Big Emma's


A Jim Wolf Mystery


By Tim Wohlforth



A cold wind blew rain horizontally, transforming each drop into a pellet determined to penetrate my body. I could hear the dolorous bray of the foghorn in the estuary as I crossed the promenade toward the shimmering orange glow of Big Emma's, the Victorian bar on Jack London Square. My hangout, my office. Lori runs the place and tonight I needed Lori. I was determined, despite the elements, to be with her to celebrate. I'm Jim Wolf. Private eye. I live off the leftovers of insurance cases the big guys don't want to bother with. Not this time. I had hit the jackpot.

Beads of moisture dripped down my face. Underneath my supposedly waterproof coat, my damp flannel shirt and jeans clung to my body. Once again the bleat of the distant foghorn. Every ninety seconds. Incessantly. Never missing a beat.

I shook myself like a dog after a dip in a cold stream. Damned if I was going to spend my evening alone on my boat. Not this evening, after my big win. I had to tell Lori about it. Boast. Brag. Drink. I trudged on towards the bar.

* * *

I blinked, adjusting my eyes, as I passed through the black wrought-iron gates of the nineteenth century building. Big Emma's was dimly lit by golden candle-shaped bulbs in ornate brass fixtures. A wide mirror in a carved oak frame covered the wall. Dice cups, some with players' names engraved on gold plaques, were stacked on a shelf in front of the mirror. In its middle stood an antique brass National cash register with monstrous keys. A tantalizing whiff of garlic and cheese floated from the kitchen. Cannelloni. Breathing easier, I hung my soaked jacket on a peg by the door and immersed myself in light, the murmur of voices, warmth.

Lori polished the mahogany bar, her platinum blond ponytail bobbing up and down. She wore a white turtleneck sweater and a black skirt. A black velvet ribbon held her hair high up on her head. Some customers came to Big Emma's just to watch her. I was one of them. Once my lover, now my best friend. She looked up and saw me. A frown creased her small face, her deep blue eyes downright solemn. Not the usual bubbly Lori.

"What are you doing out on a night like this?" she asked.

"Came to brag, to celebrate. You know that big insurance fraud case I've been working on?"

"You never told me who was involved."

"I can now that my part of the investigation is over. Bay Motors. Hundreds of bloated collision claims. Millions involved."

"You mean Hal Lawrence? Seen him on TV all the time. That guy has dealerships all over Northern California. You'd think he was making so much money he wouldn't need to cheat."

"His type never makes enough," I said. "My evidence's going to convict the crook. Already received a twenty grand fee and I'm promised a grand per day to testify."

"Drag it out."

"What?"

"Your testimony." She turned from me, reached for a bottle of Oban single malt Scotch — my bottle — and poured me a double shot. Neat.

"On the house."

"I can pay."

"That's why it's on the house. Some storm out there. My customers are coming in soaked through to the skin." Lori looked me over and called to her brother. "Joe, grab a dry shirt back there for Jim."

"I'm okay."

"Your teeth are chattering."

And so they were. I was having trouble downing my Oban but down I did. Joe came over with a white dress shirt and a blue blazer I assumed some drunk had left. I stripped off my flannel shirt and put them on. I glanced at my image in the mirror behind the bar. Not me, but I was warm.

"Might hurt your business. Nobody will find the place."

"Look around you. Once they find us they don't want to leave."

She waved at the crowded bar. I spotted the regulars. A group of longshoremen occupied the end of the bar. Then came some political cronies surrounding a tall black man who was on the City Council. They were playing liar's dice. An inebriated paper salesman, who once spent two hours explaining to me why paper still mattered in a digital world, tried to get Lori's eye. Others I didn't recognize, a group of secretaries, two gray-haired couples.

People talked louder than normal, as if to buck up their spirits. I found the false camaraderie positively oppressive. I took another gulp of Oban.

That's when the door opened. Gusts of rain-soaked wind blew in around a lone figure wearing a tan full-length gabardine raincoat. Not Target. More like Neiman-Marcus. Water dripped from the rim of a matching hat. A large leather bag — I'd bet Coach — hung from her shoulder. She had short-bobbed, rich brown hair and the largest deep brown eyes I had ever seen. The pupils left little room for the white of the eye. Like the button eyes on a teddy bear. Gave her a child-like look. She seemed bewildered as she searched the room.

