"Halloween is Murder"
Historical (1950s), humor, horror, mystery short story
In a way, it was Mike’s fault.
It was his big idea to go out of town. Who the hell went fishing on Halloween? But Barry would have gone along with it. Partly because he’d started thinking he wouldn’t mind some time alone with Mikeand if he had the wrong idea about things, well, it would be better to find out in the middle of nowhere where nobody would notice a black eye. Or two.
He didn’t think he had the wrong idea, though.
Partly he’d have gone fishing with Mike because he knew this was a bad time of year for him. Nobody knew better. Barry was the one who’d pulled Mike off the railings of Suicide Bridge three Halloweens earlier.
They didn’t talk about it. Hadn’t talked about it since the night they’d met. If “met” was the word. More like collided.
Barry had been driving back to the office after a demoralizing interview with the Grand Duchess of Hillcrest Avenue AKA Mrs. Andrew Millar. There was the matter of a missing pearl necklace. Barry had traced that necklace to young Andrew Millar the Second who was in hock up to his shell-like ears to a certain bookie by the name of Griggs Malone. Instead of being pleased to have her missing necklace located, Mrs. Millar had been royally irate at the implication her weedy offspring was a crook. Not only had she not paid Barry, she’d threatened to sue him for defamation of character.
That’s the way it went sometimes.
Anyway, it had been a real witches brew of a night. Not fit for man nor beast, as the poetsor maybe it was the weathermansaid. The rain had been coming down in buckets, buckets of glinting needlesstinging, biting, blinding rainand he’d had been hunched over the steering wheel of his Ford Crestline, trying to peer through the fogged-up windscreen, when all of a sudden, he’d seen a vision straight out of Central Casting: a manat first glance he’d looked like a gargoylehunched over and poised to jump from the Colorado Street Bridge. White-faced, wild-eyed, soaked to the skin...
Barry had yanked the wheel, car brakes screeching as he pulled to the side of the road. He’d jumped out, and raced back in time to stop Joe Doe from going overand been socked in the nose for his trouble. Mike was a big guy and that wallop had nearly set Barry on his heels, but Barry had been Glendale College’s lightweight boxing champ for two years running, and he knew his way around a difference of opinion. Besides which, Mike was very drunk. Soused. A hard shove would probably have done the trick, but Barry had piled into him and then dragged a stunned and stumbling Mike to his car and taken him for coffee, eggs and bacon at Bob’s Big Boy on Riverside Drive.
“Why’d you do it, buddy?” Barry had asked when Mike had dried out a little. Dried out physically and figuratively. Barry watched him mop up the last bit of fried egg with a corner of toast. Mike’s fingers were white with the cold, nails raggedbut clean. “What drives a guy like you to pull such a dumbass stunt?”
Mike had stared at him for a long moment. “Demons,” he’d said briefly, bluntly. The way Mike said everything, as Barry was eventually to learn.
That night he’d been willing to accept Mike’s answer since it was demonstrably true. Every man had his demons and Mike Cathan’s had driven him to the edge. Anyone could see that.
Some things you could fix for a guy. Some things you couldn’t. Mike needed a job, and Barry had been able to throw him some work. When Mike came through for him, Barry had put more work his way. To say that a friendship sprang to life that night would sound corny, but yeah, they had grown to be…well, it was hard to say.
Close was maybe not exactly the word. Barry was pretty sure no one was close to Mike. What did that really mean anyway? He liked Mike though, and Mike had saved his life once or twice (three times, according to Mikebut really you couldn’t count the time Vince Mezza pushed Barry out the window of the Astoria Hotel Apartment since he’d mostly landed on the fire escape) so Mike probably liked him back. Or just found it hard to line up a real job.
Barry liked Mike so much that he’d even considered bringing him on as a partner at the agency. At the moment that would be more like asking him to buy shares in the Keely Motor Company. But maybe one day.
Or maybe not.
Being inclined the same way, he’d recognized the truth about Mike pretty quickhe often wondered if that was what had driven Mike to climb up on that rain-slick railing Halloween night. If Mike had ever broached the subject, Barry would have been happy to give him pointers on how to squelch such feelingshe considered himself an expert, having had the devil of a fight to get his own impulses under control. (Mike didn’t even have the excuse of a Catholic school education.) But Mike had never broached the subject, though he must surely have recognized what was in Barry too.
