A coarse, heavy rain pattered against the side of my cap, echoing like the sound of a rhythmic hailstorm pelting the skulls of sinners. The fumes from a black bog forming around the storm drain, not too subtle and very close behind us, obscured everything. I must have had a bewildered sort of look on my face, which my partner—standing just a few feet in front of me—mistook for fear. An instant later he was on his way over, cigarette floating right above his lip like a perfumed bird working the counter at Macy’s, elbows propped up against the etched glass surface.
The job had an attractive ticket, more than twice what we had ever made and with the promise of a nice bonus if we managed to expedite it. I asked Virgil if it would be possible to get into the municipal building at all. He didn’t answer my question and I didn’t press it; soon enough I would have it figured out on my own. Virgil was the only person to have ever made his way past the two secretaries guarding the county clerk’s files, and at the time he must have been new to the job and under the influence of a particular sort of luck that on occasion comes to the assistance of an ill-equipped dick.
Though muffled by the storm I could still make out the distinct high-pitched screech of a Nash Rambler pinching around the corner. There was nothing extraordinary about it, I thought, but I could see Virgil’s expression become alert all of the sudden; it was a startled look, one of professionalism glazed over by half-cooked concern. From the other side of the street I saw the car pull over and spotted a look of fury in the face behind the driver’s window—pained and exaggerated, like an antique Roman statue sitting somewhere in the back of a Hollywood villa perched between any of the grand hills half-covered in green in Hollywood. Virgil made a dash for the corner and took hold of me. With my head pressed tightly against his ribs, I could hear nothing, and could feel only the stiffening of his forearm every time he squeezed at the trigger on his scuffed Smith & Wesson and unloaded onto the vehicle. Right as he let go, the final echo of gunpowder rattled in my ears and was followed by a long howl from something that had been punctured.
One of the shots had landed, and as Virgil shook me by the shoulders, I realized that a rather large brigade of federal agents were about to make a convenient appearance. At some point in the last few days we must have dropped some information down the wrong drainpipe, and the dimwit officers had gotten a whiff of it. It was the only way to explain how they had managed to follow our investigation all the way here. A nice, fat crack of thunder beat down over the building and for a moment draped the scene in a pleasant, naked tranquility. I didn’t know if we would be able to finish our job at all, and I could tell from his look that Virgil was just as worried. The only difference for Virgil was that they could lock him up overnight on a murder charge or for tampering with an investigation, which would put us out of commission just long enough to let them solve it on their own.
But a stranger thought came: they needed us. After all, they were so goddamned dumb that they were unable to get even this far without tailing us, and we had been able to feel their breath on the back of our necks all the way back since we left Santa Monica thirty-six hours earlier. They were useless, and so the condescension about local and federal stipulations could slide for now, but the moment they opened the doors, we would be asked to follow them in—past the impenetrable double doors, the old secretaries, and brought straight to the file room—embraced by the law, and safe for a few seconds from the cold trigger fingers and natty automobiles parading through the damp alleyways and long motionless boulevards. As they waved at us, I looked up for the first time and saw that the sky was starting to turn dark.
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