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Welcome.

Greetings. I’m Ryan Smith, and below you’ll find a couple of chapters of my in-progress mystery novel, Goodbye, Angel. I’m currently crowdfunding the book at Inkshares, and I started this blog to get the word out into the wider world. When I’m not working on this book, I’m a regular old journalist. In fact, many of the elements of this story (not the murders and mayhem, thank God) are drawn from my days as a crime reporter on a barrier island off the coast of North Florida.

These days my beat is less exciting, so I’m returning to this old, unfinished novel (I’ve been working on it sporadically for about five years now) as a way to do a little writing that interests me again. I’ve posted my progress so far on Inkshares in the hope that actually having an audience will push me to finish the damned thing.

If you’ve read the chapter below (and are already a fan of the detective — as opposed to “mystery” — genre), I’m sure you’ve noticed that I owe a debt to Chandler and Hammett. I’m aware of that, and I embrace it. If you’re going to write private-eye fiction, it’s pretty much unavoidable, anyway. What I’m hoping to do is play around with the familiar elements of, say, a good Philip Marlowe yarn, transplanting them into both a new locale and a modern timeframe. How well I’ve succeeded is up to you to judge. Again, thanks for reading! I look forward to your thoughts.

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So who the hell are you, and why are you an indie author?

Those are fair questions, hypothetical person. I’ll answer in this brief blog post.

First, I’m Ryan D. Smith, which is fortuitous because that’s the name on the cover of my books. I’m a journalist who’s worked on publications from Army newspapers to international business magazines. Somewhere in there, I spent a few years as a police reporter on a barrier island off the coast of North Florida. Suffice to say, I came away from that experience with a few stories to tell.

As for why I’m an indie author, well … there are a few reasons, most of them probably only dimly realized and the products of deep psychological problems. But the main ones are simple:

First, I worked on my debut novel, Goodbye, Angel, for about seven years off and on. Mostly off; I’m not really that slow and the book isn’t really that dense. But after seven years, I have to say I didn’t want to shop the thing around to publishers for months, then maybe get accepted, then wait a year and a half before seeing the thing published.

Second, and more importantly, I decided I didn’t want to wait for anyone’s permission to put the book out there. A lot of artists I really admire didn’t wait for permission; they just went ahead and made something and trusted the right audience would find it.

So that’s what I’m doing. I hope you check out the book, and I hope you like it. If you do, well, you’re part of that audience I was looking for. Thanks for finding me.

Chapter 7

The next morning I got up earlier than I wanted to and drove to Jacksonville to visit the Duval County Courthouse. They knew me there, so it didn’t take long to find the records I was looking for. Sheryl Conroy had legally changed her name a little over five years ago. Nothing spectacular — just a straight change from Sheryl Theresa Conroy to Teresa Conroy, no H, no middle name. If she’d actually been trying to establish a new identity, she’d done a pretty cruddy job. Then, most people don’t really know how to do a good one.

Once I got back to Dayton County I stopped at the judicial annex and had a look at the records there. I located a marriage license for Dave Tanner and Teresa Conroy after about half an hour. It told me precisely nothing that I hadn’t known already. Sooner or later I was going to have to backtrack Sheri’s history, but at the moment I had things I wanted to take care of in the here and now.

I got home and called Dave Tanner. He actually picked up this time, which I took as a good sign.

“What the fuck do you want?” he said.

Okay, maybe not.

“To meet and talk,” I said.

“Not really sure I want to talk to you right now, Matt.”

“I don’t care what you want, Dave,” I said. “But you better start caring about what you need. Right now, you need to talk to me.”

There was a long pause. “I suppose you’re right,” he finally said. “Where and when?”

“The Palace, around six. Kind of talking we have to do calls for a few drinks.”

Tanner actually laughed a bit at that. “You’re not kidding,” he said. “Okay, see you at six.”

I hung up and got a beer from the fridge. I went to the door and opened it to go out to the deck, and there stood Jonah Cooper with his hand raised to knock. He blinked at me.

“I suppose you’re wondering how I did that,” I said.

“Wondering if you’re gonna offer me one of those,” he said, nodding at the beer. I nodded and grabbed another and we went out and sat on the deck. We each lit cigarettes and regarded the perfect summer sky.

“What brings you to North Beach?” I said.

“Social call.”

“Uh-huh.”

Coop took a swallow of beer and looked out at the ocean. “I’d hate to live up here,” he said. “Too many potheads and thugs and goddamn hippies on this end of the island. But Jesus Christ, you got yourself a view.”

“A thug and a goddamn hippie live right downstairs,” I said. “Gonna arrest them?” My downstairs neighbors were Steve, an aging flower child who spent his time smoking pot and whittling driftwood sculptures, and Monster, a six-foot-nine ex-bouncer with a jailhouse tattoo of the words “Fuck you” on his chest. They were among my favorite people.

“Hell no, I’m off duty,” Coop said. He drank some more beer and kept looking at the ocean. “Guess you’ve backtracked your girlfriend a bit by now.”

“A little. I know she was born Sheryl Conroy and changed her name about five years ago.”

“Yeah,” Coop said. “Anything else?”

“Not yet.”

“So you hadn’t found out she was picked up twice in Duval County for prostitution six, seven years back?”

“No,” I said.

“Don’t sound too surprised.”

“She had a bunch of coke on her and she picked the local hot-sheets hotel for our meet,” I said. “No, a prostitution arrest or two does not surprise me.”

“Fair enough,” Coop said.

“Ever convicted?”

“Nope. Both times the charges went away. First one wasn’t exactly airtight, and it’s not like she was murdering orphans, so who cares, right? Second time she solicited an undercover cop, which should’ve been pretty solid. Those charges went away, too.”

“How?” I asked.

“Cop recanted. On the stand.”

I sat up. “The hell you say.”

“Yep,” Coop said. “Said he’d made the whole thing up. Said she’d offered to fuck him and he’d taken her up on it, which is bad enough, but that no money changed hands. Said he made up the solicitation rap. Got bounced right the hell out of the Jacksonville PD for it, too.”

I had a thought. “She wasn’t picked up on some street corner in those arrests, was she?”

“Nope,” Coop said. “She was offering, um, the deluxe service at her place of employment.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “She was a stripper at a place called Kisses. Offering blowjobs in private booths.”

Now it was Coop’s turn to sit up straight. “You backtracked her a bit more than you said.”

“No. It was just a guess,” I said. “Kisses figures in this somehow.”

“How?”

I didn’t want to mention Ria just yet, for some reason. “Not sure yet,” I said.

Coop grunted. “One of these days you’re gonna play things a little too close to the vest and I’m gonna have to whip your ass a bit,” he said.

“That’s a hell of a thing to say to a man when you’re drinking his beer.”

“Buy better beer and I’ll be nicer,” Coop said. He took a long pull off his bottle and we watched the ocean a bit. Out on the dunes, a golden retriever in a jaunty red bandana was running around, wearing that world-loving grin common to all golden retrievers. He looked pleased with the way his day was turning out. He glanced up at us, barked a short hello, and disappeared behind the dunes.

“You know who owns Kisses, at least on paper, right?” Coop said.

“Not a clue.”

“Jack Redmond.”

“No shit?”

“No shit, my friend.”

I drank some beer. “And that right there is why Sheri’s charges went away,” I said.

Coop finished his beer and leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the deck railing. “I expect so,” he said.

We watched the ocean some more. Both of us lit fresh cigarettes.

“You don’t happen to own a .32, do you?” Coop asked.

“Nope. Got a .38 and a .45, though. Slugs in Sheri were .32s?”

“I’m assuming so. Slug in the wall was. Slugs in her’ll have to wait for the Jacksonville ME to do the autopsy, but it’s a pretty safe bet they’re the same.”

I thought of Sheri’s lithe, beautiful body being sawn open on a cold metal table. I exhaled shakily and put out my smoke, suddenly feeling ill.

“Well, sorry,” I said. “No .32 here.”

“Damn,” Coop said. “I was kinda hopin’ you did it. Now I’m gonna have to keep detecting and shit.”

“Got anything but the slugs?”

“You mean like hair and fiber, DNA, all that CSI shit?”

“Yeah.”

