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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - BEFORE
Chapter 5 - NORA
Chapter 6 - DANTE
Chapter 10 - NORA
Chapter 14 - DANTE
Chapter 18 - NORA
Chapter 22 - DANTE
Chapter 26 - NORA
Chapter 29 - DANTE
Chapter 31 - DANTE
Chapter 32 - AFTER
ALSO BY SUE GRAFTON
ALSO BY SUE GRAFTON
Kinsey Millhone mysteries
A is for Alibi
B is for Burglar
C is for Corpse
D is for Deadbeat
E is for Evidence
F is for Fugitive
G is for Gumshoe
H is for Homicide
I is for Innocent
J is for Judgment
K is for Killer
L is for Lawless
M is for Malice
N is for Noose
O is for Outlaw
P is for Peril
Q is for Quarry
R is for Ricochet
S is for Silence
T is for Trespass
U is for Undertow
A MARIAN WOOD BOOK
Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publishers Since 1838
a member of the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England
Copyright © 2011 by Sue Grafton All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
“V” is for vengeance / Sue Grafton
“A Marian Wood Book.”
1. Millhone, Kinsey (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women private investigators—California—Fiction.
3. Theft—Fiction. 4. Organized crime—Fiction. 5. Murder—Fiction. 6. Revenge—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
This one is for the Humphrey clan to honor all the years we’ve been together.
Chuck and Theresa
Pam and Jim
Peter, Joanna, and baby Olivia
Kathy and Ron
and, of course, my darling Steven
The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of the following people: Steven Humphrey; Jay and Marsha Glazer; Barbara Toohey; Lieutenant Paul McCaffrey, Santa Barbara Police Department; Sergeant Detective Bill Turner (retired), Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department; and Chief of Police Deb Linden, San Luis Obispo; Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times; Renn Murrell, funeral director, Arch Heady & Son Funeral Directors; Dana Hanson, funeral director, Neptune Society; Kelly Petersen, manager, and Cherry Post, Andi Doyle, and Emily Rosendahl of Wendy Foster; Steve Bass; Tracy Pfautch, former manager, Mall Security, Paseo Nuevo, Santa Barbara; Matt Phar, Santa Barbara Loan and Jewelry; Lisa Holt, Kevin Frantz, and Liz Gastiger.
Phillip Lanahan drove to Vegas in his 1985 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet, a snappy little red car his parents had given him two months before, when he graduated from Princeton. His stepfather bought the car secondhand because he abhorred the notion of depreciation. Better that the original owner take that hit. The car was in pristine condition, with 15,000 miles on the odometer, a black leather interior, fully accessorized, with four brand-new tires. The car could jump from 0 to 60 in 5.4 seconds.
With the top down, he hugged the coastline and then continued traveling east through Los Angeles on the 10. From the 10 he picked up the 15, which took him straight into Vegas. The sun was harsh and the wind whipped his hair to a wild tangle of black. At the age of twenty-three, he knew he was good-looking and he carried the knowledge like a rabbit’s foot for luck. His face was lean, clean-shaven; his dark eyebrows straight; ears tucked close to his head. He wore jeans and a short-sleeve black polo shirt. His white linen sport coat lay folded beside him on the passenger’s seat. In his duffel he had ten grand in hundred-dollar bills, compliments of a loan shark he’d recently met.
This was his third trip to Vegas in as many weeks. The first time, he’d played poker at Caesars Palace, which, though vulgar and overblown, had everything you’d ever want in one sprawling complex. That trip had been magical. He could do no wrong. The cards fell into place, one hand after another. He read his opponents, picking up tells so subtle he felt psychic. He’d driven to Vegas with three thousand dollars he’d pulled from a savings account and he’d run it up to eight with no sweat.
The second trip had started out well but then he lost his nerve. He’d returned to Caesars, thinking the same gut-level instincts would come into play, but his reads were off, the cards wouldn’t come, and he couldn’t regain ground. He left the casino a miserable five grand down. Thus the meeting with the loan shark, Lorenzo Dante, who (according to Phillip’s friend Eric) referred to himself as a “financier.” Phillip assumed the term was meant tongue-in-cheek.
He’d been uneasy about the appointment. In addition to Eric’s filling him in on Dante’s sordid past, he’d assured Phillip the exorbitant fees for the loan were what he called “industry” standard. Phillip’s stepfather had drilled into him the need to negotiate all monetary matters, and Phillip knew he’d have to tackle the issue before he and Dante came to an agreement. He couldn’t tell his parents what he was up to, but he did appreciate his stepfather’s counsel in absentia. He didn’t like the man much, though he had to admit he admired him.
He’d met Dante in his office in downtown Santa Teresa. The space was impressive, all glass and high-gloss teak, leather-upholstered furniture, and soft gray wall-to-wall carpeting. The receptionist had greeted him warmly and buzzed him through. A sexy brunette in tight jeans and spike heels had met him at the door and escorted him past ten interior offices to a large corner suite at the end of the corridor. Everyone he caught sight of was young and casually dressed. He imagined a cadre of tax attorneys, as well as accountants, financial hotshots, paralegals, and administrative assistants. Dante was under indictment on racketeering charges, and Phillip had expected an atmosphere both tense and sinister. He’d worn an expensive sport coat, thinking to show respect, but now he realized the image was all wrong. Everyone he saw wore casual attire, stylish but understated. He felt like a kid dressing up in his daddy’s clothes, hoping to be taken for an adult.
