The report of the bullet still echoed in the confined annex of the clock tower, the whir of gears and flywheels ticking out the beats of my pounding heart as Fay’s body slammed into me, driving us both down to the floor. I cushioned her fall as best I could, feeling her blood welling hot and slick under my hand as it bloomed through the fabric of her blouse. Her dark eyes were wide and staring, weak gasps of breath the only sign she hadn’t been killed outright. I twisted her gently to hold her close, crooning to her soft, meaningless words as I stroked the rough strands of her hair. “Shh, sh, it’s all right. Barely a scratch. I’ll get you help and you’ll be fine, you’ll see.”
Her head turned weakly in the direction of my voice. “Aaron? It hurts.”
I couldn’t stand to see this strong, passionate woman in so much fear and pain. “It’ll be fine, Fay, I promise.”
The sound of a hammer being cocked drove all other concerns aside, and I turned to look straight into the barrel of Carter’s forty-five. “You aren’t going anywhere,” he said, voice icy and implacable. “Not until you tell me where I can find Tess Andrews.”
* * * *
It had started with a phone call.
In retrospect, I never should have answered. It was the end of the day, and I was locking the office door on my way home to another silent evening alone. But business hadn’t exactly been rolling in the last few weeks and the rent was coming due. So I opened the door again and reached the desk in three long strides. “Pierce.”
I really shouldn’t have answered the phone.
The sound of Alexandra Morgan’s voice made my body tighten in all-too-familiar ways. It didn’t matter that we’d been divorced for three years. There were some things I doubted would ever change. She got the car and the alimony. I got the lingering arousal and a sense of remorse. “What is it, Alexandra?” I snapped to cover my response.
Her laughter was a low purr that echoed through the phone line. She knew me too well. “Now, is that any way to talk to someone who’s looking out for you?”
“The only interests you look out for are your own. What do you want?”
“I thought you might be interested in a lead on a job. But if you aren’t…” She let the words drift off leadingly.
Damn it. I wanted to tell her to go to hell, but the truth was I needed the work. And scraps from Alexandra’s table could still make a very filling meal. “All right, I’m listening.”
“One of my clients is looking for a detective for a friend of his, someone who can be discreet. I know how important discretion is to you, so I told him I’d see if you were available.”
Alexandra had been the one who couldn’t be discreet. “What’s the case?”
“I didn’t ask. Discretion, remember?” Her voice dripped with honey-sweet sarcasm. “But I have a name, if you want it.”
I didn’t. I knew the kind of men Alexandra and the law firm she worked for represented. Even the friend of a mobster was still likely to be crooked. But I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face if I didn’t at least get the particulars. “Tell me.”
“His name is Carter Brody. If you show up at Club Havana tonight after eleven, he’ll give you all the details.”
“Eleven’s a little past my bedtime, Alexandra.” I hated having terms dictated to me.
“You’ll survive. Wouldn’t want you to be late with my support check.” Her tone was playful, but I could hear a trace of threat in her voice.
I sighed inwardly. Conversations with Alexandra never went well for me. “Tell him I’ll be there. But this had better be worth it.”
She chuckled. “Would I steer you wrong?”
“Frequently and with great enthusiasm.”
“Then you know to keep your eyes open.” And this time I thought I heard a hint of warning. She didn’t say anything else as she hung up the phone.
I cradled my own receiver thoughtfully. Alexandra was helping me, but she was warning me as well. I ran my hand over the fine hairs standing at electric attention on the back of my neck, a familiar portent that this case just wasn’t going to be worth the retainer.
Little did I know.
* * * *
Club Havana was located in the fading splendor of the Saint Marcus Hotel. The hotel had seen its heyday in the twenties and thirties, and while it still bore some of the gild of that more-romantic time, it was slowly fading into genteel decay.
Havana, on the other hand, was one of the places to see and be seen, as the line of automobiles out front attested. I parked down the street and walked up, letting the fresh air and the throbbing music invigorate me. I hadn’t been lying when I’d complained to Alexandra about the late hour. Unless I was on a case, I tended to be an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. So I’d had a long day already. And depending on what this Brody wanted, it could get a lot longer.
I cut the line and was promptly stopped by one of the bouncers. “End of the line’s that way, Mac.”
“I have an appointment to see Mr. Brody,” I said, staring the big man down.
His expression grew uncertain, and he leaned over to mumble something in the other guard’s ear. That one looked at me, then jerked his head towards the door. “Go ahead. Carter’s waitin’ for you.”
With a brief nod, I pushed past them and into the club.
The place was packed. Every table, every booth was full to capacity in the dim, smoky room, the only bright spots being the crowded dance floor and the bandstand, where a twelve-piece was pumping out loud, fast swing. Looking around, I was surprised by the diversity in the room. A good percentage of the crowd was made up of blacks, Chinese, even the Mexican zoot-suiters, despite the riots of the previous year. It should, at best, have been an uneasy mix, but there seemed to be no animosity among them. It was a lively, welcoming environment that I could have enjoyed more had the circumstances been different. But then, if the circumstances were different, I doubt I would have been allowed in.
