Sitting in cold cars for hours, serving lowlifes with summonses . . . being a P.I. means riding out a lot of slow patches. But sometimes the most familiar paths can lead straight to danger—like at Cass’s go-to diner, where new delivery guy Jung Byson wants to enlist her expertise. Jung’s friend, Tim Ayers, scion of a wealthy Chicago family, has been found dead, floating in Lake Michigan near his luxury boat. And Jung is convinced there’s a murderer on the loose . . .
Cass reluctantly begins digging only to discover that Jung neglected to mention one crucial fact: Tim Ayers was terminally ill. Given the large quantities of alcohol and drugs found in his body, Ayers’ death appears to be either an accident or suicide. Yet as much as Cass would like to dismiss Jung’s suspicions, there are too many unanswered questions and unexplained coincidences.
Why would anyone kill a dying man? Working her connections on both sides of the law, Cass tries to point the police in the right direction. But violence is escalating around her, and Cass’s persistence has already attracted unwanted attention, uncovering sinister secrets that Cass may end up taking to her grave.
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A PI's life isn't glamorous, not by a long shot. I spend half my time sitting in a cold car, watching people do the dumbest things, and the other half typing up reports about it. But that's when business isn't slow. When it is, like now, I, Cass Raines, PI, contract myself out for steady pay. Today, I was riding out the latest dry spell working for the law firm of Golden, Sprague, and Bendelson, trying to hand off a summons to a Chicago blues man named Big Percy Prescott, who'd somehow forgotten on his rise to the middle that he'd left behind a long-suffering ex-wife and two little Prescotts in desperate need of child support. Big Percy, apparently not just any man's fool, knew the suits were after him and was making himself not only scarce, but downright invisible.
Others before me had tried to ruin Prescott's lucky streak; none had succeeded. Now it was my turn. The work didn't exactly thrill me, but it kept my office lights on. It was Tuesday, just after eight, my first night looking for Big Percy. I started my car and let it run a bit while I thought things through. I'd dressed for business in jeans, a light sweater, and Nikes, and in anticipation of a long night, I'd brought along snacks: a banana, granola, and a chocolate doughnut for dessert. All set, I pulled away from the curb in front of my apartment and got to it. Now, if I were a kid-dumping bluesman, where would I be?
I didn't know jack about blues guitarists. I didn't get blues. Real life was hard enough. I wasn't about to pay good money to listen to somebody sing about his runaway dog or faithless girlfriend. But if Big Percy was like any other musician, he was likely ramping up for a late-night set somewhere. I had a list of clubs to check, but before I did that, it wouldn't hurt to take a pass at his last known address. Big Percy's ex-wife reported that she hadn't been able to get a nickel out of him in over a year, and now couldn't find him at the place he'd been staying. I flipped his file open on the passenger seat, committed the address to memory, then headed there — on the move and on the case for Golden, Sprague, and Bendelson.
I woke up Big Percy's landlady, Mrs. Ocela Pinkney, by leaning on the bell. The old lady groused some at first at the lateness of the hour, but then calmed down enough to tell me Big Percy had moved out more than a month ago. I got her to show me his apartment and, sure enough, the place was empty, not a stick of furniture in it. Prescott left her high and dry, Pinkney said, without so much as a "lah-dee-dah," and she passed along a few choice words she wanted me to convey to him when I finally tracked him down.
Back in the car, I hit every legit blues club and hole-in-the-wall masquerading as a legit blues club. Chicago had to have a million of them. Nobody I asked would admit to having seen Big Percy. Half of them were likely lying, but there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I'd have to keep looking and hope for a break.
It was well after midnight when I pulled up in front of the Purple Tip on North Halsted, the eighth club on my long list to check. I'd eaten the chocolate doughnut, leaving the banana and granola for later. I was just about to get out of the car and go inside, when I saw a freshly washed turquoise Caddy matching the description of Prescott's car ease up the street. I caught the plate and matched it to the info in the law firm's file. It was Prescott's, all right. Though, frankly, how many folks would choose to roll around town in a gaudy turquoise Cadillac with whitewall tires, unless, of course, they were an old-school pimp caught in a Huggy Bear time loop?
