by Forrest Roy Johnson
Victoria Westman was calling me. Victoria Westman, the girl with the grey-green, laughing eyes, the delightfully flirtatious sense of humor, the easy smile, and the body of an Italian tennis pro was calling me. The girl who hadn't spoken to me since the night four months ago when I rescued her from a sociopathic freak who'd trussed her up and threw her in the back of his pickup. Had I been anywhere else, I would've done a jig, sung a song, kissed someone on the lips for the sheer joy of getting that call which I had been waiting for since the day I met Victoria.
As it was, I was on a date.
I hadn't known it was a date, walking in, but somehow we had progressed from random high school reunion, to coffee, to supper, to "oh God, the waiter just handed me one check." Not that I had anything against Rachel Meroso. On the contrary. She'd inherited her father's French Riviera looks and her mother's Norwegian stubbornness, which made her that delightful mix of exotic and unattainable. Her light olive-toned skin and dark brown hair contrasted with sparkling blue eyes. Upon seeing my reaction to the single check, she exacerbated the situation by letting out the sweetest, most mocking laugh I had heard in... four months.
I excused myself. Too late. Missed call. I sighed and sat back down.
"You had me worried for a second there," she said.
"I went on a date with this guy a couple months ago. Took me to a fairly nice place, insisted I get the most expensive stuff. I just figured he was trying to hook up, so I was enjoying the buildup to my cold-hearted rejection. He took a call at the end of the meal, walked out. Left me to pay for it all."
"To clarify, was this the same guy you met at the gym?"
"At the pole dancing class?"
"Pole dancing class? You pay to do that? Jeez, I figured you'd just sell tickets and fund it that way."
"No, that was a different perv."
"Ah. Well, on behalf of decent, non-pervy men everywhere, I apologize. And, as it turns out, fate has provided me an opportunity to right a wrong." I stuck cash in the black folder and set it on the edge of the table.
"I don't remember you being such a sap," she said, reaching for her purse.
"Oh no you don't. Don't you dare." She'd pulled out a ten. "No. Your money is no good here. Besides, if you try to defy fate – that's just friggin it. You're done. Lightning will strike you."
"Is this fate or God?"
"Benjamin Franklin, for all I know. You just can't expect to pay for this food and live out the day."
"Are you threatening me?" She pulled away in mock fear. "You know, I've always kind of had a thing for bad boys." She gave me what may have been considered by someone to be a seductive look, held it for about two seconds, then laughed. "Yeah, you're so dangerous. Okay, fine. Pay for me. Just know that this counts as a date then. That means you gotta call me sometime."
I grinned. "Sounds good."
My first date since I had bought Victoria that drink four months ago. Hopefully Rachel wouldn't be quite as kidnapped by the end of the night.
I kicked the snow off my shoes and opened the door to my apartment stairs. I lived on the second story of an old house in Lakeview, on the north side of Saint Paul. My landlord, an eighty-some-year-old widower named Mister Winkowski lived on the first floor. Our relationship consisted entirely of exchanging good mornings on rent day. As long as I paid up more or less on time, he did not care a whit about anything else I did. At one point I tore a wall out so I could angle my couch just right in order to watch TV without a glare. He watched from the window while I put construction debris in a rented dumpster. He sipped a cup of coffee, nodded to me, and went back to reading the Pioneer Press. So I'd recently taken the liberty of making some improvements. Steel door to my stairs, for one. Reinforced glass in my windows, security cameras. I was totally prepared for any sort of hostile act against my domicile.
It's the friendly acts that startle me. For example, Victoria Westman sitting on my steps.
"I tried to call."
"Yeah, no, it's fine. Sorry, you just…. Wow. What, four months?" Four months, three days, something like sixteen hours. I hadn't looked at my watch lately, so I wasn't exactly sure.
She looked down, didn't answer.
"Sorry. I'm – sorry. I don't really know what to say."
"I know. It's okay. I needed to get away for a while. That whole night just…" She shuddered. I had to stifle an impulse to hug her and stroke her hair and tell her she was safe. "I don't think I would've come back if it weren't for my friend Dani."
"Do you want to come inside?"
We made our way up to my diminutive sitting room. I cleared the DVD cases, books, laundry, periodicals, dishes, techno-baubles, blunt instruments, and fishing tackle from my couch and offered her a seat. She sat, graciously ignoring the bachelorality of her surroundings. I briefly considered sitting on the couch with her, but opted for the office chair in the opposite corner.
