Sample Sunday: "Cold Reading" by David Wisehart — Chapter Six

Cold Reading
A Nick Shaw Mystery

by David Wisehart

Private detective Nick Shaw is hired by a Hollywood theater producer to find a missing actress.

[Chapter One] [Chapter Two] [Chapter Three] [Chapter Four] [Chapter Five]

Chapter Six

Archer was waiting for me at home. That's what he does. He's a friendly black lab, still a little awkward at how big he's grown. He'll bump into things, or knock something over with his tail, then stare at the offending object as if waiting for an apology.

If he has some secret life, I don't know about it. I like to think of Archer filling his days with doggy adventures: staring out the window, spying on the neighbors, listening for cries of distress in the street, slipping outside through a hidden passageway beneath his little round throw rug on the living room floor, rescuing damsels from demons, saving swimmers from sharks, helping blind children cross the street, then racing back to the rug before I notice he's gone.

But he probably just sleeps all day.

I tell people he's a guard dog. I don't have much to guard. Truth is, his only real job is unconditional love, and I probably owe him a raise.

He heard me climb the apartment steps and barked a welcome, an urgent outburst with a hint of impatience. I'd been gone all day.

I had to get ready for Bernie's party, so I gave short shrift to Archer: refilled his food and water, then a quick walk around the block. I like to walk him once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We usually head down to the beach, his favorite playground. There's no juicier bone than a walk on the coastline. We have an agreement, Archer and I—he chases the gulls, I chase the girls. But not this time. I had a party to crash.

As I pulled Archer to the left on Third Street, then cut back east for home, the smell of the sea hung in the air like a neglected promise. Walking back up the steps I felt a bit guilty, so when we got inside I wrestled Archer to the ground and we rolled around together for a couple of minutes. He seemed to forgive me after that. I gave him a doggy snack and went to the bedroom to pick out a disguise.

When Archer heard the costume box open, he joined me in the bedroom, eager to see what change I might affect. I laid my costume choices out on the bed, the better to mix and match. Over the years I've gathered quite a collection of wigs and glasses, props and accessories. Some of the garments I'd purchased myself for low-budget shows, and kept after closing. Others I'd found left behind in dressing room corners or in the dark wings of dusty theaters. Some I'd discovered in the alleys of Hollywood's Theater Row. Most of the expensive pieces were bald-faced larceny. No matter. They were all mine now.

After a brief consultation with Archer, my harshest critic in such matters, I came up with a new character: Alastair Maclaren, an uncle of Stella Burke’s, just arrived from Scotland. I would pass myself off as a Professor of Divinity at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, in Fife. I had flown to Los Angeles last night for an upcoming speaking engagement at Loyola Marymount. Stella—or Maggie, as I knew her—had sent me a birthday card with a return address in North Hollywood, but to my great disappointment no one had answered my knock at her door. A nosy neighbor suggested I try this address. Do you mind if I come in? I’m terribly sorry to interrupt such a fine gathering, but did you happen to know where my niece wandered off to? Would you mind, perhaps, if I looked around a bit?

That, at any rate, was the plan.

To furnish the effect, I got out my makeup kit. I put some gray in my hair and covered my head with a tam o’shanter. I gave myself a jawline scar to the left of my chin. With color contacts I changed my eyes from dark brown to steel blue. I capped my left incisor with a silver crown and smiled into the mirror. Good enough. I owned five pairs of stage glasses, and chose the big silver frames. To this I added khaki slacks, a white shirt, a corduroy jacket, and a ridiculous plaid tie. The point of a disguise isn't to be hidden, but well-remembered for something you’re not. The bolder, the better.

For ten minutes I stood in front of the mirror practicing my gestures and my Scottish brogue. I developed a slight left limp and an arrogant stance that reeked of the ivory tower. My limp found its proper rhythm between the hallway and the kitchen, where I pulled from the liquor cabinet a bottle of Glenfiddich old enough to vote. After a quick swig to pickle my tongue, I splashed some over my shirt and jacket.

Archer growled his disapproval.

I let that go.

Leaving my apartment, I limped down the hall to the elevator and passed a fresh pot of daisies that wilted in my wake.

I drove my Rambler out of Santa Monica with uncharacteristic caution. Lincoln Boulevard was lousy with cops, and cops have noses. I can usually argue my way out of a brown paper bag, but not if a cop smells liquor in it.

My venture into the Hollywood Hills was delayed by rush-hour traffic, that brusque negotiation of bumpers and horns. Thankfully, the street up to Bernie's house was quiet and uncluttered. The road was mostly straight with a few odd jags like the trace of a raindrop down a windshield.

The house on the hilltop was old-Hollywood opulence in the Spanish style: white stucco walls, arched porticos, heavy wood trim, and a red-tiled roof. I parked my Rambler on the road below, in a long line of cars that led up to the manse. Bernie's was the only house I could see on the hill. From this distance I estimated his villa to be fifteen or twenty rooms at least. As I killed my engine, the house's exterior lights came on to greet the dying of the day.

I stepped out of the Rambler and caught music wafting down from the house, a familiar blues standard from generations past. I locked the car door. The hill was steep. As I limped up the narrow two-lane road, past the long queue of parked cars, toward a flight of cement steps that would lead me to the house, I listened to the velvety-smooth singer warble her woes in the key of D-flat major:
Love is deceiving
Why is that wrong?
Leave me believing
I'll go along
Tell me you want me
Honey, you haunt me
Go ahead, tell me a lie

Let love enmesh us
Find it or fake it
Tell me I'm precious
Baby, I'll take it
Tell me you need me
Whisper it, feed me
Go ahead, tell me a lie
I was so caught up in the melody that I walked right past the silver Mustang parked in the long row of other cars. Three steps beyond the Mustang I stopped, turned, and stared. I went back and circled it once to be sure. The left rear hubcap was missing. The rear bumper was dented in the middle. The back license plate frame was empty. I had seen this same car three hours ago in a parking lot behind Dante's Den. The driver had worn some sort of mask. Now that same driver appeared to be an invited guest at the house of my new BFF, Bernard Sands.

I smiled to myself and whistled the blues as I took the cement steps up the hill. I could tell right off this was my kind of party.

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NEXT: Chapter Seven

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