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Drink, Dance, Divorce

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Drink, Dance, Divorce

by

Charles Alworth

Published by Body Fluids Press

Copyright © 2016 by Charles Alworth

First Edition

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

 

Chapter 1

World’s Greatest Ballroom Dancer

Waltz Charleston dragged his feet as he searched the dance studio for his older brother, Jazz. Waltz loved teaching dancing, but hated pressuring his students to buy lessons. It made him feel like a used-car salesman. He wished he had a way to avoid it, but he could think of nothing. His older brother, Jazz, controlling family head that he was, had insisted on setting up the appointment with Waltz’s student.

Waltz found Jazz in the waiting room of the dance studio. Jazz’s expression showed that Waltz had no hope of escape.

Jazz placed his arms on his hips. “Well?”

“She’s in the office, waiting for us.”

Jazz glared at him. “Are you ready to help me sell?”

“Sure.”

Jazz cocked his head. “No, I mean really ready. I don’t want you sitting there like a wart on a frog, like you always do, contributing nothing to the sale.”

Waltz leaped into the karate-ready position. “I’m ready. I’m really ready. I can’t wait to get in there. My whole body tingles with enthusiasm.”

Two students walked in. Evening was the busy time in the studio. Jazz grabbed Waltz’s elbow, lifted him to his toes, and hustled him into the main ballroom. Two-step music blared through the loudspeakers. A whining cowboy gurgled out the loss of his true love, the same old sad story. Waltz laughed. They always lost their girlfriends. Why did their girls run away? Was it the hats? Was it the clomping boots with high heels? The beer? The two-timing?

Wall mirrors flashed a confusing array of ballroom images. Two of the instructors danced to the song with their students. Others ignored it and dissected dance steps like scientists analyzed DNA.

Waltz wished he was out there teaching dancing. Instead, he was going to have to put up with a high-pressure sales session with Jazz, bad enough normally, but Jazz was especially irritable these days. What was wrong with him? He was always abrasive, but these days more than ever.

Jazz led Waltz like a dance partner into the teacher’s lounge and whipped him around. By reflex, Waltz almost whirled into a spin, as if they were dancing west coast swing, but caught himself.

Jazz shoved his face close to Waltz’s. “You want to teach dancing, you’ve got to sell. Take it seriously. Help me. You’re her instructor. I can’t sell her without you. She trusts you.”

Good, the teachers lounge. They could have this out in private. “That’s the point. She trusts me. I don’t want to sell her lessons she can’t afford.”

“How do you know she can’t afford them? Have you analyzed her financial statements?”

Waltz sputtered, speechless.

“You’re a salesman first, a dance instructor second. It’s not all fun and games. You help me sell her or I’ll fire your ass.”

Jazz grabbed Waltz’s arm and propelled him to the office. Waltz jigged along like a coin-operated tap dancer.

Jazz stopped at the door. “Remember what I told you. I’m not kidding.”

He opened the door, shoved Waltz through, followed, and approached Waltz’s student. He stuck out his hand. “Xenia, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m Jazz, manager of the studio, Waltz’s brother. He’s told me how talented you are. I see now that you’re beautiful too.” He pulled out a chair for her. “Come and sit next to me at the desk. Waltz tells me you love to dance. What’s your favorite?”

“Tango. I love it.”

Jazz fiddled with his computer. “Two-Timing Tango” wafted from the fancy speakers, promising romance, creating an image of a handsome gaucho holding Xenia, and gushing with praise for her graceful dancing.

He turned to Xenia. “How good do you want to be?”

“I don’t know. I guess… pretty good.”

He took her hand in his. “Have you seen some of our advanced students dance at the parties?”

“Yes. They dance beautifully.”

“Would you like to be as good as them?”

“Oh, yes.”

“You know, to become a great ballroom dancer, you have to commit yourself. Ginger Rogers committed herself.”

“Ginger Rogers?”

“She danced in the old movies with Fred Astaire.”

“Fred Astaire?”

“Fred and Ginger. They were famous in their day, back in the 40s and 50s. Fred was known for wearing tails, a top hat, and sporting a cane. Ginger wore beautiful gowns – and she was beautiful. You should see one of their old musicals. They were great. They practiced for days before they filmed each number. They were committed. You can’t hold back and get good. You’ve got to know in your body and soul that you’re dedicated to Dance. Waltz must know you’re into this to teach you proper technique.”

He pulled a legal pad out of his drawer. He drew a picture of the learning curve. He showed her how Waltz had to be sure she was taking the full plan so that he could nurture her natural talent.

Xenia glanced at the door. “I’m just taking a few lessons to meet some people. My divorce came through last month.”

Jazz glared at Waltz.

Waltz knew the party line. Dance lessons weren’t an expense. They were an investment in a lifetime pleasure. People needed dancing as much as groceries or houses. Waltz had to convince them of that. The students would thank him later.

He tapped the blue folder on Jazz’s desk. “Xenia, I’ve prepared this plan just for you. It’s quite detailed, showing step-by-step exactly how I’ll train you to become a great dancer.”

Jazz pointed at the folder. “With this plan, in six months you’ll be the life of the party. You’ll have so many handsome men begging you for dances, you’ll have to assign them numbers.”

“These lessons are so expensive. Can’t I pay for them one at a time?”

Waltz took a deep breath. Jazz might well fire him if they failed to sell Xenia. “You see, Xenia, how I coach a student depends on her intentions. If I know she’s going to continue, I know I have time to give her the proper fundamentals. You have the natural ability. You could be as graceful as Ginger, but without a good base of fundamentals, you can never reach your true potential.”

“Well, let me think about it. I’ll let you know in a couple of days.” Xenia half rose from her chair.

Waltz glanced at Jazz. Jazz glared at him.

Waltz picked up the folder. “Let me show you the plan. It’ll only take a minute.”

Xenia stood. “Not today. I want to think it over.”

Jazz stood. “Waltz, let it drop. Can’t you see she wants to think it over?” He turned to Xenia. “I’m sorry, Xenia. You’re his favorite student. He recognizes your great potential. He’s eager to see you fulfill it. He can’t contain himself when he finds a student with your potential. Please excuse him. By all means, think it over. There’s no rush.” He shook her hand. “Hey, just a minute. Before you go, watch this. This is great.” He eased her back into her chair. He turned, reached under his desk, picked Cha-Cha up, and placed him on the small dance floor in front of the desk. Cha-Cha stood, drowsy from his evening nap.

Jazz returned to his desk and fiddled with his computer. The “Fred and Ginger Cha-Cha” played over the speakers. Jazz extended his arms like an impresario. “I give you the world’s greatest ballroom dancer, Cha-Cha Charleston.”

World’s greatest ballroom dancer? Waltz smirked behind his hand.

Cha-Cha yawned and stretched.

Jazz pointed at Cha-Cha. “Dance, Cha-Cha, dance.”

Cha-Cha swaggered about the floor, face smug.

Some great dancer. Reeking of beer, he was dancing a two-step to cha-cha music.

Waltz bent over Cha-Cha and sniffed, gauging his beer level. The smells of beer and cologne clashed. Someone must’ve dipped his bandanna in perfume again. The girls around the studio groomed him, dressed him, and made him into a prancing dandy.

Offbeat, drunk, hardly the world’s greatest ballroom dancer, Cha-Cha skidded on the hardwood floor, claws scratching for traction.

Jazz touched Xenia’s arm. “He dances like a champion, doesn’t he, Xenia?”

“He sure does. He feels the music. Look at him wag his tail in time.”

Waltz shook his head. Cha-Cha’s tail didn’t keep him on beat. Like him, it had a tin ear. In fairness to his tail, though, maybe the problem wasn’t its lack of musical ability. His tail was drunk, as drunk as he was.

Ah, but a sober tail. What an advantage – a built-in baton. Too bad humans didn’t have tails. Did nature not anticipate their utility? Or did nature foresee Fred Astaire and realize the incongruity of white tie and tails – and tail?

Jazz took Xenia’s hand and urged her on to the floor. “Dance with him, Xenia. Dance with him.”

Zenia began to cha-cha. Cha-Cha pranced and yapped.

Jazz whistled and applauded. He nodded his head at Waltz. Waltz applauded.

The song ended to applause. Jazz gave a last whistle. “He’s cute, isn’t he, Xenia?”

Xenia bowed at her partner. “Yes, he’s so cute. I love his little bitty cowboy bandanna. I could just hug him.” She picked him up and cuddled him. “He smells so good, like a little gentleman.”

She put him down and patted his rump. He froze, bulbous eyes wide, ears spread like the wings of a buzzard. An attack Chihuahua, he charged Waltz’s ankles.

Waltz raised his feet onto his chair, ankle still sore from his previous nipping, his trousers the last pair with intact cuffs.

Cha-Cha missed, teetered, yapped at Waltz’s feet, and stopped to scratch.

Jazz laughed. “You almost got him, didn’t you, Cha?”

Cha-Cha fawned like a peasant before a King, writhing in pleasure.

Jazz pointed at Waltz. “You go get him. Get him.”

Cha-Cha trembled and growled.

Waltz made sure his feet were firmly on the chair. “Quit it. You’re training him to bite me.”

“Get him, Cha, get him.”

Cha-Cha charged, to no avail. With Waltz’s feet on the chair, the only thing Cha-Cha could chew were the soles of Waltz’s shoes.

Xenia laughed. Cha-Cha glanced at Xenia and wagged his tail. He stretched and yawned. He staggered back into his so-called dance, the music slower, though Cha-Cha kept the same pace, staggering to his tail’s erratic rhythm.

Waltz lowered his feet. “He’s drunk. You’ve turned him into an alcoholic.”

Jazz rolled his eyes. “There’s no such thing as an alcoholic dog.”

“Dogs are like people. I’ll bet Cha-Cha wakes up every morning with a hangover.”

“He complained to you about his hangovers?”

“I don’t know he has hangovers, but every morning he gives me a clue, guzzling all that Alka-Seltzer.”

“Maybe you should take him to an AA meeting.”

Cha-Cha charged.

Waltz parked his feet on the chair again. “Laugh if you want. He’s an alcoholic.”

Jazz plucked Cha-Cha from the floor in mid-step. “Do you need to go to AA? Are you an anonymous alcoholic, sweet baby?” Cha-Cha licked Jazz’s face. Jazz kissed Cha-Cha’s mouth. “No. No you aren’t.”

Waltz felt an impulse to gargle with Lysol.

Jazz put Cha-Cha back on the floor. “So you think dogs are like people. You buy that evolution stuff?”

“I’m not talking about evolution. I’m saying alcohol affects Cha-Cha like it does a human. You shouldn’t give him beer. He doesn’t know the difference. You’re abusing him.”

Jazz glared at Waltz. “Get your feet off the chair.”

Waltz hesitated, then put his feet back on the floor.

Jazz picked Cha-Cha up and held him close to his face. “You don’t think I abuse you, do you Cha? I give my sweet baby beer cause he likes it. Isn’t that right? Everything I do is cause I love you. You know that, don’t you?”

Jazz placed Cha-Cha back on the floor. He caressed him. “Beer won’t hurt anybody. Cha-Cha loves it.” Jazz patted Cha-Cha’s bowl. Cha-Cha lurched to the bowl and lapped up beer.

Jazz and Xenia laughed.

Jazz tilted the bowl. He turned to Waltz. “Get another beer.”

Waltz hesitated. Jazz knew if Waltz stood above Jazz, Cha-Cha, protecting his master, would attack Waltz’s ankles.

Jazz jabbed his forefinger at the mini fridge. “Beer.”

Waltz rose into a crouch, judged Jazz’s height, scrunched lower, and duck-walked toward the fridge. It was behind Jazz. He could’ve reached it without getting up.

Waltz kept his eyes on Cha-Cha, watching for an assault.

Cha-Cha studied Waltz and quivered. His ears spread.

Waltz sank lower. Cha-Cha’s ears descended along with Waltz.

Jazz and Xenia laughed at Waltz’s strange walk. Jazz, though he’d seen it many times, took permanent delight in it.

Waltz’s face got hot. He opened the fridge, grabbed a can, and thrust it behind his back toward Jazz.

“Pop it, Groucho.”

Waltz popped the tab, the odor of beer assailing his nostrils, handed the can to Jazz, and chimp-walked his way back to his chair.

“You know, Xenia, Waltz could improve his dancing if he paid more attention to his posture.” Jazz and Xenia laughed.

Jazz was distracting Xenia and keeping her unaware that he intended to sell her a bunch of expensive dance lessons. Waltz had seen him do it many times. Jazz gurgled beer into Cha-Cha’s bowl, Heinekens, nothing but the best. Granted, Cha-Cha earned it. Drunk or sober, he helped Jazz sell dance lessons.

Cha-Cha watched Jazz pour, left forefoot raised, tail trembling, nose pointing at his bowl.

Jazz smiled. “This round is on me. Belly up to the bar. Come on.”

Cha-Cha charged forward and lapped up a mighty gulp. He staggered around the room, burped, barked at Waltz, studied Waltz’s ankles, fell, and lost interest. Xenia laughed.

Cha-Cha got up and circled, searching for a spot to nap. Cha-cha music still played. Waltz guessed they’d call Cha-Cha’s instinctive turning a spin – or maybe something fancier, a pirouette. Yeah, right, Cha-Cha, world’s greatest ballet dancer.

Cha-Cha curled up on the floor and closed his eyes.

Waltz watched, ready to raise his feet. It could be a trick.

Zenia stood. “I’ve got to go now.”

“Zenia, watch this.” Jazz leveled an imaginary baton at Waltz. “Do the note.”

Not the note. Waltz hesitated.

Jazz glared at him.

Waltz slumped. He took a breath, straightened, and hit a high note.

Cha-Cha cocked his head. His ears sprang up. He pointed his snout toward the ceiling and howled in tune.

Jazz conducted. He pointed at Cha-Cha. “Sing, Cha-Cha, sing.” Jazz turned to Xenia. “He wants to get into opera.”

Xenia applauded. “He’s so talented. He’s adorable.”

Jazz rose and lifted his arms, beckoning with his fingers, urging his choir into a rising crescendo. He waved and dropped his arms. Waltz ended the note. So did Cha-Cha.

Jazz bowed in turn to Xenia, Cha-Cha, and Waltz.

Xenia clapped. “Cha-Cha and Waltz can sing. They can dance. Your whole family is talented.”

Jazz nodded. “Yes, the whole family is talented. Cha-Cha and Waltz could probably get their act on TV. But Waltz never wants to practice. Cha-Cha does. He’s much more disciplined than Waltz.”

Jazz picked Cha-Cha up, leaned back, and held him at arm’s-length. Cha-Cha hung over Jazz’s face. “You know I love you. You know you’re my baby, don’t you? I know you do. You understand, don’t you? Always together – always. Me and you.”

Jazz put Cha-Cha down. Cha-Cha lurched to his bowl and lapped up more beer. His raised his head. He glowered at Waltz. His ears rose and wavered. He gave a halfhearted growl.

Waltz dared not move.

Cha-Cha drank some more.

“Cha-Cha, show Xenia how you beg. Beg Cha-Cha. Beg.”

Cha-Cha struggled upright but toppled over.

“Okay, then rollover.”

Cha-Cha rolled over, but no way could he beg, walk a straight line, or bark the alphabet. If he breathed near one, a breathalyzer would flash its all-liquored-up light.

Jazz turned to Xenia. “I guess he’s drunk. The evils of drink.” They laughed.

Jazz rolled Cha-Cha around on the floor. “Wake up, Cha-Cha. Wake up.” Cha-Cha got up and growled at Waltz. Jazz laughed. “Dance, Cha-Cha. Dance. Dance the tango. You’re a gaucho on the pampas.”

Xenia sat back and watched, smiling.

Cha-Cha pranced around the room, staggering from time to time, his dancing ragged, his timing much worse, dancing his usual two-step, oblivious to the tango music.

When Cha-Cha finished his dance, Jazz would go for his inevitable close. He would sign Xenia up.

In the middle of the dance, Cha-Cha lowered his nose to the floor and stuck his butt in the air, tail curled, posture playful, teasing Xenia. It was Cha-Cha’s favorite game. When Xenia reached out to pet him, he would dash away.

Xenia laughed. “He’s so cute.” She bent and patted Cha-Cha’s head. Her smile faded. She shrank back.

Butt cocked, tail curled, Cha-Cha stayed, still as a corpse.

Jazz picked Cha-Cha up. “Cha-Cha, what’s the matter?” Jazz put his ear to Cha-Cha’s heart. He massaged Cha-Cha. “Something’s wrong.” Tears streamed down Jazz’s face. “I think he’s dying. We’ve got to get him to a vet.”

***

 

Jazz entered the examining room, swaying, holding Cha-Cha in his arms. “Oh, Cha-Cha, don’t die. I can’t stand it without you. You’re my one friend.”

Waltz put his arm around Jazz’s shoulders. “He’s okay. He just passed out. He’ll have a headache in the morning. That’s all.”

The vet hurried in. “Sir, put your dog on the examining table. Sir.”

Jazz didn’t respond. He hugged Cha-Cha to his chest.

“Sir.”

Waltz helped the vet pry open Jazz’s arms and lay Cha-Cha on the table.

Waltz knew what would happen next. The vet would turn with a puzzled expression and announce that Cha-Cha was passed out drunk. Waltz moved to the door. Maybe he ought to wait in the car.

The vet peeled back Cha-Cha’s eyelid and peered inside. He grunted. He sniffed. He bent closer to Cha-Cha and sniffed again.

He held out his hand to the nurse. “Charcoal.”

The nurse handed him an aerosol can. He sprayed the contents down Cha-Cha’s throat.

The vet turned. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that this dog went on a bender at Fido’s Bar, lured by bar bitches, all in heat.” He studied Jazz and Waltz in turn. “Who fed this dog beer?”

Jazz did not speak. Tears ran down his cheeks.

Waltz glanced at Jazz. “I did.”

The vet glared at Waltz.

Waltz hung his head. “It was a joke.”

“You idiot! Giving a dog beer – or anything alcoholic. Even if they like it. It’s dog abuse.”

Waltz backed into the doorway. “He’s okay. He’ll have a little hangover in the morning, that’s all.”

“I don’t think so.”

“He won’t have a hangover? After all that beer?”

Jazz grabbed the vet’s shoulders. “You mean he’s dead?”

“He’s alive, but he’s in a coma. How long he’ll last is anybody’s guess.”

Waltz sank against the doorjamb. Cha-Cha in a coma? How could it be? Beer never put him in a coma before. “Aw, he’ll be okay.”

The vet glared at Waltz. “You think so? You feed him, a Chihuahua, enough beer to kill a great Dane and then you say he’s going to be okay? As though that makes things all right?”

Jazz bent over Cha-Cha and hugged him. “Poor little Cha-Cha, my best friend.” Tears flowed from his eyes. Blood drained from his forehead, mingled with the tears, and dripped onto Cha-Cha.

The vet peered at Jazz’s face. “Sir, did you know your forehead is bleeding?”

Jazz removed one arm from Cha-Cha. He felt his forehead. He examined the blood on his hand. He didn’t seem to understand.

Waltz touched Jazz’s shoulder. “You banged your head on the doorjamb as we left the office.”

Jazz examined his bloody hand. “I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel it at all. I can’t believe it.” He sobbed.

He collapsed into a chair. “Why me? Why me?”

The vet pulled up a stool and blotted Jazz’s gash. He applied a bandage. “That’ll stop the bleeding. It’s minor.”

Jazz pushed himself out of his chair and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He petted Cha-Cha. “Oh, Cha. I’m sorry, Cha. I’m sorry.”

Waltz’s eyes teared. Poor little Cha-Cha. He wasn’t so bad. Waltz reached to touch him.

Jazz pushed Waltz away and stepped closer to the table, shielding Cha-Cha. “You stay away from him.”

“I just wanted to comfort him.”

Jazz pushed Waltz again. “Stay away.” Jazz fumbled with the knot on Cha-Cha’s neckerchief. He couldn’t get his fingers to loosen it. He collapsed onto his chair, sighed, and put his face in his hands. His shoulders shook.

Waltz untied the knot and draped the neckerchief over Jazz’s thigh.

Jazz picked up the scarf and folded it, smoothing it on his knee. He dried his eyes with it and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. He stroked Cha-Cha.

Jazz cleared his throat. “Is he suffering?”

“Not at all. He passed out. If he dies, he’ll never know what happened.”

Jazz gazed at the vet with tearful eyes. “Are you sure? He felt no pain? I have to know.”

“It’s like he went to sleep. He felt no pain. The alcohol acts like an anesthetic.”

“Somebody poisoned him.”

The vet glared at Waltz. “You got that right. Alcohol is a poison.”

Jazz continued to pet Cha-Cha. “What if somebody poisoned him? Would he feel any pain?”

“He just drank too much beer.”

“But what if somebody poisoned him? With something besides alcohol? It’s possible isn’t it?”

The nurse nudged the doctor.

The doctor glanced at the nurse. “Yeah, sure, anything’s possible.”

“Then would he feel any pain?”

“Depends on the type of poison. Some poisons cause extreme pain, though mixed with alcohol, maybe not.”

“Can you tell for sure if he was poisoned?”

“What’s the point? He stinks of beer. That’s what poisoned him.”

“If there was a point, if there was a reason to believe he was poisoned, how would you go about it?”

“I’d have to take samples and have them tested.”

“Do it. I want to know if somebody poisoned him. And I want to know if he felt any pain.”

The vet shook his head. “It’d be a waste of time and money.”

The nurse poked the vet.

Jazz grabbed the vet’s shoulder. “Do it!”

The nurse poked the vet again. The vet turned to her and shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.”

Jazz swayed and grabbed the vet’s shoulders to steady himself. “Do it. I don’t care how much it costs.”

 

Chapter 2

She Won’t Dance

The next afternoon, Waltz sat at his desk, looking through the big picture window into the ballroom. Three instructors were practicing. “I wonder how Cha-Cha’s doing.”

A fast salsa, Lala’s favorite, played over the office speakers. Lala, Jazz’s wife, dipped two fingers into her bra and retrieved her roll of cash, the dull green of the bills set off against her lime-green blouse. “Who care? Is just a dog. Jazz should worry more about the studio, before we go broke. How much money he spend at the vet?”

“I don’t know.” Waltz made another halfhearted entry on the computer. He hated accounting work. Jazz made him do it. “I thought you liked Cha-Cha. All the girls like Cha-Cha.”

“I love Cha-Cha but he is a dog. You can always get a new dog. They are all the same. They bark. They scratch.” Lala opened the roll and flattened the bills on her desk, patting them smooth. She pulled a red pen out of her desk and, in the right corner of each bill, both sides, put her mark.

Waltz watched her, fascinated by what she was doing and even more fascinated by her body. Her good parts jiggled and tried to burst free of her clothes, even as she sat at her desk. “Why are you marking your bills?”

He knew why, but he wanted her to talk to him. He wanted to hear her Mexican accent and watch those pouty lips move.

“Because, my pretty, I want my money back if someone steal it.” Her olive complexion glowed. Her full lips pouted.

They challenged you to kiss them. You wanted to kiss the smugness out of them – but leave in the pout. “Even the strongest thief couldn’t pry your purse out of your hands.”

Her lips pouted again. “Bad men can get money out of anybody’s hands.”

“Don’t worry. The cops would find your money for you.”

Lala fondled another bill and marked it. “No way. The police are stupid and corrupt.”

He loved the way her pouty lips trilled the R’s. “Ah, Lala. That may be true in Mexico, but not here in Texas.”

Lala pondered the point. “I no trust them. I will find the bills with my mark. I will do it myself, solo.”

“Anybody can mark a bill. You ought to list the serial numbers. If somebody stole your money, you could give the cops the list. They’d find your money.”

She studied him, face serious.

Waltz loved her serious face. “You could still mark your bills and search on your own.”

She took some index cards out of her desk and started recording serial numbers.

“Just the big bills. No point in recording anything under twenty.”

“Nobody will take none of my money.”

“You should be the accountant.” Waltz leaned back in his chair. “What do you think about Jazz’s theory that somebody poisoned Cha-Cha?”

“He is crazy in his coconut. I bet he pay the vet much money to test for poison.”

Waltz entered another invoice. Their cash balance was getting low.

The ancient computer’s screen went blank. No surprise. Waltz guessed the hard drive died.

Jazz strode into the office, leaned back in his chair to its usual squeak, and put his feet up on his desk, hands behind his head.

Waltz couldn’t stand it. “So, is he okay?”

Jazz brought his arms down. “Of course he’s not okay. He’s poisoned.”

“But he’s still alive?”

“He’s still in a coma. The vet says he might make it.”

“Good. I hope so.”

Jazz tapped a business card on his teeth. “Somebody poisoned him.”

“It wasn’t the beer?”

“I got the report from the vet. Somebody gave Cha-Cha sleeping pills, knowing he drank lots of beer, knowing the pills and the alcohol would kill him. The vet said he felt no pain, thank God. He said that alcohol and sleeping pills both are depressants, so Cha-Cha just went to sleep. In effect, he just passed out. No pain at all.”

“I’m glad he didn’t suffer.” Waltz shrugged. “Why would anyone poison an innocent dog?”

Jazz laughed – without amusement. “You’re asking me?”

Waltz leaned forward in his chair. “Last night, you thought somebody poisoned him. Why?”

“I have good reasons. I’m not going into them now.”

“But who would do it? And why?”

Lala pulled her cash box out of the desk drawer, unlocked it, and recorded more serial numbers. “A monster that hated Jazz might do it. With such a one as Jazz in charge, plenty of monsters here at the studio wish to do him harm.”

Jazz slammed the card down on his desk. “I’m going to get the lowlife scum that did it.”

Waltz’s eyes went back to Lala, recording serial numbers. “You know who did it?”

“I’ve got an idea who it was. Yes.” Jazz picked up the card and waved it around. “And I’ve got a secret weapon.”

“A card? A card is a secret weapon?”

“That’s right. I’m going to hire a private detective.” Jazz consulted the card. “Hook ‘Em Harns. Lala, have you heard of her?”

Lala shook her head. “I hate police. They always take the bite.”

Jazz’s eyebrows went up. “The bite?”

“Yes, you know, the bite.” She looked to Waltz.

Waltz loved the way she talked. “You mean… a bribe?”

“Yes. They take the bribe.”

Jazz laughed. “Texas is not like Mexico. Besides, this is a private detective.”

“That mean what?”

“She works for herself, not the public.”

“Yes, yes. Is the same in Mexico. They work for themselves. They take the bribe.”

“This one’s honest.” Jazz turned to Waltz. “You heard of her?

“Nah.”

“I’ve heard good things about her. I’ve got her number.” Jazz tapped the card on his desk and handed it to Waltz.

“Ah Jazz. Why do I have to do all the stuff that’s beneath you?” He put the card on Jazz’s desk.

Jazz slapped the card into Waltz’s hand. “Because it’s beneath me. Do it.”

Waltz slammed the card down on his desk.

Lala stuffed her cash back in the box and locked it. She cradled it in her arms. “What is the price of this detective?”

Jazz shook his head, got up, walked around Lala’s desk, and caressed her shoulders. He massaged them. His manner showed he possessed her. “Stop harping about money. I’m going to get the creep that poisoned Cha-Cha. I don’t care if we go broke.”

Lala’s fingers tightened on her cash box. “Is a dog. I no understand why you must pay for a detective. Forget it.”

“I love Cha-Cha.”

“You waste much money. Our cash is small. We will lose the studio.”

Jazz removed his hands from Lala’s shoulders. “I have to get the creep that poisoned Cha-Cha. Don’t you understand? I love Cha-Cha. You don’t know what love means.”

“For sure. I married you.”

The squabble was about to take off into one of their famous fights. Waltz interrupted. “It doesn’t make sense to hire a detective. We don’t have much cash. Besides, she could never find out who did it.”

Jazz scowled. “I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to hire a detective.” His voice was a whisper.

“I don’t see how she could do it.”

“But you’re not a detective, are you?”

“No.”

“So it makes sense that you wouldn’t know how she could do it, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So hire her.”

Waltz picked up the card and threw it at Jazz. It caught the air, veered away, and fluttered to the floor. “You hire her.”

Jazz watched the card as though it had the answer to something that was bothering him. “Only three of us were there. Me, Xenia, and you. Xenia adores him.”

Waltz’s gut flopped. “Are you serious?”

Jazz’s face reddened. “You never picked Cha-Cha up. You never even petted him.”

“How could I? I would’ve lost an arm.”

“You were always complaining about him. Claiming he bit you. Claiming he tore your pants.”

Waltz jumped to his feet. “Sure. I complained about him. Because he did bite me. He did tear my pants – and you laughed. But I didn’t poison him.”

“So are you saying that Xenia did it?”

“Well… no… but… plenty of people could have poisoned him. People were in and out of your office all day, playing with him. Rachel was, just before we closed on Xenia.”

“So you didn’t do it?”

“No.”

“Then you shouldn’t object to getting the detective. You should want her to clear you. Hire her.”

Waltz’s gut flopped again. He sat and struggled to breathe.

Jazz slapped the card back on Waltz’s desk.

Waltz picked it up. Hook ‘Em Harns, Domestic Investigations.

To hell with Jazz. Screw the private detective. Waltz’d go to the cops. They were honest. They served the public. They worked free. Lala would like that.

***

 

Waltz swallowed. “I’d like to report a crime.”

The cop clicked his keyboard. “Go ahead.”

Waltz smoothed his hair. “Somebody tried to kill my brother’s dog.”

“A dog? Did you say a dog?”

“Yeah.”

“They were fighting dogs?” The cop placed his fingers on his keyboard.

“What do you mean?”

The cop leaned back. “You know. Making the dogs fight. Betting on them.”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that.” Waltz laughed. “He’s a Chihuahua.”

“Can’t help you.”

“But my brother thinks I did it.”

“Tell him you didn’t.”

The phone rang. The cop answered it and jabbered cop jargon. He hung up. His eyes returned to Waltz.

“My brother’s mad at me. You’ve got to help.”

The cop’s fitted and starched uniform crackled as he moved. “I can fill out a report, but nothing will come of it.”

“Nothing will come of it?”

“Right. So your brother’s dog is dead? So what? Get your brother a new one. They got lots of them at the pound.”

“He’s not dead. He’s in a coma.”

“He’s not dead? You want us to investigate the attempted murder of a dog? Attempted murder? How can you know somebody attempted to murder him – a dog?”

“Because we took him to the vet. He passed out.”

“He passed out?”

“He drank too much beer, but the vet tested his body fluids. Somebody gave him sleeping pills. Somebody tried to kill him.”

“Sounds like attempted suicide. We can’t take the time to investigate the attempted suicide of a dog.”

Waltz shook. The cops were supposed to help everybody – solve any crime. That’s what they were paid for. “Let me talk to somebody in authority.”

The cops stood up, his face red. “Somebody in authority? Are you kidding?”

“I’m dead serious.”

The cop opened his mouth, but didn’t speak. He collapsed into his chair. He smiled. “How about the lieutenant?”

“The lieutenant would be fine.”

The cop picked up his phone. “Lieutenant, there’s a man here who insists on reporting an attempted murder directly to you.” The cop listened and smiled. “That’s right, sir. He’s an outraged citizen. He won’t take no for an answer.”

Waltz could see no reason for the cop’s amusement. Trying to murder Chihuahuas was serious business, a gateway crime to homicide, serial murder, terrorism, and communism.

A small, withered cop in a withered suit sauntered down the hall and stopped in front of Waltz. “You want to report an attempted murder?” His eyes were dull and his voice was emotionless, cold.

Waltz took a deep breath. “Somebody poisoned my brother’s dog.”

The lieutenant reached under his coat and adjusted his shoulder holster. “Did you explain that to the desk sergeant?”

“Yes, I did.”

“What did he say?”

“He said I could fill out a report, but nothing would come of it.”

The lieutenant smiled. It didn’t seem a friendly smile. “Then fill out the report.”

“But nothing would come of it.”

The lieutenant moved closer. His smile faded. “That is correct, sir.” His voice remained flat and neutral.

Waltz shivered and stepped back a bit. He couldn’t help himself. “But my brother is upset.”

The cop behind the desk pounded on the bullet-proof glass. “He said his brother accused him of doing it.”

“Your brother thinks you did it?”

“Well … yeah. I want you to catch the guy that did … to prove I didn’t.”

“Why does he think you did it?”

Waltz stepped back a bit more. “He really doesn’t. He said it, but he was upset at the time.”

The lieutenant stepped forward, his face in Waltz’s. “So why’d you tell the desk sergeant he did?”

“I don’t know. I sort of blurted it out. My brother doesn’t really believe it.”

“So you lied?”

“No. It’s… complicated.”

“I don’t blame your brother. A punk like you is the first person I would suspect.” The lieutenant stepped forward. “You know what we do when a suspect lies to us?”

Waltz stepped back, shaking his head.

“We take them in for questioning.” The lieutenant grabbed Waltz’s arm. “Come this way.” He stopped and called over his shoulder to the desk sergeant. “Send me one of those new digital truncheons, one of the big ones.”

Waltz laughed. Digital truncheon. Yeah, right. What did it do, beat you on its own, while the lieutenant leaned idly back in his chair?

Waltz’s arm went numb from the grip the lieutenant had on it. The lieutenant hustled Waltz into a small room painted battleship gray. Four chairs surrounded a table bolted to the floor. The lieutenant dragged Waltz to one of the chairs, forced him down, and cuffed him to the table.

A wiseass cop couldn’t intimidate Waltz. The law prohibited roughing up a suspect. He was a citizen and the cops were going to do their job.

The lieutenant answered a knock on the door. A cop handed him a truncheon, wrapped in plastic. The lieutenant unwrapped it and deposited the plastic in the trashcan.

Waltz tried to see if the truncheon had a switch somewhere. It would have to have a switch if it was digital.

Like a gunfighter twirling his six shooter, the lieutenant spun the truncheon. He jabbed and punched with it, grunting like a martial artist. He stopped, rested the truncheon on his shoulder like a rifle, and turned on the recorder, stating his name, the date, the place, and ordered Waltz to state his full name.

The lieutenant glared, slapping the truncheon against his hand, feeling its heft. “Let’s go over this in detail. I want to be fair. Start by giving me your side of the story. Where were you when the dog was poisoned?”

Waltz thought the guy was joking, but he displayed the truncheon with real threat. Waltz read of a case where the cops used a truncheon in an unorthodox manner and almost killed a guy. Waltz was alone in a room, cuffed to a chair, with a loose cannon wielding a digital dildo, porn-size.

Ah, the guy was messing with him, that’s all.

“Answer the question. Where were you when you poisoned the dog?”

Waltz’s voice squeaked. “What if I don’t file a report?”

The lieutenant stopped slapping the truncheon, and waved it like a stern finger. “I encourage you, as a law-abiding citizen, to file a report. It’s your duty. Don’t let some sleazeball get away with attempted murder.”

“But what if I don’t file a report?”

The cold smile returned. “Then I wouldn’t have to round up any suspects.”

“I don’t guess I’ll file a report. Nothing would come of it.”

“So you’re not going to file a report?”

“No.”

“I no longer have a crime I suspect you of.” The lieutenant handed Waltz the truncheon. “Re-wrap this. I don’t like to waste a fresh truncheon.” He kicked the trash can over to Waltz.

The trash can slammed into Waltz’s knee. Waltz picked out the plastic and carefully wrapped the truncheon. It had some heft. He couldn’t find a button. He placed the truncheon on the table.

The lieutenant unlocked the cuffs. “You’re free to go. You’d better get out of here before somebody files a report.”

Waltz slunk out.

The lieutenant laughed.

***

 

Jazz came out of the office and stopped Waltz on the dance floor. “Did you call the detective?”

The music switched to tango. Waltz watched the dancers. “No. I went to the cops instead. I figured they’d be better than a detective.”

Jazz started. “You went to the cops?”

“Surprised?”

Jazz shifted his strawberry slush to his other hand, the red slurry sloshing in the cup. “That was stupid. They won’t help.”

Waltz smiled. “Sure they would. They’d let me file a report, but nothing would come of it.”

“They wouldn’t investigate at all?”

“They offered to truncheon a confession out of the most likely suspect – me.”

“I wish I’d seen that. They have more sense than I thought, but I don’t want them hanging around the studio. It would be bad for business.”

Waltz watched Rachel and Armando tango. Armando dipped her low, lifted her back up, and finished with a quick snap. Rachel snapped her head around, her red hair twirling and slapping against her cheeks. “I didn’t think about that.”

“You almost screwed things up good. We can’t have cops all over the place questioning people, driving them away from the studio. From now on, you do what I tell you. Going to the cops was stupid.”

Jazz was right. It was stupid. He should have done what Jazz said. An image flashed into Waltz’s mind, the lieutenant hanging around the studio, unwrapping a fresh truncheon, slapping it in his hand, sneering, steely-eyed, cuffing a student to a table. That would put a damper on any business, especially a ballroom dance studio. Jazz was always right. “Okay. Okay.”

“And it’s going to be bad for business if I go around accusing everybody of poisoning Cha-Cha. Do you see?”

“I see.”

“Call the detective. It’s a business expense. Deduct it from our taxes.”

***

 

Waltz went to the desk in the teacher’s lounge. He would be safe there from Jazz’s kibitzing. He’d make the call before anyone came in. He didn’t want to be the butt of jokes again.

He got an answering machine and left a message. He’d have to wait.

He checked his watch, four o’clock. His next student came at seven. He ought to get on that computer project for his class, but the computer was in the office. The detective would probably call right back, catching him there, forcing him to perform like a dancing puppet in front of Jazz.

He examined several mysteries he kept in the desk drawer. He selected The Croatian Crow. He loved a good mystery. He sprawled on the couch with his feet over the back and his head on the arm.

I took a slug of rotgut, my stomach sour as milk sixteen weeks past the expiration date, my wallet flat as a kid’s trike under the seventeenth wheel of an eighteen-wheeler, when suddenly a shot rang out, hot lead smashed into the gat in my shoulder holster, saving me from sure death, the lead shattering, searing my face, and I scrambled for cover under my desk, another adventure beginning, this time without a long-legged blond, when a long blond leg insinuated itself beneath the desk like a cobra slithering under a sleeping child, tearing its hose, chucking me under the chin, and whispering in a voice made husky by whiskey, “You’ve got to help me find it.”

I flicked the flakes of hot lead off my face. “It?”

“The Croatian Crow.” Her baby blues flashed sudden panic, “Er… I mean…er… the Chinese Chicken.”

Our lips met.

She broke the kiss. “You believe me, don’t you?”

Nerve endings twanged all over my body. “Of course.”

She was lying.

Waltz read on.

The door opened. Rachel and Armando came in, laughing and talking. Waltz glanced at his watch. He’d been reading for over half an hour.

The phone rang. Waltz swung his legs off the couch, got up, and grabbed the phone. He put his finger over his lips. Rachel and Armando quieted down.

He wished he had a cell. He could call without an audience. But a cell made a bulge in your pocket and destroyed the drape of your pants. He had to have the drape.

He picked up the phone. “Dance Terminal, your harmonious harbor of dance delight.” He cringed. His mother used the greeting when she owned the studio. Jazz insisted they still use it.

Waltz’s audience snickered. His shoulders tightened.

“Harns Domestic Investigations. Let me help you screw your spouse.”

Great. He’d thrown the studio greeting in the face of a cynical private eye. And a wiseass, to boot. “I need a detective.”

“I guarantee to get the goods on your wife. She’ll pay for her cheating.”

Yvette entered. “Did y’all see my student trying that salsa step?”

Rachel pointed at the phone in Waltz’s hand. Yvette shut up.

Waltz closed his eyes. He didn’t want to watch Yvette watching him. “It’s not that kind of case. Somebody poisoned my brother’s dog.”

“I do domestic investigations.”

“What does that mean?”

“Divorce cases.”

“You mean, only divorces?”

“Yes, only divorces. I’m all divorce, all the time.”

“But my brother thinks I did it.”

“Sorry. The only way I would take the case is if the dog’s spouse did it.”

Waltz hated wiseasses. “He collapsed while dancing. Somebody put sleeping pills in his beer.”

“Did his wife catch him dancing with another bitch?”

“He was a confirmed bachelor, ever since the incident with the vet.”

“Call me when you’re ready to get rid of your cheating bitch of a wife.”

“You’ve got to help me find the Croatian Crow… er… I mean…er…the Chinese Chicken.”

She hung up.

Waltz placed the phone on the cradle. He’d never run across anybody less eager for business, unless it was the clerks at that All-Mart a block from his apartment. Weren’t all private eyes broke all the time, desperate for cases?

Rachel fondled her earlobe. “You’re trying to hire a detective to find out who poisoned Cha-Cha?”

Waltz liked the way she rubbed her earlobe between her thumb and forefinger, caressing it. He ought to ask her out. So what if he was going with Yvette? He was thinking of dumping her anyway. “It’s more like Jazz is making me hire her.”

“Why do you let him manipulate you like that?”

“He’s not manipulating me. He just wants my help.”

“What makes him think you poisoned Cha-Cha?”

***

 

Jazz was dealing cards fast, face up.

Waltz sagged into the chair facing the desk. “What are you doing?”

“Practicing counting.”

“Counting cards?”

“Yes. Counting the ratio of high cards to low cards.”

“What for?”

“So I can win at blackjack in Vegas.”

“Oh.”

Jazz stopped counting. “Well?”

Waltz took a deep breath. “She only does domestic investigations.” He waited for the explosion.

Jazz took a sip of his slush. “Only domestic investigations? Are you sure?”

“She made it clear. She repeated it several times, like I was a moron.”

Jazz rubbed his temples. He closed his eyes. “By domestic investigations, she means divorce cases?”

“Yes. She said she’d only take the case if Cha-Cha’s wife poisoned him. When she found out Cha-Cha was a bachelor, she hung up.”

“Only divorce cases? That’s all she does?”

“I quote, ‘I’m all divorce, all the time.’”

Jazz opened his eyes. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Why would anybody specialize in such a narrow field? Ridiculous.”

Waltz relaxed. It was a minor eruption, directed at the detective, not him. “You wouldn’t want to hire her for anything but a divorce. That’s all she knows how to do. All she has any interest in doing.”

Jazz picked up the cards and began shuffling. “Only divorce cases. I’m not going to put up with that.”

“Be glad. You don’t want that wiseass anywhere around you.”

Jazz cut the cards several times and slammed them down on his desk. “Ah, what do I care? She wants to do the divorce thing, let her do it. I don’t need her. I can handle things on my own. Still, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. It would be like us teaching only foxtrot. Or only salsa. Wouldn’t that be great? ‘I’m sorry sir. We don’t teach two-step, waltz, or swing. You’ll have to go to the studio down the street for that. We teach a rare type of folk dancing done only in Sri Lanka. With razor-sharp swords. Yes, it is dangerous. Dancers have lost arms. One unfortunate lost his leg at the knee. He got a great nickname out of it, though. After that, everybody called him Captain Ahab.”

Waltz laughed.

Jazz riffled the cards with his thumb. “‘Even experts with many years of experience occasionally lose a limb. You’ll have to sign a release. We have a course starting tomorrow. Would you care to sign up? Yes, that’s the only dance we teach. We find it best to specialize.’ How asinine can you get?”

Waltz wished that wiseass private eye could hear Jazz.

Jazz watched the dancers through the window. “I thought sure she took other types of cases.”

“We could get another PI. Anybody would be better than her. She’s the biggest wiseass I’ve ever come across.”

“No, I wanted her.” Jazz drummed the desk with his fingertips. “They say she’s the best. She must do a hell of a job on domestic investigations. If that’s all she does, a lot of people must be getting divorces.”

He got up and walked to the other window. “Idiots. They think they’ll find somebody better the next time.”

Waltz pivoted his chair to watch the dancers tango. “Maybe she’s good at divorce cases. But I don’t see anything else good about her.”

“Well… they say she’s honest. Most of the rest of them are a bunch of crooks.” Jazz returned to his chair, leaned back, and studied Waltz. “Forget about the PI. I’ll take care of this myself. I’m going to get the creep who did it. I don’t need a PI.”

“Do you still think I did it?”

“I suspect everybody.”

“You’re not going to go around accusing everybody, are you?”

“Don’t worry about it. I have my ways, ways much more subtle than that.”

Jazz was coming back to his senses. Waltz should’ve realized it was all grief over Cha-Cha. He relaxed and lit a cigarette.

“I have forbidden you to smoke.”

Waltz started. Why did he light up? He knew smoking would set Jazz off. “When are you going to stop acting like my father?”

“I can’t stop now. I obviously haven’t finished the job. I know you don’t care that cigarettes will kill you. You think you’ll live forever. But think about this. Keep smoking and you won’t be able to get it up.”

Waltz laughed.

“I’ll show you the article. Keep smoking, and by the time you’re forty, it’ll just hang there, like an empty balloon.”

Forty was a long way off. He was twenty-one. Still.

Jazz picked up the cards and shuffled them. “I know you doubt me. Go ahead. Stick ‘smoking hard on hard-ons’ in your Google and see. But put that thing out or go to the lounge.”

Waltz leaned back and exhaled luxuriously. Jazz leaped out of his chair, snatched the cigarette out of Waltz’s lips, and carried it at arm’s-length, between his thumb and forefinger, like a fresh dog turd, out of the office. He marched across the dance floor to the exit. Waltz watched out the street window. Jazz emerged onto the sidewalk where he flung the cigarette under a UPS truck. He continued up the street.

Talk about a hair-trigger temper. That was unusual even for Jazz. He was still upset over Cha-Cha. In the future, Waltz would smoke only in the lounge.

He sat at his desk. Before he went to the police station, he put a new hard drive in the computer. He hit the space bar. Windows had installed. He opened the web browser. It worked.

He pumped his fist. “Yes.”

He’d copy the files from his backup drive and he’d be done. It was so good to have a backup.

First, he’d check out Jazz’s claim about smoking. He typed in “smoking and penis,” and hit enter. “Enlarge your penis” ads popped up all over the place.

He formulated a new search rule. Never stick penis in your Google.

He tried again. What was that term? Lack of getitupsis? Penis diserectis? Malerectis? Erectile dysfunction. That was it. He typed in “smoking and erectile dysfunction.” He hit enter.

He found out where to buy Viagra. Who knew that many internet outlets sold Viagra?

He scanned the serious results and selected the first of several thousand. He read the article. Wow. Jazz was right. He’d better stop. Soon. He vowed he would – before he was thirty.

Jazz came back, sipping a fresh strawberry slush.

“I’m sorry, Jazz. I know you hate smoking and I know you’re still upset over Cha-Cha.”

Jazz remained quiet at his desk. He seemed to have forgotten about the cigarette.

After awhile, he leaned back in his chair and put his feet on his desk. “I’m going to get the ones responsible for the whole thing.”

“I don’t understand what made you think that somebody poisoned Cha-Cha in the first place. I thought he simply drank too much beer. So did the vet.”

“I had my reasons, and I’m going to get the people responsible, the people that have caused all my problems.”

“People? You think it’s a conspiracy?”

“It takes two to tango.”

“What does that mean?”

“Never mind. I’m going to get them.”

“But Jazz, a group of people conspiring to poison a Chihuahua. It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s more than Cha-Cha.”

“What else?”

“I’m going to get the people responsible. You can count on that. That’s all I’m going to say.”

 

Chapter 3

Tutus and Tights

The next afternoon, Waltz skidded into the lounge. Most of the other instructors were already present, awaiting the one o’clock staff meeting. Waltz selected a videotape from the stack next to the VCR and shoved it in. He set the recorder for his favorite soap opera, Dance of Deceit.

Yvette watched him. “How far behind are you now?”

“Five weeks.”

She sighed loudly, like he was doomed. “You’ll never catch up.”

“Once I was behind three months. I caught up in two weekends. And I can do it again. I’m a dedicated man.” He double-checked the setting on the VCR. “I’m getting a new VCR at home. I’m having a Dance of Deceit marathon. You’re all invited. I’ll have pop corn. I’ll give a lecture afterwards, in which I demonstrate that Deceit is fine art, written by great artists. If he was alive today, Shakespeare would be writing it.”

Waltz went to the desk and put his keys, comb, and pocket mirror in the drawer. He put a cigarette in his shirt pocket and the pack in the drawer, leaving nothing but a folder of matches tucked into the corner of his rear pants pocket. He removed the cash from his wallet, put it in his right front pocket, and put the wallet in the drawer.

Without stuff in his pockets, his pants draped better and gave him the freedom to dance. He worked hard at the gym doing heavy squats and dead lifts. His glutes were rounding out nicely. Girls admired guys’ butts. He would give them a silhouette unsullied by pocket bulges.

His detractors watched his ritual, smirking and poking each other.

It was time for the meeting. They filed out of the office. Full-length mirrors covered the long sides of the ballroom. They were a great tool for improving your dancing. Waltz paused in front of the first one and checked his hair again. He smoothed it down with his hands. He turned from side to side to make sure of the profile of his butt.

They gathered on the bench that lined the wall across from the office and teachers’ lounge, ready for the daily staff meeting. Lala glided to the front of the bench, her soft dance shoes hugging the floor. “I hope you know why you are here. Is to sell lessons. You teach dance to sell. You must be alert for the chance to sell, for example, people who have the divorce. They are lonely. Show them social dance is the best way to meet someone. If you find someone who is to divorce, come to me. We will sell them a batch of lessons.”

Jazz left the bench and stepped in front of Lala. “Thank you, La. And now, I’ve got a special treat for you all.”

He beckoned to a stranger. “Come out here, Gordon. Let me introduce you. This is Gordon Hogan, dance director of the New York City Ballet. He’s an old friend of mine from the time when I danced with the ballet. I’ve brought him down here for two weeks. He’ll be working with us each afternoon to improve our dancing. This man can dance and he can teach. He’s been here a week already preparing this program for us. Give him a big San Salsa welcome.”

The staff gave Gordon a standing ovation. Waltz could hardly believe it. What a chance to improve his dancing. Waltz took back every bad thing he thought about Jazz.

Jazz draped his arm around Gordon’s shoulder. “Lala is right. The lifeblood of the studio is selling. To sell more, we must teach better. That’s why Gordon is here. I know I can count on you all to learn as much as you can from him. He’ll be giving his first class at two o’clock. I’ll see you there.”

Having a guy like Gordon for two weeks would be expensive. How did Jazz talk Lala into it? Waltz glanced at her. Her lips were tight, the pout flattened. Her hand went to her bra, where she kept her cash.

***

 

Lala watched Jazz return to the office, her face pale, stripped of its usual olive glow, arms folded over her breasts. She forced her arms to her sides and marched toward the office.

The stereo played a tango, the dance of love.

Waltz followed Lala into the office. Maybe he could calm them down.

Lala screamed. “I own part of the studio. Why you hire a fancy dance instructor from New York and no speak to me? You crazy?”

Jazz propped his feet on his desk. He picked up his strawberry slush and took a sip. “I thought you wanted to pump up sales. This guy can improve our staff a hundred per cent. We’ll sell far more lessons than the meager ten thousand dollars it costs.”

Lala staggered and collapsed in the chair across from Jazz’s desk. “Ten thousand dollars.” She rubbed her temples. She took a deep breath. “You crazy! You gamble our money. Now this. The studio will go broke.”

Jazz smiled. “Calm down, darling. You don’t understand. I’m applying the principles of proper business management to our thriving studio.”

“Spend ten thousand dollars for dance instruction. You will destroy the studio.” She pointed to herself. “I can instruct them as well as this Gordon.”

“We can’t lose. Gordon’s agreed that if we don’t like his class, we don’t have to pay. At least try one class.”

“I no need to try one. Ten thousand dollars – already I no like it.”

Jazz spread his arms. “It’s an investment. That’s what you have to understand. We’ll get back our money tenfold.” He turned to Waltz, smiling. “I’ll leave it up to Waltz. Should I send Gordon back home? If Waltz says so, I will.”

Lala went to Waltz and caressed his shoulder. “You no want the studio to go broke, do you, honey?”

Jazz sipped his slush through the straw. “You’ll never get another chance to study dancing under the director of the New York City Ballet.”

Lala moved behind Waltz and massaged his shoulder muscles, her face close to his. “I teach you anything you want.”

Jazz laughed. “I don’t doubt that. Waltz?”

“I don’t know.”

Jazz got up. “Okay. I’ll go fire Gordon. The studio’s already paid his expenses and I’ll give him five hundred dollars for his trouble. We’ll save nine thousand dollars. So what if we miss the opportunity of a lifetime.” He strode toward the door.

Lala squeezed Waltz’s shoulders, her hands warming him through his shirt.

Jazz went through the door.

His head peeked around the doorjamb. “Last chance to train under the director of the New York City Ballet.”

Lala turned Waltz and hugged him.

Waltz smelled the perfume behind her ear, felt her breasts against him, felt her cheek caress his. He saw himself in bed with her. No, she was Jazz’s wife. Waltz turned his face away. He cleared his throat. His voice croaked. He cleared his throat again. This time his voice squeaked. “Let’s try one class.”

Lala jerked back. “Waltz. No.”

The face in the doorway smiled. “Well?”

Tears rolled down Lala’s cheeks. “It will destroy the studio. For me, Waltz, no do this.”

Jazz’s head started to withdraw from the doorway. “Last chance.”

Waltz took a deep breath. “One class. If we don’t like it, we’ll cancel.”

Lala’s lips unpouted. “Oh, Waltz. You let Jazz control you. “ She turned to Jazz. “You think you can treat me like the rotten mango, but no will be that easy. We will see about this Gordon.”

***

 

Lala leaped into Gordon’s class in a pink tutu and ballet slippers. She posed in ballet attitudes and simpered. Each time Gordon attempted to introduce a technique to the class, Lala interrupted, showing the class how to do the move. She taunted Gordon, saying things like, “I bet you can’t do this, Gordon,” then showing off a move.

Waltz’s friends blamed him for not interceding. Waltz couldn’t do anything about it. Lala was Jazz’s wife. Where was Jazz? Why didn’t he step in? If the other instructors understood Lala, they would know that only Jazz could control her – and not always Jazz. Waltz was the scapegoat.

***

 

Shunned by his friends, Waltz ate dinner alone. He strolled back to the studio, dropped onto the couch in the lounge, took off his street shoes, and picked up his dance shoes.

For a moment, he couldn’t believe it.

Somebody painted the letters R and L in white on the toes, backwards and upside down, R on the left toe and L on the right toe.

He could scrape the paint off with a knife, but it would scuff the toes. Maybe he could use nail-polish remover. He’d see. He didn’t have time now. He’d get his other shoes out of his car and maintain his dance instructor’s dignity.

He opened the desk drawer to get his keys. They were gone. So were his wallet, comb, and mirror. At least the prankster was compassionate. He left the cigarettes.

It must’ve been Yvette, Rachel, or Armando, probably all of them working as a team. They’d been riding him about his comb and mirror. They were were an obvious tool to punish him for letting Lala disrupt Gordon’s class. Maybe they’d have a good laugh and give his stuff back by closing time.

They’d keep it up as long as Lala harassed Gordon. Waltz was going to have to hide his stuff. Yeah, right. They’d find it, no matter where he hid it.

What about his old hiding place, where he hid his cigarettes from Jazz as a kid? He pulled back a strip of loose molding that covered a crack between the wall and the floor, to the left of the VCR. He stuck his hand in. He moved it around, feeling a sizable space between the inner and outer walls.

The problem was, the crack wasn’t big enough for things like shoes. He snapped the molding back in place. Nobody would guess it covered a big crack. It was a great hiding place, but the jokers hung out in the lounge much of the time. He couldn’t hide anything in the wall without them eventually catching him.

It sure worked when he was a kid, though. Jazz never caught him hiding his cigarettes. Waltz was too fast.

He clicked a button on his watch, grabbed his cigarettes, pulled back the molding, pushed the pack through the crack, and snapped the molding back in place. He clicked the button again, less than three seconds. He was as fast as he was when he was a kid. All that practice grooved his muscle memory.

He ought to put extra keys in his hiding place. He would do that, next chance he got.

What a hassle. He’d have to go around hunting for his stuff, so the fun lovers could enjoy their joke. He’d have to wait until the session ended.

He had fifteen minutes to kill. He assumed his favorite reading position on the couch for chapter five of The Croatian Crow.

I gulped grog like a guppy, three sheets to the wind, four miles south of Margaritaville, depressed as a water balloon under the fifth wheel of a six wheeler. I was through with women.

That’s when she walked up, with long blond hair and legs that went on forever. I tilted forward on my barstool and looked down to see how far forever was.

She shoved me upright with breasts that went on forever. “I need your mind right. Focus.”

I focused on her breasts.

She slugged a shot of sauce, tense as a dancehall floozy with no dance shoes. She leaned toward me and whispered, her voice deep as a BP oil spill, her breath redolent of whiskey, her tongue tickling my ear. “I hear you’re looking for the Chinese Chicken.”

I spoke to her cleavage, cleavage doomed to death by jiggling. “You got it all wrong, baby, as wrong as Fred Astaire dancing in water skis. I’m looking for the Croatian Crow.”

The back of her hand went to her mouth. Her breasts shrank, cleavage triumphant. She recoiled, her baby blues flashing horror. She gasped and stammered. “The Croatian Crow?”

Waltz read on until the instructors flooded into the lounge, signaling the end of the session. None of them admitted seeing his stuff. He might as well have asked for the Croatian Crow.

He climbed the stairs to the second ballroom where Gordon taught a special class for advanced students. Gordon claimed he hadn’t seen Waltz’s stuff either.

The one person left was Jazz. If Waltz hoped to get his stuff back, he’d have to let Jazz have his fun. He sighed and went to the office. He set himself for a barrage of abuse. “I left my wallet, keys, comb, and mirror in the desk drawer in the lounge. Now they’re gone. Have you seen them?”

Jazz leaned back in his swivel chair. He took a sip of his slush. “Look again. I bet they’re right where you left them.”

“I double checked.”

“Why don’t you keep them in your pocket like a normal man?”

“Sorry to bother you.” Waltz turned to go. The green of Jazz’s drink caught his eye. “You switched to lime?”

“No, I hate lime.”

“But you’re drinking it.”

“The assholes ran out of strawberry. You’d think it was a simple matter. When you get low on strawberry, you order more. It’s not rocket science.”

“Yeah.”

“But that’s not your problem, is it? Nothing’s ever your fault. You leave your stuff unguarded in a desk drawer, and you’re surprised that it disappears. You involve me in the mystery. Leave me alone. Go find your stuff.”

Waltz shrugged and left the office. He’d have to teach in his monogrammed shoes. He went back to the lounge and put them on. Let the other instructors have their fun and get it over with. What did he care?

He took a deep breath and marched into the ballroom. Xenia glanced at his shoes and laughed.

He pointed his toe at her. “Clever, hey? I’ve come up with a new instructional technique. My students can glance at my shoes and remind themselves which foot comes next. I’m going to patent it.”

“But they’re backwards.”

“For me, but not for my students. It’s a mirror image thing.”

Armando danced by. “Trying to learn the alphabet again?”

Rachel brought her student near. “You’ll like this studio. If we see you’re a slow learner, we write directions on your shoes.”

Just as Waltz thought. Rachel and Armando were among the guilty parties. They were really loving his discomfort.

At the next break, Waltz went to check the desk again. The stuff was back. He held it over his head triumphantly, keys jiggling and clinking. He turned to Rachel and Armando. “Thanks for returning my stuff.”

Rachel’s face was blank. “I didn’t take it. And I didn’t mark up your shoes.”

Armando shook his head. “Me either.”

Waltz smiled at them. What liars. They were almost believable.

***

 

After they closed the studio that evening, they gathered around their usual table at Club Boom-Boom. Salsa music blasted out of the loudspeakers. Cigarette smoke bloomed over the tables.

Jazz took a drink. “Waltz, Gordon had a comment about your dancing.”

A compliment. Waltz’s body blushed with pleasure. “What did he say?”

“He said he admired your enthusiasm, but you would never make it as a dancer. You’re average and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

The blush faded. “My partners say I’m good.”

“You’re good for an average dancer.”

Lala spun her glass. “Gordon know nothing. I tell you. I know dancing better than Gordon. Waltz have talent. He dance fine.”

Good old Lala, nice of her to say. She told him so before, but she had a stake in keeping him dancing. He paid her to coach him.

Jazz glared at her. “You only say that because you like Waltz.”

“Yes, yes, I like him, but he is a fine dancer.”

“And you hate Gordon.”

“No, I hate to pay ten thousand when I can teach as well as him.”

“You better not do anything else to stop Gordon from teaching his class.”

“What you mean, sweetie? I no do that. I do all I can to help him today.”

Jazz turned away, his face contorted. He sipped his drink and stared at the table. He took a deep breath, looked up at Waltz, and spoke in his voice of reason. “Why don’t you go back to college full time and finish your degree in computer science? You’re good at that and you’ll make far more money than you would teaching dancing.”

Lala picked up her drink. Her hand shook. “Waltz do okay. You need to stop gambling and spending. Then we all make plenty money.”

“Get off that. I’m thinking of Waltz.”

“You like to push him around. Leave him alone.”

“Okay, darling. You know what’s best for him. Why should I care?”

Lala turned to Waltz. “Come on, sweetie, let’s dance.”

The song was a bolero, a slow sensual mambo. Lala whispered in his ear. “No attend Gordon. I know dancing as well as him. You are good.”

“But Gordon’s the dance director of the New York Ballet.”

“So was Jazz, but I’m as good as Jazz, no?”

“Yes, you are.” Still, Gordon’s profession required that he judge talent all the time.

“Jazz want to hassle you. He think you poison Cha-Cha.”

“I was hoping he changed his mind about that.”

“No, he still obsess. I think maybe he is crazy in the coconut.”

“Let him think what he wants. I don’t care.”

Waltz felt Lala’s warm breath as she spoke into his ear. “Let us fire Gordon. Why should you take his insults?”

“We can’t just fire him.”

“Is better for him. Our funds are finished. We no can pay the ten thousand. Gordon will teach for nothing. He is better off to go back to New York now.”

The song ended. They returned to the table.

Rachel touched Waltz’s arm. “I think you’re good, Waltz. Dance with me.”

Violins sawed out an irresistible tango rhythm. Waltz pulled Rachel close. Tango required a tight embrace. The gauchos down in Argentina, who invented the tango, knew what they were doing. Rachel melted into him, soft and warm.

To heck with Yvette. He was tired of her constant bitching. Rachel was sweet and sexy. “Go out with me Saturday night.”

“I thought you’d never ask, but what about Yvette?”

“She’s mad at me, claims I go around flirting with other girls. I’m dumping her, before she dumps me.”

“It’ll break her heart.”

“I doubt that.”

The next song was a waltz. They danced it too. It felt good dancing with Rachel. Gordon was crazy. When dancing felt smooth, you knew you were good. Another tango came on. They danced it.

When they got back to the table, Yvette stood up. “My turn.”

He led Yvette into a two-step.

She leaned away from him. ““We’ve got to talk. I’m tired of you flirting with Rachel and all the other girls.”

“I’m tired of you harping on that.”

“You’re supposed to be true to me. I’m your girlfriend.”

“Not any more.”

“Fine with me.” She turned out of his arms and stalked toward the exit.

Waltz walked back to the table and sank into his chair.

Jazz hooted. “Gordon is right. You’re so bad that even your girlfriend can’t stand to dance a complete dance with you.”

“It wasn’t my dancing. She accused me of flirting with Rachel. We broke up.”

“Another girlfriend down the drain. You’ll never learn, will you? The Go-Go-Gonad Kid strikes again. You can’t be satisfied with one woman, can you?”

Lala slapped Jazz’s shoulder. “Everybody is fickle when he is young. Get off his back.”

Jazz stared at Waltz. “True love and fidelity – that’s what matters.” Jazz turned to Lala. “I’ve been faithful to my true love, and I know I can trust her. Isn’t that right, Lala?”

Lala turned away from him.

Was Jazz suggesting that Lala was having an affair? How ridiculous. Jazz was getting more and more erratic and belligerent, all because some idiot poisoned Cha-Cha. If only Cha-Cha recovered, Jazz would be okay.

Waltz almost laughed. He found himself pulling for the recovery of his archenemy, Cha-Cha.

***

 

The next afternoon, Friday, in the main ballroom, Waltz and Rachel practiced spins, waiting for Gordon’s class. Waltz couldn’t let Gordon’s comment about his dancing stop him. He liked dancing and he was good at it.

Jazz sauntered into the room with his usual strawberry slush. “I see you’re ignoring Gordon’s advice, and still attempting to become a dancer.”

“That’s right.”

“Why won’t you listen to me and Gordon? We know dancing.”

“In a couple of years, Gordon will be asking me to coach him.” Waltz spotted on Jazz and did a double spin.

Jazz sighed. “Not bad. Don’t neglect posture. Pinch your shoulder blades together. That straightens your shoulders, giving you better posture and control of your spins. Think of your shoulders turning your body.”

Waltz pulled back his shoulder blades and did a spin.

Jazz nodded. “Good. Use a little less effort, just enough to get around. That will give you better balance and better control when you stop. It’s the stop that makes the spin. It’s like gymnastics. You’ve got to nail the dismount.”

Waltz spun again.

“That’s more like it, just enough power to get around. Not too much, not too little.”

“Like the fairytale – just right. But how much is just right?”

“You have to experiment. You ought to know. You’re the great experimenter. You have to try a little of everything.”

“Yes, I must try a little of everything – a little, but not too much. It must be just right.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“What the hell are we talking about? I didn’t poison Cha-Cha.”

“You know what we’re talking about.”

“Goldilocks?”

“Yeah, right.” Jazz put his slush on the floor. “Watch.” He did a languid double spin. It was graceful and effortless.

“That was just right, but you kept your arms by your sides. Shouldn’t you have them up?”

Jazz picked up his slush. “Yes, they should be up. I’m showing you how to develop control. If you’d focus on the point, you’d be a lot better off. You’ve been watching too much Dance of Deceit. It’s screwing up your concentration.”

“It couldn’t be. I haven’t had time to watch it lately. I’m recording it.”

Jazz sipped. “How far behind are you now?”

“Five weeks.”

“You must spend a fortune on tapes. Do you expect to find the answers to life in your silly soap opera?” He turned to go. He stopped and turned back. “Ah, well, maybe you’re right. The answers aren’t anywhere else. Maybe they’re there – another of life’s little pranks.” He stalked to his office and slammed the door.

Rachel watched Jazz go. “Why does it bother him that you watch Deceit?

“He’s kidding.”

“I don’t think so. I think he’s serious.”

“I guess he’s worried about Cha-Cha.”

“How’s Cha-Cha doing?”

“He’s hanging in there.” Waltz paused. “Jazz still thinks I poisoned him.”

“He’s crazy. You’d think he’d know better than that.”

“Yeah, you’d think.” A tango came on. Waltz pulled her to him and they danced.

Jazz opened the office door. “Rachel. Come in here now.”

While Rachel was in the office, Waltz practiced spins.

The door to the office opened and Rachel walked toward him, head down.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Waltz hugged her. “Come on. You can tell me.”

“Jazz fired me.”

“Why?”

She started to speak, but apparently couldn’t.

It was Waltz’s fault. He told Jazz that Rachel could have poisoned Cha-Cha. Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut? “I’m going to talk to him.”

She grabbed his arm. “No. Stay out of it. Please.”

Gordon walked into the room and started his class. Lala was late. Waltz relaxed. The class could start without disruption. But then he tensed up again. She might come in late all right, but she might be leading a brass band dressed in tutus.

He would have to watch and be ready to stop her. But how? Drop a grenade in the tuba?

The class went well. Waltz learned a lot, for a guy who couldn’t dance and would never make it as a dancer.

Lala didn’t show up for the class. It wasn’t like her to confront Gordon one day and not show up the next. How did Jazz manage that? Did he have her in a closet somewhere, bound and gagged?

***

 

That evening, Waltz finished his six o’clock. Jazz hadn’t left for the airport yet.

Waltz rushed into the office, exhaled, and tried to relax. “Before you go, I want to know why you fired Rachel.”

Jazz rolled his dice. They clattered crossed his desk and stopped on seven. He snapped his fingers. “What? The Go-Go-Gonad Kid will miss his new girlfriend? What a shame.”

“Seriously. Why did you fire her?”

Jazz shook the dice, emitting a clack-clack sound. “A personnel matter like that is confidential.”

“I’m a part owner of this business. I have a say in questions of hiring and firing.”

Jazz rolled the dice again, bouncing them off a book on his desk. “Nuts!” He snatched the dice up.

“Did you hear me?”

Jazz shook the dice. “Her firing was justified. Your being in lust with her is no reason to keep her on. The matter is closed.”

“But – “

Jazz rolled snake eyes and snatched up the dice. “I know I can never break you of your womanizing, so I’ve decided to become your pimp. I’ll hire a new cutie for you. You’ll have a new girl at the studio and Rachel for home.”

“Come on, Jazz.”

Jazz got up and put the dice in his pocket. “It’s the perfect situation for a womanizer. You’ll thank me for arranging it. Ta ta.” He gave a sarcastic salute, grabbed his strawberry slush and his carry on, and headed for the door.

Lala blocked his way. “We have a deal. I stay away from Gordon’s class. You promise you no go to Vegas.”

“I’ve got to go. We need the money.”

“What about our deal?”

“You keep telling me the studio is going broke. I’m taking care of that.”

“You no beat Vegas. Is for fools.”

Jazz sucked up the final dregs of his slush and tossed it in the wastebasket. “I can’t lose. I’m hot as a pistol.”

Lala stayed in the doorway. “No. The studio is in bad shape. Tell him, Waltz.”

“Rigor mortis has set into our bank account.”

Lala clasped Jazz’s suitcase hand. “Please, Jazz. You will lose much money.”

“Not to worry. You know that Gamblers Anonymous brochure you gave me?”

“You read it?”

“No, but it had an ad selling gambling systems. I bought one, guaranteed surefire. We’re going to be rich.” Jazz snatched his suitcase free. “I’ll be back Monday in time for the meeting.”

He tried to go through the door.

Lala remained in his way. “I no let you go. We go broke.”

