One: A Dame Walks In

It always starts when a dame in trouble walks into your office.

I
shoved my hat back slowly, taking my time to look over the marvelous
gams that connected her to the floor, then glanced up at her face. It
wasn’t the face of a dame in trouble; it was the face of a dame quickly
losing her patience. I gave her my trademark slow grin and reached for
the almost-empty bottle of scotch in my top left drawer.

"Well,
sweetheart? Are you a breath of fresh air or trouble looking to find
me?" I took my time pouring a couple of shots and shoved one across the
desk. She tossed it off like a pro and grimaced, her long
blonde hair shimmering with every movement.

"How many times did
you water this stuff down?" Before I could get offended, she continued.
"Look, a friend told me I could trust you, that you were one of the few
poverty-stricken gumshoes who hadn’t sold out for government health
insurance and a monthly disability check for alcoholism."

I scowled. "I ain’t no boozehound."

She
gazed at me. "Riiight." Shaking her head, she tossed a briefcase on my
desk and sat down. "There’s a problem, a big problem, and you may be the
only one who can help me."

"You come in here. You insult me. Then you ask for help."

That got me an impatient sigh. "Do you want to pay your rent this month or not?"

"This
Atlas can’t afford to shrug. Sing it, sweetheart. I’m all ears." I
leaned back carefully in my antiquated green pleather chair–the tricky
rocker mechanism sometimes tilted me over if I moved too fast–and put
my arms behind my head.

Her perfect lips shaped the word "wow"
before she opened the case just enough to slide something out.
"You recognize this man?" She skimmed a photo across the desk, and I
picked it up to take a look.

"Who doesn’t? Global warming,
General Motors, gun control–the man has the G’s cornered in the
documentary world." I looked again. The fat guy slumped in the chair had
a couple holes in his trademark trucker hat–the kind with
burn marks around the edge and a cherry-red center.

"He’s dead. He’s in my room. And I have no idea how he got there."

*

Her
room, it turned out, was down the street at the Gaylord. The joint was
full of conventioneers singing the praises of government reform, strong
national defense, and freedom. I knew the type, always smiling and
acting as if the world was a happy place instead of a shady mess of gray
days and dark streets.

I was surprised, though, at the differences:
Young Republicans dressed in business casual with a hundred variations
on the red tie, politicians in suits glad-handing the crowd, older women
with Sarah Palin glasses and sweater sets, even a sprinkling of guys
dressed in Continental Army attire, their tricorn hats occasionally
bumping against long rifle props painted safety orange and pink. The
last group looked at home near the faux colonial homes that provided
space for shops and restaurants.

At least I wouldn’t get copped
for my gat today–an M1911 brown-handled beauty. She nestled in my
trench coat’s inside pocket along with her triplet of .45 ACP
cartridges. The folks here understood the world was a dangerous place,
and that the police were rarely within reach when you really, really
needed them. There was an arsenal fit for a militia here, tucked away in
purses and coat pockets and concealed bra holsters.It felt good.But, I
reminded myself, at least one of those weapons had been used in the
wrong way today.

The dame led the way, giving me ample
opportunity to observe that the rest of her was just as perfect as the
gams and the kisser–if you went for the tall, slender type. Quite a few folks
turned around to stare at her, poking each other and whispering. I
couldn’t blame them. The lady was a looker.

An older woman bent to whisper in my ear, "Young man, isn’t that the girl from television?"

I shrugged. "She’s just a dame, like a hundred other dames. They’re all trouble, and trouble always walks through my door."

The
matron edged away.I hurried after the
dame until she stopped at the elevator, frowning at the closed door.An elevator arrived with a loud ding, doors sliding
open a bit roughly, and the dame and I stepped on. Six or seven palookas
piled in after us, ostentatiously ignoring her with perfect
elevator manners. I leaned over toward my companion. "Hey, sweetheart,
you have a name?"

"You can call me Ann."

I nodded. "That’ll do. You can call me Max."

She turned and stared me down. Again. "I know that. Your office had a sign."

"Yeah, well, just makin’ conversation here, sister."

