Read Once a Mutt (Trace 5) Online

Authors: Warren Murphy

Once a Mutt (Trace 5) (13 page)

BOOK: Once a Mutt (Trace 5)
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“That’s big of you, but not necessary,” Roscoe said. “I told you what I know.”

“Then, thanks a lot, Lieutenant.” Trace got up to leave and Roscoe said, “You staying around town long?”

“Ye Olde English Motel. A couple of days.”

“Where do you live?”

“Las Vegas,” Trace said.

“You
are
lucky,” Roscoe said.

“Sometimes,” Trace said. “Sometimes.”

 

 

Trace was hungry, so he walked from police headquarters to a restaurant on the corner. It was much too bright and filled with plants.

He asked the hostess for a table away from the plants.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I don’t trust them. They suck up my carbon dioxide before I’m done with it.”

She sat him in the back with a bemused look and a menu. As she walked away, he told her, “If Paul Newman comes in, tell him I’m busy and want to be left alone.”

He hoped that Newman and Robert Redford wouldn’t come in. He hated being pestered when he ate and he knew that Newman would start insisting on making everybody’s salad dressing and Redford would go from table to table, begging money to save Montana or something. The last thing he needed today were more pests.

He picked at a cheddar cheeseburger, had a couple of drinks, paid his bill, and telephoned Elvira. He had no driving sex urge now, but he believed in planning ahead. If the urge didn’t show up, he’d pretend he had a headache and back out.

Elvira’s voice on the telephone sounded as if she were talking on a shortwave radio. He asked her about it and she said that she was talking on the radiophone from her front yard.

He thought of her in her tiny bikini and was very glad he had called.

“Are you coming over?” she asked.

“Am I invited?”

“I’m waiting for you.”

“Good. I’ll be right there,” he said.

“And I’ve got big news to report,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Come over and I’ll whisper it in your ear. Vodka all right?”

“Sounds good to me.”

 

 

Elvira was in place on her beach towel, her breasts bigger, her legs more sweepingly lush, her smile even more dazzling than Trace had remembered.

She lifted her face to be kissed. He leaned over and brushed her lips lightly.

“That’s a pretty poor excuse for a kiss,” she said.

“The neighbors. I don’t want to ruin your reputation.”

“I love it when you’re thoughtful. Let’s go inside and fuck.”

“You already poured me a drink. Mind if I sample it?”

“Go ahead. You’ll pay for it later,” she said. “I found out about the mortgage across the street. Hey, what happened to your face?”

Trace sipped at the drink in the lawn holder. It was still vodka and Kool-Aid. “I walked into a husband,” he said. “What about their house?”

“Mrs. Paddington bought the house seven years ago. It was two hundred thousand dollars. She put down forty thousand. Her monthly mortgage including taxes is nineteen hundred dollars. She’s never been late on a payment.”

“The house is in her name?” Trace said

“Right.”

“How’d you find all that out?”

“I’ve got a friend at the bank,” she said. “He told me.”

“That was real good,” Trace said. “That was your big news?”

“Oh. No. They went out.” She pointed in the direction of the Paddington house.

“Who did?”

“All of them, I guess. I saw the big goon and the peasant girl. Mrs. Paddington must have been in the backseat. They were using that Mercedes with the smoked windows, so I couldn’t see too well.”

“When was this?”

“About an hour and a half ago or so,” Elvira said.

“You see anything else? Anything unusual?” Trace asked.

“I saw a picnic basket. The woman, Maggie Winters, she had one of those big Styrofoam coolers and she put it in the trunk and then she put a picnic basket there too.”

“If you were a gambling person, would you say they were going on a picnic?” Trace asked.

“I’d give odds,” Elvira said.

“How long does it take to go on a picnic?” Trace asked.

“When you take a car, it takes you to get there and to get back and all the time it takes you to eat potato salad.”

“Couple of hours, right?”

“Sure.”

Trace got to his feet. “I’ll be back in a little while,” he said.

“Where are you going?”

“To look around.” He saw the small cordless telephone on the large teddy-bear towel, next to Elvira’s feet.

“Listen,” he said. “I’m going to call you in a couple of minutes with the Paddingtons’ phone number.”