The brunette showed him into the office, and Dante leaned forward across the desk to shake hands, then motioned Phillip into a seat. Phillip was startled by the man’s good looks. He was in his midfifties, a big guy, probably six foot two, and handsome: soulful brown eyes, curly gray hair, dimples, and a cleft in his chin. He appeared to be in great shape. The warm-up conversation had covered Phillip’s recent graduation from Princeton, his dual major (business and economics), and his job prospects. Dante listened with apparent interest, prompting him now and then. Actually, nothing in the way of employment had materialized as yet, but the less said about that the better. Phillip spoke about his options, not mentioning he’d been forced to move back in with his parents. That was too lame to bear thinking about. Phillip began to relax, though his palms were still damp.
Dante said, “You’re Tripp Lanahan’s boy.”
“You knew my dad?”
“Not well, but he did me a good turn once upon a time . . .”
“Excellent. I’m glad to hear that.”
“. . . Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“I appreciate your time.”
“Your friend Eric says you’re quite the poker player.”
Phillip shifted in his seat, steering a course between modest and boastful. “I played all through college, starting my freshman year at Princeton.”
Dante smiled and his dimples flashed briefly. “No need to mention Princeton again. I know where you went to school. Was this high stakes or you taking change off a bunch of donkeys at some frat house?”
“Actually, I played in Atlantic City and picked up enough change most weekends to cover my expenses.”
“You didn’t work your way through school?”
“I didn’t need to.”
“Lucky you,” Dante said, “though, just off the top of my head, poker parlors couldn’t be the lifestyle your dad had in mind for you.”
“Well, no, sir. I expect to work. That’s why I got my degree. At this point, I’m just not sure what I want to do.”
“But you’ll decide soon.”
“I hope. I mean, that’s certainly my intention.” Under his sport coat, Phillip felt his shirt dampen, sticking to his back. There was something fearsome about the man, almost as though there were two of him, the one benevolent, the other pitiless. On the surface he seemed affable, but underneath, a shadow personality was in play, prickly and sharp. Phillip was anxious, uncertain from moment to moment which of the two he was dealing with. Now Dante’s smile faded and the alternate took over. Maybe it was in business matters that Dante became dangerous.
“And you’ve come to me for what?”
“Eric says you sometimes advance him cash if he’s experiencing a shortfall situation. I was hoping you’d do the same for me.”
Dante’s tone was pleasant, but the benevolence didn’t reach his eyes. “A sideline of mine. I lend money to people the banks won’t touch. For this I charge fees and administrative costs. How much are you looking for?”
Dante stared at him. “Lot of money for a kid.”
Phillip cleared his throat. “Well, ten . . . you know, ten gives me breathing room. That’s how I look at it, at any rate.”
“I take it Eric explained my terms.”
Phillip shook his head. “Not entirely. I thought I should hear it from you.”
“The charge is twenty-five dollars per hundred per week, payable along with the principal when the note comes due.”
Phillip’s mouth was dry. “That seems steep.”
Dante opened his bottom drawer and pulled out a sheath of papers. “If you like, you can take your chances at the Bank of America two blocks down State. I’ve got the application forms right here.” He tossed a BofA loan application on the desk.
“Hey, no. I understand and I appreciate the position you’re in. You have expenses like everybody else.”
Dante made no response.
Phillip leaned forward, trying for solid eye contact, two men of the world getting down to business. “I’m wondering if twenty-five per hundred is the best you can do?”
“‘The best I can do’? You want to haggle with me?”
“Oh, no, sir. Not at all. That’s not what I meant. I just thought there might be some wiggle room.” He could feel the heat as a belated flush crept into his cheeks.
“Based on what? Our long and productive association? Your prowess at the table? Word has it, you got stuck for five grand at Caesars last week. You want my ten so you can recoup your losses and run up the rest. You think you’ll pay me off, including the juice, and keep the balance for yourself. Is that about it?”
“Actually, that’s how I’ve done it in the past.”
“‘Actually’ you can kiss my ass. All I care about is getting my money back.”
“Absolutely. No problem. You have my word.”
Dante stared at him until he looked away. “How much time are we talking here?”
Dante reached over and flipped a page on his desk calendar. “Monday, August 11.”
“That’d be great.”
Dante made a note.
Phillip hesitated, unsure what came next. “Is there paperwork?”
“An IOU or contract you want me to sign?”
Dante waved off the idea. “Don’t worry about it. Gentlemen’s agreement. We shake hands and it’s done. Check with Nico on your way out and he’ll give you the cash.”
“I mean that.”
“You can thank your old man. I’m returning a kindness from way back,” Dante said. “Speaking of which, I have a friend in management at Binion’s. You play there, he’ll comp you a room. You can tell him I said so.”
“I’ll do that, and thank you so much.”
Dante stood up and Phillip followed suit. As they shook hands, Phillip felt himself breathing a sigh of relief. In his fantasy, he’d played hardball with the vig, and Dante had come down two percentage points, impressed by his bargaining skills. Now he felt sheepish having broached the subject with a man of Dante’s reputation. He was lucky he hadn’t been thrown out on his ass. Or worse.
As though on cue, the door opened and the brunette appeared.
“One word of advice . . .” Dante added.
“Don’t mess up. You dick with me, you’ll be sorry.”
“Got it. I’m good for it. I guarantee.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Binion’s had seen better days, but Phillip’s room was nice enough. Looked clean at any rate. He dropped his duffel, put seven of his ten-grand stake in his pocket, and went down to the floor, where he traded the cash for chips. He spent a few minutes circling the poker room, getting a feel for the place. He was in no particular hurry. He was looking for a loose table, one where a lot of money was being tossed out on each hand. He bypassed a table where the player with all the chips in front of him wore a Rolex watch. Forget that. The guy was either too wealthy or too good, and Phillip didn’t want to go up against him.
