Steele on the High Road
by Dawn Engle
Part 1
"Hello? Anybody here?" A man pushed open the frequently painted and now peeling door to the South Side Salvage Yard gate building. The office he entered was no bigger than a single stall garage, and dimly lit, due to the grime on the one window. A desk, piled high with receipts, old phone books, boxes of small metal parts, and a several discarded fast food containers, stood facing the door. Stacks of salvaged car radios, and hub caps circled the perimeter of the room. A single door led to what might be either a closet or a toilet. Looking around the empty office the man called out again, "Anyone here?"
From behind the door a husky arm brought a large lug wrench down on the back of the man's head. He crumpled to the crowded office floor and lay still.

Looking at her watch one more time, and then glancing up at the clock on her office wall as well, Laura shook her head with frustration and hit the intercom button to speak to Mildred.
"You haven't heard from our illustrious leader by any chance, have you Mildred?" Under her breath Laura continued "I thought we had made progress on arriving at the agency before morning coffee break."

"No Miss Holt, and it's not like him to be late. At least not this late." Mildred sounded concerned. "I've got that file for you with the information on Mr. Steele's eleven o'clock. Why don't I bring you a cup of coffee and you can take a look at the file in case Mr. Steele doesn't get here in time."
"What a good idea, Mildred." Laura's jaw was tight and she kneaded the tension out of her forehead, knowing Mildred really believed Mr. Steele, rather than she, Laura, was prepared for their next client meeting. As Mildred walked in the phone rang, and Mildred moved to answer.
"I'll get it Mildred...Remington Steele Investigations, Laura Holt speaking." barked that personage crisply, pulling the phone away from her ear as Steele barked back.
"I've been waiting outside for the limo for nearly an hour. Really Laura, this is unconscionable. My time is valuable."
"Yes, Sir, Well of course Sir. I can't imagine what might have happened. Fred has always been completely reliable. Perhaps he's had some car trouble. Can you call for a cab?....."Putting her hand over the phone, Laura turned to the agency's dedicated new secretary. "Mildred will you see if you can reach Fred? Try the limo, and if he doesn't answer there, try his home. Maybe he's ill."
"You got it Miss Holt." Mildred responds, all business as she turned and hustled back to her desk in the reception area.
"Now, Mr. Steele."
"I'm not sure there's any point in my coming in at all now today. Why, half the day is gone already, and my nerves are simply shot. I'm not sure my mood will tolerate any further...."
"MR. STEELE!" Laura cut in finally, "I need you here. Mr. Carlson of the Reef Yacht Club is due at eleven to discuss the vandalism of several of their yachts over the past six months, and he insists on meeting you in person. Gather yourself together, and get in here, Fred or no Fred."
"Miss Holt." Mildred burst back through the door just then. "We just got a call from Fred's brother, Mitch. Fred never showed up last night to help with some work he'd offered to do on Mitch's car, and this morning Mitch finally went over to Fred's house to check on him. According to the brother, Fred never came home last night!"
Part Two

"I had Mildred arrange for us to meet Mr. Carlson at the Yacht Club later this afternoon. Meanwhile, I thought maybe we should check out Fred's place and see if we can track down a lead on where he might be. I've known Fred for over three years now - disappearing with out letting anyone know his whereabouts is completely unlike him." Laura stood leaning against the wall of Steele's entry way, arms crossed as Mr. Steele prepared for the second time that morning to leave his apartment.
"I agree. He's quite close to Mitch too. Can't imagine him failing to follow through on plans with him." Steele mused, tightening the knot on his tie, shrugging into his suit coat, and taking a final look at his appearance in his hall mirror before gesturing for Laura to proceed him out the door.

"He's talked about his brother to you?" Laura asked, looking at Mr. Steele in surprise as she pushed the button for the elevator.
"Well, we have the occasional moment of waiting together. Bit of conversation helps to pass the time." Steele drew his eyebrows together and looked down, then up to meet Laura's questioning eyes. "Younger brother. Had some trouble early on, got in with the wrong crowd, that sort of thing. Fred's parents are gone. He's been watching out for the brother, helping him get on his feet."
"When he called the agency Mitch mentioned Fred had planned to work with him on his car. Fred hoped to find a part to salvage off a wreck in a junk yard to would get it running again." Laura and Steele reached the basement parking garage where Laura had left her Rabbit. "We should have time to run past Fred's home before we meet Carlson. I got Fred's address from Mildred."
