The following is an alternate version of “Chapter 12.” I submitted the original version to a literary magazine many years ago & it was rejected for being too oddball. The editor wrote me, saying he’d publish me if I took the germ of the idea — rug shampooer in a private eye story — & wrote it straighter, with (I remember him saying) “more jokes.”
The magazine no longer exists. I may not even have a print copy anywhere. It’ll live here.
It had been nearly three weeks since I’d squared my last job—some real dirty business for a schnook in the ’burbs named Marfan—and I was about to crawl into a bag of microwave popcorn to push away the bad memories. That’s when she sautéed her way into my office.
She was broad where a broad should be, with all her feminine parts jiggling like a boxcar full of sumo wrestlers. Her high heel shushed across the carpet until she was leaning forward on my desk, and I was about to ask her if she’d lost the other leg in the war when she spoke.
“Mr. Breath,” she gasped, a single tear eroding a canyon in her rouge, “I need your help—desperately.”
I lit a Lucky and admired her flowing thigh and creamy blonde hair. I could tell straight off she was the kind of a woman who if properly treated, washed, and vacuumed might be inclined to mix business and pleasure.
“All right, sugar,” I said. “Put me wise.”
She noticed the collection of shop-vacs in the corner and the posters of StainX cleaning solution on the wall. Her moist, baby-doll eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You are Michael Breath, private detective, are you not?”
I was not, but I let her go on believing I was because she was the first customer to stain my threshold in some time. My name is Jerry Stumpf. I shampoo rugs. That’s my job. That’s what I do.
“Yeah, I’m Breath,” I said. I motioned to a sideboard where I keep a little booze on hand for alcoholic purposes. “Make yourself a drink and spill it, sister. The story. Don’t spill the drink, please.”
She poured herself a soda and seltzer, then hiked up her micro-mini and set a naked rear cheek on the corner of my desk, crossing her leg at the ankle—proper as a nun, she was. “I want you to find someone for me, Mr. Breath.” And, flashing a rock the size of Gibraltar, she said, “It’s my husband. He’s been missing for a good twenty minutes now, and I’m starting to get worried.”
“We were having a game of peek-a-boo, as we do every Friday evening. When I closed my eyes, Charles disappeared. He’s been missing ever since.”
She gave me a shiny 5-by-8 color photo of a young, sweaty, well-dressed couple, half-obscured by a pink finger blur. The couple was posing before a carpeted staircase with orange plastic slipguards: they were safe and kept the carpet clean, but still, something hit me cockeyed—why would somebody carpet a perfectly good staircase and then cover it up with slipguards? Something was rotten, all right. Something big.
“That’s his brother,” she said. “His brother’s prom photo. The finger is Charles’. It’s several years old, I’m afraid. It doesn’t do Charles much justice, but it’s all I could find.”
I took a closer look at the finger blur. “Charles? Charles Q. Biltcliffe, heir to the Biltcliffe processed meat fortune? Biltcliffe’s Processed Meats? Based in Fortune, New York?”
“You’ve done your homework, Mr. Breath. You get a gold star.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking it and sticking it to my mini-fridge. “I like gold stars.”
“Find him, Mr. Breath. With my dead husband’s extraordinary wealth, I can pay any price.” She stood and turned to leave, giving me a last goggle at her honey hams. I had to admit, for a great-looking dame, she wasn’t half bad. “You’ll know where to find me, I trust.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, writing in the air with my finger. “Just jotting down your address now.”
And then things got personal.
“Do you know if the carpet cleaner next door is in? I seem to have a horrible bloodstain on my rug I need removed quickly and completely and without any questions.”
Everything began clicking into place: a rich, missing husband, a blood-stained carpet, his wife, aburst with voluptuosity, who would have to be a pencil to be less distraught—obviously, her carpet needed cleaning. And if there was another joe out there who could lift that stain out good as me, I hadn’t met him.
“You leave that carpet to me, sugar,” I said. “Besides finding your husband, I’ll see to it that stain never existed and scotchguard the whole kit and caboodle for 20 percent off.”
She shot me a look that told me how grateful she was—and how grateful she could be. Moments like that, I remembered why I got into the rug game in the first place.
With my Deluxe StainMiser 3000 on the fritz, I hauled a wet-dry vac over to the Biltcliffe penthouse, a rent-controlled East Side doormanned brownstone apartment with a cherry on top. I knew my troubles were just beginning when I found the stairs were out of order and I had to lug the wet-dry all the way up the elevator.