"So what's happening with your friend?"
"She…" Victoria ducked her head and I heard pre-sob snifflings. "She called last night and… she was scared. I asked her what was going on and she couldn't tell me. She just said that she was in trouble, a job went wrong and… and someone was trying to hurt her."
I'm an old school sort of guy. I'm uncomfortable around things like rap music or socialism. I believe that a dog should be bigger than a cat. Moustaches are only acceptable if you're Wilford Brimley or a time traveler from 1992. The prequel trilogy doesn't count. These are fairly reasonable beliefs, as far as they go, and deserve scorn if flouted. But one thing pisses me right off: Men who hurt women or kids. If it is ever, ever in my power to keep that from happening, I will pay any price to do so.
Victoria knew this. She'd been there once.
"That's the last you heard from her? Did she say where she was?" I spoke softly, calmly. I also believe that what you say and how you say it often control what you do. Had my gut been in control, I would've been stomping around and cursing.
She nodded. "I think she was in Saint Paul, by the riverfront."
"Has anyone contacted the police? Does she have family, coworkers?"
"No. Her parents are… out of the picture. No siblings. Self-employed. She knows me through a friend from college. I don't honestly know why she called me. I didn't recognize the number, so she must've just remembered my number and called from someone else's phone."
Twenty-four hours missing. If I learned anything from TV, it's that if we didn't find her alive real soon, we'd probably just find her dead later on.
"Okay. Um. I think we need to go to the bunker."
Shoulder-high banks of snow, pushed aside by plows and refrozen, prevented me from parking in front of the nondescript house in East Bethel. We pulled into the driveway, went in through the back door, what we called the employee's entrance to Anderson & Garfunkel Consulting. When I told Victoria this, she frowned.
"Oh, that's me."
"So then who's Anderson?"
"Did I not tell you that story? Some random dude stole my identity and uses it to fight crime. When I found out, and then started working with him, he saddled me with 'Simon Garfunkel.' I now have an official pseudonym, so as to reserve my real nym for use by Gilbert N. Sullivan."
She rolled her eyes so hard it was almost audible.
"Nice place anyway," she said. A few weeks before, she wouldn't have said so. Gil and I had decided to spend our massive bonus from a recent job on furnishings for the house/office. End tables and reclining sofas had sprung up where cardboard boxes and futons had recently sat. Chairs replaced milk crates, and pictures hung from the walls. Indeed, only one corner remained relatively untouched. I leaned into that bare section of wall in the living room. It swung open, and I gestured to a steep, narrow staircase leading down to the bunker that served as headquarters to the Organization.
"Right this way."
About halfway down, I noticed the smell, the one that says, "I have better things to do than shower," the one you encounter in dorm rooms across the nation. The stench of a bachelor gone feral. The other shoe had finally dropped. I'd been afraid of that. Ever since Roger Hammerstein, our computer guy, walked out a couple months before, Gil had barely surfaced. He spent hours at a time working on remote surveillance, information-gathering, and online consultations. At the expense of basic hygiene, it seemed.
The steel entry door was wedged open by a questionable-smelling pile of cloth that had possibly been a shirt at one time. The cold-war era bunker beyond displayed similar disrepair. Piles of clothes, of garbage, of books, littered the floor (and every other flat surface). Only the sound of snoring differentiated a lump of clothes on the couch from a lump of Gil on the floor.
"Yo boss, wake up! It's nighttime, gotta fight crime."
"Pretty tight rhyme," Victoria muttered from behind me.
"Yeah! So eat a… white… lime." Damn.
"Isaiah, hi," Gil mumbled, his eyes still closed. "Had stuff on the bed, so…."
"No worries. I'm, ah, sure you remember Victoria?"
He sighed, plopped his head back down on the wadded-up jeans serving as his pillow, and still without opening his eyes said, "That ship has sailed, man. No more tears in your beers. I'm not helping you look for her anymore."
"No, Gil! God, not that Victoria, this one!" I said convincingly, totally not panicking.
"Hi." She waved, her face about as red as mine.
"Um." Gil sat up and shoveled a spot clear on the couch. "Here, have a seat, Victoria."
Cut from the same cloth, we are. The same awkward, smelly cloth.
"I'll stand. Thank you though." Something about the crusted-on Cheerios convinced her that this was the best option.