Jazz put down his suitcase. He grabbed her upper arms, picked her up, backed up a step, and dropped her next to Waltz.

Lala rubbed her arms. “You hurt me.”

“You wouldn’t get out of my way.” He picked up his suitcase. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring you lots of money.” He headed for the street door.

Lala ran to him, grabbed his arm, and turned him. “I will skin and clean Gordon ready to roast like a fat Chihuahua. He will collect none of my money.”

***

 

Lala’s delicate nostrils flared. Her perfume wafted up from her earlobes. Her body radiated heat.

Tango required that their bodies mesh. He should step back. He needed to focus on the step, not her body.

He shouldn’t hire her to coach him. Especially when Jazz was out of town. Not that it mattered. Waltz wouldn’t try to put the make on her, no matter what. She was his brother’s wife.

Anyway, it was a fantasy. If Waltz did put a move on her, she’d set him straight fast. She was loyal and true.

He would think about other women – Rachel, for instance. She was tempting too, and he had a date with her tomorrow night.

But she wasn’t in his arms then. Lala was. He moved away from the warmth of her body. “Let’s take a break.”

They got their water bottles out of the fridge and sat on the bench. Except for them, the studio was empty, closed for the night.

Lala leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. “I’m tired.”

“We could cut the lesson short.”

She opened her eyes and turned toward him. “No. I like to teach you. No is work. Is fun. You are good. You learn fast. And you no try to put the make on me. Is all some students do. Specially Doc. Why he think a young woman is attracted to him? He disgust me.”

She held out her hand. Waltz picked his cigarette pack off the bench and shook one loose. She plucked it out and put it between her lips, her pouty lips. He pulled one out for himself. He lit them both. “I’ll straighten him out.”

“No. I handle him. Doc pay good. Three thousand dollars each contest. Plus expenses. And he go to all of them.”

“I didn’t know he liked dancing that much.”

“He no go for the dance. He go to try to put the make on all the women. Specially me. He think he is one great lover. No tell Jazz. He will cause a scene. You know how jealous he is.” She took a drag.

“I wish there was something I could do.”

“Doc no is the problem.” She let out a plume of smoke. “Problem is we are going to lose the studio.”

Waltz studied his feet and shook his head. “I’m sorry for voting to keep Gordon. I couldn’t resist.”

She touched his arm. “I know.” She sighed. “No is the problem. Gordon no will get money. I promise.”

“But we have a contract. If we don’t pay him, he can sue us.”

“The contract say we no have to pay if we no like the class – or if Gordon no can finish the class.”

“You can’t keep interrupting the class. It’s not fair to Gordon. It’s not polite.”

“Yes, you are right, but fair and polite no are important if the studio go broke. Gordon himself must decide not to finish the class.”

“I wish you’d leave Gordon alone.”

Lala spewed smoke from her pouting lips and flicked ashes into the ashtray. “No need to worry about Gordon. That is not the problem. Problem is, we must stop Jazz from gambling. He is gambling addict.”

“Not Jazz. He’s always gambled a little. It’s nothing serious.”

“You see him in the office, counting cards and rolling dice?”

“Yeah.”

“He do it all the time. At home, too. He is obsess.”

“He’s okay. It’s a hobby.”

“You don’t know. In the last few months, he go to Vegas more often. He lose big money. Between trips, he play poker with the guys at Willie Bob’s house. He say he win, but he lose. That is why we are broke. He has a serious problem.”

“He’s going through a bad time, worrying about Cha-Cha.”

Lala snubbed out her cigarette. “It start long before that. When I marry Jazz, he make me believe how glamorous this life was and how rich he was. He only need my money to help out for short time. Ha! It was the only money I have in my life. He gamble it away.”

“All of it?”

“In total. I will never get it back.”

“I’m sorry.” He patted her hand. It was so warm. “I thought he gambled for penny ante stakes.”

“You don’t know. He lose most of our money. He take money from the studio. He lose that. He will lose again this weekend. We will lose the studio.”

She took his hand and caressed it. “He is one crazy gambling addict. He needs help. Together we could have the… confrontation. What do they call it?”

“Intervention?”

“Yes, we must have the intervention and send him to a clinic for gambling addicts. He will come back cured. While he is gone, we will get the studio going again. What do you say?”

“You intervened this evening. You tried to stop him from going to Vegas. He moved you out of his way and left. If we try an intervention, the results will be the same.”

She squeezed his hand. “Then we must commit him.”

***

 

Rachel climbed on a garbage can behind the building next to the studio. From the garbage can, she climbed onto a ladder affixed to the building. She beckoned Waltz.

It was Saturday night. They wanted to dance undisturbed in the studio, but when Waltz’s keys went missing, the key to the studio didn’t come back with the others. He hadn’t even noticed it until tonight. Why would someone just keep the key to the studio? Why didn’t they just keep them all?

It made Waltz think that Armando took his keys. Jazz never gave Armando a key to the studio. Armando was pissed off about it.

When Rachel said she and the other instructors sneaked in all the time, Waltz didn’t imagine it meant climbing. He hesitated.

“Come on.”

He clambered onto the garbage can. He closed his eyes. He knew he couldn’t look down, even from the height of a garbage can. He clutched the sides of the ladder with a death grip. He tested each step before he moved up.

Rachel disappeared onto the roof. Waltz shook but he went on. At the top, he had to step up onto the ledge and support himself with the flimsy iron rails of the ladder. A gust of wind hit him. The flimsy rails rattled. He felt himself toppling. He was going to fall two stories to his death. He leaped onto the roof, landing on his hands and knees. Safe. Safe on a flat roof with a concrete ledge around it.

He sighed with relief. Somehow, they could enter the studio building from here. Maybe Rachel could let him out the front when they finished, so he wouldn’t have to go back down the ladder. What would he say? He’d need some sort of excuse.

She picked up the end of a plank and shoved it across the alley to the studio building. She stepped onto the plank.

Waltz gasped. “Wait a minute, Rachel. It’ll wobble. It’s not nailed down.”

She turned. “No problem. It’s heavy. It’s a foot wide. It doesn’t wobble. Look.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

Waltz backed away from the edge and leaned on a ventilator housing.

Rachel stepped down from the plank and took his hand. “Everybody goes across it. We haven’t lost anybody yet. Come on. You can crawl across if you want. The first time, that’s what I did.”

He pictured himself crawling across the plank, wind gusts blasting his body, plank bucking, hurling him into the abyss. “I’m sorry. I can’t do it. Let’s go to Club Boom-Boom.”

She tugged on his arm. “Come on. Everybody does it.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.” He turned and headed for the ladder.

He’d be lucky to force himself down the ladder. What would she think if she had to call the fire department? How embarrassing to have a firefighter carry him down a ladder.

Worse, they might come in a helicopter. He saw himself dangling from a helicopter on a rope, a mile above the city. The rope would twist and kick in the wind blast from the rotor.

He shuddered. He knew he couldn’t do that. He closed his eyes and started down the ladder. If he didn’t look down, he might make it. If he got to the ground safely, he’d never do anything like it again.

 

Chapter 4

Watch Your Toes

At Monday afternoon’s staff meeting, Lala finished her usual plea to the instructors to sell more lessons. She glanced over her shoulder. Jazz was still in the office, talking on the phone.

Waltz rose and put his hand over his brow, like a sailor shielding his eyes from the sun. “Is Jazz afraid to come out of the office? Did he lose his ass in Vegas?”

Everybody laughed.

Jazz emerged from the office, dragged himself across the ballroom, staggered sideways into Lala, and leaned on her as he would a crutch.

What could affect Jazz like that? Only something horrible. Waltz dropped to the bench. They were going to lose the studio. Maybe Jazz bet it and lost. If they kept their jobs, they’d all be working for Caesar’s Palace.

Jazz raised his head. “Gordon won’t be here for the class. Last night someone cut off his big toe.”

Waltz started. “Cut off his big toe?”

Jazz staggered.

Lala caught his upper arm with both her hands and braced him. “He die? He bleed to death?”

Jazz steadied himself. He removed to Lala’s hands from his arm. He dealt with her as he usually did these days – with sarcasm. “I know you wish he did, but the guy who did it was compassionate. He stitched up the wound and bandaged it.”

Lala drew herself up indignantly. “I never wish Gordon no harm.”

Waltz shook his head. “Somebody slices off Gordon’s toe, but then has the compassion to attend to the wound. Unbelievable.”

Lala looked at Waltz. “What so unbelievable? The guy no want Gordon to bleed to death. No want to face murder charge.”

“Who did it?”

“Gordon doesn’t know. He was unconscious.”

No one spoke. Everyone looked at Jazz, as though he was about to perform some amazing feat of magic.

Lala stepped forward. “Someone has the vendetta against the studio. First, he poison Cha-Cha. Then he attack Gordon.”

Everyone spoke at once.

Jazz held up his hands for quiet. “Vendetta? Nonsense. The guy stole Gordon’s laptop and some other stuff. It was a common burglary. Gordon must’ve surprised the burglar. He conked Gordon on the head and cut off his toe – just for fun.”

Lala stepped in front of Jazz. She poked him in the chest with her finger. “I tell you is the vendetta. Somebody is out to get you. He poison your dog. He attack your old friend.”

Waltz got to his feet. “Lala may be right. Without his big toe, Gordon will never dance again. It would have to be revenge, not theft. It’s a vendetta either against Gordon or against Jazz.”

Jazz shook his head. “Why’d they steal his stuff then?”

Waltz sagged to the bench. “For that matter, why’d they sew up the cut and bandage it?”

Lala paced in front of the bench. “One moment. Maybe Jazz is right. We no want the students to think there is the vendetta. We must tell them Gordon is injured in a robbery. The studio is a place to meet friends, to dance, and to have fun. If the students have fear to come here, we all lose our jobs.”

Waltz couldn’t believe this discussion. “Okay, you’re right, and that’s what we’ll tell the students. The point is, whoever did it was targeting Gordon, not just stealing a laptop. The guy knew that Gordon was a dancer. He knew that losing a big toe would ruin a dancer’s career.”

Jazz frowned. “So are you saying a dancer did it? Somebody at the studio?”

Who at the studio would have anything against Gordon? He hadn’t been around long enough to make any enemies – except Lala.

Did Lala attack Gordon? Or hire somebody to? No, no, it was impossible.

***

 

After the staff meeting, Waltz went to the office. It was a bad time to bring up Rachel’s job, but he had to do it. “Lala may be right. Have you thought about someone having a vendetta against you? Someone who hates you?”

Jazz stopped shaking his dice. “Why would anyone hate me?”

“I don’t know, but look at the pattern. Whoever poisoned Cha-Cha was hurting you. He’s your dog. Whoever attacked Gordon was hurting you. He’s your friend. Nobody is going to want to dance where a madman poisons dogs and slices up instructors, so it’s hurting your studio. Everything seems designed to hurt you.”

Jazz pressed on one of the dice and popped it across the desk into his pen set. “You’re getting paranoid.”

Waltz took a breath. “Okay. Consider this. The person who poisoned Cha-Cha and the person who attacked Gordon must be the same person.”

“Maybe.”

“Rachel loved Cha-Cha. She would never poison him. Even if she did, can you picture her overpowering Gordon and whacking off his toe? And why? She barely knows him. You shouldn’t fire her for something she didn’t do. Case closed.” Waltz smiled in triumph.

Jazz took a sip of his strawberry slush. “That’s not why I fired her. It has nothing to do with that. Case closed.”

The way Jazz sidestepped his best arguments was infuriating. “It’s not fair.”

“Case closed.”

How could he convince a pile of rubble? He hesitated.

Jazz rolled the dice. “Seven! That closes the case.”

“Okay. So if that’s not why you fired Rachel, then you must agree that she did not poison Cha-Cha. Is that right?”

“Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she did. I’m still working on that.” He rolled the dice.

Waltz grabbed the dice. “Okay. I’ll forget about Rachel for now. Why would someone attack Gordon? He’s new in town. Lala’s right. The sole reason is to hurt the studio.”

Jazz picked up a dart from his desk, closed one eye, and fired over Waltz’s shoulder at the dart board on the wall. “Gordon is gay.”

Waltz ducked to his right. The dart whizzed by his left ear. “What does that have to do with it?” He turned and saw that the dart was way off center. It hit the target on the side next to Waltz.

“He probably pissed off some anti-gay psycho. Or maybe it was one of his gay buddies. Or maybe a rejected lover.” Jazz fired another dart.

Waltz slid his chair to the right. “He’s been here a week. You’re his one friend.”

“The gay scene in San Salsa is famous, even in New York. That was one of the inducements to get him to come down. He’s been hanging out at the gay bars. He made me take him on a tour.” Jazz aimed another dart.

Waltz slid over a little more. “You’re saying in one week he’s managed to make some gay mad enough that he attacks him like this?”

Jazz slung another dart. “They make friends and enemies fast in the gay bars. Some of those guys are screwed up as hell. You can never tell what some crazed gay might do.”

“I can’t believe that.”

“Believe it. I took him around all the gay bars. I’ve seen them in action. It has nothing to do with the studio.”

How hardheaded could you get? Waltz leaped out of his chair. “So you fired Rachel for a reason so flimsy you won’t tell it. Okay. Nothing new about that. But you ought to at least recognize that somebody’s out to get you. You ought to take steps to protect yourself and the studio.”

The phone rang. Jazz picked it up and listened, making a few terse replies. He hung up. “That was the cops. They’ll be here in half an hour to question us about Gordon.”

“That’s great. When they catch the guy, they’ll also have the guy who poisoned Cha-Cha.”

***

 

The lieutenant picked a truncheon off the desk and unwrapped it, the plastic crackling. He wadded up the plastic and tossed it in the corner. He slapped the truncheon in his hand. “So what can you tell me about the attack on Gordon Hogan?”

“I think somebody has a vendetta against my brother, Jazz. First, the guy poisoned his dog – “

The lieutenant whapped the truncheon against the side of the desk. “Not that tired story again.”

“Listen. My brother loves his dog. Somebody poisoned him to hurt my brother. Gordon is a stranger to town. He came a week ago. His one connection in town is my brother. Someone attacked Gordon to hurt my brother.”

“So someone wants to hurt your brother? Looks to me like they would cut off his toe.”

“What other reason would someone have to attack Gordon?”

The truncheon went tap, tap, tap against the desk. “Somebody who knows him. Like your brother. He and Gordon have any arguments?”

“No. They’re great friends. This visit is a reunion for them.” Waltz lit up and took a big drag.

“Put that out.”

“Yes sir.” Jazz didn’t have an ashtray in his office. Waltz cocked his foot across his knee. He hated to snub out a cigarette on the suede soles of his dance shoes.

“I said put it out.”

The heel. Part of it was rubber. That would work. He mashed the cigarette on his heel. The wastebasket was behind the lieutenant. Waltz held the cigarette in his hand. He would throw it away later.

“So your brother hasn’t argued with Gordon?”

“No, besides, my brother was in Vegas this weekend. He didn’t get back until Monday at noon. He couldn’t have attacked Gordon.”

The sneer enlarged and seemed headed for the lieutenant’s ears. “How convenient. How common. Arrange to be out of town while your confederate does the crime. Have you any idea how many alibis like that I’ve seen?”

“A lot, I guess.”

“Who else had something against Gordon?”

“Nobody.”

“How about your sister-in-law, Lala Charleston?”

“She didn’t have anything against him.”

“I thought you learned your lesson last time. Lying to the cops is not a good strategy.”

“I’m not lying.”

“Strange. Several people told me she disrupted his class, and she was mad as hell at him because of all the money he was charging the studio. They said she swore to stop him from teaching his class.”

“Well, yeah. But she didn’t have anything against him.”

“So despite the fact that he was taking a lot of money from the studio, money that she didn’t want him to have, she was very fond of him and wouldn’t do a thing to harm him. Right?”

“But she wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Would it interest you to know that she has no alibi?”

“She wouldn’t hurt him. I’m telling you.”

“So your brother and your sister-in-law are kind and pure and wouldn’t hurt a fly?”

“That’s right.”

“Where were you Sunday night at seven?”

“You don’t think I did it?”

“You established that your brother and sister-in-law didn’t do it. You’re the other logical suspect. Answer the question. Where were you Sunday night at seven? Poisoning another poor dog?”

“I was in my apartment.”

“Anybody with you?”

“No.”

“Can anybody testify that you were there?”

“No.”

“You had any disagreements with Gordon?”

“I barely know him.”

The lieutenant grabbed his truncheon, and slammed it on the desk. “What are you? Some sort of pathological liar?”

“I’m telling the truth. I have nothing against him. It was the greatest day in my life when he came here. He’s director of the New York City Ballet. Do you realize what that means?”

“Wow. New York City. Ballet. Tights. Pink tutus.”

“I knew he would help my dancing. It breaks my heart that he can’t continue.”

The lieutenant pointed the truncheon at Waltz. “I heard that he said some unkind things about your dancing. I heard that you were upset. I heard that you swore you’d get him.”

“I swore that I would prove to him that I could be a great dancer. I said nothing about getting him.”

“That’s not the way I hear it. I also hear that your brother thinks you poisoned his dog.”

“I told you that when I came to the station.”

“That’s now been corroborated by several other sources. I should have arrested you for poisoning your brother’s dog. It would have saved Gordon Hogan a lot of pain.”

***

 

If the lieutenant couldn’t hang the crime on Waltz, he was going after Lala. Waltz couldn’t allow that.

He’d have to hire a detective. Not Hook ‘Em Harns. He’d pick one out of the Yellow Pages. No, too risky. Jazz said Hook ‘Em was the one honest detective in town.

Her honesty didn’t matter. She only did domestic investigations.

So what? He’d pay her double. That would do the job. She was in business to make money.

The cops remained in both the office and the lounge. Waltz couldn’t get to the phones. He went upstairs to the practice ballroom. Lala was dancing solo to a mambo.

“Lala, let me borrow your cell.”

Lala emerged from her dance trance. “I have only a few minutes left. Much expensive.”

“I’ll give you ten dollars.”

Lala strode to her purse and pulled out her cell. She held out her hand until he placed a ten in it. She handed him her phone and glanced at her watch. “I’m timing you. You have ten minutes.”

Waltz went down the stairs and out to the street. He dialed the number.

Hook ‘Em Harns answered. “Hello, Lala.”

“This is not Lala. I’m on her cell. This is Waltz Charleston. I called the other day about a poisoned dog.”

“I remember. I don’t do dogs.”

“Don’t hang up. This is not about the dog. Someone attacked one of our dance instructors. They robbed him and cut off his big toe.”

“Whacked off his big toe?”

“That’s right. Strange, isn’t it?”

“I do domestic investigations. I don’t do toes… oh, I see. His wife cut it off and he wants to file for divorce.”

“No, that’s not what – “

“He’s looking at this the wrong way. These days, it’s customary for the wife to cut off her husband’s dick. Your friend’s lucky. He has a loving, caring wife. To be upset over a small matter like a toe – to file for divorce over that – he must be a psycho. He should see a psychiatrist.”

Waltz ran his hand through his hair, heedless of the wave. “I’m serious. Stop screwing around. The cops may charge me – or my sister-in-law. I want you to investigate. I’ll double your usual fee.”

“I do domestic investigations. Give me something to work with, like a custody dispute over the toe.”

Waltz hung up and cocked his arm to fling the phone under an eighteen-wheeler. He remembered it was Lala’s and caught himself. The eighteen-wheeler rumbled on.

He hated Hook ‘Em Harns and her cool sarcastic attitude. Screw her.

He could do a better job himself. He’d start by questioning Gordon.

***

 

Waltz got back from the hospital before six. Jazz hadn’t returned from dinner. Waltz selected his favorite tango, “Cheating Gaucho,” and turned the speakers on low.

Gordon couldn’t remember anything about the attack. The doctors thought the attacker knocked Gordon out and then cut off his toe. Even if Gordon saw the attacker, the concussion would erase Gordon’s memory. Gordon would be unable to identify his attacker.

Gordon thought somebody at the studio might have attacked him. He gave Waltz photos and serial numbers of the stolen items and asked him to keep a lookout for them.

Jazz ambled in, pushing a toothpick between his teeth.

“I talked to Gordon at the hospital. He said he didn’t criticize my dancing.”

Jazz leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk. One slipped off. He seized his pants at the knee between his thumb and forefinger, his little finger in the air. He lifted the errant leg and placed it carefully on his desk. “You stay there now. Don’t go running off again.” He kept his face serious, almost grave. He had a great poker face.

Waltz laughed. Jazz could be incredibly funny sometimes.

Jazz smiled. “Legs. You know how they are. They have a mind of their own sometimes.”

Waltz picked up Jazz’s dice and rolled them across the desk. “Gordon said he didn’t criticize my dancing.”

“You went to the hospital?” Jazz looked at the dice. “Snake eyes. You lose.”

“As soon as the cops got through questioning me.”

“Why?”

“The cops think either Lala or I attacked Gordon. I have to find out who did it, or both of us need attorneys.”

Jazz put his hands behind his head and leaned back. “No sweat. The cops will find the true culprit and you’ll both be off the hook.”

Waltz relaxed – then remembered. “Gordon said he didn’t criticize my dancing.”

“So Gordon said that, did he?” Jazz shrugged. “I’m not surprised. One thing you have to understand about Gordon. He’s a nice guy. He’s so nice that it creates a problem for him. He knows his dancing. He can see immediately what someone’s doing wrong and knows how to fix it. But he has trouble criticizing anybody directly. He’s too nice. He always tells somebody else, like me, somebody that he knows will repeat it to the person.”

“You sure about this?”

“Of course. I was his hatchet man in New York. He has to have a hatchet man. He says I’m the best hatchet man he’s ever had. That’s the only way he can operate. He’s a strange guy.”

***

 

Waltz spent every free minute that evening talking to people about the attack on Gordon. Armando claimed that Jazz was a con man and many people hated him.

Jazz promised Armando an instructor’s job and part ownership of the studio if Armando took thousands of dollars worth of dance lessons. Armando had to threaten a lawsuit to get the job. Jazz refused to give him a share in the studio.

Jazz also conned Olivia. Armando wasn’t clear on the details, but he heard that Jazz sold Olivia a lifetime membership and refused her the lessons she had coming.

Lala had her own theory. Jazz owed the Vegas mob a huge gambling debt. The mob poisoned Cha-Cha and cut off Gordon’s toe as a warning to Jazz. Waltz pointed out that Jazz owed the money, not Gordon. Why wouldn’t the mob cut off Jazz’s toe?

Without his toe, Lala explained, Jazz couldn’t teach dancing and earn the money to pay the mob, so they maimed Gordon. Jazz could continue work and wouldn’t have to pay Gordon his ten thousand dollars. Jazz’s earnings and the ten thousand could go to pay off the mob.

Waltz dismissed Lala’s theory. Maybe she was trying to throw suspicion off her. Besides, Jazz knew the cops suspected Lala and Waltz. If the mob was after Jazz, he wouldn’t let the cops go after Lala and Waltz.

None of Gordon’s stuff showed up. Waltz wasn’t surprised. The culprit wouldn’t be stupid enough to flaunt the stuff at the studio where someone might recognize it.

Waltz learned one other thing. He wasn’t suited to be a detective. He had no knack for getting information out of people. Armando and Lala volunteered their information. Of course, most of the others probably knew nothing, but Waltz couldn’t tell if they knew nothing, or if they knew something and were lying about it.

***

 

Waltz did everything he could think of to find out who attacked Gordon. One day, and he was out of ideas. He began to suspect everybody.

He came in early on Tuesday to watch Dance of Deceit. Maybe if he let his mind wander while he watched it, he’d get an idea for the next step in his investigation.

He picked the top video off his stack and shoved it into the VCR. The Deceit theme, a slow waltz, played.

The announcer’s voice intoned, “Dance of Deceit, a story of betrayal and despair in the town of Despond as Portia Diamond-Despond and her children face the seething passions of their unfulfilled lives. In today’s episode, Abby discovers the identity of the father of Jennifer’s baby. But first, this word.”

Waltz managed to watch two episodes before Jazz came into the lounge with his strawberry slush. Jazz hovered over Waltz, watching, slurping.

Waltz turned his head. “You’re annoying me.”

“What? Oh. What did you say? I was engrossed.”

“Cut it out. Go away.”

“How far behind are you now?”

“Get out of here.”

“Tell me.”

Jazz wouldn’t leave till he got in his shots. Waltz peered at the stack of tapes. “Six … no, wait.” The stack was growing fast. He had to buy a new VCR for his apartment soon. “Seven tapes. Huh. I thought I had six. Episodes fly. Now get out of here.”

“Seven? What are those tapes doing, breeding?”

“Please leave me alone.”

“I want to watch the program that solves the mysteries of life. The program that is the ancient guru on top of the hill. Where you go to get all the answers. Why should you hog something like that? I want enlightenment too.”

“Okay. So it’s cheap melodrama. Worthless. I’m wasting the best years of my life. I should be reading Dickens and Shakespeare. I agree with you. Go away.”

“No. I’m serious. If I was ever confused about anything – anything at all – I’d watch Dance of Deceit myself. It’s got all the answers.” Jazz slurped up some slush. “Luckily, I’m not confused.” He pivoted and walked away.

Waltz got up and inched his head around the doorjamb. Jazz went into the office. Waltz returned to the couch and stretched out. They were about to reveal the father of Jennifer’s baby. Waltz’s money was on Aidan, with Landon a possible dark horse.

***

 

Hardly had Lala begun her daily exhortation to sell, when Jazz stepped in front of her. “Lala has convinced me that somebody is after me. I’m canceling tomorrow’s party. We can’t afford to give this madman another opportunity to strike.”

Lala grabbed his arm. “We no can do that. We make plenty money at the parties. Nothing bad ever happen in one of our parties.”

“Nobody ever poisoned Cha-Cha before. Nobody ever carved on an unconscious instructor before. Who knows what might happen at the party?”

“Sure. Somebody is out to get you. Somebody want to destroy the studio. If we don’t have the party, we move one step closer to the poor home. That is what they want.”

Waltz held up his hand. “Wait a minute. Jazz is right. With all the strange things happening at the studio, why take chances?”

Lala turned to Waltz. “Gordon is alone and defenseless when the madman attack. The madman is a sneak, no? He no have the guts to try anything at the party.”

Waltz shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s cancel one party. It’s not much money. By next week, the cops will catch the guy. We’ll celebrate the capture at the next party.”

“We go broke. Is what this guy want. We no cancel the party.” Lala turned to Jazz. “Please, Jazz. Think again. For me. Have the party.”

Jazz studied the floor for a while. “You’re right, hon. We can’t let a couple of stupid incidents interfere with the way we run the studio. The party is on. For Lala. Meeting adjourned.” Jazz walked toward the office.

Waltz followed him. “Why take chances?”

Jazz plopped into his desk chair.

Waltz did not take his chew-out chair. It preconditioned him to defeat. He remained standing. “Can’t you see you’re taking a risk? Somebody’s out to get you.”

Lala screamed, ran to Waltz, and clung to him.

He put his arm around her. “What’s wrong?”

She half turned and pointed at a package on her desk.

Jazz went to her desk and picked it up. “Yuck!” He turned and dropped it in the trash basket.

Waltz held Lala as she sobbed. “What is it?”

Jazz wiped his hands on his pants. “Maybe you should take a look.”

Waltz released Lala, went to the trash basket, and retrieved the package. He held it up, a toe, a bloody, rotting toe.

Lala gagged, held her hand to her mouth, and scurried from the room.

Waltz sank into Lala’s chair. “There’s a note.” He unfolded the paper and read it. “You’re next.”

Jazz’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “Who’s next?”

Waltz read the address. “You are.”

“Throw it away.”

“We can’t. It’s evidence. The cops will want it. We can’t have the party now. This guy is crazy. We don’t know what he might do.”

“He doesn’t know what I might do.” Jazz lifted his leg onto the desk and pulled up his pants. A holster strapped to his ankle held a small pistol. Its chrome finish gleamed under the desk lamp.

Waltz leaped out of his chair. “Jazz, no. This is not the OK Corral. This guy is not going to stalk up Main Street with a pistol holstered on his hip. He’s a poisoner, a sneak. When he attacks, you won’t even see him. You won’t be able to gun him down.”

Jazz put his foot on the floor and pulled his pants over the pistol. “How could he poison me? I’m not going to eat or drink anything unless I know where it came from. He’ll have to come at me and I’ll be ready for him.”

“You’ve got to get rid of that gun. It’s dangerous. Somebody could get hurt.”

“My little pistol is staying with me. Nobody will get hurt but the guy who is coming for me.”

 

Chapter 5

Terminal Dance

The next morning the phone blasted Waltz awake at nine. He grabbed the receiver, dropped it, picked it up, and managed to get it to his ear. He heard Jazz’s voice. “Get over to the house now.”

“What’s wrong?”

The phone went dead.

Maybe something happened to Lala. The vendetta wasn’t against Jazz. It was against her. Waltz dressed and rushed out to his car, realizing he hadn’t combed his hair. A few minutes later, he knocked on Lala’s door. Jazz opened it.

Waltz rushed in. “Is Lala okay?”

A dog growled.

Pain shot through Waltz’s ankle. “Cha-Cha.”

Jazz danced around Waltz. “He’s okay. He didn’t die.”

As Cha-Cha danced toward the light, did he see a vision of Waltz’s ankles? Did that vision lure him back from his near death experience? Like old times, Cha-Cha chewed on Waltz’s ankle. Waltz tottered on the leg Cha-Cha gnawed and tried to push him off with the other shoe. “Get him off me.”

Laughing, Jazz picked Cha-Cha up. “He’s well. Isn’t it wonderful?”

***

 

Jazz walked two strange men out of his office to the door.

They weren’t dance students. One wore worker’s boots and the other flip-flops, hardly footgear for dancers.

Could one of them be the poisoner? It didn’t matter. Jazz was not stupid enough to eat or drink anything offered to him by a stranger, and they were leaving. Waltz wouldn’t have to worry about keeping an eye on them.

He had the bar ready for the party. The stereo system played a foxtrot by an English dance orchestra. All the instructors got up and asked students to dance. Jazz’s rule required them to dance every dance, each dance with a different student. Many of the students were beginners and didn’t dance well. The veterans hated the parties. Waltz could understand the way they felt, but he ached to be on the floor dancing, even with a beginner.

A beautiful woman chatted with Yvette at a table in the corner. Waltz never saw her before. If he didn’t have to bartend, he could dance with her.

Despite not being able to dance, he was glad he was the bartender. With him on the job, the poisoner couldn’t slip anything into Jazz’s drink. Waltz watched the food too, which came from a caterer they used before and trusted. Jazz was his brother. Waltz wasn’t going to let anybody kill him.

Jazz carried his drink to the bar, staggering slightly. “Give me another dollop of Scotch.”

Waltz dolloped his glass and gave it a quick stir.

Jazz took a taste. “Another little dollop please.”

Jazz was adding dollops to an already strong drink and packing a pistol. He raised his glass to Waltz and drank. “Did you take my pistol?”

“You don’t have it?”

“I thought maybe you were afraid I might shoot somebody. I thought maybe you took it.”

“No, not me.” Jazz didn’t have his pistol. Good. Waltz’s tight body went slack, like a broken guitar string.

“Sure? I may need it.”

“No. I didn’t take it.”

The guy who was out to get Jazz must’ve taken it. That meant the guy was coming. But why take the pistol if he planned to poison Jazz? The guy must be coming with a knife or a gun, and Jazz had no way to defend himself.

Waltz’s body went so tight it jangled.

He should call the cops. And tell them what? That Jazz had no pistol and the bad guy was coming? Tell the Lieutenant that? No way.

Wait. He bet Lala took it. She was smart. You could depend on her.

Lala came to the bar. Jazz put his arm around her. “Lala, go on home. Take the night off. Get a little rest. You’ve put in a hard week, worrying about money.”

“Is okay. I stay for the feast. The caterer bring barbecue ribs. I love ribs.”

Jazz peeled back the foil. “Waltz, has anybody but the caterer been around these?”

“No. I kept an eye on them.”

Jazz sniffed. “Nice. Those ribs do look good – nice and juicy.”

Lala grabbed a plate. “I’m having some right now.”

“I’m fixing you a plate. You can take it home and pig out. You can watch a little TV.”

“But Jazz.”

“I insist. You can spell me next week. We’ve both been working too hard.” He covered the plate with foil. He grabbed Lala’s elbow and ushered her out.

Waltz didn’t get a chance to ask Lala if she took the gun. He’d have to wonder about it all night.

A half-hour into the party, Gordon arrived, moving gingerly on crutches, out of the hospital only three days after the attack. His boyfriend Ken hovered near, ready to assist.

Jazz rushed over, hugged Gordon, and brought him to the bar. Jazz turned off the music and picked up the microphone. “Sorry to interrupt the dance, but I must announce the return of my good friend, Gordon. Help me welcome him back to the studio.”

Jazz started the applause. Gordon got a standing ovation.

Jazz retrieved the microphone. “Welcome back Gordon. The studio will pick up your hospitalization.” Everybody applauded. “And I also want to present you with a check for a thousand dollars.” Jazz handed Gordon an envelope. More applause.

“I know that no amount of money will make up for the injuries that you suffered, but perhaps it will serve as an emblem of the studio’s affection for you. I am so sorry. I can’t believe you came down from New York to have this happen. I feel guilty for inviting you down, but I hope you never leave. I here and now offer you a lifetime job supervising instructors. I hope you’ll take it.” Jazz hugged Gordon. Everybody applauded.

So that was why Jazz sent Lala home. It was a matter of survival. When she heard what Jazz gave away, she’d kill him.

Gordon took the mike. “Thank you, Jazz. You are more than generous. I thank you all for the warm welcome back. You’ve made me feel much better.” He received another tremendous round of applause. Jazz signaled. Waltz started the music.

***

 

The party was a good one. Even Gordon was having a good time, drinking heavily.

Everybody was dancing. Waltz saw some great moves from his vantage point at the bar. He tried to memorize some of the other dancers’ steps. Later he would get a partner and practice them, work them out, get them smooth, steal them.

“Hello, sexy.”

Startled, Waltz turned his head from the dancers. “Rachel.”

“Don’t look so surprised. Jazz fired me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t come to the parties. The studio is open to the public. I’d ask you to dance if you didn’t have to slave away getting everybody drunk.”

She danced solo across the room to Jazz’s table. She pulled out a chair and chatted amiably. Jazz didn’t seem to intimidate her.

A slow bluesy West Coast swing began to play, the kind that Waltz loved to dance. Rachel took Jazz’s hand and pulled him onto the floor.

Jazz made a nice target on the dance floor. Would the psycho take the opportunity to shoot Jazz? Would the psycho accidentally shoot Rachel? Waltz scanned the audience, watching for someone with a gun.

Waltz alternatively scrutinized the onlookers and watched Rachel and Jazz dance, admiring their skill. Jazz was smooth as an ice skater. His knees, his ankles, and his feet worked like shock absorbers to avoid any bounce. His feet caressed the floor, at one with it.

Everyone cleared the floor to watch. The audience applauded as Rachel and Jazz performed spectacular moves. Near the end of the number, Jazz led Rachel past him on his left side and sent her into a spin. He spun twice to the left. He undulated into a ripple and shimmied to the last measure of the song. He phrased it perfectly. As the music faded, he allowed his body to sag gradually to the floor. He laid there as though the emotion of the dance exhausted him.

Waltz admired the new move. Nice finish. The audience applauded and whistled. Rachel bowed to the crowd. She turned and applauded Jazz.

Waltz relaxed. The guy missed a perfect chance to shoot Jazz. Jazz was safe for the evening.

He was still on the floor, milking the applause. He was a champion show off.

No. Jazz’s drop to the floor left his leg bent under him in an awkward position. Waltz ran onto the floor. He straightened Jazz’s leg and kneeled over him. Jazz was unconscious. “Someone call 911.”

Jazz was breathing. He had a pulse, though Waltz could barely feel it. “Call 911. Where’s Doc?”

Rachel helped Doc to Jazz’s side. Doc staggered and stank of whiskey. He bent over Jazz and fell on him. Rachel and Waltz helped Doc up.

Doc mumbled. “It’s a heart attack. Or maybe a stroke – or something. Maybe diabetes. Call an ambulance.”

Waltz’s mind was working in slow motion. How did the guy poison Jazz? Waltz was watching. The guy did it again, just like he poisoned Cha-Cha. Neither time did Waltz see anybody put anything in their drinks. Waltz let the guy poison Jazz. Why hadn’t he been more vigilant?

Jazz was dying. What would the studio do without him? What would Waltz do without him? Jazz always took care of Waltz.

In return, Waltz gave Jazz a hard time. Waltz should’ve stopped smoking. He should’ve gone back to school full time. He should’ve done a better job of watching out for the poisoner. “Don’t die, Jazz. I love you.”

***

 

Waltz and Doc followed the ambulance. At the hospital, Doc tried to accompany the medics into the emergency room. The doctor had an orderly turn Doc back and hustle him to the waiting room, where he passed out, snoring in a chair, mumbling and drooling.

How could it happen? It was unbelievable that Jazz could die.

Jazz wouldn’t die. It was probably a minor heart attack. Nothing more. It was nothing. It wasn’t even a minor heart attack. Maybe he passed out. Yes, that was it. He’d been drinking heavily, for Jazz. The same thing happened to Jazz as happened to Doc.

Doc passed out. The only difference was, Doc happened to be in a chair when he went unconscious. They didn’t put him in the emergency room. Jazz passed out while dancing. What difference did it make what you were doing when you passed out? Jazz would be okay in the morning. He would have a tremendous hangover. That was all.

Lala hurried in. She held her hand out for a cigarette. “How is he?”

Waltz shook out a cigarette. “They took him into emergency. Nobody’s come out yet.”

She blew out smoke. “How is possible for the poisoner to get him?”

Waltz took her hand and patted it. “It wasn’t the poisoner. Jazz was drinking heavy. He’s not used to that. He just passed out on the dance floor. He’ll be okay.”

“Here come the doctor.”

The doctor shook his head. “It’s an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol.”

Waltz’s knees sagged. He felt empty – and weak. The same thing that almost killed Cha-Cha. It happened again. How? How did the guy do it? Waltz watched everybody that went near Jazz. At least, he thought he had. He let the guy poison Jazz. It was Waltz’s fault. “Is he going to die?”

“He’s in bad shape. He’s in a coma. The odds are he won’t make it.”

Waltz hugged Lala. Maybe it wasn’t a hug. Maybe he was using her to hold himself up. His eyes welled and he began to cry. He couldn’t help himself.

The doctor cleared his throat and raised his voice over the sobs. “There’s nothing you can do here. Go home. Get a good night’s rest. Come back in the morning. Maybe there’ll be a miracle.”

Tears streamed down Waltz’s face. Lala and Waltz hugged, holding each other up.

Lala pushed him back. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

They walked toward the door. She stopped when they got to Doc and took a deep breath. “We must take Doc home. He too drunk to drive.”

Waltz helped her pull Doc out of his chair. Doc sagged and mumbled. They got on either side of him and put his arms over their necks, but his arms slithered down their bodies like snakes. His knees buckled in every direction. They were dancing with a drunk.

Waltz sighed. “This isn’t going to work.” He picked Doc up and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of rice. He carried him out and dumped him into the backseat of Lala’s car.

Lala opened her car door, eyes stunned, staring at Doc in the backseat.

Waltz reached for a cigarette, then remembered. Jazz hated smoking. Waltz crumpled the package and flung it into the trash can. He’d never smoke again.

And he was going to get the guy that poisoned Jazz. Waltz knew what Jazz would do. He’d hire Hook ‘Em and go after the guy. Much as Waltz hated to, he would hire her.

He’d been going at it all wrong. The phone was no way to approach a wiseass. He’d confront her in person. He should’ve done it to begin with. Maybe they would’ve caught the guy before he poisoned Jazz.

Yes, he’d approach her face-to-face and ignore her wiseass barrage. No, that was a mistake too. He wouldn’t confront her. He’d sidle up to her. Since she did only divorce work, that’s what he’d give her.

***

 

They went in Lala’s house from the garage.

Before Waltz could assume his crouching posture, Cha-Cha was on him, nipping at his sore ankle. Waltz pushed at him with his other foot. “Get him off me.”

Lala scooped Cha-Cha up and cuddled him. “I no understand why Cha-Cha hate you.”

“I don’t understand why people love Chihuahuas so much.”

“They are one superior dog, bred in Mexico, you know.”

“I love Mexico. It produces mangoes, mariachi music, and beautiful women, but it failed with the Chihuahua, the worst dog breed ever conceived, with the exception of the pit bull, which is just a big Chihuahua, a Chihuahua on ‘roids, big enough to back up its nasty temper.”

“Waltz no like poor little Cha-Cha. Poor little thing.” She put Cha-Cha in the garage.

She came back and set out two wine glasses. She plinked one with her fingernail and listened to it chime. “These wine glasses are real crystal. I got eight of them at Goodwill for a dollar.” She poured them some champagne. She put a couple of potatoes in the microwave and two filet mignons on the grill.

Waltz sipped champagne and watched her. “It took you awhile to get Doc sober.”

“Sorry you have to wait. But you enjoy playing pool on his big table, no?”

“Yeah, it’s a great table.”

“I pour much coffee into him. He drunk like cockroach. No get him sober. Just less drunk. Enough so he able to tell me of the party.” She flipped the steaks. “Is too bad Jazz will die, but why he promise to pay for Gordon’s hospital and give him a check for a thousand dollars? He will break the studio from his grave.”

Waltz put down his glass. “Do you really think he’ll die?”

“Yes. He will die.” She pulled a giant bag of spring mix out of the fridge and dumped some into two bowls. She crumbled some blue cheese into each bowl and spooned in sour cream. “What will we do about the thousand dollars?”

Waltz collapsed on a barstool. “I can’t believe that we’re actually saying the words. I can’t believe that we’re talking about Jazz dying.”

The microwave dinged. Lala split the potatoes and placed them on platters. “Is possible to keep Gordon from the cashing of the check?”

Waltz carried the salad bowls to the kitchen table. “I’ll stop payment in the morning.”

Lala forked the fillets onto the platters and put them on the table. “Is nice to have you to help. You know these things. We must run the studio now. Jazz would want it.”

Lala cut up her potato and mashed it flat with her fork. She slathered it with butter and covered it with some of her homemade salsa. “Eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Eat. You eat at the party?”

“I was too busy. Then Jazz collapsed.”

“Pour more champagne. You are hungry. I cook it for you.” Lala didn’t hesitate when she ate. She was halfway through.

The fillets sizzled. The smell of grilled meat wafted to Waltz’s nostrils. He cut off a bit of the fillet. He chewed it. It was tender and juicy. His stomach demanded more. He forked in a big chunk. While he chewed, he fixed his potato the same as Lala’s. She was ahead of him, but he was so hungry he thought he might catch up.

They didn’t speak while they ate. He should’ve timed them. It might’ve been a new world’s record. Lala took away the platters and served fresh strawberries with cream for dessert. The sweet tartness of the berries and the richness of the cream exploded on his tongue. What was wrong with him? How could he eat with his brother on his deathbed?

After dinner, he felt much better. Lala was too pessimistic. Jazz would live. He was tough. He would survive – just like Cha-Cha. Alcohol and sleeping pills didn’t kill him.

Lala paused at the stereo. “I will play my new tango CD, Amoroso Adultero & His Argentinian Adulterers.” She sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to her. Waltz joined her. She leaned back against the arm of the couch and curled her legs under her. Her short skirt rode up to mid thigh. “You know, we make much money at the studio if we do it right. We need to cut expenses.”

Her legs were long and smooth and her knees had cute little dimples.

“No problem.” He knew Lala would want to cut expenses. What did it matter? Jazz would be back in a couple of weeks.

She smiled. Her lips pouted even when she smiled. “I am glad you agree. I see one great future for the studio.” She held out her glass.

Waltz clicked it. They drank.

He set his glass on the coffee table. “Jazz won’t die. He can’t.”

Lala pivoted on the couch and slid closer to Waltz. Her skirt moved higher up her legs. If only she wasn’t his sister-in-law. No, he couldn’t think like that.

She reached toward him. “Take my hand.”

Waltz squeezed her hand. It was warm and soft and squeezed back. He could depend on her. Together they would save the studio. Things would be great for Jazz when he got out of the hospital. Waltz blinked back tears. “We’ll be okay. Don’t worry. We’ll cut expenses. I promise. We’ll cut expenses to the bone. We’ll fire Gordon.”

She looked into his eyes, her face close to his. “We will make much money. We will be one magnificent team.”

He broke the look and fumbled for his glass, almost knocking it over. He picked it up, thumped it, and listened to the ping. “These are great glasses. I can’t believe you got eight for a dollar.”

Lala put her lips over the rim of her glass. They pouted around the rim. “Is the same kind the rich people in Guadalajara have. I love to feel the delicate glass in my mouth.” She took a sip. “Put it deep in your mouth. Feel?”

The rim of his glass was so thin, it felt like it might shatter in his mouth. “You’re right. It wouldn’t be the same, drinking champagne from a mug.”

“Run your tongue around the rim. Feel the bubbles.”

He ran his tongue around the rim. It was cold but the bubbles felt hot as they burst up the glass onto his tongue.

She squeezed his hand and placed it on her breast.

That couldn’t be right.

He squeezed. It was right.

He placed his glass on the coffee table. He didn’t want to spill the champagne when he got up to go home.

She slithered close. Her lips pouted and touched his softly, like a butterfly, then fluttered away – but they came back, soft and warm.

He felt the softness of her breast. The tango swelled. He felt its rhythm as it climbed toward the one beat to start the eight-beat sequence again.

Lala kissed him, her lips insistent. Those warm, pouting lips. His lips pulled on her lower lip, the one that always pouted its challenge. Her lips pouted, nibbled, and overwhelmed the memory of the thin cold of the champagne glass. He needed to stop. He shook his head no, but that made her pouting lips caress his even more.

Her lips were even softer than he imagined. And warmer. How could some girl’s lips be warmer and softer? They should be all the same. Wasn’t everybody’s temperature supposed to be something like ninety-eight? It was his imagination, that’s all.

He had to stop kissing her. He had to get up from the couch.

He ordered his face to turn away, his lips to harden in protest, his hands to withdraw from her breasts. He had to get off the couch. He tensed his legs, legs strengthened by heavy squats and dead lifts. They should easily push him up from the couch, but the couch fabric was still at the back of his neck, feeling rough. He’d always thought of it as smooth. But the couch was rough and her lips were smooth – and soft and warm, so warm.

***

 

The next morning, Waltz tried not to think about what he did. But it went through his mind over and over. He went to bed with his brother’s wife. That was bad enough, but he did it in his brother’s house, in his brother’s bed, while his brother was dying.

He found himself at Rachel’s apartment. She was crying. What was wrong with her?

“Oh, Waltz. How could you do such a thing? Can’t you see what she is? She’s selfish and greedy. She uses sex to get what she wants. She wants control of the studio. She’s probably afraid Jazz left you his share.”

He must’ve confessed to Rachel. He hadn’t intended to do that. “No. She’s wonderful. I’ve known her since I was a kid. It was my fault. I took advantage of her when she was upset.”

“You’ve got to stay away from her. Guilt is going to eat you up.”

“Don’t tell anyone at the studio, please.” He tapped out a cigarette, put it in his lips, and lit it. The package crackled. Smoke bit his nostrils. He stared at the pack. He’d bought cigarettes. He didn’t realize it.

He spat out the cigarette. It skidded across the floor. He scrambled off the couch and snatched it up before it could singe Rachel’s rug.

He scurried to the kitchen sink. He stuck the cigarette into the stream of water. It gave a satisfying hiss. He let it soak under the water. He turned on the disposal. He dropped the cigarette into it. It ground away, emitting an agreeable whirr. Waltz pictured the tiny bits of tobacco and paper draining into the sewer. He ripped open the pack and pulled out another. He soaked it in the water and dropped it in the disposal.

Rachel cheered. “Yea, Waltz. Way to go. Grind them to shreds. Jazz will be proud.”

Waltz did another cigarette. Then another. He ground them all up, one by one, and sent them to hell. He wadded up the empty package and slammed it into the trash.

He ran the water a while. That was that, for ever and ever, he promised Jazz.

“I’ve got to make it up to him. I’m going to quit smoking this time. And I’m going to stay away from Lala, except for business.”

Rachel cheered again. She pumped her fist.

“And I’m going to hire that detective and find out who poisoned Jazz. I’m going to make sure the guy gets what he deserves for what he did to Jazz.” He paused. “She’s hard to hire. I’m going to trick her. Will you help me?”

***

 

Later that morning, in a trailer park on the outskirts of town, Waltz approached a single wide, painted burnt orange and trimmed in white, University of Texas colors, flying a Longhorn pennant. Large white letters snaked the length of the trailer, proclaiming Hook ‘Em Horns. He fought the urge to jump away from the side of the trailer, like he was about to be sideswiped by the team bus.

The door, latched open to the side of the trailer, revealed a sign, Ring Bell. He pushed the button. A cow lowed – no, not a cow, a Longhorn.

A voice roared. “Door’s open.”

Waltz took out his mirror and comb and arranged his hair. He started up the steps. Wind whipped down the side of the trailer, tearing into the wave. He held his hands over his hair until he stepped into the trailer, out of the gust.

Should he get out his mirror and check? Not in front of a proven wiseass. He combed his hair with his fingers, smoothing it down and reforming the wave.

Hook ‘Em Harns tipped her white cowboy hat. Her blond hair swooped into a bun on top of her head. She held up her fists, palms facing forward, forefingers and little fingers extended. “Hook ‘Em, Horns! Be right with you.” Her burnt-orange T-shirt repeated the mantra, Hook ‘Em, Horns.

Tape held a sign on the wall to the right: Why Support Your Cheating Hubbie When You Can Divorce His Cheating Ass? Another on the left said, Don’t Let Your Badder Half Get Your Trailer Repossessed. Another dangled on two strings from the ceiling. Tired of Paying Child Support? I Can Prove They’re Not Yours.

A Zen tranquility garden stood on her desk. Small wooden crosses filled part of it. She removed a spoon of sand and placed a toy wedding ring in the hole. She picked up a cross from the desk, stuck it through the ring, and refilled the hole. The cross said Johnson Marriage.

She grabbed a harmonica off the desk. She stood at attention and put her right hand over her breast. She patted it and nodded at Waltz.

He gaped. Did she want him to fondle her boob? He stepped forward.

She stamped her foot. She nodded and patted.

Oh. He snapped to attention and placed his hand on his heart.

She stuck the harp deep in her mouth, lips pouting around it. “Taps” sighed through it, wailing heartbreak. Tears surged down her cheeks but a smile interrupted their journey.

As he listened, tears filled his eyes. They came from the cry of the harp. He didn’t know the Johnsons. He wished he’d met them during their happier days. Now that they were apart, he hoped they’d find their true loves.

Hook ‘Em’s files would be a great source of dance students. He’d have to tell Lala.

Hook ‘Em remained at attention, holding the harp with her left hand, her right hand on her heart. Her hand left her breast to cup the harmonica, closing and then opening to produce a vibrato as she wrung out the last wail of “Taps.” She gave the Hook ‘Em sign. She nodded at Waltz. He gave the sign.

She waved. “Bye-bye, Mister Johnson. Your cheating heart can kiss my ass. Another marriage dead and buried. Another wife freed of her womanizing husband. Hook ‘Em Harns strikes again.”

She gave the Hook ‘Em sign. She nodded at Waltz. He gave the sign back at her.

She began to play “Taps” again. “Sing.”

Waltz sang.

Taps turned from forlorn to bluesy. Hook ‘Em danced a jig as she played. Waltz sang to the blues rhythm and danced kick ball chains. They danced apart but they were a couple – in sync.

Hook ‘Em cupped the harp with her hands and made a wah wah sound. She nodded at him.

Waltz put his hands around his mouth like hers. “Wah wah.”

She went, “Wah wah.”

Waltz returned her wah wah.

She slapped the harp on her jean-clad thigh and put it on her desk. “Enough wah wahing, much as I love it. It’s good for you, but only in moderation.”

She placed the garden on a bookshelf. Next to it stood another bookshelf full of gardens packed with crosses, miniature graveyards that commemorated her success in the divorce business.

She plopped into her chair and propped her feet on the desk. The cowboy boots completed the orange and white motif.

He imagined going to bed with her. Would she leave her boots on? The idea excited him, though he didn’t care what she wore to bed. He’d leap into her bed any day.

Her Texas drawl was so slow and deep he thought she was putting him on. “Sit down. Put your feet up. Get comfortable.” She was still in her twenties, but her voice was low and husky, like she’d been drinking whiskey and sucking cigs for a hundred years.

Waltz swung his feet up on her desk, noting a placard tacked to it proclaiming Marriages Sundered. “I admire your signs.”

“Thanks. I make them up myself. I put them in the Yellow Pages and on the Internet. It gets me a lot of business. I’m thinking of sending them out as spam, you know, like Viagra ads.”

“You do them yourself?”

“They come to me. It amazes my friends.”

“It amazes me too.” Waltz could barely see her. He never realized how big his feet were. Maybe he needed a better angle. He stretched his neck to look around them. “Do you do domestic investigations?”

“Does a hound dog scratch and bark?” She panted and scratched. She barked. She smiled, teeth straight and white.

Waltz spread his feet so he could see between them. “I think my wife is running around on me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, honey. Don’t feel bad. They all do sooner or later. I’ll catch her cheating ass for you.”

Waltz started to speak.

She held up her hand. “Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll get you full custody of the kids.”

She played a ta-DA on her harp. “It’s the best investment you’ll ever make. Freedom. It’s wonderful. Three hundred dollars a day plus expenses.”

Waltz leaned forward and pulled some bills out of his back pocket. “I’ve only got six hundred dollars.”

She leaned forward to receive the cash.

Their feet on the desk, a cowboy Yogi and her student exchanged the cash, the Two-Pelicans-Share-Catch Posture.

She leaned back and counted the money. “Let’s hope I get the goods on her in two days.”

“So you’ll take the case?”

“Sign this. It’s a standard private-eye contract.”

He scribbled his signature.

Rachel minced in. “By the display of marriage graves behind you, I can see that you are the great Hook ‘Em Harns, divorce investigator extraordinaire. I know I don’t have a chance against you. Here. I confess.” She tossed a manila envelope into Hook ‘Em’s lap.

Hook ‘Em regarded Rachel a moment. She plucked the envelope from her lap, pulled the documents out of it, and examined them. “This is a signed affidavit admitting your affair—with pictures of you in bed with another man.” She gaped at Rachel. Her gaze went to Waltz. “Damn.”

Damn had three syllables when she said it.

She continued to stare at Waltz. “I got the bitch for you.” She thrust her arms toward the ceiling, flashing the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em! I’ve solved another case.” She cupped her hand like a mic and spoke like a sports announcer. “Harns shoots the gap and crushes the ball carrier.”

She paused, pensive. “I don’t even remember solving this case. I must’ve gone into a trance, an inspired trance. This proves it. As I’ve long suspected, I’m a creative genius. I didn’t even leave my chair. I’ve become an armchair detective, like… like… what was that guy’s name?”

Waltz always wondered if private detectives read mystery novels. It looked like they did. “Nero Wolfe.”

“No. No, pay attention. I’m talking about a detective, not the firebug fiddler. The guy on TV, in a wheelchair… oh, yeah, Ironsides. I’ve matured as a private detective. I now solve all my cases while lounging in an armchair. No more long boring stake outs. No more tailing suspects in the middle of the night.”

Waltz cupped his hand like a mic and spoke like the color commentator to Hook ‘Em’s announcer. “It’s only the second quarter and that’s the fourth unassisted tackle for Harns this game – in an armchair, Longhorn fans. Yes, you heard me right. Harns is playing in an armchair. This is a great moment in Longhorn football and you are there. Rumors abound that Harns will play in a recliner next season.”

Hook ‘Em regarded him for a moment, unamused. “Right.” She waved the envelope. “Anyway, I got her ass for you. I told you I would.” She turned to Rachel. “Crime does not pay.”

She rose, performed a series of karate kicks, turned sideways, swept her arm in a circle as she bent her knees, and cheered. “Yea, Harns!” She pumped her arm. “Recline! I mean – go!” She pumped her arm again. “I mean – stop!” She fell into her chair. “You’ve got me as confused as a dung beetle rolling a gumball.”

Waltz lifted his feet from her desk and placed them on the floor. “I’m quite pleased with your work, so far. Since I have you on retainer, I want you to investigate another matter – the poisoning of my brother, Jazz.”

“Jazz Charleston? That’s your brother? You’re the wiseass that keeps calling me about the dog?” She stared at him, as though memorizing his features in hopes of avoiding some future encounter. “I only do domestic investigations. That means – “ She paused dramatically, picked up her harp and tooted a ta-DA, and spelled – “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

“But – “

“Look at the signs. You don’t see one saying, Did Snake Snade gun down your brother? Don’t bother taking the stage to Tombstone. I’ll get him for you. Do you?”

Waltz held up his hand, the standard private-eye contract dangling from his forefinger and thumb. “I have a standard private-eye contract.” He waved it. “Don’t you have an ethical responsibility to help your clients, once you accept them?”

“I admire your scam. You had me going. But I do domestic investigations. I don’t do poisons or murders. The cops are all over this. I’m not getting mixed up in – “

“I have a contract.”

“Don’t you see? I’ve got clients in serious trouble. They’re married to cheaters who carry on their nasty little affairs as casually as a dung beetle rolls around his ball of shit. Do you know what that does to people? It gnaws away at them. They want out. It’s my job to help them. I have to stay on it. I have to keep the divorces coming.”

She paused and took a deep breath. “Think what would happen if married people were forced to stay married. Our culture would be doomed. The Republicans’ family values platform would be meaningless. The two-party system would be no more. Some dictator, sensing a vacuum, would take over. The sole democracy left would be Iraq.”

She got up and placed her hand on her heart. “Half our gross national product is made up of child support and alimony. Without them, the economy would collapse. When gays and lesbians start marrying, and they will, the poor simpletons, child support and property settlements will soar. I’ll be like Lucy with the candy coming down the assembly line, coming and coming, with no end. I won’t be able to cope with it. I’ll have to hire a team of assistants. I can’t afford to take time out for a case like this.”

She gave the Hook ‘Em sign. “God bless America. God bless divorce.”

She sat down. “This hurts me more than it does you.” She pulled a document out of her desk drawer. “Sign this. It’s a standard divest-your-private-eye contract. Your copy’s the pink one.”

Color commentator Waltz spoke to his fist. “Harns is down! Oh, that had to hurt. I’ve seen that before, the way the leg rest is crazily askew, dangling. That recliner is going back to the factory for a complete overhaul, probably a long period of rehabilitation too. And I don’t think we’ll see it back on the football field. More than likely, it’ll end up in a nursing home. Harns is kicking the recliner! She’s thrown down her helmet! She’s walking off the field! She’s a quitter!”

Hook ‘Em held out the form. “Sign this.”

“Longhorns don’t quit.”

“You wiseass asshole.” She signed the divest contract, ripped out the pink copy, scribbled out a payment voucher, wrapped the documents around the six hundred dollars, stuffed it all in the envelope, and flung it at him.

She flashed the Hook ‘Em Sign. “Slink from my single wide, slime ball.”

***

 

Waltz stopped at a red light. He glanced at Rachel. “Well, that was a wasted trip. Talk about wiseass assholes.”

Rachel pivoted in her seat to face him. “She’s chosen the right profession. She’s really into divorce.”

“Yeah. ‘Let Me Help You Screw Your Spouse.’ That’s certainly her motto.”

Rachel ran her hand through her long red hair. “I admire her enthusiasm. Her job is to get divorces and she does it. I wonder if she stands up and cheers when she catches somebody’s husband in bed with another woman.”

“Probably directs the scene.” Waltz formed a megaphone with his hand. “You there, Bob, turn toward me so I can get your face. Pull those covers down. Your wife will want to see the action. She’s signed a standard private-eye contract. She’s paying me three hundred dollars a day plus expenses. I’ve got to get the goods on you.” He laughed. “They ought to call her Un-Hook ‘Em.”

He turned left toward Rachel’s apartment. “What was Jazz thinking? She’d be worthless in a murder case. I’m lucky she turned me down and gave me my money back. I’ll hire some other detective.”

Rachel chewed her lower lip. “I’m worried.”

Waltz rubbed her shoulder. “Jazz will be okay. He’s tough. The doctor sold him short.”

“Sure, he will. But I meant about you.”

“I’m okay.”

“I mean, somebody is out to get the studio, or more likely, to get the Charlestons. You might be next. You ought to get a bodyguard.”

Waltz made the turn to Rachel’s apartment. “I didn’t think of that. Somebody may be coming after Lala. I’ll have to get her a bodyguard.”

 

Chapter 6

Carefree

At noon, the doorbell rang. Somebody pounded on the door.

Waltz stepped out of the shower and grabbed his towel.

A voice rasped. “Open up. Police.”

Waltz rushed to the door and wrenched it open. “Did Jazz die?”

The lieutenant shouldered his way through the door. “No, he’s still alive – barely, no thanks to you.”

Another man followed the lieutenant.

The lieutenant whipped the towel off Waltz, wadded it, and threw it across the room onto the bed. “Get dressed.”

Waltz stared at the lieutenant for a moment, then went to his closet. His bikini briefs were on the top shelf. His shirts hung on the left, his slacks on the right. He wore them in order, as Jazz taught him when he was a small child.

The lieutenant perched on the bed and bounced, as though testing the mattress. “The preliminary report shows that your brother was poisoned by a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol.”

Waltz slipped into his shirt. “That’s what the doctor said last night. It’s exactly what happened to his dog. I hope you’re going to catch the guy.” He pulled on his slacks.

The lieutenant nodded. “Oh, we’re going to get him, all right. You can count on that. Can we take a look around?”

Waltz sat on the bed and jerked on his socks. “You think I poisoned my own brother? Why waste time like that when you could be going after the real killer?”

The lieutenant wore his usual sneer. “The quicker we eliminate you, the quicker we’ll be able to check out other suspects. We’ve already interviewed your sister-in-law. She was cooperative, very cooperative.”

“You need to assign police protection to her. Someone’s poisoning the Charlestons. I’m afraid the poisoner may go after her next.”

The lieutenant motioned to the other cop. “Sarge, make a note of that. The suspect threatens to poison his sister-in-law next.”

Waltz slid his foot into his left dance shoe, the one with the white R. “Very funny. I didn’t poison my brother and I didn’t poison his dog.”

The lieutenant picked up Waltz’s other shoe and studied the white L. “Don’t you do anything normal?”

“It’s a joke. You wouldn’t understand.”

The lieutenant tossed the shoe against the wall. It skittered down the wall to the floor. “Can we take a look around?”

Waltz retrieved the shoe. “Go ahead, but hurry up. I’ve got to go to work soon.”

The lieutenant signaled Sarge to take the bathroom. “Hurry, Sarge. Don’t hold him up. He’s got important dancing to do.” He turned to Waltz. “Why don’t you sit on your couch and relax.” He raised the edge of the mattress and looked under it.

Waltz reached for a cigarette. Then he remembered. He quit. His desire for a cigarette was building. He could feel it deep in his gut. No. His entire body yearned for a cigarette, like his body starved for it.

Too bad. His body would have to starve.

Sarge stuck his head out of the bathroom. “Lieu, come here.”

The lieutenant glanced at Waltz and smiled. He went into the bathroom. In a minute, he came out. He held up a plastic bag. “Look what Sarge found in the toilet tank. It was taped to the top.”

“What is it?”

The lieutenant smiled. No, it was a sneer. “You really don’t know?”

“No.”

The lieutenant held it out.

“A book?” Waltz read the title. “Terminal Exit.”

“Know what it’s about?”

“No.”

“Yeah, right. It’s a book on how to kill yourself using sleeping pills and alcohol. And see what else.”

Sarge held up a smaller bag containing a pill bottle. “Seconal.”

“That’s not my book. Those are not my pills. I don’t even know what Seconal is.”

The lieutenant waved the bag containing the pills in front of Waltz’s face. “Right. Take a guess.”

“Sleeping pills?”

“Good guess. Let’s see, Sarge. That gives us means.” The lieutenant held up one finger. “The book telling him how and the pills to do it with. Plenty of alcohol at the party.”

Sarge held up two fingers. “He had opportunity. He was the bartender. How convenient was that?”

The lieutenant held up three fingers. “And motive. His brother was after him about poisoning his dog.”

“I didn’t poison Cha-Cha.”

“Your brother said you did. Not only that, you were worried about your brother gambling away the studio’s money.”

“I wasn’t worried about that. Lala was.”

“And speaking of Lala, we’ve got the neighbor who reports you left your brother’s house at eight this morning. You kissed your sexy sister-in-law goodbye at the door. Not a peck. It was a nice long passionate kiss. The sister-in-law was wearing nothing but a skimpy negligee. Meanwhile, your brother’s in the hospital dying.”

The lieutenant grabbed Waltz’s shoulders and shook him. “Don’t you have any human feelings – any at all?”

The lieutenant shoved Waltz away like he was too dirty to touch and turned to Sarge. “The same old boring story. Money, sex, and murder. But give him credit, Sarge. To liven things up, he threw in a Chihuahua and a toe.”

Sarge held up another bag. “Look at this. A twenty-five caliber pistol.”

The lieutenant grabbed it and examined it. “What were you planning to do with this pistol?”

“It’s not mine.”

“So it’s not yours?”

“No.”

“Whose is it, then?”

“I don’t know. It looks like Jazz’s.”

“So you disarmed him, then poisoned him.”

Sarge pulled Waltz’s hands behind his back and cuffed him. “I don’t think a jury will have much trouble deciding this.”

“I had no idea that stuff was in the toilet tank. I never look in the toilet tank. Nobody does.”

Sarge grabbed him by the arm and started him toward the door. “We do. We always do.”

Waltz stumbled and caught his balance. “Why would I leave the poison and the poison book in my apartment if I poisoned Jazz?”

Sarge whispered in his ear. “Maybe you didn’t have time to get rid of it.”

“All I had to do was walk a few blocks and throw them into a dumpster. Why wouldn’t I do that?”

The lieutenant opened the door. “Weren’t you a little busy last night with your sister-in-law? Besides, you crooks are stupid. Why do you rob convenience stores for twenty dollars in change? You’re stupid. You’re so stupid you don’t realize that the first people we investigate are relatives of the victim.”

Sarge grinned. “I like you, Waltz. I like stupid crooks. They make it easy. This was easy. Wasn’t it, Lieu?”

The lieutenant danced backwards in front of Waltz as they went down the hall. “Yes it was. We got three crooks in one shot.” He held up one finger. “We got a brother poisoner.” He held up a second finger. “We got a dog poisoner.” He held up a third finger. “And we got a toe collector. I wonder what he does with them, suck them like a pacifier?”

Sarge held up his hand. “Ah, Lieu. Don’t be so hard on him. He’s very generous. He mails them to his family for keepsakes.”

“I didn’t do it, not even one finger’s worth.”

The lieutenant grinned. It was a real grin. It wasn’t a sneer. “That’s what they all say, isn’t it, Sarge? Keep an eye on him. He’s dangerous. Plenty dangerous. Don’t let him mix you any drinks. And, if you ever want to go en pointe, don’t turn your back on him.”

***

 

Sarge lit his pipe. Perfumed smoke filled the air. “We’ve got all the evidence we need to prove you poisoned your brother, but I know the son of a bitch deserved it. He threatened you. You were just defending yourself. If that’s the case, I’ll talk to the DA. He’ll let you off on a plea of self-defense.”

Waltz sucked in as much of the smoke as he could. “I didn’t poison him. I loved him.”

The lieutenant snorted. He leaned toward Waltz. “You may have Sarge fooled, but you don’t fool me. You and your sexy sister-in-law poisoned your brother for the oldest two motives in the world, sex and money.”

“Lala wasn’t even at the studio. She left long before Jazz was poisoned.”

The lieutenant leaped to his feet and bent over Waltz. He screamed. “That’s because you did it for her. Do you think we’re stupid? She talked you into poisoning your own brother, and now you’re going to prison. She’ll own the studio, get rich, and screw all the gigolos she wants. Are you going to let her get away with that?”

Waltz leaned backwards as far as he could from the lieutenant’s spray of spit and hatred. Waltz didn’t understand what pissed off the lieutenant so much. He didn’t do it.

Sarge pulled the lieutenant away. “Take it easy. The last time you hurt a perp, you almost got fired.”

The lieutenant flung Sarge’s hands off him. “I don’t care anymore. Punks like this piss me off. They don’t deserve to live.”

Sarge turned back to Waltz. “I’m trying to help you. Help me before Lieu goes berserk. Your brother threatened you. You had to protect yourself. Right?”

Sarge was a nice guy, a reasonable guy. Maybe he could get Waltz off. Waltz would be out of jail and he could find the real killer.

As Waltz opened his mouth to admit self-defense, it hit him. Sure, Sarge was a good guy. Good cop, bad cop. They fooled Lorelei with it on Dance of Deceit. “I want a lawyer.”

***

 

They threw him in a cell with four bunks and a steel commode, like the one in Dance of Deceit, the one they put Celeste in when they accused her of murdering Landon. Little did they know that Landon wasn’t dead. He was shacked up with Lorelei at her mountain cabin.

The commode didn’t even have a seat. It had to be ass-clenching cold.

One of the prisoners left his bunk and approached Waltz. Waltz tensed. The guy couldn’t have a knife. They’d all been strip-searched. The guy was small, scrawny. Waltz could take him. Waltz did plenty of weight training.

The guy reached into his pocket. Razor blade? Waltz set himself. First, he would kick the guy in the balls. Second, he would twist the guy’s wrist and force him to drop the blade. Third, kick him in the balls again.

The guy’s hand came out of his pocket. Waltz tensed his leg.

The guy handed Waltz a card. “Good evening, sir. It is indeed a pleasure to have you join us. My card.”

A card? How’d he get that in here? Unshaven, hair unkempt, he exuded the aroma of a homeless one. Waltz kept an eye on him while he read the card. T-Bone La Rue, Hustling Done, Writhing River Bridge. “You do hustling? What does that mean?”

