Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Conclusion - The Case of the Mistletoe Mistress - an ol' Fashion Christmas P.I. Serial

Greyson Sloane 
and the 
Case of the Mistletoe Mistress

The Shakedown

I walks out the door and the cold morning air slaps me like a splash of cheap cologne. Kinda reminded me o’ when I was a kid … when I used to stick my kisser in the freezer down at Murphy’s General so my nose got all frosty inside. It was fun … back then.
     I stops at the mailbox. It’s overflowin’. I decides I gotta empty it out seein’s how I ain’t got no more room for mail. I shuffles through the envelopes. It ain’t nothin’ but junk mail: Past Due! Final Notice! Past Due! And a notice to appear. Looks like one o’ my ex-wives wants her alimony. 
     “Well, Doll ... ya ain’t gettin’ no blood from a turnip.” 
     I throws ‘em on the front seat of my jalopy and heads to work. Arlene says she’s got a surprise for me. But in my line o’ work, surprises ain’t such a good thing.
     I parks in the back alley and cranes my neck up at my second floor office. I sees this four-foot plastic candy cane with a red ribbon and Arlene’s workin’ on the only window facin’ the street. “Greyson Sloane,” it says in big gold letters. “Private Detective.” She’s stringin’ lights around the window frame. Some surprise.
     “Good morning, Greyson!” She says when I tops the steps. She might as well o’ sang it.
     “Yeah yeah. Whadda you all a-giggle about?”
     “Just four shopping days left, Greyson,” she says with a big smile. 
     Arlene’s got the whitest teeth I ever seen on a dame. Makes her hair look even redder. 
     “I love Christmas.”
     “Yeah? What’s so special ‘bout it? Ain’t nothin’ but a gimmick to sell stuff.”
     “Oh Greyson. That’s not true. Christmas is a special time … the time of year for people to forgive and forget their differences and spread joy and happiness ... and a sense of Good Will.”
     “Oh yeah? Tell it to my creditors. Maybe they’ll forgive I don’t pay ‘em.”
     "Greyson, you sound like an old Scrooge. C’mon. You can help me decorate the tree.”
     I ain’t so keen on the idea. Arlene’s a looker, see? The kinda gal that turns heads when she’s all decked out—and when she ain’t. I figure it’s that long auburn hair and those pretty green eyes that makes a man wish he was lookin’ at ‘em close up. Real close up—and there was plenty o’ them at that two-bit joint she was dancin’ at. She’s too young for that kinda malarkey. Just twenty-three. She don’t know from nothin’. It was lucky I was walkin’ by that night.
     I was half-a-block away an’ thinkin’ about a case when I sees her leave work. She walks ten feet by this alley and some lousy hood grabs her an’ drags her behind a dumpster. I hears her scream, then nothin’. I don’t call no cops, see? I takes care of it myself. She gets a little beat up but she ain’t none the worse for the wear. Now she works for me. But she’s got this crush. Thinks I’m some kinda white knight. But I ain’t havin’ none of it. I’m almost twice her age. She’s more like my kid sister, ya know? Still, I ain’t gettin’ too close.
        “How’d you get the tree up here, Arlene?”
        “Oh, the guy at the tree lot brought it up for me. I tried to tip him, but he wouldn’t take it.”
     "Good. You can give it to me. I need the berries.”
   “The what?”
        “The berries. You know—scratch … jack … mazuma.” She gets this puzzled look. “Aw fer
cryin’ out loud, Arlene … money!”
     “Well why didn’t you just say that in the first place?”
     “I thought I did. We got any joe?”
     “I just made a fresh pot. And why do you have a different word for everything?”
     “What’s the big deal? So do the French.”
     I pushes through the door and the hinges remind me I gotta oil ‘em. I should just get a new door. This one’s got gaps big enough to drive a truck through, but I ain’t got the dough. Steppin’ inside, I grabs a cup of joe, slides my fedora back on my head and plops down behind my desk. I don’t take off my coat, see? I digs out a bottle from the bottom drawer and pours two-fingers in the cup. Business ain’t been so good lately and I get reminded o’ that every time I looks around this rat-hole office: two wobbly old wooden desks, three squeaky chairs that seen better days, and a scratched up hardwood floor that creaks real bad. The only modern things in here is the answerin’ gizmo and Arlene’s computer … and that’s hers.
     After I solved the Wexler case, the twenty-five grand Beulah paid me was gone in a month. I got ex-wives, see? And the government took most of the dough to even the score with them. At least I paid Arlene six months in advance so she ain’t gotta struggle. I don’t want her goin’ back to dancin’, see? She’s a swell kid and I want her to stay that way. Things dry up this time o’ year, and because people ain’t marryin’ so much anymore, there ain’t so many wayward wives to tail. Kinda puts a monkey wrench in my plans to retire to the Bahamas.
     “Aren’t you going to help me, Greyson?”
     Arlene’s tryin’ to string the lights ‘round the top o’ the tree and those long gams of hers don’t push her to more than 5-7. She’s still got that dancer’s chassis, see? And her standin’ on her tiptoes reachin’ up like that is more than a man can take. So I throws my feet up on the desk and puts the morning paper between me and her.
     “I ain’t feelin’ too Christmassy today, Arlene.”
     “But I can’t reach the top.”
     “You got all the top you need. It’s a wonder you don’t tip over.”
     “Use a chair.”
     She starts across the room in a huff just when somebody knocks on the door. Now, I’m glad she ain’t standin’ on the chair or I’d hafta get it myself. I hears the door creak open.
     “Yes, can I help you?” she says. I drops the paper in my lap so I can see. On the stoop is a portly old egg in a flashy charcoal-gray suit that hadda set him back a grand. That tie looks silk from where I’m sittin’ and the alligator briefcase he’s carryin’ ain’t cheap either. The recedin’ silver hair puts him roundabout sixty, I figures, and he’s got sugar-daddy written all over him.
     “Yes,” he says. “I’m looking for a Greyson Sloane.”
     Arlene steps back. “Yes, please come in, sir.”

   I swings my feet off the desk ‘cause I wants to look presentable. He steps inside and Arlene shuts the door. “I’m Sloane.” I says, standin’ up an’ hookin’ my thumbs in my suspenders. “What can I do for you?”
   He walks over and I sees he’s nervous. He gives me a gander, then Arlene, and then me again.

   “Here,” I says, pullin’ over a chair. “Have a seat.”
   The old gent sits down and holds his case on his lap like he’s worried somebody’s gonna steal it or somethin’. He wipes his forehead with one hand and I sees he’s sweatin’ like some nag that just ran six furlongs at Pimlico. Ain’t a easy thing to do when you just came in from 30-degree weather.
     “I understand you solve problems,” he says, lookin’ around like he made some kinda mistake. “A colleague recommended you, but I’m not so—”
     “I gives special rates to referrals,” I says. I ain’t gonna lose him before gettin’ started. “What kinda problem you got?”
     He glances at Arlene again.
     “Ya ain’t gotta worry about her,” I says. “She’s bonded.”
     “She looks familiar. I know her from somewhere.” Arlene’s ears perk up.
     “Her twin sister’s a dancer,” I says. Arlene shoots me a look. “So, how can I help you?”
     The ol’ man takes a deep breath and hangs a sigh on the end of it. “My name is Doucette. Percy Doucette. I’m in a great deal of trouble.” He pulls out one o’ those brown envelopes with a metal clasp and gives it to me. I takes it and sits back down in my chair. It squeaks somethin' fierce and Doucette’s eyes shoot to mine.
     “I’m gettin’ new furniture delivered next week,” I says, jigglin’ the envelope. “What’s this, Mister Doucette?”
     He ganders over at Arlene again and sees she’s got her nose buried in her computer. He relaxes some. “I received this in the mail yesterday. It’s self explanatory, Mister Sloane.”
     I sees him cringe when I pull out the goods. In the envelope is a handful of 8x10 black & white glossies of Doucette—naked as a jaybird—grabbin’ a little nookie from some Jane. And she ain’t no cheap quiff, either. She’s a ravishin’ dark brunette and she’s built like a brick shithouse. A real bombshell. I figures her for some high-class call girl, see? I looks up at Doucette. He ain’t makin’ eye contact and has the look of a man that’s got a lot to lose.
     Doucette nods his head like he forgot how to talk.
     “How much?”
     Doucette digs a note from his inside pocket and slides it across the desk like he's passin' me the dinner check. I reads it without pickin’ it up an’ pushes a whistle through my teeth. “Fifty grand a week?” I shuffles through the pictures and leans back in my chair. Doucette don’t notice the squeak no more. “For how long?”
     “They didn’t elaborate.”
     “Did ya talk to the cops?”
     “No cops or the photos go to the tabloids. I’ll be ruined … to say nothing of what my wife will do to me in court.”
     “You got yourself some big-time trouble here, Mister Doucette. So where do I fit in?”
     “I want to negotiate a deal. A one-time payment in exchange for all the photos and the negatives. I just need a name.”
     Arlene looks up at me from her computer, raises an eyebrow, then goes back to what she’s doin’. She wants to tell me somethin’.
     “You get instructions?”
     “No … said they’d contact me.”
     “Did they say how? When?”
     “I’m afraid not.”
     “Maybe you oughta tell me what happened.”
     Doucette hangs his head like I’m a priest hearin’ his confession. I half expected him to sign himself with the cross. “I don’t remember everything,” he says. “I attended a Christmas party at a supplier’s mansion last week … a man to whom I pay a great deal of money through the course of doing business. As in previous years, he provided the usual amenities.”
     “Professional escorts. He likes to keep his customers happy.”
     “I get it. Keep goin’.”
     “In the past, I’ve partaken of one particular young lady.”
     Outta the corner of my eye I sees Arlene shake her head and I glances over. She’s rollin’ her eyes.
     “But this year she wasn’t in attendance,” Doucette says. “There’s a long standing tradition at these parties. The young ladies pin a branch of mistletoe to their clothing. All an interested party needs do is remove it and place it over his head. The custom takes it from there. He nods at the pictures. “This young lady walked by me in the bar, stopped and said hello. She was very friendly. And, as you can see, very attractive. One thing led to another and I removed the mistletoe pinned to her evening gown. There was the traditional kiss, a little small talk, and then she led me to a bedroom on the second floor.
     She made me a drink. We kissed some, and then she began removing her clothing. That’s all I remember. I know I had too much to drink, but I haven’t blacked out like that in years.”
     I pulls a pack of unfiltered Camels from my vest and flicks out a ciggy. I taps it against the Zippo, and then snaps the lighter open. I musta overfilled it cause I smells the fluid. I blows the smoke through my nose and clicks the lighter shut, tossin’ it and the Camels on the desk.
     “Did you tell your supplier?”
     “I haven’t told anyone other than you and Mister Kamrowski.”
     “Kamrowski.... Nick Kamrowski?”
     “Yes. He’s the colleague who recommended you.”
     I thinks back and remembers doin’ a job like this for Kamrowski a couple years ago. He got himself all balled up with a couple o’ small-time hoods tryin’ to shake him down with some compromisin’ snapshots. They disappeared after I broke in and lifted the goods. I didn’t ask Doucette no more questions.
     “Okay, Mister Doucette. I’ll take the job. Five-hundred a day plus expenses with a week in advance.” He looked relieved. I shoulda asked for more.
     “There’s a bonus … if you dispose of this quietly,” he says.
     “I’ll see what I can do. I need the name of your supplier. The escort too.”
     “Ramey. Alex Ramey. He owns a lithographing company downtown.”
     “And the dish?”
     “Dish? What—dish?”
     “The dish. You know, the girl. What’s the name of the girl.
     “Oh…. She called herself Angel. That’s all I know.”
     A Christmas Angel. Figures. “Okay Mister Doucette. You call me when you hear from them. In the meantime, I’m gonna do some askin’ around. And I need to keep these.” I nods to the pictures.
     “Yes, of course. But please, be discrete.”
     “Discrete’s my middle name.” Arlene clears her throat and I gives her the eye. I gets his card and he stands to leave. Arlene hands him one o’ mine as he walks by. He gives her the once over again, then walks out. I get up and watches him from the window. There’s a cab waitin’ at the curb. He gets in without lookin’ around and the cab takes off. Arlene squeezes between me and the window glass. She’s wearin’ that perfume I like.

