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I tried to ignore the shadow over me, but you can't do that when it belongs to the heavyweight champion of the world.
"He dead?" Joe Louis said, breathing heavily. Louis was wearing blue shorts and an extra-extra large white T-shirt stained with sweat. His feet were bare.
"Down for the count," I said.
About a quarter-mile down the shore some girls were giggling in the surf, the late sun hitting their tanned bodies, their voices bubbling through the white waves hitting the beach and the corpse I was kneeling next to. I looked away from the girls and out over the ocean at the sun heading for Japan. I wondered how I was going to tell Anne about the massive brown figure in the wet sand casting his shadow over me and the badly beaten body. There wasn't much face left on the body, but there wasn't any doubt about who it was.
Ralph Howard had always dressed tastefully, conservatively. Even now with sand, salt water, and pinkish blood staining the tan panama suit, the corpse had Ralph's touch.
I looked up at Louis, who waited for me to say something. This is as far as you can go, I thought. The edge of the U.S.A. When you get this far you either jump in or turn around and ask yourself where you've been. It was at this philosophical point that I could no longer ignore Louis's hands. His knuckles were white and tight and dabbed with blood.
"Hey wait," he said, pointing a finger at me. "You ain't ... I didn't hit this man."
The falling sun caught drops of sweat or sea in his black hair and made him look as if he had been through about five or six tough rounds. There was a kind of softness to his brown, round face, and his full lips gave him a perpetual pout. I wondered what I would do if he simply decided to turn around and run down the beach. I'm five-nine, and at a little under 160 and carrying forty-eight years there was no way I was going to keep that man from running away. Granted I have a face that looks as if it's been hit by a fist or two, a nose that vaguely remembers cartilage, and eyes that stay with you. I saw that face every morning when I remembered to shave, but Louis had seen tougher ones.
I got up, brushed sand from my new suit, and glanced down at the corpse, its well-brushed white hair flecked with blood.
"What happened here?" I said, looking at Louis across the body. I did it with a sigh, trying to sound official. I'd been a cop once. My brother was a cop still. I knew the routine. If Louis thought I was the law, I might keep him there.
He looked down at the body and then back over his shoulder in the general direction of the giggling girls. I glanced at them. Maybe he was waiting for the pair to come running over, kicking up ocean spray and giving him an alibi, but they were far away and not even looking in our direction.
"I was running," he said. His face came back to mine.
"From what?" I said.
He shifted his weight, and his pectorals showed against his wet T-shirt. If I'd had my gun, I might have been able to stop him, but the gun was back in the Ford up near the house on the hill.
"From nothing," he said. Actually, he said, "Fum nuthin'," but I had no trouble understanding him. I considered reaching in my pocket for a notebook, but my pocket notebook was a little job with spirals, and I knew the spiral had unraveled. I didn't want to find myself chasing little lined sheets of paper in the Pacific Ocean. So, I waited for Louis to say something else. We might have waited through the entire Second World War if I hadn't given him a little prompting.
"You didn't kill him. You were just out doing roadwork on the beach in Santa Monica, and you came across a corpse. Coincidentally, you just happened to come across it after you had bloodied your knuckles on a helpless antelope that accidentally crossed your path."
Louis looked down at his knuckles. He was still panting, but not as heavily. It was more a series of deep sighs.
"There were two guys," he said now, looking up toward the road away from the beach. We both looked, but there weren't two guys. There wasn't anybody.
"Two guys," I repeated while he pulled his thoughts together.
"Big guys," he went on slowly. "They were standing right here near ..." He nodded toward the corpse. "He kin of yours or something?"
"Looks as if my wife's husband got himself killed," I explained, but it didn't make sense to Louis, who had a lot to deal with at the moment.
"Two men, big men. They were standing over the body," I reminded him. Surf splashed a sudden wave, and I had to jump toward dry sand to keep my new shoes from getting wetter. Louis just stood there and let the waves hit him ankle high. The corpse took a turn for the surf.
Rather than take a chance on losing Ralph, I grabbed the body and tried to lug it away from the shore. I grunted with the waterlogged weight and pulled him an inch or two before Louis reached down with one hand, grabbed the corpse's well-pressed jacket, and pulled him about five feet onto the dry sand next to a white wooden post plunked down in the sand. A triangular sign on the post read: BE VIGILANT. NO LANDINGS ARE AUTHORIZED ON THIS BEACH. IMMEDIATELY REPORT ANY BOAT ACTUALLY LANDING PERSONS ON SHORE HERE TO THE NEAREST MILITARY OR NAVAL POST AND TO THE SHERIFF AND POLICE FORCES. U.S. COAST GUARD. At the bottom of the sign was the emblem of the Auto Club of Southern California.
I was panting now. I wondered how many of those people I was supposed to report Ralph's body to.
"You ain't the police," Louis said.