Six
or seven stops later, and we had hit the suite levels. I followed the
dame–Ann–as she led the way to what turned out to be a heck of a
nice setup. The room was tastefully decorated in cream, beige, and
black, and I could see through a gap in the curtains to the balcony
overlooking the atrium beyond. Ann’s personal items were neatly stored,
the suitcase tucked away in the closet beneath a series of pressed suits
still in drycleaner bags, and she had a little office set up on the
desk. The only thing out of place was the corpulent mook slumped in
front of her computer, his sausage-like arms dangling down on either side of the chair.

Ann walked over and kicked the corpse in the leg. "See? Problem."

I shrugged. "You have an alibi?"

She sighed. "More or less. I was down in the bar."

"Alone?"

She nodded.

"Well, someone saw you."

"Look, I
have six panels to be on, a debate, a book signing, several meetings–I
don’t have time to tell the cops that I have no idea how this piece of
crap got in my room and turned into a corpse." She picked something up
on the other side of the bed. "And they shot my pillow. MY pillow. The
one I travel with."

I walked over and gingerly took the pillow
from her hands–easily a thousand thread count, pure goose down,
hypoallergenic. "Nice." I turned it until I found the holes. "Except for
this little problem."

"Exactly!" A couple more feathers trickled through the blackened holes, drifting to the floor.

I
handed the pillow back and went over to look at the body. It wore a
typical red trucker hat with "oger & M" embroidered on it, the "R"
and "e" obscured by the blood seeping out of two neat holes.

"Smallish
wounds. No mess in the back. Maybe a .32? Hard to tell, considering
they used your pillow as a silencer." I let the head drop down, noticing
it fell slower than it should have. "He’s already stiffening up. You
need to call someone or you’ll be down a chair."

"Call someone. Right. Why didn’t I think of that?"

"Whadayya want me to do, then, sweetheart? Put lipstick on this pig and take him dancing?"

"I want you to get rid of it."

"Why? You didn’t do nothing wrong. … You didn’t, right?"

She
sighed and pulled a .44 Magnum partially out of her purse–way too much
gun to leave those tiny holes. Or any head at all, for that matter.
"No. I’m insulted." I shrugged and tried to look contrite. "I don’t
deserve what will happen if this–" she motioned toward the stiff "–is
found in my room. My god, someone might ask if I were sleeping with
him." She looked sick. "The cops’ll have questions. My publisher will
have questions. My book just came out–I don’t need this." She turned
and glared at him. "All I need is for that–THING–to disappear."

Like
I said, dames and trouble. I sat down on the bed and rubbed a hand
through my hair, then put the fedora back on. What would Uncle Mikey do?
On the one hand, this was a bad idea. On the other, the stiff was
already dead, and the dame. . . I gave her another once over. What can I
say? Men are boobs when it comes to a looker like her.

"You’re gonna need to move this body." I looked at the size of the corpse and winced. "You got a crane?"

"Oh, very funny."

I
grinned charmingly at her. "Okay, get a towel. We need to lay him down.
Unless you prefer moving a chair-shaped body?" While she did that, I
closed the curtain and made a call to an associate–okay, an
ex-girlfriend–who worked at a shipping company. When Ann came back, I
wrapped the towel around the big guy’s head, greatly improving his
appearance, and we both worked to wrestle the corpse out of the chair
and onto the floor.

Afterward, we sat on the edge of the bed, exhausted. I flopped backward. "He was even heavier than he looked."

"So now what?"

"We’ll
get a delivery in about an hour. We wrap him in bubble wrap and roll
him into a box. I was thinking about shipping him to Borneo, but postage
ain’t cheap."

Ann frowned. "Why was he even in here to begin with?"

"Good
question." I dragged myself off the bed, grabbed another towel, and
tossed it over the desk chair before sitting down. "Well, he was at your
computer. Let’s see what he was doing."

Ann put in the password, and a few seconds later we were both staring at the screen. One word in a search box stood out.

"Veritas," murmured Ann.

"He was searching for truth?" I glanced up. She looked furious.

*
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