Friday, October 30, 2015

The White Russian Caper - Another Teaser

Halloween is almost upon us, and I've decided to offer a "treat" by previewing another chapter from The White Russian Caper.

The White Russian Caper
Chapter Two

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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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The White Russian Caper - A Preview

The publication date for my second novel, THE WHITE RUSSIAN CAPER: A DAMIEN DICKENS MYSTERY, is just one month away. To celebrate, I have decided to release the entire first chapter of this second installment in the Damien Dickens Mysteries series.

The White Russian Caper
Chapter One

I was on my way out the door when the call came in. Millie already had left for the day; I covered the distance to her desk in two long strides and grabbed for the telephone. “Dickens Detective Agency,” I announced.
“Is this Mr. Dickens? Mr. Damien Dickens?”
The voice in my ear was vaguely familiar. “Yes,” I replied. “This is Dickens.”
“Oh, Mr. Dickens,” the soft male voice exhaled. “Thank heavens! I didn’t know whom to call. Then I remembered your visit last year to my establishment. I require your assistance.”
“Who is this?” I interrupted.
“Why, it’s Stephane.” He paused, waiting for my reaction. “Stephane Major, n’est ce pas? Do you not remember me?”
I recognized the voice then. It belonged to the General Manager of Boardwalk Hall, the venue of The Miss America Pageant - Atlantic City’s crown jewel. I had met the fussbudgety Mr. Major about six months before, when I was investigating the murder of Celine Sutherland. “Yes,” I acknowledged, though not without some reluctance. “I remember you, Mr. Major.”
“Oh, thank heavens.” I could almost see his hand fluttering against his chest. “Oh, I don’t know what to do. I need your help, Mr. Dickens. It’s about Miss America, n’est ce pas?”
“What about Miss America?”
“She’s missing.” He paused. “You must find her and bring her back.”
Transferring the receiver to my left hand, I reached for a scrap of paper, noticing in passing that Millie had traced a large red heart around today’s date on her calendar pad. I tucked the subtle reminder that it was Valentine’s Day into a corner of my brain as I fumbled around in her desk drawer for a pen. “Have you called the police yet?”
“Well,” he began. “Well, I…. Well…” His voice trailed off.
I put down the pen. “How long has she been missing, Mr. Major?”
“Well, she was scheduled to arrive this morning by air. She was to address the student body at Atlantic City Senior High at 1:00pm, but she never appeared. I’ve tried to telephone her several times, to no avail. I realize that she has only been incommunicado for a few hours,” he added in a small voice. “But, Mr. Dickens, our reigning Miss America is always so reliable. We have never had this happen in all the years during which I have been associated with the Pageant organization. I simply did not know where to begin. I thought of calling in the local constabulary, but I was hesitant to do so.” He paused, and I could hear his shrug. “The adverse publicity, n’est ce pas?”
“Uh huh, I see.” The telephone receiver slipped; I caught it as it was about clatter against the desk, and repositioned it before continuing. “The police won’t accept a Missing Persons report on an adult until the person has been missing for at least 48 hours,” I told him. I could hear his gasp, and knew what he was thinking. A lot of things can happen to a beautiful young woman in that first 48 hours. Most of them bad. I could smell his incipient panic over the phone and added. “We needn’t wait for the police, Mr. Major. I can get started on this right away. Where was she staying? Can you meet me there?”
“Oh, Mr. Dickens. Oh, thank you. Oh, if you could only meet me at her hotel! Then we could move forward, n’est ce pas?”
“Which hotel is that, Mr. Major?”
“The Resorts. Meet me in the lobby of the Resorts Hotel on the Boardwalk. We maintain a suite of rooms in the hotel for the current Miss America to use whenever she is in town. It’s more convenient than renting and maintaining a furnished apartment, n’est ce pas?”
“OK,” I acknowledged, “the lobby of the Resorts Hotel. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
I hung up the phone, cutting off the last part of his effusive response, locked the office door, and left by the back stairs. The offices of the Dickens Detective Agency are located on the second floor of a nondescript building at the corner of Atlantic and North Carolina. We occupy the corner suite, consisting of an outer reception area - Millie’s domain - and my private inner office. The window behind my desk overlooks North Carolina, and is situated directly above Happy’s Bar and Grille, a favorite hangout for Millie and me. I proposed to Millie in Happy’s back booth last August, and we were married in the aisle beside that same booth a month later. But that’s another story.
My trusty (though somewhat rusty), ice-blue, ’71 Toyota Celica was parked in a small lot near the building’s rear exit. I opened the trunk and retrieved my Smith & Wesson 29 from its case, checked its load, and tucked the gun into my shoulder holster. No telling what, or who, we might find in Miss America’s suite. I started the car, turned left out of the parking lot onto Mansion, hung another left onto Atlantic Avenue, and left again onto North Carolina. I pulled into the large outdoor parking lot adjacent to the Resorts at the foot of North Carolina, locked the car, and walked along the Boardwalk to the main entrance.
