A Tony Mandolin Mysteries Short Story
By Robert Lee Beers
“The victim appears to have been punctured by something several dozen times, Captain.”
Monahan glowered, it could have been at the uniform standing over the corpse, at the circumstances that had him dragged out of his house at a couple minutes after midnight, or it could have been at me because I was the one who phoned it in. The victim was Alphonso Guinelli, one of the Fashion Districts top tailors and also a friend of my partner, Franklin Jackson. Me, I’m Tony Mandolin, a slightly worn private investigator who’s seen far too many dead bodies killed in far too many weird ways.
Located between 2nd and 11th Streets, San Francisco’s Fashion District is one of the top money-makers for both the city and the state. It’s one of those South of Market areas that has never really changed, since before both earthquakes. The styles may come and go. But some of the firms have been there almost since the days of the missionaries, and in several of them, Italian is the language of choice… still.
“Tell me again,” Captain Monahan fixed his glower completely on me, “Mandolin, why you were down here, and in this shop at this ungodly hour of the morning.”
Pat, Captain Patrick Monahan of Metro’s finest is, believe it or not, one of the few, if not the only friend I have on the police force. Both of us have saved each others’ life far more than either of us would like to count. However, friendship can only cover so many bases and being dragged out of your bed on a cold, damp, miserable night to look over a body covered in more blood than anything else is not something most friendships are built upon.
“Alphonso was one of Frankie’s friends, Pat,” I said. “The big guy called me. I guess he was unsure about calling 911.”
Frankie’s close to 7 feet tall, well over 300 pounds and just about the strongest man I’ve ever known. He’s also a raging diva, ex-drag queen and if there is such a thing as a renaissance man covering all areas of the pop culture, cooking and fashion worlds, Frankie’s the template that broke the mold.
“I see,” Monahan growled. He knew Frankie almost as well as I did, so I didn’t have to elaborate.
He looked down at what was left of Alphonso and then back at me, and I knew what was coming next, “So tell me, Tony, why shouldn’t he be number one on our suspect list? Who else but an over-the-top fashionista would have the motive to off a tailor?”
“Pat,” I had to go through the ritual, “Frankie was one of the guy’s best friends! They probably spent more time chatting in that back room than you and I do watching Niners games!”
Monahan muttered, “Who doesn’t, these days?”
I gestured to the corpse, “Besides, look at the guy. Whoever did that has to be insane. No one stabs a person, with whatever was used, that many times unless they are really around the bend, across the intersection and out into the middle of the bay.”
“You’re not helping his case, Mandolin,” Monahan said in a flat no-nonsense tone.
He waved a hand, “It’s alright, Mandolin,” he said, “I’m just giving you a hard time. This whole thing could have been handled by Knowlen and I could still be sleeping. The only reason they called me is because you’re involved, even if as an outside investigator.”
Inwardly, I groaned. Lieutenant Knowlen, or as everyone I knew called him, Little Denny Knowlen, was about 5’6” in lifts with about 8 feet of tender ego. He was also tied in with some folks in the Mayor’s office, probably as a snitch. He did not like me and the feeling was just abut as mutual as a thing could be. I’d done him wrong by being involved in the putting away of his bosom buddy ex-police lieutenant Rorche, a cop so bent he could do his own rectal exams. Rorche made the mistake of trying to kill me, and I made the mistake thinking the cops would be glad I helped remove a cancer from their insides. Foolish me, thinking people employed in a bureaucracy would value integrity over money. I found out after the fact that Rorche was their second employer, in oh so many ways.
“The M.E’s here”
Pat nodded at the uniformed cop and said, “Let her in.”
The Medical Examiner for the city and county of San Francisco is Ursula Ignatova, also a friend, and also one of those people to whom science is a playground, not this distant misty land of unknown languages and symbols we mere mortals see it as. She and her fiance, Paul Verona have both helped me out of really sticky situations, a few times at risk of their own necks. In times like this, Ursula was truly welcome as far as I was concerned.
We all stepped back to let her work. Unlike the M.E’s in television, she did not glance at the body and tell us how he died, including when and where. In the real world, even in Fog City, such things require examination, and that is what she did, along with her continuously yawning assistant. The exam went on for a while, and, after looking at several square inches of skin, wiped clean, with everything wiped placed in those little evidence zipper bags, Ursula said, around mouthfuls of a deli sandwich she’d managed to bring along, “You need to look for a needle.”
