Happy Friday! And this weekend, along with the amazing new Ghostbusters movie, which everyone should support, here’s another great thing that needs your support! It’s the Crime Cafe Stories Project crowdfunding campaign! Click there to get the whole lowdown!
Now … if you enjoy great crime fiction, I can’t begin to say enough about the talented authors who’ve contributed to this effort.
And just so you know where I’m coming from … here’s another sample from the Crime Cafe Nine-Book Set, which is one of the ebooks to be published as part of the crowding campaign.
I heard a moan come from the hotel room, the moan of a woman in distress. She sounded sick, maybe in pain. The note she’d left me at Silky’s said not to knock, so I didn’t, kicking in the door instead.
Geri Lincoln, aka Gypsy, lay stretched out on a dirty bed, her arms tied above her head. Even in the room’s crappy lighting, the bullet scar on her shoulder stood out against her dark brown skin, a scar that should have been a bullet hole in my chest. Out came my Browning.
“Freeze!” I stood in the three-point staff drilled into me at the police academy a lifetime ago.
Harry Long, a pudgy man wearing nothing but his boxers and his ratty black socks, froze as he started to climb onto the bed. He backed off and put up his hands.
“Hands on your head,” I barked, slipping into old habits. “Turn around.”
I had been stalking Harry Long for a week, a job I took for his suspicious wife. Except for weekly trips to Silky’s, where Gypsy worked the metal pole and the private rooms, Harry led an exemplary life. Church, Rotary Club, even the Freemasons. But Harry had a nasty hobby. He didn’t just like looking at naked women. He liked to lure them to cheap motels. Bad things happened after that.
Now caught, Harry whined about the girls being freaks, how Gypsy liked to be drugged, how she asked for it. When I pressed Harry on his source for the roofies, he pleaded with me not to tell his wife.
“I smacked him in the back of the neck with the Browning, dropping him. Then I tended to Gypsy. “It’s okay,” I murmured. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
Gypsy had been naked in my presence many times before in the last decade. Her “career” often made that somewhat inevitable. Now, however, I pulled a sheet over her and called 911.
They took Gypsy to MetroHealth to detox her and check her for signs of trauma. Fortunately, Harry Long had done little more than drug her before my arrival. Gypsy had sent me a text just as she made the deal to accompany Long to the Camelot, a run-down motel near the Ford Engine Plant. That sent me to Silky’s for the note, which delayed my arrival at the motel. She knew Harry would drug her. It angered me that she would take that kind of risk.
But when her eyes fluttered open in the ER, I could not stay angry.
“You came,” she said, struggling to speak. “Did you get him? Did you get Harry?”
“I got him,” I said. “Cleaned his clock in the process.” The roofies hadn’t had time to clear her system, so it was likely she would remember none of this. We’d have this conversation again the next morning when they released her.
She squeezed my hand. “I’m so tired… so tired…” Her eyes closed. “Thank you,” she whispered and drifted off to sleep.
I watched her sleep for a few moments before leaving. As I stood, I heard her whisper my name. “Nick…” When I leaned in to listen, she said something that sounded like “I love you,” but she was gone again before she could repeat it. I decided she would not remember that the next morning, either.
Three years later, I not only found myself evicted from my office, but paying part of my rent by tending bar at Jack’s Place in the afternoons. TTG Insurance, which had given me free office space in exchange for lower rates, had exiled me to this piss-yellow building over on Third Street that housed Jack’s. Which was fine with me. Jack’s wife Evelyn, one of the city’s most powerful attorneys, was now my biggest client. But the piss-yellow building had little to offer once you got above the first floor and Jack’s. For starters, you could hear the air conditioning asthmatic wheeze during the summer.
But bartending is not claims work. It does little to off-set the rent that could be had from a third-floor office. As fond as Evelyn Bouchaine was of me and my partner, she hadn’t built herself a tidy little business empire by handing out freebies to her tenants.
I had no problem with paying rent. My problem, as our accountant, Steve Politano, told us, was TTG. They did not want me in their building, but they wanted me at the old rate. Over my nine months of exile, the arrangement had started to bleed us dry.
“It’s like this,” said Steve as Elaine Haskell and I listened. “Your former employer thinks that, because Elaine is still an employee at TTG, they’re providing you with secretarial help.”
“I’d love to have secretarial help,” I said, feet propped up on my desk as I sipped coffee from my chipped Beavis and Butthead coffee mug. “If they would pay us the going rate, I could hire one, at least part time.”
Elaine, my partner, sat with her hands folded in her lap. Her jacket and skirt matched her red hair this morning, an outfit that suggested endless meetings at TTG. “The contract comes up for renewal in August. I could resign then and tell them they need to start paying the full rate now that we’d have no formal ties to them.”
“You won’t be around in August,” said Steve. “Not unless you get a run on domestic cases.”
I hated domestic cases. The endless sitting in cars, following some unsuspecting man or woman around until they did something to justify their spouse’s suspicions. Harry Long had been one such target. More often than not, though, the cheater in the couple was the one who hired me.
“I see one expense you can cut right off the bat,” Steve continued. “Why is there an entry for a room at the Marriott once every other week?”
I had a mouthful of coffee as he said that and almost choked trying not to spit it out. Elaine’s face turned crimson. She absently covered her wedding ring.
Steve looked from me to her and back again. “Oh . . . I see. Well, if you two are going to uh … meet privately, maybe you should do it at one of your homes. Nick, you have an apartment.”
I did, but Elaine’s husband occasionally drove by on his way to work. It might have been the long way, but his own girlfriend lived just up the street from me. Their marriage had been over for long time. Elaine just wouldn’t file the paperwork. Not when she could have me whenever she wanted, and Roger was still too cowed by her to do anything to stop it.
