Winner 2009 Sleuthfest Short Story Contest
Sponsored by Mystery Writers of America, Florida Chapter
Whenever I do anything with my friend Madeleine, there’s trouble. Motel hallways flood, mice catapult out of fireplaces in Tuscan villas, and luggage loaded into the belly of our tour bus disappears by the next stop. I’m not saying it’s Madeleine’s fault. I’m saying it happens.
Our drive over from Okeechobee to attend the Sleuthfest mystery writers’ conference was without incident, and check-in at the hotel was flawless. That worried me.
“Oh, and there’s a message for you,” the desk clerk said. She handed me a sealed envelope.
“It’s probably from Don and Marion. About dinner tonight,” I told Madeleine.
“You can read it in the room.” She wheeled her suitcase toward the elevators.
“What’s the hurry?”
“Eve, you know how I feel about getting the most out of a conference. I’m going to shower, then run downstairs to the bookstore, check out the raffle items, and find one of those pink boa ladies so I can buy some tickets. And we need to be in the bar by at least five, so we can be seen.”
“Be seen as what?” I punched the up button. “I’m not published and you write children’s books. How many kids do you think will be ordering cosmos in the bar?”
She put her hand on her hip and glared up at me. At five feet two, she had to. I’m almost six feet tall without spike heels, my favorite footwear.
The door opened and we stepped in. I pushed the button for our floor and waited. The car didn’t move. I jammed my finger on the button again. Nothing. I glanced over at Madeleine.
“I didn’t touch anything,” she said.
I hit the open door button, grabbed my suitcase, and headed for the stairs.
“It’s seven floors up,” called Madeleine. “We’ll take another elevator.”
“I’m not riding with you.”
When I entered our room, panting and puffing, Madeleine was already in the bathroom.
I remembered the note from my friends, extracted it from my purse, and ripped open the envelope. “I need a shower too,” I called through the door. “I hope they don’t want to meet us early.” I looked at the clock on the nightstand. It read 4:30.
“I don’t think this is the dinner date we were expecting.”
Madeleine emerged, wrapped in the large robe provided by the hotel, red hair curling damply around her shoulders. “What do you mean?”
“Listen to this. ‘I dumped the package in the Everglades. Made some alligator a good lunch. I’ll be up to see you at five. Have the money or you’ll be making the ‘gators a good dinner.’”
“It must be a joke or something. Maybe the conference organizers do this to see how good a sleuth people are.”
I examined the envelope for a clue about the identity of the writer. “It’s labeled room 743. Our room is 748. The clerk delivered it to us by mistake.”
“Let’s return it to the desk,” said Madeleine.
That certainly wouldn’t satisfy my curiosity.
“No. The individual in 748 is obviously in trouble and we don’t have much time before this bad boy shows up to drag the person off to a reptile buffet.”
“Now what innocent person would be carrying around money to give to someone who hires alligators as his hit men?”
I thought about what she said, but just for a moment. Madeleine carries a curse, true, but I’m just plain impulsive, and I usually win. Because I’m bigger and don’t listen well.
Hair still wet and wearing the oversized terry robe, Madeleine stood behind me as I pounded on the door of 748.
“Who is it?” asked a male voice.
“Uh, it’s Eve Stanley. I’m one of the conference volunteers with a revised schedule of events for tomorrow.”
After a long silence, the voice said, “Slip it under the door.”
Ah well, I shrugged, we’ve done what we can do, so I slid it under the door. Now we’d just have to stake out 748. Before I could let Madeleine know my plan, the door flew open and a tall man dressed in dark slacks and white shirt grabbed both of us and pulled us into the room.
“Who are you? Drago send you with this? Kind of short notice, don’t you think?”
I looked up into his eyes, dark as root beer jelly beans, and admired the angular planes of his face. A shock of brown hair flopped across his forehead. Only the shoulder holster he wore took away from his look of handsome innocence. He steered us over to the bed and shoved us onto it. “Now talk to me.”
So I did, my voice shaky, my hands tingling with fear and curiosity.
“I don’t believe you.”
I told the story again. On the third telling, the phone rang.
“Damn. Answer that,” he said.
“I need to have a woman answer the phone.”
“What do I say?”
“Just listen, that’s all.”
He handed the phone to me.
“I know you got my note. I saw the desk clerk hand it to you. There’s been a change of plans,” said a deep voice at the other end. “I’ll meet you tomorrow night, Friday, near the ballroom. About nine.”