Monahan looked around, and said, exasperation all through his voice, “Doc, we’re in the middle of a Gawd damned tailor shop! You can’t spit without hitting a needle!”
Ursula looked at him, and swallowed, “This one will probably have blood on it.”
Running his hand through his red and white thinning hair, Pat called out to the officers on scene, “Bag every needle you can find, and if you come across one with blood on it, put it into its own bag.”
Everyone stood there, staring at him. He took in a breath and bellowed, “You heard me, move!”
I hung around and watched the uniforms comb through the shop, pulling and collecting small sharp pointy things for several minutes and then, finally having had my fill of excitement, said to Monahan, “You’re getting paid overtime, I’m just wasting it. I’m headed home.”
He nodded, not even looking at me, and replied, “Yeah, go ahead. I’ll call you if I need you.”
As I headed toward the front of the shop, Pat called out, “You tell Jackson to not take any trips. He’s a material witness at the very least.” I heard the unsaid if not more. Pat was not feeling generous.
My house, all mine, I don’t pay a mortgage, and paid for in cash because of a job that had captains of industry and the city’s crime lords handing me wads of said cash by the bucket-load, is a good distance from the Fashion District, especially by bus. I also do not drive, nor do I own a cell phone or a computer. This Luddite trait of mine tends to annoy those entities dependent on being able to reach you at all times regardless of how you feel about it, but my answer to each and every one of them is, buy a stamp. I kind of like riding the bus. It gives me time to digest clues, check out the scenery without worrying able car payments or insurance, and I get to enjoy the occasional spontaneous street theater such as what was now playing out before me as I rode; one of Fog City’s champions of halitosis and negative hygiene with no teeth and 200 proof breath was attempting to convince a couple of stoners currently so high they could be floated home, that the seat they were occupying was his pad and he needed his beauty sleep. From the looks of him, he was about 40 years too late. The entertainment part of the whole deal was trying to figure out what each of them was saying.
The show ended at the next stop when the stoners drifted off the bus and Mumbles Halitosis settled down to a nice loud snore. Fortunately for me, I needed to grab a transfer to get to my neck of the city, so I jumped off at the next stop and was able to breathe again. One thing about the fog in Frisco, it’s not just cooling, it also cleans the air, even from terminal bad breath.
There’s a small park across the street from my house and the other Victorians on the block. As blocks go, this one is short, with only five homes on it and not a single corner grocery to be found, which, for Frisco is unusual. The other unusual bit is, the fronts of the houses face south, meaning we all get morning sun coming in. Believe me, this is important, especially during the summer, which can be the coldest time of the year if the weather decides to act up.
I could see the light in the kitchen was on as I neared the walkway to my porch. That meant Frankie was still upset. The big guy can’t sleep when he’s that way, so he putters in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s baking, other times its fancy stews, he calls them ragout, pronounced rag-oo. When it happens, the neighbors benefit, because the big guy can cook. Me, I do a decent can of beans.
He didn’t call out as I unlocked the door, but my German Shepherd, Greystoke padded over to say hi and then, tail wagging more in keeping with form than anything else, went back to his own bed. I saw Frankie, as suspected, at the kitchen counter, whisk in hand doing terrible things to some kind of batter. His forearm and hand were a blur.
Frankie glanced over his shoulder at me and said, “Oh, hi Tony. I’m making popovers. The custard’s in the fridge if you want to try it.”
“That can wait, big guy,” I said, “Have a seat. I saw Alphonso.”
His face fell and he put the bowl of battered batter down. “Who would do that to him, Tony?” His voice broke a little as he asked, “He was an old man who never harmed anyone. He didn’t even swat flies.” A tear started down one broad cheek.
“Well, Frankie,” I said, “That’s what we’re going to find out and then we’re going to nail the bastard, whoever it is.”
The big guy’s expression cleared and he said, “Damn right!”
Morning came early and loud with Frankie ready to go and catch the bad guys, whoever the hell they were. Me, I was more ready to face some coffee while loosening up the cobwebs from my brain cells than I was the sunshine. I was still in my bathrobe groping for the coffee pot when Frankie came into the kitchen, “Come on Tony, the days getting away from us.”
