I was sitting in the Spot Bar, minding my own damn business, content in a mild and steadily growing alcoholic haze. A client had paid me. The check was enough to cover my overdrafts and fund a night or two of partying.
I saw her come in the side door and look around for fifteen seconds. She was blond, hot looking, thirty something, maybe wearing a little too much makeup. Dressed in a delightfully slutty sort of way. Conversation didn’t stop but heads turned as she walked past. She headed toward an empty stool. There were four on either side of me. Her chest was like the prow of a battleship and plowed a firm, bouncy course down the length of the bar. She passed the first three empty stools and pulled out the one next to me. It was red vinyl and edged in worn duct tape.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
I caught the slightest hint of an accent.
“Not that I can see.”
“You are Mr. Devlin Haskell, right? The private dick?”
She batted her eyes a few times, which at the moment struck me as extremely sexy. Her perfume wafted over me like a plastic dry cleaning bag and forced me to gasp for breath. It was strangely spicy.
“Yeah, that’s me. Although it’s not all that private,” I joked.
Incredibly she smiled but didn’t comment. After a moment she said,
“Mr. Haskell, I’ve been looking for you. Of course the other places were a little nicer than this,” she said, gazing around at the dingy brown, smoke-stained ceiling. Maybe she caught the two bullet holes in the front door now filled with putty and supposed to have been painted sometime just before Obama took office. Maybe it was the 60s-style cheap wood paneling on the walls, or the ode de beer reek of the place. Maybe it was the worn wood-grain Formica tables in the booths or the twenty-watt bulbs in the light fixtures. Maybe it just didn’t matter, I thought, as she sat up straight, spun toward me on her stool, and thrust her death-defying cleavage in my face.
“You were looking for me?” I asked, wondering if my luck had finally begun to change.
“Yes, a friend gave me your name.”
“Really, what can I do for you?” thinking maybe a getaway weekend to a quiet lake, or a bed and breakfast with a jacuzzi in the room, or just your basic tawdry night at my place.
“Well, I hope you won’t think I’m strange.”
At this point Grace, the bartender, stepped in front of us. An experienced little voice inside my head said just smile, finish the drink and get the hell out of here before you get in real trouble.
“Buy you a drink?” I asked.
“Will you have another?”
That experienced little voice whispered no.
I nodded yes toward Grace who rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, okay, I guess I’ll have a double vodka martini, two olives,” she ordered quickly, then smiled at me.
A double, my kind of girl.
“So, I was about to think you’re strange?” I said.
“What? Oh yes. Look, I wanted to hire you, to sort of find someone. I will pay you,” and with that she dug in a small beaded handbag suspended on a chain over her shoulder.
I hadn’t noticed it before but then I’d been otherwise engaged making careful notes as to her physical characteristics.
“Oh, sorry,” she said as she snapped the handbag closed with an audible click and then reached into her front pocket. She pulled out a small wad of hundred-dollar bills. I was actually more amazed there was room for anything thicker than a dime in her pocket. The jeans looked to have been sprayed on over her perfect thighs.
“Here is five hundred dollars I can get you more if you need it.”
“You still haven’t told me who you want me to ‘sort of’ find. A name would help, for starters. Not to mention, you know my name but I don’t know yours.”
Grace brought our drinks, grabbed a ten off the bar from the small pile in front of me.
“Oh yes, sorry, I’m Kerri.” She held out her hand to shake.
“Nice to meet you, Kerri, call me Dev. Your accent?” I asked.
She nodded, batted her eyes innocently, then proceeded to drain nearly half her martini glass.
“Mmm-mmm, that is a very good vodka,” she gasped. “Yes, French, but from a long time ago. I was just a little girl. Dev, I hope you’ll help me find my little sister.”
“Yes, she is called Nikki.”
“Hmm, Kerri and Nikki, sisters. Anyone else in the family? Mom, Dad, brothers, more sisters?”
“No, we are the only ones. My, I mean, our parents passed away eight years ago, maybe six months apart,” she made a quick sign of the cross, in the Orthodox way, reverse order to the Irish Catholic I grew up with. Then she washed it down with a hearty sip of martini.
“Don’t be. My father killed himself, one drink at a time. And my mother was a religious crazy woman. She wore herself out trying to put a stop to anyone thinking of enjoying himself. You know the old question? Which came first, the alcoholic husband or the long-suffering wife?”
“Can’t say that I do, but I know a couple or two it might fit.”
“Oh right, I have not seen her in maybe two months. Not that we were really close or anything, but she hasn’t been home for quite a while as far as I can tell and her phone is disconnected. Her car remains in the same place, in her driveway. I have a key to her house. I went through it but nothing seemed unusual, do you know? It was not trashed or ransacked or some-such.”
“Husband, boyfriend, kids?”
“Not that I know about. She had a boyfriend about a year and a half ago, but he did away with her. Actually he was keeping her on the side and had a regular girlfriend. He married that woman last spring. Nikki read about it in the newspaper.”
“That’s a tough way to find out.”
“Yes. I think he was maybe four years older than Nikki, Bradley Cadwell. Brad the Cad we called him. He is a lawyer now. But I must be honest, she only spoke of him, I never really met him.”
“But a lawyer?”
“Say no more.”
She didn’t, instead she drained her glass and left the olives. With a nod I had Grace mixing a new double just after her empty glass hit the bar. Things become a little bit bleary after that.
I remember checking the rearview mirror constantly on the drive home to make sure she didn’t lose me, although I couldn’t swear to the exact route we took. I remember she could drink vodka like a fish, had a gorgeous figure. She was trimmed as opposed to shaved and had a little Victorian-looking angel with wings, sitting on a cloud tattooed on her right butt cheek. I was too drunk to read the writing that encircled the angel.
I’ve got a bite mark on my left nipple, scratches on my back, my bed’s a mess, and the place reeks of stale spicy perfume. My head is pounding and I just finished reading a note that says she only took a hundred dollar bill from the five she gave me out of “professional consideration”.
She penned her phone number at the bottom of the note, just after she wrote to hold onto her emerald green thong from Victoria’s Secret should I run across it.
I needed aspirin, coffee, and a sauna. Any phone call to Kerri could wait until after those things were accomplished. And ever the professional I made a mental note to find out her last name.
While recovering I sat in a back booth at Moe’s a little after one in the afternoon. Moe’s was my morning office at least three days a week. The earlier sauna and aspirin were working their magic, and the third cup of coffee kept me going until breakfast was delivered. I was just finishing up the last of my hash-browns, dragging the remnants through a slick of heart-stopping hollandaise sauce as I phoned Kerri. Her phone message kicked in, but the voice didn’t sound like her at all.
“Hey baby, thanks for calling. Sorry I’m all tied up at the moment. Leave your name and number, and one of us will get back to you just as soon as we can, bye-bye.”
My guess was Kerri didn’t work for a pediatrician. I checked my watch as the beep sounded to leave a message.
“Hi Kerri, Devlin Haskell here. Please give me a call when you can. I’d like to schedule an appointment so we can review some facts on your case and I can begin my investigation. It’s Wednesday afternoon at one-thirty, you can reach me at ….”
I’ll be the first to admit it was a bit presumptuous to suggest I’d be able to review facts on her case. I really only had four facts; Kerri’s first name, her sister’s name, Nikki, Kerri’s phone number, and five, make that four hundred dollars, cash in advance.
