RIVER CITY SCORE
The call woke me from the first decent night’s sleep I’d had in weeks. I’d been putting in long hours at the Salon, struggling to keep the doors open while providing valuable training to my new partner, Pinky Presley, an ex-con who claimed as a distant relative none other than the King of Rock N’ Roll. I was afraid Pinky might turn out to be more muscle than brain, but I was willing to give him a chance – up to a point. The point at which I started losing money.
I grabbed my squalling mobile phone. A low growl escaped my lips as I read the name on the screen. Pinky. I pressed the phone to my ear.
“This better be good.”
“Boss!” Pinky cried. “Ya gotta help me! I’m pinned down!” For an alleged blood relative to the King, Pinky could sure pour on the Joysee accent. Must have picked it up on The Yard at Cummins.
“Talk to me, Pink.”
“I been on stakeout,” the big man answered breathlessly. “The Cassells – you remember? Adultery case.”
I sighed indulgently. “Yes, Pink, I remember. I brought you the case. Sent the man in to see you. Drew up the contract. Helped you sign your name to it. Shall I continue?”
“No, boss,” panted Pink. “Anyways, I trailed the Mrs. home. She sure had a long night, by the by. Dinner at 1620 with some fella, shopping, a movie. I been parked outside their house the last hour, keeping an eye peeled. All the sudden, bullets start popping out one of the ground-floor windows. My direction! What do I do?”
I swung my legs out of bed. “Why don’t you try getting the hell out of there?”
“I’m not in my truck! I’m in a flower bed. Cripes, there’s another round! Ya gotta get down here, Mr. James, I’m gonna catch a bullet in a vital area, I know it!”
“On my way,” I told him, and busied myself getting dressed. I put on something casual – suit, tie, Cole Haans, watch, shoulder holster, side arm – and made a beeline for my cherry 1973 Plymouth Duster. I’d had the car lovingly restored and outfitted with every customized gadget a gearhead could want, including an engine and a steering wheel. I burned half a tank of gas screaming across town to the Cassells’ modest thirty-bedroom shack on Pinnacle Mountain Drive. The house stood about fifty yards from the road in the middle of a thick stand of pine trees. The absence of black-and-whites in the vicinity told me two things: Pinky hadn’t called the police yet, and the neighbors lived too far away to hear any shots. I spotted my associate’s dark Nissan parked opposite the Cassells’ property and slid my car in behind it. Before I could climb out, a random slug punctured my door and lodged in the seat, inches shy of my buttock. Heater drawn, I flung myself out, hit the ground and rolled toward the pickup.
Beneath the truck’s rear chassis I bumped up hard against my employee, whose large girth made him hard to miss.
“Pink! What the hell you doing here?”
“Locked my keys in my truck.”
From our worm’s eye vantage, we could see the small Black Forest that shielded the Cassells’ residence from view. There was not even a lamp turned on in there.
“Reckon she’s dead, boss?” Pink whispered.
I ignored the question, focusing on the situation at hand. The mouth of the driveway joined the blacktop road about twenty yards west of our position. No sign of movement in the woods; no sound other than the jackhammer of my own pulse.
“Two things can happen,” I told my trembling protégé. “One, we call the cops and let them mop up this mess. Two, we put a stop to it ourselves, and maybe collect a little on what’s owed.” I paused for effect. “We need the dough, Pink.”
Pink thought for a second. “Okay, what do we do?”
I opened my mouth to call him a stupid nincompoop but was interrupted by another wild bullet. I slithered out from under the truck and walked back to my Duster. A bullet sliced the air in front of my nose; I could smell the hot copper jacket. Unperturbed, I climbed into my car, turned the key, reversed, shifted gears, and pulled forward, accelerating rapidly. Headlights off, I made a hard right and heard gravel crunch beneath my tires. I gunned it and followed the curvy single-lane track to its destination: the Cassells’ front door.
I jumped out of the car. A stray shot nearly ventilated my rib cage. I went around to the trunk and popped the hatch. It took all of two seconds for me to locate my Mossberg shotgun. I chambered a round and started toward the house.
Another bullet cut the air near my face. This time I saw the point of origin: the bay window to the right of the front door.
I took the steps two at a time, crossed the porch in three quick strides, and launched my right foot, along with all my weight, into the door. BANG! The frame shattered like hard candy and the lock snapped like a wishbone. I strode into the dark foyer, swiveled my hips, and leveled the shotgun at Thomas Cassell, age 38, whose pistol I heard clatter empty to the hardwood floor.
“The meeting,” I informed him, “will now come to order.”
The woman was dead, of course. I found Malissa Cassell’s body in an irregularly shaped pool of blood on the kitchen floor, her throat slashed from one diamond earring to the other. Her husband had ambushed her as she stood at the counter making a sandwich. The coroner would later find jelly in the neck wound. Grape.
I had duct-taped Thomas to an armchair by the time the police showed up, sirens wailing. For my effort they showed damned little appreciation, but then, no one likes having their work done for them. After dragging my client out the door and stuffing him into a patrol car, chair and all, I was ordered to show my credentials – investigator’s license, gun permit, proof of liability insurance, birth certificate, credit report, etc.
“Chicken shit dick,” grunted the sergeant, tossing my wallet back in my face. “What are you doing here, dick? Aren’t you married? Don’t you have anybody at home?”
“Not at my home, but I left your wife about ten minutes ago.”
He boxed my ears for me, good and hard. Two uniforms got in between us and the sergeant stormed out, cursing dicks to high heaven. I tucked my wallet back in my pocket, smoothed my hair, adjusted the knot in my necktie, and ambled into the kitchen. Guys from the coroner’s office were bagging Mrs. Cassell; crime scene techs were busy taking pictures and dusting for prints. I hung around and watched until two cops ushered me out. They informed me I would have to go down to the station and swear out a statement. I would also have to produce the contract Thomas Cassell had signed engaging my firm’s investigative services, etc. Inconvenient for me, but whatever.