"Can I help you?" Lori shouted out.

She pushed the door shut behind her and walked toward the bar. "Looking for Jim Wolf."

"I'm Jim Wolf." I swung off my stool to greet her. She nodded, clinging to me with those eyes.

"I want to hire you."

"What for?"

"A private matter."

"Let's sit over here."

I gestured to the empty booth under the portrait of Big Emma. An enormous, corpulent nude, watermelon sized boobs, waves of undulating belly, stretched out on a red velvet settee. Delicate gold leaf legs somehow supported Big Emma's weight. Curly black hair flowed down the nude's back. I loved the expression on her face, defiantly proud of the massive mound of her body. Big Emma was a monument to the joy of human excess from a period when life was short and knowledge of what made it so beneficently absent. Lori came over and the woman ordered a vodka martini, Absolut, olive but no juice. I asked for a refill on my whiskey.

The woman seemed ill at ease. She glanced back at the front door. Who did she expect to enter? I would find out soon enough.

"You are?"

"Susan."

"Susan who?"

"Susan."

I don't like clients without last names. But it was a rainy night, the Oban had clouded my judgment, I was curious, and there were those damn soft brown eyes. I would hear her out and then make a decision. Lori came with our drinks. I took another deep sip of my Oban while my guest swallowed her martini in two gulps.

"Okay Susan. What's this all about?"

"I want you to kill my husband." She waved towards the door. "He's out there somewhere."

"Wait a minute. I'm not some hired gun. I'm just a humble PI making a living on insurance cases."

"I know that. I checked you out. Let me tell you the situation then you make up your mind."

"Go ahead."

"I didn't know hardly anything about Eddie, that's my husband, when I married him. One of those crazy, dizzy romances that ended with the two of us in a little chapel in Reno. Handsome guy and he seemed to have plenty of money. Said he was into option trading. I moved into his apartment, a high rise in Emeryville overlooking the San Francisco Bay. I had this job as a secretary but he had me quit. Said he had enough money for both of us. For a while it was perfect, too perfect."

"And your solution is to murder the guy? Heaven forbid if he had any imperfections."

She ignored my comment, said nothing for a moment. ESPN droned in the background. A piercing high-pitched scream came from a middle-aged bottle-blond lady in a tight black dress tottering on a back stool. Someone had pinched her or she had just won at liar's dice.

Then Susan continued. "I should've just left things be." She began to cry. Not fair, big brown eyes are bad enough, but when they fill with tears it's devastating. "But I couldn't. At least I didn't."

"What happened?"

"Eddie had this private side. He'd disappear for days at a time, take phone calls in the middle of the night. Drove me crazy. I loved the guy so much I just had to know everything, couldn't live with a section of his life that was walled off from me. I guess I was jealous. Figured he had other women."

"So what did you do?"

"One night he got a phone call and left the apartment at 2 a.m. I followed him in my car. He drove up into Montclair."

"I know the area. The Oakland hills. Some nice homes up there."

"He pulled in front of a modest redwood one-story ranch house. I don't think he saw me. He went around the side of the house. I followed. He crawled into a window. I waited. Five minutes later, I heard a shot, saw a flash of light, then quiet. Eddie ran out the front door and took off. I raced to my car. I had to get back to the apartment before he came home. But he beat me there. He confronted me. I told him I couldn't sleep and had gone for a drive."

"Did he believe you? I wouldn't."

I was having trouble believing Susan now. However, the problem was I wanted to believe, like someone who sees the image of the Virgin Mary in an oil stain on the tarmac.

"He didn't say anything, but I could tell he didn't believe me. The next day the paper reported the murder of a cop who had planned to testify about corruption in the Oakland Police Department. Listed his address. The place Eddie had visited. He's a hit man, Jim, my husband's a professional killer. And I'm the only one who knows. He follows me now. I sense it. Don't you see? If I don't kill him, he'll kill me."

"Go to the cops."

"He's working for the cops, or at least some of them."

"Why did you come to me, since you know I'm not a killer?"

"I guess because I wanted you to talk me out of it."