"Sorry bout the mess. I was gonna clean up the other day but…" He shrugged. "Tomorrow's garbage day, I guess."
"No," I said, "that was yesterday."
He grunted. "It's Friday already?"
"It is. February fourth."
"It's February?" He plopped down onto the mostly cleared cushion. "I may have a problem."
Victoria shot me a look. "He's the genius that can do anything?"
"Gil, the Organization has a job."
His eyes lit up. "Ooh. Do tell."
By the time she was done, Gil had made a pot of coffee, properly cleaned off the couch, and was taking notes on a yellow legal pad. "Okay, you said a 'job went bad.' What kind of 'job,' exactly?"
Victoria blushed slightly. "She's… um… an entertainer."
Gil raised an eyebrow. "Meaning?"
"She's a stripper. Not a prostitute or anything. Just a stripper."
Crap. There's a reason that strippers always die in movies and TV shows – it's damned dangerous, especially when you're, ah, freelance. Not to generalize, but the only kind of people who hire strippers are frat boys and pervs. Good chance that either one of those will get you hurt somehow; frat boys doing something stupid, pervs doing it on purpose.
"Do you know why she was at the riverfront?"
"Some sort of convention or something, at one of the hotels."
A quick online search discovered a fundraising rally for a Senate campaign at one of the big-name hotels. Let's call it the Shmilton. Reverse phonebooking the number on Victoria's phone confirmed that's where Dani had been the night before.
"Politicians," Gil muttered. "Wonderful."
Victoria went upstairs and laid down on one of our nice, leather couches at about 10:30. She'd given us the only picture she had of Dani: a blurry cell phone shot, snapped in an Applebee's three years earlier. A search of a half dozen social media sites turned up nil.
"This picture is worthless," Gil said. "I think she's the blonde blob, but who knows."
"Do you suppose she, uh, advertises online?"
"Likely, but I'm not going to sort through a thousand porno sites to look for one particular blonde stripper."
"We could figure out a way to check the security tapes from the hotels. Maybe bribe the security staff to copy em for us, we go through em, see what we can see."
"Take too damn long. Besides, bribe? With what? I know you think highly of your mom's banana bread recipe, but I don't think that'll cut it. We certainly can't spare that sort of cash."
"We can't, like, filter this picture or something? Clear out the fuzz so we can get a proper look at her?"
Gil shook his head. "That's fiction, man. If that stuff was actually possible, you think bank robbers would have pixilated faces on the news? They'd look like professional portraits. Why do you think all this CSI crap is actually possible?"
"Roger hacked into the INS database! It took him like three minutes!"
"If it's online you can hack it, period. There's no way to fill in the blanks between pixels. Writers make stuff up. It's their job. Hard to tell a fun story when your bad guy doesn't have a face and they can't find DNA from his nose hairs on the victim's scarf."
"We need Roger back. He'd have her found already."
Gil nodded. We both knew it was like hoping for a snowy Fourth of July. Roger had called once, said he'd be by to "pick up some things," but never showed. Roger and the Organization had officially broken up.
"Don't you know some computer genius?" Gil asked.
"Mark? You really don't want him involved with this."
"If he's as brilliant as you say he is, I don't see how it could be a bad thing."
Gil had that look, that I'm-pulling-rank-and-you-can't-stop-me look.
"Fine." I pulled out my phone.
"Zaiah, isn't it your bedtime?"
"Hey, Mark. How ya doin buddy?"
"Now what do you need?"
"That's what you say every time you call me and need me to do you a favor. 'How ya doin buddy.' So I say again: What do you need?"
"A little expertise, that's all."
"You forget your password again?"
"Looking for a girl."
"I told you already, that Victoria chick doesn't want to talk to you. And I'm not telling you where she is."
"Why does everyone – Not her, okay? Someone else. Though I appreciate your chivalry."
"Alright, gimme a name, any sort of info you have."
"Her name is Dani McClellan, twenty-six, she might be blonde, and we think she went missing by the Saint Paul riverfront sometime around midnight last night."
He was silent.
"Are you there? Swear to God, if you –"
"Shut up. I'm checking something." Another pause. "Unidentified female, blonde, mid-twenties, found unconscious in the river at 1:37 in the morning. Brought to Hennepin County Medical Center."
"Good God, how did you do that?"
"I'm a techno-mage."
"That's not a thing. Where did you find that info?"
"Police blotter. Aren't you a private detective or something? Come on, man."
