Never mind what the brochures tell you, ladies and gentlemen—Las Vegas is about the least glamorous place on the face of the planet. Sure, The Strip is all neon and glitz, but that's only a three-mile stretch of pretty for all the tourists—glamorous make-up to camouflage an old, wasted whore. I never did like the Strip, and any time I saw one of my cases heading that way, I knew to bring aspirin. We're not talking about that today.
North-town was my turf, and all the little back-alleys down Industrial Ave—the dark little corners where the bad boys hid their dirty deeds. Cheap strip clubs with overweight dancers and nasty bars that smelled of old cigarette butts and spilled liquor. Sal's was one of the latter, and my home away from home. It smelled marginally better than the others, and it was only a block away from my office—you do the math.
This is where I met Ms. Betty Banton. I knew she was trouble from the moment she walked in the door, but bingo at the senior's center had been dead, and the night was young. I could've used a little trouble. The weepy mourner's attire and a bad case of the sniffles told me that she was looking for me even before Sal pointed me out to her. Somehow, the newly-widowed and oft-wronged folks that sought me out often found me here. Maybe that suggested a problem of sorts, but I was usually drunk enough to say I had it under control.
“Satan MacMurphy?” She asked in a choked voice.
“That's Stan,” I corrected gently. “What can I do for ya, ma'am?”
“I need a P.I.”
Of course she did. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have been in this sleazy bar, lookin' for a no-account 'devil' like myself.
“Tell ya what, sweetheart,” I suggested, finishing off my scotch. “Let's go back to my office and talk about this.”
My office was basically a closet on the bottom-floor of a business center for low-budget folks like myself that just needed a place to get their work done. I had a sign on the corner of the building, with my name and profession, along with those of the other people that rented space. Only someone had come along with a can of red spray paint and thrown an extra “A” into my name, between the S and the T. Again. Guess that's what I get for being born with red skin and horns, eh?
So I got her into my office, and had a seat at my desk. When the hat came off, I knew she wanted to stare at the horns, but she did a pretty damned good job of controlling it. First the talking started and then the water-works followed. I expected as much—this is pretty standard procedure for mourning widows. “My husband was Julian Banton. Are you familiar?” I tell her I'm not. “Big into real estate. Owned a lot of land that a lot of people wanted, out on the outskirts. Only it's not the outskirts, anymore, because of how quick the city's growing. Anyway, he died last Tuesday, and the police are saying it was suicide.”
“And you think different.”
She looked like I had slapped her across the face, and for a second I felt bad. But I had to make sure this wasn't just a grieving widow trying to take her aggression out. “No, I know different. Julian wasn't the type of person that would do that.”
“Alot of people say that about the ones they love, ma'am--”
“The night that he was murdered, he called me and told me that he was very worried about me. He told me that some people were after him, and that they might be after me, too. That night, I stayed home with all the lights out, and all the doors locked, all night. He didn't come home.”
“And what did the police say about this?”
“They told me not to repeat that story,” she whispered in a voice so weak it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I inspected her eyes, trying to see through them. “Why aren't you scared of me?” I asked.
“My lawyer already told me what to expect when I met you. Skin condition, right?”
I nodded, lighting up a cigarette. “Whosyer lawyer?”
I nodded again. Marcy's a good lady, despite her wholesome Christian upbringing. “Fine, I'll take the case. Let me get your phone number, and I'll call you once I start figuring stuff out.”
This is the part where some private investigators would prey on the vulnerability of the widow at-hand, and get a piece of ass. Being a gentleman, I never did. Those things were best left for after the case was done, or you were liable to end up with a permanent attachment. Instead, I chose to give a bit of friendly advice.
“Y'sure you want me to look into this, lady? Nine times out of ten, the evidence points to the wife.”
“I'm willing to risk it,” she replied, cold as a fish.
As soon as Ms. Banton was gone, I made a phone call.
“Yello?” shouted a voice on the other side.
“Hey, Rocco, it's Stan.”
“'Ey, Satan!” Rocco called back.
“Stan, you ass. Stan. Anyway—come pick me up. We've got work.”
* * * * * * * * *
“Eeeasy skankin'” Bob Marley crooned over the car stereo.
“Skankin' it ea-seh!” Replied Rocco in a high falsetto, before regarding me in the rear-view mirror. “Is Bob Marley! You like?”
“Since when do you listen to Bob Marley, Rocco?”
“I find my roots, brah.”
Rocco (short for Morocco) was not, so far as I know, from Jamaica. I'm really not sure where his homeland was, but it always seemed silly for me to ask a man named Morocco where he was from. For all I know, he could have been from Morocco, though I found Jamaican roots to be a bit far-fetched. “Rocco, just 'cause you're picking up Voodoo doesn't make you a rasta. Voodoo actually comes from Haiti, I think.”
