That Bella Dame (part 1)

You don’t expect your life to change when you get up in the morning. You clean what neeeds cleaning, you shave, you dress, you leave behind your sad, dingy one-room apartment and walk through a drizzly grey morning to your sad, dingy office. You? Me. Call me Morty.

Willow Creek wasn’t a fancy town, not anymore. It had fancy parts, but a mook like me didn’t have much cause to be there. Instead, I worked in a three-story walk-up with a barber shop on the first floor and a bookie on the second. My window looked out over shipping containers and cranes, and Nina — my old secretary Nina — always complained about the smell.

Not that Nina was complaining anymore. Last week, she ran off with a piano player from San Myshuno. She left a napkin with “sorry,” scribbled on it, which I figured I deserved. Now, alone, I opened the top-most drawer of her little desk on a whim. A few lipsticks rattled around, shades she never wore. A few strands of flame-red hair remained wrapped around a tortoise-shell comb under some papers. I touched the hair, and for a moment, I even missed her.

She’d been right to go, though it stung. She’d asked, “You and me, are we ever gonna make it official?” Nina wasn’t shy, which is one of the reasons I’d hired her in the first place. A straight-shooter, easy to look at, easy to like. I hope the piano player treated her good. Better than I did, at least.

I sagged into my chair after flicking my hat onto its hook. It hung on the tip for one precarious second before flopping to the floor. Figured. The files scattered on my desk held nothing but sad stories: bad marriages, bad investments, bad choices. Don’t be a private investigator if you want to see the good side of people. Lucky me, I’d never believed in people in the first place.

I tossed back a couple of shots of juice before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. One inheritance case was particularly thorny — greedy second wife, greedy first wife, greedy kids, greedy lawyer — and I was deep into it when a gentle knock sounded on the office door.

“Get that, sweetheart? It’s what I pay you for.” I snapped the words before remembering that Nina was snuggled off in the city somewhere, happy and well rid of me. I sighed and barked, “Come in,” though the last thing I wanted to do today was coddle a new client.

A woman’s words cut through the fog in my brain like a searchlight. She had a voice made of money, the kind that only comes from fancy finishing schools and good breeding. I jerked my head up and saw a lady all in red, black-haired and pale-skinned, with vivid eyes and curves like a mountain road. “You’re Mr. Goth? I’m …call me Bella.”

Bellissima, at least, the most bellissima I’d ever seen. I snapped my gaping mouth shut and stood. “Morty Goth, that’s right. Morty. Call me Morty.” She waited patiently through my stammering, as a woman who looked like her probably had to do all day long. When she sat, I sat. When she spoke again, I listened.

“I’m sorry to intrude like this without phoning ahead. But I have a problem.” I usually would have made some sort of twirl with my hand, a ‘keep talking’ gesture, but not for this lady. To her I said, “Yeah?” dopey as they get. My hand itched to stash the bottle of juice on my desk out of sight. That, or drink it down.

“There’s a man.” She sighed. Her hands clasped together in her lap. No rings. “He and I used to keep company once upon a time. But we parted ways, or at least I did. He didn’t seem to get the message.” She gazed just past me to the rain-streaked window and its wan light. “Now I see him everywhere. I’m afraid.”

“He just shows up?” I didn’t say what I was thinking, that it’d be a hard message to take, a dame like this saying goodbye. “What does he do?”

Her perfect nose scrunched briefly as she answered. “He begs. And then he gets angry. And then he tells me I’ll be sorry.” She looked me in the eye. “I believe him, Mr. Goth. He’s …reckless.” A faint hint of red tinged her pale cheeks. “I suppose that’s what I liked in the first place.”

Noted. “He ever raise a hand to you?”

“No, not once,” she said immediately. “But…if he does, someday soon, I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s very angry.”

“And you want, what? I can tell him to back off for you, if you want. In a way he’ll hear.” I wasn’t a huge man, but I’d been in this job for a good many years, and in the army as an angry young man. I knew my way around a punch. “I can probably dig up some dirt on him that’ll make him want to leave town.”

Her big blue eyes opened a fraction more widely. “You’re that certain he has something to hide?”

“He’s human, isn’t he?” My itching hand made its choice, reaching for the bottle of juice. “How about it, Miss Bella? You want me to make him go away?” Her gaze tracked my movements as I put the bottle back into a drawer.

“I would,” she said. “Make him go away, Morty. Really go away. And I’ll be ever so grateful if you do.”

(To be continued!)