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Chapter 1: The Bar Watcher

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The Bar Watcher Reissue Chapter 1

C H A P T E R  1

One of the reasons I became a private investigator was because I like solving  puzzles, and every case is like working a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box. Of course, the bulk of any private investigator’s cases are like the puzzles you see for kids on the little table in dentists’ office waiting rooms—five pieces and there’s the bunny. But every now and then you get one that is more like one of those 1,500-piece reproductions of a Bosch or Breughel painting—a  real challenge. They drive me crazy sometimes, but when I finally put the last couple of pieces together, there’s a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to describe, or match.
And almost always the people you’re  looking for are  right there in the picture, though you don’t recognize them until the puzzle’s completed. And from time to time, the picture you think you’re working on isn’t the one you end up seeing.
Now, take the case of the bar watcher….

* * *

I was in what I refer to now as my “Slut Phase.” My monogamous five-year relationship with Chris had broken up some time ago, and I decided it was about time I let the other guys spend their time looking for “Mr. Right”–I’d concentrate on Mr. Right Now. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t whittle a notch in the bedpost after every trick, or I’d have ended up sleeping on a mound of wood shavings.

When I wasn’t pursuing research for a book I thought about writing on “101 Fun Things to Do With a Penis,” I was actually making some progress in that part of my life which did not involve lying down. I’d obtained my private investigator license late the year before, and was struggling to make ends meet.

Business was beginning to improve, though slowly, thanks to a solid working relationship I had with members of the local gay Bar Guild, for whom I’d done a couple favors prior to taking out my license. Referrals from Guild members were in fact the source of much of my business. And the fact that there weren’t exactly a lot of gay private investigators to choose from also helped, I’m sure. I’d rented a small office in one of the city’s older commercial buildings, with an address far more impressive than the building itself.

If I’d started out with any illusions that being a private investigator might be a pretty exciting job, reality kicked me in the ass in short order. Lots and lots of checking on possibly (and too often definitely) wandering lovers, one or two incidences of blackmail, a case of embezzlement involving the business manager of a gay resort—that sort of thing; and lots of sitting around waiting for the next client.

Oh, yeah…and I’d given up smoking. Cold turkey. That was a hell of a lot harder than any case I’d had, or was likely ever to have. So I was relieved when the phone rang just as I was trying to figure out a 10-letter word for “reclusive or brutish person” in the paper’s crossword puzzle (don’t bother: it’s “troglodyte”).

“Hardesty Investigations,” I said, in my professional, half-octave-lower-than-normal voice.

“Hardesty: this is Barry Comstock. Jay Mason of the Bar Guild referred you to me.”

“Well, thanks for calling, Mr. Comstock,” I said, making a mental note to thank Jay as well. “How can I help you?”

“I own Rage…you’re familiar with it?”

Rage was the city’s hottest bathhouse. I knew it.

“Of course,” I said, then waited for him to continue.

“We’ve got ourselves a problem, and while I think it’s a bunch of bullshit, they tell me you might be able to help  resolve it.”

“Is it anything you can mention on the phone, or…?” I asked.

“No; definitely not.”

“I understand,“ I said—but of course I didn’t. “Did you want to come to my office, or…”  

“No, you come over here. I’ve got a business to run and I can’t just be taking off.”

Like I wasn’t busy. Well, okay, I wasn’t, but I didn’t like his ‘busier than thou’ attitude.

“No problem,” I said. “I could be there in around an hour, if that would be all right. I have a client  coming in a little later this afternoon.” I lied, but he didn’t have to know that.

“Good,” he said. “I don’t see your name on our members list, but I might have missed it.”

Actually, he hadn’t—I wasn’t a member. Baths are fine, but they’re not my thing.  I like to have a few words come out of my mouth before putting something in, and the baths aren’t exactly the place guys go for complex conversations like “Hi. My name's….”

“I know how to find it,” I said. “I’ll see you in an hour, then.”

He hung up without a word.