     “So, Arlene.... Whadda ya wanna tell me?”
     “I remember him from the club,” she says. “He’s a high-roller. Owns the Black Tie Whiskey distillery outside of town.” She turns her face toward me and raises an eyebrow. “Maybe you’ve heard of it,” she says all smart-alecky like.
     I glances at the bottom drawer of my desk. “Don’t ring no bells.”
     “Hmpf! Well, he used to come in and flash hundred-dollar bills around. Tried to get me a couple of times … the pervert.”
     “I guess he thought his limo would draw too much attention. That’s why he took a cab. He says he remembers you, Arlene.”
     “I heard him. He was always so drunk, I’m surprised he remembered me.”
     “He said he don’t black out. But that don’t exactly jive, now does it? So either he’s lying about his blacking out, or somebody slipped him a Mickey.”
     “For my money, he’s lying.” Then, I sees the wheels turnin’ in her head. “Can I see those photos? I want to look at something.”
     “Think you can handle seein’ a naked dame?”
     “Very funny, Greyson.”
     Arlene drops into my chair and picks up the pictures. “Damn,” she says. “He’s even fatter without clothes. Glad I didn’t bother. He’s disgusting.” She looks over the black & whites, then says, “Look here, Greyson.”
     I walks up and leans over her shoulder. She leans into me till her cheek touches mine. I back off.
     “See this? There’s no grain to this photo. With the little amount of light in the room, this print would be grainy if they used film. I think these are digital shots enhanced on a computer to brighten them up. If that’s true, there will be files, not negatives. That means unlimited copies. No telling how many there are.”
     “Computers….” I says. “It was better in the ol’ days.”
     “Old days? What old days? You’re only forty-three!
     “Never mind.” I picks up a photo. “Where’s the scissors? I want a picture of just her.”
     “For heaven’s sake, Greyson. Give it to me. I’ll scan you a copy and crop it.”
     I don’t even bother to ask.

Ten minutes later I was on my way to Ramey’s joint. I got an inklin’ who Angel works for. Knockouts like her get top dollar, and there’s only one outfit I know of that handles the high-class goods. But I needs Ramey to confirm it.

It’s always colder by the water, and it's just my luck Ramey’s factory was in the old industrial part of Baltimore down by the docks. There was a time when there was a lot of factories there, but they was all bought up years ago. Now, they’re fancy high-rise condos and stores and marinas; part of the city’s renaissance. Ramey’s the last holdout.
     I pulls up to a meter in front of a five-story brick building on the waterfront that’s wearin’ a hundred years o’ city grime. Most o’ the wire-reinforced windows are boarded up with plywood, and the black painted frames are either rust or chipped. Some o’ the ol’ fire escapes are missin’, and the ones that are still there ain’t safe; just rusted steel held together with rusted bolts that looks like they’d come crashin’ down if ya looked at ‘em cross-eyed. 
     I gets outta my hay-burner, glances at the sky and decides it looks like it’s gonna snow. I pretends to drop a coin into the meter and heads for a green metal door with a sign over it that says NTRANCE .
     I don’t bother knockin’. I walks into a knotty-pine room with a gray-and-red checkered tile floor, a pair ‘o torn an’ worn orange vinyl chairs, and a matching sofa usin’ a couple o’ telephone books for a leg. There’s a wire magazine rack complete with dogeared back issues of Field & Stream, and the windows to the street have air-conditioners covered with dirty sheets o’ plastic. They got duct tape around the frames to keep out the cold air but it ain’t workin’, an’ suddenly my office ain’t lookin’ so bad. I sees a wear path in the tiles from years of use leadin’ to a “Will Call” window across the room, so I heads over.
     I sticks my noggin through the window and sees an ol’ dame with her hair in a bun wearin’ a thick pair of cheaters and a moth-eatin’ gray sweater that damn near matched the color of her hair. I clears my throat. She ain’t in no hurry and takes her time lookin’ over.
     “Yes. Can I help you?”
     “The name’s Sloane. I’m here to see Mister Ramey.”
     “One moment, please.”
     She picks up a faded black phone that looks older than she does and leans down to read the numbers. She pokes a boney finger in the “8” hole o’ the rotary wheel. She has some trouble dialing.
     “There’s a Mister—” She covers the mouthpiece with her hand. “What’s your name again?”
     “Sloane. Greyson Sloane.”
     “A Mister Sloane to see you.” She listens and then looks up. “Is this about an order?”
     “No, ma’am.”
     "Well what then, young man?”
     “I needs some information.”
     “About labels? We have catalogues.…”
     “No ma’am. About an escort service.”
     “An escort service? We don’t have an esco—” All over a sudden like she presses the blower to her ear. “What? … Very well, Mister Ramey.” She hangs up and turns back to me. “Mister Ramey will be right out. Please have a seat in our waiting room.”
     Waitin’ room.... “Yes, ma’am.” I decides to stand. A minute later Ramey walks through a door on the far side. He looks older than Doucette; a bent little man with a full head of white hair and wire-rim glasses wearin’ an over-sized brown suit that shoulda been in a museum. I watches him while he shuffles his way toward me.
     “Mister Sloane?” He asked it like there was other people in the room. “I’m Alex Ramey. How can I help you?”
     “Mister Ramey. Seems my client was at your Christmas party last week and now, somebody’s blackmailin’ him.”
     “SHHH! Not so LOUD!” But he was talkin’ louder than me and gettin’ all excitable. I looks around to see if somebody else came in, but it’s just me an’ him. I figures he ain’t hittin’ on all six.
     “Let’s talk in my office,” he says and starts wavin’ his hand like some fat bug-eyed Betty fannin’ herself in the summer heat—meanin’ I should follow him back through the door. I figures it’s a good idea to get a gander at what’s on his desk, just in case.
     We gets to an office that ain’t seen a coat o’ paint since Capone was around and he offers me a chair that musta come from the waitin’ room. I turns it down. He shrugs his shoulders, steps behind his desk and drops into the chair. It takes him a couple of gyrations to get situated before he looks up.
     “Please tell your boss Mr. Acosta that all this blackmail business is making me very nervous. I know he is not a man to trifle with and I would never be a party to blackmail of him or anyone else. When he called this morning, I tried explaining to Mister Acosta I had no knowledge of this, but the fact you’re here proves he didn’t believe me. Please don’t hurt me. I don’t know why he thinks I had anything to do with this. I know he’s very angry. They were all, very angry.”
     I slides my fedora back on my head.

