The closest any of the names on Fierro’s list of investors came to suggesting underworld connections was Dominick Ruggiero, a fence known to work with a low-level capo who’d since moved on to wherever gangsters who get caught skimming from the take end up, I’m guessing the bottom of the river. Chances were, Ruggiero was acting as the front man for the real investor, but there wouldn’t be any point in quizzing him. He probably had enough sense to know he couldn’t grow gills.

If I had any doubts about my theory, they were quickly dispelled when Glenn gave me a courtesy call to let me know I no longer had a client. The man sent to repossess Fierro’s Mercedes had discovered Fierro’s plan to keep it by spilling his brains all over the dash. It worked. Glenn said the Mercedes was still in Fierro’s driveway, waiting for me to come have a look. I told him I’d be right over, and I meant it, but the man waiting outside of my office between me and my car had other ideas.

“You Robert Doverman?” he asked, making it sound like a threat. A lot of guys would have said yes just to be sure he wasn’t disappointed. At about six foot five, with shoulders you could build houses on, he would have had that effect on people. The sun had already set, and he kept just enough distance between us for the shadows cast by the street lamp to play Halloween with his features. He was a well-dressed gargoyle, belching steam at me.

“Maybe,” I said, letting some cold air into my jacket so I could slip my hand in to pet my gun. It didn’t matter that my gun was in the glove compartment of my Nova. He’d recognize the gesture and his imagination would fill in the blanks.

“I ain’t look’n for trouble,” he said, holding his beefy hands palms out. “I was sent to deliver a message. Find the girl and we’ll make it worth your while.”

“If I wanted to do business in parking lots, I wouldn’t be paying to rent an office. Make an appointment with my secretary and we’ll discuss it.”

He reached into his jacket, and it was my turn to imagine things. I was still holding my breath when the thick manila envelope landed at my feet.

“Consider that a down payment. Bring us Wardlow and there’ll be another envelope just like it waiting for you. You’ll be able to give your grandpa his suit back and buy yourself a new one.”

He faded away, and I waited until I saw a pair of headlights dragging a black sedan around the corner of the building and off into the street before I picked up the envelope and pulled it into my car with me. Bypassing the phone number written on the flap, I dug its guts out and spread them out on the seat next to me. I let the car warm up so my hands would stop shaking before I started counting, but they never did and it took me awhile to get to ten thousand. That told me how much money was involved and what was at stake. Some, probably mid-level, thug had taken it upon himself to invest the mob’s money in a scheme a blind man would have seen through, and now he needed to get it back before he joined the Tasmanian Tiger on the list of extinct animals. His clock was ticking and he didn’t have time to risk me being able to resist a rough-up. He had to play his best card first.

I stuffed the ten grand back into the envelope, swapped it out for the 45 in my glove box, and headed off to pay my respects to the late Albert Fierro.


The Fierro residence was located on a hilltop within spitting distance of Mt. Adams and shared its view of the city. At first glance, it was the kind of place princesses retired to at the end of the cartoon to live happily ever after, but there were signs all was not well in the enchanted kingdom. A board hung by the corner from a solitary nail over the bay windows above the veranda, exposing an empty pane. The weeds sprouting from between the paving stones of the circular drive were tall enough in places to caress my ankles as I made my way to the giant standing behind the ambulance, sliding my fedora down my forehead to block the glare of the red and blue lights.

“I was starting to think you weren’t going to show,” Glenn said. “We had to start the party without you.”

“I was busy meeting with a new client. He still in there?” Glenn followed my gaze to the man aiming a camera into the open door of the Mercedes and invited me to have a look.

The light the photographer had set up on a tripod gave us a good view of the mess. It was obvious Fierro had been killed in the car, but the leaves in his hair and ligature marks on his wrists suggested he’d spent some time with his killer elsewhere before being murdered. Somebody had worked him over, probably in the woods surrounding the grounds, but it was anybody’s guess how he’d ended up in the car.

“The shot was fired from the back seat,” Glenn said over my shoulder, “and the victim was facing the killer when he fired.”

I felt a twinge of guilt as I stepped back to make room for the boys rolling up the stretcher. I’d been too hard on Fierro. I’d figured him for a sap and a phony, and he was a sap, but when came time to check out, he’d been as real as they come. He hadn’t given Helen up. If he had, they wouldn’t have needed to come to me.


So I had a new client, apparently whether I wanted one or not. They weren’t much brighter than my last client, but they paid even better. They’d also be a lot less forgiving if I didn’t produce results. My finding Helen Wardlow would mean a big payday. Not finding her could mean a permanent new address at the bottom of the Ohio River. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to find her. She found me.