Though I’d never met Barry Comstock, I’d seen him at a distance a couple of times in the more trendy bars and discos, always accompanied by two or three different good-looking guys whom he seemed to enjoy treating like dirt. He had a reputation as a wheeler-dealer in the rapidly growing gay business community. A former porn star, he’d opened Rage about eight months earlier. He was noted for having a monumental schlong, and an ego to match. I’d seen some of his movies—I think I still have a copy of one of his better ones: “Comstock’s Load.” He was also rumored to have the first nickel he ever made, so I imagined he would not be calling on me unless it was something pretty important.

* * *

Rage was located about a half a block off Beech, the main thoroughfare of what local gays were  beginning, in sort of an homage to San Francisco’s Castro district, to refer to as The Central, an area of predominantly gay stores, bars, and restaurants. Rage had no ground floor windows; just a dark blue canopy with  “Rage” in white script over a matching blue entry door. Just as I reached for the handle, the door swung open and a drop-dead gorgeous hunk exited with his gym bag and a satisfied smile. Our eyes locked for a moment, and he gave me a broad wink. “Have fun,” he said.
Before I had a chance to reconsider my opinion of baths, I was inside the small lobby.

A blond Adonis stood behind the registration window wearing a “Rage” tee shirt so tight I thought at first it had been spray-painted on his bare chest. Yeah, I thought, maybe I should reconsider

“Your card?” the blond said.

“I’m not a member,” I said. “I’ve got an appointment with Barry Comstock. The name’s Hardesty.”

The blond picked up a phone out of sight below the window, said something I couldn’t hear, then hung up the phone and nodded toward the only door leading to the interior from the lobby. “First door to your left,” he said, and pressed an unseen buzzer which opened the lobby inner door.

“Thanks,” I said, and passed through it into a short hallway. The first door on the left was marked “Private” and I knocked.

“Come in,” a voice said, and I did.

The room was large and windowless, paneled in what appeared to be dark oak. It apparently couldn’t decide whether its function was to impress or to be a working office, and therefore didn’t quite fit either category. There were several small framed photos on one wall, apparently of Comstock with various celebrities, a large painting of a nude male torso—undoubtedly Comstock himself—on a side wall next to a door, a couple file cabinets, a worktable with a copy machine and a typewriter, a couple of comfortable and expensive looking leather chairs and a large, equally expensive looking desk, behind which sat Barry Comstock, slitting open a stack of mail with a very wicked looking letter opener.

I mentioned that Barry Comstock had been a porn star, but it was obvious that he was no longer in his 20s—or, despite valiant efforts on his part, even his 30s. His face had that stretched-too-tight look that indicated a plastic surgeon’s handiwork. In some odd way, he was rather like the room itself. He’d have been considerably more attractive if he’d just left himself alone.

He did not get up and so I deliberately walked over to the desk and extended my hand, which he had to put down the letter opener and lean forward to take.

“Dick Hardesty, Mr. Comstock.” I said. “What can I do for you?”

He motioned me to a chair and resumed opening the mail, shifting his glance back and forth between the mail and me.

“We’ve had some…well, what my partners consider to be threats. I think they’re bullshit, but they insisted I look into it. Frankly, I don’t have the time, which is why I called you.”

“What kind of threats?”

Comstock finished opening the mail, set the opener aside again, and leaned back in his chair. “We’ve been getting bitch letters since we opened...most of them have tapered off lately.”

“What kind of ‘bitch letters’?”

Comstock gave a slight sneer. “About our membership policy,” he said.

“And your membership policy is…?”  Actually, I had a pretty good idea from what I’d been hearing on the street, but I wanted to hear him spell it out.

He looked at me with a mixture of disdain and surprise.

“Which is that this is a place where hot young guys come to meet other hot young guys. We don’t let fats or old farts in. If you’re fat, or bald, or old, or ugly you can go someplace else.”

So much for my buying stock in the Barry Comstock School of Charm, I thought. This guy was really starting to piss me off.

“So what made this letter different…and did you keep it?”  I asked.