A half hour later I was behind the wheel of my car, debating about starting it up or going back into Moe’s for a couple more aspirin when my phone rang. I glanced at the number coming through like I always did and just like always couldn’t read the numbers.
There was a very long pause on the other end before a female voice sounding somewhat confused said,
“I think I must have the wrong number,” then hung up.
The phone rang again less than a minute later, I did my routine of looking at the incoming number, just like before I was unable to read the damn thing.
“Hello,” I said in what I thought passed for pleasant considering my hangover.
It was the same voice from a minute before, female, young sounding.
“Yeah, I’m calling for Devil.”
“That would be me, Devlin, actually,” annunciating the last syllable in my name.
“What do you need, baby?” sounding decidedly unimpressed with my attempt at correction.
“I need to speak with Kerri, actually. Is she available?”
“She can’t do nothing I can’t do better, honey. You don’t need her, do you?” She hissed the word nothing, suggesting maybe there was a space between her teeth.
“Actually, yes I do need to talk with her. Is she there or is there a number I can reach her at?”
“You a cop?”
“No, I’m not. But look, I’ll call the cops and give them this number unless you have Kerri call me in the next half hour. If I don’t hear from…” Whoever she was, she was so impressed she hung up.
I decided to venture home, grab some aspirin, maybe close my eyes for a few minutes. My mood improved as I considered I could be sitting on the easiest four hundred dollars I ever made.
I had just put my feet up for the briefest of moments when my phone rang. Yes, I looked at the number. No I still couldn’t read the damn thing.
“Oh, no wonder Da’nita thought you were with the police. Do you always answer like that?”
I recognized her voice immediately. A hazy, torrid scene from the previous night replayed in my mind.
“Dev, I’m returning your call, remember? You wanted to set an appointment. I think we should. No drinks please, at least not until we’re finished with the serious business,” she chuckled.
“You tell me where and when.”
“How about your office?”
“My office?” I swallowed, the throbbing in my head returned with a vengeance.
“Yes, that is okay, no?”
It would be okay if I had an office, so I dodged the question.
“No, I mean, look, I think I owe you at least dinner, after last night and all. You free this evening?”
“I can be.”
“Okay, tell you what. You know Malone’s?”
“It is a place on the corner, with the black awning.”
“Yeah, you got it. I’ll make reservations, say seven, seven-fifteen, no alcohol. At least not until we’re done discussing. Sound okay?”
“Great. Oh, Kerri, can you bring some pictures of your sister? And I’ll need her address and, if you have a spare key to her place that would help too.”
“Maybe I should just bring her.”
“Joking, never mind. I will see you at Malone’s.”
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t need a reservation, but phoned anyway.
“Yeah, I’d like a table for two at about seven tonight.”
“Not a problem, you won’t need a reservation.”
“Let me make one anyway, so I look important.”
“A reservation here is gonna make you look important? Jesus.”
“See you at seven.”
I had a nap, cleaned up a little, actually changed the sheets. Stole some flowers from the neighbor’s after I belatedly remembered I was supposed to water the garden while they were out of town. Showered, shaved, found a clean shirt, and some fairly clean black jeans. I topped it off with my black leather coat that a former girlfriend once described as making me look incredibly sleazy.
I was at Malone’s five minutes early and then waited twenty minutes nursing a Coke before Kerri arrived. Malone’s is one of those restaurants with passable side dishes, great steaks, a nice bar, and no surprises. It was about half full, which seemed rather good for a Wednesday night in the midst of the Great Recession. As far as I was concerned it was a good steak place with a limited wine list and cheap drinks. Ambience was not its strong suit. The placemat was white paper sporting purple script that spelled out Malone’s and looked like it was designed by a fourteen-year-old girl serving detention after class.
I was seated in the back, close to the kitchen door, which pushed in or out, depending, and thumped loudly every time it swung closed. So much for reservations.
Even the women sitting at tables cast an appraising eye for a brief moment when Kerri sauntered through the front door, stopped, and scanned the room. She was wearing some sort of black stretch fabric pants that were indeed stretched, wonderfully. Sling back heels, dangerously high, clicked across the oak floor. Conversation halted as she strutted past.
She wore a black strappy T-shirt, emblazoned with stretched, bouncing white letters that proclaimed ‘St. Paul Girls Are Hot!’ I could only imagine the thing must have shrunk in the wash. She smiled and nodded in my direction as she made her way to my table. Two waiters fought to pull her chair out, then lingered over her, fawning and leering down her top as she sat.
“Oh thank you, nothing for the moment,” she said, dismissing them before turning her attention to me.
I waited until the two were in full back pedal. Her perfume began to waft around the table before I spoke.
“Do you always have that effect?” I chuckled.
“Effect?” she seemed genuinely unaware.
“Nothing, nice to have the service I guess.” I’d never seen a waiter pull a chair out for someone at Malone’s before.
“I guess you did not need a reservation?” she said looking at the handful of empty tables, then stared past my shoulder as the kitchen door thumped closed.
“That won’t do. Excuse me,” she smiled at the waiter hovering in the shallows of her perfume. “Is there another table we could have, please? This door banging will drive me cuckoo,” she smiled, her accent suddenly stronger. I thought she set her shoulders back ever so slightly, batted her eyes, and maybe added a slight bounce or two to her request.
“I can take care of that for you. Is there a table you’d prefer?” he smiled down at her, then quickly stepped to the side to pull out her chair, hovering again to catch a glimpse as she bent forward. That was twice in the same night with the chair pulls.
“How about that one in the corner?” she said crinkling her eyes and grabbing his forearm.
“Not a problem, ma’am. Please, allow me,” leaping across the room.
“I don’t believe it,” I said once we were reseated and he’d danced off, attending to a table that had been attempting to get his attention for the past few minutes.
“What? I would have lost my mind with that door.”
“No, I mean the chairs pulled out for you. The waiter fawning all over.”
“Is it not what they are supposed to do?”
“Yeah I get that, but here? At Malone’s?”
“At anywhere, Dev, there’s nothing wrong with a little manners once in a while. Oh here, a picture of Nikki,” she said handing a folded manila envelope across the table to me. “I placed a house key in there along with her telephone bill and a credit-card bill. That man, Brad the Cad, his phone number is in there, too.”
I unfolded the envelope, reached in, and began to pull out what felt like a photo.
“It may be wise to wait,” she said nonchalantly.
I glanced down at the photo and focused on two naked women standing on a beach. One of the woman was Asian, I attempted to focus on the other. I registered red hair, boobs, and tan lines before I shoved the photo back into the envelope.
“Thanks for the warning I’ll study it later.”
“Ma’am, sorry for the inconvenience.” Our hovering waiter placed a glass of wine in front of Kerri. “Compliments of the house,” he smiled.
“Oh, that is so sweet. Is that not sweet, Dev?” again with the hand to his forearm, only this time rubbing up and down.
“Really sweet, Kerri. Could we see some menus, please?”
“A very nice wine, perhaps you should try a glass. Did you have to send him off like that? He was only being nice.”
“He can be nice to someone else’s client.”
“Jealous?” she asked looking evil for just half a second.