"Elm and 5th, or there abouts. Take the expressway south." Steele offered easily.

Laura looked at Steele. "You've been to Fred's house?"
"Just once, maybe twice. Once we picked up a tool Fred needed to effect some repair on the limousine. Another time we enjoyed a drink after one of our chats."
"Mr. Steele, you never cease to amaze me." Laura shook her head, smiling. "I didn't even know Fred had a brother, much less anything about him. And I'm the detective."
"Men bond more easily over certain interests Laura. Automobiles, sports." Steele pounded his chest several times with one fist, stopping when a fit of coughing overcame him.
"Easy Mr. Steele." Laura smirked, looking at her partner. "You can use those male bonding skills to impress Mr. Carlson this afternoon. First let's see what we can do about finding Fred!"
"Have you ever thought about what would inspire someone to want to be a chauffeur, Laura?" Steele pondered as they walked around Fred's small home, searching for some clue as to his whereabouts. "I mean, they have unpredictable, often late hours, long waits, odd requests from their employers....all for relatively low wages."
"Exactly what odd requests have you been making of Fred, Mr. Steele? Besides, Fred is paid quite well for his work. I felt it important in light of just the kind of things you mentioned." Laura bristled a little at the implication that Fred had reason to be dissatisfied with his job. "Fred does have a lot of time to himself, but I had the feeling Fred was happy with that."
"Of course." Steele fingered the pieces of a chess set, apparently mid way through play, set up on a stand with a turntable so that the person sitting in the wing chair could easily play both sides. Fred's home was modest, four rooms, kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms. Each was perfectly ordered, uncluttered, with a masculine feel, deep colors, and simple lines to the furnishings. Fred used one bedroom as a study. It contained a computer, television and a small table covered with automobile parts, neatly arranged on clean rags, apparently awaiting reassembly. A bottle of cleaning fluid sat capped on a plate where it wouldn't damage the finish on the table. Nothing appeared to have been disturbed, and was as tidy as its owner had left it on Wednesday afternoon when he left to pick Steele up at the Towers to drive him home.
"Fred referred to chess when I interviewed him for his position." Laura joined Steele in the front of the chess set, and reflected back on that day. "I think he mentioned it in relation to detective work, the careful steps one set up in the course of play, just as an investigator does in solving a case."
"So where does that leave us Miss Holt?" Steele looked questioningly at Laura.
"I'm not sure Mr. Steele. There doesn't seem to be anything here that points to where Fred might be. Not even an address book, and the only photo an old one of his family. Let's call Mildred and see if she's heard anything more. We don't have a lot of time; we need to be at the Reef Yacht Club at two." Laura strode purposefully into Fred's kitchen and dialed the agency number.
"Miss Holt! I'm so glad you called. I didn't know how to get in touch with you. Is the boss with you!? Mitch Schillman called again and...." Mildred was clearly upset. "Oh Miss Holt, I've got good news and bad news! Can you put Mr. Steele on the phone?"
"Mildred, I'm in charge, remember!? What did Mitch tell you?" Laura's face showed her exasperation with Mildred's insistence on dealing with 'the Boss.' Smiling ruefully, Steele leaned close to Laura to listen to Mildred's news.
"Miss Holt! Fred called Mitch, and he's o.k.!"
"That's wonderful Mildred! Where is he? What's the bad news?"
"Fred's being held at the Tenth Street station. He's under arrest! The cops think he killed a man! They found Fred leaning over a body at a salvage yard!"
Part Three
"Fred, please don't give it another thought." Laura rested her hand reassuringly on Fred's shoulder. "Mr. Steele and I know only too well how law enforcement officials can get the wrong idea. As soon as the paper work is complete we'll get you out of here."
"That lump on the back of your head is pretty graphic evidence that you were the victim of some sort of foul play, not the perpetrator." Steele assured their chauffeur, then whispering quietly to Laura, "Isn't it?"
"Thanks Mr. Steele, Miss Holt. One minute I'm looking for car parts, and the next thing I know I'm looking into the face of a ...."
"Stiff, corpse, dead man, cadaver, carcass....?" Steele offered helpfully.
Fred turned an odd shade of gray, his demeanor suggesting to Laura that the man was at risk of losing his lunch.
