Chapter 1: The Bum’s Rush
“My wife and I have come to request an unusual action to be taken by you, which, frankly, we hope you regard is in the realm of civic duty, Mr. Skeen.” The man paused, waiting to hear some response from Skeen. “We hope you are amenable to the idea, and respond with the utmost civility, courtesy and responsibility.”
Jubal Pickett sat in an armchair in front of Cyrus Skeen’s desk. Next to him sat his wife, Lucinda Pickett. The Pickets had arrived in his office a few minutes ago, without having called for an appointment. He did not know who they were and did not know what they wanted.
Skeen asked, his brow darkening in an ominous frown, “Who are you again? And what is it you want?”
Jubal Pickett was about half a foot shorter than Skeen. His oiled black hair was parted precisely in the middle. He was thin, as was his face, with a smidgen of a moustache crowning thin lips. Skeen observed that the man, whom he estimated to be in his forties, had that constant, pinched look around his eyes and nostrils as though everything he ever encountered was sour, displeased him, and probably caused him upset stomachs. Skeen had the wild thought that Mr. Jubal Pickett took castor oil with his coffee, regularly. His voice registered perhaps a tad above countertenor. He wore a plain gray suit, a vest, and a black bowtie. A gray derby was hooked over one knee.
His wife, Lucinda, was a prim, shriveled, almost emaciated woman with a prune face that reminded him of Olga Quarre, a creature he had met in April on a case. He guessed she was in her forties, as well, but it was hard to determine her age. She wore a Quakerish bonnet and a lacy, high neck collar that that did not quite encase her scrawny neck. She wore a bland brown jacket, an ankle-length brown skirt, and brown, old fashioned women’s shoes that were shin-high and which had to be laced up through a dozen eyelets. One claw-like hand was wrapped around the handle of an umbrella; the other held a shapeless cloth bag that was probably her purse. It had not rained in the city for days, and was not raining now. Some people carried umbrellas regardless of the weather.
When the Picketts had been shown into his office by Lucy Wentz, his secretary, Skeen had not come around his desk or even risen to greet the couple. They had not called to make an appointment, and behaved as though they had a right to be here. According to Skeen’s code of etiquette, they did not deserve the acknowledgement.
Mr. Pickett reached inside his suit jacket and produced a business card, which he put on the edge of Skeen’s desk. “I am Jubal Salubrious Pickett, sir. I am the president of the local city chapter of the National Committee of Concerned Citizens for Public Decency.”
Skeen frowned. He had heard of the outfit. It had been campaigning for years for the government to censor Hollywood movies, tasteless and indecent material in vaudeville theaters, lascivious language in popular songs and ballads, and commercial advertisements that displayed women in various stages of dress or undress. It even condemned some men’s swimming suit ads. Its latest pronouncements, guest editorials, actions, and interviews appeared in all the city newspapers’ religion and Society pages every other weekend. It circulated petitions to Congress and local politicians to have “indecency” banned from the movie and vaudeville theaters, from the radio airwaves, and from printed matter.
Committee of Concerned Citizens for Public Decency also campaigned against the death penalty, against what it deemed “cruel and unusual sentences, and for the mandatory rehabilitation of career criminals, and even started a “pen pal” society of Concerned Citizens to write to convicts serving life sentences. The Picketts themselves claimed to have a dozen “pen pal” inmates in Folsom and other prisons in the state and around the country. Newspapers had published some of the correspondence as items of human interest.
But there had always been organizations calling for reining in Hollywood and commercial advertising and even for the censorship of books, plays, and popular songs. Skeen could not keep count of the phenomena. The National Committee of Concerned Citizens for Public Decency was just another such outfit.
Mr. Pickett creased his brow and spoke in his odd voice. “My chapter had a meeting last week, Mr. Skeen, and the local Committee has sent me to demand from you a published apology for how you treated that minister and that attorney on the occasion of their arrests for murder earlier this month. Your treatment of them was dastardly, despicable, and utterly heartless. Yes, they committed horrible crimes, but their prominence in this community was of such a nature that they deserved the utmost respect and deference.”