“My official answer is that you’re a civilian and I’m not commenting on evidence in an ongoing investigation. My unofficial answer is that Dayton County’s a shitty department and you know it.”

“What about that mobile crime lab you guys bought last year?”

The News-Herald, Dayton County’s local weekly, had had a field day with the sheriff’s “mobile crime lab” – a van full of crime-scene processing equipment that had set the county back $850,000. The county didn’t have that many murders, and those it had were pretty easily solvable – they were almost exclusively the result of domestic disputes or drug deals that got out of hand. In the year since the sheriff’s department had bought the MCL, they hadn’t used it once.

“The mobile crime lab was out there,” Coop said. “But it ain’t worth shit without people who know how to use the equipment. Fuckin’ Jimmy spent so much on the van he don’t have the budget to hire any crime scene techs. So we got his corn-shuckin’ patrol deputies out there processing the scene last night. I got back from takin’ you to talk to Jimmy, one of those motherfuckers was in there smokin’ a cigarette. Another one had used and flushed the goddamn toilet.”

I’d been a PI in the county for seven years and a police reporter for four before that, so I knew the caliber of the average Dayton County patrol deputy. Coop was right. Seeing them handle a crime scene was like watching the Three Stooges doing a calculus problem, and not in a funny way. It was like watching the Three Stooges doing a calculus problem during the Shemp years.

“So you’re saying not to expect much from the scene,” I said.

“I’m sayin’ those assholes couldn’t find their own cocks if they hired a crack whore and three faggots as trail guides.”

“Homophobe.”

“That’s me all over. ’Sides, scene’s a motel room, and the management don’t seem real obsessive about cleaning.”

“So even if you had competent crime-scene techs, there’s a lot of, um, superfluous DNA lying around.”

“That’s about the size of it. You got another one of these?” Coop held up his empty bottle. I took it from him and went back inside and got two more beers from the fridge.

“Gleason did get a few prints,” he said when I came back out. “But I got no doubt they’ll all turn out to be yours. Someone wiped the place down.”

I nodded and kept my face impassive, but my stomach lurched. It occurred to me for the first time that there was a very real possibility I’d obliterated the prints of Sheri’s real killer as I was trying to eliminate Tanner’s.

“So what end of this thing are you gonna work on?” Coop said as I handed him his second beer.

“Are you implying you need help, Coop?”

“Hell no, not with the full force of the Dayton County Sheriff’s Office backin’ me up. But you ain’t leavin’ this alone anyway.”

I nodded and took a pull off my beer. “Why the fuck you stay with this shit department, Coop? You could get hired on in Duval, no sweat. Live with Tommy in Jacksonville, maybe not have to be so, ah, circumspect.”

Coop looked out at the sea. “Grew up here,” he said. “Like it here. Besides, Jacksonville I’d be at a different stabbing every day. I never got to where I liked lookin’ at dead people. Here I ain’t got to do it so much. Jimmy Sweeting is a dipshit and a redneck and probably got a little more dirt on his hands than I like, but the pace of the work is right. And my momma’s here.”

I nodded and took a sip of beer. “She know about Tommy?”

“Yeah. She think the baby Jesus cries for me, but she keeps it to herself. So what end of this thing you gonna work on?”

“Don’t know for sure,” I said. “Guess maybe I’ll start with Redmond and work my way forward.”

“Matt, I shouldn’t have to remind you of this, but fuckin’ around with Redmond is a good way to end up facedown in the wetlands.”

“Hey, hey, hey. He’s a legitimate businessman,” I said.

“Yeah,” Coop said. “Just make sure when he has you capped, they do it in Duval County. I already got one case to solve.”

“Your concern is touching,” I said.

Coop grinned. “Told you,” he said. “You should buy better beer.”

Chapter 6

O’Shaughnessy’s sounded like one of those mass-marketed Quaint Irish Taverns where the beer is overpriced and they serve your food with a bottle of HP Sauce on the side because HP Sauce is just oh-so British Isles, a place with a framed poster of The Quiet Man on the wall. It wasn’t. It was a rough place in a rough part of Jacksonville. O’Shaughnessy’s was the kind of bar where two varieties of beer were served, Budweiser and warm Budweiser, and if you bitched about the selection, they shot you. The Irish-sounding handle wasn’t a marketing gimmick; the bar was called O’Shaughnessy’s simply because the guy who owned it was named O’Shaughnessy. I’d been there many times in the course of my work and always felt like showering after.

It seemed like an odd place for Ria to meet me. Women didn’t go to O’Shaughnessy’s voluntarily; the clientele there was too fond of sexual assault. But that was where she’d asked to meet, and at five-fifty I arrived to meet her.

I parked a block down from the bar. Two young men, each wearing billowing oversized Jaguars jerseys, stood at the corner. When they saw me park they turned and ambled toward me, giving my car the eye. It wasn’t very new or very nice, but it was new enough and nice enough to be worth stealing or stripping in this neighborhood. I got out of the car and stood with one foot still inside. I opened my wallet and flashed a badge I’d bought for eight bucks from a mail-order place. The badge said “authorized auto repossessor” but looked official enough from a distance. The two youths saw it and stopped ambling.

“Just going down to the bar, guys,” I said. “Sure like my car to be here when I come back.”

“Man, whatchoo tryin’ ta say?” the taller of the two said. “Like you just assume we thieves.”

“Nope,” I said. “Just making a general comment.”

“We ain’t gonna fuck with no car, man.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. I made a show of leaning back inside the car to retrieve my .38 from the glove box, then stepped back and closed the car door and made a bigger show of clipping the gun to my waistband and draping my shirt over it.

The two youths didn’t tremble or break down in tears. The gun didn’t seem to bother them at all. They were probably packing more heat beneath their own tentlike Jags t-shirts. But the gun helped them decide I really wasn’t worth the trouble. The tall one nodded at me once and they turned and ambled back up the street. They took up residence again at their corner and paid me no more mind.

###

The sun was still up outside, and the darkness inside O’Shaughnessy’s reached out and smacked me in the face when I opened the door. The owner had painted the windows black long ago and only half the low-wattage light bulbs in the place actually worked, so the bar existed in permanent twilight. It took awhile for my eyes to adjust, but in the meantime the place had a smell I could see, the scent of unwashed man competing with faint remembrances of long-vanished vomit and urine.

A chipped and gouged bar ran the length of the room on the right side and looked like it had been bought at a fire auction. Along the opposite wall ran five secondhand booths that had been old around the time Vesuvius started making threatening noises. The floor was cement carpeted by a film of dried beer and piss and blood and puke, and it sucked at my shoes as I walked.

The place was nearly empty at this hour. Three men sat at the bar staring into glasses of beer and not talking. The guy behind the bar was big and bald and might have had a neck, but it would take an expert to know for sure. His forearms were each the size of an entire Olsen Twin and his hands were thick and misshapen from too many years of flossing drunks’ teeth with his knuckles. I happened to know that his name was Scotty, and he had a fantastic singing voice. He’d also killed a man in a knife fight last year and got off on self-defense. He recognized me and nodded. I nodded back then looked around the place for Ria.

Now that my eyes had adjusted I saw her sitting in the back booth. She was easy to spot. For starters, she was the only woman in the place. She also hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d told me she would be the cute one. Not that there was much competition in this joint, but Ria would have been the cute one in a pillow fight between the Miss America contestants and the Playboy Bunnies.

She was sitting at the outside edge of the booth, so I could see all of her from crown to sole. She was in her mid-twenties and slender and looked compact. It was hard to tell while she was sitting down, but I wouldn’t have pegged her as any taller than five-two. She wore no makeup. She didn’t need to. Her pale skin was accented with just a faint dusting of freckles across the nose. She had wide full lips and hair too flamboyantly red to be anything but natural. Her eyes were huge and almost black, which was unusual with redheads in my experience. Right now the eyes were unfocused and bored, but they looked like they could be friendly enough. She was wearing a snug pink halter top that showed off well-proportioned shoulders and denim short-shorts that showed off legs so miraculous they would’ve cured Roosevelt’s polio. Her feet were shoved into cheap dimestore flip-flops and her toenails were painted pink to match her halter top. She had a cute little backpack by her feet. She was drinking a flat beer from a glass so big she could have worn it as a hat. I went over and sat down across from her.