The Lead

When I leaves Ramey’s place o’ business, the sky’s dustin’ the neighborhood with the white stuff an’ I figures we’ll get a couple o’ inches ‘fore it’s over. I left Ramey shakin’ like he’s got the screamin’ meemies an’ wonderin’ why he’s still breathin’. Cause o’ that, gettin’ names from him ain’t hard. 
     Accordin’ to what they told him, the same skirt callin’ herself Angel worked five guys at the party. She hadda knock ‘em out all night long to do that. I figures she picks one, slips ‘em a Mickey, and either her or her crony takes the pictures. Then she gets dolled up again, goes back to the party and picks up the next sap. Quite a caper. But is she the brains behind it?  
     I knows all the names Ramey gives me. Anthony “Tony” Acosta, reputed lieutenant o’ the Caprici family was the call that panicked him. When I shows up after Acosta called, he don’t know I’m a private dick, see? He’s thinkin’ I’m a torpedo sent by Acosta to fill him full o’ holes. 
And knowin’ Acosta, that might still happen.        
    The other calls he gets is from Ronald Kaplin, William Brancel and James Jacoby. Kaplin owns a chain o’ dry cleaners, Brancel is big in the stock market, and Jacoby’s got a bunch o’ dealerships. All these eggs like puttin’ on the Ritz and all of ‘em are legit. But Acosta, not so much.  
    Ramey tells me somethin’ I already suspect. The escort service is owned by a dame named Zoë Yanick; a hometown gal who built her business on her back. I ain’t seen her in years, but we were tight once. I helped her out of a jam when I was a baby-faced kid startin’ out. Her pimp was beatin’ the crap outta her because she was comin’ up short. I was there once when he started wailin’ on her so I intervene. While he’s recoverin’ in the hospital, she goes independent.
Zoë was a real looker in her day, but the local fella’s ain’t payin’ the big money. She wises up an’ starts workin’ the high-class hotels, hittin’ the rich businessmen from outta town an’ cuttin’ the bartenders in for a percentage. This way they don’t run her out.    
     Soon she can’t handle the business all by her lonesome. She recruits the best lookin’ quiffs, dolls ‘em up in glad rags and teaches ‘em a little class. Pretty soon she’s gettin’ top dollar for her girls. After that, all the classy dames are comin’ to her. She opens an office downtown near the Inner Harbor where the ritzy hotels are an’ picks up the conventions and the trade shows. Now it looks like she’s doin’ private parties too.
Since it’s after business hours, I gotta wait till tomorrow to see her. But right now, I gotta see a man about a dog. There’s a bottle with my name on it down at Murphy’s Pub.

Next mornin’ I wakes up to this ringin’ and looks at the clock on the nightstand. 8:45. I goes to roll outta bed, but there’s a dame next to me. I looks at her real close, see? But I don’t remember her. I crawls over her and answers the blower.
     “Greyson! Get up! Doucette just called. He has payment instructions.”
     “Fer cryin’ out loud, Arlene. Why do you always call me before ten? It ain’t good for my health.”
     “You have work to do. Did you talk to Ramey?”
     “What’s with the twenty questions? Ain’t you got nothin’ better to do?”
     “Yes. And I’m doing it. Now get up!”
     Then I hears this voice. It sounds familiar.
“Grey-son … come back to bed.”
     I can hear Arlene an’ I don’t need the blower. “And who is THAT!”
     “Ain’t nobody, Arlene.”
     She don’t say nothin’, but I hears her breathin’. That ain’t good.
     “I’m here. I think you should send your little playmate home and get in here. You’re on a case.”
She don’t say goodbye or nothin’ and her slammin’ the blower down ain’t makin’ my hangover any better. I goes back to the dame.
“Listen, Doll. I gotta go to work, so you gotta scram.”
“But Greyson….”
“Sorry Doll. Now get a wiggle.”  
“A what?”
“Go on. Beat it. Leave your number on the bureau. I’ll call you later.”
After I gets outta the shower, the dame’s gone. I sees a piece o’ paper on my bureau and picks it up. It’s got a number and that’s all. Looks like I ain’t callin’ this one back. I don’t remember her name.

I kicks the snow off my shoes before I walks into the office. Arlene’s temperament matches the weather an’ she’s givin’ me the icy mitt. She ain’t happy, an’ I ain’t sayin’ nothin’. I grabs a cup o’ joe and pours a little hair o’ the dog into the cup, just to settle my nerves.
     “Didn’t you get your fill last night?”
     “What’s eatin’ you, Doll?”
     “Nothing! And please stop callin’ me doll! Save it for your … your conquests!
“It ain’t like that I tell ya. She was on a bender … spifficated. I just gave her a place to flop for the night.”
     “And I suppose you slept on the couch.”
     “Well … yeah.”
     “You don’t own a couch.”     
“C’mon, Arlene. I didn’t divorce all my wives just so you can give me an earful.”
     “Fine! What do I care. I just work for you and it’s none of my business.”
     Whenever Arlene says it’s none of her business, she really means, ‘You hurt my feelings and now I’m gonna pout all day.’ It’s just as well. I needs to step her back every now and then. She’s been gettin’ too starry-eyed lately with the holidays an’ all.
“So what did Doucette say?”
     There’s this long sigh before I hear words. “He’s supposed to transfer the money every Wednesday morning to an account before noon. If he doesn’t, the pictures go to the tabloids. Says he’s frantic. Wants to know what you’ve turned up.”
     Electronic transfers. Things were better in the old days. At least somebody hadda be there to make the pick-up. “Did you get the account number?”
     “And what?”
     I hate when she’s pissed at me. It’s like pullin’ teeth. “And … did you check it out?”
“C’mon, Arlene. We ain’t married ya know.” With that, I sees her eyes gettin’ shiny and she starts blinkin’ real fast. Now I hears a catch in her voice.
“If you’d … just once open your damn eyes you’d see….” Her chest heaves with a deep breath and she starts wipin’ the corners of her eyes. “Oh, what’s the use. Never mind.”
Now I feels like a heel. But I can’t give her what she wants. I’m done with long-term commitments. I can’t afford ‘em.
When she settles down, she tells me she can’t access the account with her computer like she did in the Wexler case because they got a wall on fire or somethin’ like that. I don’t know from nothin’ ‘bout computers, so I decides to go see Zoë.

A little snow and people forget how to drive. I don’t get downtown till almost two. Zoë’s office is in the high rent part o’ the business district. I presses the elevator button for the 7th floor, an’ when I steps into the hall, I sees a set o’ mirrored double-glass doors and bold black letters sayin’ Z.Y. Assocs. I start wonderin’ who the associates are. I checks my reflection in the door, straightens my tie and walks in.
     I stops dead in my tracks when I finds myself standin’ on some shade o’ pink carpet that’s gotta be two inches thick. I feels like takin’ my shoes off and diggin’ in my toes. I looks around an’ sees colorful paintin’s o’ half-naked dames hangin’ on crushed velvet walls, statues of nudes made o’ marble, and flowers in pots shaped like female body parts. There’s plush sofas and chairs in different shades o’ purple an’ red, saxophone music playin’ from somewhere, and I was pretty sure I was gettin’ aroused.
I don’t see a man in sight … but the women! They was from every nationality, all wearin’ suits with their hair up and goin’ about their business. They was anywhere from 5-8 to 5-11 with hourglass chasses, big bubs and long gams. There were blondes with blue eyes, brunettes with brown and redheads with green—and suddenly, I starts thinkin’ about Arlene.  
     I’m standin’ in a lobby that’s the width o’ the building lookin’ like some bumpkin who just got off the boat, when this 5’- 4” raven-haired Oriental knockout strolls by. She stops an’ smiles, then looks me up and down like I’m a piece o’ candy.
     “May I help you with something?” she says. I coulda swore she was purrin’.
     “Ah…. Ah….”
     “Do you have an appointment?”
     I ain’t never been tongue-tied in front o’ no dame before, see? But I guess there’s a first time for everything. I shakes my head no.
     She smiles again and tells me to see the receptionist. Then she places her palm on my chest, looks me up and down almost lickin’ her lips, and walks away leavin’ her hand on me till she runs outta arm-reach. I watches her till she turns the corner at the far end o’ the lobby and disappears. I starts lookin for the receptionist. She ain’t more’n ten feet to my left, sittin’ behind this big oak desk with one ‘o them green library readin’ lamps. I figures she’s in her early twenties. Wonder why I didn’t see her when I walked in.
She’s a dirty-blonde with a short spiky cut, too much makeup, and one o’ them blue-teeth things in her ear. She’s talkin’ into thin air and writin’ somethin’ down in a book when I walks up. I checks her out while I’m waitin’.
She’s wearin’ a white blouse under a dark blue business suit that’s playin’ down her assets, but even with that, I can see she’s put up. She’s got those long gams crossed knee over knee and her jacket’s strugglin’ to keep the buttons buttoned. I can’t see no more, but I’d bet six-two-and-even the rest o’ her is just as good.
She turns to me and pushes a pair o’ black, horn rimmed cheaters up the bridge of her nose with the tip of her index finger. Then I sees her eyes. They’re crystal blue ... so light, they coulda been made o’ glass.
“Yes, sir,” she says. “How may I help you?”
“My name is Sloane. I’m here to see Zoë.”
“Do you have an appointment, Mister Sloane?”
“Didn’t know I needed one.”
“Yes, generally.” She checks a desk-sized calendar. “If you can come back next Fri….”
“Its important, Miss….” I glances at her nameplate. “Miss Patterson.”
She gives me a quick once over like she’s tryin’ to decide if I’m sellin’ somethin’. “Let me see if she’s busy.” She presses a button on this fancy blower. “A Mister Sloane to see you, Miss Zoë.” She listens for a second, then says, “Could I please have your first name?”
“Greyson. Greyson Sloane.”
She repeats it into thin air then touches another button. “Well, this is a first,” she says. “She’ll be right out. Please have a se—”
I turns in the direction o’ the voice an’ sees a dame in a gray business suit. It’s Zoë and she looks as good as she did twenty years ago. Her face has a little age to it, she’s carryin’ a few more pounds than I remember, and her hair’s shoulder length. She’s not a brunette anymore either.
She’s  runnin’ as good as she can in a skirt with her arms out stretched, and when she gets to me she gives me a big hug and a smooch on the cheek. Then she steps back an’ takes me in like we was in a men’s clothing store and I was tryin’ on new suits.
Greyson! Greyson Sloane! It’s so good to see you! How have you been? You still working as a shamus? Damn, you haven’t changed a bit … still as roguish as ever. Let me look at you!”
I glances at the receptionist outta embarrassment and she’s got a look like she ain’t never seen this happen before.
“Hi ya, Doll. Long time.”
“That’s an understatement. What’s it been? Fifteen years? Twenty? C’mon. Let’s go to my office.”
She hooks her arm through mine and we heads to the other end o’ the lobby leavin’ Miss Patterson scratchin’ her head. We gets to the end an’ turns the corner, then it hits me. She’s got the whole floor. I follows her into a corner office that’s ten times the size o’ mine. Two glass walls overlook the harbor and the paintin’s and statues are bigger an’ better than the ones in the lobby. There’s a ten foot glass desk with a black leather executive chair and a glass wet bar on the far wall. The place is the cat’s pajamas.   
“Can I make you a drink, Greyson?”
“Yeah, Doll. Scotch if ya got it.”
“Neat, as I remember.”
I gives her a wink. “Looks like you’re doin’ pretty well for yourself, Zoë.” She hands me my drink and we takes a seat on a matchin’ leather couch. She sits real close. She always did.
“Oh, I’m getting by. How about you?”
“Everything’s jake.”
“I see you’re still using that slang that so endears me.”
“I ain’t changed all that much, Doll, but you seem to have developed some real style. You still look damn good. You ain’t workin’ again, are ya?”
Zoë kicks her head back and laughs. “Not me! I leave that for the younger girls. But thanks for the compliment.”
“Why’d you go blonde? I always liked your natural color.”
“Hides the gray. So … what brings you back to my door after so many years? I’d have figured you for married by now.”
“Three time loser.”
“I should have known there wasn’t a woman out there that could hold on to you for too long. God knows I couldn’t. You’re not here to propose to me, are you?” She laughs again, but this time, it’s got a little anticipation in it.
“Like you’d have me. How ‘bout you?”
Her voice softens, and if regret had a face, it was Zoë's. “Women like me don't get married, Greyson.” Then, she brightens up. “So what can I do for you? I know you didn’t come around for some fun.”
“I’m workin’ a case. Looks like one o’ your girls might be involved.” Then I says somethin’ that hurts me a little. “Maybe you too, Zoë.”
Greyson! … How could you think such a thing?”
“Just workin’ the case, Doll. Ain’t nothin’ personal. I’m lookin’ for this girl.” I pulls the picture of Angel and hands it to her. She looks at it for a couple o’ seconds and hands it back.
“She’s not one of mine. I wish she were. She’s beautiful.”
“She worked Ramey’s party last week. That’s your turf.”
“I have all the Christmas parties in this town. She’s probably an independent and she shouldn’t have been there. Maybe she works for another service trying to cut into my business.”
“She used mistletoe. That’s your gig, ain’t it?”
“Yes … it is.”
I sees her expression change. Maybe she knows somethin’, an’ ain’t tellin’. Maybe she’s thinkin’ that some gold-digger’s crashin’ the party lookin’ for a sugar daddy. Or maybe she’s thinkin’ some newcomer is tryin’ to horn in on her territory. Zoë calls it an escort service, but a pimp is still a pimp. They’re like drug dealers. They protect their turf. But no matter what you call it, I gets the feelin’ she’s about to come on board.
“Why are you looking for her?”
I don’t sees no harm in tellin’ her. She already knows who was at the party.
“How much?”
“Fifty Gs a week … times five.”
Zoë was always good with numbers. It came with the business. “Thirteen million a year? And you think I’m involved….”
“I had an inklin’.”
“Greyson.… Darling.... Look around. I pull in nine figures a year. Why in the world would I jeopardize that for a tenth of the money?”
I thinks about that for a minute. There’s a couple o’ reasons to blackmail some sap. Revenge, a con gone bad, or a frame. It ain’t always about the money. Still, she’s got a point.
“So,” she says. “Who’s being blackmailed? Kaplin? Doucette? Brancel? Jacoby? Probably Acosta, too. But that’s not just stupid, that’s committing suicide.”
“Okay, Zoë ... how’d you get the names?”
“Oh, Greyson. They’re regulars. And they’re the only regulars who weren’t with any of my girls at that party. I can show you the books if you don’t believe me.”
Now I’m thinkin’ there ain’t no way in hell Zoë’s connected to this. She ain’t never lied to me. I guess it’s because she thinks she owes me somethin’.
“Tell me, Doll, what’s that new thing I hears every now and then? If ya ain’t part o’ the solution, then you’re part o’ the problem?”
“It isn’t all that new, Greyson. But yes, that’s how it goes.”
“In that case … how’d ya like to be part o’ the solution?”