Skeen blinked his eyes twice. Was he hearing things? The detective frowned. His mouth was about to bend into a grin of incredulity. He asked, “Would you mind repeating that, sir? I’m not quite sure I heard you correctly.”
Mr. Pickett obliged. Skeen grimaced. He could not stand the sound of the man’s voice.
Skeen sat forward. “Mr. Pickett, fighting criminals is not a please-and-thank-you business. The criminal’s wardrobe is irrelevant. If a criminal is violent, he must be met with violence. If he is not violent while being apprehended by me or by the police, then he won't be banged up much. The well-respected minister attacked me with an ax. The well-spoken attorney lied to me and crushed the skull of a priest.”
Skeen then lost his control and patience. He laughed outloud. “An apology from me? Are you out of your mind? Is this some sort of college fraternity prank?”
The Pickett couple’s mouths both pursed in petulance. The man said, “If you do not publish an apology, we shall launch a campaign to discredit you, and to pressure the District Attorney to confiscate or revoke your private investigator’s license. And also your right to carry a gun. We shall do everything in our power short of calumny to stop your violence!”
Mrs. Pickett offered her own threat. “You are a disgrace to this city, Mr. Skeen!” Her voice was a tad lower than that of a countertenor. “We shall see you run out of town! You are an atheist, too! You soil the city with your presence! You are no better than that atheist, Enoch Paige, who ought to be electrocuted, but now, thanks to you, he’ll walk free to spread his smut and anti-Christ filth!”
The woman was referring to the lecturer, Enoch Paige, who had been accused of murdering his ex-wife, as well. Churches and civic organizations had been howling for his blood.
Again, Skeen burst out laughing.
Mr. Pickett rose. His face was red with fury. “It will do you no good to insult us, Mr. Skeen! We are deadly serious! You may laugh at us, and mock us, but we shall have satisfaction and have the last laugh!”
Skeen rose and said, “I didn’t know you could laugh, Mr. Pickett.” He came around the desk. As he did, the Picketts quickly rose from the armchairs and retreated across the room. Skeen said, “Get out of here, you killjoys! How dare you come to my office to insult and threaten me?” He moved closer to Mr. Pickett and addressed him, emphasizing his words with a finger that tapped the man’s nose every other word. “What you and you lecherous, spiritually arid corpses want to do is ban what you can't have and what no woman would ever offer you, even for a price!”
Skeen heard a single hoot of laughter from the front office.
Mr. Pickett’s face grew scarlet. Mrs. Pickett sputtered some inarticulate sound and raised her umbrella to strike Skeen.
Skeen easily yanked it out of her hands and broke it in half across his knee. “You could be charged with a variety of assaults, but I'll let them pass. I ought to wrap this around your neck!” He handed the broken umbrella back to the woman. The woman stood gaping at it stupidly. Something like a pained “Oh!” escaped from her open mouth.
Mr. Pickett was now livid. He stepped up to Skeen and slapped him across the face. “How dare you insult my wife?!?”
“You and she are ripe for insults, sir.” Skeen drew an arm back and gave him a round-house, open-palm slap. If he’d closed his fingers, it would have been a fist. The man staggered back, lost his balance, and fell to the floor. A little blood trickled from a corner of the man’s mouth. Pickett put a finger to his lips and gasped in astonishment when he saw the blood.
Skeen said, “And you could be charged, as well, Mr. Pickett, for assaulting me in my own office! Here, let me help you up!” He jerked the man to his feet, spun him around, and then yelled out to Lucy, “Lucy! Open the front door and stand aside!”
But Lucy Wentz, startled by the loud commotion in her employer’s office, was standing there, undecided whether to be worried or amused. She rushed to the front office and held the door open.
Skeen grabbed the belt in the back of Mr. Pickett’s pants and the back of his shirt collar and marched him out of his office and into the hallway. He shoved the man outside. “Don’t ever come back!”
Mrs. Pickett followed her husband out the door, still holding the broken umbrella and looking stunned.
Skeen slammed the door on them, then ran back and retrieved the man’s derby. He opened the door again and tossed the hat out. It sailed over the couple’s heads and fell in front of one of the elevators far down the hall. “Here’s your hat! What’s your hurry?