Devlin Tracy is a very good insurance investigator in a profession that rewards success. He lives in a luxury condo on the Las Vegas Strip and only works when he feels like it. He also drinks vodka by the pint, cracks wise to damn-near everyone, and has what can charitably be described as a complicated relationship with his girlfriend. None of that matters to the Garrison Fidelity Insurance Company. They’re interested in results. Which is why they keep Trace on retainer.
Problem: A patient at a private clinic died, shortly after making his doctor the beneficiary of his insurance policy. Suspicious. Now a wealthy friend of the Garrison Fidelity is a patient at the same private clinic, and he isn’t doing well. Troubling. Solution: Send Trace, who has a natural way of shaking things up. On the surface everyone’s friendly and nothing points to murder, fraud or larceny. A late-night beatdown from two masked thugs sends a very different message, however, and tells Trace that he’s onto something. If only he could figure out what he’s onto.
Trace is the first in a series of suspense novels featuring the charmingly hardboiled insurance investigator.
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Walter Marks, the vice-president for claims of the Garrison Fidelity Insurance Company, was wearing a charcoal-gray pinstripe suit and a fedora. His jacket and trousers were so neatly pressed that it looked as if the creases had been sewn into them. The snap-brim hat was also sharply pressed, its peak sort of resembling the prow of an ocean liner.
If Marks wore the hat in the hope that it made him seem taller, he had failed, because it managed only to make him look like a five-foot-tall man in a hat too big for him.
He stopped just inside the door of the cocktail lounge, his ears bombarded by the din, and looked around, the distaste obvious in his scowling face. Then he worked his way toward the crowded bar and waited for the bartender to come to him. He waited three minutes before waving to get the young man's attention.
When the bartender came, Marks asked him something, but because he leaned back, away from the bartender when talking to him, the young man did not hear him clearly and said, "Who?"
Marks repeated the name. "Devlin Tracy."
"Oh. Trace. Back there." The bartender pointed toward a cluster of small tables in the rear of the room and turned back to his customers.
Marks rudely pushed his way through the press of customers at the bar and walked to the table where he saw Trace, a very tall, blond man, sitting at a table writing something on a cocktail napkin with a red Flair pen.
Marks put his hat on an empty seat, smoothed down his oiled hair, then sat at the table opposite Tracy.
"Shhh,' Trace said without looking up.
Marks looked but could discern nothing very impressive on the cocktail napkin. Just a few letters. Hewaited a moment, then cleared his throat.
"Shhhhh," Trace said again. He still had not looked up.
"I thought you were dead," Marks said. "I didn't hear from you and I didn't get any obscene mail and no one was calling my secretaries perverts. I didn't have any fags calling me on my private line with disgusting propositions. No Strip-O-Gram belly dancers at the office. My life has just been peaceful and quiet. Naturally, I thought you were dead. Why shouldn't I think you were dead? It was logical, right? Jesus, I wish you were dead."
Trace, a once-in-a-while investigator of claims for Garrison Fidelity, still did not look up as he answered. "Yeah, dead," he said. "Right. Wish I was dead. When I'm rich and famous, you won't wish that. You'll be telling people you knew me when. You'll say, 'Oh, yes, Devlin Tracy. Why, sure, he's a friend of mine. 'Course, now that he's rich and famous, he doesn't call me much anymore. Busy, I guess. But we couldn't be closer.'" He still hadn't looked up and he was mumbling.
"What the hell is it you're scribbling there?" Marks asked.
Tracy pushed the cocktail napkin across the table. On it was neatly printed, in large block letters:
Marks looked at it, then at the tall blond man, whose face showed his invincible self-satisfaction.
"Okay, Trace, I surrender. Please tell me. What the hell is O-T-U-A?"
"Hah," Trace said triumphantly. "You know, Groucho, it's a mark of little minds that even when the light of discovery is shining right on them, they can't see it."
"I can see it, I can see it. I see O-T-U-A. What the hell is it?"
"This is only the first step," Trace said. "From here we conquer India. Like a mighty ocean, rolling across the world, country by country falling before our power. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill for the love of Kali."
"Trace, you're yelling." Marks looked around nervously, but no one seemed to notice. At the bar, men were still talking to women and women were talking to one another.
