Authors: Susan Dunlap
Was it him? Tchernak wondered. Did he give off trustworthy “vibes”? Or was she too sure of her big-girl body and her tough-girl voice to worry? “I’m trying to track down your neighbor, Grady Hummacher. No one’s seen him since he got back from Panama. People are worried. I knew him from college. He’s a guy you worry about. Have you seen him in the last couple of days?”
“Brad, honey, you’re asking the wrong woman.” She had pushed three makeup cases out of the way and was rustling through the biggest one he’d ever seen. Soft brushes flew into the sink, pink disks, brown tubes, scattered. “And you’re asking at the wrong time. With the Millennium opening in a week, I wouldn’t see a neighbor if he moved onto my foot.”
“The Millennium Casino?”
“‘The Only Place to Be at
le Fin de Siècle.
“You’re in the show there?”
the show. I’m emceeing it all. There are five bedrooms in this house. Four of them we use just for dresses. There are fifty more outfits back there with enough sequins to pave the Strip.”
“I should know your name, but I’ve been working out of town for the last few years.”
“Yeah. You want to see me, come to the opening next week. I’ll be there with a dynamite monologue I’ve been working on for a month. Whole new slant on Vegas. Stuff like you’ve never heard.” She paused, looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. “Actually do come. I’d really like you there. It’d be nice to know I’ve got a friend in the audience the biggest night of my life and all.”
He was staring at her the way he never could if she hadn’t been a work in progress. Under the shades of brown and red he could make out a face that was too square, a chunky face on a body too spindly. The awkward kid who went for the laughs. Maybe she really did want a friend, even if that friend was a stranger in her bathroom. “Sure,” he said. “But if you’re emceeing the opening of a casino like the Millennium, you’re not going to be needing anyone like me. Out of town or not, even I’ve heard about the Millennium. I mean, build a ten-thousand-room casino now and blow up the place a year later at the millennium! Boy, it shows me there’s plenty I don’t understand about economics.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know how they’ll balance the books on that either. I just figure I’ve got this year, this chance of a lifetime and I plan to work my ass off. I’ll tell you, it’s hard to come up with new material night after night. A singer, he can sing the same songs the same way, week in, week out, and the audiences hum along, like now it’s their song, too, and that’s all the better. But a comic, dang, you better be fresh, fresher, freshest every night or you are stale meat. I’ll tell you I don’t see anything without trying to twist the humor out of it. You can believe—Brad, right?—that the strange guy in the bathroom’ll turn up somewhere in my monologue.”
A muted sound, possibly a knock, came from the front of the house. The real photographer? If it wasn’t, it would be in a minute. He didn’t have time to ogle and dream. Jeez, he’d just about forgotten about Grady Hummacher. Some detective he was. “Cassie, do me a favor. Think. Have you seen anything of Grady Hummacher in the last two days? Seen his car? Seen him going in or out?”
She shook her head unconvincingly.
Tchernak had gotten into the house here, into her bathroom, for Chrissakes, he couldn’t come up empty! Think on your feet, Kiernan would say. Make up something that’ll get her attention. Sickness? It had sure gotten Kiernan’s attention when that doctor buddy of hers called. And Adcock did say Grady could have picked up something in Panama. “Look, Grady may be sick. He’s been in Panama, in the rain forest. He could have caught a virus down there, he could be really out of it. He—”
“Virus? You mean like a contagious virus, like the Legionnaires’ disease that wiped out whole hotels?” For the first time her hands stopped moving and she looked directly at him. Under her thick makeup her forehead wrinkled in horror.
He’d overdone it. He didn’t even know if Kiernan’s case of supposed hemorrhagic fever was really epidemic stuff, much less what was going on with Grady Hummacher. Kiernan wouldn’t care, but he did. “I don’t mean he’s got anything that’ll wipe out the city overnight—”
“Are you out of your mind? Plague? Do you know what that’d do to business?” Her face had gone clown white against her red hair. She shuddered, and for a moment he thought she was going to start throwing the bags of makeup at him.
“Really, I’m sure you’re not in any danger. But the sooner I find Grady, the sooner I can get him checked. Did you see—”
She lurched forward. “I’m calling the cops. They can check the hotels.”