“Nah,” Comstock said with a shrug. “I pitch them all. But I remembered this one–it came in maybe four, five months ago—because the asshole made it up to look like a ransom note...you know, all cut-out words pasted together. It said that if we didn’t change our membership policy we’d be hearing from him again. Fuckin’ blackmail’s what it boils down to, pure and simple. And I’m not the kind of guy you want to try to blackmail.” He unconsciously hunched his shoulders forward as if flexing his muscles.

We sat silent for a moment, until I said: “And I gather you did hear from him again?”

Comstock gave a contemptuous snort and reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, pulling out what appeared to be a shoe box. “This came in the mail, addressed to me.” He pushed it across the desk, and I leaned forward to take it. The box had no marking of any kind, and I lifted the lid to find it stuffed with tissue paper. Moving the tissue paper aside I found a 3x5 card on which someone had pasted a panel from what I assume was a comic book. It was a picture of a fireball over which was the word: “BOOM!”  Turning it over, words cut from obviously various sources, in assorted sizes and typefaces said: “Last chance. Everyone plays or YOU pay.”  Kind of melodramatic, I thought, but it made it’s point.

I put the card back, closed the lid, and pushed the box back across the desk.

“Did you save the wrapper it came in?”

“What the fuck for?  I’ve got enough garbage around here as it is.”

If he was too stupid to entertain the idea that a return address or postmark might have come in handy, I wasn’t about to spell it out for him.

“It’s probably just somebody with a grudge and an active imagination,” I said. “But you never know; this guy could be serious. I guess you didn’t consider contacting the police?”

Comstock shook his head scornfully. “Are you out of your fucking mind?  I let the cops come in here scaring off the customers and I might as well shut the place down. I told you it’s fucking blackmail. And I told you I don’t pay blackmail.”

Yeah, I heard you the first time, and I wasn’t impressed then, either, I thought. Though I didn’t say anything, it struck me that for anyone out to settle a grievance, real or imagined, with Rage, it would only take a couple of “concerned citizen” or “they’re selling drugs” calls to the cops to effectively shut the place down. The police would love any excuse for a raid, and no gay man in his right mind would willingly put himself in a gay bath house that was subject to frequent raids. Obviously, something else was going on here.

“Exactly who determines who gets in and who doesn’t?” I asked.

Comstock leaned forward, putting his elbows on the desk, one hand wrapped around the other lightly clenched fist. “I’m the boss. I decide. The desk men are told in no uncertain terms who gets in and who doesn’t; they do the sorting out,” he said. “If there’s any doubt, they buzz me. But usually it’s pretty cut and dried. Ugly’s ugly. Fat’s fat; old's old.”

“And how do they handle it when an undesirable comes in?”  I used the word “undesirable” deliberately.

“The ones we want as members are given membership cards to fill out. The others are told that memberships are closed.”

“And if somebody is filling out a membership card when a non-desirable comes in?” I asked. “Or worse, if somebody’s getting the ‘closed membership’ spiel and somebody worthy of belonging comes in?”

“Same thing. They get the message pretty fast. And you can cut the fucking sarcasm. I’m running a business here, not a bleeding hearts social club. There are lots of other baths around. Let the creeps go there.”

That’s it, Comstock, I thought; you’re definitely off my Christmas card list.

He stared at me and then said, “Well, do you want the job or not?”

“I can certainly try,” I said, “but you realize there aren’t any guarantees.” And then I told him my rates and he leaned quickly back in his chair as if a cobra had suddenly appeared on his desk. “That’s pretty damned steep for no guarantees,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, though. You do a little preliminary checking around first—you know, in exchange for a year’s membership, say—then we could talk about officially hiring you when you had a better idea of whether you think you can find the guy.”

Now it was my turn to see the imaginary cobra, but I didn’t move a muscle. I wanted to tell this sorry excuse for a cheap bastard what he could do with his year’s membership, but I managed to keep my cool.

“Sorry, my rates aren’t negotiable. Why don’t you think this over for a day or so,” I said, getting up from my chair, “and if you decide to hire me, give me a call.”

I  wondered whether I should offer to shake hands with this walking prick or not. I was surprised when he also got up and extended his hand. “I’ll let you know,” he said as we shook hands. Then he sat back down in his chair and I turned and left the room.