Pink and I drove to a Waffle House, installed ourselves in a booth, and quaffed scrambled eggs and bacon, toast and coffee. No waffles. He ran down the stakeout for me. It all sounded routine until the gunfire and throat-slashing. I listened and slurped and chewed. Then I needed a smoke. The picture was now clear: Thomas Cassell had killed not only his wife but my quarterly projections. If history teaches us anything – and I’m convinced it does – it is that murderers aren’t just “slow pay,” they are “no pay,” a lesson with sad consequences for small business operators like me.
I drove home and crawled back under the sheets, though there was little point as the sun was coming up. At noon I went to the office. The Detective Salon is located on the seventh floor of a building at Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock. Pinky hadn’t made it in yet, but I knew he’d pulled an all-nighter and deserved the extra shut-eye. I sat at my desk to go through the mail. I also took a few swigs from the flask of Johnny Walker Red I kept in my desk. I was getting frustrated with my big pile of bills when a knock prompted me to look up into the eyes of a stranger. He stood about six feet, was broad-shouldered and chubby, with curly blond hair and a small, prissy mustache. He looked, in other words, like an adult baby.
“You lost?” I asked, trying to keep it civil.
“Is this the River City Detective Salon?” he rejoined, in a high-pitched, querulous tone.
The man wore a stylish white suit with no tie and brown leather dress shoes. I could smell his cologne from across the room. “I thought perhaps there would be a receptionist?” he said, as if I had neglected to put out caviar.
“I had to let her go. Recession and all.”
He snorted, as if the national economy were but a trifling concern. “Well, I don’t normally barge in unannounced,” he said, in a tone I didn’t exactly find convincing, “but no one answered your phone, so I thought I’d come up.”
“I didn’t hear it, but then, I just got here,” I told him. “Don’t worry about barging in. If I were upset about it, you’d be picking bullets out of your teeth right about now. I’m Hank James. Have a seat.”
He crossed to the chair I keep for visitors – the paying kind. The longer I studied his suit, the more I figured it had been hand-tailored by some asshole on Savile Row. I disliked the man – took umbrage with his whole attitude – but if I only did business with people I liked, my stomach would eat itself.
“Say,” I said, “you look like a man who could use a good belt. Care to join me?” I proffered my flask.
The prissy man held up his palms. “A bit early for me, thanks.”
I shrugged. “OK.” I returned the flask to its resting place. “Now, suppose you tell me just who in the hell you are.”
“I’m Louis Barnhouse. You’ve heard the name?”
I searched my memory banks, which, I admit, aren’t what they used to be, and came up with a match. “Shit, yeah! You’re the conductor for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, aren’t you?”
“I saw the article about you in Arkansas Times. Originally from Sacramento? Wife’s name is Dora?”
Barnhouse smiled thinly. “Correct.”
I smiled back. He turned his head to gaze out the window at the River Market below. I could tell, in that moment, he was a man on the verge of losing it all – career, money, reputation, happiness, everything. I almost felt sorry for him. I dove back into the drawer for a quick nip.
“I suppose you’d like to hear the reason for my visit.”
“If you’d like to tell me.”
He sighed miserably. “I’m cheating on my wife,” he said, laying it all on the line, “but that isn’t the reason. Well – partly, it is. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have this problem at all, would I?” He chuckled. I kept quiet.
Barnhouse cleared his throat, shifted his ass in his chair. “I’ve come because I want this … problem … of mine dealt with quietly. No fuss, no muss, no headlines. And no police. I cannot afford to have my name dragged through the mud.”
“Maybe you should have thought about that before you slept with some other broad.”
He blushed. Obviously he was one of those types unused to having anyone talk back to him. Big symphony conductor and all.
“Mr. James,” he barked, “do you want my business or would you rather I left you to your drinking?”
Chastised, I gestured to indicate he still had the floor.
Barnhouse paused to collect himself, gather his thoughts, etc. “This … affair … has been going on for about six months. I met the woman at a recital – my wife’s, actually. Dora is a concert pianist. She’s quite talented at –”
“The story, Barnhouse.”
He shot me a look of keen displeasure. “Yes, well, as I was saying. I first met Lila Lee at Dora’s recital. Understand, Dora and I have been married fifteen years. We are still desperately in love. I have never been involved with another woman! My wife and I are still … intimate. We have no children, our work schedules are reasonably flexible, our finances are sound – what I am trying to say is that there is no logical reason, none, for me to turn to a mistress! And yet … I cannot help myself.”
“You should probably tell this Lila Lee broad to hit the bricks. Unless you promised her something and now she’s holding you to your word.”
“That is not the case.”
“What is the case, Barnhouse?”
“Are you always this rude to clients?”
“You’re not my client, and I might rather get to the bottom of this flask than your sob story. Adulterers don’t go very far with me, just as a personal rule.”
“Lila Lee has something of mine. I want it back.”
“I assume this is some material item and nothing too abstract, like, ‘my heart.’”
He shot me another glare. “Quite material, Mr. James. She has a piece of a musical composition I’m writing – the only piece like it in the world. Handwritten, irreplaceable. I’ll pay whatever you ask, but I want it returned. Immediately.”
“That’s fine. Two hundred bucks a day, flat rate, nonnegotiable, plus expenses.”
Barnhouse did not flinch.
“And a Porsche.”
“You said you’d pay what I asked.”
“This piece of music is irreplaceable?”
“Then a Porsche seems within reason.”
“Mr. James, would you care to hear the details of my complaint, or are we going to continue with this pointless bickering?”
I gestured to indicate he still had the floor.
Barnhouse emitted a weary sigh and began to speak as if from memory. “Lila lives in the Quapaw District, not far at all from the Governor’s Mansion. Hers is an old house, lovingly restored at God knows what price. I was last there on Monday – Dora is in Miami visiting friends, you see. To make a long story short, Lila and I got together – as we usually do, three or four times a month – and I happened to have with me, scribbled on some cloth dinner napkins, the key phrases of my new opus. It’d been a hectic day, what with me hustling from one meeting or practice session to another. But nothing – I tell you, nothing! – could stop me writing. Melodic lines and chord progressions! Painting my brain with vivid colors. It is a spectacular work – romantic, cinematic. I am in its thrall.
