It's trouble in paradise when a mafioso hires Trace to tail his wayward wife, who's run off and joined a crazed sex cult. As the case involving the gangster's gal turns deadly and two cantankerous cops are chomping at the bit, Chico threatens to leave for good. With all the loose ends splitting apart, Trace must track the deadly string across New York City before the bodies start piling up.
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It was a habit acquired during thirty years on the New York City police department. What Retired Sergeant Patrick Tracy called it was "making a rough cut." Essentially, it involved noting as many facts as he could about someone, on the first meeting, making a snap judgment about the person, and fitting him into a pigeonhole where other people had fit comfortably at other times in Tracy's experience.
It was hard to explain, and when he tried, some would say that it was just jumping to conclusions or looking for an excuse to hate at first sight. Tracy didn't understand this thinking and was eager to point out that judgments he made were based on experience, not whim.
"Look," he might say. "You're walking through a dark alley at midnight, right? Then, suddenly, you hear a sound and you look up and some guy jumps out of a garbage pail, and he's swinging a tire chain in his hand. He's nine feet tall and he's got a scar that runs from his left temple to his right ear. Right? You with me so far?"
Perhaps a nod. Then, "Now it's true," Tracy might say, "that this gentleman may have gotten that scar during sabre training at old Heidelberg. And it's true that he might be a visiting professor of psychology from the University of Kenya, here to study the impact of unexpected stress on the American urban dweller. All that's true," Tracy might say, nodding. "That's what he might be. He might just be a visiting professor. But I would suggest that you might be better off assuming that this guy is up to no good and you'd better lay him out with a two-by-four before he gets you. Wouldn't you?"
Sometimes a nod and Tracy might continue, "See, that's a rough cut. You make ajudgment based on available information. Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong, but at least you can live with most of your judgments because you don't have to wait and wait and wait for the last shred of evidence to come in. Later you might get new evidence and use it to make a new rough cut. And that's the way it works."
"You're a racist," he was once told.
"See. You just did it," Tracy said. "You made a rough cut. That's a very good start."
"It's racism and you're a racist."
"It's efficient living and you're an asshole," Tracy had said. "Now I did it too, 'cause that's also a rough cut. The truth might be that you are a thinking, caring person, but my life is made much more livable by assuming that you're an asshole." Then he walked away. The fact that the man he had been talking to--a dentist--was later arrested for diddling his women patients while they were under anesthesia, only served to convince him even more that he was right. Rough cuts stuck with him.
So when a man's outline appeared through the frosted glass of his office door, and the form ignored the PLEASE KNOCK sign and pushed the door open, these were the factors that went into Tracy's rough cut:
--The man was wearing a dark shirt and, God help him, a white tie, under a chocolate-brown pin-striped suit that cost a lot of money, with shoes that might have cost even more, oxblood things they were, with little leather tassels.
--Thick black hair so neatly razor-trimmed it looked as carved as the feathers on a wooden duck decoy. A pencil-line mustache that Tracy thought had looked good on Errol Flynn and David Niven and made everyone else who tried it look like a department-store floorwalker.
--Thick lips, thick eyelashes, skin as smooth as the surface of a maraschino cherry, a fleck of white behind the right jaw where the barber had powdered him after the shave, a fresh manicure with high-gloss polish so no one would miss noticing that he was the kind of man who got manicures.
--Little scowl lines alongside the mouth. What did they mean? Petulance? Cruelty? He met Tracy's eyes directly He was used to being the boss.
Those were the things Tracy saw immediately, and his mind ran them past images of thousands of people he had seen in his life, and he made an immediate rough cut:
A young man who might or might not be in the mob but wanted everybody to think he was. A young man who had been pampered since childhood by women of all sorts and was spoiled by that. A young man who didn't care about rules because he wanted to do what he wanted to do, and if the rules didn't permit it, then that was the fault of the rules.
The man pushed the door shut behind him with a bang but didn't even blink at the sound. He was used to slamming doors, Tracy thought.
"You Tracy?" the young man said.
"Yes. What can I do for you?"
"I got your name downstairs in the restaurant," the man said. "I need a private detective. You any good? This isn't much of an office."
"I only keep this place because the denizens of the underworld feel comfortable meeting me here," Tracy said. "Most of my business I handle in my penthouse at the World Trace Center."
The young man wasn't listening to him. He had walked past Tracy's desk to the windows that looked out over West Twenty-sixth Street and waved, presumably a signal to someone waiting on the street below. Then he turned and stepped toward the far wall where two Playboy centerfolds were taped up. Patrick Tracy had thought they gave his office a certain seedy panache, only partially realized by the scuzzy secondhand furniture.
The man looked at the pictures for a long time as if trying to memorize them. "Christ," he said, shaking his head. "There's some women in the world, ain't there?"
