In Smoked Out, Digger crashes a funeral to find out whether the death of a doctor’s wife was an accident . . . or murder.
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By Warren Murphy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Warren Murphy
All rights reserved.
Since Julian Burroughs did not want to be late for his meeting with his boss and since the meeting was being held in a cocktail lounge, Burroughs arrived three hours early.
He realized that the only thing Walter Brackler hated worse than late was drunk, so he decided to drink conservatively while he waited. No more than three drinks an hour. He was only four drinks over his limit when Brackler arrived promptly at 9:00 P.M. He was always prompt.
"Listen, Digger ..."
"I don't like that name."
"Oh. You don't like that name. What can I call you? Will Mr. Burroughs be all right?"
"Such close friends needn't stand on ceremony, Kwash. You can call me your holiness. As long as you don't call me late for dinner. I had a school principal named that once. Leonard Late-for-Dinner. An Indian, I think. I hated the bastard. He wouldn't mark on the curve. Flunked out the whole football team on the eve of the big Turkey Day game. We lost 131 to nothing. Worst loss in the history of high-school football. You could look it up."
"And you can kiss my ass. And stop calling me Kwash. I don't believe this. Here I am, talking to one of my employees, and he's telling me what I'm allowed to call him. I'd hate to have your nerve in a tooth, Burroughs."
"And stop saying that. That's the second time you've said that to me in the last year. Same exact words. Get a new writer."
"I've got more than one tooth. I'd rather get a new investigator. What the hell have you got on Mr. Stevens, anyway?"
"He and I talk the same language. Did you know that Tycho Brahe had a silver nose? Frank Stevens knew. He and I spent a year one night trying to figure out how Tycho blew his nose. We decided he used those cloths with chemicals in them so that when he blew his nose, he polished it, too. Otherwise he'd be going around with a black nose. That's why Mr. Stevens is president of the Benevolent and Saintly Life Insurance Company and why you will never be."
"No. Because he thinks and laughs. I think we even talked about Tycho Brahe on company time. Did you ever think about a silver nose on company time, Kwash?"
"How long have you been on the sauce?"
"I drink because of a great tragedy in my life."
"I don't want to hear about it. I came here to work."
"I thought you'd never ask. Yes, sir, I drink, and you should find out what I'm drinking and send a case of it to all your other generals. And all your other claims investigators. I drink because here I am, thirty-eight years old, reasonably handsome, with no visible deformities, and it is my great misfortune to have a job with the Brokers Surety Life Insurance Company and my greater misfortune to have you as my higher-up. I would have said 'superior,' but that has connotations I can't handle. I had a college professor once who thought that connotate was a verb. Of course, it isn't. It isn't even a word. Connote is a verb. He made the mistake of getting connotate from a back formation. Let me tell you, Kwash, don't ever trust a back formation. Unless it's got a quarterback who can throw the ball. Did I ever tell you why I was unhappy and I drink?"
"Interminably," Walter Brackler said. "And I'm going to tell you why you're really going to be unhappy and have plenty of time to drink. Because someday Frank Stevens isn't going to be president of BSLI and you're going to be out on your ass."
"It won't be by you. The next president is going to have a silver nose, not a paper asshole. What do you want here, anyway?"
Brackler removed his billfold from his inside jacket pocket and with delicate, shiny-nailed fingers extracted a newspaper clipping, which he pushed across the table to Burroughs. While Burroughs read it, Brackler looked around the cocktail lounge. He had the look on his face of a man who had awakened one morning to find his bed had been moved into a room-sized septic tank.
"So Jessalyn Welles is dead. And she had the poor taste to be insured with us?" Burroughs said.
"For half a millions dollars, Bucko. Policy taken out by her husband six months ago. Double indemnity for an accident, that's a million. That's a lot of granola. Mr. Stevens himself said you should look into it."
"You have her application? Medical records? All that?"
"They'll all be waiting for you in the Los Angeles office," Brackler said.
"She been planted yet?"
"Tomorrow. Two o'clock. That's why I stopped here now—to give you a chance to sober up or get out of the rack or finish whatever disgusting thing it is you're doing so you can make the funeral, if you want."
"I wouldn't miss it for anything. What do you think about this Welles thing?"
Brackler shrugged. "Mr. Stevens said look into it, so look into it." He tried to stare at Burroughs, but he was looking down at the clipping. Brackler cleared his throat. Burroughs kept reading. Brackler waited out the silence for five more seconds.
"Actually, I think it's just a coincidence. A big, famous doctor like Welles wouldn't knock off his old lady. Anyway, he wasn't even in town. So, big deal. Six months ago he insured his wife. A lot of people get into insurance when they make some bucks, when they turn forty, you know how they do it. That's probably what happened here and we just wound up unlucky."
He stopped talking. Digger looked up. "Nothing to compare with Mrs. Welles's unluck. She's dead."
"Of course. Naturally. Very sad. We've got an insurance company to run. Can't let anybody rip us off or anything."
