Troubleshooter – Two
by Andrea Speed
Since he’d forgotten to bring a photo of Bryce, she’d asked him to e-mail her one ASAP. He did, just shortly after she’d run scans of his fingerprints (she pulled three good ones and a partial) into her database. Ward sent a head shot, which figured. Bryce looked just like the inoffensively handsome lead of every other sitcom on a major network: he had swept back light brown hair, as firmly in place as a helmet, evenly spaced Delft blue eyes set apart by the best bobbed nose money could buy, and an eighty thousand watt smile that could probably be seen from low earth orbit. She was nearly blinded by the bright white glow coming off his perfect, immaculately bleached teeth. You couldn’t have built a better “handsome but goofy best friend of the lead” if you tried. And she suspected someone had.
As soon as she had a print out of his photo, she headed downtown to a bar called Wayside’s Inn, a seedy little dive in the end of town where cops never ventured after dark. In fact, no one smart or unarmed never went there after ten, even if they lived there – it was just common sense. At least it was still afternoon.
Not that the place looked any better in sunlight. It was made for night, when it could seem atmospheric and creepy. In the day, it simply looked corroded, the facades crumbling and cracking under the dual assault of neglect and time. The apartments looked swaybacked, the liquor store and the Kwik Mart on the corners like squatty toads cursing the landscape like a plague. Even the light here took on a urine colored cast – probably due to pollution, but she would have been willing to believe despair was leeching from the area and tainting everything downwind of it.
Wayside’s Inn was at the end of the block, wedged between a parking lot that had seen better eons, and an abandoned lot where you could still see the charred foundation of an old pizza joint between the thick clutches of sickly weeds.
Going into the bar was like entering a black hole: little sunlight ever managed to punch through the grimy window, gray with the accumulated soot of decades of cigarette smoke, and the dark wood that made up the interior seemed to absorb what little illumination seeped in. The smell was eau de kegger, the ambiance was décor to commit suicide in.
Sitting at the far end of the bar was just the woman she was looking for. She was nothing special, an anonymous barfly in a glitter spangled pink t-shirt and a Dodgers baseball jacket, with several gaudy rings gleaming on her nicotine stained fingers. As soon as she looked up from her Long Island iced tea, she gestured with her tired brown eyes towards a table in the back, near the noisome hallway leading to the bathrooms. Z headed there, trailing casually after her.
Her name was Veya, and while she appeared to be a middle aged booze hound, she was, in fact, the biggest and best information broker in the area. If she didn’t know about the person you were trying to find, she could point you to a person who could give you what you needed. Z had no idea how she collected all this information, unless hanging around in bars from sun up to sundown paid off in ways unimaginable.
Z pulled out one of the hard wooden chairs and straddled it, wondering how quickly her butt would go numb, and slid the print out of Bryce’s photo across the cigarette scarred table, a fifty dollar bill paper clipped to the left upper corner. “Who is this guy?” She asked.
Veya deftly pocketed the folded bill while studying the pristine head shot. “My guess is an actor,” she replied, in her gravelly voice, betraying years of alcohol and cigarettes.
“That’s self-evident. His name is Bryce Shaw, and apparently he’s been known to hang out at Blue Sky. Is he in with Girani?”
Girani was pretty much a scum-of-all-trades, and did a lot of his networking out of the tragically hip club called Blue Sky, which he had a minor financial stake in. That’s what made her initially suspicious about Bryce. Veya shook her head, her mane of frizzy brown curls only moving slightly – that was some hairspray she used. She was well known for her hair helmet. “Nah, he’s too clean; Girani would eat him alive.” She looked up from Bryce’s photo and turned it over, as if not wanting to talk bad about him over a simulacrum of himself. “He’s small meat, total amateur. Does victimless sweetheart grifts.”
Veya had a language all her own. “In English.”
“Non-pro gigolo. He looked for older sugar daddies who were more than happy to keep his head above water – so to speak. Eventually traded up for wealthier guys, but there were no hard feelings. Or at least no charges filed.”
“Totally soft? Nothing harder edged?”
She shook her head, took a crumpled cigarette pack out of her coat pocket. Technically all indoor smoking was banned, but she doubted any health inspector was crazy enough to venture into Wayside’s. As she shook out a cigarette, she said, “I’ve never heard anything. Total small fry.”
“You said he used them to keep his head above water. He was in debt?” Veya simply nodded again as she clamped the cig between her lips and dug out a red plastic lighter. “Drugs, gambling?”
That earned a shrug. She had to wait for her to inhale and exhale her first burst of nicotine before Veya said, “If so, never made the rounds.”
“Think he’d move to blackmail?”
Veya frowned at her, accentuating her crow’s feet, her painted on eyebrows coming together over the bridge of her nose. “Fuck no, honey. Why? He’s gotta good gig goin’ without it.”
She didn’t really know how Veya made her money; it was possible selling information and turning reluctant informant to cops was it. She did know that Veya knew her criminal brethren quite well – they were what passed for family. “So it’s your opinion that he wouldn’t bug out on a boyfriend and steal something valuable from him for blackmail purposes?”
“Blackmail, no. Spite, sure. Haven’t we all done shit to piss off our ex on the way out the door?” Veya tapped the ash of her cigarette on the floor, and said, “I gotta know, honey, ’cause my sources know nothing about you. What’s the Z stand for?”
Although mildly surprised by the question, she didn’t show it. “I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, how many Z names are there? Zelda? Zaire? Zany? Maybe you Brits got something else -“
“I’m Australian,” she corrected, not adding that she lived and worked in Britain for so many years it was irrelevant. Veya really didn’t need to know any of this.