“Matt Salewski,” I said. I flipped her a card and she picked it up and glanced at it. She had a lot less trouble with it than Annie had.

“Just assume I’m the cute one, huh?” she said.

“Well, except for Scotty.”

Ria smiled politely and took another drink. “So what do you want to know, Matt Salewski?” she asked.

“Sheri called you about three-thirty yesterday. I wondered what it was about.”

“She just wanted to see how I was.”

“Any particular reason?”

“No,” Ria said. “Just shooting the shit. We talked a lot.”

“How long have you known Sheri?” I asked.

“All my life,” Ria said. “She was my big sister.”

###

I felt like someone had just opened the back of my head and made off with my brain. I’d been operating under the assumption that Teresa Tanner was the real woman, and Sheri Conroy was the fabrication. I was completely at a loss for what to say next. I finally settled on, “Huh?”

Ria smiled sadly and stuck her hand out. “Ria Conroy,” she said. “Sheri told me a lot about you.”

I took the hand numbly, shook it, put it down. I turned to the bar and yelled at Scotty to bring me a beer.

“You got legs,” he said.

“And I’ll use ‘em to kick your ass if you don’t bring me a fuckin’ beer,” I snarled.

Scotty’s eyes widened in surprise. He drew me a beer and walked around the bar and brought it to the booth. “Anyone else said that, I’d beat the shit out of him,” he said.

I paid for the beer and threw a five on top for Scotty. “Having a bad day,” I said. “Not your fault.”

Scotty nodded and went back behind the bar. I took a long drink. The beer tasted like bat piss that had been marinating a dead hobo, but it was cold. I looked at Ria.

“You wanna run that by me again?” I said.

“Look, I know all about Dave Tanner and the name change and all that,” Ria said.

“Did Dave Tanner know about you?”

“No. She was Teresa by the time she met him. Sheri and me didn’t have a real easy life. She was trying to reinvent herself, I guess.”

“And forgot to tell everyone in her new life, ‘Oh, hey, I’ve got a little sister’?” I asked.

“I like myself fine, so I didn’t want to come along for the ride,” Ria said. “But I wasn’t going to fuck up my sister’s good thing.”

“Leave that for now,” I said. “You have any idea who’d want to kill her?”

“No.”

“No?”

Ria pursed her lips and fiddled with her beer glass for awhile. “Look,” she said. “Sheri was into something. I don’t know what. I know she tried to get out of it about five years ago and wasn’t entirely able to. I don’t want to know what it was.”

“Might have to if you ever want to find out who killed her,” I said.

“Fuck that,” Ria said with sudden force. “You don’t know what she had to do — what we both had to do — after we left home. She finally got away from all that, and I don’t want it shitting all over her now that she’s dead.”

“What did you have to do after you left home?” I asked.

“Fuck you, Matt.”

I ignored that. “This thing Sheri was into. Anything to do with drugs?”

“I don’t know,” Ria said. “Just leave it alone.”

“Number one: I don’t believe you don’t know anything,” I said. “Number two: I’ve got no intention of leaving it alone.”

“She’s my sister,” Ria said. She was crying a little. “Shouldn’t I have a say?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss. But Sheri had a husband who loved her too, and he actually wants to find the son of a bitch that shot her to pieces. To me, that trumps anything you want.”

“You might not like what you find out about her,” Ria said.

“I don’t care what I find out about her,” I said. “You have my card. You change your mind, or you need help, call me. Might make both our lives easier.”

“Why the hell would I need help?”

“Sheri obviously did.”

“And a bang-up job you did there,” Ria said.

I leaned forward and tried my best to stab her with my eyes. “Maybe if she’d been straight up with me at the beginning she wouldn’t be dead right now,” I said. “I can’t help if I don’t know it’s needed. Just something to consider.”

I got up and walked out and went back to my car. The sun was getting low, but there was still plenty of light left. Plenty of heat, too. Up at the corner, the two young Jags fans were still surveying their domain. They saw me coming and nodded again. I nodded back and shot them a thanks-for-not-fucking-with-my-car salute.

I opened the car up and pawed around in the backseat until I found an old hat and a wrinkled sportcoat. Then I removed the red Hawaiian shirt I was wearing and slipped the coat on over my white tee. It was really too hot for the get-up, but I was carrying a gun and my license required that I carry concealed. I fished a rubber band out of the glove compartment and tied my hair back and stuck the hat on my head, then grabbed my sunglasses from the visor and slipped them on. A regular Lon Chaney, me.

I leaned against the car and waited and sweated. After about ten minutes of waiting and sweating, I saw Ria come out of the bar wearing her cute little backpack and head up the street. I waited until she turned a corner and started after her. I wasn’t worried about losing her as long as she stayed on foot; I could’ve spotted all that red hair in a sandstorm at midnight.

I hooked a right where she had and looked up the street and there she was, about a hundred yards ahead of me. We walked about half a mile, always about a hundred yards apart. Ria walked pretty well for someone wearing wafer-thin flip-flops. She never looked back or acted like she expected a tail. She didn’t seem ill at ease in the neighborhood, either, and the neighborhood was a little questionable. Then, she hadn’t seemed ill at ease at O’Shaughnessy’s, and O’Shaughnessy’s was a slaughterhouse.

Ria ended up at a joint called Kisses, a low but sprawling concrete box with no windows and the glass on the door blacked out. It was painted white and purple and its sign featured the word “Nude!” repeated three times. Ria went in the black glass door. I crossed to the other side of the street and waited through a couple of cigarettes. After ten minutes she hadn’t come out, so I crossed the street again and went in.

Inside, as I expected, was the typical beefy guy collecting cover charges before opening the inner door to the club proper. I paid my twenty bucks and he told me to have a good time and let me into what seemed to be a very high-end strip club for the neighborhood. The place was clean and the chairs were comfortable, at least. The lighting and the music made my head hurt, but that was pretty standard in strip clubs the world over. Lots of purple neon, lots of thudding bass. I glanced at the stage and saw a blonde performing the usual gyrations and wearing only a baby-blue garter on her left leg and a pair of six-inch stilettos. The sign hadn’t lied, then; this was definitely a full-nude club. Which, unfortunately for me, meant no alcohol was served. It’s been a long time since any random naked woman could make me get up on my hind legs, but I definitely needed a scotch.

I took a table as far from the stage as I could get and ordered a six-dollar coke from a topless waitress. I lit a cigarette. At least you could still smoke in these clubs. Most of Florida was smoke-free, and I didn’t mind that much. But if I had to sit through Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” at ear-bleed level, and do it without alcohol, I by-god deserved a cigarette.

It was still early, and there weren’t many patrons here yet. Those that were here were the usual mix of frat boys and jowly businessmen. Only the frat boys seemed to be enjoying themselves. The businessmen looked bored and sad and a bit lost.

The topless waitress brought me back a plastic cup that held about six ounces of Coke – two, if you didn’t count the ice. I looked across the room at the gyrating blonde — who, a glance below the waist confirmed, was blonder than God intended. At least there was something below the waist; I wasn’t a fan of the modern obsession with waxing. The bottle blonde wiggled over to the edge of the stage and got down on all fours and stuck her ass in the face of a fat fortyish guy in a suit and tie. The fat guy had a wad of bills in his left hand and a ring on that hand’s third finger. He stared at the blonde’s ass with absolute concentration for a moment, then smiled a slightly lost smile and stuck a dollar bill in her garter. She grinned and oozed around and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Then she strutted back over to the pole, jumped up, and wrapped her legs around it. She hung upside-down for a moment. Her breasts, I noted, remained absolutely stationary through all of this, nary a wiggle or jiggle. I began to suspect that her hair wasn’t the only area where nature had been given some assistance.

“Wanna buy me a drink?”

A dark-haired waif wearing nothing but a transparent negligee had taken a seat beside me. She grinned and stuck out her hand. “I’m Stormy,” she said.

“I’ll bet you are,” I said.

“Buy me a drink?”

“Not today,” I said.

Stormy was professional, I had to give her that. She just gave me another brilliant smile and said, “If you change your mind…” Then she was off to work other tables.