He paused at a table filled with seniors who’d been bussed in from a retirement home. They wore matching T-shirts, red with the silhouette of a setting sun in white. Play was passive, the betting haphazard, and one elderly woman had trouble remembering how hands were ranked. The guy next to her kept saying, “Alice, for god’s sake. How many times I gotta tell you, flush beats a straight and a full house beats a flush.” Small chip stacks at a table like that would probably take him weeks to get unstuck.
Once he’d made the rounds, he had the board person put his name on the list for the no-limit game on table number 4 or 8. This was No-Limit Texas Hold’em with a five-grand buy-in, rich stakes for his blood, but it was the only way he could think of to recoup his losses and put himself back on top. He preferred to play at the even-numbered tables, four being his lucky number. The first opening was seat 8 at table number 8, which he decided to view as a good omen, both being multiples of four. Phillip placed his chips to his right and ordered a vodka tonic. There were six guys already in the game and he entered in late position, which gave him a nice preview of the action. He let a couple of hands go by, showing discipline by folding on a jack-queen and then a pair of 5’s. Small pocket pairs, which rarely hit the flop, were tempting to bet and therefore dangerous.
Playing with borrowed money, he felt a certain burden to perform. Ordinarily, he liked the pressure of play because it sharpened his wits. Now he found himself tossing in hands that on other occasions he might have pushed. He picked up a small pot on two pair, and six hands later won fifteen hundred dollars on a wheel. He hadn’t lost anything to speak of, four hundred dollars max, and he felt himself grow calmer as the vodka flowed into his system. While the long, dull stretch was unproductive, it gave him the chance to watch how the others at the table operated.
The fat fellow in the blue shirt too small for him affected boredom when he had a strong hand, implying it was a bust and he could hardly wait to get it over with. There was a pinch-faced older man in a gray sport coat, whose every gesture was contained. When he looked at his cards, he barely lifted the corners, glanced at them once, and then stared off in the opposite direction. Phillip kept an eye on him, watching for involuntary tells. There was a fellow in a green flannel shirt, built like a lumberjack, who called anytime he thought he was behind in the hand, hoping to hit some good board cards. Phillip wasn’t worried about the remaining three, who were either too tight or too timid to constitute a threat.
He played for an hour, pulling in five more small pots. He hadn’t hit his rhythm, but he knew patience would pay off. The older man left his seat and a woman sat down, a pale blonde in her forties with a scar across her chin. She was either drunk, an amateur, or the worst poker player he’d ever seen. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, puzzled by her erratic play. He lost an eight-hundred-dollar pot to her when he misread a bluff. Then he overestimated her by folding when he should have hung in. It occurred to him she might fall into another category altogether, that of a seasoned pro and superb actress, far tougher than she first appeared. The signals were mixed. He red-flagged her in his mind and focused on his cards, letting his awareness of her fade into the background. There was a particular kind of quiet he experienced when the game started working for him. It was like being in a sound booth. He picked up table talk, but only from a distance and with no impact.
After two hours, he was up two grand and just beginning to sail into the zone. He was dealt the ace of hearts and the 4 of clubs. Ordinarily, he’d have dumped his hand at that point, but he could feel a whisper of intuition, an uncanny feeling something might be coming up for him. The blonde, sitting in early position, was operating largely in the dark, with no hint of what lay ahead. With a weak hand, she could always steal a pot by betting, but in the long run she’d lose money. In this case, she glanced at her hole cards and made a big bet pre-flop, which suggested pocket rockets—two aces, affectionately known as “bullets.” Chances of getting a pair of aces in the hole were approximately 1 in 220 hands.
The fat guy called. The guy in the green flannel shirt pondered his options while he aligned the stacks of chips in front of him. He called, but without conviction. Phillip had an urge to look at his hole cards again, but he knew exactly what they were. He tested his gut-level instincts and decided he’d call for one round and fold the next if nothing developed. The button seat, the small blind, and the big blind folded without putting up a fight.
The dealer burned the top card and the flop came down 3 of diamonds, 5 of spades, and the 2 of spades, and Phillip felt his heart skip. He was suddenly looking at a wheel. Ace-2-3-4-5. He watched the betting as it went around the table, gauging the strength of the other players’ hands. The woman checked that round, as did the fat guy and the guy in the green flannel shirt. Phillip bet, taking control of the hand. The betting went around again and everybody called him. The dealer burned a card. The turn was the ace of spades. The blonde bet, suggesting three of a kind or a flush. A set he could beat. He revised his original assessment. With one ace in his hand, one ace on the board, and seven players sitting at the start of the deal, the odds were she wasn’t holding the remaining pair of aces. He flicked a look at her, but couldn’t get a reading. She tended to play with a slight smile on her face, as though reacting to a private joke. He had a stepsister like her, superior, competitive, taunting. He never could get the best of her and it galled him. Phillip set the thought aside and concentrated on the play. The fat guy and the guy in the green flannel shirt folded. Phillip called.
When the river came down, it was the 8 of spades, making a flush for her a distinct possibility, in which case his straight wouldn’t mean shit. Essentially his hand hadn’t improved since the flop came down, but what did that mean? He could still be high man at the table. The question was whether to push, and if so, how hard. There were only two of them left in the hand. The blonde bet. He raised and the blonde re-raised. What kind of monster hand did she have? He tried to keep his mind blank, but he knew a fine sheen of sweat had appeared on his face and there was no way to disguise the tell. He counted eight grand in the pot. If he called, it was going to cost him two grand, which meant the pot odds were four to one. Not bad. If he won, he’d pick up four times what the call had cost him. All eyes were on him. His hand was good, but not that good. She had to have a flush or a set. He’d been on a winning tear, but he knew it couldn’t last. He probably shouldn’t have gone this far, but he hated to back away from her. For all he knew, she was laying a trap for him and this was his last chance to dodge. Agonizingly, he pushed his hole cards toward the center, mucking his hand. The dealer pushed the pot to the blonde and she pulled it in, smiling her enigmatic smile.
