In the Blood (Sonja Blue, #2) by Nancy A. Collins
Where is she?
Palmer looked at his watch for the fifteenth time in as many minutes. She was late. Again. He wanted to believe that it wasn't deliberate on her part, but the truth was Loli enjoyed keeping him waiting.
No, not waiting; twisting in the wind on the end of a meat hook.
The woman knew she had him: heart, soul and gonads. Palmer had recognized Loli as bad news the moment she sashayed into his office, but the knowledge hadn't kept him from falling hard and messy, like a jumper off the EmpireStateBuilding.
She'd hired him to follow her husband, a well-to-do contractor named Samuel Quine, trying to get some dirt on him for a nice, juicy divorce settlement. It didn't take long. Quine was seeing someone on the sly, all right.
They met at a motor court at the edge of town twice a week. It was all very discreet and proper, in a suburban middle-class kind of way. Palmer was all too familiar with the pattern. He'd spent a good chunk of his professional life taking incriminating photos of unfaithful husbands and wives sneaking in and out of hot-sheets joints. What he couldn't understand was why Quine needed to get it on the side when he was married to a woman as sexy as Loli.
Before Palmer could finish that thought, he was dazzled by the high beams from Loli's candy-apple red Trans Am as it pulled into the deserted parking lot, Bon Jovi pumping out of the speaker system. Palmer grimaced. Loli's taste was dreadful. Except for him, of course. She shut off the engine, returning the lot to shadows and silence. There was still enough illumination from the distant streetlights for him to see her slide out from behind the wheel of her car.
She was dressed all in red, from the ribbon wrapped around her ash-blond ponytail to the skintight red leather stiletto-heeled knee boots that matched her miniskirt. Her fingernails and lips glistened as if she'd painted them with fresh blood.
Palmer's anxiety and aggravation transformed itself into pure lust. It was like being high on a wondrous drug that made rational thought and common sense not only irrelevant, but impossible. He wondered if this was how male praying mantises felt during the mating dance.
"You got it?" Her voice was honey and whisky poured over crystal-clear ice. She raised her cornflower-blue eyes to his dark brown ones.
He nodded dumbly, his tongue turned into a useless wad of dry cotton. Palmer handed her a manila envelope full of pictures of Sam Quine and his mistress leaving their trysting place, information detailing the days and times they kept their rendezvous, and the name they registered under.
Loli quickly scanned his notes, her mouth set into a predatory smirk. Palmer was startled by the cruelty he saw in her eyes, then shamed by having felt revulsion. But he couldn't help feeling he'd been allowed an unintentional glimpse of the woman Sam Quine was married to.
"Loli, we need to talk."
"I'd like to stay and chat awhile, Bill. I really would. But there's something I need to attend to." She opened the carmine designer purse that hung from her shapely, white shoulder as she spoke.
"Loli, it's about us..."
"Now, where did I put that thing? Oh, here it is!"
"When will I get to see you again?"
Loli turned to face him, pulling a Smith & Wesson .38 out of the tangled mess of cosmetics and half-read romance novels in her purse. "I guess you'll see me in hell," she replied, leveling the gun at his chest.
Palmer stared in mute horror at the piece of blue steel pointed at his heart. He recognized the weapon as his own, supposedly locked in the desk at the office. He disliked guns, but his clients expected it of him. Damn Bogart.
"But, Loli... I love you!"
Her painted lips pulled back into a grin that seemed to spread until it bisected her face. "That's sweet of you, Bill. I love you, too."
And then she shot him.
William Palmer woke in a puddle of sweat. Had he screamed? He listened to the other inmates in the prison, but all he heard were the usual snores and farts. He uncoiled his rigid shoulder and leg muscles. He'd recently taken to sleeping with his arms crossed, corpse-style, across his chest. The prison psychologist had made a big deal out of that.
Palmer sat up, dabbing at the sweat rolling off his brow with the edge of the bed sheet. His hands trembled and he wanted a smoke real bad. Hell, he'd even settle for one of those shitty big-house cigarettes, made from Bugler tobacco and a page from the New Testament. Regular cancer sticks like Camels and Winstons were hard to get under these circumstances, much less his preferred brand: Sherman's Queen-Size Cigarettellos.
That dream. That goddamned dream.