Fifteen minutes later, Zoë says she has a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce and she’s gotta leave. Tells me she’s on the Board of Directors or some shit like that. But she says all the girls who worked the Ramey party are here, and I can interview ‘em if I want. 
     "No charge," she says, an' grins.
     Walkin’ with her to the front, we  pass some of the most beautiful women I ever seen—and the way they’re lookin’ at me makes me want to get a job here ... doin’ anything.
“I ain’t never seen so many good-lookin’ dames in one place before,” I says. “Just outta curiosity, what’s the goin’ rate?”
     Zoë gives me a grin. “You know what they say, Greyson. If you have to ask….”
She gives Miss Patterson some instructions then tells me to call her anytime. She throws her arms around me, smooches me again, and tells me not to be a stranger. After she walks out, Miss Patterson hands me a sheet of paper, then adjusts her cheaters again. The dame oughta get some contacts.
     “This is the list Miss Zoë told me to give to you,” she says. “It’s the names and numbers of the girls who worked the Ramey party. I’m to show you to their offices if you want to speak with them. Also, there’s just one more Christmas party before New Years. It’s on Christmas Eve at the Harbor Windjammer, and it’s the biggest party in town. You’ll find a schedule of the girls working it on the sheet, along with Miss Zoë’s card. Her personal cell phone is listed there.”
Then, all of a sudden like, she spots somethin’ and pulls some tissues from a box. She leans over the desk toward me and her suit jacket looks like the buttons are gonna pop right off. She starts wipin’ my cheek.
     “Miss Zoë’s lipstick,” she says. After that, she shows me to the offices of the gals I wanna talk to. “I’ll be up front, Mister Sloane, if you need anything else.” She gives me a little smile and goes back to her desk. After two hours interviewin’ Zoë’s girls, I leaves without much more than I walked in with. Only one o‘ them sees Angel at the party, and none o’ them knows who she is. I only got one lead left … the Windjammer on Christmas Eve. And I gotta hope she shows up. Angel’s the only link to the blackmailer. Hell, it might even be her. But like Zoë says … when it comes to Acosta, that would be suicide.

The Grab

The snow that came down yesterday is mud today, and now it’s lookin’ like rain. The weather in this town changes faster than a dame change’s her mind. I gets up early an’ heads to eleven-thirty Mass. I don’t wanna percolate the Man upstairs, see? There’s just some things you shouldn’t take for granted.
So about the time Father O’Shanahan starts into one of his famous twenty-minute sermons, I opens up the church bulletin like I always do and starts readin’. It helps me keep my peepers open. I hears him talkin’ about Mary Magdalene, which I can’t figure since its Christmas an’ not Easter. He’s gettin’ up there in years and gets all balled up sometimes.
While he’s talkin’ 'bout an ancient quiff, it occurs to me maybe Angel has a rap sheet. Most call girls don’t start out as call girls. They starts out as quiffs an’ work their way up ... sorta like climbin’ the corporate latter, but on their back. I figures I needs to talk to O’Riley. She ain’t got no life either so she’ll be workin’ today. I needs to get the goods on Angel, so I decides to call her when I gets to the office.

Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and the first payment is due the day after Christmas. The only lead I got is Angel, and since Zoë’s girls wasn’t no help, I’m hopin’ she shows up at the Christmas party tomorrow night. That’s problem number one. Problem number two is gettin’ in. I don’t exactly hang around those high-hat society circles so I’m pretty sure my invitation ain’t lost in the mail. Problem number three—an’ I’m hopin’ it ain’t really a problem—is Acosta. He got himself all in a lather about gettin’ blackmailed, and if he decides to get involved before I finds Angel, things could get dicey.
I pulls in behind my building and climbs the steps. The office is dark, somethin’ I ain’t used to since Arlene is always there. I flicks on the lights, closes the door and considers pluggin’ in the tree. I decides to save the electricity since the price controls just expired and the rates have tripled, thanks to the Democrats. Of course, they says it was because o’ the Republicans before them—and people believe ‘em, except the deal with BG&E was made twelve years ago under the Dems. Some people are freakin’ morons. They just put another Democrat in the Governor’s mansion, so they deserve what they get; like this new tax hike. Biggest in state history. I decides to turns the lights back off.
I puts on a pot o’ joe and hits the john while I’m waitin’. The place is like a tomb without Arlene yappin’ at me. Problem is, I miss her not bein’ here. But I can’t never let her know that. She might take the meanin’ for somethin’ more.
When the joe’s done I pours a cup, opens the bottom drawer and pulls out the bottle. Then I decides against it so I puts it back. There’s gotta be one day outta the week I don’t drink. Sunday is as good as any. I picks up the blower and hits a speed dial button. Damn convenient, those things. Except now I can’t remember no numbers no more. I gotta write ‘em down in a pocket phonebook. Maybe I should gets one o’ them cell phones like Arlene’s says, but I can’t swallow payin’ by the minute. I hears the blower ringin’ on the other end.
“Hey, Doll! What’s shakin’?”
Me an’ O’Riley was an item a while back. Thirty-two’s a little on the young side for me, but she’s good lookin’ for a cop—like one o’ those gals you see on the TV police dramas—‘bout 5’-6”, long an’ lean, red hair an’ green eyes. Yeah, I gotta thing for redheads. Most carrot-tops I know are bearcats … in more ways than one. 
“Well as I live and breathe,” she says. “You’re up early today, Sloane. It’s only one-thirty in the afternoon. What? You hard up or something calling me?”
“It ain’t like that, Colleen. I’m workin’ a case an’ need your help.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Okay, so I ain’t called ya in a while. I been busy, see?”
“Yeah, right. What do you want now?”
I really oughta call her more often. She’s always got a chip on her shoulder. “I’m lookin’ for this girl. I was in church this mornin’ and it occurred to me she might have a rap sheet.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Howda you know? I ain't even told you her name. She’s a pro. A workin’ girl. She might o’ got busted.”
“I mean … I don’t believe you were ever in a church.”
“You slay me Colleen, ya know that? So you gonna help me or not?”
“It’s going to cost you big, pretty boy. I’m very busy today.”
“Oh-kaaay…. Whatcha got in mind?”
“Oh, I don’t know…. Something’ll come to me.”