Gil slid his '89 Buick around a corner.
"Dude! We can't help her if we're dead!" I sat shotgun, Victoria jerked around in the backseat.
"Every minute we waste is a minute she's still missing!"
Really fuzzy logic. But then Gil was a fuzzy guy, what with weeks of caveman life behind him.
"I'm really uncomfortable with this," Victoria said after the second red light Gil ran.
We somehow made it to HCMC without crashing or getting pulled over. Gil led us to the reception desk, walking like a man who knew exactly what he was supposed to be doing. Then once we got there he said, "Simon, why don't you take the lead on this one?"
The extremely bored-looking receptionist shifted her gaze to me. Took her sweet time too. "Ah, yes, my name is Simon and I'm with A & G Consulting. I have reason to believe that one of the patients here – a Jane Doe pulled from the river early this morning – is the sister of my client here." I indicated Victoria. "We'd like to know where we can find her in order to make an identification."
The receptionist checked the computer with a glacial click… click… click…. She gave us the room number and didn't give us a second glance, so enraptured was she by a supremely important and earth-shattering Facebook status update.
Hospitals are huge. Stupidly huge. I've been in smaller airports. The upshot being that it was close to a half hour before we managed to stumble upon the right hallway.
I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe the TV version of a patient - light bruises worn with a quiet dignity, long blonde hair carefully brushed and arranged on either shoulder. But not this grotesque imitation of a human being, face swollen and bandaged, tubes and wires all over, and eyelids held shut by transparent tape. The tape was the worst. It made her look like a dead outlaw, propped up in a pine coffin for the townsfolk to see. The hospital smell, that combination of sweat, puke, blood, and shit all unsuccessfully covered up by powerful disinfectants, nearly overwhelmed me. I stumbled to the molded plastic chair by the bedside.
Victoria paled. "Dani. Oh, God."
Gil didn't say anything. He looked… like he was somewhere else.
"Excuse me." A balding doctor stood in the doorway. "Who gave you permission to be up here?"
"What happened to her?" Victoria whispered.
"Who are you?"
"That's her sister," Gil said. "We're friends. We've been helping her look for Dani."
"You know this woman?"
"Dani McClellan," said Victoria. "My… sister."
The doctor frowned at us for a moment, then said, "I don't know who the hell let you up here, but as long as this patient is who you claim it is, I'll talk to you. I need to confirm the identity, but I'll meet you in the lobby when it's done. Now, for God's sake, this is a critical patient so get the hell out of her room."
Doctor Lundin addressed us in a cramped office a floor above Dani's. "Can you explain again your relationship to the patient?"
It was a sloppy story. Victoria claimed to be a half-sister, long-separated from Dani. I was Victoria's boyfriend (Eee!) and Gil a family friend. Sloppy, thin, but it worked.
"Understand I have confidentiality to consider. If any of you have falsified information in order to gain access to private records, it can be considered fraud." He gave us a second to fess up. None of us did, so he consulted a chart and said, "Patient found in river at approximately 1:40 am, Friday. Core body temp dropped to ninety-one point nine degrees, indicating between forty and sixty minutes of exposure to below-freezing temperatures. Patient unconscious due to a combination of blunt force trauma to the head, asphyxiation caused by strangulation, and hypothermia. Additional evidence of blunt force trauma to the right ribcage and hip, and evidence of sexual assault." He looked up. "That's all I can share. We've placed her in an induced coma to minimize the swelling of her brain, but she should be able to be taken out of it within the next few days. Visiting hours are posted in the lobby. Please follow them the next time you come."
"Thank you, Doctor," Victoria said, her voice hoarse.
"Can we stop in for a moment to say goodbye?" Gil asked.
Back in Dani's room, Gil knelt by the bed. He leaned to her ear and whispered, "I promise you, Dani, I will find him. I will make sure he can never hurt anyone like this again."
The night Victoria was kidnapped, I crossed a line. By enacting my own punishment for that crime, I became, knowingly and unabashedly, a criminal. At some point since then I had lost track of exactly where that line was anymore. Lying to a doctor to get information about a stranger? I felt a little bad about that. Plotting a way to hunt down and punish a man responsible for rape and attempted murder? Seemed like a fine notion. Justice is such an abstract idea anyway. I understand the need for laws and regulations, but innocent until proven guilty is all well and good until some asshole everyone knows (knows!) to be guilty gets away with something because some cop didn't get a warrant before searching or some lawyer screws an argument. Rights should be protected, but sometimes those in authority fail to do that. I'd seen it enough that I tended to just jump right into Plan B.