“Monday, while lunching with colleagues at Capers, I took out my pen and began scribbling. All day long, I’d scribble and pause, scribble and pause, like a man obsessed. Finally, it came time to go to Lila’s. After we finished in bed, Lila went to shower, and I, in her momentary absence, sat at her writing desk to resume scribbling. I almost failed to notice when she returned, so softly did she approach.”
“She have any idea what it was you were writing?”
“I never spoke of it,” Barnhouse replied. “It is much too personal to discuss – in fact, you are the first person to even hear of it. It is rather like Holden Caulfield’s brother’s secret goldfish. Anyway, we went back to bed and held each other until I at last nodded off. Sometime around two in the morning, I startled awake. Lila was asleep beside me. Across the room, by the light of the moon, I could just make out the little pile of napkins I’d been pouring myself out on. I went back to sleep. Next morning, we breakfasted on her veranda. We read the paper and chatted until I absolutely had to get back to the office. That’s how it is with Lila – at times it is all I can do to extract myself from her arms.
“I was running far behind schedule – so far behind that I never once thought of my composition. It was as if it had been erased from my mind. About three o’clock, while I was in the middle of an interview with Crème de la Crème, it hit me – I’d left my napkins in Lila’s bedroom! I made some excuse to get away and secreted myself in a broom closet to phone Lila. I got no answer. I called her repeatedly, but to no avail.
“I told myself they were only scraps of cloth, that it wasn’t the end of the world. Still, I could not have been more distraught. Worse, the precise sequence of notes I had jotted down was gone from my memory. I could no longer recall them! I panicked. I went straight to her house. I had a key. If she happened to be gone, I would duck in, retrieve my notes and be on my way, with none the wiser.
“As luck would have it, she was out of the house. I used my key and went straight up. I could smell her Dolce & Gabbana perfume; it was as if she’d applied some behind her ears and just stepped out. For some reason, I doubted the napkins would still be waiting for me on her desk. If she had thrown them out … oh, I could hardly bear the thought! I practically dashed into the bedroom, and there – on the writing desk! – lay three crumpled napkins, blotchy with blue ink.
“I stuffed the napkins in my pocket and all but ran to the car. I drove to the nearest Starbucks – the one on Broadway – and ordered myself a calming latte. I sat down and unfolded my notes. Examined them closely. And almost screamed in horror.”
I startled. “You’d taken some feminine napkins by mistake?”
“No! The notes weren’t mine. They had been … altered, rewritten, re-interpreted. Quarter notes in place of sixteenths, eighths in place of quarters, rests where before there were none. The entire pace and tone of the piece had changed, subtly, perhaps, but quite noticeably to me. I knew instantly that I was looking at a forgery, in a hand shockingly similar to my own.”
I lit a Marlboro. “What we in the biz call a switcheroo.”
He looked unimpressed. “The legal definition, I believe, would be ‘theft.’”
“Maybe. Did you ask her why she tried to deceive you?”
“I can’t catch her,” he said, wringing his hands. “She hasn’t been home in forty-eight hours. I call, I text – as I say, all to no avail.”
“She have family out of town?”
“None that I know of. In any case, she never mentioned a trip to visit.”
“She tells you everything, huh?”
He cut his eyes at me. “Yes. Everything.”
“Sure she does, maestro. So it is your contention that she took your work and made with the vamoose.”
“That’s not my contention, Mr. James. That’s what happened.”
“That’s what you think happened.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Indeed,” I said sagely. “Indeed.”
“What do you think is the most plausible explanation?”
“Now you’re asking me to speculate. I don’t speculate. I solve.”
“Look, Mr. James –”
“What exactly do you want me to do, Mr. Barnhouse?”
“Find the woman! Recover my property!”
I shook my head. “Case sounds thin. You know what you wrote, I’m sure it’ll come back to you and you’ll write it again.”
Barnhouse squeezed his thighs. “I cannot recall the structure! She took a small but crucial piece of the overall puzzle. I had meant to incorporate these new notes into the larger composition, but without the napkins – well, mere guesswork will not suffice, Mr. James, just as it won’t suffice in your line. Oh, what’s the use explaining? I’m a musician, a composer, a creative soul! You, you’re barely one step above beat cop – or perhaps one below. I doubt you attend four concerts a year, do you, Mr. James?”
“Don’t judge a book by its cover!”
“Are you going to help me or not?”
I thought it over. “You’re the one cheating on his wife. You’re the one goes around leaving trash in other people’s houses expecting them to watch after it. You’re the one who – ah, shit, I’m tired. How I am supposed to find this Lila Lee?”
“You’re the detective. That’s your job.”
“She ain’t even home, maestro.”
“But she hasn’t sold her home. She’ll be back – perhaps today.”
I gave him the once over. “Something’s not right,” I said.
He startled. “What do you mean? I’ve told you everything.”
“Usually, when somebody hands me a sob story, the parts add up to what I call a ‘convincing whole.’ Yours doesn’t add up, Barnyard.”
“Why? I’ve agreed to your financial demands – I’ll even pay you a bonus. (Not a Porsche.) All I ask is that you recover those napkins and return them to me. The originals, James – not more forgeries.”
I stared at the wall behind his head. “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before.”
“Solve a case?”
“Touché! No, Barnyard – I’m gonna ask for money up front. Two hundred in cash, right here and now.”
The maestro put on a frowny face. “Why?”
“I want you fully committed to this caper, that’s why. Two C-notes, pal. Money talks. Bullshit walks.”
Repeating “bullshit” under his breath, Barnhouse produced two crisp, clean bills from his wallet and forked them over.
“What was that?” I asked, taking the money.
“I said I am sorely tempted to call this extortion!”
“I call it skin in the game,” I said, tucking the bills into my shirt pocket. “Come back in three days.”
“I’m thinking one-ish.”
Mumbling to himself, Barnhouse rose from his chair and escorted himself out the door. I waited two minutes, then lifted one cheek and cut an enormous fart.