“Rage” was a good name for the place, I decided.

* * *

On my way back to the office, though I tried to concentrate on other things, my mind kept going back to Comstock and Rage. There’s a definite difference between having a big prick and being one, but in Comstock’s case he qualified in both. Rage’s membership policy was, without a doubt, reprehensible and insulting to anyone who did not meet Comstock’s standards of what was or was not “hot.”  I could well imagine the humiliation and…well, yes, rage… anyone so blatantly and obviously refused entry to the bath might well feel. Perhaps whoever it was who sent the letter and the box was overreacting just a little, but then again, if it had happened to me….But, hey, I’m okay: I got offered a full year’s membership!  Big fucking deal. I wondered whether it ever occurred to the guys who got in how the guys who didn’t must feel?
Okay, Hardesty, I told myself, take your heart off your sleeve and put it back in your chest, now.

* * *

On my way home after work, I stopped in at Bob Allen’s bar, Ramón’s, for their happy hour, and to see if I could talk to Bob. I wanted to find out a little more about Barry Comstock and his “partners,” and Bob was in as good a position to know as anyone.

I didn’t see Bob around, but Jimmy, the bartender, was at the far end of the bar signing for a beer delivery from a guy whose talents were definitely wasted in pushing dollies full of beer all over town. He stood about 6'3" and was wearing a short-sleeved uniform shirt. I’ve seen oak trees with trunks smaller around than that guy’s biceps. And when he turned to face in my direction, I saw that the rest of him matched. Short-cropped hair, a nice, square jaw, a huge expanse of chest with perfectly curved pecs the shirt couldn’t hide, a V-shaped torso and a bulge down the left leg of his pants that ran halfway to his knees. Definitely my kind of guy.

Normally, I’d have taken the first stool I came to, but something—care to guess what?—drew me to the far end of the bar. The delivery man looked up at me as I was about halfway there, and when our eyes met, I felt like that 3x5 card in the box at Rage: said: “BOOM”.

“Hi, Jimmy,” I said, taking a stool next to where the delivery man was standing.

“Hi, Dick,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah, hi, Dick,” the delivery man said, giving me a First Class Cruise smile. Then, eyes still on me, he half turned toward Jimmy and said, in a tone that didn’t leave much doubt as to who he was really talking to: “Yeah, Jimmy, like I was saying, this is my last stop for the day, so I’m not sure what I’ll be doing after I take the truck back.” Again the grin.

“Open for suggestions?” I heard myself ask.

“Got one?” he asked.

Oh, I had one, all right!  I had a suggestion, too, as a matter of fact.

“Earth to Dick,” I heard Jimmy say, snapping his fingers: “Earth to Dick; order, please.”  

I pulled my eyes away from the delivery man long enough to look quickly at Jimmy. “Yeah, give me a whiskey old fashioned, sweet.” And a bucket of ice water to pour over my head, I thought. “Can I buy you one?” I asked the delivery man.

“Thanks,” he said, “but not until I get off work. Will the offer still be good then?”

“Sure,” I said. “About how long?”

If he said ‘About 11 inches’ I think I’d have fallen off my stool. Luckily, he didn’t.

“Maybe 20 minutes,” he said. “You still be here?”

Silly question. “Count on it,” I said.

Without another word, he got his dollie, waved at Jimmy, who waved back, and left through the rear door.

Jimmy brought my drink, going through his standard flourish routine with the napkin. “Thank God he’s gone,” Jimmy said, shaking his head, face serious.

“Why?” I asked, a little startled.

“I was afraid I was going to have to turn the fire hose on you two. I know Jared works fast, but this set an all-time record, even for him.”

“His name’s Jared?” I asked, realizing he hadn’t mentioned it.

Jimmy nodded. “Jared Martinson. And, honey, I don’t know what you’re going to do with that boy!”

“What do you mean?”

Jimmy looked up and down the bar for anyone needing immediate service and, seeing no one who did, he leaned across the bar toward me. “I went home with him right after he started delivering here,” Jimmy said, his voice lowered though there was no one within two stools of us in either direction.