Tchernak held up a hand. “Hey, wait. This may be nothing more than the flu. Don’t create panic. I just need to find Grady.” He took a breath, watching her body for charge-on or hesitate-back. She stayed put. Tchernak took that as hesitation. “Sorry if I upset you.”
“Upset! Jeez, my whole damned career could be going down the toilet and you talk about upset!”
“Did you see Grady?”
“No, dammit, I didn’t see him this week. Not him, not his damn car, not his damn spots or glow or whatever. You know that’s one subject there’s not a hook anywhere. No one no-how’s going to get a laugh out of an epidemic.”
“Did he ever mention a woman named Leah or Lindsay or Luanne?”
“Him? My neighbor? I think maybe I said hello to him once. Look, I’ve lived here only a couple months. The Millennium was going to use Ginger Staley until she got too big for her corset and they canned her, and
, me. So most of my two months here has been in and out of sequins. I wouldn’t have had time to chat him up even if he weren’t married.”
“Married? He’s married? You sure?”
“No, of course I’m not sure. Whadaya think, I asked? Nah, they just had that look, you know, like they’d been together long enough for the glow to be caput. She could have been his sister, but not quite, you know what I mean?”
“How about a girlfriend he wants to break up with?”
She cocked her head to one side, thinking. “Yeah, could be. But he said something …What did he say? It was on the steps out front. He was—Oh yeah, he introduced her as Doctor.”
“See, that’s why I didn’t catch her name, I was so stunned with her being a doctor. I mean, doctors, they’re serious people, and I’ve been around enough to know a good-time boy when I see one, and I’ll tell you, my neighbor there, he’s one. The two of them, Brad, they just didn’t go together. I mean, I even wondered if he was sick and she was making a house call; that’s how not-together those two were.”
The doorbell rang.
“I need to find her. Did Grady ever say her last name or where she lived or—”
“Honey, I don’t think so. But, you know, it’s not on the top layer of my mind right now, what with the photographer at the door. You can answer that for me, let him in on your way out, right? See, some guys don’t just barge in, Brad.”
Tchernak summoned a grin. “Yeah, but I’m glad I did.”
“Listen, you’ll still come to my opening, right? If I leave you a ticket?”
He wanted to give her arm an encouraging squeeze; she seemed like such a bundle of desperation under all that makeup, up on those high heels. He almost said, “It’d be great if you’d make it two,” but he caught himself. No
in Tchernak Investigations. “Sure, Cassie, I’ll be there.”
“You’re sure about this plague stuff, right?”
She turned to him and stood stock-still.
It was like looking at the eye of a hurricane, he thought.
“Brad, I like you. You seem a little naive, but nice. So I’m going to give you a piece of advice. I don’t make a habit of wasting my time on guys that know less than I do. I took my chances, so so can they, you know what I mean? But you I like, so listen. Don’t go talking this plague stuff anywhere. You think I panicked, you ain’t seen nothing till you see the chamber of commerce, the tourist bureau, the hotel industry, and that’s not to mention the guys who’re skimming off the tops of the casinos. Get it? You don’t threaten to close the town twice.”
Tchernak shut Cassie Marengo’s door after the real photographer had entered. He hopped the railing, let himself back into Grady Hummacher’s flat, picked up the phone. He just caught himself before he started punching in Adcock’s number. Instead he hit Redial. Seven beeps greeted him. The phone rang; no one answered. He let it ring. Seven times. Eight. On the twelfth a small-sounding, scared-sounding female voice said, “Yes?”
“Is Grady there?”
“Who?” She was whispering.
“Grady Hummacher. He left this number for me to call.”
“There’s no one here by that name.”
“Is this five two seven three three six eight?”
“No. It’s nine six one—” The phone went dead.
Phone directory? He pulled open Grady’s desk drawers. Zip. Closets? Zip. He dialed Reston Adcock.
“Tchernak. Here’s the thing, Adcock. I’ve got two leads. One’s on a woman doctor friend of Grady’s. Been here to the house. First name probably begins with an
According to my source, she had the look of a friend rather than a lover, so she might be someone he listed in case of emergency on one of your employee forms. See what you’ve got, okay?”
“Phone exchange of nine six one. It’s the last number Grady called from here. I don’t know the rest. And Grady doesn’t have a phone book I can look that up in. Check that, huh, and I’ll get back to you.”