To say Helen Wardlow was gorgeous was an understatement. With long black hair the shampoo commercials would have described as luxuriant and legs they didn’t make stockings long enough to cover, she sat on the sofa of the reception area of my office, attracting nasty glances from Marcy. It wasn’t jealousy. Marcy was just a good judge of character.

“Mr. Doverman?” she said in a voice that should have come from the pillow next to mine as she stretched out her legs and stood, moving in close enough to let me feel the heat coming off of her. Just when I was about to crash my ships on the rocks, I found the counter-spell on her left forearm and broke away. Scrawled in black was something that was supposed to say “I miss you Brad,” but really said “I couldn’t get over Brad’s death.” She’d etched her shame into her skin, forcing herself to relive her weakness. She was human after all.

Asking who Brad was would have meant telling her I was paying too much attention, so I ushered her into my office and had her sit across the desk where I could take her in in all her glory.

“I’m in trouble, Mr. Doverman,” she said, exhaling the words like a proposition whispered into a lover’s ear. She might have been in trouble, but she was in complete control.

“Go on.”

“I know you were helping my fiancée. I assume he told you the whole story.”

“Just the version you’d fed him.”

She slipped a little. I could see a flash of panic in her brown eyes as she realized somebody had changed the script, but like any good actress, she reigned in her fear and improvised.

“It’s true. I wasn’t always honest with Albert,” she said, looking away as though shamed by her words. It would have fooled the patrons in the cheap seats, but I was in the front row and wasn’t buying it.

“I doubt you were ever honest with him,” I said, putting my elbow on the desk and leaning on it while I glared over the fist in my cheek at her.

“That’s not fair!” she protested, her back straightening in her chair as she lost the air of sensual insouciance she’d carried in with her. “I only lied to him to make him feel better.”

“About all the money you were bilking out of him?”

“I can see I wasted my time coming to you,” she said, shooting up out of her chair like the blade of a stiletto and making for the door.

“Get back here and sit down,” I growled, surprising myself a little with the ferocity of my delivery. I’d meant it to come out softer, but something in me was determined to keep her there. She spun around and gaped at me like she wasn’t sure I knew I was addressing the queen and then sulked back to her seat, where she stared at me wide eyed, waiting for the mad man to start pounding his head against the desk.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, leaning back in my seat, figuring if I put some distance between us, she’d feel comfortable enough to finally exhale.

“The men who killed Albert think I have their money,” she said, letting her hair flow down over her pale arms as she buried her face in her hands. I had to give her credit; she’d hopped right back on stage without missing a cue.

“Do you?”

“Of course not!” she said, tossing back her hair as she raised her head to reveal eyes moist with tears. It was a neat trick, but I still wasn’t impressed enough to piss away another envelope full of tax-free cash. I might not have been heartless enough to turn her over to my friend from the parking lot, but what he really wanted was his boss’ money. If she had it, I was determined to pry it from her.

“Where did the money go?”

“Mannering has it, I suppose.”

“He didn’t give you a cut for playing along?”

“No. There was never any money involved. When Albert told me about Mannering and his plan, I was dubious to say the least. I decided to play along and see what Mannering was up to.”

“It shouldn’t have taken you long to figure out he was up to no good. Why let it go so far?”

“I couldn’t talk to Albert. Every time I suggested the whole thing was a hoax, he’d become angry and we’d fight. Then when I found out he’d taken money from criminals, I was afraid he’d do something rash if he realized there was no thylacine. I didn’t want him going to men like that and trying to explain the situation. They would have killed him. I resolved to get the money back from Mannering myself. I was going to threaten to expose him to those men if he didn’t tell me what he’d done with it.”

“How’d that go?”

“Not well. Mannering disappeared and poor Albert was murdered,” she said, staring over my shoulder at the window with a faraway look that was supposed to mean she was too distraught to carry on. “I’m sure if you find Mannering, you’ll find the money.”

“Somebody else found him first. He’s dead, and the fact the mob is still after you means he died broke. The money’s still out there.”

“You have to find it before they get me,” she said, reaching across the desk to grip my hand. Her skin was as soft and warm as I’d expected it to be, and for a brief moment, she had me. I put my other hand on top of hers and nodded like a fool agreeing to sign over his life insurance policy for the chance to hold that hand just a little longer. It took some effort, but I shook it off, convincing myself all the hand squeezing and soothing words were just an effort to gain her confidence. By the time she left, certain I was on her side, I wasn’t so sure what team I was playing for.