“I thought we weren’t going to have anything to drink until after we discussed business?”
“Yes, that was your idea, no? But I think everything you need, at least to start, is already in the envelope,” She took another sip and set the glass aside.
“What’s with the naked photo?” I asked.
“The envelope has her address. A key to her front door. It is a duplex, she has the top one. Her name is on the mailbox. Her last name is Mathias.”
“Kerri. The photo?”
“Ma’am.” The waiter suddenly hovered from out of nowhere, carefully presented Kerri with her menu, then quickly discarded another in my general direction.
“I can get you something not on the menu tonight. We have a wonderful steak, stuffed with smoked oysters and served with a special red wine sauce. Comes with whatever else you’d like.”
Kerri giggled, shrugged her shoulders, smiled sexily and said,
“I’m sorry, the smoked oysters, they give me the shits. I think maybe the cheeseburger, with the pepper jack cheese, please. Does that come with french fries?”
“If you want it to.”
“Very well, ma’am,” not even blinking.
“I might try that steak, what was it again?”
“Actually I think there was only one left. I can check and see if someone hasn’t already taken it,” implying it was no longer available.
I stared for a long moment.
“Give me the rib-eye, rare, hash brown potatoes, French dressing with blue cheese on my salad. I’ll take a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. A double.” Then gave him a nod that suggested ‘Got it?’
“Very good, sir. More wine, ma’am?”
“That sounds very good, thank you.”
I watched him saunter away, took a deep breath to put him behind me. I didn’t mind him hovering, for a bit, but he was close to becoming a pest, and I was the schmuck who was going to get stuck with the bill in the end.
“Are we not happy after last night?” Kerri’s eyes flashed over her wine glass.
“No, I mean yes, yes, I’m happy. And by the way, thanks, that was very nice,” wishing I could remember more of what had happened as I thanked her.
“Nice had nothing to do with it,” her eyes flashed.
Over the course of dinner and more wine, Kerri effectively dodged my question of the naked photo at least half a dozen times. Nikki didn’t seem to have had any full-time employment. A couple of vague cleaning jobs, some house-painting gigs. She’d been a waitress, a bartender, done childcare.
“Did she file taxes?” I asked.
That spoke volumes, about both women actually. As enjoyable to look and leer at, as Kerri was, I felt there was something, or maybe, just something missing.
Eventually we finished up the small talk. Even optimistic old me caught on that nothing was going to happen tonight beyond dinner. The bill dutifully washed up on my shore, five glasses of wine for Kerri at twelve bucks each.
“You like the wine?”
“It was just okay.”
“Okay?” I tried to maintain my composure at sixty bucks worth of okay. My steak was a bare two dollars more than one of her glasses of wine.
“Well, he was so sweet and I didn’t wish to hurt his feelings,” she said, then drained her glass. The waiter was nowhere to be seen so I signed the tab and pulled Kerri’s chair out all by myself.
“Thank you, Dev. Shall we talk again, maybe in two days time? You should find her by then, no?” She was walking toward the door at this point, half talking to me over her shoulder.
A waiter nodded, then smiled at her from across the room, called out what sounded like genuine thanks. The bartender waved good night to her like Oliver Hardy, a large paw up at shoulder height, fingers wiggling next to his idiotic grin. Other heads turned to appraise her from the rear then nodded approval as she strutted past, heels clicking.
“I’ll see what I can learn. Who knows, maybe she just went to Disney World or something.”
“Do you think, maybe?” she asked, sounding serious, as if she might actually be entertaining the suggestion.
“Well maybe, but I doubt it. Let’s see what I can come up with.”
Once outside I asked,
“Where are you parked? I’ll walk you to your car.”
A little dark blue sports car, a BMW actually, suddenly pulled to the curb. I had no idea what model it was, other than out of my price range.
“Oh, no need, here is my car,” she nodded at the BMW and walked around the front to the far side just as the driver’s door opened and the hovering waiter jumped out. The car came up to just above his knees.
“All set to go for you, ma’am. I left my card on the console,” he added half under his breath, glanced at me, then said. “In case you need anything or forgot something, ya know.”
“Oh, you are so kind,” she smiled and continued to stand just a little too close. He had to brush against her, heavily, to get out of the way so she could crawl behind the wheel.
“I’ll call you later, Kerri,” I said to her tail lights as she drove off, signaled, and took a quick left around the corner. I repeated her license plate number over and over in my head until I reached my car and wrote it down on the back of a dry-cleaning receipt. I toyed with going down to the Spot, thought better of it, and went home. The last vestige of Kerri’s lingering perfume hit me as I opened the front door.
The duplex where Nikki lived was located on the East Side in a corner of town dominated by the stark, imposing edifice of St. Simpert’s Catholic Church. Simpert was an eighth-century Benedictine abbot, nephew of Charlemagne and patron saint of Augsburg, Germany. I’m sure he was unaware of the embarrassment his name would bring to generations of American grade-school kids playing on his teams.
A solid blue-collar neighborhood up through Lyndon Johnson’s presidency the East Side had been in a gradual downward spiral for the past fifty plus years. Drafty old, two, and three-story wood-frame homes had been cut up and sectioned into rental units on block after block. A number of the old neighborhood bars still catered to the locals, but the locals had changed and now the bars sported metal detectors, hip hop, and bouncers. In the ecumenical spirit of the times women of all races hustled themselves on street corners. Child thugs in hooded sweatshirts offered a pharmacy of escape options. The police cars traveled in pairs.
Nikki’s duplex was second from the corner and sported shabby, brown asphalt siding that was supposed to look like brick. Eighty years on and in the afternoon drizzle it just looked like shabby asphalt siding. The floor on the wraparound porch had apparently been painted gray years back, but the paint had pretty much peeled off exposing bare wood, which accounted for the buckled floor. A post supporting the leaky roof stood dangerously close to a rotted two-foot hole in the porch floor. A rutted, muddy driveway turned to weeds toward the rear of the house then just disappeared altogether beneath the rusting remains of a green Bonneville. The car, or what was left of it, sat on cinder blocks. The hood and the engine were missing, five year’s worth of dead leaves rotted beneath the thing. Kerri had mentioned that her sister’s car had been parked in the driveway I hoped she wasn’t referring to the Bonneville.
The front door had probably been elegant at one time. The glass, long gone, was replaced with weathered plywood. A jagged hole had been drilled through the plywood, slightly off center, presumably to look from the inside out. Although closed, the door was unlocked. Two black metal mailboxes were mounted just to the left of the front door. The top one had a faded, handwritten piece of cardboard taped to the front. #2 Nikki. No last name.
I pushed the door open and followed the squeak inside. There was a small hallway that led to a grimy door beneath a staircase. The number one had been drawn on the door in black marker. The staircase, sporting a railing of 2x4s painted flat gray ran up the right hand wall to a landing where it turned left and went up another half dozen steps. The wall was stained and dingy from years of grimy hands running up and down. The 2×4 railing wiggled dangerously as I began to climb the stairs. The air held just the slightest hint of mouse.
Nikki’s grimy apartment door sported four panels that had been painted an icy flat white a very long time ago. You’d have to look hard to find an uglier color. On the door a haphazard 2 had been drawn in black marker. The door was locked, although by the look of the frame and the panel next to the doorknob, the door had been kicked in more than once.