Tracy knew a no-answer-required statement when he heard one, so he looked back down at the desk where he had been working on the firm's profit-and-loss statement for the first six months of the year. Every time he looked at the dismal accounting, he thought of something he had read years ago, a French writer's last will and testament, which went: "I have nothing; I owe much; the rest I leave to the poor."
Even by those standards, Tracy didn't have anything to leave to the poor. He decided he was being rude to his guest. Maybe God had sent this piece of provolone to rescue him.
The man was touching one of the centerfolds with his right index finger.
"My wife looks like that," he said. "Except my wife's got bigger jugs. And her nipples are bigger too."
Next, it would be her orgasms, Tracy thought. He said, "Why don't you sit down and tell me why you're here? Besides your wife's sex life." He gestured toward the sofa.
The young man eyed it with suspicion and said, "I'd rather stand up. Sitting ruins the creases." He brushed at imaginary dust on his trousers.
"Suit yourself," Tracy said.
"I do," the man said. He guffawed. "A little joke. We were talking about suits."
"I personally think levity in the workplace is over-rated," Tracy said. "So what can I do for you?"
"It's my wife. I want you to follow her."
"'Cause she left me. She run off to join some hippie-shit rice-eaters or something."
"No law against that," Tracy replied. "So why should I follow her?"
The young man dismissed the entire history of western law with a wave of his hand. "I don't care about no law," he said. "Look, she's gonna sue me for divorce."
"She tell you that?"
"No, but I know it. And I don't want her holding me up, so I want ... you know, I want to have a bargaining chip when that time comes." He looked over his shoulder again, out into the street.
"Tell me about your wife leaving you," Tracy said. "Why? When?"
"I told you why. She went and joined some pack of towel-heads. She's like a goddamn Hare Krishna with hair."
"And jugs," Tracy said. "Don't forget the jugs."
"Right," the man said.
"So this is like a religious cult she joined?" Tracy said.
"That's right. That's the word. Cult. She joined a cult. She's a goddamn cult-ist."
"Did she have to leave you to join a cult? Couldn't she stay married to you and go join that religion too?"
The young man shook his head. Not a strand of his hair moved independently of the lacquered mass. "Not in this world," he said. "No way I was gonna let her go sitting around or begging on the street. Make a fool of me. Suppose somebody saw her who knows me? What kind of dumbo do I look like?"
"Very good questions," Tracy said, suppressing all the answers that jumped into his head. He looked down at his profit-and-loss statement. The things he would do for money. "Maybe we should start at the beginning. What's your name?"
"Angelo Alcetta. My friends call me Sonny."
Tracy had looked up quickly at the name "Alcetta," and the young man grinned. "You've heard of me, huh?"
"I've heard the name before," Tracy said.
"Well, don't believe everything you hear," the young man said. "We're in the food-importing business. That's all." He seemed disappointed when Tracy did not force him to defend the proposition that his family was not part of the Mafia, but when Tracy was silent, he went on with his background. He was thirty-three years old and lived in Brooklyn, where the family's business was located. His wife's name was Gloria and they had been married for four years with no children. "No fault of mine," he said. "I think she's steroid or something 'cause I pronged her enough to knock up a girl's school, but it just didn't take." About six months earlier, she had become interested in the teachings of "some swami or something." From then on, Alcetta said, "I wasn't good enough for her. Nothing was good enough for her no more. A nice Catholic girl, what gets into somebody like that, to go jerking off for some guy with a dish rag around his head?"
Three months earlier, after a particularly bad argument, Gloria had waited for Angelo to leave the house and had then packed her things and moved out. She had called him with her address, an apartment building on West Eighty-sixth Street, but she refused to see him. He had spoken to her on the telephone but had not been able to convince her to return home. Then he had gone to "like the swami's headquarters or something, some dump downtown," and spoken to her there, but she had refused to return home.
"Did you speak to the swami?" Tracy asked, not because it mattered but because he just had to hear that conversation recounted.
"He wouldn't talk to me. Like high and mighty, he wouldn't talk to nobody like me, so I told him what I thought of him, curry-breath bastard, and told him that I'd like to bash both their heads in, and that's when Gloria told me that she was probably going to file for a divorce. Of course. she said she wouldn't want nothing, but you know how it is," Alcetta said, glancing over his shoulder toward the street below.
"No. How is it?" Tracy said.
"Women always say they don't want nothing and then they get some lawyer who says, 'Hey, baby, your husband's got a thousand million dollars and I'll get it all for you, just drop your drawers.'" He nodded once, sharply, to emphasize a point well made.
"Do you have a thousand million dollars?" Tracy asked blandly. "Think carefully about answering because it'll help determine my fee."
"I got enough to get along," Alcetta said.
"So what do you want me to do?"
"I want you on her case. Find out what she's doing and who she's doing it with. She's screwing around with somebody, maybe even that swami."