How long was it going to keep on? He'd been having the same dream - or variations on the theme - ever since he'd come out of the coma six weeks ago and been informed of Loli's perfidy. The dreams varied widely, but they were essentially all the same: they involved him, Loli and his gun. Each dream ended with Loli opening fire. Sometimes the dreams were nonsensical, the way dreams normally are: he and Loli riding a merry-go-round in the middle of a forest when Loli pulls out the gun and shoots him. Others were so realistic he didn't know it was a dream until he was jerked back into consciousness by the sound of the gun: he and Loli naked in bed, screwing away, and she pulls the gun out from under the pillow . . .Palmer squeezed his eyes shut, deliberately blocking the image. That one had been bad. Worse than the one tonight.
None of the dream-shootings were the real one, though. He guessed he should be grateful for small favors. It was bad enough remembering what had happened in the motel room without being condemned to relive it every night. His right hand absently massaged the scar on his chest that marked Loli's parting gift.
She'd called late, babbling that she needed his help and protection. She'd decided to confront Quine at the motel but things had gone wrong. They got into a fight and she was locked in the bathroom - although she'd somehow succeeded in dragging the phone in after her. Quine had gone crazy, threatening to kill her. She was scared; Palmer didn't realize what a violent temper Quine had, how brutal he could be.
She'd pushed the right buttons. Palmer was in his car and on his way to the motor court before the receiver hit the cradle.
The door was unlocked when he got there. He wasn't too worried about Loli's husband. Quine was in his late fifties and heavier than Palmer, and not in the best of shape. Palmer knew how to handle himself in a fight. But he was unprepared for the sight of Sam Quine sprawled naked across the motel room's double bed, his brains splashed across the headboard and nightstand.
Palmer heard the bathroom door click open behind him. He turned in time to see Loli at the threshold, stark naked and holding a recently fired .38. His. 38.
"Loli, what the fu - "
And she'd fired.
Three weeks passed before he was able to stay conscious long enough to understand what was being said to and about him. Sometimes he wished he could return to the painless gray of twilight sleep and never come out. Anything would be better than the truth.
Loli was dead.
The whole thing was like a bad Mickey Spillane novel. It was typical of Loli, though. The cops kept commencing on the half-baked nature of the scheme.
Did she really think no one would question her version of what happened? Didn't she know that forensics could read the splatter pattern left by her husband's exploding head and triangulate the trajectory of the fatal bullet? Did she really think the police were that stupid? There was no way she could have pulled it off. It didn't make any sense unless you knew her. Or thought you did.
Loli had never been one to concern herself with consensual reality. If she said her husband was a brute, a cheat and a liar, then it was true. That she refused to have sex with him for two years was unrelated to his infidelity. He was the one in the wrong, the one to be punished.
If she told the police that she and her husband had gone to a certain motel to celebrate their reconciliation, and while they were there, her jilted lover broke in on them, blowing her husband's gray matter all over the wallpaper, then that's what happened. It never occurred to her that she would be suspected as well.
When the police began asking her questions, suggesting that she and Palmer had conspired to murder Quine, it proved too much for her. That Palmer had survived the bullet she'd pumped into him was another contingency she had been unprepared for. She kept insisting that she'd wrested the gun from Palmer and shot him in self-defense, but the police suspected Palmer's wounding had more to do with a falling-out between illicit lovers.
Frightened and confused upon finding herself, possibly for the first time in her life, in a situation where her sex appeal could not free her from the consequences of her actions, Loli panicked.
A fifth of Everclear and a bottle of sleeping pills provided an escape route from justice, but not before she penned a venomous farewell note, implicating Palmer in Quine's death, and mailed it to the district attorney: "It was all his idea. I didn't want to go along with it."
What she really meant was that it was all his fault for not dying. If he'd died like she'd planned, everything would have gone off the way it was supposed to. Funny how he was finally becoming adept at understanding Loli, now that it was too late to do him any good.
As soon as the doctors proclaimed him fit, he would be brought before the judge for bail designation. As far as the district attorney's office was concerned, it was a clear-cut case of conspiracy to commit murder; it didn't matter who actually pulled the trigger. His public defense attorney told him there wasn't much hope of making bail.
Palmer craned his head so he could catch a glimpse of the sky through the heavily secured window over his bed. It was still dark out. He remembered his mother insisting, during the periodic hard times the family roller-coasted through, how "it's always darkest before the dawn." His mother was a good woman, bless her, but incapable of making a statement that wasn't cobbled together from cliches.
His father had been a great one for cliches as well. His one real effort at handing paternal wisdom to his only son had come in the form of a nose-to-nose yelling match when he'd told the fifteen-year-old Palmer: "Boy, if you don't get your head outta your ass, you're gonna find yourself up shit creek without a paddle!"