I waited through the rest of the blonde’s act. She picked up her costume — already stripped and discarded by the time I’d come in — and left the stage and started approaching the customers and soliciting lapdances.

“Let’s give it up for Sugar!” the DJ blared. “And now, gentlemen, let’s welcome Dusty!”

“Enter Sandman” discovered my eardrums and started raping them. Ria clumped onto the stage in lucite platform spike heels that boosted her five-two to almost five-nine. She was wearing a Catholic-schoolgirl outfit. It was on the floor soon enough. The rest of Ria was just as good as her face and shoulders and legs. Her boobs were real, I was relieved to note. I’d also called it on her hair being naturally red, but I tried not to gloat.

I watched her for awhile from my table, then took out my wallet and approached the stage. Ria saw me coming and smiled professionally and danced over to the edge. She didn’t recognize me until she was inches away. When she did her face froze.

I smiled at her. “Remember me?” I said. I took a business card from my wallet and slipped it into her garter. “Just in case you left the other one at the bar,” I said. Then I walked out before she could wilt me with a snappy comeback.

Chapter 5

I gave up on sleep at ten and called Tanner. He didn’t answer. I didn’t blame him. He’d been standing up under a police grilling all night, and he probably wasn’t too happy with me right now; the cops had certainly told him I’d been the guy his wife was bopping. But I was still a free man and so was he, which meant he’d stuck to the story anyway. I was glad, and not just because he was saving me some trouble. I liked the guy, weak face and all. Couldn’t say exactly why, but I liked him. Whatever had been going on with Sheri (and I still couldn’t think of her as Teresa), I wanted to keep the dirt of it off him.

I went to the fridge and snagged a beer. I wasn’t usually a morning drinker, but after last night I figured I deserved one. I took the can out to the porch and plopped down in one of my cheap plastic deck chairs and looked across the street at the Atlantic rolling in. High dunes abutted the other side of my street, and made the view from the deck perfect; the Atlantic was there in all its glory, but the fat tourists on the beach were obscured by the dunes.

The sea rolled on in to shore. A shrimp boat trolled out near the horizon. I popped the tab on my beer and took a long swallow. The wind was off the ocean today and there was salt in the air. The beer tasted sweet with a bit of tang on the underside. The beer tasted the way the sea smelled. The sky was electric blue all the way from the high-noon spot down to the hard line of the horizon. A bright red kite dipped and soared in the distance. It looked like it was meant to be there, a punctuation mark sealing the perfection of the day. The sea rolled in, the sky was blue, the beer was cold, and a woman I’d thought I’d known was still just as dead.

###

I finished my beer and went back in and got Sheri’s little prepaid phone off my nightstand and went through the call log. The last call she’d made that wasn’t to me had been at 3:30 yesterday afternoon to someone named Ria. I wrote down the number and called from my own phone.

She picked up after two rings and said hello. She sounded like she’d been crying.

“Is this Ria?” I asked.

“Who’s this?”

“Friend of Sheri’s,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

“How did you get this number?” she asked.

“Have you heard about Sheri?”

“Yes, I heard. How did you get this number?”

“I have her phone,” I said. “She was supposed to meet me last night. She didn’t make it.”

There was a long silence. I waited through it. Silence doesn’t bother me much.

“Are you Matt?” Ria asked at last.

“That’d be me,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“Did Sheri tell you what I do for a living?”

Ria waited just a fraction too long before saying, “No.”

I ignored the pause and plowed on. “I’m a private detective,” I said. “I’m trying to get an idea of what she was up to yesterday.”

“I don’t think I can help you.”

“You can help me, or you can help the cops,” I said. “There’s some weird shit going on here, and I’m trying to keep Sheri out of it as much as I can, for whatever that means now. But if I don’t get some help from someone, I’m going to say fuck it and let the police handle everything.”

The silence was longer this time. “You know your way around Jacksonville?” she said at last.

“Yes.”

“Six o’clock at O’Shaughnessy’s,” she said. “You know the place?”

“I do,” I said. “How will I know you?”

“I’ll be the cute one,” she said, and hung up.

###

I didn’t have anything else to do, so I printed out the pictures Dave Tanner had e-mailed me and drove out to the Bryceton Vacation Motel. I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near room 115, but maybe somebody in one of the other rooms knew something.

I parked my car at the back of the lot and headed toward the office. On the way across the lot I spotted a discarded crack vial. I stopped to pick it up before heading inside.

If possible, the office looked worse than the rooms. The walls were a dingy brown with a lot of streaks from water damage. The floor was vomit-colored tile, and somebody might have swept it once, long ago in its vanished youth. There were cigarette scars on the desk and a Benson & Hedges burning in a cheap foil ashtray. There was a No Smoking sign next to the ashtray.

A woman sat behind the desk reading a trashy paperback romance. She weighed about three hundred pounds and looked old enough to be God’s mother-in-law. She was the only one in the office, so my deductive instincts led me to believe the Benson & Hedges was hers. I think she ignored me when I came in, but I’ve never been sure. Her head might have just weighed too much to lift from the book.

“Hi there,” I said.

She kept her eyes glued to the book. “Do for ya?” she said in a voice that sounded like a chainsaw motor, if the chainsaw motor was a little under the weather. I began to think my suspicion that she smoked had merit.

“I was wondering if you could answer some questions.”

“Not unless one of ‘em is, ‘You got a room?’” she said, still looking at the book.

I looked at the book. It was one of those dime-thin “erotic romances” that use words like cock and shaft and throbbing and dripping yet are somehow aimed toward women. The cover featured a bare-chested oily beefsteak standing behind a debutante whose breasts were about to make their own debut right out of her low-cut dress. The beefsteak had his arms around the debutante and she leaned into him with her head thrown back and both their faces wore expressions of desire so broad as to be ludicrous. Maybe the text was better than the cover, because old fatty seemed pretty engrossed. I reached across the counter and plucked the book from her flippers and tossed it over my shoulder. She gaped at me and said, “Uh, uh, uh.”

I smiled my killer smile at her. “Hi,” I said. “My name’s Matt. I need help. You’re an employee, I’m assuming, of this shitbox motel. You give help. We could be friends.”

“You can’t do that,” she rasped.

“And yet I did.”

“I’m calling the cops,” she said.

“Do that,” I said. “How many paying tenants you think you’ll lose with the cops here two days in a row?”

She stared at me and chewed on her lips. It drew all her wrinkles and skin flaps in toward her mouth, like her face was being sucked into a black hole.

“Whatcha want?” she said at last.

I took out my photos of Sheri and slid them across the desk. “This woman was killed here last night,” I said.

More sullen lip-chewing. “Don’t know nothin’ about that. I was off.”

“I figured you were if you’re working today,” I said. “You always work days?”

“No, we shift around a bit.”

“So you ever seen her here?”

“I told you I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

“I mean before. While she wasn’t dead.” I spoke slowly, as if explaining procreation to an idiot child. I held up the photo of Sheri at the party. “Think,” I said.

Old fatty thought. Or at least she chewed her lips some more. “Hard to say,” she said at last.

I sighed and took a twenty out of my wallet and played with it idly. Old fatty’s eyes went from the picture of Sheri to the picture of Jackson.

“Yeah,” she said. “I seen her a few times before.”

“Day or night?” I kept fiddling with the twenty. She kept watching me fiddle.

“Both.”

“How often?”

“Couldn’t say. She might come in sometimes when I’m not here.”

“I’m not expecting omniscience. Just how often you saw her when you were here.”

She sucked her face into her mouth some more. Probably trying to puzzle out omniscience. “Maybe once every coupla weeks,” she said.

“Ever with anybody?”

“You’re askin’ a lot for twenty bucks, mister.”

“Who says I’m paying anyone twenty bucks?” I said. “Right now I’m just keeping my hands busy with it while we chat. If the conversation annoys you I’ll put it away.”

Old fatty grunted. “No, she never come in here with no one else,” she said. “Don’t know if anyone else ever come to her room after she checked in, though.”

I slid the twenty to her and gathered up the photos. “Someone did last night,” I said. “Think I’ll mosey around and talk to some of the guests.”