I slid down in the driver's seat as the car moved past me and parked at the curb across the street. I watched, my head barely above the steering wheel, as a big, dumb-looking bruiser got out from behind the wheel of Big Percy's pimp ride and adjusted himself. He had to be Prescott's muscle, hired to discourage the unwelcome. The bruiser wore a red velour warm-up suit with white stripes down the outside of the pants underneath a fur coat made from what looked like synthetic muskrat. He reached into the backseat and came out with a beat-up guitar case. That's when Big Percy got out on the passenger side and scanned the street. He wasn't a complete idiot. He knew he was dodging the court.
Big Percy, 250 pounds of unadulterated ugly, was decked out in a knee-length snakeskin coat worn over a tangerine suit, the coat shimmering like wet sealskin when it caught the streetlights. Sticking close to muskrat, he headed for the door to the Purple Tip, as if he hadn't one single care in the whole wide world.
Folks were milling around in the street, even at this hour, coming out of bars, going in. I had my car window open a crack so I could hear the street noise, but the crack also let in barbecue smoke, the sour scent of rancid fry grease, and the musky stench of everyday street grime. I knew these streets; I patrolled them for more than three years as a cop in uniform. They could be both mean and good, but rarely good this late at night. Anyone out at this hour was likely not in the running for sainthood. I got an idea. I felt for the gun in my ankle holster, just for reassurance, and then stuffed the summons in my back pocket, bounded out of the car, and rushed across the street, dodging potholes nearly big enough to drop a casket in. "Big Percy?"
Prescott froze midstride, reeled, his eyes wild, wary, a cornered rat caught flat-footed mere inches from his hidey-hole.
I clasped my hands together gleefully. "Big Percy Prescott? I can't believe it."
The bodyguard, deciding now would be a good time to earn his keep, moved to act as buffer between Big Percy and me. I sidestepped him, gave him a flirtatious wink.
"I love your music." I fluttered my eyelids a little. I really was shameless. "You have the fingers of an angel. I'm such a big fan."
To all outward appearances, I was a groupie in the presence of true musical greatness unable to control my sublime rapture at my "up close and personal" moment with musical royalty. Truth be told, I'd never heard of the man until yesterday when I got the job. The photo of him clipped to the law firm's paperwork did him more justice than he deserved.
Big Percy brushed the muskrat aside, sidled in closer to me, and shot me a megawatt smile that revealed a shiny gold tooth right up front. "Is that so, pretty lady?"
I smiled. "Oh, yes indeedy. Would you mind?" I slid the summons out of my pocket and thrust it forward, seal side down. "I would just love your autograph." I eyed the muscle. "You wouldn't happen to have a pen on you, would you, handsome?" Best to keep him busy. He smiled back, patting at his breast pockets as though trying to put out a small fire.
Big Percy checked for a pen, too, feeling around in his trouser pockets, coming up with one in record time, which surprised the heck out of me. How many autograph requests did he get?
Big Percy leered at me. "Now, where'd you get that sexy smile from?"
I grinned foolishly. Really, I should take to the stage. I was a natural. "It came with the ears."
Prescott's eyes clouded over, confusion wrinkling his puggish face. He was back quickly, though. "Everybody knows I got a soft spot for the ladies." He took a long survey of me. It started high, lingered a bit in the middle, and stopped at my shoe tops. "And I like'em lean, leggy, and caramel colored, just like you."
He plastered the summons to the bodyguard's back and prepared to scribble his John Hancock on it. Technically, the minute he took the summons from me, my job was done, but I was having way too much fun.
Big Percy gave me that look. You know the one. "You married?" he asked.
I nodded. "With triplets." The lie tripped off my tongue as easy as anything. It amazes even me how I can lie with a straight face and not feel the least bit funny about it, at least while working a lowdown, dirty blues hack who skipped out on his kids.