“I can get you anything.”

Waltz fingered the card. It was embossed. “Like what?”

T-Bone counted off the items on his fingers. “Drugs, guns, ammo, cars – any kind – cheap. Pussy – any kind – expensive. Whatever you want.”

“I want out.”

“Except that. I’m not good at getting out. I’m good at getting in.”

“You could get me a gun – in here?”

“Not in here, but when you get out.”

“That won’t do any good. I won’t need a gun if I get out. I’m not a gunman.”

“I’ll grant you don’t have the look of an assassin. What do you do?”

“Ballroom dance instructor.”

T-Bone smiled. He assumed ballroom dance posture, holding an imaginary woman. “Excellent. This is indeed a stroke of luck. I’m contemplating taking tango lessons. Tango is an excellent avenue for meeting women. Do you teach it?”

“Yes.”

T-Bone dipped his woman and performed a series of kicks. “Superb. I’m more interested in the Argentine style than I am the American. Do you offer it?”

Maybe T-Bone was trying to distract him so they could gang up on him. Waltz kept his eyes on his other cellmates. “Yes. We do both. I recommend starting with the American style. It’s simpler and would serve as a basis for moving into Argentine later.”

T-Bone pushed his woman away and threw his right hand up in a dramatic finale to his tango. Still holding his partner’s hand, he bowed. “Superb. I’m fortunate to run into you. I presume it would be possible for you to supply me with a beautiful young female instructor.”

“No problem.” Who could he get to teach him, if the guy showed up?

Waltz smiled. Yvette would be good.

“I’ll visit your studio as soon as I get out. Do you have a card?”

The other prisoners didn’t seem interested in the conversation. They were probably asleep. “Sorry. The guy who looked up my asshole found mine. I should’ve known better than to hide them there. But you can find me easy. My studio is the Dance Terminal.”

“Dance Terminal. I say, what an intriguing name for a dance studio. I shall come to you soon.”

He moved closer and whispered into Waltz’s ear. “Don’t mention being a dance instructor to the other guys. They might not understand. They might think you’re queer. There’s no sense getting them stirred up. They’re an irascible lot.” He stepped back. “Well, it’s bedtime for me. I like to get up with the sun.” He assumed dance posture, whistled a tango rhythm, and danced to bed.

Waltz climbed onto the empty upper bunk. He edged his back against the wall, so he could keep an eye on his cellmates. Would he live in a cell for the rest of his life? Locked up with nowhere to go – ever? With guys he didn’t like and couldn’t trust? No dancing? No women – ever?

He might as well hang himself. A headline flashed in his mind. Dance Instructor Hangs Self In Crotch Of Jumpsuit.

No, too embarrassing.

***

 

The next morning, the judge set bail at thirty thousand dollars. Waltz would have to wear an electronic monitor. If Jazz died, they’d revoke bail and arrest Waltz on a charge of murder.

The bondsman demanded a forty-five hundred dollar deposit. Lala refused to put it up, claiming they were broke. She said she had the lieutenant eating out of the palm of her hand. Soon he would find the real culprit and free Waltz.

Over the weekend, Rachel sold Waltz’s car, made up the shortfall out of her own money, and on Monday bailed Waltz out.

“Oh, yeah.” She rummaged in her purse and handed him a card. “Here. They told me to make sure you read this.”

“They want me to read this?”

She nodded.

Waltz shrugged his shoulders. “Warning! Show up on time for court dates and obey all conditions of your bail, unless you want bounty hunter Bully Boy Bristle to come for you! Ask your cellmates! You don’t want that!”

Waltz laughed. “Bully Boy Bristle. What a name.”

If it got that far, he would make his court dates. And he would never break any of the conditions of his bail. Only a fool would do that. His problem was the lieutenant. He was a ghoul waiting for Jazz to die. If that happened, swarms of cops would be all over Waltz.

***

 

Rachel dropped Waltz at the hospital a little before noon.

Waltz held Jazz’s hand. It was cold. “You’re not going to die. I won’t let you. You’ll wake up in a few days, just like Cha-Cha. I’ll let you bite me on the ankle.”

He wanted a cigarette bad. Had he seen a machine in the hall? “I quit smoking. I’ll never smoke again. Thanks to you, I’ll have a boner when I’m ninety-nine.”

He sobbed. “Oh Jazz, I went to bed with Lala. I don’t know why I did it. I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry. I’ll never do it again.”

He was the lowest of the low. He still couldn’t believe he did it.

Jazz’s face remained calm.

Didn’t he care?

Waltz got up and screamed. “I went to bed with Lala!”

“Quiet please. This is a hospital.”

Waltz flinched. He turned. A nurse frowned in the doorway.

Waltz hung his head. “I’m sorry.”

“I doubt he cares that you finally got a little. If you insist on bragging about it, do it in a normal conversational voice please.”

Waltz sank back into his chair. Jazz remained serene. He was going to die.

Waltz collapsed onto Jazz’s chest and held him. He wept. “I’m sorry. I let the guy poison you. I didn’t see him. I’m going to make it up to you. I’m going to save the studio and get the guy that poisoned you. Don’t die. Give me time. I’ll get him for you. I promise.”

 

Chapter 7

Flying Down to Rio

Waltz adjusted his wave in the ballroom mirror and went in the office. Jazz’s oversize chair dwarfed Lala. His desk was clear of clutter, the shoe containing six decks of cards and the bowl of dice gone. Lala had polished away the rings left by Jazz’s countless strawberry slushes.

She frowned. “Waltz. How you get out?”

Waltz plopped in his chew-out chair. “I sold my car, and Rachel loaned me the rest. Aren’t you glad to see me?”

Lala slammed one drawer shut and opened another. “You no should spend that money. Studio no have cash to pay expenses – to stay open.”

“Last time I checked, we had a fair balance.”

Lala slammed the drawer shut. “Jazz make big withdrawal the day he got poison.”

Waltz adjusted his ankle bracelet. It was resting right on the knob of his ankle. It was going to rub a sore spot and interfere with his dancing. “What for?”

“I guess gambling. He planned to go to Vegas again the next day.” She opened and shut another drawer.

“What are you hunting for?”

She rubbed her thumb on her first two fingers. “He must have a stash somewhere for gambling. We must find it. Where can it be? Do you know?”

Waltz threaded his sock under the bracelet, cushioning his skin. “No. He never said a word to me about it.”

She slammed the last drawer shut and leaned back. “Somewhere in the house?”

“I can’t think of any place.”

“When you were little, is there one place where he hid things? Like from your mama?”

“If he did, he was hiding stuff from me too.”

Lala tapped her pencil on the desk, pursing her pouty lips. “I search everywhere. In pockets of his clothes, in suitcases, in the trunk of the car, in the hub caps, and in the attic.”

“I never thought about where he was getting the money to gamble.”

“Think. Maybe you know.” She began searching the credenza.

“Have you checked the bank statements to see if there was a charge for a safety deposit box?”

Lala got out the bank statements and started going through them.

Waltz settled at his desk and got out the Yellow Pages. He found investigators, lots of them. Maybe he could talk one into working on credit.

The first one was interested, even eager, until Waltz proposed a credit arrangement. Then the guy cooled down and became sarcastic. He explained, as though to an idiot, how difficult it was to collect from a client who ended up on death row. He’d take the case only for cash in advance, or he’d take a credit card.

Waltz’s one card was maxed out.

He continued calling. Maybe he’d stumble across a guy who was desperate for a client, willing to take a chance.

He was halfway through the list, his enthusiasm more than halfway gone, before he found an investigator who suggested that Waltz might borrow money against his property. Waltz said he didn’t have any property, that he’d just sold his car to bail himself out. The guy said lots of people had that idea at first, until they thought about it. They’d forget they owned stocks and bonds, mutual funds, insurance policies with a cash value, or a business.

Waltz slapped his hand on his forehead. “I forgot. I own twenty-four percent of a ballroom dance studio. How about that?”

“That would solve your problem. Is it a partnership or corporation?”

“It’s a corporation.”

“Bring in your stock certificate. I know a finance company that would loan you money on it.”

Lala’s hands massaged Waltz’s shoulders. Her touch felt good.

“I’ll call you back. I’ll have to ask my sister-in-law where the certificate is.”

Lala continued the massage. Waltz leaned back and relaxed. He had the investigator. It was a matter of taking him the certificate. Her fingers felt so good.

Lala nibbled his ear. “I no can wait. I miss you.”

“What about the lieutenant?”

She kissed his neck. “Silly. He disgust me. I wish only to stay on his good side, so he will clear you. Next student is three hours. I will put Armando in charge. We go home.”

Waltz shook his head. “I promised Jazz. There can never be anything romantic between us.”

She pulled Waltz out of the chair and kissed him. She smiled. “Always there is romance with us.”

***

 

Lala kissed his shoulder. “Thank you.”

Waltz loved compliments on his lovemaking. He smiled in anticipation. “For what?”

Lala stretched and yawned. “For giving me freedom at last.”

That was good. Setting her free. He wanted to savor it. “How do you mean? Setting you free?”

She kissed his neck. “You take care of Jazz for me.”

What a disappointment. “It’s nothing. You don’t need to go see him. I know it’s depressing. I’ll visit him. I want to.”

She played with his chest hairs. “Silly. No is what I mean. Jazz abuse me. You stop him. Thank you.”

Waltz sat up. “You mean, you think I poisoned Jazz?”

“No ready to talk about it?”

“I didn’t poison Jazz. I can’t believe you think I did.”

***

 

Waltz glanced at the clock radio. He caressed Lala’s shoulder. “Almost time.”

She opened her eyes. She smiled. “I iron my ear good, yes?”

“Yes, you did.”

She got up and started to dress. “You have ideas about where Jazz hid his stash?”

“Have you searched his stuff for any little keys? You know, like the little keys they have for safety deposit boxes?”

“Is why I need you. You are brilliant. I will look for little keys.”

He liked watching Lala put on her hose. He liked the way she stretched her legs out, long and curvy, and fondled them as she slipped the hose up. He scooted to the side of the bed and found his underwear. “Find my stock certificate while you’re at it, so I can hire that detective.”

“I no find stock certificates. Jazz leave things in a mess. Maybe they’re in deposit box, with stash.”

Waltz pulled on his pants. “It’s the only way he’ll take the case.”

“Try the other one. What her name? The one Jazz like?” She hung her head down and shook it, allowing gravity to straighten out her long coarse hair. It was beautiful, like a horse’s mane. She snapped her head back and her hair arranged itself.

Waltz waved his finger. “No. Not Hook ‘Em Harns. No. Not in a million years. She’s a wiseass. She’s turned me down three times.”

Lala pushed him back on the bed, hovered over him, and kissed him. Her hair hung over their faces, smelling good, tickling his ears. They were together, hidden from the world under a waterfall of hair. They could solve any problem.

She kissed him again. “Is no good, people in Yellow Pages. Is possible this private investigator who want your stock certificate was a used-car salesman last week.”

“Better a used-car salesman than her.”

“But is he honest?”

Waltz shook his head doubtfully. “I’ll bet he’s as honest as Hook ‘Em Harns.”

“Who knows what he do with your stock certificate? Is worth a lot more than his fee.”

“I’d rather have anybody hold my stock certificate than her.”

She lowered her body onto him and nuzzled his cheek. “Jazz said Hook ‘Em is honest. Jazz is smart. He know. I will try to hire her, on credit, no pledge of studio.”

“I’ve tried to hire her three times. I met her in person. I think I know more about her than Jazz. Maybe she’s honest, but I don’t want her.”

Lala nibbled his earlobe under the tent of her hair. “The stock certificates must be free. Is possible we want to sell studio.”

“Sell the studio? No. Jazz wouldn’t like it. Mom either.”

She kissed him again. “Is possible we have to. Lieutenant still think you do it. I found Jazz’s will. He leave us each half his share. We own together. We will sell the studio and collect insurance on Jazz. Then we have money to go to Mexico.”

“I can’t go to Mexico.”

“You want to live with me, no?”

“Sure, but I promised Jazz I’d get the guy that poisoned him.”

“Is dangerous for you here. You must go to Mexico and safety.”

“They’d catch me.”

“You know they will go for the death penalty. In that case, Mexico no will extradite you.”

“What if they didn’t go for the death penalty? They’d bring me back then.” What was he doing? Hoping for the death penalty?

“I know Mexico. I speak Spanish. They no find us there. We live like kings. We have servants. We be high society.”

“But I want to get the guy that poisoned Jazz.”

“I know. We will if possible. No sell studio unless is necessary. If is necessary, there must be no problem. Sale must be fast.” She hugged him and nibbled his neck. “Please, I no want to lose you. Remember, Jazz want Hook ‘Em. Is for him. We get the guy. Okay?”

Waltz laughed. “You think you can hire her? For a murder case? For me? On credit?”

“Yes.”

Why was he arguing? Even Lala couldn’t do it, not in a million years. “Go ahead, but do it right away. She’ll turn you down. Then I can hire the other guy.”

***

 

After Lala left, Waltz called his students. He needed money. He’d set up appointments.

He talked to most of his students, and they all gave him excuses. It took a while, but he got the idea. They were afraid of him – and disgusted too. They thought he poisoned Jazz.

Even Lala seemed to think he’d done it. She thought he poisoned Jazz, yet she loved him. That was true love. She was so sweet. His love for her filled him.

Maybe it was better that his students didn’t come in. He needed to concentrate on getting the guy and clearing himself. That was priority number one.

He searched the house for the stock certificates, Jazz’s stash, and safety-deposit keys. The only thing he found was an extra key to the studio. He pocketed that. He was half owner. He should have a key.

***

 

He was watching TV when Lala got back from the studio. He grabbed the remote and turned it off. “Did you find the stock certificates?”

Lala put her purse on the top shelf of the closet, back in the corner. “No, but good news.”

“Good news? Lay it on me. I need it bad.”

“Hook ‘Em Harns agreed.”

He levered the recliner upright. “She agreed? On a job that’s not domestic investigations? How did you do it?”

“Simple. I read people. I tell her about all our students who are separated and want divorces. I tell her in one year we give her one hundred clients, ready to divorce, who want custody of children, who want child support, who want money.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“You will go with her tomorrow on a stake out. She will discuss the case with you.”

“Well, at least it’s on credit.”

“No credit. She mad at you. You must pay six hundred, like before.”

“That’ll only give me two days.”

“By then, we find the stash. We pay the rest from that.”

“If the stash is still around.”

Horror distorted her face. “What you mean?”

“What if Jazz lost the stash in Vegas?”

“No is possible. His last withdrawal was the day he poisoned. It must still be around. Maybe we find it. Hook ‘Em will help you.”

“Maybe. And maybe we can find the real poisoner in two days – yeah, maybe – wait.” He slapped his forehead. “It’s no use. I don’t have six hundred dollars.”

“No?”

He sank to the couch. Only six hundred dollars. It was nothing. But he didn’t have it.

“What happened to your money?”

“Bail.” He raised his eyebrows.

She held up both hands. “Studio broke.”

“That broke?”

“Yes.”

Was she lying? He bet she was. So what? He wouldn’t get it either way. Not that it mattered. Hook ‘Em was crazy. He gave her the six hundred once, when he still had it, and she threw it in his face. Rachel saw her do it.

Rachel. Maybe he could borrow more from Rachel. She still had a little in her savings. He could depend on Rachel. “Wait. I forgot about that six hundred dollars. Rachel has it – in the envelope with her picture.”

***

 

The next evening, Waltz climbed into Hook ‘Em’s van. “So you’re my new private dick?”

Hook ‘Em pulled away from the curb. “Just make sure you don’t get the idea that you’re mine.”

“I didn’t mean that. I was trying to start a conversation, trying to be polite.”

“Yeah. You make-out artists. Polite.”

“What makes you think I’m a make-out artist?”

She glared at him. “What makes me think you’re a player? You think I can’t tell?”

“You mean you can tell by looking at me?”

“Your appearance, the way you act, everything about you screams womanizer.”

“Not me. I love Lala.”

“Yeah. That’s what you Romeos always say. Good thing for you Lala is nice, or I wouldn’t take this job. She seems to like you. You got her fooled. You should do her a favor. Leave her now before she gets attached.”

“I love her.” He reached for the seat belt. Not finding it, he turned and fumbled behind his seat. A burnt-orange motorcycle, lashed to the sides of the van, gleamed in the dim light. “Where’s the seat belt?”

She pointed with her thumb. “Glove compartment.”

He pulled a package out of the glove compartment. “What’s this?”

“Firecrackers.”

“Firecrackers?”

“They make a good diversion.”

He pulled out the seat belt and held it up. “It’s not attached.”

“Drape it over your shoulder. The cops will think it’s all hooked up.”

He stuffed the seat belt and the firecrackers back in the car pocket. “That wasn’t what I had in mind.” He turned and studied the giant motorcycle. “That’s some scooter.”

“My baby. Antique Harley. I restored it myself. Want a ride?”

“No thanks. Those things are dangerous.”

“Not compared to marriage.”

“You think marriage is riskier than riding a hundred miles an hour on a motorcycle?”

“Damn right. Ask any married person whose life was ruined. I’ve seen people lose a fortune.”

“I thought Texas had a no-fault divorce law.”

She laughed. “It does. They passed it a few years ago.”

“Then how can you make a living doing divorce work? I thought no-fault meant it doesn’t matter what you do. You just divide up the community property and go your separate ways.”

“That was the legislature’s original idea, but the courts got into the act. In dividing up property, the courts considered whether you beat your wife, ran around on her, drank, abused drugs, or refused to work.”

“Or beat your husband?”

“Yeah, yeah. Or husband. Then the legislature started amending the law. Originally, it was the size of a pamphlet. Now, it’s the size of the Greater San Salsa phone book. Under special conditions, we now even have limited alimony – all thanks to the no-fault divorce law.”

“So this woman we’re staking out. If we prove she’s running around on her husband, she’ll get a smaller property settlement?”

Hook ‘Em pounded the steering wheel. She smiled. “That’s right. She might not get anything. And her husband will get custody of the children. And not have to pay any child support.”

“Because under the no-fault divorce law, it’s her fault.”

“That’s right.”

“And the husband pays you good money to prove it’s his wife’s fault.”

Hook ‘Em grinned and flashed the Hook ‘Em sign, both hands touching the top of the van, the wheel unmanned. “Us PI’s love no-fault divorce. It keeps us in business.”

She stopped at a light. “Speaking of business, let’s talk about your problem. Tell me what’s happened. Start with the dog.”

“I just realized. You’re getting paid twice tonight.”

“Pretty good, huh? Two clients with one blow.” She flashed the Hook ‘Em sign again. “Give me details.”

He told the story. She drove and, at dramatic points, tooted a fanfare on her harmonica, interspersed with wah wahs. When he finished, he was drained. He sagged back in his seat.

Hook ‘Em tooted another wah wah. “Boy, you do have a problem. I advise you to flee the country, head for Rio.”

“No way.”

“You’re my client. Anything you tell me is confidential. Did you do it?”

“No. I love my brother.”

“You sure?”

Waltz threw his arms up and talked to the ceiling. “I didn’t do it. Why does everybody think I did?”

Hook ‘Em studied him. “Not even for Lala? He abused her and you love her. It would be a natural thing to do. To protect the woman you love. I wouldn’t condemn you for it. In fact, I would admire you. You can tell me.”

“I didn’t do it.” He put his face in his hands.

“Okay. So you didn’t do it. The cops believe you did. They’re going to put it to you. You’re going to end up on death row.” Another fanfare. “You ought to fly down to Rio – now.”

“I can’t.”

She slowed the van. “Sure you can. I’ll call a guy. In a couple of hours, you’ll have a passport in a fake name. You can be in Rio tomorrow. You’ll be home free. I hear they love to dance there. Plenty of work for a dance instructor.”

Waltz slapped the dashboard. “I know I can. That’s not what I mean. If somebody murdered me, Jazz would get the guy. I’m staying here and I’m going to find the guy that poisoned Jazz and I’m going to make sure he gets what he’s got coming.”

“You’re not going to find the guy. Lala could sell the studio and meet you in Rio. She told me she would.”

“She said Mexico. Rio is in Brazil.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

“It doesn’t matter. Head somewhere south of the border.”

“No. I’m getting the guy.”

She picked up her cell. “Let me call the passport guy. You could fly down, be in Rio in four hours.” She stuck her cell in his face. It showed the time. “Your brother could be dying right now.”

He held up his leg and pointed to the ankle monitor. “The cops are monitoring me.”

“Simple. I cut it off. You shag. By the time the cops figure out what happened, you’ll be in Rio, wearing a sombrero and dancing salsa with a beautiful Mexican girl. No sweat.”

“I don’t have enough money for a ticket to Rio – or even Guadalajara.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure Lala will loan it to you.”

He laughed. “You don’t know Lala. She’s cheap.”

“She’s not so cheap that she’d let you stay here and be executed. Nobody’s that cheap.”

“You don’t know Lala.”

“Really?”

“Really. So I have to stay here.”

She reset her hat. “No problem. I know a loan shark. He’ll loan you enough.”

“Knowing I’m leaving the country?”

“We won’t tell him that.”

“He’d come after me.”

“No sweat. He’d never find you in Rio. You know how many people they got in Rio?”

“No. How many?”

“Lots. Most of them women. You’d never run out.”

“No. I promised Jazz I’d get the guy and I’m going to do it.” His voice shook.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” His voice strengthened.

“You really didn’t do it?”

“No. I didn’t do it!” It came out a scream. He hadn’t intended that.

She shrugged, put down her cell, and accelerated the van back to its previous pace.

After a few minutes, she slowed down again. “Just think. The death penalty. The grand finale.” She took off her hat and fanned her face. “You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” She careened off the road into a subdivision. She made several turns and rattled to a stop in front of a modest ranch house.

She handed him a notebook and a pencil. “Make a list of everybody who was at the party. Make another list of everybody who could’ve put poison in Cha-Cha’s beer. And list everybody who has a grudge against Jazz.”

“I don’t see how making lists is going to help me.”

“We’ll compare them. Anybody on all of them would be a prime suspect.”

“I already have this stuff in my mind.”

“I can’t compare lists that exist only in your mind, can I?”

Waltz shook his head.

“So make the lists.”

Waltz started scribbling.

“And list any place Jazz might have hidden his stash. Follow the money. My business is all about the money. You’d think it was about love and sex and jealousy, but it’s mostly about money.”

Hook ‘Em propped her feet on the dash and played her harmonica.

Fifteen minutes later, a hard wind slammed the van broadside and rocked it. Tree limbs bent. Rain hit the van. The sound on the tin roof drowned out Hook ‘Em’s harp, but they were dry and comfortable in the van.

Hook ‘Em slapped her harmonica on her thigh. “There goes the husband. The wife will leave soon.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em put down her feet and her harp. “Here she comes.”

A woman with an umbrella, wearing a raincoat, trotted through the downpour toward a green Honda. Waltz Charleston, private eye, felt a thrill of excitement. He set the notebook on the dashboard.

Hook ‘Em hit the ignition. The van coughed and sputtered like an old man who spent eighty years inhaling big black cigars. She pumped the accelerator and hit the ignition again. The old man coughed, sighed, and died. She pounded the steering wheel. She gave it the finger. “You traitor. I should have let the junkyard crumple you.”

She doffed her hat, pulled the drawstring out of the crown, replaced the hat, and drew the drawstring tight. She turned and grabbed two yellow slickers from the back. She threw one to Waltz. “Quick. Help me. Before we lose her.” She shrugged into her slicker and got out of the van.

Waltz struggled into his slicker. He braced his feet on the hump in the middle of the floorboard and shoved hard to open the door against the wind. Rain stung his face and eyes. The wind tore the door from his grasp and slammed it shut.

Hook ‘Em was behind the van. He felt his way along the side. He shouldn’t have worn his dance shoes. They had suede soles, and they were soaked, maybe ruined. On the good side, maybe the rain would wash off the white R and L on the toes.

Hook ‘Em opened the hatch. It fluttered in the wind. “Hold it steady.”

He braced himself to keep the hatch up. The wind gusted. He kept resetting his feet to keep his balance. She slid out a ramp and hooked it on the bumper. She mounted the bike and walked it to the ramp. “Steady the ramp.”

Waltz put his foot on the ramp. The wind gusted from his side and tried to pick the ramp up and flip it. He leaned on the ramp and pushed up against the hatch. His body wobbled with the hatch and the ramp. It was like wind surfing in a hurricane.

She couldn’t ride her bike in such a driving rain. She was crazy.

She raised a lever with her toe and stomped it down. The big burnt-orange bike roared to life and settled into a steady potato-potato-potato rumble. She eased down the ramp. At the bottom, she folded the longhorn handlebars down and out and locked them into place. She yelled over the storm. “Slide the ramp back into the van.”

He kept one hand against the hatch and slammed the ramp back into the compartment. He jumped away from the hatch and slammed it shut. He headed toward the front of the van. He’d be glad to get back inside out of the rain.

Hook ‘Em blasted the bike’s horn. “Get on back.”

She thought he was going to ride that thing? He laughed. She might be crazy, but he wasn’t. He held up his hands and backed away. The rain slapped his hands and pounded his face.

No way would he get on that belching monster with her. Not in a downpour. He wouldn’t put his life in her hands.

She screamed. “Get on – now. I’m not losing her because of you. Get on!”

“No way.”

“Get on!” She raced the engine.

“I’ll wait here. You can come back and pick me up.”

“If you stay here, our deal is off.” She tightened her slicker around her neck.

He hesitated.

“Good luck with your new dick.” She eased the throbbing monster away from him.

She was leaving him alone in the rain, facing a murder charge. He raced alongside, his shoes splashing in ankle-deep puddles, and jumped on the back. She pulled one of his arms around her waist, then the other. “Hold on. Keep your head close to me. Follow my body.”

She hit the gas and the bike screamed down the street. The engine roared like a punk rock band at two in the morning. The hood of his slicker caught the wind, popped off his head, and jerked at his neck. An irresistible force tore at his body, trying to fling him off the bike to the street. His arms squeezed Hook ‘Em’s waist. His stomach leaped to his neck and scrambled to jettison itself. He closed his eyes. If they hit something going at such a speed, they’d skid at least a hundred yards. The pavement would grind his knees to nothing. He’d never dance again.

He forced his muscles to relax. Why fight it? He was going to die. They’d charge head on into a Lone-Star-Beer truck. His world would become the smell of hops, the tickle of foam, the cold chill of beer, and the sound of crashing bottles, as they surged into the truck, heedless of the laws of physics and the trajectory of the universe. He wouldn’t have to worry about a murder rap. He would be at one with a truckload of glass fragments, beer, foam, and Hook ‘Em.

They slowed. He wasn’t dead. They stopped. He opened his eyes and peeled his face off Hook ‘Em’s slicker. The bike vibrated like a massage chair to the gentle throb of potato-potato-potato. They waited for the light to change.

They hadn’t rocketed into an immovable object. They were alive. He relaxed his grip. Rain ran down his face and gushed off his hair down his back. He pulled up his hood. He should get off. It was better to face possible death in the future than certain death riding Hook ‘Em’s Harley. He lifted his foot.

The bike howled forward, jerking him backwards against his arms. He squeezed them tight and held on against the incredible surge of power. His hood caught the wind like a parachute, choking him. He couldn’t free his grip on Hook ‘Em to deflate it. He was going to choke to death.

He thrashed his head side to side, hoping to spill the air out of the hood. Finally the air whooshed out one side. He took a deep breath. He concentrated on keeping a tight grip on his wrists without squeezing Hook ‘Em too hard, fighting the tremendous power of the engine. It sucked them along in a vortex of energy and vibration and yowling – a black hole hurtling to doom.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet. He rode a giant howling motorcycle and he wasn’t wearing a helmet. They were ripping along at eighty-five and he wasn’t even wearing a helmet. When they crashed – and they would – and he was thrown screaming into an oncoming truck, he needed to cradle his head in his arms. He had to remember that. Arms first, then scream. Arms first.

They stopped at another light. He stuffed the hood into the neck of the slicker and wiped the rain out of his eyes. He reset his grip. He had to be ready for the next acceleration.

He raised his head. He kept it close to Hook ‘Em. He didn’t want it snapped back again. The rain was back in his eyes. He wanted to wipe them, but he wasn’t letting go of Hook ‘Em. He blinked them rapidly. They cleared. He could see over her head.

The green Honda waited four cars in front of them. The light changed to amber in the cross street. He moved his head closer to Hook ‘Em, down behind her head. He had to be ready. They eased forward with the traffic.

They stopped at another light. The potato-potato-potato throb had a nice rhythm to it. It would make a reasonable two-step. You could fit some lyrics to it. He moved his face forward, against Hook ‘Em’s neck, his head partly under the brim of her cowboy hat, sheltered from the rain.

They eased forward with the traffic. Waltz relaxed.

The Honda turned right across two lanes of traffic.

They exploded forward. Hook ‘Em eased to the right. They raced along between two lanes of traffic. Water shot up on either side of them. They careened through a tiny gap between two cars to the right. The sudden move pulled Waltz to the left. He tightened his grip. They swerved through another gap to the right and screamed into a skidding right turn in front of a car. They cut it too close. The driver screeched his brakes and honked.

They turned too late. Hook ‘Em’s muscles tightened. He peeked over her shoulder. They were heading toward the median. They might have made it on a dry street.

Arms first. Cover the head. Arms first.

They fish tailed in the water, scooping a wave over the median. Momentum pulled him left as they swerved to the right. They were heading straight toward the median. When they hit that, they’d rocket into the air and collide with the eighteen-wheeler in the oncoming lane. He closed his eyes and braced for death.

They remained upright. He opened his eyes. They missed the median by inches. Hook ‘Em gunned it and they passed cars so fast it made Waltz dizzy.

If they caught that stupid reckless cheater, Waltz would never ask for anything again. He wanted to catch her with her lover and make sure her sweet loving husband got his divorce. He wanted to drag her in the gutter in the ankle-deep water. What was wrong with her, skidding across two lanes of traffic like that?

They slowed down. Waltz could feel Hook ‘Em relax. The motor sound eased to a sedate potato-potato-potato. Hook ‘Em felt good, firm but with the softness of a woman. She wasn’t wearing a bra.

They dipped down and then up and into a parking lot. They stopped. The engine sighed and went quiet. His ears rang. Hook ‘Em jammed down the kick stand. They tilted to the left and Waltz slid off. His knees buckled. His legs felt like rubber. He backed away from the bike, stomping his feet, willing his legs to get back their spring.

He was alive. Alive. And whole. He could walk.

The rain had stopped. He saw the stars. He took a deep breath.

The parking lot surrounded a large, wooden frame structure. A neon sign towered above the road glaring a big red Honkytonk and blinking blue: Drink, Dance, Drink, Dance.

***

 

Water drained from Waltz’s hair down the back of his neck into his shirt. His shoes squished each time he took a step, leaving damp shoe prints in the entrance. The monograms glared, whitened by the rain, waterproof, L, R, L, R.

The woman at the door stared at his appearance. “Three dollar cover. We’ve got a live band tonight.”

Hook ‘Em turned, cowboy hat damp but otherwise as dry as a Longhorn skull bleached in the desert sun. She raised her eyebrows.

She expected him to pay her cover. Why did he have to pay? Couldn’t she charge it to her client? He guessed it was a woman’s reflex. The guy always paid.

Ah. He saw. She wanted it to seem like they were on a date. They were undercover. He fished out his billfold.

They entered the ballroom. Hook ‘Em nodded toward the men’s room. “Comb your hair.”

Waltz’s wave was perfect before she forced him to highball through a squall on a Harley. He would have combed it without her telling him. He knew how to groom himself.

She wasn’t the drunken Croatian Crow detective, cynical but incorruptible. She was his mother the PI. He stomped toward the men’s room, his shoes squishing.

He gawked at the mirror. His hair spewed from his head like Old Faithful. He combed his hair and dried himself as best he could with paper towels and the air dryer.

He walked onto the dance floor and pushed at it with his foot. Nice solid hardwood. A dance floor as big as a basketball court. He liked a big floor with room to move.

They didn’t have much of a crowd for a live band, but it was late on a Tuesday night, and the place was outside the city limits. Amazing to have a live band on Tuesday night. You’d think they’d lose money.

Smoke swirled toward the ceiling. Desire for a cigarette stabbed him. No need to buy a pack. All he had to do was take a deep breath. He took one. He had to breathe. Jazz would understand.

The speakers blared. “Here’s one I wrote myself.”

A large sign propped against the stage proclaimed, Tex Hank and Tex’s Twangers. In front of the Twangers stood Tex, a cadaver with a spangled white Western suit flapping from his emaciated frame, everything white except his cowboy boots. They were royal purple.

A white cowboy hat with a spangled band matching the boots loomed low over his face, revealing cheekbones and a Lone Star longneck. His left arm moved, and his face became cheekbones and a microphone. The Twangers began to play.

Hook ‘Em sat at a table near the dance floor. Waltz slid into a chair.

Hook ‘Em patted the chair next to her. “Sit here. You’re blocking my view.” She nodded at a table twenty feet away, where the wayward wife sat and watched the band alone.

A couple of Lone Star longnecks set on the table.

Hook ‘Em glanced at his hair. “Much better.”

Thanks a lot. He knew how to comb his hair.

She got up and held out her hand. “Let’s go. That’s a good two-step.”

“You want to dance?”

“Maybe if we dance, it will make it rain.” She beckoned with her forefinger. “Come on. I want to see how it feels to dance with a pro.”

“My shoes are soaked.”

She snapped her fingers. “Come on. We’re undercover. We got to make this look good.”

Waltz had never danced in wet shoes. He hesitated. She snapped her fingers again.

He marched onto the floor. He knew how it would turn out. He’d have to wrestle her around the floor while his shoes squeaked and caught. He stepped into her arms.

His shoes didn’t stick. The floor had loads of wax on it. He churned out a steady slow-slow-quick-quick to the Twangers’ hypnotic rhythm. Two-step was classic ballroom dance, a moving combination of foxtrot and jitterbug. Tex’s sad lament pounded its way into Waltz’s bones.

Tex leaned back and let flow his tale of woe, woe unjustly dispensed by some malevolent force outside himself. I cheated on my baby and I got drunk every day. I don’t know why she left me cause she never would say. In memory of my baby, I will swig my only beer, as slowly from my eye seeps another lonely tear. It dribbles down my nose and from its end it flops, as I stare at the bar into my puddle of teardrops. Yoda leda loda lady whoooo.”

Poor Tex. It was so easy to lose a girlfriend. And they wouldn’t even tell you why they left you.

Hook ‘Em spoke in Waltz’s ear. “Tears on the bar. Right. He cheated on her. He deserves everything he got. If he was standing in front of me right now, I’d kick him in the balls. And drown him in his puddle of tear drops.”

Waltz felt an urge to turn sideways. He pulled her closer to smother a possible kick. He decided not to mention his sympathy for Tex.

Waltz started out with simple moves, following Jazz’s credo, “Never out-dance your partner. If you show her up, it makes you both look bad. Partner dancing is about teamwork. Feel her out. See what she can do and stick with that. It’s not about showing off with lots of spectacular steps. It’s about dancing well with your partner so both of you can enjoy it, so you look good together.”

His shoes squished and the monitor slid around his ankle as he turned. The monitor didn’t affect his dancing as badly as he thought it would.

Hook ‘Em had a good feel for the music. And she moved well. She must’ve hung out in a lot of dance halls. She had no trouble following as they did basic turns around the floor, so he led some underarm turns. She followed them as well. Waltz was sorry when Tex gargled his last mournful note.

They returned to the table and drank beer. The wife was still alone.

Hook ‘Em peeled at the label on her bottle, allowing the pieces to fall to the table. Waltz picked them up and placed them in the ashtray.

She peeled some more. He put them in the ashtray. She smiled.

Waltz studied Hook ‘Em. “Well?”

“What?”

“Aren’t you going to do some detecting?”

“I am.”

“When?”

“Now. I’m doing it as we speak.”

“I think I’ll quit teaching dancing and become a detective. All you’re doing is dancing and drinking. Easy job.”

“I never said it was hard. Who wants a hard job? Is teaching dancing hard?”

“Well… no. It’s fun.”

“You see?”

“To teach dancing, I have to do something. You’re not doing anything.”

“I’m detecting. You can’t see it because you’re not a world-class detective.”

Waltz sipped his beer. “Yeah? What are you doing?”

Hook ‘Em leaned over the table and beckoned for Waltz to lean toward her. “I’m making a video of the subject.”

Waltz studied her. “Where’s the camera?”

She banged her beer on the table. “It’s not embedded in my boobs.”

Waltz raised his eyes.

“It’s in my hat, behind the band.”

Waltz peered at her hat. “I can’t see it. It’s tiny.”

“Miniaturized. The subjects have no idea what I’m doing.” Hook ‘Em nodded toward the wife. “I’m surprised. She hasn’t done anything yet. I wonder when she’s going to make her move. I wish she’d get on with it.”

“Maybe she’s not interested in picking anybody up. Maybe she just likes to drink beer and listen to the music.”

“Ha.” Hook ‘Em drummed her fingers on the table and considered the wife. “She was watching us two-step. I bet she’d like to dance with you. Why don’t you go over and ask her? I could get some shots of you dancing.”

Waltz put down his beer. “Set her up? When she’s not doing anything?”

“Sure.”

“No way. It’s cheating. It’s unethical.”

Hook ‘Em slugged down some beer. “So you think she’s here for a drink? To listen to Tex’s Twangers? You know good and well she’s here to pick somebody up. She’s the cheater.”

“We don’t know that. I thought that was what we were here to find out.”

“Her poor husband works nights for a pitiful paycheck that she blows in honkytonks, money she should spend for food and health care for little Johnny and Mary.”

Waltz laughed. “Little Johnny?”

“Little Johnny is a musical prodigy and begs for piano lessons they can’t afford. Little Mary is small for her age due to malnutrition. They could be happy and healthy if she wasn’t playing around. I guess you think that’s ethical.”

The wife was a bad mother. Still.

“Well? Do you think that’s ethical?”

“No, but if you’re right, why don’t we wait till she picks somebody up? You can get your pictures and your job is done. And you’ve done it right.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time.” She pointed her longneck at the wife. “I know she’s a cheater. I can tell. But sometimes it takes several days to catch one. Why don’t we speed the process up?”

Waltz shook his head. “It’s not right.”

“The results will be the same anyway.”

“No.”

“I’ll have time to get you a passport and you can fly down to Rio, before it’s too late.”

“I’m not flying down to Rio. No way.”

“Lala told me you were quite the ladies man. I can’t see that at all. You’re a wimp with no guts.”

“Lala told you I was a ladies man?”

“Don’t panic. She seemed impressed.” Hook ‘Em gulped some beer from her longneck. “Not me.”

“You can’t goad me into doing this. I don’t need to prove I’m a great ladies man.”

Hook ‘Em leaned forward. She stared into his face. “Maybe you ought to think about this. Texans get pissed when you murder your brother. The death penalty is very popular in Texas – right up there with fighting and fucking.”

She leaned back and tilted her head, gazing upwards. “They strap you to a gurney and jam a needle into your veins. They shoot a drug into you. It stops your breathing. It’s like they hold a giant pillow over your face and smother you.”

She leaned over him, arms propped on the table. “You’ll be in that pale-green room, jerking and shaking around trying to get a breath that won’t come.”

She straightened, closed her fists, and tensed her muscles, like a wrestler showing off to his fans. “You’ll be all alone in the cold little room. Through the picture window, your audience will be watching you sucking and jerking.”

She sucked in her cheeks, jumped, and jerked, like a guillotined chicken. “The straps will hold you down and your body won’t be able to do anything but suck for air and jerk and dance until it stops sucking and dancing forever.”

She collapsed on the floor, gasping, twisting, jerking.

Lala would be there crying while she watched him jerk and suck to death, his dying body thrashing a herky-jerky death dance. He bet that Hook ‘Em would come to watch. She’d point and jeer and smirk and make fun.

Hook ‘Em slung off the arms of the waitress and several male patrons who lifted her to her feet. “I’m okay, goddamnit. Haven’t you ever seen anybody break dance? Go away.”

She brushed herself off. She plopped into her chair and took a nonchalant sip of Lone Star. “What’s it going to be?”

She was right. That’s what it would it be like, being put to death, knowing it was all over, knowing that he could do nothing but let them strap him to the gurney and jam the needles in his veins. The poison would flow and he would jerk and thrash and die.

The woman was a cheater. Hook ‘Em knew it. Waltz knew it. They’d get pictures of it either way. Why not speed up the process? Why not get Hook ‘Em on his case as fast as possible? “Okay. Okay. I’ll ask her to dance.” He lurched to his feet. It might be his next-to-last dance. His terminal dance would be the herky-jerky dance in the pale-green room. His knees buckled.

He couldn’t keep his knees from buckling. He couldn’t even make them buckle in time to the music. He’d never be able to get a two-step going. He kept picturing himself strapped to the gurney, sucking for breath, dying – dying – really dying. He didn’t want to die.

Why did the guy frame him? He hadn’t done anything to anybody. He was an innocent dance instructor. He didn’t want to die.

He stopped at the wife’s table – except he didn’t quite stop in time. His knees acted on their own. His errant right knee bumped her table. Her glass overturned, sloshing beer onto the red and white cloth.

He picked up her glass and held it up, out of the spill. With his other hand, he rolled up the cloth and dried the table with it. Then he toweled the bottom of the glass with the cloth and set the glass back down.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize how close I was to your table. My knees aren’t working like they usually do. I think they’ll be okay in a minute. Usually they work really well.”

He waved for the waitress. “I’ll get you another beer.”

He sank onto a chair and into wet foaming coldness. He should’ve dried the chair. He stank of beer. He jumped up and swabbed the chair.

The waitress came and wiped down the table. She popped a fresh tablecloth over it and it let it settle. “What’ll you have?”

“Lone Star.” He turned to the wife. “What’ll you have?”

She ordered a Lone Star too. The waitress pointed to the tablecloth clutched in Waltz’s hand. “If you’d like to take a souvenir tablecloth home, I’ll get you a clean one.”

“No. That’s okay. I don’t use them. I have a TV tray. This would be much too big. It’s pretty, though. You can be very proud of it. Thank you.” He handed her the cloth. She took it and left.

The wife smiled at him. “I saw you dancing. You’re good.”

He ran his hand over the chair seat. It was dry, not that it mattered. He flopped down. His clammy pants clung to his butt. “Thanks. I do a lot of dancing.”

She nodded her head toward something behind him. “Won’t your girlfriend be mad because you joined me?”

What did she mean? Waltz turned his head. “Oh, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s my – she’s my – friend. She likes for me to meet other people. She tries to encourage me.”

“That’s nice of her, helping you get over your shyness. You’d think, the way you dance, that you’d be over it.”

“It’s helped me a lot. I’m more confident than I used to be.”

“I like shy guys. Most guys are much too aggressive for me.”

The Twangers struck up a new song. “Old Tex is playing a pretty good song there. You want to dance?”

She nodded. “Sure. “

They two-stepped around the floor. He glanced at Hook ‘Em, hoping she was getting some good shots. On the second pass, he danced close to the bandstand. He liked to get a good view of the band when he danced by. He marveled at the way Tex Hank’s suit hung on him.

Tex’s suit fluttered in time to the music. So did Tex. He wavered, staggered their direction in an attempt to catch his balance, and fell face forward in front of them. He didn’t get up.

Waltz stopped. Dancing over yodelers was bad form. He bent and rolled Tex onto his back. The stench of beer and whiskey made Waltz gasp.

The wife bent over Tex. “He’s passed out drunk. The stupid son of a bitch. Somebody ought to take a horsewhip to him.” She straightened and kicked him. She pulled back her foot to kick him again.

Waltz grabbed her and pulled her away. “Take it easy. It’s okay. I’m sure they’ll refund your cover.”

The wife kicked back at Waltz. He held her shoulders until she stopped kicking. He turned her to face him.

Her face reddened and her eyes narrowed. “Don’t ever interfere again.”

The three Twangers pushed their way through the onlookers. One waved and laughed. “Don’t worry, folks. He’s okay. He’s researching a new song.”

Without hesitation, two of them grabbed Tex’s arms. The other one picked up Tex’s feet. They carried him to the back, like they had done it before.

Waltz turned and started toward Hook ‘Em’s table. She waved her arms no. He stopped. He turned.

A recorded two-step came over the loudspeakers. The wife caught up to him and grabbed his arm. “What about our dance? It makes me mad if a guy asks me to dance and then deserts me.” Her fingers bit into his arm.

He glanced at Hook ‘Em. She jabbed her finger repeatedly at the dance floor. He sighed. He assumed the dance position.

The wife was a good dancer. Like Hook ‘Em, another honkytonk angel. He wondered what her name was. He could ask. It was Sadie.

After the dance, Waltz returned to Hook ‘Em. “I hope you got that. I don’t want to have to do it again.”

“I videoed the whole thing, you at the table chatting with her and you dancing with her. I got her kicking Tex Hank while he lay helpless on the floor and you dragging her away. That was good thinking, dragging her away like that. It made her look bad.”

“Good. Now you can get on my case.”

She leaned forward. “Go back over there and get her to go home with you. I need some pictures of that.”

He drew back. “I can’t do that. I can’t cheat on Lala. I don’t even know this woman. You saw her face when I dragged her off Tex Hank. She scares me.”

“You don’t have to go to bed with her. Just get her to go home with you. I’ll get video of that, and then you kick her out. Think of kicking her out as practice, for when you get tired of Lala.”

“How am I going to get rid of her?”

“Tell her you suddenly realized you’re gay. No sweat.”

“Maybe you’re used to that, guys changing their minds suddenly, telling you they’re gay. Maybe she’s not. It’s cruel. It’s unusual.”

“So is the pale-green room. The cold, clammy one. The one with the gurney. Think about it.”

“You said you were going to help me.”

“I am. As soon as you do this. This could save me days. Then we’ll swarm all over your problem.”

Waltz shuffled to his feet. Things were never like he thought they’d be. He thought detectives were tough, with shoulder holsters holding a pint. And they might even have a gun too.

Instead, they were gigolos with beer-soaked pants. With partners who had the ethics of dung beetles. He turned back to Hook ‘Em.

He leaned on the table. “I can’t take her to my apartment. She’ll know where I live. She’ll want to be my girlfriend. She’ll hang around. Lala will find out. Let me use your place.”

“You can’t use my place. That’s my office. I can’t take pictures of her entering my office. Her lawyer would chop us to ribbons.”

“I can’t take her to my place.”

“You really think you’re some stud, don’t you? She’s not going to want to be your girlfriend. She won’t want to hang out at your apartment. You won’t even be able to pick her up.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“You asshole. Show me. Do it. Take her to a motel.”

“She’ll still know my name. She’ll find me.”

“Give her your honkytonk alias.”

“What?”

“You have one, don’t you? A fake name. Give her a fake name. Let’s get this show on the road. You’re facing the death penalty.”

“She’s weird. Didn’t you see the way she kicked Tex?”

Hook ‘Em got up and shoved him. He stumbled toward Sadie’s table.

Okay. He would get her to dance. She liked to dance. He’d ask her while they were dancing. With any luck, she’d turn him down.

They started two-stepping. He spoke in her ear so he didn’t have to look in her eyes. “I really go for you. Let’s go to a motel, where we can be alone.”

She leaned back and smiled at him. “I think you’re getting a handle on your shyness there, cowboy. Okay, you’re on.”

They walked back to the table. Her body jiggled, but he didn’t like her. Her lips were thin. They didn’t pout. She kicked your butt when you passed out.

He wouldn’t go to bed with her. He’d take her to a motel and let Hook ‘Em get video. He hoped she’d be happy with pictures of them entering a motel. He’d get rid of Sadie then.

He needed a better excuse than a sudden preference for men. Something logical. He knew. He would claim he suffered from Intermittent Erectile Dysfunction, caused by smoking from the age of six. He’d call it IED to begin with. She’d ask what that meant. He’d explain.

The name itself, Intermittent Erectile Dysfunction, would impress her, and maybe even scare her away. He’d claim a sudden intermittent attack. It seemed plausible. It would be okay. It would be nobody’s fault but the tobacco companies.

But what if she wanted to wait until the intermittent attack subsided? He could go to Hook ‘Em’s idea. He could claim he was only intermittently heterosexual and that the feeling had passed. He wanted to go back to the Honkytonk and exchange her for Tex Hank.

They returned to the table to finish their beers. Sadie lifted her glass. “Here’s to us, cowboy.” She glanced over his shoulder. “Uh oh. Here comes trouble.”

Waltz turned. Tex Hank was on his feet and bore down on them, mad about getting kicked. He’d probably blame Waltz. Waltz prepared to bolt for the door.

Tex swaggered to the table, bent down, and put his arm around Sadie. His hat fell off. He ignored it. He glowered at Waltz, his eyes glittering and sharp. “Who’s this guy?” The stench of beer and whiskey still emanated from him, stronger than the smell of beer from Waltz’s pants.

Tex was alert, radiating energy. How was it possible?

Sadie regarded Tex like he was a bug. “What do you care? Sot.” She slapped him.

He grinned. “I only had a couple of little drinks. Who the hell is this guy?” He leaned over Waltz. “Who the hell are you?”

Flight or fight? Waltz favored flight. He beckoned behind his back for Hook ‘Em. “I’m Waltz. My girlfriend and I were visiting with Sadie. My girlfriend and Sadie are great friends. They knew each other in high school. Here comes my girlfriend.”

He got up, took Hook ‘Em’s hand, and pulled her to him. He put his arm around her. “This is my girlfriend, Hook ‘Em.” He kissed her. Her lips were soft and warm. He kissed her again. She twisted her face away, grimacing. He laughed. “She’s always kidding around. Honey, this is Tex.”

Hook ‘Em shook Tex’s hand.

Waltz pulled out his chair for Hook ‘Em. “Have a seat, darling. Tex took your chair while you were gone. I’ll get another.”

He grabbed a chair from the next table. He turned to Hook ‘Em. “I was telling Tex how you and Sadie have been friends since high school and ran into each other tonight for the first time in months. That you were doing some reminiscing.”

Hook ‘Em smiled. “I’ve wanted to meet you, Tex. Sadie’s told me all about you, you naughty boy.” She wagged her finger.

She leaned back in her chair. “Yep, we had some great times didn’t we, Sadie? Some of them we can’t talk about in front of the boys, can we? Like that time on the beach?”

Sadie laughed. “We’ll have to talk about that one another time.” She leaned toward Hook ‘Em. She stage whispered. “Don’t tell my husband about Tex.”

“Not unless he pays me handsomely.”

They both laughed.

Their waitress came. Tex ordered beer. Sadie slapped him hard. He blinked and grinned. Sadie turned to the waitress. “Cancel his beer. Bring him a triple coffee.”

Tex grinned. “No, bring me a beer.”

Sadie slapped him again, forehand and backhand. “Bring him coffee.”

Tex laughed. “Thanks, I needed that.”

Hook ‘Em turned to Waltz. “Honey Bunny, let’s dance.”

When they were dancing, she hissed. “Cut the kissing.”

“It was cover. We’re undercover remember?”

“Stop fooling around.”

“What’s the matter? Did you like kissing a womanizer?”

“No.”

“It avoided a brawl, didn’t it?”

She didn’t speak.

“Can you believe Tex is Sadie’s boyfriend?”

“In my business, I can believe anything. What’s hard to believe is that he’s back on his feet. Did you notice his eyes? He’s on something. Something very stimulating. Maybe speed.”

“With Tex hopped up and pissed off, I can’t take her home now. Too bad. She agreed to go.”

“I bet she told you to stick it.”

“She did – sort of. Anyway, thanks for the help. He was really pissed off. What the hell is his problem?”

“What the hell is his problem? You were trying to put the make on his girl.”

“For all he knew, I was just talking to her.”

“Yeah. Right. It was pretty obvious you were on the make.”

“I was praying she’d turn me down.”

“I guess Tex wasn’t hearing your prayers. You guys piss me off. You try to put the make on every woman you come across, and then you act surprised that their boyfriend gets upset.”

“It wasn’t my idea. You put me up to it. Remember? You wanted to get pictures.”

“I notice you got into it pretty well. Smiling. Chatting. You were after her, like every cheater I’ve ever known.”

Waltz led her into an underarm turn. He brought her back into his arms. “That’s the most illogical argument I’ve ever heard.”

“Quiet. I don’t want to hear any more about it. I’ve heard enough excuses from cheaters.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Let me get a few more pictures. I can get some close ups, now. I’ve got her with two boyfriends in one night. We can claim she’s a groupie, goes out and picks up celebrities.”

Waltz laughed. “Tex? A celebrity?”

“Hey, the judge sees the suit, the hat, the sign, he’ll buy it.”

They danced three dances. Hook ‘Em was getting into the two-step. So was Waltz. He liked it a lot better than having Tex beat him up.

When they got back to the table, Sadie invited Hook ‘Em to the ladies room, leaving Waltz and Tex to sip their beers, watch the dancers, and ignore each other.

As they returned to the table, Hook ‘Em and Sadie talked and laughed like they really were old high school friends.

Sadie turned to Waltz and Tex. “We’ve got a surprise for you. We’re going to another place. Finish your coffee, Tex.”

Tex sucked sullenly on his coffee, his sunken cheeks becoming crevasses. “Oh yeah? Where are we going?”

Sadie laughed. “We can’t tell you that. Then it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“Are you flirting with me? Trying to put the make on me?” Tex drained his cup. “Come on. Let’s go.”

Waltz shook his head at Hook ‘Em. She pinched his arm and nodded yes.

Go somewhere else with Sadie and Tex? No way. “Wait. Tex, don’t you have to get back to singing?”

Tex shook his head. “They fired me. They fired me because I fell on the floor again. Can I help it if I have a balance problem?”

Sadie leaned across the table and slapped him. “And why do you have a balance problem?”

Tex hung his head. “I drink a little.”

Sadie slapped him again. “What else?”

“I snort a little.”

“A little?”

She slapped him again.

“A lot.”

“Are you surprised they fired you?”

“Fuck ‘em. I’m going to Nashville.”

They walked out to the parking lot. Hook ‘Em mounted her bike.

Waltz ran his hand over the longhorn handlebars. “Tex is high and I think he’s still pissed off at me. Sadie is crazy. I helped you get plenty of pictures. I’m going home.”

She grabbed his arm. “Don’t go. This is big. I’m going to nail Sadie good. Help me.”

He shook his head.

“You won’t be able to get a cab here. This won’t take long. I’ll give you a ride home. I’ll give you an extra half day of detecting. Come on.”

***

 

A blond Amazon strode to the stage, high-heeled boots covering her calves, a black leather bikini failing to cover the rest of her body. Her huge breasts, straining the bikini top, thrust through an open leather vest.

A chain hung from her left shoulder and draped over her right hip, swaying in time with the jiggle of her breasts, a black velvet thing trailing her. She whished it back over her shoulder and snapped it forward. It reached the end of its arc and its tentacles popped.

A whip.

What the hell? It was a whip.

The patrons went silent.

Tex stepped forward and removed his hat, head bent. “I’ve been bad. I cheated on my baby.”

The Amazon expanded, like a toad, with anger. “You dare to interrupt me? I know you’ve been bad. Turn around and bend over.”

Tex turned and bent, his white suit hanging from his gaunt frame.

She cocked her whip and lashed his butt with a loud pop. “Now step back and shut up. You’ll get more, you slime – but not until I’m ready.”

Tex remained bent over. “I got drunk every day. I cheated on my baby. I deserve more – now.”

She lashed his back, his butt, and his back. “Now shut up and get back or that’s the last you’ll get.”

He stepped back. She switched him again.

She popped her whip over the heads of the crowd. “I’m Candy Bitch. I have a treat for you tonight. A preview of our special aerobics class for fans of bondage and discipline.”

The crowd applauded. Tex shouted. “Beat us, Baby.”

The Amazon popped her whip again. “Give me masochists here.” She pointed her whip at three rows of ottomans. “Bend over the ottomans. You there.” She lashed Waltz. The whip grabbed his arm. She pulled him to an ottoman. “Here. We haven’t even started and you’re being a bad boy. Do I have to pop you?” She popped Waltz’s left forearm.

It stung. Waltz rubbed his arm. “Hey! That hurt! Watch it.”

She popped the whip over his head.

He ducked. Would a velvet whip leave a scar on your face? She could certainly take an eye out with it.

She pointed it at the ottoman. “Here, bad boy, here. You’re being very, very bad. Don’t make me pop you again. Or is that what you want?” She popped it over his head.

He ducked and headed for the door.

Hook ‘Em grabbed his arm and whispered. “Remember the pale-green room.” She pushed him toward the ottoman.

The pop on his arm still stung. He put his head down and wrapped his arms around it. He had to protect his face and eyes. He watched the Amazon through the crevice between his forearms.

She popped her whip again. “Sadists, prepare your masochists.” She strode about the room, popping her whip, and adjusting the positions of the masochists into a head-down, butt-up stance, the accredited attitude for the well-posed masochist.

Bitch popped a plastic trash can with her whip. “Sadists, retrieve your cat-o-nine-tails from the bin of bludgeons.”

He knew what was coming next. The sadists were going to beat the masochists with their whips. Okay, no problem. They were velvet.

Yeah, but they hurt.

He stood and grabbed for Hook ‘Em’s whip. “I get to be the sadist.”

Hook ‘Em held the whip behind her back and moved back a step. “No. I’m the sadist.”

He tried to reach around her. She grabbed him and whispered in his ear. “I can’t take pictures if I’m the masochist.”

Someone kicked Waltz in the butt. He turned. The Amazon grabbed him, smothered him with her breasts, and wrestled him toward the ottoman.

He couldn’t see. He could barely breathe. Her breasts were soft and warm. He turned his face so he could breathe. He gasped a deep breath of her perfume, almost overcome by its sweetness. He turned his face back into her softness.

Hook ‘Em and Sadie grabbed him too. Okay. Okay. Hook ‘Em had to take pictures. He let them push him down into position.

Bitch grabbed his hips and hoisted them. “Get your ass up so she can pound it good. Can’t you do anything right? You deserve punishment more than any naughty boy I’ve ever met.”

No one spanked Waltz as a kid, not even Jazz, stern as he was. Why would anybody want to hurt someone or get hurt? What was wrong with them?

It seemed dangerous. Could it be fatal? Of course not. Tex and Sadie must do it all the time. They were playing a game. Waltz would play along with it. He needed Hook ‘Em’s help.

Wait a minute. He remembered reading something in the paper. Somebody died in such a deal, beaten to death. The article discussed similar cases.

“Dominatrix, prepare your cat-o-nine-tails.” Bitch pointed a remote control at the stereo. “Beat Me Daddy” played. “Ready your whips. Four, five, six, seven, eight. Pop!”

Waltz heard the whish of whips cutting through the air. He heard a pop. Hook ‘Em popped her velvet cat-o-nine-tails harmlessly over his butt. She faked it. Why had he been worried?

Bitch snapped her whip. “Good. Whack away. Let’s get the rhythm going. Pop on the downbeat. On the ones. All together now. Five, six, seven, eight. Pop, two, three, four, pop, six, seven, eight, pop. Good. Keep that rhythm going.”

Bitch strode about the room, urging the sadists on. “Get your legs and backs into it. Work those muscles. It’s not all about the masochists, you know. We’re not here only to indulge them. Who do they think they are? They’re the bad ones. This is for you too. Pamper yourself. You deserve it.”

The sadists continued popping their whips in a pounding rhythm.

“Now, you naughties. I want to hear you groan as the whips pop. Groan, two, three, four, groan, two, three, four, groan. Let’s hear you groan. You there, bad boy, groan, two, three, four, groan.”

She popped Waltz on the left butt cheek, and then the right cheek, in time with her count. It hurt. He groaned. “Sadists, pop them. They want you to make them groan. That’s what they’re here for. They’re snot on the cheek of life. They’ve been bad. They want to suffer. They deserve it. Show them how you feel about their misbehavior. Make them want to be good. Rhythm. Rhythm.”

The class had a nice rhythm going. It was a dance, a dance of discipline. Waltz would’ve appreciated the rhythm of it, except Hook ‘Em began to pop his butt. He waved his hands behind his back. Finally he yelled. “Cut it out.”

Hook ‘Em popped him. “It’s velvet, you pantywaist snot. Shut up. Or I’ll give you worse.”

What got into her? Had mob mentality sucked her in?

Bitch popped him. “Groan.”

Waltz groaned. The whips were velvet, sure, but those velvet tentacles hurt. Not as much as leather, he imagined, but it stung.

Bitch popped him again. “On the beat, slave.”

She was saying he was offbeat? Let her pop him on beat.

Bitch and Hook ‘Em whacked him in the same spot.

It stung like fire. He scooted off the ottoman, ran through the curtains, and headed for the door. A huge man blocked it, shaved head down, like a charging linebacker, a linebacker wearing leather pants, shirtless, with an open leather vest.

“Get out of my way.”

The man fondled the studded leather collar around his neck, and shifted left and right with Waltz, blocking his path in a sort of slow nightclub two-step. “Certainly, sir. Your partner gives the okay, you can leave.”

Waltz turned. Hook ‘Em was behind him. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Tell him I want to leave.”

Hook ‘Em shook her head. “Not yet. Only a little longer.”

The huge man tapped Waltz on the shoulder. “You know the rules, buddy. Give her the safe word and you can go.”

Waltz turned back to Hook ‘Em. “I want out of here.”

Hook ‘Em slapped his face, forehand, backhand – hard. “Say the safe words, slave. Remember? ‘The pale-green room’s the place for me. I can’t wait to mount the gurney.’”

The gurney. Waltz saw them force him onto the gurney. He struggled, but they were too strong for him. The leather straps bit into his wrists and ankles. The needles stabbed his skin. His eyes began to glaze. The last thing he saw was a jeering Hook ‘Em flashing the Hook ‘Em sign.

The huge man spoke behind him. “Say the safe word.”

Hook ‘Em popped her whip and laughed. “He does this every time. He doesn’t think I whip him hard enough, so he pulls this stuff to tick me off.” She laughed again. “So I’ll hit him harder.”

The huge man grabbed Waltz and shoved him back toward the black velvet curtains. Bitch grabbed him and pulled him through. She led him to the counter and unwrapped something. “Hold out your hands.”

She slapped handcuffs on his wrists. She clicked them tight. They hurt. Waltz groaned. She slapped his butt with her hand. “Now you’re getting the idea, slime bag.” She slapped him again.

He was cuffed again, the second time in less than a week.

At least she didn’t cuff his hands in back. The lieutenant was a bigger sadist than Bitch, a scary thought.

Bitch unwrapped more cuffs and locked them on his ankles. She slapped him again. She reached into his pocket and fished out his wallet. “Set of handcuffs and a set of ankle cuffs. That’s one hundred dollars.” She stuffed the money in the cash register and his wallet in his pocket. “The receipt’s in your purse.”

She slapped his butt again, then fondled it. “Discipline. Discipline. You’ll regret the day you try to escape again, my buns-of-steel naughty.”

She pushed him down on the ottoman. She pulled his hips up and caressed his butt again. “Assume the position. Don’t you know anything?”

She turned to Hook ‘Em. “He’s the best masochist ever. Do you coach him to do these things?”

“You should’ve seen him at the beginning. He was hopeless. I’ve trained him for years.”

Bitch resumed the count. The whips popped in unison.

Waltz raised his hands to protect his face. The handcuffs clanked him in the forehead.

Hook ‘Em lashed his butt. “Okay, naughty Nancy, you’re getting what you want now.”

Waltz realized why Bitch cuffed his hands in front of him. Hook ‘Em could beat his butt without his hands in the way. Bitch moved back up the sadist scale – up even with the lieutenant.

Bitch pointed her whip at Waltz. “He tried to leave us. Us, his friends, catering to his every need. The ungrateful lout. Everybody. Let’s give it to him.”

She counted down and the sadists popped him on one. They continued through two sequences of twelve bar blues. He thought of the gurney and counted lashes. Their rhythm was admirable. His butt stung. His hands clenched the ottoman. He hung on.

“Enough.” Bitch stopped the flailing. “Why should this dirt bag have all the fun? Back to your positions.”

Waltz relaxed his hands and took a deep breath.

Bitch popped him again. He started to get up and clobber her. No, he was cuffed. He would wait till she took the cuffs off. He wanted a full swing at her.

Bitch sang. “Whip your partners. Lash away. Make their buttocks sting and pay.”

Tex raised his head. The white hat with its purple band obscured his eyes. Tears streamed down his face. “Feel the rhythm. Do-si-do. Pound my buttocks into dough. I got drunk and ran around. On my butt you need to pound. Yoda leda loda lady – ouch!”

Bitch and Sadie both flogged Tex’s butt. Bitch sang. “Whip your partners. Thrash away. Make their buttocks sting and pay.”

Tex sobbed with delight. “Make me wriggle. Make me wince. Make me rue my least offense. Yoda leda loda lady – ouch!”

Hook ‘Em flogged away, in time with the others, faking it. Her whip popped well above Waltz’s butt.

Bitch chanted. “Get ready to stop. Five, six, seven, eight, halt. Excellent. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have.”

The class applauded.

She popped her whip and curtsied. “That’s a short sample of our aerobics class. Every Saturday afternoon at three. Don’t forget.”

Tex moaned. “Can’t you beat us a little more?”

She lashed him. “Shut up. We must follow the schedule. Now we get back to general dancing and flogging. Don’t forget our other rooms. In the Ballroom of Agony, we’ll start with an old favorite, Mount Your Pig. In The Torture Chamber, for you nostalgia buffs, we feature Beat Your Baby Eight to The Bar.

She snapped her whip. “Experience our newest digital torture devices in the Cell of Torment. I recommend our new Flage-o-matic. It’s great for singles, or for those who demand more efficiency in their beatings. In the Sanctum of Anguish, we have Smack the Meek Till They Inherit.

She stepped down from the stage and lashed Waltz’s butt. Waltz rolled onto his side. He held up his hands. The chains rattled. “Get these cuffs off me.”

She bent over him. Her breasts swayed, jiggling, full and soft. They were huge. Could they be real?

She saw him staring at her breasts and waggled them. “You like what you see?”

“Get these cuffs off.”

“You don’t want to wear them home?”

“No. Stick them up your butt.”

Hook ‘Em patted his head. “Naughty. Naughty.” She turned to Bitch. “You can take that as a compliment to your class.”

Bitch curtsied and kicked Waltz in the butt. “Thank you.”

Hook ‘Em kicked him. “He’s so ashamed of his need for humiliation that he sometimes gets aggressive and wants to lash out. I think there’s an element of sadism in his personality.”

“What a shame. Still, he’s almost the perfect masochist.” Bitch nodded at Hook ‘Em. “Let’s get him up.”

Bitch and Hook ‘Em each grabbed an arm and jerked Waltz to his feet.

Bitch spread her arms wide. She hugged him. He sunk into the softness of her breasts. She stuck her tongue in his ear and whispered. “It’s been fun, baby. I’ll torture you any time. No charge.”

Her teeth nipped his earlobe. “When you watched me, your eyes all over me, undressing me, wanting me, it gave me chills. Call me. Candy Bitch. I’m here almost every night.”

She produced a key, bent, and unlatched the ankle cuffs.

Waltz stared at her breasts. Were they real? The way they jiggled. They were real.

She rose and took off the wrist cuffs.

It didn’t matter if they were real. He had Lala. She was his true love.

Bitch looked into his eyes, smiling. Slowly she shimmied, jiggling her breasts. She held the cuffs out to him. They dangled from her hand and the chains clinked as she waved her breasts at him. “Would you like a bag?”

Waltz flung her arm away. “No.”

He didn’t care if they were real.

Bitch smiled.

Hook ‘Em sniggered and turned to Bitch. “He’s good, isn’t he? I taught him to stay in the moment, never to step out of his role as a petulant bad boy. Give us a bag. He’ll probably insist on sleeping in those cuffs. They’ll remind him of you.”

“I don’t want a bag. I don’t want the cuffs. I would like to return them for a refund.”

Bitch slowly shook her head and her breasts. “I’m sorry sir. The health department does not allow us to accept returns on used cuffs.”

“I demand to see your supervisor.”

Bitch turned to Hook ‘Em. “Wow, he is good.”

Hook ‘Em grabbed his arm. She took the bag and dragged Waltz over to Sadie and Tex.

Tex took his hat off and hung his head. “I cheated on my baby.” He turned and bent, butt cocked.

Hook ‘Em kicked it. “You’re slime.”

Tex stepped back. “I know.” Tears streamed down his face.

Sadie kicked Tex’s shin.

He danced on one purple boot and chanted, “Ow, ow, ow.”

Sadie smiled. “Wasn’t that a great workout? I’ve been hunting for a fun way to stay in shape.”

Hook ‘Em swung her whip backhanded several times like a tennis player warming up. “I know. Running’s no good. It’s boring. Punishing bad boys is so relaxing.”

Sadie swung her whip, mimicking Hook ‘Em’s movements. “Yes, and in this class, you learn new ways to hurt. I always say, you can’t stop learning. You start to stagnate.”

Hook ‘Em switched to forehand. “Ain’t it the truth?”

Sadie swung a forehand. “Y’all want to meet and beat here each Saturday?”

Tex perked up his butt. “I’m in. Smack me.”

Sadie lashed his butt, backhand and forehand, her improved swings smooth and level. “Deal.”

She turned to Waltz. “Hook ‘Em tells me y’all aren’t exclusive. You can count on me for a good thrashing any time. You up for the class, if Tex is drunk?” She pinched Waltz’s butt.

Waltz jerked away. “No, I’ll stick to pumping iron.”

Sadie stepped closer. “They’ve got an iron maiden in the Cell of Torment. It’s an antique and it still works. You want to check it out?”

Hook ‘Em put her arm around Waltz’s waist and gave him a hug. “Go ahead, Meekly. I’ll hit the Ballroom of Agony with Tex. Mount Your Pig intrigues me.”

Waltz put his arm around Hook ‘Em’s waist and whispered in her ear. “You got your pictures. We’re leaving this place now. Don’t make me pick you up and carry you out in front of all your new friends.”

 

Chapter 8

Who Spiked the Punch?

