The White Russian Caper
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 90º 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
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