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Umney's last case nad-21

Stephen King

  Umney's last case

  ( Nightmares and Dreamscapes - 21 )

  Stephen King

  Stephen King

  Umney's last case

  (Последнее дело Амни)

  I. The News from Peoria.

  The rains are over. The hills are still green and in the valley across the Hollywood hills you can see snow on the high mountains. The fur stores are advertising their annual sales. The call houses that specialize in sixteen-year-old virgins are doing a land-office business. And in Beverly Hills the jacaranda trees are beginning to bloom.

  Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

  It was one of those spring mornings so L. A. -perfect you keep expecting to see that little trademark symbol – (R) – stamped on it somewhere. The exhaust of the vehicles passing on Sunset smelled faintly of oleander, the oleander was lightly perfumed with exhaust, and the sky overhead was as clear as a hardshell Baptist's conscience. Peoria Smith, the blind paperboy, was standing in his accustomed place on the corner of Sunset and Laurel, and if that didn't mean God was in His heaven and all was jake with the world, I didn't know what did.

  Yet since I'd swung my feet out of bed that morning at the unaccustomed hour of 7:30 a. m., things had felt a little off-kilter, somehow; a tad woozy around the edges. It was only as I was shaving – or at least showing those pesky bristles the razor in an effort to scare them into submission – that I realized part of the reason why. Although I'd been up reading until at least two, I hadn't heard the Demmicks roll in, squiffed to the earlobes and trading those snappy one-liners that apparently form the basis of their marriage.

  Nor had I heard Buster, and that was maybe even odder. Buster, the Demmicks” Welsh Corgi, has a high-pitched bark that goes through your head like slivers of glass, and he uses it as much as he can. Also, he's the jealous type. He lets loose with one of his shrill barking squalls every time George and Gloria clinch, and when they aren't zinging each other like a couple of vaudeville comedians, George and Gloria usually are clinching. I've gone to sleep on more than one occasion listening to them giggle while that mutt prances around their feet going yarkyarkyark and wondering how difficult it would be to strangle a muscular, medium-sized dog with a length of piano-wire. Last night, however, the Demmicks” apartment had been as quiet as the grave. It was passing strange, but a long way from earth-shattering; the Demmicks weren't exactly your perfect life-on-a-timetable couple at the best of times.

  Peoria Smith was all right, though – chipper as a chipmunk, just as always, and he'd recognized me by my walk even though it was at least an hour before my usual time. He was wearing a baggy CalTech sweatshirt that came down to his thighs and a pair of corduroy knickers that showed off his scabby knees. His hated white cane leaned casually against the side of the card-table he did business on.

  “Say, Mr. Umney! Howza kid?”

  Peoria's dark glasses glinted in the morning sunlight, and as he turned toward the sound of my step with my copy of the L. A. Times held up in front of him, I had a momentary unsettling thought: it was as if someone had drilled two big black holes into his face. I shivered the thought off my back, thinking that maybe the time had come to cut out the before-bedtime shot of rye. Either that or double the dose.

  Hitler was on the front of the Times, as he so often was these days. This time it was something about Austria. I thought, and not for the first time, how at home that pale face and limp forelock would have looked on a post-office bulletin board.

  “The kid is just about okay, Peoria,” I said. “In fact, the kid is as fine as fresh paint on an outhouse wall.”

  I dropped a dime into the Corona box resting atop Peoria's stack of newspapers. The Times is a three-center, and over-priced at that, but I've been dropping that same chip into Peoria's change-box since time out of mind. He's a good kid, and making good grades in school – I took it on myself to check that last year, after he'd helped me out on the Weld case. If Peoria hadn't shown up on Harris Brunner's houseboat when he did, I'd still be trying to swim with my feet cemented into a kerosene drum, somewhere off Malibu. To say I owe him a lot is an understatement.

  In the course of that particular investigation (Peoria Smith, not Harris Brunner and Mavis Weld), I even found out the kid's real name, although wild horses wouldn't have dragged it out of me. Peoria's father took a permanent coffee-break out a ninth-floor office window on Black Friday, his mother's the only white frail working in that goofy Chinese laundry down on La Punta, and the kid's blind. With all that, does the world need to know they hung Francis on him when he was too young to fight back? The defense rests.