"I'm sorry. I always get that way whenever I see Gunga Din on television. It's my favorite movie. It's why I stay up late. It's always on at four in the morning. I'll tell you what, Groucho. I'll sell you half-interest in what's on that napkin. For, say, twenty thousand dollars, you can get in on the ground floor. That'd be best for you actually, since you're so small. Trying to get in on the second floor might be difficult."
"Cut the wise-ass and don't call me Groucho anymore. What is O-T-U-A?"
"You ever drive a car down the street and you're minding your business and then an ambulance drives up behind you?" Trace asked.
"I suppose so," Marks said suspiciously.
"You know how they have a sign on the front that says Ambulance?"
"Yeah, sure. What the hell are you talking about?"
"Well, the only reason you can read that sign on the ambulance is because it's lettered backwards, and when you see it in your mirror, it's frontwards."
"I don't believe I'm doing this," Marks said. "I fly three thousand miles to find you in this sink and we're talking about signs on ambulances."
"And then whoever's driving sees the ambulance sign and they pull over," Trace said.
Walters Marks shrugged.
"Well, I think everybody ought to have one. This is the first one. A prototype. Imagine it, Groucho, you're in on the design of the prototype. Favored inside position. You'll make millions. It's the wave of the future."
"How do I make millions?"
"See, you think that napkin you're holding says O-T-U-A. But it doesn't. It says auto backwards. If you mount that on the front of your car, then you sneak up on some other car and he sees you in the mirror, and you're going to have this big auto sign on your car and he'll pull right over. We can make them for everybody. I tried R-A-C first for car, but those letters won't reverse in a mirror without special printing, so O-T-U-A works just perfect. When you give me some development money, we can make them up, all kinds of them. Pizza for pizza trucks. Drunk Driver. I like a sign that says Drunk Driver backwards. You know how you kind of get out of the way when you see one of those cars with the big billboard, Student Driver. Or when you see M.D. plates, 'cause doctors are all nuts. Imagine how people will move when you come roaring up at them from behind and you've got Drunk Driver written backwards on your grille. I tell you, Groucho, this can make us. The possibilities are endless. We can use magnetic signs that just stick on front. Change the signs to fit your mood. Drunk Driver. Auto-out-of-Control. Get-the-Fuck-out-of-My-Way. That would really be a good one. I-Can't-Drive. That would work too. People will be sitting on the side of the road, idling their engines, wasting gas, and you'll be zipping by at seventy nine miles an hour. Everybody'll be afraid of you. Why should ambulance drivers have all the luck? Maybe we can get you one that says Small-but-Powerful. Would you like that? Maybe Insurance-Man? Or V-I-P? This is a wonderful idea and all I need is twenty thousand dollars from you."
"So I can write auto backwards on my car? I think I'll pass," Marks said.
Trace looked stunned by the rejection. "You sure?"
"All right but you're missing out," Trace said. "I hope you're a big-enough man to come to me someday and admit you were wrong."
"Somehow, I don't think it'll be one of my pressing worries for years to come," Marks said. "And speaking of pressing worries--"
"You're going to talk business, aren't you?" Trace said. "I'm in the middle of the most intensely creative few minutes of my life and you're going to want to talk about some freaking insurance policy. Groucho, you will always be a philistine. I ask only one thing from you."
"Don't breathe a word of this to anybody. Not until I get all the patent and copyright protections. There's sharks out there in the world."
"You have my word," Marks said. "I'll never repeat this to anyone. Now we will talk business."
Marks pushed the table napkin across the table to Trace, who folded it neatly, sighed, and put it into the breast pocket of his tan cashmere jacket. He waved to the waiter and circled his finger, indicating another round of drinks.
"All right," he said. "You have my undivided attention."
"Read this." Marks handed him a small newspaper clipping and Trace skimmed it quickly.
"I didn't know this Frederick Plesser," he said. "How'd the family take it?"
"Trace, dammit, I don't know how the family took it and I know you didn't know him and I don't give a shit. Will you just listen?"
