PART II - Chapter 1
Private Dick Exposed: Caught with Pants Down at Local Gentleman’s Club. That was the third-page story in yesterday’s Metro section and the first thing I see when I wake up. A black and white picture of yours truly, full frontal in a pair of solid black boxer briefs. And what is it that woke me up? There it is again. Someone is pressing a buzzer. The sound triggers a mechanical reflex that starts in my brain and ends with my finger on a button that unlocks the front door of my converted apartment office. The watch at my wrist is ticking. Two o’clock. I turn and pull the draw cord on the blinds. AM. Folding the newspaper around the now empty bottle beside it, I slide them both into the desk’s bottom drawer.
I’m still processing the time and who would be looking for my services at this hour when I hear feet coming across the lobby—light tapping feet—the feet of a woman. I tighten my necktie and with the flats of my palms smooth the sides of my hair. And boy am I wrong, so wrong I nearly fall out of my chair. The door to my private office crashes back and there before me stands a man with a six-foot frame bearing out at over two-hundred and twenty pounds. His eyes and bright red forehead are streaked with veins. In his hand there’s a gun, though he doesn’t seem to attach much importance to it.
In staggered, depleted breaths he manages the words, “Sphinx Mulroney, private detective?”
Hovering somewhere between an accusation and a question, I hesitate before answering, working to match the charge against a list of outstanding warrants on my guilty conscience. After leafing through half a dozen possible approaches, I settle on the one that seems most suited to the man’s look of intelligence.
His shadow moves slowly across the ground until it meets square in front of me. He must have found my response amusing because a queer smile pulls at his lips. It looks as if he makes an attempt to laugh.
It’s not a pleasant sound.
Meanwhile, just below countertop visibility, another story is developing rapidly. Attached to the underside of my desk is a leather holster that squeaks as I wrap my hand around the cold steel butt of a gun. The safety snicks open. Directed at his kneecap, I’ve just laced my finger through the trigger guard when his mouth offers another alternative.
A thin trickle of blood appears at the corner of his lips. The subsequent gurgling sound muffles an attempt to speak. Slack legs precede an awkward attempt to stable his weight as he stumbles backward, surrendering into a chair beside the door.
The gun slips out of his hand.
I rush to his side, place two fingers at his neck. There’s a pulse, soft and slow. I’m reaching for my phone when I notice his lips moving. Crouched low, I place an ear to his mouth. In a voice just above a whisper, he repeats the word ‘Lachance’ twice before his breathing stops. I feel again for a pulse, but find nothing, just cold, wrinkled skin. When CPR fails to revive him, I phone the police.
The next call I make is to Cassie. Cassie’s official job title, or the one she’s chosen for herself, is that of Director of First Appearances, her way of making the word secretary sound sexy.
When the phone picks up, a sleepy, soft fibered voice answers, “What is it, Sphinx?”
“This is a new phone; how did you know it was me?”
“Who else would call me at two o’clock in the morning?”
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
“Not one who would call me at two o’clock in the morning.”
“Quick, get dressed, I need you down here, we’ve got a situation.”
She agrees without asking for details.
We hang up without saying goodbye.
The police are the first to arrive, followed by the crime scene medic who, after a careful assessment, announces what seems obvious to everyone else; that the man is dead. The cause of death? Gunshot wound to the back.
“And the blood around his mouth?” someone asks.
“We’ll need an autopsy to be sure, but it’s my guess the bullet pierced one of his lungs, filling it with blood.”
A lean-faced sergeant with ashen hair and nicotine-stained teeth looks at me and says, “So?”
Hands in my pockets, I lift and lower my shoulders. “‘So,’ what?”
“Did you know him?”
“Not even obliquely,” I say.
“It looks like someone rifled through his pockets. Did they find anything?” The question is asked generally, but he’s looking at me.
“Just the newspaper,” I say, nodding to the lampstand. “He had it tucked under his arm.”
With an ungloved hand, the sergeant picks up the newspaper, studies it. It’s open to the third page of yesterday’s Metro section. Eyebrows knit, the sergeant’s jaw cocks to one side. “Do you suppose this is why he came here?”
I shrug a maybe.
“Did he say anything?”
“He asked my name.”
The sergeant’s eyes tighten around my response. “I suppose it’s not just a coincidence then that he chose to die in your office. Did you find anything else on his persons?”
I’ve got the word ‘no’ fully formed in my mouth when Cassie arrives wearing the kind of tortured outfit that makes breathing difficult, for her, and every male in the room. The skirt is long, black, and hugs the sleek contours of her hips like dancers in a Conga line. The blouse, a silky pink rag, skimps in all of the most intriguing places. Stiletto heels give two inches and deep definition to her legs. Up top, side swept bangs of wavy blonde hair frame her face and a pair of lazy, sea-green eyes.
“Will you excuse me?” I say.
“By all means,” the sergeant says, tossing up a pair of hands, “it’s only a murder investigation, it can wait.”
I catch Cassie coming across the lobby and guide her by the arm to a private room.
“Thanks for coming,” I say, closing the door. “I’m going to need your ear for two minutes.”
“Is that all you want, my ear?”
“I’m afraid two minutes wouldn’t leave much time for the rest of you.”
“Then why not take more?”
Her smile is soft, unlike the dead body in my office. “This could be serious,” I tell her.
She crosses her arms, shifts her weight forward.
After recounting the events of the last half hour in rushed detail, I look at her for some hint of comprehension.
Narrowed eyes seem to be reviewing the scant evidence for irregularities.
“Dead?” she says, studying the word as though it were new to her vocabulary.
“Does the word Lachance mean anything to you?” I ask.