"Palmer? Somebody here to see you."
Word had come through that morning that the doctors had okayed his transferal to the prison. He was to be placed with the rest of the prisoners the next day. This had not come as welcome news.
"Is it my lawyer?"
"Beats me. The guy says he wants to talk to you." The orderly jerked his head toward the single door leading to the recovery ward. A man Palmer had never seen before was standing at the check-in desk, an expensive attache case in one hand. "You wanna see him?" There was no privacy in the prison infirmary, but the patient-inmates had the freedom to turn away visitors if they chose.
Palmer looked at the stranger for a moment. "Yeah, send him over."
Moments later the stranger with the attache case stood at the foot of Palmer's bed. He was a middle-aged man dressed in an expensive, if drab, silk suit. His skin was pallid, even by today's melanoma-conscious standards. He looked like a man who spent a lot of time indoors.
"Mr. Palmer? Mr. William Palmer?"
"Yeah, that's me. Who're you?"
The stranger's mouth smiled, but his eyes did not join in. "My name is Renfield. And I believe I can be of some service to you, Mr. Palmer."
"That so? You a lawyer?" Palmer motioned him to a metal folding chair next to the bed. Renfield lowered himself into the seat. His movements were so rigid and stylized that he reminded Palmer of an animated mannequin.
Renfield's mouth curled into another simulated smile. "Not exactly. I am a representative for a third party who has an... interest... in your case."
"Look, Mac, I don't know what it is you're getting at. Say what you have to say and get it over with, okay?'
You are innocent, are you not? Of the crime they accuse you of, I mean. You did not murder, nor did you conspire to murder, Samuel Quine. Is that right?"
You got it." Palmer wished he had a smoke. This pasty- faced suit was making him nervous.
"Would you care for a cigarette, Mr. Palmer?" Renfield leaned forward, pulling a pack from his breast pocket. Palmer was surprised to see a flat, red-and-white case of Sherman's Queen-Size Cigarettellos in the man's pale hand.
"Yeah, don't mind if I do." He eagerly accepted one of the thin, unfiltered brown cigarettes.
"Go ahead, take the pack."
"Uh, thanks." He stared at the cigarettes, then back at Renfield's blandly smiling face. "How did you know I smoke this brand?"
"There is a lot we know about you, Mr. Palmer."
Palmer looked up from his cupped palms as he lit the Sherman. "We?"
"Meaning my employer."
"Exactly who is this guy interested in my well being?"
"That is not important, for now. What is important is that he can - and will, providing you agree to work for him - clear you of all charges with the district attorney. He can also get your private investigator's license reinstated."
"What is this? Some kind of joke? If so, it's not a real knee-slapper."
"Joke?" Renfield's brow creased. "I never joke, Mr. Palmer."
"I should have guessed. Okay, let me rephrase what I just said. What's going on? Who sent you and what exactly am I to him that he's willing to pull those kind of strings? You're not Mafia, are you?"
"I assure you, Mr. Palmer, my employer has no need of such petty power brokers. All I need to know is whether you are amenable to certain terms of employment in exchange for your freedom." Again the smile. Palmer felt a sudden urge to grab the drab little bastard and shake him by his lapels.
Palmer shrugged. "If your boss can spring me like you said, I'll walk on my hands all the way to Timbuktu, if that's what he wants."
"I doubt that will be necessary. Then you accept my employer's offer?"
"That's what I said, didn't I?"
Renfield nodded and closed his eyes. "It is done." It sounded like a verbal signal. Palmer wondered if the creep was wired for sound. Renfield stood up, straightening the creases in his suit. "You will be hearing from us shortly. Good day, Mr. Palmer."
"Yeah. Sure. Hang loose, dude."
Palmer lay back in the bed, arms folded behind his head, puffing thoughtfully on his cigarette. Who the hell was this Renfield geek? He didn't like the whey-faced bastard, but if he was telling the truth... Well, it wouldn't be the first time he had shaken hands with the Devil.
He glanced at the pack of Shermans resting atop the bedside table.
There is a lot we know about you, Mr. Palmer.
Twenty-four hours after his initial meeting with Renfield, Palmer was standing on the street outside the Criminal Justice Building, blinking at the late afternoon sun. It had been over two months since he'd last been outside. He was still a bit weak from the gunshot wound that had creased his heart, but, all in all, he felt pretty damn good. Freedom was an amazing tonic.
I'll be damned. The little wonk said he could do it, and whatever else he might be, he sure as hell isn't a liar.