“I no say rasta, I say roots.”
Forget it, Stan. Just let it go. “Okay, um, we've got work to do—first stop?”
“Good man. After that, we need to stop by Morty's. If it was hired muscle, he'll know who it was.” That, and Morty owed me a favor from a job a few years back. The details of that case are between me, Morty, and a half-dozen Elvis impersonators floating around Lake Mead. Contrary to popular belief, what happens in Vegas rarely stays here. In the event of a corpse, it is actually often shipped just outside of city limits, to the largest (and perhaps most conveniently placed) man-made lake in North America. From there, the mutant fish take care of the rest.
“Also, I'm gonna need to get on that crime scene. No doubt, the fuzz has already smudged up all the tracks already, but I still oughta see if there's anything left to see.”
“You will see Vicky?”
“Only if God really hates me today.” I cringed at the sound of her name. She had some odd thing for guys with horns—likely just a side-effect of her religious choice to sacrifice chickens and the like—but I needed a connection in the LVPD every now and then...when I could afford to pay Vicky's price, which I'm not ashamed to say was a rare occurrence.
“When I was boy, me ma tells me: 'God love everyone, even Satan.'” Rocco gave me a grin like a used car salesman.
“I don't think she was talking about me.”
Luckily, we had arrived at the Liquor store, and I had a good feeling that I should double up on the usual stockpile tonight.
* * * * * * * *
There are times when I thank my lucky stars that I have Rocco. His English could use some work, but he's honest, faithful, and most of all, sober enough to drive most of the time. This final quality left me with the freedom to curl into the shadows of his back seat with an economy size bottle of Jack Daniels and my cell-phone.
Each case begins with a series of phone calls: the first three or four are mostly just rumor mills, finding out who might have problems with the late Mr. Banton. After that, there's my mom, so she doesn't nag me. That pretty much kept me busy 'till we got to Morty's, and I was glad for the excuse to get off the phone with her. I love her and all, but no man should have to talk to his mother while he's on the job and drunk. Maybe I should plan these calls better.
I left Rocco in the car and made my way into the third-rate apartment building. Morty was on the fourth floor, and it felt like the place hadn't heard of air conditioning yet. The man had more fans in his apartment than a Chinese whorehouse.
Morty was in the middle of a heated game of chess with himself, and for a moment I felt bad for interrupting. Until he gave me a toothless grin and greeted me: “How's it goin', Satan?”
“Stan,” I corrected, gritting my teeth. “Not an uncommon name.”
He waved it off. “What brings you to my little corner of heaven?” He had a voice that screamed “three packs a day.” And probably for a good long time, too. Judging by his skin condition, I'd always estimated his age a few years short of a millennium.
“Well, Morty, I'm working on this case and it occurs to me that I haven't stopped by to say 'hi' in a good long time.” I took a seat across from him, with the chessboard between us.
“What kind of case?”
“Lookin' into the death of Julian Banton. Ever heard of him?”
“Yeah, suicide from what the newspaper said.”
I realized then that the fans were unnecessary. The room was a lot colder than I had originally noticed.
“Newspaper, eh? Is that where you're getting your information, now? That's a bit slow for you, isn't it?”
“That's where I get my information about rich bastards that off themselves, anyway. I don't mind taking my time on the small stories.” He moved a knight. “Checkmate.”
“Congratulations, Morty. Not many guys can best themselves in a battle of wills.”
“Myself? You're the one sitting on the other side of the board, ain'tcha?”
He'd been paid already. He wasn't about to tell me a damned thing, so I excused myself, tipping my hat to him on my way out. No big sweat—I still had other connections. It just meant I was
one step closer to being in a position that I had to call Vicky, and I wasn't looking forward to that. 'Course, it was just like I told Rocco—his ma surely hadn't been talking about me when she said that God loved Satan.
* * * * * * * * *
It was only a matter of time before we had to stop by the crime scene. I hated Summerlin almost as much as the Strip, but people would be surprised how many of these shady cases lead back to the nicer parts of the Valley. Damn cops had already tore through the place, of course. Let me tell you: there's a good reason why some folks call them bulls—they'd hit the place like a china shop. We began sifting through the wreckage, but I knew it was a lost cause before we had even started. If there had been any evidence that the investigation hadn't caught, it had been destroyed already. Ms. Banton had been right about one thing—there was something fishy, going on.
“This is useless,” I grumbled, as much to myself as to Rocco. “Looks less like they were looking for evidence, and more like they were looking for something. If it was here, it's gone now.”