Surprisingly the key turned the lock, and I pushed the door open then stood on the small landing with my ears perked. I heard nothing. Eventually I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. The place was soulless nothing on the walls. A single recliner looked orphaned in what served as a living room. No carpet or rugs, just dull, worn wooden flooring. No end tables, no lamps, no television, not so much as a radio or a clock. The kitchen was much the same, an old refrigerator, bare. Empty cabinets, one plate, a coffee mug, no silverware. No pots, no pans, no food, no soap.
Amazingly the bedroom sported a bed and a dresser. The dresser drawers, more empty than not, held a pair of jeans, a T-shirt. In the small closet a cheap, dark blue rayon robe hung alone on a nail. I could still detect faint perfume from the robe.
What looked to be a full roll of toilet paper hung in the bathroom. A white plastic shower curtain was draped across the shower entry. A full container of Soft Soap sat on a corner ledge in the fiberglass shower. No tooth brush, no toothpaste, no makeup. No shampoo or conditioner for a redhead with hair down to her shoulders.
There was no wastebasket to go through. No computer with files to copy. No stacks of mail to sort. No phone with a message light blinking. Nothing. So had Nikki lived here and moved everything out? Recently? I couldn’t imagine someone living like this for very long, say more than an afternoon, and then only if she had a good book and at least a six-pack.
I did a brief walkthrough twice more and came up with even less. There was nothing there. It was like the place was a sleazy hotel room and somebody forgot a couple of things in their haste to just get out. I thought maybe Brad the Cad, the ex-boyfriend/lawyer, might be able to shed some light on things.
Bradley Cadwell answered on the third ring.
“Hi, Brad,” was actually how he answered.
“Brad Cadwell, please,” I said.
“You got him,” still pleasant but the hint of a question in the tone.
“Mr. Cadwell, my name is Devlin Haskell I’m hoping you might be able to help me with some information. I’m …”
“A woman by the name of Nikki Mathias.”
There was a pause in retrospect I think Brad was choosing his words carefully.
“I haven’t seen Nikki for at least a year, more than that actually, much more. No, I doubt I can be of any help to you.”
“I wonder if we could talk, anyway, at a time of your convenience. I’m attempting to locate her and…”
“I told you I haven’t see her in maybe two years, I wouldn’t know where she was, I’m married now. Happily. I really don’t think …”
“Could I just get five minutes of your time, that’s all I ask? Or, I could come to your office?”
Another pause, a little longer.
“Okay, but not here. I could meet you tonight I suppose, but I really have no idea where she is. It’s been over two years since I last saw her.”
“I can appreciate that. I promise I won’t take more than five minutes of your time. You just name the place.”
“A place. Okay, there’s a bar in downtown, you familiar with St. Paul?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“You know where Henry’s is, across from the Hilton?”
“I do. Would six be too early for you?” I asked.
“I’ll make it work. Tell me your name again?”
“Haskell, Devlin Haskell.”
“All right, Mr. Haskell.”
“Thanks, I appreciate your time. Look, you’ll be able to recognize me I’m a dapper guy, stunningly handsome. I’ll be wearing a black leather jacket, St. Paul Saints baseball cap, and blue jeans. I’ll be sitting at the bar in Henry’s at six o’clock, tonight.”
“I’ll find you,” he replied and hung up. If he was smart, I figured he would be checking me out right now.
I phoned Aaron LaZelle, a cop I know, and ended up leaving a message. Then decided to drive to the BMW dealership out on I-94 and look at little sports cars. If the note I wrote on the dry-cleaning receipt could be trusted, Kerri drove a Z4. I looked at one at the dealership. A roadster with a retractable hardtop. Twenty-four miles to the gallon, as it turned out. Three hundred thirty-five horsepower, and I was right it was way out of my price range. They started at sixty-one five and headed north based on extras. I’ve owned houses that hadn’t cost that much.
I was sitting at the bar in Henry’s fifteen minutes early, nursing a root beer and waiting for Brad the Cad to show up. A few minutes before six two guys entered through the side door, passed eight or ten open stools, sat down beside me and proceeded to work hard to ignore me. They ordered beers, Summit Extra Pale, then embarked on a forced conversation involving what could only be a fictitious office tryst. They had the look of college jocks, former college jocks. The muscle had, if not quite turned to fat, been at least downgraded from prime A category. I waited a few more minutes and at ten past six, Brad the Cad arrived, stylishly late.
He had the former college jock look too, maybe a little less extra weight, say ten to fifteen pounds as opposed to the twenty-five apiece the guys next to me sported. I guessed they had probably all played on the same hockey team. They had that hockey look noses broken at least once, scars along the chin three to five stitches long, skater’s thighs. Being oh so clever, they all made eye contact for a brief nano-second as Brad walked past and stood next to me.
“Excuse me, Devlin Haskell?”
I was the only guy in the place wearing a black leather jacket and a St. Paul Saints baseball cap, so it wasn’t really rocket science. Brad the Cad stood about five foot eleven, short cropped blond hair, blue eyes, nice-looking guy about thirty-three, thirty-five tops. As he held out his hand to shake mine he smiled.
“Brad? Thanks for coming. Hey, please call me Dev. Very nice to meet you.”
He had a solid grip, but he wasn’t giving me the I’m a real man squeeze. He looked me in the eye, confident but not cocky.
“Yeah, well like I said, I’m not sure I’ll be of any help.”
“You never know. Look I promised just five minutes of your time. Would you feel more comfortable if we got a table?” I asked.
“Ahh, no, here will be just fine.” He didn’t look at them, but he’d included the two ex-jocks in his comment, whether he knew it or not.
“We can get a table for four if you’d prefer,” I said.
“Your pals, not a problem with me.” I nodded in the direction of the two. The larger one slid off his stool, about six four, chin jutted out a bit. He glanced at Brad.
“Hey, did I see you skate somewhere? Not Minnesota,” I asked, making it up as I went along.
“Fighting Sioux,” he answered before he caught himself.
Every once in a while I guess blindly and it pans out.
“Yeah, North Dakota,” his pal added almost simultaneously.
“We all played together up there,” Brad replied. “Look, Dev, like I said I haven’t seen Nikki for almost, well, for a very long time. And, I’ll be honest, you probably already know the last time we parted it wasn’t on the best of terms.”
“Actually, no, I know no such thing. In fact, I’ll be perfectly honest, I know absolutely nothing. Except that she’s supposedly missing and her sister wants me to find her.”
“I didn’t know she had one,” Brad said.
“You dated her, I mean Nikki, awhile back?”
“Dated? Yeah sort of, ahh, look here’s the deal. We met her, we all did, she was the entertainment for a bachelor party we attended. I called her on a couple of occasions, maybe a month, six weeks apart. But that was before I was married,” he added hastily.
“Me three,” the pal on the stool added with half a chuckle.
“So this was a professional arrangement?”
“Initially,” Brad frowned and nodded. The two friends nodded as well.
“Any of you seen her in the past year?”
They all shook their heads the one who’d stood initially reached for his beer, took a long sip, then set the beer down. We were just guys talking now.
“So how’d you leave it with her? Did you just not call?”
They looked from one to the other, and Brad answered.