“Manager won’t like you botherin’ the guests,” the old woman said. A fat hand crept toward the phone.

I held up the crack vial I’d found in the parking lot. “Manager’d like it even less if the cops came by to search the guest rooms,” I said. “Have a nice day, now.”

Old fatty glowered and put her hand away. “You wanna gimme my book back?” she asked.

I retrieved the book from the floor. On the cover, the debutante’s boobs hadn’t spilled from her dress in spite of the tumble the book had taken. Tough luck for the slab of abs behind her.

I handed the book back to the fat woman. “Reading expands the horizons,” I said, and walked out of the office.

I thought I heard her mutter “Fuck you, shithead,” as the door closed. At least she was expanding her vocabulary.

###

I didn’t know if my luck with the tenants of the Bryceton Vacation Motel would be any better than that of the police, but I didn’t have any other ideas. I worked my way down the sidewalk knocking on doors. Most of the time, the rooms were empty. A few times I heard movement in a room but no one answered the door. Twice doors were opened but shut again when the occupant saw he didn’t know me.

I caught a break at room 109. Two seconds after I knocked I heard movement and a woman’s voice said, “Fuck you been, Bobby?” I heard the security chain slide out of its slot and the bolt turn, and a young skinny sexless thing with stringy, defeated-looking black hair and a long Snoopy t-shirt opened the door and said, “I been waitin’ all fuckin’ day–“

The young sexless thing got a look at me and stopped. “You ain’t Bobby.”

“I ain’t,” I said, and handed over a card.

The young sexless thing puzzled over the card as if it were the Magna goddamn Carta. There were only four words on the card, but to be fair, Salewski and Investigator are both big ones.

“Ain’t done nothin’,” the thing said cautiously. It spoke with a thick Florida-cracker twang.

I went ahead and took a twenty out ahead of time. “Don’t care what you’ve done,” I said. “I’m trying to find out about what someone else done.”

The thing’s eyes looked raptly at the twenty. “You pay?”

“If I like what you tell me,” I said. “Mind if we talk inside?”

We went inside and I sat down in a rickety chair and the sexless thing sat on the bed with its back to the headboard and legs stretched lazily before it. In the closed room it gave off a dirt-and-sweat smell so strong I could have used it to jack my car up. I wished we’d stayed outside, but it was too late now.

The thing was a girl, about five-four and maybe ninety pounds. Maybe twenty years old, maybe younger. She looked like a high-mileage forty. Meth will do that. Her face stretched over her skull like it had been tightened at the back with a winch. Her Snoopy t-shirt — really a nightshirt, I realized — had been washed once but had gotten over it since. Above the shirt a neck with barely any flesh on it sank into sharp collarbones that seemed ready to poke right through the skin. Through the shirt I could see the imprints of big nipples poking from sad, flattened breasts. Below the shirt her wasted legs were chalk white except where they were mottled with bruises, which was pretty much everywhere. The absence of any fat or muscle in her calves and thighs made her knees and ankles look huge and knobby. The legs were carelessly arranged and the nightshirt would have been hiked up high enough to reveal panties, if the girl had been wearing any. She wasn’t. I looked carefully at her face.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Thought you didn’t care about me,” she said. She hugged herself and scratched her arms in a twitchy junkie shuffle.

“Just being polite.”

“Annie,” she said. She grinned suddenly, showing teeth going gray with rot. “Thought you was Bobby.”

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Our food stamps run out so Bobby went to get some money Sheila owes us. Bitch better pay the money and not just try to fuck him.”

“Maybe you should have gone in that case,” I said.

“Shit, I’d kill that bitch. She fucked my man while I was visitin’ my cousin.”

“Course of true love,” I said. Annie just looked at me.

“Whatchoo payin’ to know?” she asked.

“Know the lady who got killed here last night?”

“You ain’t no cop?”

“Nope. Private eye, just like the movies. I never talk to cops.”

Annie seemed satisfied with that. Her eyes danced conspiratorially and she actually looked around the empty room as if for eavesdroppers. She scooted forward on the bed, hiking her stained nightshirt all the way above her skinny, bruised ass and past hipbones carved in sharp relief under her too-tight skin. She sat cross-legged on the bed and reached down with an absent hand to tug the shirt back down over her crotch. She didn’t seem to notice that her ass was still half-exposed, but at that point I was thankful for any show of modesty. She leaned forward and looked me in the eye. I tried not to smell the rancid-soil stench oozing off her skin.

“Omigod, man, I seen her last night! How fucked-up is that? I seen that girl right before someone fuckin’ killed her!” Her tone suggested she felt a real sense of accomplishment.

I leaned forward. “What time was that?”

“I wasn’t payin’ attention,” Annie said.

“Before or after the rain?”

“‘Bout an hour before.” That meant around seven.

“Tell me about it,” I said.

“Bobby was bein’ a little bitch so I was outside smokin’ till he was ready to shut up,” Annie said. “This lady was standin’ out there too, down a few doors talkin’ on the phone. I noticed cuz she was talkin’ like she was all pissed off at something.”

“You remember what she was saying?”

“Something about I’ll talk to you but I’m not gonna fuck up my whole life or something.”

That would have been her call to me. So she’d definitely been here at seven.

“Anybody with her?” I asked.

“I didn’t see no one, less he was already in the room,” Annie said.

“So she’d already checked into the room.”

“I guess so. Light was on inside.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“Then nothin’. She went back into her room and I smoked some more and then came back in here.”

“You see or hear anything else the rest of the night?” I asked.

“Not till later,” Annie said. “Saw the lights from the po-lice. Cop knocked on the door.”

“You answer?”

“Hell no.”

“You didn’t hear any shots?”

“Me an’ Bobby had the TV up pretty loud,” Annie said. Of course, that wasn’t really an answer, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good to push it. I gave her the twenty and stood, and that was when Bobby got back from Sheila’s.

He opened the door and came in and froze. His head swiveled to me, then to Annie sitting on the bed with her ass exposed, then back to me. He looked like a man watching tennis.

“What the fuck you doin’?” he asked me.

“Leaving,” I said.

He stepped further into the room and swept the door shut behind him. He was a thin wiry jittery guy with that thin wiry jittery strength. When he started swinging he’d come after you like a spider monkey with a cocaine hard-on. I decided not to let him start swinging, if it came to that.

“Leavin’, my ass,” Bobby said. “What you doin’ in here?”

“Shut up, Bobby, he’s a private eye,” Annie said. “He paid me twenty bucks.”

“Paid for what, fag?” Bobby asked me. He stepped close, trying to go nose-to-nose with me and back me down. It didn’t work for two reasons. The first was that his nose was four inches closer to the earth than my nose. The second was that as soon as he was close enough, I kicked him in the balls.

“Huunnghh,” Bobby remarked. He sank to his knees. I grabbed him by the hair and hauled him upright and drove his face into the wall. He fell straight back and went to sleep. I looked at Annie. She didn’t seem particularly disturbed.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t worry. He’s a fuckin’ tard sometimes,” she said. She flopped onto her back, exposing herself yet again in the process, and sighed. “Prolly don’t have no money from Sheila neither.”

I desperately wanted to go more than two minutes between glimpses of Annie’s vagina. “Well, at least one of you earned something today,” I said, and turned to go.

“Hey,” Annie said.

I turned reluctantly. “Yeah?”

“For another twenty I’ll suck your cock.”

She smiled shyly and it made her look almost as young as she was. I saw her whole life then. She’d grown up in a ramshackle trailer and spent her childhood walking on bare dirt-blackened feet through a yard littered with broken sunbleached toys and castoff hubcaps and dogshit. She got accustomed early to being screamed at by an alcoholic chain-smoking mother and wearing hand-me-downs from older sisters and living largely on canned soup and Hamburger Helper with no meat. She’d fucked by thirteen and was a drunk by fifteen and quit school at sixteen and had never been further away from the place she was born than southern Georgia. She’d left the ramshackle trailer before she was seventeen to live with Bobby or someone equally worthless, and her chain-smoking alcoholic mother probably hadn’t cared.