He tried telling himself it was a poker hand, not a pissing contest between him and the woman across the table. It was the smirk that got to him. He stared at her. “Was that a bluff?”
“I don’t have to tell you,” she said.
“I know. I’m curious. Were you holding a flush or a set?”
She raised two fingers, as though making a peace sign. “Two cards, a jack and a six.”
He felt the blood drain from his face. She’d outfoxed him and his rage was keen. Mentally, he shook himself off. No point in chiding himself. What was done was done. Though it had cost him, he’d learned a valuable lesson and he’d use it next time he went up against her.
He took a break, leaving his chips on the table while he went up to his room. Once there, he took a piss, washed his hands and face, and picked up the rest of his stake, which he then turned into chips when he returned to the poker room.
After six additional hours of play, there was serious money on the table—maybe fifteen grand. He hadn’t seen the blonde leave the table for so much as a bathroom break or a breath of fresh air. Her betting was aggressive and unpredictable. He didn’t like her at all and her recklessness was getting on his nerves.
The next hand, he was dealt pocket aces. The flop came down: 2 of diamonds, then the 10 of diamonds, and the ace of clubs. He and the blonde were suddenly engaged again, upping each other’s bets. The turn was the queen of diamonds. The river was the 2 of spades, which put a pair on the board. He figured the woman had pocket kings or queens. If she held a king and a jack or two diamonds, she’d be looking at a straight or a flush.
He had a full house, aces full of 2’s, and that hand would beat either. He locked eyes with the blonde. More than anything in the world, he wanted to grind her face into the felt. She was bluffing again. He knew she was. He was right back at the same place he’d been six hours before, only this time his hand was strong.
He sat there trying to anticipate what she held. Any way he looked at it, he was in the superior position. He studied the cards on the table, imagining every possible combination, given what he could see and the pocket aces he knew he had. She was bluffing. She had to be. He raised—nothing dramatic because he didn’t want her backing away. She hesitated and then matched his bet and raised him another two hundred. He was going to make a mistake. He could feel it in his bones. But which way would his error lie? Would he fold as he had before and let her take a pot like that with a piss-poor hand? Or would he push her to the wall? Was he underestimating her hand? He didn’t see how he could be, but he’d lost touch with his intuition. He couldn’t reason. His mind was empty. When he was on a roll he could see the cards. It was like having X-ray vision. The odds would dance in his head like sugarplum fairies and he’d feel the magic at work. Now all he could take in was the green felt and the harsh lights and the cards, which lay there inert and whispered nothing to him. If he picked up this pot he was home free. He could picture it, his holding to etiquette and not reaching for the pot at first even though it was his. The dealer would push the chips in his direction. He wouldn’t even look at the blonde, because who cared about her? This was his moment. Doubt had obscured his initial fleeting instincts. He couldn’t remember what his gut had been telling him. Time seemed to stretch. She was waiting, and the dealer waited, and the other players measured his chances in the same way he did. If he won the pot, he’d quit. He made a promise to himself. He’d get up, collect his winnings, and walk out a free man.
She was a woman who bluffed. She’d gotten him once and if she was a killer, she’d do it again. What were the chances of the two of them going head-to-head like this and her bluffing a second time? How much nerve did she have? How calculating was she? She wouldn’t do that, would she? He had to make a decision. He felt like he was standing on a ten-meter board, teetering on the brink, trying to work up the courage to go flying off the edge. Fuck it, he thought, and he went all in. He was not going to let the bitch get the best of him.
He turned over his pocket cards, watching every player at the table put the hand together: pocket aces, plus an ace of clubs and the pair of 2’s on the table, giving him his full house. The look she turned on him was odd. He didn’t understand until he caught sight of the cards she’d fanned out in front of her. There was a collective intake of breath. She was holding pocket 2’s. Adding those to the 2’s on the table gave her four of a kind. He stared with disbelief. Pocket deuces? Nobody pushed pre-flop with a pair like that. She had to be insane. But there they sat, four 2’s . . . four sharp arrows in his heart.
The dealer said nothing. He pushed the blonde’s winnings forward and she gathered them in. Phillip was in shock, so convinced the hand was his that he couldn’t absorb the fact of her four of a kind. What kind of lunatic held on to pocket 2’s and pushed all the way to the end? His mouth was dry and his hands had started to shake. The gaze she fixed on him was nearly sexual, soft with satisfaction. She’d played him and just as he thought he’d gotten off, she pulled the rug out from under him again. He got up abruptly and left the table. Of his original ten grand, he had four hundred dollars in chips.
He took the elevator to the fourth floor, surprised when he realized it was dark outside. His hands shook so badly, it took him two tries to get his key to work. He locked the door behind him and stripped off his clothes, leaving a trail across the floor: shoes, socks, pants, shirt. He smelled of flop sweat. In the bathroom, he dropped two Alka-Seltzers into a glass of water and drank down the still-fizzing mix. He showered and shaved, then pulled on the hotel robe, a white terry cloth garment that hit him at the knee and gaped unbecomingly when he perched on the edge of the bed. He punched in the number for room service, ordering an Angus steak sandwich, medium rare, hand-cut fries, and two beers.
