Sunday

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

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]

Chapter Seven

I thought of the silver Mustang and the driver in the mask as I took the cement steps up to Bernie's place, humming the blues and hoping the summer air would cool. I heard giggling behind me. Glancing back I saw a young couple following me up the steps. She wore a fox mask. He wore a mustache and a pout. There was a mask of some kind in his right hand.

"Honey, put it on," Fox Lady said, and laughed when she said it, the memory of New York still brassy in her voice.

I paused, pretending to catch my breath for the climb, and gazed at the couple below me.

The man put on his mask.

Batman.

Not Christian Bale—Adam West.

Fox Lady said, "I thought you liked Batman."

"The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is cool. I look like a dork."

"You are a dork."

Batman stopped on the steps and took the mask off.

Fox Lady turned on him. She planted her hands on her hips, arms akimbo. "Well, you gotta wear a mask."

I wasn't wearing a mask.

"This party was a bad idea," said Batman.

"Don't," Fox Lady scolded. "Don't you dare. We talked about this. This is important to me. To us. Us, Darryl. Us."

"I hate this mask." Darryl took the steps down.

I saw my opening and called out to him, "Buy it off you."

Darryl stopped. "What?"

"The mask," I said. "Forgot mine."

Fox Lady stared at me. "It's not for sale."

I still had a thick roll of hundred dollar bills from Bernie's advance. "Hundred bucks." I pulled out the roll and peeled off a bill. "Try Party City. They've got the Dark Knight, I'm sure."

Darryl seemed to consider it. Fox Lady grabbed his arm and pulled him up the stairs past me. "Not for sale," she said.

I kept my bills and lost my mood. The music in the house changed from blues to electronica as I pondered my next step. Apparently Bernie was hosting some kind of masquerade party. He had neglected to tell me. Of course, he had neglected to invite me. I forgave him the oversight. I'm like that, for people who pay, and Bernie paid just fine. But my problem remained: no mask. There were plenty of masks in my costume box, but I didn't feel like driving all the way back to Santa Monica just to hide my face. I could buy a mask at a costume shop somewhere—plenty of those in town—but I'd have to take my car. That worried me. I'd already found a good spot. This was Hollywood after all, where you give up your wife before you give up your parking space. I figured I'd keep my space and take my chances.

As I climbed the steps again, I saw a middle-aged couple making out on the balcony. They both wore masks, of course. Hers was white with feathers on it. His was green, like Robin Hood's. She giggled and he drank, more from her lips than his glass. He set his glass on the rail and turned her around in his arms to hold her from behind and nibble her neck. Her elbow bumped the glass and sent it over the edge. It landed somewhere in the sagebrush on the hillside.

I didn't hear it break.

Robin Hood didn't care about the glass. I did. It gave me ideas.

The hillside was covered with deerweed, manzanita, and scrub oak that clawed at my pant legs as I hunted for the glass. I caught a reflection of the sunset, and there it was, the object of my affection, unbroken in the brush.

I picked up the glass and sniffed it.

Bourbon.

A gruff male voice behind me said, "Sir?"

I turned and saw a large man in a dark suit, a domino mask, and a frown. Security, I thought, feeling suddenly insecure.

"Dropped my glass," I said and raised it, playing the scene a little drunk. "Oops."

"Where's your mask, sir?"

"On the rail."

I pointed. We both looked up. There was no mask on the rail.

"Oops," I said again, and punctuated it with a hiccup.

"You oughtn't to've done that," he said.

I answered with a slur, "I think the wind sssstole it."

"You're a guest at the party?" the security guy said.

"I'll find it, I'll find it." I turned and started looking all around my feet.

"Sir, can I have your name, please?"

I thought of the names I knew that Bernie knew. I'm pretty good with names. Three came to mind, from that lobby card at the Ninety-Nine Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard, the card for Murder by Moonlight. Martin Hollis, playwright. Devon Eliot, director. Bernard Sands, producer. I figured the playwright would be less well known than the director. In Hollywood, no one cares about the writer.

"Martin Hollis," I said, and raised my glass to toast myself.

The security guy spoke into his BlackBerry. "Martin Hollis."

I grinned. "Heard of me?"

"Just checking the guest list, sir."

"Check the poster, why dontcha? I wrote the fucking play." I tried to take a sip of Bourbon. Nothing but air. I frowned and stared at the glass with righteous indignation.

The security guy pocketed his phone. "Come back to the party, sir. It's not safe out here."

I stumbled away, searching. "Gotta find my mask. Fucking wind."

A hand grabbed my elbow.

"Use this, sir."

The guy handed me a domino mask. He still wore one on his face, so he must have carried a spare. Thank God for the Boy Scouts.