I gaped at her, the little ninety-pound twenty-year-old with rotten teeth and sad wasted breasts and a bony bruise-covered ass, offering to sink to her knees for a stranger while her man slumbered in the corner. I wondered how often she hit her knees for strangers with her man’s knowledge and approval. I thought probably a lot, his bravado toward me notwithstanding — especially if it was near time to make the rent or they just needed another ten for some of the good stuff or, hell, they just wanted to buy some Cheetos down at the gas station.

I fumbled my wallet and gave her another bill. I didn’t look to see what it was. “Buy some pants,” I said. I turned and opened the door and walked out.

Chapter 4

Jimmy A. Sweeting III had seven generations of ancestors in the ground in Dayton County and kept getting elected on the strength of his connections and the firmness of his handshake. He looked and acted like a Southern sheriff in a movie — tall, fat but solid, a backslapping buzzcut good ol’ boy who was suspicious of anyone whose great-grandpappy hadn’t worn Rebel gray. He was immensely popular with the electorate, and what he knew about law enforcement you could just about fit in a book big enough to shove up a titmouse’s ass, provided you had some filler for the book and the titmouse was small for its age.

Right now it was half past two and Jimmy was staring at me across his desk. Coop leaned against the wall behind me and studied his fingernails and stayed out of the conversation.

Sweeting had taken the time to get into uniform before leaving his house, probably because he thought it made him more intimidating. It really only made him look ridiculous. The dark green blouse was as tight as a sausage skin. His face was red from the constriction of his too-small collar. His neck was fat. His earlobes were fat. Even his nostrils were fat.

“This whole thing stinks, son,” he said.

“Can you breathe in that thing?” I said.

Sweeting’s eyes narrowed. “I think it’d pay you to stick to the subject at hand for once in your goddamned life, Salinski.”

“Salewski,” I said. The fat bastard had known me for eight years and got my name right maybe one in every ten tries.

“How about you go over the whole thing again?” he said.

“Nope,” I said. Behind me, Coop groaned.

Sweeting’s face got redder. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but there it was. “You wanna say that again?”

“I said nope. You got my statement. You got it transcribed, signed and witnessed. You got Dave Tanner down here in the middle of the goddamn night to vouch that I was working for him. You got everything I have to give, and it’s a hell of a lot more than I’d give under ordinary circumstances. I’m done, I’m tired, and I want to go home.”

“You can go home when I’m ready to let you go, you little sumbitch,” Sweeting said.

“You planning on charging me?”

Sweeting just ground his teeth at me and sat there breathing fatly.

“Then fuck off,” I said.

A vein throbbed in Sweeting’s forehead and he shot to his feet. His chair crashed into the wall behind him. He leaned across the desk and reached for my collar.

“Touch me,” I said. “I’d love the county to fund my retirement.”

His hand froze an inch away from me. We stared at each other. I could feel Coop behind me ready to step in, but if Sweeting wanted to pop me one he could probably break my nose before anything could be done about it. I kept looking at him and tried to breathe normally.

Finally he sighed and straightened up. He retrieved his chair and sat down and waved his hand at me.

“Get out of here,” he said.

“On my way.”

I got up and walked to the door and opened it. I was halfway out when Sweeting said, “Time was in this county a longhaired little pissant like you couldn’t talk like that to the sheriff and leave any way but on a shutter. Whole world’s going to hell.”

“The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycle,” I said.

Sweeting just stared at me. He had no idea what I was talking about.

“Unbelievable,” I said, and walked out.

###

Coop followed me out to my car. The rain had stopped and the sky was the kind of clear it only ever is out in rural counties. We stood in the parking lot and lit cigarettes and smoked at each other.

“Paul Newman, right?” he said.

“See? You’ve got some culture.”

“You still ain’t gonna revise that bullshit statement?”

“Wasn’t bullshit, Coop.”

“Okay,” he said. “Let me rephrase. You gonna tell me what you left out of that statement, thereby rendering the rest bullshit?”

I drew in a lungful of smoke and looked at the stars. “You guys ever send Tanner home?” I asked.

“Yeah, we got nothing to hold him for. He says he was home all night and we don’t know otherwise. Of course the other people at the motel, them that even answered their doors, say they didn’t see nothing. You ain’t gonna answer my question, are you?”

“Nope.”

“Fair enough.” He tossed his butt and ground it out and looked me in the eye. “Both of you are lying through your fuckin’ teeth about something here,” he said.

“Coop, do you even like Tanner for this job?”

He sighed and pulled his pack and lit another pill. “Nah,” he said. “Man didn’t kill her. Don’t mean Jimmy won’t hang it on him sooner or later, though. Unless you got some ideas that’ll point him in another direction.”

“Coop, the woman was lying to me about her name, lying to her husband about where she spent her nights, and I found her with a goddamn sandwich bag full of Bolivian marching powder in her suitcase. If anything, I have too many ideas.”

He looked at the ground and nodded. “Yeah, it is a fuckin’ mess,” he said. “And I guess you’re gonna keep poking at it even if I warn you off.”

“Yep.”

Coop sighed.

“Do it clean. Tommy wouldn’t talk to me for a week if I had to run you in. Some reason, he likes your skinny white ass.” Tommy was an orthodontist who lived in Jacksonville. He and Coop had been together for nearly a decade, even though Tommy was out and proud and Coop, in order to keep his job, was so far in the closet Tommy probably had to toss mothballs at him every couple of months. Either Tommy was the most understanding guy in the world, or Coop was very good at sex.

“I only rate a week of silent treatment?” I asked.

“Most he could stand,” Coop said. “I’m very good at sex.”

One mystery solved, at least.

Coop held his fist out for a bump and I gave it to him. Then I got in my car and drove back to the island and tried to sleep. I didn’t.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

I said Tanner’s name. He just kept staring. I looked around the bathroom. No gun. I looked at his hands. No gun. I stepped over him and straddled his splayed legs. He didn’t seem to notice. I leaned over and took the lid off the toilet tank and looked inside. No gun. Ditto the bathtub.

I said Tanner’s name again. He didn’t respond. I knelt down beside him and his eyes followed me but he still didn’t say anything when I said his name. I slapped him around a little and it seemed to clear his head marginally.

“Wha–?” he said.

“What the hell is going on here?” I asked.

“Matt?” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“I think right now it’s more important that you answer that question.”

“Teresa called me and asked me to come,” he said.

“Why?”

He frowned. “She didn’t say, really. I mean, she said she had to talk to me and needed help and to come here at nine-thirty.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Around seven, seven-thirty, I guess.”

About the same time she’d called me. “When did you get here?” I said.

He looked at me like I was an idiot. “About nine-thirty, like she asked,” he said. “The door was open. I came in.”

“Uh-huh. So why have you been hanging out in the bathroom for an hour?”

“She was over there in the corner. I saw. I had to … I had to throw up.” He actually looked ashamed at that. I thought it was a pretty reasonable reaction, myself.

“After, I just sat here. I didn’t want to go out there again,” he said. “Then I heard the door open and figured I’d better hide. Didn’t know it was you.”

I looked at Tanner and thought and made a decision. “Get up,” I said.

“What?”

“Get up. You’re going home. In a little while the police are going to be calling you. You were never here. Remember that. You were absolutely never here. I don’t care where you were, but it wasn’t here.”

“Don’t you think we ought to tell them what happened?” he said.

“No, I do not. I think that would be just about the dumbest thing you could possibly do right now.”

“But–“

“Do you want me to find out what happened here, Tanner?” I said.

“Of course I do, but–“

“Well, you can’t pay me from jail. Now get up.”

I helped him to his feet and more or less held him upright as we got out of the bathroom. I felt him stiffen as we walked into the bedroom and tried to steer him so he wouldn’t see any more than he had to. I got him out of the room and into his car. It was still raining that light, stubborn rain.

“You okay to drive?” I asked.

“I think so.”

“Straight home. Understand? No stops. And you were never here. The cops call you, you were home watching TV when I found her here. I called you at ten o’clock and told you.”

“Yes, but–“

“Tanner, that’s the story I’m telling,” I said. “If you don’t back me up we’ll both be ear-deep in shit without a snorkel, and you will never know what went on here. Never. Am I clear?”

He sat there and chewed on his lips for a minute while I stood by his window and got wet. Then he nodded. “Okay,” he said.