Tchernak grinned. No “Good work, Tchernak.” What he had here was an employer who didn’t like taking orders. Well, he should be used to that one. Adcock was going to have to go into a helluva pique to outdo Tchernak’s former employer. At least there was the sound of shuffling papers on Adcock’s end of the connection. Tchernak could have let him stew, but why bother? He’d be big—he grinned—and throw him a sop. “When I mentioned the possibility of contagious fever, my source just about went ballistic. You’d think I was talking death on contact. According to her, once the word got out, I’d have half the civil service, the health department, and the mob on my tail. Guess that—”
“You mentioned disease? What kind of idiot are you, Tchernak?”
“Hey, you’re the one who—”
“Listen, idiot, you’ll have a lot more than civil service on your tail if the men who count think you’re sheltering a plague that could close the city down.”
Tchernak forced a laugh.
“Yeah, laugh now. You see
The Ten Commandments
“The old movie? Yeah.”
“Remember the laborer who got in the way of the pyramid stone?”
“The guy who was crushed because—”
“Because, Tchernak, the momentum was bigger than any one guy. And that was just a pyramid. A pyramid like one casino in Vegas. Think about it. Here’s the doctor: Louisa Larson.”
DCOCK PICKED UP
the phone and dialed. Sometimes you have to deal with guys you wouldn’t take home to Sunday dinner. That’s just the way business was. So what if O’Shaughnessy was perched too high on her principles to do business with him? And that was when he was above dealing with the Weasel.
was it left him with Tchernak who was coming up with zip. And it forced him to search out the Weasel.
“Yeah?” Cecil McGuire, the Weasel, yelled over the rattle of the washers and dryers on the other side of the wall. That was the trouble with having your office next to the washroom; it was fine till you wanted to be heard, or to hear. McGuire pressed the phone harder against his ear as if he could create a suction cup of silence there. When the speaker didn’t continue, McGuire answered what he figured the question had been. He’d got good at guessing in the years he’d been in this basement. “Yeah, this is the McGuire Investigative Agency.” He could have asked “Who’s calling?” but his clients weren’t the type who took well to that kind of question. He wrote down the number he saw on the Caller I.D. display. “What can I do for you?”
“You good enough to find a man for me, Weasel?”
The guy gave no reference; it made McGuire nervous. He didn’t like strangers. His clients didn’t pay enough to get him out of the basement here, but they knew better than to hassle him. Strangers were amateurs, unreasonable, they screwed up, and they’d turn you in without blinking an eye. But they did pay. And if they were hell-bent on hiding their identities, they could end up paying a lot more than they planned. “Finding’s my thing. He alone?”
“Unless he’s hooked up with someone.”
How’d you even find me, he wanted to ask. It wasn’t like he had an ad in the Yellow Pages: McGuire’s Discreet Investigations, special attention to tracking down runaway hookers. Pimps welcome. His clients knew him, because he was into them too deep to say no, knew they had him because no one else would. He didn’t have to spend the extra green he didn’t have on the Yellow Pages. So how did this person know enough about him to call him the Weasel?
“What’s your going rate, McGuire?”
“A—Two hundred a day, plus ex.” Like he’d ever seen more than fifty a shot.
He was holding his breath until the voice said, “This is a flat-fee job. Find my guy. Five thou. You can set aside the time for this?”
He opened the reverse directory and began checking for the number he’d written down. If Mr. Important knew anything about him, he’d’ve known time was no problem; he wasn’t ass-over-armpit in clients, and what clients he did have weren’t asking for a lot of cerebral work. His type of work, pretty much he had his days free. His type of work he wasn’t getting any five thou for. “What’s the backside to this? You don’t pay a fortune for a simple trace. He make off with drugs?”
“I’m offering you this ‘fortune’ so you don’t ask questions.”
No questions asked he did know about. “My life’s worth more’n five thou that’ll go to my estate.” He almost laughed at that last word. My
He rolled his chair over the patch of indoor-outdoor carpet till he could see out the window. His portion of the Biggest Little City: sun setting behind the trash cans for the whole eight units. “Look, I’m not nosin’ into your business, but I gotta know enough to do mine. Cops involved?”