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Peaches and the Gambler 9


  “I don’t think all that’s going to be necessary,” she said.

  “It might be. I don’t want anything to happen to you. You gonna need to protect yourself,” he said, gruffly. “Up to date on your gun permit?”

  “Yes.” She had gotten a gun permit a few years back when the frenzy of gang activity in Durham had reached a fever pitch. With the news broadcasting gang initiations involving breaking into homes and raping sleeping women, she hadn’t felt she was safe enough. Even though the chances of actually accurately shooting the target as opposed to the wall were dismal at best. “I don’t think it’s gonna get that serious, daddy,” she said, soothingly. “I’m just going around asking a few questions. That’s all.”

  “Questions that can lead to somebody askin’ you questions at the mean end of a gun. Just think about borrowin’ one of your daddy’s guns, alright?”

  “Daddy, I already have a gun, remember?”

  “You mean that peashooter of a hot-pink .22 you bought at the gun show?” he snorted.

  “Its powder-pink,” Peaches corrected him self-righteously. “And peashooter or not, it’ll take somebody out.” When she had purchased the .22 from a gun show she had attended with her father, she had to admit it had been more its cuteness than its deadliness that had made up her mind.

  “I told you not to buy that ridiculous thing when you picked it up,” her father, complained. “Why don’t you borrow your daddy’s .45, instead?”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  “Good. Just wanted to talk to you for a bit this morning.” He sounded relieved.

  “So you’re not gonna try to talk me out of this like everybody else?”

  “Peaches, I’m your daddy. I know you, remember? I ain’t never been able to talk you out of anything you set your mind to.”

  **

  Viviana was bored.

  She filed her toenails, draped in the fine silk robe Augostino had purchased for her on his last trip to Japan. She listened unabashedly at the open living room window as her father talked to Peaches about the dead guy Lenny’s murder.

  She shook her head as the details of her father’s conversation filtered in from her one-sided vantage point.

  Apparently, her sister thought it was a good idea to investigate Lenny’s death. She had lost her mind. Peaches was an office manager, not some hard-boiled private eye. She was watching too many of those mystery shows. Maybe she should give her a ring and try to talk her out of it. But the memory of Peaches stinging rebuke was still too fresh in her mind and Viviana didn’t have the courage to confront Peaches about any decisions she made in her life.

  So, she took the low road, convincing herself Peaches was hard-headed and would do the exact opposite of anything she advised. Better to let her go along hokey-dory and hope for the best.

  Augostino hadn’t called her even once since she had arrived. She had hoped her absence might make him realize how much he missed her presence. But that was pretty hard to achieve when the man in question was out of town himself. She wondered anxiously if she was losing her control over him.

  She breathed noisily, nostrils flaring. The girl’s were whooping and hollering again. She could hear their shrill raised voices. Today they were at each other’s throats over a hair brush, yesterday it was a Nintendo DS. Tonight…who knows?

  She needed something—or someone—to entertain her. And to make Augostino regret he hadn’t called.

  **

  Peaches was trying—and failing—to get any useful information out of Samuel Mendoso, the detective assigned to Lenny’s case.

  “Well, have you all found out where he was just before he was killed?” she asked, holding her arm up to block brilliant shafts of early morning sunshine.

  “We have an idea,” Detective Mendoso stated in a vague and infuriating manner. His fingers were entwined and held just beneath his chin, his eyes watchful and intelligent.

  Detective Mendoso calmly eyed the attractive woman seated before him. She had walked with quiet authority into his office, slipping a notebook out of an oversized purse and following it with a pen.

  At first he had believed her to be a journalist. Then he had come to the conclusion that she was an amateur sleuth out to turn her life into a true crime. It was what police had coined as The CSI Effect. A dangerous mindset that made silly, misguided people think they could solve complex crimes. Good-looking as she was, he had a lot to do and little to no time to waste. He would blow her off and get back to the pile of work awaiting him.

