I hesitated, my hand on the smudged and corroded brass plate on the biker bar door, uncomfortable in tight leather pants and jacket. My costume was a rental, like the Harley I'd parked next to the others outside the building. Private eyes have to blend in with the terrain.
I had to find out what had happened to Stoney.
I took a deep breath and plunged into the dreary tavern that was dark even now in broad daylight. All the black leather jackets at the bar swiveled to stare at me. Their nameless pale faces, startling in the dusk, were a time-stopped flash freeze of a black and white mime show--except the music didn't fit. What pulsed throughout the room was heavy metal, a beat, noise. They stared at me. Why wouldn't they? I was an unfamiliar clone.
I took an uncertain step, feeling my leather pants squeak as I walked, like maybe the animal they were made from was complaining about its fate.
Time can't stop altogether. At my move the frozen black and white mosaic broke into motion, turning their backs, except for one stick-thin, white-faced man who walked toward me, thrust his gaunt face next to mine and spoke in a guttural whine. "He ain't here."
"Where is he, then?"
The man squinted at me, his mouth twisting. "Dead. Didn't you know?"
In spite of my determination to stay cool no matter what, I gasped. This had all been for nothing, then, thecostume, the subterfuge. I needn't have come.
But it was my father we were talking about.
My father, Stoney Wall, who meant everything to me now. A good cop--until he'd been accused of taking off the top. Drugs and drug money, piles of it, confiscated right here in this tacky tavern, in a bust he'd shepherded. The powers that be down at headquarters said fifty thousand dollars had disappeared between the bust and checking in downtown. Stoney said it wasn't true. And then he disappeared, right out of my life, when he'd only been back in it for a little over a year...and I'd just begun to get to know him. Well enough to know that no matter what, no matter how easy, he wouldn't take. Not Stoney Wall.
Quentin Wall, really. That's where I'd got my middle name and my nickname, Suzie Q. He'd earned the moniker 'Stoney' from his hard-nosed detective work, and it fit everything I'd learned about him. Solid, strong, capable of protecting. Take? Not Stoney.
"When? Where?" I choked out.
"Can't say. Doesn't matter--thing is, there's nothin' you can do about it." He narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice to a whisper I could hardly hear over the heavy beat. "My God, girl, what are you doing down here? Stoney would kill you himself!" His voice went back to the loud guttural whine. "Looks like you could use a drink. C'mon."
"Com'ere, I said." He grabbed my elbow and steered me toward a beer-smeared booth at the back of the room. "Sit."
I sat, stunned into submissiveness.
The man got a couple of beers at the bar. In the bottle, thank God; looked like you could catch almost anything in this place. The bikers at the bar had lost interest in me. I felt as though I'd fallen into the twilight zone. Stoney dead?
"What happened? Where is he, then? His...body?" I had a hard time getting it out.
"Drink." He handed me the beer, then said in a low-pitched, normal voice, "Sorry I had to scare you. Of course he's not dead, but I don't want that bunch--" he tilted his head toward the others at the bar--"to know that. He's laying low until I find out who the hell tried to set him up." He went back to his bar voice and complained, "Stoney owed me some buckos, girl. If you're part of him maybe you'll pay up."
"Who are you?" Stoney dead, Stoney not dead. Was this a game? My voice rose. "What money?"
"Aw, you know he took cash that belonged to some of us here. We want it back." His voice was pitched to reach the bar, but his eyes held mine with a clear blue insistence. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Meet me at nine by the old blocked-off underpass at Eighteenth. Trust me. I've been Stoney's partner for five years."
"I'm getting out of here," I said, for the benefit of the bar's patrons. "Keep your damn beer." My thighs squeaked as I went outside where I was temporarily blinded by the afternoon sun. I threw one booted leg over my rented Harley. I could almost pass for a biker. Almost.
The damn thing wouldn't start on the first try, but I got it going before anybody came out. Evidently they were all going to stay put. I was glad of that. Somebody in this biker crowd was connected to Stoney's disappearance, but just how I didn't know. Yet. I roared out of the graveled parking lot and then slowed down to a safe pace. I'd come here on an anonymous telephone tip about Stoney, and I hadn't learned a thing, except that the thin, white-faced man, was probably undercover. What would I find out at the underpass? I knew the place. The highway had been moved, the road left in disrepair, and it wasn't anywhere you'd really like to be after dark.