Forty-five minutes passed before the food arrived and by then both the fries and the steak were cold. The beef was choice instead of prime and too tough to bite through. He’d had to discard the bun and cut the meat with his steak knife. He chewed until the meat was a flavorless wad. He had no appetite. He was sick at heart. He pushed the cart to one side. He’d nap for an hour and then go down to the casino and try his luck again. He really had no choice. With four hundred dollars in chips, he had no idea how he’d get back on top, but there was no way he’d leave town without Dante’s money in hand.
There was a knock at the door. He glanced at the clock. 9:25. He’d had the presence of mind to put the Do Not Disturb sign on the outside knob and he was tempted to ignore the intrusion. Probably a complimentary fruit bowl or a bottle of bad wine. Amenities of that sort were always delivered at odd hours when you had no use for them. The knock came again. He crossed the room and put an eye to the spy hole.
Dante was standing in the corridor. Phillip could see two more men approaching from down the hall. When he’d returned to his room earlier, he’d flipped the dead bolt into the locked position and swung the elongated V of the safety lock into place. What were the chances of the three going away if he didn’t answer the door? Dante had no way of knowing he was in his room. He might have gone out without removing the plastic tag that hung over the knob. He debated briefly and decided it was better to face him. His only hope was to ask for an extension. Dante would almost have to agree. What else was he going to do? Phillip didn’t have the money and if he didn’t have it, he didn’t have it.
Phillip undid the locks and opened the door.
Dante said, “I was beginning to think you weren’t here.”
“Sorry about that. I was on the phone.”
There was a moment of silence.
“You going to let me in?” Dante asked. His tone was mild, but Phillip detected the edge.
“Of course. Absolutely.”
Phillip stepped back and Dante entered the room, with his two companions sauntering in behind him. The door was left open and Phillip didn’t like the feeling that anyone passing down the hall could see in. He felt vulnerable, barefoot, wearing the hotel robe, which barely covered his knees. His clothes were still strewn across the floor. The remains of dinner on his room-service tray smelled strongly of ketchup and cold fries.
Dante wore a dove gray silk shirt, open at the collar, and fawn-colored slacks. His loafers and belt were made of the same honey leather. The two men with him were more casually dressed.
Dante nodded at one. “My brother, Cappi,” he said. “That’s Nico. You met him.”
“I remember. Nice seeing you again,” Phillip said. Neither man acknowledged him.
Cappi was in his forties, a good eight years younger than his brother; five foot nine, maybe, to Dante’s height of six two. He was fair, his hair an unruly thatch of dark blond, spiked with gel. He had a fashionable two-day growth of beard, light eyes, and a jaw that jutted forward slightly. The malocclusion offset his otherwise good looks. He wasn’t the same natty dresser as his brother. Where Dante’s clothes were high quality and tailored to fit, Cappi’s gray-and-black polyester shirt was worn loose over stone-washed jeans. Phillip wondered if he carried a gun.
Nico, the third guy, was heavyset and soft, wearing jeans and a T-shirt too tight for his bulging gut. Cappi moved to the open door while Nico popped his head into the bathroom, checking to see that it was empty. Dante crossed to the window and turned to survey the accommodations, taking in the eight-foot cottage-cheese ceiling, the furnishings, the drab wall-to-wall carpeting, the fourth-floor view. He said, “Not bad. Wouldn’t hurt ’em to sink serious money into the place.”
Phillip said, “It’s nice. I appreciate your putting in a good word for me.”
“They treating you well?”
“Great. Couldn’t be better.”
“Glad to hear that,” Dante said. “I flew in an hour ago. It’s been a while since I was here and I figured as long as I was in the neighborhood, I’d see what you were up to.”
Phillip couldn’t think of an appropriate response so he said nothing. He watched to see which Dante was in evidence, the kind man or the hidden one with his malicious heart and dead eyes. He thought the good one was in charge, but he knew better than to make assumptions.
Dante leaned against the chest of drawers. “So how’s it going? You said you’d be coming in to see me. We had a date. What was it, August 11? Day before yesterday.”
“I know. Sorry I didn’t make it, but something came up.”
There was a moment’s pause while Dante absorbed the news. He didn’t seem upset. “Happens to all of us. A phone call would have been nice, but here you are.” His manner was casual, as though he couldn’t have cared less. Phillip felt a cautious relief. He’d been aware of the deadline he’d missed and half expected Dante to make a fuss.
He said, “I appreciate your understanding.”
“Would you quit with the fucking appreciation? It’s getting on my nerves.”
Dante moved away from the chest of drawers. He put his hands in his trouser pockets and ambled along the periphery of the room, checking the room-service menu still sitting on top of the television set. “What exactly came up? You had a social engagement, something you couldn’t tear yourself away from?”
“I meant to call, but I got sidetracked.”
“Well, that explains everything,” Dante said. “So how’s it going now that you’re on point? You don’t look happy.”
“I played well at first, but I’ve had a stretch of bad luck. I didn’t want to short you so I was waiting until I had the full amount.”
“Fair enough. Which is when?”
“I was just on my way down to the casino. I was at the table all day and came up to rest, you know, freshen up . . .”
“Empty your pockets and let’s see what you’ve got.”
“This is it for now.” He picked up his chips and held them out to Dante, who stared.
“Four hundred dollars’ worth? Out of the ten grand I trusted you with—you got four hundred left? Are you out of your mind? I made you a loan. I told you how much it was going to cost you. Any ambiguity? I don’t think so. You’re into week two and the vig’s up to five grand. What am I supposed to do with this?”