“Good. Get the hell out of here. I’ve got to call this in.”

He started the car and drove off. I watched his taillights and hoped to God I wasn’t wrong about him.

I stared at the wet pavement where Tanner’s car had been. I had a thought. That didn’t seem to be happening often lately, so I paid attention.

I walked over to Sheri’s little blue Honda and knelt down beside it and stuck my arm under it as far as I could reach. The asphalt under the Honda was bone dry. The rain had started at eight, which meant she’d already been parked here then. Was probably already parked here and sitting in room 115 when she’d called me at seven saying she was headed somewhere else. The asphalt under Tanner’s car had been wet, which might back up his claim that he hadn’t gotten there until 9:30.

I stood up and looked around. No one was in the parking lot. No one peeping at me through a motel room window, as far as I could tell. No one cared if I got the clap or moved to Canada.

I went back inside 115 and went over and knelt by the body. There looked to be five entrance wounds, the one in the head and four in the torso. The body shots were all over the place. Even at what had to have been point-blank range, the shooter’s grouping had sucked. He’d probably fired off all five as fast as he could, knowing he couldn’t miss at that distance anyway. The headshot could very well have just been luck.

I glanced at the walls above the body. There was bloodspray, just a few droplets, staining the cigarette-tar about three feet from the floor, which meant she’d been killed here rather than dumped. One small hole in the plaster. The bullet from the headshot was probably lodged in there. The height of the spray and the hole told me she’d been on her knees when the round took the top of her head off. I’d missed the spray and the hole the first time. It’s easy to do. According to the movies you can repaint a room by shooting someone. In reality people just don’t have that much blood in them, and a quart of the stuff sure as hell doesn’t follow the bullet through an exit wound.

There was blood pooled under her head but none under her torso, which meant the other bullets were probably still in her. I revised my idea about the headshot being lucky. If it had gone on through after the other four had lodged in her, that probably meant the shooter had fired his first four from a distance of maybe eight feet max, considering the size of the room, then walked right up to her and delivered a coup de gras from inches away. There was too much blood on her face to see clearly, but I felt pretty sure there’d be powder burns and blowback around the wound.

She was wearing shorts and her legs were already noticeably paler than they’d been in life. I lifted one up slightly and looked at the underside of her calf. A little lividity had already formed there, but the purplish flesh blanched to white when I pressed my thumb into her calf, so the blood hadn’t congealed in the vessels there yet. Which told me nothing I didn’t already know; it wouldn’t have had time to congeal yet anyway. I reached up and kneaded the hinge of her jaw. The flesh there was like a rock. Her neck muscles were stiffening but not locked yet. The rest of her body was still pliable.

That told me something. Rigor starts in the eyelids and the jaw and works its way down. There’s a good deal of variation in the length of time it takes corpses to stiffen, but about three hours was a good working hypothesis for the amount of rigor I was seeing here. I glanced at my watch and was shocked to see it wasn’t even eleven yet. I was beginning to feel better about letting Tanner go. For all I could tell, Sheri had been dead within half an hour of talking to me. Maybe within minutes.

I spent another twenty minutes going through the room and wiping down every surface I could think of — I wanted to keep Tanner out of this as far as I could — then another five touching things to put my prints back on. The cops wouldn’t believe I hadn’t poked around before calling them. I gave the bathroom the same treatment, then ground my teeth and went to the phone.

###

Jonah Cooper caught the squeal. I was glad; Coop and I got along, which was more than I could say for my relationship with his boss, the sheriff. Coop was tall and wide and had hands the size of catcher’s mitts and a brain that had come equipped with a lot more RAM than the standard. He’d been a high school football star who was good enough to play his way to a college degree but not good enough for the pros. He’d joined the Sheriff’s Department in 1985 and made detective in ‘89, even though black men weren’t making detective in ‘89 in Dayton County, “New South” be damned. Sheriff Sweeting didn’t particularly like Coop, but Coop cleared cases — and unlike a lot of the detectives on the county’s payroll, Coop cleared them clean enough to stick when it came time for the trial. Coop was also as gay as Old Paree, but I was certain that I was the only person in the county who knew it. Gay black men weren’t making detective in Dayton County anytime in the next millennium, no matter how many cases they cleared.

Now he was standing with me in the center of room 115 while uniformed deputies buzzed around us. He jammed his hands in his pockets and sighed.

“Well, ain’t this a fuckin’ mess?” he said.

“One way of putting it,” I said.

“How about you tell me what brought you out here tonight?”

“This is going to sound pretty fucked up.”

“Brother, it’s already fucked up,” Coop said. “Whatever you got to say ain’t gonna fuck it any worse, and it ain’t gonna unfuck it, either. So tell me a story.”

I told him quite a lot — how Tanner had hired me, how I’d been seeing a woman named Sheri, how I’d realized Sheri and Teresa were the same woman. I told him about her calling me to set up the meeting and I told him about finding her dead when I arrived. I left Dave Tanner’s presence there out of it entirely, although I did say I’d called him to tell him the bad news. I also left out the cheap little Virgin Mobile phone in my pocket.

“That all?” Coop said when I was through.

“Jesus, Coop, isn’t that enough?”

“It’s more than enough,” he said. “That’s what’s bothering me. I was expecting a two-minute pop song and you just sang me a whole goddamn libretto. You ain’t the talkative type usually.”

“I’m usually not the type to accidentally be the guy the client’s wife is screwing around with, either,” I said.

Coop nodded. “I can see where that would bother you,” he said.

“Just a bit, yeah.”

“Still, this is a nasty one. You know what has to happen now.” Coop sighed and unpocketed his cell phone. “You and me got to go talk to the man.”

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

My cell phone was in my hand without me being exactly aware of how it got there. I punched in Dave Tanner’s number. He picked up on the third ring.

“Hello?”

“Mr. Tanner? Matt Salewski.”

“Oh, hey,” he said. “You got the pictures? Are they clear enough?”

“Yeah, they’re good,” I said. “I need some background before I get started here. Can you talk?”

“Sure. Teresa’s not here right now.”

“How long have you been married?” I asked.

“About four, four-and-a-half years.”

“So before you sold your website for a bazillion clams,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tanner said. “She didn’t marry me for my money. At least there’s that.”

“How long you think she’s been stepping out?” I asked.

“She’s been a bit distant for about a year and a half. She’s been doing her nighttime vanishing act for about seven, eight months,” he said.

Before I’d met her. “Okay,” I said. “Where would she be right now?”

“In Jacksonville, shopping,” he said. “Really shopping. Her friend Rosa picked her up about twenty minutes ago to go to St. John’s Towne Centre. They’ll probably be gone most of the day.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll keep you posted.”

I killed the call and went to my closet to put on some new jeans, leaving the coffee-stained pair where it fell. I went into the kitchen and looked at the coffee pot and then decided I deserved something stronger and poured myself a scotch and added a mixer of more scotch. I sipped at it until I felt calm enough to make another phone call.

I scrolled through my phone book until I found the entry for Sheri. It occurred to me then that we’d never actually talked on the phone; we’d always sent text messages back and forth. “I hate the phone,” she’d said, and I’d put it down as the typical 21st-Century love of texting and nothing more. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

I highlighted Sheri’s number and hit send. It rang four times and voicemail picked up.

“This is Sheri, leave a message.” Beep. Not This is Teresa. Interesting. It looked like someone was maintaining two mobile accounts. I hit send again and called her back. The voicemail picked up again. I hung up and hit send again. This time she picked up after the third ring.

“Jesus Christ, Matt, where’s the fire?” she said.

“Just thought you might like to get together tonight,” I said.

“You just saw me last night.”

“Every little absence is an age,” I said.

“Very sweet, but I’m busy tonight.”

“I was thinking maybe you could carve out some time, Teresa,” I said.

She was quiet for a long time. “What?”

“You heard me.”

More silence. “You know about Dave,” she said at last.

“I know about Dave,” I said. “I also know that you’re going to talk to me. Tonight. I don’t care what excuse you have to make or what you have to reschedule. I don’t care if you were planning to donate bone marrow to a doe-eyed orphan. You’re going to talk to me tonight. In person.”

Another silence. Then she said, “Fine. But not at your place. I want neutral ground.”