“That was sort of the deal breaker. See, I met her to sort of end things. She had started contacting me, and I didn’t need any trouble. She went ballistic, crying, screaming how could I do this to her? Not fun. And I purposely set our meeting up in a public place. Mears Park, about three o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I thought it would be safer. God, el wrongo! People were grabbing their kids and hustling out of the park. She was swearing, she even took a swing at me. Jesus, I’d just passed the bar exam, I was about to be engaged not the sort of attention I wanted or needed.”
“When I heard that, shit, I just never called her again,” this from the pal still sitting.
“Me neither. She was fun but who needs it, plus the whole hooker thing. I mean I got a kid,” the pal standing took another sip, a long one.
“She phoned me about a week later,” Brad said, “and threatened to post pictures on the Internet, tell my girlfriend, all sorts of threats, wanted ten grand. I mean she was blackmailing me, or trying to. I just let her rant and then told her I’d taped the call.”
“No, but she’d left a message on my phone earlier that day a couple of minutes of her screaming about the same sort of shit, you know, posting pictures, but she never mentioned any money in the message. Anyway, I told her I taped the call and I’d send her a sample. I sent her the phone message she’d left, and that was the last I heard from her, ever. So anyway that’s why Barry and Greg are here, I or we thought maybe this was a setup to, you know, blackmail me or us, again.”
When Brad mentioned their names, Barry and Greg nodded, like they were just being introduced over a casual beer instead of being fingered as call girls customers and potential blackmail targets.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the photo of Nikki and the smaller Asian woman, both naked with tan lines. There were two guys standing alongside and behind them on a beach, maybe a lake, maybe the ocean, hard to tell. The Asian woman had a sunburst or something tattooed around a pierced navel.
“Is this Nikki?”
“Yeah,” Brad nodded but looked deadly serious. Barry and Greg passed the photo back and forth, nodded. No one joked.
“You know either of those guys in the photo? Or where it was taken?”
Barry looked at the photo again, shook his head no as he looked.
“Any of you happen to know who the other woman is?”
Head shakes all around.
“Did you ever meet at Nikki’s?” I asked hoping to get a line on what was up with the place. They all shook their head no again.
“I always met her in a bar, then ahh, well I’d have a room lined up somewhere and we’d go there,” Barry said.
“To tell you the truth I was always a little leery about getting bush whacked,” Greg smiled at the term. “You know some guy hiding in a closet with a baseball bat or the cops come knocking on the door and it was a set up and now I’m really screwed. I, ahh, well, I paid her and then just took her back to where her car was once we were finished. We never spent the night together or anything.”
I couldn’t help but think, oh well, since you didn’t spend the night together I guess that makes it okay, you idiot.
“Did you know where she lived?”
All three shook their heads.
“What kind of a car did she drive?”
Three completely blank looks from one to the other.
“What did she charge?”
“Usually about two hun…”
“Don’t answer that,” Brad interrupted, cutting Greg off.
“Okay,” I said.
“Look Dev, like I said before I don’t think we can be of much help. None of us have seen her for quite a long time. We’ve no idea where she could be or even who would know.” Greg and Barry nodded in agreement.
I asked Brad,
“What about the pictures of you she threatened to post on the Internet?”
“That was the screwiest part, or one of them. She never took a photo of me, not even with her phone. The places we got together, I arranged them so it’s not like she could have had them bugged. She never knew where we would end up. I don’t ever recall so much as holding her hand in public. It was strictly business, very private and yeah, believe me, I know it was really stupid, on a number of levels.”
I had to agree.
“Sorry, wish I could help you more but that photo you passed around, that’s the first time I’ve even seen Nikki in almost a year and a half, God’s honest truth. After the blackmail threat I purged all my records of anything to do with her. I wouldn’t know how to contact her if I wanted to, which I don’t. Look we’re expecting, Linda and I, my wife. The last thing I need, or any of us need right now is Nikki coming back and holding us up. God, I’d go right to the cops.”
Nods of agreement all around.
I left shortly after that. Nice-enough guys who’d been really stupid and instead of giving me any answers just left me with more unanswered questions. I shook hands all around, threw a twenty on the bar and told them the next round was on me.
Aaron LaZelle’s call woke me up at 8:45 the next morning. Okay, I was awake but I was in the lounging mode, still in bed staring at the ceiling.
“You dipshit, don’t tell me you’re still in bed!”
“Mom, is that you?”
“Look dopey, I’m about four blocks from that flophouse you live in. Meet me at the Donut Hole for lattes and French donuts. I’ll start without you. Oh and you’re buying!”
“Give me twenty minutes.”
“Make it ten, I don’t have that much time,” Aaron replied and hung up.
I levitated out of bed, threw on a semi-clean golf shirt, last night’s jeans, and a sport coat from a few nights back that I hadn’t hung up yet. Just to be nice I tossed four or five TicTacs in my mouth and chewed them up as I stuffed the Nikki beach photo in my pocket and walked down the block to the Donut Hole. It was barely past nine in the morning and the cloudless sky held the promise of becoming beastly hot.
The Donut Hole occupies the corner of a five-story red stone building built as a hotel in 1889. The building sat derelict for most of 1970s before getting revamped into designer condos in the ‘80s. The place, the Donut Hole that is, has excellent latte’s, fantastic high-cholesterol pastries, and a pleasant female staff more tattooed than not. Aaron had just finished ordering when I walked in.
“Make it a double latte, and two of those French donuts. He’ll pay,” he nodded in my direction.
I nodded back to girl at the counter. She was pretty without makeup, and might have been prettier had it not been for the sky blue hair, a five-pointed star tattooed on either side of her neck, and what looked like a bouquet of a dozen roses that covered her chest.
“Another double latte and one French donut,” I said.
“On a diet?” Aaron asked.
“You must be working undercover this morning, you’re dressed so nicely. Or, are you appearing in front of Internal Affairs, again?”
“Jesus, don’t even joke about those guys.”
I’d known Aaron since we were kids. He’d been working vice for the past three or four years. One of those cops on the way up, destined for bigger things. He made lieutenant a year ago.
“You called yesterday,” he said once we sat down. The donut in his hand fluttered close to his mouth, and he inhaled almost half of it before I had a chance to answer.
I nodded, my own mouth full.
“These things are great,” Aaron said, spitting crumbs.
“Yeah. Hey, I’m looking for someone. A woman, but…”
“You giving up on dating guys?”
I ignored his comment and continued.
“But it’s gotten screwier. I have that funny feeling I’m not being told the whole story.”
“This professional or personal?”
“You think I’d call you on a personal deal?”
“Never stopped you before,” he stuffed the last half into his mouth, then picked up the second donut.
“Yeah, true, but this is professional, maybe in more ways than one. Looking for someone’s sister, supposedly.” I wiped my hands off on a napkin, pulled Nikki’s photo out of my sport-coat pocket, and handed it to Aaron. I felt something else in my pocket, reached in, and pulled out the corner of a green thong. Kerri. Small world.
“Nice tan lines on the boobs. You know these people?” Aaron commented as he studied the photo.
“The redhead’s name is Nikki Mathias. Her sister hired me to find her. Supposedly been missing for a couple of months, according to her sister anyway. But things aren’t adding up. Maybe a bit of professional working girl, here. I don’t know anyone else in the shot.”