I’d been holding it a long time.
After grabbing lunch at Iriana’s, I moseyed over to the cop shop for the paperwork/interview/sworn statement thing. Thomas Cassell was going away for a long time, on the kind of vacation that doesn’t include beach drinks but does feature plenty of nude men. I asked the lead investigator, a lard-ass by the name of Billings, when I could expect a thank-you note from the LRPD for subduing a gun-wielding, throat-slashing maniac. Billings looked up from his donuts long enough to tell me to get the hell out of his evidence locker.
With the legalities out of the way, I ambled amiably over to the Capital Hotel Bar, my preferred watering hole. I wasn’t the only one who liked drinking at the Capital; Ulysses S. Grant had thought so highly of the place they built the elevator extra-wide to accommodate his horse. If it’s good enough for Grant, it’s good enough for me. Benny Benson also did his drinking at the Capital. Finer endorsements would be hard to find.
I spotted Pinky having intimate relations with a gin and tonic. I sat on the barstool adjacent to his and ordered Scotch neat.
“Taking the day off, Pink? You should have called in.”
“Sorry, boss,” he replied, gazing glumly into his glass. “Still shook up over last night. All that shooting reminded me of olden days.”
“You mean, before Cummins?”
“Was in some harsh rackets, boss. I got shot at plenty of times. Never did get used to it.”
I swished some Scotch around in my mouth until I felt more or less rational. “Want a little advice, Pink?”
He nodded his big pink head. “Sure, boss. Sure.”
I clapped him on the arm. “Get over yourself.”
His face turned maroon. I dropped a fiver on the bar. “Have a drink on me.” I killed the rest of my Scotch and was turning to leave when I saw … her … walk in.
She was tall and beautiful, as it was said of Naomi in Old Testament days, her runway model frame encased in a lemon-yellow business suit in much the same way champagne is held in a flute. She had large green eyes and sculpted brunette hair that fell in dainty curls about her heavily padded shoulders. Her cheekbones were sharp enough to cut glass, her chin pointy, like a spear. She radiated intelligence, and her sex appeal lit up the room like a disco ball in a funeral parlor. Three men took one look at her and died of cardiac arrest. I, however, beheld her loveliness without affliction. My orbs panned the room left to right as she crossed to take a seat by the window. I gaped as she applied flame to a Pall Mall. I lapped the rug with my tongue as she gave the waiter her drink order, and followed him back to her table as he delivered her drink – something golden and loaded with crushed ice, summer in a glass. I hovered while she took her first, delicate, exploratory sip.
Finally, pointing her gaze out the louvered window, she said, “Problem, stranger?”
“Yes. I have a problem seeing a beautiful woman drink alone.”
The corners of her mouth turned upward, as if curling in a flame. “What are you going to do about it?”
I parked myself at her table. “Keep the lady company.”
The waiter returned and I ordered a vodka martini, on the rocks, with a twist of lemon. God, I love waiters. I might have been one in a past life.
“Hank James,” I said. “I sell computers. And you?”
She stared at me, taking a long drag on her coffin nail. I didn’t know if she bought that line about computers but it sounded good at the time. Her green eyes sparkled maliciously. “I’m Lila Lee.”
I showed no reaction, though my heart did go into arrhythmia. My martini arrived, and I treated it like a long lost friend. I even named it. Maria.
“Have I heard of you before?” I asked. “You been in the papers?”
She blew smoke at me. “Maybe.” Warm as a bone saw, this one.
“Heiress to the Stephens family fortune?”
She smirked. “If that’s your idea of flirtation, Mr. James, better stick to computers.”
A shadow fell across our idyllic indoor picnic, and I instinctively covered my drink.
“Boss,” came the voice of Pinky Presley, “the lady’s tryin to enjoy herself. Give her some room, huh?”
I aimed my gaze skyward. Pinky glared down his nose at me, his neck fat glowing red.
“Don’t you have some place to be?” I asked. “Like the office?”
“Sure, boss,” he said, “but I ain’t leaving unless we roll outta here together, like.”
“Now, Pink,” I said, as diplomatically as I could manage, “I fail to see how this is your concern. Listen, there’s a set of files in the office that need alphabetizing. You do know your ABCs, right?”
“She don’t want you around, do you, nice lady?”
Lila Lee said blandly, “I’m sure I couldn’t care less.”
“There, see, Pink? It’s fine if I stay and watch her drink her drink. You run along now. Be a good monkey.”
“Hey, I ain’t no monkey. Maybe I’d like to watch the lady drink her drink.”
“That’s too many people watching her drink her drink. Besides, she’s out of your league. She graduated from high school.”
Pinky wrapped his thick fingers around my skull and lifted me out of my chair. The top of my head came up level with his steel-plate chest. He was breathing heavily, like an animal, a big animal, and I could hear his heart beating through his suit coat.
“Really, boys,” sighed Lila Lee. “Is any of this necessary? I’m only one poor little girl.”
Pinky drove his finger into my shoulder. “I’m moving in here, boss. You take off.”
“Go frighten some first graders, Pink. To me you’re a side of beef. It gets pounded on. Ya get me?”
Something smashed into my chin, and for an instant I became airborne, completely detached from the bonds of gravity – that is, until I came down hard on a flat surface that shattered like a cracker beneath my weight. There was a loud crash. A shout went up, followed by a scream. Alcohol splashed on my face and neck. Some of it got in my mouth – an appletini, unless I missed my guess.
A God-sized hand dropped down out of the sky to close around my shirt collar and yank me back upright. I blinked stupidly into Pinky’s beet-red mug.
“You ain’t so tough,” he leered. “You’re soft – like those boys I used to fuck in prison.”
Pinky slapped my face with his open palm, relieving me of the ability to diagram sentences and mentally perform higher math.
“Gonna run along now?” WHAP! “Or do I gotta get rough?”