The next morning, Waltz and Lala searched pawnshops for Gordon’s stuff. The cops already made a search, but since they charged Waltz with attacking Gordon, Hook ‘Em said they were no longer watching the pawnshops. The bad guy might figure it was safe to pawn the stuff. If they could find it, they could trace it back to the toe chopper, who must be the same person who poisoned Cha-Cha and Jazz.

They managed to search four shops and found nothing. They stopped at the library where the bad guy checked out the book on poisons using Waltz’s library card. The librarians didn’t recognize any of the photos of studio personnel.

Discouraged, Lala and Waltz headed back to the studio.

***

 

A stranger in a suit and tie knocked at the office door.

Lala muted the tango music.

A cop. Waltz leaped from his chair. “Jazz didn’t die?”

“Die? Jazz?” The stranger shifted his briefcase to his right hand. “Oh, Jazz Charleston?”

Jazz was dead and Waltz was going to prison without getting the bad guy. “He’s not dead, is he?”

“Is he? Have you heard?”

Lala took Waltz’s hand. “Jazz no is dead – yet.”

Jazz was not dead. Not yet. Waltz sagged into his chair.

The stranger handed Lala a card. “Mrs. Charleston?”

Lala glanced at the card. She extended her hand. “Jim, is good you come.” She shook his hand. She cupped it in both of hers.

Jim looked at Lala’s hands holding his. “Well, to business.”

Lala patted the back of Jim’s hand and relinquished it. “Take a chair. Something to drink?”

Jim sat, placed his briefcase on his knees, and opened it. “No, thanks. I’m okay.” He pulled some papers from it. “I’ve got your claim here, insurance on the life of your husband, Jazz Charleston, in the amount of eight hundred thousand dollars.”

Lala smiled. “With double indemnity, for accidental death, is a million six, right, Jim?”

Wow. Waltz didn’t know that Jazz had insurance – not that much. Jazz did love Lala. They might unload the sarcasm on each other. They might fight. But they loved each other. Lala would be rich. What would she do with all that money? Would she convert it all to cash? Her bra wouldn’t hold all that. Even Bitch’s wouldn’t.

Waltz pictured himself pressed into service, copying thousands of serial numbers to index cards and carrying a huge strongbox everywhere, a strongbox heavier than the barbell he dead-lifted.

Lala smiled again. She was flirting with Jim. Waltz wasn’t surprised. She would flirt with students to sell them two hundred dollars worth of dance lessons. Flirting was her way. It worked. She was the best salesperson at the studio. She meant nothing by it. Waltz knew she loved him, not Jim.

“That’s right, but, if I understood you correctly, your husband has not, as yet, passed.”

“Doctors say he is sure to die.”

“I can’t do anything on your claim until he dies.”

Lala’s voice was honey sweet. “Jim, I am one lonely woman, my husband is soon to die. I no understand these things, but I must have the money fast. My husband leave my dance studio broke. I will lose it unless I get the cash. Please, for me, fill out forms now, since you are here, so we can file fast when my husband die? Please, Jim?”

“The doctors say he’s certain to die?”

“Yes.” She barely controlled the sob. “Soon I am alone. I no find another man. Good men, like you, Jim, are always married.”

“Well, I suppose I could go ahead and fill out the papers.” He removed some forms from his briefcase, set it on the floor beside him, inched his chair closer to the desk, and set the forms on it.

Lala walked around her desk and took his hand. “Come. Take my chair. Get your knees under my desk so you are comfortable.”

“This is okay.”

“No, Jim. Please.” She pulled him to his feet and escorted him to her chair. “Sit. For comfort.”

She moved the forms in front of him and handed him her pen. She pulled the policy from the top right drawer of her desk and placed it next to the forms.

She went behind him and began to knead his shoulders. “Your muscles are tight, Jim. I know insurance is difficult. How you stand the strain, I no understand. I help you relax while you work on papers.”

No wonder she sold so many dance lessons. Nothing embarrassed her. She’d try anything until she made the sale. Why couldn’t Jim see through it?

She answered Jim’s questions. Jim filled in the forms. He worked not so much like a harried insurance investigator, but more like a man who’d had a few drinks in the evening, making notes of his amorous exploits in his journal. He seemed quite content and in no hurry to get to the next client.

“Write that the check must be made out to me.” She turned to Waltz. “Because you might be in jail when the check come, Waltz. No worry. We will share.”

Jim spoke over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lala. They’ll have to make out the check to the corporation, Dance Terminal.”

Lala stopped massaging. “But why?”

“This is ‘key man’ insurance in which the beneficiary is the corporation. ‘Key man’ reimburses your company for the loss of one of its leaders.”

Waltz would share the money with Lala. He would be rich. He couldn’t believe it.

She resumed the massage. “But the president of Dance Terminal can cash, right?”

Jim leaned back and sighed. “It depends on your company’s bylaws. You might need the signatures of more than one of the officers of the corporation to cash the check.”

“I see.” Lala stroked Jim’s hair. “Jim, your hair is thick. Is very nice.” She paused. “But we get million six, right?”

“There could be a problem with this claim. Sleeping pills and alcohol is a common method of committing suicide. The insurance company must consider that possibility.”

Lala resumed the massage. “Then if Jazz killed himself, no is accident. We only get eight hundred thousand dollars?”

“Normally that would be true. In this case, the timing is very bad. You still have a week to go on the two-year suicide clause. If the insurance company ascertained that it was suicide, you wouldn’t get anything. Of course, I’m sure that wouldn’t be the case, but we’d still have to investigate, you understand.”

Lala stopped the massage. “You mean… if the poisoner waited one week more.”

She trudged around the desk and sank into the chair from which she pulled Jim. She put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands.

Waltz’s eyes teared. “No way would Jazz commit suicide. He loved life. He loved himself too much.”

Lala’s voice was muffled. “Is true. He take vitamins. He exercise. He try to live one hundred years.” Her shoulders shook. She was crying.

“The family never believes the insured killed himself. We’d have to investigate. That would hold up the claim. I’m sorry, Lala.”

“The cops think someone murdered him. If they convict the murderer, then we get the money?”

“Yes. In that case, the company couldn’t question the claim.”

Lala lifted her head from her hands. “Murder is accident, true? So we get million six?”

“That’s right.”

“What if cops send Waltz to jail?” She indicated Waltz with a head nod. “Insurance still pay?”

Waltz pitched forward in his chair to keep from going over backwards. She still thought he did it.

Lala started at the movement. She turned to Waltz and winked. “We must have money to defend Waltz… or what if cops send me to jail?”

“It wouldn’t matter who murdered him. The money goes to the studio. The company would issue a check to Dance Terminal. The remaining owner, being an officer of the corporation, could cash the check.”

Lala smiled at Jim. “Much thanks, Jim.”

Jim smiled at Lala. “I’ll do my best to expedite the claim. You let me know as soon as he dies. Let me write my home number on my card. Call me anytime day or night. You wouldn’t disturb anybody. I’m not married.”

***

 

Later that afternoon, Waltz went to Hook ‘Em’s trailer to hunt Jazz’s stash. They called every bank in town, Hook ‘Em in the bedroom on her cell, Waltz at her desk on the land line. They told each bank they wanted to pay the bill for Jazz’s safety deposit box. They found no box in Jazz’s name.

Pretending she was searching for a doctor for herself, Lala had questioned students and instructors about their doctors. She compiled a list. Hook ‘Em and Waltz, masquerading as the suspects, called the doctors and asked for a refill on their prescriptions for sleeping pills.

Hook ‘Em walked into the living room. “Olivia and Rachel both have prescriptions.”

“Rachel wouldn’t poison Jazz.”

Hook ‘Em shrugged. “You want to get the guy, you’ve got to follow all the leads. Rachel has sleeping pills and a motive. We have to question her.”

“Armando has a prescription. Refilled twice.” Waltz paused. “And.” He paused again. “Ken claimed he lost his pills twice in the last ten days.”

“Ken?”

“Gordon’s boyfriend.”

Hook ‘Em’s eyebrows rose. “Suspicious. Motive?”

“He acts like he hates Jazz.”

“How does he know Jazz?”

“He was in the ballet in New York.”

Hook ‘Em stroked her chin. “Maybe Ken told the truth about losing his pills. Maybe Gordon took them.”

“I saw sleeping pills on Gordon’s night stand at the hospital.”

“Maybe he needed more. We’ll talk to Gordon and Ken tonight.”

***

 

Gordon played with his cane. “Let me have the check.”

Waltz shook his head. “I don’t have a check for you. I said it was about the check. I’m sorry about the stop payment. We didn’t have enough cash to cover it.”

“You stick me with a bad check. Then you come here and say you have a new one.”

Hook ‘Em broke in. “I said that.”

“Who the hell are you?”

Hook ‘Em leaned forward, focused on Gordon. “Waltz didn’t stick you with a bad check. Jazz did that. Waltz is facing death for something he didn’t do. We needed to talk to you. You were hiding.”

Ken put his hand on Gordon’s shoulder. “Do you blame him? He may be attacked again. Some madman poisoned Jazz. Jazz is going to die. This madman may come back to finish Gordon. The only way Gordon can be safe is to stay hidden.”

How could Waltz bring up the sleeping pills diplomatically? Gordon was already pissed off at them, still suffering the pain of his injuries, and mourning the loss of his toe. They couldn’t get any information out of Gordon.

Hook ‘Em poked him and nodded. Waltz was supposed to start the questioning to get practice in how to interrogate suspects.

Waltz cringed. “Ken, we know that you refilled your prescription for sleeping pills twice in ten days, claiming that you lost them. How do you explain that?”

Ken didn’t speak.

Waltz was supposed to wait. Ken would crack under the pressure.

Hook ‘Em played a fanfare on her harp.

Waltz cleared his throat. “Well?”

“They simply disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them. I didn’t poison Jazz.”

“They disappeared?”

“Yes.”

“So Gordon took them?”

Gordon slammed his cane on the floor. His face reddened. “That’s enough. Get out.”

Waltz remained silent. According to Hook ‘Em, the pressure would build. Ken or Gordon would reveal something incriminating.

Nobody moved or spoke.

Hook ‘Em nodded.

Waltz set his feet. “Well?”

Gordon smashed his cane on the floor again. “I said get out.”

Hook ‘Em got up. “Come on, Waltz. Let’s go. Remember. The killer may come after Gordon.”

Waltz walked toward the door with Hook ‘Em. “So?”

“Don’t tell anybody where Gordon is hiding.”

“Certainly not. The killer might find out.”

“Of course, I guess you’ll have to tell Lala. She’ll need the forwarding address for tax purposes.”

“I won’t tell anybody but Lala. And Olivia.”

Hook ‘Em stopped and gawked at Waltz. “Olivia? She’s the biggest gossip in town.”

“I’ll swear her to secrecy.”

Hook ‘Em started for the door. “Oh, and I’ll have to tell the police. I’m a private investigator. They could take my license and charge me as an accessory.”

“I’ll be forced to tell my lawyer.”

“I owe a favor to a reporter.”

They got to the door.

Gordon pounded his cane on the floor. “Yes, I could have taken Ken’s pills. But I didn’t need to. I had plenty from the hospital, probably enough to kill three men. But I didn’t poison Jazz.”

Hook ‘Em turned and played a wah wah on her harp. “So you say.”

“Okay. You got me. I confess, Sherlock. Jazz gave me a check for a thousand dollars and offered me a cushy lifetime job to replace my current job, which I’m probably going to lose now, thanks to my missing toe. And he promised to pay my hospitalization. Enraged, I poisoned him, an act which benefitted me greatly, allowing Lala to rescind the check, the hospitalization, and the job offer.” He held out his arms. “Go ahead. Cuff me.”

“Maybe you didn’t want to work for him. Maybe you hated his guts.”

“And the check?”

“Maybe you didn’t know the studio was broke and figured on cashing the check quick, before Lala thought to stop it.”

“If you believe that, you’re stupider than I think.”

“Oh, I’m far stupider than you think.” Hook ‘Em’s voice was soothing. “Okay. You and Ken didn’t do it. Who do you think did?”

Gordon leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He didn’t speak.

Ken glanced at Gordon. He turned back to Hook ‘Em. “I’ll tell you who might have done it.” He stopped. His gaze went back to Gordon.

Gordon opened his eyes. “Olivia.”

Ken sighed. “Yeah. Olivia. She was at the next table at the party. When Jazz collapsed, she said something like, ‘Jazz cheats people out of their hard-earned money. He deserves to die.’”

Gordon patted Ken’s knee. “Tell them about the pills.”

“We were at her beauty parlor. Gordon wanted to get his hair touched up.”

Gordon stamped his cane and glared at Ken.

Ken gazed at the floor. “You talk about pills. She takes every kind of pill you can imagine. Pills to sleep at night, pills to wake up in the morning, pills for thrills. You name it. She’s got it. And she was sitting next to Jazz’s table that night. She could easily have slipped something into his drink.”

***

 

Early the next afternoon, Olivia fingered Waltz’s hair. “Nice texture. You must use a good conditioner.”

“Super Wave, pH balanced. No animal testing. All protein, zero carbs, approved for the Atkins diet.”

“Nice.” She fingered his hair some more.

“My doctor won’t give me any more sleeping pills. I heard that you might sell me some.”

“Oh. I see. You’re trying to find out if I dropped sleeping pills in Jazz’s drink.”

So much for the subtle approach. “Did you?”

“No.”

What a detective he was. He asked. She said no. “Did you sell sleeping pills to anybody at the studio?”

“I don’t sell drugs.”

“Not even sleeping pills?”

“No.”

“Did you give anybody sleeping pills, as a favor?”

“No.”

Was she lying? Hook ‘Em would say she was lying. “How do you feel about Jazz? A lot of people say you have it in for him.”

She continued to fondle his hair. “I won’t lie to you. I hate him. He screwed me out of a lot of money.”

“I can’t believe he’d do that.”

“He sold me a lifetime membership at a huge discount, a special sales price for paying cash. This was at the old branch studio in Coast City, knowing all along that he was closing it, leaving me hanging, twisting in the wind.”

“He did that, knowing he was closing the studio?”

“Yeah, but I fooled him. I moved to San Salsa.”

“Good thinking.”

“Not so good. He pointed out a clause in the contract saying the membership was only good in Coast City. I threatened to make a lot of trouble over it. Finally, he agreed to honor it, but refused to schedule more than one lesson a week.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I told him if he didn’t give me at least three lessons a week, I’d sue him. You’d think that would scare him, but no. He laughed at me. He said if I screwed with him, I’d get no lessons at all.”

Waltz wished he could hear Jazz’s side of the story. Waltz watched her eyes in the mirror. He couldn’t tell if she was lying. “You hate him.”

“Yes I do. But lots of people hate him more than me.”

“Who?”

“How about a permanent? You’d look great with ringlets framing your face.”

“No. I like it the way it is.” He got nervous going to his regular stylist. He didn’t like anybody messing with his hair, especially somebody new.

She ran her hands through his hair again. “Your hair is perfect for ringlets and so is the shape of your face.”

She pointed at a poster on the wall. “Look at the do, third from the left, like that. It wouldn’t be permanent, you understand. We could try it. If you didn’t like it, I could take it out.”

“No. I don’t think so.” Why wouldn’t she drop it? “Tell me who hated Jazz.”

“Girls go for guys with curls. I promise you’ll like it. If not, I’ll take it out.”

“No, thanks. Who do you think poisoned Jazz?”

She fingered his hair. “I know some good dirt. Stuff about Armando and Rachel. You need to know it. Let me curl your hair.”

“No way.”

“Armando hates Jazz. He thinks Jazz screwed him.”

“Armando told me that.”

She arranged instruments on the counter behind Waltz. “He might have poisoned Jazz.”

“Maybe. What else?”

“I’ve got a letter. It’s about Jazz and Rachel.”

“Let me see it.”

“As soon as we get started on the permanent.”

“No permanent. Can’t you just let me see it?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ve been thinking about how you’d look with curls for a long time. I have to see. I don’t often get a chance to work with texture like this.”

“No way.”

“What if you refused to try new dance steps? You’d make no progress at all. The same thing is true with hairstyles. You’ve got to experiment sometimes.”

“No.”

“Rachel was at Jazz’s table that night. This letter might save your life.”

Could the letter explain why Jazz fired Rachel, giving her a motive to poison him? “I’ll pay you for the permanent, but you don’t give it to me.”

She held up a bottle. “I tell you what. I’ll use a bare hint of curling solution, just enough to show what the do would look like. The curls will go away by morning. Your hair will be the same as always, but you’ll know what a permanent can do for you. Test it on the girls. If you like it, I could give you a real permanent.”

Should he? He hated to mess up the wave. Still, he needed to know Rachel’s motive. “The curls will go away by morning?”

“I promise. And I’ll give you the letter. You can take it to the cops.”

“You sure the curls will go away by morning?”

She shook the bottle hard. “I’ve been a licensed beautician since I was fifteen.”

He promised Jazz to get the guy. “Okay.”

She retrieved equipment from the shelf behind her. She twisted little clumps of his hair up in rollers. His hands squeezed the arms of the chair so hard they cramped.

What was wrong with him? He relaxed his hands. The curls would be gone by morning. He had bigger problems. “Let’s see the letter.”

She wiped her hands on a towel and opened the drawer behind her. She shuffled through some papers, extracted one, and handed it to him.

It wasn’t handwritten or typed. Like a blackmail letter in an old movie, it was a jumble of letters and words cut from a newspaper and pasted on a yellow sheet from a legal pad.

Waltz gaped at it: Guess which Rachel is having an affair with the Jazz Man. Truth Monger.

***

 

Waltz glared at the mirror. His hair rose above his head in a mountain of curls, rose to a peak so high that a Sherpa couldn’t climb it. Olivia claimed that the chemical to take the curl out was too harsh to use for a week.

He slapped on his cap and tugged it tight. Maybe Lala wouldn’t notice the curls sticking from the edges. He could keep them hidden until the next day. They’d be gone by then.

***

 

Lala started her car and glanced at him. “You learn much from Olivia, yes?”

Waltz handed her the note.

She read it, eyes wide. Her face contorted.

He should’ve broken it to her more gently. He grabbed a tissue and handed it to her.

She laughed. It was a hearty laugh. It lasted a while.

He loved her laugh, but it wasn’t what he expected. “What’s so funny?”

She dabbed her tears with the tissue. “You know Jazz. He hate cheating. Because you have girlfriends, he tell you one million times you go to hell for adultery. He would never have the affair, with Rachel or anyone.”

Lala slapped the note with the back of her fingers. “Olivia paste it together. She afraid we recognize her handwriting.”

“Yeah, I bet you’re right. She wants me to suspect Rachel.”

“Hmm… Rachel was mad when Jazz fire her.” Lala studied the note. “Maybe Olivia tell the truth. It would be iron, no?”

“Iron? You mean… ironic?”

Lala handed Waltz the note and pulled out of the parking lot. “Yes. Ironic. If Jazz cheat, and so is killed, such a destiny for him. Fate mock us, no?”

“I can’t believe it’s true. How could he prefer Rachel to you?”

She patted his thigh. “True. Still, you must confront her.”

“Hook ‘Em and I will talk to her tonight.”

They stopped at the first key maker on the list, a hardware store.

They pretended to be cops. They showed the clerks pictures of everyone who attended the party. They always took pictures of the partyers for the bulletin board.

They started out optimistic. They knew the date and time that the key was made – the two hours that his keys went missing. The clerks claimed they could barely remember what happened the day before, much less two weeks ago.

It was hopeless. What was the point?

Being a divorce detective was easy. You just followed somebody’s spouse and took pictures of him cheating. What could be simpler?

Being a real detective was hard. To catch a murderer, you followed your leads, no matter how weak. What were the odds that a clerk would remember the person making a key two weeks previous?

But Lala stayed optimistic. She kept driving them to the next place, striding in as though she was a rich woman on a shopping spree. Maybe that was it. She enjoyed shopping without spending money. In Lala’s mind, that was the only way to shop.

They finished the stores. The clerks recognized no one. The keys were a dead end.

Waltz got in the car and stretched. What could he do? He’d never find the guy. He wasn’t a detective and could never learn to be one. He removed his cap and scratched his head.

“What you do to your hair? My God.” Lala laughed longer and louder than she had at the thought of Jazz as a womanizer.

He slapped his cap back on.

Lala grabbed it by the bill and snatched it off. “Face me.”

Slowly he turned to face her. He couldn’t look her in the eyes.

She roared with laughter again. “You let Olivia do this?” Tears rolled down her cheeks. Finally, she stopped laughing. “Olivia claim another victim.”

“It’ll be back to normal by morning.”

Lala replaced his cap and pulled it down tight.

***

 

They returned to the studio a little before seven. Students lined the benches, chatting and awaiting their instructors.

Sarge and the lieutenant lounged in the office.

Lala smiled. “Lieutenant. How nice to see you.”

The lieutenant didn’t speak. He thrust a document at her. Her smile faded. She took it, sat at her desk, and read it. Her head sunk to the desk and rested on the paper.

Waltz pointed at it. “What have you done to her?”

“It’s a court order seizing the studio for illegal drug traffic.”

“Drug traffic? We don’t deal drugs.”

The lieutenant smiled. “The little pills you put in your brother’s drink.”

Lala raised her head. “I cooperate. I do everything you ask. Why you do this?”

***

 

After the lieutenant locked them out of the studio, they went home to Lala’s house. Lala collapsed on the couch, at the far end, her elbow on the couch arm, and her chin in her palm, staring.

Waltz perched on the opposite end of the couch. “The cops have no right to take the studio. We’ll get a lawyer.”

“Those lawyers. They are vampire bats. They suck our blood. We no find the stash. We no have money.”

“I don’t believe Jazz had a stash.”

“This is your fault. I beg you. Go to Mexico. I stay behind, sell the studio, and collect the insurance. We could live like kings. Now the cops lock us out of our own studio. We can never sell it. Why wouldn’t you go to Mexico?”

“I have to catch Jazz’s killer.”

“Yeah. Chase your tail.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You no can catch yourself. I know you do it. No need to pretend for me. I am glad you poison him. You do it to protect me. I love you for it.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I didn’t do it.”

She slid down the couch and put her arms around his neck. “I love you, baby. Understand? Admit it. Tell me you did it. I would still love you – more even. Lovers no have secrets. If you love me, tell me you do it.”

“I didn’t do it. He’s my brother.”

She kissed his neck. She stroked his thigh. “You drive me crazy, the way you deny it. Tell me you do it and let’s go to bed.”

“But I didn’t do it.”

She drew back and studied him. “I no love a man who no tell me the truth, man who no do things for me.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him off the couch. She dragged him through the living room, shoved him out, and slammed the door.

***

 

Later that evening, Waltz got in Hook ‘Em’s van.

Her Hook ‘Em sign wilted. “That’s an Aggie cap! You can’t wear an Aggie cap in my van.” She snatched the cap off his head. His hair sprang like a rattlesnake. She covered her eyes. She handed him his cap. “Put it back on!”

He snugged it down.

“No! Put it on backwards. I can’t bear that symbol of all that’s loathsome.”

He reversed it. “You through with your fun?”

“I can’t tell. The urge to humiliate you may overwhelm me at any moment.”

He told her about the confiscation of the studio.

“They’re closing in. You’d better let me get you that passport.”

“No. I promised Jazz.”

“It’s your ass.” She stopped at a light. “Passport, going, going…”

“No.”

She shook her head. “Counting your extra half day, I’m working with you till tomorrow at noon. Then you’re on your own. Unless…”

“Unless what?”

“Unless you can pay me.”

“I have no money.”

“We need to find Jazz’s stash. You could pay me out of that.”

“We’ve searched everywhere. I don’t think there is a stash. He must’ve gambled it all away.”

“We can’t give up. Keep thinking. Make a list.”

***

 

Rachel kept staring at his cap, but she was too polite to comment. He could probably bare his startling new hairdo and she would reassure him that it looked fine. But he wasn’t going to. He was going to keep his cap jammed on his head. The cap and his hair would remain constant companions until the next day, when the curls would be gone.

Hook ‘Em nodded her head, urging him to get started. He hated to accuse Rachel. She was his friend. “You know, Rachel, I know this couldn’t be true, but – “

Hook ‘Em stomped her foot.

Waltz handed Rachel the letter.

She read it. “Jazz and me? That’s ridiculous. There was never anything between me and Jazz. He didn’t even like me.”

Hook ‘Em’s smile showed superior knowledge. “The letter says he liked you a lot.”

Rachel drew herself up. “He fired me. I don’t think he’d fire me if we were lovers.”

Hook ‘Em was calm. “You broke up with him and then he fired you.”

“No way.”

“Why’d he fire you?”

“I don’t know. He wouldn’t tell me.”

Hook ‘Em leaned forward. “You were at Jazz’s table that night. You were mad about being fired. We know you have a prescription for sleeping pills. You dropped them in his drink.”

Rachel turned to Waltz. “You know I didn’t poison Jazz. I wouldn’t poison your brother.”

Hook ‘Em bored in. “You had motive. So he’s Waltz’s brother? Why should that stop you?”

“Because I… because Waltz and I… are friends.”

Waltz broke in. He couldn’t stand it. “I’m sorry, Rachel. I know you didn’t do it.”

***

 

Back in the van, Hook ‘Em slapped the steering wheel. “You’re going to have to get tougher. You’re not going to find out who poisoned Jazz by apologizing. You’ve got to accuse them and watch their reactions, judge whether they’re telling the truth. If they’re lying, you know who to investigate. You get more evidence. Confront them again. You break them. That’s how you do it.”

“I believe Rachel. I think Olivia made up the letter herself.”

“You’ve got to be careful about ignoring evidence and eliminating suspects. You eliminate the wrong one, then you’re running around in circles, chasing innocent people. Rachel is a strong possibility.”

“Rachel is too sweet to kill anybody.”

“She had motive. Jazz fired her.”

Maybe Hook ‘Em was right. He should’ve pressed Rachel.

Hook ‘Em started the van. “We talk to Doc tomorrow morning. I want you to accuse him, bore in, be relentless. And remember, we’ve got to find the stash or you’re on your own.”

***

 

Doc coughed. He lit a cigarette. His hands shook.

Waltz never saw him before in the morning. Did he always look like he had a hangover? How could his patients have any confidence in him?

Waltz’s hair was threatening to erupt from under his cap and take over the world. Olivia said the curls would be gone by morning. She lied. If anything, they were worse. They’d never go away.

At least he had hair. Doc was bald. Waltz touched his backwards Aggie cap. His hair pushed back reassuringly.

Smoke billowed from Doc’s nose and mouth. It always did. From the way he gaped at Hook ‘Em, smoking hadn’t reduced his sex drive. He was really old, too. Late fifties.

The smoke wafted past Waltz’s nose. He started to scoop the fragrance toward his face, hesitated, and fanned it away. It was a simple matter of willpower. He would ignore it. He would never smoke again.

Hook ‘Em poked Waltz in the ribs and glared at him.

He couldn’t confront Doc. Doc was a nice guy. Waltz cleared his throat. “Doc, we’re trying to find out who poisoned Jazz. What do you know about it?”

Hook ‘Em glared at him again.

Doc leaned back in his swivel chair. He let the hand holding the cigarette dangle limply. Smoke spiraled upward. “I know you didn’t poison Jazz. I feel bad about you having to go through this. Don’t worry. You’ll be cleared soon.”

Hook ‘Em crossed her legs. Her free boot vibrated. “What makes you say that?”

Doc raised his trembling hand to his lips and took another deep drag. He let go a satisfying plume of smoke that drifted toward the ceiling. “You’re the prettiest private eye I’ve ever seen. Of course, the only ones I’ve seen have been on TV. You’ve got Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson both beat.” He laughed. “That’s a joke, sleuth.”

Hook ‘Em’s free boot vibrated faster. She didn’t laugh. She didn’t show a trace of a smile.

“You’re beautiful. You’d make a great chorus girl. I like a chorus girl with boots.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Doc was focused on Hook ‘Em, not the question. How did he get to be a neurologist?

Doc’s eyes scanned Hook ‘Em’s boobs. “I’ve never fallen in love with a cowboy before.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Doc’s eyes rose to her face. “What was the question? Oh, yes, the question is, would you have dinner with me tonight?”

“The question is, what makes you think that Waltz will be cleared soon?”

“Oh. You spar with me?”

“Why will Waltz be cleared soon?”

“Because I know Waltz and Jazz. I know Waltz didn’t do it. The cops will figure it out pretty soon.”

Hook ‘Em drew back in her chair and considered him. “You think so? I’ve got a police source who tells me they’re just waiting for Jazz to die. They’ll arrest Waltz and charge him with capital murder. So far, we haven’t found anything that would prove him innocent. If we don’t find out something before Jazz dies, Waltz faces death.”

Doc’s eyes seemed to snap into focus. “I didn’t realize it was that bad.”

“It’s bad – very bad. Waltz will be convicted and executed.”

Doc leaned back in his chair and took another long drag. He studied Hook ‘Em’s breasts. “Unless Justice rides in and saves the day.”

Hook ‘Em took off her hat and fanned herself. “That’s too abstract for me. Make things clear.”

Doc grinned at her. “I’ll get a reservation for two at the Longhorn Inn tonight, best restaurant in town. Is that clear enough?”

“Go back to abstractions.”

Doc’s gaze swung back to Waltz. “Don’t worry. You’ll be cleared soon.”

At last, a breakthrough. Waltz couldn’t believe it. “You know who did it?”

“Yes.”

A detective’s job wasn’t so difficult. “Who?”

Doc looked back at Hook ‘Em. “I’ll reveal ‘who done it’ to the lady here at dinner.”

Hook ‘Em’s face crashed into an intense frown. “Tell me now.”

“At dinner. For dessert.”

“Now! Don’t you understand? Jazz could die any minute. Waltz faces death.”

Doc walked around his desk, took Hook ‘Em’s hand, and patted it. “All in good time, my dear.”

Hook ‘Em flung his hand away. She stomped out and slammed the door.

***

 

In the van, Waltz took Hook ‘Em’s hand. “I think Doc knows who did it.”

She pulled her hand away. “Forget that. He knows nothing. Even if he did, I wouldn’t go out with him. Let me see your list of places for Jazz’s stash.”

“I couldn’t come up with any.”

A motorist darted in front of her and skidded, tires squealing, into the exit. She gave him the finger. She let the finger swing on around until it aimed at Waltz. “You realize you’re screwed.” She pumped the finger. “Without the stash you’re screwed.”

“I don’t think he had a stash.”

“I’ll have to leave you on your own then, after this last interview.” She studied him. “Think about it. You’re on your own. You face murder charges. Think. Where could the money be?”

“I don’t know.”

She slapped his knee. “You have it. Don’t you?”

“No. I don’t have it.”

“Why save it? It’s not going to do you any good when they strap you to the gurney. Tell Lala where it is. Y’all take it to Mexico. Y’all could live great down there.”

“I doubt that it even exists. I think Lala wished it up.”

They rode in silence for a while.

Waltz held out his hand. “Can I borrow your cell?”

“Again?” She grabbed her cell and pretended to backhand it out the window. She sighed and handed it over.

He dialed Lala. Busy. She had it off the hook. He held out the cell to Hook ‘Em.

“Hold on to it. I know you’re going to dial again in two minutes.”

***

 

Yvette’s mother opened the door. “You!” Her hand went to her throat. She slammed the door. The chain rattled.

The door reopened the length of the chain. “Go away. Yvette doesn’t want to see you. Ever again.”

Hook ‘Em pushed Waltz aside. “I’m a detective. We need your daughter’s help to put this scumbag away, so he’ll never bother anybody again.”

“You’re a detective?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about this scumbag. He’s cuffed.” She held up Waltz’s hands. “See?”

Yvette’s mother smiled. “I guess it would be okay, but be sure and keep an eye on him.” She closed the door. The chain rattled. She opened the door and let them in. She called to the back. “Yvette, come here. You’ll get a laugh out of this.”

Yvette’s mother led them into the living room. She indicated a straight chair near the door. “Put him here.”

Hook ‘Em shoved Waltz down on the chair. She pulled out Waltz’s ankle cuffs, looped them around the chair rung, and cuffed Waltz’s ankles.

Yvette’s mother admired the ankle cuffs. She led Hook ‘Em to the couch.

Yvette stopped in the back entrance to the room.

Her mother went to her. “It’s okay. Look at his wrists.”

Waltz held up his hands and waved at his former girlfriend. The chains clanked and glittered in the sun shining through the window.

Yvette’s mother pointed at his feet. “And his ankles.”

Waltz shuffled his feet and made the chains clatter.

Yvette’s mother beamed. “He can’t put his hands on you now.”

Hook ‘Em got up from the couch. “What do you know about this scumbag’s motive for poisoning his brother?”

Yvette remained in the doorway. “I don’t want to talk about him. I don’t even want to think about him.”

Hook ‘Em took Yvette’s hand. “Help us keep him off the streets. He’s too dangerous to be out in polite society.” She pulled Yvette toward the couch.

Yvette yanked her hand away from Hook ‘Em. “I tell you, I don’t want to talk about him.” She stared at Waltz. “He looks different, cuffed to a chair, wearing a cap.”

Hook ‘Em laughed. “You got to see this.” She strode across the room. Waltz clamped his hands over his cap. She gave him a murderous glare.

Waltz released his hands.

Hook ‘Em swatted his cap. It flew off his head and rolled toward the door. She stepped to the side to display his hair. Waltz felt it uncoil, rising and swaying like a den of cobras.

Hook ‘Em beckoned Yvette. “Come a little closer. Take a good look.”

Yvette took a hesitant step and peered at Waltz. She began to laugh. “What did you do to it?”

Hook ‘Em went to her and pulled her two steps closer. “Sociopaths have very strong egos. It’s what makes them sociopaths. He’s charged with attempted murder, yet, instead of running, he stays in town and gets a permanent. It’s unbelievable.”

She pulled Yvette a step closer. “Look. See what happens to a perm fertilized by the diseased brain of a sociopath.”

Yvette laughed at Waltz. Hook ‘Em put an arm around her. “Have you got a camera? You could get a picture.”

Yvette picked up her cell and took a picture. She studied the image and laughed. She held it out to her mom. Her mom laughed.

Yvette moved closer. “One more. These will look good on the studio bulletin board.”

Hook ‘Em watched over Yvette’s shoulder. “Let me see those.” She studied the pictures. “You know where else these pictures would look good? An abnormal psychology book.” She laughed.

She pulled Yvette over to the couch. “Help us put him away. Why do you think he poisoned his brother?”

Yvette sneered at Waltz. “They were always arguing. He hated his brother. His brother accused him of poisoning his dog. I think he did.”

Waltz rattled his handcuffs. “You’re the one that hated the dog. He was always tearing your hose.”

“Jazz tried to stop you from womanizing. You didn’t, of course, but you resented Jazz for it.”

“I can prove you take sleeping pills like the ones that poisoned Jazz.”

“I never took sleeping pills until I started going with you. You had me up nights worrying about who you were flirting with.”

Bingo. She did have pills. Hook ‘Em was right. Accuse them. Make them defend themselves. They’d reveal more than they hid. “You were at the party. You had pills. It would be easy for you to poison his drink.” He banged his chain on the chair. “She’s the poisoner, Detective Harns.”

“No. I had no reason to poison him.”

“He told everybody at the studio you weren’t good enough for me and he was right.”

“You think I took that serious? Nobody did. That’s the biggest laugh I’ve ever heard. A worm is good enough for you.”

A woman paused in the hallway. “I’m sorry, Yvette. I didn’t know you had company.”

“That’s okay, Gloria. This is not company. This is the guy that poisoned his brother. I’m helping the cops convict him. Go on in the back with Mama. You don’t want to know this guy. We’ll be through in a minute.”

Gloria gawked at Waltz’s cuffs. She backed away.

She looked familiar. Yes, she was the sexy woman who was at the party. The one person Waltz didn’t recognize. “Didn’t she come to the party with you?”

“Yes, but don’t you go accusing my cousin of poisoning Jazz. She never met him.”

“Never met him. Ha!”

“Ha! She lives in Vegas.”

Vegas. Bingo. Gloria could be the mob connection.

Hook ‘Em turned toward him. “You scumbag, leave Gloria out of this. She didn’t know your brother. Stop trying to put this off on somebody else.” She turned to Yvette. “What sort of work does Gloria do?”

“Cocktail waitress in a casino.”

“Really? Which one?”

“Caesar’s.”

Hook ‘Em threw up her hands. “I love Caesar’s. That’s where I stay when I’m in Vegas. I know a cocktail waitress there. I’ll have to tell her I met Gloria. What’s her last name?”

“Longoria.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Visiting. She comes here almost every year, and I go out there. We’ve always been close.”

Waltz didn’t expect to get anything from talking to Yvette. Being a detective felt great when you found out something. Something important.

 

Chapter 9

She Won’t Dance

They left Yvette’s house and got back in the van. Hook ‘Em unlocked the cuffs.

Waltz rubbed his wrists. “Gloria could be a mob gun.”

Hook ‘Em hit the ignition and the motor roared into life. “Gloria seemed shy. So passive she was embarrassed to interrupt us. If she’s a killer, she’s a good actress.”

“A hired killer would be a good actress.”

“Maybe.”

“What about Yvette? She’s got pills.”

“I think she’s a definite suspect.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em stopped the van at Waltz’s apartment and held out her hand. “It’s been fun.”

He shook it.

She held his hand and played a fanfare. “Unless you know where the stash is.”

“I told you. I doubt it exists.”

She played another flourish on her harp. “Passport? The women in Rio are getting anxious.”

“No.”

She released his hand. “You’re on your own.”

“Should I start with Yvette or Gloria… or Doc? He knows something.”

“They’re only vague possibilities. Rachel is more likely. But your best bet is to finish the pawnshops. If you can find Gordon’s stuff, you’ll have the perp.”

“The cops didn’t find any of it and they’ve got plenty of manpower.”

“I don’t think the cops searched too hard. I doubt they tie it to the poisoning of Jazz. To them, it was just an assault – on a gay. They don’t get up in arms over something like that.”

“It seems such a long shot.”

“The cops aren’t searching the shops anymore. The perp might figure it’s safe to hock the stuff now.”

“Stay with me. I’ll sign a note. I’m good for it.”

“No way.”

“I need you.”

“You’re on your own.” She shoved him out the door.

***

 

Back in his apartment, Waltz picked up his phone. Lala might’ve recovered her senses. She’d help him.

She answered. Country music clamored from her end.

His words tumbled out. “Lala. I need help. Hook ‘Em quit.”

The country music went off. “You tell me the truth. I help you. You must admit you poison Jazz.”

His ear hurt. He realized he was mashing it with the phone. He tried to relax his arm. “But I didn’t do it.”

She hung up.

He hit redial. It rang forever.

Finally she answered. “You admit you do it?”

“Be reasonable. How can I admit something I didn’t do?”

“Admit it, or…”

“Or what?”

“I take Jazz off life support.”

She would never do that.

“I count to five. Then I hang up and call the doctor. One, two, three…”

He couldn’t say it.

“Four…”

“Stop! Okay. Okay. I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Poisoned Jazz.”

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why you do it? You know. We talk about it many times.”

“Jazz abused you. I did it to protect you.”

She hung up.

He re-dialed. He let it ring. She didn’t answer.

He dropped the phone on the hook and sank back on the bed. Why did she hang up? He said what she wanted. He thought that would bring them back together.

Was she going to take Jazz off life support anyway? Did she hang up so she could call the doctor?

Jazz would die. They would come for Waltz.

He crawled to his pillow and eased his head into it. He curled into the fetal position. He was doomed.

Doomed.

So? What was he going to do? Lie there, curled into himself, until they strapped him to the gurney, and punched needles into his veins?

He knew what to do. He’d search the pawnshops until he found Gordon’s stuff.

He glanced at his watch. Friday. Noon. Most of the shops didn’t close until nine. He levered himself out of bed.

***

 

He wandered out of the last shop Sunday afternoon and slumped on another bus-stop bench, lamenting the sale of his car. He searched every shop on the list and found nothing.

He spent two and a half days baking in the heat, frying his butt on concrete benches, reading mysteries while waiting forever, bouncing around in rattling buses when they finally picked him up, smelling stinking exhaust fumes, and picking through thousands of items of junk in the brief coolness of cluttered pawnshops. For what? Nothing.

Unlike Waltz in steaming San Salsa, Texas, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had it easy. They lived in cool foggy days and nights, with cheap horse-drawn carriages on every corner, waiting for wealthy upper-class gentlemen, eager to drive them anywhere in London for a pittance. The London cabbies tipped their hats and made change. If you insisted, they’d roll out a red carpet, or any color you wanted. You were lucky if modern bus drivers stopped for you.

He was doomed. He had learned one thing, not that he’d ever be able to use it. The last shop displayed a sign. Come Back Tomorrow – New Stuff Everyday.

They could use that at the studio – if they had a studio – and he wasn’t strapped to the gurney, suffering Hook ‘Em’s last gibes. Come Back Tomorrow – New Steps Everyday.

New stuff every day. Pawnshops were like used bookstores. You could never tell what they might have.

The idea came to him. He could start over – go back to the first pawnshop, the one he and Lala started with – and work back through the list. New stuff every day. The killer might have pawned the stuff in the last three days.

It was late evening on Sunday, but the shops were still open. He could at least get a start.

***

 

He opened the door. Cold air enveloped him. It seemed like years since he and Lala walked in together.

He went to the electronics section and searched through the laptops. As usual, nothing. He started in on the jewelry. He saw several rings that he liked.

One resembled Gordon’s, a nice ring. A ring like that, Waltz could see why Gordon might want it back, other than for reasons of sentiment.

Wait a minute. It could be Gordon’s.

He bent over the showcase and squinted, trying to see if Gordon’s name was engraved inside the ring. He moved his head trying to catch the light. He closed his left eye.

A throat cleared. “Can I show you something?”

Waltz pointed. “Yeah, could I see that ring?”

The clerk unlocked the display. He handed Waltz the ring.

Waltz held it up to the light and peered inside, Gordon. He read the name again to be sure. His stomach tightened. He fought the urge to dance around.

The clerk clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his feet, gazing out at the street, yawning. “You can have the inscription removed. That’s no problem.”

“Oh, yes. Good. This is very nice. I’ve never seen one like this before. Where did you get it?”

“No idea. Try it on.”

“You don’t know who pawned it?”

“What difference does it make?”

“None, I guess.” He put it on his ring finger. It fit. What to do next? He found the ring, but that did him no good unless he could trace it back to the guy who pawned it. How could he do that? If he pressed too hard, he might spook the clerk.

The clerk gave him a thumbs-up. “It’s you.” He yawned. “Would you like it? We’re closing in five minutes.”

Should he buy it? Waltz checked the price tag. He didn’t have the money. Besides, if he bought it and took it to the cops, they’d think he had it all along. He’d be in worse trouble. He’d supply the evidence to convict himself.

No, wait. He’d have the receipt from the shop.

No, a receipt wouldn’t help. They’d think he bought some other ring, just to get the receipt, or bribed the clerk, or faked the receipt in some other way.

He’d have to bring the cops to the shop and show it to them, so they could collect the evidence directly. If the case went to trial, they’d have to show that they found the evidence and it hadn’t left their hands.

That wouldn’t work. The lieutenant wouldn’t come to the shop on Waltz’s say so. Besides, Waltz couldn’t trust the lieutenant. He’d claim that Waltz pawned the ring, maybe through a friend, to make it appear that somebody else did it.

He found the ring and he didn’t know what to do. He needed to check with Hook ‘Em. She’d know.

He handed the clerk the ring. “I’ll be back. I have to think about it.”

Waltz caught a bus back to his apartment. He dialed Lala. She didn’t pick up. He left a message. “Lala, I found Gordon’s ring. I went back to that first pawnshop. There it was. Somebody pawned it after we were there. I’m going to get Hook ‘Em to go back with me tomorrow and find out who pawned it. I know I told you I did it. But, really, I didn’t. And now, I’m all set to prove it.”

He dialed Hook ‘Em. “I found Gordon’s ring.”

“You found it?”

“I told you I didn’t attack Gordon or poison Jazz.”

“You found it?”

“Can’t believe it, huh?”

“No. Who pawned it?”

“The guy wouldn’t tell me. I want you to go back with me tomorrow and help me find out.”

“Sorry. I’m off the case. I only do domestic investigations.”

“Come on. Don’t give me that stuff again. I need your help.”

“Sorry. I know you’re in trouble. I can’t do it. I wasted enough time on it already.”

“How’d you waste your time? I paid you.”

“I know. That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Then help me.”

“I’m out of it – for good.”

“Please.”

“You’re on your own.”

Waltz collapsed onto the bed. He hung his head, pressing the phone into his ear. “Then tell me how to get the guy to talk.”

“Get tough with him. Threaten him. Call the cops on him.” She hung up.

He couldn’t call the cops. Couldn’t she see that?

He had to find out who pawned it, investigate him, prove he poisoned Jazz, and then turn him over to the cops.

It was illegal to deal in stolen goods. If he didn’t handle the clerk right, he’d get rid of the ring. Waltz would never be able to trace it.

He still held the phone, pressing it into his ear. He hung it up and rubbed his ear.

He had to get Hook ‘Em to help him.

 

Chapter 10

Let’s Dance

A two-step, “Under the Double Eagle,” blared over the loudspeakers. Waltz and a black Pomeranian marched to it. The Pomeranian dashed away and returned repeatedly, yipping in time to the cadence. He was faster than a Greyhound – and he didn’t nip Waltz’s ankles.

They tramped back and forth in front of Hook ‘Em’s orange trailer, the white Hook ‘Em Horns letters flashing in the pale morning light, Waltz a picketer displaying his sign, and the Pomeranian a loose-cannon pinball.

Waltz arrived at Hook ‘Em’s early that morning after working late hand-lettering his balloons and signs. They looked good, especially at a distance. He knew she had a weakness for slogans, and he meant to beat her down with them.

One side of Waltz’s white picket sign proclaimed in purple, Harns Advocates Marriage. The other side said in Longhorn orange, Harns Favors Family Values.

Tethered to Hook ‘Em’s trailer, a large orange balloon, though it wavered in the breeze, delivered a determined message in white letters, Harns Supports Marriage Counseling. A green one stated Harns Repudiates Divorce. The third balloon, pink, bulged with Stop Harn’s Assault on Divorce. The fourth balloon, Waltz’s favorite, attached to the bumper of her van, declared Harns Espouses Spouses.

He was proud of his slogans. Maybe they weren’t as good as Hook ‘Em’s, but they were close. He bet she was peeping from behind her curtains, jealous.

He intended to keep her clients from entering the trailer. When she saw how his picketing was hurting her business, she’d agree to help him. He wasn’t asking for much, a little help. And he would pay her.

He pounded the side of the trailer, already hot from the sun. The trailer reverberated like a giant drum. The Pomeranian yipped and dashed. “Under the Double Eagle” marched on.

Waltz leaned back and bellowed into the sky. “Hook ‘Em Harns remains unhappily married. She refuses to divorce.”

Neighbors emerged from their trailers, drawn by the noise. The plump woman next door yelled to the Pomeranian. “Here Dasher. Here boy.”

Dasher galloped to her, circled her, leaped with joy, and raced back to Waltz.

Hook ‘Em’s door slammed open, banging against the side of her trailer. She stepped out with a rifle in her hands.

Dasher darted behind Hook ‘Em’s van. Waltz followed him. Hook ‘Em came around the van’s fender.

He’d run for it. No, she’d shoot him in the back before he got ten feet.

“Don’t shoot! You might hit Dasher!” She wouldn’t shoot a man holding a helpless dog in his arms. He tried to grab Dasher. Dasher dodged and darted away.

Little coward.

Waltz reached for the sky. “Don’t shoot!”

Hook ‘Em took aim. He closed his eyes. Fffftt. The sound of a shot. It didn’t sound like it did in the movies. The crowd cheered. They were cheering for her to kill him. He felt nothing. She missed.

Or maybe the impact of the bullet shocked his nervous system so profoundly that he couldn’t feel pain. He opened his eyes and dove behind the rear tire of the van. Gravel tore at his elbows and knees.

He saw no blood on his clothing. He ran his hands over his body, feeling for the wetness of a wound, hoping his hands wouldn’t trigger a sharp pain in a vital part of his body.

She missed. He peeked around the tire.

She fired again. Stop Harn’s Assault on Divorce popped pink against the blue of the sky and plummeted, joining Harns Repudiates Divorce, exhausted and wrinkled on the ground.

She was shooting an air rifle.

The growing crowd cheered and clapped. Someone yelled, “Way to fire, Hook ‘Em!”

She brought the rifle down, slapping it with her hands like a soldier, into a posture of parade rest. She glared at him. “Now, get off my place before I pepper your butt good. Take the rest of your balloons with you.”

Dasher raced to the fallen pink balloon, sunk his teeth into it, and whipped his head side to side, slapping the balloon against his shoulders. He paused and let it droop. He shook it again and let it hang. Satisfied it was dead, he held it high like a scepter, and pranced around the crowd, displaying his kill.

The crowd cheered.

Waltz reached into his bag, pulled out a blue balloon, and started blowing it up. A tiny saying appeared on it.

The balloon expanded. Harns Says Forgive Cheating – Stay Married.

“Under the Double Eagle” blared. Hook ‘Em bent to the power plug in the side of her trailer and unhooked the stereo. Both Eagles faded to silence.

Hook ‘Em raised her rifle to her shoulder and took aim.

She might hit him in the face. He turned his back and closed his eyes. She’d shoot him in the butt, but it was only an air rifle. Only an air rifle? Those little pellets would power into the skin.

But he wasn’t leaving. She’d see that. He cringed, prepared himself for the shot, and kept blowing. The balloon expanded to full size. He tied it. He held it at arm’s length so she could shoot it without hitting him.

He waited. The shot didn’t come. He peeped under his raised arm.

A grizzled old man in a tattered robe, worn slippers slapping in the gravel, limped toward Hook ‘Em. “Stop it. Stop it right now.”

Hook ‘Em leaned her rifle on the trailer. “Just plinking a few balloons with an air rifle, a bit of harmless fun.”

“You’re nothing but orange-and-white trash. Get rid of those balloons. Cut the noise. Some people are trying to sleep. You hear?”

The old man turned to the crowd. He rubbed his five-day growth of beard. “The rest of you, don’t give her an audience. It encourages her. Go back inside your trailers.”

He turned and hobbled away, speaking over his shoulder. “You pull anything like this again and you’re out of here.”

Dasher raced around him, leaping and yapping. The old man paused once to kick at him. Dasher danced away. The old man stomped up the stairs of his trailer, went in, and slammed the door.

The neighbors returned to their trailers and closed the doors silently.

Hook ‘Em sank to the steps. She dropped her face to her hands, elbows propped on her knees.

He jiggled his bag. “I’ve got lots of balloons. All with snappy mottos. I’m not leaving.”

She raised her head. “Haven’t you screwed things up enough? Thanks to you, Sadie and her sadist friends have set up GetHook’Em.Org. They’re bombarding me. I’ve got thousands of Beat Your Buddy, Larrup Your Lover, and Lengthen Your Lash emails flooding my box.”

“Sadie – again?”

“Now you’re here, screwing around with any customers who might possibly get through Sadie’s blockade. Thanks to you, the owner is threatening to evict me.”

He picked up her rifle, aimed at the orange balloon with white lettering, and fired. He waited for it to fall. The balloon still fluttered at the end of its tether.

He fired again. And again.

Harns Supports Marriage Counseling remained undaunted, Longhorn orange taunting, insolent.

He grabbed the string and hauled the balloon down hand over hand. Holding the rifle in one hand, and, in the other, the balloon, he fired into it point blank. The balloon wobbled from the force of the blast, but remained round and firm and full of air.

He leaned the rifle against the trailer. He wrapped the string around his left foot until the balloon was snug against it. With his right foot, he stomped the balloon. It bounced back, unharmed. Harns Supports Marriage Counseling sneered. He stomped again. Harn’s support for marriage counseling did not waver. He stomped again. The balloon exploded.

He fell backward on his butt.

Hook ‘Em burst into laughter. Dasher raced around Waltz, barking. Waltz got up and brushed off his pants. He retrieved the rifle and put it in her hands. “Here. You shoot the other one. I’d better stick to dancing.”

She remained on the steps. She brought the rifle to her shoulder and in one smooth motion fired. The balloon fell. She leaned the rifle against the trailer.

He plopped next to her. “Sorry. I didn’t intend to hurt your business. I just wanted to get your attention.”

They sat in silence. Finally Waltz spoke. “Since you’re suffering a downturn in business, how about a deal?”

“What? I help you mess around finding out who pawned that ring, and you pay me how? Dance lessons? I need cash.”

He grabbed the rifle and sighted down the barrel. It seemed straight. “You’ll get cash. Not right away, but within a month, maybe two. Fifty thousand.”

She laughed. “You’re the funniest man in the world. How do you come up with this stuff? Forget dancing. You should go into standup.”

He aimed at a can in the yard and squeezed the trigger.

No sound of pellet against tin. The can didn’t move. “I’m serious. Jazz has an insurance policy that pays big. I’ll get half.”

She slumped against the doorjamb of the trailer. “Lala’s as tight as the fat lady’s girdle when she hits a high note. You won’t get a smell of that money.”

He leaned the rifle at arm’s-length against the trailer and brushed his hands. “It’s business insurance, key man. It goes to the corporation, not to her. I’ll get my share.”

“Pays the corporation. Hmm.” She got up. She paced back and forth in front of the stairs.

“Fifty thousand.”

Dasher streaked from under the trailer, circled them three times, and raced away, barking at a squirrel.

Hook ‘Em studied his antics, like a zoologist observing a new species. “Fifty thousand?”

“Fifty thousand.”

“You’re going to pay me fifty thou to help you find out who pawned that ring?”

He grabbed the rifle, aimed at a tree, and pulled the trigger. “No. If you help me find out who killed Jazz and clear me of all charges, you get fifty.” He examined the rifle. Why couldn’t he hit anything?

She continued to gaze at Dasher. “Make it seventy-five.”

“Seventy-five?” Waltz waited a while. “Seventy-five?”

“Okay. Seventy. But not a penny less.”

“Make it eighty. Not a penny more.”

“Eighty?”

“Eighty.” He shrugged. “Of course, it wouldn’t be a domestic investigation.”

“I’m thinking of revising my business plan.” She wiped her hands on her jeans. “You’re serious? You’ll pay me that much?”

“No doubt my cellmate on death row will repeatedly rape me. What will I do with my money? Tip him?” He fired again. The candy wrapper ten feet away didn’t even flutter. “Eighty thou.”

She studied the sky, like a scientist pondering the possibility of life on other planets. “I’m as tempted as a fire ant on a baby’s butt.”

“It’s a lot of money. You could get a nerd to come in and fix your website.”

“A sadist-free website. What a relief.”

“Your Longhorn orange is fading. People might think you’ve gone Aggie. You could have it repainted.”

“New Longhorn orange.”

“You could get your van tuned.”

“A well-tuned van. Stop. Stop. It’s all I can do to keep my panties dry.”

“Then what’s stopping you. Take the money.”

She stopped pacing and faced him. “The money would be nice.”

“It’s yours.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on.”

“You’ll change your mind.”

“No, I won’t.”

“You will when I tell you something.”

“What?”

She took a deep breath. “I think your true love poisoned Jazz.”

“She wasn’t even there.”

“I don’t know how she did it, but I’m sure she did.”

He shook his head. “I can’t see it.”

She sat next to him. “It had to be her. She must’ve ground up the pills and put them in Jazz’s favorite whiskey. Something only he would drink. She did it ahead of time. You innocently mixed it and that was it.”

He picked up the air rifle and ran his fingers over the embossed letters. “But I used the same Scotch for Jazz that I used for everybody. We only buy one brand. Lots of people were drinking it. We went through six or seven bottles. There was nothing reserved for him.”

“What was he mixing it with?”

He lifted his fingers from the letters, Air Blast. “Water. Straight out of the tap.”

Dasher raced from behind a trailer three down and leaped into Hook ‘Em’s lap. She laughed and petted him. “Where’d you get the ice?”

“I bought it at the market.”

“I know she did it.”

“I can’t see any way.”

“She was at the party for a while, wasn’t she? Before she went home?”

“Yeah, for about twenty minutes.”

“Simple. She could’ve put it in his first drink.”

“I mixed it.”

Dasher accepted the petting and, panting, eyebrows rising and falling, regarded Waltz. Waltz could feel Dasher’s warm breath on his hands and smell it too.

“She could have slipped something in the drink you mixed, though, couldn’t she? She was around him, wasn’t she? Before she left?”

“Yes, she could have.”

“There you go.”

“Could she get enough in one drink to kill him? Without spoiling the taste?”

Hook ‘Em continued to stroke Dasher. “I don’t know. You’d have to check on that. Was that his first drink of the evening?”

Dasher leaped from Hook ‘Em’s lap and sprinted away. Hook ‘Em and Waltz both laughed.

“I think so.”

“So she had to put it all in that first drink. You have a point. That’s lots of sleeping pills in one drink. You’d think he’d notice.”

Waltz caressed the embossed letters of the Air Blast. “Unless she put it in something he drank before the party. Like his strawberry slush.”

“Did he have one before the party?”

“He had several. He was always drinking them. He drank one every hour or two. He loved them.”

“That’s it. She put some in his slush before the party. It would hide the taste better than Scotch. She put more in his first Scotch. Along with the alcohol, that was enough to kill him.”

“I still can’t believe she’d do it. She’s not like that.” The cold metal of the air rifle felt clammy and treacherous.

“You’re in lust with her. That’s why you can’t see it. It’s so obvious. Look how she left the party early so nobody would suspect her.”

“But Jazz made her leave early. She wanted to stay.”

“She wanted to stick around long enough to spike his next drink. Then she was going to leave. As it was, she didn’t give him enough to kill him, not right away.”

“Okay, so she had an opportunity to poison him. She would never do such a thing. I know her. You don’t.”

“I know her.”

“You don’t know her. You talk to her on the phone and you think you know her.”

“I know her.” She snatched the air rifle out of his hands and leaned it against the trailer. “Stop playing with that.”

She got up and paced back and forth. She stopped and took a deep breath. “I’ve been working for her.”

“For Lala?”

“Since before the dog got poisoned.”

“Why?”

“She wanted a divorce.”

He slumped against the trailer. The rifle toppled over. “She was going to divorce Jazz?”

“You better believe it. She hated his guts.”

He picked up the rifle and brushed it off. “Maybe she wanted a divorce, but she wouldn’t kill anybody.”

“Don’t kid yourself. He knew she was going to divorce him. He pretended he was losing money gambling, but he hid it, so he could stiff her on a settlement. She couldn’t find it. He teased her about it. She hired me to find it. He found out she hired me. Look how he insisted that you hire me. He was baiting her. Me too. It enraged her, and she killed him.”

He stood up. “Not Lala. She wouldn’t kill anybody.”

Hook ‘Em put her hands on his shoulders and shook him. “She framed you. She thought she’d be home free, but the cops thought the two of you did it together. So she’s working with the cops. They’ve wired her house and her car. She’s been trying to get you to implicate yourself. How many times has she asked you to admit you poisoned Jazz?”

He eased himself onto the step, using the rifle as a cane. She asked him a million times. Over and over. She never stopped. She asked him a million times. Fool that he was, he admitted it, and she recorded it. “I can’t believe she’d do that to me.”

Hook ‘Em put her hand on the trailer and kicked at a bush. “Think about it. She wants the studio, the insurance money, and Jazz’s stash. With you on death row, she figures she’ll have it all.”

The heat of the sun pounded down on him. His shirt stuck to his skin, drenched with sweat. “I know she’s greedy… but she loves me.” He choked on the “loves me” part.

“She only loves one thing – money. For lots of money, she’d frame you without a thought.”

Waltz got up. He put the rifle on his shoulder and paced. “That’s why she insisted I hire you.”

“That’s right. She told me you poisoned Jazz for his stash. She wanted me to find out where you hid it. And to get you to admit you did it or run to Rio.”

“You were screwing me. I was your client.”

“She was my client, not you. I was working undercover, for her. I didn’t feel guilty – not at first. Why shouldn’t a guy who poisons his brother go to prison? But then I realized you didn’t do it.”

“But I paid you.”

“I had to give the money to her. She insisted on it.”

“You’re not working for her anymore?”

“I didn’t find the stash. She fired me.”

Waltz didn’t speak.

Hook ‘Em kicked the bush hard. “She stiffed me. She paid me a retainer and then put me off. I should’ve known better. She owes me forty-eight hundred.”

“I guess you do know her.”

“Maybe she intended to pay me out of the stash. Once you accept that she did it, it makes sense. She had me leading you on a wild goose chase to discourage you and get you to run to Rio.”

“And I thought you both were helping me.”

“You were wrong. Sorry.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“Think about it. Did you enjoy the motorcycle ride? That was her idea. She said you shook at the thought of a motorcycle. One wild ride would soften you up.”

“But the van stalled.”

“No, I faked it.”

“It seemed real.”

“My van gives the impression it might stall at any minute, but it runs good.”

“You took a big risk to scare me.”

“The ride turned out wilder than I intended. Sadie drove like a mad woman. And that downpour. We almost bought it.”

“You were scared too?”

“I thought I’d never be able to let go of the handlebars.”

“I’m glad I didn’t know that. I thought it was a day in the park for you.” He shuddered. He thought back to that night. “I have to give you credit for the S&M club. That fooled me too. I don’t see how you set that up.”

“That just happened, thanks to you calling me over to the table. I didn’t know that Sadie was into that sort of thing. But I figured it was a good chance to nail her and screw with you a little more, discourage you, get you to run.”

Waltz lowered himself to the stoop and stared at the white L on the toe of his right dance shoe. “But she loves me. She made love to me.”

Hook ‘Em laughed. “I hate to destroy your confidence and ruin your career as a womanizer, but can’t you see she did that to control you? She figured she could get you to do anything she wanted.”

“She poisoned Jazz for money. For money.”

“Lots of people have killed for money. It’s the main reason. The cops solve most crimes by following the money.”

He released the rifle to his lap and put his face in his hands. He would feel better if she killed Jazz because she hated him. Instead, she killed him in cold blood – for money. And she framed Waltz for it.

Hook ‘Em went into the trailer. She returned, sat next to him, and handed him a cup of coffee. He sipped it, black and bitter, unlike Lala’s loaded with cream.

He had no idea how long they stayed on the step. A long time, the way the last of the coffee felt cold going down.

She rubbed his shoulder. “Am I your dick? The pawnshop will be opening soon.”

She handed him a clipboard. “Here, sign this contract.”

Could he trust her? She already double-crossed him once. “Standard private-eye contract?”

She handed him a pen. “Yes, but I wrote in the part about the fee.”

He signed it.

She pointed to a handwritten section. “Initial the fee part.”

He initialed it. He grabbed the air rifle, aimed at the blue of the sky, and squeezed the trigger.

Got it. He cringed, waiting for the sky to fall.

Nothing happened. Well, that was something. At least the sky wasn’t falling – not yet.

He pushed himself up. “Okay, dick, let’s solve this crime.”

***

 

They got to the pawnshop fifteen minutes after it opened. The odds against anybody buying that particular ring in the last fifteen minutes were astronomical. His problems were almost over.

Hook ‘Em stopped at the door, stuffing Waltz’s handcuffs into her back pocket. “You’re going to pay me eighty thou?”

He stepped back. “That’s right.”

“Even if I finish up this afternoon?”

“I’d love it if we finished up this afternoon.”

“You’d better pay me.”

He shrugged. “Don’t you trust me?” Did he trust her?

“Remember, we’ve got a contract.”

“I’ll pay. Eighty thou.”

“Eighty thou.”

Hook ‘Em gazed down the street. A battered pickup chugged by, spewing smoke out the tailpipe. “Screw my landlord. I’ll buy me a piece of land and my own trailer, a double wide, not a used one – new.”

“You could get factory orange, white, and Hook ‘Em Horns.”

She turned and shoved the door open. A bell above the doorway tinkled. “Your Cheating Heart” played low on the sound system. Cold air rushed over them. His shirt, wet with sweat, chilled him.

He rushed toward the display case. He could hardly wait to show Hook ‘Em the ring. It took a lot of legwork to do what he did. He was a real detective.

The clerk glanced at them, turned, and went through a door in the back. What did clerks do in the backs of stores? Sleep? Run illegal casinos?

The overhead lights were dim, but spotlights illuminated the showcases. The jewelry glittered in its glow. Waltz scanned the case. The ring was about a third of the way down and about half-way across. His eyes went to the spot. Wait. That wasn’t it.

He stepped back. It was the fifth case from the wall. He counted again. It was the right case.

Hook ‘Em peered at the rings. “Which one is it?”

Maybe he’d miscounted. Maybe it was the fourth case. He moved to his left. Not there either.

He went to the sixth case.

She followed. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t see it.”

“You sure it was this store?”

He poked the glass of the display case, his fingernail clicking against it. “It was in this case last night.”

“Maybe they moved it.”

He showed her Gordon’s picture of the ring. “Help me look.”

They searched all the cases. They couldn’t find it.

Hook ‘Em studied him. “You sure you saw the ring here?”

“Yes.”

“In this store?”

“Certainly it was this store. I recognize the clerk.”

“Maybe they sold it.”

“In the first fifteen minutes of business? That particular ring?”

“You’re right. Something funny’s going on.”

He went to the back door and spoke through it. “Sir, I could use some help in here.” He got no reply. He knocked on the door. Nothing.

He raised his voice. “I need help.”

Hook ‘Em tried the door. It was locked. “The clerk seems to be hiding from us. Did you tell him the ring was stolen?”

“No.”

She knocked on the door. “Come out. We want to buy a ring.”

No response.

She cupped her ear to the door. She turned back to Waltz. “You must have said something to him.”

He looked at the floor. “No, but…”

“But what?”

He studied the floor.

“But what?”

“I called Lala and told her I found the ring.”

“You tell her which store?”

Waltz hesitated. “Yeah.”

Hook ‘Em threw a kick at the air, a kick like a karate expert would throw. “Knowing she was behind it all?”

“Last night, I didn’t know it.”

“Great. You screwed things up good. I can see you’re going to make me earn my money.” She turned and pounded on the door. She yelled through it. “Sir, we need help. Come out.”

Silence. What if the clerk had gone out the back way? They’d never find him.

She pounded again, harder. “Come out.”

The clerk’s voice came through the door. “Get out of here, or I’ll call the cops.”

Waltz grabbed Hook ‘Em’s fist and whispered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Hook ‘Em wrenched free and pounded the door. “Call them. It’ll save me the trouble. You call them now or I will.”

The silence was eerie.

Hook ‘Em put her hand on Waltz’s shoulder, braced herself, and cocked her leg. She kicked the door with the heel of her cowboy boot.

Boom. The door rattled.

The clerk was probably calling the cops.

Hook ‘Em drew back her foot and kicked again. And again. The door screeched and splintered. Two more kicks and the door gave. A piece swung from a splinter. She pulled it loose and flung it behind her, hitting a guitar hanging from a hook, producing a low base note, a note of doom.

She charged through the jagged opening. “Come on.”

Waltz hesitated. The cops were no doubt on their way. They’d arrest him. They’d rescind his bail. He’d go to jail. He’d never get out again.

The clerk hid behind a large, freestanding shelf, a baseball bat in his hand.

Hook ‘Em rushed the shelf and shoved it. The shelf rocked. A large-screen TV toppled onto the clerk. He fell to the floor. A stereo slid off and hit him in the head. The shelf crashed down on him, its load of stereos and TVs pounding him.

A cloud of dust billowed up, filling the room. Hook ‘Em sneezed.

She reached through the shelf and cuffed the clerk. “Help me get this stuff off him.”

Waltz remained in the doorway. He had to get out of there.

Hook ‘Em turned and beckoned. “Come on.”

“I’ll wait outside.”

“Come on. Before it kills him.”

“The cops will come.”

The clerk groaned.

Hook ‘Em motioned again. “He’s hurt.”

The clerk, pinned under the heavy shelf, groaned again.

He could die. Waltz ran through the door. He picked up the TV and threw it against the wall. Then two stereos.

Hook ‘Em moved two TVs off the clerk. “Now the shelf.”

They grabbed the top. They strained against it.

The shelf didn’t budge. The clerk would die under there. Waltz tightened his grip and pulled harder. The steel frame bit into his hands.

Slowly, the shelf began to move. They walked the shelf up and set it upright.

Hook ‘Em bent over the clerk and checked his pulse.

He shoved her back onto her butt and staggered to his feet, groaning. He held his head. “You’ve ruined me.”

“You’re okay.” She grabbed him by the shirt collar and backed him up against the wall. The force of her hand on his neck twisted his face out of shape. “I want the ring you showed my friend last night. The one engraved ‘Gordon.’”

The clerk wobbled against the wall. He held his head. “My head aches.”

“Where’s the ring?”

The clerk rubbed his head and garbled his words. “I never had any such ring.”

“You’d better cough it up.”

Waltz stepped forward. He grabbed her shoulders. “The way you kicked that door in. You’re using karate again.”

“Why shouldn’t I? I’m a brown belt.”

Waltz shook her. “This can’t be like the last guy. You really hurt him. He’ll never be the same. Those imitation balls work nothing like the originals.”

She pulled herself free and cocked her foot.

He shook her. “You can’t practice your kicks on this guy. Not this time.”

“Okay. No kicks, for now.” She flung his hands away and turned back to the clerk. “This is a murder case. You keep evidence from the cops, you’re an accessory. That’s good for at least twenty years. Now, where’s that ring?”

“I don’t know anything about a ring.”

Hook ‘Em spoke over her shoulder. “Call the cops. This guy wants free rent for the next twenty years.”

Call the cops? No way.

She held up her hand and folded her arm behind her back. She crossed her fingers. “Call the cops.”

Fake the call. Yeah. He picked up the phone.

Hook ‘Em pushed the clerk further up the wall, putting him on tip toe. “Twenty years for accessory to murder. And then we add at least five years for fencing stolen goods.”

