5a – The Detective


“The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrap”

all-the-seas-and-riversOnce the wind figured out it couldn’t knock the balcony doors down, it got surly and wandered off around the hotel, leaving gloom and rain to stake out the place.

Samantha and I looked at each other. Then we looked at the room’s front door.  The wind had slammed it shut.  Then we looked at each other again.

It seemed suddenly too quiet and too dark. A single drop of water fell from a dark red lock and trailed along her cheek. We had mostly caught our breath, but not enough to close our mouths. Our shoulders were not touching, but just barely not. We were soaked to the skin, and cold was coming from all directions but each other.

She had one arm in a tactical position across her chest, and she pointed toward the bar with the other. The bar was on the opposite side of the sitting area from the bedroom door. Her dry clothes would be in the bedroom. I got the plan. I could use a drink anyway. We walked away from the balcony doors in opposite directions.

“The bathroom’s around the corner of the bar,” she said over her shoulder. “You can wear the robe from there while your suit dries.”

Maybe I got the wrong plan.

I flipped the bathroom light on. The room was not quite large enough for me to park my car in. The window between the sink and the shower was an echo of the giant smiling sun from the lobby, but in blue and yellow glass, and with no glumly cheerful face. It looked more like a star. I found the hotel robe, which was just a little too pink for my tastes, and a pair of hotel slippers that were just a little too small for my feet. I put them on anyway and hung my effects over the shower curtain rod.

I looked at myself in the full-length mirror by the bathroom door. Now I really could use a drink. I swung around to the bar.

“Mind if I break open one of these bottles?” She had left the door to the bedroom open, I assumed to talk through.

“Mind if I deduct it from your fee?”

“Fine with me.” General Cabayo wasn’t going to miss the cost of a bottle of hotel whiskey. I located the room stash under the bar. “I suppose you don’t want any.”

“Trying to guess my age again?” she said. She was as sharp as a store-bought razor. “No thanks.”

I yanked the cork from the bottle. It made a satisfying popping sound. “So, fill me in on this hombre you’re looking for.”

“The fellow we’re looking for. I don’t know much about him.” Her voice was momentarily muffled as if cloth were passing in front of it. I stared at my fedora, then stared at the glass while it filled with Jackland whiskey. “His name is Alejandro Bretaña. Or was. He came to Rio de Cabra when my mother was young and my grandfather was old. He said he was a businessman from Costilla, and he tricked my mother out of the family fortune. She was a foolish woman, easily seduced by men of a certain temperament.”

Alejandro Bretaña. The name did ring a bell, but it was a tiny bell, ringing at the end of a long corridor, in a cathedral perched on a woody hill on the other side of the world. You go through a lot of names in my line of work. I turned my attention to the other details.

“Your mother had no brothers, I’m guessing.”

“No need to guess. She had no brothers.”

“Which explains why she’s handling the family books in the old man’s dotage.”

Something about her story didn’t sit right. It sat crooked and leaning to one side like something hard and uncomfortable was under one buttock. Something not intended to be sat on, like a bell. “Your mother handed over the family fortune without Sr. Bretaña signing any paperwork? No contracts, agreements, promissory notes? Nothing to take to the police?”

Samantha eased into the bedroom doorway, wearing a light dress almost identical to the one she had on before, only dry and very nearly the same shade of brown as her skin except where a cloth tie hung down each side, pale blue like twin streams of water. It gave her the disconcerting appearance of nudity. Her hair was still dark with damp, but no longer dripping.

Strapped under her left arm was a pistol. I wasn’t meant to see it. I almost didn’t, but then I did. I first saw the very slight bulge of a leather strap under the bunched cloth in front of her left shoulder just below where her hair was draped. I noticed the shoulder strap while not noticing what was in the wide-open gap in front. That opening could be there to show off a young woman’s recently developed features. It could also be there to distract my attention from an armpit holster and, when the time came, reach through to it. I noted that her left arm was not quite as relaxed at her side as the other. Confirmation.

My own toy was hanging from the shower curtain rod beside my trousers.

“I told you, she was a foolish woman.”

I was standing there in a pink bathrobe, unarmed, my hands wrapped carelessly around a glass of whiskey and a bottle of whiskey, both forgotten and still resting on the bar. I guess I hadn’t needed a drink as much as I thought.

“That’s pretty damned foolish, Sam.”

“She’s dead now. I’ll say how foolish she was.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t even know her.” Her face, already stone, became an even harder variety of stone. I never studied geology in school.

I carried the Jacklander around to the sitting area and sat. It seemed like the thing to do. She didn’t also do it, proving me wrong. Instead, she wandered over to the dining area and stared out into the dark and drizzle. Both her hands were on the table top, I noted with keen interest.

“Even so, you didn’t take his name to the police? Or to your family? Cousins, great-uncles, somebody could’ve helped track him down.”

“That part of the story isn’t important. I really don’t want to go into it.”

That just made me want to go into it more. I’m stubborn like that. I like kicking cans down the street best when they insist on rolling back.

“You’re asking me to help find a guy from umpteen years ago who could have more easily been tracked down back then by more highly motivated family, yet was not tracked down for some mysterious reason that, for some other mysterious reason, you don’t want to talk about.”

She turned. She did not look angry or surprised or hurt or any of the other dozen or so things on my seasoned list of expected reactions to my glowing personality. She didn’t even look annoyed. She looked vaguely triumphant. I guess you’re allowed to look like that when you’re strapped.

“When you took the Green Star job, did the company tell you about the cargo?”

I took a sip of the Jacklander, leaned back in the candy-striped chair, and tried to look nonchalant in a pink bathrobe. I resisted the urge to plant one of the slippers on my other knee. “Why would they?”

