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Zack Cheek (1977)

Zack Cheek (1977)

©1978, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1977). Zack Cheek. Unpublished fiction.







I love noir writers—Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald and James M. Cain—so of course I took a crack at writing noir myself. It was my first attempt at fiction longer than a short story and I ground to a stop twenty-one short chapters in. I hadn’t outlined a plot and the walking stereotypes of characters were driving themselves. The latter is ordinarily a good thing, but not this time. Besides, the bodies were beginning to pile up. I thought it best just to stop.

Still, I liked the name Zack Cheek. I thought it had just come to me, but I later realized it was the name of a realtor in Nashville. I think it’s the perfect moniker for a hard-boiled detective. Don’t you?

Here are some sample chapters.

Chapter 1

 Chapter 1


I placed her age at twenty-seven, but she dressed thirty-eight. She stood in the doorway of my office, nervously switching her bag from hand to band. She was attractive in a wholesome sort of way, if you know what I mean. Her hair was short and brown, cut so she could get by with just a shampoo and blow-dry. She was wearing makeup well-enough applied that you had to look twice to tell she was wearing it at all Her eyes were two blue sparks beneath delicately arched brows. She had good bones in her face; her cheekbones were high and her cheeks would be ruddy even without rouge. She was wearing a light blue polyester dress, pantyhose, and blue heels. Her only jewelry was a pair of gold hoops in her ears. Her entire wardrobe looked as if it had come from J.C. Penney. Mail order glamour. She was maybe ten pounds overweight, but then I always liked women a little chubby. Ask my psychiatrist why.

I said, “Come in and sit down. My name is Zack Cheek.” I resisted the temptation to waggle my eyebrows like Groucho. She walked by me, giving me a glimpse of a fine line of sweat on the downy hairs of her upper lip, and sat primly, in the chair I had indicated. I bought that chair at a garage sale years ago for twelve bucks and had it reupholstered for seventy more. It is showing signs of wear after all those years and all those behinds. She drummed her fingers on the arm.

“The way we usually start is with an introduction,” I prodded.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so upset that I completely… my name is Sybil Sarratt, Mr. Cheek. I’m pleased to meet you. I’ve never seen a detective’s office before.” Her eyes darted about in a swift appraisal of her surroundings. I knew she wouldn’t be impressed.

“The big agencies have fancy offices, pert secretaries, and a lot of capital, Miss Sarratt.” Her eyebrows raised in surprise at the “Miss.” “I do the best I can, with what help I can get. You see the office, such as it is. At the present I am at least keeping my phone connected. And I do try harder. Drink?” I nodded towards the small cabinet on the wall beside my desk. She nodded back yes. I fished out two glasses and a bottle of Jack Daniels, poured three fingers in each, and topped them with Coke from the refrigerator, dropped two ice cubes in each. She accepted hers and I walked back around behind my desk and sat down. “Now that we’re old friends, what sort of work did you have in mine for me?”

“Mister Cheek, I’m very worried about my husband, Ned. Lately he’s been acting very peculiarly, as if something were bugging him.” She hesitated.

“Go on, Mrs. Sarratt.”

“He’s been— leaving late at night, sometimes staying out until morning. And things have been misplaced around the house. Stolen, I mean. And when Ned’s tax return came, he said he’d lost it. He said he cashed it, and when he went out to his car, two men grabbed him and took his watch and wallet. I found the wallet in the glove box of the car the next day. I don’t know what made me look. Several days after that, he said the police had found it and returned it to him, that they had found it in an alley just that morning.

“But most importantly, he’s been hanging around with someone called Buck Clark. An old friend, he says, but I don’t think so. At least, Ned never mentioned the man’s name before he started coming around a month or so ago. Mr. Cheek, I think this man is behind my husband’s actions. I want you to find out who he is and what he wants, and why Ned is acting so strangely. And I want you to follow Ned the next time he leaves and find out where he’s going. He’s not been himself lately. He’s been aloof and cold…“ She smiled, blushing. “1 want my Ned back, Mr. Cheek. Can you help me?”

I said I could. “My fee is two hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. I economize when possible. A retainer of three hundred would be plenty.”

She already had her checkbook out. She wrote my name and the amount on a check with lilies and carnations on it. I noticed she hadn’t been keeping a balance. Maybe her clothes didn’t come from J.C. Penney after all.

She handed me the check, and I put it in the pocket of my vest. “What does you husband do for a living?” I asked.

“He’s an accountant with Montoval Chemical. He makes about eighty thousand a year. I work part-time at the library. We don’t have much, what with prices being what they are, and I don’t intend to let what little we do have slip away. Our only hedge is my inheritance, and it’s not much.”

I chose to ignore the kicker about the inheritance. I said, “How long have you been married?”

“Almost a year. You— how are you going to go about this, Mr. Cheek?”