"What does Frank say?"
"Mr. Stevens doesn't say. He just thinks the timing is a lot of coincidence and we ought to look. Personally, I think he just wanted to find something for you to do for your yearly retainer."
"I've been busy as all get-out," Digger said. "It's not easy thinking about silver noses all the time."
A young black woman, aggressively sexy in a tight jersey dress the color of wet blood, walked from the bar into the small lounge and stood alongside Burroughs's table. He looked up.
"Hello, Lilac," Digger said.
"Digger, I thought maybe you and your friend might want to party. Bruno'll be here any minute. We could ... you know ... do something. We've got some new stuff in." She leaned toward Digger. "Whips," she said.
She smiled at Walter Brackler and he stood up as if ejected from his chair.
"I've got to go," he said thickly. "Catch a plane."
"Maybe later," Digger told the woman. He winked at her. She winked back and undulated away toward the bar.
Digger stood up. Walter Brackler was five feet tall and Burroughs loomed over him, a full fifteen inches taller. "Can you slink back to the airport by yourself?" he asked.
Brackler walked through the noisy, crowded bar toward the exit. Digger followed him, calling out, "Make way for a very important person."
Hand on the door, Brackler asked, "Who's Tycho Brahe?"
"Top salesman for Prudential. Million Dollar Club every year. People just can't say no to a man with a silver nose. You ought to try to hire him away."
Brackler left. Burroughs walked back to the bar and slid onto a stool next to a woman whose makeup looked as if it had been applied during a stucco-spraying orgy. Her platinum hair had been teased and sprayed so that it looked like bleached shredded wheat. Her brassiere had surrendered and her bosom hung to her waist.
"Thanks a lot, Mittsie," Digger said.
"Looked like it was getting grim over there. I thought Lilac could brighten things up. Make you smile or him go. Who is that shit, anyway?"
"My boss. This goes on my record, you know. Consorting with known deviates of unknown gender."
"Sorry, Digger. Didn't know."
"Don't worry. When Frank Stevens sees it, he'll give me a raise just so I can afford to elevate my class of women. Everything works out in the end."
"Stevens. He the one you brought here once? Tried to eat the girl on the bar?"
"He was always a class act," Digger said.
Without being asked, the bartender put an old-fashioned glass in front of Digger, then filled it with Finlandia vodka that he kept in a small freezer under the bar. The liquor, at zero degrees, burbled thickly out of the bottle. Digger nodded to him and sipped the drink. The bartender drifted away. Mittsie sipped at something made with cream. She nodded her head toward a babble of women at the far end of the bar pretending to be interested in each other's conversation.
"Lot of prey here tonight. If you're hungry enough."
"Thanks, Mittsie, but the tide wouldn't go out with these women," Digger said.
"Suit yourself. Going away?"
"Just a couple of days. Hollywood ... I'm on my way to Hollywood."
Digger lived five blocks away from the cocktail lounge in a high-rise condominium on the Las Vegas strip. He drove up to the front door an hour later. The doorman called a boy to park Digger's white Mazda sports car. Digger gave the doorman two dollars and rode the elevator up to the fifteenth floor.
When he let himself into the apartment, a young Oriental woman was standing naked in front of the wall mirror in the living room, examining her body with the callous eye of a cattle buyer. She pulled a towel around her when the door opened. When she saw who was there, she tossed the towel onto the couch and turned back to the mirror. She seemed to attach immense importance to some invisible spot on her left hip.
"What happened? They close the world?"
"Why?" Digger asked.
"You're home the same day. I didn't expect you 'til tomorrow."
"Just trying to keep you on your toes. Besides, it was business. I had to meet Kwash."
"Yes. Kind of early for your shower, isn't it? Or late?" He took the towel from the sofa and sat down. He dropped the towel on the floor. He got up again, went to the stereo and put on a record of alto-saxophone solos by Freddy Gardner. He poured vodka from the kitchenette freezer into a glass, then sat back down on the couch.
"I'm going out. I promised Lenny I'd show some guy the town."
"Why do I always get this idea that every tour of the town ends between your legs?"
"Because maybe it does sometimes. Do I ask you where you go?"
"Koko, you can ask me anything," Digger said.
"Where were you last Monday?"
"Monday. Monday. We went to Lake Mead on Monday. You caught a fish and I threw up."
"No, that was Tuesday. You took me because you must've been feeling guilty about something you did on Monday. What'd you do on Monday to feel guilty?"
"Monday, then. I screwed the hatcheck girl down at Florio's."
"The one who was at my table one night and doubled down on hard six?"
"Why what? Why does she double down on six? Maybe she can't play blackjack. How the hell would I know?"
"Why did you make it with her?"
"Because if I didn't, she was going to gum me to death in the hat room. I never saw a woman with so much hots for my body. I was doing her a favor. You, too. I thought if I kept putting her off, she'd get jealous and come and shoot you. Besides, she's got nice tits."