Colleen tells me to meet her at the station at three. Since I only got a first name, she figures it’ll take a couple o’ hours to go through the files, searchin’ on just that and a description. After that, she says she’ll tell me what it’s gonna cost me. Like I don’t already know. She’s still carryin’ a torch from when we was goin’ out a year or so back. I hadda break it off. Datin’ a city detective was killin’ my business. She was always leanin’ on me to spill what I knew about a case. But I got scruples, see?
     Once she pinched me for clammin’ up about what I knew and tossed me in the cooler as a material witness. That’s bushwa, even for her. And I’d still be there too, if she wouldn’t’ve solved it on her own. Talk about a pain in the ass. Colleen’s a looker, but she can be a bitch.
I pulls into the station house a little after three and hightails it to the squad room. Colleen’s standin’ beside her desk talkin’ to some bull I don’t know, an’ I know most o’ the cops workin’ here. When she sees me, she tells him to take a hike. Then she turns in my direction, smiles, an’ strikes a pose.
I ain’t never seen her lookin’ so good. Or so tall. Her hair’s longer and she lost a couple pounds. She’s wearin’ a tight fittin’ black sweater and a pair o’ jeans that looks like she painted ‘em on—an’ when I gets in range, I smells the perfume she use to wear when we was goin’ out.
     “Jeepers creepers, Colleen. You look swell!”
     “Think so?”
     “Ab-so-lute-ly! And what’s with them stilts o’ yours?”
     She turns an ankle and pulls up a cuff revealin’ four-inch heels. “Like ‘em?”
     “I like what they do for you, Doll.” A little flattery oughta get me a long way today.
After some catchin’ up, we starts lookin’ through the files. Colleen tells me they got this new software—facial recognition, they call it. It was developed for Homeland Security and all the departments got it. Supposed to make it easier to ID folks, but since I only got a three-quarter view of Angle’s face, the computer can only list potential matches. Eight to be exact. But only one is a brunette, and her hair is short. In the world’s oldest profession, it pays to be a blonde.
     “I’m sorry, Greyson. The database was updated last week. This is the most current information we have. Looks like your girl isn’t in the system.”
     “Rhatz! Guess I gotta do this the ol’ fashion way.”
     “That’s really more your style. Why are you looking for her anyway?”
     “She’s a runaway. Her parents are worried she’s gettin’ herself into trouble.”
     “C’mon, Greyson. A runaway? Please. You can do better than that.”
     “It’s the truth I tell ya.”
     “And all her parents gave you was this black & white headshot to track her down? You don’t even have her last name.”
     I hates it when she sees right through me. “This is why I broke it off with you, Colleen. Sometimes you’re too damn smart.”
     “I’m not smart, Greyson. You’re just a poor liar.”
     “Says you. Lemme use your phone, will ya?”

Since I can’t find Angel in O’Riley’s files, my next move is the party. I figures Zoë’s my only chance to get in. I plops down behind O’Riley’s desk and pulls out Zoë’s card. She answers on the second ring.
     “I don’t hear from you in twenty years, and now here you are two days in a row. So what can I do for you, Darling?”
“I needs into that party tomorrow night, Zoë. I figures you gets your girls in, you can get me in too.”
“I can probably do that. What’s it worth to you, Greyson?”
Now, I’m beginnin’ to feel like a taffy pull. Everybody wants a piece o’ me. What happened to that ‘Good Will toward men’ jazz Arlene was flappin’ her gums about?
“For cryin’ out loud, Zoë. Can’t ya just do me a favor?”
“Nope.” I hears the Devil in her voice.
“C’mon, Zoë. This is business. I gotta get into that party.”
“It won’t be painful. Promise.”
“I guess I ain’t got no choice, do I?”
“Afraid not.”
“Okay.... What do I have to do?”
“Just have dinner with me. At my place.”
For a second, I’m speechless.
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“That ain’t so bad. Okay. You got a deal.”
“That’s a good boy. I’ll get you on the guest list as security for my girls. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a Black Tie event. Do you own a tux?”
“A tux? Yeah. I got a tux.”
“Good. And as sharp as you probably look in it, leave the fedora home. We don’t want you to draw any more attention than you already do.”
“Leave the hat home. Check!”
“You still have the permit for your .38?”
“I know you don’t like to carry it, but bring it. Other bodyguards will be armed. You should be too. It’ll make you believable as security.”
“C’mon, Zoë! Ya wanna dress me too?”
“Now there’s a thought.”
“Listen, Doll. I’ve done this sort o’ thing before, see? It ain’t my first bar-b-que. Just get me in. I’ll take care o’ the rest, okay?”
“Alright, Greyson. I know you know what you’re doing. You’ve proved that to me countless times in the past. But you’ll need an escort. I’d escort you myself, but too many people know me there. You’ll need someone a little more non-descript. I’m thinking Kim-Lee. She saw us talking yesterday and asked about you.”
“Kim-Lee? That Oriental bird?”
“That’s her, but in polite company, Asian is politically correct. She was quite taken with you. She obviously has excellent taste in men.”
I gets to thinkin’ about that. And as much as I want to, maybe it’s not such a good idea I take somebody I gotta worry about.
“I think I can handle that end myself, Zoë.”
“Alright, Greyson. Just make sure whoever you bring is worthy of your arm. I have a reputation to uphold, you know.”
“Thanks, Zoë.”
“And Greyson … just one more thing. When you come for dinner?”
“Bring your toothbrush.”

I didn’t hear O’Riley sneakin’ up behind me to eavesdrop on the conversation. That’s what I hate about cops. And it don’t matter I do the same thing myself.
     “Zoë?” she says. “Zoë Yanick?”
     “One and the same.”
     “How do you know her? She’s … infamous, to say the least.”
     “She ain’t so bad, Colleen. We go way back. You’d like her, once you gets to know her.”
     “Or if I wanted to make a living on my back. We’ve been trying to put her out of business for years. Can’t make anything stick.”
     “Well, don’t expect me to help ya. And you can toss me in the cooler if ya want. Zoë’s kinda special to me.”
     “Why is it … all of a sudden, I’m envious?”
     “Envious? You mean jealous, don’t ya?”
     I sees Colleen start a slow burn.
“Okay … asshole! Jealous! Happy now?”
     I can almost feel the daggers comin’ outta those deep-green Irish eyes. She crosses her arms over her chest and kicks out a hip. I shoulda known better than to get Colleen riled up. Especially after she just did me a favor. She didn’t have to let me use her files. Now I gotta think o’ somethin’ to change her focus.
     “It ain’t like that, see? Why else would I be askin’ you?”
     “Asking me? Asking me what!” She’s still got her arms crossed, but now she ain’t rigid and I got her curiosity up. It’s kinda like wavin’ a string in front of a cat.
"Well, I wanted to ask you what you were doin’ tomorrow night.”
     “Tomorrow night? Why?”
     Wave the string. “I was thinkin’, if ya ain’t busy, maybe you might wanna go to a party with me.”
     I sees her expression change. 
“A party? What party?”
    I waves the string faster. “It’s a Christmas party … down town.”
     Colleen’s eyes narrow. “The only party I know of is the …” Then I sees the lights come on. “Wait! Not the Windjammer party....”
I smiles, but don’t say nothin’.
“The WINDJAMMER PARTY?” She starts bouncin’ on her toes. She's fun to watch in that tight sweater.
“Well, yeah, I was thinkin’ maybe you’d ….”
     “YES! YES! What time are you picking me up? Shit! I don’t have anything to wear. I wanted you to come over tonight but forget that! I have to go shopping! I hope they have something in my size. And I need shoes. And a bag! And earrings!”

     I smiles to myself. This is gonna work out just fine. Now I got an escort I don’t hafta worry about. Colleen can take care of herself, leavin’ me to do what I needs to do.
“Get anything you need, Doll. But tomorrow night … leave your shield at home. You ain’t no cop. Get it?”
This is keen. Everything’s set. Now, all I gotta do is pick up my tux for tomorrow night.

Christmas Eve, I picks Colleen up at eight o’clock. This is the ritziest party o’ the year and I don’t wanna get there too early. It’ll go till mornin’ an’ there’s no tellin’ how long I gotta be there, so I gotta pace myself.
     Colleen looks like a million bucks. It’s warm for December—70 degrees or so— an’ Colleen’s carryin’ a white wool shawl over her arm. Her hair is down to her shoulders an’ her eyes are like green laser beams. She’s wearin’ a light green sequenced evening gown that accents her eyes, and the slit that goes almost to her hip seems even longer cause o’ the five-inch stilettos she’s wearin’. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but I did.
“My God, Colleen … you take my breath away. You’re ab-so-lute-ly beautiful.”
She smiles and leans into me, nuzzelin’ her cheek to mine. “I wanted you to be proud of me tonight, Greyson.”
“Doll,” I says, “them dames ain’t got nothin’ on you. You’re the cat’s meow.” I gives her a little peck on the cheek an’ a swat on the behind an' helps her into the car. Twenty minutes later, we pull up in front o’ The Windjammer.