“Are you Pierce?” A jovial voice behind me made me turn around. The speaker was a tall, lean man with a hawkish nose whose dusky skin and pale green eyes defied categorizing his ethnicity. His suit was a blend of the styles in the room, the bright colors and flash of the zoot suits combined with the trim shoulders and tailored fit of the Hollywood crowd. It would have been gaudy if it didn’t seem to suit the man so. I had the feeling that here was the reason for the tolerance I was seeing in the club. The force of this man’s presence and his own obvious broad-mindedness seemed to set the tone for the place. He offered his hand with a warm, open smile. “Carter told me to keep an eye out for you. I’m Griffin. I run the place.”
I took his hand, but couldn’t resist asking, “Just Griffin?”
His grin grew wider, revealing perfect white teeth. “Ain’t nobody but me!” He let go of my hand with a last companionable grip and turned to gesture toward the bar. “Why don’t you have a drink, and I’ll let Carter know you’re here.”
A stool was magically vacant at the bar, so I slid onto it with a brief, “Thank you.”
Griffin leaned over the bar to get the bartender’s attention. “Whatever he wants, put it on Carter’s tab, yeah?” The man nodded, and with a last flash of teeth, Griffin went in search of the absent Brody.
The bartender picked up a glass with a practiced flourish and a quick polish. “What’ll you have?”
“Scotch. Neat.” I wasn’t one to turn down free booze, especially not in a joint like this.
With a quick nod, he took up the bottle and decanted two fingers of amber gold into the tumbler, sliding it over to me before moving on to his next customer.
I picked up the glass and had it halfway to my lips when I noticed my own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I’m not a vain man, and I don’t bother with mirrors a lot. But there’s something about sitting alone at the bar. You almost can’t help looking at the reflection, like it’s some kind of companion. My companion looked tired. Not the tired of a long day, but the soul-weary look of a hard life, the kind that made you look gray and lined. His dark hair was unfashionably long and unkempt, and he wore a full day’s growth of beard. His suit hung loose on his shoulders, the tie knotted but askew. Not the best look for impressing a new client. Funny how I didn’t care.
I took a quick swallow of the alcohol and relished the burn of it as I turned away from the mirror to look out over the crowd. All young people enjoying the pleasures of a post-war economy. It made me feel my thirty-five years all the more. I turned back to my drink.
The crush around the bar had thinned for a moment, leaving nothing to block my view of the young woman standing at the far end of the bar, watching me. She leaned casually against the rail, the black chiffon of her gown accenting curves that would have made Rita Hayworth proud. Her raven dark hair fell in loose waves about her face, framing sooty dark eyes that seemed to bore into me and full lips painted a brilliant scarlet. She was dressed modestly in a fashion slightly dated but still en vogue. But there was something about her, a lushness that was erotic and sensual. My response was predictable and undeniable. The loose cut of my trousers spared me any embarrassment.
A heavy hand on my shoulder broke my fascination. I turned to look up, and up, at the man standing there. “Thanks for coming by,” he said, trying for affable but instead sounding commanding. “I’m Carter Brody.”
I gave half a glance back to the girl at the bar, but she just gave me a mysterious smile and faded back into the crowd, another opportunity gone. With an inward sigh of frustration, I slid off the stool and took the big man’s hand. “My pleasure. I understand you need my services.”
“Let’s talk somewhere more private.” He gestured toward a door marked No Admittance. I followed him.
The door opened onto a service hallway. I could hear the crash of dishes and raised voices that indicated the kitchen off to the left. Brody went to the right. Twenty feet on, the corridor opened out onto the Saint Marcus’s main lobby, now quiet and muted, with only the night clerk behind the desk. Brody nodded to him and opened a lone door next to the counter, ushering me into his private office.
He moved briskly around to sit behind his desk as I took in the décor. Deco furniture done up in heavy dark veneer matched the rest of the hotel’s design, bookshelves holding the hotel’s books and ledgers for the last however many years lining the walls. Framed photographs hung on the walls, signed portraits of the rich and famous who had come through the doors. If the chairs looked a bit worn and the pictures dusty, it was more because I was looking for that.
Prominent among the photos was one larger portrait, unsigned and elaborately framed. Pale eyes under a platinum blond coiffure looked down at me. The girl was young and fresh looking, albeit with an air of wisdom and experience tingeing her sultry expression. She wore her expensive couture well, but I had the sense that anything she wore, she’d look good in.
“Have a seat,” Brody said, leaning back in his chair.
I took one of the club chairs situated in front of the desk for just this purpose, my own posture matching his casualness.
“You come highly recommended, Mr. Pierce.” Brody rocked his chair faintly, his hands interlaced over his middle. His body language screamed mastery.
“Alexandra is too kind,” I said with casual care, not yet ready to give ground to him.