  If anything really juicy happened the night before, you almost always find it on the front page of the Times, left side, just below the fold. I turned the newspaper over and saw that a bandleader of the Cuban persuasion had suffered a heart attack while dancing with his female vocalist at The Carousel in Burbank. He died an hour later at L. A. General. I had some sympathy for the maestro's widow, but none for the man himself. My opinion is that people who go dancing in Burbank deserve what they get.

  I opened to the sports section to see how Brooklyn had done in their doubleheader with the Cards the day before. “How about you, Peoria? Everyone holding their own in your castle? Moats and battlements all in good repair?”

  “I'll say, Mr. Umney! Oh, boy!”

  Something in his voice caught my attention, and I lowered the paper to take a closer look at him. When I did, I saw what a gilt-edged shamus like me should have seen right away: the kid was all but busting with happiness.

  “You look like somebody just gave you six tickets to the first game of the World Series,” I said. “What's the buzz, Peoria?”

  “My mom hit the lottery down in Tijuana!” he said. “Forty thousand bucks! We're rich, brother! Rich!”

  I gave him a grin he couldn't see and ruffled his hair. It popped his cowlick up, but what the hell. “Whoa, hold the phone. How old are you, Peoria?”

  “Twelve in May. You know that, Mr. Umney, you gave me a polo-shirt. But I don't see what that has to do with…”

  “Twelve's old enough to know that sometimes people get what they want to happen mixed up with what actually does happen. That's all I meant.”

  “If you're talkin about daydreams, you're right – I do know all about em,” Peoria said, running his hands over the back of his head in an effort to make his cowlick lie down again, “but this ain't no daydream, Mr. Umney. It's real! My Uncle Fred went down and picked up the cash yest'y afternoon. He brought it back in the saddlebag of his Vinnie! I smelled it! Hell, I rolled in it! It was spread all over my mom's bed! Richest feeling I ever had, let me tell you – forty-froggin-thousand smackers!”

  “Twelve may be old enough to know the difference between daydreams and what's real, but it's not old enough for that kind of talk,” I said. It sounded good – I'm sure the Legion of Decency would have approved two thousand per cent – but my mouth was running on automatic pilot, and I barely heard what was coming out of it. I was too busy trying to get my brain wrapped around what he'd just told me. Of one thing I was absolutely positive: he'd made a mistake. He must have made a mistake, because if it was true, then Peoria wouldn't be standing here anymore when I came by on my way to my office in the Fulwider Building. And that just couldn't be.

  I found my mind returning to the Demmicks, who for the first time in recorded history hadn't played any of their big-band records at full volume before retiring, and to Buster, who for the first time in recorded history hadn't greeted the sound of George's latchkey turning in the lock with a fusillade of barks. The thought that something was off-kilter returned, and it was stronger this time.

  Meanwhile, Peoria was looking at m
e with an expression I'd never expected to see on his honest, open face: sulky irritation mixed with exasperated humor. It was the way a kid looks at a windbag uncle who's told all his stories, even the boring ones, three or four times.

  “Ain't you picking up on this newsflash, Mr. Umney? We're rich! My mom ain't going to have to press shirts for that damned old Lee Ho anymore, and I ain't going to have to sell papers on the corner anymore, shiverin when it rains in the winter and havin to suck up to those nutty old bags who work down at Bilder's. I can quit actin like I died and went to heaven every time some blowhard leaves me a nickel tip.”

  I started a little at that, but what the hell – I wasn't a nickel man. I left Peoria seven cents, day in and day out. Unless I was too broke to afford it, of course, but in my business an occasional stony stretch comes with the territory.

  “Maybe we ought to go up to Blondie's and have a cup of java,” I said. “Talk this thing over.”

  “Can't. It's closed.”

  “Blondie's? The hell you say!”