“Hey, what'a this?” Rocco called from the storage closet. Sometimes, I really love that kid. When I got to the room, I found him wedged half-way behind a massive filing cabinet. I could hear him gasping and wheezing still, from the exertion it must have taken to pull move it. He pulled out a loose square of floor-board, and then a stack of grimy envelopes.
“Rocco, what in this room even suggested that you should look there?”
He gave me a wide, goofy grin and shrugged his shoulders. “I got hunch?”
I repeat: sometimes, I really love that kid.
* * * * *
It took the two of us three hours to get through the stack. I suppose that might be easily explained, considering both my partner's language barrier, and my challenged sobriety. I wasn't sure who Bunny was, but apparently she had some pretty fascinating ideas for the sexual use of whipped cream, and apparently, she had intended to demonstrate all of them to Mr. Banton. Another letter, dated a few days later, suggested that she wanted to repeat the lesson. Each letter read like erotica: whips, chains, ticklers and furry hand-cuffs. Bunny clearly had a vivid imagination. Given that we found the letters hidden, I thought it was safe to assume that this was not a nickname for his wife. Call it a professional's intuition, if you will.
We had a lead. After a few letters, I thought I knew where we could find this lead. We collected the letters up as quick as possible—I pretended not to notice when Rocco slid a few in his coat. He was a pretty lonely guy, I suspected.
Fast forward. Rocco's old Chrysler rolled up in front of a 'talent agency' known as The Doll House. If you were looking for a crappy actress with a nice body to do a commercial for you, you could get one at a discount price, and probably get a little favor out of it. For a little bit more money, and with a little discretion, you could skip the actress part, as well as the commercial part, and get a big favor out of it. It was discreet, the girls were clean, and you always knew that you were getting quality time.
But first you had to go through Marietta DuBois.
I left Rocco in the car, and made my way in.
“Good afternoon, Mr. MacMurphy,” a smiling receptionist chimed when I walked in. I don't know if I'd ever seen her before, but I smiled back at her.
“I'm looking for a girl that goes by the name Bunny, and I think she's one of your girls.”
The receptionist's smile faded for a split second, before she regained her composure. “Well, you'll have to speak to Ms. DuBois, about that.”
I nodded resignedly. I knew I was going to be seeing that creepy dame before I got anywhere. “Call 'er up, then.”
The girl only murmured a few words into the phone before the double-doors leading deeper into the Doll House swung open. Marietta stared at me with wide, unblinking eyes that looked like glass, set into porcelain.
“Why hello, Mr. MacMurphy,” she said. Her voice was as soft and slippery as a snake playing sweet, devoid of any personality or charm. “Please, do step in.” She led me to her parlor, and I followed like a fly that didn't know how to do its job right—too stupid to dodge the web.
“Now,” she began, once we were both seated in her office. “What brings you to my humble abode?”
“Lookin' for a girl named Bunny. Y'know her?”
She tilted her head to the side, regarding me with the same complacent, wide-eyed stare. I still hadn't seen her blink. And I don't just mean on this visit. Folks called her the Marionette, or Lady Marionetta, if she was present. I'd never met anyone that had seen her blink, nor lose her cool. I'd heard tell of her wrath—she once took a guy's legs apart tendon by tendon, using mostly her bare hands, while he had been held down by seven of her 'Dolls.' He'd survived the conflict (sans legs), and had later said that she never lost that calm smile. Not even when she'd hit an artery, splashing his blood across her flawless cheeks.
Quite frankly, she gave me the heebie jeebies.
Finally, she responded “Would you like some tea?”
“That's a pretty vague answer, ma'am. As a matter of fact, I fail to see how that could be construed as either a yes or a no.”
“You're too catty, Mr. MacMurphy. You act like you either don't know me, or you're my best friend. To my recollection, neither is true.”
Think quick. You like your legs, don'tcha Stan? “Well, Ms. DuBois, you seem to be playing a similar game.” Her eyebrows raised questioningly. “We both know you're not my best friend, and that your tea frightens me. But you should know that better than to think I'd bring trouble to your door-step. I just need to ask this girl a few questions.”
“Are you fond of the fact that you are a man?”
I considered this. “Usually, yeah.”
“You are aware that I make men stop being men, without giving them the grace of a woman, yes?”
“Yup. 'Course, I was never that much of a man to begin with.” I felt as though my bladder might release at any moment, but on the outside, I put up a stone face.
She stared me down, tapping her fingers on her desk. Finally, she laughed—a sound that made me think of tarnished silver. “Well, as long as I know that you remember my reputation, I suppose you may speak to Bunny. I will call her in for you.”