“Sure, it’s French. It means luck or, more precisely, ‘the luck’. Why, what does it mean to you?”
“Nothing, except he kept repeating it.”
“The dead guy, just before he died.”
Cassie nibbles at the corner of her mouth.
“Do you suppose he meant it as a curse?” I ask.
“What do you mean?” she says, her chin coming out from her jaw.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t speak French, but perhaps, he was cursing his bad luck.”
“I don’t think that’s how you’d use it. But even if it was, why would he be speaking in French?”
“Maybe he is French, or French Canadian.”
“Why would a French Canadian with a hole in his back show up in your office at two o’clock in the morning just to curse his bad luck?”
“There’s more,” I say, stepping to the door and peering out.
“What’s happening?” Cassie asks, her voice falling to a whisper.
On the far side of the room, the sergeant and another plainclothes detective engage in an exclusive dialogue. To their right, a fresh-faced corporal scribbles something in a notepad. Knelt down, a member of the forensics team takes pictures with a digital camera.
“See for yourself,” I say, pulling a thin black wallet from my pocket and holding it out for her to see.
Curiosity puts lights in her green eyes. “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you’re thinking it’s the victim’s wallet, then yes.”
“Why do you have this?” she asks.
“It was in the guy’s pocket.”
“I imagined that. What I mean is, why didn’t you give it to the police?”
“Because of what I found in there,” I say, reaching for the wallet and removing a license-sized ID card. Passing it to Cassie, I watch as her face dulls with thought.
“A missing persons locator?” she says. “I don’t remember you skipping out on your parole hearing.”
“I don’t think he was looking for me.”
“But he asked for you.”
“Take a look at this,” I say, handing her a phone from my pocket.
Cassie looks at it then back at me.
“Pull up the call log,” I say.
With a few easy taps on the touchscreen, Cassie pulls up a list of the last dozen or so phone calls the man had made. “What am I looking for here?”
“Do you see the last call he made thirty minutes ago?”
Cassie nods, places her weight against the edge of the desk. “Whose number is it, have you tried calling?”
“Jennifer?” Cassie shakes her head. “Jennifer who?”
I make a slashing gesture up my forearm.
“You can see that call thirty minutes ago didn’t pick up. But there’s another one logged at ten-thirty this morning that did go through. It says the call lasted almost two and a half minutes.”
“But ten-thirty, wasn’t that when you found her?”
“I got there at ten to eleven.”
“Which means somewhere in the intervening twenty minutes after this guy’s phone call she decided to commit suicide? Makes you wonder what he said, doesn’t it?”
“That’s just it,” I tell her. “That ten-thirty call wasn’t on Jennifer’s phone.”
Cassie’s face grows tight. “How did you happen to get ahold of her phone?”
“Don’t make it sound so conspiratorial. When I found her in the bathtub this afternoon, I used hers to call the paramedics and forgot I put it in my pocket until just after checking the dead guy’s phone and heard it ringing.”
“And you’re sure there’s no record of the call anywhere on her phone.”
“I’m telling you, the call was deleted.”
“Yeah, but by whom?” Cassie wonders. “You don’t think it was Jennifer herself who deleted it?”
“Why would she?” I shake my head. “I mean, what would it matter if she were about to kill herself anyway?”
Cassie shrugs. “I’d sure like to know what this dead guy was investigating.”
“Maybe it has something to do with Jennifer’s missing friend, Mary, the waitress she claims went missing from the strip club.”
“Does that make sense?” Cassie asks. “I mean she’d already asked you to look into it, besides the call log in this guy’s phone shows he called her, not the other way around.”
“You never know, she could have called him from a different phone, her work phone, perhaps.”
Cassie thinks about it before conceding. “I guess you’re right, there’s probably a dozen ways to make sense of this.”
“What do you make of all of it?”
“Let me get the timeline straight,” Cassie says. “Tuesday morning, Jennifer asks you to look into the disappearance of her friend and co-worker, this girl Mary. You go down to the strip club where they work. It just so happens the club is raided by VICE, which lands you not only in interrogation but in the newspaper as well. The next morning you’re released and arrive back here at ten to eleven when you happen to walk in on Jennifer in a pool of her own blood. You rescue her, get her to the hospital, but forget you have her phone in your pocket. Some thirteen hours later, this missing persons locator shows up shot in the back. You check his phone and find he’d spoken with your neighbor, Jennifer, earlier that day, just moments before she started warming the bath water.”
“Feels shady, doesn’t it?”
“Now, now, let’s not give ourselves over to paranoia just yet,” Cassie cautions.
In the other room, the sound of voices grows louder.
“You want to talk paranoia?” I say, throwing a gesture back over my shoulder. “Do you know how long it took them to get here?”
“Who? The police?”
“Four minutes,” I tell her.
“Is that unusual?” Cassie asks, reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.
I cock my head to one side. “Are you serious? It takes most of these guys four minutes just to pull up the address with GPS.”
“So, what, you think they’re in on it somehow?”
“Nothing about this feels right to me.”
“I agree there are a lot of strange coincidences, but labeling it a conspiracy strikes me as a bit premature at this point.”
“You’re right, we need evidence.”
“What exactly do you want me to do?” Cassie asks.
“Start with the license,” I tell her.
“And do what with it?”
“You’ve got that sense of urgency in your voice like this can’t wait ’til morning.”
“It is morning,” I say. “Besides, once I’m done at the precinct giving and going over my statement, I’d like to pay a visit to this dead guy’s house before the police do. Meanwhile, dig up whatever you can on him.”
“What are you hoping to find?”
At least three answers come to my mind. I chose the first. “How’s about why he was killed.”