The Man With the Iron-On Badge

Free The Man With the Iron-On Badge by Lee Goldberg

Book: The Man With the Iron-On Badge by Lee Goldberg Read Free Book Online
Authors: Lee Goldberg
Tags: Mystery
something on the bumper, though, that caught my eye. I looked at it under the magnifying glass. It was a tiny green sticker, a stylish rendering of the letter “S” and a code number underneath: “UC2376.”
    It looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where I’d seen it before. I figured it was a parking permit of some kind, but from where? The UC could stand for the University of California, and could come from any of their campuses statewide, though the guy who beat me up didn’t look like a student to me.
    The sticker could also be a parking permit for a factory, an office building, a government office, or even a gated community like the one I guarded. The possibilities were endless.
    As I walked outside to my car, it occurred to me again how unusual I thought it was for the blackmailer to be driving a new Ford Focus, a practical economy car. It’s the last car a guy like that would buy.
    So I decided to assume that the car wasn’t his.
    Which meant it could be stolen, though if you’re gonna steal a car, it would be something nicer than Ford Focus, even if all you were gonna to do with it was take a joyride. There’s no joy in riding in a Ford Focus, believe me.
    If I assumed it wasn’t stolen, that he’d borrowed it, then maybe it belonged to his employer. Perhaps the sticker meant it was a fleet car of some kind.
    And then it hit me, just as I reached my little Kia Sephia.
    It was a rental car.
    Right away, I knew my deduction was right. I knew it because it matched the evidence, it was logical, and it fit my astute observations of his character.
    And I knew it because the tiny green sticker on his bumper was the same as the one on my car.
    The lady behind the counter at the Swift Rent-A-Car office on Ventura Boulevard looked like she’d been manufactured at the same plant where they make stewardesses, bank tellers, telephone operators, and Barbie dolls.
    She was blond, blue-eyed, and her body had all the right measurements so she could fit into her pre-tailored, green rent-a-car gal uniform. I was hoping she’d be just as robotic and predictable as her appearance promised.
    “May I help you?” she chirped.
    I strode up in a new polo shirt and khakis I bought at K-Mart.
    “My name is John D. MacDonald, and I’m a best-selling author of mystery novels. I’m doing some research for my next book, and I was hoping you could help me with a technical question about the rental car industry.”
    I said it all quickly, in a nervous blurt, just the way I’d memorized it. I also whipped out a new paperback reprint of
Nightmare in Pink
and held it in front of me like an ID.
    “What does the D stand for?” she asked.
    “Excuse me?”
    I wasn’t prepared for improvisation. I’d come up with a very detailed script, and already she was deviating from her part.
    “The D,” she repeated. “People don’t usually mention their middle initial unless they are very proud of it.”
    “What about Captain James T. Kirk? He tells everybody about his middle initial, even aliens who don’t understand English and certainly don’t give a damn.”
    “Excuse me?”
    “That’s what his T stands for,” she explained. “Would you like to know what Doctor McCoy’s middle name was?”
    “Actually, what I’d like to know is what this means.” I handed her the photo of the blackmailer’s bumper.
    “What for?” she asked.
    “My hero, Travis McGee, is tossed out of a car. And just before he passes out on the road, he sees that sticker with the logo and number. I was wondering what he could deduce from that clue.”
    “He didn’t know the people in the car?”
    “No,” I replied testily, “they were thugs.”
    “What about the license plate?” she said. “Wouldn’t he look at that, instead of a tiny bumper sticker?”
    “There are no plates.”
    “Weren’t the thugs worried that by driving around without plates, a cop might pull them over while they’re holding McGee

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