"Mr. Steele, can I speak to you over here for a moment?" Laura gestured to a spot within Fred's line of sight but not hearing. "Perhaps you could avoid reminding Fred quite so graphically of the events of the past eighteen hours. He's been through a rather distressing trauma."
"Of course Miss Holt." Turning back to Fred Mr. Steele soothed him with "My apologies Fred. I forget that you are not prepared for the seamy side of life in quite the way seasoned professionals like Miss Holt and myself are."
Laura exhaled audibly and silenced her partner a withering glance. "Mr. Steele, would you please check with the desk and see if Fred will be freed to go soon?"
When Steele had left Laura turned once more to Fred who sat with his head in his hands. "Would you mind if I ask you a few questions Fred? Do you remember hearing or seeing anything unusual when you got to the salvage yard? Was the ....victim already on the floor of the office when you went in?"
"I don't think so Miss Holt, but maybe it was the knock on the head. I don't remember much about what happened after i dropped Mr. Steele off last night."
"No problem Fred. We'll get you home. I think you could use an afternoon off. With your head injury though, you shouldn't be alone - do you think Mitch could stay with you?"
"If it's all the same to you, Miss Holt, I'd kind of like to see this through. I'd like to help track down whoever attacked me." Fred looked up at Laura, as Steele strode purposefully back to them.
"Good news Mate, you're cleared to leave. Just need to sign for your personal items at the desk and we'll be out of here." Steele and Laura helped Fred to his feet, and watched him walk slowly to the desk. "Laura, what do you make of this?"
"I'm not sure Mr. Steele, but Fred's the gentlest man I know. I can't imagine him hurting a fly. The person who attacked Fred, may very well be the murderer. Now, what in a salvage yard might be worth killing for?" With another glance at her watch, Laura continued, "MEANWHILE, we've got 30 minutes to make our appointment at the Yacht Club. Guess we'll take Fred along for the ride."
"Ahhh Fred, here you are now. Have a seat in the back, and leave the driving to 'Hot Foot Holt.'" Smiling winningly at Laura as she took Fred's arm, he followed them out of the police station. "Make sure you buckle up!"
"Good - you made it!" Excusing himself from another conversation, a man in a captain's cap reached to shake Steele's hand as soon as the detective climbed from Laura's Rabbit. "I recognize you from your photos in the local papers!"
"Mr. Carlson I presume?" Steele greeted the man warmly, and turning drew Laura forward. "My associate Laura Holt, and... this is our chauffeur, Fred."
Fred, unfolding himself gingerly from the back seat of his employer's convertible looked somewhat the worse for wear, whether due to the effects of his head trauma of the previous evening, or Laura's vigorous attack of the streets of LA it was hard to say. He nodded grimly at Mr. Carlson.
"Has there been a problem with your vehicle?" Carlson asked with curiosity.
Laura stopped and turned to look at Fred as a thought suddenly occurred to her. "Where is the limo, Fred?"
"I drove it last night to pick up the part I needed." Fred answered tersely.
"We shall make that our next stop. Now, Mr. Carlson, how can we assist you?" Steele deftly turned Mr. Carlson toward the docks of the yacht club, giving the man the full effect of his megawatt charm. "Please show us around your marvelous facility."
"Wait here, Fred. We'll head over to the salvage yard as soon as we've finished. I'm sure the limo will be waiting there, safe and sound. One of us will drive it back to the agency garage.... You o.k.?" Waiting for Fred's nod, Laura gave his shoulder a comforting pat and hurried to catch up with Mr. Carlson and Steele.
Part Four
"You know Laura, by almost anyone's definition this could be construed as a romantic setting, fraught with wonderful possibilities...."
The sounds of the oceans gently rolling waves, anchor chains clinking musically, the muted dock lights and twinkling stars, along with sweet sea breezes combined with the slight rocking motion of the boat to lull the pair of detectives into a state of perfect contentment. Steele and Laura sat shoulder to shoulder on the fly bridge of a fifty-two foot Grand Banks cruiser in the harbor of the Reef Yacht Club. They were alone in the quiet, moonless early morning hours, facing opposite directions, ostensibly in order to see the yachts to either side of them, Laura's lips tantalizingly close to Steele's.
"We're working, Mr. Steele, remember.?" Laura cautioned, even as she allowed Steele to briefly silence her with a soft, slow kiss. "We need to keep our eyes open, and our thoughts focused."
"I'm doing both, Miss Holt." Steele grinned lazily as he ran one long finger gently along the curve of Laura's cheek, his thumb cradling her chin.