We’re three cars deep in the Valet lane, and while we wait, we sees the cream of Baltimore society strollin’ through the doors of the ritziest hotel in town. At the curb are young guys in tuxedoes, openin’ doors and helpin’ rich dames in furs out of their stretch-limos, or jumpin’ behind the wheel of the latest edition of a fire engine red Ferrari to take it to its parkin’ space. Then, it was my turn.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” the pimply-faced kid says when I get out o’ my ‘98 Jetta. “You really want me to park this for you? Aren’t you afraid I’ll scratch it?”
“Listen squirt. You’re a Valet, ain’t ya?”
“A Valet, yes. A demolition-derby driver, no.”
“Greyson,” Colleen says takin’ my arm. “Maybe we should keep the car in our control. If we let the Valet’s park it, we might not be able to get it if we want it. Besides, you’ll save fifty bucks in tips.”
“FIFTY BUCKS! They gonna detail it too?”
“Greyson … you’re embarrassing me.”
“Oh … I’m sorry. Far be it from me….”
She clamps her hand over my kisser. “Let’s just park the car around the corner,” she whispers. “I have my department sticker. Nobody will bother it, and we might need it quick.”
On the way here, I filled Colleen in on the reason we were goin’ to the party. I told her I was trackin’ Angel, and she could do what she wants if I spots her. This party was a big deal to her, and if worst came to worst, and I had to high-tail it out, she could always stay. Colleen don’t get to many high-class joints like this. But then again, neither do I.
I leaves her there while I parks my jalopy around the corner. The Valet couldn’t have been happier. I walks back around and we goes inside.
The place is a palace. Ice sculptures in the lobby pointed the way to the ballroom and Christmas decorations hung in every nook & cranny. There were hundreds of people in evening gowns and tuxedoes, and waiters and waitresses runnin’ around fillin’ glasses an’ servin’ o'dourves. The orchestra played Goodman and Miller, and the tables were set for royalty. Colleen just stood an’ took it all in, and when she was ready, we found our table.
Seated with us was a Councilman and his wife, the Chief of the Baltimore Fire Department, some rich guy who made his money playin’ the ponies, and his girlfriend. I gotta say, she couldn’t hold a candle to Colleen, and I noticed the rich guy thought so too. We felt a little out of our element, so after dinner, we headed for the bar.
Inside, a jazz trio was playin’ and there was maybe sixty or so people minglin’ back an’ forth. I figured this was where the action was, since I spotted a handful of Zoë’s girls chattin’ it up with some high-rollers. They was easy to spot. They was all wearin’ mistletoe on their gowns. If Angel was gonna show, this is where it would be. I got a gin & tonic for Colleen and a soda water for me. I never drink when I’m on the job. I was about to go to the john when Colleen pointed to a gorgeous blonde in a low-cut red gown talkin’ to the Assistant to the Mayor.
“Greyson. I may be wrong, but doesn’t she look a lot like the girl you’re looking for?”
I takes a gander. At twenty feet away—lookin between people—she looks similar, but she’s got silky blonde hair down to her waist. Then I spots the branch of mistletoe on the strap of her evening gown. I pulls out the black & white to compare.
Colleen’s right. Her face is damn close. The picture shows a scar just above Angel’s left eyebrow. I can only see her right side, so I sends Colleen over.
She smiles at the blonde and makes a bit o’ conversation, all the while movin’ to her left side. Then, Colleen gives me the high sign. I waits till Colleen gets back before makin’ a move. I don’t want her involved. I takes two steps and Colleen grabs my arm, stoppin’ me in my tracks.
“Look!” she says. “That’s Tony Acosta!”
I looks up to see Acosta grippin’ the blonde’s upper arm hard enough to leave marks an’ half draggin’ her to the door. Behind him is muscle. Two guys that looked like baby grands. It takes me a minute to decide what my next move is gonna be, but Colleen says it while I’m thinkin’ it.
“We have to follow them.”
Pushin’ our way through the crowd, we hustles out the same door Acosta used. I sees him, the blonde, and his goons headin’ for the elevator. Acosta’s men yank a young couple outta the elevator car an’ they all step inside. The doors close. We don’t make it in time.
“You got your cell phone?” Colleen says.
“’I don’t have a cell phone.”
“Jesus, Greyson. When are you going to get with it.... Here!” She shoves a phone in my hand. “If it rings, answer it. It’s me. You take the stairs. I’ll call to tell you the floor they stop on.”
“How? I got your phone!”
“I have the department’s phone. Now MOVE!
While I’m running up the steps I decides I need to get back to the gym, or quit smokin’, or both. I hits the third landing when the phone rings. Bad timin’ since my lunges are on fire.
“Ye … yes … what … floor?”
“Ninth floor.”
“NINETH? Why … not the freakin’ … penthouse?”
I stands there tryin’ to catch my breath and Colleen says, I’ve got another elevator. Where are you?”
“Thir … Third floor.”
“Wait for me!”
“No … problem.”
As I gets to the elevators, I hears the bell ding. The doors open and there’s Colleen. I stumbles inside and the doors close. She presses the button for the ninth floor.We stop on four, five, six, seven & eight to pick up passengers. When the doors open on nine, we push our way out. We sees Acosta and his goons gettin’ in the other elevator headin’ down. Angel ain’t with ‘em and I spots blood on Acosta’s shirt cuff.
“We have to find her” I says. “I think he hurt her … real bad.”
Colleen runs to the house phone next to the far elevator and calls the front desk. She identifies herself as a police officer an’ orders the desk manager to have someone meet us on nine. Then, she asks about the rooms on this floor.
“They’re all hospitality suites, Officer O’Riley—reserved for the party.”
“How many rooms are on this floor?”
“Shit! Get every person you can spare up here right now! … With keys!”

Bell Hops and desk clerks come tricklin’ outta the elevators a couple at a time and start knockin’ on doors. If nobody answers, they open them and check out the room. Twenty minutes goes by before we hear somebody yell.
     “Over here! Hurry!”
     O’Riley an’ me goes runnin’ to the room and skids inside. I sees a dame with short blonde hair in a red evening gown lyin’ on the floor covered in blood. Then I sees a long blonde wig sprawled on the floor a couple o’ feet away. I rush to the girl and brush her hair outta her face. She still breathin’ but she’s beat up real bad. I think I knows her but I can’t remember from where. I starts talkin’ to her.
     “Hey, Doll … can you hear me?”
     Her eyes blink open an’ it hits me like a Mack truck. They’re crystal blue … so light, they coulda been made o’ glass.
     “Miss ... Miss Patterson?”

EPISODE 4 - The Conclusion
The Favor

Room 936 is teamin’ with hotel folk cranin’ their necks at the dame in the red dress lyin’ on the floor. O’Riley flashes her badge—the one I told her to leave home—and runs everybody out after tellin’ the desk manager to call 911. What I can’t figure is where O’Riley kept her badge in that outfit she’s wearin’. It’s like skin. She’s probably got her piece stashed in there somewhere, too. Dames … I just can’t figure ‘em.
After clearin’ the room, she kneels down next to me and checks Miss Patterson’s pulse. She nods at me, meanin’ it’s strong, an’ that’s a good sign. I takes off my tux jacket an’ covers her since the roughin’ up she took has her poppin’ outta the top of her evening gown. She’s driftin’ in an’ out o’ consciousness, so I stokes her cheek an’ tries to bring her out of it while O’Riley wipes the blood off her face with a wet towel from the john.
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” O’Riley says. “Just a broken nose and a black eye.”
“Ever had a broken nose, Colleen?”
“Well … no.”
“Trust me. It hurts.”
Colleen wiggles her own nose like she’s tryin’ to imagine how if feels. “You know this girl, don’t you?”
“Yeah. She’s Zoë’s receptionist. But she didn’t look nothin’ like this when I saw her the other day. Short spiky hair and horned rimmed cheaters. I wouldn’t o’ recognized her at all, ‘cept for her eyes.”
“So, she’s not one of Zoë’s girls?”
“No. I don’t think they take turns at the desk. Besides, she ain’t on the list.”
“List? What list?”
Shit! Me an’ my big mouth. “Whadda ya mean what list? Santa’s naughty list, of course. What did ya think I was talkin’ about?”
Colleen gives me a look like she ain’t foolin’ around. “You’re going to have to give me that list, Greyson. We’ve an ongoing investigation into Zoë’s operation and that’s potential evidence.”
“I don’t know from nothin’, Colleen. My business ain’t all that, but if I starts turnin’ over documents belongin’ to my clients, I won’t have no business at all.”
“She’s not your client.”
“Don’t care. You get nothin’ from me.”
“I could arrest your for impeding an investigation.”
“Take a hike. Why don’t you do some real cop stuff and pinch the louse that mugged this girl? That’s assault if I ain’t mistaken.”
Colleen starts strong armin’ me when Miss Patterson comes around.” She opens those crystal blues, looks at me an’ Colleen, and starts cryin’.”
“Its okay, Doll. You’re safe.”
Colleen’s still kneelin’ next to me and smiles at Miss Patterson, reassurin’ her while tossin’ daggers at me. But she lays off runnin’ me in … for now. I’m sure it’ll come up again later.
“C’mon, Doll,” I says. “Let’s get you off the floor.” I helps her to a sittin’ position and picks her up. She don’t weigh nothin’. A hundred an’ twenty, maybe. She’s still clutchin’ my jacket real tight when I carries her to the bed and sits her down real gentle like. She glances up at me an’ I sees her nose is pushed to the left, her right eye is swollen and there’s still traces o’ blood smeared on her cheek that O’Riley missed.     
 “You remember me, Miss Patterson?” I says.
She gives me a quick gander, nods her head a little and whispers, “Yes.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Mister Acosta … he … he wanted sex. When I refused he….”
“I know about the blackmail, Doll. I know you’re Angel. Now give it to me straight. On the level.”
She’s stunned that I’m on to her caper. Her mouth drops open and I sees the wheels turnin’. She wants to lie her way out of it, but when I shows her the picture, she cups her face in her hands and starts cryin’ again. That’s what dames do when they need time to think. A minute later, she collects herself. When she looks up at me, I sees  the tears runnin’ down her cheeks mixin’ with her mascara and blood, an’ she wipes ‘em away, smearin’ everything across her face in streaks of black and red. Her voice is soft, almost like she’s apologizin’ for somethin’.
“I needed money. My mother’s real bad off. Needs a kidney transplant and has no medical. I handle all the bookings for Miss Zoë and I know all her clients. I saw a way to make some fast money, so I took it.”
“You had five suckers on the hook,” I says. “Why’d you show up here tonight? You hadda know you’d run into one of ‘em.”
“I didn’t think they’d have the nerve to show up. Besides, I wanted the Mayor. He’s her biggest fish. But I couldn’t find him, that’s why I was talking to his assistant. And I didn’t think anyone would recognize me with the blonde wig. But Acosta spotted me.”
“It’s those eyes o’ yours, Doll. You shoulda known better then futz with Acosta. He’s bad news.”
 “I didn’t know he was a mobster until he showed up with his men and dragged me up here. He started slapping me around and I thought he was going to kill me—kept asking me who I was working for, so I gave him the first name that came to mind hoping they’d leave so I could slip out of town. But I didn’t count on getting the shit kicked out of me.”
“Who’d ya tell ‘im?”
“That slimy little troll, Ramey. He couldn’t keep his hands off me at his party. Like he’d be able to get it up, the old fart. After that, one of Acosta’s thugs hit me in the face.” She touches her nose an’ winces. “That’s the last thing I remember before seeing you.”
Just as she’s finishin’ her story, I hears a gurney clatterin’ up the hall. The paramedics walk in with a couple o’ uniforms. Colleen tells Angel she’s going to the hospital, but she don’t want to go. Colleen says it’s either that, or she arrests her on suspicion of blackmail, so she ain’t got no choice. Then she pulls me out into the hall while the medics are seein’ to Miss Patterson.
“Acosta’s going after Ramey,” she says. “He’s not the type to put up with something like this.”
 “Ab-so-lute-ly. And he assaulted Miss Patterson, too. You should have him picked up.” I knows Colleen better than she knows herself.
Have him picked up? I’m going to arrest him myself! Pinching him, as you say, is a major collar and I’m not just going to give him to some beat cop.” She turns an’ grabs the nearest uniform, says something to him and they rush down the hall. I don’t let my grin show till she’s around the corner and headin’ to the elevators. I gives her a couple of minutes, then heads back inside.
If there’s one thing that comes in handy in this business, it’s knowin’ when people are lyin’. I gotta sixth sense about that, see? I watch their eyes when they’re answerin’ questions. If they ain’t makin’ eye contact, or if they blinks a lot, fifteen’ll get you twenty they ain’t on the up an’ up.
The cop who’s still there is guardin’ the door, waitin’ for the paramedics to bring Miss Patterson outta the room. I tells him I forgot my jacket and he nods me in. Miss Patterson’s on the gurney an’ I asks her one more question.
“Tell me, Doll … who’s your mother’s doctor?”