“And…?” I prompted.

Jimmy stood back from the bar and spread his two hands apart like a fisherman demonstrating the size of the one that got away. Impressive, to say the least.

“Lordy,” he said, “all I could do was throw my arms around it and cry! Actually, I kind of feel sorry for him—not one guy in ten that I know could accommodate that ramrod!”

Someone at the far end of the bar signaled for another drink, and Jimmy pushed himself away from the bar, saying “’Scuse me,” and moved toward the waiting customer.

Jared Martinson, eh? He sounded like a real challenge in more ways than one.

* * *  

I was about halfway through my second old fashioned, having learned that Bob had said he wouldn’t be in at all that night, when I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. I turned to look up into the incredibly handsome face of Jared Martinson.

“Offer still good?” he asked, smiling.

“One among many,” I replied, signaling to Jimmy, who waved and nodded.

“That was quick,” I said as Jared took the stool next to me. He’d changed clothes, into a short-sleeved pullover sport shirt that outlined every curve, indent, and nipple.

“I don’t waste time when I’m after something,” he said. I hoped he meant me.

Without Jared's having ordered, Jimmy brought a drink and set it in front of him with a wink. Apparently Jimmy knew quite a bit about Jared Martinson.

“So how long have you been driving delivery trucks?” I asked, after we’d done a silent glass-click toast.

Jared took a slow drink before answering. “Since I got into town, about six months ago,” he said. “I like it. Gives me plenty of time to think, and  helps keep the muscles in shape.”

“So I noticed. You always been in this line of work?”

Jared smiled and shook his head. “Not really. I taught for a while.”

“Really? What level? What subject?”

“College,” he said casually. “Russian Literature.”

“You’re shitting me.”

He shook his head and smiled. “Nope. I’ve got a Masters in it. Working on my Ph.D. now”

“Why did you quit teaching?” I asked, really curious.

“Because I wasn’t much older than my students, and some of them were just too damned tempting. So I set it aside for a while to work on my Ph.D.. By the time I finish it I’ll be ready to go back. And I really like what I’m doing now. No pressure.”

I was really impressed, and it probably showed.

“How about you?” he asked. “What do you do for a living?”

“Nothing quite so exotic as a teaching Russian Literature, I’m afraid. I’m a private investigator.”

“No shit?” He grinned. “Working on anything interesting?”

“Not at the moment. I might have one coming up, but I’m not sure yet.”

We each took a sip of our drinks, and I said: “You ever go to Rage?” Hey, that was subtle, I thought.

Jared smiled. “Not any more. I sort of lost my membership.”

“How’d that happen?”

“A long story—I’ll tell you about it sometime.”

I was curious, but let it drop for now.

“You know the owner?” I asked, trying another tack.

Jared nodded. “Oh, yeah. A lot more than I want to, I’m sorry to say. He’s an arrogant asshole who thinks the word ‘no’ doesn’t apply to him. He rubbed me the wrong way since the night I joined.”

“How so?” I asked.

Jared turned toward me, his knee bumping against my thigh. I instinctively moved my leg out of the way, but he reached down and pulled it back against his knee. “It was not too long after I moved here...maybe four or five months ago,” he said, giving me a smile and continuing to move his knee slowly back and forth against my thigh, subtly but definitely. “I’d just filled out this membership card they give you, paid my membership fee, and was waiting for my official entry card when these two guys came in. One was a real humper; his friend was average looking but kind of overweight, looked like a nice guy. They went up to the window and said they wanted to join. The clerk looked really confused and stammered something I couldn’t hear. Then he picked up a phone, and a minute later this Comstock guy comes into the room behind the glass—I recognized him from some old porn movies I had.

“Anyway, I tried to pretend I wasn’t paying attention, but I heard Comstock say to the good-looking guy that he was welcome to join, but that his friend couldn’t. His friend didn’t say a word, but the good looking one wanted to know why. ‘We have strict standards,’ this Comstock bastard says. Jesus, you should have seen the look on that poor kid. It was like someone had spit in his face! I think if Comstock had been in the lobby rather than behind the glass, the good looking one would have decked him. Hell, I would have decked him!