But of course, I had to go. If I could help Stoney-- My mind backtracked. He had disappeared out of my life when I was about two weeks old and my mother decided that the wife of a cop wasn't for her. She took me to Los Angeles - as far away as she could get from New Jersey - and told me he was dead when I was old enough to ask questions. To make a long story short, she got cancer and conscience at about the same time and told me the truth, that he was my only living relative. With mixed feelings, I stayed with her until she was gone, and then I came to find my father.
He was all the good things I'd ever wanted, and I loved him from the first minute we met. Me, 26 years old; him, a robust 57, slim and good looking in a rugged, cop-type way. He'd never remarried; he'd hoped she'd come back. "Foolish," he told me, "but I really loved your mother, Suz,and I'm sorry she's gone."
I resented what she'd done to me - and Stoney - but we had lots to catch up on, and we were having fun. He gave me a crash course in detection, helped me get my P.I. license...and then he disappeared.
The underpass was shoeblack dark and I hesitated before going in. I was dressed in my regular work clothes: denim jeans, jacket and running shoes. I'd left my Volvo a half block away. No moon. A tempestuous wind whipped the tree branches. It was even darker in the underpass. An occasional car overhead swept a ribbon of light above but didn't penetrate the murk underneath.
"Over here," A small lighter flame held at his chin lit the man's face. Creepy.
"All right, I'm here. I want to know who you are, and what's happened with Stoney." A gust of wind whooshed through the tunnel, flickering his light. I shivered in spite of my jacket.
"I'll put this out. No use being a target."
"For who? Why? Is Stoney all right?"
"Whoa, there. One at a time. Yes, Stoney's all right...far as I know. But he couldn't fight city hall from jail, so he's slicked."
"Hiding. We were working together on the big guys. The bikers are just small potatoes. The bust at that bar was petty stuff; stop one outlet here, another one pops up there. You know."
I didn't know. There was a lot I didn't know. So far my only investigations had been to find out where old Mrs. Fogarty's cat went every night--and that was pretty easy; I hadn't even had to wear a disguise--and to shadow a woman whose husband thought she was having an affair because she was losing weight. She'd only beengoing to a gym for workouts every afternoon. Easy stuff, but it paid the rent. This operation was a little out of my experience.
The man went on. "The bikers have accepted me as a sort of part-time hanger-on, but I'm not finding out much. You, on the other hand...." His words trailed off, whisked away into the windy darkness.
I got the inference. Actually, I felt that I'd been volunteered. "Could do what?"
"Get close to Julian Temple."
"Temple. He's young, good-looking in a sleazy sort of way. Runs a fruit warehouse down on the wharf, but dresses like a gigolo. Smooth. You'll probably like him, women do."
"Get close. Pump him. His father owns the Biker Bar. He's one of the big ones that would love to see Stoney hang. Do whatever it takes."
I hesitated. "Whatever?"
"Within reason. Okay. My name's Bill. Just plain Bill. I'll call you. You're in the book."
"And you? How do I call you?"
"How do I know I can trust you? Or even that you know where Stoney is? How about if you take me to him."
"Not yet. Too dangerous for you both. See ya." He was gone.
I sneaked back to my Volvo and found a parking ticket under the wiper. Great. Just great.
In the next afternoon sunlight, the warehouse looked well-run and fairly clean. At the loading dock, two bare-backed men lifted heavy crates of bananas as though they weighed nothing at all, rhythmically slinging them onto a roller conveyor that pulled them into the building. I was dressed appropriately for calling on a smoothie: matching skirt and blazer, low-heeled pumps, sling purse. The purse wasn't just for looks; it gave me a place to carry my .38. I'd French-rolled my long hair into a neat, dark cap. Ready for anything.
"I'd like to see Julian," I stated to one bare back.
"Huh?" He turned slightly to see me but kept up his smooth rhythm with the bananas.
"Julian. Where can I find him?"
He tilted his head toward a small door beside the conveyor without missing a beat in his pick-up, sling; pick-up, sling. "It's Mister Julian," he grunted after me.
