Friday, May 18, 2007

Dirty Work -- Part I

by Renee Holland Davidson

Ten minutes before closing time on a Friday night, and in swept this babe, a classy-looking broad with enough karats on her fingers to choke a rabbit.

"Sam Stickman?"

"That's me, Honey. Who's asking?"

She slow-strutted across the office, giving me plenty of time to take in the action: bare legs tanned golden, stiletto-heeled black patent leather sandals, toenails painted maraschino red. "I'm Jessica," she purred.

She dropped a handful of C-notes on my desk along with a headshot of a smarmy-looking dude. "No contract, no records." She paused. "That's my husband. I want him followed. For months now, he's been coming home late with nothing but lame excuses for company."

What kind of sap stepped out on a skirt like this? She was an eyeful, all right, packed real tight in a white silk number, curves in all the right places. Reminded me of my old lady--way back when. Yeah, the broad was a class act once, but that show closed a long time ago.

I stared at the picture on my desk--gray strands slicked down in a kamikaze comb-over, a bulbous nose, and double-decker chin, old enough to be her father's older brother.

She saw the confusion in my eyes, fingered the almond-sized diamond that hung from a trio of gold chains around her neck. "No man makes a fool out of me, not for any price."

I hated this track-down-the-philanderer crap--bad karma between blood brothers and all that. But it was damn hard to refuse those sultry eyes. Besides, wifey had been keeping her claws tight on the purse strings lately, and my wallet was light. Only be a matter of time, she promised, Daddy Dearest would be wheezing his last breath soon, and then we'd be coasting Easy Street. In the meantime, we were rough-riding the potholes.

I shrugged and pulled out my notebook. "Have a seat, Miss Jessica."

She sat, her skirt riding so high, Sharon Stone would've winced.

I forced myself to concentrate on the blue-lined paper in front of me, jotted down the information she rattled off: addresses, phone numbers, car make and license plate. Hubby had packed for a weekend business trip that morning, said he was leaving straight from the city, after a late dinner meeting at Romano's on Fifth and Alder.

When she was finished, I stood up. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"I'll be out of town for a few days. I'll call you when I get back.

"Fine." I held out my hand.

Her touch was cool, her fingernails sharp. A slight nod, and then she turned and sauntered toward the door, hips switching from side to side. She stopped in the doorway and looked over her shoulder. One eyelid slid down in a slow wink, a miniscule upturn of the lips, and then she gently closed the door behind her.

I exhaled a long, low whistle, grabbed my handkerchief from my breast pocket and mopped my forehead. Collapsing into my chair, I yanked open my desk drawer, pulled out a fifth of whiskey and revived myself with a stiff shot.

When I got home, Phoebe was yapping on the phone. She hung up the minute I walked into the kitchen, her face flushed red as a tomato.

I threw my jacket over a kitchen chair. “What’s wrong?”

Phoebe brushed a swath of bottle blonde from her face with the back of her hand. Her fingernails had grown half an inch since morning and turned Pepto-Bismol pink in the process. “That Emma, you know how she riles me.” She pecked me on the check and I gave her neck a nibble, but she pushed me away. “Not now!” She stomped over to the stove, picked up a lid and started stirring like she was paddling upstream in a hurricane. "She's asking to borrow money, again. Just a couple of hundred, she says--like it's nothing."

At one time, it was nothing--back in the days when she was still Phoebe Moore, only child born to an over-the-hill Texan oil tycoon and an under-the-sheets Vegas showgirl who'd first partied her way to Moore's bedroom, and three years later, to the high-rent district at Forest Lawn.

My Phoebe, once sweet as cherry pie, without daddy's dough, she'd hardened to a bitter crust.

Her eyes were glued to the murky brown stew she’d whipped into a tidal wave. "You've got to call her, Sam. Tell her we don't have it."

Phoebe liked to call me good-for-nothing, but I was always good enough to do her dirty work. Haggle with the bill collectors, snake the stopped-up sewer line, explain to her money-mooching cousin we weren't Dialing for Dollars.

"I'll call her later." I watched her at the stove; all four burners were fired up. "Don't tell me we're having company for dinner." Just what I needed, one of her gabby friends nattering in my ear.

"No, I'm cooking for the Jamisons. Shelly's doing my nails this month."

Phoebe belonged to some bartering club. Bunch of broads met a couple of times a month, swapped cooking for cleaning, haircuts for sewing, who knows what else.

I planted myself in the nearest kitchen chair, tilting on the back legs. She usually hated when I did that, but tonight, no reaction. “Got an out-of-town job," I said. "Leaving tonight, should be back in a day or two."

"What kind of job?"

"How many times I gotta tell you, Phoebe? Can't say." Sure, I could've said, but a man needs a little breathing space.

She skewered me with an icy stare, then turned her back on me. "Fine, I've got my own plans, anyway."

"Yeah, like what?"

Crimson lips curled into a smirk. "Can't say."

After dinner, I poured oil-black coffee into a thermos, wrapped up a couple hunks of leftover cornbread, smacked Phoebe on the cheek, and headed for the garage. I checked the trunk, taking a quick inventory of the overnight bag I always kept there, then slid behind the wheel.

Romano's Ristorante took up two-thirds of the bottom floor of Overton Hotel. I'd been inside the place a couple of times--clattering silverware and clinking glasses dueled with business chatter. Stuffed suits hashed out deals in high-backed booths, and, rumor had it, even more deals got banged out in deluxe suites on the upper floors.

I pulled into the deserted parking lot of a beauty shop across the street, pulled my cell phone from the visor, and punched in the hotel's number.

"Overton Hotel, how may I direct your call?"

"Put me through to Carl Rickert's room, please."

"I'm sorry. There's no one registered by that name."

I pushed "end," then called the restaurant and asked for Rickert again. Gnashed my teeth through five minutes of smooth jazz, Muzak-style.

"Rickert here." Deep voice with a don't-like-interruptions edge.

I flipped the phone closed and glanced at my Timex--ten after seven. If Jessica was paranoid, and hubby was humping nothing but a pile of business contracts, it could be a long night. I'd need some company.

I fumbled under the passenger seat searching for my ole buddy, Jack Daniels; found nothing but a tattered Thomas Guide and a crushed fortune cookie still in its plastic wrapper. What the hell? I'd just cracked open a new bottle last Saturday night, a couple of snorts to fortify myself for some Midsummer Night crap Phoebe had dragged me to. A bunch of fairies in tights and face powder, spouting Shakespeare and prancing around, faces screwed-up looking like they needed a healthy dose of Ex-Lax.

I knew I shouldn't have trusted that skew-eyed valet. Put a red vest on a Burger King reject and watch all the suckers line up to hand him their keys and a fiver to boot. Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Shit! What kind of idiot was I? I punched open the glove box; yup, it was gone--the lock-picking kit I'd shelled out 150 smackeroos for. What else was missing? I fished around, hunting for the switchblade I'd procured a couple years back--a donation from a baby-faced mugger wannabe. One swift, well-placed kick to the family jewels, and the kid had dropped the knife, clutched his gonads, and whimpered off.

I sighed; the blade was history. Guess I was lucky I still had the car.

Part II