"We need to watch for thieves...or vandals... boarding yachts that don't belong to them...and absconding with electronics... and engine parts ...that render the boats... unusable." Laura's words were punctuated by the light kisses Steele placed on her eyes, her nose, her cheeks and her lips.
"We're always watching for someone, or something Miss Holt." Steele murmured softly as he gazed fondly into Laura's dark eyes.
Laura seemed to be staring hard at something in a slip several boats down from them. "I felt SO bad for Fred yesterday when we arrived at the salvage yard to find the limo stripped of it's tires, radio and, well everything. It was as if vultures had descended on carrion."
Steele sighed and reluctantly pulled his hand away from Laura's face. "He WAS rather upset. I thought you were extremely understanding Laura. Allowing Fred to install the replacement parts himself will go a long way towards making him feel better about the whole incident."
"It was so important to him to make things right . I really wasn't angry that he'd driven the limo there. By all rights, it should have been a 30 minute stop on his way home from work. How was anyone to guess he'd spend the night there, unconscious on the floor?" Laura turned back to Steele, a frown creasing her forehead. "I haven't come up with anything to explain a murder either. Even assuming there are literally hundreds of wrecks in the junkyard, there isn't anything on ANY of them worth more than about twenty-five dollars. Doesn't seem to justify killing a man."
"Money isn't behind every crime, Laura. What about crimes of passion?"
Laura looked a little bemused. "According to the police sergeant, the man killed was a frequent consumer of some of California's less notable vintages, hadn't bathed in weeks, and was missing a number of his teeth. Not exactly the likely focus of a crime of passion."
"Are you telling me Laura that in some forty odd years I'd better have all my teeth and an acceptable hygienic routine?"
"You may be on the right track, Mr. Steele. None of the thefts here at Reef Yacht Club are particularly costly. The goal seems to be more one of aggravating boat owners, leaving them unable to get out on the ocean when they arrive ready for an afternoon's outing, and putting Mr. Carlson and his staff in the position of appearing to be lax in their care of the yachts Carlson is responsible for; humiliating him, discrediting his abilities. Perhaps something on the same order happened at the South Side Salvage Yard!"
"Laauurra, there's absolutely nothing similar...."
"Come on, Mr. Steele. The sun's coming up. Let's regroup at noon at the agency. I need to make some phone calls. I think we can safely say nothing has happened here tonight. "
"Not for lack of trying." Steele muttered as he stood to follow Laura off the fly bridge.
"Good morning, Mr. Steele. I'm impressed that you're meeting me at the curb!" Laura rolled down the window of the agency limousine as she pulled up in front of Steele's Rossmore address.
"Yes, well, I am too." Steele opened the door and slid into the front seat next to Laura. "As much as I like the idea of spending nights with you, we've got to stop meeting like this. You look lovely though - and the limo looks splendid! I didn't realize Fred had completed the repairs."
"He dropped it off last night. I actually think it looks better than it looked before it was stripped. It seems our Fred's an amazing mechanic as well as reliable driver."
"Speaking of Fred, where did you say we were meeting him?"
"He called about two a.m. from the Tenth Street Station again. I figured you wouldn't want to me to handle this alone, despite the long hours we've been putting in on the Carlson matter over the last few nights." Laura pulled away from the curb with her usual confidence behind the wheel, and pealed off toward their destination.
"No, no, you're absolutely right, Laura. Wouldn't miss it for the world. Must to talk to Fred, however, about the hours he keeps." Steele buckled up securely, then closed his eyes and settled back against the plush leather seat, draping his coat over his shoulders like a blanket.
Laura smiled at him. He looked exceptionally appealing when he was drowsy and a little unkempt. Steele's hair fell across his forehead with childish carelessness. His chin was dark with stubble, and a half smile rested on his lips. Briefly she pictured stopping the limo to tuck herself in under that coat next to him. Swallowing, Laura focused instead on driving slowly and allowing Steele to continue his nap on their route to the police station.
"Fred, mate, there you are." Steele said somewhat blearily, having only recently re-awakened when Laura shook his shoulder after pulling up at the station.
"Miss Holt, Mr. Steele, sorry to drag you down here at this hour of the morning. Everything worked out pretty much the way we planned, and since it's agency business thought you'd better be here. Mitch and I have been taking turns watching the salvage yard each night since you spoke with the owner. Tonight I saw some men skulking around in the dark. I activated the automatic door locks and alarm I set up earlier. Trapped these goons with another poor homeless man they had dragged along with them, planning to leave him, just like the fellow I was accused of killing. Having that alarm go off pretty much stopped them from doing him any serious harm." Fred grinned at that.