“That’s all I have. I can get the rest of it in a week.”
“I didn’t offer you a layaway plan. You knew the terms of the deal. I did what I could to help you. Now you help me.”
“I’m not able to do that, Mr. Dante. I’m sorry, but I can’t. I feel terrible.”
“As well you should. How do you propose to raise the rest of it? You’ve got no credit left.”
“I was hoping you’d give me an extension.”
“I already did that and this is what I get. You told your parents about the money you owe me?”
“Oh, no, sir. Absolutely not. I promised to give up gambling after they bailed me out last time. I’ll tell ’em if I have to, but I’d prefer not.”
“What about your girlfriend?”
“I told her I was going camping with a friend.”
“You call this camping?” Dante shook his head. “What am I going to do with you? You’re a moron, you know that? Big ego, hot talk, but in the end you’re a putz. You pissed all your money away and now it’s my money you’ve blown. And for what? You think you’re a poker champ? There’s no way. You don’t have the skill, the talent, or the brains. You owe me twenty-six grand.”
Phillip said, “No, no. That’s not right. Is that right?”
“You’re on the hook for my expenses getting over here.”
“Because I came on your account. How else am I going to talk to you when you don’t show up when you said you would? You missed our appointment so I had to come on short notice, which meant chartering a flight. Plus, I got these two goons to pay.”
“I can’t do it. You told me twenty-five dollars per hundred on ten grand . . .”
“I understand, but that’s only five grand. You just said so yourself.”
“Plus interest on the interest, plus the late fees, plus expenses.”
“I don’t have it.”
“You don’t have it. You have nothing of value anywhere in the world. You own nothing. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I could give you my car.”
“Do I look like a guy who owns a used-car lot?”
“Not at all.”
Dante stared at him. “What’s the make and model?”
“1985 Porsche 911, red. It’s worth over thirty thousand dollars. It’s in pristine condition. Perfect.”
“I know the definition of ‘pristine,’ you asshole. What do you owe on it?”
“Nothing. It’s paid for. My parents gave it to me for graduation. I’ll sign the pink slip right now and hand it over to you.”
“And it’s where, this fancy paid-for car of yours?”
“In the parking garage.”
“I parked it myself to save the expense.”
“Well, aren’t you the frugal one. How far up?”
“I ought to have my head examined.” He glanced at his brother. “You two go up with the kid here and take a look at his car, tell me what you think. I want it checked out. Find a local mechanic if you have to.” He turned to Phillip. “The car better be as advertised. I’m running out of patience.”
“I swear it is and thank you.”
“Take a good look at yourself. Time to give up this poker shit and get a job. You’re wasting your life. Are you hearing me?”
“Absolutely. Yes. This will never happen again. It’s been a valuable lesson. I’m out of here. I’m gone. No more poker, I swear. This has been a wake-up call. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Cappi, you take care of this.” Dante dismissed Phillip with a gesture. “Jesus, put some clothes on. You look like a girl.”
All three men looked on without comment as Phillip gathered his clothes. He’d have preferred going into the bathroom to dress in privacy, but he didn’t want to risk another round of verbal abuse. Three minutes later, Cappi, Nico, and Phillip traversed the hotel, bypassing the elevator in favor of the stairs. Phillip said, “Why can’t we take the elevator?”
Cappi stopped so fast, Phillip nearly stumbled into him. Cappi poked him in the chest with his index finger. “Let me tell you something. I’m in charge now, you got that? We do it by the book, no ifs, ands, or buts.”
“I didn’t hear him say we had to walk up.”
Cappi was in his face with his beefy breath. “You know what your problem is? You’re always thinking someone has to make an exception for you. Do it your way, on your terms. That’s not how it works. He says take you up. I’m taking you up. He wants to see how the car drives, okay? He wants to know what kind of shape it’s in. You say pristine, but we only have your word for it. All he knows, it’s a piece of shit.”
Phillip dropped the protest. Ten more minutes and this would all be over with. He’d cash in his four hundred dollars’ worth of chips and buy a bus ticket home. The two began to climb, Phillip clearly out of shape. After two flights he was winded. He had no idea how he’d explain what had happened to his car, but he’d deal with one problem at a time.
They reached the top level of the parking garage. While only six stories high, the night view was dramatic, lights as far as he could see. He spotted the Lady Luck two blocks over, the Four Queens across the street, so close he felt he could reach out and touch the sign. The lot was jammed with vehicles, but the Porsche stood out, gleaming red in the light, not a speck of dust on it. Cappi snapped his fingers. “Lemme see the keys.”
Phillip fumbled in his pants pocket and came up with the car keys. Nico didn’t seem interested. He stood with his arms crossed, looking off to one side like he had better things to do. Phillip thought he’d be the one who looked under the hood, but maybe he didn’t know anything about cars. He doubted Cappi was any kind of expert.
Three guys stepped out of the elevator. Phillip thought they were mechanics or parking attendants until he noticed they wore blue latex gloves. This struck him as odd at first, and then as alarming. He backed up a step, but no one said anything and no one made eye contact. Without a word, they approached and picked him up, one grabbing him under the arms while another was lifting his feet. The third man pulled his wallet from his back pocket and flipped off his shoes. The two men hauled him closer to the parapet and began to swing him back and forth.
Phillip struggled, thrashing, his voice shrill with fear. “What are you doing?”
Irritably, Cappi said, “What’s it look like? Dante says take care of it. I’m taking care of it.”
“Wait! We had a deal. We’re square.”
“Here’s the deal, Fuck Face.”