“That why you called me?”
“Not at first, I called you for this.” I opened my wallet, took out the dry cleaning receipt with Kerri’s car description and license number written on the back, handed it across the table.
“I suppose you want to know who this is? Not caring that I would jeopardize my career were I to give you that sort of information.”
“Something like that. Actually it’s my client, the sister, Kerri. That’s her car, or at least the car she was driving. I just wondered who it was registered to is all.”
“And you think it’s not hers?”
“I don’t know. Like I said something’s just not adding up.”
“Nice set of wheels, when did you become a car buff?” he asked reading my note.
“I was at the dealership yesterday. By the way, sixty-one g’s and some change worth of nice wheels. Just wondering if it’s hers. What about the photo recognize anyone?”
“Where’d you get this?”
“From my client. Like I said I’m supposed to find the redhead.”
“And this is the only picture she had of her sister?”
“Makes you sort of wonder, doesn’t it?”
“Cash in advance?”
“Well, a retainer, and then she…”
“I don’t want to know,” Aaron shook his head.
“You recognize the other woman?” I indicated the photo with my chin.
“The Asian gal?”
“No the other woman you can’t see. Yes, the Asian gal, the only other woman in there.”
“Oh sorry, I hadn’t looked at her face yet,” Aaron reappraised the photo.
“Actually, I do recognize the two guys.”
“Really? Great, maybe they can point me in the right direction, any direction would help.”
“Well, not unless you’re clairvoyant. They’re both dead,” Aaron said glancing up at me from the photo.
“This guy, in the back, he’s Dennis Dundee,” Aaron pointed to the heavier of the two men in the photo.
“Should that mean something to me?”
“Kind of a player, heavy into girls, some drugs, but always a step or two away from the action if you get me. Then, remember that meth lab, blew up maybe late February?”
“Well, it blew the front of the place halfway across the street. Burned down what was left of the house. Luckily no one was killed, at least that’s what we thought. Turns out your boy Dennis was in there. Only the postmortem suggests he was dead prior to the explosion. It’s inconclusive because there wasn’t a piece of the guy big enough to properly examine.”
“Great, and the other award winner?”
“Humph, Leo ‘Pugsley’ Tate, man! A real sweetheart, had an alleged appetite for underage little girls. He was never too far away from whatever the latest bit of sleaze was rolling into town. Your girl here can sure pick ‘em.”
“You said he’s dead, too?”
“Yeah, assisted suicide.”
“Back in maybe late March, early April of this year. He apparently blew his brains out with a colt .45, then put a second round in what was left of his skull just to be sure. .45 still in his hand, an unsigned, typewritten note stuffed in his pocket.”
“That said some bullshit about seeing the error of his ways, a life of sin, asking forgiveness. If I recall it was about three sentences long.” Aaron licked donut crumbs from the tips of his fingers.
“And you’re not buying it?”
“Well, for starters all the words were spelled correctly and it wasn’t written with a color crayon.”
“So, what do you think?”
“I think the guy intended to keep the hot date he’d arranged for the following weekend with sixteen-year-old twins and the .45 slugs ruined his plans.”
“For real, the date I mean?”
“Yeah, they were regulars. He’d paid their druggy mother in advance.”
“You kidding? We’d have to rent the Xcel Center just to hold ‘em all. Both of these guys aren’t exactly missed by anyone. Like I said, your lady friend here could set the bar a little higher when it comes to guys she wants to stand around with when she’s naked. These guys were mid-range players in the whole Internet escort-service thing. They were killed before we got a chance to nail them. You find this girl, you’ll be lucky if she isn’t really messed up.” He handed the photo back to me.
“If she’s involved with these two clowns or anyone like them, be lucky if she’s not dead from an overdose in twenty-four to thirty-six months. That’s the upside. These creeps, they’d look at gals like this, just fresh meat as far as they’re concerned. They’d want to get them out there hustling just as fast as possible.”
“That’s why I love my job. Every once in a while we nail one of these bastards.”
Sitting at the Spot I decided it might be time for a little Come to Jesus chat with my client, Kerri Mathias. I didn’t necessarily mind looking into things that were on the far side of the law, but it would be nice to know what I was getting into before I got into it. I didn’t like surprises in my business.
“Let me talk to Kerri, please,” I added the please as an afterthought.
“She’s busy right now. Perhaps I could show a few items of interest that might allow you to broaden your horizon…” a couple of telltale hisses in her pronunciation.
“Da’nita?” I guessed.
“Who this? Wilson, is that you?”
“No, actually it’s me, Dev?”
“Dev? Oh Devil, how have you been, baby?”
“Thanks for your concern. I’m doing just fine.”
“Look, I’ll have Kerri call you back, unless like I said, you might want to broaden your horizon, you know.”
“Sweet of you Da’nita, but I need to get hold of Kerri. If you can just have her call me that would be fine.”
“You sure? I could show you things that…”
“No doubt you could. I appreciate your effort but I just need to talk with Kerri. Okay?”
“All right, if you say so. I’ll give her the message, she’s got your number?”
“Yeah, she does, at least I think she does. You got a pen? Let me give you my number just in case.”
I gave Da’nita my number, then hung up, and tapped my fingers on the bar wondering what next. I didn’t have to wait long, my phone rang before I had another sip of beer. As always I attempted to read the incoming number and as always, failed, I was going to have to get a pair of cheaters.
It was Kerri, I thought I could smell her perfume through the phone.
“How are you, Dev? Have you found Nikki?”
“Amazingly no, I haven’t, at least not yet. But I’ve come up with a lot of questions. Can we get together and go over some things?”
“What kind of things?”
I wasn’t going to get into anything with Kerri while I was in the Spot Bar. And I certainly wasn’t going to get into anything with her over the phone. I like to watch people when they lie to me.
“Just some general background info that might speed things up. Can we get together tonight?”
“I wish we could but I have, ahh, an appointment that will probably be late.”
I didn’t need any detail on the appointment.
“How about breakfast, tomorrow?” I asked, then thought I detected the slightest pause.
“Yes, I guess that would work.”
“You just tell me where and when,” I said trying to hide my surprise.
“You know Bon Vie?” she asked.
It took me a moment but I did, it was almost within sight of my front porch and didn’t have a bar, which may have explained my pause. Other than McDonalds, I don’t frequent many food establishments without a bar.
“Yeah, sure, perfect. What time?”
“Noon would be best,” she said.
“Yes, twelve o’clock, noon. Does that work for you, Dev?”
“It does, I’ll see you there.”
I hung up and phoned Aaron to check on what he had found out on Kerri’s car. I ended up leaving a message.
A few beers later I thought about dinner and after dinner. Fortified by the beer I placed a couple of calls and ended up leaving messages at both numbers. I wasn’t exactly feeling like Mr. Popular.
I woke up sometime after three the following morning. Bourbon and a book will do that to me. I’d been sleeping in my favorite reading chair, which was great for reading and not the best for sleeping. My body felt like a bent piece of plumbing pipe and I stretched and groaned on the way to bed. My joints sounded like a bowl of Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, and pop.
I stumbled out of the bathroom sometime after nine in the morning and noticed the message light blinking on my phone. The first voicemail was from Pam, one of my attempted post-dinner dates from the night before.