Palmer hefted the plain canvas tote bag the prison quartermaster had given him before jettisoning him back onto the streets. Inside were what few possessions he could call his own, salvaged from his apartment by his erstwhile public defender before the landlord changed the lock. Hardly the most auspicious of new beginnings.
Palmer glanced at his wristwatch. He'd received a note from Renfield just prior to his release telling him to wait on the corner. But for what? He'd been waiting fifteen minutes already...
A stretch limo, black and shiny as a scarab, pulled up to the curb, its windows polarized against prying eyes. The rear passenger door opened and Renfield leaned halfway out, motioning for him to climb in.
"You seem surprised, Mr. Palmer."
"Dazed is more like it. How did you do it?"
"Pull that trick with the DA's office? They said something about Loli's diary turning up."
Renfield shrugged. "My employer is not without... connections, Mr. Palmer. Besides, what does it matter, so long as you are cleared?"
Palmer wanted to press the issue, but there was something in the way Renfield smiled that made him keep silent. Renfield may have saved him from a jailhouse welcome-wagon party, but that didn't mean he had to like the guy. In fact, Palmer felt uncomfortable sitting next to him. He couldn't help himself; there was something inherently loathsome about Renfield that he couldn't quite peg.
"Where are we going?"
"We are going to meet my employer. He is as interested in seeing you face-to-face as you are in meeting him. You should relax, Mr. Palmer. It will be some time before we reach our destination." Renfield leaned forward and opened the liquor cabinet built into the back of the front seat. "Help yourself."
A hour later the limo coasted to a halt. The time passed in silence, except for the occasional rattle of ice as Palmer replenished his bourbon and coke. Renfield drank nothing but bottled mineral water, and that sparingly.
The driver moved from behind the wheel of the car and opened the door for Renfield. Palmer slid out after him, feeling a bit more tipsy than he'd realized.
It was dark outside the car - early evening out in the country. At least to Palmer it looked like the country. They were at the end of a long, crushed gravel drive, standing outside a spacious ranch-style house with handsomely manicured lawns and artfully concealed exterior lights. No doubt there was a nice big redwood deck and a hot tub out back. Palmer followed Renfield up the front walk.
Before they reached the porch, one of the shadows detached itself from the shrubbery and blocked their path.
The shadow was a big son of a bitch armed with an automatic weapon that looked like a child's toy in his massive hands. He towered over Renfield and Palmer, his shoulders wide enough to block out the sky. Palmer guessed him to be close to seven feet tall, if not an inch or two over. And the bastard was ugly, too. The giant's long, horselike face was made even more unattractive by a complete lack of facial hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. The guard said something to Renfield in a register so low it was close to subvocal.
"It's all right, Keif. He's been cleared."
The guard didn't take his eyes off Palmer as he made a strangely delicate motion with his free hand that was either sign language or his pantomiming breaking a twig.
Renfield shook his head. "No, that won't be necessary. Like I said, it's been arranged. Now get on with your job. We must not keep the doctor waiting."
The guard nodded and returned to his post. Palmer could feel the giant's eyes on his back as they entered the house.
The living room was right out of a prime-time soap, with a high ceiling, tastefully arranged Danish furniture and a handful of modern paintings scattered along the walls. It was obvious no one spent any time living there.
"This way." Renfield led Palmer down a narrow hallway to the back of the house. He stopped outside a door at the end of the corridor and rapped lightly.
"Bring him in, Renfield."
The room behind the door was lined with books and smelled of old leather and moldering paper. Seated behind an antique roll-top desk was a handsome man in his middle years, his dark hair touched with silver at the temples. Despite the dim wattage cast by the Tiffany lamp atop the desk, the older man wore a pair of green-tinted aviator shades.
"Ah, Mr. Palmer! Pleased to make your acquaintance at last!" He rose from the antique swivel chair and extended his hand to the detective. He was dressed in crisp, white cotton pants, a white cotton shirt, loosened at the collar with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows, and a pair of old-fashioned red leather suspenders. Palmer was reminded of Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.
Palmer winced at the strength behind the older man's cool, dry grip. "I'm told I have you to thank for arranging my freedom, Mister..."
"It's Doctor. Dr. Pangloss. Pleased to be of some service." He grinned, revealing pristine bridgework that made Palmer's nicotine-stained teeth look like a demilitarized zone.
Pangloss motioned for Palmer to seat himself, then nodded to Renfield, who was still standing at the door. "That will be all for now, Renfield. Have the cook prepare a tray for Mr. Palmer."
