The White Russian Caper
Cynthia Mills was lying naked on the floor of the closet on top of a pile of clothes. Her face and body bore the marks of a severe beating; her left arm and both legs were bent at impossible angles. Coagulated blood matted her ash-blond hair and clung to her upper lip and the corner of her mouth, and her nose displayed an unnatural kink. Her body was a canvas of developing bruises; her face was swollen, and both eye sockets were outlined in purple-black.
“Major,” I barked, “call 9-1-1. We need an ambulance and the police.” Cynthia stirred and moaned. “And notify hotel security,” I added.
She moaned again and her eyes fluttered open for an instant. “Cold,” she exhaled, her voice barely a whisper. I took off my overcoat, crouched down beside her, and covered her. “This will keep you warm,” I told her. “Help will be here soon.” Her mouth moved, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. She shifted her right arm a couple of inches, and her hand twitched feebly at the edge of the carpeting along the track of the sliding door. “Here,” she said, “take…”
“You want me to lift the carpeting?” I asked.
“Take,” she breathed. I pulled out my Swiss Army knife and used one of the blades to pry up the carpeting. “Take,” she repeated. I reached under the carpet pad, and my fingers made contact with something metallic. I peeled back the carpet and its pad until I was able to grasp the piece of metal and free it from its hiding place. It was bronze, about the size of a silver dollar, and appeared to be some sort of coin or medallion. One surface was embossed with a double-headed eagle. Near the rim of the coin, a small hole surrounded by a decorative border was centered just above the bird’s twin heads. I showed it to her. “Is this what you were looking for?” I asked.
Cynthia opened her eyes just long enough to see the coin. “Yes,” she whispered, laboring to breathe. “Take. Keep…. safe.” I placed the coin in my jacket pocket. “Rest quietly, Cynthia,” I said, gently brushing a strand of hair from her forehead. “I’ll keep this safe for you.” She managed a fleeting smile as she passed out.
As I leaned over to check her pulse, I heard a metallic clink from above. I lifted my head and listened hard. I heard it again. It was coming from the forced-air heating vent. I rose to my feet, grabbed a chair, and climbed up to examine the vent grille on the wall above the closet. The grille was loose; the screws that normally secured it in place had been removed. With my ear against the opening, I could hear a scrambling sound. Someone was crawling through the heating duct. A soft thud from the next suite was followed by the sound of a door slamming shut. I ran through Cynthia’s suite past a startled Stephane Major and flung open the door. As I looked up and down the hallway, I was just in time to see the door to the emergency exit staircase swing shut. I raced to the end of the hall, and flew down the stairs. But by the time I reached the street door, my quarry had disappeared. Admitting defeat, I walked around to the lobby entrance and took the elevator back up to the ninth floor.
Stephane Major was waiting for me in the doorway to Cynthia’s suite. He grabbed me by the arm. “What happened? Where did you go?” I shrugged him off and returned to Cynthia’s side. She was lying with her eyes closed, and the rise and fall of her chest was almost imperceptible. Crouching back down, I leaned over and placed my fingers on her jugular to check her pulse. It was feeble. “Hang on, Cynthia,” I urged. “Help will be here soon.” As I stood back up, I heard a sharp intake of breath from behind me, followed by a dull thunk. I turned to see the body of Stephane Major lying crumpled on the floor in the bedroom doorway. He had fainted dead away. With a muttered curse, I picked my way carefully through the chaos over to where he lay. I bent over and slapped his cheeks to bring him around. He moaned and stirred. “Lie still a minute,” I told him. “You passed out.”
He moaned again, his color pasty-gray. “It was her face, her poor, bruised face. I could see it reflected in the mirror.” He pointed with a trembling hand to a full-length wall mirror that miraculously had remained intact except for a single diagonal crack in one corner. “She was so beautiful,” he added as he struggled to sit up, propping himself against the doorjamb.
“She still is,” I replied. “Did you make those calls?”
“Yes.” He reached out a hand to me. “Help me stand, please, Mr. Dickens.”
I pulled him upright and guided him over to the sofa. “Sit here,” I ordered, “and don’t move.” He leaned back into the unyielding cushions. “Don’t touch anything,” I snapped, as he reached out to stroke the fake scrollwork on the armrest of the sofa. “This is a crime scene. The police will be dusting for prints.” He snatched back his hand like a turtle retracting its head into its shell for protection and sat rocking slowly back and forth, his arms folded across his chest.
When I heard the distant chime of the elevator bell, I stepped into the corridor. A pair of paramedics set a brisk pace, walking on either side of a gurney that was loaded down with their emergency response gear; they were followed by two Atlantic City Police Department uniformed officers. “Down here,” I waved. As they approached, I recognized one of the cops. My old nemesis, Sgt. Conan Sherlock, was easy to identify: short, balding, and with a gut that spilled over his gun belt and threatened to pop the buttons on his uniform shirt. We’d bumped heads on a number of occasions in the years since I left the force and became a private investigator. He had made no secret of his delight in arresting me the previous summer for the murder of my client, Celine Sutherland, and I’d heard through the law enforcement grapevine that he had been bitterly disappointed at my exoneration. “Mark my words,” he’d told a group of junior officers, slapping the palm of his hand with his nightstick for emphasis, “Dickens is a bad egg. We’ll crack him one day.”