Without waiting for a third slap, I stuck out my hand and grabbed Pinky by the testicles. They were like two oranges swaddled in polyester. I yanked them toward me as if I were shifting into second gear, then shoved them up his ass, all the way. Pinky emitted a low groan and fell over, his eyes searching the back of his skull for loose change.
Lila Lee was still at her table when I stumbled back over, wiping blood from my chin. “Ms. Lee,” I burbled, “would you mind taking me to either the nearest emergency room or your residence in Quapaw?”
“How could you possibly know where I –?”
“Live? Cool it, sister. Game’s over. Let’s talk turkey.”
She smiled curtly, dropped her Pall Mall in her drink glass, and reached for her Sherpa-skin handbag. “Follow me.”
Her Porsche was around back.
Lila Lee’s home was, to put it succinctly, worth drooling over, a ravishing Colonial Revival mansion that made my lips form the word “ravishing.” I would not undercut its gorgeousness with such clichés as “magnificent,” “stately,” or “distinctly Southern,” so let us settle for how it made me feel: like a dime-store dick in an off-the-rack suit, whose lack of education, paucity of charm, broken nose, chipped teeth and two-fisted demeanor would not, under normal circumstances, warrant entry into such digs.
Pinky, whose employment as a leg man and junior-junior associate in my firm was now shaky at best, had really done the job on me. I was cut, bruised, battered and bleeding. I limped across Lila’s threshold, feeling pain in all areas of my anatomy. The house smelled clean, almost new, like furniture fresh from the store. Hardwood floors ran throughout, and I barely had a chance to glimpse all the high-end artwork and antiques as Lila helped me up the stairs to her boudoir. I saw a carved oak bed and a sideboard intact from an Irish pub. Then I was ushered into her mall-sized privy, where I was stripped and shooed into a hot bath. I had a massive erection, which no amount of bubbles could conceal. I watched, pie-eyed, as my hostess and impromptu nurse did a slow striptease. The yellow business suit came off one tantalizing piece at a time, until all that remained was sheer carnality. She lowered herself into the bath and let her fingers do the work. Her breath came in hot spurts. So did I.
Later, we toweled each other off and stretched out on her bed, nude and steaming. I spent an unseemly amount of time kissing her breasts, then slowly worked my way down to the southern climes. She was all woman, alright.
Afterward, Lila went to the sideboard and poured us each a finger of Old Kentucky Tavern. I pounded mine down with my usual delicacy; she ensconced herself in the crook of my arm and took daintier sips, as if to reinstate her “ladylike” qualities.
“That’s good whiskey,” I said, pondering my empty tumbler.
“Mmm,” she said, running her toes up and down my leg.
“So what brought you to the Capital Hotel today? Besides Pinky, I mean?”
She tensed. “I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’re talking about.”
“Cut the shit. You think I didn’t see what was going on? Admit it, you spent the morning in bed with my junior associate, didn’t you? That’s why he was downstairs at the bar – waiting for you to finish powdering your nose. Took your sweet time, didn’t you?”
Lila Lee sipped nervously on her drink.
“Go on, plead the Fifth,” I told her. “How long has this been going on? How long have you been seeing my little flunkie?”
“I’ve known him for years,” she said, in a whisper. “Ever since he worked for Frank Causey. You’ve heard of him?”
I nodded, slow. Causey was a legend in the annals of Arkansas crime. Famous from the Delta to the Ozarks, Causey was a fat, middle-aged advertising director who worked for a daily newspaper in the southwestern corner of the state. Not only was he an ace salesman – you should have seen the numbers he piled up for the 1991 Home and Garden section! – he was also a criminal mastermind who ran tire-theft rings and encyclopedia rackets out of his kitchen for years. Finally, the long arm of the law caught up with him, and he went away for a while. He took three of his goons with him – Billy “The Straightener” Snakes, Troy “Toenails” Taylor, and Pinky “Joysee Goyle” Presley. Pinky did ten years and got out looking for a job, and in the aftermath of the Six Bridges Affair, I was in the market for a little extra muscle around the office. I hired Pinky fresh out of the can. I didn’t feel wonderful about it, but wait until your partner gets thrown off a bridge with a noose tied around his neck. You’ll see the world differently.
“You were involved with the Causey Gang?”
“Frank and I were lovers. I was his wife for a while, too. Then we divorced. Then we became lovers again. It was complicated. He funneled all his wealth to me. How do you think I was able to afford this house? I’m a sculptor, not an heiress. Then Frank got sent to prison and I haven’t seen him since.”
“Where does Pinky come in?”
“We were lovers, too. He’s quite … respectful … in bed. Unlike you. You’re an animal!”
“I hope you didn’t … incapacitate him … in that area.”
“He’ll be getting by on his pinky from now on, if you get my drift. Keep yarning, Lila Lee. I like the taste of your voice.”
“There’s nothing more I can tell you, really. Pinky got paroled two months ago and we resumed our affair. When he saw you flirting with me this afternoon, it must have sent him over the edge. He’s tried so hard to keep his cool. I hope you can understand. He’s very protective of me.”
I rubbed my jaw. “Yeah, I get that. Now how about Barnhouse? Louis Barnhouse? Does he know about your preference for criminals?”
She went rigid in my arms. “He has nothing to do with either Pinky or Frank – but I know he hired you. I followed him to your building today, trailed him to your floor. Not a very observant fellow, Louis. He once looked straight at me.”
It was time to turn the aggression up to 11. “Alright, out with it – why did you steal the poor schmuck’s musical material? What the hell kind of trick is that?”
She threw herself across me as if begging the mercy of the court. “Oh, Hank! Love me!”
Her breasts were persuasive, but her lips made the strongest argument. When it was over, we found ourselves on the floor in a pile of sheets.
“Please leave,” she panted. “I can’t go on. I can’t!”
I got on my feet. “Sure. I’ll go. My pleasure.” I brushed myself off, clothed myself in blood-stained raiment, and hit the door. I used my mobile to call a cab. Five minutes later, I found my office building right where I left it. My car was still parked on the street. I drove home, crawled under the covers, and slept like a newborn.
I awoke to find a big lug standing over my bed. He was holding a baseball bat.