Renfield nodded and retreated, leaving them alone.
"You must forgive me for not dining with you." Pangloss smiled. "I've already eaten. May I offer you a drink?" He pulled a bottle of bourbon, its seal intact, from one of the desk's pigeonholes. Palmer recognized it as one of his favorite brands, when he could afford it. "Oh, and help yourself to the cigarettes," Pangloss added, nodding to a Chinese lacquer box resting on the table next to Palmer's chair.
The cigarette case was, like practically everything else in the room, an antique. A Chinese dragon, looped around itself, adorned the lid. Inside were Sherman's Queen-Size Cigarettellos.
Palmer lit his Sherman with a Faberge cigarette lighter, admiring how the light from the Tiffany lamp played across the jeweled platinum scrollwork. "Look, Dr. Pangloss, it's not that I'm ungrateful for what you've done... but what the hell is going on? I mean, who are you, and what am I to you that you would go so far as to spring me out of jail?"
Pangloss flashed his teeth as he handed the detective a highball glass, but it was impossible to tell if the smile extended to his eyes. "You've got a legitimate right to know, and I respect your forthrightness, Mr. Palmer. I really do. I appreciate men willing to speak their minds. The fact of the matter is, I am in dire need of your services."
"That's flattering, Doc, but there are hundreds of perfectly good private investigators in this country. Some I'll even admit are better than me. I'm hardly Sam Spade, especially in light of the shit both you and I know I've recently been through."
"You underestimate yourself, Mr. Palmer. Or may I call you Bill?"
"Call me Palmer. Everyone else does."
"Very well - Palmer. You have tracked down missing people before, have you not?"
"Yeah, sure. I've traced a couple of skips and runaways. Most PIs have, sometime or another - it's part of the job. Why?"
"Because there is someone I want you to find for me. A girl. It's very important that she be located. I'm willing to pay you what it's worth."
Palmer sipped at the bourbon. It had been a long time since he'd been able to afford liquor this good.
"Keep on talking, Doc. I'm listening."
"It won't be easy, I'm afraid. She doesn't want to be found and has been highly successful at avoiding my... field operatives. She recognizes them on sight and does her best to... avoid them." Pangloss's handsome face grew dark. "She's a wild woman, Palmer - crafty, shrewd, fiercely independent and more than a little crazy. She is also very dangerous. I'll tell you that right now, just to make sure you don't develop cold feet later on."
"This 'wild woman' you want me to find - exactly what is your relationship to her?"
"She's my granddaughter."
Palmer doubted that was the truth. Pangloss certainly didn't look old enough to have a grandchild capable of helling around. But you never can tell, what with plastic surgery nowadays. And while Pangloss hadn't exactly told the truth, Palmer had the feeling he wasn't lying, either.
"I'll pay you a thousand dollars a day, plus expenses. I trust that is satisfactory?"
Palmer nearly choked on the bourbon. "It'll do."
"There will also be a twenty-thousand-dollar bonus should you find her and successfully deliver this letter." Pangloss pulled a legal-sized envelope from one of the desk's pigeonholes. It was expensive cream stationery, stiff and heavy, and bore an old-fashioned wax seal on the back: a dragon looped around itself.
"Can I ask a question? A purely hypothetical one, that is."
"What would you do if I decided not to take the case?"
"That assumes you have a choice in the matter, Mr. Palmer. I prefer keeping the fiction of free will intact, don't you? I find my employees work much better when they believe they have some say in what they can and cannot do."
Palmer stared at Pangloss's pleasantly smiling face, the expensive liquor suddenly bitter in his mouth.
Pangloss slid a companionable arm over Palmer's shoulder, walking him to the door. For the first time Palmer noticed how long the other man's fingernails were. "I have confidence in you, Palmer. I'm sure you'll be a great asset to our team. Now that you're here, why don't you make yourself at home? I've had the guest room specially prepared for your arrival, and I'll see to it that my cook gets your dinner to you. If there's anything you need, don't hesitate to ask."
"There's just one thine..."
"Yes?" Although Pangloss was still smiling, Palmer was certain the eyes behind the tinted aviator shades were watching him intently.
"What's the name of this girl you're looking for?"
"How thoughtless of me! Her name is Sonja Blue."
Pangloss opened the door. Palmer wasn't surprised to see Renfield standing on the other side of the threshold.
"Renfield will see you to your room. Oh, and Mr. Palmer?" Palmer glanced over his shoulder. Pangloss was grinning at him, showing way too many teeth. "Pleasant dreams."