  Peaches seethed at the stocky, muscular man seated behind the meticulously maintained desk. Detective Mendoso had a square jaw and a low forehead covered with thick, boyish curls, his one and only transgression to vanity. Over his powerfully built chest, his shirt was sharply creased and ironed and without stain or wrinkle. His slacks were also creased hard enough to cut cold butter on. He was either ex-military, anal retentive, gay or all three.

  Pens, pencils, notebooks and even a vase of fresh flowers were perfectly placed on his desk, loose papers neatly organized in labeled trays. There were no dust motes floating in the air. She needed to have him come clean up her apartment.

  “You guy’s have no idea where he was, do you?” Peaches asked with sudden perception.

  “We have a good idea.” A small frown marred the distractingly thick unibrow which was exposed when he shoved his hair from his forehead.

  “No, you don’t,” she said, gathering her purse and standing up. “But, I think I do. I’ll continue my investigation over there.”

  “Firstly--,” Detective Mendoso said, standing up to his full five foot seven height. His frown was positively thunderous now. “If you have any pertinent information you need to be sharing it with me seeing as this is an active murder investigation. Otherwise, I will consider you obstructing justice by withholding relevant information. And secondly, you are not allowed to investigate any crime in the state of North Carolina without first being licensed as a private investigator.”

  A slight Spanish accent was seeping through what, up until now, had been a cool, composed demeanor.

  “How do you know I’m not an investigator?” she inquired.

  “Are you?”

  “No,” she grumbled, unable to lie to this astute man.

  “Didn’t think so. Just perception, that’s all.”

  “But, still, there’s nothing illegal about asking questions, detective,” she countered, pertly.

  “You used the word ‘investigation’ that means you need to be licensed by the state.”

  “Okay. Well, in that case, I’m not investigating,” she said, air-quoting with an exaggerated flourish. “I’m asking questions.”

  Which could compromise the investigation of this department,” he growled. Her air quotes achieved the desired effect of needling the detective. His lowered eyebrows practically became one with the bridge of his nose.

  “Detective Mendoso you cannot tell me I can’t ask questions. I know my rights.”

  Peaches learned something about Detective Mendoso that day which she would come to understand in future encounters meant she should either shut her trap or beat a hasty retreat.

  She did neither.

  “Then--,” he said with deadly calm, his uni-brow fluttering like a moth trapped in a glass mason jar. “I demand that you tell me where you believe the victim was the night he was killed.”

  “I…don’t…know.” There! She could be close-mouthed, too.

  “Then I’ll consider you obstructing an official murder investigation, Ms. Donnelly.”

  “So arrest me,” she crowed.

  “Don’t mind if I do,” he said with a chilly, little smile.

  With those fateful words he whipped out a pair of cuffs, slapped them on her wrists and escorted her to a holding cell quicker than she could say:

  “Aww, shit!”

  Chapter 14

  “Pretty soon you’ll have enemies all over the state.”

  Peaches scowled
as Stick escorted her out of the police department.

  A few moments earlier she had seen two of the police officers who overheard her coarse remark about poor black men getting murdered, conversing just outside the doors leading into the holding cells. They openly smirked at her. The tall pale one with grey eyes winking long and slow.

  She felt her face heat up and was humiliated.

  After more than three hours in a holding cell and half a dozen frantic phone calls, Lynn clucking down the line with disapproval before curtly stating she was in Greensboro on a sales call and wouldn’t be available until later that evening, she had gotten Stick on the line.

  All in all, it was a fabulous start to an investigation that could barely be termed that.

  A man of many resources, Stick had made a call to a buddy of his that worked on the force, then used his extreme charm to cajole a favor out of the still irritated Detective Mendoso. The detective had capitulated, only dropping the obstructing justice charge after extracting the information he had tried to get during her three hour stay compliments of the City of Durham jailing system.

  At least he thought he had extracted it. She had sent him on a wild goose chase to The Cabaret, a gentlemen’s club in Raleigh. That oughta show him.