“Hi, ahh, look, Dev, thanks for the invite but I really wish you wouldn’t call me, umm, ever again. I’m very happy with my life now that you’re not in it, and I would prefer that I never, ever hear from you. Ahh, hope everything is going okay, bye.”
I pushed the delete button and made a mental note not to offer Pam the opportunity to enjoy an evening of my witty comments followed by mad, passionate debauchery. Which was screwier, Pam’s message or my calling her in the first place?
“Hey dipshit, you there? Call me, I think I got something that might interest you. Grab that photo you showed me, too, will ya?”
It was Aaron. I called him back, left a message in response to his message then padded into the kitchen and made some coffee. He phoned back a minute or two later just as I was pouring my first cup.
“Christ, you sound barely awake. You keeping banker’s hours over there? How soon can you meet me?”
“I’m just finishing up a meeting,” I said.
“Yeah right. Look, get dressed and meet me at the morgue in thirty minutes. I got something for you.”
“The morgue that doesn’t sound good.”
“Don’t forget to bring that photo with you. See you there,” Aaron said and hung up.
I poured my coffee into a travel mug, sipped as I got dressed, topped the travel mug off, and headed out the door.
The old St. Paul morgue used to sit just below the river bluff from downtown. Perhaps, not ironically it was built directly over the ruins of the old Washington Avenue red-light district. In the days when brothels provided clean shirts for regular customers to wear home, served decent liquor, and featured a piano player banging out ragtime. At least that was the perception.
The new, more efficient, Ramsey County Medical Examiner was a state-of-the-art facility located on the edge of an industrial area off University Avenue. If you were looking for romance this probably wasn’t the place, but time marches on. I entered the comfortable waiting room done in various tones of beige with overstuffed chairs, a flat-screen TV, and somewhat current magazines.
I sipped from my travel mug as I walked up to the nice-looking receptionist.
“Good morning, I’m supposed to meet Lieutenant LaZelle here.”
“Mr. Haskell?” she said after glancing at a yellow Post-it note stuck to her computer screen.
I nodded in mid-sip. She was a fairly attractive brunette, darker skin tone. Maybe Italian, Greek, Hispanic, Israeli. It didn’t matter I’m an equal opportunity admirer of women.
“Aaron said to send you back to the cooler. Do you know the way?”
As a matter of fact I did.
“Down the hall, right?”
“Yep, all the way back,” she said giving her hair a shake and a quick raise of her eyebrows.
I headed down the long hallway toward the examining area and the walk-in cooler. I think they could house up to forty or fifty bodies at a time. The few offices I could see were done in off-whites bordering on the beige side of things. The occasional tasteful framed print hung on the wall, and one got the sense this was not the sort of place for levity or office clowns. I guessed I wouldn’t have fit in very well on staff.
Once through the heavy metal door things became very industrial. The autopsy suite, in all its clinical chill, was straight ahead. Off to one side stood a large, low-dose radiation scanner. To my immediate left, Lieutenant Aaron LaZelle, was chatting with an attractive blond of about forty with her hands stuck in the pockets of her white lab coat.
“What’d I tell you, Doc? Doesn’t he look like he should be in your cooler?” Aaron said.
She chuckled but didn’t say no.
“Oh, I’m sorry, pretending to look like you’re working. You must be undercover.” I replied.
“Let’s get started.” Aaron gestured toward the massive walk-in cooler, all stainless steel, not that the occupants cared.
“Oh, Doc, the world’s top crime investigator, Devlin Haskell of Haskell Investigations. Dev, Dr. Mallory Bendix, medical examiner extraordinaire and big fan of mine.”
“Dr. Bendix, nice to meet you,” I said then waited for her to say please call me Mallory or Mal or Doc or snookums. She didn’t.
I’m going to blame a walk-in cooler full of bodies to her not being bowled over by me. There are some things even my charm can’t overcome. I thought it might be wise to hold off at least for the moment on the stiff jokes.
“You got that photo?” Aaron asked, following sexy little Dr. Mallory into the cooler. It was obvious the two of them had already gone through this drill. They walked directly to a stainless-steel drawer, number seventeen, labeled Doe, Jane. Aaron stood to the side as the good doctor pulled the drawer open, then unzipped the heavy, black body bag, gradually revealing a small dark-haired female.
“You gonna hang onto that photo all day?” Aaron asked, breaking me out of my trance. He grabbed the photo from my hand as he asked, “You okay, Dev?”
I nodded, took a deep swallow. The fans were running continually so that you had to raise your voice slightly to be heard over the noise. Even with the fans there was still that hint of decomposition in the air. The woman laid out in the drawer was the Asian beauty in the photo on the beach standing naked next to Nikki. Only now her lips were blue, the left side of her face was bruised purple, her nose had been broken. There were bruises up and down her arms, a large bruise on her rib cage. Her breasts, once the pride of the beach, looked like damaged fruit resting on her chest. The sunburst tattoo surrounded her navel.
“Well Doc, at least we got a photo of her in happier times. No name?” Aaron looked at me for a possible update.
I shook my head no.
“I’d like to make a copy of that photo if I may, and add it to our file,” Dr. Mallory said.
“Make two, one for you, one for Dev, here. I’ll keep this, it’s evidence,” Aaron said, then smiled as he handed her the photo once she pushed the drawer closed.
I could have protested, but it wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. There’s nothing like looking at a dead body to take the wind out of your sails.
Just outside the door of the building Aaron paused next to his car resting in a no parking zone.
“Man, the old Doc there is a little cutey, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know, it must have been the setting. I didn’t pick up any vibes.”
“You just don’t know a good thing when you see it.”
“And you’re working Vice?”
“Oh Jesus, relax will ya? Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a couple of the finer things in life. Anyway, I ran down that license number you gave me. You really struck pay dirt with this client of yours. You got a photo with a Jane Doe homicide who’s been cooling her heels in the meat locker here for six weeks. Two former lowlifes, one blown up and the other blown away. And it’s all tied together with a beautiful redhead who seemed to just vanish into thin air. Meanwhile her sister’s driving around town in a car leased to Lee-Dee Enterprises.”
“Lee-Dee, never heard of ‘em. What do they do?” I asked.
“Well, for starters they don’t do anything, anymore. Lee-Dee, Leo Tate, Lee and Dennis Dundee, Dee, ring any bells? Most likely bogus from the start, just a tax dodge so they could write off the wheels.”
“The two guys in the photo?”
“Yeah, the two dead guys in the photo, Lee-Dee. Now this gal, and by the looks of her I’d guess she didn’t exactly go peacefully.”
“You think that photo will help ID her?”
“Can’t hurt. What might help a lot more is if I talk to the sister, what’s her name, Kerri?”
“You gonna see her anytime soon?”
There was that little voice in my head again, saying tell him you dope, yeah, I have a lunch date with her in about forty-five minutes. You should come along.
Instead I said,
“I don’t know when I’ll see her next. How ‘bout when I do, I give her your number? She can give you a call.”
Aaron gave me a long look, then shook his head.
“You can do what you want, free country and all that. But you’ve seen some of the action you’re getting involved with stretched out in the cooler here this morning. That body bag didn’t get your attention, nothing I say will. Just know, if someone else gets hurt and I find out you’re holding back on me because you thought you could take care of it or some bullshit ‘my client’s rights’ brain-fart sort of thing, then you got me on your ass, big time.” Aaron gave me a slight nod then pulled his car door open and climbed in.