"This Plesser was insured by us. A hundred-thousand-dollar company policy. When it came time to pay up, we found out that just before he died, he changed his beneficiary. It used to be his wife. Instead, he made his beneficiary somebody..." Marks pulled a sheet of paper from his inside pocket. "He left his money to Dr. George Matteson. He's the director of this Meadow Vista Sanatorium. So, naturally, Plesser's family is going nuts, but we have to pay the beneficiary, right?"
"Good for you. Do your duty. What's the paper?" Trace asked.
"It's a letter he wrote us changing his beneficiary."
Trace took it from Marks and read it. In a tight, pinched handwriting, it read: "I am Frederick Plesser and your company has an insurance policy on me for a hundred thousand dollars. I want to change my beneficiary from my wife, Gertrude, to Dr. George Matteson, director of the Meadow Vista Sanatorium. Make this effective immediately."
The letter was signed by Plesser and on two lines under his name were the names of two witnesses, Barbara Darling, M.D., and Thelma Simons, R.N.
Trace looked up and Marks said, "Now, here's where you come in. Mr. Swenson has a friend named Mitchell Carey who lives in Harmon Hills. That's where this Plesser lived."
"Time out," Trace said sharply. "Here comes the waiter. I don't want him to overhear any of this important stuff. And don't mention my signs for cars."
The waiter set a glass of vodka in front of Trace. He looked at Marks questioningly, but the small man waved him off.
After the waiter left, Marks said, "Mr. Swenson has a friend, Mitchell Carey. Anyway, he had a stroke and now he's in Meadow Vista."
Trace crossed himself when he heard the name of Robert Swenson, the president of the Garrison Fidelity Insurance Company. Marks ignored him.
"Anyway, the Carey family got wind of this Plesser thing, about leaving his money to the sanatorium, and now they're worried that maybe somehow this Dr. Matteson can get Carey to leave all his money to the sanatorium, if he dies."
"Has this Carey got money?" Trace asked.
"Yeah. He's very rich."
"Think he'd want to give me twenty thousand for these car signs?" Trace asked.
"Ask him. So Mr. Swenson wants you to look into it."
"Look into what?"
"This whole thing. Why Plesser left the sanatorium the money. You know we're going to wind up in court over that. And make sure nobody's brainwashing this Mr. Carey to get his money. Stuff like that."
"You say that this Carey is Bob Swenson's friend?"
"Yeah. That's the way I get it," Marks said.
"So this is more personal than business."
"I suppose so."
"Why didn't Bob call me himself?" Trace asked.
"I knew you were going to ask that," Marks said. "He tried to. He called you for three days. All he kept getting was your tape machine. You're some hell of an investigator. Don't you ever answer your calls?"
"I was getting around to it. Anyway, I'm not really an investigator. I'm more of a free spirit, soaring mightily over the workaday world."
"You're drunk enough most of the time to soar," Marks said. "Anyway, Mr. Swenson had to go to Europe for a convention, so he told me to get you. That's why I came here, all this way to sit in this degenerate bar and watch you doodle."
Trace shook his head. "I don't want to go to New Jersey."
"My ex-wife lives in New Jersey. There's a price on my head in that state. If she finds out that I'm there ... or even worse, if What's-his-name and the girl find out I'm there, my life's not worth a plugged nickel."
"Mr. Swenson said this was very important to him," Marks said smugly. "Should I tell him you turned it down because you're afraid of your ex-wife and kids?"
"Why didn't you send one of your other people? You've got all those people who work for you. Some of them aren't wanted in New Jersey. They could go right in and right out, just like it was part of the United States and nobody would even mind. Why didn't you send one of them?"
"I suggested that to Mr. Swenson, but it seems he has this inflated idea of your ability. He wanted you to go."
"It's tough on me, being Bob Swenson's friend," Trace said, sighing.
"It's tougher on me," Marks said.
"I could go to Israel, you know," Trace said brightly. "My mother's Jewish. I'm allowed in Israel."
"Go to New Jersey," Marks said.
The luxury condominium on the Las Vegas Strip was empty when Trace returned there, and he thought how nice it would be to spend a quiet evening alone.
He spent a great deal of time looking through his phonograph records, selecting the discs for the evening program. He narrowed the choices down to a half-dozen and put them all on the phonograph spindle, then dimmed the lights and poured himself a water tumbler of vodka from the bottle of Finlandia he kept in the refrigerator's freezer compartment.
