “Jennifer’s staying with my parents….”
“I’ve thought about you sometimes, Matt.” A faint pink blush spread across her cheeks. “You were my first, you know.”
She’d been mine, too. One bright, cool Spring afternoon in the early Eighties, young lust had blossomed in the woods behind the small, private school we’d both attended in Vassalboro. I remembered the moment clearly — Diane lying on my denim jacket with her blouse open, white bra exposed; little pink nipples hard beneath the fabric with excitement and exposure to the chilled air. Both of us nervous but eager; clumsy but determined.
Yeah, I’d thought about her a few times in the last fifteen years, too.
“I don’t know…”
She reached across the table and took my hand. “Look, Matt, I’m not trying to seduce you. It’s just that it took a lot of courage for me to look you up, never mind ask for your help. It’s taken a lot out of me. I don’t think I have any left.
“Please, stay with me tonight. You can sleep on the couch if you want. It’ll make me feel… safe.”
I thought about it. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. The prospect of spending the remainder of the night with Diane — my first real love — well, it was undeniably appealing. She was a damned good-looking woman, and I was still attracted to her. Despite her denial, I’m pretty sure that seduction wasn’t entirely out of the question, either. But that annoying little voice in the back of my head kept insisting that it wouldn’t be right to take advantage of her obvious vulnerability. And spending the night with Diane in her current emotional state was, I felt, a prospect fraught with peril.
Finally, the pleading in her eyes won me over. If she needed me to be her knight in shining armor — or in my case, slightly tarnished armor; it could hardly still be shining after all I’ve done — and protect her from this quick-fisted ogre of an ex-boyfriend, I figured I could do that much for her.
I’d just have to keep my sword sheathed.
“Okay,” I said.
* * * * *
Diane lived in Freeport, about a half-hour north of Portland. I followed her battered ’92 Ford Escort up I-95 in my even more battered ’65 Mustang convertible. I had the top down, hoping that the cold air rushing across my face would help keep me alert and awake for at least the duration of the drive. I stuck an Albert Collins CD in the deck and let the Iceman’s wailing Telecaster fill my ears as I kept my eyes glued on Diane’s tail lights. At that hour of the morning, keeping up with her was no problem.
As I drove, my mind wandered down predictable paths. The old what ifs and if onlies; half-regrets and bittersweet memories. Since I’d last seen Diane, she’d been married, had a kid, divorced, and, until recently, had been shacked up with an abusive boyfriend. There’d probably even been men in between. Me, I’d never been married. Hell, I hadn’t had a serious relationship since a Republican was in the Oval Office; I won’t say which one. Came close to tying the knot once, but…
Well, let’s just say it didn’t work out.
Diane took the first Freeport exit and I followed her up Route 1, past L.L. Bean and its half-filled parking lot — tourists seem to get a kick out of buying their duck boots and country knickknacks in the middle of the night — to the small, four-unit apartment building where she lived. She turned into the drive that led around to the back of the building and its small gravel parking lot. I pulled in right behind her. Every window in the building was dark, the parking lot unlit.
I parked my ancient steed between her Escort and the dumpster, and pushed the button to put the ragtop down. While the motor whined and the roof unfolded, I reached over to roll up the passenger side window. By the time I had my Ford tucked in for the night, Diane was standing by the front left fender waiting for me. I joined her, slipped an arm across her shoulders, and together we started across the lot.
It was a cool, quiet, Spring night. The sky was clear and splattered with stars. The moon was low in the West, and in the East, false dawn lightened the horizon. The air was still, and for a moment, it was really pleasant walking there beside Diane, my arm around her.
Then I heard something behind us; the sound of loose gravel crunched under a heavy boot.
Remembering suddenly why I was there, I wished I’d stopped home for my Browning Hi-Power before driving all the way to Freeport. The heavy 9mm automatic in its custom suede shoulder holster would have been real comforting right about then. It’s remarkably effective at discouraging people who might otherwise be inclined to violence.
I turned slowly.
Standing in shadow next to a dark-colored Mazda pick-up was a stocky figure. The moon was behind him and I couldn’t make out his features. Whoever he was, he was a pretty big bastard; taller than me, and wider, too. I was guessing this was Larry.
“Shit,” Diane whispered.
Ah, confirmation. Nice to know that my vaunted deductive powers were still as sharp as ever.
“Which apartment is yours? Upstairs or down?” I asked her.
“Down. Number 3.”
“Go. Lock the door. If you hear or see anything that looks bad, call the cops.” Now, Freeport isn’t a city with its own police force. The best I could hope for was that there was a County Sheriff’s deputy or State Trooper somewhere in the area, and I couldn’t count on that. They have a lot of territory to cover; after all, it’s a big state. If Larry intended to cause trouble, it looked like I was going to have to deal with it myself.
She took off toward the building at a run. The figure took a couple steps forward. I moved in his direction and he stopped. “Who are you?” he asked.
“You’re the guy lurking around parking lots in the dark. Who the hell are you?”
“None of your business, asshole.” He was getting surly now.
“I think it is. Unless you live here, you better get in your truck and hit the road.”
“Screw you. I live here.” He took a couple more steps towards me. We were only about ten feet apart now. I was really missing my Browning.