"I think we may have to castrate someone," I said to no one in particular.
"Isaiah," Gil said, "do you suppose your techno-mage friend could help us get some security footage? Time isn't quite the issue, now that we know she's safe."
"He's not a techno-mage."
"What else would you call him?"
"Anything that didn't make him feel so damn important."
"I'll call him anything, as long as he agrees to help us."
"Oh, boy. He'll hold you that one. Just don't come crying to me when he does."
A quiet car ride later, Markus Abel Neubauer, programming polyglot and self-aggrandizing ass, opened the door to his apartment. "Welcome, welcome, have a seat. You must be Gil. I'm Mark, but feel free to call me The Man, Mister Man, Wizard Manbauer, any combination of the above."
Gil nodded and shook Mark's hand. "Mister Man."
"Victoria," I said, "this is Mark."
"Ah, Victoria. Pleased to finally meet you."
Mark winked at me, then said, "C'mere Zaiah. Gimme a hug."
"Not gonna hug you, Mark."
"No, c'mon." He stepped over, bear-hugged and spun me.
"Dammit, man, this is –"
"Just 'man'? Not 'Man of Steel' or anything?"
"Son of a – Mark! This is serious! We need you to help us."
"I will. Gladly. But first you need to say it."
"Say what? Please?"
"No. Say I'm a techno-mage."
"Oh my God."
"I can't have doubters in my presence. I have something to show you, but you have to admit I'm a techno-mage."
"That's not a thing! Stop calling yourself that!"
"Fine. I'll just sit here and watch videos of political fundraisers all by myself."
"Wait, what? What videos?"
He cocked his head and held up one finger at me.
"Ahh, fine. You're the Man, you're a techno-mage, you're the second coming of Lisbeth Salander. Better?"
"Yes. Check it out."
We gathered around a pair of monitors, each as big as my TV.
"You're so hung up on security cameras that you neglect to look for the most readily available source of current events out there: the daily news. A-doy!" He opened a link to a video of William Whitacre, consummate flesh-presser and orator, greeting supporters in front of the Shmilton. "Interesting guy. This is his fourth Senate campaign. He's outlasted a decade's worth of potential senators, so it seems his party has finally taken time to notice him. Oh, here it is."
He paused the video, pointed at a blonde woman talking to a well-dressed gentleman in the background. Faces were just a little hard to see, but it was obviously Dani.
"Who's she talking to?" Victoria asked.
"That is Anthony Mahr, a campaign aide for Whitacre."
"Oh, snap," I said. "We just found a lead."
We relocated everyone to the bunker, gave Mark and Victoria a crash course in our computer system, and started plotting. Gil and I spent half an hour talking about how to get into the hotel without getting caught before Victoria suggested we just get a room. I seem to have this tendency to try and turn everything into a Rube Goldberg device. She called in the reservation from HQ while Gil and I went over. The desk clerk told us which room Mahr was in, once we'd paid a positively exorbitant bribe.
"Do I get to punch anyone this time? I never get to punch people anymore."
Gil shook his head. We sat on a bench at the top of the stairs leading to Mahr's floor. I was dressed in a trench coat and fedora, old-timey reporter style (not Sam Spade!) and Gil wore a perfectly inconspicuous trapper hat and red-checkered coat. "Always so eager for violence."
"Some people just deserve it."
"Many that live deserve death," Mark intoned wisely, through the earpieces, "some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo Baggins?"
I still hadn't gotten the hang of the Stakeout. Or even the Sit and Wait. Apparently you're supposed to be mostly quiet, but by the time Mahr stepped out of his room, I had gone over the plots of two and a half of the Star Wars films (Gil had never seen them. Seriously?) and the first four episodes of Lost. He glanced at us briefly before stopping in front of an elevator. Gil and I walked over.
"Lobby?" Gil asked as we stepped in. Mahr nodded. Gil pressed "P1." Mahr had his iPhone out, didn't notice.
"Simon," Gil said, "did you hear about that stripper they pulled from the river?"
"Last night? Yeah. Still alive, right? Despite someone's best efforts."
Mahr's tapping and sliding stopped. We both stood with backs facing him. His breath quivered just the slightest bit.
"Crazy, man. Wonder who she was, or if there were any pictures of her outside this hotel with anyone."