“Breathe heavy at me. I love it,” she said.

“No. I want you to stay here, and if you see their car coming back, I want you to call me quick. Ring twice and hang up. Then dial again. Ring twice and hang up.”

“And you’ll know enough to split, right?” Elvira said.

“You catch on real quick,” he said.

“I want you to know you’ll pay for this.”

“How’s that?” Trace asked.

“I’m not used to taking second place to a burglary.”

“I’ll see if I can steal you something nice,” Trace said.

The gate was locked with a chain, but on the south side of the Paddington property, Trace found two bent bars in the high spike-topped fence and was able to slide between them.

He ran to the garage and found the door unlocked. He slipped inside and closed the door behind him. The interior of the garage was bright and airy from a bank of windows that ran along the entire back wall. The red Saab station wagon was parked in one of the two car berths.

A door on the side of the garage was unlocked and led to a screened breezeway that separated the garage from the house itself. He tried the house door but it was locked. Through the window, Trace saw the kitchen. It had the look that kitchens always had when people were out of the house. There were no coffeecups on tables, no pots on the stove. He hoped there were no burglar alarms on the door.

The door seemed to be one of those with the lock built into the doorknob. Trace craned his neck against the window but could see no interior deadbolt lock on the door.

In movies now, it would be easy. A credit card slipped into the door and it would pop open. But he had tried that three times in his life with a net result of three scratched and broken credit cards. He went back into the garage and found a toolbox on a shelf over a worktable. From inside the box, he took a small paint scraper and a hammer

He glanced through the screening toward the front gate. No signs of life.

He slid the paint scraper behind the molding that ran down the frame along the outer edge of the door. As usual it was held only by small finishing nails. It took only a few sliding moves of the paint scraper and the molding came loose. That exposed the lock housing and Trace used the edge of the paint scraper to reach in under the bolt and muscle it back just enough so that the door swung open.

He replaced the door molding before doing anything else. He used his handkerchief to muffle the sound of the hammer tapping the thin nails back into the frame of the door. When he was done, he replaced both tools in the box in the garage.

He walked into the kitchen and stood quietly inside listening. Elvira hadn’t seen Mrs. Paddington in the rear of the car, so she might still be in the house. He heard no sounds. He closed and locked the door behind him and walked to the kitchen telephone and called Elvira.

“Yes?” she said.

“Here’s the number.”

“God, this is exciting,” she said.

“If you see anybody, remember, ring—”

“Ring twice, hang up, call again, ring twice, hang up. I got it,” Elvira said. “Will you hurry back here? Committing a crime always makes me horny.”

“Hold that thought,” he said.

Trace hung up and then moved the lever alongside the phone so that the ring was at its loudest. If Elvira called, he should be able to hear the phone ringing anywhere in the house. He hoped.

He glanced through the window. Still no one at the gate.

This is the way all degradation starts, he thought. One little breaking and entry. And then it would lead inexorably to spitting on the sidewalk, then smoking on a bus, and before he knew it, he would be creasing IBM cards and referring to women as “girls.”

Even the biggest plunge started with one little misstep. Idi Amin probably started out by neglecting to spit-shine his army shoes.

Trace walked softly down the hallway from the kitchen, quietly opening doors as he went. Just off the kitchen was a bedroom large enough to be an apartment. It was lived in and the closets along one wall held men’s clothes, the closets along the other women’s.

He picked up a black-and-white photograph from the large dresser. It showed Ferdinand in a dark suit, looking exactly like an ugly moose in a dark suit. Standing next to him was Maggie. Her hair was darker when the picture was taken, but she was a notable beauty by anyone’s standards, only a few inches shorter than Ferdinand and with the long silky body of a ballerina. With knockers.

What she might see in Ferdinand was beyond Trace. He had long since matured enough that he didn’t question why rich and powerful men so often had beautiful women on their arms. But Ferdinand? A handyman, ugly and probably broke?

Who knew what went through women’s heads? He certainly didn’t.

He opened the drawer of a night table next to the large queen-sized bed, but there was nothing in it except cigarettes—mentholated True Greens—and women’s lacy handkerchiefs and a toothpaste-shaped tube that bore no marking.