Nor was he a guy you could offer advice to. Even Barry, who was prone to offering unsolicited words of wisdom, knew better than to try to tell Mike what to do. For one thing, Mike was older than Barry. Not so much in years. Mike had been with the Marines on Iwo Jima. He didn’t talk much about it, but that first night he’d admitted to Barry that he’d enlisted when he was only fourteen years old. Because he was tall, had a muscular build, and even back then weighed 180 pounds, he’d managed to convince the Marine Corps Reserve at Norfolk he was seventeen. He’d forged his mother’s consent and was sent to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina, where he qualified as a sharpshooter.
Barry was a little jealous of Mike’s military service. It would never have occurred to him to try and lie his way into any branch of the service, and he’d been too small and skinny to have succeeded anyway. He’d been with the Army National Guard, the “Sunshine Division” when Korea started, and had been deployed to Japan for training. But his tour of duty had ended before his division shipped out to Korea. He’d come home safe and sound and enrolled in college while a lot of his friends had ended up dying at Heartbreak Ridge.
College had not worked out for Barry. He didn’t miss the army, but civilian life was a little too tame. He’d quit school to become an “apprentice” to Sam Bell at Bell, Book and Cannon Investigations. Cannon was long dead by then, there had never been any partner named BookSam just thought it sounded classy. Anyway, Sam died two years later leaving the business to Barry.
Barry had been working overtime to keep things afloat ever since, but still, he’d have taken time off for Mike, if Mike had come up with a good reasonor any reasonwhy they should suddenly leave town.
“It seems kind of sudden,” Barry had said, when Mike proposed a three-day weekend trout fishing at Crowley Lake. “We’re still in the middle of the Rothman case. And the Ciciarelli case.”
Mike had shrugged.
“Any special reason it’s got to be this weekend?”
“It’s a good time to get out of town,” Mike said.
“Sure. But the Rothman dame will be at that Halloween party Saturday night, and we’ll get the goods on her then.”
Mike made a face. He did not like adultery cases. Well, who did? But beggars couldn’t be choosers. He liked getting a paycheck, didn’t he? He sure as hell liked eating.
The expression of haughty distaste on Mike’s rough-hewn features should have been funny, but it stung Barry.
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to clear the decks here first and then take off? The fish aren’t going anywhere, are they?”
Mike said grimly (which didn’t mean anything, because he said everything grimly), “This is not a healthy time of year. Not for me. Not for you.”
“What does that mean?” Mike was being even more cryptic than usual.
Barry wanted to go with him. It was the first time Mike had ever asked him to come along on one of his fishing trips, and Barry couldn’t help thinkinghopingthat maybe it signaled a kind of turning point in their friendship. Over the past few months he had started thinking of Mike differentlyhe wasn’t even sure when or how that unsettling change in feelings had crept over himbut he wanted to believe it was something to do with sensing a change in Mike. Because with Mike…well, everything would be probably okay. At least, that’s how he’d been thinking lately.
“Do you have something in mind?” Barry asked. “Something specific?”
Mike looked at him like he was trying to make his mind up.
Barry said tentatively, feeling kind of silly putting it into words, “Is it to do with what happened…that other Halloween?”
Right then he’d seen Mike’s face close up like a slammed door.
Mike rose. “I’m taking some time. You’re welcome to come,” he said. “Or not.”
The take-it-or-leave-it tone naturally put Barry’s back up.
“So you said. And like I said, I can’t just flit. I’ve got responsibilities. Clients. Cases.” Few enough of ‘em that he couldn’t walk out on the handful he still had.
“It’s your funeral,” Mike said, which seemed a little somber given they were only talking about fishing.
The door had closed softly after Mike.
That was how Barry Fitzgerald (that’s right, wise guy, his mam had a fondness for “the flickers”) came to be sitting in his office at Bell, Book and Cannon Investigations the Saturday night before Halloween. He was drinking bourbon and feeling a little sorry for himself when Margaret Mary O’ Flaherty showed up.
The wrong place at the wrong time.
Miss O’Flaherty said she was looking for a shamus.
Maybe she meant shaman.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
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