He kicked off his loafers and was about to start the phonograph when he noticed he had only a few cigarettes left. He called the doorman to bring him up three packs. Trace gave him six dollars, which both he and the doorman thought was a good deal because Trace was always running out of cigarettes and the doorman bought them by the carton and kept them under the desk inside the front door. The doorman made a profit on the sale, and by not being forced to go out, when he would probably spend the night expensively in a bar, Trace figured he saved money, too. It was a good world, he decided, when one hand washed the other and both hands got clean.
Trace started the stereo and sat on the couch, sipping from his drink, puffing a cigarette. He felt very civilized.
Pavarotti sang the "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem.
Yes, very civilized. Then Pavarotti sang "O Mes Amis" from Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment. He hit nine high Cs, which Trace assured himself was wonderful because most people, himself included, couldn't hit even one without first having their private parts caught in a dresser drawer.
Very, very pleasant. A civilized evening at home.
Then two records dropped at once, one under the phonograph stylus and the other atop the tone arm, and the phonograph began to screech.
Trace ran over and pressed the stereo's reject button, but it didn't work and he remembered he had been planning to have it fixed. By the time he got the top record back into place, the lower record had been scarred beyond recognition.
As long as he was up, he decided he would freshen his drink. He did and sat back down on the couch, but his cigarette lighter ran dry. He couldn't find a match anywhere in the apartment so he lit the cigarette from a burner on the gas stove.
He didn't mind doing this since he had perfected the technique of approaching the burner from a low level with head turned to the side. This protected hair and eyebrows. The only problem with using the stove was that he couldn't take it into the bedroom with him. What would he do later when he wanted to smoke in bed? He couldn't very well get up every time and go to the gas stove to light his cigarette.
In a kitchen cabinet, he found one of the Yahrzeit candles that his mother kept hiding in the apartment on her visits to Las Vegas. In some forlorn effort to reinstill religious zeal in him, she kept leaving behind religious artifacts, so many of them that he felt sometimes as if he were living in an archaeological dig. The last trip, she had hidden a beaded yarmulke in his dresser drawer. He thought that he had everything he needed to sit Shiva except a corpse. His father had retaliated by hiding a crucifix in the bread drawer.
Trace lit the little squat religious candle and put it on the coffee table in the living room. Then, cigarette lit, full glass of vodka in hand, feet up on the table, stereo humming along impeccably with the Weavers singing their greatest hits, he sat back to enjoy a civilized evening at home.
Two minutes later, during "My Darling Clementine," he snuffed out his cigarette. During "Fili-me-oo-ree-ay," he put down his empty glass. Another minute and he was sleeping soundly.
He slept until 2 A.M., when he got up, undressed, and got into bed.
He woke up two hours later when Chico came into the room. In the brittle illumination from the bathroom light Trace could see she was wearing a powder-blue evening gown. In silhouette, her long shiny black hair framed her face like an Egyptian queen's headdress.
Trace hissed, "Climb right in here. The bitch is out tonight."
"Oh, you're awake."
"Of course I'm awake. I couldn't sleep a wink all night, worrying about you. I thought you might be dead, lying drowned somewhere in a water bed that cracked under the strain."
"I had business," the young Oriental woman said. She still stood in the doorway, backlighted.
"You've had business every night this week," Trace said.
"It's that season," she said blandly.
"Yeah. Open season."
"Go to sleep. I want to take my makeup off."
"You don't wear makeup," he said.
"This guy liked makeup, so I wore makeup." She walked into the bathroom and closed the door.
Trace went into the kitchen, lit another cigarette, and brought it into the bedroom. He was smoking a cigarette when she came out of the bathroom, naked, ten minutes later and slid under the covers on the other side of the bed.
"You know, I've about had it with you," she said.
"And with everybody else," Trace said sourly.
She rolled over on her stomach and propped herself up on her elbows. With both hands, she grabbed his right forearm and squeezed.
"Listen to me," she snapped. "I am a part-time hooker. What do you want from me? You want to marry me? Go ahead. Propose. Trace, what the hell do you want from me?"
"I want you home when the stereo breaks and I don't know how to fix it," he said.
She sighed, released his arm, and rolled back onto her own side of the bed.
"Go to sleep," she said.