House Dick: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction By Brian Townsley
Brian Townsley, author of House Dick, has published short fiction in Black Mask and Danse Macabre. His work has been included in the ‘Distinguished List’ in 2019’s Best American Mystery Stories.
Sonny Haynes stared at the ashtray on his desk. When the morning began it had been full. He had done his job, then. Emptied it. A dynamic start to the day. Now the numerous butts stood upright again like some poor facsimile of stalagmites in a middle school science fair.
When Saul Bernstein had told him about this job, being a house dick at the Starlite Hotel & Resort in Palm Springs, he had talked on and on about the Hollywood starlets and side action coming through the place, well, Sonny had envisioned something besides staring at his brogues while they sat propped on his desk, and filling his ashtray with dead soldiers. But then, most things don’t work out, do they?
As afternoon set in, he sat forward in his chair and buried the newest butt in the ashtray and snapped his fingers. The dog in the corner, a shepherd recently healed from a dogfight Sonny had extracted him from, stood attentively and looked on—both of them at attention. Then the man ran a comb through his pomaded hair and hatted himself with the gray fedora from the hatrack, placing it low on his brow.
The dog was not allowed in the hotel, of course, but, Sonny reasoned, neither was he, really, for any number of reasons. A voucher from Saul Bernstein went a long way, apparently, and so Sonny was thusly vouching for the dog. Whatever.
The shepherd followed at his heel as the man walked through the lobby towards the front door. The large windowed room was mostly empty now, for while Palm Springs and its felonious cousin Cathedral City provided a refuge for the Canadian ‘snowbirds’ in winter and a destination come fall and spring, even the most hardy of vacationers were hesitant to test their mettle in August, when the mercury rose to between 110 and 120 degrees on a regular basis. The hotel, of course, was air conditioned.
he shepherd followed at his heel as the man walked through the lobby towards the front door.
“Mr. Haynes” a sharp voice called from behind him, from, in fact, behind the front desk, he presumed. He turned.
“You know that we do not allow pets on the premises. My understanding is that you have been apprised of this, and yet you continue to bring along your…that dog of yours,” the voice continued. The voice belonged to a lady in a maroon suit jacket whose nametag claimed Wanda, Supervisor. She was a handsome woman, with sky blue eyes and a nose relatively attractive when not being flared, although those times seemed in limited supply.
In short, a lady who was comely only in the most unguarded of moments. Her hair was cinched back into a severe blonde ponytail and it was clear to every guest who entered that she was one of those who had never once been young, even in her youth.
Sonny walked to the desk, slowly, not answering. The dog followed at his heels, and sat and looked up in expectation, panting, when Sonny stopped. Sonny placed his tattooed hands on the marble desk and removed his hat, crown down, upon the flat surface. He looked skyward, as if for guidance. It was the same marble, he knew she was thinking, that Rita Hayworth and Barbara Stanwyck had fingered as they had checked in to the resort in past years. He was sure that he was disrespecting it by simply making himself comfortable.
“Wanda,” Sonny said, and half smiled, “the dog is not your concern. I saved the dog’s life, and, because of that, he has adopted me. I haven’t even named him. You and I can both see,” and he turned here towards the animal, “that he is a ‘him’ because he has a dick. When my daughter does name him, I’ll be sure to let you know, since I see that is important to you.
I’m now the resident investigator for the renowned Starlite establishment and, while it may be against the written rules, it turns out that I’m the one who enforces those rules.” He rubbed then at the teardrop tattoo at the top of his right cheek as if it itched, before again making eye contact. “So, in other words, if you have an issue with someone breaking the house rules, be sure to come to me. If you have an issue with me breaking the house rules, be sure you don’t.” Sonny slapped the marble then, twice, and turned and rehatted himself. Wanda shook her head and chose to misunderstand and took to reorganizing.
He and the dog rode in the Merc with the windows down, as if somehow breezy 108 degree heat is better than stagnant 108 degree heat. And it is, actually, but like the equivalent of actual hell versus perceived hell. Both are ridiculous in any real sense. Sonny smoked a Chesterfield and exhaled out the open window. They headed towards Cathedral City and a poker game there. The passing sky was a vibrant, silent blue and the palm trees underneath it hung suspended on skinny fibrous stems like heads with exploded hair.