I gave her a smile in millimeters. “Legwork. Does your hus­band have any expensive habits?”

“Like gambling or drinking?”

“Yeah. Or women.”

She winced. “You don’t pull any punches, do you?”

“I’m funny about my work. I do it hard and I do it fast and I do it as simply as possible. Sometimes that’s the best approach, and sometimes not. But it’s my style. I ask what I think is necessary. I never was shy.”

“I’ll bet you’re not.” For the first time she allowed herself to look at me as if she were hiring a man and not a machine. “I’m sure it’s not another woman. Or a man, either, if that’s how your mind works. I could tell it was someone else. Ned drinks some. At parties I usually have to drive home. But he’s not a gambling man. Or a drug user. Did I leave anything out?” She smiled.

“Only Satanism and Communism. Do you have any theories?”

She shook her head. “I’m afraid not. “When are you going to start?”

“I’ll find out about this Buck Clark character this after­noon and hang out at your house this evening in case your husband goes out. It would help if you would invite me out so I could talk to him.”

“No! I mean, Ned mustn’t know. I’m not used to deceit, Mr. Cheek. I’d let something slip. I’d rather you wouldn’t meet him.” Her blue eyes bored into me. “Here’s a phone number where you can reach me, and a post office box where you can send mail, if you need to do that. But you needn’t write anything up. Just call me and tell me what is happening with my Ned. Please don’t come to the house. Not under any circumstances.”

“Who told you I didn’t like writing? Or did you just pull my name out of a hat?”

“I got your name from a friend. My housekeeper, actually. You did some divorce work for her. Her name is Mildred Fishbein. She said you’d remember her.”

I remembered her. Fishbein was a raw-boned, red, sweating woman who talked too loudly because of a hearing loss. She refused to wear a hearing aid, for vanity’s sake, although nobody who knew her could figure out what she had to be vain about. Her husband had run hard and fast, settled like a nervous butterfly in Bakersfield. I had found him and told her I hadn’t, and had returned her retainer. Some things take precedence over money.

“Oh, yes. Fishbein. A formidable lady.”

“Indeed, but a sweet old dear. She’s been with us for years. She was impressed with your technique, even though you didn’t find Mr. Fishbein. She took your advice and quit looking. She said you told her if your wife looked like her you would have run too. What does your wife look like?”

“No wife. The only dames I like suddenly leave town.” I made myself another drink, saying as I was pouring, “Tell me everything you know about Buck Clark— his appearance, habits, where he lives, where he hands. And if you have a picture of your husband, it would help. It doesn’t have to be pretty, Just so it’s a reasonable likeness.”

She dug into her purse. “I can do you one better than that. Here’s a picture of both of them together.” She handed me a Polaroid photo. I took it and looked at two men taken by surprise by the camera. Both were tall, but one was thin where the other was muscular, one tanned and blond while the other was sallow and dark. I wondered which one was Ned Sarratt and which one was Buck Clark.

She read my mind. “Buck is the one on the left.” The thin, sallow one, then, was Ned; the athletic blond was Clark. I looked more closely at the photograph. Ned seemed to be about thirty-five. Little lines were beginning to march outwards from his heavy-lidded eyes. The mouth was sensual, cruel. Buck was a little younger. He had a fierce burst of sandy moustache adorning his lip, and long side­burns, He looked as though he would appreciate the thick humor of a practical joke, while Ned’s wry smile spoke of more subtle enjoyments. They looked like any two guys you might meet in a bar on a slow night. I put the picture in my wallet.

Sybil Sarratt produced a sheet of notebook paper when she saw me putting the picture away. “This is Ned’s address. My address, I mean. I’m not sure where Buck Clark lives, but it takes him twenty minutes to get to our place from his. I’ve timed it from when he phones until he shows up. He dates a girl known as Miranda Cotton. I don’t think that’s her real name. She looks as if she’s seen more action than General Patton. You can catch Buck almost any evening at the Oleander Lounge. There’s a secluded corner where he goes to drink. That’s all I know.”

“That’s enough. What time should I be outside of your house in order to see Ned leave?”

“If he goes, it’ll be about midnight, but for sure some time between ten o’clock and one in the morning. He leaves at least four times a week. He’s usually back about daybreak. Say five o’clock.” She stood up to leave.

I stood up, too. “I’ll call tomorrow, and let you know what I’ve found.” She smiled a conspiratorial smile and left, her drink almost, untouched. I emptied her glass into mine. I couldn’t help thinking she knew a lot more than she was telling. But then I always think that. I waggled my eyebrows like Groucho and drained the glass.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2


When I finished the drink I took the check out of my pocket and studied it. It was drawn on the First National Bank of Pasadena. Its number was 147. I reached for the phone, dialed information and asked the bank’s number, dialed it. “This is Melvin Tiflitt at Ace Minit Cleaners. One of our customers just wrote us a rather large check for some articles which were damaged in a fire and we tried to clean— take the soot and odor out, you know? I’d like to be sure the check is good. It’s for four hundred dollars.”