“Shouldn’t ought to have done that to my boys, Mr. James,” Pinky said ruefully. “I can’t go Number Two.”
I assessed the situation: home, bedroom, unarmed, maniac. I might be in trouble.
“Well,” I replied, still groggy from my booze-fueled sex romp with Lila Lee, “who the hell told you to take the day off?”
Pinky raised the bat. For a moment, I thought I was still dreaming. Then he brought the back down into my solar plexus, and I learned I was not dreaming. Something popped inside me. I’m sure I made a noise – probably screamed. Pinky raised the bat again, then brought it back down, this time delivering the sweetest of love taps to my skull.
After that, it was back to sleep.
I was staring at stars.
A dry, dusty odor clung to my nostrils.
I heard churning water, machinery, echoes. A breeze ruffled my hair. I sensed forward motion in my gut, as if I were drifting along through space and time.
I thought: gravel barge.
I was bound head to toe with that most unbreakable of bonds: duct tape. The same stuff I’d used to subdue Thomas Cassell now bound me. Ironic, or terrifying? I couldn’t decide. The tip of my nose was free; I wiggled it, just for grins.
A set of heels – stilettos – marched up to my left ear. I caught a whiff of Dolce & Gabbana. It crowded out the odor of dry rock. Somewhere above, Lila Lee announced, “He’s awake.”
So that’s what I was.
A man answered, “Better make sure.”
She jabbed me with the toe of her shoe. “Grrr,” I growled.
“Yep,” the man answered, “he’s awake.”
Her lovely face swam into view. “When a man writes music,” she said, almost tenderly, “he puts himself into his work. That was Louis’ problem. He put too much of himself into those damn notes. I hadn’t counted on him detecting the forgery. Then he went and hired you, Mr. James, to get back his little composition. What is it about artists, anyway? So … persnickety. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do want you to know why I stole the napkins. And we both want you to know what will become of them.”
She stepped aside, to be replaced in my limited field of view by a lump that obscured the moon. My blood-caked nostrils filled with the odors of Italian shoe leather and peppermint. The formless lump attached with those odors did not belong to Pinky Presley but an altogether different lump.
“Evening, Mr. James, or should I say, good morning,” came a voice that had marinated in prison a long time. “Frank Causey. Nice to see you. Don’t get up.”
He paused for a laugh, and someone chuckled, albeit off-camera.
“A few minutes from now, you’ll be sinking to the bottom of the river, and the world will be a better place,” Causey went on. “Lila and Pinky and I will make our way downstream to the Mississippi and, from there, to the Crescent City, where I will become a rich man – well, a richer man, I should say – thanks to the creativity of one Louis Barnhouse.”
Causey squatted next to me. I saw one gold tooth glistening in the moonlight. Thank you, moonlight. He waggled three crumpled white squares in my face. “I happen to be a bit of a music lover, myself. During my time in the Big House, I learned to write music. Some convicts find Jesus, I found opera. Opera is my specialty, Mr. James. I produced reams of original work. I spirited it out into the world via Lila, here. We found more than one use for conjugal visits, I must say. She spent years on the outside, assembling my opus … but then … Lila showed me what that fool Barnhouse left in her bedroom, and in these simple scraps of dining-room refuse, I saw the completion of my opera. Worse, I saw sheer, unadulterated genius. I figured I’d stick a few of his lines in with mine and black-market the whole thing for a million and a half. I’ll make more in royalties once we factor in China and Mexico. How does that sound, Mr. James?”
I grunted: “Uh uh-uh uhhh uhhhhh.” Translation: “Like fucking bullshit.”
Causey chuckled, and I could see how he made a great newspaperman. “Ready to go swimming, Mr. James? I hear the alligator gar in this particular stretch are especially ravenous.”
I wiggled my nose, this time in protest, but I was already being lifted into the air by two powerful arms. Pinky grinned into my face, his eyes as bright as headlamps on a diesel.
“Time to go fishing!” he gibbered – and tossed me over the side.
Down I plunged, into chilly black water. The barge’s wake banged me around a little, but for the most part, I shot straight toward the murky bottom. Debris buffeted me on all sides – tree branches, car parts, planks, bits of trash. Something big and scaly punched me right in the face. I struggled against my bonds, pressing against them with all my strength … which I admit was not optimal. In fact, it was fading fast. I had already lost sight of the surface; the barge was now nothing more than a vague blob hanging in the void.
Fish swarmed around me. I could feel their cold, alien mouths nibbling at my exposed flesh. Lungs bursting, brain burning, I expanded every muscle – and felt the duct tape simply fall away. I tore at the tape on my wrists with my teeth, freed them, then stripped the tape off my ankles. I was now disentangled – but at the bottom of the river.
Desperate to escape, I kicked with everything I had, and propelled myself back toward the surface.
I took a few fish with me.
A knock on my office door. “Come,” I said.
Louis Barnhouse entered. In his fabulous grey suit, he looked healthy, wealthy and wise. When he saw the contusions and cuts on the mug that greeted him – mine – he looked aghast.
“You look like you went fifteen rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard! What happened?”
I motioned with my good arm. “Siddown.”
Barnhouse sat in the chair I reserved for visitors – the paying kind. He licked his thin pink lips. “Well,” he said, nervously, “what do you have to report?”
I took out my flask, uncapped it, and took a pull. I proffered the flask. “Care for a belt?”
“No, thanks. My notes, please, James.”
I shrugged, capped the flask, and stuck it in my coat pocket. I made sure he saw the .45 ACP I had strapped to my chest. It was a big gun that could knock a man dead. The gurgling sound he made in his throat warmed my heart.
“I have your notes,” I told him.
“You know you’re like a stuck record? Always repeating the same damn thing, over and over.” I chuckled. It hurt to chuckle.
Barnhouse frowned. Somebody must have told him that was his scariest expression. That somebody wasn’t me.
“I’m glad you’re amused,” he replied. “I paid in advance for the recovery of my property. You took the money. Now I want what’s mine.”