"What do you want?" Mahr whispered. We turned. His face had paled. "Please, I didn't know he was going to do anything."
"That was easy," Mark said.
"I just brought her up there. My God, he tried to kill her?"
The doors opened into the basement parking level. I motioned for Mahr to follow. "Let's talk."
"It was Whitacre. Of course it was. Had to be." I shook my head. We sat in Gil's old bomber in the parking lot. Mahr left shortly after spilling every last gut. Not that he knew a whole lot, all he did was drop Dani off, but he was the last person to see her before they pulled her out of the river.
"Or it was another campaign worker, or a guy who saw her leaving the hotel, or any number of people. It's not like Whitacre has a history of violent crime. What would motivate him to kill someone?"
"Cover up a rape. Hell, cover up the fact that he hired a stripper. No one would let that one go. He'd be laughed right out of the race."
"So we assume it was him. What were the movements after Dani went into the room? There's no way to verify anything, short of security footage, and that's not happening without a warrant."
"Do we need to go to the police with this one?'
Gil frowned. "Maybe. Though I'm sure Whitacre's got all his bases covered. It'll take forever to get anything substantial to stick. I think cops are our Plan B."
"I thought punching was Plan B."
"That's Plan Z, in this case. Any satisfaction you get from that will be outweighed by a prison sentence. I need to think about this one for a while."
Figured we may as well use the room we'd gotten, so we headed up. We took the elevator to our floor and found a puffy-eyed man standing in the elevator lobby. "Mister Anderson?" he said, glancing at each of us.
I looked at Gil. He gave a slight shrug. "That's me," he said.
The man nodded. "And you are?"
He narrowed his eyes. "I see. My name is Detective Ambrose. I'm with the Saint Paul PD. I need to talk to you about Dani McClellan."
My heart dropped. It hit my stomach and sloshed the acid around. Some of it splashed up and caused me to sweat. Ambrose noticed.
"Is that a problem, Mister Garfunkel?"
"Uh, nope. What's your question?"
"Actually, we'll need you to come down to the station."
"Are we under arrest?" Gil asked.
"Not at this time, but we do need to question you in connection with the case."
"Wait," I said, "'at this time'? So later we will be?"
"I think it would be best if you followed me to the station."
We headed back down the elevator.
"Smooth," Gil muttered.
"Don't I get a phone call?"
Ambrose raised an eyebrow.
"I mean – Ahh. I really don't know what I'm supposed to be doing right now. Where do I put my hands?" On the table felt weird, but so did in my lap. I crossed them, uncrossed them, hung them at my sides, put them behind my head, finally sat on them. No better, but now I knew for sure it was awkward. "Does it feel warm in here? Mmm, nope. I see. You're trying to sweat me out. Wow, okay, uh.... Sorry, lost my train of thought. Will this be on my permanent record?"
"Mister Garfunkel, do you need something to drink?"
I blinked. "Yeah. Yeah, um, do you have Coke? I mean, the pop, not cocaine! I don't do drugs. I only buy the real Sudafed because it works better than the PE stuff, not so I can make meth. Not that I know what goes into…. God! Can I get a Mountain Dew?"
Ambrose returned with the Dew a few minutes later.
"Are you ready to begin, Mister Anderson?"
"Yeah. Sorry. I'm just nervous."
"That's fine. Can you state your name, just to be official about this?"
"Sure, my name is Simon…. Aw, dammit, you called me Anderson."
"Why the alias?"
"It's kind of a long story."
Ambrose looked at our surroundings. "We have time."
"Do I need a lawyer?"
"You're a person of interest, not a suspect. What I need to know is why you're using a false identity, poking around the victim's hospital room, and associating with other persons of interest. So again, why the alias?"
"It's… a professional name. I work for a small consulting firm that – can I get in trouble for anything right now? No! You never read me my rights! Hah! I'm basically a PI but I don't have a license! A friend contacted me and was looking for help in finding Dani. We found her and figured out who did it."
"Really? Who was that, then?"
"Are you asking me to reveal the results of an investigation? I don't work for free, Detective. Well, I do, but you're not a pretty brunette, so…."
"I'm asking you to share information with the police. If you have something that could help in this investigation and don't share it, I could charge you with obstruction."
Ambrose blinked slowly. "That is one hell of an accusation. You have any evidence?"
"Well, no, not really. I have a hunch, though."
"I can't arrest for a hunch."