“I don’t think you do, Larry,” I said. “Not anymore.”
The name stopped him. “You her new boyfriend? You fucking her?”
“No. Just a friend. She wants you to leave her alone, Larry. Whatever you guys had is over. Let her be.”
“I’m spending the night with my woman,” he snarled. I could see his face clearly now. Square jaw, wide nose, eyes small and close together, his dark hair cut short and spiky. He wore a light denim jacket over a dark T-shirt, jeans, and heavy work boots. With my luck, they’d be steel-toed. “Unless you think you’re going to stop me?”
“If you’re determined to make trouble, Larry,” I sighed, “I’m going to have to. I’d prefer it if you just went home — or anywhere other than here.”
“Afraid to fight me, faggot?”
“Buddy, I was an MP in the Army. I know how to break every fucking bone in your body four ways. You want to get down with me, you’re going to get hurt.” It was a corny speech, but it sounded TV-tough — and it was pretty much true. Of course, that was a long time ago. I was out of shape, out of practice, and running on a thin mix of caffeine and adrenaline at the moment, but maybe I’d be lucky and the bastard would scare easy.
He came at me fast, hunched over like the high school football linebacker I’m betting he once was. The impact knocked the air out of me and lifted my feet a good foot or so off the ground. I went down, hard on my ass, embedding crushed rock in my backside. Larry came down on top of me, and the son of a bitch must have weighed close to two hundred and thirty pounds — and not a bit of it soft.
His breath was hot and foul in my face — and he smelled like a brewery. I’ve never liked fighting with drunks. They’re unpredictable as hell, and worse — they don’t feel pain. Well, they do, but not until it’s too late to do you any good. The alcohol forms a nice protective barrier around their gray matter, and by the time the pain batters its way through, it’s too late. Somebody’s usually bleeding.
I brought a knee up and got him in the side. It didn’t hurt him, but he rolled off me with a loud sigh, and I scrambled to my feet. I risked a glance behind me, and saw lights on in two of the four apartments.
He came in again, and threw a wild left at my face. I blocked it, but it was a feint. His right fist came in under it, and connected solidly with my stomach. I bent over, and hotcakes, sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs — the original Denny’s Grand Slam — boiled up my esophagus and erupted from my mouth, splattering my sneakers and his leather boots. My throat burned from bile, and then the smell hit me.
He jumped back. “Son of a bitch!”
I dropped to my knees. My head was spinning, and I retched again — dry, this time. You’d think he’d be satisfied, what with me on my knees, wracked with pain and heaving my guts out, but no; he stepped up and kicked me in the ribs.
And sure enough, his bootswere steel-toed.
I went over on my side, and he kicked me again. I felt something give and knew that he’d done some serious damage; bruised or cracked a rib, probably.
He hopped back, laughing, after a final, glancing blow to my head that sent fireworks exploding behind my eyes.
If he’d left it at that, it would have been all over. But he was having fun now, and wanted more. He stepped forward, bent over me, and grabbed the front of my shirt. The son of a bitch was going to pull me to my feet just so he could knock me down again.
Well, screw that.
I’m not proud of what I did next, but fair play’s an overrated commodity in my book; no doubt that’s part of the reason my knightly armor had lost most of its sheen. With him bending over me, I had a clear shot at his balls, and I took it.
I kicked upwards with a Nike-shorn foot and connected solidly with his crotch. I had no leverage to speak of, so there wasn’t much force behind the kick, but sometimes it doesn’t take much. You connect right, and there isn’t a man alive who won’t go down.
He went down.
I scrambled away from him, but rising to my feet was out of the question. The pain in my side was overwhelming, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes focused. Larry was on the ground a few feet away, curled up into a ball, hands clutching his inflamed genitals, moaning loudly.
We made a hell of a pair, Larry and me.
I heard distant voices, and saw flashing lights. Blue. Red. White. Shadowy figures surrounded me as the pain from my battered ribcage finally succeeded in pummeling me unconscious.
* * * * *
I don’t remember much about my trip to the emergency room. I came out of the mess with two cracked ribs, a mild — their description — concussion, and a lot of bruises. Larry spent the night in Cumberland County jail, and then went back to his sister’s place in Saco. I didn’t press charges.
Diane and I spoke a couple times over the next few months, but aside from one brief visit to my office where she’d thanked me for my help, I haven’t seen her again.
Well, that’s not entirely true. A few weeks ago, I was walking back to my parked Mustang after picking up a couple of blues CDs at the Record Town in the Maine Mall, when I saw Diane and her daughter walking towards the row of cars one over from mine, carrying bags from J.C. Penny’s and Kay-Bee Toys. I thought about approaching them, but they weren’t alone. Carrying a large cardboard box containing a household appliance of some kind, was Larry.
The three of them were smiling in the bright sunlight; the little girl almost skipping, chattering away excitedly.
As they were loading their packages into the bed of a Mazda pick-up truck with a dented fender and about five gallons of primer haphazardly applied over spreading rust, Diane turned in my direction. She was wearing sunglasses that didn’t quite cover the bruise around her left eye.
I don’t know if she saw me, but at that point, I turned the key in the ignition and pulled out. I headed home, feeling a dull, phantom ache in my side.
That night, Tony called and asked me to sit in with his band again.
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.