“Your property will be returned at the time and place of my choosing.”
Barnhouse practically stood up out of his chair, which would have been a huge mistake. He must have realized it, as he kept his seat. “You bastard! GIVE ME MY NOTES!”
“There is a church,” I replied, “at the corner of Capital and Scott. Sometimes I like to pray there, though I doubt anyone’s listening. You know the church I mean?”
“Meet me there at eight o’clock and you’ll get everything that’s coming to you.”
Barnhouse suddenly dissolved into giggles. He was either desperate or crazy. “Mr. James,” he guffawed, “you make no sense! If you have the notes, what’s the point dragging this out? Give them to me and I shall pay you handsomely! Please, I have a rehearsal in an hour.”
“This ain’t about money. You heard the terms, Barnyard. Now get out.”
The conductor rose prissily to his feet. He was offended to the core. “Barnhouse,” he corrected, and escorted himself out.
I lit a Marlboro.
It hurt to smoke.
The red doors of the church were open night and day to catch sinners who wandered past. Since I lived nearby, I got there early. The sanctuary was empty, as I hoped it would be. I got down on a kneeler and offered up what prayers I could. Mostly, they were for me.
At the appointed hour, the lobby door opened, and a man crossed into the nave. He paused to cross himself, then took a seat at the end of the pew opposite mine. I recognized the maestro. He was dressed in black. I saw the small-caliber handgun peeking out from his overcoat. Any bullet fired from that distance would pierce either my brain or my kidney – provided, of course, he could hit anything at all.
I said, “Barnyard.”
“That’s – oh, whatever. The notes, please.”
“Come get them. Better yet, send your girlfriend.”
He hesitated. “My girlfriend?”
“It’s alright, Louis,” came a chilly female voice. Lila Lee emerged from the chapel at the head of the sanctuary. She’d applied a little too much Dolce & Gabbana. I noticed it the instant I kneeled to pray.
“Go get your property, Louis,” she said, still hiding among the shadows. “You won’t hurt him, will you, Hank?”
“Oh, now it’s Hank, is it?”
I could see Barnhouse grappling with his confusion. I said, through gritted teeth, “Well, Barnyard, you coming or not? You think Ms. Lee is going to sprout angel wings and fly?”
Barnhouse gulped. The gun trembled in his hand. I lifted my voice to fill the hall. “Why don’t you fetch the notes yourself, Frank? Or how about you, Pink? Neither of you has showered in the past twenty-four hours, I can tell. Step out where I can see you, gentlemen. Nice and slow.”
A chuckle from the depths of hell arose. Two giants materialized on either side of the baptismal. They were carrying small arms, and I don’t mean the kind that end in thumbs.
“Tell me, Frank,” I called out, “when did you realize you’d been duped?”
“Shortly after your ex-partner, here, pitched you into the drink,” came Causey’s answer. “You pulled a switcheroo on me, James. Wasn’t expecting that.”
I laughed. “You clowns! I put it over on all of you! Lila, honey, I searched your purse as I was leaving your house. Can you guess what I found? That’s right – Barnyard’s original compositions! I still had some drink napkins on me from the Capital, so I used your Mont Blanc to create a new set of forgeries. Pretty good, huh? I took the originals home with me. Those were my fakes you passed along to Causey.”
“It seems I trusted you too much, James,” she answered.
“Tell me, Frank, what tipped you? Something you found in the lower right-hand corner of the third napkin?”
“Indeed,” said Causey.
“Refresh my memory.”
Causey cleared his throat. “It was … a smiley face. And a message.”
“A message? What message?”
“It said, ‘Eat shit, Frank.’”
I cracked up. “I knew you’d been paroled, Frank. It was all over the newspapers. I asked my buddy on the LRPD, Scruffy McPherson, about you. He heard you’d moved to Little Rock, no doubt working on some dumb-ass scheme. I also picked up some background information on you, Lila. Sure enough, Scruffy had you down as a known associate of Causey’s.”
“But you couldn’t have known about Frank’s operatic ambitions!” she protested.
“Whaddaya think, I sit around sniffing my feet all day? I drove down to Cummins and inquired into Frank’s behavior. I was informed by my warden friend, Hasty McGillicuddy, that your lover had become something of a musical prodigy. He once ass-raped a shower mate while humming an aria from The Magic Flute.”
Causey growled, “That McGillicuddy never could keep his damn mouth shut.”
“I began to suspect,” I continued, “that Frank wanted Barnhouse’s notes for his own use. It’s impossible to have an original idea these days, isn’t it, Frank?”
“Excuse me,” Barnhouse interjected meekly, “I would like to have my notes back. Please. You’ll notice I’m holding a gun.”
I sneered at him. “Look at that cheap .38! It’s little more than a peashooter! Was that the best you could come up with on short notice? The guys at the pawn shop must be having a good laugh. You know what I despise about you, Barnyard? You’re cheating on a hot wife! I mean, I’ve seen her photo. You’re an idiot!”
Barnhouse jumped up. “I’ll teach you not to talk about my hot wife!”
“Yeah? Maybe your pals here will back you up.”
“They aren’t my pals!”
“Of course not. You’re indebted to Causey, and not in a good way. You bought stolen merchandise from him eleven years ago, didn’t you? That rock on Dora’s hand, the one I saw in the Times spread – that amazing piece of Brazilian jade – that didn’t come from the mall, did it? No, it was purchased off one of Causey’s fences. You needed to show Dora and her rich family you were somebody after all. You couldn’t propose with just any old stone, so you mortgaged your soul to Causey. Hell, you probably owe him everything, you no-talent wimp. I doubt you could buy a ticket to the symphony without Dora’s influence. Then the unthinkable happened – Frank got sent up the river for ten years. So you figured you’d flip him the bird while he languished in the hole. You forgot your debt to him and his organization. Sadly, Frank got released on good behavior, and what did he do? He put you and Lila here together in the same room, at Dora’s own recital, and she wrapped you around her pinky. She convinced you to write a little something for Frank’s opera. In exchange, Frank would forgive your debt.