She made the call and we waited, mostly in silence. The minutes felt like hours under Marietta's unwavering gaze. I attempted to interest myself in the paintings on her walls, and then the pattern of her carpet, followed by my own hands, but nothing distracted me from the icy stare that remained locked on me.
After what felt like an eternity, there came a knock on the door, and Marietta called “Come in!”
Bunny was a pretty girl, and I could see how Mr. Danton had gotten so infatuated with her, but she looked like she was either having a bad day off, or an even worse day of work. She was tall and shapely, with long strawberry blonde hair that normally would have curled and cascaded down her back, to the backs of her thighs. Today, it looked unwashed and a bit ratted up. She wore no make-up, and she looked worn. A pretty woman, but tired, with puffy red eyes. To be honest, she looked worse to me than Ms. Banton had.
“Mr. MacMurphy has a few questions for you, Dear. Would you mind?”
She took a look at me and immediately recoiled, nearly tripping over the chair next to me. "What the fuck?!”
I cleared my throat, putting my hat back on to hide the horns. “Skin condition,” I murmured in explanation.
“Now, Bunny, don't be rude to our guest. My apologies, Mr. MacMurphy.” I could hear the amusement bubbling in her voice.
“No problem. I'm used to it.” I extended my hand to Bunny, flashing my most charming smile. “Stan MacMurphy, private eye. I just needed to ask you a few things about Julian Banton.”
She looked even more terrified by that.
“Now, calm down. I'm not a cop, and I'm not about to tell Ms. Banton about you, I just need a few answers.”
“She already knows about me,” she squeaked.
“His wife already knows. She found out three days before he—before... y'know,” she began to choke up. I nodded and offered my handkerchief, murmuring that I understood. “She was furious. Threatened to come find me and kill me. He said she didn't know where I was, though. We haven't heard from her, so I guess that's true, but if you found me...” She trailed off.
“It's okay. I pieced it together, but I've got all the evidence that led me, and I don't intend to share it with her. I just need to find out how he died.”
“I'd put my money on that whore,” Bunny spat. I decided not to point out the irony.
“I'm definitely considering her, but she was the first to suggest foul play, so I'm thinking there might be someone else. Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to hurt him? Any enemies?”
“Yeah, actually, all my clients tell me all about their feelings, while they're paying for fuck-time.”
“Would you be so torn up about all of your clients? Or, for that matter, do all of your clients keep a stack of love-letters from you in their offices?”
Marietta's gaze shifted to her doll, and it occurred to me that she hadn't known about any of that. Something told me that things were going to get ugly for Bunny, after I left. Oops.
“I'm telling you, look into his wife. If she didn't kill him, she paid the guy that did.”
“I'm sorry, Mr. MacMurphy, but I believe that's all I can allow for today,” Marietta intervened, without removing her gaze from Bunny.
“Just a few more qu--”
“Have a nice day,” She added, more forcefully.
Point taken. I tipped my hat to the ladies in turn, and slipped my card to Bunny. “In case you need to talk. Give me a call. The number on the back is to Sal's Saloon—try there, if you can't get my office.”
“Good day, Mr. MacMurphy,” Marietta repeated.
“I'm leaving, I'm leaving. Take care of yourself, ladies. Next time, I'll bring some Visine for ya, eh Mari?”
She barked a laugh as fake as everything else about her.
Back at the car, I dropped into the back seat and took a slug off my flask before lighting up a cigarette. “Time to start looking into the wife,” I mumbled to Rocco. “And damn-near time to call Vicky,” I groaned. It was going to be a long night. On the bright side, the sun was going down.
* * * * * * * * *
“So what do we got, Rocco? We've got a shifty whore, and if we choose to believe her, we've got a wife with a motive. Should we choose to believe her, we've got dirty cops that are trying to sweep this under the rug.”
“We got big pain in the ass,” Rocco replied. We got beeg pahn in de ahss.
I nodded in the shadows of his enormous back seat, knocking back another swig of the liquor. The night set the scotch ablaze with the vibrant colors of neon signs and stoplights. “That's putting it mildly, my friend.” It was time to find out what the former Mrs. Julian Banton had to gain from the death of her husband, other than revenge for poking an 'amateur actress' every chance he got.
We pulled up in front of a mansion as big as my apartment building. Rocco stayed in the car, again.
I felt bad bothering Marcy this late, but chances were that she had a few of the answers I was looking for, and I was pretty sure that I could trust her. I swung the brass knocker, and she answered in a night robe. “Satan, is that you?”
“Stan,” I murmured under my breath, but I nodded, removing my hat. “I'm sorry to bother you so late, but I wonder if I could ask you a few questions?”
She thought about it a bit longer than I would have liked, and then stepped out of the way, letting me in. “You really oughta think about getting on a day schedule.”