"Yeah…. That's all I got…. So can I go now?"
We concluded the interview. As I was leaving, Ambrose said, "Watch yourself. This'll bite you in the ass, you're not careful. And get your damn Investigator license. I don't wanna see you back here."
Gil sat waiting for me in the reception area. "So?"
"What?" I said, just a titch defensively.
"What did they ask you?"
"Oh, the usual. 'Where were you the night of the crime,' 'Do you know the victim,' 'How long have you been operating as a private investigator without a license.'"
He sighed. "Yeah. Okay. Come on."
We made our way back to the car. "I was under pressure, okay? They've got some devious frickin methods, man. Besides, I was never read any rights, so it's not admissible in court."
"What exactly did you tell him?"
I told him.
"Great. Now we have to get licensed. Do you have any idea how hard those things are to get?"
"We don't have to. I mean –"
"Yeah, jackass, we do. Just because you can't get charged right now doesn't mean they won't be watching us, waiting for us to do something questionable so they can shut us right the hell down."
Hadn't thought about that. "We'd better end this, then."
"End this? Thanks, Action Hero Man. What sort of ending did you have in mind? Beat up a candidate for Senate? Blackmail him? We do anything out of line, our ass is grass."
My phone buzzed. A text from Rachel: <It was good seeing you yesterday. I meant it that you need to call me.>
"Mark," I said when I replaced my earpiece, "do you think Mahr would be able to get us in to see Whitacre?"
Then I called Rachel.
I met Rachel in the lobby of the hotel that night. The glint in her eyes told of a desire to misbehave. "So this is what you do in your spare time?"
"Sometimes. I also like long walks on the beach and playing frolf."
"You know I've never actually done this outside of class?"
"And you shouldn't have to really do anything. All you need to do is show a little ankle and get him all hot and bothered."
She shivered. "If what you told me is true…."
"It is. But nothing's going to happen to you. Me and Gil will be right there."
"You've never watched a horror movie, huh? You just guaranteed my death at the hands of this maniac."
Gil and Mahr walked over from the stairwell. Mahr was pale, sweaty. "Whitacre's ready," he said. "Took a little convincing though. He generally prefers blondes."
"Pfft!" said Rachel. "Blondes will be extinct within fifty years anyway. Brunettes are the future."
"Ready?" Gil said.
I nodded, glanced at Rachel. "Keep that buttoned up til we get up there. Your, uh, leather is showing."
She grinned at me, slowly buttoned her long white London Fog jacket, covering the black lace-up leather corset underneath. "I know."
Mahr led the way. Fourth floor, end of the hall. Gil stopped me two doors from Whitacre's.
"I need your earpiece. Whitacre won't talk if he sees anything fishy."
"Then how am I supposed to –"
"Don't worry about it. I'll be taking care of that. You just gotta get him talking about Dani."
"Okay." I surrendered the earpiece. "Here goes."
Mahr knocked. "Mister Jones? The maid service is here."
The door opened a crack. "Send her in."
I stepped in first, Rachel followed. William Whitacre stood just inside, wearing nothing but a half-open robe. "Who the hell're you?"
"Name's Mike. I'm with her."
His eyes narrowed. "In what capacity?"
"I'm her brother. What d'you think, asshole? Come on. Manager."
"You didn't have any blondes?"
"We gonna do this, or what?"
He glanced behind me to Rachel, who had unbuttoned her jacket, revealing the corset and matching hot pants. His breathing shallowed. "Yes," he half-whispered. Still ogling Rachel, he gestured us all the way in. The door shut, and he moved toward Rachel.
"Hold on." I stepped in front of him. "Some rules first."
He stepped back, looked at me like a wounded puppy.
"Payment before performance. That's number one. Number two, no touching."
He looked at me like I'd just told him Kanye West and C-3PO would be joining him in the morning for a continental breakfast. "No touching a whore? Are you high?"
"Not a whore. Stripper. No touching."
"I know a whore when I see one. That," he said, pointing, "is a whore."
"Do you want to have a little show, or do we leave?"
He looked back at Rachel who was leaning on the wall slowly gyrating her hips. "We'll have a little show. See where it leads." He walked to the bed, sat. "Start."
I motioned for Rachel to stay by the door. "I need to make sure you understand the rules. If you touch my employee, that is tantamount to sexual assault."