Trace opened the cap. The substance inside was a light green but had no odor. He took his cigarettes from his pocket and removed the cellophane from the pack. Into it, he squeezed a long strand of the green waxy substance, then recapped the tube and replaced it in the dresser drawer. He folded the cellophane neatly and put it into his inside jacket pocket.

The other rooms along the first-floor corridor were a sewing room, a room used as an auxiliary pantry, and a small guest room, with a bed stripped clean.

The drawing room, where he had interviewed Mrs. Paddington, and a large, formal living and dining room completed the first floor.

The wheelchair was again where it had been the first time he had been there, folded up, and again Trace stumbled against it. He wiped the dust from his hands on his trousers, then went to a front window and glanced out. There was still no sign of anyone at the gate, but he didn’t know how much he trusted Elvira to keep her eyes open. She might decide to go inside to make another bathtub full of drinks, or she might work on the tan of her eyelids, or she might decide to seduce passing schoolchildren, and not pay any attention to Mrs. Paddington and her two servants returning home.

He padded lightly up the steps to the second floor. There were three guest bedrooms, two baths, and a master bedroom with its own bath.

All the rooms were empty. He looked around in the master bedroom. It was a chintzed, breezy big room, bright and sunny. A large dresser stood in the corner near the window. He opened it drawer by drawer. Four drawers were empty; the top two contained women’s underwear, slips and stockings, in styles that Trace felt could most charitably be called practical.

The night tables were empty. Not even a book or a magazine inside. The walk-in closet was filled with women’s clothes, all of them with plastic dust shields over the hangers.

He looked inside the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. All it held was a plastic bottle of aspirins and a small half-empty bottle of Natural-tone Makeup for Oily Skin.

Trace came back out and looked through the drawers of a desk that sat by the front window. All he found was some blank writing paper and a pen. The writing paper was in a neat stack.

Trace heard the telephone ring downstairs. It rang twice and stopped. He looked through a window and saw Ferd unlocking the front gate. The gray Mercedes was stopped behind him, with Maggie at the wheel.

The telephone rang twice again. Trace closed the desk drawers and ran downstairs.

He heard the car approaching up the stone driveway. He let himself out through the kitchen door onto the breezeway. He heard the sound of protesting machinery as the garage door opened, probably from an electronic buzzer inside the car.

He darted out through the back door of the breezeway and crept along beneath the garage windows.

The car pulled in and the door lowered itself again. He heard the car’s motor die as it was turned off. He heard two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, but he couldn’t make out the words.

He carefully raised his body toward the corner of one of the windows and peered inside. He saw Ferdinand and Maggie going through the door to the breezeway. Ferd had his hand familiarly on Maggie’s rear end. Trace ran toward the fence on the garage side of the house.

Moving behind bushes, he found his way to the bent bars of the fence, let himself out into the wooded field next door, and then walked quickly to the road.

Three minutes later, he was sitting on the grass next to Elvira, sipping a fresh drink.

“I thought you’d be ready for one,” she said. “That was a close call.”

“Sure was. Thanks for the help.”

“Did you find anything?”

“Not a blessed thing.”

“What did you hope to find?” she asked.

“I don’t know. A confession that Mrs. Paddington killed her husband or something. But whatever it was, it wasn’t there.”

“Too bad.”

“I don’t know. It’s good practice keeping my burglary skills in order. Thanks again for helping.”

“I expect more than thanks,” Elvira said as she slithered toward him across the large teddy-bear towel.

17
 

Trace was at the bar of the Ye Olde English Motel cocktail lounge. The need for ten to eighteen thousand dollars was still heavy on his mind and he was making a list of all the money he could put his hands on, including all the people who would definitely lend him money.

It was not a particularly long list. He had about four hundred dollars in his checking account. He had another five hundred in a cashier’s deposit box at the Araby Casino. He figured that he would be able to beat Garrison Fidelity out of seven hundred dollars on the Paddington investigation. That totaled sixteen hundred dollars.

In a separate column marked loans, he had listed his father as the big investor at five hundred dollars. Somehow, Sarge could come up with five hundred dollars. Trace had written his mother’s name, but then had drawn a line through it.