The men swinging him had built up momentum. He thought they might not be serious. He thought they were trying only to scare him. Then he felt himself hoisted over the rail. Suddenly he was airborne, falling so fast he couldn’t make a sound before he hit the pavement below.
Cappi peered over the wall. “Now we’re square, you little prick.”
So this is how it went down, folks. I turned thirty-eight on May 5, 1988, and my big birthday surprise was a punch in the face that left me with two black eyes and a busted nose. Contributing to the overall effect were the wads of gauze in both nostrils and a fat upper lip. My medical insurance sported me to the services of a plastic surgeon who repaired the old schnozz while I was blissfully sedated.
On my release, I retreated to my studio apartment, where I lay on my sofa, keeping my head elevated to minimize the swelling. This allowed me time to brood about my ill treatment at the hands of a virtual stranger. Five or six times a day, I’d check my reflection in the bathroom mirror, watching handsome red-and-purple bruises migrate from my eye sockets to my cheeks, blood settling in circles as conspicuous as rouge on a clown’s face. I was grateful my teeth had been spared. Even so, I spent days explaining my sudden resemblance to a raccoon.
People kept saying, “Oh, wow! You finally got your nose done. It looks great!”
This was entirely uncalled for as no one had ever complained about my nose before, at least not to my face. My poor snout had been broken on two previous occasions and it never occurred to me that I’d suffer a repetition. Of course, the indignity was my own fault, since I was sticking said nose into someone else’s business when I was so rudely assaulted by a short-arm blow.
The incident that heralded my fate seemed insignificant at first. I was standing in the lingerie department at Nordstrom’s department store, sorting through ladies’ underpants on sale—three pair for ten bucks, a bonanza for someone of my cheap bent. What could be more banal? I don’t like to shop, but I’d seen a half-page ad in the morning paper and decided to take advantage of the bargain prices. It was Friday, April 22, a date I remember because I’d wrapped up a case the day before and I’d spent the morning typing my final report.
For those of you just making my acquaintance, my name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a licensed private detective in Santa Teresa, California, doing business as Millhone Investigations. In the main, I deal with bread-and-butter jobs—background checks, skip tracing, insurance fraud, process serving, and witness location, with the occasional rancorous divorce thrown in for laughs. Not coincidentally, I’m female, which is why I was shopping for ladies’ underwear instead of men’s. Given my occupation, I’m no stranger to crime and I’m seldom surprised by the dark side of human nature, my own included. Further personal data can wait in the interest of getting on with my sad tale of woe. In any event, I have additional groundwork to lay before I reach the stunning moment that did me in.
I left the office early that day and made my usual Friday bank deposit, taking back a portion in cash to carry me over the next two weeks. I drove from the bank to the parking garage under the Passages Shopping Plaza. I generally frequent the low-end chain stores, where aisles are jammed with racks of identical garments, suggesting cheap manufacture in a country unfettered by child labor laws. Nordstrom’s was a palace by comparison, the interior cool and elegant. The floors were gleaming marble tile and the air was scented with designer perfumes. The store directory indicated that women’s intimate apparel was located on 3, and I headed for the escalator.
What caught my eye as I entered the sales area was a display of silk pajamas in a dazzling array of jewel tones—emerald, amethyst, garnet, and sapphire—neatly folded and arranged by size. The original unit price was $199.95, marked down to $49.95. I couldn’t help flirting with the notion of two-hundred-dollar pj’s against my bare skin. Most nights, I sleep in a ratty oversize T-shirt. At $49.95, I could afford to indulge. Then again, I’m single and sleep alone so what would be the point?
I found a table piled with scanties and picked my way through, debating the merits of high-cut briefs versus boy-shorts versus hiphuggers, distinctions that meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t often buy undies, so I’m usually forced to start from scratch. Styles have changed, lines have been discontinued, entire manufacturing plants have apparently burned to the ground. I vowed if I found something I liked, I’d buy a dozen at the very least.
I’d been at it ten minutes and I was already tired of holding lacy scraps across my pelvis to judge the fit. I scanned the area, looking for assistance, but the nearest clerk was busy advising another customer, a hefty woman in her fifties, in spike-heel shoes and a tight black pantsuit that made her thighs and butt bulge unbecomingly. She would have done well to emulate the sales clerk, younger by a good ten years, in her conservative dark blue dress and sensible flats. The two stood in front of a rack of matching lacy bra-and-bikini sets on little plastic hangers. I couldn’t imagine the chunky woman in bikini underwear, but there’s no accounting for taste. It wasn’t until the two parted company that I saw the younger woman’s big leather purse and shopping bag and realized she was simply another customer, shopping for lingerie like everyone else. I returned to my task, decided a size small would do, and gathered an assortment of pastels, adding animal prints until I had forty dollars’ worth.
A girl-child of about three scurried past and concealed herself in the inner recesses of a rack of loungewear, knocking several hangers to the floor. I could hear the raised voice of an anxious mother.
“Portia, where are you?”
There was a movement in the loungewear; Portia wiggling deeper into her hiding place.
The mother appeared at the end of the aisle, a woman in her twenties, probably trying not to sound as anxious as she felt. I raised a hand and pointed at the rack, where I could still see a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes and two sturdy legs.
The mother pushed the clothes aside and dragged the child out by one arm. “Goddamn it! I told you not to move,” she said, and swatted her once on her backside before she retreated to the elevators with the little girl in tow. The child seemed totally unaffected by the reprimand.
A woman standing nearby turned with a disapproving look and said to me, “Disgusting. Someone should call the floor manager. That’s child abuse.”