"Well, you'd never know it. Your shape held up real good." He shook his head. "Triplets? Huh. And you looking like that? God almighty. That's some good genes working there."
I giggled. Also a lie. I never giggled. Giggling was something twelve-year-old girls did at slumber parties. Thirty-four-year-old women with brains in their heads did not giggle. Ever. "You really think so?"
He nodded. "I know so. Who do I make this out to, sugar cheeks?" He licked the point of the pen, then poised it over the paper, not bothering to look at it, the lascivious grin widening on his child-support-dodging face.
"Ruth, Antoine, and Dawn," I snapped. The smile was gone, the giggle, too.
Big Percy blinked; the pen shook a little. I'd given him the names of his ex-wife and children, and it took him no time to realize it. He turned to his bodyguard, looking for a little of that buffer action he was likely paying good money for. Too late. The man's hands were occupied holding Big Percy's guitar case. Looks like a certain somebody in muskrat failed "Bodyguard 101."
"You've been served, Mr. Prescott. Oh, and your landlady told me to tell you she thinks you're a scumbag. She had a few other choice words, but I'm too much of a lady to repeat them. Have a nice night."
I strolled back to my car, leaving Big Percy and his porter standing on the sidewalk, their mouths agape, sucking in air like grounded river pike. I punched the button on my radio and caught the tail end of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." It could have been Big Percy's theme song. I couldn't have planned it better if I'd planned it.CHAPTER 2
Deek's Diner was nearly deserted when I cruised in at eight for breakfast. I'd managed to get a good solid six hours' sleep, riding on my Big Percy win, and I was feeling refreshed, triumphant, and hungry. It was not an unusual thing to find Deek's at far less than capacity. That's why I liked the place. You could always find a seat. People flocked to other diners, but they didn't flock here and wouldn't, even if Deek were giving away free bacon. That's because Willis Deacon, Vietnam vet turned surly fry cook and unrepentant social pariah, would go down in the annals of history as the grumpiest black man this side of Hades.
Deek had to be in his early seventies, dark, barrel-chested, with tatted forearms that looked strong enough to wrestle cattle without benefit of a lasso. He always wore a plain black baseball hat, more grease than cap at this point, and I'd never seen him smile, not once. Deek didn't make small talk. He could not care less how your day was going. In here, you got it the way he fixed it, or you didn't get it, and service with a smile was only a silly fool's Christmas wish. The quicker you got in, ordered something, ate it, and got the hell out, the better Deek seemed to like it. Look at him wrong or do something stupid, like ask for a saltshaker or an extra napkin, and you were likely to get your feelings hurt. Deek slung plates and tossed silverware. He snagged picky diners by the seat of their pants and threw them out onto the sidewalk. Willis Deacon didn't know the meaning of the word "decorum."
He did, however, know his way around a buttermilk pancake. His food was hot and made to order and really cheap, once you factored in the floor show. The indigestion brought on by his rampaging performances? Well, Deek threw that in, gratis. The fact that I could practically spit on the diner from the swivel chair in my office a few doors down wasn't a bad deal, either. Did I mention Deek delivered? So, for convenience sake, I could deal with surly, especially since, for some inexplicable reason, he left me alone.
I don't know what made me special. I've never asked the question and Deek, in all the years he's growled over his greasy griddle, has never volunteered the information to me or anyone else. He scowls at me plenty, sure, but a scowl beats a pants toss any day of the week. You can rise above a scowl. It was nearly impossible to shrug off another man's grip on the seat of your pants.
I snaked through the maze of wooden tables, past the few diners spread out around the place, breathing in bacon and coffee fumes. I made a beeline for the back booth, the one I preferred and considered mine, the morning paper tucked under my arm. I'd come to eat. I didn't need to do it in the middle of Deek's gladiator pit.
Sliding onto the cracked vinyl, my back to the mustard yellow wall, my view of the front door unobstructed, I tossed the paper on the table, picked up the laminated menu, and watched as Muna, one of Deek's battle-tested waitresses, ambled over to take my order.