“But instead, the humper just turned around, grabbed his friend by the arm, and they left. If I hadn’t already paid my money, I’d have walked out, too.

And this Comstock bastard just walks away, unconcerned as all shit. What a fucking asshole!”

We’d about finished our drinks by then, and Jimmy came by to see if we wanted a refill. We shook our heads “no” in unison, and looked at each other.

“You ready for a little action?” Jared asked.

Oh, yeah! 

We paid our tab and left.

  * * *

Jimmy had not been exaggerating when he talked about Jared’s physical attributes. It was a real challenge, but I love a challenge, and it was more than worth it. And Jared had a few special techniques of his own that he amply demonstrated to my delight and ultimate total exhaustion.

“Not bad,” Jared said as he plumped up his pillow and put it behind his head.

“Ditto,” I observed.

We just sort of lay there for a few minutes, until Jared said, staring at the ceiling,

“You need any help?”

I turned to look at him. “Well, after this, I might need a little assistance in standing up.”

He grinned. “Not that kind of help. I mean, like in your work. You know, finding out stuff, getting information—that kind of thing. I like keeping my mind active, and I’m in just about every bar in town and I always keep my ears open. I hear a lot of stuff—I  never repeat it, but I hear it. And I’m pretty friendly with most of the bartenders. And I…uh…get around a lot, too.”

“That’s really nice of you, Jared,” I said. “But I’m not in a position right now to…”

He looked at me quickly and shook his head. “I wasn’t talking about money. I just think it would be kind of fun. Give me something to do while I’m hauling those beer cases around.”

“That would be great!” I said, though I wasn’t quite sure how I might be able to use his services. “But I’d have to have some way of repaying you.”

“Hell, no,” he said. “I’d have to be most of those places anyway. Maybe I could just take it out in trade.” He grinned.

“Now there’s a deal,” I said, and meant it. I thought for a second, then said, “You know, I could use another pair of ears when it comes to Rage. I’d appreciate knowing more about Comstock. And particularly anything anyone might be saying about their membership policies.”

“You mean other than that they suck? Sure,” Jared said.

We were quiet for another moment, and Jared said, “Maybe I shouldn’t even bring this up, but I hope we might be running into one another more often, and I think I should tell you right off that I’m not looking for a relationship—not that I thought you were,  but….”

I reached out and laid my hand on his washboard stomach. “Not to worry,” I said. “I’m not exactly out baiting the traps yet. Besides, I’m having too much fun right now; I’m like a kid at Halloween, and it’s trick or treat time.”

“Ready for another treat?” Jason asked, with a wicked grin.

I looked at him in amazement. “You wouldn’t happen to be a Scorpio, would you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “How’d you know?”

“Figures,” I said.

* * *

The phone was ringing as I walked into the office the next morning. I ran across the room to grab it. “Hardesty Investigations,” I said.

“I’ve drawn up a contract for you,” the voice said, not bothering to identify himself. Fortunately I recognized it as Barry Comstock. “How soon can you be here?”

“I’ve got a client coming in in about 10 minutes,” I lied, but I wasn’t about to start jumping through Barry Comstock’s hoop. “I can probably be there by 11.”

“The sooner the better,” he said, and hung up.

* * *

I timed it so that I arrived at Rage at exactly 11 o’clock. The same blond was behind the lobby window, and he must have recognized me, because he nodded his head toward the door and pushed the buzzer before I had a chance to say anything.

I knocked on Comstock’s office door, and heard him say...well, it was more of a bark..., “Come on in.”

He wasn’t seated behind the desk this time. He was pacing back and forth between the desk and the worktable, obviously agitated.

He didn’t wait for me to say anything. “The fucking bastard!” he almost yelled. “He’s screwing with the wrong guy!  I’m going to have his balls in a jar!”

I just stood there until he finally shut up.

“Mind telling me what’s going on?” I asked.