"You can't sexually assault a whore! You can't rape a whore!" Spittle flew from his mouth. "The other bitch didn't want to play along either. Come here, whore!" He stood, his face contorted, started toward Rachel.
"Rachel, go!" I shoved Whitacre back down onto the bed, turned and ran for the door. He swung his legs – surprisingly quickly for a flabby old shitsack – and tripped me up. My left shoulder connected with the wall, right between studs so I left a nice, big hole in the drywall. Not that I knew that at the time – my brain got rattled hard enough that all I felt was the explosion of stars and thunder in my head. I ended up in the fetal position, my back away from the wall.
Whitacre rolled me over and clamped his hands around my throat. "You son of a BITCH!"
A lot of people don't realize this, but strangulation is as much about bloodflow as airflow. That's why mere suffocation takes a solid couple of minutes, while a skilled strangler can take you out in under twenty seconds.
I tried to push him off, but my left arm wouldn't move like I wanted it to. Dislocated. As my vision tunneled, I remembered something from a Women's Self-Defense class in college for which I volunteered to be a guinea pig: "When all else fails, grab and twist." Whitacre had the courtesy to leave himself open for just such a move.
I grabbed. I pulled. I twisted, twisted, twisted. And he threw up on me. My breath came in barking gasps as he released his grip. But damned if I was gonna release mine.
Gil suddenly had me by the armpits and was pulling me to the door. "Dude, let go of his balls! Let go of his balls!" Whitacre had passed out, and I was dragging him, crotch-first. I forced my fingers to relax, looked down, and saw the blood and… other stuff on my hand.
That's when I puked and fainted.
"Wish I could say I was surprised." Detective Ambrose didn't look too pleased to see me.
I sat in the hall, sipping ice water and wishing I could cut off my hand and cleanse it with fire. "Hi."
"Care to explain?"
"I was helping out a friend."
"No, my friend Rachel over there." I pointed down the hall to where she stood talking to an officer. "She's getting started in the entertainment industry and needs someone to keep an eye on the, ah, customers."
"You're her pimp?"
"No! God! Everyone keeps…. Stripping, not hooking, okay? I'm just private security."
"No, seriously! I have it on tape and everything. Told the guy flat out that she was not a hooker. Gil!" I motioned him over. "We have it all on tape, don't we? Tell the good detective here that we have a tape."
"We don't have a tape," Gil said. "That would be invasion of privacy. No, I was here in case Isaiah needed backup."
I blinked. "Dammit all to hell! Okay, fine. No tape. Just take my word for it."
"Very well," Ambrose said. "Does Miss Meroso have the proper licensure to perform?"
"Eh, kinda doubt it."
"And do you and Mister Sullivan have a private security license? You know, to go along with your PI license?"
I didn't bother to answer that one.
"Yeah. Officer," he motioned to a uniform, "let's figure out exactly what statutes were violated here and write em up." He looked at me. "If you can get straight, you could be one hell of an investigator. If not, you'll be another dumbass who ends up in jail or in a ditch."
"You hear what he said?" I asked Gil as we rode the elevator to the lobby. "I'll be a hell of an investigator. Me. The junior detective in this partnership. Now you are the student and I am the master," I said in my best Vader voice (better than usual, with the whole swollen vocal cord thing). "You didn't even get a freaking recording."
Gil rolled his eyes. "You think I'm gonna admit to having illicit surveillance equipment? Of course I recorded it. The Man's already contacted a couple of news agencies about selling the rights. Should keep us in business for a couple more weeks anyway."
We met Victoria at the hospital. She sat by Dani's bed, holding her hand. "She woke up. Just for a little bit." Her eyes were bright with tears. "She didn't recognize me, I don't think, but she smiled at me. The doctor said it would be awhile still before they know how much brain damage she has, but I'm hopeful."
"Whitacre's in custody," Gil said. "He'll talk soon."
I took the chair next to Victoria. "She's gonna be okay."
Rachel stood in the doorway. "Isaiah told me about your friend. I – God I hate crying in front of strangers – I thought he was, not exaggerating exactly, but you know…." She sighed. "I'm glad they put that bastard away."
We watched Dani without talking for a minute or so, hospital noise and quiet snuffling from Rachel the only things staving off silence.
"Um," Rachel said quietly, "I want to go shower for about a month. Can we go?"
Gil looked at me. "You guys go," I said. "I'll stay here for a little while."
Victoria moved her hand to the chair's armrest. I took it in mine, and we sat.