  But Peoria couldn't be bothered with such mundane stuff as the coffee shop up the street. “You ain't heard the best, Mr. Umney! My Uncle Fred knows a doctor up in Frisco – a specialist – who thinks he can do something about my eyes.” He turned his face up to mine. Below the cheaters and his too-thin nose, his lips were trembling. “He says it might not be the optic nerves after all, and if it's not, there's an operation... I don't understand all the technical stuff, but I could see again, Mr. Umney!” He reached out for me blindly... well, of course he did. How else could he reach out? “I could see again!”

  He clutched at me, and I gripped his hands and squeezed them briefly before pushing them gently away. There was ink on his fingers, and I'd been feeling so good when I got up that I'd put on my new chalk worsted. Hot for summer, of course, but the whole city is airconditioned these days, and besides, I was feeling naturally cool. I didn't feel so cool now. Peoria was looking up at me, his thin and somehow perfect newsboy's face troubled. A little breeze – scented with oleander and exhaust – ruffled his cowlick, and I realized that I could see it because he wasn't wearing his tweed cap. He looked somehow naked without it, and why not? Every newsboy should wear a tweed cap, just like every shoeshine boy should wear a beanie cocked way back on his head.

  “What's the matter, Mr. Umney? I thought you'd be happy. Jeepers, I didn't have to come out here to this lousy corner today, you know, but I did – I even got here early, because I kinda had an idea you'd get here early. I thought you'd be happy, my mom hittin the lottery and me gettin a chance at an operation, but you ain't.” Now his voice trembled with resentment. “You ain't!”

  “Yes I am,” I said, and I wanted to be happy – part of me did, anyway – but the bitch of it was that he was mostly right. Because it meant things would change, you see, and things weren't supposed to change. Peoria Smith was supposed to be right here, year in and year out, with that perfect cap of his tilted back on hot days and pulled down low on rainy ones, so that the raindrops dripped off the bill. He was always supposed to be smiling, was never supposed to say “hell” or “frogging,” and most of all, he was supposed to be blind.

  “You ain't!” he said, and then, shockingly, he pushed his cardtable over. It fell into the street, papers flapping everywhere. His white cane rolled into the gutter. Peoria heard it go and bent down to get it. I could see tears coming out from beneath his dark glasses and go rolling down his pale, thin cheeks. He started groping for the cane, but it had fallen near me and he was going the wrong way. I felt a sudden strong urge to haul off and kick him in his blind newsboy's ass.

  Instead, I bent over, got his stick, and tapped him lightly on the hip with it.

  Peoria turned, quick as a snake, and snatched it. Out of the corner of my eye I could see pictures of Hitler and the recently deceased Cuban bandleader flapping all over Sunset Boulevard – a bus bound for Van Ness snored through a little drift of them, leaving a bitter tang of diesel fumes behind. I hated the way those newspapers looked, fluttering here and there. They looked messy. Worse, they looked wrong. Utterly and completely wrong. I fought another urge, as strong as the first one, to grab Peoria and shake him. To tell him he was going to spend the morning picking up those newspapers, and I wasn't going to let him go home until he'd gotten every last one.

  It occurred to me that less than ten minutes ago, I'd been thinking that this was the perfect L. A. morning – so perfect it deserved a trademark symbol. And it had been, dammit. So where had things gone wrong? And how had it happened so fast?

  No answers came, only an irrational but powerful voice from inside, telling me that the kid's mother couldn't have won the lottery, that the kid couldn't stop selling newspapers, and that, most of all, the kid couldn't see. Peoria Smith was supposed to be blind for the rest of his life.

  Well, it's got to be something experimental, I thought. Even if the doctor up in Frisco isn't a quack, and he probably is, the operation's bound to fail.

  And, bizarre as it sounds, the thought calmed me down.

  “Listen,” I said, “we got off on the wrong foot this morning, that's all. Let me make it up to you. We'll go down to Blondie's and I'll buy you breakfast. What do you say, Peoria? You can dig into a plate of bacon and eggs and tell me all ab…”

  “Fuck you!” he shouted, shocking me all the way down to my shoes. “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, you cheap gumshoe! You think blind people can't tell when people like you are lying through their teeth? Fuck you! And keep your hands off me from now on! I think you're a faggot!”