Veya gave her a half shrug and a lift of the eyebrows that seemed to say ‘What the fuck’s the difference’. “Whatever. I mean, I can understand about bein’ embarrassed by havin’ a stupid name – I’m Veya, for Christ’s sake – but I won’t sell it, honey. I don’t think people’d pay me for it anyways.”
“Back to Bryce – “
“Zandy? Zuzu? Zanzibar?” She guessed.
Z pointedly ignored that. “Do you know where he might be hiding out? Has he been seen today, to your knowledge?”
She shook her head once more, hardly dislodging a hair. “Not that I’ve heard. There have been rumors he was preparing to split town.”
Another frustrating shrug. “My guess? New sugar daddy or creditors.”
She’d probably gotten all out of Veya that fifty bucks would buy her. She had a couple of leads to check out, though, and that made all the time wasted in this alcohol soaked pit worth it. “Thanks for the info, Veya,” she said, standing up and picking up Bryce’s photo. Her butt was so numb you could probably stick a fork in it and she’d never know.
“Any time. It’s what I’m here for.” She paused suddenly, cigarette half way to her lips, and Z had a sinking feeling what she was going to say. “Umm, hey, about Alex -“
“No change,” she replied sharply, turning towards the door. She didn’t really like to discuss Alex, especially while working.
She had almost reached the exit when Veya asked loudly, “Is it Zora?”
Z glanced over her shoulder and frown at her. “No. Trust me, my name is nothing.”
“Everybody’s name is somethin’, hon. Sometimes it’s all we have.”
She shook her head and simply walked out into the light, not even bothering to try and figure that one out.
Considering where his workplace had been before he was laid off, and where people could rent motel rooms by the hour, she followed a hunch that paid off.
The manager at the cheapo Calico Cat Motel recognized Bryce’s head shot when she showed it to him. Apparently he wasn’t sure how long he’d need the room, but he paid for three hours – in cash, which was common around here – and “checked in” alone. The manager was a little upset, as his three hours were up, but he hadn’t returned the key. He was just going to go roust him supposedly, but Z doubted that – she bet he was waiting for the talk show he was waiting to get over. He said as far as he knew Bryce had no visitors, but she knew she couldn’t trust that assessment – after all, his eyes had been glued to the set.
The Calico Cat was just two miles away from the relatively “shabby chic” Mexican restaurant Bryce used to wait tables at, and her guess had been if he was leaving town – and planning to do something about that briefcase – he might meet with someone in a place with no witnesses, where no one seemed to see anything. After her talk with Veya, she found herself mulling the evidence. Andrew had money, presumably quite a bit, but it seemed to be no object to recover what was in the briefcase. And since Bryce spent his life hopping from one rich guy to the next, where was his next “sugar daddy”, especially one who could compete at Andrew’s financial level? She had nothing left but suspicions, but she had a good record of her hunches panning out.
So here was her entire supposition: Bryce was in bigger financial trouble than he ever let on, and he was sick of Andrew, but he hadn’t landed his next big fish. What he did have, though, was what he may have seen as his ticket out – his big score. If it was worth so much to Andrew, how much would what was inside the briefcase be worth on the open market? Bryce didn’t just take it because he was angry; he took it to make a deal, and get out of town. The only question was who had offered to buy it, why, and what the hell was in that damn briefcase anyways? Maybe, if he was still around, she could simply ask.
The manager was under the erroneous impression she was a detective, and that it was legal to simply hand a detective someone’s room key (he was no fool – he had several copies). Not that she was about to correct him – after all, she doubted Bryce was going to bring the cops into this.
It probably would have been polite to knock on the door, so she didn’t. But trying the doorknob, she realized it was unlocked . and if that wasn’t a bad sign, what was?
She was tense and on alert as she opened the door of the tiny room, and was hit by a hot, meaty smell that was too damn familiar.
The stuffy, dark room reeked of industrial, rose scented cleaners that didn’t hide the smell of sex and mildew, none of which was recent. The meaty metallic smell dominated, but the room was empty, save for the small bed with an ugly green blanket, a threadbare orange and brown carpet, a portable t.v. bolted to a table that was also bolted to the floor.
The signs of a struggle were small.
The coverlet had a wrinkled imprint on the far side, spreading out to the rough center of the bed. She couldn’t see the nightstand beside the bed – with the lamp still incongruously bolted to its surface – until she reached the center of the room. It was lying horizontal on the floor, blocked from general view, the plastic coated shade slightly askew. The closet door was half way open, but canted inward slightly, knocked off its track. The bathroom door was ajar, and the smell became stronger the closer she got to it.
Using her bent knuckles so she didn’t leave any telltale marks for the forensics team, she shoved open the door, and discovered what had become of Bryce Shaw.
He was sitting in the shower stall, legs splayed, one foot over the lip of the door track. His head was canted at a painful angle, nearly resting on his left shoulder, and his eyes stared at a nothing point to her immediate right, his blue eyes unfocused and cloudy. His shirt looked dark, but the shadow had run in a thick trail between his legs – his blood had turned his shirt black, and left a trail on its way to the drain. The cut just underneath his larynx looked almost bloodless now, a wide, toothless maw that suddenly materialized in his neck. The flesh under his right eye looked puffy and discolored, although he had apparently died before it could blossom into a full blown bruise. The smell of blood, shit, and fear was almost nauseating. Perhaps it was finally a good thing that she was used to it.
She was about to leave, tell the motel manager to call the police, when she heard the smallest noise behind her, the scuff of a shoe on the carpet. She should have checked the closet – every kid could tell you the monster was always hiding in the closet.
“You his partner?” A deep male voice said. He sounded big. “Maybe you’ll be more accommodating than he was.”