She stepped back, holding him against the wall with one hand, and studied him. “He’s forty-five if he’s a day. Plus twenty-five… It’s not so bad. He’ll be out by the time he’s seventy. I wonder if ex-cons get Social Security.”

Waltz couldn’t keep dialing long. It was only three digits, 911. “I doubt he’d make it to seventy. He’s the sort of guy they like to gang rape.”

Hook ‘Em stepped back and cocked her foot. “One kick. Okay?”

Waltz turned, phone to his ear. “One. No more. And to the body. So the cops won’t see the bruise.”

The clerk slid down the wall to the floor. “Okay. It’s in the middle desk drawer.”

Waltz exhaled. He opened the drawer. He picked up the ring.

He handed it to Hook ‘Em. She examined it. She compared it to the photo. She read the engraving on the inside. She flipped it into the air and caught it. “Bingo.”

She bent over the clerk, who still slumped against the wall. “How’d you know we were coming?”

“A woman called this morning. She said the guy in the baseball cap was coming back for the ring. He was going to raise a big stink about it being stolen.”

“What’s her name?”

“I don’t know.”

Hook ‘Em kicked the sole of his shoe. “She sold you the ring, didn’t she?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“What’s she look like?”

“Kind of dumpy.”

“What color hair?”

“Blonde… bleached.”

“You’re lying. Who sold you the ring?”

“I don’t know.” He stared at the floor. His mouth was set.

She kicked his shoe again. “You don’t know?” She turned to Waltz. “I thought we had an understanding with this guy. Call the cops.”

Waltz marched to the phone.

Hook ‘Em perched on the desk. “Too bad. I was hoping to get out of here in the next two minutes. When the cops show up, we’ll have to answer a bunch of questions. They’ll probably hold us up an hour or so.”

Waltz turned toward her. “Oh well. That’s better than what our friend here is going to have to put up with.”

“You’re so right. They’ll take him down to the station for questioning. It might take two or three days, but he’ll spill his guts. I don’t know whether they’ll actually torture him.”

Waltz tried to look horrified. “They tortured me.”

“That’s right. I forgot.”

“You wouldn’t forget if they tortured you.

“I guess not. You’ve never been the same.”

“It’s the nightmares.”

“It’s your screams in the night. They get to me.” She shuddered.

She approached the clerk, put her hands on her knees, and bent over him. “After a few days, when you spill your guts, they’ll let you out on bail. That’ll be the bad part, because they’ll arrest the guy. They’ll tell him you ratted on him. He’ll get bail and come to see you. I wonder what he’ll do.”

Waltz held up the phone. “Reprimand him?”

Hook ‘Em laughed. “No. He’ll be too pissed off for that.”

“I suppose you’re right. He’ll kick his ass good.”

Hook ‘Em reset her hat. “Probably beat him up, cut off his balls, and after he suffers for a while, kill him.”

“Hang it up.”

Waltz dropped the receiver on the cradle.

Hook ‘Em made a great show of fishing the cuff key out of her jeans. She held it up. “Who was it?”

“You can’t tell them I told you. They’re mean as snakes.”

“We won’t tell them. Who?”

“Flaco and Pete.”

“It wasn’t a woman?”

“No, it was Flaco and Pete.”

“What’s their address?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought we had a deal.” She stuffed the key back in her pocket and walked to the phone. “I’ll call the cops this time. I know some of them. They’ll probably know two thieves named Flaco and Pete. Too bad. We just wanted to talk to them. We wouldn’t even tell them how we found them.”

“You think the cops will tell them?”

“Hell, yes. The cops don’t keep anything secret.”

“Oh – that’s bad.”

“That’s nothing. The cops will arrest Flaco and Pete for murder – and this guy as accessory. Oh, well. No skin off my butt.” She dialed.

“Hang up. I don’t know their address, but I can tell you where they live.”

 

Chapter 11

Strip Joint

Hook ‘Em opened her closet. She handed Waltz a rifle and a box of shells. “Load that up.”

“No guns.”

She rummaged in the closet and pulled out a leather holster. “Did you see how bad these guys scared the clerk? We threatened him with jail and a beating. He could hardly bring himself to inform on them. Do you want to walk up to them unarmed and demand that they tell you who hired them to commit a crime, a crime worth five years of their time for attacking an innocent dance instructor? Maybe the death penalty if Jazz dies?”

Waltz’s knees wobbled. “I guess not.”

“Load it up.”

“How?”

She glowered at him. “I forgot. You can’t hit a balloon point-blank. Put it on the table.”

She sat at the table. She pulled a pistol out of the holster and shoved shells into the cylinder. “We’re not going to shoot anybody. We just want to intimidate them. We’ll get them to talk fast.”

What if she shot somebody? He collapsed into a chair.

She pushed bullets into the rifle. “You see this? This is the safety. Push it this way and you’ll be ready to fire. Back this way and you can’t fire it.”

“I might hurt somebody.”

“Shoot it only if you have to. Into the air, off to the side, into the ground. We don’t want to kill anybody.”

“Still, it might hit somebody.”

“Based on what I see of your marksmanship, we don’t need to worry about that. No, you were aiming. On second thought, maybe you’d better aim at them.”

“I don’t like this. It’s dangerous.”

“Which is more dangerous? These guns or the needle they’ll stick in your arm in the execution chamber?” She clicked the safety. “It’s on safety. Leave it that way. You can’t fire it. You won’t fire it. Keep your finger off the trigger. You’ll simply point it at them. It will intimidate them. I’ll do all the shooting.”

Waltz opened his mouth to speak.

She held up her hand. “Don’t worry. I won’t need to shoot. They’ll be so scared when we level the guns on them that they won’t be able to do anything.”

She handed him the rifle.

Waltz held it. It smelled of oil. He felt its heft, heavier than the air rifle, hard and cold, remorseless, made to kill. He imagined how it would feel if a red-hot bullet plowed through your flesh, shattered a bone, and ricocheted to a stop in a vital organ.

He clicked the safety on, then off, then on. “That’s on, right?”

“Yes. It’s a piece of cake.”

“And when the safety is on, that means it won’t shoot?”

“Right.”

He couldn’t possibly shoot anyone. He couldn’t imagine a confrontation with guns, but it would be okay. He’d keep the rifle on safety. He wouldn’t touch the safety button or the trigger. That way he couldn’t hurt anybody.

***

 

“This is it. Let’s go.”

Waltz’s stomach flip-flopped. He hesitated. “You sure this is the house?”

“Of course. I followed the clerk’s directions exactly. Let’s go.”

He held out his hand. “Let me see the directions.”

She pushed him toward the rear of the house. “Let’s go.”

He snuck around the side. He stopped halfway to the back. He couldn’t hold a gun on those guys. It didn’t seem right. They say you shouldn’t point a gun at anyone unless you intend to shoot him. His hands shook.

He thought about Jazz in his hospital bed, hooked up to tubes, pale and shrunken, dying. He firmed his grip on the rifle.

He went on to the back door, his hands shaking. He would stop them if they tried to escape out the back. He dropped the blanket and held the rifle. He made sure it was on safety.

What if they came out the back? He couldn’t hit a balloon with the muzzle of the rifle snuggled against it.

It didn’t matter. The gun was on safety. All he had to do was point it at them. They would stop. Anybody would. A gun would intimidate anybody.

What if they didn’t stop? He was supposed to shoot at the ground. He could do that. That would stop them. It would scare anybody. Besides, Hook ‘Em was a dead shot. They’d come to the front door and she’d stick them up. It would all be over. He wouldn’t have to do anything. She would handle it. He was paying her well.

She said she’d give him a few minutes to get into position and then she’d knock on the door. They’d open it. She’d hold the pistol on them. She’d tell them we had the ring and a witness. The punks would have to confess. What else could they do? It would all be over.

His stomach wanted to throw up. He swallowed twice. He glanced at his watch. She should be letting him in by now. Had something gone wrong? No, how could it?

A scratching sound came from the side of the house. It got louder. He turned.

A brown creature hurtled toward him, its claws clacking against the sidewalk. It leaped and crashed against his chest. He heard himself scream. He went backwards to the ground. The beast landed on his chest and clamped its jaw on his wrist. Its weight knocked his breath away. He gasped. Its teeth sunk into his wrist.

Volts of pain shot up his arm. Where was the rifle? He tried to wrench his arm free. The jaws clamped tighter. His hand went numb. He couldn’t move it. Did the thing bite off his hand?

The door opened. He heard laughter. “Look, Chomper got another one. Good dog. That’s a sweet boy, a good boy. Did he hurt you, sweet boy? I’ll kill him if he did. You want to eat his hand? You go right ahead. No, better not. He might poison you, sweet boy.” The voice went from cajoling to authoritative. “Release.”

The jaws loosened. They trailed hot drool over Waltz’s face. The stench of the beast’s breath stunned him. What breed of dog could it be? A dog’s breath should smell of beer.

The monster backed off his chest, stepping on his balls – twice. He curled into the fetal position, trying to ease the pain. He sucked in what air he could.

“Get up.”

Waltz turned onto his elbows and knees. His hand was bloody, but still attached to his arm. He gasped for breath. A foot kicked him in the ribs. He couldn’t breathe.

“Get up.”

He struggled to his feet. Somebody pushed him through the door. He staggered, but caught himself on the kitchen stove, the aroma of onion rings wafting up from the dregs in the cast-iron skillet.

Hook ‘Em slumped in a chair against the opposite wall, pale and subdued. She held her bleeding gun hand. Someone shoved him in her direction. He staggered and collapsed in the chair next to her. He managed to suck in a little air, blinking away tears.

Chomper froze at attention in front of them, eyes threatening them, slobber dripping from his giant jowls.

Waltz shivered. His hand hurt. That was good. He still had it and it was alive. He moved his fingers. A throb of pain shot up his arm, but his hand still worked. He clenched and straightened his fingers.

One of the punks waved a huge pistol. “Get that dog back in the garage.”

“He’s guarding them. He won’t hurt them – unless I say so.”

“I don’t like him in the house. He’s slobbering on my clean floor. Put him back in the garage. And remember to close the garage door. We don’t want him running loose.”

The fastidious one was Hispanic. He must be Flaco. So the dog lover’s name was Pete.

Flaco’s pistol looked like a cannon compared to Hook ‘Em’s twenty-two. He waved it like a baton, his finger on the trigger. A bullet big enough to fit the hole in that barrel could kill you even if it only hit you in the arm.

Waltz strained to see if it was on safety. He couldn’t tell.

Pete pushed the button to close the exterior garage door. It rumbled as it closed. He sneered at Flaco. “See, I remembered.” He opened the kitchen door. “Chomper, garage.”

Chomper turned and trotted into the garage. Pete closed the door. He studied Hook ‘Em and Waltz, then turned to Flaco. “It’s your turn.”

“No, it’s yours.”

“I did the last ones.”

Flaco’s pistol wavered between Waltz and Hook ‘Em. “You do the guy. I do the girl. That’s the fair thing.”

“No, I’m telling you. I did the last ones.”

“We split them.”

A chill flashed over Waltz’s body. They couldn’t be serious. He glanced at Hook ‘Em. She gazed straight ahead, her face pale.

Pete stared at Hook ‘Em. “Do the girl now.”

“Not here. We don’t want blood all over the place. It’ll leave DNA.”

Pete waved his pistol. “I’ve had it with this CSI thing. Now you got to do your work without leaking any body fluids. It’s one damn thing after another.”

“Screw CSI. If you knew how long it took me to put the shine on this floor, you wouldn’t want blood all over it. We’ll take them someplace else.”

Pete emphasized his words with jabs of his pistol in the direction of Waltz. “Not to the woods. They can’t get deep enough with all those roots.”

“They can cut through the roots with the axes.”

“Screw that. It’ll take all day. Let’s throw them in the river.”

“No, they might come ashore anywhere. Put the shovels and axes in the car and find some rope.”

“Why did they have to come around here?” Pete started for the garage, stopped, and turned. “In the old days, you didn’t have to worry about body fluids. They drained where they fell. Now the conservatives are trying to get rid of Miranda. I should’ve become a librarian, no body-fluids there.”

“You? A librarian? What about all the homeless people that hang out in libraries these days? They probably piss on the floor, maybe in the rare books room.”

“This country is going to hell.” Pete went into the garage and slammed the door.

Waltz glanced at Hook ‘Em. She was trembling. He’d screwed up again. He got her into trouble. She’d been happy, breaking up marriages. She had her orange-and-white trailer, even if it was only a single wide. Football season was about to start. The Horns were highly ranked. All that was over for her. Thanks to him, the punks were going to kill her – in the woods. Her body fluids weren’t good enough for their kitchen floor.

He had to save her.

Pete came back in. “Okay. I got the stuff in the car. We’d better stop and buy a couple of picks.” He raised his hands and eyes to heaven. “Why me?”

Hook ‘Em raised her hand like a shy kid in school. Fear changed her, like it did everybody. “Don’t kill me, Flaco. Please don’t. I can be useful.”

“Shut up.”

“Please Flaco. You’d like me. Let me show you. Let me show you what I’ve got. Put on some good stripping music. I’ll show you boys something. Afterwards, if you like what I have – and you will – I’ll give you a little. What do you say?”

Flaco grinned. “Why not?”

“Put on the music. You’ll see. You won’t want to kill me after you see what I’ve got. You can still kill him.” She gestured toward Waltz.

Hook ‘Em turned against him. Yvette, Lala, and Hook ‘Em. You couldn’t trust any of them.

Wait. He saw what she was doing. “Don’t do it, Hook ‘Em. Don’t give them any. It’s too good for them. Save it for me. You promised.”

She sneered at him. “Screw you. These two guys are twice the man you are.”

No, she meant it. She was going to bed with Flaco and Pete to save her life and she was going to let them kill Waltz. He didn’t blame her. It was his fault.

Pete stomped his feet, like a little kid having a fit. “No. She’s trying to trick you, Flaco. Don’t fall for it.”

“Sure, she’s trying to trick us. So what? We got the guns. I want to see what she’s got. I might want a little of it.”

Pete looked Hook ‘Em over. “You do them both.”

“Maybe we won’t have to. We might want to keep her. She can do him for us.” Flaco pointed his gun at her. “How about it?” He waved it at Waltz. “Will you get rid of him for us?”

“With pleasure. You won’t even have to dismember the body. I’ll do that. I’ll bury him in six separate graves. I’ll fill them up and tamp them down. I’ll piss on them. It’ll be a fitting farewell. He’s the one that got me into this. He’s an asshole. I didn’t want to come here.”

Not only was she going to kill him, she was going to dismember his body, and piss on his graves. He deserved it. He didn’t know what he was doing. He hired a dick who knew nothing but divorce. He let her lead him into a confrontation with psychopaths. He ought to have his head examined.

He guessed he would. The coroner would be examining it soon, assuming they ever found it.

“What do you say, Pete? That sounds fair to me.”

“I get to torture him first.”

“That goes without saying. Turn on the radio. Let’s give her some stripping music.”

Pete switched on a giant boombox. Loud Tejano music blared out of it.

Hook ‘Em flounced to her feet. “Switch it to the blues station.” She glanced at Waltz. Her eyebrows rose and fell.

The eyebrows, what did they mean? Screw you, Waltz, you’re going to die – all six lumps of you?

A slow blues came on the radio. Hook ‘Em strutted to the center of the room. She doffed her hat and waved it over her head like a rodeo star. Her long blond hair fell to her shoulders.

She did bumps and grinds like her hips hung on bungees. She ought to be more subtle, just imply the bumps and grinds. She pranced from one side of the room to the other. She did high kicks. Not many ballerinas could beat her on flexibility.

She sailed her hat into the corner. She inched her orange T-shirt up her belly. She faced the punks who leaned against the opposite wall. Waltz had an impulse to move his chair around to the side where he could see better. She turned and wiggled her butt at the punks.

They whistled. Flaco laughed. “Take it off.”

As she danced, she inched her shirt up again. She slowly turned. The shirt was above her nipples. She turned back, to face the punks. She inched the shirt up her arms and pulled it free. She swung it over her head and flung it to Flaco. He caught it, and waved it over his head. He smiled.

She should’ve teased them longer before she took off her shirt. She should’ve built up the suspense.

A new song started. It too had a slow swing to it. She strutted back and forth, arms out, giving them a full view of her breasts. They weren’t too big and for sure not too small. They jiggled nicely, but they were firm and shapely and didn’t droop. They might be nicer than Lala’s.

She did a head flip, hair floating, breasts jiggling.

Pete leered and moved to the music.

Flaco goggled, open-mouthed. “Take it all off.” He whistled.

She unbuckled her belt and slowly withdrew it from her jeans. She whirled it over her head and threw it to Flaco. He caught it, stuck his gun into his back pocket, wrapped her belt around his upper arm several times, buckled it, and retrieved his pistol. He danced and turned in a circle, holding his arms above his head to display his trophy.

She unzipped her fly. She bent over and jiggled her breasts. The punks yelled and cheered. She eased her jeans from her hips. Her lace panties caught in the jeans and eased down with them. Did she wear the same kind of lace panties every day, like she did the T-shirt and jeans? Her buns emerged, shapely and soft.

Her body was better than Lala’s. And – she wouldn’t poison his brother when he wasn’t looking, though she did plan to kill and dismember him.

The jeans fell to her knees. She tried to pull them off over her boots, disrupting the flow of the dance. She was an obvious amateur. She shouldn’t attempt a strip in jeans and cowboy boots, though he had to give her credit. She was doing her best under the circumstances, even if she did mean to kill him.

She lay down on the floor and struggled to pull off the boots.

Flaco hooted. “Take them off. I want to see you dance naked.”

She bumped and ground on the floor in front of Flaco. She stuck her leg into the air and caressed it. “Here, pull off my boot. I want you to see everything.”

Flaco moved forward. He reached for her boot.

Pete stared at her. He moved closer, next to Flaco. He bent over and put his hands on his knees. His pistol dangled from the finger guard.

Flaco grinned. He pulled off her boot. He threw it over his shoulder. He pulled the pants off her leg.

She pointed her other leg at him. “Now this one. You want to see me, don’t you? All of me?”

He reached for the boot.

She cocked it and kicked him in the balls, her door-smashing move. Flaco gasped and bent over.

“Get them.” She was up and charging Pete. He clubbed her head with his gun. It slipped off his finger. She staggered, but her momentum drove him to the wall.

Waltz leaped up, grabbed his chair, and hammered Flaco’s head. Flaco went down, his pistol clattering to the floor. Waltz grabbed it, scrambled to his right, and picked up Pete’s gun.

Pete turned Hook ‘Em and twisted her arm behind her, using her as a shield.

Waltz pointed the pistol at Pete. “Let her go.”

Pete grabbed Hook ‘Em’s head and shook it. He mimicked her voice. “Don’t shoot me, Waltz.”

Waltz hoped the safety was off. He hoped all he had to do was squeeze the trigger. His hand shook. He stuck the other pistol in his back pocket and grabbed the shaking hand, steadying it some. He hoped Pete couldn’t see it shake.

He hoped Pete didn’t charge. Waltz would shoot him. He would. If only the safety wasn’t on. Did the safety work the same way on a pistol as it did on a rifle? “Let her go.”

Pete sneered. “What are you going to do? Shoot me through your girlfriend?”

Waltz’s voice shook. “Yes I am. She was going to kill and dismember me. Let her go or I kill you both.”

“Go ahead.”

“Shoot him. He’s breaking my arm.”

Waltz moved the pistol to the left and down. He hoped the safety wasn’t on. He squeezed the trigger. His wrist hurt. Nothing happened. Did it have bullets?

He pushed the safety forward. He heard it click. He squeezed again. The pistol bucked, kicking his hand up. The roar of the explosion startled him. His ears felt empty, like he was in a soundproof room. His wrist throbbed. A smell like a popped firecracker reached his nostrils.

The gun lurched again. He heard no sound. Did he fire a second time? Plaster fell from the ceiling onto his hair. He brushed it away. The heat of the gun blistered his hand.

Smoke fumed from the pistol. Hook ‘Em stomped Pete’s toe. Pete raised his foot in pain. She pivoted and kneed him in the balls. As he bent over, she kneed him under the chin. He collapsed on the floor.

She walked to Waltz and said something.

He pointed at his ear and shook his head. “I can’t hear anything.” Could she hear what he said?

He opened his mouth as wide as he could, hoping to relieve the pressure in his ears.

She put her lips near his ear, and said something.

“I can’t hear you.”

She yelled into his ear. “I said stop it.”

Her voice sounded tinny, like a cheap radio. But he heard her. “I only fired once. Well – twice. The second one was an accident.”

She yelled again. “No, I mean stop staring at me.”

“What do you expect? You’re a stripper.”

“Give me the gun before you kill somebody.”

She pointed at his gun hand. It was shaking.

She grabbed it. “Point the gun at the wall. Let me take it from your hand. Relax your hand. Let go. Let go with your forefinger. Good. Get it out of the finger guard. Let go with your thumb. Okay, I’ve got it.”

She let out a deep breath. “Hand me my shirt. And stop staring.”

“What?”

She stomped her foot, the one with the boot. Her breasts jiggled. “You heard me. Your ears are okay now. Give me my shirt.”

She pointed the pistol at Pete.

Waltz backed toward her Longhorn T-shirt, watching her balanced on one boot, panties and jeans trailing, a striptease ballerina prepping for a pirouette, frantic tights clinging to her ankle, losing the struggle for modesty.

Much as he hated to do it, he offered her the shirt.

She held her hands over her head, gun pointed at the ceiling, eyes on the punks. “Put it on.”

He pulled the shirt on her.

He admired her butt, peeking from beneath the shirt.

She backed to a chair, dragging her panties and jeans, and sat. “Stop staring. Watch the punks.”

She held the gun with one hand and kept her eyes on the punks. She tried to insert her other foot into the panties. With her eyes on the punks, she couldn’t hit the hole.

She held her legs out from the chair. She motioned to Waltz. “Put my panties on.”

Waltz guided her foot into the panties and pulled them up to her hips. The chair stopped them there.

She stood. She pulled on the panties with her left hand. They wouldn’t come up over her right cheek. “Pull them up.”

He got behind her and grasped the panties, warm from her body heat, the material soft and slick, the lace on the edges rough. He pulled them up. It felt strange. He’d never put panties on a woman before. Usually he went in the opposite direction.

“You didn’t have to give me a massage.”

“It was hard to get a grip on them. They’re so flimsy. Besides, thanks to Chomper, my hand’s stiff.”

“I bet that’s not all that’s stiff. Now the jeans.”

She sat and held out her legs. He got her right foot into the jeans and eased them up her legs as far as the chair. She got up. “Pull them up.”

He pulled them up and buttoned the top button.

“Zip them. Be careful.”

He was careful. The way she took out Pete she must really be a brown belt. She probably had a vicious back kick of some sort.

He retrieved her belt, threaded it through the belt loops, and buckled it.

She sat. “Now my boot.”

He straddled her leg, his back to her, and held her boot while she shoved her foot in it. She had her feet pointed at an angle from the punks, giving her a clear shot at them. At least he hoped it was clear.

Pete slumped against the wall, eyes blinking, groggy.

Flaco lay still on the floor. Waltz walked toward him. “Flaco. Wake up.”

“Stay back. No telling what he might do.”

“He looks like he’s dead. I hope I didn’t kill him.”

“Go out to the van and get the cuffs and the rope. And get the firecrackers out of the glove compartment.”

When Waltz came back, she pointed to Flaco. “Cuff him first. Hands behind his back. Get them good and tight.”

Hook ‘Em pointed her gun at Pete. “Stand up. Turn around. Put your hands on the wall and lean. You know the drill. Good. Now, put your forehead on the wall. Lean on it, and put your hands behind your back.”

She beckoned to Waltz. “Tie one end of the rope around his ankles, nice and tight.”

Waltz threw one end of the rope between the wall and Pete and stepped behind him. He grabbed the thrown end, tied it with a slipknot, and pulled it tight.

“Good. Hand me the rope.”

She stepped back. “Pete, if you try anything, I’ll jerk your feet out from under you. And then I’ll shoot you in the butt. Or the balls. I’m not particular.”

She waved to Waltz. “Move a little to his side. I might shoot him in the butt first and then jerk his feet out from under him. Cuff him.”

Waltz grabbed Pete’s left arm. Pete twisted and jerked Waltz forward. Pete was tremendously strong. They collided and fell. Waltz landed on top. The gun roared.

“The next one goes through your kneecap. Cuff him.”

Pete struggled. He didn’t seem worried about the gun. Waltz grabbed a wrist and wrenched with all his strength. Pete resisted. Waltz pushed like he did doing bench presses. He imagined twisting Pete’s arm off his body like a drumstick. He inched it up behind Pete’s back and cuffed it. Pete’s other hand was reaching for Waltz’s balls. Waltz grabbed Pete’s little finger and twisted. He levered the hand to Pete’s other hand and cuffed it.

He overpowered Pete. He never before overpowered anyone. Especially a guy as muscular as Pete. His weight training was paying off.

“Tie his feet to his ankles.”

Waltz hogtied Pete and raised his arms in victory.

“Roll Flaco over. Is he conscious?”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“See if they’ve got any ice water in the fridge.”

Waltz opened the fridge. “Nope.”

“How about beer?”

“Lots.”

“Get a couple. Pour them in Flaco’s face. I want him awake.”

Waltz opened a can and let it gurgle onto Flaco’s face.

Flaco sputtered and sat up. He coughed. He coughed again. He tried to wipe his eyes with his shoulders.

Hook ‘Em laughed. “Welcome back, Flaco. Sorry about the beer on your floor. Better than body fluids. Who hired you to attack Gordon Hogan?”

“Who?”

“Gordon Hogan. You remember. You cut off his toe.”

“No.”

Hook ‘Em pulled out a giant firecracker. She lit it and tossed it near Flaco’s feet.

He watched it for a moment. Then he seemed to realize what was going to happen. He pulled his feet back.

The firecracker exploded. It was almost as loud as the gun. Waltz’s ears hummed.

“Who hired you?” She pulled out another firecracker, lit it, and tossed it into Pete’s lap.

Pete did frantic bumps and grinds to dislodge the firecracker. It fell between his legs. He rolled over twice and bumped into Flaco. Waltz put his fingers in his ears. The firecracker exploded. Again, he smelled burnt gunpowder.

Hook ‘Em waited for a while. Waltz figured she was waiting until their ears stopped ringing.

“Who hired you?”

The punks didn’t speak.

Hook ‘Em looked disgusted. “Waltz, I hate to ask this of you, but would you mind unzipping their flies?”

“Unzip their flies?”

“Yes. Flaco first.”

Waltz went behind Flaco, grabbed his shoulders, and pushed him onto his back. He sat on his chest and unzipped his fly.

Hook ‘Em tossed him a firecracker and a box of matches. “Light it and tuck it in his drawers. It’s the latest in circumcision.”

“That’s right. I read about it in the New England Journal.”

“Stay on his chest.”

“No way. I don’t want chunks of dick in my eyes.”

“Turn your head. Close your eyes.”

Waltz lit the firecracker. “Don’t worry, Flaco. You’ll be back on your feet in a year – although you will have to give up your dream of working at an escort service.”

“Don’t do it. I’ll tell you.”

Waltz flicked the firecracker onto Pete’s lap. Pete rolled frantically, leaving the firecracker behind. He curled into a fetal position. The firecracker exploded.

Waltz pulled his fingers out of his ears. He remained on Flaco’s chest, but pivoted to face him. He waited until Flaco’s hearing returned. He patted Flaco’s cheek. “Who hired you?”

“The guy that operates that dance studio downtown.”

“Jazz Charleston?”

“Yeah, that’s right – Jazz.”

Jazz – not Lala.

An image flashed into Waltz’s head. Why didn’t he realize it before? Maybe because a slobbering pit bull chewed on his arm, the punks almost killed him, and Hook ‘Em’s strip disengaged his brain. “These are the punks I saw coming out of Jazz’s office the night he was poisoned.”

Hook ‘Em crossed the room. She knelt at Flaco’s face. “Jazz Charleston?”

“Yes.”

“Why’d he want it done?”

Flaco turned his head and tried to wipe his eyes with his shoulder. “He didn’t say.”

“How much did he pay?”

“Ten thou.”

“And he paid you?”

“In cash.”

“Why’d you poison him?”

“I didn’t.”

“Why did Pete?”

“He didn’t. We didn’t.”

Waltz knelt. “You were there – right before the party. You poisoned my brother.”

Flaco shook his head. “No.”

“What were you doing at his office?”

“Hitting him up for another ten thou.”

“You were blackmailing him?”

“No. Not blackmail. More pay. We deserved more. It was a tricky job. The newspapers were all over it. That got the cops excited.”

“So he wouldn’t pay the extra ten and you poisoned him.”

“No. He said come by the next day and he’d have the money for us. Why would we kill him? It would cost us ten. I’d like to get my hands on the guy that did it.”

A siren wailed. Waltz started. “Is that the cops?”

Hook ‘Em listened. “Probably. The gunshots. And the firecrackers sounded like gunshots. Some neighbor might have called them.”

“We got to get out of here.”

“Just a minute.” Hook ‘Em looped the rope over the refrigerator. She tied the ends to the punks’ ankles. “A nice present for the cops.”

The siren sounded closer. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Don’t panic. Let’s see if they’re coming here.” She walked into the living room and peeked through the blinds.

How could she be so calm? They should run, but he couldn’t leave without her. He peeped through the blinds.

The siren grew louder still. It was heading straight for them. What was she doing?

Siren screaming, a cop car screeched to a rocking halt in front of the house. The doors burst open. Two large cops unfurled themselves. They drew guns. They cop-strutted toward the house. Waltz’s mouth went dry.

Hook ‘Em laughed. “Look at that. It’s Mike.”

“Let’s go. Hurry. They’re coming to the door.”

“Let Chomper out.”

Waltz ran into the kitchen and hit the button to open the garage door. He ran back into the living room. Hook ‘Em still watched through the blinds.

The garage door groaned. Waltz peeked through the blinds.

The cops heard the door. They turned toward it. Chomper charged out of the garage. The cops saw him and froze. They turned, sprinted to the car, and leaped in. The doors slammed almost simultaneously, the second an echo of the first.

Chomper smashed against the door. He scratched at it, barking and growling. He ran to the other side. He jumped, tried to bite the window, and fell back. He bounded to the hood and tried to go through the windshield, trailing slobber. He sprang to the ground. He circled the car.

Hook ‘Em cackled. Tears ran down her cheeks. She flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “We got the punks. Did you see the look on their faces when you were going to put the firecrackers in their drawers? We found out who cut off Gordon’s toe. We got Mike trapped in his car. What a rush!” She turned away from the window. “Let’s go.”

***

 

Safe in the van, Hook ‘Em pulled out her cell and hit the call button. “Tara, Mike and his partner are hiding in their car. They probably called in for backup. Some punks let loose a pit bull on them. You should’ve seen it.”

She listened for a while, then laughed. “These punks are the perps in the toe case. They’re tied to their fridge.”

She listened and shook her head. “No, it’s all right. I left the ring they pawned on the kitchen counter. It belonged to the victim. We found it at the Acme Ace pawn shop. The clerk admitted he bought it from these punks. Pick him up and you’ve solved that case.”

She listened some more. “Outside the city limits? Sheriff’s department? Oh, crap! We’ll have to improvise.”

She paused. “Me too. See you later.” She turned off her phone.

“Tara is a cop?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you mean – improvise?”

“The cops are coming after us.”

“Did Jazz die?”

“No, it’s not that. The punks’ house is outside the city limits. The city cops only took the call because they had a car nearby. The Sheriff’s Department has jurisdiction.”

“So what? We got away.”

“Your bail agreement specified that you not leave the city limits. They’ll revoke your bail and come after you. The monitor will tell them right where you are. We’ve got to get it off.”

She veered onto the shoulder and stopped the van. She rummaged in the glove compartment, pulled out a box cutter, and patted the dashboard. “Put your foot up here.”

She pulled the slack out of the band, sliced it, rolled down the window, and threw the monitor over the van into the weeds. “We’re on the run now.”

She tromped the gas and screeched onto the freeway. “When I agreed to this job, I didn’t count on punks trying to kill me, or having cops all over my ass. I want another five thousand.”

“We have a contract, a standard private-eye contract.”

“A contract requires full disclosure. You didn’t disclose all the facts.”

“How could I? I didn’t know all the facts. I hired you to find out the facts.”

“I want another five. Or I’m quitting.”

“You want another five? You’ve been on the job less than three hours. You almost got me killed. Almost got me killed? You threatened to kill me – and dismember me! Not to mention piss on the pieces of my body where you buried it like a dog’s bone. The cops are all over us. There’s no way we’re going to get out of this. And you want another five?”

“Yeah, or I’m quitting.”

What did it matter? When he got the insurance, he’d be rich. “Okay. I guess I owe you. At least you didn’t dismember me.”

***

 

A few minutes later, Hook ‘Em zipped into a shopping mall. She stopped in the far reaches of the parking lot, among a few scattered vehicles. She got out and tried the door of a car. She tried the door of the next one.

He followed her. What was she doing? “No, we’re not doing it. No!”

She tried another. “We have to. You’re a wanted man. The cops’ll search for my van. They’ll pick us up. You’ll go to your gurney and I’ll miss the next twenty football seasons.”

“It’s against the law.”

“So is murdering your brother.” She wrenched open the door of a red pickup. She lifted the floor mat. She pulled down the visor and a set of keys fell onto the seat. She closed the door.

She returned to the van. She rummaged in the back. She selected a wrench and a screwdriver and unbolted the license plates of the truck next to the van.

He followed her to the red pickup. She unscrewed its plates and changed them. She returned to the other truck and put the red one’s plates on it. She locked the van.

She got in the red pickup. Unlike the van, the motor throbbed with the sound of smooth power. She rolled down the window. “Let’s go. Or do you plan to wait here for the cops?”

She backed out of the parking space. He stood next to the van, waiting for the cops. Not smart.

He turned his cap forward and pulled it down low over his eyes. He looked for a cop car, for witnesses. He ran around to the passenger side and jumped in. Not smart.

It was a nice pickup. It smelled new. It had seatbelts. He buckled himself in.

“Oops. Almost forgot.” She braked. She opened the door and got out, leaving the engine running. “You drive.”

She headed for the van. He ran to her, grabbed her arm, and turned her. “I’m not driving a stolen car.”

“I’ve got to move the van. I can’t leave it here, next to the space where a pickup mysteriously disappeared. I’ll park it at another mall. Follow me.” She got in the van. She started it up and backed out of the parking space. She leaned out of her window. “Let’s go. Follow me.”

He hesitated.

She banged on the side of the van. “The cops are already after you for murder. So you borrow a pickup. They can’t execute you twice. Let’s go.”

He returned to the pickup and climbed in. He was stealing a pickup – he himself. Not Hook ‘Em. Him – law-abiding dance instructor, Waltz Charleston. He never even got a parking ticket. Would that help him at his grand theft auto trial?

He tried to back up. It wouldn’t go. He released the parking brake. He tried again. It wouldn’t go. What the hell? It was in park.

Idiot. Luckily, it didn’t take a genius to steal a car. It took an idiot. He was perfect for the job. He put it in reverse and backed out.

She drove off and he followed, driving a stolen red pickup. Red. They couldn’t miss him. If the cops stopped him, they would arrest him for stealing a vehicle, while Hook ‘Em drove away, free and clear.

He had to stay close. He couldn’t lose her. He’d be driving a stolen red pickup around San Salsa – aimlessly. She gunned off the feeder onto the freeway. He followed. They couldn’t drive over the speed limit – not driving a stolen car. The needle inched to sixty-five, the speed limit. She was pulling away.

He heard that the cops would give you a few miles over. He inched it up to seventy, then seventy-five. He watched for cops. Usually cops patrolled here. He didn’t see any, but they were clever at hiding. You wouldn’t see them until you blazed past. By then it was too late.

He’d light a cigarette, if he had one. If he could prize one of his hands off the steering wheel.

But they’d stop her, not him. Right? She was first. She was going as fast as he was. They’d stop her. He’d still be screwed. He needed her. Or would the cop stop them both?

If he saw a cop, maybe he could slow down in time. Maybe she’d see the cop. Yeah. She’d slow down. Then he could. It would be all right.

Hook ‘Em signaled for a right turn. She was getting off the freeway. Thank you. Thank you. He signaled and slowed. It would be all right.

He followed her into another giant parking lot. He parked next to her. She locked the van and came to his side of the truck. He didn’t get out.

“You driving?”

“Yeah.” Why let a speeder drive? He would drive his stolen pickup at the speed limit. If there was anything he knew, it was how to drive a stolen pickup. You drove a stolen pickup under the speed limit. You obeyed all traffic regulations. You used your blinkers. You didn’t give fellow motorists the finger. You did nothing to attract attention.

“You like the thrill of driving a stolen vehicle?”

“I didn’t like the thrill of speeding in a stolen vehicle.” He pointed toward the passenger seat.

She climbed in. She didn’t buckle her seat belt.

Waltz smoothed his hand over the seat cover. It might be leather. It felt like it. Smelled like it too. “I told you Lala didn’t do it.”

“You believe the punks? That Jazz hired them?”

“I saw them coming out of his office the night he was poisoned.”

“Let’s talk to Rachel next.”

“Rachel? Why Rachel?”

“Didn’t you recognize Pete?”

“Recognize him? Sure. I saw him when he came out of Jazz’s office.”

“No. I mean somewhere else.”

“No. Where?”

Hook ‘Em paused dramatically. “Remember that picture of Rachel in bed with another man, the one she showed me when she confessed to running around on you?”

“Yeah, sure.” He paused, waiting for her to answer. More drama. “Yeah?”

“It was him.”

“Pete?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure?”

“Damn right. You can’t mistake that face.”

“I can’t believe she’d have anything to do with a guy like him.”

“She’s got a picture of herself in bed with him. Isn’t that enough for you?”

***

 

“Rachel, do you still have that envelope of papers that we used to trick Hook ‘Em into going to work for me?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Would you let me see it? It’s important.”

She went to the telephone table and rustled through some papers and magazines. “Here it is.”

Waltz opened it and pulled out the photo of Rachel in bed with another man. He handed it to her. “Who is this guy you’re in bed with?”

“Oh, Waltz. You’re not going to divorce me, are you? Aren’t you and your famous divorce detective taking things a little too seriously? He didn’t mean a thing to me. And I mean that.”

She was sparring for time. Waltz couldn’t believe she was involved, but she was. “What’s your relationship?”

“It’s okay. I’m not a loose woman. That’s all you need to know.”

“The cops are after me. I’m going to end up on death row. I need to know how you know him.”

“But he had nothing to do with poisoning Jazz.”

“You think so? He and his buddy Flaco admitted they cut off Gordon’s toe.”

She gasped.

“Were you in on it?”

“No, certainly not.”

“Who is he?”

She dropped her face into her hands. “Don’t make me tell you that.”

“Come on, Rachel. My life depends on it.”

She mumbled something into her hands.

“What? I couldn’t understand.”

“He’s my ex.”

“You were married to Pete?”

“I know what you’re thinking. How could I marry a sleaze ball like Pete? I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. I was stupid. I was fifteen. My parents forbade me to date him, so I did. They threatened to disown me if I married him, so I did. Partly to get away from home. Much to my regret.”

“Flaco said Jazz paid them to cut off Gordon’s toe.”

She appeared more surprised. Then a look of understanding overcame the surprise. “Oh.”

“What does that mean?”

“This is so embarrassing.”

“Come on. This is important. The cops are after us.”

“Jazz thought somebody was out to get him. He wanted a tough guy – a bodyguard to protect him. Did I know anybody? I said that the only tough guy I knew was my ex, and he was a lowlife, totally untrustworthy. Jazz wouldn’t want to get involved with him. Jazz said that was exactly what he was looking for – a lowlife scum. He insisted that I set up a meeting. So I did – but I warned him.”

Hook ‘Em leaned forward. “Did it go bad? Is that why Jazz fired you?”

“Jazz never told me why. I guess so. I knew I shouldn’t let him talk me into hooking him up with Pete. You can’t trust Pete. Jazz kept insisting.”

Hook ‘Em leaned back and crossed her leg. She wiggled her foot. “Did you know that Pete tried to blackmail Jazz into paying him more money?”

“No.”

“Is that in character for Pete?”

“Pete is capable of anything – anything. He has no character. Believe me. When I first met him, I thought he was a nice guy. He worked for a vet. I thought he loved animals. No. He worked there to steal drugs.”

“So what made Jazz think that Gordon poisoned Cha-Cha?”

“He never said anything about that. He seemed mystified about who did it. He said he would find out and when he did, he would get the guy.”

Waltz turned to Hook ‘Em. “The punks were telling the truth.”

“Looks like it.” Hook ‘Em’s foot wiggle slowed.

“Looks like Gordon poisoned Cha-Cha. Jazz found out and hired the punks to chop off Gordon’s toe.”

“And Gordon poisoned Jazz.”

Waltz studied his monogrammed shoes. “I don’t understand how Gordon knew that Jazz was behind the attack.”

“He found out somehow. Would Jazz taunt Gordon about it?”

“Maybe. Cha-Cha’s poisoning enraged him. He swore to get the guy. He would’ve enjoyed taunting him.”

Hook ‘Em got to her feet. “Let’s go pressure Gordon.”

***

 

Ken opened the door a crack. “Again? Go away.”

Waltz raised his voice. “Ken. It’s important. We found Gordon’s ring.”

Gordon’s voice floated out of the apartment. “Let them in.”

Gordon brought his recliner, squeaking, to the upright position. “Let me see it.”

Hook ‘Em sank into the fancy couch.

Waltz joined her. “We don’t have it with us. We found it at a pawn shop. The cops have it for evidence.”

Gordon’s smile faded. “They’re keeping it?”

“For a while. You’ll get it back when they get through with it. We caught the guys that pawned it. They admitted attacking you.”

Gordon drew his leg up and toyed with the bandage on his foot. “Who was it?”

Waltz studied Gordon’s face. “Those two punks you saw talking to Jazz.”

“When?”

“At the party.”

“I don’t remember him talking to two punks.”

“Before the party.”

Gordon shook his head. “The party was underway when I got there.”

“Two punks.” Hook ‘Em waited. “Pete Elliott and Flaco Martinez. Do you know them?”

Gordon and Ken shook their heads. Gordon looked puzzled. “What were they doing at the party?”

Hook ‘Em adjusted her hat. “What do you think?”

“Jazz hired them to attack me?” Gordon sank back. “No, he wouldn’t do that.”

Hook ‘Em crossed her legs and wagged her foot. “They said he did.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“What did Jazz have against you?”

“Nothing. We were friends.”

“Then why would he hire a couple of punks to attack you?”

“I have no idea.”

Her foot moved faster. “We have a witness that tells us a different story.”

“Olivia is a gossip.” Ken looked startled that he spoke.

Gordon threw him the glare of a teacher for an unruly child and turned back to Hook ‘Em. “Jazz had no reason to do this to me, I promise you.”

“He had every reason. You poisoned his dog.”

“Never. I love dogs.”

“We have a witness.”

“Olivia again? She’s crazy.”

Hook ‘Em’s foot stopped, poised. “We have opportunity. You were at the studio the night Cha-Cha was poisoned. You were at Jazz’s table the night he was poisoned. We have motive. You knew he had you attacked and you wanted revenge. We have means. You had sleeping pills and dropped them in his drink.”

“I admit that I was at his table and had my pills. Why wouldn’t I have them? I just came from the hospital.”

He held up his foot. “But I didn’t know that Jazz did this. Not till now. I still can’t believe he’d do it. So I had no reason to poison him.”

Hook ‘Em bored in. “Maybe you didn’t know, but you suspected him. And poisoned him.”

“No. Why would I come all the way to San Salsa if I thought he hated me? I find it hard to believe that these punks did it. Are you sure they’re telling the truth? My doctor said that somebody with medical training did the amputation, the stitches, and the bandage.”

Waltz snapped his fingers and turned to Hook ‘Em. “Somebody like Doc. Maybe Jazz hired the punks to knock Gordon out and Doc to cut off his toe.”

Her foot paused. “It doesn’t matter. We know that the punks were involved and that Gordon poisoned Jazz.”

Gordon raised his voice. “You do not know that. Get out.”

***

 

Waltz swung the seat belt around his body and latched it.

Hook ‘Em watched and wiggled her foot, her seatbelt forlorn. “Looks like Gordon did it.”

Waltz shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m beginning to have doubts.”

“Why?”

“You remember how Gordon was afraid that the killer was coming after him? If Gordon did it, why was he so afraid?”

Hook ‘Em smiled. “He was faking. He’s very clever. Ken too.”

“How are we going to get them?”

Hook ‘Em looked triumphant. “Ken screwed up big time when he said Olivia didn’t know what she was talking about. It means she does know what she’s talking about.”

“If we can get her to talk.”

“We’ll get her to talk.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em glared at Olivia. “I want you to fix his hair. You didn’t put in enough curl.”

“Not enough curl?” Olivia turned to Waltz. “That’s an ugly cap.” She plucked it off his head. “It’s hiding your hair.” She flung it into the corner.

Hook ‘Em rushed over and picked it up. “This is a nice cap, an Aggie cap. You got it dirty.” She brushed it off and blew on the visor. “I bought him this cap. He’s going to wear it till he gets more curl.”

Olivia tilted her head, studying her work. “You’re crazy. I put in plenty of curl.”

Hook ‘Em placed the ball cap on her hat and ran her hands through Waltz’s hair. “You call yourself a stylist? Anybody can see it needs more curl.”

Olivia glared at Hook ‘Em. “Let’s see what Mabel thinks.” She ushered Waltz to the customer in the chair. “Look, Mabel.” She ran her hands through Waltz’s hair. She patted it. “Look at the body. Look at the curls. Isn’t that something?” She grabbed Waltz’s head and levered it down. “Feel it.”

Mabel hesitated, touched Waltz’s hair, and withdrew her hand.

“Go ahead. Run your fingers through it.”

Hook ‘Em placed Mabel’s hands on Waltz’s hair. “Yeah, feel it. You’ll see it needs more curl.”

Mabel hesitated and then plunged her hands into Waltz’s hair. She dove in again and lifted Waltz’s hair like a surgeon rinsing his hands. She nodded. “Nice.”

Olivia placed her hands on her hips. “So what do you think? Make it curlier, and ruin my work? Or leave it the way it is?”

“Leave it the way it is. It’s like a beehive for boys. It’s genius.”

Olivia led Waltz to the mirror. She ran her hands through his hair. “Look at the texture. Look at the way the curls straighten and spring back. I think it’s perfect the way it is.”

Waltz ran his hands through his hair and combed it with his fingers. He smiled. “You’re right. I love it.”

He turned and pointed at Hook ‘Em. “She’s the one that wanted more curls. I told her it was great the way it was. She’s the one that made me wear that ugly Aggie cap.”

Hook ‘Em tugged the brim of her hat, askew from the weight of Waltz’s cap, and shuffled her feet. “I guess I was wrong. I just thought – “

Waltz snatched the cap off Hook ‘Em’s hat and threw it against the door. “I don’t care what you thought. From now on, you keep your mouth shut about my hair.” He turned to Olivia. “I want to keep it just the way it is. When do you think I’ll need a touch up?”

“About three weeks.” Olivia led him to a calendar on the table by the door. She pointed to a day. “That okay? Three o’clock?”

“Okay.” He pulled out his wallet and placed the appointment card in it. “I’ll see you then.” He turned to go. “Oh, I need to ask you a question.”

“Ask.”

“Can we go outside? This is private.”

Olivia turned to Mabel. “Let me get Mabel in the dryer.” Olivia set Mabel up with the dryer. “There. Now we can talk.”

Waltz took Olivia’s arm and tried to guide her toward the door.

Olivia balked. “It’s too hot out there. We can talk here. Mabel can’t hear a thing under that dryer.” Olivia bent down and looked Mabel in the face. “Can you, Mabel? You ugly old bitch.” Olivia smiled and nodded.

Mabel smiled and nodded.

“You see?” Olivia embraced his arm.

Waltz smiled and nodded. “I found the punks that attacked Gordon. Jazz hired them.”

Olivia fingered his hair. “I’m not surprised. I wouldn’t put anything past Jazz.”

“Gordon poisoned Cha-Cha. When Jazz found out, he hired the punks to attack Gordon.”

Olivia laughed. “The jokes on Jazz. I bet Ken poisoned Cha-Cha.”

“Ken? He seems timid.”

“Don’t kid yourself. Ken has a violent streak. He’s been charged with assault several times.”

“But why would Ken do it?”

“Revenge for Gordon. Ken’s in love with Gordon. If Gordon fantasized about it, Ken might’ve taken it on his own to do it.”

“So Ken might’ve done it and Jazz thought Gordon did.” Waltz paused. “What’s the grudge between Gordon and Jazz?”

“I don’t like to gossip. I don’t want to get anybody in trouble.”

“They poisoned Cha-Cha and Jazz. They deserve trouble.”

“I could be wrong. I don’t like to gossip.”

Waltz attempted an admiring look at the mirror. “The cops will arrest me soon. I’ll be on death row. What’s the grudge?”

Olivia paused to light a cigarette. She huffed out a plume of smoke.

Waltz sucked in as much of it as he could and waited. He took Olivia’s hand and caressed it.

She took another puff and spoke smoke. “They were all members of the ballet troupe in New York. Jazz was the director. Gordon’s lover was a rich benefactor of the ballet company. Gordon got his lover to fire Jazz and put Gordon in as director. Jazz hated Gordon ever since.”

“Why would Gordon hate Jazz?”

“Jazz spread the story that Gordon slept his way to the job as director. Gordon accused Jazz of embezzlement. They kept the feud going for years. Finally Jazz called Gordon and suggested they bury the hatchet, offered him all that money, told him Ken wanted to see him, and got him down here for the workshop.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em and Waltz climbed into the pickup. Waltz pulled his cap tight on his head and slumped into the passenger seat, face in his hands. They sat for a while, silent.

Waltz was always so proud of Jazz. He wanted to get the guy who poisoned him. But Jazz solicited hoodlums to mutilate Gordon. Waltz felt ashamed, sick, and tired.

Finally Hook ‘Em spoke. “Good interview. Fred Astaire couldn’t have led her better.”

“Yeah, but Fred didn’t feel like a hypocrite after the dance.”

“We got her to talk didn’t we?” She shoved his shoulder. “Things are looking up. We know for sure who did it and why. We’re on a roll.”

Her cell phone rang. She listened for a while. She glanced at Waltz, then spoke into the phone. “You’ve got to. We’re in trouble. We need you. Please meet me.” She listened. “Okay.”

She folded her phone. She stared straight ahead. “Jazz died.” She turned to face Waltz. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’m sorry.”

Tears filled Waltz’s eyes. Jazz dead. Why did he have to try to settle an old score – a meaningless old score? And get himself killed? How stupid, stupid, stupid.

She continued to hold his hand.

Hook ‘Em sighed. She pulled his seatbelt across him and latched it. “We’re going to have to get something on Gordon and Ken – fast. Now that it’s a murder charge, the cops will put a lot of men on it.”

“What do we do?”

“First we deal with Tara.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Tara’s panicking, afraid they’ll find out she helped us and fire her. I’ve got to talk to her, convince her to keep on helping us. I can’t take you with me. I’ve got to stash you for a while. Okay?”

He nodded.

“While I’m at it, I’ll trade in this truck. By now it’s reported stolen. The cops will be everywhere. We’re hotter than Bonnie and Clyde’s two-dollar pistols.”

 

Chapter 12

Top Hat

Hook ‘Em rummaged behind the backrest of the pickup. She pulled out a wad of clothing. She shook it open – coveralls, oil-stained, dirty, and ripped. “Perfect. Put these on.” She held them out.

They stank of grease and armpit. He pushed her arm away. “I’m not wearing those.”

“You’ve got to look like a wino.”

“A wino?”

“You’re sleeping under the bridge.”

“Under the bridge? No way. It’s hot. The mosquitoes will attack in droves. Drop me at a motel.”

“The cops will search the motels.”

“Where will you stay?”

“At Tara’s – if she’ll let me.”

“Let me stay there.”

She poked him in the chest with the Hook ‘Em sign. “Not in a million years. The cops find you there they could fire her and charge her as an accessory. We can’t make her risk that. Besides, we need her.”

“How about the bus station? Or the airport?”

“You call yourself a fugitive? What kind of fugitive are you? Haven’t you ever watched a crime movie? The cops will swarm all over the bus station and the airport. They’ll never think that a ballroom dance instructor would hide under a bridge with a bunch of bums. It’s the perfect hiding place.”

“Yeah. Perfect.” He opened the door, slid off the seat to the ground, and shrugged into the coveralls.

Sweat dripped off his face and flooded his armpits. The coveralls heated him like a furnace – August in San Salsa. He longed for the cool air of the pickup.

Hook ‘Em picked a wine bottle out of the gutter. “Here.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s part of your disguise. Carry it with you. Stagger a little.”

He shook it. “It’s empty.”

“Planning to get drunk?”

He started to crawl back into the cab.

“Walk. It’s only a block.”

“It’s hot.”

“You want me to chauffeur you to the bridge in this fancy red pickup and let you off in full view of the other bums? You know what they’ll think? ‘Here’s a rich guy. Let’s beat him to death and take his money.’ You want to look poor. Act poor.”

Waltz turned away from the truck. “Act poor. I should be good at that.”

“Think like a wino. Stagger. Carry your bottle like you’d carry a baby.”

He cradled his bottle. He staggered a little.

She leaned on the pickup. “Good. Keep reminding yourself that you’re a worthless, drunken panhandler. Say it.”

He staggered a little. “I’m a worthless, drunken panhandler.”

“No, no. I don’t get the feeling that you believe it. Say it like you mean it.”

He staggered a little. “I’m a worthless, drunken panhandler.”

“Better, but slur it. And don’t stagger so evenly. It’s too graceful, like a dancer. List a little to one side.”

He staggered a little, lurching to the left, and slurred a lot. “I’m a worthless, drunken panhandler.”

“Excellent. Super tottering. You made me believe. You’re drunk. You’re worthless. Keep it up. Sleep loose. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, about ten.”

He watched her drive away. He floundered, lurching, toward the bridge. It was about eight, but it wasn’t dark yet. Daylight savings time. He wished it was dark. He didn’t like the idea of the derelicts sizing him up in the daylight.

He admired his coveralls, perfect for the cocktail hour under the bridge. He’d probably pass as a wino, except for his dance shoes. They were expensive. The bums might mistake the letters for fancy personalized initials.

He could ditch the shoes. Go barefoot. No, the mosquitoes would chew up his feet.

He neared the bridge. He clutched the bottle in his elbow like a football. He staggered a little. He was a worthless, drunken beggar. Bums lounged on blankets, sleeping bags, or flattened cardboard boxes.

Hook ‘Em didn’t give him a complete outfit. He needed a poorly lettered cardboard sign. Will Work for Food.

He needed more than the fake stagger of a ballroom dancer. He should stagger like a wino.

How did winos stagger? Did they stagger like old men? Some of them were young. He was young. It would be stupid to stagger like an old man. It would draw attention.

He needed to look fit. They wouldn’t attack him if he was fit. He’d stagger like a power lifter. He’d stagger like he knew what he was doing. Like he slept under bridges every night. Like he was the AAA’s bridge critic.

He was a worthless, drunken derelict. He stopped, opened his bottle, and pretended to drink. The odor of the wine made his mouth water and his stomach lurch.

Some of the bums lounged against bridge supports. He spotted an inviting pillar and staggered toward it.

They watched him stagger up like he owned the place. They watched him careen down. They watched him recline for a while. They watched the bottle. They got up and started toward him.

He pretended to take a last swallow and pitched the bottle into the bushes.

They returned to their pillars.

Only that morning, he picketed Hook ‘Em’s place. Only that morning, he had an apartment where he could sleep, charged only with attempted murder. Only twelve hours later, he was on the run – wanted for murder.

But wait. It wasn’t really that bad. He had known that Jazz would die. It was a certainty. And he had known the cops would come after him. But he had a detective and they had discovered who did it. When Hook ‘Em picked him up in the morning, they’d figure a way to prove it. It really wasn’t that bad.

Yeah, right. If she picked him up. She seemed anxious to dump him under a bridge. Why should she come back? Would he, in her shoes? The cops were going to catch them. It was just a matter of time. The odds of getting proof against Gordon were about zero. He doubted the cops knew for sure that she was with him at the punks’ house, not yet anyway. She could just deny it and probably get away with it. But if she stayed with him, she would end up in prison as an accessory.

She wouldn’t come back. Worse, Tara would probably talk her into turning him in. The cops would pick him up easy. Maybe he shouldn’t stay under the bridge.

Where could he go? He had no money. Hook ‘Em was paying their expenses. He couldn’t go to a motel. He couldn’t go to the bus station or the airport. If he had some place to go, and she came back in the morning, he would miss her. Then what would he do?

He would make sure to wake up early. It ought to be easy to get up early, sleeping on the ground. He’d be ready to run if the cops showed up. He’d swim the river and duck into the woods.

One of the bums approached. Waltz hoped he was a friendly guy, the winos’ social director, here to invite him to join the bridge tournament. Just in case, he reached for a fist-sized rock. His stomach shrunk.

The wino arranged a newspaper next to him and settled on it. He reclined against the support. He whispered. “How’s your tango these days?”

Who was this guy? An undercover cop? No, he would’ve arrested him. A dance student? Waltz studied him.

The wino from jail. The one who gave him a card. The one who could get you anything but out. What was his name? It was a strange one. “T-Bone.”

Waltz’s cover was blown. T-Bone was the one wino in the world who might keep up with current events. He would know that Waltz was wanted for murder. Good thing there was no reward. He bet T-Bone would jump all over a reward.

“Is this the usual attire of a ballroom dancer? If so, the cops should arrest Fred Astaire for fraud.”

“I’m on a reality show. Which Derelict Is the Ballroom Dancer?”

T-Bone laughed. “Droll indeed. I was joking about Fred Astaire, of course. Fred was no fraud. Top hat, tails, and cane – that was Fred. They went together like salt-and-pepper, eggs and bacon, Fred and Ginger. Not, of course, that Fred couldn’t have looked elegant dressed as we are tonight. He could look good in your coveralls while wearing a top hat. Fred was authentic.”

“And graceful. I love to watch him move.”

“I’d love to see him, dressed as we are tonight, ask Ginger, wearing an elegant gown, to dance. She’d be reluctant at first, of course, indeed quite reluctant, but eventually she’d give in – who could resist the elegant Fred – and they’d dance gracefully and she’d fall in love with him. It would’ve been a great scene.”

“It reminds me of the scene in Royal Wedding. Fred, dressed like a waterfront tough, sings and dances ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You, When You Know I Been a Liar All My Life?’”

T-Bone slapped his knee. “Fred could carry off anything.” He paused. “Have the police posted a reward for you yet?”

Sweat poured off Waltz. A mosquito buzzed around his face. He slapped blindly. “Not yet.”

“Don’t be embarrassed. It was a while before they posted a reward for Clyde Barrow. Maybe never for Bonnie. You’re a much higher-class criminal than Bonnie. I bet they’ll come up with one soon – and a handsome one. A reward commensurate with your desperado status.”

Was T-Bone considering kidnapping Waltz and holding him for an anticipated reward? Waltz gripped the rock tighter. “I have no money.”

T-Bone ignored the mosquito zeroing in on his face. “They’ve put the clamps on your bank account, have they? I’m not surprised. That’s okay. I wouldn’t demand money of a friend, though I wouldn’t mind having some free introductory tango lessons.”

“Otherwise, you turn me in.”

“Pish, posh. I wouldn’t turn in a friend, though I think a friend would extend complimentary lessons to a friend.”

“I’m not in a position to give any kind of lessons these days, even for pay.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t expect these lessons until you’ve solved your present difficulties.”

“Which may be never.”

“I wouldn’t need many – just enough to please the ladies. I think twenty hours would do it. I’m a quick study. I have a good sense of rhythm and my feet are exceptionally dexterous. All my dance partners say so.”

Waltz felt another itch. The mosquitoes were going to drive him mad. What irritating, useless creatures. “Done.”

Waltz lay back. The ground was hard, but it felt good to stretch out. He got little sleep last night, spending much of it preparing his balloons and going early to Hook ‘Em’s place. Dance instructors worked at night and slept late. He wasn’t used to getting up early.

The bridge loomed above, covered with graffiti, reflecting the murmur of the river. Cars passed over the bridge with a whoosh, their headlights whirling over the camp like a tornado.

Waltz turned up his collar to protect his neck from the mosquitoes. He took off his cap and placed it over his face. Its panels of mesh were small enough to keep out the mosquitoes, but big enough to breathe through.

He put his hands in his pockets to shield them from bites. Sweat soaked him, but the two layers of clothes frustrated the mosquitoes. He writhed, hoping to clear away the pebbles that ground into him. They ground into him even more.

T-Bone launched into a learned and verbose commentary on a philosopher, another of his heroes, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He quoted Ludwig, “A hand is a hand. Nothing more need be said. Nothing more indeed.”

Though Ludwig said nothing more need be said, he apparently said a great deal more, for T-Bone continued to discuss the hand for some time.

***

 

Waltz jolted awake – blind. He clawed his eyes. His cap fell away. He could see, but only dim shapes. Somebody kicked a rock.

Several figures moved toward him. He reached for a rock. He couldn’t find one. He felt around. He grabbed a person.

T-Bone sat up. “What’s the matter?”

Waltz heard the scramble of feet. He felt arms on him. Several people held him. Somebody jerked at his shoe. They were after his dance shoes.

Waltz wrenched his foot free and kicked. His foot sank into somebody’s paunch. He swung his elbow back, connecting with somebody’s face. His funny bone sent a shock down his forearm.

A group of bums circled him, cheering for their buddies to beat Waltz up and steal his shoes.

Somebody screamed. Waltz thrashed free, grabbed a rock, and leaped to his feet. He swung the rock randomly with all his force. He hit somebody. He turned in a circle, the rock poised, ready to smash into any shadow that approached.

He screamed. “Come on! I’ll pound your asses to mush! All of you! Come on!”

Two of his attackers slunk away. A third crawled.

A flashlight stabbed his eyes. “What’s the problem?”

A cop. Should he run?

T-Bone approached the cop. “Nothing, sir. A minor altercation is all. You won’t have any more trouble from us, I assure you. We’re terribly sorry for the disturbance.”

“It’s midnight.” The cop gestured toward a high-rise. “Your neighbors are already talking of kicking you out of here. If I hear any more noise, I’ll have the cops all over you.”

A rent-a-cop. Waltz let out his breath.

T-Bone bowed. “You can count on our cooperation. It was beneath us to allow ourselves to be drawn into partisan bickering. We apologize again. Have a good night.”

He felt T-Bone dusting him off, like a fancy English butler. “Rollicking. You are the avenging monster of Writhing River Bridge. I managed a rock to the head of one of the miscreants, myself. What stupidity. They don’t understand class. What would they do with dance pumps? They’d use Fred’s cane as a pool cue and his top hat as a bucket.”

***

 

The next morning, Waltz paced under the bridge, pillar six to pillar seven, his pillar. The shadow of his pillar had shrunk from all the way across the river to a meager ten feet. Where was Hook ‘Em? He checked his watch again. Ten forty-five.

She wasn’t coming. Maybe he should give up. He didn’t have a chance of getting Gordon. Maybe he should leave town and live life on the run.

He couldn’t believe it happened to him. He never thought he’d be homeless, living on the street. He was only twenty-one, homeless, cops after him for murder.

A red Mercedes approached the bridge. It couldn’t be cops. Cops didn’t drive cars like that.

Wrong. Homicide dicks could drive any sort of car they wanted. Colombo drove a Peugeot – the lieutenant might drive a Mercedes. Maybe Waltz should run. No. They’d notice him for sure if he ran. He should maintain his disguise as a homeless person, innocent, down on his luck.

Disguise? It was no disguise. He was a homeless person, innocent, down on his luck. He took a deep breath and tried to will his muscles soft and make his nerves stop twanging. He had to relax, but be ready to run, ready to swim the river.

He picked up his bottle and held it like it was a check for a million dollars. He staggered a bit. He was a worthless, drunken bum.

The Mercedes came straight at him. It slowed. He couldn’t see through the tinted windows.

The driver’s window rolled halfway down.

Here it came. The order to put down his wine bottle and surrender.

An arm emerged. No gun. The hand flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. A burnt orange sleeve adorned the shoulder of the arm.

Hook ‘Em was back – in a Mercedes. She drove past, sped up, and turned the next corner.

He dropped his bottle and interrupted T-Bone’s lecture. “I’d like to hear more about that hand being a hand thing, but I have to go.”

Waltz strode toward the rendezvous point a block away. Too bad he couldn’t get in the car at the bridge. It would blow the bums’ minds.

A stranger takes refuge under a bridge. The bums attack him, expecting him to be easy prey. He kicks their butts. The next morning, a red Mercedes arrives. A blonde chauffeur emerges, opens the door for the mysterious stranger, and whisks him away. Who was that bum?

The Mercedes waited around the corner. He hurried toward it.

Hold on. Tara could’ve talked her into bringing the cops. The car could be full of them. He could be walking into a trap.

He slowed. What did it matter? If the car was full of cops, they had him.

He opened the door and sank into the soft leather upholstery. He glanced over his shoulder into the backseat. No cops.

The air-conditioning chilled him. “Got any water?”

Hook ‘Em handed him a bottle. Condensation wet his hand. He tipped his head back and drank. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “Man, that tastes good.”

“Too much wine last night?”

He wriggled his body into the softness of the seat and smelled its newness. What a contrast to his pebbly bed last night. “Nice ride.”

“I do have excellent taste, don’t I?”

“Some rich guy will be all over the cops about this. A red Mercedes is rare in San Salsa. Aren’t you afraid they’ll pick us up?”

“We’re as safe as a bronc buster on a hobbyhorse.”

“How do you figure?”

“It’s on loan from the punks.”

“You stole the punk’s car?”

“Borrowed. We’ll return it. They won’t need it for a while. They’re in jail, remember?”

Waltz chuckled. “Brilliant. I knew I hired the right detective. They can’t report the car stolen from jail.”

“They don’t even know it’s stolen.”

“We can solve this case in style. Who needs the Batmobile?”

“Take off your clothes.”

“What?”

“You can’t wear dirty coveralls in my red Merced.”

“Miss High Society.”

“They stink.”

“I forgot. I got used to the stench. You get used to anything when you’re down on your luck and living under a bridge.” He unhooked his seat belt. The mechanism made a satisfying click and retracted smoothly. He shrugged out of the coveralls.

She rolled down his window. “Throw them out.”

“Not on the street.”

“Now. I can’t take it.”

He pointed. “Stop at the trash bin. I’ll throw them out there.”

She screeched to a halt. “Damned environmentalists.”

He got out and deposited the coveralls in the bin.

She gunned the engine. He scrambled back in.

“You’re mighty law-abiding for an outlaw.” She handed him a newspaper.

He could hardly wait to see how the media screwed up the story of Jazz’s poisoning and the way Waltz fled the police. He unfolded the paper.

The headline smacked him in the eye. Serial Poisoner Murders Neurologist. The sub-headline continued: Vicious Psychopath Strikes Again. Berserk Dance Studio Owner Kills Ballroom Student.

Doc murdered? Doc of the Dance Terminal? My God, it was true.

Doc’s secretary found his body early that morning. The police sought Waltz Charleston, also accused of the murder of his brother, Jazz Charleston. They warned that the serial poisoner was armed and dangerous.

He slammed the paper against his thigh. “What makes them think I did it?”

“I’m starting to wonder about you myself. I take my eyes off you for one night and another of your friends turns up poisoned.”

“I spend the night under a bridge and wake-up accused of a second murder.”

“Speaking of second murders, our standard private-eye contract specifies one murder. I want another five thousand.”

“You’re renegotiating again? Ridiculous. No way.”

“What do you think this is – a murder two, get one free sale? Look at it this way. You apparently don’t have the moral fiber to resist murdering people. But you do care about money. Otherwise you wouldn’t be arguing about paying more. If you pay an extra five thousand, it will help motivate you to not murder anybody else.”

“I’m telling you, I didn’t kill anybody.”

“You don’t have to deny it to me. I’m your friend. I understand the psychology of a sociopath. You’ve killed twice. You’ve tasted the pleasure of killing. Lust for killing has overcome your natural moral reluctance to harm a fellow human. You feel you must kill again. Resist! You must. I understand that you lack impulse control. When the rage steals over you, you must kill. I’m amazed that you’re able to restrain yourself to poison, rather than lashing out with more brutal weapons, like clubs and machetes, ripping and tearing, mutilating the bodies of your victims. But you’ve got to stop. If you keep killing, the cops are going to line up arms-length apart and march through the city, grinding it to shreds, looking for us. We won’t have a chance. You’ve got to stop killing.”

“Of all the private detectives in the world, I have to get you.”

“Of all the serial poisoners in the world, I have to get you. Please help me out. Let me get you out of these two murders before you kill anybody else. I’m good, but more than two murders at a time is too much even for me. After I get you off these two, then do more if you just have to. But only one at a time. I can get you off – one at a time, but forget the batch killings. Please.”

“Okay, no more killings for now – although you’re tempting me.” He paused. “I’m getting thirsty. What say we stop off and get something to drink?”

“Yeah, right. After you admit you’re tempted to poison me, you offer me something to drink.”

“I promise I wouldn’t put anything in it. Rage is tempting me to kill again, true, and I may be a sociopath, but I can’t kill you now, you’re supposed to save me.”

“So you agree? It’s a bargain? You’re paying eighty-five thousand for the first murder, only five thousand for the second.”

“Wow. What a deal.” What did it matter? He was going to be rich soon. “On one condition.”

“What?”

“This extra five covers Doc’s murder as well as any other murders that occur, even remotely connected to me or this case, in perpetuity.”

“In perpetuity?” She paused. “I don’t know.”

“Okay, the rest of my life then.”

“Agreed. Any other murders are free for the rest of your life.”

“The rest of my life includes any and all time I might spend on life-support.”

“Well… okay.”