I led the paramedics through the bedroom to the closet where Cynthia lay, then returned to the sitting room. Major was already talking to a fresh-faced constable, who was nodding his head as he frantically scribbled in his notebook. Sherlock was waiting for me and motioned me over to the dining area. We sat down facing each other across the table. Sherlock opened his notebook, licked his forefinger, and used it to flip to a fresh page. Then he took a ballpoint pen from his pocket and clicked it several times. “Let’s have it, Dickens.” He glared at me and I returned his stare, willing him to look away first. He glanced down at the blank page of his notebook, clicked his pen again, and looked back up at me. “Well? I’m waiting, Dickens.”
I took a deep breath and walked him through what had happened, beginning with Major’s phone call to me. “I chased after whoever it was in the room next door,” I finished, “but I never got a good look at the suspect. The exit door swung shut behind me, so I had to go around to the front to get back inside. You guys showed up shortly after I got back to the room.”
Sherlock threw me a skeptical look. “And that’s all?” I nodded in silent response. “You’re not holding anything back?”
“Of course not!” I put on my most sincere face - the one I use when I’m trying to dodge a question. I had said nothing about the coin. I wanted to know more about it first.
Sherlock snorted. “Why don’t I believe you?” Then he shrugged, jotted a final item in his notebook, and slapped it shut. “My nose tells me that you’re mixed up in this somehow, Dickens. I’ll get something on you yet.”
“And it’s such a noble nose,” I replied, standing. “Be careful where you poke it, Sherlock. It might get pinched.”
Sherlock turned and barked at the constable who was questioning Major. “Aren’t you done yet?”
“Just finishing up, Sarge.”
The paramedics had been working steadily while Major and I were giving our statements, and they were ready to move their patient. Major almost passed out again as Cynthia was wheeled past us on the gurney. I waited in the room with him for a few minutes; even so, he was still pale and shaky when we rode the elevator down to the lobby. “I think that we could both use a drink,” I suggested, steering him to the hotel lounge. The place was empty, except for a couple of guys nursing their double Scotches at one end of the bar, and we found a quiet table near the back. As is my habit, I chose a seat with my back to the wall; Major sat across the table from me. The waiter came over. “Bushmills, please, on the rocks,” I told him, before asking Major, “What are you having?”
“A White Russian, please. And may I have the cream on the side, if you wouldn’t mind? I prefer to adjust the proportions for myself, n’est ce pas?” he explained. The waiter looked at me, raising his eyebrows and shoulders in unison before walking away.
“White Russian?” I asked.
“It’s quite delicious, really. It consists of vodka on ice, coffee liqueur - I favor Kahlua, but Tia Maria is satisfactory, I suppose - and light cream.” He licked his lips, and his eyes sparkled in anticipation, his distress over Cynthia’s shocking appearance temporarily forgotten. We sat without speaking until the waiter returned, carrying our drinks and a bowl of mixed, salted nuts. “Nuts are in the house,” he announced, then blushed slightly. “Sorry, I meant on the house.” He placed the bowl of nuts on the table between us and left. I watched Major fuss with his cocktail, adding a smidgen of cream, stirring, adding a few drops more, stirring again, and repeating the process until he was satisfied. He took an exploratory sip, put his glass down, nodded, and sighed, “I needed that.” He sipped again and looked up at me. “What happens now, Mr. Dickens?”
I thought for a moment. “I assume you have Cynthia’s next-of-kin information in your files?”
“Yes, of course.” He stopped to take another sip. “Her parents, Rachel and Joseph Mills, live in Florida. I met them during Pageant week.”
“You need to notify them.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s after nine o’clock. Do you think it’s too late to call?”
“I think they need to know as soon as possible.”
Major sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “Then I guess I had better return to my office and make that call, n’est ce pas.” He paused and looked at me, a plea for help in his eyes. “Unless you could undertake that service for me?”
I shook my head as I stood to leave. I wasn’t going to let him wimp out of that job and toss it in my lap.
“Very well, Mr. Dickens. But could you come to see me tomorrow morning in my office?”
“Sure,” I replied, “Around nine?” I draped my bloodstained coat over my arm and walked out of the lounge. Millie was expecting me, and I was late.
Copyright © 2015 Phyllis Entis. All Rights Reserved
THE WHITE RUSSIAN CAPER: A DAMIEN DICKENS MYSTERY (Kindle edition) is available now on Amazon for pre-order. Order now at a discounted price of $3.29, and receive the download automatically on November 20, 2015 on your Kindle device or Kindle App.
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