"Right. Thanks." I followed a short iron-grate stair up half a flight and knocked.
Knocked again, rehearsing my excuse for being there. I was looking for an old friend that I thought worked here. Lame, but it ought to get me in the door.
I got what I wanted. The door opened, but I wasn't greeted nicely. I was jerked inside by a strong arm.
"Hey!" was all I had time to say before a piece of duct tape was slapped across my mouth. I was hustled onto a chair, and in a matter of seconds more tape held my wrists behind me, and strapped my ankles to the chair legs.
My captor was a handsome devil, I couldn't help but notice that. Kind of like a better version of Brad Pitt. It had to be Julian.
"Now," he said, quirking a dark eyebrow at me, "what's Stoney Wall's cute little girl doing snooping around here?"
What could I say? My mouth was taped shut.
"Do you know where he is?"
I shrugged. He hadn't taped my shoulders to anything.
"Listen up. There's only one thing I'm going to say to you, and that's this: This is the least that's going to happen to you if you don't keep your nose out of places it doesn't belong."
He picked up the phone and growled into it. "Wait a while, then come on up here and untie the package. Yeah."
At least I wasn't going to be left there to starve to death. I couldn't figure it out. He hadn't taken my gun, either. Might as well have, for all the good it had done me. About half an hour later one of the bare backs banged open the door and ripped off the tape. Not gently.
"Where'd your Mister Julian go?"
"Don't come back," was all bare back said.
I thought it was good advice. But I wouldn't need to anyway. I'd spent my half hour examining every inch of the grungy office that I could see. And I'd made a careful scrutiny of the city map on the wall in front of me where two stick pins marked something. Maybe they meant nothing...but maybe not. A good investigator follows even the most unlikely lead. Stoney taught me that.
I stopped back at my apartment to change out of my ripped nylons and into something more suitable for chasing leads. Jeans and sneakers are more my style anyway.
My phone rang, and I answered pertly, "Suzie Q investigations." Maybe it was a client...or just plain Bill. It was Bill. Had I learned anything?
"That duct tape snags nylons when it's ripped off ankles by a bare-backed barbarian," I said.
I explained, looking for sympathy.
I got none. All Bill said was, "Figures."
I'd been going to tell him about the map, but his cavalier attitude irritated me. "So what have you been doing?"
"Getting close to the bikers. Somebody in that crowd knows something and I mean to find out who...and what."
He could have them. I hated all that squeaking leather, and that Harley I'd rented reminded me of a horse I'd ridden once. One of us was in charge and it wasn't me.
"No leads at all?" Bill sounded suspicious.
"Nope." It wasn't a real lie. I didn't know if the pins were really leads. I'd check them out myself.
The first one was a closed funeral parlor in a pretty run-down part of town near the industrial section. Nobody was around and the alley door wasn't locked, so I spent a while touring the cold, empty chapels and creeping up on what was left of the coffin inventory in the basement. Nothing there you'd want to be buried in. If it had been part of Julian's loop once, it wasn't now. The place was just abandoned; no sign of any action there at all, not even a ground-out cigarette butt on the floor. Looked like a good place for street people to take over; maybe they stretched out in the coffins at night. I was glad to get out into the sunshine.
The second pin marked a more likely place, a small wooden warehouse with one large truck-sized door in front and a small walk-in on the side. I drove past it twice, then parked around the corner and slipped in the side door. The room was a catchall of boxes and old office furniture. Unmarked boxes covered most of the shelves.
You know how you can tell there's life somewhere in a building? Just a feeling. I waited until my eyes adjusted to the dusk, and stood without moving. There was a murmur of voices coming from somewhere in the back, and the familiar smell of cigarette smoke.
I edged my way along the wall, careful not to kick anything. Light streamed from a small window that opened onto the big room; I sidled up to look inside and gasped.
Stoney sat on a beat-up desk, smoking, talking to--I gasped again--Julian.
I pulled back, scowling so hard my forehead hurt. Stoney and Julian?
I couldn't hear anything they said through the heavy door, but the conversation was animated. Stoney seemed to be trying to convince Julian of something, and he reached into his coat pocket and handed Julian a wad of money. The missing fifty thousand?
I sidled back out of the place, fast.