  That did it – no one calls me a faggot and gets away with it, not even a blind newsboy. I forgot all about how Peoria had saved my life during that Mavis Weld business; I reached for his cane, meaning to take it away from him and whack him across the keister with it a few times. Teach him some manners.

  Before I could get it, though, he hauled off and slammed the cane's tip into my lower belly – and I do mean lower. I doubled up in agony, but even while I was trying to keep from howling with pain, I was counting my blessings; two inches lower still and I could have quit peeping for a living and gotten a job singing soprano in the Palace of the Doges.

  I made a quick, reflexive grab for him anyway, and he brought the cane down on the back of my neck. Hard. It didn't break, but I heard it crack. I figured I could finish the job when I caught him and ran it into his right ear. I'd show him who was a faggot.

  He backed away from me as if he'd caught my brainwave, and threw the cane into the street.

  “Peoria,” I managed. Maybe it still wasn't too late to catch sanity by the shirttail. “Peoria, what the hell's wrong with…”

  “And don't call me that!” he screamed. “My name's Francis! Frank! You're the one who started calling me Peoria! You started it and now everyone calls me that and I hate it!”

  My watering eyes doubled him as he turned and fled across the street, heedless of traffic (of which there was currently none, luckily for him), hands held out in front of him. I thought he would trip over the far curb – was looking forward to it, in fact – but I guess blind people must keep a pretty good set of topographical survey maps in their heads. He jumped onto the sidewalk as nimbly as a goat, then turned his dark glasses back in my direction. There was an expression of crazed triumph on his tear-streaked face, and the dark lenses looked more like holes than ever. Big ones, as if someone had hit him with two large-caliber shotgun rounds.

  “Blondie's is gone, I toldja!” he screamed. “My mom says he upped and ran away with that redhead floozy he hired last month! You should be so lucky, you ugly prick!”

  He turned and went running up Sunset in that strange way of his, with his splayed fingers held out in front of him. People stood in little clusters on both sides of the street, looking at him, looking at the papers fluttering in the street, looking at me.

  Mostly looking at me, it seemed.

  This time Peoria – well, okay, Francis – made it as far as Derringer'
s Bar before turning to deliver one final salvo.

  “Fuck you, Mr. Umney!” he screamed, and ran on.

  II. Vernon's Cough.

  I managed to pull myself erect and make my way across the street. Peoria, aka Francis Smith, was long gone, but I wanted to put those blowing newspapers behind me, too. Looking at them was giving me a headache that was somehow worse than the ache in my groin.

  On the far side of the street I stared into Felt's Stationery as if the new Parker ball-point pen in the window was the most fascinating thing I'd ever seen in my life (or maybe it was those sexy imitationleather appointment books). After five minutes or so – time enough to commit every item in the dusty show-window to memory – I felt capable of resuming my interrupted voyage up Sunset without listing too noticeably to port.

  Questions circled in my mind the way mosquitoes circle your head at the drive-in in San Pedro when you forget to bring along an insect stick or two. I was able to ignore most of them, but a couple got through. First, what the hell had gotten into Peoria? Second, what the hell had gotten into me? I kept slapping at these uncomfortable queries until I got to Blondie's City Eats, Open 24 Hrs, Bagels Our Specialty, on the corner of Sunset and Travernia, and when I got that far, they were driven out in a single wallop. Blondie's had been on that corner for as long as I could remember – the sharpies and the hustlers and the hipsters and the hypes going in and going out, not to mention the debs, the dykes, and the dopes. A famous silent-movie star was once arrested for murder as he was coming out of Blondie's, and I myself had concluded a nasty piece of business there not so long ago, shooting a coked-up fashion-plate named Dunninger who had killed three hopheads in the aftermath of a Hollywood dope party. It was also the place where I'd said goodbye to the silver-haired, violet-eyed Ardis McGill. I'd spent the rest of that lost night walking in a rare Los Angeles fog which might have only been behind my eyes... and trickling down my cheeks, by the time the sun came up.