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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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 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.