By the time I gets to the lobby, O’Riley and her cop chauffeur are gone. She’s headin’ to Ramey’s house to intercept Acosta, but I knows he ain’t goin’ there. I’d give anything to see the look on her face when she wakes up old man Ramey.
     I ain’t buyin’ Miss Patterson’s account of Ramey grabbin’ on her. The old fella can hardly walk. And if he ever ended up gettin’ some nookie, it’d probably kill him. Course, I can think o’ worse ways o’ checkin’ out. I figures Angel’s throwin’ us a curve, that’s why I asked about the doctor. She didn’t answer right away when I asked for his name. Her eyes were all over the place and she stammered some before comin’ up with “Jones.” My mom had four doctors before she passed on, and all their names was on the tip o’ my tongue. The dame can’t think fast enough. An’ her claimin’ she didn’t know Acosta was a hood is baloney. If Zoë knew, she knew. I think she picked him on purpose, an’ the others was red herrings to cover the real deal.
It ain’t no secret Acosta’s got a short fuse. Maybe she wants to rile him up so he’d do somethin’ she wanted. Like kill somebody. I figures that’s why she was here tonight. She knew he’d be lookin’ for her. And when he found her, she could blame it on somebody else … if, she lived long enough. She took a hellofa chance playin’ him for a sap. But, she’s still alive. I’m thinkin’ maybe she’s smarter than I gives her credit for, so I decides to play a hunch.

The ambulance is parked around back at the rear entrance near where I parked my hayburner. I waits for it to leave with Angel and follows it to Harbor General ten minutes down the road. They drops her in the emergency room and the cop escortin’ her turns her over to hospital security.
     After parkin’ the car, I heads for the emergency entrance, tosses my ciggy in the ashcan and walks in. The security guard looks up from his magazine as I goes by an’ I gives ‘im a nod, but keeps walkin’ like I’m supposed to be there. He don’t seem interested. Can’t blame him. It’s almost Christmas and I’d bet he’d rather be someplace else.
I don’t see Miss Patterson anywhere, so I asks the skirt at the admitting desk. I tells her I’m her brother and she points me to a set o’ double doors leadin’ to the emergency room. After drawin’ looks from the staff cause o’ my tux, I spots Angel through open privacy curtains in a patient station. The bed sheet’s drawn halfway up her evening gown and her eyes are closed. There’s an I.V. plugged into her arm and taped down so it don’t wiggle free. I guess they’re worried she lost too much blood. I steps inside an’ sits on the edge o’ her bed. She feels it shift an’ opens her eyes.
     “Hi ya, Doll,” I says. “How you feelin’?”
     “Mister Sloane…. Wha … what are you doing here?”
     “Oh, I just dropped in to see how you’re makin’ out. They takin’ care o’ you in here?”
     “Yes. The doctor came by. Said he’d be back to set my nose. I hope it isn’t crooked when he’s finished.”
       “You’ll be okay, kid. Listen, I thought you’d like to know … the cops picked up Acosta down the road. They caught up with him before he could get to Ramey. Seems his limo got a flat. Him an’ his goons should be in Central Booking by now.”
       I sees her jaw tighten and her eyes starts searchin’ the room for no particular reason. She ain’t sayin’ nothin’, but I can see she’s thinkin’.
       “You’re gonna have to testify to the assault in court in a couple o’ weeks,” I says. “Think you’ll be up for it?”
       “I don’t want to press charges. I’m afraid of him. Afraid of what he’ll do to me.”
       “Well, Doll, my guess is if you don’t, the D.A. will bring blackmail charges against you. Don’t be a sap. They want Acosta. Not you.”
       Now she gets real agitated. “NO! You don’t understa….” Her eyes are angry and she can’t sit still.
“Understand? Understand what.”
     “Never mind. I don’t feel so good. Could you please leave now?”
     “Sure, Doll. I just wanted to check on you.” I gets up to leave. “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” I turns and walks to the curtain, then turns back to her. “Oh yeah … I called Zoë an’ told her what happened to you.”
     “Yeah. I called her to tell her you was beat up and in the hospital. I thought she should know. But I gotta tell ya, she ain’t happy you were at that party representin’ her business. Said she was gonna talk to you Wednesday mornin’. From the sound of it, I’d start lookin’ for another job, if I was you.”
I sees her face turn blood red and her hands curl into fists. She kicks a long leg under the sheet once, then twice. If looks could kill….
“That BITCH! It’s not enough that she….”
I stands there for a minute to see what else she says. Angel clams up after the outburst and don’t say another word. But now I knows what’s goin’ on. I walks out in a hurry and tells the guard he might wanna keep an eye on the blonde in the evening gown as I goes by. I run to the car and remember I still have O’Riley’s cell phone. I dig out Zoë’s card and dials her number but she ain’t answerin’. What is it with dames keepin’ their cell phones where they can’t hear ‘em? I leaves her a message to lock her doors and stay outta sight. Then, I makes a beeline for her place. I figures I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, if I catch the lights.

I was lucky Zoë’s address was on her card or I’da had to call O’Riley to get it. That o’ been rich—seein’s how she headed to the other side o’ town.
I knows the neighborhood, see? Ritzy joints with three-car garages set close to the street for people
with lots o’ dough. The houses ain’t close together on the same side, but they ain’t that far away from each other across the road. I kills my lights as I pull up around the block from Zoë’s house. The dome light don’t work in this flivver either, so I ain’t gotta worry ‘bout that. I close the door real quiet like an’ starts toward her place.
     There’s trees on both sides, so it’s easy to stay in the shadows of the street lamps. I ain’t runnin, but I ain’t walkin’ either. I rounds the corner an’ sees headlights turnin’ into her driveway. I picks up the pace. I’m pretty sure its Zoë, even though I don’t know what kind o’ car she drives. But I know it ain’t Acosta. He rides in style an’ likes his limos. I’m almost to the driveway when I hears a door slam and sees a shadow trot out to the middle of the road from a driveway across the street. Then, there’s a flash o’ light and a gunshot. I pulls my .38.
     He turns toward me and fires and I hears two rounds wiz by my right ear. Acosta ain't never been known for his shaprshootin'. I ain’t got no time for none o’ that fancy drop an’ roll Hollywood razzmatazz and squeezes off three rounds at the shadow in the road. I sees it teeter and fall. There’s another shot and a round wings me in the left shoulder just as I sees Acosta’s goons in the far driveway. I dives behind a tree and settles myself. I’m gettin’ too old for this kind o’ shit.
A few seconds later, round after round starts slamin’ into the tree and tearin’ up the ground an’ sidewalk around me. I shoulda known they had choppers. For some reason, the thought of five-hundred a day flashes through my noggin. I decides it just ain’t worth it.
     Now I’m in a real jam. I only got three rounds left an’ bullets are flyin’ all around me. I don’t know where those goons are anymore since they got me pinned. I spots a hedge behind me and decides to move. If I ain’t where they think I am, they can’t kill me.
Stayin’ behind the tree, I stands up. I takes a deep breath and hightails it over the hedge and rolls behind another tree. The bullets ain’t followin’ me. I sneaks a peak. I sees two silhouettes runnin’ across the road an’ seperatin’, one to each side o’ where I used to be. I picks the closest target an’ squeezes the trigger.
     I sees him lurch, but he straightens up an’ keeps comin’. I squeeze off one more an’ he drops to the ground. Now I got one round left. One round, one target. And he’s got a chopper. I’m in deep shit. I crawls to a four-foot-high white brick wall ten feet away and don’t move. I lost track o’ the other goon. If I ain’t real careful, I’m dead. I sees Acosta still layin’ in the road and he ain’t movin’. I don’t think about the problems that’s gonna cause me. I rolls over the wall and starts makin’ my way across somebody’s lawn to Zoë’s house. I stops at the end of the wall and sees Zoë in the driveway leanin’ against her car. She’s holdin’ her left side to stop the bleedin’. She’s still alive, but if I don’t ice the last thug, she won’t be … and neither will I.
     I crouches behind the end of the three-foot wide brick wall and looks for the last man. I sees the goon I just snuffed layin’ in the road fifteen feet away, his chopper next to him. I gotta try for it. I takes me a couple o’ deep breaths hopin’ they ain’t my last, and bolts from behind the wall while the ground behind me explodes in a hail o’ bullets. I sees flashes o’ light from the corner of my eye and fires my last round in that direction. I drops my .38 and dives behind the dead bimbo and the rounds follow me, slammin’ into the body.
I takes a chance. I waits for a lull and reaches over the dead goon, grabs the chopper and ducks back. That’s answered with more bullets and the stiff I’m behind rocks under landin’ rounds. Then, the gunfire stops an’ I hears the sound of a bolt locking back. The punk’s outta ammo. I stands up an’ points the chopper in his direction just in time to see him hit the ground. I glances at Zoë. She gives me a wave and I heads for the last guy keepin' my chopper trained on him.
     He’s dead. I got off a lucky shot. Nicked him in the carotid artery an’ he bled to death. Took a while, but a fella as big as him would. Another inch to the left and up, and I’da dropped him where he stood.
     All at once I gets the shakes an’ drops to my knees. This must be what it feels like when a doper needs a fix, I thinks to myself. I lets go of the chopper an’ falls back on my legs lightheaded. It was kinda like standin’ up too fast, but worse. When everything stops spinnin’, I climbs to my feet and staggers to Zoë. She’s clutchin’ her side where Acosta’s bullet hit. There’s some blood, but it ain’t so bad. I helps her up and into her house.
     I sits Zoë in the kitchen, calls 911, and then finds some bandages and peroxide in the bathroom to patch her up. In all the ruckus, I forgot I was hit. Zoë makes a big deal of it, but it’s just a scratch. I guess she’s gonna wanna repay me for this now, too. 
     It don’t take long for the cops to show up. I’m surprised, bein’ Christmas an’ all. And you’ll never guess who sashays through the front door still wearin’ her gown.
     “Hi ya, Doll. What’s shakin’?”
     “I should have known you’d be in the middle of this, Greyson,” Colleen says.
     “Nice to see you too, Doll.”