This was going to take some thinking. I went home and made myself a vodka gimlet. I'd earned it.
Two gimlets and a bag of microwave popcorn later, I was still confused. I couldn't - make that wouldn't -believe Stoney was in with crooks. The only explanation was that Julian was the boss crook and Stoney must be trying to pull something out of him by pretending to go along. I'd bet Stoney would be real mad if he knew the jerk had taped me to a chair.
I knew I should help. Somehow. I sipped and brooded.
Back to the leather rental shop. Since I couldn't call just plain Bill, I'd just have to track him down, and the only place I knew to do that was the Biker Bar.
The leather didn't give me any place to hide a gun, and I couldn't carry a purse. I mean, bikers just don't. I hated the Harley worse, but I could hardly drive up to the place in my tame grey Volvo, could I?
There were half a dozen studded studs standing around the gravel parking lot smoking something that didn't smell like Camels, and the ugliest one ogled me all the way into the bar. I swaggered just enough to look cocky, but I was shivering inside. The whole scene gave me the creeps.
When my eyes got used to the dark, I realized the place was empty. I paid for a bottle of Bud and casually asked, "Bill been around today?"
The bartender didn't take his eyes off "As the World Turns" on the TV. "Bill who?"
"Just Bill's all I know. Skinny. Blue eyes." What else could I remember?
"Don't they all."
I took my beer back to the booth we'd sat in before and brooded some more, making the bottle last as long as I could. I was just about to the point where I'd either have to buy another or leave when the door behind the bar opened and Bill came out...with Julian. They didn't see me.
These two seemed to be the best of buddies...but so had Stoney and Julian. Julian said, "One for my friend, here," to the bartender as he put one arm around Bill's shoulders, slapped him on the chest, and left. What was that, a replacement of the secret handshake?
The bartender tipped his head toward me as he handed Bill a beer. Bill turned and did a double take; he obviously hadn't expected to see me. Or - maybe - hadn't wanted me to see him with Julian. Truth is, he looked guilty as hell.
Bill slid into the booth across from me. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. What are you doing with him? I thought I was supposed to 'get close' to Julian, not you."
"Opportunity came up, I took it."
"Where does Julian really fit in all this? Come on, open up. I saw the guy with Stoney earlier today."
Bill's eyebrows went up so far they almost met his hair, and he had a pretty high forehead to start with. "He was with Stoney? Today? Where? Did you talk to him?"
"No. I couldn't. I just saw him. And what do you mean, where? You're supposed to know where Stoney is, not me. So what's the deal?"
Bill scowled. "Stoney must be working on a way to nail Julian's father, is all I can think of. That must be it." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. "Where did you say you saw them?"
Something didn't wash here. "I didn't." I got up. "But you can tell Stoney for me that I think this whole setup stinks."
"Yeah. You can say that again."
"Now are you going to give me a number where I can reach you?"
"Sure." He did. But it turned out to be the phone at the Biker Bar when I tried to call it later after I'd thought up some more questions.
Thanks a whole lot, Bill. Back to square one. Was there anybody I could trust? That red herring about Julian's father being the drug czar didn't fool me a bit. Julian was the one they were after...and they were just keeping me busy running around in circles while they solved the case. Daddy's little girl shouldn't mess with the underworld. Huh.
Back home, there was a call on my answering machine. A client? One can always hope.
It turned out to be an insurance agent. In my line of business, was I sure I was insured enough?
In my line of business, I told him, there was no such thing as insurance enough, thank you very much.
My refrigerator wasn't exactly bare. There was half a summer sausage and some cheddar cheese in the bottom drawer, and a couple of apples. The milk was sour, so I poured it down the drain. One of these days I was going to have to go shopping. I gnawed on the apple and thought things over.
Fact: Stoney didn't want to be found. Not yet. Not by me.
Fact: Bill didn't know as much as he said he did. He was pretty good at verbal tap dancing, though.
Fact: Julian and I hadn't got off on a very good footing.
Fact: If I wanted to clear my father's good name and get him back into circulation, I would have to lure Julian into admitting he'd taken money from Stoney.
That night I dreamt the solution. It was so simple, I woke up smiling. All I had to do was set up a drop, bait the trap with what Julian thought was going to be big money cocaine, and when he came to pick it up, I'd jump out and nab him, step one.