“Coffee first,” I croaked
“Toneeee…” Frankie’s voice takes on a little boy, or girl note, depending on his mood when he’s anxious, or excited. I think this morning was a bit of both.
I think I was a bit sharp with him. “Frankie! I need my coffee!”
“Well… gee…” he huffed, “Someone got up on the wrong side of the temper today.”
I waved a hand, “Just let me pull myself together, and then we’ll head on down to see Ursula.”
He asked, “Ursula? But I thought—”
I interrupted, “Frankie, she’s the one who can give us the how and the when. Once we get that we can start working on the why.”
He opened his mouth, “Oh.”
Even with my yawning and stumbling through coffee, shower, and dressing, we still managed to make it to the coroner’s offices before 9 am. That told me the big guy had really been motivated. It’s usually me being the early bird. Being a known quantity, the receptionist waved us through and we headed into Ursula’s stainless steel kingdom.
The room, as usual, was just above freezing, heat not being the medical examiners’ friend. Ursula was bent over a body partially covered by a sheet and all the way open, with assorted bits and pieces laid out before her like a Hannibal Lecter buffet.
She glanced our way as we approached and smiled, “Oh, hi guys. I have some very interesting news.”
“Look at this,” Ursula pulled the biggest magnifying glass I’d ever seen over to sit between us and Alphanso’s body. I would have loved something like that when I was a kid. No ant hill would have been safe.
Frankie asked the operative question, “What are we looking at, besides poor Al, that is?”
Ursula smiled, ”First, tell me what you see,” she said, not budging.
“Umm,” Frankie looked, “It kind of looks like my friend Debbie’s thigh, she’s diabetic, you know, and has to give herself regular injections.”
“Um hmm,” Ursula said, nodding, “But as you know, this is the center of our friend’s back.” She never called the bodies anything else. I was pretty sure she carried on conversations as she worked. “And as far as I can tell, Mister Guinelli wasn’t a diabetic.”
“No,” Frankie replied, shaking his head, “He was not.”
“And besides that,” Ursula said, warming to her subject, “these… injection sites… pass all the way through the body.”
Frankie and I stepped all over our exclamations.
I said, “I think you’re going to have to give me a bit more info on that one Ursula.”
She pushed the glass away on its armature. “Whoever killed Mister Guinelli did so with a size 10 sharps hand-sewing needle.”
“How can you be so precise?” Frankie asked.
Ursula reached down and held up an evidence bag. I could see the needle in it. She said, proudly, “Because I found it.”
I nodded, thinking back to what she said at the tailor’s shop. “Ursula, there had to be hundreds of the things there and in all sizes. How did you—?” I lifted my hands expressing the impossibility of the task.
“Oh, there were, exactly 563 pins, 217 needles of varying sizes, and a few other sharp pointed tools of the trade, but only one number 10 sharps needle with its tip embedded in my guest’s 5th rib 9 centimeters from the costal cartilage.”
Frankie said, “Ahh,” nodding.
“But… how…” I was at a loss for words.
Again, Frankie rescued me, “How many holes are there?”
Ursula glanced at Alphasno’s body. “I’m still counting. I am sure it will be over a thousand. The poor man would have been dead from shock before he Exsanguinated.”
I got that familiar tingle, the icy shiver that told me that weirdness was on the horizon. “Are you telling me,” I asked Ursula, “That that needle,” I pointed at the bag with its silvery evidence nestled at the bottom, “zipped through this man, ” I pointed back at the late Alphonso, “over a hundred times?“
Ursula nodded back, saying, “The only way this could have happened.“
Frankie started whistling the old Twilight Zone theme, “Doodeedoodee, Dood Edo dee…“
This time I was in complete agreement with the big guy.
I asked, “How long has he been dead?“
Ursula glanced at the clock and said, “About nine and a half hours now.“
Running the numbers, I said to Frankie, “You can start whistling again, big guy.“
“Because Alphonso was murdered at midnight.“
The circumstances of Alphonso’s death meant we weren’t just dealing with hinky weirdness, but that some form of magic was involved. Whether it was faerie, witch, sorcerer, what have you, which was something to still be figured out. Hopefully done so while still in my same skin. The first thing I needed to do was get some help in tracking the magic. To do that, I needed to bring in the only noses that can smell that sort of stuff, and that meant I needed to buy some cheap booze.