“Not that it matters.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’re charging me with two murders. I’m screwed. You’re screwed. We’ll never solve this. You’ll never collect on your re-renegotiated contract.”

“This might be good. Gordon’s killed again. Maybe he made a mistake this time. It’ll help us catch him.”

“It couldn’t be Gordon. He had no reason to kill Doc. We’re back to square one, without a suspect.”

“He did it. We’ll get him.”

“What’s the point in you staying in this mess? I don’t want you going to prison.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Stop the car. Let me out. You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me. We have a contract.”

“It’s for your own good. No way can I get out of this. You could lose your license and end up in prison. Stop the car.”

“I’m willing to risk it.”

“Forget the money. Forget that I’m innocent. Stop the car. Save yourself.”

“Screw that. We have a contract. I’ll sue your ass.”

“Sue my ass?” Waltz paused. “Sue my ass?” He laughed helplessly. He couldn’t stop.

Hook ‘Em watched him, face impassive, like a little kid staring at a stranger. “What’s so funny?”

Waltz was finally able to stop laughing. He wiped the tears from his eyes and gasped for breath. “Oh, no. Please don’t sue me.”

Waltz laughed again. After a moment, Hook ‘Em joined in.

Waltz took a deep breath. “I mean it. Let me off near the police station. You go on. I don’t want you in prison.”

“Don’t you want to get Gordon? He tried to kill an innocent dog. He killed your brother. Now he’s killed Doc.”

“That’s crazy. He had no reason to kill Doc.”

“Sure he did.”

“What?”

“You remember when Gordon talked about the medical training of his attacker?”

“Yeah.”

“You said maybe Doc helped the punks.”

“Oh, no. You’re right. I remember. Crap. I got Doc killed.”

“It’s not your fault. Gordon is a sociopath, whipped to frenzy by the conspiracy to cut off his big toe, out to kill anyone involved. We’ve got to stop him – but promise me one thing.”

“What?”

“Please don’t murder Gordon. We’d have no one to pin the murders on.”

***

 

They arrived at Ken’s apartment about noon. Waltz raised his hand to knock when he noticed a note taped to the door. At beach all day. Boners at nine.

He turned to Hook ‘Em. “They’re planning boners at nine? Now that’s scheduling.”

“They’re probably Viagra addicts.”

“But neither of them smokes.”

“Boners Bar. It’s a gay joint.”

He grabbed her arm. “We can’t wait till nine. Come on.”

“You’re saying we search the beaches? Miles and miles of beaches?”

“What choice do we have? Spend the day under the bridge, hiding from the cops?”

***

 

Waltz leaned back in his seat. He closed his eyes. A wasted day. They drove the beaches in vain. “I got Doc killed for nothing. Pete worked with a vet. He could’ve done it. He had experience in simple surgery, like castrations. So he should be able to do a neat job of cutting off a toe. It wouldn’t be difficult.”

“So what do you want me to say? You got Doc killed?”

Waltz moved the radio dial and found a blues station. He opened the glove compartment. He shuffled through it. He found a curious canister. He pulled it out and read the label. “Pepper spray. What were the punks doing with pepper spray?”

“Not in my red Merced. Put it back. That stuff goes off, it’s like kicking a baby skunk in the presence of its mama.”

He read the directions. “Point arrow away from yourself and press the button. Warning. Do not use on asthmatics, those allergic to peppers, or crybabies.”

“Don’t mess with that stuff. You accidentally spray that stuff, we’ll have to steal another car.”

“What stupid directions. Nobody’s going to go around spraying asthmatics.”

“Stupid lawyers, worrying about lawsuits.”

Waltz put the spray back in the glove compartment. He leaned back. “Hey. We got a sunroof.”

He found the control for the sunroof. He pushed it. It slid open. The beach breeze roared in. He closed it. The Merced resumed its quiet glide along the beach road.

Hook ‘Em turned and headed back north. “They could be in Mexico by now.”

“Not and be at Boners by nine.”

“That’s what’s got me worried. What if they never intended to be at Boners?”

“You – “

“They kill Doc. They figure we’ll come after them. So they leave a fake note that leaves us grabbing for a loose ball that’s not even in the game. It gives them a head start to Mexico. They take a vacation until the cops bring you in.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Nothing we can do but throw the long bomb and hope.”

“What do you mean?”

“We head for Boners and hope they’re there.”

***

 

The music blasted Waltz’s eardrums. Strobe lights flashed, intermittently illuminating the room, making the motions of the patrons seem like a herky-jerky dance, making Waltz feel like he was losing touch with his body.

Men crowded the huge nightclub, some young, some old, some with flowing locks, and some with shaved heads. Many were shirtless, bodybuilders advertising their wares. The waiters, all young men, all bodybuilders, wore Speedos and open leather vests. Hook ‘Em was one of the few women.

Waltz and Hook ‘Em worked their way toward the dance floor. Smoke fogged the room. Waltz took a sniff. He preferred the beach air. He was making progress. Soon he’d be able to smell smoke and want nothing but fresh air.

Dancers packed the floor. Hook ‘Em grabbed his arm and pointed.

Ken, shirtless, a bodybuilder himself, danced near the edge. Waltz couldn’t tell if he was dancing with a partner. Everyone was dancing separately. Ken might have been dancing with the guy in front of him, with a guy on the other side of the floor, or by himself.

Gordon sat at the rail around the dance floor, watching Ken. Waltz pointed. Hook ‘Em nodded. Waltz weaved through the crowd. Hook ‘Em hung back.

Waltz tapped Gordon on the shoulder. He yelled over the music. “Come here often?”

“Yeah. You?” Gordon turned. “Waltz. Do you come here often?”

“A lot, but don’t tell my students. It’s bad for business, you know.”

Gordon tipped sideways on his stool.

Waltz put his arm around Gordon. Let him be a talkative drunk. “Toe feeling better?”

“The scotch helps.”

Waltz signaled for a waiter. “Let me buy you a drink.”

The waiter took their orders. Waltz ordered a drink for Ken too.

Waltz squeezed Gordon’s shoulders. “I was watching Ken dance. He’s still in shape.”

“He moves beautifully. You should dance with him.”

“I could never dance with Ken. He’s much better than me.”

“Nonsense. You’re quite good. You must dance with him.”

“It would be embarrassing.”

“I insist you dance with him. You must dance with him.”

The dance ended and Ken joined them.

Gordon grabbed Ken’s arm. “Waltz comes here often. You must dance with him.”

Gordon set his drink on the bar and almost slipped off his stool. “You two must dance. I must see you dance.”

Ken took another sip and set his glass on the bar. “We two must dance.”

Waltz didn’t want to. He hadn’t danced in a week. He was cold. He couldn’t dance well without warming up. He didn’t want to dance with a gay guy in front of a bunch of gays. What if it got back to his students that he was dancing in gay bars – that he was gay?

That was the least of his problems. He started toward the dance floor.

Ken stopped him. He unbuttoned Waltz’s shirt. “Get your shirt off.”

Waltz brushed his hands away. “No way.”

“It’s the custom at Boners. You got to take off the shirt.”

Waltz finished unbuttoning his shirt. He shrugged out of it and handed it to Gordon.

He kept his Aggie cap on, backwards. Hook ‘Em insisted he wear it backwards, so she wouldn’t have to see Texas Aggies all day.

Ken grabbed Waltz’s hand and pulled him onto the floor, whipping Waltz away from him into a series of pivots. Waltz was used to following. To teach his students to follow, he had to learn how himself. He practiced following Lala, Rachel, or Yvette while they practiced leading.

After the pivots, Waltz was in the open position, free from the restraints of following – freestyle dance. You could do anything you wanted. It didn’t have to match your partner. The music was a fast mambo.

It felt good, dancing again. He realized how much he missed it. So what if he was shirtless, in a gay bar? He was dancing. He felt free again, like he was back in the studio, dancing with Lala. He threw in some of his best spin moves. Ken was doing some incredible things. Ballet dancers had the moves. Waltz envied them.

Warmed up, he finished with a spin and a body wave. His dancing felt accomplished, but spontaneous. Was it the layoff? Fresh muscles?

Cheers, applause, and whistles burst from the onlookers. The rest of the dancers had left the floor to them. Waltz hadn’t noticed. Ken grabbed Waltz’s hand and bowed. Waltz bowed. The cheers were apparently for them both.

Guys slapped their backs as they came off the floor. Waltz was uncomfortable with guys touching him, but he liked the approval. He found himself thanking them, nodding, and smiling.

The waiter came with more drinks. Gordon called for a toast to their dancing. They clinked their glasses and drank.

Ken perched on the stool next to Gordon.

Waltz stood on the opposite side.

Gordon grasped Waltz’s wrist. “Excellent. You’re a fine dancer. You have a lot of natural talent.”

“Thanks. That means a lot, coming from you.” He felt grateful to Gordon. How could he be a serial killer? It couldn’t be true. “Could I ask you a question?”

Gordon took another drink. “I did not poison Jazz.”

“It has nothing to do with Jazz.”

“Just don’t accuse me of poisoning Jazz.”

“I want to know one thing. Where were you at midnight last night?”

“I did not poison your friend Doc.”

“Help me eliminate you as a suspect.”

“I am not a suspect. I didn’t know Doc. I had no reason to kill him.”

“Just tell me where you were. If you can prove it, I’ll never bother you again.”

“You’ll never bother me about Jazz or Doc again?”

Waltz held up his hand. “I swear.”

“Right here at Boners. From ten to two.”

Ken turned on his stool to face Waltz. “I was with him.”

Waltz hesitated. He didn’t want to tick them off. “Any witnesses?”

Gordon tapped the shoulder of the man next to him. The man turned. His look inquired of Gordon. “Bob, tell this guy where I was last night.”

Bob switched his gaze to Waltz. “On that same stool. I was sitting next to him. Ken was too.”

“Tell him how long.”

“From about ten to closing.”

“What time’s closing?”

“Two.” He held out his hand. “You must be new here. I’m Bob.”

“Waltz.” They shook hands. Bob winked at Waltz.

“Anybody else see you here last night?”

“Lots of people.”

“Burke was here.” Bob tapped his neighbor on the shoulder. “You know Gordon. Did you see him last night?”

“Sure. He bought me a drink.”

Bob persisted. “Where was that?”

“Right here. Why are you asking me? You were here too.”

“The dancer wants to know. Was Gordon here at midnight?”

“Sure. He was here all evening – well past midnight.”

Gordon nudged Waltz and pointed at the TV. Jazz’s picture was on the screen. The caption read First Victim.

Waltz caught Hook ‘Em’s attention and pointed.

Doc’s picture came on. The caption read Second Victim.

Waltz’s picture replaced Doc’s. The caption read Ballroom Butcher. It was his studio shot, the one where his hair looked great, before Olivia savaged it. He reseated his cap.

Hook Em’s picture filled the screen, no hat, hair straight, apparently a driver’s license shot. Caption: Rogue PI.

Hook ‘Em squirmed in next to him. She snatched his shirt from Gordon. “Let’s get out of here. Everybody saw you dancing. Somebody is bound to call the cops.”

***

 

Waltz pulled on the freeway. He set the cruise control slightly below the speed limit. He’d never driven a Mercedes. What a car, his red Merced. He relaxed a little. “Their alibi. Their witnesses. They seem so pat. Do you think they’re lying?”

“I talked to the waiter. He backed them up. It looks like they’re telling the truth.”

“They were so friendly. Last time they threw us out.”

“This time, they were drunk.”

“They were setting us up.”

She turned to watch out the back. “If they set us up, they had to know we were coming.”

“Maybe they did.”

“How?”

He checked the speedometer, making sure the cruise control kept them under the speed limit. “They already knew we suspected them. After they killed Doc, they knew we’d come to question them. They put that note on their door deliberately, knowing we’d come to Boners tonight.”

“It’s possible, but unlikely. I think they’re telling the truth.”

“If they didn’t kill Doc, they probably didn’t kill Jazz. So who did? The punks?”

“Why would they kill Doc?”

“Maybe Doc did work with them. They wanted to shut him up.”

“They’re in jail. That clears them.”

“Who then?”

“Only two people benefit from Jazz’s death – you and Lala.”

“I finally convinced myself she didn’t do it. Now, you go back to her. We keep jumping from one suspect to another.”

“I know, but look at the logic. Jazz hired the punks to cut off Gordon’s toe. We know that now. Okay. That doesn’t mean that Lala didn’t kill Jazz.”

“I can accept that.”

“Now consider this. Lala hires me to get a divorce from Jazz. Gordon comes to town and poisons Cha-Cha. Jazz gets mad. He accuses you of poisoning the dog. You argue. Everybody knows it. Then Jazz realizes Gordon did it and hires the punks to attack him. It looks like somebody’s out to get the studio – out to get Jazz. But it’s really a feud between Gordon and Jazz.”

“So now you’re saying Lala had nothing to do with Cha-Cha or Gordon.”

“Yeah. See it from her point of view. She wants to get rid of Jazz, one way or another. These strange things with the dog and Gordon happen. Jazz and the cops blame you. She sees an opportunity to kill Jazz and frame you.”

“Maybe.”

“Remember how greedy she is. It’s perfect for her. The cops will think you did the dog and Gordon as well. Gordon’s not going to fess up to the dog. You go to jail. She won’t have to get a divorce and split the property with Jazz – or you. On top of that, she’ll get something even better, something she would’ve lost with the divorce. She’ll get the whopper insurance – all of it.”

“But…”

Hook ‘Em smiled when he couldn’t reply and continued with her scenario. “She poisons Jazz, leaves the party, and plants the evidence in your apartment.”

“Doc was her best customer. Why would she kill him?”

“She’ll soon be rich. She doesn’t need dance students anymore. I bet he found out she killed Jazz. She had to get rid of him.”

Waltz shook his head. “Cha-Cha, Gordon, the cops thinking I did it. It’s a lot of coincidence.”

“You got a better theory?”

The steering wheel felt heavy in his hands. “I’m tired. I can’t think.”

“We need a place to spend the night.”

“Not the bridge.”

“No. And I can’t go to Tara’s now, not with my ‘Rogue PI’ picture all over TV.”

“Think of a place, a comfortable place, where we can sleep without worrying about the cops.”

“Is that all? No hot tub?”

“Yeah, I want a hot tub too. Now think.” He wished he could think. His mind was numb.

Hook ‘Em flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em! We spend the night at the punks’ house. I bet they got a hot tub.”

“Are you crazy?”

“It’s a nice house with lots of privacy. Flaco keeps the place spotless, except for that spot where you spilled beer. Plenty of beer in the fridge. We already got their car. It’ll look natural parked at their place. They won’t mind. They’re in jail.”

“You’re forgetting Chomper.”

“Tara says animal control got him.”

***

 

They neared the punk’s house. Visions of Chomper chewing on his wrist flashed through Waltz’s mind. “Hand me the pepper spray.”

“What for?”

“In case Chomper’s home.”

“Tara says animal control’s got him.”

He stuck out his hand and snapped his fingers. “Just in case. Come on.”

“Tara knows what she’s doing.”

He kept snapping his fingers.

She opened the glove compartment, picked out the pepper spray, and handed it to him. “Don’t push the button in the car. Don’t spray yourself in the face.”

He wanted to be ready. Chomper was fast. Waltz switched on the overhead light and peered at the container. An arrow pointed to the front.

“Remember to point it away from yourself.”

“I’m not an idiot.”

“Don’t spray me. Don’t you dare spray up my red Merced.”

He stopped in front of the punk’s house and reached for the door handle, feeling secure holding the pepper spray.

Flashing red lights blinded him. A siren blasted his ears. An alarm system. The punks must have an alarm system. Waltz hadn’t figured on that. How did he trigger it? He didn’t even leave the car.

Hook ‘Em punched him in the shoulder. “Cops! You idiot! I didn’t see them. You had me watching to see you spray yourself.”

A cop approached their car. It was all over. They were going to jail.

“This is all your fault.”

What was wrong with her? It wasn’t his fault that she watched him with the pepper spray. He wasn’t an idiot. He didn’t spray himself.

The cop swaggered to the car, his shoulders reared back to offset his swaying beer belly. He tapped on the window.

Waltz hit the button to open it. His stomach churned and his hand shook.

He pointed the arrow away from himself and squeezed, hoping the cop wasn’t a crybaby. The spray shot into the cop’s face. The cop screamed and grabbed his eyes. The sting of the spray drifted back into the window. Waltz blinked his eyes against it. He released the door handle and shoved. The door slammed the cop and knocked him backwards.

“Run!” Waltz bolted through the door and ran toward the punk’s house. Hook ‘Em raced from her side of the car. A second cop sprinted after her and leaped in an open-field tackle. Harns goes down. The ball may be loose! The cop sat on her and jerked out his cuffs.

Waltz cut back toward her. The cop looked up. Waltz pointed the arrow away from himself and sprayed. The cop went over backwards and writhed on the grass, clutching his eyes. Waltz plunged through the stink and sting, grabbed Hook ‘Em’s arm, and jerked her to her feet. “Back to the car.”

They raced back to the car and jumped in. Waltz hit the ignition.

The back door opened. Both cops jumped in. How could they see? They must be tough as hell. For sure, they weren’t crybabies. Maybe they wore contact lenses.

Waltz turned and blasted them both. More screams.

“I’ll kill you for this!”

Hook ‘Em yelled. “Flaco! And Pete!”

Pete lunged for her. “You stole our car!”

Waltz hated to do it. Fumes already filled the car. His eyes stung. He blasted the punks again, turned, and gunned away from the curb. He whipped around the next corner.

His eyes watered. He hit the buttons to open the front windows, hoping the fresh air would blow the spray toward the punks. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Flaco and Pete squirmed in the back seat with their hands over their eyes and screamed curses and threats.

They must’ve been home from jail. They must have heard the siren, seen the cops, and followed Waltz and Hook ‘Em to the Mercedes.

He realized he still clutched the pepper spray. He put it in Hook ‘Em’s hand.

She rose to her knees and faced the backseat. “Shut up! Do you want another shot?” She turned her head toward Waltz. “Pull over. Let’s dump them.”

Pete moaned and clawed at his eyes. “I’m going to kill you. We stole this car fair and square.”

Hook ‘Em gasped. “You stole it?”

Waltz groaned. “No wonder the cops stopped us. Great idea, Hook ‘Em.”

“How did I know they stole it?”

Waltz spoke over his shoulder to the punks. “It’s your car. We see that. We only borrowed it anyway. I’ll pull over and you can drive away. No hard feelings.”

“You’re dead.”

The punks would come after them. No doubt about that.

Waltz spotted a strip mall and headed for it. It was midnight. The stores appeared closed. He hoped so. Otherwise, what he had in mind would be dangerous. He drove behind the stores to the delivery alley.

He found a dumpster. You could park two cars between the dumpster and an out-jutting portion of the building. He wanted a tighter fit.

He drove on to the end of the mall. He couldn’t find what he wanted. He’d have to make do with the first dumpster.

The punks continued to squirm, rub their eyes, and scream curses and threats.

Hook ‘Em hovered over the back of the seat, pepper spray in hand. “What are you doing? Let’s get out of here before these punks get back in their usual nasty mood.”

“Just a minute. I’m working on an idea. They get nasty, give them another shot.” He drove back to the dumpster. He entered the space between the dumpster and the wall, as close to the wall as he could. His side of the car came to the edge of the store’s door. He backed out, dropped the car in low, and drove to the other side of the dumpster. He eased up to it and pushed.

Hook ‘Em turned to watch him. “What are you doing? Let’s get out of here.”

The car edged the dumpster toward the wall. When it lined up with the door, he put the car in reverse and backed away. He hit the controls to close the windows.

“Don’t close the windows. My eyes are burning.”

“Watch the punks.” He hit the control to open the sunroof.

He gunned the car into the space between the dumpster and the brick wall. Hook ‘Em’s side of the car ground and screeched against the bricks. He smashed into the wall in front of them. The force of the crash pulled Waltz forward against his seat belt.

He flung out his right arm like an anxious parent and held Hook ‘Em against the seat.

He hoped the noise didn’t bring the cops.

Hook ‘Em grabbed the wheel. “Stop it!”

Waltz pushed her away.

The punks rolled forward onto the floor and screamed threats.

Waltz slammed the car into reverse and squealed backwards. He switched to first and rammed into the wall again. The crash echoed between the dumpster and the wall. Again he pinned Hook ‘Em to the seat. Steam spewed from the radiator. Parts clanked under the hood.

The punks’ arms and legs flailed in the backseat. They cursed and moaned.

Waltz jammed the car into reverse. He pulled out, and charged forward again, holding Hook ‘Em and smashing into the wall. The engine died.

He turned the key. The starter ground. He tried again. Nothing.

German-trained technicians would charge thousands of dollars to get the engine to start again– and thousands more to redeem the body. He felt a stab of regret. His red Merced was such a nice car.

It was wedged between the dumpster on Waltz’s side, the brick wall on Hook ‘Em’s side, and the brick wall in front of the car. They couldn’t open any of the windows or doors. They couldn’t start the engine. They couldn’t back the car out.

“You’re crazy! How are we going to get out of here?”

Waltz hauled himself through the sunroof.

Hook ‘Em sprayed the punks again. It triggered more curses and moans.

Waltz grabbed her arm and pulled her out. They stood atop the car.

She pointed at the open sunroof. “Clever. You trapped them. But there is a slight flaw in your plan.”

Waltz jumped from the top of the car into the dumpster.

Hook ‘Em gaped down at him. “What are you doing now, you crazy…?”

Waltz wondered himself. The stench, worse than the pepper spray, gagged him. He heard scratching. Was it rats? His stomach crawled into his throat. What was he doing?

Deadly germs were covering his dance shoes and advancing toward his body openings. He breathed millions of them into his lungs – lungs damaged by smoking. The trash was probably loaded with addicts’ dirty needles.

He shrugged. He scooped up an armload of trash and handed it to Hook ‘Em. “Stuff this into the sunroof.”

Hook ‘Em laughed and dunked the trash. “Harns scores two!”

He picked up another armload. A rat scurried into the corner. He tossed the trash onto it to give it cover. Maybe it would stay there out of his way.

He handed off another armload and another, a million arm loads of germ-laden trash. Sweat drenched his clothes and drained into his dance shoes. The stench faded. He was used to it now. It was the same as if he was on the beach with a sweet breeze blowing in off the Gulf.

Hook ‘Em jumped on the debris protruding from the sunroof. “Enough. It’s trashed out. We now hold the world record for the most garbage stuffed into a Mercedes.”

Waltz handed Hook ‘Em a flattened cardboard box, climbed out of the dumpster, and surveyed their work. Flaco’s face was jammed against the back window, screaming obscenities. Waltz couldn’t see Pete. He was probably screaming obscenities too. It was hard to distinguish between them when they were screaming obscenities – especially filtered through a ton of trash. Filtering obscenities through trash cleaned them up somehow.

Waltz jumped into the sunroof onto the trash. “Help me tromp this down a little more.”

They jumped on their trampoline of trash. Waltz imagined the punks squishing like worms.

“Okay. Enough. Step back.” He grabbed the box Hook ‘Em held and forced it flat under the edges of the sunroof. “They’ll have hell swimming their way to the top of this aquarium.”

He stepped to the hood and slid down the fender to the ground. “What a shame. I loved that car. It was the nicest one we ever stole.”

Hook ‘Em skidded down. “The punks would’ve cut it up for parts anyway.”

“Why don’t you call Tara and report a stolen car? Car thieves must be punished.”

 

Chapter 13

The Gay Divorcee

Hook ‘Em jammed the tire iron under the edge of a back window and prized. The window creaked open.

Waltz boosted her through and she let him in the back door. They continued down the hall and entered the dance floor. To their right was the bandstand. To their left, the bar.

Waltz felt like he was on a basketball court. He slid his toe on the floor. Solid hardwood. Too bad the Honkytonk went out of business. Someone would buy it and turn it into a warehouse, a grocery store, or a strip joint. What a waste.

Hook ‘Em sighed. “Well – it’s better than the bridge. I’m going to stash the car away from the building. See if you can find something soft to sleep on.”

“How will we be able to sleep? We’ll be on the floor and a real estate agent will come at six in the morning to show the place.”

“Find something soft.” She turned and went out the way they came.

Something soft. He kept the flashlight beam down. Surrounding the floor on three sides, the tables still sported checked tablecloths.

Was the water still on? He walked behind the bar. He turned the tap. Water flowed. Excellent. They had water and working restrooms, cowboys and cowgirls.

He found a light switch. It emitted a dim fluorescent light behind the bar. Nobody could see it from outside. He switched off the flashlight.

Something soft. He walked to the end of the bar. The floor felt soft under his feet. A springy rubber mat ran the length of the bar. He folded it and folded it again. With four thicknesses, it would take the sting out of the floor. They could pile on the tablecloths.

It would be better than the rocky ground under the bridge – and safer – he hoped. If somebody caught them here, the cops would be all over them.

He gathered tablecloths, an armload big enough to tickle his nose. He dumped it on the rubber mat. He shaped it into a meager mattress and eased onto it. The mat contributed most of the softness.

Hook ‘Em’s boots clopped across the dance floor. “Waltz?”

“Behind the bar.”

She clomped to the bar and looked down at him. “A pile of tablecloths? That’s all you could find?”

“And the mat. Unless you want to pile on the toilet paper.” He got up. “Try it.”

She flopped on the pile and lay back. “The mat helps some.” She sat up and looked around. “Where are you going to sleep?”

“Give me a break.”

She gave him a stern look. “No fooling around. Got it?”

Could she read his mind? “Got it.”

She walked around the bar and perched on a barstool. “Any beer back there?”

Waltz slid open the cooler and glanced inside. He stuck his arm in and felt around, nothing but chill air. “Nope. I guess they drank it all when they went out of business.” He pulled two wine glasses out of the overhead rack, filled them with water, and placed one with a flourish in front of her.

He held up his glass.

She clinked it. “I don’t mess with womanizers.”

“I got it. Me either.”

He drank. The water tasted like a mountain stream, no doubt filtered.

He walked around the bar and perched on the stool next to her. “Somehow, the punks got out of jail after the Chomper incident. They could have killed Doc.”

“Maybe.” Hook ‘Em consulted her watch. “Tara went on shift at eleven. She’s supposed to call me first chance she gets. She can tell us if the punks were in jail at the time of Doc’s murder.” She shivered. “At least, they’re in jail for sure now.”

“If not on charges of car theft, on charges of looting a dumpster.”

They laughed.

Waltz stretched and yawned. “Let’s go to bed and wait for her call.”

“I don’t think I want to go to bed with a womanizer and wait around. A bored womanizer might get ideas.”

Waltz slammed his glass down. “I told you I got it.”

“I know what you have in mind. I saw the way your eyes bugged out when I did my strip.”

“So what do you want me to say? Do you want me to confess that I liked the way your body jiggled as you strutted across the floor? That it made me slobber with desire? Is that what you want me to say?”

She moved over a stool. “No, I do not want you to say that. Don’t say it.”

He stared ahead into the mirror. He pulled off his cap. His hair leaped to attention, looking startled. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to try to put the make on you. I don’t even like you.”

“I don’t like you, either.”

He wrinkled his nose. “You know something else? You stink.”

“You do too.”

Waltz laughed. “The trash numbed our noses. They’re recovering.”

“I’m sorry they are.”

Her cell rang. She unfolded it and put it to her ear.

She didn’t say much. She pulled out her notebook and scribbled in it.

She stopped scribbling and folded her cell. “The punks were in jail charged with theft, assault, and practicing medicine illegally – “

“Practicing medicine illegally?”

She pointed at her foot. “For the toe.”

“Oh.”

“The punks have a good lawyer. He was able to get them out on bail. They were out when Doc was killed.”

“Aha. I knew I was right. They killed Doc.”

She tapped her cell on her chin. “No. They stole the Merced around midnight when Doc was killed across town. The cops know the time because the owner accosted the thieves.”

“So the punks are innocent by dint of car theft?”

“That’s not the kicker. There was a note on Doc’s computer.” She consulted her notebook. “Listen to this. ‘I killed Jazz. He owed me a lot of poker money and refused to pay. I was drunk and mad. Lala and Waltz had nothing to do with any of it. They’re both innocent. I framed Waltz. I can’t let him take the rap. I can’t live with the guilt anymore. I’m sorry.’”

Waltz jumped from his stool, knocking it over backwards. “Doc did it.” He danced around. “It’s over!”

Hook ‘Em shushed him. “No, the cops don’t buy it.”

“What?” He gaped at her, stunned.

“According to Doc’s secretary, he didn’t even know how to turn on the computer. He couldn’t have left the note. Whoever killed Doc left the note. The cops think it was you. Look how it says you’re innocent. The cops think you made a clumsy attempt to clear yourself.”

Waltz righted his stool and collapsed on it. He put his head in his hands. He thought he was free.

“Don’t be so down. Now we know for sure who did it – Lala.”

“Why would she leave a note trying to clear me?”

She lifted her hands in the Hook ‘Em sign. “To clear herself. Remember, the cops suspect her of killing Jazz too. That’s why she’s working with them. When she killed Doc, she had a new victim to deal with. So she blamed both deaths on him. It’s smart. Doc can’t contradict her.”

Waltz raised his head. “But she wouldn’t want to share the money with me.”

“Why should she worry about that? She’s got you by the balls. She’d lure you down to Mexico. You’d go.”

“Knowing what I know now? No way.”

She laughed. “Don’t deny it. You’re a womanizer. You can’t handle pussy. It’ll lead you anywhere.”

“No way. I’ll never go to bed with another woman, especially Lala.”

“You’d go to Mexico with Lala. You’d go dancing every night. They say the nightclubs in Rio are magnificent. You’d be as happy as Fred Astaire when he tips his top hat forward and bounces his cane.”

He leaned away from her in disgust. “I guess now you’re saying Fred was a womanizer.”

“Then one night, you take your usual two cocktails, thinking they taste a little funny. You think it’s the water. It’s always the water in Mexico. You get up and dance. In the middle of your fanciest step, you fall on your ass. Dead. You die dancing, your last dance.”

Waltz covered his eyes and slumped on the bar.

“It’s easy to dispose of a corpse in Mexico. They do it all the time. They bury them everywhere. Every time a farmer digs a hole to plant a mango tree, he digs up another corpse. The cops never find out who did it. After she tromps the dirt down on your grave, she has all the money. And she no longer has to put up with your constant demands for pussy.”

“We’ll never be able to prove she did it.”

“We’ll get her. I promise.” She got up and stretched. “Let’s get some sleep – but first, we’ve got to get rid of this stench. I hope there’s still soap in the restrooms.”

“We can’t sleep in these clothes.”

“You’re not going to sleep naked with me.”

“We’ll wear underwear.”

“You’ll sleep in the car.”

“We’ll each wear a tablecloth.”

“Well…”

“Don’t make me sleep in the car. Please.”

She poked her stern Hook ‘Em fingers in his chest. “You don’t touch me.”

***

 

Wrapped in tablecloths, they crawled on to their makeshift bed. She pushed him to the edge of the pile, almost under the bar.

“Hey, let me at least get one cheek on the mat.” He edged back. “Don’t worry. I have no interest in putting the make on you. You’re the most disgusting creature I ever met.”

“Turn off the light.” She twisted her blond hair around her finger. When she let it go, it fell limp on her shoulders.

He wanted to twist it around his finger, let it fall, bury his face in it, and inhale it.

He got up and switched off the light. Moonlight shone through the slats on the Venetian blinds, just enough to see. He picked his way back to the mat and lay on his back. The faint aroma of beer rose from the tablecloths.

Hook ‘Em sighed. “This mat is hard.”

“You think this is bad? You should try sleeping on the ground, rocks digging into you, bums trying to steal your dance shoes.”

She turned to him. “Remember, don’t think you’re getting any because we’re sleeping together. This is business. Nothing more.”

“How come you hate me?”

“I don’t hate you – at least not any more than any other cheating man.”

He adjusted his tablecloth. “You hate all men?”

“Just the womanizers – which pretty much means all men – yes.”

No wonder people didn’t usually sleep in tablecloths. He adjusted it again. “Not all.”

“Second to womanizers, I hate guys who want to talk all night.” She turned on her side, away from him.

“You’ve got the wrong attitude.”

She sat up. “Me! The wrong attitude. You’re the womanizer.”

“Maybe I can change. Maybe, if I knew what you have against men, I could change.”

She gazed heavenward, arms outstretched, beseeching. “Why me?” Her tablecloth started to slip off. She grabbed it and tucked it in.

“You could start the ball rolling. Once you’ve changed me, you could work on other men. We’d become a groundswell of men, new men, solicitous, faithful helpmates, eunuch-like men who have no interest whatsoever in other women.”

She lay back and put her hands over her ears. “Shut up and let me sleep.”

“This is too important for sleep. Don’t you realize this could be a breakthrough?”

“Can’t you leave me alone? What’s wrong with you?”

He gave the Hook ‘Em sign. “I’m a womanizer. You can help me change. Why won’t you?”

“Womanizers don’t change.”

“You haven’t given them a chance.”

“I tried with my husband.”

He twisted his hips to get into a comfortable position. “Did he ask you for help?”

“Ha!”

“I’m asking. I’m not like him. My mind is open. I want to change.”

She turned her back to him and said nothing.

“Come on. Tell me why you hate men.”

“I know what you’re up to.”

“I want to know why you hate men.”

“You want to keep me talking. You act friendly and nice, as though you’re concerned about my welfare. You want to soften me up and put the make on me.”

“No, I’ve already promised you I won’t touch you. Not even if you beg me.”

“That’ll be the day.”

“Tell me why you hate men.”

“You really want to know why I hate men?”

“Yes.”

“I was married once.”

“You were married once? That’s it? That’s why you hate men? You were married once?”

“Yes.”

The floor ground into his hip, but the mat made it better than the rocks under the bridge. “I was hoping for a fuller explanation.”

“You want a fuller explanation? Really?”

“Yes. I’m dying for it.”

She turned back to face him. “I’m beginning to see why you’re a successful womanizer. You pound away at women until you finally break them down. They give you a little just to get you to shut up. If I tell you, will you shut up and let me sleep?”

“Of course.”

“You’d better.”

“I promise.”

“Yeah, I know I can depend on that. Okay. You asked for it. I’m going to give you the whole story. I met my husband at an abstinence rally. I believed in the sanctity of marriage. I was a virgin until my wedding night. Mike, my ex, claimed to be a virgin too.”

“He wasn’t?”

“No way. I doubt he ever was – well, maybe as a baby, while he was still in diapers. He was a bigger womanizer than you, if that’s possible.”

“Wow. I’d like to meet him. Maybe he could give me some tips.”

“Very funny.”

“I’m sorry. Sometimes I’m a wiseass.”

“Sometimes?”

“All right. Always. I can’t help myself. I’m sorry. I do want to hear your story.”

“That’s pretty much my story. I was a starry-eyed virgin. I believed I was marrying a virgin – or at least a man who believed in fidelity in marriage. It was a beautiful ceremony. Not big and expensive, but beautiful, and sincere. I thought. I was wrong. I’ve changed. Thanks to Mike. End of story.” She turned away from him. “Now let me sleep.”

“What happened?”

“One good thing about tonight. I’ve learned the real value of the pillow. To muffle the ears. I’ll never be without one again.”

“You can’t stop the story there. I’ll never be able to sleep. I’ve got to know what happened.”

“This is not some cheap soap opera, where you learn all after the commercial. That’s the story. Now let me sleep.”

“Tell me what happened. Then I’ll shut up.”

“Give me strength. Okay, okay. No wonder your girlfriends give in. Where was I?”

“He wasn’t a virgin, except maybe as a toddler.”

“No. I didn’t say toddler. I said infant. I’m sure the womanizing kicked in by the time he was a toddler. It turned out he was a drinker too. He’d get drunk and beat me up. He started staying out all night with other women. It tore me up.”

“I can see how.”

“One night he brought home his partner, Tara.”

“Tara? The cop you talked to tonight?”

“Yeah, and Mike was one of the cops that Chomper trapped in the car yesterday.”

“So that’s why you were laughing. Which one was he?”

“The driver. Now, do you want to hear the story?”

“Tell me.”

“They were both drinking. I’d never tasted alcohol. They talked me into trying it. They got me drunk. I liked it. They talked me into having a three-way. It really turned Mike on to see a woman making love to me. Maybe it was the tender way she made love. Maybe it was that she liked me, unlike Mike. Maybe it was that she didn’t beat me – unlike Mike. I liked it.”

“Wow.”

“This is supposed to be a sad story – not a turn on. You’re not getting turned on, are you?” She rolled onto her back.

“No.” His voice was husky. He cleared his throat, trying to hide the huskiness. He adjusted his tablecloth. It was binding him. “I’m sad. I’m sorry for you.”

“Mike moved Tara in with us.”

“You mean – to live with you?”

“Yes. I didn’t go for that. I moved out. I moved back to my parents’ house. Tara came there. She talked me into coming back. She was nice to me. She told me she only came home with him that night because she liked me. I liked her. I moved back into the apartment. The three of us lived together. One day, Mike caught me and Tara together – without him. It enraged him. He kicked us both out. He changed the locks. He brought in a new woman.”

He readjusted his tablecloth. “He makes us womanizers look bad. He’s a drunk and a wife-beater.”

“You got that right – except that he doesn’t just beat his wife – he beats any woman. To him, marriage means nothing. He told me I could pick up my clothes in the backyard. I went to get them. They were there, but they were all pinked in two.”

“Pinked?”

“You know – with pinking shears – so they wouldn’t ravel.”

“Wow. He cut them up, but he made sure they didn’t ravel. That’s compassion. How could you leave him?”

She laughed. “In those days, I was a piano teacher. He spread the story that I was a lesbian whore. That destroyed my business. Not many mothers want their children, especially little girls, taught piano by a lesbian whore.”

“Yet he was the one that made you a lesbian whore.”

She turned to face him. “You’re right. He made me a lesbian whore – and then he hated me for it – and punished me for it – destroyed my business.”

“Pinked your wardrobe, and left no ravels.”

She laughed. “That’s right – fitting punishment for a lesbian whore who loves lint.”

She sighed. “The story got back to my parents and my uncle. He’s the one that taught me to play the piano and the harmonica. He was my favorite person in the world. My dad and my uncle have never talked to me since. That’s why I hate men.” She picked up her harmonica and played a few notes of “Taps.”

“Now that I’ve heard your story, I hate them too.”

They laughed.

No wonder she hated him. She was a lesbian. “Are you really a lesbian? Not just mad at Mike?”

“I really am. Disappointed?”

What a waste. His luck was all bad. Lala was a murderer. Rachel, the sweetest of them all, married Pete, the foulest of them all. And Hook ‘Em was a lesbian. “Yes. I’m devastated.”

“Too bad.”

“So you have no interest in men anymore?”

Hook ‘Em hesitated, then turned to face him. “That’s right.”

“Maybe you’re bisexual.”

“No!”

The vehemence of her reply startled him. “You don’t have to stay a lesbian. They have cures. Some of the churches have programs. They can cure you.”

“You believe that? What garbage. You’re born with your sexual preferences.”

“You weren’t. You were sexually attracted to men. You married one.”

“I was only eighteen. I bought into the man-woman thing, thinking you got married to a man, had children, and lived happily ever after.”

“Didn’t you like sex with your husband?”

“Well… at first, yes. I thought it was great – until he started beating me and I realized he was running around on me.”

“So really, you hate him, not all men, because he mistreated you.”

“I hate all men. Especially you. You’re just like him.”

“No, I’m not. I wouldn’t beat you. I wouldn’t run around on you.”

“Oh, you’d run around on me all right. You’re a womanizer.”

“I’m not a womanizer. I’m searching for my ideal woman.”

“Shopping around, womanizing.”

“When I find her, I’ll marry her – and be true to her. It’s a mistake to marry the first person you come across. You should’ve done some comparison shopping. That was your mistake.”

“I made a mistake all right and I’m not making it again. You are a womanizer. You’re about as capable of a long-term relationship as a black-widow spider.”

Hook ‘Em was a lesbian. What did she know about long-term relationships? “If it was legal in Texas, would you marry Tara?”

“No, it would be the same, the same as marrying a man.”

“She’d start beating you and running around on you?”

“Well – maybe not that. But it would end badly.”

“So you’re screwed either way. You should marry a man. At least you can have children then. You need to cure yourself of being a lesbian.”

“So you can get me in bed? No thanks.”

“I got you in bed. I’m sleeping with a lesbian. I always wanted to.”

“Very funny.” She turned away from him. “Do not touch me tonight.”

“Seriously, you should try the cure.”

“It would never work.”

“Why not try? What do you have to lose?”

“Maybe I don’t want to be cured. I’m happy as I am. I hate men, especially womanizers like you. Now – shut up and go to sleep.”

The building creaked. A car drove by. Its lights whirled around the room.

Was she asleep yet? Maybe she lied about being a lesbian. They’d touch in the night. They’d kiss and…

***

 

His eyes opened. Morning light filtered in behind the bar. He was on his side, curled in the fetal position, hip aching. Hook ‘Em embraced him, her body spooning his. Her tablecloth had slipped off during the night. He felt her breathing slowly and deeply. A lesbian was cuddling with him.

Was she really a lesbian?

Maybe her true nature came out when she was asleep. He wished he could stay in her arms forever, but they ought to get up. Some real estate agent might decide to show the place.

He remained half-asleep, enjoying her soft warmth. He wanted to reach around and fondle her butt, feel why it jiggled while looking so firm. He should. What could she say? She was spooning him. He bet she deliberately doffed her tablecloth during the night.

It hit him, how to go about proving that Lala murdered Jazz and Doc. It might work.

He raised her arm and eased away from her.

He slid off the mat. He staggered to the men’s room. His clothes hung over the stall. He felt them. Still damp. He shrugged into them. His body heat would dry them.

He peered in the mirror. His hair resembled a mangy porcupine that somehow acquired a permanent and crawled atop his head to die. He ran his comb through it and tried to part it. It sprang back, quills aquiver.

He returned to the bar. He moved a stool around to the end so he could watch Hook ‘Em sleep. He hoped she wasn’t a lesbian. He hoped she hated all men except him.

He hoped she would wake up before a real estate agent came. He tiptoed across the dance floor to the front door. It was a double door that latched in the middle. He squinted through the gap. He didn’t see anyone advancing on them.

He jumped and grabbed the doorsill. He chinned himself, counting silently.

Hook ‘Em’s footsteps echoed across the dance floor. “You ought to be worried about your ass, not your muscles. My ass too. We’re in deep shit.”

“I’ve got an idea how to save our asses.”

She headed for the ladies room. “Tell me at breakfast.”

***

 

Waltz pointed. “There’s a burger joint.”

She turned in at a taco stand. They navigated the drive through and sat in the parking lot, eating tacos.

He finished his last bite. “You know what I think we should do now?”

“Tell me, Sherlock.”

“Prove that I didn’t kill Doc. That will be easy – easier than proving I didn’t kill Jazz, that is. I have an alibi. Then we confront Lala with the evidence. Pressure her. Get her to confess.”

She considered. “You should think about stuff other than pussy more often. That’s not bad.”

“Let’s get on it.”

She wadded her taco wrapped. “There’s something we’ve got to do first.”

“What?”

She dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “Get disguises.”

“You mean – like fake noses and glasses? Like Halloween?” He laughed. “Come on. Get serious.”

“Don’t laugh. I am serious. Not the rinky-dink Halloween stuff – real disguises. Something simple that will change our appearance. Something that will fool people. We’re all over TV. We’re noticeable – me in my cowboy hat and boots. You in your hair and mustache. Somebody will notice us soon. We’ve been lucky so far. If somebody turns us in, we’re screwed.”

“What do you suggest? I should wear a fake beard? Dye my hair?” He laughed. “Yeah, maybe blond.” He’d always wondered what he would look like blond.

She started the truck. “Yeah, something like that. Let’s go shopping and see what we can find.”

***

 

Waltz glanced through the crack between the doors again. “I don’t like hanging out in the Honkytonk during the day. Somebody’s going to catch us.”

She grabbed his shoulder and turned him. “We won’t be here long. Just long enough to change into our costumes.” She held the Goodwill western shirt next to him and studied the effect. She shook her head. “No good. You’ll look like Waltz Charleston in a western shirt.”

She laid the shirt on the bar and grabbed some scissors. She clicked the blades. “Your mustache has to go.”

“No way. Where’s the dye?”

“I didn’t get it.”

“I told you to get blond dye.”

“What would that do besides draw more attention? You need to look different. It’ll grow back.” She pulled out a chair. “Sit down.”

“No way.”

She jumped and locked her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist, putting all her weight on him. “Sit. I’m not getting picked up by the cops because you want to keep your frizzy-ass mustache.”

He remained upright. If she thought her slight weight would bring him down, she was quite wrong. “I’m not sitting down. I’ll do some squats. One, two, three – “

She released a hand and grabbed him by the balls. “Mustache – or balls?” She gave them a tentative squeeze. “Those imitation balls work nothing like the originals.”

A womanizer-hating lesbian had him by the balls. He knew how to handle a situation like that. He waddled to the chair and sat.

She ended up straddling his lap with her hand on his balls. His balls didn’t know whether to rejoice – or skedaddle. He felt an impulse to put his arms around her. After all, she was in his lap with her hand on his balls.

On the other hand, she had her hand on his balls, threatening to mash them to mush. He decided not to put his arms around her.

She was right. He needed to look different. His mustache would grow back. “Go ahead. Take it off.”

She jumped up. She pointed down at the chair. “Stay.” She grabbed a tablecloth off their bed and tied it around his neck. She clicked her scissors and cut off his mustache.

He rubbed his hand over his upper lip. “That really feels weird. I had that mustache a year and a half.”

She was gentle as she trimmed it away. She cut it close to the skin, so it would be easy to shave. She had his best interests at heart. Maybe she did like him. She didn’t so much threaten his balls as, like, caress them.

She pulled off his cap and slammed it to the floor. “Goddamn Aggies!” Her scissors clicked. Huge hunks of hair flopped onto his lap.

He jumped up. His hair slid to the floor. The curls sprang to life like daddy longlegs and eight-stepped away. He ripped off the tablecloth and flung it down. He tried to speak. He felt his head. Most of his hair was gone.

He ran to the men’s room and gaped at the mirror. She cut a huge bald spot right in front and several more on the sides. He looked like an old man with a serious balding problem. Tears filled his eyes.

He pulled out his comb and ran it through his remaining hair. He flung the comb against the wall, fighting tears.

He ran back to her. “You… you…”

She smirked and clicked her scissors. “I’m not going to prison because you’re a Don Juan with a hair fetish.”

“I’m bald!”

“It’s better than Olivia’s tornado of curls. Sit down. Let me finish.”

“No! You’re fired!”

“We have a contract. Sit down.”

“You’re not coming near my hair again.”

She wagged her scissors at him. “We leave it like that, it’ll really be noticeable. Waitresses, stewardesses, and strippers will make fun. That’s all right with me. But cops will notice it too. They’ll recognize you and arrest you. I wouldn’t care, except they’d arrest me and I wouldn’t get my money. Sit down. I’ll give you a nice crew cut.”

He held out his hands, palms forward. “No way.”

“We don’t have time for this. Some real estate agent will wander in any minute. She’ll call the cops.”

He felt the gaps in his hair.

She clicked her scissors. “I’m trying to save your life.”

What was the use? His hair was already gone. Cops swarmed all over town, searching for them.

“It’ll grow back.” She pointed her scissors at the chair. “Sit down.”

He sank into the chair.

She retied the tablecloth. Her scissors snipped. His hair dropped into his lap and slid onto the dance floor, slithered onto her boots. She kicked it off and walked on it. She treated Olivia’s curls – his curls – like litter, like dust bunnies.

Waltz’s eyes watered. Maybe a crew cut wouldn’t be so bad.

She lathered his head.

“Hey! You said crew cut.” He started to get up.

She leaped into his lap and grabbed his balls again. “I lied. The crew cut is a dream. You’re bald. Your hair is all gone. There’s not enough left to make up a crew cut the size of your eyebrow. Let me make it look neat.” She squeezed a little.

He was bald. She didn’t have to do that. A crew cut would’ve been fine. She did it for fun – because she was mean. “Let go of my balls.”

She gave another little squeeze. “You’re going to let me shave?”

He nodded.

She let go and went behind him. He couldn’t see her face, but he knew she was smiling, a huge smile, her face contorted with glee as she smeared shaving cream on his head and began to shave.

She came around to the front, lathered his face, and shaved it. She did a tap dance. “Shave and a haircut, ten cents.” She held out her hand.

He slapped it.

“You look great – virile.” She stepped back and surveyed her work. “The ears stick out a bit, though.” She clicked her scissors and stepped toward him.

He bolted from his chair and backed away. He removed the tablecloth and popped it at her. His hair fluttered into the air and drifted to the floor. Gone. Probably forever.

His father was bald. Waltz’s hair would never grow back.

She picked up his Aggie cap and used it to scoop his hair into her trash bag. She cut the cap to shreds. She stuffed the pieces in the bag. She flashed the sign. “Hook ‘Em Horns! Get dressed. Hurry. Let’s get out of here.”

He death-marched to the men’s room to survey the damage.

He inched himself in front of the mirror. He patted his head. It felt smooth, like a watermelon, only warm. Lots of hair, shiny hair, shampooed and conditioned daily, once flourished on his barren scalp.

He didn’t even have fuzz. He ran his hand over his skull, a skull grotesquely misshapen, molded by a blind potter obsessed with asymmetry. His ears spread out like the wings of a buzzard, a buzzard swooping low over piles of carrion, aroused by the stench of rotten flesh. Not a woman in the world would look twice at him, except to feel superior and to pity him for his giant, flopping ears – ears conceivably capable of flight.

She planned it all along. She resented that he had nicer hair than hers. Women loved it when a man went bald. It made them feel superior.

He stared at his gleaming head. People would think he was on chemo – that he was dying of some horrible cancer, kept alive only by the energy his giant ears gathered from the sun.

Maybe that was good. Maybe she was right. Looking good was not the point. The cops were searching for a healthy man. They wouldn’t suspect a man dying of cancer.

He would shrug off the hair. He would concentrate on finding Jazz’s killer.

He bent his head over the sink. He splashed water on his face and on his skull. That would be the extent of his grooming – rinsing off shaving cream. He wiped his head on his shirt sleeve. He was ready.

He studied his gleaming skull. The light glinted off it like one of those spinning glass balls over a disco floor, making him dizzy. His eyes watered. If only he could fire her. Why had he signed that contract? Could a standard private-eye contract be broken?

He picked up his comb. What was he going to do with it? Rake his scalp? He might as well get rid of it. No. It was a good comb. Best he ever had, guaranteed unbreakable. His hair would grow back.

He finished his sponge bath and donned his new outfit. He could barely walk in the used cowboy boots. They were stiff and heavy – high heel pumps for men. He tottered across the dance floor, heels slamming out a beat that echoed off the walls.

Hook ‘Em strutted out of the ladies room. No cowboy hat. She wore a dress, high heels, a long black wig, and makeup. She was stunning.

He stared at her breasts.

She spread her arms and wiggled her shoulders, an attempt at a shimmy. “I’m trying to jiggle them for you. Are they jiggling?”

“No.”

“I guess Charmin doesn’t jiggle. Maybe I need a different brand. Stronger, softer, jiggly-er.” She stepped back. “Get that look out of your eyes. You know their slogan.”

She scrutinized his western shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. “Wow. You might turn me straight – that is, if you weren’t bald.”

“If you’re through wising off, let’s go prove I didn’t kill Doc.”

***

 

Eleven in the morning. The August sun blazed overhead. Waltz rolled the shopping cart toward the Writhing River Bridge, one wheel balking and squealing. He felt like a bag lady, with all her treasured possessions. The smell of coffee drifted from the winos’ campfire.

Hook ‘Em’s cowboy hat fit, thanks to her abundant hair and Waltz’s lack of it. He pulled the hat down tight, no point in revealing his baldhead to the winos. He couldn’t trust them to keep his disguise secret.

He rolled the cart under the bridge, the wheels dragging in the sand, slowing his progress. He turned the cart around and pulled it. It felt cooler in the shade under the bridge. The river hurried by, gurgling. He struggled through the sand to the fire. He mopped his brow with his sleeve.

The winos gazed at him, their faces impassive.

He stopped and turned on the little tape recorder. “Night before last, some of us got into a fight. I’m here to make up for that.”

“Who are you?”

They didn’t recognize him. The hat and the missing mustache threw them off. “I’m the guy with the shoes. We had a little fight, just before midnight.”

A wino grabbed two rocks. “I remember this guy. He hit me when I wasn’t looking.”

Others picked up stones.

Waltz stopped the little tape recorder and ripped open the case of wine. He held up a bottle in each hand. “Warm red wine. Who wants a bottle?”

T-Bone stepped forward. He took a bottle and read the label. “Gallo. An excellent vintner. Thank you very much, sir. You are indeed a gentleman.” He unscrewed the cap and took a swallow. He smacked his lips. “Superb.” He held up the bottle. “I commend this elixir of the grape. And it’s free. Step forward and get your free bottle.”

T-Bone handed out the wine. The winos forgot their coffee. They dropped their rocks. They sat, reclined against the bridge supports, and drank.

Waltz pulled a pair of dance shoes out of a box. He held them up. “Last time, some of you wanted these. I’ve got a pair for each of you. What size do you wear, T-bone?”

“Nine.”

Waltz rummaged through the boxes. “Here we go. Size nine.”

T-Bone fondled the shoes. “Soft and smooth. Perfect for the ballroom. Thank you.” He flopped on the ground and removed his tattered sneakers. He wore no socks.

He pulled on his ballroom shoes and tied them. He walked back and forth, as though shopping in a shoe store. “Very comfortable. I shall feel at ease in the ballroom. In these shoes, the dance floor shall be mine.”

He handed his wine to an ancient bum. He turned to Waltz. “No offense, but I never acquired a taste for alcohol, myself.”

He selected two shoe boxes and held one up in each hand. “Who wears size nine and a half?”

Waltz felt lucky that T-bone was still around. He was an organizer – a leader. He wasn’t even a drinker. Why was he living under a bridge?

T-Bone distributed the dance shoes. Everyone put on their new ballroom pumps and drank wine.

Waltz turned on the boom box. He selected a track and set the machine on repeat. Romantic tango music played, soared into the air, and dissipated in the girders of the bridge and the roar of the cars.

Waltz turned up the volume full blast, making it danceable. He whispered to T-Bone. “I’m going to give them a tango lesson. Do you think they’d like it?”

“Who wouldn’t?” T-Bone stepped forward. He raised his hands. “Gentleman. I have prevailed upon our friend to give us a tango lesson. Tango, the dance of love. If you can do the tango, you can get any woman you want. Let’s have a big round of applause for our dance instructor this morning.”

He clapped loudly in a vain attempt to get some applause going. The winos drank.

T-Bone pulled the ancient wino to his feet. “Come on, Sam. You know you complained about your social life the other day. Here’s your big chance.”

The ancient wino swayed slightly, but remained standing.

T-Bone pulled several others to their feet. They stood in a ragged group, bottles dangling from their hands, new dance pumps gleaming in the sun.

“Okay, Waltz. We’re ready. Ready to learn the dance of love.”

Waltz moved to the front of the group. “We’ll start with the basic step – the basic rhythm pattern of the tango. Watch me and then we’ll do it together. Start with your left foot. That’s the one with the big toe on the right.”

He got no reaction. That line, Jazz’s favorite, usually got a chuckle. He was in trouble. It wasn’t going to work.

He couldn’t think of anything else to do. He continued. “Start with your left foot.” He demonstrated. “Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.”

The winos sipped and stared.

“On the last slow, keep your weight on your right foot, so that you can start again with your left.” He did the step again. “Drag your left foot to your right, keeping your weight on your right foot.”

He showed them the step three more times. “Get in line behind me. Do what the guy in front of you does. Let’s all try it together. To the music.”

T-Bone pulled a couple of other bums to their feet. The remaining two joined them.

Waltz counted down the music. “Five, six, seven, eight, slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Slow, slow, tango close.” He led his class of seven winos in a large circle so he could watch them over his shoulder. He drilled the basic step until they got it.

They danced in a circle under the bridge. The gauchos of Argentina, inventors of the dance, must’ve danced in the open, maybe even under a bridge, by the banks of a river, drinking wine.

He taught them proper dance position, modifying it to allow them to hold their bottles against his shoulder blade. He danced with each of them in turn, doing the woman’s part and teaching them how to lead, sweat pouring off him, his boots clumping through the sand, while the winos shuffled along in their dance pumps, huffing the odor of wine in his face.

Next, he taught them how to do a dip.

The ancient wino loved the dip. He dipped Waltz many times, giggling, his open mouth revealing three straggly teeth.

Waltz finally disengaged, hoping he’d never have to do the dip with a wino under the Writhing River Bridge again. “That concludes the tango lesson. You’re now well on your way to becoming accomplished tango dancers.”

T-Bone applauded loudly. The students joined him with a smattering of applause.

“When I reopen my studio, I hope you’ll consider continuing your lessons. Five free lessons for each of you. I have some beautiful instructors. You won’t have to dance with me next time.”

How’d that slip in there? Jazz’s training was hard to shake. He was still selling dance lessons – even under the Writhing River Bridge with a bunch of homeless drunks. Jazz – and Lala – would be proud.

Time to go for the close. Waltz started the little tape recorder.

He handed out forms and pens. “These forms swear that I was under the bridge at midnight the night of the fight over my shoes. I’d appreciate it if you would sign these. It’s important.”

A wino grumbled. “I don’t know. This is a legal document. I could get in trouble.”

One of the other winos laughed. “Worried about him getting a lien on your waterfront condo?”

The worried wino gave the scoffer the finger. “I don’t want any trouble.”

Waltz held up his hand. “It’s true, isn’t it? Didn’t a bunch of us have a fight just before midnight, August twenty-six?”

Many of the winos said yes.

Waltz hoped the little tape recorder picked it up. “Then you can’t get in trouble for signing.”

One of the winos held up his form. “You ought to pay us to sign.”

Waltz pulled a bill out of his pocket with a flourish. “A twenty-dollar bonus for everyone that signs.”

“It’s not enough.”

Waltz pulled out another twenty. He waved them both. “Forty dollars for each man who signs.”

“Make it sixty.”

“Forty’s all I’ve got. Take it or leave it.” Waltz turned off his boom box, silencing the tango in mid-phrase, and put his stuff in the shopping cart.

He pulled his cart through the sand toward the street. He stopped and turned. “Last chance.” He waved two twenties in the air.

The ancient wino shuffled forward, signed, and held out his hand.

With a flourish, Waltz smoothed forty dollars into the old guy’s hand. “What are you going to do with the money, Sam?”

Sam smiled, his three teeth jutting at odd angles. “Going to get me some more Gallo.”

Another wino signed. Then another. The others lined up.

 

Chapter 14

The Sky’s the Limit

Half a block from Lala’s house, Waltz started when he noticed two guys in sunglasses lounging in a car. “You see what I see? Drive on by. Let’s get out of here.”

“Don’t panic. Act natural.” Hook ‘Em appeared relaxed, casual, like any woman, driving around, taking her big boobs out for an airing.

She drove past the car.

Waltz tried not to look at them. It was foolish, he knew. They wouldn’t recognize him any quicker if he glanced in their direction. It was natural to look at them. It was less noticeable than not looking. He forced himself to look.

Hook ‘Em gasped and whispered, as though the punks could hear her over the engine sound. “What are they doing out?”

The punks were out of jail again. “What are they doing here?”

Hook ‘Em turned at the next corner, drove half a block, and stopped. “They’re trying to find us. I don’t think it’s because they like us.”

“What are we going to do? We can’t get to Lala with them watching.”

“We can’t wait for them to leave.”

Waltz snapped his fingers. “Call Tara. She could have them arrested.”

“She’s on the night shift. And even if she was on duty, I don’t think she could get them arrested. They must be out on bail again. They must have a rip-snorter of a lawyer.”

“We could go in the back way, by the alley.”

Hook ‘Em turned right down the alley. Fences, garages, and houses hid them from the punks. They parked behind Lala’s house. Hook ‘Em reached into her bra and pulled out the wads of toilet paper. She took off the black wig and put it on the seat next to her. She reached behind the seat and pulled out her hat. “Put this on. We don’t want Lala to see our disguises.”

A tall privacy fence enclosed the backyard. They went through the gate to the backdoor. The magnolia tree was in decline. Apparently nobody had watered it all summer. Many springs he had lived here with Lala and Jazz when the big old tree dropped petals all over the yard and almost overwhelmed him with their sickening-sweet odor.

They wanted to burst in and surprise her. Waltz twisted the same smooth doorknob he turned many times, but it didn’t budge. He tried his key. “She’s changed the locks.”

He knocked. Lala came down the hall toward the door. He waved through the glass. She turned and went the other way.

Hook ‘Em ran to the side of the house and peeked through the gate. “She’s going to her car.”

They dashed to the pickup.

Waltz slammed his door. “Catch her. Before she gets away.”

“We can’t. The punks will tail her. We’ll tail them and see where she’s going.”

Hook ‘Em eased down the alley. She paused at its entrance. From there, they could see the street in front of Lala’s house. Lala drove by, followed by the punks.

Hook ‘Em followed behind them. She handed Waltz her throwaway cell. “Call her. Pretend we lost her. Then give her the spiel.”

He dialed her number. “Lala, why’d you run away? Where are you? We need to talk to you. I know who killed Doc and Jazz and I can prove it. Meet me someplace.”

He dropped the phone to his lap. “She hung up.”

Hook ‘Em handed him her wig. “Put this on me.”

They followed Lala another ten blocks.

Waltz sat up straight. “She’s driving by my apartment. The cops may have it staked out.”

“You can bet they do.”

“She’s turning. She’s going to my apartment. She’s going to the cops. She knows we’re following her. She’s going to turn us in. Turn around.”

Hook ‘Em placed her hand on Waltz’s and squeezed. “She won’t dare turn us in. You told her we know who killed Doc and Jazz. She’s afraid we’ll turn her in.”

“She doesn’t believe we know. Let’s get out of here.”

“What will we do then? This is our chance to crack the case. We’ve got to see where she’s going. If she goes to the cops, we’ll split.”

Hook ‘Em was going to drive right up to the cops. He couldn’t grab the wheel or do anything to attract the cops’ attention. He slumped down in his seat, hoping to look like a short bald guy.

Lala drove past Waltz’s building, the punks on her tail. Hook ‘Em nodded at a nondescript white sedan. “There’s your cop. He doesn’t seem to recognize us.”

Waltz sighed with relief. “Lucky. She’s going right past my apartment. Where is she going?”

Waltz’s complex had four buildings, each with fifty apartments, each built around a separate courtyard with a pool. Lala parked at the third building, got out, and walked toward the entrance to the courtyard.

Pete let Flaco out near the entrance. Flaco followed Lala.

Hook ‘Em drove to the opposite side of the building and parked. They watched from the entrance across the courtyard.

Lala walked past the pool and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Flaco went to the pool and flopped down on a chaise lounge.

Lala knocked at an apartment. The door opened. Armando hugged her. The door closed.

Armando? Waltz didn’t know Armando lived here.

Hook ‘Em grinned and flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em! We’re taking it home. We got them. Except for the do-it-yourself divorce, it’s a routine domestic investigation now.”

Waltz slumped against the wall. Not Armando. She wouldn’t have an affair with Armando. It was impossible.

The sun beat down on his head. His skull was going to burn. It wasn’t used to being out in the sun, nude. Sweat poured out of him, soaking his clothes.

Hook ‘Em studied him. “We’ll let Flaco stake her out. Let’s wait in the truck.”

They returned to the pickup. Hook ‘Em started the engine and turned the air-conditioner on high. “Did you know they were having an affair?”

The cold air chilled him. “You’re always jumping to conclusions. They hardly ever spoke to each other. They hardly ever danced. I never saw any sign of an affair.”

“They ignored each other?”

“Yeah.”

She shrugged. “That’s a sign. I’ve seen it many times. Two people work together. One is married. They ignore each other at work. But they don’t ignore each other in off hours.”

“Or maybe they barely know each other.”

Her foot waggled faster. “How about the hug? It looked like they knew each other. I can picture what they’re doing now.”

“You’re good at concocting theories. Now you say they’re lovers. Next you’ll say they worked together to kill Jazz and Doc.”

“You think not? Armando was at the party. He could’ve put the pills in Jazz’s drink.”

He leaned back against the door and stared at her. “I suppose you think she’s warning him that we know they killed Jazz and Doc?”

“Let’s hope so. It’ll mean we shook them bad. They’re ready to crumble. We got them.”

She was right. Who cared if Lala was having an affair with Armando? This cracked the case. As the lieutenant said, it was the same old story. The wife falls in love with another man and murders her husband to be free – and rich. “I bet they got the pills from Doc. He figured out what they did with them. He blackmailed them. So they killed him. It explains everything.”

***

 

Lala came out of the gate and went to her car. Flaco followed.

Hook ‘Em pulled off her wig and falsies. “Here, tuck these in your shirt.”

“They’ll spoil my drape.”

“It’ll throw Armando off. It’s your fake disguise. If he calls the cops later, he’ll report that you’re disguised as a fat man wearing a cowboy hat. Clever, hey?”

“It’s beyond belief.” Waltz tucked them into his shirt. The wig tickled his belly.

Hook ‘Em whooped. “Just right for a jolly old elf whose belly shakes like a bowl full of jelly. The perfect disguise, but you’ve got to get off that junk food.”

“Still working on your day’s wise-off quota?”

“If I don’t fulfill my quota, I just don’t feel right. But now that I’m once again energized, let’s go crack Armando like an egg. You be the bad cop.”

Waltz put on Hook ‘Em’s hat. “You’re a better bad cop than me.”

“Armando killed your brother. You’re the logical bad cop.” She got out and opened the trunk. She pulled out a tire iron.

She pounded Armando’s door with the tire iron and handed it to Waltz. “You’re the bad cop.”

Armando opened the door, did a double take, and scrambled to close it. Waltz slammed against it and knocked Armando backwards into the room. Armando stumbled and fell to the floor.

Waltz raised the tire iron. He liked the heft of it in his hand. “You son of a bitch. You killed my brother. I’m going to bash your head in.”

Hook ‘Em grabbed his arm. “Hold on. You’ve hurt enough people, trying to get revenge. I’m tired of cleaning up the blood.”

Waltz wrenched his arm free. “Let go. I just want to hit him once. I’m not going to kill him.”

Hook ‘Em grabbed both his arms and pulled him back. “Hold on a minute. Let me talk to him.”

She stepped between Waltz and Armando. “Look Armando, we know about your affair with Lala.”

Armando started to get up. Waltz advanced, brandishing the tire iron. “Stay down so I can get a good swing.”

Hook ‘Em pulled him back. “Cool down.” She turned to Armando. “I don’t blame you for killing Jazz. You wanted Lala. She encouraged you. It’s really her fault. I see that. You only killed Jazz because she begged you.”

Waltz raised the tire iron again. “Just let me hit him once. I’m not going to kill him. I won’t hit him too hard.”

She pushed Waltz back. “Hold on.” She turned back to Armando. “Admit you killed Jazz. We’ll go to the cops. It’s better than having Waltz beat you to death.”

Armando held up his hands. “Wait. I didn’t kill Jazz. What makes you think that?”

Hook ‘Em kept her hand on Waltz’s chest, standing between him and Armando. “Lala said you killed Jazz because you wanted her for yourself. Then she led us here.”

“She said that? That’s a lie. I had nothing to do with it.”

“She’s agreed to testify. We’ve got other evidence. It’s open and shut.”

“What other evidence?”

“Doc’s nurse will testify that he supplied you with the pills.”

“That’s all wrong. I didn’t do it.”

Waltz raised the tire iron again. “Let me knock some sense into him.”

Hook ‘Em pushed him back. “Not yet. Skulls are delicate. You hit him too hard with that and he’ll be a vegetable for life. Give him a chance.”

She turned back to Armando. “You killed Doc too. He realized what you did with the pills and blackmailed you. You had to kill him.”

“No. That’s not right. Maybe Lala killed him. I don’t know. I didn’t.”

Waltz waved the tire iron and tried to get around Hook ‘Em. She moved to her left to stay between Waltz and Armando. “Didn’t she come over to warn you that we were onto you?”

“No, she said that Waltz called and said he knew who killed Jazz and Doc. He wanted to talk to her about it. She was scared. She thought you were going to try to pin it on her. I told her to go home and invite you over for a talk. I told her as long as she didn’t do it, she didn’t have anything to worry about.”

Hook ‘Em pushed Waltz back. “She did it. You helped her. You’re an accessory. That means twenty years at least.”

“I didn’t help her.”

Waltz tried to get past Hook ‘Em. “He’s lying. Let me hit him just once.”

“I can’t hold him much longer, Armando. He’s changed – ever since Jazz died. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen him do. Call Lala. Tell her something important has come up. She’s got to get back over here. Hurry. Get up.”

Hook ‘Em shoved Waltz. He stumbled back to the door. She moved in and pressed her back against him, holding him against the door.

Waltz strained against her. “Let me go. I just want to hit him once.”

“What if Armando gets Lala over here? Will you let him go?”

“Well… okay.”

“Call her, Armando, while I’ve got him calmed down. Tell her to watch out for two guys tailing her in a Lexus.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em and Waltz waited on either side of the door. Waltz turned on the little tape recorder and raised his tire iron. Armando opened the door. Lala rushed in. Hook ‘Em locked the door.

Lala hugged Armando and kissed him. “What passes? Something is wrong?”

Armando nodded at the door.

Lala turned and saw them. “Waltz, you wear the cowboy hat? She make you into a cowboy?”

Waltz raised his tire iron. “Let me hit her – just once.”

Lala laughed, minced up to him, and ran her hand over his lips. “Smooth. She no like to kiss the hairy lip?”

Hook ‘Em nodded at the living area. “Why don’t we all sit down? We need to talk.”

Lala perched on the couch and pouted, her lips forming a sneer, like the lieutenant. “You kidnap us.”

Hook ‘Em wagged her foot. Her legs looked good in a skirt. “I thought you might want to know what we have to say, before we go to the cops.”