After a delay, a girl told me, “The balance in the account is at three figures, sir. I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with the check. I’m sorry for the wait, but the account wasn’t yet on the computer, and I had to check around to locate it.”

I said, “No problem waiting. Thank you very much. This must be a new account, then.”

“Yes sir. It’s usually— I’m not really supposed to dis­cuss this, Mr.—”

“Tillett.” I hoped that was the name I’d given her.

“Is there anything else you wish to know?”

Your phone number. “No, thank you very much.” I hung up. Check number 147. My bank gives ten temporary checks to people who start new accounts, and within a week mails fifty or one hundred personalized checks with buildings or flowers or beautiful sunsets, or in my case, funny little geometrical patterns, and the first number is always 101. She had opened the account, and had either written nearly fifty checks in a couple of days, or taken forty-six out of the book so I wouldn’t think it was a new account. I called in Sally, my secretary.

She came in, waggled her eyebrows like Groucho. “The lady left with her clothes in proper array,” she smirked. “You seem to be slipping.”

“I never could go for the clear blue-eyed type, myself,” I lied. “I always did like sultry brunettes. It’s best to get them before they get in high school.” I stuck out my tongue about an eighth of an inch. “Take this check and drive to Pasadena and cash it, toot-sweet.” She grabbed it by the corner like it was hot, blew on it to cool it. “It’ll go,” I said.

“Since I’ll be going right by home, and since it’s already three, uh—”

“Yeah. You can just go home after you cash it. See you Monday morning.” She started out the door. “Sit,” I said. She came back.. ‘“Are you feeling ill? All day I was in the office and you managed to keep your mitts off me.”

She smiled fractionally and leaned over my desk. “I’ll tell you my secret for this four hundred. You can bottle it, wear it around your neck, and you needn’t ever be bothered by girls again.”

“Why pay?” I grunted. “I get that for free.” I watched as she undulated her way out the door.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5


I sat in my car, lights out, down the block from the Sarratt house. I had been there for an hour. The quartz clock in the dashboard said one a.m. I had parked under a high tension line and, after finding the radio gave our only varying loudnesses and pitches of static, sat in a silence punctuated only by the drumming of my fingers on the dashboard. I am not good at waiting. It’s not that I can’t keep myself occupied with my thoughts, but that the thoughts that keep me occupied aren’t the ones I would rather be thinking.

I was disgusted. So far everyone involved in this case was rosy-cheeked and wholesome-looking. Sybil Sarratt looked like the girl next door. Buck Clark, warped as he was, was just another simple person who had been scarred by an experience he couldn’t understand. He had been drafted, trained by brainwashing and browbeating, shipped to a country where people don’t look or act or talk like they do in America, and told to shoot them. It was probably the most rewarding time in his life in terms of comradeship, sense of duty, feeling of accomplishment. No wonder he wanted to go back to Asia and shoot some more slant-eyed people. He was the All-American Boy gone astray. I couldn’t see him involved in anything more insiduous than a little gambling or small-time grass dealing. If Ned Sarratt was attracted to him it was probably because of his casual manner and air of petty illicitness.

Ned Sarratt was the only one of the three who seemed as if he might be dangerous or might in any way bear watching. Yet I was hired to find out what deviltry Buck Clark was leading him into. I decided the whole case was a waste. Ned Sarratt was just testing his reins. He had been married, a responsible man, for some time, and there was the urge to step just a touch out-of-bounds to stay out at night drinking, to drive too fast, or, despite Sybil’s denial of it, to womanize. I would follow him tonight and tell Sybil what his particular petite crime was in the morning. Case closed.

It was into this reverie that Ned Sarratt injected him­self. He left his house by the front door, got into a Blue Toyota, backed out of the drive and onto the street. I ducked as he drove past, let him get a block or so ahead, then did a U-turn and followed.

Chez Sarratt was a large house on an extremely large lot, sitting just off a state highway. In fact, it was almost an estate. I couldn’t see how an accountant could afford such a villa at a paltry eighty thousand. I noticed the quality of the neighboring houses as I followed Ned Sarratt. It wasn’t hard. Some of them were lit by spotlights.

Sarratt drove straight and fast. I followed at that magic distance that is neither too close nor too far behind. After seven or eight miles I was wishing he would turn, just for variety’s sake. And then he did turn, left into a subdivision, and then to the right on the first street. He pulled his car over to the curb and stopped it. I made the left but not the right, drove past as he was walking up the sidewalk of the corner house. I turned right on the next street, drove around the block. When I passed Sarratt’s car he was walking back toward it, too fast. I circled the block again. Ned Sarratt’s car was gone the second time around, but I picked up his tail­lights. It looked as if he was headed home.