Realizing neither Elaine or I would say a word on the subject, Steve began tugging at his collar. “Anyway… Unless TTG starts paying full freight, you’re never going to make enough money to justify this office. Unless…”
Elaine and I looked at each other. “Vel,” we said together.
Vel was what Evelyn Bouchaine’s friends called her.
“When she hires you,” said Steve, “you make money. When TTG sends you claims work, it’s like you’re still on salary, only you have to pay for your own cube space, electricity…” He gave Elaine a sideways glance. “They don’t even pay you. They pay Nick.”
“As long as you’re a TTG employee,” I said, “they’re going to think the old arrangement’s still in place. They think they’re giving me your assistance, and they like deducting office rent from the rates. Plus they still think this is an exclusive deal.”
“McGuiness will never let me leave,” said Elaine, legs and arms crossed, her eyes studying the hem of her skirt. “Every time I try…”
“He throws more money at you,” I said. “But it’s salary. He’s still bleeding our business to protect his own budget. He’s a vice president, Elaine. Time he learns how to run a division on his own. It’s not like dumping Roger. It’s just a two-week notice and no custody battle.”
Elaine stared daggers at me as she rose from her seat. “Steve, why don’t you and I talk about this downstairs at Jack’s. Mr. Kepler needs some time alone, I think.”
I waved my hand at them. “Go. We’re not going to figure this out this morning anyway.”
Elaine practically pushed Steve out the door, throwing a dirty look over her shoulder at me. I booted up my laptop as they left and started on the most important item on the day’s agenda: the morning round of Solitaire.
A knock came at the door less than five minutes later.
“Hey!” I said when I saw Gypsy standing in the doorway, looking nothing like a stripper at a Brook Park Road strip club. Sporting a matching Donna Karan wool jacket and skirt and a silk blouse that probably cost more than my rent, she looked ready to leverage a hostile takeover.
“Well, you clean up nice,” I said as she did a little turn for me. “Have a seat. What can I do for you, my friend?”
Gypsy rested her elbows on my desk, leaning in. “You can book me for an evening.”
“Book you? You mean as a…”
The smile on her face grew as she watched me squirm. “Go on. Say it. A call girl. A hooker, if you want. Hell, we’re friends. Call me a whore if you’re feeling honest.” After watching me fidget a bit, she added, “And yes, I mean it. I want you, Nick Kepler, to be my last client.”
I laughed. At first I thought she was serious, but we had a long-running joke between us that I would be her final client whenever she left the sex trade for good. Gypsy had not stripped since the club fired her, but she didn’t need to. “Let me see if I have twenty-five hundred in my bank account.” I made a show of tapping my computer keys. “Sure do. I’ll have to eat Ramen noodles for a year, but you’re worth it. Or I can fire my accountant.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “I am offering you the pleasure of my company for a night, a weekend…” She looked around the office. “When was the last time you took a vacation, Nick?”
I thought about when I’d been downsized out of TTG Insurance and into this office they so generously leased to me in exchange for claims work. “1998.”
“Wow. Seven years.” She stood up and started pacing the room in those brand new Ann Taylor heels. “Well, Nick, for a price you cannot resist, I will be your charming companion for a week, two weeks, whatever you want.”
Whatever I was doing at the moment, I froze. “You’re serious.”
She folded her arms and nodded. “I’m out. I met with my accountant, my financial planner, and my lawyers this morning. I’ve got enough in investments to leave the trade altogether. But I want closure, Nick.”
I tried to say something, but my throat had closed up.
“Oh, Nick,” she said. “I know you would never pay for sex. Would you believe some of my clients have paid four grand just to have someone listen to them? To have someone pay attention to them? There’s an executive from one of the banks over on the Square who dropped twenty-five hundred just to split a bottle of wine with me.”
I came around the desk and put my hands on her shoulders. “So you are serious.”
“Dead serious,” she said. “Pay me what I’m about to ask, and we can do anything, even go to Chuck-E-Cheese and play in the ball pit. We can go to the movies.” She slipped her arms around me. “I just want to celebrate the end of my old life. With the man who made it possible.”
I kissed her on the forehead. “You sell yourself short, Gyps. I didn’t save your money for you. You did. You took control of how you plied your trade.”
“You got me off smack.”
I backed away and looked down at her legs. When I first met her, they were a mass of track marks. Her arms, too.
Now? She could model miniskirts, pantyhose, lingerie if she wanted. “I just put you in touch with someone who could get you started. You did all the hard work.”
“You believed in me. Many people still don’t.”
I thought about it. “It’s March, so long walks on the beach are out for a few weeks.”
“I’ll make you dinner,” she said. “I’ll even supply the wine.”
“Let me buy the wine.”
“We can watch old movies.”
“Why Gypsy, I believe you’re asking me out on a bona fide date.”
“I am. But it will cost you.”
Behind my desk hung a framed dollar bill, the first one I made as a PI. I pointed at it. “How about that dollar?”
“Nick, that’s yours. That’s special.”
“I know. First dollar I made as a detective. Let’s make it the last dollar you make as an escort.”
She kissed me. “You’re a beautiful man, Nick. Make it for Friday night? My place?”
“Friday night is fine.” Friday night would be more than fine. I’d rather spend the evening on Gypsy’s sofa watching Turner Classic Movies than another Friday night Audrey the barmaid, her cigarette breath, raging pot habit and fear of her psycho ex-husband.
Gypsy started to leave then turned. “And Nick?”
“That dollar goes as far as you want it to go.”
She watched me struggled for a response. When it became clear she’d made me speechless, she left, her laughter trailing down the hall.
I sat down at my computer and began going over my caseload for TTG Insurance. When I looked up, I saw Elaine Haskell, my erstwhile partner, scowling at me.
“What did that woman want?” she said.”
End of excerpt! 🙂
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