Step two was making him tell where the missing fifty thousand had gone, for Stoney's sake, and step three was making him tell what he had to do with Stoney, for my sake. Step four was making him apologize for taping me to his darn chair.
I'd leave the info on the drop in a sealed envelope at the Biker Bar, very well labeled for Julian's eyes only.
I was so smug I went shopping and bought all the junk food I could get my hands on. I deserved a treat...Tostito® chips, shrimp dip, even a small - real small - jar of Beluga. I don't even like caviar, but you can't drink champagne with just Tostito® chips, can you?
I put the note on untraceable paper from the corner drugstore, put the envelope in a box and sent it priority mail, guaranteed overnight delivery, no return address. That in itself ought to intrigue anybody. Deal: Half a pound for a mere ten thousand dollars--seemed like a bargain to me, what did I know? He'd have to be intrigued. Place of exchange: that dark underpass on route 18. Midnight. Why not? Scullduggery can be fun.
Champagne really does go okay with Tostitos®. I ate the whole bag that night watching "Matlock" and "Heat of the Night" and slept like a well-fed, very complacent cat. Stoney was going to be so proud of me.
The next day dragged like time in the dentist's chair. I kept wondering when Julian would get the letter. Did he have it yet? Was he going to bite?
I went to the store again for a half-pound of powdered sugar, bagged it in two Ziplocks®, one inside the other, and wrapped the whole thing in a brown paper package tied up with string. Me and Julie Andrews. I was ready long before midnight.
I parked the Volvo a couple of blocks away again, this time making sure there were no No Parking signs in sight; after the last encounter here I'd had to fork over thirty dollars. This night was warm and clear but I shivered anyway from excitement. Moonlight laid that eerie, half-tone quality of unreality over everything. I jumped when a dog barked, and hoped it wasn't running loose. I wished Stoney could be here to see me make the snatch.
I walked into the underpass about ten minutes early, flashlight in one hand, sugar in the other. My .38 was in my jacket pocket, easy to reach.
It was cooler in the underpass. And darker. I leaned against the cement wall, and waited.
Finally, after what seemed hours, slow, cautious footsteps. The flesh on my neck crept...all the way down to my sneakers.
A soft touch on my arm accompanied a whiny voice that sounded familiar. "Got the stuff?"
"Yeah," I whispered. "Right here." I held the package out but didn't let go. "Want to see?"
"No lights. Just hand it over."
"Cash first." I sounded tough but I was shaking inside. I was going to reach for my gun as soon as he took the package, but what was to stop him from offing me first? Maybe I hadn't thought this whole thing through well enough.
An envelope was thrust into my hand, and I fumbled the string-wrapped package to him...and suddenly we were both blinded by a powerful floodlight.
"Freeze!" That was a voice I did recognize. Stoney's. He and Julian stepped out of the shadows.
"That's it," Stoney said. "Thanks, honey. Good work. I'll take it from here."
"No you won't." I pulled out my gun and pointed it. "Julian's mine."
Stoney laughed, pulled handcuffs out of his pocket and snapped them on Bill. "You have the right to remain silent..." he began the litany, while I stood there with my mouth open.
We delivered Bill to the precinct, and then the three of us, Stoney, Julian and I, went to an all-night diner for a hamburger. It turned out that Julian was an informer for Stoney--that's why he'd been paid at the warehouse, for info on his father's drug business at the Biker Bar. Working as Stoney's partner, Bill had taken the fifty thousand from the drug bust and set Stoney up. Some partner. He'd also intercepted the drop bait and came to cut himself in on another good drug deal. The guy liked money and he didn't care how he got it or who got hurt in the process.
"So why'd you tape me up?" I demanded of Julian. He really was a good-looking guy.
"Because Stoney wanted me to scare you off the case so you wouldn't get in trouble. I didn't hurt you, did I?" He really looked concerned, but I wasn't going to let him off that easily. "No. But you owe me a pair of nylons."
Stoney grinned at me over his coffee cup. "Good job, Suz. Only thing is, you picked the wrong man to go after. But we got the right one anyway, in the end."
I shrugged. What could I say? I'm just learning the business.