The first case I had that introduced me to the magical world that enclosed ours like a shell involved a rather nasty species of vampire. Yes, there’s more than one. While I was dealing with that painful set of circumstances, I found out about Pixies, six-inch flying mischief makers with a penchant for alcohol. Fortunately for me, especially at that time, they didn’t care how cheap or raw it was.
The pixies told me a little about the faerie world, including its unbending tradition of contracts. Their nature does not allow for lying, so they’ve wrapped everything into this incredibly complex system of oaths, agreements, and treaties. And believe me, you do not want to break one of those deals. If you want excitement, tell an MMA champion he’s a sissy. The agreement I had with the pixies was that if I ever needed their help, I was to place a bottle in a certain hidden spot on Union square, under one of the bushes and late at night so there was a lessened chance of it being tripped over by a bum. So I did that and waited.
And waited. Finally, right about the point where I was going to give up and head home, a tiny figure flew past my nose, imitating a bumblebee on steroids. AN equally tiny voice called out, “Hiya, highpockets. How’s it hangin’?“
“Willit,” I growled back. “Why do you do this? More often than not you leave it to the last possible second and then, just as my patience is gone, you show up.“
“Yup,” he said, settling onto the concrete planter edge, totally unrepentant. “So,” he stuck his hands into his belt and looked up at me, “Whattcha need this time?“
I told him about how Alphonso died.
Willit made a face, “Ewww, nasty.” Then he asked, “A bit late for our help, ain’t it? I mean, the poor sap’s already dead, right?“
I noticed how his eyes kept straying toward the bottle. “True,” I replied, “But since Pixies can smell magic, I was hoping you’d be able to at least give me an idea where the killer went afterward.“
“Yeah, we could do that,” Willit said, pacing back and forth in his preferred haggling pose. “Question is, how much is a job like that worth?“
I sighed, every single blessed time… “Willit,” I said, my temper a bit past fraying, “Look in the bag.”
He did, standing on his tiptoes as he peered inside the store’s bottle bag. “Hey.” he exclaimed, “This is the good stuff!“
It’s all a manner of perspective. I paid six bucks for the bottle instead of three. It was still rotgut, just a better quality rotgut. “Well,” I demurred, “I figured this job would be worth it. Have we got a deal?“
Willit zipped up to slap my palm in the oddest high five there ever was. “You bet we do, highpockets. When and where?”
When and where wound up being the next morning outside the tailor shop, and it was real morning, not my preferred hour of the day. I think I heard a few sea lions yawning.
Willit arrived with his entire tribe. I stood there while dozens of tiny pin-up girls and guys buzzed around me offering hellos, come-ons, and good-humored insults. This went on for several minutes, and probably would have continued if I hadn’t said, “All right guys, time to earn your booze.“
Wrong word to say.
“Do we get more booze already?“
It felt like it was already late afternoon before things got back on track, even though it was only an additional few moments. I told the tribe what I needed and, after sniffing around the shop doors, and inside–pixies do not pay attention to police tape–they zipped off, a laughing swarm of over-sized bumblebees with rainbow highlights.
Traffic began to increase, both on the street and the sidewalk as shop owners and employees started showing up for the day’s labors. A few nodded at me as they passed, some even gave me a grunted, “Morning…” But most just clutched their paper cup of gourmet coffee as they shuffled along, shoulders hunched against the cold and damp of a Frisco dawn.
I didn’t have to wait long. A small group of Pixies came looping and tumbling through the fog and called out to me as the crossed the street, “We got ’em! We got ’em!“
“Who or what do you have?” I asked.
I forgot about Pixies. Most have the attention span of a goldfish. “Have what?” They asked.
“Did you find out where the magic went?” I asked back.
Back on track, my winged attention-deficit guides lead me along a circuitous route up to Market and west toward the southern edges of the Tenderloin. That icy chill started up again. When they led me to a certain manhole cover behind a certain dilapidated apartment building, it opened into a full-fledged cold shower. Who, or whatever had killed Alphonso had literally gone underground into what the fae call Below.