“Nah, sun hurts my eyes too much. I'd have to give up drinking.”
She led me into her kitchen and put a pot of coffee on. “So what's up?”
“Julian Banton was your client, wasn't he?”
“No, I just represent his wife. Horace Winburn was his lawyer, why?”
“I need to take a look into his Will.”
Marcy was giving me a look that bordered on unfriendly. “He's not going to allow that: you have no official authority, and you're not a member of his family. Why do you need to see that, anyway?”
“Well, your client came to me to investigate his death. Naturally, the investigation has brought about a few questions that I need to answer before I can solve this whole mess. I think that Will might be able to give me a few hints.”
“You suspect Betty, don't you?”
I shrugged hopelessly. “Hell, even if it does turn out to be her, all that I'm going to do about it is tell her that that's what my investigation turned up, and thank her for the money. However, I might have to suggest that she not hire someone to investigate the death of her next husband, should it ever arise.”
“Maybe you really are Satan.”
I winced, peering at her. “Ouch. I'm just doing my job, lady. Remind me to pay you back for that one next time that you defend a murderer or rapist in court. Thank you so much for your time, but I'll let you get some rest.”
I was gone before she had a chance to apologize, had she felt inclined to do so. “Time to look up Horace Winburn,” I grunted as soon as I dropped into the car.
* * * * * * * * * *
There are certain perks to having my skin condition, when its night time and you want information. Any private dick worth his salt can pick a lock, so I let myself into the master bedroom of Horace Winburn. Through the window, of course—for effect. I had left my hat, shirt, and coat with Rocco, and sweat glistened red on my skin as I crossed the room to his bed. His curtains billowed around me like something out of the movies, and I couldn't have been happier. A floorboard creaked under my step, and the old man sat up straight in his bed, staring at me with terror like I've never seen. I almost laughed, but I do think that would have ruined everything.
“Horace Winburn,” I growled, dropping my voice as deep as I could. “Your judgment is nigh.”
“DEAR GOD, NO!” He screamed, and I had to bite my tongue to suppress a smile. Instead, I grimaced as though ultimately displeased.
“The fortunes that you have crafted out of your lies will pave the road that leads you into eternity, where your flesh will be ripped from your body and fed to you. Over and over and over.” I punctuated each 'over' with another step towards his bed. “And I am here to guide you down that road. Unless you atone!”
“Yes! Yes! Anything! What do I need to do?!”
“The Last Will and Testament of Julian Banton. You will give it to me, now.”
Twenty minutes later, the Chrysler was back on the road, and alive with the joined laughter of Rocco and myself.
“'Oh no! My soul! Please, Satan, don't sent me to hell!'” I replayed for my chauffeur in a high-pitched falsetto, between gales of laughter. Maybe Marcy was right about me, but there's something undeniably funny about the way people react to the idea that their soul is in question. I guess most people wouldn't understand that, but Rocco did, and I was grateful for that.
I slapped on the dome light and ripped open the envelope, pulling out the document. My face fell as I scrolled down the list of who got what. The vast majority of his wealth was to be donated to an obscure charity I had never heard of—The Rabbithole Foundation. What remained was to be divided between his wife and the LVPD, and the disputed land was to be sold, with all proceeds to be divided the same way. I had begun the case by asking 'Who would benefit by Banton's death?' Turns out the question was 'Who wouldn't?!'
“Alright Rocco, that's it,” I grumbled, downtrodden. “It's time for us to call it a night. You can drop me off at Sal's, and pick me up again tomorrow, bright and early. Say, noon.”
* * * * * * * * *
Sal doesn't get many customers before three, so I rested undisturbed until Rocco arrived and jabbed me in the ribs with his index finger. I lifted my head off the bar and immediately wished that I hadn't.
“Hiya, boss! You say bright 'n' early, yes? I get here bright 'n' early!” Rocco's voice was glass against my ear drums. I momentarily considered silencing him in the most permanent way that I could think of off the top of my head, but then no one would drive me around.
“Bourbon,” I groaned at whoever was standing on the other side of the counter. I was sure that it wasn't Sal, but other than that, I wasn't exactly paying attention to specifics. Whoever they were, they were watching the news a little louder than I would've liked, but who was I to stop them? They slid me my glass, and between sips I thanked them for not waking me. “Gimme a minute, Rocco.” I lit a cigarette, and took a moment to make myself feel good about my life. If I think hard enough, I can usually make up a reason to go on. The days I can't, I watch soap operas and eat bon-bons or forget I'm alive at the bar.