  “Hey, look at it this way, now you can add Jail Bird to your list of job titles.” He cracked up when her scowl deepened. “Come on, babe. It’s not that serious.”

  “He threw me in jail, Stick,” Peaches lamented, walking though the doors Stick was holding open for her and out into the sticky May sunshine. “Me. I’ve been a good girl all my life and now I have a record.”

  “I don’t know about the good girl part,” he chuckled, raising an eyebrow. “And you do not have a record, Peaches. He dropped the charges, remember?”

  Peaches, not in the mood to be reasonable, continued ranting instead.

  “And can he really arrest me for not telling him something? It’s not like I even know if the information is useful!”

  Stick eyed her like she was a mentally challenged child. “That’s why it’s called obstructing justice, sweetie. A lot of the information police pick up may seem incidental and most of it is. But you never know what might be the information they need to crack a case.”

  Dropping a pair of trendy sunglasses over his eyes, Stick said, “You know what you need?”

  “What? A lawyer?” she pouted.

  “Bojangles’. My treat. And you still haven’t told me why you were at the police station to begin with.”

  “I’ll tell you over lunch.”

  “Follow me over?”

  “Sure.” Her stomach grumbled loudly in agreement. With all this stress, real food was called for.

  She would start The Cabbage Diet tomorrow.

  **

  “So you’re investigating this guy Lenny’s murder?”

  “I’m trying to. I haven’t really gotten anywhere thus far,” Peaches said, tearing into a soft, fluffy biscuit.

  She felt guilty eating the fattening treat. But she figured the high levels of caffeine in the sweetened tea she was drinking would counteract the fatty calories in the biscuit and fried chicken. Trying her best to ignore the slight bulge hanging over the lip of her skirt, she firmly reminded herself to start The Cabbage Diet ASAP.

  “So what have you found out?”

  “Well, I know he liked strip clubs and drank a lot. But that’s not much to go on. The police probably knew all that anyway.” She tore into a hot, crispy chicken leg, savoring its spicy greasiness.

  “I don’t know. Maybe not all of it.” Stick took a thoughtful sip of his sweetened iced tea. “They probably know he drank and went to the strip club. Amongst the people he knew that’s common knowledge. Probably even interviewed some of the people at those places to see if they knew anything. But a lot of people won’t talk to the police. Scared of them. Especially in places that cater to the sex industry.”

  “Yeah, probably. I guess I’ll head on over to the strip club sometime this week. Ask around. Maybe somebody’ll let something slip.”

  “The strip club, Peaches? Didn’t that detective tell you to back off with the amateur detecting?”

  “Stick, you and I both know he has no legal right to tell me to back off of asking questions,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Besides, it’s not like he can arrest me for talking to people.”

  “You always were hardheaded,” he muttered under his breath.

  “What?” she asked, scowling.

  “Nothing.”

  Stick pushed his plate aside, leaning back and folding his arms. He contemplated her, gaze unwavering. His shirt, undone by three buttons, crumpled beneath the pressure of his forearms, exposing a lightly furred expanse of chest muscle.

  “You sure you really want to do this, Peaches?” The question was asked quietly with none of his usual jokes or banter.

  “Yes. I want to do this for Lenny.”

  It was the first time since she told Ms. Penny she was embarking on this adventure that she felt so certain. Lenny hadn’t deserved to die so young. No one did.

  “You might have to do some uncomfortable things.”

  “Like what?”

  “Anything. Being a detective is nothing like on TV. It can take weeks or even months of hard work to get the answers you’re looking for.”

  “That’s fine, Stick. I am out of work after all,” Peaches said, popping a fry liberally seasoned with Cajun flavored salt in her mouth.

  “You might have to go undercover.”

  “Sounds fun to me.”

  “Really, Peaches,” he said, leaning forward. “Even if you have to go undercover as a stripper?”

  **

  “I saw your boy the other day.”

  Nina, carrying a tray in a long lunch line that was moving at a snails pace, shifted her backpack, turning to look at Gloria Meager. She was sporting a new look that consisted of shoulder length wig and neon pink skinny jeans. It was terrible. Clashed with her dark skin and made her look like a Lite-Brite.