“You go to the cops? The cops will feel much delight.” Lala pulled her cell out of her purse. “I save you the trip. The lieutenant will come here.”

Waltz raised the tire iron. “Put it away.”

“Yes, Mister Mean Man.”

Hook ‘Em’s foot vibrated faster. “I tailed you to Doc’s the night you murdered him. I’ll testify to it in court.”

“I no kill Doc.”

Waltz waved the statements. “I can prove that I didn’t kill Doc. I’ve got statements from seven people swearing I was with them at the time Doc was killed.” He handed them to her.

Lala glanced through them. “You sleep under the Writhing River Bridge that night? The hang out of winos? Statements from winos? The cops no believe them.” She pitched the papers onto the coffee table.

“Winos are people. They’re alert enough to know that I was there. It proves I wasn’t at Doc’s.”

“So you no at Doc’s? Hook ‘Em admit she was. She work for you, no? Maybe you order her to kill him. And leave that pitiful note, trying to clear yourself.”

Waltz raised his tire iron and rushed forward. Hook ‘Em held him back. “No, Waltz. Stay back. Let her explain.”

Lala laughed. “Let him go. I no afraid of him.”

Waltz let the tire iron hang at his side. “I can prove that you killed Jazz.”

“I no kill him.”

“You killed him.”

“You already admit you kill him, no? The lieutenant has it on tape.”

The door boomed. Somebody pounded on it with something hard, like a truncheon.

Lala wasn’t afraid of what they might tell the cops. She brought them with her.

Hook ‘Em leaped up. “Out the back.” She ran for the rear door.

The front door splintered and burst open. Flaco and Pete strode in with drawn pistols. Pete kicked the door shut. It hung lopsided on one hinge.

Flaco waved his pistol. “Hold it, Hook ‘Em! You screwed us for the last time.”

Hook ‘Em stopped, and turned to face Flaco.

Waltz felt his knees buckle. He sank to the couch.

Flaco stalked over and pressed his gun muzzle against Waltz’s forehead, hard and cold against Waltz’s skin. “Before we kill you, we’re going to fuck your girlfriends – while you watch.” He stepped back and glared at Waltz. “How does that sound?”

Waltz said nothing.

Flaco slapped him. “How does it sound?”

The blow made Waltz dizzy. He couldn’t focus his eyes. Flaco slapped him again. “How does it sound?”

What did Flaco want him to say? Something humiliating. He’d say it. Maybe Flaco wouldn’t hit him again. “It sounds like fun. I’d like to watch.”

Flaco laughed. “Did you hear that, Pete? He says it sounds like fun.”

Pete laughed. “It sounds like fun to me, too.” He waved his pistol at Lala and Hook ‘Em. “Get your clothes off. Your boyfriend wants to watch us fuck you.”

Lala shook her head. “He no my boyfriend.”

Pete turned to Flaco. “This one’s not his girlfriend.”

Flaco laughed. “Let’s fuck her anyway. He wants to watch.”

Pete waved his pistol at Hook ‘Em and Lala. “Get your clothes off.”

Lala pouted, unbuttoned her blouse, and took it off. She took off her bra.

Pete grinned. “Whoa, Flaco, look at those.”

Flaco stared. “She’s wired! The cops will be here any minute.”

Flaco grabbed Waltz’s arm and hustled him toward the door. “Let’s get out of here.” He pointed his gun at Hook ‘Em. “Take her. Watch her feet.”

The punks dragged Hook ‘Em and Waltz out the door and down the stairs.

Sirens wailed in the distance.

Flaco roared out of the parking lot. “If they twitch, shoot them dead.”

***

 

Flaco turned into a parking space. Pete’s side of the Lexus scraped against a pickup, making a grating noise.

Pete turned toward the pickup. “Whoa, Dude. You’re parking a little close here.”

Flaco opened his door. “Get out on this side. Keep them in the car.”

Pete crawled across the seat and got out, keeping his pistol on Hook ‘Em and Waltz. He slammed the door shut.

Flaco got in another pickup. His head bent beneath the dash. In a minute, he started the engine, waved Pete out of the way, and parked on the driver’s side of the Lexus, scraping along the side, penning Hook ‘Em and Waltz.

Flaco got out of the pickup, walked to the front of the Lexus, opened the hood, and did something to the motor. He slammed the hood down, flipped open his cell, and reported a stolen car.

Pete jammed his pistol in his pants, glaring at Flaco. “I wanted to fuck her.”

“The cops are after us, you idiot. There’ll be plenty of women in Mexico. Let’s go.”

They drove off in somebody’s pickup.

Waltz crawled into the front seat. “They took the keys.”

Hook ‘Em clambered over the seat to join him. “It doesn’t matter. Flaco screwed with the motor.”

“The cops’ll be here any minute.”

“Maybe I can hotwire it.” She bent under the dash and pulled some wires loose. “Got a knife?”

“No.”

She jerked open the glove compartment and rummaged, throwing stuff on the floor.

She pulled out a small box cutter. “Put it in park.”

“It’s in park.”

She scraped the wires and touched them together. The starter ground but the engine didn’t start. She tried again. Nothing. “Maybe we can squeeze out the top of the window. Try the button.” She touched the wires.

Waltz tried the window button. Nothing happened.

She leaned back in her seat and kicked at the windshield. “I can’t kick with these high heels. Use your boots.”

Waltz grabbed the steering wheel and kicked the windshield with his boot heel, jarring his leg up to his knee. He tried again with every ounce of his strength. He kicked again and again. The windshield held.

He fell back, exhausted. “What are we going to do?”

“Feel under the seat. See if there’s a hammer, a tire iron, anything.”

They searched frantically.

Hook ‘Em crawled into the back. “Some cars, you can pull the backseat down and get into the trunk.” She fumbled for release buttons. She pulled on the seat back. It didn’t budge.

She crawled back into the front. “Wouldn’t you know it?” She pointed at the truck blocking her door. “A shotgun in the rifle rack. If we were trapped in that pickup, we could blast our way out.”

She leaned back in her seat and examined the roof. “No sunroof. We’re screwed.”

The car was like a hothouse. The heat released the stench of plastic from the fake leather seat covers. Waltz rested his head on the steering wheel, fighting nausea.

He sucked on his cheeks, getting the spit to flow. He swallowed and did it again. It helped. He chanted in his mind. Do not throw up. Do not throw up. He swallowed.

“You wanted to watch them rape me.” Tears streamed down Hook ‘Em’s cheeks. She unbuttoned Waltz’s shirt and pulled out her wig. It snaked out of his shirt, slithered across his thighs, and hung from her hand to the floorboard. She dabbed her eyes with it.

“Flaco had a gun to my head. I didn’t mean it.”

“I risked my life to save your ass. The punks threaten to rape me, and you cheer them on.”

“What difference does it make? We’re going to prison.”

Her chin sunk to her chest. “I’m going to prison and you wanted to watch the punks rape me.”

“I didn’t want to watch the punks rape you. Flaco had a gun on me. He’s a psychopath. What was I supposed to say? ‘Oh no! Mr. Bad Man. Please don’t rape my girlfriend.’”

“Damn right.”

“What I said doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t let them rape you.”

She pointed at him with her wig. “Oh, yeah. You’d let them rape me, all right. But I bet you wouldn’t let them rape Lala.”

“I wouldn’t let them rape you. I’d throw my body in front of you and they could riddle me with bullets before I’d let them rape you.”

She sniffed. “Really?”

He grabbed her hand. Tears flooded his eyes. “Really. I’m sorry I got you into this.” He hugged her. “I didn’t think it would end like this. I’m sorry.”

The cops would find them embracing, dead from heat exhaustion.

He pushed her away. He flashed the finger. He screamed. “Fuck you! Fuck you!” He gave the finger with both hands, pumping like a frenzied sex addict.

Hook ‘Em punched Waltz with both hands and the wig, screaming, “Fuck you!”

Waltz grabbed her hands and forced them to her sides. “No, not fuck you. Fuck him!” He nodded at the cowboy.

“Who?”

“I was yelling at the cowboy.”

Hook ‘Em stopped struggling. “What cowboy?”

“He’s gone. He’s gone.” He slumped back in the seat. “He was the one chance we had to get out of here and you screwed it up.”

“I didn’t see any cowboy. You made him up. You were afraid I was going to whip your ass.”

The cowboy came back out of the bar.

Waltz gave him the finger, screaming every obscenity he could think of. He poked Hook ‘Em with the finger and then held it in front of her face. “Give him the finger.” He pumped both hands.

Hook ‘Em yelled. “Up yours!” She flashed the finger with both hands, the wig bouncing like a gigantic bush of pubic hair.

The cowboy stopped and glared. He slowly raised one hand and gave them the finger.

They continued to pump the finger at him and scream obscenities.

The cowboy gave two deliberate upward strokes with his finger, turned and walked back into the bar.

Hook ‘Em watched him go. “What’s he doing? Going back for another drink? He dresses like a cowboy. What kind of cowboy is he, dismissing a finger?”

The bar door opened. The cowboy came out. Two other cowboys came with him. One of the cowboys stared horrified at the pickup on the passenger side of the Lexus.

Hook ‘Em and Waltz repeated their chorus of fingers and fuck you’s. The three cowboys returned their salute. The horrified one pulled out his keys and opened the passenger side of his pickup. He slid into the driver’s seat and backed out slowly, turning away from the Lexus, the vehicles screeching as they came apart.

The two remaining cowboys ran to the passenger door of the Lexus. They tugged on the handle.

Hook ‘Em jumped into the backseat. “Get out and get them. Keep them busy.”

The cowboys pounded on the door. The owner of the damaged truck approached the door with a hammer cocked over his shoulder. “Step aside. Cover your eyes.” Holding his hand over his eyes, he flailed away at the window.

Particles of glass splattered Waltz. He covered his face with his arms. A piece of glass stung his cheek. He wiped away blood.

“Get the bald guy!”

Waltz pulled up the button and shoved the door into the cowboy wielding the hammer. The cowboy stumbled backwards into the other two. Waltz charged into them, swinging his elbows. He’d read that hitting people with your fist hurt you more than it did them.

The cowboys swarmed over him, punching and kicking.

Waltz kept clubbing with his elbows and knees. He bobbed and weaved, a moving target, waiting for the fatal blow from the hammer. It would drive a bottle-cap piece of his skull deep into his brain, killing him instantly.

The cowboys forced him back against the Lexus. A fist crunched his nose. He brought his knee up as hard as he could. Somebody gasped. They pounded his head, his shoulders, anywhere their fists found room.

A blow to his belly doubled him over. He gasped for air. He couldn’t breathe. He tried to relax. If he could only stop sucking so hard, his breath would come. But he couldn’t do it.

A gun blasted. His ears hummed. Particles of the asphalt paving smattered his face. The cowboys stopped pummeling him.

Hook ‘Em held a smoking shotgun, the one from the pickup, her wig dangling from the hand steadying the barrel. “Step away from the wimp.”

The cowboys stepped back. Two had lost their hats. One’s nose bled a drool of red onto his white shirt. Another limped.

Waltz tried to relax. He forced some breath out. He let his body go limp. He sucked in air. He wiped his nose with his sleeve. Blood. His nose must be broken.

Hook ‘Em pointed at the Lexus with her shotgun. “Some punks used your trucks to trap us in the car. We’re sorry about the damage.”

A red-and-white-candy-striped Toyota Prius crept into the parking lot. It stopped near them.

A man stepped out, holding the hem of his white robe clear of the car. He shuffled toward them in sandals, dressed like Jesus Christ, a graying beard hanging to his bellybutton. “Alas Pooryoricka.”

Hook ‘Em dropped the shotgun, but grabbed it before it could hit the ground.

The graying beard ruffled in the breeze. “I’m sorry. I must take your companion in. His bail has been revoked.”

Hook ‘Em shook her head. “I know, but I can’t let you have him.”

“You know the rules.”

“He’s innocent. We need time to prove it.”

“I’m sorry. I must insist.”

Hook ‘Em waved the shotgun. “Get over there with the cowboys.”

Jesus seemed to float over to the cowboys. “Think before you do this.”

“Don’t move.”

“Alas Pooryoricka, you will regret this.”

“You force me to take your car.” She motioned to Waltz. “Start up the Prius.”

Waltz ran to it. He got in and started it.

Hook ‘Em backed toward the car, keeping the shotgun leveled on her hostages. “I’ll leave your car somewhere.”

She jumped in. “Let’s get out of here. Fast.”

Waltz drove out of the parking lot, turned right, and headed for the freeway. “Who was that guy?”

“He’s a bounty hunter.”

“A bounty hunter? He looks like some freako who escaped from an asylum.”

“Don’t be fooled. He always brings in his skips. Nothing stops him. We’re in trouble now.” She watched behind them, as though the guy might be bearing down on them.

Waltz could see real fear in her face. He couldn’t believe it. He gave her the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em! We cussed and fingered our way out of the car. We whipped three cowboys. We stole a Prius. What a rush!”

She didn’t react.

He shoved her shoulder. “What a rush!”

She pushed his hand away.

He made a mic of his fist. “Harns bursts through the line, cuts left, and breaks free. She prances into the end zone. She gives the Aggies the finger. Touchdown, Horns! Hook ‘Em!” He flashed the Hook ‘Em sign.

She grabbed his hand and pulled down his Hook ‘Em. “Stop fooling around. We’re in deep trouble. Don’t you understand?”

“No, I’ve never seen you afraid of anybody before.”

“This guy is not just anybody. He never stops coming after you. He’s got some sort of mystical mind power. He takes control of your mind.”

“Bullshit.”

“You can’t resist. I’m telling you. He’s got the sort of charisma that can sell cat shit to a litter box.”

Waltz laughed. “He looks like an old man in a robe.”

She glanced behind them again. “It’s not funny. His stakeouts are legendary. He’s a Yogi, learned it in India, knows more about it than anybody.”

“A Yogi?”

“He’s unbelievable. He can slow down his body, but become more alert. He drinks his own piss.”

“Yuck!”

“He can go a month without eating.”

“No wonder he’s so skinny.”

“Get off at the next exit. Circle under and get back on. Let’s make sure he’s not on us.” She watched the traffic behind as they got off the freeway. “A whole month. He doesn’t need bathroom breaks. He can do a month stakeout without letup, doesn’t have to stop to eat or drink. He’s the perfect stakeout machine.”

Waltz laughed.

“I’m not kidding. He wears you down. He’s always there. He makes you want to give up. He makes you think it’d be better to be in jail than to have him always there. Always coming after you.”

“If he’s so clever, why does he drive such a noticeable car? You can see him coming a mile away.”

“That’s just it. He wants you to know he’s coming. He wants you to know there’s no way you can stop him. Aren’t you listening? He’s always coming after you. The pressure gets to you. There’s no escape.”

“Where are you getting this stuff?”

“I’ve talked to other PIs. I’ve talked to skips he’s brought in. The guy’s incredible.” She squeezed his knee. “And you stole his car.”

“You told me to.”

“You always blame me. Why blame me? Bully Boy forced me to.”

Waltz laughed. “His name’s Bully Boy?”

“Don’t you see? We had to steal his car. If we left it, he’d be behind us right now, driving the speed limit, but always on our tail.”

“Get a grip.”

She waved her wig back and forth forlornly. “Why, oh, why did I let you talk me into this? I knew you were trouble. I should’ve stuck with domestic investigations. I knew it. I knew it.”

“You can’t believe this bullshit. He’s a wimp. He quotes Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare?”

“Alas, poor Yorick.”

“Alas Pooryoricka. That’s not Shakespeare, you stupid ass. That’s my name.”

“Alas Pooryoricka? That’s your name?” He laughed.

“It’s not funny. Bully Boy is coming for us.”

 

Chapter 15

The Croatian Crow… er… Chinese Chicken

Later that afternoon, Hook ‘Em roared down the freeway in their new pickup. “Keep an eye out for the candy-striped Prius.”

Waltz glanced out the back and went back to his paper.

Hook ‘Em screamed. “Watch for the Prius! Don’t you understand? Bully Boy is coming after us.”

Waltz laughed. “You remind me of this weird card I got from my bail bondsman. It was so funny I put it in my billfold. Here, I’ll show you.” Waltz extracted the card from his wallet and held it out to her.

She pushed it away. “Can’t you see I’m driving? Read it to me.”

“Warning. Show up on time for court dates, unless you want bounty hunter Bully Boy Bristle to come for you. Ask your cell mates. You don’t want that.”

“So. What’s so funny about that? I’ve been telling you the same thing.”

Waltz gaped at the card. His stomach flipped. “It’s the same guy.”

“He’s famous. Now will you believe me?”

His hand shook. He put down his paper and looked out the back for the Prius.

What was he doing? They dropped the Prius off at the airport. Bully Boy couldn’t have found it yet, much less be on their tail.

Waltz went back to his paper. Hook ‘Em kept watching out the back and warning him about Bully Boy. Waltz ignored her warnings and finished the paper. He folded it, thrust it into the air, and gave the Hook ‘Em sign with his other hand. “Hook ‘Em! Lala killed Doc.”

“It’s in the paper?”

“No.”

“Then how do you figure it?”

“You remember that Tara said the cops didn’t release the note to the press?”

Hook ‘Em nodded.

“That was last night at the Honkytonk.”

“Yeah?”

“The paper didn’t have anything about the note today. Yet Lala talked about it. She knew what it said. How did she know?”

Hook ‘Em glanced out the back. “You’re right. She must have written the note. And if she wrote the note, she killed Doc. Let’s go put the pressure on her.”

“She didn’t crack last time.”

“She let it spill about the note. And we’d broke her if it hadn’t been for the punks.”

He picked up her wig and waved it like a flag. “And that she was wired.”

“Well… yeah… that too.”

“I knew the cops wired her house and her car, but I didn’t think they’d wire her. They didn’t before.”

“That was because you were always taking her clothes off.”

“I was checking her for wires. See, I’m not a womanizer.”

“Yeah, right.”

He slapped his forehead. “Armando knew she was wired. No wonder he caved so easy under my bad cop impression.” He paused. “If we knew why she killed Doc, then we might break her.”

“Maybe he knew she poisoned Jazz. Maybe he was blackmailing her.”

“Maybe Lala figured out that he poisoned Jazz and confronted him. Doc knew the jig was up and begged her not to call the cops, to let him do the gentlemanly thing, like in British mysteries. Lala agreed, if he would let her write his suicide note.”

Hook ‘Em laughed. “The plop of that load of bullshit is going to have scientists predicting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions all over the world.”

“That’s my point. We can play the maybe game all day. But it’s not getting us anywhere. We need hard evidence.”

She slapped the steering wheel. “We’ve been searching for evidence as hard as we could, like a root hog rooting for rutabagas.”

“You’re right, and we have a rutabaga, whatever the hell that is. We have Doc’s note. We keep overlooking that. We need to take a close look at it. Let me see it.”

She handed him her notebook.

He read it aloud. “I killed Jazz. He owed me a lot of poker money and refused to pay. I was drunk and mad. Lala and Waltz had nothing to do with any of it. They’re both innocent. I framed Waltz. I can’t let him take the rap. I can’t live with the guilt anymore. I’m sorry.”

“Second verse, same old subject.”

“We’ve got to read between the lines, like Sherlock Holmes.”

“You’ll still be reading it when Bully Boy catches us. Then it’s prison time for me and gurney time for you.”

“The note supposedly clears Lala and me. Who else would write such a note but Lala?”

“I said that last night. Now that I hear you read it out loud, though, it sure doesn’t sound like Lala.”

“Don’t kid yourself. If she takes her time, Lala writes good English. When she talks, she tries to go too fast and screws things up.”

Hook ‘Em glanced out the back. “Okay, we got her. Doc couldn’t turn on the computer. That leaves her. We pressure her with that.”

“That’s weak. You know what she’ll say, ‘maybe he told the nurse he couldn’t turn one on, so he wouldn’t have to fool with it.’ Or she’ll say, ‘even if it was true at the time he told her that, somewhere along the way he might’ve learned. How hard is it? Maybe he saw the nurse turn it on. Maybe he had a reason to learn. Knowing Doc, he might want to surf the porn sites.’ She’ll say something like that. Then where will we be?”

Hook ‘Em glanced out the back. “So this Sherlock stuff is doing us no good at all.”

“The note said Doc killed Jazz because Jazz owed him a poker debt. Lala obsessed about a poker debt to the Mafia or somebody. That’s another reason to think maybe she wrote it.”

“She had good reason to obsess about a poker debt. I tailed Jazz to Vegas the weekend Gordon lost his toe. Jazz lost eight thousand dollars in cash. I was never able to find that he owed any casinos, though.”

“So we know Jazz was a gambling addict, like Lala claimed. We need to find out more about this debt to Doc. It may be the key to the whole mess.”

“It’s a dead end. Why won’t you watch for the Prius?”

“Wait a minute. If Jazz owed Doc, then Doc had a motive to kill him. Maybe Doc did kill him and write the note. We investigate that. If Jazz didn’t owe Doc, then Lala wrote the note and killed Doc. We can press her with that.”

Hook ‘Em continued to watch the back. “Well, it might work. So what are we going to do? Interview Doc about the poker debt?”

He glanced out the window. She had him doing it. He was beginning to think of Bully Boy as a superhuman mystic capable of anything. What garbage. “You’re right. We need a live witness. Somebody Doc and Jazz played poker with. Lala told me they played at some guy’s house a lot. Some guy named Willie Bob.”

“Let’s do something before Bully Boy gets us.”

“We could talk to Willie Bob. Problem is, I don’t know his last name or where he lives. Do PI’s know a way to find somebody by their first name?”

“No way.”

Waltz leaned back and gazed at the ceiling. “Willie Bob. It’s an unusual name, Willie Bob. It might jump out at us.”

“Out of millions of people?”

“Willie Bob, Willie Bob, where are you? If only you were here, Willie Bob, Willie Bob. Oh, Willie Bob. Come here, Willie Bob.” Waltz pounded the dashboard in time. “Wil… lie… Bob. Wil… lie… Bob.”

Hook ‘Em gazed at Waltz. “Willie Bob. Willie Bob. I’ve heard that name somewhere.” She turned back to watch the road. “I remember. I tailed Jazz to Willie Bob’s two or three times. I know where he lives.” She tromped the gas.

***

 

The sun was still up when they got to Willie Bob’s place on the outskirts of town. A small sign in front proclaimed, Willie Bob’s Show Chickens. They knocked and got no answer. They went to the back and knocked. They looked in the windows. Nobody was home.

They walked back to the chicken pen.

Some of the chickens had long downy feathers that hung to the ground. Others had fluffy crowns and leggings. The chickens scratched and pecked, twisting one way and the other, catching the sun from different angles. Their feathers glinted red, black, pink, green, yellow, and blue, as if a watercolorist painted them, a watercolorist gone mad.

The chickens clucked and strutted. Some were tiny. They all had attitude. No wonder. They knew they were beautiful. They knew they wore colorful costumes. What dancers they would make.

Waltz turned to Hook ‘Em. “Ah, to think I ever doubted you. At last, you’ve led me to it, the Croatian Crow… er… I mean…er…the Chinese Chicken.”

“You’re not hungry again?”

“This gathering of chickens looks like a party, a transvestite’s ball.”

“It looks more like a strutting bunch of womanizing dancers clucking about how much pussy they got last night.” Hook ‘Em turned toward the house next door. “Let’s talk to his neighbors.”

The lady next door told them Willie Bob had gone fishing on the river. She didn’t know where. He camped out, all by himself. He didn’t like to be disturbed when he was fishing. It was all he cared about, except chickens and poker.

That, and shooting snakes. Any snakes he came across while fishing, he blasted with his pistol. He paid Harry, the little boy next door, to feed the chickens. That way he could keep fishing as long as he wanted. He’d been gone four days. She didn’t know when he would be back.

It was important. Could they get Harry to call him?

No way. Harry – and his mother – had strict orders to call Willie Bob only in an emergency. Once, Willie Bob’s pipes froze and Harry’s mother called the plumber herself rather than disturb Willie Bob.

***

 

They spent the night in the Honkytonk. They got to Willie Bob’s by nine the next morning. He still wasn’t back. Hook ‘Em put the powder in the chickens’ water and stirred it. The chickens went about their business, scratching and pecking.

Waltz liked watching them. They squabbled over territories to scratch in. They bobbed their heads in a strange dance.

Finally, some of the chickens drank. That was funny, too. They dipped their beaks and then held their heads up to let the water drain down their throats.

When would it take effect? It seemed like hours.

A fluffy red and black chicken staggered a bit and then collapsed in the dirt, stirring up a plume of dust, his head down and his tail in the air, his wings sprawled.

Hook ‘Em laughed. “Good. I was afraid they might climb into their roosts. This looks more realistic. Let’s go.”

They knocked on Harry’s door. A woman answered. Hook ‘Em flipped open her wallet and flashed her PI license. “Good morning. We’re from Animal Health. We have an outbreak of bird flu next door. There’s a possibility we can save some of the birds if we can contact the owner immediately. Otherwise we’re going to have to exterminate them all.”

The woman’s hand went to her throat. “Oh. That would kill Willie Bob.” She turned and yelled. “Harry. Come here.”

A little boy about ten joined them.

“Call Willie Bob. Tell him to get here right away. His chickens have bird flu. Animal Health is going to exterminate them.”

Harry called Willie Bob and tried to rush to the chickens’ aid. Harry’s mother wouldn’t let him, afraid he might get the bird flu.

Hook ‘Em and Waltz went back to the chicken pen. More of the chickens were down. One lay on one wing, the other wing half open in an awkward position. Several lay flat on their backs, feet in the air, wings spraddled. Most of the others were on their bellies, their heads flopped on the ground.

***

 

An hour later, a battered pickup roared down the drive and slid to a stop near the pen. Willie Bob hustled to the fence. He gawked at the carnage. “Oh no!”

He opened the gate and rushed to the nearest down chicken. He folded its outstretched wing, placed it in position, and stroked it. “Not Henny Menny. Not you, girlie.” His head dropped to his chest.

He stumbled to another down chicken. “Oh no! Not Far Cockadoodle. He was a champion.” Tears streamed down Willie Bob’s cheeks. He dropped to his knees and collapsed on the inert form of Far Cockadoodle. He raised his head and gazed at the sky. “What have you done?”

After a minute, he pushed himself to his feet, knees creaking. “Bird flu. I can’t believe it. I’ve been so careful. I feed them well. My vet checks them regularly. How could it run through a flock like this?” Tears filled his eyes.

He approached Hook ‘Em. “Don’t kill them. I’ll get my vet out here. We’ll give them flu shots, vitamin shots, and every kind of shots they got. We can save them.”

Hook ‘Em spoke with the assurance and authority of a bureaucrat. In her dress and high heels, she looked like a bureaucrat – except for her ponderous Charmin breasts. “I’m sorry, sir. The law requires that we exterminate the entire flock.”

“Can’t you make an exception? I’ve bred this flock for years. The National Chicken Registry of Champions ranks three of these birds in the top ten. They’re world-class. Well – two, now. Far Cockadoodle’s dead.”

Hook ‘Em shook her head. “The law allows no exceptions.”

Willie Bob groaned. “But they’re my babies.”

Hook ‘Em consulted her clipboard. “You failed to register your flock. I may have to levy a fine.”

Hook ‘Em nudged Waltz. It was time for the good bureaucrat.

Willie Bob pulled his pistol out of his cowboy boot and leveled it at Hook ‘Em. “I hate snakes.”

Waltz couldn’t let Willie Bob shoot Hook ‘Em. He grabbed the comatose Far Cockadoodle and stepped in front of her. He held Far Cockadoodle against the pistol muzzle.

Would a chicken stop a bullet? No, not even a champion chicken. The bullet would plow through him, scattering feathers, burrow into Waltz’s body, and on into Hook ‘Em’s – three birds with one bullet.

Willie Bob poked Far Cockadoodle with the pistol. “You think a dead chicken is going to keep me from blasting you?”

“Don’t shoot! You’ll kill Far Cockadoodle. He’s not dead.”

“He’s dead and so are you. You lousy bureaucrats kill everything – chickens, freedom, the right to bear arms, border fences. I’m not putting up with it.” Willie Bob cocked the pistol.

Waltz closed his eyes and turned his head away. The soft feathers of Far Cockadoodle would be the last thing he ever felt. “We gave them sleeping pills.”

The bullet didn’t come. Waltz opened his eyes.

“You gave them sleeping pills?”

“They’ll be awake in a minute, unless you blast Far Cockadoodle. You’ll kill your own champion chicken and face a murder charge for killing two innocent people.”

Hook ‘Em peeked over Waltz’s shoulder. “Your chickens are okay. They’ll all be waking up soon. We’re not from animal health. We just wanted to talk to you.”

“You just wanted to talk to me? You assholes!” Willie Bob closed one eye and aimed down the barrel of his pistol.

Waltz ducked behind Far Cockadoodle. “We had to get you here. Doc’s dead.”

Willie Bob’s pistol jerked upward and fired into the sky. “Whoops! Sorry about that.” He cupped his ear with the smoking pistol. “Doc’s dead?”

“Poisoned in his office.”

“Poisoned?” Willie Bob uncocked the pistol, blowing on his thumb to cool it. “Like Jazz?”

Hook ‘Em nodded. “He left a suicide note.”

Willie Bob shook his head. “That’s crazy. Doc wouldn’t kill himself.”

Hook ‘Em shrugged. “He left a note. He confessed that he killed Jazz.”

“That can’t be.”

“Why not?”

“They were buddies. Doc wouldn’t kill Jazz. Why would he kill Jazz?”

“Because Jazz refused to pay Doc his poker losses.”

“His poker losses?” Willie Bob laughed. “Jazz didn’t owe Doc any money. Jazz and Doc were the sharks in our group. They kicked everybody’s butts. Between themselves, they were about even.”

Waltz quelled an impulse to jump. They were getting somewhere at last. “Are you sure about that?”

“Sure.” Willie Bob paused. “At least not poker money. He might’ve owed him doctor’s fees.”

“Jazz went to Doc – as his patient?”

“I guess so. Doc was drunk, joking around one day, and said now he might squeeze a little money out of Jazz, now that Jazz was seeing him professionally.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Doc didn’t say.”

“So would you swear in court that Jazz didn’t owe Doc any money?”

“I might have. If you hadn’t messed with my chickens.”

Hook ‘Em cocked her head. “So you don’t think Doc committed suicide?”

“No. I’d have to see that note to believe it.”

“It was typed on a computer.”

“Then Doc didn’t write it. He didn’t trust computers. He wouldn’t touch one.”

Hook ‘Em jeered. “Not even to watch porn?”

“Doc was too busy trying to put the make on every woman he met to watch porn.”

A chicken approached the water bucket. Hook ‘Em tipped it over with her toe. “Would Doc have any other reason to kill Jazz?”

Willie Bob rinsed the water bucket and left it to refill. “None that I know of. They were good friends.”

One of the downed chickens flapped its wings and came to its feet. It staggered a little. It saw another chicken pecking the ground, raced over, and pecked the other chicken’s neck. The other chicken retreated, squawking. Ten seconds later, it seemed to forget the incident and wandered off.

Waltz smiled at the chickens. “So you’re sure Jazz didn’t owe Doc any poker debt?”

“Sure. But don’t take my word for it. Check with Doc’s nurse.”

“What would she know about it?”

“She kept Doc’s records. He had her put poker debt on his books, like they was patients. Anybody didn’t pay, he charged it to his taxes as bad debt.” Willie Bob laughed and shook his head. “Old Doc was something.”

***

 

Doc’s nurse looked up.

Even in disguises, would she recognize them? She saw them when they interviewed Doc. And they had been all over TV.

Hook ‘Em flashed a toy police badge. “Homicide. Detective Holmes. This is my partner, Detective Marlowe.”

Waltz frowned and glared at the nurse like Clint Eastwood. Hook ‘Em suggested that Waltz employ a menacing stare. It would change his appearance as much as the shaved head. It would also make the nurse feel guilty.

The nurse dropped her gaze from Waltz to the floor.

Hook ‘Em flipped her badge shut and tucked it in her bra. “We have a few questions.”

The nurse crossed her arms. “This better not take long.” She leaned back in her chair and studied Waltz’s face.

Did she recognize him? Without invitation, Waltz took a chair and tried to glare at her. He whispered, like Clint Eastwood. “It will take as long as it takes. Understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“Turn off the radio.”

She turned it off. She studied Waltz’s face.

Hook ‘Em perched on the edge of a chair. “We understand that people who owed Doc poker money were included in your patient records.”

“Who told you that?”

Waltz squinted and hissed, like Clint Eastwood. “We’re asking the questions here. You got that straight?”

“Yes sir.”

“We’re not interested in turning you over to the IRS.” He almost added “punk,” but caught himself in time. “Unless …”

“Doc told me to do it. I didn’t know it was illegal.”

“I might let it pass… if you cooperate. Just answer my questions. Do you understand?”

“I understand.”

“Do you have a record of a Jazz Charleston owing Doc any poker money?”

“Jazz Charleston? I’ll check.” The nurse tapped some keys on her keyboard. “No record.”

Hook ‘Em got to her feet. “Have you seen any red-and-white-candy-striped Priuses hanging around?”

“I haven’t noticed any.”

Waltz pulled Hook ‘Em down into her chair. He turned to the nurse, frowned more, and squinted until his eyes almost closed. “Did Doc have you use the correct names on his records?”

“Of course.”

Waltz pulled out his wallet and handed her a picture of Jazz and Lala. “We think this man may have been a patient. Do you recognize him?”

The nurse transferred her gaze to the photo. Waltz relaxed his frown. Frowning was work.

The nurse shook her head. She handed back the photo. “I don’t recognize him.”

Waltz leaped to his feet. He stared at the nurse and slowed down his speech, emphasizing each word, hissing. “You’re lying.”

“No, it’s true. I’ve never seen him.”

Waltz leaned forward, his hands on the desk, pretending he hated the woman and that his glare would disintegrate her. He spoke to Hook ‘Em out of the side of his mouth. “Call the IRS.”

“I’ve seen the woman.”

“The woman? You’ve seen the woman?”

“Several times.”

“Was she a patient?”

“Oh, no. It was social. She seemed to be a friend – or more.”

“Or more?” Waltz added a leer to his glower. “You mean a girlfriend?”

“In Doc’s mind, she was. In Doc’s mind, all women were his girlfriends.”

Was Lala seeing Doc as well as Armando? While she was bedding Waltz? She wouldn’t go to bed with Doc. She said she found him disgusting.

She said. That was the key word.

He frowned and glared. “See if the name, Jazz Charleston, appears in your patient files.”

“I already checked. The patient files and the poker files are the same.”

Hook ‘Em started to get up. Waltz put his hand on her shoulder. “You don’t recognize the name, Jazz Charleston?”

“No.”

Waltz ran his hand over his head. He felt stubble. “So did you enter the patients’ data into the computer?”

“Oh no. I was much too busy. Doc kept his records by hand. We sent those to a service. They entered them.”

“Call them and have them check their files for that name.”

“If it’s not on our computer, it won’t be on theirs.”

He stared and whispered, putting as much menace into his voice as he could. “Don’t try to kid me. That’s how we caught our last embezzler. She was a nurse too, come to think of it. She pretended she didn’t know anything, but she faked entries on the computer. That nurse ended up doing five to ten in Huntsville.”

He turned to Hook ‘Em. “With good behavior, she should be out soon.”

Hook ‘Em shrugged. “Should’ve been. Didn’t I tell you? Another inmate tried to knife her. The nurse took the knife away and killed her attacker, clearly self-defense. The jury didn’t see it that way. Now she’s doing life without parole.”

Waltz shook his head. “Too bad. She had a family, too, five children, one of them a cute little toddler. All starting from cheating on taxes. Well, you have no control of these things in prison.”

Hook ‘Em patted his shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad for her. On the bright side, she’s used to it by now. I hear she’s got a big bull Dyke as a lover and is quite happy.”

Waltz turned back to the nurse, Eastwood vibrating with repressed rage. “Call them.”

The nurse picked up the phone. Quivering with fear, she made her request. She listened, then turned to Clint. “They’ve got me on hold. It’ll just be a minute.”

Hook ‘Em’s foot wagged. Waltz could tell she was getting impatient, worried that Bully Boy might burst in the door at any moment. The nurse tapped her pencil. Waltz frowned.

The nurse spoke into the phone. “You do?” She covered the receiver with her hand. “They do, sir.”

“Have them copy and paste the file into an email.”

The nurse spoke into the phone. She listened. Her eyes shifted to Clint. “She says she’ll send it in a couple of hours, as soon as she has time.”

Waltz leaned forward and scrawled his email address on her notepad. “Forward it as soon as you get it.” He scooted his chair back from the desk. “So was he a patient or a poker debt?”

“There’s no way to tell except to look at the file. Doc wanted it that way. I didn’t know it was illegal.”

Hook ‘Em scribbled on the notepad. “Here’s my cell. Call as soon as you send the file. That way we won’t have to come back and bother you again – or call the IRS.”

The nurse studied Waltz’s face. Was she going to call the cops as soon as they left?

Waltz stared at her, a pissed-off Dirty Harry radiating hate through his slit eyes.

***

 

Hook ‘Em disconnected the call. “The nurse says the service has been extra busy. They won’t be able to send that file until tomorrow.”

She watched some gulls circling over the water, squawking. “You know what? I think the nurse set us up. Let’s get out of here.”

“The cops can’t trace that number, can they?”

“It’s a throwaway. I don’t think they can trace it.”

“You’re not sure?”

She stepped out of the car and flung her cell into the bay. She got back in.

“Good move. Now the nurse can’t call us when she gets the email.”

Hook ‘Em backed out of the parking space and drove toward downtown. “She’s not going to send any email. Forget that. I think she wanted to get our number, get rid of us, and call the cops.”

“I don’t think so. I think she believed we were cops.”

“You want to believe she thought we were cops. You got into your Eastwood impression. Watch behind us for the Prius, dammit.”

Waltz glanced out the back window. “I think the person who killed Doc deleted Jazz’s file off Doc’s computer.”

“Why?”

“No matter what Willie Bob says, it looks like that poker debt does exist. And it’s important enough for the killer to delete. One thing for sure, the nurse recognized Lala. Lala’s in it.”

Hook ‘Em turned her attention back to the road. “Lala’s in it, all right.”

“I should’ve known better than to trust her. She went with me to the pawnshops. To help me. Ha! To hide any evidence she found. I’m lucky I went alone when I found Gordon’s ring.”

“She was screwing with you the whole time. She went with you to the key makers.”

“She made up the list of key makers.”

Hook ‘Em stopped watching for the Prius. “I wonder where she duped your key. You think she put the place on the list?”

***

 

Before they could get on the internet, the librarian made Waltz pay for the book the cops confiscated. Hook ‘Em noted it in her growing list of expenses. They printed off a list of key makers in San Salsa. They plotted the locations on a map.

Waltz pointed. “This is a convenience store across the street from the studio. We didn’t go there. I bet that’s where she made the key.”

“Three weeks ago. If only they remember it.”

“If the clerk who made the key was a man, he might remember Lala.”

Hook ‘Em pushed her chair back from the computer. “Got a picture of Doc?”

“No. Much as I admired him, I don’t carry a picture of him in my wallet.”

She pursed her lips. “We ought to have a picture of Doc. If he was in on it, he was as likely to make the key as Lala. Google him.”

“A printout of an Internet photo won’t have enough detail to do us any good. We’re screwed.” Waltz snapped his fingers. “Wait! They had his picture in the paper when he was killed.”

“That was two days ago. Good luck finding a copy.”

“If only there was a public institution of some sort that kept stuff like that. Like – a library.” He paused. “Hey, we’re at a library.”

They searched the older copies. Waltz found a picture of Doc. “This is pretty good, for a newspaper picture. Now, where’s the Xerox machine?”

Hook ‘Em tore the picture out of the paper.

“Stop. That’s the library’s copy.”

“It’s an old newspaper.”

“It’s public property.”

She folded the clipping and put it in her pocket. “A copy of a newspaper photo won’t come out good at all. It’d be as bad as a printout of an Internet picture. We need the original.”

A woman approached her. “Did I see you tear something out of that newspaper?”

“I don’t think so. I was very quick about it.”

“Let me have your library card.”

“I don’t have a card.”

“Get out. You’re banned from the library. Don’t ever come back.” The woman turned to Waltz. She pointed at Hook ‘Em. “Are you with her?”

“Her? No way. I saw her defacing library property and tried to stop her. She called me a dirty word and continued defacing. Some people. Dirty defacer.”

***

 

It was ten o’clock at night when they got to the In & Out Store, catty-cornered across the street from the studio. A small sign in the window said Keys Made.

Waltz spread the photos on the counter. “We’re trying to find out if any of these people made a key.”

“Y’all cops?”

Hook ‘Em nodded. “We’re after a murderer. We’re hoping you can help us.”

“All right. Cops hot on the trail of a murderer. Can’t wait to tell Jill about this.”

Waltz pointed at the photos. “Did you see any of these people in here about three weeks ago?”

“Three weeks ago? Nope. I just started two days ago. You’d have to talk to the old guy.”

Waltz gathered up the pictures. “When will he be in?”

“Not until the restraining order expires. They fired him. Drinking on the job.”

Waltz tucked the pictures in his pocket. “You know where he lives?”

“I never even met him.”

“We need to find him. It’s a matter of life or death.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.”

Hook ‘Em picked up a pack of chewing gum and threw a dollar on the counter. “You know his name?”

“Let’s see.” He paused and closed his eyes. He snapped his fingers and opened them. “Murphy.”

Hook ‘Em pocketed her change and pulled the string on the gum wrapper. “First or last?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’m not a very good witness. I don’t think I’ll tell Jill about this after all.”

***

 

They stepped outside. Waltz gazed at the studio across the street. He’d never visit it again. “That did not go well.”

“We found out his name is Murphy. Something Murphy. Or Murphy Something. That’s something.”

“Yeah, and he’s an alcoholic. What great detectives we are.”

“That’s something. He’s an alcoholic. He got fired for drinking on the job. I see a sign in the next block, Down & Out Bar. Let’s walk down there. They might know Murphy.”

“What a stupid name for a bar.”

“It’s a great name.”

What was wrong with her? “It insults their customers.”

“They’re not saying the customers are broke and homeless, idiot. It’s a sports bar. It’s a pass pattern. Go down and out.”

“Oh, yeah.”

They opened the red door of a small, cinder block building. Cold air sucked them in. You could preserve yourself two ways in the place, pickling and chilling. An old guy sat in the middle of the bar and a woman at the far end. No one occupied the booths.

Waltz put his foot on the rail and leaned over the bar. Hook ‘Em perched on the stool next to him. The bartender approached.

Hook ‘Em put down some bills. “Give us two drafts. You know a guy named Murphy?”

The bartender raised his eyes from Hook ‘Em’s breasts and pointed at the old guy.

Hook ‘Em glanced triumphantly at Waltz and raised her hands in Hook ‘Em signs. “Give him another one on me.” They moved down the bar and took stools on each side of Murphy.

The bartender set a shot glass in front of Murphy. “These people bought you a vodka.”

Murphy snatched up the glass. His hand trembled. He steadied it with his other hand and eased it to his lips. He drank half and set it down. He kept his hand around it. He hunched his shoulders around it.

He turned to look at Hook ‘Em. He inched his head around to peer at Waltz, eyes unfocused. He slumped toward Waltz then caught himself. “Do you know my son?” His speech slurred, breath stinking of cigarettes and vodka.

“I don’t think so.”

“He was going to medical school. I worked two jobs so he could go. And you know what happened?”

“What?”

“He met a split-tail. And that was it.”

“That was it?”

Murphy’s head drooped toward the bar. He caught it at the last minute and brought it up. He raised the vodka to his lips, tilted his head back, and poured the rest of it down.

His head moved to study Waltz’s chest. “Do you know my son?”

“I don’t think so.”

“He was going to medical school. And you know what happened?”

“Did he meet a split-tail?”

“He met a split-tail. He married her and he dropped out of medical school.”

Waltz laid the photo of Lala and Jazz in front of Murphy. “Do you recognize the woman?”

Murphy’s head drooped toward the photo and wavered over it, drool dripping from the edge of his mouth. His head came back and pivoted toward Waltz. “Wow. You know Hill and Bill?”

Waltz picked up the photo with his thumb and forefinger and shook off the spit. He pulled a couple of napkins out of the holder and sopped up the rest.

Hook ‘Em waved over the bartender. “We’re taking Murphy home. Where does he live?”

“I can’t give out confidential information. You might steal his stuff.”

“It is a tempting thought, cleaning out Murphy’s penthouse. Don’t worry. I’m the split-tail that married Murphy’s son, much to my regret. No doubt you’ve heard of me. My husband didn’t quit medical school. They kicked him out for stealing drugs.” She shoved some bills across the bar.

The bartender pocketed the money. “Well, if you’re his daughter-in-law, I guess it’s okay.” He gave them directions.

Waltz heaved Murphy onto his shoulder, carried him a block, and up a flight of stairs. Murphy, head hanging upside down from Waltz’s shoulder, told them about his son and the split-tail. Hook ‘Em fished Murphy’s key out of his pocket and unlocked the door. Waltz dropped Murphy on the couch. He mumbled and grumbled, and passed out.

Hook ‘Em latched the chain on the door. “It looks like we spend the night in Murphy’s palatial penthouse.”

“Oh goody. Maybe we can hear the story about the split-tail again in the morning. I find it riveting.”

Hook ‘Em plopped on the bed and bounced. “Nice bed.”

“Shouldn’t we give Murphy the bed? It’s his bed.”

“Do you think Murphy can tell whether he’s in a bed, a couch, or the gutter? Besides, I think Murphy is enough of a gentleman to give a split-tail his bed.”

Waltz laughed. “Okay. We take the bed.”

Hook ‘Em got off the bed, walked to the couch, and poked around on Murphy’s butt with her forefinger. She found his billfold, extracted it, and removed the cash. She tucked it in her bra.

“What are you doing?”

She put the wallet back in Murphy’s pocket. “Rolling him. Isn’t that the generally accepted method of dealing with a drunk?”

“I can’t let you do that. Put it back.”

“It’s only twenty bucks.”

“So what? Put it back.”

“Okay. But if I put it back, how are we going to pressure Murphy into cooperating? If he’s broke, we can bribe him. And it won’t cost us a thing. Now, you want me to put it back?”

Waltz walked across the room and sat on the bed. “You’re right. Go ahead and roll him. It’s an honored custom, one worthy of upholding. I’ve got to pay more attention to the valued traditions of society. I’m too unconventional.”

“You certainly are.”

“Besides, I guess it’s all in the family. After all, you are his split-tail-in-law.”

***

 

Morning sun brightened Murphy’s apartment.

Hook ‘Em pulled a chair over to the couch. She took another sip of coffee. She held the cup under Murphy’s nose. “Wake up Murphy. I’m a split-tail. I’m going to lure your son away from medical school. He doesn’t stand a chance against the wiles of a split-tail.” She sang. “I’m a split-tail.”

She trailed a dishtowel over Murphy’s face. He slapped at it. She did it again. He snorted. His eyes opened. He groaned. He sat up. His hands shook. He got up and went to the kitchen. He searched the fridge and the cabinets. “Where’s the vodka?”

“You drank all the vodka.” Hook ‘Em offered him the coffee.

He waved it away. He pulled out his billfold and checked inside. He jammed it back in his pocket. “I need some money.”

She offered the coffee again. “Drink the coffee. Look at some photos, sign a statement, and I’ll give you twenty dollars.”

“Let’s see the money.”

“First coffee. Then photos. Then statement. Then money.” She shoved him down on the couch.

She handed him the coffee. “Drink it.”

Murphy reluctantly sipped. Hook ‘Em pulled Murphy’s twenty out of her bra and waved it. “Drink it all.”

Murphy sipped the coffee, holding it with two wobbly hands. He finished it and set the cup on the couch.

Hook ‘Em unfolded the newspaper clipping of Doc and handed it to Murphy. “About three weeks ago, somebody came in and had a key made at your store. Was it this man?”

Murphy placed the clipping on his knee and tried to smooth it with trembling hands. It ripped in two. “Oops.” He pieced it together and moved his head back and forth, attempting to focus on the picture. “Maybe. I don’t remember.”

Waltz handed Murphy the photo of Lala and Jazz. “How about this woman?”

Murphy studied the photo. It shook. He took a two-handed grip and re-focused. He held it further from his face. “I remember him. He came in for strawberry slushes all the time.”

“That’s right. He did. How about the woman? Did she have a key made about three weeks ago?”

“Yeah. A key.” Murphy poked the photo with his finger. “This guy ordered a strawberry slush and wanted a key made. We were out of strawberry. All we had was lime. He got mad about it. Was it my fault we ran out of strawberry?”

Waltz tried to look indignant. “Hell no.”

“Damn right. The home office orders it. I just sell it. They ought to fire all those white-collar guys.”

“What about the key?”

“He took the lime. While I was making the key, he complained about the lime. He was really nasty.”

“Wasn’t it the woman that wanted the key made?”

“No, it was the asshole.”

What a drunken old fool. Alcohol did strange things to brains. It couldn’t have been Jazz. “Look at the woman. Didn’t she want the key?”

“The woman was with him. I remember her too. Sexy. But the guy wanted the key. What an asshole.” He handed the photo back to Waltz.

It had to be Lala. She was the one that profited. It was like Hook ‘Em said, follow the money.

Murphy held his hand out to Hook ‘Em. “Give me the money.”

“You have to sign a statement first. You sure it was the asshole?” She started writing Murphy’s statement.

“It was the asshole.”

She finished the statement and handed it to him. He placed it on his knee, hand quaking, and signed it.

She picked up the statement, waved it in triumph, and handed it to Waltz.

Hook ‘Em gave Murphy his money. He crumpled it in his hand and scampered out the door.

Hook ‘Em shook her head. “He didn’t even ask who we were and what we were doing in his apartment.”

Waltz sank onto the couch. “He said Jazz made the key.”

“His brains are pickled. He’s confused. Lala made the key.”

“No, I remember it. Jazz had a lime slush that night. He was ranting about the way the store ran out of strawberry. My keys went missing that night. I think Murphy got it right. Jazz copied my key. We can’t pressure Lala with that.”

Hook ‘Em spread her arms. “Lala and Jazz came in together. They got a key made. We can pressure her with that.”

“I don’t think it’ll work.”

“I wrote out the statement that way. It says Lala and Jazz had the key made. It’s true. She can’t deny it. It’ll work.”

“There’s something funny about it.”

Hook ‘Em tilted her head. “I don’t see what’s bothering you. Let’s say that Murphy got it right. All he’s saying is that Jazz handed him the key and asked for a copy. That doesn’t mean that Jazz wanted the key.”

“Sure it does.”

“It’s obvious you’ve never been a husband. Never experienced the honey-do thing.”

“Honeydew?”

“Wives are famous for telling their husbands ‘Honey do this. Honey do that.’ Say she took your key. When Jazz bought his slush, say she handed it to him and said, ‘Honey, have him make a copy of this, would you please?’ Wouldn’t he have done it?”

“Yeah, he would.”

“He wouldn’t have known it was the key to your apartment.”

“It could’ve happened that way. Lala had Jazz hand the key to the clerk. Maybe she got some sort of perverted thrill out of it, making Jazz frame me for his own murder. It makes sense.”

But should they assume that? Why assume away an apparent fact to fit their theory? What if Jazz wanted the key?

It didn’t make sense – unless…

He needed to see Jazz’s file from Doc’s office. “Let me have your cell.”

“I threw it in the bay. Remember?”

“I wanted to see if the nurse sent the email.”

“Forget that. No way is she going to send it. It doesn’t even exist.”

 

Chapter 16

How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You?

They got to the library as it opened. Delighted that the librarian turned Hook ‘Em away, Waltz started the computer. He opened his email, held his breath, and scanned the list. The nurse hadn’t sent it. He sighed and started deleting penis-enlargement ads. Wait, there it was.

He took a deep breath and clicked on it. It wasn’t a poker debt, unless Doc went to the trouble to disguise them as patient files. It was sketchy. Just dates and a diagnosis.

The diagnosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He’d never heard of it. He stuck it in his Google. Thousands of websites popped up. He clicked on the first one.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, caused progressive muscular paralysis. Symptoms included weakness in the arms and legs. It had no cure and usually killed within a year or two after diagnosis.

It explained everything. Jazz, dying, brought Gordon to the studio to make amends for their old feud. Gordon, still bent on revenge, poisoned Cha-Cha. In retaliation, Jazz hired the punks to attack Gordon. Then, poor Jazz killed himself to avoid a horrible death – and framed Waltz for it.

But why frame Waltz? Because he smoked? Because he was a womanizer? Jazz had to have a better reason than that.

Waltz knew. Jazz brought Gordon to town to even that old score. Jazz never realized Gordon poisoned Cha-Cha. Jazz thought Waltz did it. Waltz should’ve understood that when Cha-Cha survived. Jazz called Waltz over to show him that the poison failed, to rub it in. Then Jazz framed him.

Waltz leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with his palms. He knew what happened. It was crazy, but simple. It all fit together. It made sense. All he had to do was prove it. But how?

He couldn’t discuss it with Hook ‘Em. As soon as she knew that Jazz killed himself and realized that the insurance wouldn’t pay, she’d quit. He needed her.

Waltz shivered. Why did they keep the library so cold? Who could concentrate on reading in a freezer? He got up and walked toward the entrance. He had to get outside in the heat.

He and Jazz loved each other. Jazz was Waltz’s brother and his father, the one father Waltz ever knew.

How could Jazz believe Waltz poisoned Cha-Cha? Jazz loved Waltz. Waltz knew it. Jazz counseled Waltz not to smoke, warned him that it would ruin his sex life. That was concern. That was love.

Jazz urged Waltz to go back to college and get his degree, to forget teaching dancing. He couldn’t make much money in it. Jazz wanted Waltz to have a good life. That was love.

Jazz warned him about womanizing. He wanted Waltz to have true love.

Jazz even warned against watching Dance of Deceit. He didn’t want Waltz to waste his time. Jazz wanted Waltz to improve himself.

Of course, Jazz was joking about Deceit. Jazz loved to bug Waltz while he watched it. Such kidding was their form of togetherness, their form of love.

Waltz could tell Jazz loved him. Jazz wouldn’t kid you if he didn’t like you. Waltz missed him. Tears filled his eyes.

What did Jazz say that day? “If I needed the answers to life’s mysteries, I’d watch Deceit.” How sarcastic could you get? That was Jazz’s sense of humor. You could never tell if he was kidding or serious.

Maybe he wasn’t joking. Could he have been serious? No. Still, it was strange, the mysterious way the stack of tapes increased. Waltz remembered when his home VCR conked out on him and he got behind. He calculated. He should have six tapes. Somehow, an extra tape got in his stack.

They say suicides always leave a note. The day before Jazz poisoned himself, he kidded Waltz about Deceit. Could Jazz have left a video? No, he wouldn’t do that. Still, the whole frame up was so elaborate, so unbelievable, that it could be.

The way Jazz suggested watching Deceit for the answers to life was a wink, a hint steeped in a smirk – a final sneer. He wanted Waltz to know about the frame up.

Waltz had to see. It could get him out of trouble.

He got in the truck.

Hook ‘Em stared at him. “What’s wrong?”

He needed to get into the studio – and do it without arousing Hook ‘Em’s suspicions.

She touched his arm. “I told you she wouldn’t send it.”

He promised Jazz to get his killer. It looked like the guy was Jazz himself. So what? A promise was a promise. Waltz would get the guy.

It was the funniest thing he ever came across. He began to laugh. He couldn’t help himself. He slumped against the door. He laughed so hard his stomach muscles knotted. He brought his knees up and squeezed, trying to relieve the cramp.

“What’s so funny?”

He began to cry. He couldn’t stop himself. He was crying in front of Hook ‘Em. He didn’t want her to see him crying but he couldn’t stop. He covered his face and cried.

Hook ‘Em moved over the console. She put her arm around him and hugged him. “What’s wrong?”

He didn’t want her to suspect. What could he say? Something she’d believe. He couldn’t stop crying, but he managed to choke out, “I was thinking that Lala never loved me. I disgusted her. She went to bed with me for the money.”

He was lying to his best friend. Wow, Hook ‘Em was his best friend. He couldn’t believe it. He thought he hated her.

His sobbing increased. He couldn’t stop.

“You’re better off without her.”

He continued to sob.

“She’s a bitch. She didn’t deserve you. You’re a great guy. She went to bed with you because she couldn’t resist you. What woman could?”

She was right. He was a great guy. Lala didn’t deserve him. He was a great brother too. Jazz didn’t deserve him either.

On the other hand, Hook ‘Em didn’t deserve him. He was going to screw her. He was going to screw her out of her money. He was going to screw his best friend. She would hate him when she found out.

The sobs abated. Hook ‘Em pulled him to her and held him. She patted him on the back, like she was burping a baby. She fondled his bare skull. Three more great wracking sobs broke out of him.

He let out a huge sigh. He felt better.

He thought of Hook ‘Em and what he was going to do and felt worse.

Hook ‘Em patted him some more. “What was so funny?”

He took a deep breath. He hated to lie to her, but he had no choice. “It turns out the whole thing was about Doc – not Lala. Jazz knew Doc was scamming Medicare. He found out Doc was putting the make on Lala. So Jazz threatened to expose Doc to the authorities. That must be why Doc killed him.”

“Doc put that in the file?”

“No. It wasn’t a poker file at all. Jazz sent Doc an email with the threat. That’s what the service forwarded. Since Doc hated computers, I guess his nurse printed out all his email for him. He shredded the paper copy and told the nurse to erase the file, but he didn’t think about the service having a backup copy.”

“Wait a minute. If Doc killed Jazz, why would Lala frame you?”

Crap. He hadn’t thought about that. “I don’t think she did. I think Doc framed me.”

“But the key…”

“I think Doc fooled Lala into stealing my key and making a copy. He probably told her he was going to pull a joke on me. About that time, they were all pulling pranks on me. It’s the only way it makes sense.”

“Yeah, okay. But… why would Lala kill Doc?”

“She didn’t. She knew about my key, of course. I’m guessing she realized Doc framed me and murdered Jazz. She had Doc in her power. She couldn’t resist the easy money, so she blackmailed Doc.”

Hook ‘Em pursed her lips. “Yeah, but who killed Doc? She wouldn’t. She was getting money out of him.”

“Doc was under tremendous pressure. He felt guilty about killing Jazz and framing me. Doc knew that Lala would never stop squeezing money out of him. So he killed himself. Lala went by to get more money and found his body. She saw her chance. She wrote the note to clear both of us. That way, we’d get the insurance money and the studio. She told the truth about that.”

“I thought sure it was Lala. Let me see that email.”

“The printer was broken. I couldn’t print it out.”

“Well… I guess it makes sense. Let’s go confront her. We can break her now, get her to admit Doc killed Jazz and framed you. She doesn’t have to worry that they’ll charge her with murder. We got Doc’s scam. We got what she said about Doc’s note. We’ve got the winos’ statements, and Murphy’s statement.”

He had to get in the studio and check his videos. “No, we need more. We need to show that she knew about the Medicare scam and that she was blackmailing Doc. If we can prove that, I know we can make her crack. Let’s go to the studio and see what we can find.”

“Like what?”

“Emails, notes, phone messages. Check the bank statements for large receipts, blackmail from Doc. The cops could track those from Doc’s bank account. That would nail it down. We’d have her cold. We have to go in the studio.”

She shook her head. “The cops may be watching it. It’s too risky.”

“We’ve got to do it. We’ll only get one more chance at her. We’ve got to hit her with all the evidence we can get.”

***

 

The cops did not have the studio staked out – as near as Hook ‘Em and Waltz could tell. Waltz placed the bolt cutter on the chain and squeezed. The chain parted. He unlocked the door.

He pointed. “You take the office. I’ll search the lounge. I’ll meet you back here when I finish.”

Waltz went to his stack of videos. He bet Jazz would put it last. He fast-forwarded the last one. Nothing. He worked backwards through the tapes. In the middle of the third one, Jazz came on.

Waltz cued the tape and hit the play button. He turned mute off and put the sound low.

Jazz flickered and stood before the camera. “Great news! I got a part on Dance of Deceit.” He smirked. “Just kidding. Don’t worry. This is an old tape. At least, I hope so. It would be tragic if I taped over an episode you haven’t watched.”

He strolled to his desk, placed his feet on it, and leaned back in his chair. “I know you’re always behind watching your thrilling program, but today is – “

Hook ‘Em whispered through the door. “Waltz. Bully Boy’s here.”

Waltz hit the off button and opened the door.

They ran to the window. Waltz peeked through the blinds. A red-and-white-candy-striped Prius stood in the street. “How did he find us?”

Hook ‘Em whispered. “Keep your voice down. Who knows how he does it? Some people say he has extrasensory perception.” She turned away from the window. “Is there another way out of this place?”

Waltz’s mind wouldn’t focus. Was there another way out? “No. Well, yeah, from the second floor, on a plank. But it’s too dangerous.”

“Too dangerous? You’d rather go to jail?”

Maybe he would. It might be better to rot in jail than to fall two floors onto hard pavement.

Hook ‘Em grabbed his arm. “Which way?”

Waltz led the way up the stairs.

He only had a vague idea how to get to the top of the building. He’d never done it. Rachel merely described it to him. He opened the window over the old movie marquee. He crawled onto it. The marquee was solid and stable, cantilevered over the sidewalk.

When the studio was a theater, employees spelled out the names of the movies on the marquee. He stepped over some of the old letters that still lay scattered around.

Hook ‘Em came through the window. She walked to the edge and looked over. She came back and whispered. “He’s still there. Where to?”

Waltz whispered. “Up this ladder.” He guessed.

Hook ‘Em clambered up and over the ledge onto the roof.

Waltz grabbed the ladder, closed his eyes, and climbed. He eased over the ledge and opened his eyes. He edged toward the crossing place. “The plank’s on the other building.” He pointed across the chasm.

“Keep whispering!” Hook ‘Em stood on the edge. “Great. What good’s that?”

Waltz edged away. “Whoever used it last time must have dragged the plank back over to the other building. Come to think of it, I guess it’s usually on the other building.”

He sighed and relaxed. No way could they walk the plank with the plank on the other side.

Hook ‘Em leaned over the edge and peered into the alley. She looked across to the other building. “It’s not so far. You could jump it and shove the plank across for me.”

Waltz stepped back. “Jump it! Are you crazy? What if I missed?”

She propped her elbow on her hip and her chin in her hand. “Most planks are about ten feet long. That one could be twelve feet. Let’s add a safety factor of three feet. That would be fifteen feet.”

She walked over to the exhaust fan housing. “Let’s say my feet are about a foot long.” Using her feet as a measure, she paced off fifteen feet. “See if you can jump from the fan housing to me.”

“That’s short. Your feet aren’t a foot long.”

“Thank you kind sir.” She curtsied. “They are tiny – and shapely, aren’t they? Even in my shoes. They’re quite dainty nude.”

He marched off fifteen feet. “Look. You were at least five feet short. Stand here. Don’t move.”

He walked back past the fan housing. He needed to get a running start. Wait. What was he doing? No way was he going to try to jump across the alley. Was he insane? If he missed, he was dead.

On the other hand, if he stayed here and waited for Bully Boy, he was dead.

He edged close to the chasm. Nobody could jump that. It was at least fifteen feet.

What was the world record in the broad jump? Something like twenty-two feet – no, more like twenty-six. He could probably jump fifteen feet.

Yeah, but he’d have to clear the ledge around the top of the studio building as well as the ledge around the target building. Champion jumpers wore light spiked shoes and they jumped into sand pits. They trained for years, and they still screwed up. They got three tries. He would only get one.

Even the world-record holder couldn’t make it in cowboy boots. He could barely walk in them, much less leap an alley. And his feet were much too tender. He’d never make it barefooted.

He would see if he could jump to Hook ‘Em. Then he would decide.

He clunked back to the ledge above the marquee to get a running start. He took a deep breath. He started forward. He wanted to be at top speed by the time he reached the housing. His boot heels clopped on the roof, even though he was running on the balls of his feet. He was going fast by the time he reached the housing. He kicked off the roof. He sailed through the air. He stretched his feet forward to get as much distance as he could. His feet hit the ground and he fell backwards on his butt.

Hook ‘Em leaned over him. “That was good. You did it.”

Waltz shook his head. “My feet got to you. My butt didn’t. It’s three feet short.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He got to his feet. “It matters to my butt.”

“You won’t be landing on your feet flying over the alley. You’ll be grabbing the ledge with your hands and pulling yourself up.”

“I was three feet short. My hands will be waving goodbye ledge, as I fall screaming to my death.”

“You were straining forward with your feet to reach the mark. That’s why you fell backwards. Jumping across the alley you’ll want to stay upright. Your hands will make it.”

“I was three feet short.”

“We allowed for that. You’ve got a three-foot cushion.”

“That’s why we allowed a three-foot cushion. To make sure I would make it.”

“You’ll make it easy. This was a practice jump. You had no adrenaline. When you jump the alley, adrenaline will flood every muscle. You’ll have to slack off, or you’ll end up jumping into the next block.”

He inched to the ledge and looked down. “I’d have plenty of adrenaline, that’s for sure.” He stepped back. He shook his head. “I can’t do it.”

“You can do it.”

“I’m afraid of heights.”

“Close your eyes when you get to the edge.”

“Close my eyes? Are you crazy?”

“It’s when you look down that you lose your nerve.”

He walked away from the edge. “I can’t do it.”

“You’re sending us both to prison.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re going to let me go to prison? After telling me you’d let the punks kill you before you’d let them rape me?”

“Why don’t you close your eyes and jump? And shove the plank over to me?

“In a long tight dress and high heels?”

“You could jump naked.”

“You … You’ll never change.” She turned, clambered over the edge, and down the ladder.

He followed her. She went to the office and peeked out the window.

He raised a slat and squinted. The Prius was still there. Bully Boy stared straight ahead, motionless. “He looks dead.”

She shushed him. “He’s in a trance. It heightens his senses. His hearing becomes as sharp as a dog’s.”

“How long do you think he’ll be out there?”

“They say he once staked out a place for eight days. He never peed. He never drank. He never ate. He never moved.”

“He must wear diapers.”

“Yogis don’t wear diapers.”

“I don’t see why not. Astronauts wear them.”

“And so does your aunt Lucille, but yogis can control their body functions, as opposed to the Charleston family, who pee in their pants at the thought of jumping a narrow little alley.”

“We’ve got to get out. We’ve got the case solved.”

“Keep your voice down. He’ll come in after us.”

Waltz could at least watch the rest of the video. Maybe it would crack the case. Bully Boy could give them a ride to the police station. No, that wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t clear him of Doc’s murder. “Stay here and watch. I’m going back to finish searching the lounge.”

“What were you doing back there? Did I hear you watching TV?”

“While I was searching, I figured I might as well watch a video.”

“Bully Boy sensed the TV waves. That’s how he found us.”

“I’ll tune it as low as I can. A dog wouldn’t be able to hear it, much less Bully Boy.”

“You make a move toward the TV, and I’ll put a chair through it.”

“You want me to stand here and watch Bully Boy with you? Stand here and wait for him to come and get us?”

“If you jumped, we’d be out of here.”

“If I jumped, my body would be in the alley now, a heap of putrid dead flesh, oozing fluids. Fire ants would be carting away pieces of the mess. If they could stand the stink.”

She gestured for time out. “Okay. Okay. You got us trapped, but you still have your body fluids. You’re plump with them. Congratulations.”

“Why does he remain motionless? It’s inhuman.”

“He’s in a trance. He’s a Yogi.”

Waltz clicked a button on his watch.

“What are you doing?”

“Timing him.”

“Timing him? Wonderful, thanks a lot. You got us trapped, and your solution is to slap your stopwatch on a Yogi, a motionless Yogi.”

Waltz continued to watch. Bully Boy didn’t move. Ten minutes passed. “You say he once staked out a place for eight straight days – without moving?”

“That’s right. Not even to pee.”

They stood at the window, watching Bully Boy.

Waltz clicked his watch. Twenty minutes. Bully Boy hadn’t moved. “This is impossible. He’s not even breathing.”

Waltz dropped the slat of the blind and took a deep breath. He hoped he was right. He strode to the front door, opened it, and headed for the Prius.

Hook ‘Em caught his shoulder and tried to turn him. “Stop. What are you doing?”

He brushed her arm away and went on to the car. He opened the door. “So, Bully Boy. How’s your trance? Did you sense I was coming to see you?”

Bully Boy stared straight ahead. His graying beard hung to his belly. He remained in a trance, his powers of concentration focused. Waltz reached into the car and pinched him.

Waltz stepped back, held the door, made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and bowed to Hook ‘Em. “You may pinch him.”

Hook ‘Em froze.

Waltz made his sweeping gesture and bowed again. “Go ahead. Pinch him. He won’t mind. He’s in a trance.”

Hook ‘Em extended her arm, then pulled it back.

“Go ahead. Pinch him. You’ll see how practicing yoga firms up the flesh.”

She bent into the car and inched her arm toward Bully Boy. She pinched him. She stepped back. Her face was white. “It’s a dummy.” She slammed the door. “No wonder he has the reputation of going for days without drinking or peeing.”

“But why?”

“Why? Why can a dummy go for days without peeing?”

“No, why use a dummy?”

She stared at him for a moment. “Of course. How clever. He has dummies do his stake outs for him. To trap his skips. Everywhere you go, you see Bully Boy waiting for you. You think there’s no escape.”

She laughed and paced. “You stay wherever he trapped you. Then he comes by and picks you up. Even if you get away, the pressure builds. Everywhere you go, you see Bully Boy, waiting for you. You start to think he’s Superman. Maybe you give up. Or you make a mistake and he catches you.”

Waltz opened the car door. “Or you panic and try to jump across an alley and fall screaming to the pavement. He comes by and scoops your remains into a body bag and turns it in to the cops.”

Hook ‘Em didn’t say anything.

“He wears the robe and the beard because it’s easier to make a dummy with a robe and a beard. I bet the real Bully Boy wears a fake beard.” Waltz leaned in the car and jerked on the dummy’s beard. “Cheap. Made of artificial fiber.”