“I’ll keep it in mind, try and stay on your good side,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound too worried, depressed, anxious, cocky, or just plain stupid.
It was eleven-forty, I’d just sat down at a corner table in Bon Vie. I stared out the window at the traffic. Bon Vie is a nice place, small, maybe just eight or ten tables, fourteen-foot ceilings covered in stamped tin and painted flat black and gold. Marble topped tables, pastel walls dotted with original artwork, a trendy sort of place, no bar. I was twenty minutes early for my Kerri breakfast at noon. I ordered a mug of coffee, remembering I’d left my travel mug on a stainless-steel counter at the morgue. They could keep the damn thing, it wasn’t worth going back there just to get the mug. I could steal another one anytime I wanted.
I think I was on my third refill when Kerri waltzed through the door a good thirty minutes late. I’d been withering under the stares of the rather large hostess who must have concluded I was some sort of groveling, love-sick puppy about to get stood up.
Kerri’s appearance did nothing to help. She was eye stopping in some sort of white knit top, about four sizes too small, jeans that fit like a surgical glove, and hair damp with that fresh out-of-the-shower look.
“Oh Dev, I was out late last night,” she said bending her head down so I could kiss both her cheeks before she sat. Once seated she shook her hair back and forth a few times. I thought the two guys at the table next to us were going to have heart attacks. I didn’t mind them staring and ogling, but the least they could have done was pay for our breakfast.
“Meeting last night go into extra innings?” I asked.
“Meeting? Oh no, just running late ever since I got out of bed this morning.”
I was going to say something about the long drive home once she got out of bed but decided instead to be clever.
“Oh, found something of yours,” I said reaching into my pocket and pulling out the green thong, then cleverly handed it to her across the table. I heard a fork bounce off a plate, one of the guys next to us.
“That certainly is not mine?”
“Come on, it’s green,” I forced a laughed, my hand still extended across the table, the thong hanging out either side of my fist, face reddening by the second.
“Yes, I see that. Do you not listen, my thong was Emerald Green, from Victoria’s Secret. My God, that thing looks like it was on special at one of the Dollar Stores. You are either sleeping with high school girls or you should find perhaps a little higher class woman.”
I quickly stuffed the thong back in my coat pocket. If I’d had a tail I could have tucked it between my legs.
“Just black for me,” she said to the waitress who poured coffee while I sat there red-faced.
“Give me a minute to look at the menu.” I didn’t add and collect myself.
The waitress gave me a look that wondered what in the hell I’d been doing for the past fifty minutes, nodded, and turned to the two guys at the table next to us, both of them leaning in our direction with their ears cocked.
After a long moment of scanning the menu Kerri looked up at me, did a sexy little hair shake again just in case I’d forgotten who was in charge.
“So, Nikki?” she said raising the coffee mug to her lips.
“Yeah Nikki. Where to start? I guess the beginning. The first thing would be I talked to your friend Brad the Cad.”
“Actually, I think I said I had never even met him.”
“You did as a matter of fact and he more or less confirmed that. I feel fairly certain that he hasn’t seen Nikki for quite some time. He told me he hasn’t seen her or been in contact with her for well over a year and I’ve no reason to doubt him.”
“All right,” she said with a nod.
If I was getting to her in any way she gave no indication.
“I’ll get to her apartment in a moment, but first tell me what kind of a car did she drive?”
“Her car? I don’t know, I mean it was blue. I really don’t know cars, to tell you the truth. Didn’t you look at it when you were over there?”
“You mean the one in the driveway?”
“There wasn’t a car in the driveway, well, except for this rusted green hulk without an engine, up on blocks in the back…”
“Dev, that was not her car. It is a pile of junk. No? That is the landlord’s car, it has been there for as long as, well, it has been there forever. So, where is her car? Someone must have taken it,” she sounded genuinely concerned.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what kind of car it was. I don’t know if she even had one.”
“I told you she had a blue car.”
I didn’t add, since it was blue, it could be that little Z4 you’re driving around in, compliments of the deader-than-a door-nail Lee-Dee boys.
The waitress returned and we placed our order. She topped off Kerri’s coffee, I waved her off on mine.
“Tell me about the apartment,” I said.
“Yes,” was I detecting a chink in the armor, a crack in the wall, a slight stall tactic?
“Well, if you saw it there’s not much to tell. In some way she lived her life like a nun or something. I mean, one chair, nothing on the walls. Did you see the place? You were inside? If you were inside you must admit one would never feel comfortable. Yes? I was there, inside, only once or twice. But I never got past the front door. You know that chair? The one sitting all alone in the front room, that’s about all I ever saw of the place. I never even used the bathroom.”
“Your sister’s place, and you never used the bathroom?” that sounded like no woman I ever knew.
“Yes, can you believe it? I’m not kidding, Dev I never was beyond the front door.”
So much for that crack in the wall.
“Wonder why? Was she a private person?”
“No more than anyone else. I mean she could be fun, she loved a party, liked to laugh. It is not as though she stayed locked up in that place for a day or a week.”
“Where’d she work?”
“Umm, like I told you before, some clubs. She was the nanny for a woman’s children for a bit. She said she painted a house for some guy. She sometimes cleaned for a couple of women. God, she hated the cleaning. I think she lasted about two weeks doing that.”
“What about the photo?”
“The photo?” she asked.
I didn’t want to pull out the eight and a half by eleven color copy that snooty Dr. Mallory Bendix had made for me when Aaron confiscated the photo. Evidence. He was probably leering at it right now.
“Yeah, did you know any of the other folks in that photo? The two guys on the beach or maybe that Asian woman?”
Kerri seemed to think for a brief moment then shook her head no. This struck me as a little amazing considering she was zipping around town in a sixty-thousand-plus little blue sports car owned by the two guys. Both dead.
“No idea? Not even a guess?”
“No!” she said adamantly.
I couldn’t tell if she thought I knew about the car, or even suspected. In the end it didn’t matter. I paid the bill and we walked outside and stood on the sidewalk. It was a warm day, sunny heading toward oppressive. We were on the south side, the shady side of the street. The sun was coming over the roof of the one story brick building. I was thinking about how I intended to tell her that I was quitting.
I don’t know the architectural term for the building design. I’d guess it was built back around 1920. A brick structure of eight, one-story retail fronts with large plate-glass windows. The brick was set in a geometric design above the windows then capped with some sort of blond stone. All the entrances were inset maybe four feet. At the corner there was a flower shop, then the restaurant, Bon Vie, a dance studio, bakery, a hairdresser, and a couple of nondescript offices at the far end.
The sky was cloudless. I really wasn’t aware of much. Kerri was saying something but I didn’t hear her. I did hear that voice again, in my head, telling me to shake hands like a gentleman and drop this case. When will I learn to listen?
I think I heard the shot, but I’m not really sure. One minute I’m debating about dropping the case, the next I think I’m pushing Kerri out of the way, and then there was blood. Mine unfortunately.
Thanks for reading this excerpt, of course it’s just beginning for Dev. Download a copy of Russian Roulette from Smashwords.com to learn how things eventually work out. Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com with any comments.