Laura smiled slightly, thinking she had rarely heard Fred utter quite so long a speech. "Excellent work Fred! You've put your mechanical skills to use in a big way this week!"
"Can you imagine someone using a human being as a pawn in their own nefarious schemes?" Steele looked sober as he processed Fred's report. "And you Fred, could have met the same fate."
"My bump on the head led to the agency being involved, and probably prevented someone else from losing their life." Fred said quietly.
"Excellent observation, Fred. An unexpected ploy in the game - check, and check mate." Steele nodded at Fred with a smile.
"Steele, nice to finally meet you." A man walked up and shook Steele's hand. "I'm Jim Roberts. The South Side Salvage Yard belongs to me. Miss Holt told me about what happened to Mr. Schillman, your chauffeur, and convinced me to allow him and his brother to act to set up a trap in the salvage yard office. With his help I don't think the police will have any difficulty tying those creeps to the first murder, and to the developers who want my land. Hope it's o.k. with you, but Miss Holt pretty much refused any kind of payment for your assistance."
"Of course, all part of our plan." Steele assured, glancing at Laura for further elucidation.
"As you suggested might be the case, Mr. Steele, it seems there was a somewhat unscrupulous developer who wanted to purchase Mr. Roberts' property. He hoped by making the salvage yard the scene of repetitive crimes he would be able to undermine Mr. Robert's business, and make the property even more undesirable to it's closest neighbors than it already is, forcing Mr. Roberts to sell out, preferably at a rock bottom price."
"I'm willing to entertain reasonable offers to sell, Mr. Steele, but it ain't right to be forced to sell, and to have someone make my business look like a .... well, a dump." Roberts said grinning a little. He turned to Fred. "Meanwhile, I could use a couple of capable security experts like you and Mitch to work at my salvage yards. Do you think there's any chance I could persuade you or your brother to come work for me?"
"I'm ready to return to the 'mundane' life of a chauffeur. Keeping Mr. Steele and Miss Holt out of trouble gives me with all the excitement I can handle. My brother Mitch lost his job, though, when his car broke down." Fred offered. "At least with him working at a salvage yard we'd have access to spare parts to keep his car running."
Mr. Roberts laughed. "Have him call me tomorrow, Fred. Good night."
"Good night Mr. Roberts." Steele waved a cheerful good-by, then put a hand on Fred's shoulder. "Glad to have you back behind the wheel Fred. As much as I enjoy Miss Holt's enthusiastic driving, I prefer having her with me in the back seat to confer on our business affairs."
Once the three were settled into the Cadillac Laura leaned forward to speak with Fred.. "You did an amazing job restoring the limo, Fred. It looks even better than it did before. Thank you. I'm glad to have you back in the driver's seat again too. She settled back next to Steele, beginning to feel the fatigue of a long work week.
"So in the end both cases came down to money after all, eh Laura?" Steele broke the silence.
"Not entirely, Mr. Steele." Laura was thoughtful. "There's a certain amount of passion that some people bring to their business endeavors. Not always admirable, but it can go far beyond simple dollars and cents. This case really was similar to the Reef Yacht Club matter we just solved. Discrediting an opponent in a competing business took men beyond the simple precepts of business - not unlike the Veckmer affair that cost me my home. Anyway, the Yacht Club case will keep us in dollars and cents for a few weeks, even if this case mainly served to clear Fred's name."
"About our fee, Laura." Steele began jauntily "I suggested to Mr. Carlson that we would waive our fee in lieu of a weekend aboard his yacht. We could make it a staff outing - good for morale."
"You waived our fee?!?" Laura spluttered, suddenly stiffening her spine. "What on earth were you thinking of!? After all of our hard work over the last week?!" There was an odd noise from the front seat. Laura looked up to see Fred's impassive eyes in the rear view mirror looking straight ahead at the road. "Never mind. I know what you were thinking of. Staff outing, eh Mr. Steele?"
Laura's mouth remained grim, but her dimples gave her away.
"I have only the best interests of the agency in mind, Laura." Steele grinned roguishly, his eyes meeting Fred's in the mirror.
The End

Home CaseBook E-Mail