"No," I agreed. "I'm a private detective. Name's Peters, Toby Peters. I think I got hired by my ex-wife a few hours ago to keep her second husband from winding up with his face smashed and taking a fully clothed dip in the ocean."
"Sorry," Louis said sincerely, putting his bloody hands up.
"Hey, I didn't love him," I said. "But in a minute or two we're going to have to go up to that nice house and explain that Ralph is dead and tell his widow something about what happened."
"I don't know for sure. Two men standing over the guy is all. I came running to see if I could help and they went for me. They knew what they was doing. They done some fighting."
"And?" I pushed, looking toward the house, wondering when Anne or the servant or somebody might look out the window and wonder what the hell was happening.
"I hurt them," he said simply.
"And that's what happened to your hands?"
He nodded slowly, his eyes on mine, not blinking, sizing me up. I did not want him to hurt me.
"Okay," I sighed. "We go up to the house, have a bad hour or two. You describe the guys to the cops and you go running back into the sunset, only by then it will be moonlight."
"Can't do it," he said, chewing on his lower lip. "I'm not supposed to be here."
It was the last day of May 1942, a Sunday. I knew Louis was a corporal in the U.S. Army. I also knew John Barrymore had died on Friday and that the Cubs had just purchased Jimmie Foxx from the Red Sox. I knew the RAF had just blitzed Cologne and that I had $15 in my pocket and nothing in the bank, but I didn't know where Joe Louis was supposed to be.
"You know who I am?" he asked.
"Max Baer," I said. He was about to correct me when I held up a hand to stop him. "You're the champ," I said.
"Tha's right." He nodded. The sun was taking a fast dive. I looked up at the three-story house where Anne lived and saw a light go on. Somebody, maybe Anne, would wander over to the window and ...
"I got to trust you," he said, rubbing his forehead. The girls weren't giggling anymore. They were gone and a cool evening wind came in from the water, smelling like fish and far away. "I was with a friend who lives down that way."
He pointed down that way along the beach. The shadows of a dozen nicely spaced houses were behind him.
"So, we tell your friend. Your friend tells the cops you were just visiting. You have a reason for being here. You've got no reason to turn Ralph into ground beef and—"
"My friend's a lady," he said. "A white lady."
I didn't say anything.
"A white lady lots of people know."
He had been ahead of me for a quarter of a beat, but I caught up fast. Louis was the clean-cut Negro American, the super patriot who had enlisted as a private when the war began, the family man, a credit to his race, as one sports writer put it, but another one amended that, saying, "Yes, the human race."
"Yeah," I said brilliantly.
"I'm still married to my wife, Marva," he said softly. I could hardly see his face now. He stood with his arms folded, his muscles rippled. "And ..."
"And you're no saint," I finished.
"No saint at all," he agreed. "Damn, no sense in talking. I got to do what's right. You got a mama?"
"Not since I was eight," I said, wondering what the hell we were getting into.
"Well mine's telling me to go up to that house with you and take what's coming," Louis said. "Le's go before I change my mind."
He took a quick step past me and the posted sign we had propped the body against and accidentally kicked sand into the battered face of the corpse. As he passed me, Louis smelled like the YMCA on Hope Street in L.A. where I worked out. He smelled like the hundreds of fights I'd gone to at the Olympic, and he smelled like a human being who was sweating fear but facing it.
"Hold it," I said. He turned a dozen yards from me. "How'd you like to hire a private detective?"
"Huh?" was his answer.
"You hire me," I explained, "and I work for you. I do my best to see to it that your name stays out of this, if I can."
An angry look crossed his face. Something that never showed in the pre-fight and after-the-fight photos. In those Louis always looked calm, distant, like he was thinking of a song he had forgotten.
"Wait a minute," I went on, holding my hands up to keep him from me as he strode back down to where I stood. "I'm not blackmailing you, just trying to give myself some kind of professional cover." He was about a straight left jab away from me when I finished my argument. "Let's call it five bucks."
Louis stopped, tilted his head to one side to examine me as if I were a picture hung wrong.
"You crazy, man?" he said.
"Probably," I agreed. "Let's just say I'm a fan, a patriot, and I believe you. We got a deal or we got a deal?"
"I don't know," he said, looking at the dead body, but it wasn't about to give him advice.
Over his shoulder I could see a door opening in Anne's house, the splay of light hitting a figure who had stepped out.
"Well make up your mind fast," I said. "Someone is coming. My name is Peters, Toby Peters. I'm in the phone book. Private Investigators. My office is downtown, Hoover and Ninth. You call me tomorrow."
"You must be a crazy man," he said again, but this time there was a little smile in the corner of his mouth. He took off down the beach and I watched him. He ran along the shore in the wet sand, the waves hitting his toes. He was fast and sure. He ran a hell of a lot better than he talked.