While the paramedics take care o’ Zoë, Colleen pulls up a chair and takes a gander at the blood on my shoulder. Her eyes soften and she looks worried. “You’re hurt.” she says.
     “Everything’s Jake. It’s just a flesh wound. Zoë’s got a slug in her, but those three outside got the worst of it.”
     “Yes … so I noticed. I’m going to need your version of what happened.”
     “Well, Doll. It’s the only version. Those guys ain’t talkin.”
     “So I gathered. Listen, I thought you’d be interested in knowing … while on the wild goose chase you let me take to Ramey’s, I ran some history on Angel Patterson. Seems she has a grudge against Zoë.”
     “I figured out that much myself. What I don’t know is why.”
“Well then,” she says. “Let me tell you. Her mother worked for Zoë before she was born. One of her Johns knocked her up and Zoë fired her. Since Zoë hired her when she was fifteen, hooking was all she knew, so she went back to the streets. After Angel was born, her mother went back to Zoë for a job. Zoë blew her off. She hooked up with a pimp who ended up beating her to death and dumping her in an alley like a piece of garbage. After that, Angel went into the system and the state placed her in foster homes from the time she was seven. There were reports of sexual abuse, but back then, no body took her seriously. Angel blamed Zoë. I gotta tell you, she’s one screwed up chick.”
I thinks about that for a minute. “So that’s why Angel sets up the blackmail scam an’ plays Acosta for a sap. She knew he’d do her dirty work and take Zoë for a ride. Meantime, Angel snags a cool quarter mil an’ takes it on the lamb.”
“Well, if you just said what I think you said ... you've got the gist of it. When I talked to Ramey, he gave me the names of everyone she was blackmailing. I sent a couple of detectives to talk to some of them and got the off-shore account number for the payments. Turns out it’s bogus. They wouldn’t have been able to transfer the money if they wanted to. I’m not sure we can even charge her now, but that’s the D.A.’s problem.”
I pulls a ciggy from the pack an’ lights it. Leanin’ back in the chair, I waves off the paramedic who wants to look at me. He shrugs and helps his partner wheel Zoë out to the meat wagon. I looks at Colleen. She ain’t happy I ain’t lettin’ the sawbones look at me.
“I was just defendin’ myself, Colleen,” I says.
“Well, that’s pretty apparent, considering the hardware they used. But I’ll need you to come downtown for a statement.”
Colleen smiles and shifts her body, crossin’ her legs so the slit in the side o’ her dress falls open. The dame’s got some great gams. “Do you want me to take you? I can give you a ride home after that, Greyson.” Colleen’s voice’s got that soft quality that says one thing but means somethin’ else. And from where I’m sittin’, it might not be such a bad idea.
“Listen, Doll. If it’s all the same to you, I just wanna get some sleep. Besides, it’s still a couple o’ hours till dawn an’ I wanna be in bed when Santa comes.”
Colleen pouts that pout women do when they can’t get their way, but says she understands. I tells her I’ll be by for a statement the day after Christmas. No body should have to work on Christmas day. At least she’s got family. I grabs my jacket, gives her a peck on the cheek when no body’s lookin’, and heads back to my jalopy. I needs a drink, but the bars ain’t open.

Headin’ back through town, I remembers I got a bottle in the bottom drawer of my desk, so I decides to stop at the office. I looks up an’ sees the lights from the Christmas tree blinkin’ through the window. I don’t remember pluggin’ ‘em in, but figures I left them on—an’ considerin’ the price of electricity now-a-days, I should turn ‘em off.
I parks the car in the back lot an’ gets out just when a black limo pulls in behind me. The front doors open and two goons gets out, but they stays where they are. I thinks about reachin’ for my .38, but remembers O’Riley took if for ballistics. It’s just as well. It was empty, anyway.
One o’ the goons opens the back door and I sees a small man climb out. He starts walkin’ toward me, the muscle three steps behind him. When he passes under the street lamp, I sees an old gent with thinning white hair, dressed like a Joe Brooks in a fancy overcoat an’ wearin’ wire-rim glasses. He walks right up to me an’ he ain’t got no fear. Now, I knows who he is. My heart climbs into my throat an’ my hands start sweatin’. He stops two feet in front o’ me an’ looks up into my eyes.
     “Merry Christmas, Mister Sloane.”
     “Merry Christmas, Don Caprici.”
     “You know me,” he says.
     “I’m bettin’ everybody knows you, Don Caprici.”
     “That’s good, my boy. That’s good. I trust you’re ready for Christmas?”
     “Everything’s copacetic, sir.”
He smiles. That’s a good sign. “I see you enjoy the classics, my boy. That’s excellent. So do I.”
Now I don’t know what to say, so I just waits.
“I understand you took out one of my lieutenants tonight, Mister Sloane. Not to mention, his bodyguards.”
I didn’t have to ask how he knew. Caprici has people. “They didn’t give me much choice.”
“With only six rounds.”
I shrugs my shoulders. What else could I do? I was a dead man.
“Very impressive, Mister Sloane. Now, it seems, you have created an opening for a lieutenant. I could use a man with your resourcefulness.”
It dawns on me I ain’t gonna die, an’ not only that, the top crime boss on the eastern seaboard is offerin’ me a job. “With all due respect, Don Caprici … if I reads you right, you want me to come work for you?”
“It’s the least I can do, my boy. Giovanni Acosta was an embarrassment to me. You saved me the trouble of … terminating his employment, shall we say. You did me a favor, so to speak. And favors rank very high in our organization as you know. Due to that, I am indebted to you.”
“Don Caprici, I ain’t got an inklin’ what to say. You honor me, but I can’t accept your offer. And … if you don’t kill me, please consider the favor repaid.”
Caprici bursts into laughter. His goons looked at each other not sure what was happin’ an’ reached for their heaters. I’m guessin’ Caprici don’t laugh much. He waves ‘em down, an’ when he gets it out o’ his system, he says,“Very well, my boy. Consider it done. But please, stay out of my business. It can do you no good, and I would hate to see anything happen to you.”
I feels like I should bow or somethin’, but I just nods. He turns without sayin’ another word and gets back into the limo. His goons give me a quick look an’ one of ‘em grins at me before climbin’ into the car. I watch it roll out o’ the lot, an’ when I can’t see the taillights no more, I checks my pants to see if they’re still dry. 
Breathin’ a sigh o’ relief, I climbs the stairs to my office. If I didn’t need a drink before, I do now. I steps through the door into a room lit only by the tree an’ hears Bing Crosby singin’ White Christmas. Figurin’ I left the radio on too, I closes the door and reaches for the wall switch.
“Don’t Greyson. Leave them off.”
 “Arlene?” I turns back to find her standin’ right in front o’ me in a pair o’ jeans, a Christmassy red top, and a Santa hat.
“I heard you pull up, so I made you a drink.”
“Arlene. Whadda you doin’ here, Doll? It’s Christmas morning. You should be with your family.”
“Look up, Greyson.”
I looks up, an’ over my head is a branch o’ mistletoe. I feels Arlene take my hand in hers an’ when I looks back, I sees reflections of the tree lights dancin’ in the prettiest green eyes I ever seen. I feel like my heart’s gonna melt. Standin’ there like that, lookin’ at her on Christmas mornin’, I figures maybe Arlene’s right. Maybe if I’d just once, open my eyes…. I brings my face to hers and I can feel her breath on my lips. My eyes never leave hers as I squeeze her hand.
“Merry Christmas, Greyson,” she says, wrappin’ her arm around my neck an’ closin’ her eyes. She’s soft an’ warm an’ smells good, an’ somehow, I feels like this is where I belong. I pulls her close.
“Merry Christmas, Doll.”

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