My quest to get a handle on Helen Wardlow led me to St. Vincent’s, a church with an accompanying elementary school on the grounds. It was there that I became acquainted with Helen McClusky, the Wardlow being a leftover from a marriage that had been ended by too many draft beers and a wet road. I was disappointed to find her husband’s name hadn’t been Brad.

Father Putnick was sharp and brash, and only slightly younger than the God he’d pledged his life to serve. He remembered Helen without needing a prompt.

“Oh yes, the McClusky girl,” he said, shaking his head. “Poor child. Did she ever find her way back to the Lord?”

“She might be meeting him soon if I can’t figure a way to help her out of the jam she’s gotten herself into, but I haven’t decided whether or not I want to help. Is there anything you have that might persuade me?”

“It’s that bad?”

“It’s worse. She’s attracted the wrong kind of attention from the wrong kind of people. There’s a lot of money involved.”

He let out a long sigh that shook his narrow shoulders as it came out, and sank into an overstuffed chair next to an end table buried in books. A gesture from a hand that took him some effort to lift put me in the chair across from him.

“The day of the fire was the greatest test of my faith before or since. Her parents had both attended this school and been members of this congregation for most of their lives. I’d had the honor of officiating at their wedding and baptizing both of their children, Helen and her younger brother.”

“How’d it happen?”

“I seem to recall they blamed some bad wiring in the house. The father, bless him, got both of the children out, but went back inside to try to save Judy. That was her name; Judy Baker originally. She was quite talented. I’d just installed her as church organist before the fire, but I always felt a little guilty about it. She could have been a concert pianist.”

“What happened to the kids after that?”

“They were taken in by a family in the congregation who participated in the foster program, but the boy became incorrigible. We had no end of problems with him. Eventually, he was too much and the children were separated. That’s when Helen truly lost her way. I wish I’d had the wisdom and means to have kept them together. She was very protective of her brother after the accident, and was never the same when they had to send him off.”

I asked if he could help me contact the foster parents, but was told I was too late; they were both dead. I assumed the brother was, too, when I learned he was the Brad whose name was currently defacing Helen’s arm. I’d found Brad, and he’d come packaged with a lot of the kind of misery that could make a person feel they had nothing to lose if they took some ugly chances. After losing her family, and then her husband, stealing from the mob might not have seemed like such a gamble. The life she was wagering probably wasn’t worth much to her.

I said my goodbyes to the father and walked out into a downpour that made it hard to see the yellow Nova I’d arrived in across the parking lot. It didn’t matte though. I was heading for the black sedan parked a few spots down from it.

“Open up,” I said, tapping on the driver’s window. It rolled down just enough to let me get a glimpse of my friend with the special envelops. “If you’re going to tail me, we might as well save some gas and take one car.”

“Get in,” he said, rolling up the window before the rain soiled his interior.

I walked around and slid in next to him, moving the fifth of gin off the seat so I could sit.

“Good brand,” I said, examining the label.

“Help yourself,” he said, and I did, unscrewing the cap and taking a swig.

“You don’t strike me as the religious type. Mine telling me what we’re doing here?”

“Getting some background on Wardlow. I wanted to see if she was the type to try to pull a con on a guy like Fierro.”

“Is she?” he asked, taking a joint out of his shirt pocket and lighting it up.

“Maybe. She’s had a lot of tough breaks. I could see where she’d try to make her own luck.”

He offered me a hit off the joint, but I told him I’d rather stick to the bottle. We were getting pretty chummy, so I figured there’d be no harm in asking him how a vet ended up working for the mob.

“What makes you think I’m a vet?” he asked, getting that glassy-eyed look that vets get when somebody says something that drags them back into the line of fire.

“I might be mistaken, but that scar on your hand looks like it was made by shrapnel, the kind of wound you don’t get on the street, shaking down muggers for a cut of the take.”

“Yeah. I did a stint. I planned on making a career of it, but I never got past private. When I got back, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The skill set I’d acquired didn’t set me up for a job on Wall Street. But you know how that goes; right, detective?”

“Yeah. I’ve heard some guys came back and rejoined the real world, but nobody told me the secret of how they pulled it off.”

“I’m guessing you already found the broad,” he said, remembering cars didn’t come with ashtrays anymore and tossing his roach out the window. “When you plan on handing her over?”

“What you really want is the money, and I’m not sure yet she has it. If she doesn’t, your torturing her isn’t going to get it back for you.”

“Alright, soldier. Play it your way for now, but keep an eye on the clock. It’s ticking, and when the hour strikes, we’re going to want a return on our investment.”

I nodded, handed him his fifth, and climbed out into the rain, knowing he’d be easy to shake if circumstances demanded privacy.


For all installments of “The Tiger,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1