He searched the radio as he drove and found a home with “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Williams and so he turned that up. The dog sat panting in the back seat. Sonny smoked, exhaled, and sat sweating up front.
“So, in other words, if you have an issue with someone breaking the house rules, be sure to come to me. If you have an issue with me breaking the house rules, be sure you don’t.”
He parked in the lot at the Pecos Club and dog and man together walked to the rear entrance, the dog moving his legs up and down quickly in an attempt to momentarily avoid the hot concrete. Sonny knocked three times and a man opened the door a crack and peered out, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the brilliance outside.
“Lemme in, you fucker,” Sonny said.
The man peered through the vertical slit a second longer than was required and then said: “Ahhh, Sonny Haynes. Of course. I did not recognize you. You’ve gotten so much uglier since last we met.”
The man had jokes, Sonny found. “What’s your name, again?” He asked this though he knew well the man’s name was Fortunato, a Cuban who had somehow ended up in California, propping games for wealthy Italians and Anglos. It all made sense if you didn’t bother to think about it.
“My name is what your mother called me last night, brother,” he breathed, in accented tones.
“My dear Irish mother has been dead for 45 years, you fucker,” Sonny answered. “So I’d love to know what she had to say.” He walked through the door as it opened, stopping to make sure the shepherd followed. “The girl been doin’ alright?”
Fortunato nodded as he opened the door and responded to the question, but added: “well. Yes. But there is plenty of competition today. Not just the vacation contingent. But some rollers. Maybe not very good, though. But she holds her own, you know that…”, the man said, flipping his hand askew, and the moment passed.
Sonny bristled at this, as it was unusual to hear that Katie wasn’t cleaning up at any regular poker game unless it was by design, but continued into the dimly lit ballroom slowly, the shepherd following behind on the diametric rug underfoot.
Fortunato, upon seeing that a dog had loped behind Sonny as he entered, said: “Umm, Mr. Haynes, sir. We don’t allow dogs in here…”
Sonny turned then, and said, “Oh, it’s no problem. I mean. This fucker just follows me everywhere. I can’t seem to get him to stop. If you want to try, have at it,” and continued towards the game. Fortunato made one investigative step upon which the loping dog turned back upon him and raised a lip to reveal a glint of incisors and the hint of canines and Fortunato stopped cold and the dog continued on.
Sonny had to walk through the main ballroom, which featured a faux-renaissance piece on the ceiling and plush shell-shaped booths and generally looked like somewhere good steak was served during business hours, and continued into the backroom which featured a poker table, two more set up for blackjack, another for baccarat, and a roulette table.
The only area with anyone present was the poker table, and six people there, including the dealer. Sonny pulled a chair from a blackjack area and sat bitch on it, adjusting his hat upwards to watch the cards. He sat distance enough from the table so that it was understood he was not in the game, and the dog curled about his feet.
He lit a Chesterfield and watched, silent. His daughter, or at least what each of them considered such, was sitting 4th, or, from him, at nearly 12 o’clock at the table. She had her hair in a ponytail that pointed upwards and only accentuated the freckles that ran rampant over her nose. The others were men, of course, two hatted, two with the dignity to put theirs aside, with hair slicked into parts. Sonny avoided eye contact.
He knew that Katie didn’t want him here, didn’t want him ‘checking in’, but he also knew that the Italians had some heavies in town this week. It was his job to make sure they didn’t take in some poker. That could only go badly—she would win then, easily, and they would be insulted by a woman who could do something, they would default to physical affects, he would displace joints and bones, etc.—it could only go sideways. He was, in effect, playing damage control.
Funny enough, she won enough hands and the men about her just grumbled. They picked up their hats with some enthusiasm and squashed them on their heads and the day was done. Sonny pretended not to notice. Then Katie was by his side, smile wide. She did this without any self-consciousness. She was 17. As if there were nothing else.
“You won again,” he said, wanting it to be a question but both knowing better.
“Yeah” she said, rolling her eyes and smiling sideways and pulling cash into a leather satchel. “This was an easy one. I expected more. You know those days when they start easy and you keep expecting it to get harder but it never does?”
Sonny tried to remember one of those.
“Well, it never did. I was laying low the last couple of hours thinking somebody was going to bring something new. Nope, easy peasy,” she finished, scrunched her nose, and smiled widely and it was all a joke.