“You never have to worry about setting foot in my place again,” I said.

“You don’t even want to hear my explanation?”

“I’m aflame to hear your explanation. That’s why you’re going to talk to me tonight. It won’t change the situation, though.”

“No, I suppose it won’t,” she said. “You know the motel on 17?”

“Yes,” I said. I knew it well. A lot of my business involved discreetly observing couples going in and out of the place.

“Ten p.m.,” she said. “I’ll let you know the room when I get it.”

“Fine,” I said.

“You’re being an asshole.”

“I wonder why?”

“Christ, Matt, would it really have mattered that first night if you’d known I was married?”

“Probably not,” I admitted. “But I’d like to have been given the option to make that decision. And maybe your real name would have been nice, too.”

She sighed. She sounded more exasperated than contrite, and if she’d been in front of me I’d probably have throttled her.

“I don’t suppose it would help if I told you I was sorry,” she said.

“Not a whole hell of a lot,” I said. “I’ll see you at ten.” I killed the call and walked over to the kitchen table and sat down and stared at the tabletop. I stared at it for a long time before I could force myself to do anything else.

###

She called me at seven and told me she’d meet me in room 115. “I won’t be there before ten,” she said. “I just checked in on my way somewhere else.”

“Maybe you should turn your ass around and go back now,” I said.

“No, Matt. You’ll get your fucking talk, but I’m not upending my whole life over this.”

“Perish the thought.”

“Go to hell, Matt,” she said, and hung up. I put the phone in my pocket and left the house and walked down to Centre Street to eat an overpriced dinner at O’Kane’s and nurse a beer for a couple of hours. A light rain started around eight and just kept falling. Around 9:30 I left the bar and took a cab back to my place to pick up my car and drove off-island.

There are other small towns in the area, but to islanders there are really only two locations between Georgia and Jacksonville: “On the island” and “Out in the county.” The Bryceton Vacation Motel was out in the county, off U.S. 17 in an unincorporated area called, coincidentally enough, Bryceton. The motel was a fleatrap remnant from the pre-interstate days when staying anywhere in Florida was a novelty to tourists and even tiny motor lodges 15 miles away from the nearest beach could do land-office business. It survived now as a convenient meeting place for trysting lovers and the home address for semi-transient meth-heads who paid by the week when they were working and slept rough in the woods behind the motel when they weren’t.

I pulled into the motel parking lot at 9:50, and Sheri’s little blue Honda was already there. There were only four or five other cars in the lot; the meth-heads mostly rode bicycles or hoofed it. What cars there were all had Florida plates and probably belonged to drivers who’d told their spouses they’d be working late tonight. I got out of my heap and dashed through the drizzle to the motel’s covered sidewalk.

The lights were on inside 115 and the blinds were shut. I didn’t hear a TV or radio. I knocked and got no answer. Waited through a quick cigarette in case she was in the bathroom and knocked again. No answer. I tried the door, found it open, and let myself in.

The room was standard hot-sheets hideaway. Ragged carpet that had once been brown, worn thin in front of the double bed and accessorized here and there with food, coffee, and semen stains. TV vintage 1989, bolted to the top of the dresser. All illumination provided by lamps bolted to walls which had originally been off-white but were now yellowed with the tar of untold thousands of cigarettes. I didn’t pay much attention to any of that, though. I was too busy concentrating on the flat, coppery smell that hung in the stale air. I walked across the room on numb legs, looking for what I already knew had to be there.

She was on the floor between the bed and the wall. She didn’t look peaceful and even the part of her face that was still there was no longer pretty. Dead isn’t peaceful and dead isn’t pretty. It doesn’t matter if dead punches a hole in you with a bullet or gnaws away at your insides with tumor teeth or smothers you quietly in your sleep when you’re a hundred and seven, dead is never peaceful and it’s never pretty and it’s never profound. Dead is the ultimate banality. Dead is just dead.

With all the blood it was hard to tell how many times she’d been shot, but it had been several. One bullet had caught her high on the right side of her forehead and had excavated a gaping trench in her skull. Her half-open eyes glittered. Her mouth was slack. She didn’t look afraid, but that didn’t mean anything. Facial muscles relax after death, no matter what the cheap detective novels say. Her right arm was thrown above her head, the hand half-curled around nothing. Her left hand rested demurely on her stomach. Blood had welled up between the fingers and ran in congealing trickles over her knuckles and down toward her wrist. It stained a small diamond on her third finger, a diamond I’d never seen her wearing before.

I looked at her for a long time. Looking at her wasn’t telling me anything. I turned away from her and surveyed the room. There were two cigarettes stubs, her brand, in the ashtray on the bedside table. Nothing in the drawer but the inevitable Gideon Bible and a phone book two years out of date. I held both of these by their spines and gave them a shake. No scraps of paper bearing cryptic clues fluttered from between the leaves of either. The bedframe was one of those solid-block hotel jobs that leave no space for you to slide anything under the bed. I stripped the bed and flipped the mattress anyway and found nothing. I tried the drawers in the bureau. For some reason I couldn’t begin to fathom, motel management had seen fit to glue them shut.

I went over to the microscopic closet and looked inside. There was nothing on the shelf above the coat rod, but a small overnight bag sat on the floor. I retrieved it from the closet and took it over to the bed and opened it up.

There was a change of clothes and a box of condoms inside, which made me wonder. Sheri, or Teresa, or whoever, had surely known she and I wouldn’t be spending the night together. Under the clothes I found two cell phones, an expensive 4G smartphone and the cheap little Virgin Mobile prepaid I’d always seen her use. I flipped through the contact list on each. There wasn’t a single duplicated name. My name and number were on the Virgin phone. Dave Tanner was in the smartphone. I dropped the prepaid phone in my pocket and put the 4G job back in the overnight bag and unzipped the bag’s side pocket. I reached in and withdrew a ziplock bag filled with white powder.

I pondered that for awhile. I’d never seen Sheri use anything stronger than tobacco and alcohol, and this amount of coke would go for about a grand in this county — far too much product for personal use. I was still pondering when I heard the sniff.

An icicle formed high in my throat and reached down to spread freezing tendrils through my chest. The sniff, like someone snuffling mucous back into his throat, had come from behind the closed bathroom door. There was no other sound. Just that one sharp intake of breath. I’d spent twenty minutes tossing the bedroom and hadn’t even considered the john. I wondered which coatcheck room I’d left my brain in before coming here.

I stood absolutely still. I glanced around the room for a weapon. The most lethal-looking item in view was the television remote. I had a miniature Swiss Army penknife in my pocket, but its tiny blade was barely adequate for slicing an apple, let alone slicing whoever was cooped in the bathroom. Perhaps I could slide the little plastic toothpick out and poke him in the eye.

I kept on standing absolutely still for awhile. I made no sound. The guy camped out in the john made no sound. While we were each busy not making sounds I tried to formulate a plan of attack. Two ideas occurred to me. Number One: Turn around and walk as quietly as possible out of the room and call the cops. Number Two: Walk as quietly as possible over to the bathroom door, then throw it open and leap into the bathroom flapping my arms and yelling “Booga booga booga” and hope it shocked the guy long enough for me to think of a Number Three.

Number Two was perhaps the single stupidest thought that had ever occurred to me, and probably anyone else, so that’s the one I went with. I walked over to the bathroom door as slowly and quietly as I could. I didn’t breathe the whole way there. I wrapped my hand around the knob and then it occurred to me that I was going to feel pretty stupid if the door was locked. Oh, well. Too late now. I clamped my teeth together and coiled my legs to spring and jerked my wrist to the right.

The knob turned easily. I threw the door open and leapt in. I was yelling, yelling something, I don’t know what. Whatever it was, it died in my throat. Didn’t matter, really, because the guy sitting on the bathroom floor didn’t seem shocked by my sudden entrance. He barely seemed to notice me at all. I stood gawping at him. He became aware of me by stages. After spending some time contemplating my shoes and my jeans and my shirt, he finally glanced up at my face with too-big eyes that looked vaguely wounded. They would always look vaguely wounded.

“My wife’s in the other room,” Dave Tanner said in a dazed voice. “I think she might be hurt.”

 

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