“It was a freight steamer. A captain is defined by his ship and that ship was defined by cargo. Weren’t you even curious?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t curious. I didn’t say I didn’t ask and I didn’t say they didn’t tell me.” Might as well play rough and find out why she brought a gun into the conversation. “I asked you why you thought they would tell me, since you seem to be building an analogy that I don’t buy.”

She put her hands on the back of a chair and leaned onto it. The front of the dress opened a bit more in that position. I pretended to look. Okay, I looked, but not for what she intended me to look for. The front of the dress was loose enough that it would be a quick thrust of her hand and an ill-fitting bathrobe would be the least of my problems.

“Maybe you’re right.  Maybe there’s no good reason I can’t tell you why my family didn’t hunt down Bretaña,” she said, lifting that damned eyebrow.  “And maybe there’s no good reason you can’t tell me whether you knew what that steamer was carrying.”

Roll on back, kicking can.  I’ll give her one thing, this girl knew how to double down.  I would hate to play cards with her on the other side of the table.

“Mind if I refill?”  I lifted the half-empty glass and stood up.  Her elbows bent slightly.  You didn’t have to be a gunfighter from the wild states to recognize that as preparation to draw.  That didn’t play into any of my theories about what was going on.  Stuffing a pistol under her dress made sense, being in a hotel room with a strange man.  Playing a hard line about the case made sense, too, if she were trying to see what sort of guy she was hiring.

Getting jumpy about it at this point in the conversation, however, made no sense at all.  She was clearly holding a card I didn’t know about.  Hell, I couldn’t even imagine a card in the deck that would make sense of it.  It was like I was holding a poker hand and she was playing with a Sparrow set and all of its weird trump tiles.

I didn’t move except to take a sip like I was just trying to finish off before the refill.  “Let me tell you what I think,” I said, breaking out the least absurd of my now-unlikely suspicions.  “This Alejandro Bretaña didn’t take your family fortune.  You obviously still have a fortune, staying in a tony joint like the Huntsman, and having always had it is a better explanation than an 18-year-old success story. So, leave your rags-to-riches yarn for the dime novels, which I also don’t believe you write, because your storytelling is sub-par.”

Her left eyebrow slowly joined its sister in a more reasonable location just above her dark, gleaming eyes.  Somehow it didn’t make her look any less dangerous.

“Plus, a tale of some scoundrel making off with the family fortune is exactly the kind of fairy tale a little rich girl would dream up. The rich always think someone is out to take their riches away. They’re often right, but just because people are out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.”

Did the corner of her mouth lift slightly?  I took another sip of whiskey to see if that would help me figure it out.  It didn’t help.

“So, if Bretaña didn’t take your family fortune, what did he take?  Let’s start with this clue: Corazón is not your last name.”

“What the hell would you know—”

“I’ve been to Chayan a couple of times, Sammie.”  I tilted my face down and looked up at her from there, hoping it conveyed the sense that I had her number, which I wasn’t sure I did.  “And you might have noticed that there are plenty of Chayano names right here in Costilla.  And yet, I’ve never heard of Corazón as a family name.  My guess is that your mother gave you that as a middle name in commemoration of having lost her heart.”

She swallowed and tried to hide it.

“Another clue: your  mother had no brothers.  I noticed another man who was conspicuously missing from your sob story.  A father.”

Her eyebrow twitched like she wanted to lift it.  To her credit, she kept it in place.

“Like I said, your mother didn’t lose the family fortune to Ale—”

“If you say that again—”

I set the glass on the sitting room table, hard enough that I thought I might break it.  I didn’t.

“I’ll say it again, and you’ll hear it again.  Your mother didn’t lose the family fortune.  She lost the family honor, by getting all embarazada with you.”

Her teeth were clenched, but I was clearly laying down all the right cards.  “And now Samantha Corazón Bastarda is all grown up, she’s full of rage at Dear Old Dad, and she’s come to Costilla to put some lead in his liver with that gat you think I don’t see under your left arm.”

Just like that, it wasn’t under her left arm any more.  For one crazy instant, I half-expected it to be a five-shooter like the pirate used on the captain.  It wasn’t.  It was a neat little detective’s model, with a handle clip and everything, probably seven little starlets inside waiting for their audition.  If nothing else, she had good taste in guns.

“You must think you’re pretty clever, Mr. Finister.”

“Oh, we’re back to that,” I said, holding my arms out with my hands open. “I’ve known you had the pistol since you stepped out of the bedroom. What makes you think showing it to me is going to improve my attitude?”

“Back to my question.”

“The only question I’m wondering about right now, Miss Heart, is why you felt the need to bring that gun out here to continue our conversation. We seemed to be getting along swimmingly on the balcony.”

Following an invisible line extending from the barrel of that pistol, I could see that her aim was pretty good. My earlier joke about shooting Dear Old Dad should have had the lead going into his brain.

“Maybe, we were getting along too well,” I said. I spread my arms a bit wider. The belt of the bathrobe slipped a little. “Maybe you weren’t afraid of me. Maybe you were afraid that you’re just as foolish as your old lady and you might give away more of the family honor to yet another businessman from Costilla, a man—how did you put it?—of a certain temperament.”

She laughed. There were three categories of laugh on my list of expected reactions: a scornful laugh of derision, a forced laugh of denial, and a genuine laugh of appreciation between two well-matched opponents. I didn’t bother analyzing it to determine the proper type.  It was a laugh that made her blink, and that’s all that mattered.

I spun around, whipped the robe off one arm and flung it over her with the other.  I ducked behind the candy-striped chair, naked but for the little pink slippers, and dove for the corner of the bar.  I heard a furniture being knocked aside, but she didn’t shoot.  I scrambled into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.