"Next time, be more careful, sir."

I tried to put the mask on with the glass in my hand, and fumbled for effect. He took the glass to help me out. The mask was a little tight, but I always did have a big head. The security guy held my arm as he walked me up to the house. I leaned into him drunkenly a few times, to make him feel like he was doing his job, then apologized profusely, to let him know I wasn't the type.

Inside, the party was in full swing. Everyone wore masks. Some danced to the music, others shouted fractured conversations. A topless waitress with bunny ears, a furry mask, and nipple rings sashayed up to me with a tray of drinks and fancy hors d'oeurves.

I smiled at Bunny, took a cocktail off the tray, and sampled it. Strong stuff. I tried another sip, sloshing it around my mouth to investigate. My palate is second to none. I tasted brandy, gin, rum, bitters, ginger ale—Bunny had slipped me a Dying Bastard.

"Appetizer?" she said.

Bunny looked appetizing enough, but she wasn't what I was looking for. "Someone left their headlights on," I said, staring at her headlights. To avert my eyes, I took another drink. "Silver Mustang, no plates."

"I'll go tell someone."

"You do that."

After her cottontail disappeared down the hall, I turned my attention to the rest of the room. I didn't see Bernie, or a masked version of Bernie, but I did see a short, curly-haired, naked guy step out of the closet and into the living room. He wore an elephant mask with a trunk colored and shaped like a phallus. I glanced down and saw that he was overcompensating.

Feeling better about myself, I stepped into the hall to check out the rest of the house. Stella Burke had lived here before she disappeared. She probably had her own room somewhere. Maybe I could find some of her things. Maybe I'd get lucky.

From the hallway I opened one of the bedroom doors. Inside I caught a young couple in the act. Only it wasn't an act. They were naked except for their masks. He wore a mask of Zorro. She wore a Venetian. He was going at her from behind with the kind of energy and enthusiasm usually reserved for a girl you've just met. He seemed to be making a strong first impression. The girl kept muttering, "Faster, faster," but I'm pretty sure he was already exceeding the speed limit. Those two were an accident waiting to happen. I stepped back into the hall and closed the door, figuring I'd return when the traffic died down.

With my Dying Bastard firmly in hand, I wandered through the house—a bathroom, a pool room, a balcony—and stumbled across a mad variety of couplings and triplings. In the pantry a quintet was doing things I wouldn't tell my therapist, let alone my mother. I was beginning to think this wasn't my kind of party. The place had more kinks than a Gordian knot.

In the master bedroom I found an Asian female contortionist who seemed to be in the middle of a trapeze act. She was suspended naked by ropes and ribbons three feet above the king-sized bed. Her mask was some kind of Disney princess. I glanced around for the ringmaster, but it was just me and Ariel.

She stared at me between her smooth, bendy legs and said, "Kinbakushi?"

"Gesundheit," I replied and left her hanging.

I returned to the kitchen to get rid of my empty glass. A dark-haired woman wearing a cat mask and a black see-through negligee offered me a Bellini and a blowjob. At least she spoke my language. I'd had too much to drink already, but thought about the other. I was on the edge of doing something I'd regret. There are few things I regret, but botching a case is one of them. I was here on a mission, and I preferred not to mix business with pleasure.

Unless I first mixed it with alcohol.

I took the Bellini and followed Cat Lady down the narrow hallway to join the speed demons in the back. I chugged the drink as I walked.

The drink was nice, but the walls were tricky. They kept shifting on me and hitting me in the head. I hit right back. I'm no pugilist, but I figured I was more than a match for faux-Spanish carpentry. I figured wrong. First my knees went all shaky on me. Then I zigged when I should have zagged. The wall caught me with a sucker punch to the temple. I couldn't tell which side. My whole head rang like The Gong Show. I fell to the floor but never felt the landing.

When I regained what was left of my senses, I found myself outside, stumbling down the road past a long line of parked cars. Someone had me in their grip, catching my weight so the street wouldn't have to. I looked down at the hands that held my right arm. Gray polish on the nails. I looked up at the face.

Cat Lady.

She leaned me against the passenger side of a car.

"In here," she purred.

"Meow," I replied, trying to break the ice. I thought she looked pretty. Pretty Cat Lady. I chatted her up some more. "Meow."

I reached out to pet her. She moved my hand away with amazing feline reflexes and unlocked the passenger door.

The door was silver.

I wondered if that meant something.

Maybe she was rich.

A fat cat.

"Meow."

The car had a couple of blurry hood ornaments. I blinked my eyes until the images came together.

A horse.

I wondered, why does a cat lady drive a horse?

"Easy now," she said, and helped me into her silver Mustang.

PREVIOUS: Chapter Six

NEXT: Chapter Eight

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