I assured myself that the sun would come out tomorrow, just like that little Brillo-headed kid said. Unfortunately, today was looking far too cloudy for that to be much consolation. I focused on the fact that my work would help a grieving widow sleep easier at night. Of course, the same 'grieving widow' just might've been the one that took him out, which made my work utterly pointless. Finally, it occurred to me: If I gave up on living now, I would never see the day that monkeys and primates rose up, crushing the human populace and forcing them to do tricks for bananas and peanuts.
That was good enough.
It was about time to bite the bullet, as they said. “Well, Rocco. Time to get my freak on.” I took a drag off the cigarette. “Let's go see Vicky.”
* * * * * * * * * *
We arrived at the sheriff's office downtown at about three in the afternoon. I found Vicky in the only place that any organization would keep someone like herself—in the darkest corner they could find. In this case, that meant filing paperwork in the archives. She turned up from a box of papers, and her face lit up when she saw me. “You're not allowed to smoke down here,” She mocked.
“Tough shit,” I replied, taking a drag. Probably a bad move. I could almost smell the pheromones radiating off of her. As a general rule, the 'bad boy' routine just encouraged her.
“Why don't you take your hat off and make yourself comfortable?” She suggested. I grudgingly obliged, revealing what she wanted to see. As the hat hit her desk, I could've sworn that I heard her purr.
“Don't suppose you could help me ou--”
“Later,” she growled, shoving the files aside. “First, you help me.” In an instant, she was upon me, pinning me to the desk and fondling my horns. She was a little thing, but she was stronger than she looked, and it took quite a bit of work to push her off.
“I was thinking maybe we could skip that part today. Not really in the mood, y'know.”
“Oh, I know. I get it. You're just not man enough.”
“Now, I never said--”
“If you can't handle me, that's fine.”
“Hey, I can handle any--”
“Have a nice day, Satan.”
“That's Stan, and I can--”
“Later,” she dismissed me.
I hate being interrupted. Intentionally, no less. Repeatedly, no less.
Bitch. Question my manhood.
I grabbed her by the biceps and pulled her in tight, glaring into her eyes. That was all it took for her. Immediately, my face was forced against her chest, her tongue trailing along one of the horns. “Just like the Dark Lord,” she gasped, gripping the other. After that, things spun out of control.
Out of respect, so I'll spare you the details. I wish she had spared me the details.
Afterwards, I lit up a cigarette, though my fingers could barely hold it. An inverted pentagram painted with my blood stood out on her desk like a crop circle, lined with black candles. It amazed me that she didn't get discharged from the force for shit like that, but I imagine that the chief was as scared of her as I was.
“So,” she chirped, bright as a spring day. “What can I help you with?”
“Gimme a minute,” I groaned, getting control of my stomach. I took a swig off my flask and collected myself. “I need you to look up Julian Banton for me. I think the fuzz might be involved with his death.”
“Trying to get my to turn on my own brotherhood?”
I snorted a short laugh. “No, just the cops. I have no doubt your 'dark lord' will reward you for working against law enforcement.”
She gave me a look that was too serious. “Really? Have you heard things?”
“Nothing in particular, but I could put in a good word.” I almost felt guilty, but I had already tried to tell her that I wasn't an actual demon. If she chose to continue to treat me as such, it was only right for me to play along. “Also, I don't suppose you've heard of the Rabbithole Foundation?” She shook her head no. “See if you can find out anything about them for me, and give me a call later.”
“Y'know, you really oughta look into the Internet, sometime. You could look up half this shit on your own. It's called Google, dude.”
“Yeah, and miss out on my time with you?” I replied dryly, and the door swung shut behind me.
* * * * * * * * *
Now came the hardest part of my job—the waiting game. Rocco and I sat at Sal's, hunched over the bar and eating peanuts. The game was on, but all the real athletes were gone, so I ignored it. I drank scotch, and my foreign buddy drank tap water. He said he preferred the tap water over bottled water because it reminded him of 'Homeland.'
Sure, this sounds like the way I generally spend any given night, but when you know that you could be inches away from cracking the case, sitting around just wasn't the same. Hours passed by, and I was just about to give up when “Get Up, Stand Up” blared out of my coat pocket in polyphonic beauty. Rocco peered at it with a sort of guilty pleasure.
“You've been playing with my phone again, haven't you?”
“I got bored when you went to scare lawyer,” he justified.
I flipped the phone open. “MacMurphy.”
“What're you wearing?” A woman asked in a sultry tone.
“The skin of your mother's face. As a diaper.”
“Ooo... You're trying to turn me on, now,” Vicky panted like a cheap phone-sex operator.
“You have anything for me or not?”
“I've got plenty for you, ba--”
I cleared my throat harshly.