He was. In twenty minutes he pulled his car back into the drive, went into the house. I stayed until the lights went out. He was home for good.

The night was still young. I drove back to the house at which something or somebody had sent Ned Sarratt scurrying back to his car, parked, turned off the engine. The house was of gray frame with a badly overgrown lawn. Several lights were on. I walked up the walk, knocked at the door. There was no answer. “Police,” I said loudly. “Open up.” There was still no answer. I tried the knob. The door swung open with a squeak like a frightened mouse, showing me an un­tidy living room. Empty and half-empty glasses and beer bottles, some of which had doubled as ashtrays, were scattered like gypsies on the floor, the window sill, the tables. The rug looked dirty enough to grow tomatoes. A portable television played the late-night movie noiselessly to no one. The top was marred by rings left by bottles of beer. Newspapers were scattered about. But the most untidy thing was crumpled in the doorway. It was a woman. Had been, rather. She was lying in forlorn disarray, her clothes crumpled and torn. She was quite dead.

Chapter 19

Chapter 19


I caught the elevator, rode down one floor, got off, and walked back up the stairs. I stopped near the door to the room of Ambrosio and Casseli and flipped the end of a stethoscope onto the door.

I had seen a stethoscope flipped once in a like manner. It was years earlier, and I was working in a mental hospital. I was an attendant. I worked the evening shift on a ward full of chronically insane individuals. The inmates of the ward, troubled to begin with and shaped by years of sensory deprivation from living in their drab surround, had retreated so far into the backs of their skulls that only occasionally would a glimpse of the personality that once was that person emerge. One of the patients was named Willie. He was a four-foot-eleven-inch slip of a man. He was thirty-five years old and couldn’t have weighed more than seventy pounds. Willie wasn’t mentally ill, but profoundly retarded, a mute sprite who lurked in hallways in hopes of finding a cigarette butt, a morsel of food, or a cockroach to stuff into his mouth. Willie became seriously ill and wasn’t expected to live. For days I attended to him in the sick room just off the aide’s station, and then one day I checked on him and he was stiff and cold. I had just about decided he was dead when he opened his eyes and looked at me. An hour later he was dead. I could detect no pulse or respiration. I called the hospital physician, who was irritated Willie had elected to pass at the supper hour. He came to the ward and flipped a stethoscope onto Willie’s chest with the same casual motion with which I had just flipped a stethoscope onto the wall. He told me Willie was dead, signed the death certificate, and left. I know he couldn’t have had much of a listen in the brief moment in which the metal disc of the stethoscope had contacted Willie’s chest.

The aide who was working with me came back from supper and we prepared the body for the morgue. We closed the eyes, stopped up the orifices, and put him in a shroud. I grabbed Willie’s feet and his whole body pivoted on the top of his head; nothing bent— he was straight and stiff as a board. The other attendant pulled the shroud over the lower half of the body as I held up Willie’s feet, and then we repeated the performance for the upper half. Then the ambulance driver came and we placed the shrouded body on a stretcher and walked it down two steep flights of stairs to the ambulance. The driver made jokes about Willie being so light. I don’t think I laughed very much. We drove to the hospital morgue and opened a big door and slid Willie in. As the door slammed I remembered Willie’s eyes as they rolled up to look at me when I had thought he was dead, and I became convinced he wasn’t dead. But I went back to the ward, worked the rest of my shift, and went home.

Ambrosio was mad. “The bastard, you should have let me shoot him. I was waiting for the sign.”

Casseli was playing, as always, the patient man, the teacher. “He did no harm. Mr. Cheek was just taking us up on our offer to trade information, in his own quaint way. He wanted to know about Sammero. I told him, and he told me about the attempt on Ned Sarratt’s life. That was a fairly even trade. I wouldn’t have let Mr. Cheek push me in a direction in which I wasn’t prepared to go. He’s too wise to push me in such a direction, fortunately. Mr. Cheek isn’t as stupid as he looks.” Thanks, I thought, for the complement.

Casseli continued. “And you let him play you like a game fish. He taunts you, insults you, and you rise like a trout to the bait. I’ve told you your hotheadedness is your biggest fault. It certainly didn’t take Mr. Cheek long to pick up on that. One of these times you’ll get mad and say or do something for which you’ll be sorry for afterwards. Possibly to Mr. Cheek.”

“It’s his damned arrogance.” Ambrosio sounded like a rep­rimanded child, petulant. “Do you think he knows more than he’s letting on?”

“About Sammero? Probably not. Cheek wouldn’t hesitate to contact us if we could work to our mutual advantage. And we shall not hesitate to contact Mr. Cheek unless it is to our disadvantage to do so. And his arrogance. It conflicts, perhaps, with yours, Antonio?”

I had heard enough sensi-grasshopper crap. I walked away, the stethoscope around my neck.