"I know somebody in the DA's office."

"Can we go there tonight?"

"I don't know her home address. In the morning."

"I won't be alive in the morning."

She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad. She counted out ten hundred dollar bills. She looked up with those puppy dog brown eyes, begging. Damn it, she was begging. I don't do well with begging ladies. She pushed the bills across the table.

"Just to watch me tonight. I know he's out there somewhere. Just for the night."

The eyes, tears forming in the corner. Her coat opened and the outline of her body pressed against her tight white silk blouse as she leaned forward across the table, and squeezed on my hand. And the grand. I gulped down the rest of my drink and headed for the door, the rain, the killer husband. She followed. Lori just shook her head. I dropped the blazer off on a peg, grabbed my still-wet jacket, pulled the hood over my head, tightened the strings, and stepped into Jack London Square.

The rain pounded me. Big Emma's disappeared completely after I walked only a few feet. I heard the moan of the distant buoy in the estuary, every ninety seconds, as if the night was alive and the foghorn its heartbeat. I sensed that someone was out there, someone evil. Could Susan's husband be watching us from just beyond the curtain of darkness? I strained my eyes but could see nothing.

A sound, a movement. I stiffened, then made out a large rat scurrying along the shoreline. Susan, tan raincoat, that hat, clung tighter to my arm. I stopped at the edge of the marina. I heard water lapping against the hulls of a hundred private yachts, halyards slapping the aluminum masts.

"Where to?" she asked.

"You are going to spend the night at my home where I can watch over you."

Susan turned towards me and stood inches away, still holding my arm. Her eyes glistened. Rain dripped down from her hat. I held her with my free hand as if all I wanted was to protect her from the rain. It was not all that I wanted.

"And where is that?"

"There."

I gestured towards the swaying masts dipping in and out of the dim intermittent reddish light cast by the buoy.

She smiled and said, "fabulous."

* * *

Susan sat beside me on the soft blue seat cushions in the dinette area of my boat, the Sea Wolf. She had taken her coat off, revealing form-fitting slacks and a white blouse. I had the table half folded down to give us more room. A dim light in the center of the cabin projected an amber glow over the interior. The boat rocked gently in its berth. No apartment I had ever lived in produced in me the warmth of Sea Wolf's oiled teak bulkheads, round brass ports, and blue curtains sporting white anchors. I put on a CD. The soulful sound of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach cello sonata filled the cabin.

"What's that?" Susan asked, pointing to a rectangular tank lying on the aft bunk.

"Monty, a Burmese python who shares the boat with me."

"I'd like to meet him."

"Her. Not always easy to tell the sex of a snake. Sheila, her former owner, named her before investigating too closely."

"What happened to Sheila?"

"She was a belly dancer at an Egyptian nightclub up on Broadway. This guy from Microsoft used to hang out there, throwing hundred dollar bills at her. She took off with him for Seattle and left Monty with me."

"Sad story."

"Not really. Monty and I get along just fine. Sheila and I didn't."

I rose and went over to the tank. I grabbed Monty just behind her head and near her tail. Safest way. She had eaten recently her weekly quota of a frozen mouse and was quite docile. But you can never tell with snakes. They don't always react as expected. I placed Monty on the cushion between us. She raised her head, looked Susan over, flicked her tongue, then curled into a ball.

"Can I hold her?"

"Let me." I picked her up as before, placed her in Susan's lap. Monty began to coil around her.

"Oh, my God, fantastic. She's warm. I thought snakes were cold-blooded."

"That means they are whatever temperature is external to them. Her tank is heated."

I couldn't keep my eyes off Susan and Monty. Monty had definitely taken to her, wrapping herself around her body. Monty's tongue darted in a circular fashion, a good sign, and she moved her head so her glassy eyes could take in her new friend.

"Unbelievable," Susan said, then her tongue moistened her full lips. "She's so sleek and sinuous. I can feel the rhythmic pulsating of her muscles all around me. Oh God, she's squeezing."

"That's what pythons do. Their bite is painful but that's not what kills. They squeeze their prey to the point where they cannot breath. Once the prey dies they open their mouths, jaws disconnect and they swallow."

"People?"

"They try, but I don't see Monty getting her mouth around that mound of lovely brown hair."