“Fine, fine. So, it turns out that Julian Banton is, like, best friends with the police commissioner. He's constantly making donations, and attending our functions. He left some money to us, in his--”
“Yeah, I got the will, what else do you got?”
“Well, apparently the place was spotless when the investigators went in. They couldn't really find much evidence at all. When they came back for the second sweep, the place looked like a hurricane had hit it.”
That didn't sit right. I remembered the feeling that somebody had tore the place apart looking for something. If not the cops, then who?
“The files say that all the evidence pointed to suicide, but the commish is pushing for further investigation, since Jules was 'like a brother' or something. This wasn't one of our dirty deeds, I don't think. Unless it was a rogue cop with a lot of friends, but I'm still pretty sure that I would've heard about it. My sources are pretty good.”
“What about the Rabbithole?”
“Oh, I thought you'd like this one,” She snickered in my ear. “You said it's a charity, right?”
“'Cept here's the funny thing—there's not a single website, representative, eight-hundred number, or pamphlet available that might explain what this charity is taking donations for. For that matter, it's not recognized by the government, as a non-taxable, or non-profit organization. In fact, the only place that charity seems to exist is in the form of a bank-account in Switzerland. Only two deposits have ever been made, in the three months that it's existed—one, by Horace Winburn after Julian died, and one by a Bunny Deluxx. Tell me that's not the most half-assed porn star name you've ever heard in your life.”
Things began to click into place. I set down my drink. “Bunny Deluxx, you said?”
“Yeah, I know—talk about a stupid name, right?”
“Yeah,” I murmured, distractedly. “Say, I don't suppose you could do me one more favor?”
“You'll owe me,” she purred. I beat my gag reflex into submission.
“Yeah, 'kay, fine. Get me access to his bank statements. Find out if he'd been planning any traveling, maybe trying to get away from his wife. She's already got enough evidence stacked up against her, but I think that might just be the straw that breaks my back. Can you get it for me?”
“I suppose,” she sighed. “Kind of a pain in the ass, though, isn't it? Guess I'll just have to put some pain in your ass for it, eh?”
“Yeah, I... I guess so,” I resigned myself. I would weep later. “How long's it gonna take?”
“Give me an hour, two tops. We keep all of those on record, in case there's some evidence in there, but it's still a fresh case, and it'll take me some work to get it.”
“Well, keep me posted.”
We hung up and I turned to Rocco. “Looks like it's back to the Doll House.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The call came sooner than I'd expected. We were still sitting in rush hour traffic on our way to the Doll House, when the Atari 2600 rendition of Bob Marley chimed in, barely audible below the actual reggae on the stereo. Rocco turned down the volume, and I answered.
“You'd better love me.”
“Continue, we'll get back to that.”
“As a matter of fact, he did buy two one-way tickets. For today, as a matter of fact. Headed for Paris. He was about to fly the coop on her, but she put an end to that, didn't she?” She snickered.
“Then why come hire me to look into it? That's the only thing that doesn't make sense. Why draw a private eye's attention to a murder that you committed?”
Vicky snorted laughter. “We—the law, I mean—know that she hired you to look into it. And, I mean, like you said—who would hire an investigator to look into it, if they'd done the crime? But here's the thing—You aren't the law. You are actually quite shady, and rarely trusted.”
“Easy now, Vicky. Don't gotta hurt my feelings.” Grumbling, I added on: “Fair enough, though.”
“So, whatever you find doesn't matter. We see her making the effort, and she looks that much less suspicious to us, who can actually arrest her.”
I nodded slowly, though she couldn't see the gesture. It made sense. Still, this Rabbithole Foundation, that was making so much money off of him. How did they figure in?
“Hey, I gotta let you go, but thanks for all your help, Vicky.”
“Don't forget—you owe me.”
We rolled to a stop in front of the Doll House, and I snapped my phone shut.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Welcome back, Mr. MacMurphy!” The receptionist chimed.
“Why thank you!” I used my most cheerful voice. “I need to speak to Bunny again.”
This time, her smile didn't just flicker—it completely dropped. She glanced over her shoulder, towards the door, and then leaned in towards me. Dropping her voice low, she whispered: “She just left. 'Bout an hour ago. I was out on a smoke break, and I saw her skipping out. I asked where she was going, and she said that she'd found her hole, and was on her way to Wonderland. I think she might be on the drugs again.”
I blinked once ... twice ... and I'd done all the processing I needed to. I almost kissed the girl before I bolted out, but instead I opted for a hearty “THANK YOU!” over my shoulder on the way out.
I flung open the car and dove in, beating on the back of Rocco's chair. “Get me to McCarran Airport NOW!” I barked.