I shrugged, remembering the many swats I’d endured at my Aunt Gin’s hands. She always assured me she’d really give me something to cry about if I wanted to protest.
My attention was drawn back to the woman in the black pantsuit, who was now peering wistfully at the silk pajamas, much as I had. I confess I took a certain proprietary interest, having lusted after them myself. I glanced at her and then I blinked with disbelief as she slid two pairs of pajamas (one emerald, one sapphire) into her shopping bag. I shifted my gaze, wondering if the strain of panty buying had caused me to hallucinate.
I paused, feigning interest in a rack of house robes while I kept an eye on her. She rearranged the display to disguise the gap where the stolen pajamas had been resting mere moments before. To the average observer, she appeared to be restoring order to an untidy tabletop. I’ve done the same thing myself after rooting through a pile of sweaters in search of my size.
She glanced at me, but by then I was scrutinizing the construction of a house robe I’d removed from the rack. She seemed to take no further notice of me. Her manner was matter-of-fact. If I hadn’t just witnessed the sleight of hand, I wouldn’t have given her another thought.
Except for this one tiny point:
Early in my career, after I’d graduated from the police academy and during my two-year stint with the Santa Teresa Police Department, I’d worked a six-month rotation in property crimes—the unit handling burglaries, embezzlement, auto theft, and retail theft, both petit and grand. Shoplifters are the bane of retail businesses, which lose billions annually in what’s euphemistically referred to as “inventory shrinkage.” My old training kicked in. I noted the time (5:26 P.M.) and studied the woman as though I were already leafing through mug shots, looking for a match. Briefly, I thought back to the younger woman in whose company I’d first seen her. There was no sign of the younger woman now, but it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out they were working in tandem.
With the older woman now in close range, I upgraded her age from midfifties to midsixties. She was shorter than I and probably forty pounds heavier, with short blond hair back-combed to a puff and sprayed to a fare-thee-well. In the clear overhead light, her makeup glowed pink while her neck was stark white. She crossed to a table display of lace teddies, touching the fabrics appreciatively. She checked the whereabouts of the sales staff and then, with her index and middle fingers, she gathered one of the teddies, compressing it into accordion folds until it disappeared like a handkerchief crumpled in her hand. She eased the garment into her shoulder bag and then removed her compact as though that had been her intent. She powdered her nose and made a minor correction to her eye makeup, the teddy now safely deposited in her purse. I glanced at the rack of bras and panties where I’d first seen the two women. The rack had been thinned considerably, and I was guessing she or the other woman had added any number of items to her cache of stolen goods. Not to criticize, but she should have quit while she was ahead.
I went straight to the register. The sales clerk smiled pleasantly as I placed my selection on the counter. Her name tag read CLAUDIA RINES, SALES ASSISTANT. We were nodding acquaintances, in that I saw her from time to time at Rosie’s Tavern, half a block from my apartment. I frequented the place because Rosie was a friend, but I couldn’t think why anyone else would go there, aside from certain undiscerning neighbors of the alcoholic sort. Tourists shunned the restaurant, which was not only shabby and outdated, but devoid of charm; in other words, innately appealing to the likes of me.
Under my breath, I said to Claudia, “Please don’t look now, but the woman over at that table in the black pantsuit just stole a lace teddy and two pairs of silk pajamas.”
She flicked a look at the customer. “The middle-aged blonde?”
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. She turned and picked up the house phone, angling her body so she could keep an eye on the woman while she spoke in low tones. Once alerted, an agent in the security office would check the bank of monitors in front of him, searching for the suspect in question. Strategically placed cameras picked up overlapping views that covered all three floors, forty thousand square feet of retail space. When he had her in view, he could pan, tilt, and zoom to keep her under continuous observation while the loss-prevention officer was dispatched.
Claudia returned the receiver to the cradle, her professional smile still in place. “He’s on his way. He’s one floor down.”
I handed her my credit card and waited while she removed price tags and rang up the sale. She placed my purchases in a shopping bag and came around the end of the counter to hand it to me. She was doubtless as conscious of the shoplifter as I was, though both of us tried not to call attention to the fact that we were tracking her. On the far side of the floor, the elevator doors opened and a man in a dark gray business suit emerged with a walkie-talkie to his lips. He might as well have worn a sandwich board announcing his status as a loss-prevention officer.
He made his way past infant and children’s wear and into lingerie, where he paused to engage Claudia in conversation. She relayed what I’d told her, saying, “This is Mr. Koslo.”
We nodded at each other.
“You’re sure of this?” he asked.
I said, “Quite.” I took out a photocopy of my PI license and placed it on the counter where he could view it. While none of us looked directly at the woman in the pantsuit, I could see the color draining from her face. Shoplifters are nothing if not canny in their assessment of jeopardy. In addition to closed-circuit television cameras, sales staff and the store’s plainclothes floor walkers were all a source of peril. I’d have been willing to bet she had close to a photographic memory of every shopper in the area.
Nearby customers seemed unaware of the drama being played out, but I was transfixed. The shoplifter’s gaze flicked from the loss-prevention officer to the escalators. A direct path would have forced her to walk right past him. I thought a move was ill advised and, apparently, she did too. Better to keep her distance and hope the threat evaporated of its own accord. In most stores, policy dictates that no one make contact with a customer under surveillance as long as she is still on the premises and has the opportunity to pay. For the moment, the woman was safe, though her agitation surfaced in a series of random gestures. She looked at her watch. She glanced toward the ladies’ room. She picked up a half-slip, studied it briefly, and then replaced it. The items she’d stolen must have felt radioactive, but she didn’t dare return them lest she call attention to herself.