"Tell her we're just roommates. We live together to cut costs. We screw when we're both horny. No I've-got-a-headache shit. Yes. No. All very civilized. I hate it when you like other women's tits. Why do we keep having this conversation about my going out? Are you going to propose? Where did you fuck her?"
"In the front. What kind of animal do you think I am? You're not flat-chested."
"I don't mean where where, I mean where. Was it here?"
"So you were out on Monday night, too," Digger said. "Where'd you go?"
"If I hadn't gone out Monday night, I wouldn't have had Tuesday off to go to Lake Mead with you."
"I think it's sick how many guys come to Vegas to make it with Orientals. If they've got a yen for fortune nookie, why the fuck don't they go to Chinatown wherever they live and get their heads tonged?"
"Because I'm Japanese, not Chinese. I know how. Sexy for Chinese is ... don't get me started. What did you get from the company?"
"I've got to go to Los Angeles. Wait a minute." Digger raised a hand in the air for silence as he listened to the last powerful notes of "Roses of Picardy." He closed his eyes to the music, amazed as he always was by the delicacy that accompanied the power. Someone had once told him that Freddy Gardner used a special reed on his saxophone. He didn't know if it was true, but he had never heard a saxophone played with so much reach and clarity. The last note faded away. Digger said, "Some doctor's wife died. Car accident. Got to go make sure it was real."
"Doctors don't kill their wives in car accidents," Koko said. She hoisted a powder blue gown up over her head and began to insinuate herself into it.
"How do doctors kill their wives?" Digger asked.
"Bubbles of air. Exotic poisons. Do unnecessary surgery, leave in a handful of sponges, then feed them Perrier and let them explode. Not car accidents."
"No underwear tonight?"
"Put it on to take it off? Zip me up."
"What would you do if I weren't here?" Digger asked.
"Call the carhop. He'd zip me up. He'd pole-vault up here to zip me up."
"I'll zip you up. I wouldn't want you attacked by any strange poles. Not any more than usual. Why the hell do they make these zippers so they always get the material caught in them?"
"Don't rip my gown."
"I won't. Stop bitching. I'd like to rip it." He zipped it and the Oriental girl twirled around in front of the mirror.
"Gotta go," she said.
"I'll be gone when you get back."
"Where'd you say you were going?"
"Los Angeles. Hollywood. You going to tell me to stay away from strange women?"
"All women are strange to you. Think of your ex-wife."
"Is that a direct order?"
"Maybe you should think about going back to her."
"It's eighth on my list of preferences. Right after immolation and just above having my ears pierced. Let's not ruin a perfectly good argument by talking about her. That was a long time ago."
"How long will you be away?" she asked.
"Four, five days, probably. What are you going to do while I'm gone?"
"You don't want to know."
"Thanks for not telling me," Digger said. "I'm going to pack. Kiss goodbye?"
"Smudge my lipstick," the woman said, walking toward the door. She stopped, came back, kissed the palm of her right hand and pressed the palm against Digger's cheek.
"I ..." She stopped.
"I hope you have a good time. Be careful."
"Why should I be careful?"
"Because you're crazy. You crazy people have an obligation to all us sane ones to be careful."
After she left, Julian Burroughs finished his drink, turned the phonograph record over and went into the bedroom. He looked inside a red-leather garment bag hanging in his closet to make sure that it still held a suit, a jacket, three pair of slacks, a pair of jeans, five shirts, underwear, socks and sneakers. From a dresser drawer, he took a small tape recorder, only slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes, and a plastic bag filled with accessories.
He yelled at the door, "Koko, I only hang out with you because your people make good tape recorders. When the Germans get cooking, I'm trading you in for a blonde with an IQ of twenty-seven and a ninety-six inch chest."
From a box under the bed, he took out twenty small cassette tapes. He packed them into a small overnight bag, along with the recorder and his shaving kit. He called the concierge and asked for a wake-up call at 5:00 A.M.
Still fully dressed, he lay on the bed and fell asleep immediately.CHAPTER 2
The drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles was 284 miles. Digger drove it in four hours and forty-five minutes, counting one gas stop.
The attendant had seemed annoyed to see anyone at 6:45 A.M.
"Fill it," Digger said.
The attendant had let the gas trickle in automatically while he picked his teeth and looked out across the sand. When the pump cut off, he ran in four more cents to bring the gas pump total to $17.50.
"Fill it," Digger said.
"It's full. Seventeen-fifty."
"It's not full. You guys pump just enough gas to get to an even number. I don't want an even number. I want a full tank. Fill it. You think I want to die in the desert?"
Grumbling, the attendant filled the tank to $19.11.
Digger paid with a credit card. The attendant gave him his receipt and tried not to give him his credit card back. Digger took it from the top of the gas pump.
"Always stay as nice as you are today," he said.
Excerpted from Smoked Out by Warren Murphy. Copyright © 1982 Warren Murphy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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