His face was flushed with anger, and he forced himself to march to his desk and plop down in the chair. “My brand new, $49,000, just-off-the-fucking- showroom-floor convertible is what’s the matter!” he spewed. “That motherfucking bastard slashed the top and all four tires!”

“And you think it’s the guy behind the threats?”  He hadn’t offered me a seat and I deliberately remained standing. He obviously didn’t care.

“Think?” he fumed, pushing a piece of paper across the desk at me. “He left this on the front seat.” It contained two words, cut from  newspaper headlines: “You Lose!” 

I looked at the paper, then at Comstock. “Are you sure you don’t want to take this to the police? This guy can really mean business.”

Comstock leaned forward in his chair, waving his finger back and forth like a windshield wiper. “God damn it, I told you no! No police. Are you a fucking detective or not?”

Some of his anger was rubbing off on me. “Yes, I’m a detective. But I’m also not stupid. I know when it’s time to bring the police in.”

“No,” he said emphatically. “No police. Now do you want the fucking job or don’t you?”

“Well, I….”

He picked up a thick envelope and pushed it across the desk with such force that  I caught it just as it flew off the edge and started its fall to the floor.

“Here’s the contract,” he said. It was sealed, and I started to slip my finger under the end to open it. Comstock shook his head in disgust and picked up his letter opener. “Here, use this” he said and tossed it to me. I instinctively grabbed for it and was vastly relieved to catch it by the handle rather than by the blade. What an asshole, I thought.

I opened the envelope, very carefully laid the opener back on the desk, and stood there looking quickly over the contract while Comstock sat staring at me.

“This says half my regular fee, the other half to be paid if I catch the guy,” I noted.

“More than fair,” Comstock said. “I’m not paying full price with no guarantees. If you find the guy, you’ll get the rest. If you don’t, then I’ve just thrown good money out the window.”

I carefully replaced the contract inside the envelope and slid it back across the desk.

“Then I think you’d better find yourself a detective who’ll be willing to agree to this. I won’t.”

“Fucking loser!” Comstock spat. “You turn this down, I’ll ruin you.”

I literally bit my lower lip to keep myself from saying what I wanted to say. Instead, I just turned and walked out of his office, not closing the door behind me.

As I entered the lobby, the blond Adonis just stood there, eyes moving from me to the office, from which Comstock’s voice yelled out: “Fucking loser!”

 * * *

Needless to say, I didn’t get much done for the rest of the day. I did some paperwork, made a few phone calls, then headed for home. But my anger was still there, and I decided to stop in at Ramón’s for their happy hour. If anybody needed a happy hour, it was me.

I was downing my fourth old fashioned and was pretty well on my way to being blotzed when Bob Allen came in. Jimmy went over to talk to him, and they both looked over toward me. Bob nodded and came over.

“How’s it going, Dick?”

“Like shit, thanks,” I said.

“Oh, oh,” Bob said, grinning. “Why don’t you and I go get something to eat, and we can talk about it?”

Now, I don’t usually let things get to me, but Comstock had somehow managed to push all the right buttons, and I was as pissed at myself for allowing it to happen as I was at him for causing it. And I also tend to keep my private problems private. But Bob was a good friend and we’d been through some pretty rough times together. Him I could talk to. And I did.

After a couple cups of black coffee at the bar, Bob and I went down the street to a little Armenian restaurant run by some friends of his. We sat around talking for a good three hours. I kept telling Bob he had a business to run and he should get back to it, but he just shrugged it off, and it was nearly 10:30 when I walked him back to Ramón’s and came on home.

I’d just gotten to sleep when there was a knock at my door. I put on my robe and went to see who it was. When I looked through the peephole, I saw a police badge.

I opened it, wondering what the hell was going on.

Two plainclothes detectives and a uniformed cop were standing in the hall directly in front of my apartment. I wondered how they’d gotten into the building without ringing.

“Dick Hardesty?” the one with the badge said.

“Yeah?”  I saw the uniformed cop reach for his handcuffs.

“Dick Hardesty, you are under arrest for the murder of Barry Comstock. Anything you say….”



Cover of The Bar Watcher


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