"If you're sure of that, why do you need me?"
"I'm sure she's screwing around with somebody, 'cause I know her, but I can't prove it or nothing. I want you to find out what she's up to. Maybe she's doing drugs or something. Maybe that swami's got something going with drugs, that Indian shit, coyote or something. I hear these people are always smuggling in aliens. Maybe Gloria's doing that. You find out how she's breaking the law and you get me pictures or evidence or something and I'll pay you good." He stood up straight and Tracy noticed that he was shorter than he had seemed to be. "I've got money," Alcetta said.
"Seems like a lot of trouble to go to," Tracy said.
"Hey. It ain't your money she's going to be coming after."
"Suppose I just find out that she's gainfully employed and can support herself and doesn't need alimony from you. Wouldn't that help in a divorce?"
"Not as much as something that'd send her to jail," Alcetta said. He opened his hands at his sides, palms up, in a gesture of confusion. "You want this case or not? What kind of business you run here, Tracy?"
Tracy glanced down at the profit-and-loss statement, then back at Angelo Alcetta, whose friends called him Sonny.
"Angelo," he said, "it will be a great pleasure to represent you. Welcome to the happy family of Patrick Tracy clients."
"Save the welcome. What's the fee?"
"I'll give you the rock-bottom number."
"How much?" Alcetta said.
"Seven hundred dollars a week. Of course, that's not around the clock, but it's selective surveillance."
"That's pretty steep," Alcetta said.
"You get what you pay for in the world," Tracy said. "You want the best, you've got to pay. A lot of people charge a lot more than that too. How'd you come to me anyway?"
"I heard there was some private eyes hung out downstairs in the restaurant. I went there to see but the guy there said there wasn't nobody there but you were up here. Seven hundred a week, maybe I should have waited for one of them down in the restaurant."
"One's a broken-down pug and the other one's a one-armed communist," Tracy said. "Neither one of them could find a bass drum in a phone booth. You want good work, Angelo, you came to the right place."
Alcetta seemed to ponder for a moment, then said, "Okay. Seven hundred a week sounds all right. But you do just a couple of days first and then let me know how you're doing and I'll see should you do some more."
"When do you want me to start?" Tracy asked.
"Right away, naturally."
Tracy was about to tell him that weekends were the worst time to start a surveillance, because people were put out of their usual Monday-Friday routine and were therefore harder to keep an eye on. He decided not to confuse the young man with too much information.
"Fine," he said. "The first three days are payable in advance anyway."
"Correct. Three hundred dollars," Tracy said.
Alcetta took a billfold from an inside jacket pocket, opened it, and gave Tracy three fresh new one-hundred-dollar bills.
"And sales tax," Tracy said.
"Four percent sales tax," Tracy said, shaking his head sadly. "Us and hairdressers and interior decorators. We've got to charge four percent."
"They got all the fags," Alcetta said with a smirk.
"Just pay the twelve dollars," Tracy said.
"I don't like paying no sales tax," Alcetta said.
"Pay the twelve dollars."
Alcetta rooted around inside his billfold and finally brought out a ten-dollar bill. "I got no singles," he said.
Tracy took the ten. "You owe me the two," he said.
"Oh, here." Alcetta handed the detective a small glossy photograph. "That's my wife. One of the ones I took of her with her clothes on." He guffawed again.
Tracy looked at the photograph of a lovely redhaired woman with a strong intelligent face and a smile too natural to be adopted only for a photo session.
"Very pretty," he said.
"And some knockers too," Alcetta said.
"I'll start right away," Tracy said.
"Okay." Alcetta looked at his wristwatch. "Christ, I got to get out of here. I got business. You call me like on Monday?"
Tracy nodded and Alcetta walked toward the door. Tracy rose and stopped him. He towered over the younger man by at least four inches, and while Sonny Alcetta had the shaped look that came from working hard at body-building, Tracy had the look of bulk that came from being, by nature, a big man. He reached into his top left drawer and removed a business card from a box of a thousand. This was the way, he thought. In business a year, and he'd already given out a half-dozen cards. At that rate, he had a 141-year supply left. If he didn't move and change his address.
"Here's one of my cards," he said. "Call me anytime."
Alcetta took the card and read it before putting it into his jacket pocket.
"Here. Take some more," Tracy said. "I'll bet you've got many friends who could use a good private detective."
"Okay, okay. Enough with the junk cards," Alcetta said, but he stuck those cards in his pocket too, then left the office.
Tracy went to the window and looked down. A brown Lincoln was parked at a fire hydrant across the street. He saw Alcetta walk across the street, climb into the back seat, and the car drove off. As it sped down the street, Tracy noticed a bumper strip on the rear of the car. It read:
ITALIANS MAKE THE BEST LOVERS.
"God save us everyone," Tracy mumbled.