I. A Reasonable Amount of Trouble
I was putting Madame Bovary on a sagging, pine shelf in the “Classics” section of Penny’s Pre-owned Publications in sunny San Berdoo when I sensed him behind me. I knew he was close because I could smell his garlicky breath. Even the moldy works of Molière on the shelf at my nose level, a sanctuary for a horde of dust mites, could not mask his approach. I’d seen him devour two Big Macs and fries for lunch not long before that didn’t have any garlic, so the odor was probably because he hadn’t brushed his teeth in a while.
In the four days I’d been working at this armpit of a used bookstore, I’d caught him leering at me or giving me a lascivious wink too many times to count. Since he was married to the owner, Penny, he might have been considered my employer. Except that Spector’s Investigators paid my wages and his wife, not he, had retained us. I owed him nothing, not even respect.
I turned to face him. He was at my eye level. “May I help you, Fred?”
Fred pushed his comb-over back over and grinned. I was right about his teeth. It looked like it had been many nights since they’d been brushed. “Yeah, you sure can.”
“How?” Since I was undercover to trap this rat, I played along just a bit, even though I wanted to barf instead. The old bat was away on a donut run and now the rat wanted to play.
Fred moved closer. He was wearing a faded-black T-shirt, with “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt” lettered in white, that stretched tight across his beer belly. His baggy jeans and flip-flops completed his GQ attire. From the stink that hung over him like a cloud, I guessed that he hadn’t showered since he’d brushed his teeth. “I can give you a bonus that’s a lot more than my fat cow wife pays you, if you’re nice to me.”
Suddenly, he reached out and squeezed my left breast with one hand as he groped my crotch with the other. He shoved me against the bookshelves, leaning in for a kiss.
I grabbed his T-shirt and held him close as I brought my knee up as hard as I could between his legs. He let out a loud yelp and doubled over. I reached for the biggest book on my cart and hit him on top of his head with enough force to drive a railroad spike. As Fred dropped to his knees, I smashed the side of his head so hard it bounced against the bookshelf.
Fred curled up on the floor like a pillbug, bleeding and groaning, just as Penny came in the front door. She was about five feet tall and almost as wide, wearing an orange, yellow and red, floral muumuu. Her frizzy, blond hair stood out like a mop. Grasped in her right hand was a greasy, white bag of donuts.
I was standing over Fred with the book in my hands.
“What did you do to my Freddy?” Penny’s mouth twisted in anger. “You hurt him, you bitch.”
She dropped the bag and flew at me, hands raised with her long, red nails stretched out like talons. I had the advantage of reach and a heavy tome. I used them both as I smacked her in the face with the book.
She staggered back, blood dripping from her nose. She glared at me, hatred oozing from every pore. “I’m going to call the cops and have you arrested for assault.”
Before I had a chance to reply, the back door burst open and Joe Spector ran in, Glock in hand. I was glad to see my partner. At six feet two and weighing in at about 250 lbs., he would have been intimidating even without the gun. His thick, grey-black hair and bushy mustache helped the look. His loud Hawaiian shirt didn’t. He looked from me, to the bleeding Penny, to the groaning Fred. “What the hell is going on?”
I pulled the mike from under my blouse. “You got it all?”
Joe holstered his gun and nodded. “Sure did. We got the goods on fondling Freddie, but what’s with pugnacious Penny?”
I rolled my eyes. “Cute alliteration, Joe. I guess Penny expected me to take Fred’s groping without a fight.” I shrugged. “Not my style.”
I started to toss the book that had been my savior back on the cart. I chuckled when I saw the title. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A much more exciting weapon than a read.
“What are you laughing about?” Penny snarled, holding her pudgy hand up to her nose. “I only wanted you to tell me if Freddy was fooling around on me, not beat the crap out of him. And I think you broke my nose. I’ll sue you both.”
Joe shook his head. “No, you won’t. You’ll pay your bill and be happy I don’t call the cops to have him hauled in for sexual assault.” He paused. “I’ve got the contract you signed to have us watch Freddy-boy because you thought he was up to no good. The cops are going to believe us over you two, especially with what I’ve got on tape. I’ll bet they might even find something worse about Freddy if they dig around.”
Penny blanched. “Okay, okay. I’ll get my checkbook.”
“No way. You’ll just stop payment and I’ll have to take you to small claims. Cash. Eight-fifty plus an extra five bills for Morg for what she went through.”
The old saying “if looks could kill” held true for Penny. But she emptied the till, dug in her purse, went to the antique safe in the office and finally came up with the thirteen hundred and fifty dollars. As she brandished it to Joe, she demanded, “I want a receipt and a promise you won’t call the cops.”
Joe smiled. At least I think he smiled, but his mustache made it hard to tell. “No problem. And I want a release of liability for any damage done to persons or property during the investigation you commissioned.”
After the appropriate papers were drawn up, signed and exchanged, Joe and I walked out the back door. Once outside, I turned to Joe.
“What’s this ‘I won’t call the cops’ bit? The guy assaulted me and who knows how many other women?”
Joe looked away. “Sorry, Morg. The signal kept cutting out, so I only got bits and pieces of what was happening. I’m not really into the tech stuff, so I probably messed something up. We got nothing and it’d be his and her word against yours. Freddie was in pretty bad shape after you worked him over and she had a bloody nose, so you don’t look like the vic here.” He handed me five hundred. “Maybe this’ll help.”
I shook my head. “No, Joe, it’s not about money. Fred’s a perv and he’s going to do it again. Maybe the next time it will be rape. Are you okay with that?”
He looked down, avoiding my eyes. I’d hurt him. “Of course not. What do you think I am? I was only trying to keep you from the hell of testifying about all that stuff. It was your first job and, well . . . .” He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “I blew it and I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
I rested my hand on his shoulder. “You know I will, Papa Joe. I’m just mad ’cause that son of a bitch got off.” I shrugged. “But considering how Penny was glaring at him when she gave us the cash, he may suffer a fate worse than jail. I caused him a reasonable amount of trouble.”
Joe wrapped a strong arm across my shoulder. “Maybe he can get both fates. I still have some pull in the department. I’ll get them to set up a sting. If he does it to a woman cop, she’ll blow his ass off.”
I grinned. “If we’re lucky, maybe another part of his anatomy.”