I spun through the revolving doors into the lobby of the Resorts Hotel and Casino. I’d been there before, of course. Half the population of Atlantic City had toured the town’s first legal casino in the weeks before its official opening in 1978. The lobby was pretty much as I remembered it - a study in scarlet and brass, suggesting that the interior designer had been smitten by the Denver house of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. A sweeping marble staircase, carpeted in red pile and bordered by an ornate brass balustrade, faced the main doors from across the lobby. The registration desk and concierge counter lined the perpendicular wall to the left of the entrance. A series of glitzy shops and a lounge inhabited the wall to the right; a lounge was tucked discretely into the back corner of the lobby. Behind the staircase, a hallway led to meeting rooms, public restrooms, and a half-dozen pay phones. Clinks, clangs, and beeps, which coalesced into a genre of music unique to casinos, drifted down the staircase from the mezzanine level into the lobby, playing a counterpoint to the soft jazz tempos that oozed from the lounge.
Millie was expecting me home by 7:30. While I waited for Major, I used one of the pay phones that hung from the wall behind the grand staircase to call her. I told her to go ahead and eat without me; that I’d explain when I got home. Then I returned to the lobby to watch for my new client. I spotted him almost immediately, walking in my direction from the bank of elevators. He hadn’t changed much in the six months since I had last seen him - he still looked like a triplet to Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In deference to the winter season, his suit was light gray, with a charcoal gray pinstripe. He sported his trademark white silk shirt, open at the collar; but his red, paisley foulard was askew, revealing a slit of pasty, white skin along one side of the ‘V’ formed by the open neck of the shirt. When he offered his hand to me in greeting, I could see that his gold cufflink was fastened improperly, threatening to fall out of the French cuff at his wrist. And, although his nails were freshly buffed and polished, the thumb nail on his right hand was bitten to the quick. I extended my hand to him in response, and he sandwiched it between both of his. I extricated myself from his sponge-like grip and gestured toward the elevators. “Have you been up to her room yet?” I asked.
He nodded. “I just came from there. I knocked on the door, but there was no response, although I thought I may have heard something. Perhaps the television set?”
“Have you a key to her room?”
“Yes. I obtained a key from the desk clerk while confirming that Miss America had checked in as expected.” He half-smiled, and gave a self-deprecating shrug. “I am not a brave man, Mr. Dickens. I suppose that I should have entered the room, but I lacked the courage to do so, n’est ce pas. I decided to wait for your arrival.” He put a hand into his jacket pocket and withdrew a hotel room key. “Her suite is on the seventh floor. Room 703.”
We stood side by side in silence as we rode the elevator to the seventh floor, Major now working on his left thumb nail. Room 703 was near the end of the hall, on the side of the building that faced the ocean. A “Do Not Disturb” sign hung from the handle. I motioned to Major, and he knocked on the door jamb. “Miss Cynthia?” he called out in a gentle voice. “Miss Cynthia? It’s Stephane Major, Miss Cynthia. Are you in there?”
There was no answer. I took the key from Major’s trembling hand and inserted it in the lock. The door swung open at my touch. “Is anybody here?” I called out, as I walked past a short hall that led to a bathroom. I stood in the center of the large sitting room and looked around. The room was decorated in the pseudo-Victorian style preferred by institutional interior designers who were in rebellion against the recent Danish modern trend. The sofa was upholstered in beige-on-brown brocade, chosen for its ability to hide stains. Its legs were walnut colored, and molded to resemble lion’s paws. The sofa frame was embellished with a border of plastic-molded scroll work, crowned with a facsimile of the MGM lion. A matching wing chair stood against the wall at a 90ยบ angle to the sofa. A square table filled the corner between the sofa and chair, and a low, rectangular coffee table completed the furniture arrangement. The tables were finished in a walnut veneer that was almost a match for the false woodwork of the sofa and chair. A fussy table lamp bearing a tasseled lampshade stood in the center of the corner table, a telephone at its side. Beyond the sitting room, a small dining area was furnished with a walnut-veneer table and two matching chairs with wood backs and upholstered seats. A window next to the table provided a view of the ocean.
Major was hovering a few paces behind me; I turned to him and asked, “What is Cynthia’s last name?”
“Mills. Her name is Cynthia Mills.”

I pointed to the closed double door in the wall opposite the sofa. “Is that the bedroom?” Major nodded. “Stay here,” I said. “And don’t touch anything.” I walked to the door, knocked gently, and called out, “Miss Mills?” There was no answer, so I rapped with greater force. “Miss Mills? Cynthia? Are you in there?” I tried the door; it was unlocked. I opened it partway and looked inside. The room was disheveled, the bed unmade. Half-open bureau drawers vomited their contents helter-skelter; clothes were strewn over the bureau, chairs, bed, and floor. I opened the door the rest of the way. One of the bedside lamps had been knocked over; glass shards from its shattered bulb sprinkled the carpet where it had fallen. “Miss Mills? Cynthia?” I tip-toed over to the en-suite bathroom so as not to disturb the debris, and looked through the open door. Towels were strewn over the floor; the shower curtain had been ripped from its rings, and lay in a heap in the bathtub. Then I heard it. A muffled groan issued from the bedroom closet. As I walked back into the bedroom and over to the closet, I called out her name again, and was rewarded with a second groan. I eased my pistol out of its shoulder holster. Holding the gun in my right hand, I slid open the closet door with my left.

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.