Brody chuckled. “Now, we both know that’s not true. And since the only thing more precious to her than money is her reputation, I have to think she’s telling the truth.”
I gave a noncommittal shrug.
“I need you to find someone.” He took a framed photo that was standing on his desk, looking at it briefly before handing it to me. “My fiancée. Her name is Tess Andrews. She disappeared three weeks ago, and I haven’t heard a word from her since.”
The glamour girl from the wall looked up from the picture he’d handed me. She was laughing, an expression that seemed so much more natural to her than the pouty moue of the formal shot. I wondered which was the real girl.
“Why hire me?” I handed the picture back. “Missing persons are police business.”
Brody snorted. “They’ve had the case almost since she disappeared and haven’t turned up a damn thing. Her clothes and car are still at her place, so they don’t think she ran off, but there were no signs of struggle and no ransom demand, which makes them doubt she was kidnapped. What do they think she did, dissolve?” He stopped, seeming to attempt to rein in his frustration. When he spoke again, it was with more control. “The LAPD has too much on their plate right now to worry about one minor heiress, especially since there’s no sign of foul play. But she’s everything to me, Mr. Pierce, my whole world. And I’ll pay whatever it takes to get her back.”
I decided to put that to the test. Leaning back in my chair, I steepled my fingers. “I should tell you right now,” I said with all the gravity I could muster, “my rates are thirty-five dollars an hour plus expenses,” I sized him up quickly, “with a five hundred dollar retainer.”
I had to give him credit. The man didn’t flinch. Instead, he pulled out a money clip as thick as my fist and, one by one, peeled off five one hundred-dollar bills, laying them out on the desk without making a dent in the roll. His girl might be loaded, but this guy wasn’t hurting either.
I didn’t touch the money. I didn’t need to. We both knew I was going to take the case. “All right, Mr. Brody,” I acknowledged, leaning forward to look attentive, “why don’t you tell me what you know?”
He leaned back again in his chair, one hand still on the desk blotter, fingers drumming restlessly. “The last time I saw Tess was the twenty-first of last month,” Brody said, his words a flat monotone that spoke of constant repetition. “We had dinner at the Windsor. We’d talked about going away for the weekend, maybe out to Catalina, just the two of us. I tried calling her Thursday afternoon to finalize plans, but her housekeeper said Tess wasn’t home, hadn’t been all day as far as she could tell.”
He drew a deep breath. “And then I called the cops. Told them the whole story. All I got from them was an apology. People have to be missing forty-eight hours, they said.” He sneered. “It didn’t matter that some nut job could be killing her in the meantime. So I waited. I went to the house myself to see if I could find out anything, but the place looked normal to me. Saturday morning I called the cops again and they finally started looking into it. For all the good it’s done Tess.”
That was police procedure, true enough, but Brody’s certainty of foul play seemed out of place. I couldn’t call him on it, though, not without more information. “Where does she live?”
“Twenty-eight Palisades Overlook. Up in the mountains north of town. I have a key.” He fished a ring of keys out of his pocket and isolated one among the dozens, dropping it down on the bills. “I’ll let the housekeeper know you might be coming by.”
“Is there anyone else I should talk to?”
“Her sister, Karen. She lives with Tess. And there’s the executor of her mother’s will, Mr. Sergeant,” Brody answered promptly. “He’s been looking out for the girls since their mother died two years ago.”
“Roger Sergeant?” I asked, too late to cover the surprise in my voice.
His eyes narrowed. “You know him?”
“We’re … acquainted.” I hadn’t spoken to the man in over four years. Hard feelings on both sides had made discretion the better part of valor. But I knew him, all right.
“Good. That should make things easier.” But I thought I saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
I didn’t expose my personal life to clients, so I hurried on before he could question me further. “Anything else? Places she frequented, that sort of thing.”
Brody rattled off a list of clubs and restaurants they went to, along with the names of the maitre d’ at each. Of course he would know that. “But I already asked around. No one has seen her since that Wednesday.”
“Well, perhaps you just didn’t ask the right questions.” I kept any hint of derision out of my voice.
His face darkened, but he said mildly, “Perhaps I didn’t. But I’m confident you will.”
“Count on it.” I rose from my chair and offered him my hand. “I’ll be in touch with you in a few days with any preliminary results.”
He stood as well. “I’m looking forward to it.” He shook my hand again, then reached into his breast pocket to pull out a slender silver case, taking a business card out of it to drop on top of the small pile on the desk. I gathered up money, key, and card before seeing myself out of the office, feeling his eyes on me the entire time.
I paused in the lobby to look at his card. Plain white stock, black printing, the name accented in red. Exchange in Lafayette Square. Nice neighborhood, but not the most high end. Brody may have a lot of ready cash, but he wasn’t investing it in real estate.
Alexandra had been right to warn me. I had met predators aplenty in my line of work, but this one deserved the title more than most. I’d take his money, but I knew I was going to have to watch my step.
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