Fortunato held the door open as the three of them exited the establishment. Sonny leaned in close as he passed, and said, “you’re from Cuba, yeah,” more statement than question, “you keep fucking my dead ma I’m gonna have to do the same for yours.” He hit the man on the chest then, as if in jest, though it pushed the man back two steps. “All’s fair, and such…”
Katie stared out the open window as they drove the 111 west into Palm Springs. The wind whipped about the cabin and the shepherd’s tongue lolled and Sonny removed his hat and let his hair fly about his head.
“You’ve gotta name that dog, kid,” he said.
Katie turned her head, as if to answer, but said nothing.
“It’s weird having a dog named ‘dog’,” he continued.
She smiled at this. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking Zeus.”
Sonny inhaled and flicked the smoke out the window and exhaled and looked at her without expression.
“You know me,” she said. “Always reading. There’s this book, History of the Gods. And he’s worthy, right?” She looked at Sonny then, for confirmation.
Sonny nodded then, his hair whipping about in the hot air. “He’s a beast,” he answered. “Zeus is fine. You let me know if that’s your final answer.”
Sonny eased the Merc into the reserved spot in employee parking at the Starlite and sent Katie with the bag and the dog to their suite. Sonny went to his office set off from the main desk and removed his .45, and placed that and his worn brass knuckles in the top drawer, closed it and sat in the swivel chair.
Spun once. Twice. Home, again. Of a sort. The air conditioning unit raged in the corner and the small genius there. He was thinking of the bottle of Four Roses he kept in the bottom right drawer. He was thinking of the dog and how Katie had taken to him so quickly. He was thinking of his dead ex-wife, and the bloody sheets and the splintered bedframe, and the chorus of the frogs at night…
A man tapped Sonny on the jaw. No one did that, of course, ever, but Sonny had fallen asleep and was drooling on his desk blotter and the man had awakened him. These small failures. Sonny shook his head and tried to clear whatever remained.
“You must be Mr. Haynes”, he said. His voice was all pulse and accent. German maybe. “My name is Schneider. My associates lost some money earlier today. I am here to recoup said funds.” He smiled then, and his smile was more grimace than fun. Then it was gone. He had blonde hair slicked in a part and wore a smart two-piece suit. It wasn’t bought where Sonny bought his.
Sonny smiled, because that’s what he had learned to do in these situations. Smiled at the odds. At the limitations. At the ridiculous circumstance in which he found himself. He reached then, pulling back the top drawer for his brass knuckles. They were not there. Nor was his .45.
“I took the liberty of removing your knuckles and your handgun,” Schneider said, and shrugged. “I have heard a bit about you, you see. And while I found it rather funny you were taking a little nap at your desk, I still took it upon myself to remove said articles so as to not distract you from the task at hand.” He put his palms on the desk, here, and stood, looking down at Sonny, who, he was pretty sure, still felt a bit of drool hanging from the right corner of his mouth.
“Tell me where the girl is, or where I can get the money. Either works,” Schneider said, hands still on the table. Every time he said ‘the’ it sounded like ‘zee’, and it brought back memories for Sonny.
Sonny laughed then, in the absence of a better option. Laughed into the black. At it, in fact. “What money is that, exactly?” He asked, and looked at the blonde man. “And what girl? You see many girls hanging around this mug?” He gesticulated about the office and its surroundings. “I mean, I know they’re plush. But what the fuck. You must be dumber than what dropped out a dog’s ass, bud. And Shneider, a Kraut name, collecting for some Wops? You must’ve—” At this, his own brass knuckles caught him high on his forehead, as Shneider brought his right hand down in a brutal arc that Sonny recognized only an instant before he recognized nothing at all.
Sonny woke then, in a start. There was a spray of blood on his desk blotter. That was his, unfortunately, and, of course—but it took him some seconds to process that. His office door was closed. He head was 5 times too big and throbbing and felt as if Jesus himself had slapped him silly while he drank bourbon from a tap at the virgin Mary’s tit. He tried to stand but found the process altogether unhelpful and fell backwards into his chair.
He tried to think but it may as well have been quantum physics. He knew one thing: Katie, money, his suite. Three things, then. He had to somehow accomplish THAT, which, he had to admit, given his present condition, seemed unlikely. He grabbed the arms of his chair with his hands and remembered how his pops in Tennessee way back when had told him that if you didn’t finish a thing you started, oh fuck. He couldn’t even remember it. It had been important, once.