Eight bartenders were listed for a hundred dollars each and six waitresses for fifty each. One blond hatcheck girl who worked at an Italian restaurant near the Desert Inn was down for two hundred dollars. So were two pit bosses at the Araby Casino. The concierge at his condominium building was good for one hundred and so was the woman who cleaned their apartment three times a week. Another nineteen hundred dollars.

He decided not to include on the list Cora, his ex-wife, whose last words to him had been “I hope you melt in a nuclear accident,” and his mother, whose last words to him were, unfortunately, never the last.

He doubted if his kids, What’s-his-name and the girl, had any money. If they did, he doubted that they would lend it to him. He was sure that Tugboat Annie had poisoned their minds against him, just because of pettiness, just because he didn’t do sappy sentimental things like visit them or write them or call them. Women were ungrateful wretches, he thought, which brought him to the most ungrateful wretch of all. Chico.

They had been together now for four years, and on a scale of zero to ten, those years were sevens. This wasn’t a low mark, Trace thought, because he could not remember another year in his life that was higher than a three, which meant that he could have spent most years entirely in bed and not have missed a thing worth remembering.

Trace added up the list. Three thousand five hundred dollars. It wasn’t that he didn’t have friends, he realized. He had lots of friends. His trouble was that none of his friends had any money. All his friends were bartenders or waitresses or degenerate gamblers. The rare insurance-company president, who might have had real money, was a drunk and he wasn’t good for anything.

He did some calculation. He was anywhere between sixty-five hundred and fourteen thousand five hundred short of what he needed.

Chico could make up the difference with a sweep of her magic pen and magic checkbook. He ordered another Finlandia by pointing to his empty glass. Of course. Chico would have to make up his shortfall. That was that. They had been together too many years now and she owed him.

A voice inside him whispered, She doesn’t want to invest in a restaurant. She’s afraid of losing her savings.

There’s no way to lose here, Trace told the voice.

She doesn’t believe that, the voice said.

Stop throwing obstacles in my path. Trace responded. She will lend me the money

Be realistic the voice insisted

All right, Trace conceded. Maybe she won’t lend me all the money, but she’ll lend me a lot of it.

Put her down on the list, then But be realistic the voice cautioned.

Trace wrote the name “Chico” down on his list. He paused for a long time, the ballpoint pen stolen from the lawyer’s office poised over the paper

Realistic? Realistic would be that she would acknowledge her gratitude to him for dragging her naked out of a hallway and lend him all the money he needed.

He sighed and marked her down for one hundred dollars.

The woman had no character; she belonged working in a geisha house.

He drank his vodka and crumpled the napkin into a lump and dropped it into the ashtray Life sucked

 

 

Two messages had been slipped under the door of his room. One read Call Walter Marks” Trace threw that one away He didn’t want to talk to a man who wouldn’t lend him money The other read. “Please call E.L.V.”

Again? Was the woman insatiable? Didn’t she realize that if he spent all his time in bed, he would have no time for drinking or for commerce?

It was time to end this romance before she got too dependent on him, he decided. He dialed her number. After a week of rejection, it might feel good to reject someone else for a change.

“Hello, Elvira. Listen, I…I want you to know—”

“Trace, they had a visitor across the street,” the woman interrupted.

“Oh? Who?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see him real good. It was some guy with dark hair. I was in the house and I just glanced out and saw him and Ferdinand at the gate. Then about a half-hour later, I saw two cars come out.”

“His car?”

“Yeah. A red Mercedes convertible and the station wagon.”

“See who was driving?” Trace asked.

“No. It was too dark for that. Is this good stuff I’m getting for you or what?”

“Real good,” Trace said.

“Listen, Trace, there’s something else.”

“What’s that?”

“I won’t be able to see you anymore. My husband will be home tomorrow.”

“That’s a fine how-do-you-do,” Trace said. “You’re dropping me like a hot potato?”

“Well, when my husband’s home. You going to be around next week?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Then I guess this is good-bye,” Elvira said.

“I guess so,” Trace said sullenly.

BOOK: Once a Mutt (Trace 5)
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