I eyed the room. "You alone, Muna?"
"Wasn't. Am now. Adele walked off twenty minutes ago."
Adele and Muna made an efficient team of opposites, or did, until twenty minutes ago. Adele was small, thin, quick moving, and overly skittish; Muna was big, broad, and loudly indelicate at the best and worst of times. Adele was also easily offended and quit at least twice a month. I often wondered why she'd chosen to work here in the first place. I mean, it's not like she didn't know what she was letting herself in for; Deek was Deek 24/7.
I grimaced. "Deek?"
"Well, it sure wasn't me." Muna licked the tip of her short pencil and poised it over her order pad. I smiled thinking of Big Percy. This was the second time in the span of eight hours that I'd watched people wet their writing utensils with spit. "I've been polite as pie all mornin', and if I were you, I wouldn't be ordering nothin' from that man's griddle. He's been revving up back there since Adele walked off, and it's only a matter of time before he clears the place out."
I snapped the menu closed, defiant. I wasn't about to let Deek ruin my vibe. "I'll risk it. Blueberry pancakes, skim milk, bacon, extra crispy. And you really ought to put a sign on the door when Deek's in a snit. Warn a person."
"Tried that," Muna said without missing a beat. "Griddle Man ate it."
She moved off toward the kitchen, the rubber soles of her wide, comfy shoes squeaking across the sticky linoleum.
"Way too early for funny, Muna," I called after her.
"Never too early, you ask me," she shot back over her shoulder.
The front page of the paper offered nothing new. There was city corruption, tax hikes, Washington chaos, dozens felled by city violence. Every day it was the same old thing, and it just made you tired. I'd made it to page four when a familiar voice roused me from my melancholy.
"You're here. I have to talk to you."
My eyes drifted off the paper to the patch of floor to my right, where I found a pair of scuffed combat boots with thin hairy legs standing in them. I scanned up past knobby knees, cargo shorts, and a wrinkled T-shirt into the flushed face of Jung Byson, Deek's indolent delivery boy. He was new to the place, just a month or so since he'd been hired. I didn't know too much about him, but what I did know seemed weird.
Jung strolled Deek's food up to my office at least twice a week, and I do mean "strolled." He never rushed. A University of Chicago student on the lifetime plan, Jung, now in his early twenties, was slowly working his way through every academic concentration they had over there. At last report, he had chucked archaeology for philosophy, and worked for Deek whenever he remembered to show up for his shift. I had no idea what he did the rest of the time, or why Deek hadn't yet chopped him into a stew.
"What's up, Jung?"
He slid in across from me, a shell-shocked expression on his equine face, offset by blond peach fuzz under his nose and a scraggly soul patch. I looked toward the door to make sure he wasn't fleeing someone from outside, then watched uneasily as he squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep, cleansing breath before opening them again. "Transcendental breathing," he said as way of explanation. "Swami Rain recommends it in times of flux."
I blinked, but said nothing.
"He's my yogi," Jung added. "My spiritual adviser? He's the real deal, too. His teachings got me centered. I consider his place my true spiritual home."
Jung was average in build and height, and his short blond hair, today, was moussed to death and sticking up like railroad spikes. I stared at him, bewildered by his fashion choices, stuck on Swami Rain, the yogi. Jung wasn't bleeding; it didn't look as though he'd been attacked, so I spread my napkin over my lap.
His clear blue eyes held mine. "I have a problem. A big one."
Muna popped up with my breakfast, shot Jung a withering glance, her arms akimbo, big hands on full hips. Jung stared back, clueless. I ignored them both. My breakfast was getting cold and I wanted to eat and get out of here before Deek went apeshit.
"I'm not on the schedule today," Jung said. "Personal time. Deek knows."
Muna sniffed. "Wondered why you were sitting there like real people instead of carting Deek's food to folks on that slow boat to China you're captain of."
Jung held his ground. "Everything in its own time."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Borrowed Time"
Copyright © 2019 Tracy Clark.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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