In which Tim Duncan solves a mystery in Lob City.
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid May, with the sun brightly shining and a look of dry heat in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my dark black suit, with gray shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, gray cotton socks with black spurs on them. I was neat, clean, not shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on a ring worth four million dollars.
The main hallway of the Sterling place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of seven-footers, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a basketball player in purple and gold armor dunking on a green opponent. He was out of position and not set to take a charge. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and play defense for him. He didn't seem to be really trying.
I rang the bell and was greeted by a 19-year-old blonde dame in a form-fitting red dress and black pumps. She said her name was Kate, and I guessed she was the old Sterling man's daughter. She told me to wait for him in the trophy room.
He kept me waiting for 30 minutes, which gave me plenty of time to peruse the participation awards and commemorative draft-pick jerseys next to a sickening collection of Jim Crow memorabilia. I could tell I was dealing with a crazy old man, just as shady as my usual clients despite the bankroll. Soon or later, after I'd played solitaire in my head five times, the doors opened.
Mr. Sterling rolled in on a wheelchair, flanked by Kate and a nearly identical woman with auburn hair. These were not his daughters.
"Mr. Duncan, I presume?" said Sterling, as if that joke were original. I took him to be roughly 75, though with the tan and attempted lifestyle of a man 40 years younger. His skin was the color of an old oaken table, and he wore a satin jacket over a white dress shirt. He smelled of oil and vinegar.
He told me about the case, which ended up being as much as his assistant had told me over the phone. A diamond-encrusted ring had been stolen, and he wanted it recovered. It belonged to his friend Billy, a comedian with a penchant for bad plastic surgery and silly song-and-dance parodies. I was to find it and return it, making $400,000 plus expenses. I didn't tell him that my expenses usually amounted to a couple of cups of coffee a day, ribs, and some dime-store fantasy novels. Let him deal with the bill later.
I left the house and immediately started checking with sources. Billy was part of the Hollywood establishment but rarely worked anymore. I went to a studio in the hopes of finding out more. After asking after a few execs and starlets, I found out little. Some thought he was in the Big Apple, others said forget that and get to Paris. I told them I'd call up Amelia Earhart and send a postcard.
On the way back to my Buick I was stopped by a short little kid I remembered from his days as a child star. His name was Frankie and he reeked of stale cigarettes and cheap burritos.
"You're meddling in affairs you don't understand, Duncan." His voice whined like a faulty kettle. "Get out of Hollywood before something goes wrong."
I pulled my revolver on him and he skittered away. I headed home and drank a barrel of Mountain Dew to forget my troubles and parse through some leads.
I woke up the next morning with my head throbbing something fierce and a sneaking suspicion that I was being watched. It was dark, but I could make a figure out over on the armchair — female, I thought, and hoped it was that brunette. I reached for my spectacle, put them on, and got a big surprise: Eva, my friend Tony's ex and something of a celebrity in Lob City. She was a brunette, but not the one I wanted to see.
"You're looking in the wrong places, Timothy," she said. She always called me that, even though no one else did. I bet she thought it was endearing.
"What's that to you, sister? What do you know about a ring like that? You a jeweler now?"
"I know enough to know that Sterling never had it. And I think he wants you to do his dirty work so he can get it."
"Thanks for the tip. I'll be sure to buy you a soda pop the next time I see you around." I wanted her out of my room and I wanted her out now. "Tony says hello, by the way."
"Goodbye, Timothy." And that was that.
I went back to bed and woke up a half-hour later with my cat nibbling at my three-day stubble. It looked good, though, and I decided there was no need to shave. Eva's advice stayed with me but I didn't pay it much mind. It was time to go out again and see if I couldn't find out some more.
It turned out I should have given her a little more credit. My first stop was successful, in that it confirmed pretty much every she said. I went to a local hospital to check if Billy had been laid up while recovering from another surgery. There was no word, but I ran into an acquaintance named Pau, one of the rare guys my height with an interest in anything other than the daily grind. He wanted to be a heart surgeon. I only had experience getting mine broken.
He didn't know anything about Billy, and when I told him about the ring he just laughed. "I know that ring, Duncan. And I know that Sterling doesn't have one, unless he stole it. You have to be a part of a select club to get it. They'd never let him in."
I walked back out to the car. I saw a nurse on her break and smiled. I planned our life together. After daydreaming, I decided I had to confront Sterling. Nothing fit together, and I had no leads. He'd sent me on a wild goose chase with no leads, and I couldn't even find the one guy he said took the ring. What was I supposed to do, put out an ad in the classifieds? I tried that once and only heard from a bunch of weirdos. I like having Stephen Jackson around, but I don't need anyone else like him.
I never had to go back to the Sterling place, because he found me. As I was getting into my car, two mooks jumped me. One, a big redhead in a red sweater and corduroy jacket, put me in a headlock. The other, a littler tough the redhead called "CP3," punched me right where it hurts. I keeled over. They put a bag over my head and stuffed me in the trunk.
We drove for about 20 minutes, I think, although it's hard to keep track of time when you're bumping around choking on exhaust. They pulled me out and walked me up 15 flights of stairs. I was not at the Sterling house.
They sat me in a chair and took off the hood. It was a dark, dingy room, full of mice and other undesirable elements. Sterling was right in front of me, standing.
"Mr. Duncan, welcome to one of my buildings. Tell me, would you live here?" He seemed happy to have the upper hand.
"I've seen worse. I didn't find your ring. Probably because it doesn't exist." Better to get all the information out there.
"Oh, I'm well aware of that. I just wanted one. I hoped you could find it. Now I don't know what to do with you." That was not good. I tried to remember if I'd written up a will.
I did, however, have one trump card. "I know one thing you don't want to do, Sterling. I keep all my appointments in a book. That book is in a safe place. If I go missing, the cops will come looking. They'll go to your house. They'll see your unique artwork. They won't like it."
He motioned to the redhead and the little one. "Hit the showers, boys." They left. "You know me too well, Mr. Duncan. What do you want?"
"I want to leave. And I want you to never talk to me again. And I want you to stop."
He nodded. "We can do that." His henchman returned clad only in towels. Sterling looked at them the whole time, muttering to himself occasionally about "beautiful black bodies." I was creeped out. I needed to get out of there.
They called a cab for me and I went home immediately. I needed a shower or six. I thought about Eva, and that brunette, and all the people who had to suffer under the rule of Sterling. I was all part of the nastiness now. But the old man didn't have to be. He could lie quiet in his canopied bed, with his bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting for a death that might never come. Above it all, and yet forever below it.
I went out to a bar downtown and had a couple of Shirley Temples. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of that nurse, and I never saw her again.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.