The figure from the house was moving down toward me, not too fast but steady, curious. It wasn't a woman. I kneeled again at the body and quickly went through the pockets. A wallet, Ralph's name on the driver's license, a picture of him and Anne grinning. In the picture, his teeth were white and even. There was a stack of bills in the wallet, twenties, tens, fives, easily more than a few hundred dollars. In another pocket was a notebook, a small, leather-covered notebook. A little water had gotten to it, and some of the pages stuck together.
"Why don't we just hold it right there?" the voice behind me called. He was about a pool-cue length away from me, holding a gun level at my stomach. There wasn't much hair on his head, a few wisps. The night breeze caught them and made them dance crazily, but there was nothing crazy in his eyes. He wasn't young, maybe fifty-five, but he had been around. Even the neat, well-pressed blue suit couldn't let him pass for executive material. The face was dark, hard like a tree. It wasn't his face or the gun that clinched things. No, it was the way he looked down at the shredded corpse, let out a little "tsk" of regret and turned his attention to me.
"You know what you cost me, cheap shot?" he said shaking his head.
"I've got a feeling I'm going to find out."
He came another step toward me still shaking his head, his few hairs still flying wildly.
"You took a meal ticket right out of my pocket," he said, patting his pocket as if I had literally taken a piece of cardboard from him. "You know what I was picking up per week for keeping him in one piece?"
He was about four feet from me now. He was either going to take a chance on getting close enough to hit me and give himself some satisfaction, or he was going to play it smart and stay far enough away so I couldn't do anything dumb like go for his gun. He decided to be smart and stopped.
"How much were you picking up?" I asked, not sure myself if I wanted him to keep coming or back off.
"One hundred a week," he said.
"Dollars?" I asked.
"What the hell else?" he said angrily.
"Dog biscuits," I tried.
"You're a goddamn comic, aren't you?" he said, holding the gun out. "You turn a guy into chopped liver and you make jokes? I'm no youngster here, you know?"
"I can see that," I said.
"No youngster," he repeated, shaking his head sadly. "You think a lot of good things come along like this?"
"No," I said, this time speaking from experience.
"No is right. Now what the hell do I do for chrissake? Do I shoot you? I never shot anybody. I'm just a guy doing a job. I'm supposed to keep him alive and now look at him. He's not alive."
I looked at the body, but I knew full well he was dead.
"Why don't we just go up to the house and call the cops?" I suggested. "First we tell Mrs. Howard and then we call the cops."
Most of the remaining light now was from the open door of the house. The shadows of the man and me and the corpse were long. The ocean cleared its throat behind us.
"Who was that running away?" he said. "And how do you know Mrs. Howard?"
"I didn't see anybody running, and I used to be married to her. My name's Toby Peters. What's yours?"
"Carl Paitch, but my giving you my name doesn't make us buddies. I still figure you for doing Howard over there."
"So?" I prodded.
"So," he said with a shrug and finally patted down his flying hair. "Who really gives a shit. You know what I mean? Let's go up to the house."
He started to lead the way, thought better of it, and waved me forward with his gun. His hair was dancing again by the time I passed him and started up the sandy hillside. It had been easier going down than it was climbing up. My shoes were full of sand when I got to the open door and stepped in. I reached down to take off my shoes and Paitch almost bumped into me. I could have taken the gun from him then, but what would have been the point?
"Things like this happen to me all the goddamn time," he said, plopping into a chair in the little hallway. It was one of those old-looking chairs with fuzzy dark red on the seat and old dark wood all over. His gun was now pointing at the small Persian carpet.
"I'd say it was Ralph Howard it happened to this time," I said, dumping sand out the door onto the small wooden porch.
"That's not what I meant," he explained, not looking at me. "I just can't hold onto a job. The big ones always get away. You know what I'm saying?"
"The big ones always get away," I said, putting my shoes back on.
"That's what I'm saying," he repeated.
"How about calling the cops and getting Mrs. Howard?" I said.
Paitch's wild few strands of hair were draped over his eyes. Ralph Howard had picked one hell of a soft banana to keep him alive.
"The police?" came a voice from above. I looked up at Anne coming down the stairway. I hadn't seen her for a few months. She had dropped a few pounds. Her black hair was swept back and she was wearing white, all white like Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. She looked better than she ever had when she'd been married to me, but there were good reasons. She might not be looking quite so good in a few seconds.
"Anne," I said, taking a step toward her. She saw something in my eyes and stopped three steps above me so she could keep from contact, keep from knowing.
"What happened ... Ralph?"
Her eyes were brown and wet as always, and I knew if I wandered through the house it would be brown and white and clean, everything in place, a world made neat as Anne always wanted, a world far different from the one she had shared with me. I was enough chaos for one lifetime. Ralph had been money and order and reliability, and here I was again to leave coffee grounds on the rug.
Excerpted from Down for the Count by Stuart M. Kaminksy. Copyright © 1985 Stuart M. Kaminksy. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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