He stood then, put his hand against the wall to balance himself, and thought here on the process. It was like putting together a toddler’s puzzle, and he was struggling. He had to leave his office; walk through the lobby; possibly engage someone at the front desk (please God no); exit through the right rear entrance and walk an outside walkway some 300-400 feet to their suite. He must remember a key, in case. He raised an index finger in celebration of this realization as if he were someone else and then felt in his right front pocket and found it there. His head pounded on and he felt his forehead and a lump there.
Perhaps a racquet ball, hoping to be a softball. He reached for his fedora on the hat rack and found it on the third try and placed it on his dome, covering the bulbous addition to his forehead. His hat slanted low and to the left, like he had forgotten how to dress himself, but if he could maintain a regular gait through the lobby, he may just make the outside walkway. As for the gun and knuckles, it was what it was at this point. Had to move forward. Had to get to Katie.
He took the three steps to the office door and it was a journey. He felt for the desk, the wall, then the handle. Then the handle turned and he had to cross the lobby. There were people out there, in suits and dresses and with luggage on carts and bellboys whisking about. Sonny felt as if the world were moving at twice the speed he was. He did, however, manage to lean on the office door frame and plot the voyage.
He hoped to be more accurate than Columbus, though he had his doubts. He set out, then, across the expanse of blue carpet like so much Oceania. He took a step towards the front desk, which was a half-circle that completed the lobby and placed his left hand on that and used it as a fulcrum and anchor and support of everything that has ever mattered until he reached the line of people in the middle and smiled then, which he hoped looked less like a shitfaced massacre than he imagined, and took the rudderless steps in the hopes of getting between some of the masses.
It is possible that he clipped a small child but by the parent’s reaction, even by Sonny’s severely delayed understanding, it seemed as if the child was put to blame. Sonny reached back onto the desk and followed its curve with his left hand and he finally ran into the exit door. Literally.
He pressed onto the lever and was outside and without desk or fulcrum he swayed and pressed forward and imagined he must have looked like the drunkest man alive. At some point he reached a door, only to realize it was the wrong door as he banged into it, unable to stop his aimless momentum. His head was no longer throbbing, it just simply felt like another appendage entire—if it were possible to excise the whole thing and start over, he would have. Finally, he found the right door. 12. Not a particularly difficult number, one would think, to find.
The key slipped right into the hole and Sonny regarded this with some amazement before he turned the knob and looked about. The scene inside took some reckoning: a man bleeding from both the head and the thigh was on the floor, face down, completely motionless; the shepherd was hunched and growling at him with a crimson glow in the light; Katie sat on a bed with a broken lamp in her lap. His knotted head looked about at this and tried to take it all in.
Then, each in its time, he held his hand out to the dog, and said, ‘shhhh’ and the animal recognized like for like and wagged his tail and came forward and Sonny then leaned to the man and saw it was Schneider and removed his own brass knuckles from the man’s hand and his .45 from the man’s coat pocket, as well as a .22 in the man’s ankle holster, and smiled as gently as he could to Katie as he sat on the bed next to her and asked, “Hey, how we doin’, sweetie?”
She looked up then, though not entirely at him. Did not answer.
“Looks like you may have hit the bad guy on the head with that lamp, yeah?”, he said and smiled. “That was amazing. This guy,” and he pointed at the kraut on the floor here to remove any confusion, “came to take the money you won earlier.”
He leaned over to her and placed his hat on the bed while placing his two hands on her cheeks and lifting her face so that their eyes met. “You see the second head I’m trying to grow?” and his eyes motioned in the direction of the bump that seemed to have taken over that side of his head for the moment. “He did that, too.”
Katie, as blank she seemed, flicked her eyes towards the bump and smiled, once, quickly, then immediately showed concern. “That doesn’t look good,” she said, and shook her head, staring at it now.
“Yeah,” Sonny agreed. “It also feels like somebody has transplanted another head onto mine and I’m carrying both of them around. And one of them is literally nothing but pain. Like, the small head is trying to take over the big head with pain alone.” He grimaced at her then, which he hoped would pass for a smile, and continued: “but the important part is that you’re okay. That’s what matters. I’m sorry it took me a while to get here. Thank you for hitting the bad German man.” He removed the broken lamp from her fingers here, and placed it on the floor.