"She's squeezing tighter."

I prepared to unwind Monty.

"No... More. Don't stop her."

She was struggling to speak, to breath.

"She can kill you."

"Don't stop, no...t yet."

Her breathing grew shorter, more labored. I could wait no longer. I grabbed Monty from behind the head, then her tail and began to unwrap her foot by foot. I placed Monty on the cushion and she curled back up. I knew Monty well enough to know she was exhausted. She had enjoyed herself. Reminded her of the old days with Sheila. Susan sat next to me breathing heavily, smiling.

"Thanks, Jim. That was fantastic."

"Thank Monty."

"Where do we sleep?"

"You can have the double bed in the fo'c'scle."

"The what?"

"The front of the cabin. I'll put Monty away and take over this cushion."

"No need to do that. I'm sure there's plenty of room up forward for two."

She began to unbutton her blouse.

* * *

A movement in the cabin awakened me. A shadow had blocked out the dim light filtering through the cockpit opening. Damn! The killer had arrived and here I was sprawled naked next to his wife. My gun was in a drawer at the other end of the cabin. I strained to make out his features as I swept sleepiness from my mind.

I felt next to me for Susan. She wasn't there. I reached above me and hit a light switch. Susan stood, legs spread apart, completely naked, pointing a Glock automatic at me. Its red beam spotted my head just above my nose. Her brown eyes were no longer soft. They were afire with passion, the passion to kill.

She smiled.

"Why?"

"There never was a husband. I'm the hit man, paid by certain interests in Vegas who have been funding Hal Lawrence and his dealerships for years. Paid, I might say, far better than the pittance you have received. You have no idea what you have stumbled into. These people never lose. You will not testify tomorrow."

"Does it bother you?"

"Killing? No, not really. It's my job and I'm good at it. I suppose I'm a bit like your companion Monty."

"Coldblooded."

"Yes."

She began to squeeze the trigger on her gun.

"Enough of chatting. Thanks for the lovely evening."

I noticed a movement by her left foot. Monty. In the heat of passion I had forgotten to place her back in her tank.

Susan's toe brushed Monty's face. The snake bit. Susan screamed. Her face twisted in pain as Monty dug in deeper. Susan kicked at her. You don't kick a Burmese python in the face. She reverts to her jungle reflexes. Susan's gun went off. Wild shot. She fell over onto the cabin's floor.

Monty swiftly wrapped herself around the woman's torso. Susan's face took on a ghastly purple hue, eyes bulging, body wet with sweat. Monty's full seven feet now wrapped around arms, chest and neck. She methodically constricted. Susan dropped her gun. I jumped out of bed and grabbed the weapon.

"Get this thing off me," Susan demanded. "Can't breathe."

"Sexy, isn't she?"

"Can't..."

"A word of advice. Never, ever strike a Burmese python in the face."

"I..."

"Another suggestion. It's quite useless to wrestle with a python, once she wraps herself around you. She will respond by tightening her grip."

"Hel..."

"Trying to say help? Would you help me under similar circumstances?"

She stopped talking, fell limp, stopped breathing. I should have left Monty to complete the task. It would have taken only moments more. But I'm not like Susan. I told her right off I was no killer. I pressed carefully between Monty's jaws to get her to loosen her grip on Susan's flesh. Then I unwrapped all seven feet of her and placed Monty on the dinette cushion. She curled up as if nothing had happened.

Susan began to breathe. She would live to stand trial for attempted murder. I looked down on her as she panted and blood dripped from her foot. She spat in my face.

One hell of a woman.


Tim Wohlforth has published over 75 short stories that have appeared in Hardcore Hardboiled (Kensington), MWA's Death Do Us Part, (Little Brown), Plots With Guns (Dennis McMillan.) Two of the stories made the "Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in Otto Penzler's Best American Mystery series. He is a Pushcart Prize Nominee and has received a Certificate of Excellence from the Dana Literary Society. The Pink Tarantula, a short story collection will be published by Perfect Crime Books in April, 2012. Wohlforth's thriller Harry, was published in May, 2010. A noir novel, No Time To Mourn, was published in 2004. www.timwohlforth.com


Copyright 2011 Tim Wohlforth. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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