“Here’s the beauty part: the part where I come in. You decided to screw over both Lila and Frank by hiring me, a private dick, to steal back the notes. Only she’s no dummy. She trailed you, dipshit, and ‘arranged’ a chance barroom brawl between me and my junior-junior associate. She even tried to have me drowned. Nice try, Lila, but I was a champion swimmer at Little Rock High three years running. Do your research next time.”
No one moved. No one spoke. They were hanging on every word!
The maestro’s face twisted. “I’m telling you one last time,” he sputtered. “Hand me my notes.”
“I think you’re gonna have to shoot me, maestro.”
He pointed the gun point-blank. “Don’t push me, James!”
“Consider yourself pushed.”
Barnhouse fired five times in quick succession – unloaded the gun in a cloud of blue smoke. All five bullets whizzed past me. The last round jammed. I heard him whimpering as he tried to crack open the cylinder.
“My turn,” I said, pulling the Mossberg out from under my trench coat. The shotgun spoke once, loudly, and sent Louis Barnhouse flying across the hall in three separate pieces.
A hot bullet creased the back of my neck. I dropped to the floor and jacked a fresh round of high-brass into the chamber.
“James,” Frank called. “No need for more bloodshed. Give me the notes and we all walk out of here alive. Even you. Think it over, James. The first opera based on the life and career of Hernando de Soto! Tell ya what – I’ll dedicate the libretto to you. What do you say? We can make it happen!”
“Fuck de Soto,” I growled, and popped up to catch Causey in the center aisle. He had a Sig Sauer in his hand. The Sig barked three times. A bullet punched me in the shoulder, above the Kevlar I had on under my coat. I pressed my shot and the Mossberg turned Frank Causey into a quivering pile of flesh-colored goo.
Out of shells, I scrambled on my knees and snatched up Causey’s pistol. Two bullets pinged off the floor tiles six inches from my face. I pivoted to my right and spotted Pinky, his Glock spitting fire. I ducked behind a pew, got a firm grip on the Sig, and lifted my arm above my head to fire blind. Stained glass windows shattered under a hail of bullets. Hot casings rained down my neck. I heard a loud grunt and knew I’d hit Pinky. I dropped the pistol, grabbed my empty shotgun, and ran toward him, wielding the Mossberg like a ball bat.
“Payback’s a bitch!” I screamed and swung the shotgun. He looked up from the smoking hole in his ribcage in time to catch the wood stock of the shotgun upside his head. It shattered into toothpicks. Pinky blinked stupidly – then swung a roundhouse and a haymaker, all rolled into one. I stopped it with my chin but didn’t go down. I planted my right foot in his crotch. Unfortunately, his nuts were still up his ass, and the tactic was a complete non-event. Before I could think of anything else, Pinky drove his fist into my temple. The blow sent me flying across the backs of several pews. I landed awkwardly on my tailbone. That shit really hurt. Before I could recover, Pinky grabbed me by the throat. After crushing my windpipe, he threw me headlong across the sanctuary. I bounced off something marble and collapsed in a heap. As I lay face down on the floor, sucking blood, I could hear Pinky storming across the hall towards me. I was thinking about crawling under a pew and begging for mercy when I remembered my Colt .45! I jerked it out of my shoulder holster, flipped on my back, and pointed it straight at him.
“Right where you are,” I wheezed.
“Just gimme the stuff, Mr. James,” he answered, still bleeding from the hole in his chest. “Give it, and me and the missus will make with the scram.”
“The – the missus?”
“That’s right,” said Lila Lee, emerging from behind a pew. “Pinky and I are married. We were on our honeymoon when we bumped into you in the Capital. That’s what we were doing there, Mr. James. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
I rolled my eyes. “Pinky, are you aware that she then slept me with me?”
He shrugged. “It’s OK, Mr. James. I was unconscious at the time.”
I nodded. At least he had some perspective on it. “Well, congratulations.”
“Thanks, Mr. James.”
“Now,” Lila said, “if you will kindly hand over the notes? We have a publisher waiting for us in New Orleans. I also have the bulk of Frank’s original work. What you have in your coat pocket is the last piece of the puzzle. You see, Louis did write a masterpiece. Now it’s all that’s left of him. Don’t deprive me of it.”
I laughed. “What the hell,” I said, and handed Pinky the napkins. He passed them to Lila.
“Your generosity,” she said, “will not go unnoticed.”
I spat blood at her pointy toes. “Whatever.”
“You boys did quite a bit of damage,” she observed, tucking the napkins into her cleavage. “Frank and Louis will take the blame. A business deal gone sour. A shootout, et cetera.”
“Sounds good to me,” I told her, trying to sit up. “How about we get the hell out of here?”
“Yes, of course,” said Mrs. Pinky Presley. She stuck out her hand, as if to help. “Thank you, Mr. James. For everything.”
I left her hand hanging. “Don’t thank me too soon.”
She frowned – and then realized the game was up. The doors burst open, and half the SWAT team stormed the church. They swept the Presleys away in a sea of body armor and high-powered assault rifles, leaving me alone with Billings and McPherson.
“Well, James,” said Billings, sucking on a green lollipop, “you really should go to church more often.”
“I sleep in on Sundays,” I replied, handing him the wire I’d been wearing.
“I can see why.”
The inspector shuffled out, leaving me and Scruffy alone.
“Tough case, Hank,” Scruffy said, lighting up a corn cob. “We knew Causey was up to his old tricks. Damned parole board, can’t trust those jokers. Police in NOLA want the girl on a laundry list of charges – gun running, prostitution, tax evasion, unpaid parking tickets. She’ll be going away for a while, and it doesn’t look like your partner will be around much longer, either, thanks to that hole you made in him. A tidy end to a messy story, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’d say I need a nap and a new partner,” I answered.
“Yeah,” Scruffy said, pitching his match in the holy water. “Still hate what happened to Benny. I always liked him.”
“I don’t want to talk about Benny.”
Scruffy turned his head in shame. “Sure, Hank. Sure.”
I walked out into the rain. Into the night.