“The dog bit him. Bad. In the leg,” she said, then. As if in confession.
“Well,” Sonny said. “the dog is a stud. We talked about this before. He’s not gonna let dumbshits like that hurt you. Yeah?”
He stood then, still holding her hands in his. “Hey, you okay, sweetie?” he asked.
She looked at him then, her brown eyes lucid and set. “Yes. I’m okay.” She shook her hands and arms then, as if in an effort to remove something. Then looked at him again. “I’m fine. And yeah, his name is Zeus.”
Sonny smiled at this, and pet the head of the shepherd who had come to sit beside him. “Well. Okay then. Hey, Katie, you know if we have any aspirin?” he asked.
Sonny drove north to the unincorporated areas of the desert in the Merc with Zeus in the backseat. The day had cooled to a moderate 90 and the sun was setting along the pacific. The windows were open and he passed under the 10 highway and flicked his cigarette towards the dying light as Crazy Heart by Hank Williams played on the radio. He barely noticed the thumping in the trunk as they rode.
They pulled off the road some miles west and they bumped and rolled along the dirt roads until they stopped by a wash set some twenty feet deep by decades of winter rains, now simply a gulley of sand. A cloud of dust set into the night as the Merc pulled itself up. Sonny kept the lights on and walked to the trunk with Zeus behind him and popped it. The man inside was still bleeding into the trunk and the whites of his eyes shone wildly in the darkness.
Sonny reached in then, pulled the man out roughly by his shoulder and set him against the bumper. The red rear lights of the Merc bookended the scene, country radio still playing. Sonny sat then, Indian style, and ripped the tape from the man’s mouth, and they were face to face. Sonny lit a smoke as Zeus sat beside him in the sand.
The man, Schneider, spit once then into the sand and took some deep breaths and finally brought his face up and met Sonny’s gaze.
“Hey!” Sonny said, jovially. “So you were saying, money, girl?” He gesticulated about, the embertip of his smoke miming the trail of a firefly. “You find ‘em?”
The man looked at Sonny and his expression went dark and sat there.
Sonny laughed shortly then, an altogether joyous and singular thing. “Okay, so, here’s where you say you’re sorry, and we move on”, Sonny said, and exhaled his smoke. “Problem is, you see where you are. This sand, you aint leaving it.” He gestured then, to the sand and sand and sand about.
Sonny looked at the man, and shrugged. The dog dozed. The sun set, slowly, and all about the desert a thing not unlike slumber carried itself forth and the new sounds and movement it carried piggyback. The cigarette dangled from Sonny’s lips as he pulled the .45 from his belt and the man followed it with his eyes.
The Merc now sat like a lighthouse in the landscape, lonely and alone.
I Want to Be With You Always by Lefty Frizell began on the radio and Sonny sighed. “Well, shit. This here’s a good one. Damned if I’m gonna waste it on you.” And he shot the man in the right knee. The blast was sharp and loud and echoed briefly and the man twisted to the right and shouted once, long and howling.
“Walk on that,” Sonny said, and stood.
The man rolled and shouted again and grimaced and the piano bars rolled in the song in the Merc’s speakers and he turned his face to Sonny and shouted, “you’ll die for this!” which sounded slightly like ‘zis’ to Sonny who chuckled and said, “sure. But you’re gonna die now.” Sonny shot the man again then, in the chest, who heaved forward once against the blast and bucked once then lay still.
The song finished shortly thereafter with the crying of a steel guitar and then it began with The Rhumba Boogie and Sonny looked at the dog and said, “see, now this one I don’t like,” and opened the driver’s door and turned off the radio.
He walked back to Schneider then and nudged him. He moved like any corpse, anywhere. A sluggish back and forth. “My head still hurts, by the way, fucker. A lot.” He placed the gun then back into his belt and pulled a knife from his back pocket and cut and removed the tape on the man’s hands, then reached down and picked the man up by his shoulder and heaved him down into the wash.
The body hit and rolled and rolled and finally skidded to a halt in the sand. Sonny balled up the tape in his hands and he and the dog sat looking down into the darkened gulley. He reached down with his left hand and placed it on the dog’s head, softly.
“So yeah,” he said. “Looks like your name’s Zeus. Get used to it. And thanks.”
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