He picked up a card from the passenger seat. “Bully Boy Bristle. Bounty hunter to the stars. Yoga and bounty hunting taught.” Waltz laughed. He tossed the card back in the car. “We don’t have to worry about him anymore. Let’s go back in and finish up.”

“No way.”

“No way?”

“Don’t you see? This means he’s even more dangerous. He’s smart. He’s tricky. We don’t know what he might do.”

“But this is important.”

“Let’s get out of here before he comes back. He probably checks his dummies like a trap line.”

“We’ve got to go back in.”

She pointed. “Look!”

A red-and-white-candy-striped Prius turned the corner at the far end of the block and started toward them.

Hook ‘Em grabbed Waltz’s hand and pulled him into the alley.

Waltz stopped and peeked around the corner.

Hook ‘Em tugged his hand. “Let’s go.”

“Let’s see if it’s Bully Boy.”

The car stopped in front of the studio. A man got out of the driver’s seat, pulled the dummy out of the old Prius, and put it in the backseat of the new one. He opened the passenger door. Bully Boy got out and got in the driver’s seat of the old Prius. The man closed the door for Bully Boy, got in the new Prius, and drove away.

***

 

A few minutes later, Hook ‘Em shook her head. “We can’t go back to the studio now.”

He couldn’t expect her to understand, unless she knew what he knew. “We can’t confront Lala. We’re not ready.”

“Let’s face it. We got as much as were going to get. I think it’s enough, if we work it right.”

What could he say? He had to get the video. “I left all the statements in the studio.”

Hook ‘Em started. “They’re the whole case. How could you do that?”

“I set them on the desk in the lounge. I was checking to make sure I had them all. Then you came and said Bully Boy had us trapped. We ran to the front. I forgot them.”

Hook ‘Em slapped the steering wheel. “I can’t believe it.” She glared at him. “This is hard enough.”

“We’ll wait until Bully Boy leaves, sneak in the studio, get the papers, and take them to Lala’s house.”

“Who knows how long Bully Boy will wait? The cops are swarming all over town. We don’t have time for this. Let’s go confront Lala. We’ll use what we got and hope for the best.”

***

 

The brunette with the big boobs and the baldheaded man eased past Lala’s house. Lala’s car stood in front. Behind it, a cop car. A half block away, across the street, a red-and-white-candy-striped Prius.

Waltz stared into the Prius. “Is it a dummy?”

“I can’t tell.”

The figure in the graying beard and white robe raised its hand and took a drag.

Waltz turned to Hook ‘Em. “How the hell did he get here that fast?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t confront Lala with Bully Boy and the cops waiting at her front door. All she has to do is yell and the cops will arrest us. We’re screwed.”

Waltz grabbed Hook ‘Em’s arm. “We’re going to have to snatch her out of here and take her back to the studio.”

“Are you crazy?”

“We have no choice.”

Hook ‘Em slapped the steering wheel again. “Why’d you have to leave those documents?”

“I’m sorry. We have to snatch her. How are we going to do it? With Bully Boy and the cops waiting for us?”

She glared at him. “This is not a movie where the invincible heroes set off a bomb to create a diversion.”

“No, not a bomb. Just a little fire. It won’t do much damage.” Waltz pointed to a gas station in the next block. “We’ll run up there and get a small container of gas and some tape.”

“No, we’re not doing it.”

“What are we going to do? Quit?” Waltz paused. “I’m re-renegotiating your contract. It’s an extra five.”

“Five? No way! Setting a fire in front of the cops is ten.”

What difference did it make? They weren’t going to collect the insurance. “Okay.”

“And only one fire. Not all the fires you want for the rest of your life.”

“Agreed.”

They got the gas and parked behind Lala’s house.

Hook ‘Em took the gas can toward the front. Waltz waited by the back door. He got the end of the duct tape started.

The TV murmured next door, a talk show of some kind. The audience laughed. Waltz wished he could.

He smelled smoke.

Hook ‘Em screamed. “Help! Fire!”

He heard footsteps running toward him. Hook ‘Em burst around the corner. “Where is she?”

“She didn’t come out.”

“We’ll have to go in.”

The back door was locked. He stepped back and kicked with the heel of his cowboy boot. The door vibrated but held. He kicked again and again. The door shattered. He knocked it aside. They charged in.

They checked the rooms in the back of the house. They went on to the front. Lala came out of the coat closet in the living room with her cash box. She saw them and screamed.

Sirens squalled in the distance.

Waltz rushed Lala. He grabbed her and pulled her arms behind her. The box clattered to the floor.

Lala struggled and screamed. Hook ‘Em snatched the duct tape out of Waltz’s hand and slapped a piece on Lala’s mouth. Lala kicked out at her, missed, and kicked the cash box behind the couch.

“Goddamnit Waltz! How the hell did you do this?” Hook ‘Em ripped loose the tape holding Waltz’s wrist to Lala’s and finished taping Lala’s wrists. Hook ‘Em pulled off another big piece of tape and strapped it around Lala’s legs. She reached into Lala’s blouse, ripped loose the wire, flung it to the floor, and stomped it to pieces.

Waltz threw Lala over his shoulder and they ran out the back.

***

 

“Dummy, right?”

Hook ‘Em shook her head with a half smile. “He’s smoking a cigarette. How did he beat us to the studio? He was watching the fire when we left.”

Waltz snapped his fingers. “There’s more than one Bully Boy.”

“You mean – “

“Bully Boy’s got dummies. Why couldn’t he have an impersonator or two?”

“Yeah… It would be easy. Anybody with a fake beard and a robe would look like Bully Boy from a distance.”

“Let’s wait a while. He’ll get tired. The guy with the dummy will come by. Then we can stroll in the front.”

“We can’t. I figure the cops are looking for Lala.”

“Already?”

“Her wire went dead. The fire was small. They got it out by now. She’s a suspect and a witness. They were supposed to be watching her. Cops will be everywhere. They’ll check here. We’ve got to go in now – or you might as well turn yourself in.”

“First, let’s run down to that All-Mart on the corner.”

“We don’t have time for that.”

“It’ll only take a minute. I need a rope, a tarp, and a brick.”

***

 

Waltz took a deep breath. He picked Lala up and threw her over his shoulder.

He carried her to the garbage can. He propped her against the wall. He tied the rope around her knees and then under her arms to form a harness. He tied the other end of the rope to his waist and crawled onto the can.

It was only two stories. It wasn’t that high. But it would look a lot higher from a teetering plank. Was Lala afraid of heights? She might balk at walking across.

He had to keep moving. He couldn’t stop to think about it. He scrambled on the can and grabbed the ladder. He pulled himself up and put his foot on the first rung. He kept a firm grip on the ladder and climbed steadily. When he got to the top, he crawled over the ledge.

He stood as close to the ledge as he dared. He set his feet, grabbed the rope, and started hauling Lala up the side of the building.

He felt strong. He kept his weight back, his mid-section over his feet, like in dancing. He had to overcompensate for the cowboy boots which nudged him forward, out of his center of balance. How could anybody dance in cowboy boots?

Hook ‘Em climbed in unison with Lala, guiding her, making sure she didn’t lodge on any projections, blocking Lala with her body to keep her off the ladder. She had the All-Mart bag tied around her neck and over her shoulder. She was barefoot.

Waltz cringed. That ladder would be rough on bare feet.

Hook ‘Em wasn’t afraid of anything. Well, except for the punks, prison, and Bully Boy. The dummies and Bully Boy impersonators might have cured her fear of him. Waltz was letting her do everything for nothing, even offering her a non-existent ten thou. He was slime.

He kept pulling, one arm after the other. He was working out on the lat machine in the gym.

He got Lala to the ledge. Hook ‘Em boosted from behind. Waltz hoisted Lala over, picked her up, and propped her against an exhaust-fan housing.

He and Hook ‘Em shoved the plank across the alley. He grabbed it and tested it for wobble. He stepped back. It looked like a tightrope, a slender strand strung across the Grand Canyon, thrashing in a gale. Thanks Jazz, thanks a lot. The image of Jazz smirking on the video flashed into Waltz’s mind. Waltz would wipe that smirk off Jazz’s mouth.

Waltz turned and dumped the stuff out of the bag. He spread the tarp out. It was small, about the size of a king-size bed. He placed the brick in the middle and tied the tarp around it like a scarf. He tied the tarp to the middle of the rope.

Two exhaust housings stood about ten feet apart. He tied one end of the rope to each one, giving him a large loop with a brick in the middle for weight. He picked up the brick and threw it across the alley, trying to loop the rope over the exhaust housing on the studio building. He threw too far to the left.

He hauled the rope back, picked up the brick, and threw directly at the housing. He concentrated on following through. The brick landed behind the housing. He unfastened one end of the rope, pulled it tight around the housing on the studio roof, and retied it.

He grabbed both ends of the rope and leaned back against it, pulling as hard as he could. The housings held. He turned and pulled against the single housing on the studio building. It held.

He had a triangular loop going from one building to the next, forming rope banisters above the plank. It gave them something to hold onto as they crossed. The less risk the better.

Hook ‘Em nodded. “Amazing. It worked. All right. Get the tape off her legs. Let’s get her across.”

Waltz kneeled and stripped off the tape. She kicked him in the balls and started for the ladder. His breath whooshed out and pain whooshed in. He went down, grabbing for her ankles. He got one and pulled hard. It helped the pain. She went down. Hook ‘Em jumped on her and pinned her to the roof.

Waltz let go of her ankle and doubled up on his side. His balls ached. He rolled from side to side.

Hook ‘Em put her hand on his shoulder. It seemed to take away some of the pain.

The pain ebbed, leaving a dull ache. He sat up, grabbed Lala’s legs, and held them down, the length of a TV remote apart. He nodded to Hook ‘Em. “Tape her ankles. Give her this much room to walk.”

Waltz took off his shirt, rolled it into a blindfold, and tied it around Lala’s head. He jerked her to her feet, turned her facing away from him, and held her around the waist.

Hook ‘Em went to the front of the building and leaned over the ledge. She came back and shook her head. “He’s still there. He’s reading a girlie magazine.”

Waltz squeezed Lala’s waist. “We’re going across the plank. Keep your balance.”

Barefoot, long dress flapping in the breeze, tight grip on the ropes, Hook ‘Em started backward across the plank.

Waltz lifted Lala onto the ledge and stepped up with her. He pushed her, shuffling, onto the plank ahead of him. He held her with one hand tight against his body. He grabbed the rope with his other hand.

He didn’t dare look down. He watched Hook ‘Em and her big boobs. He pretended they were real and watched them jiggle.

Hook ‘Em nodded her head, encouraging him. “It’s not far. It’s only about eight feet. Four steps.”

He took a deep breath and started across. His left hand clenched the rope. He kept his eyes on the plank. He slid his left foot forward about six inches. He brought his right foot up to it.

He should’ve taken off the boots. The heels made him wobble on the plank. No, they were better than bare feet. Not much, but a little. The soles gave him a stiff platform to stand on. How was Hook ‘Em making it barefoot? He slid his left foot forward again. He wasn’t about to lift either foot off the plank.

Hook ‘Em nodded. “Good. Good. You’ve got it. It’s not far now. It’s a piece of cake.”

He was going to make it. He just needed to keep doing what he was doing. Slide the left foot forward. Slide the right up to it. Do it a few more times. Nothing to it.

Lala twisted and broke his grip. He was dropping her. The plank wobbled. The rope swayed. Hook ‘Em tried to steady the plank.

Lala twisted again. He could barely hold her. She kicked back at him. He dropped to a knee, like a prize fighter who’s taken a stunning blow.

He remembered to keep his voice low. “Stop wiggling. We’re going to fall.” The plank wobbled. They were going over. His still-aching balls scrambled for safety.

He twisted his body and dropped Lala onto the plank. She hung over it like a sack of feed. He pushed down on her back to hold her on. She stopped wiggling.

He dropped his other knee to the plank. He put even pressure on his knees, hoping to steady the plank. He gripped the rope with every ounce of his strength.

Hook ‘Em dropped to her knees in front of him. He pushed Lala, rolling her toward Hook ‘Em like a barrel, onto her back. He shuffled his knees forward, pushing Lala another half turn forward. Hook ‘Em reached with her free hand and helped him. They inched toward the studio.

Waltz glanced down. The pavement beckoned him, making him dizzy.

He studied Hook ‘Em’s big boobs. They moved with her as she pulled on Lala. He pushed. Sweat poured off his face and dripped on Lala. He breathed hard. His arm was tightening. He couldn’t hold the rope much longer.

Finally Hook ‘Em backed onto the ledge. She eased over it. She stretched forward with both hands and rolled Lala toward her onto the ledge. She pulled again and stepped back, letting Lala fall from the ledge to the roof.

Waltz grabbed the other side of the rope. He slid one knee forward and then the next. He kept his eyes on Hook ‘Em. He reached the ledge. He slid one knee on it and then the other. He slipped one knee over the edge, pivoted on his other knee, and reached with his foot to the roof, firm and solid under him. He brought the other foot to the roof, safe, breathing hard.

He let go of the rope with one hand and grabbed the ledge, a solid, concrete ledge, sturdy and stable, built to last a hundred years without a jiggle. He loved the strength of it. He brought his other hand to it and leaned on the savior ledge. It didn’t wobble. It didn’t kick or struggle. It supported him, passive and dependable. He took a deep breath. He was still alive.

 

Chapter 17

You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life

Waltz sent Hook ‘Em to lock the front door. He tied Lala to a straight chair in the middle of the lounge, took the winos’ statements out of his pocket, and placed them on the desk.

Hook ‘Em returned and pulled the tape off Lala’s mouth.

Waltz turned on the little tape recorder, then turned to Lala. “The cops found Doc’s note. It said he helped you kill Jazz. He felt so guilty he killed himself. The cops are coming after you.”

Lala laughed. “You speak through your hat. Doc’s note say he kill Jazz. That you and me are innocent.”

“How do you know what Doc’s note said?”

Lala didn’t answer.

“How do you know what it said?”

“I read it in the paper.”

“The cops haven’t released the note. Only the cops and Doc’s murderer know what the note said.”

Lala strained her hands against the ropes. She needed her hands to emphasize her words. “I tell you. I read it in the paper.”

“I’m telling you, it hasn’t been in the paper. I follow the paper. I have reason to, you know.”

Lala attempted to rise in outrage. The ropes frustrated her. “So only the cops and the killer know what the note say?”

“That’s right.”

“Then how you know what the note say?”

“Because Hook ‘Em knows a cop.”

“Maybe I know a cop.”

The lieutenant. Waltz didn’t think about him.

Waltz plunged his hand into Lala’s bra.

Lala strained against the ropes. “My money! Give me my money!”

Waltz extracted Lala’s index card from the roll of bills and handed it to Hook ‘Em. He selected a twenty and read off the serial number.

Hook ‘Em marked it off with a red pen.

Waltz struck a match and set the bill afire. When it was nearly gone, he dropped it in the wastebasket. “What a thrill. I always wanted to burn a twenty. I wish I still smoked. How great would it be to light up a big black cigar with a flaming twenty?”

Lala gaped at him with horror, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Please no burn my money.”

Hook ‘Em waved the index card. “We can prove that Waltz didn’t kill Doc. We have the sworn statements of seven witnesses that he was with them at the time of Doc’s death.” She turned to Waltz. “Show her.”

Waltz picked up the documents. He showed them to Lala, one at a time, counting them as he went. He slapped them on the desk.

Lala tossed her head. “You show me those before. Winos.”

Waltz dealt Lala’s money to the table like cards. “I wonder if she’s got any hundreds in here. I always wanted to burn a hundred. Yes, here’s one.” He began to read the serial number.

“Okay, you have seven witnesses.”

Hook ‘Em smiled. “We have a witness that swears you and Jazz copied the key to Waltz’s apartment. Show her.”

Waltz showed her Murphy’s statement and slapped it on the desk.

Hook ‘Em picked up all the documents and brandished them. “You killed Doc. You framed Waltz for Jazz’s murder.” She folded the documents and put them in her back pocket.

She bent over Lala, in her face. “On top of that, I tailed you to Doc’s apartment the night you murdered him. I’ll swear to it in court.”

Waltz spoke into Lala’s face. “We know that you were there at the time of the murder, and you know what his note said. So, you see, we know that you killed Doc. I would like to know why.”

Lala shook her head. “I no kill him.”

Hook ‘Em pushed Waltz away from Lala. “You idiot. I told you there was no way we could make a deal with her.”

“I thought sure she’d confess if we offered to let her run to Mexico.”

“She wants to stay here and go to prison. Let’s make a little bonfire of the rest of her money.”

“A bonfire? Of Lala’s money? I like it… no, wait. It could burn down the studio.”

“What if it does? It belongs to the cops now.”

Waltz considered. “You’re right. Tear up the index card. We’ll use it for kindling.” He kneeled and began to untie Lala. “We’ll turn her over to the cops. We’ll give them the evidence and forget it.”

“No! No bonfire. No cops. I talk.”

Waltz got up. “Then tell us why you killed Doc.”

“I no kill him.”

Hook ‘Em kneeled and began to untie Lala. “I told you we couldn’t trust her. Let’s get this over with. Light my fire.”

Lala exhaled. Her chin fell to her chest. “Okay. I am there, but I no kill him. I find his body. I find his note on the computer. Doc kill Jazz and he kill himself. The note say you and me have nothing to do with it. No understand why the cops still hunt you.”

Hook ‘Em stuck her face within an inch of Lala’s. “Because Doc’s nurse says Doc didn’t know how to turn on a computer. He couldn’t have written the note.”

Lala pulled her head back. “Then somebody else kill him and write the note before I arrive. I think he kill himself and write the note.”

Hook ‘Em brought her face closer to Lala’s. “The coroner places the time of death almost two hours after I saw you arrive. I was still there when you left, well after the time of death. You killed him.” Hook ‘Em kept her face in Lala’s.

Lala screamed. “Get away from me.”

Hook ‘Em continued to stare into Lala’s face.

Waltz put his hand on Hook Em’s shoulder. “You know, it’s strange. We got her. We got plenty of evidence, but she keeps fighting it. If I was her, I would admit everything. We’d let her go. She’s going to force us to give her to the cops and burn all her money.”

Hook ‘Em stared into Lala’s eyes. “Screw burning it. Let’s take it. She owes me forty-five hundred dollars, anyway.”

Lala sobbed. She turned her head away from Hook ‘Em and spoke toward the wall. “You give back my money? You let me go? If I tell you?”

Hook ‘Em turned her head to Waltz. “What do you think?”

Waltz hesitated, then turned to Lala. “You tell us. We give you your money. We let you go.”

Lala kept her head turned toward the wall and spoke in a monotone. “Doc always try to put the make on me. I tell him I am married. No want to make him mad. He buy lots of lessons and pay me thousands to go to dance contests with him. He is my best customer. Doc say, ‘So if you no married with Jazz, you go to bed with me?’ I say, ‘Sure Doc.’ I no think he take me serious. After Jazz get poisoned, Doc keep trying to get me in bed. I tell him is too soon. First, mourn Jazz. Then it happen.”

Waltz leaned forward. “What happened?”

“The night Doc die, he make me come to his place. He confess he kill Jazz because he want me. I know nothing about it until that night. I think you do it. Doc say he kill Jazz and frame you so Doc and me can be together. I say no way we be together. He threaten to kill me too. I know he will do it. He already kill Jazz.” She paused. “Water.”

Hook ‘Em filled a glass and held it to Lala’s lips.

Lala gulped down half the glass. “Doc say his fantasy is to dance naked with me. He think about it every time we dance. He put on a tango. He say if I dance naked with him one time, he let me go. I agree.”

Hook ‘Em pulled back. “You danced naked with a womanizer? A tomcat like Doc? That was a big mistake.”

“Yes, when we finish the dance, he no let me go. He pull a knife out of his desk and hold it to my throat. He rape me. Is disgusting. I know when he is exhausted, he will kill me, to keep me from going to the cops. What can I do?”

“With a womanizer like Doc? You had no choice.”

“That is right. I had no choice. I tell him he is the best lover I ever have. That I am glad he get rid of Jazz. Doc is drunk. I get him to show me what pills he use to poison Jazz. I slip some in his drink. I no want to do it. I do it to save my life. Is self-defense.”

Gordon didn’t kill Doc. Waltz’s blabbermouth didn’t inspire Gordon to do it. Waltz felt like dancing. What a relief.

No one spoke for a while. Waltz pulled the little tape recorder out of his pocket. It was out of tape.

They got her to confess and they didn’t get it on tape.

Hook ‘Em grabbed the recorder, rewound it a little, and played it.

She gave the Hook ‘Em sign, held the recorder over her head, and put it in her back pocket. She winked at Waltz.

Lala turned her head away from the wall and looked at Hook ‘Em. “You give me my money and let me go now.”

“No problem. You can head for Mexico as soon as you sign a statement detailing what you told us.”

“There is one condition.” Lala took a deep breath and sighed. “You get the insurance. Bring the money to Mexico. You give me half.”

Waltz shook his head. “Why should you get half?”

“I know Mexico. With the money, we mix with high society. I fix you both up with rich Mexicans. You marry them and live in luxury. And Waltz, Mexican men have all the mistresses they want. What do you say?”

Waltz untied Lala’s right hand. “It’s a deal.”

He turned to Hook ‘Em. “Get some paper out of the desk. And a pen.” He dragged Lala’s chair over to the desk.

Lala wrote out her statement while Waltz and Hook ‘Em watched over her shoulder, reading as she wrote.

Lala finished writing and put down the pen. “I sign when you let me go.”

Hook ‘Em jumped into the air and danced around, flashing the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em Horns!”

Waltz spun Lala’s chair to face the TV. “One thing before you go.” He hit play and Jazz appeared on the screen. Waltz hit reverse and ran it back to the beginning.

Hook ‘Em stared at the screen. “What are you doing?”

He hit play. “Watch.”

Jazz flickered and stood before the camera. “Great news! I got a part on Dance of Deceit.” He smirked. “Just kidding. Don’t worry. This is an old tape. At least, I hope so. It would be tragic if I taped over an episode you haven’t watched.”

He strolled to his desk, placed his feet on it, and leaned back in his chair. “I know you’re always behind watching your thrilling program, but today is the day of my death. You can spare me a few moments for a final farewell.”

Lala hopped forward, pounding the floor with her chair legs, lunging for the TV, screaming, and drowning out Jazz’s voice.

Waltz leaped, caught the back of her chair, and dragged her back. He clamped his hand over her mouth to muffle the screams. He stretched to reach the remote, and ran the video back.

Jazz picked up a paper. “Perhaps La didn’t show you my suicide note. I can’t imagine why. I left it taped to our bathroom mirror.”

He read it. “I’m dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The symptoms keep getting worse. I can’t control my body. I prop my legs on the desk and one falls off. I lose my balance when I spin. I’m losing feeling. I didn’t even feel the gash in my forehead the night we took Cha-Cha to the vet. I face certain death within a year, with lots of pain and misery. I’m not putting up with that. That’s why I’m going to kill myself at the party tomorrow.”

His leg slipped off the desk and dropped to the floor. “You see? I didn’t even feel that.”

He picked the leg up and replaced it on the desk.“I have to pick the damn thing up with my hand. What a fate for a dancer. But don’t feel too bad. I’m sure you won’t morn when you learn we have insurance – eight hundred thousand dollars worth, enough to sooth your sorrow. Even better, if the insurance company determines it’s murder, which qualifies as accidental death, you’ll get double the face value, a million six.

“The policy and the stock certificates for the studio are in my bureau drawer.

“To make my death more amusing, I framed Waltz for my murder. You see, I’ve known for a long time about your affair with Waltz. You can show the cops this note if you want to save him. Oh, wait. If I’m a suicide, the policy won’t pay.

“I suggest you tell the cops that Waltz killed me. They’ll suspect him anyway because of the way I’ve framed him. But if you help, you’re sure to get the money. Doc gave me the sleeping pills. He’s the only one that knows I was dying. I imagine you can think of some way to keep him quiet if you want the money.

“So do you love Waltz? Or the money?

He used his hands to lift his legs from the desk and stand. “What a delectable conundrum.”

Lala turned her head and beseeched Waltz with her eyes. He removed his hand from her mouth.

She screamed over Jazz’s voice and waved her hand. “He lies! He is dead, yet he lies. He is crazy. I got no such note.”

Hook ‘Em glanced toward the door nervously. She ran to Lala. “Quiet, you fool. Do you want to bring the cops?”

Lala ignored Hook ‘Em and screamed again. “I’m telling you. He lies. Waltz, you know he lies. We had no affair – not before he poisoned himself.”

Hook ‘Em muzzled Lala with her hand. Lala tried to prize it off. Waltz grabbed Lala’s hand and retied it. He picked up the duct tape, tore off a hunk, and slapped it over Lala’s mouth.

Hook ‘Em gave Waltz the finger, then pointed it at the VCR. “Play the rest of it, asshole.”

Lala shook her head furiously, trying to sling off the duct tape.

Waltz leaned on the back of Lala’s chair to keep her in place. He cued the tape and hit play.

Jazz continued. “Did she save you, Waltz? I hope she did. I can picture the two of you living together, lounging on the couch at home watching TV, holding hands, while she agonizes over all the money she gave up for you.

“By the way, don’t look for my money, no matter how badly you need it for lawyer’s fees. I had quite a bit, but not enough for both of you. So I tried to win more gambling. I wanted to leave you two with a legacy worth fighting for. Unfortunately, I lost it all. Dreadfully sorry.

“The next time you have an affair with someone’s wife, don’t have her drive directly to your apartment, you idiot. It was so easy to tail her, it was ridiculous.

“I hope you found this tape. I gave enough hints for even a dolt like you to figure it out. I hope you’re watching this tape together, each wondering what the other will do. You have a decision to make, don’t you?”

Jazz held an arm to his side, palm up. “Love?”

He held his other arm out. “Or Money?

“Which is better?” He glanced at his love hand. “I think love.” He shook his head. He turned to his money hand. “No, money.

“Wait. Let me think about it.” He paced for a moment. He turned to face the camera. “Yes, definitely money. La was right all along. I see it clearly now. You can always buy love, if you’re so silly as to want it.

“I guess I owe you both thanks for making my death so much more amusing. I may have wasted my life but I didn’t waste my death.”

He paused. He struggled not to cry. He collapsed into his chair.

He tried to speak and choked. He cleared his throat and swallowed. “I loved you both.” He paused and struggled again to gain control. His voice was husky. “I wish you loved me.”

He dropped his head to his desk and sobbed.

After a minute, he got up and walked out of the picture. Deceit came back on, playing the theme song.

Waltz hit the stop button. He felt his knees begin to collapse. He reached for the desk and steadied himself. He sank onto it. He ran his hand over the stubble on his watermelon head. Jazz framed him, thinking he had an affair with Lala.

He hadn’t – not then, but it was just a matter of time. He had lusted after Lala for a long while.

Still, how could Jazz, his brother, his father, frame him for murder? Waltz knew Jazz wasn’t a monster. His actions were understandable. He was dying. He wasn’t himself. He wasn’t thinking straight. That explained it. Waltz knew that Jazz loved him. He knew it. Jazz said so on the video.

Hook ‘Em collapsed onto the couch. “How long have you known about this?”

Waltz’s face burned. “I found it this morning.”

“What made you look for it?”

“When Murphy told us Jazz made the key, I thought about Willie Bob telling us that Jazz was Doc’s patient. Then I got the file from the nurse. It said Jazz was dying of Lou Gehrig’s. I realized Jazz might have framed me and killed himself.”

“You got the file? What about the Medicare scam?”

“I made that up. I needed your help. I knew you’d quit if we couldn’t collect the insurance.”

“You thought that…” She stared at him. “After all we…” She dropped her face into her hands. “To think that I was starting to…”

“I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you somehow, I promise.”

She got up and headed for the door.

Lala bumped her chair up and down, pounding the floor.

Waltz bent over her. “No yelling.”

She nodded.

Waltz pulled the tape off her mouth.

She spoke in a normal tone. “You no want the money? Are you crazy?”

Waltz shook his head. “Jazz killed himself. The insurance won’t pay.”

“They will pay… if they no see the video.”

Hook ‘Em stopped at the door and turned.

Lala nodded. “That’s right. We still have a deal. You have my confession. Doc kill Jazz and I kill Doc in self-defense. You let me go and I run to Mexico. My confession will clear Waltz. He will collect the insurance. We three will share.”

Hook ‘Em looked at Waltz. “It’d work.”

Waltz ignored Hook ‘Em. He glared at Lala. “Do you think I’m going to defraud the insurance company and share the money with you? You framed me. You were going to let them convict me of murder.”

“I no frame you. Jazz do it. I try to get you to go to Mexico. We live down there like kings. They never catch us. But you no do it.”

“You helped the cops.”

“I have to throw them off. If I clear you, they arrest Doc. He would tell them that Jazz kill himself. We lose the money. I have to stay here to collect the insurance. Is my money. Don’t you see? I get the money and go to Mexico. I share the money with you. I try to get you to go to Mexico. If you go, everything is okay. I love you. I put in Doc’s note that you are innocent, no?”

She did try to save him. If only he’d gone to Mexico like she wanted him to. Instead, he stayed to find Jazz’s killer – who was Jazz. Waltz was an idiot. No. He couldn’t think that way. It was crazy. “You never loved me. You went to bed with me to get control of the studio and the insurance money.”

“No. I love you.”

“Yeah, and Armando.”

“I no love Armando. He just a fling. No is possible the affair with you while Jazz live.”

“How could I trust you? You framed me and murdered Doc.”

“I tell you. Is self defense.”

“So killing Doc had nothing to do with the insurance money?”

“He rape me. He say he tell the cops Jazz kill himself unless I give him all he want. What can I do? I have to go to bed with him. When Jazz finally die, Doc say the deal is off. He say he tell the cops. He no let them execute you, an innocent man. I no let them take our money. Is our money. Don’t you see? I try to save it for us. Doc try to screw us out of it. I kill him in self-defense.”

“It had something to do with the insurance money, though, didn’t it?”

“The insurance money is mine. I earn it. I invest all my money in the studio. I make most of the money at the studio. Jazz gamble everything away and kill himself before the suicide clause expire – to screw me. No is fair. We show him. We get the money and still have each other.”

Hook ‘Em stepped toward Waltz. “She’s right. It’d work. Why should you let Jazz screw you again? From the grave? Haven’t you had enough?”

Lala leaned forward against the rope. “The insurance adjuster push the claim through.”

“I can imagine how you managed that.”

“You want the money don’t you?”

Waltz sat silent for a moment. “The nurse knows. The cops will find Jazz’s file. The insurance company won’t pay.”

Hook ‘Em flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “We’ll bribe the nurse.”

“She’ll blackmail us forever.”

Hook ‘Em pointed south. “Once we get the money, we head for Mexico. She’ll have a hard time blackmailing us there.”

Waltz shook his head. “If something goes wrong, we all end up on death row.”

Hook ‘Em grabbed his hand and squeezed. “If anything goes wrong, we’ve got the video and Lala’s confession. We can’t lose.”

Lala nodded. “Hook ‘Em, untie my hand.”

Hook ‘Em let go of Waltz’s hand and untied Lala’s.

Lala picked up the pen and signed her confession. She touched Waltz’s arm. “We can’t lose.”

***

 

They couldn’t lose. If something went wrong, they’d give the cops Jazz’s confession. It was beautiful, except that, if they produced the video, it would prove they were guilty of insurance fraud. They’d all go to prison.

What would they get for insurance fraud? Maybe seven years. They’d be out in three or four. Was it worth the risk?

Waltz got to his feet. “No. We’re not doing it. We’re not letting Jazz screw with us anymore.”

Lala waved her confession. “But Waltz, the money! We have the money. You need it as much as we do. What if the same thing happen to you? You get Lou Gehrig’s – like your brother, and you no have money. What you do then?”

“We’re going to the cops and turn in the evidence.”

“No! No show the video to the lieutenant.”

“Don’t worry. We won’t show it to him. I don’t trust him. We’re taking the video to the chief of police.”

Lala reached for him. “Do you no see? Jazz takes our money – our money – to the grave. You promise to let me go.”

“We will let you go, but I’m turning in the video. Can’t you forget the money? Jazz killed himself. It’s insurance fraud. We’d all go to jail.”

Lala waved her free hand frantically. “You fool! No is insurance fraud. Do you no see? Jazz no kill himself. Doc killed him.”

Waltz rolled his eyes. “That’s not what Jazz’s video says.”

“I speak the truth. Jazz chicken out.”

“Oh, come on. Who do you think you’re kidding? We just watched the video.”

“Is true! When Cha-Cha recover, Jazz see it as a sign no to kill himself. Remember, the morning of the party. He come home from the vet, with Cha-Cha in his arms, petting him. Jazz cry. He confess his plan. It all ready, the evidence in your apartment. He show me the suicide note. He tell me how much he love me. He beg me no to leave him. He realize his plan is foolish. He jealous out of his mind. He even poison Cha-Cha to test the poison. And to take Cha-Cha with him. But Cha-Cha no die. Jazz bring him home. Cha-Cha lick Jazz’s face, like always. Cha-Cha love him as much as before. Jazz beg me to stay with him until he die. Doc only give him one year, maybe a little more. Then I marry you with his blessing. I no say anything for a minute. Then he say if I leave him, he cut us out of the insurance and his will, and leave it all for research on Lou Gehrig’s. I say I stay. What else can I do?”

Waltz slumped into a chair. It could be. It fit the facts. Maybe she was telling the truth – at last. But wait. “So then Doc just up and killed Jazz?”

“Well, no.”

“What happened?”

“I feel sorry for Jazz. He is dying of a horrible disease, but he bribes me to stay with him and threatens to disinherit us – both of us. He could disinherit us anytime he feel like it. He might do it after I stay with him almost the whole year. The studio, Jazz’s money, and the insurance could all go to research. No is fair. I get mad. I have to talk to somebody. I call Doc. I tell him how Jazz plan to kill himself but chicken out, how Jazz would be better off dead, how it no so bad if somebody kill him. Jazz want to die. He no have the guts to kill himself. If somebody kill him, is a favor. And I have the suicide note, so killing Jazz is safe. I tell Doc that I am a Catholic and could never divorce Jazz. Why Jazz no die? Then I am free to sleep with Doc.”

“So you told Doc to poison Jazz?”

“No, I no tell him that.”

“You suggested it.”

“Sort of… but he decide to do it. He decide on his own. It bother him, poisoning his friend. That’s why he is so drunk that night.”

“Wait a minute. Doc knew that Jazz would be dead in a year. Why wouldn’t he just wait?”

“He want me so bad, he no wait.” She grabbed Waltz’s arm and shook it. “So, Waltz… Waltz!”

“Yeah.”

“Doc kill him. Jazz no kill himself.”

“That story is mighty convenient now, just to justify collecting the insurance.”

“Is true. If Jazz kill himself, you no think he leave Cha-Cha behind? He already poison Cha-Cha once, to take him along.”

Lala pulled Waltz toward her. “So no is insurance fraud. Untie me. We split the money.”

“No, I’m calling the chief of police. We’re going to tell him the truth.”

Hook ‘Em picked up Lala’s confession and shook it at Waltz. “No way! A chance like this only comes once in a lifetime.” She folded it and put it in her pocket. She started to untie Lala.

Waltz picked up the phone and began to dial.

Hook ‘Em ran across the room and jerked the cord out of the wall.

Waltz ejected the video and tucked it inside his shirt. “I’m taking this to the cops.”

Hook ‘Em picked up an umbrella and advanced toward Waltz. “No way.”

He didn’t want to hurt her. He had to think of something else. “Okay. We go for the insurance money. I won’t turn in the video.”

Hook ‘Em put out her hand. “Give it to me.”

“You think I’m going to trust you with it?”

“I can’t trust you with it.”

Waltz shrugged. “Okay. We’ll do this like guys do a football bet. We’ll let the bartender hold the stakes.”

“I don’t trust bartenders.”

Waltz put his hand on Hook ‘Em shoulder. “We’ll go to that bank around the corner. We’ll rent a safety deposit box. We’ll put the tape in there. You’ll give me the written and the audio confession and I’ll take them to the cops.”

She threw his hand off her shoulder. “And have you take the video out five minutes later?”

“We’ll set it up with the bank so both of us have to open it. How about that?”

“I don’t know.”

Waltz stepped back. “It’s better than fighting me for it. I might kick your ass.”

“That’ll never happen.”

“You know you can trust a bank more than me or a bartender. How about it?”

“Well… okay. Is it okay with you, Lala?”

“Yes. I trust you. No let Waltz pull anything.”

Waltz patted the video under his shirt. “Let’s go.” No sweat. He’d tell the police chief. The chief would get a court order. He’d have the box open before Hook ‘Em realized what happened.

The door to the lounge shook with a loud battering. The door handle rattled. A calm voice penetrated the door. “I’m here. I told you I would come for you. Please open the door. It is destined that I take you to the authorities. Accept the inevitable.”

Hook ‘Em and Lala turned toward the noise.

Bully Boy would cuff Waltz. Waltz would be helpless. Hook ‘Em would take the video. She might recruit Bully Boy to join the scheme.

Waltz jerked the video out of his shirt and, in a motion made smooth by years of practice, pulled back the molding over his hiding place, pushed in the video, and replaced the molding.

He picked up another video and stuffed it in his shirt. He turned. Hook ‘Em and Lala were staring at him. They’d seen him switch the videos.

Bully Boy pounded the door. “Alas Pooryoricka, you know what comes next. You don’t want the teargas.”

Hook ‘Em smiled at Waltz, a triumphant smile. “Why, Bully Boy, teargas is not necessary. You’re most welcome to come in and take Waltz to jail.”

She turned and opened the door.

Bully Boy glided in on sandaled feet, dingy white robe reeking of tobacco smoke. The fingers of his left hand, yellowed by nicotine, clutched a cigarette. His right hand held a pistol pointed at the floor.

Bully Boy stuck the cigarette in his mouth and puffed. He gave Hook ‘Em handcuffs. “Alas Pooryoricka, please prepare your client for transport to the authorities.”

She took the cuffs. “How’d you get in? I locked the door.”

“Doors do not confine one who is at one.”

Hook ‘Em grabbed Waltz’s hands and cuffed them behind his back.

The cuffs bit into Waltz’s wrists. He turned to Bully Boy. “Both these women have huge rewards on them. You better take them in too.”

Hook ‘Em and Lala protested.

Bully Boy stuck his cigarette in his mouth, whipped a cell out of his robe, and thumbed the keys.

He read for what seemed an eternity. He turned to Waltz. “Neither carries a reward. You cannot lie to Bully Boy. Bully Boy knows all.” He waved the pistol at Waltz. “What’s that bulge under his shirt, a gun?”

Hook ‘Em felt it. She unbuttoned Waltz’s shirt and pulled out the video. “Nah, it’s just a video.”

She tossed it casually on the table. The video skittered across the top and clattered to the floor.

Bully Boy licked his lips. “It must be very valuable, for one to carry it about secreted under one’s shirt.”

Hook ‘Em shrugged. “Nah, it’s a soap opera video. He’s a soap opera fan. He’s obsessed with Dance of Deceit. He’s sick.”

Bully Boy waved his pistol. “Place it in the player. I must see this opera.”

Hook ‘Em retrieved the tape, jammed it in the VCR, and hit the play button. The “Dance of Deceit Theme” played. Characters flickered into action. A voice-over urged viewers to stay tuned. “Coming up, Jennifer appeals her thirty-year sentence. Jill catches Aidan in bed with Teresa. Erica suspects that Landon is the father of her child.”

Bully Boy brought his cigarette to his lips with a shaking hand. “Turn it off.”

 

Chapter 18

A Damsel in Distress

The cops handcuffed Waltz to the same table as before.

He put his head down and closed his eyes. He thought he had the whole problem solved. Lala confessed she killed Doc. The video proved Waltz didn’t kill Jazz. If only Bully Boy hadn’t come in when he did.

Waltz felt a sensation of doom. Hook ‘Em and Lala would make a deal. They saw him hide the video. They’d destroy it.

The cops had plenty of evidence to convict Waltz. Waltz’s conviction would free the insurance company to pay off. Hook ‘Em and Lala would get the money. Waltz would get the gurney.

The door banged. Waltz sat up, startled.

The lieutenant strode in, grabbed the chair opposite Waltz, spun it, and straddled it. He glared at Waltz over the chair back. “You don’t look like a serial killer.”

Waltz glared back. “You do.”

“The boys on death row will love you.”

“I didn’t kill anybody. Hook ‘Em Harns has Lala’s written confession and an audio tape proving that Doc killed Jazz and that Lala killed Doc.”

The lieutenant leaped up and leaned over him, his face within inches, the veins in his forehead bulging, his face red. “You can lie, but you’re still getting the needle.”

Waltz pulled back. “That’s what happened.”

“Bullshit.”

Waltz leaped to his feet. “What’s bullshit is the way you assumed that I was guilty, letting Lala get away with framing me until I solved the case for you. Lala is leaving town, heading for Mexico. She’s probably at the bus station now. Arrest her. Once she gets to Mexico, you’ll never find her. Arrest Harns. Force her to give you the evidence. You’ll see.”

Waltz dropped on his chair, placed his feet, crossed, on the table and leaned back. “Now, unwrap a digital truncheon, the big model for repeat offenders. Make sure it’s new. I refuse to be trunched with a used truncheon.”

The lieutenant stepped back and scowled. The scowl became a rapid blinking. He turned and marched out.

Had Waltz gone too far? No, he had to show confidence in his story. He had to convince the lieutenant to arrest Lala and Hook ‘Em. It was Waltz’s only chance.

***

 

Monday at noon, after a weekend in jail, the guard let Waltz out of his cell. He was free to go. The cops must’ve arrested Lala and Hook ‘Em. Faced with death, Lala gave up Jazz’s suicide note. He knew she would. Hook ‘Em gave them Lala’s confessions and Jazz’s video. Waltz’s strategy worked. He was free. He did pivots all the way down the hall.

Hook ‘Em was in the waiting room, smiling. She flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “Hook ‘Em Horns!” She played a fanfare on her harp. She put her arm through his. “I’m giving you a ride home.”

Home. He could go home. Could it be true? He could go home and not have to worry about the cops – or the punks – bursting through the door. Or even Bully Boy knocking gently, requesting admittance. He could watch TV, read a book, or go out dancing.

Hook ‘Em escorted him to her bike, freshly washed and polished, resplendent in orange with white trim, its Longhorn handlebars poised to hook unwary pedestrians. She bowed him toward it with a sweeping gesture of her arm. “Your carriage awaits.”

“You’re not mad?”

She smiled and flashed the Hook ‘Em sign. “Mad? Why should I be mad?”

“Because I screwed you out of your money.”

“Forget the standard private-eye contract and the measly fee.”

“But I got you arrested.”

“The cops didn’t arrest me.”

“Well… then you should be mad because I forced Lala to give the cops Jazz’s suicide note. That’s why they released me.”

She smiled “That’s not what happened.” She paused.

She was really milking this. It had to be good. “What happened?”

“You won’t believe it.”

“Tell me.”

“I turned in the audio tape and the written confession.”

“You turned them in? Why’d you turn them in?”

“Please don’t gloat.”

“I’m not gloating. Why’d you turn them in?”

“Stop it. You know why.”

Why? Was she in love with him? Visions of her nude dance flashed in his mind. No, she couldn’t be in love with him. She was a lesbian.

She cocked an eyebrow. “You’re starting to piss me off.”

What the hell was she talking about? “Okay, I’m sorry. I had to gloat a little. What happened?”

“The cops threatened to charge her with both murders. She changed her tune then, claiming that Jazz killed himself.”

“So she gave them the note?”

“Yeah. She told them it was in her cash box behind the couch in her living room. When you and I grabbed her, I saw her kick it back there. The cops found it and opened it.” She smirked.

“Come on. Come on.”

“It was full of water from the fire hoses. The note was floating in it like a piece of toilet paper in a commode. Not even the best forensic scientist could ever put that note together again.”

“Then she must’ve told them about the video.”

“Oh, she did. The cops watched a lot of Dance of Deceit, every one you had. They were pissed. Then she said I had it. I said I didn’t. The cops searched my trailer, my van, everything. The didn’t find it. They ended up believing me. Why not? Lala is a pathological liar.”

She laughed. The laugh grew. Tears came to her eyes. She staggered around her bike guffawing. Weakened by the great outpouring, she stopped and leaned on the horns. Finally, she got herself under control. “By this time, the cops were plenty irritated, the way she kept changing her story and sending them off on hidden-ball plays. They were convinced she murdered them both. They’re going for the death penalty. Without the video, she can do nothing. She’s screwed. She’ll get what she deserves. You’re cleared. We’re rich.”

She leaped on her bike, pounded the horns, and bounced in her seat.

She romped on the lever and started the engine. “Get on.”

“They’re going for the death penalty?”

She killed the engine, got off, and studied him. “What’s wrong? You’re not worried about your girlfriend?”

“She didn’t murder Jazz. She killed Doc in self-defense. She shouldn’t get death.”

“Certainly she murdered Jazz. How can you doubt it? After all her many lies, she finally almost told us the truth. Jazz chickened out and Doc killed him. That’s almost the truth. Jazz chickened out, but Doc didn’t kill him. She did, like I told you all along.”

“No way. She wanted the money. She knew I wouldn’t go for it if I thought Jazz killed himself, because that meant we’d commit insurance fraud. That’s the only reason she said he chickened out.”

Hook ‘Em poked his chest with her Hook ‘Em fingers. “You haven’t thought about it. It’s easy to make a video claiming you’re going to kill yourself. Do you think it’s easy to go through with it? Jazz was a coward. He chickened out.”

“If he chickened out, why did he leave the video in my stack of Deceit tapes? Why did he leave the book and the poison in my apartment?”

“He only decided not to kill himself that morning. He didn’t have time to remove them. Why should he hurry? They meant nothing unless he killed himself. But they meant something to Lala. The frame up was set. To take advantage of it, she simply poisoned Jazz.”

“The same was true for Doc. He could have done it.”

Hook ‘Em took off her hat and hung it on the tip of a handlebar. Her hair fell to her shoulders. “Doc was an alcoholic and a womanizer, but he wasn’t a killer. He was going to the cops. That’s why she killed him. Do you think he would go to the cops if he murdered Jazz?”

“Jazz was obsessed with revenge. He wouldn’t chicken out. Lala only killed Doc in self-defense when he raped her.”

“Rape had nothing to do with it. It’s impossible to rape Lala. She killed him because he was going to the cops.”

“We don’t know that Doc was going to the cops.”

Hook ‘Em stomped her foot. “She said he was. Why would she lie about that?”

“You said it. She’s a pathological liar. But she didn’t murder Jazz.”

Hook ‘Em’s hair shimmered in the sunlight. “The cops got it right. She’s a double murderer – a serial killer. She deserves the death penalty.”

“She’s not a murderer. I know her.”

“You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?”

He hesitated. “No.”

“I think you are. Tell me the truth. I need to know.”

“No. No, I’m not in love with her. But I think the death penalty is too much. I’m tired. Take me home. I’m going to bed and sleep for a week.”

“You’re thinking of trying to save her, aren’t you?”

Waltz held his hands out, palms up. “You know I have no way to do that.”

“You’re gloating again.” She tilted her head and gave him a searching look. “Cut it out.”

***

 

They tromped up the stairs to Waltz’s apartment.

“Get ready for your surprise.” Hook ‘Em ran up the stairs ahead of him. She flashed the Hook ‘Em sign and played a fanfare on her harp.

At the door stood a bowl of water, a dish of dog food, and, tethered to the doorknob, Cha-Cha. He growled and charged at Waltz’s ankles. The leash brought him up short.

Waltz stopped, aghast. “What’s he doing here?”

“Isn’t that your brother’s dog?”

“Yes.”

“I thought you’d want him. He was at Lala’s house. The poor thing was starving.”

Waltz drew back, an expression of disgust on his face. “I don’t want him. I can’t stand him.”

“You can’t abandon him.”

“I’m not abandoning him. He’s not my dog.”

“Yes he is.”

“I have nothing to do with him.”

“He was Jazz’s dog. Then Lala’s. Now you’ve inherited him. He’s your responsibility.”

“I don’t want him. He bites me. You think he’s cute. You take him.”

“My trailer park has a rule against dogs.”

“What about the lady that lives in your park? She has the fast little dog. What’s his name… Dasher.”

“Dasher is under an eviction notice. The trouble is, nobody can catch him.”

“Take Cha-Cha to the shelter. You brought him here. It’s the least you can do.”

“They’ll put him to sleep.”

“Some woman will adopt him. All women think he’s cute. Even you. You think he’s cute.”

“You take him. He’s your dog.”

“I can’t pick him up. He’ll bite me.”

She picked Cha-Cha up and cuddled him. “Oh, all right. We’ll take him together.”

Hook ‘Em drove holding Cha-Cha between her legs with one hand and steering with the other. She carried him in and set him on the counter.

The attendant picked Cha-Cha up. “Is he housebroken?”

Cha-Cha growled and bit him. The attendant let go. Cha-Cha dropped to the floor and ran at Waltz, growling, nipped Waltz’s ankle, and chomped his pants cuff.

Hook ‘Em grabbed the leash and pulled him back.

The attendant examined his hand. “Get him out of here.”

Hook ‘Em picked Cha-Cha up and petted him. “He’s a good dog. He was in a fire. He’s upset.”

“I’m upset. Get him out of here.”

***

 

Hook ‘Em carried Cha-Cha into the kitchen and tied him to a cabinet. “Try being nice to him. He’ll stop biting you.”

“I tried that. He still bites me.”

“Well… I’ll let you get some rest. Don’t get any ideas.”

“What do you mean?”

She stomped her foot. “I told you to stop that. I’ve had enough.” She turned and headed for the door. “I’m out of here.”

She paused in the doorway. “Let me know when you get the check.” She smiled. “I can hardly wait to start being rich.” She closed the door quietly.

Waltz sagged into his recliner, tilting it back as far as it would go.

What would he do with Cha-Cha? He couldn’t put up with the constant biting. Maybe he could get Rachel to take him to the shelter. No, the shelter guy would recognize Cha-Cha. You couldn’t shave a Chihuahua bald or give him a fake mustache.

He had to get rid of Cha-Cha somehow. He couldn’t wear short pants and knee-high boots the rest of his life.

He knew. He’d take him to another shelter. He’d give him a tranquilizer. It would calm him down long enough to get in. Then it’d be okay. A kind woman would adopt him and everything would be fine. Cha-Cha got along with women.

He didn’t have time to worry about that. They were going to kill Lala.

Lala was not a murderer. Jazz killed himself. He admitted it on the video. Lala only denied it to convince Waltz to collect the insurance money. Greed controlled her. Jazz knew her weakness. He used it to frame both her and Waltz.

She was the victim here. She killed Doc, but Doc was extorting sex from her. It was the same as rape. She would never have killed anyone if Jazz hadn’t set her up.

Waltz wouldn’t let him get away with it. Waltz wouldn’t let them execute her.

How was he going to stop them? Hook ‘Em had the video. He couldn’t make her give it up.

On the other hand, Lala didn’t tell the cops where he hid the video. She must not have seen him hide it. The way Hook ‘Em told him not to gloat, maybe she didn’t see him hide it either.

When Bully Boy asked about it, she pretended it didn’t matter, tossing it onto the table casually, so that it fell to the floor. She didn’t want Bully Boy to think it was valuable. When he made her play it, she played it from the spot Waltz had stopped it, the end of Jazz’s confession, so Bully Boy wouldn’t see it.

She thought it was the real tape. Later, she realized Waltz hid the real tape, but she couldn’t find it. She knew she couldn’t side with Lala. Waltz would turn in the video. So she took Waltz’s side and turned in Lala’s confessions.

The video might still be in his hiding place.

***

 

Waltz locked the studio door after him. He didn’t want any surprise visitors. He pivoted across the floor, home at last, except it didn’t feel like home. He danced alone, without music, without Rachel, without Jazz, without Lala. He was free and safe, but everything was gone, Jazz forever. If he didn’t find the tape, Lala would be gone forever too.

He went to the lounge. He pulled back the molding and reached in, feeling for the video. His hand touched nothing.

He collapsed on the couch and put his head in his hands. Lala was doomed.

He didn’t understand. The way Hook ‘Em kept telling him to stop gloating. That expression on her face. She couldn’t have the video.

Who else could have it? The cops? The lieutenant might have destroyed it, hoping to hang Waltz. No, the lieutenant hated him, but he couldn’t destroy evidence in front of a bunch of other cops. The video had to be in his hiding place.

Waltz forced himself off the couch, thrust his hand into the opening, and reached as far to the left as he could. Nothing. He reached to the right. His hand touched it. In his hurry, he’d shoved it further than he realized. Sometimes that happened to his cigarettes.

He popped it in the VCR and hit play. He reversed it and saw Jazz. He rewound to the beginning of the confession. He might as well cue it for the Chief of Police.

Waltz promised Jazz to get the guy. The guy was Jazz. He was dead, and Waltz would not let Jazz kill Lala from the grave.

He took the tape and left the studio. He locked the door. He turned.

Hook ‘Em blocked his way. “Let’s talk about this.”

“How’d you follow me?”

“Why tail you? I knew you hid the video somewhere in the studio, so I staked it out. You’re not turning it in.”

“Get out of my way.”

“I’m in for half the insurance. I’m not giving it up.”

Why wouldn’t she listen to reason? “I can’t let them execute Lala. She didn’t kill Jazz.”

“You turn in the video, they’ll drop the murder charge for killing Jazz. She’s claiming self-defense on Doc. She may walk.”

“It’s not right to let them kill her.”

Hook ‘Em poked his chest with her finger. “You know it’s right. She’s a murderer – a serial murderer.”

Waltz poked her chest. “She’s not a murderer, but even if she is, Jazz manipulated her through her greed – tortured her. He’s not getting away with it.”

“Wait and see. Maybe they won’t give her death. You can always turn it in.”

“I can’t take the chance. Once they convict her, it’ll be hard to get it overturned, even with compelling evidence. We’re talking about her life.”

“You owe me.”

“I’ll pay you – somehow.” He tried to brush by her.

She grabbed his arm and spun him. She was strong. He anticipated her kick and moved to the left. Her foot glanced off his hip. He shoved her. She stumbled backwards and fell. He hated that. She saved his life. He didn’t want to hurt her, but Lala’s life was at stake.

He turned and ran. He could beat her to the police station. It wasn’t far. He knew he could outrun her. He had on his dance shoes, not the lousy cowboy boots. It’d all be over.

He dashed up the street. He looked over his shoulder. He didn’t see her. Where was she? Maybe she gave up. She too realized he could outrun her.

No, she wouldn’t give up.

She roared out of the alley on her Harley. He turned and ran toward the row of cars parked parallel to the road. If he could run between two of them, she couldn’t follow him.

She cut him off, barely missed goring him with the horns, and herded him back toward the studio.

He darted into the alley, the alley they crossed on the plank. He was afraid at the time that he would end up on the bottom of it, oozing body fluids. Luckily, he didn’t, but if she gored him with one of those horns, he would this time.

The Harley roared behind him. She was too close. She was going to run him down. He turned. She was coming straight for him. He leaped to the side and she roared past. He ran the opposite direction. Her tires screeched as she turned and growled back in his direction. He’d never make it to the end of the alley.

He turned and faced her again. He twirled out of the way as she narrowly missed him. He pulled off his shirt. He waved it at her. She charged. He faked left and went right. She veered to the right and hooked at him. He felt the horn gore him.

He felt no pain, just the pressure of the horn as it hit him. She went past. His crotch ran red with blood. No, not him. Not Waltz Charleston. The pain hit him. He doubled over.

She charged again. He faked left and went left. She missed. He draped his shirt over her head. She reached to pull it off and veered into the wall. The bike went over, the motor shrieking and the wheels churning. She rolled over against the wall.

The motorcycle lay on its side, silent, the tip of one horn broken, dangling by a single fiber, gas tank dented, engine smoking, smelling of burned grease, Hook ‘Em against the wall, a pile of dirty clothes.

Oh no. Don’t let it be. He ran to her, knelt, and grabbed her wrist, hoping for a pulse. His eyes teared.

She kicked out at him. “Get away from me!” She winced and grabbed her knee.

He ran. He stopped and put the video down. He dried his eyes on his shirt sleeves. He stuck his hand down his pants, afraid to feel for it, afraid it wouldn’t be there. He stopped short. What if it wasn’t?

He had to know. He jammed his hand down and reached for it. It was still attached. It was intact. He took a deep breath. He felt lower. He counted. He counted again, two and only two. Yes.

He felt for the wound. There. There was the pain. She hooked him in the lower belly. He put pressure on it with his hand to stop the bleeding. He’d go to the emergency room as soon as he turned in the tape. He hoped it wouldn’t be a permanent rupture.

It would be okay. Surgeons could fix anything.

With his other hand, he felt again. Yes. It was there. Yes! He laughed, both hands down his pants. His laugh ebbed away. Why was he laughing?

He picked up the video and limped toward the police station, his hand tight against his belly.

He promised Jazz he would get the guy, and he did. He held up the video. “You see this, Jazz? You can stick it.”

***

 

Saturday afternoon, eight months later, Waltz’s ancient convertible rattled to a stop behind Hook ‘Em’s van. He leaped out and pushed the bell. The Longhorn lowed. He stepped back. Would she shoot him? Maybe he ought to run for it.

The door opened. She sneered with disgust. “Go away.”

He doffed his Aggie cap, revealing his shaved head. “I’m not leaving until I get more curl. It needs more curl.”

“Still in disguise? Unfortunately, I recognize you.” She tried to slam the door.

He stopped the door with his hand. “I brought you some money.”

She stuck out her hand, palm up.

He waved it away. “Wait a minute. First, tell me how you are.”

She kept her hand out. “Thanks to your picketing, the landlord found out I was running a business out of my trailer. He’s kicking me out.”

“But there’s no zoning out here.”

“It’s against his rules, like this park is some ritzy subdivision. He watches me like a hawk, drives away my customers. I’ve staved him off this long, but now he’s evicting me. The sadists have blocked my new website. Thanks to you, I’m broke and homeless. Next week I’ll be out on the street. That’s how I am.”

She beckoned with her fingers. “Give – and get.”

He ignored her fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, well, that makes me feel a lot better.” She paused. “At least I’m better off than your sweet little piece. I heard she got ten. And she claimed that she could make the lieutenant do anything she wanted.” She laughed.

“She should be out in five. I guess that’s fair.”

“You damn right it’s fair. Less than three years per corpse. I guess you go see her every weekend, hold her hand, and make plans for when she gets out.”

“I went once. She refused to see me.”

“That’s heartbreaking. Well, enough reminiscing about the good old times.” She held out her hand. “Let’s see the money.”

“Okay.” He patted his back pocket. “What the hell? I’m an idiot. I left it in my other pants.” He shrugged and smiled. “No problem. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

He turned to go.

She stepped through the door and grabbed his arm. “Oh no. Let’s go get it. Right now.”

“You don’t have to go to the trouble. I’ll bring it tomorrow. I promise.”

“Yeah, right. Like I trust you, the screw-your-friends kid. Let’s go.”

He held up his hands. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They got in his car.

He grinned at her.

“Get that silly grin off your face.”

“Oh, was I grinning?”

“Yes, and it was silly. Stop it. And turn that Aggie cap around. I can’t bear to look at it.”

“I got this Aggie cap specially for you.”

“How thoughtful of you.”

He handed her the Aggie cap and a pair of scissors.

***

 

He drove through the parking lot to the back door. He grinned.

Her face showed surprise. “You’re living here?”

“It has a great dance floor. It’s my new dance studio.”

“What happened to the old one?”

“The landlord claimed I broke the lease by possessing illegal drugs on the premises.”

“I thought the cops dropped that charge.”

“They did. The landlord used it as an excuse. He found a tenant that was willing to pay more.”

“But why here?”

“I can’t sleep anywhere but behind the bar. I have a special mattress stuffed with tablecloths.” He pulled a key out of his pocket with a flourish. He held it up. “Now that I own the place, I don’t have to use a crowbar on the window.” He unlocked the door and bowed her in with a sweeping gesture.

As they entered, he pointed at the old storeroom. “Look at this combination office and apartment I’ve built.”

She glanced at it. She held out her hand, palm up. “Let’s have the money.”

He reached into his front pocket and pulled out his billfold. He extracted a wad of bills and placed them in her hand. “It’s only three hundred. I’m sorry. It’s all I have. But I’ll get more.”

She stared at it. Her face showed disappointment. “Thanks so much.” She folded it slowly and tucked it into her jeans pocket. “You had it all along.”

“You didn’t notice, did you? A small flat wallet creates a much better profile in the front pocket. I must have the drape.”

“Why didn’t you pay me back at the trailer?”

“I wanted you to see my new digs.”

“You double crossed me again.”

“It was just a little trick. I had to get you here.” He grabbed her arm and escorted her into the office. “I’m proud of this. I built it myself.”

“You, a carpenter?”

“I don’t deface library property. They still allow me in. I checked out a book on carpentry. You can learn how to poison somebody from a book. You can learn anything.”

She walked through the office and into the apartment. “Nice. Fit for a king. How can you afford this?”

“Lease with an option to buy. A lot of people went broke operating it as a bar. I got the place cheap.”

She stopped and studied his face. “You got the insurance money, didn’t you?”

“No, that went down the drain when I turned in the video. I have my own business. I fix computers. I go to people’s houses. I have no overhead. I teach dancing in the evenings, Rachel and me. This place has a bigger and better dance floor, and it’s one-story. We won’t have to carry Lala across the plank next time.”

“There won’t be any next time.”

“Things are going well. I have most of my old students back, now that they know I’m not a murderer. As owner of the studio, I pocket the whole fee, not just a chunk.”

“Congratulations. I’m glad you’re doing well. I could’ve been rich. Instead, I’m homeless. But don’t worry about me. I’m very resourceful. I know a good bridge.”

Waltz took her wrist, pulled her to the bar, and turned on the “Fred and Ginger Cha-Cha.”

Cha-Cha trotted out from behind the bar onto the dance floor, coat glistening, muscles rippling.

“How darling.” Hook ‘Em perched on a barstool to watch. “He’s dancing.”

“It’s more an illusion of a dance. Of course, all dancing depends on illusion.”

“What dance is he doing?”

“Some call it cha-cha.”

“How cute!” She picked Cha-Cha up and placed him on the bar. She whipped her bandanna out of her back pocket and tied it on him. “He looks great. He’s lean.”

“I’ve got him on raw grass-fed meat. He likes buffalo best, and sometimes a little goat. No beer. He hasn’t slipped once. He’s the best recovering alcoholic ever.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“He hasn’t attended one AA meeting. He doesn’t need to. He does well on his own. Of course, it’s easier for him. He has no money – and I hid his opener.”

She picked Cha-Cha up and put him on the floor. He ran to his bowl, clamped it in his jaw, carried it to Hook ‘Em, and set it at her feet.

Waltz slapped the bar in disgust. “I can’t believe it. He’s been dry eight months, and now he wants beer.” Waltz grabbed the bowl and put it on the bar. “Don’t enable him. He can’t handle it.”

Cha-Cha growled at Waltz.

“That’s funny. He never growls at me or bites me any more.”

“He’s a good boy.” Hook ‘Em kneeled and patted him. “Aren’t you a good boy?” Cha-Cha charged at Waltz and bit him on the ankle.

“Ouch.” Waltz fended Cha-Cha off with the left toe of his shoe, the one with the white R. “Get his leash, over there behind the bar.”

Hook ‘Em put the leash on Cha-Cha, laughed, and pulled him back. She picked him up and petted him. “Don’t you hurt that wimp, you mean thing you.”

Waltz couldn’t believe it. Give Cha-Cha a fancy bandanna and an adoring new girlfriend and he was ready to start guzzling beer again and chewing on Waltz’s ankles. Waltz pointed at the storeroom behind the bar. “Put him in there.”

Hook ‘Em deposited Cha-Cha in the room and closed the door. “You’re safe now, Wimp.”

What was the average lifespan of a Chihuahua, twelve years? Cha-Cha was five. Maybe Waltz could survive seven years. But – what was the average lifespan of a Hook ‘Em? Maybe he’d better not do this.

He had to. Annoying as she was, she was his best friend. She saved his life. And he screwed her out of her fee. “Hand me that drill, there on the bar. Follow me.” He led her back to the door of the apartment. He picked up the sign and screwed it to the door, Harns Domestic Investigations.

“You’re not homeless anymore. The apartment is yours, rent-free, until I pay you off at twelve hundred a month.”

“What?”

“Office, too. There’s no zoning. They can’t kick you out no matter what you do.”

“I don’t think I want a roommate – not you, anyway.”

He patted the sign. “I can’t take it down. Those are permanent screws.”

“It’s permanently screwed?”

“No, I’m permanently screwed.”

“There’s no such thing as – “

He pointed across the hall. “You won’t be my roommate. I’m going to build a separate apartment for myself. It’ll be across the hall from this one, but don’t worry. You can bring in a locksmith to install the finest locks, on me. You’ll be the only one to have the key.”

She reset her hat. “I don’t know…”

He nodded toward the dance floor. “Look at that floor. It draws students like flies. I’ll feed you plenty of dancers who want divorces. You’ll feed me your new singles who want to meet someone through dancing. We’ll get rich. I’ll set up your website and email to run through my special spam-removing program, guaranteed to screen out sadists and penis-enlargement ads.”

She smiled. “Excellent, I was beginning to take those penis-enlargement things personally.”

“The bad thing is you’re going to have to paint the outside of the building. That’s part of the deal. I’m thinking about burnt orange, with maybe a slogan of some sort in white, something snappy, like Hook ‘Em Aggies.”

She stomped the floor. “You got me kicked out of the library. You must supply cable TV.”

“Agreed.”

“You take my stake outs.”

Waltz hesitated. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with my teaching.”

“I got one tomorrow night. You relieve me at nine.”

“I got a student at nine.”

“It’s important. I got a gig with a band. Change her to another time.”

He knew he shouldn’t do it, but he owed her. “Well… okay, but forty dollars an hour against my balance.”

“Forty! I can’t make any money like that. Thirty.”

“Well, OK.”

“Interest at twenty-two percent.”

“That’s as much as a credit card.”

“I know.”

Waltz stomped the floor. “No way. I’ll go one percent, no more.”

“I got to have twenty-two.”

“Then the deal is off.” He grabbed her arm and urged her toward the exit. “Come on. I’ll take you back to your trailer.”

“Okay, one percent.”

“I owe you a hundred-and-one thousand. That includes your expenses. One percent on that, not one percent of half the insurance money, eight hundred thousand. I never agreed to screw the insurance company. That was you and Lala.”

“Hmm.”

“No, not hmm. One percent on hundred-and-one.”

“What else?” She paused. “Let me think.”

“No thinking. That’s enough.”

“Dance lessons.”

“You want dance lessons?”

She nodded.

She’d expect him to dance with her. He’d have a lesbian partner. He hesitated. He owed her. “Okay.”

She propped her elbow on one hand and her chin in the other. “Let me think.”

“No more thinking. It makes me nervous. That’s the deal. He went behind the bar and flicked a switch. “Come outside.”

They went out front. He took her near the big neon sign. “Watch. It’s not so clear in the sun, but you can see it.”

The sign blazed a big red Honkytonk and underneath blinked blue, blue, blue: Drink, Dance, Divorce, Drink, Dance, Divorce.

Waltz mimicked a harmonica: ta-DA! “The Divorce is for you and your business.”

“Hook ‘Em!” She threw up a two-handed Hook ‘Em sign.

He grabbed her arm and ushered her back into the ballroom. He went behind the bar, reached down, and clicked his mouse. Music filled the Honkytonk.

She tilted her head. “Tex Hank has a CD?”

“Didn’t you know? It’s big. Been on top of the charts for months. It’s called Tex Hank, the Yodeling Masochist. It’s got his new hit single: ‘Lashed by the Bullwhip of Life.’”

“Tex Hank, on top of the charts. I can’t believe it.”

“He’s got you to thank.”

“Me?”

Waltz read from the CD case. “Videos taken by a private eye in a Texas divorce, gone viral on YouTube, rocketed Tex Hank to country stardom. Music historians proclaim him the greatest masochist ever in country music.”

“Wow, the greatest masochist ever in country music. That’s saying a lot! Let me see that.” She grabbed the case and studied it. “Other cuts include ‘You Ran Me Down With Your Double-Wide and Repossessed My Heart,’ and ‘Just When I Thought You Loved Me You Showed Up Without Your Whip.’ She put her hand over her heart. “Raw emotion – that’s what makes a good country song. I can hardly wait to hear those.”

“This one’s still my favorite. Shall we dance?” He held out his arms.

She stepped into them. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick. They two-stepped around the floor to “I Cheated on My Baby.”

 

About the Author

I’m a former ballroom dance instructor and accounting professor who’s finally seen the light. I’ve given up such frivolities and taken up writing about my favorite subjects: murder, revenge, divorce, and dance. I live in Austin with my imaginary friend, Cuddles.

Thank you for reading Drink, Dance, Divorce. If you enjoyed it, please leave a review on Amazon. I’m currently working on a sequel entitled Dance of the Yodeling Masochist.

I love hearing from my readers. Write me here: [email protected]


Drink, Dance, Divorce

Someone’s framed womanizing dance instructor Waltz Charleston for his brother’s murder. He vows to avenge his brother and clear himself, but doesn’t know where to start. He hesitates to hire cheater-hating PI Hook ‘Em Harns. No way can she solve a homicide. She only does divorces. Worse, she may be doublecrossing him. Can he trust her? With the cops closing in, he has no choice. He’s broke and she’s the only PI in town who will work on credit. What readers say about this comic mystery: Wow! What a dance! Even if you’re in shape, you’ll be breathing hard by the end.

  • ISBN: 9781370851652
  • Author: Charles Alworth
  • Published: 2016-09-14 21:05:19
  • Words: 111739
Drink, Dance, Divorce Drink, Dance, Divorce