The old Chrysler roared into life, its tires spinning out for a moment, before hurtling the behemoth of old steel into motion. Rush-hour traffic still had the freeways locked, so he took the back-alleys and even sidewalks where necessary. I dialed Vicky's phone, gripping the handle over my window for dear life.
“Hellooo?” She sang sweetly.
“Vicky—what airline was he going to use?”
“Jesus Christ, do you want his seat-number and the pilot's name, too?”
“DAMMIT, VICKY—WHAT AIRLINE?!”
“Inter-Air! Flight 118!”
“Thank you!” Click. I'd call her back later.
Rocco screeched to a stop in front of the drop-off area, and I sprinted through the automatic doors and up the escalators. This was in the good ol' pre-9/11 days—you could get damn-near anywhere you wanted in an airport, without too much hassle, and I got to the gates quick. Customs was a potential issue, but once I took my hat off, the guards decided that they really didn't care what I was packing. I stopped once, to scan over one of the schedules, confirming the gate I needed. The flight before 118 was unloading. With a little luck, and fast enough feet, I would make it.
Waiting for the tram, I thought I was going to kill someone. I controlled the urge, and as soon as the doors opened on the other side of the terminals, I was sprinting again. Past a wall of tiled murals made by children, and up an escalator that could have led to God it was so tall, and all of it at top speed.
Now I was attracting the attention of the guards. I was just a little too close to all the shops, and the slot-machines. But I was also very close to my destination. Gate B17. From behind, I was just a man in a shady overcoat and hat running in a place with a lot of expensive merchandise, and high theft. Maybe they caught a glimpse of the red skin and thought I was a terrorist. Even back then, people were nervous in airports. I turned a corner, and the marker representing gate B17 came into view. At that moment, three beefy men threw themselves upon me, before they even got a good look at me.
The gate passed back out of sight. Under the rows of seats, I could see the line of passengers waiting to board the plane. Well, I could see their feet. At the end of the line, I noted a pair of rather exotic stiletto heels, mighty close to a pair of expensive-looking Italian dress shoes—men's.
My hat tumbled off, and the guards were off of me quicker than they had gotten on. (“Holy shit--” “--the hell is that--” “--think we need backup!” They shouted over each other.) Snatching my hat back up, I leaped to my feet and turned to face the gate again.
There, at the end of the line, I saw a beautiful woman with strawberry blond hair that tumbled and cascaded down her back to the bottom of her ass. It looked exactly as I had imagined it would, when I had seen it uncared for. Arm-in-arm with Bunny stood a tall, handsome man; well-dressed with a winning smile and a little bit of white speckled into his otherwise black hair. I recognized him, but only from photos.
The guards had disappeared once the horns had come into view, but they'd slowed me enough already. The couple were boarded and out of my grasp before I could talk to them. Not that it mattered, anymore. Anything that I couldn't figure out on my own wasn't that important, anyway.
I knew the gist of their story, anyways. Guy hates his wife, and falls in love with a call-girl. She hates her life, and her mistress, and she's looking for a way to get out. So he provides this Bunny with a Rabbithole. A one way trip to Wonderland. Easy to say you're dead, if you're best friends with the police commissioner.
He left evidence pointing towards his wife. Just waiting for some bumbling gumshoe to find it.
Which really only left one role to be played in this performance. And I guess it was my place to play that role. I called Betty on the ride home, asking her to meet me at the office. She was waiting when I got there, and I tried to keep it short and simple. Just like I'd said I would.
“I've come as far in the case as I can,” I began, my face blank. “And the vast majority of the evidence points in only one direction. I'm sorry, but I've come to my conclusion, and it's like I said when I first met you: nine times out of ten, it's the wife.”
Her face was frozen with shock. “I'm sorry?” Can't say I blamed her. I knew she hadn't done it.
“He was cheating on you, and in fact planning on leaving the country with the girl. He left you enough money in his will to make you comfortable, as well as the house, and the car, and everything else, but he left quite a lot more money to a charity, which I know most rich folk don't condone. In fact, his will said to sell the land that was going to make you so rich, and you only got half the money out of the deal. I bet that would piss off even a saint.”
By now she was trembling. I felt like shit, but if I told her that her husband was still alive, all of the work he did to hide himself would be in vain. Also, she'd probably expect me to work on getting him back, which was a task that I had no interest in. “You can keep your money, though. This one's on me.”
She'd come in full make-up, and I could see stark streaks of black tearing down her face as I walked away. Nothing in Vegas is as glamorous as it looks. Upon closer inspection, the make-up's always flaking, the neon's always just a little bit flickery, and the showgirls cry themselves to sleep at night.
But you can usually find a halfway decent story, along the way.