As the doors closed I heard the paper bag on the operator’s head rustle my way.
He glanced at my vacuum. “You’re a private eye,” he said. “Listen up, dick. Biltcliffe got iced by his old lady. I seen the whole thing. Shot him in the guts with a .38 and then beat him into 52 pieces with a blunt instrumink. He’s in a buncha shoeboxes in the closet.”
“That so?” I said, nodding thoughtfully. “What if I was to say that story’s as full of holes as a roof on a hot tin cathouse?”
“Check the carpet for yourself.”
“Carpet?” I yelled, grabbing him by the mustache. “What’s wrong with the carpet? Start talking, you parrot!”
Just as I started to tickle it out of him, the elevator door opened. Lucky for him, I had business to take care of.
“I’ll deal with you later,” I said, and gave the servant monkey my wet-dry to carry into the penthouse.
I found her in the bedroom, waxing her insides with a dry martini. She was lying on a bed of lettuce, dressed in a negligee so negligible you could read the fingerprints in her talcum powder. And yet I got the distinct feeling that, while she may have been all she had been cracked up to have been, there was somewhere under that cheap two-bit facade a more expensive three-bit facade, the surface of which I’d only begun to ogle.
“Have you found my husband yet, Mr. Breath?” she asked. “I’m ever so worried about him.”
The truth was, I did know where her husband was. He was resting in pieces in a collection of shoeboxes in the closet. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did. Some might call it a hunch. I call it experience.
“No games, sweetheart. First things first. Where’s the rug?”
“You’re standing on it.”
I was standing on it. All around my Florsheims was ten feet of brownish-red crust sprinkled with gray nuggets. Near the stain was a .38 snubnose and two empty shell cases.
I tipped the servant monkey and unwrapped the cord to the wet-dry. Giving her a nice lick with my eyeballs, I said, “Any place you know of I can plug this in, dollface?”
“I can think of three holes in particular,” she said, leaning back on her ample laurels. She pointed to the wall. There was an outlet available.
I plugged in the wet-dry and yanked on the starter cord, but the engine wouldn’t turn over.
“Maybe you need more clutch,” she said.
But I knew that wasn’t it—it was an automatic. No, someone—or somebody—had tampered with the wet-dry to keep me from solving the case. Without it, my powers were useless.
“Josie here isn’t cooperating with me tonight,” I said. “I guess there’s nothing for me to do but go back to the office and forget the whole—”
Suddenly, the closet door flew open and out leapt a yegg whose face I’d seen before. Before I could say boo, he seized her off the bed and held a stiletto heel to her temple.
“Stop right there, or the broad gets it.”
It was Marfan. He’d been under my nose all along, two steps ahead the whole time, playing me the way a violin player plays a violin.
“I knew you were mixed up in some dirty capers, Marfan,” I said, “but I never pegged you for a murderer.”
“I dabble,” Marfan said, his shoe hand uneasy. “Now I walk outa here, Stumpf, and I take sweet Miss Processed Meat Fortune along with me.”
“Help me!” she shrieked, stating the obvious.
Beads of sweat rolled down the insides of my arms like drops of moisture secreted by my glands in order to keep my body temperature regulated. I needed to act fast.
“You’ll never get out of here, Marfan,” I growled. “Not while I can still squirt you in the face with my wet-dry vac!”
Snatching up the vacuum hose, I yanked on the starter several times, but the engine still wouldn’t give over. I wiggled the plug, unplugged it, and tried again. Still no dice. I checked the pistons, found them to be clean, and moved on to the distributor cap. Wet, as I’d figured. I tore it off, found a new one in my supply bag, and attached it with a 3/4-inch socket driver. This time, I yanked on the cord for dear life and heard Josie’s familiar purr and sputter. Then I aimed the hose and squirted him in the face with the wet-dry.
Marfan went down like a ton of feathers while she escaped his clutches. As I bent down to pick up the gun, Marfan, still two steps ahead of me, was shot dead.
Breathless, she threw herself into my welcoming embrace. “It’s over,” she said, once again stating the obvious. She glanced disgustedly at the corpse on her shag carpeting. “I’ll get some empty shoeboxes.”
Later on, we were married.