  “My boy?”

  “Don’t play stupid, girl!” she brayed, mirthlessly. “Monte.”

  “Really?”

  “Yup,” she said, nonchalantly reaching into the extra large bag of pickle flavored chips she was carrying and tossing one in her mouth, chewing voraciously. “I was with my cousin Shanté and we saw him with some girl with a big booty up at the Micky D’s.” She avidly watched Nina’s face for any reaction.

  “Ok,” she said, mock carelessly. “Why do I need to know that?”

  “They just seemed real close, you know what I mean?” She finished the last of her chips, balling the bag up and tossing it on Nina’s tray. “Throw that away for me, will you?”

  “Whatever,” Nina said, irked.

  “Anyway. Long as you didn’t give him any booty you alright. You know he’s sorta a ho. You didn’t give him any, right?”

  “No!” she said a little too quickly.

  “Uhh-huuh,” Gloria said, a bright speculative light glowing in her eyes. “I’ll see you in step practice later.”

  “Later,” Nina said, tonelessly. Ooooh, she hated Gloria. At least now she knew why he hadn’t texted her.

  **

  Rome, Italy

  On the other side of the world, Italian movie star on the rise and small time womanizer Cosimo Penta, was enmeshed in a heated argument with his agent. He waved a cigarillo around in his agitation, showering the expensive hotel carpeting with a fine, off-white layer of ash. He didn’t even notice.

  Cosimo glanced longingly at a shelf which formerly housed his favorite liquor. Since going sober nearly three months ago, the only item on the shelf was one lonely award he had won three years before as best supporting actor. Trying times such as these made a man wish sobriety had occurred at a later date.

  “But I do not want to play the part of a gangster again, Mariella! The last three parts I have been offered have been gangster’s! I am a lover not a gangster. I want the world to se
e that.”

  Problem was, the world would never see that side of Cosimo. A gangster was and always would be what he looked like.

  Born with a natural sneer, his looks were dark, surly and aggressive, his shoulders broad and his hands large. His genetic expression of malcontent had been inherited from his father and his father had inherited it from his father and so on and so on. Add to this intimidating facade a naturally hoarse voice and then toss in buckets of wild chest hair and you had a shorter, less friendly version of a gargoyle.

  But when he looked in the mirror, he saw a Prince Charming thwarted from his coveted role as a handsome, on screen lover boy, by the evil mechanisms of the flighty film industry.

  “Mariella, you must do better or I will be forced to fire you,” he bluffed, authoritatively.

  This was an empty threat made dozens of times in the past and would, more likely than not, be made a dozen more times before one of them tired of the game.

  He listened impassively as she made some promises she probably wouldn’t keep and tersely hung up, tangled deep inside a melancholy funk only true artists can achieve.

  Cosimo was sitting there, moodily wondering if suicide would immortalize his name, when his cell phone chimed. He eagerly picked it up, thinking it was Mariella groveling back with a better contract offer. It wasn’t. It was a number he didn’t recognize. Scowling, he considered not answering. It could be some crazed fan. Then he thought better of that idea. It could also be a studio executive making a direct call.

  Hopes high, he picked up, putting on his smoothest voice. Unbeknownst to him, this particular tone came off as a strangled rasp.

  So it was with great trepidation that a thoroughly vengeful Viviana, calling from a world away in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, came to invite him to the southern side of the United States.

  Chapter 15

  The following day found Peaches standing on the cement stoop fronting Cynthia Richardson’s ragged screen door. She nervously clutched the strip of paper she still hadn’t been able to identify. She had shown it to Stick and he hadn’t had any idea what business the partial words related to.

  Cheerful, hanging baskets of geraniums bordered the entrance on either side of the door, brightening up the otherwise morose countenance looming over the entire housing complex. She was surprised a woman with such a foul attitude could keep such pretty flowers thriving.