He hung up. I handed the phone back to Mr. Armed and Hunky. “I believe that may have been your Drago person,” I said.
“Sharp. Remembering the name.” He eyes traveled over me from the top of my spiky blonde hair down to my spiky black heels. When he finished, I got the impression I’d passed some kind of test, but he said, “Repeat your story again.”
I stood and jerked Madeleine off the bed. “Look, I was trying to help out someone in trouble. My mistake. You’re more equipped to handle this than we are. Goodbye.” I expected him to grab us and throw us back onto the bed. Under other circumstances, I might have welcomed a toss on the mattress with a guy looking as yummy as he did, but I’m not crazy about the combination of guns and strange men in hotel rooms. Besides I was still sweaty from seven floors of Stairmaster.
“Okay. You win. The name’s Drew Mansfield. I’m an agent with the Statewide Prosecutor’s Office out of West Palm.” He ran his long fingers through that mop of brown hair. “And I’m in a bind here. You are too.”
“We are not. We just got a message intended for you by mistake.”
His brown eyes bored into mine making my stomach get that melty feeling I experience when I’m attracted to someone. “No, you see the guy on the phone thinks you’re somebody you’re not.”
Madeleine guffawed. “You’re right about that. Because she writes mysteries, she sometimes fancies herself an amateur sleuth.”
“I could be,” I shot back at her.
“You’re not safe because this scumbag runs errands for a drug kingpin whose identity is unknown to us. Drago, or Alligator Al as he’s sometimes called, for obvious reasons, performed a hit on a guy who had raided a number of the kingpin’s grow houses, then made off with the weed, a lot of it, and sold it, keeping the money. He gave the money to his girlfriend before he was eaten, uh, hit rather, and Drago’s been sent to get it back. She was supposed to be here but had an automobile accident on the 834. He thinks you’re the girlfriend.”
“So she’s trading the money for what?” I asked.
“Her life, you mean.”
“Hers, yours, now it’s all the same. She came to us because she was scared and we set her up to meet with Drago, hoping she could convince him she wouldn’t deal with anybody but the boss and Drago would take her to him. We’d follow.”
It was turning out to be a worse day than I’d anticipated when I tangled with Madeleine’s bad elevator karma.
“If things go wrong and I miss my agent pitch appointment tomorrow, what then?” I asked. After a full day of meetings on Friday, Madeleine and I stood outside the ballroom amidst the conference goers who spilled out into the hall from the bar. “And I’m not fond of alligators or of people who use them as lethal weapons.”
“I’ll tell the agent you’re on an important assignment for the government.”
“Or you could say I’m dead, a more likely possibility.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“And I hope Mr. Mansfield has all his bases covered. He didn’t want me wired for fear Drago would find it.” He assured me he would be close. That sounded snuggly and safe.
“I gotta visit the powder room.” I shuffled off, scanning the area in all directions feeling like a bobble head on a car’s dash.
“Closed for Cleaning” read the sign. A large cart, more like that used for linen than for bathroom cleaning supplies sat just inside the door. I was about to turn away, when a short chubby woman with jet black hair and wearing the hotel’s maid uniform motioned me in. “I’m just finishing, dearie. It’s all yours.”
I awoke later trussed up like a pork tenderloin, and crammed into a very small space. The top of my prison opened, and I looked into the eyes of the bathroom cleaning lady without her wig and uniform. Drago, and I’d been transported somewhere in his trunk.
He ripped off the duct tape, almost removing my mouth and certainly most of my lip gloss. He pointed a pistol at me and loosened the ropes around my hands and feet, then did the bad guy wave of his gun, a gesture I correctly interpreted as, “Get out.”
I stood on wobbly legs and noticed I loomed over him by almost a foot. So what? His pistol and my fear more than made up for the disparity in height.
Well, well, wasn’t this nice? I was standing in the parking lot of the Burned Biscuit Bar and Restaurant back in Okeechobee. It was an establishment known intimately to Madeleine and me because we frequented it every weekend to dance with the cowboys there. If you can keep away from the spurs, they’re pretty good on their feet.
We walked through the door and turned left into a small dining room. There he was, seated at a table that allowed him to keep an eye on all the unescorted women entering the bar. We’d danced once, but his constant crotch play against my pelvis made me only too happy to refuse him another round on the floor. He’d kept asking, and I’d kept refusing. On one occasion he grabbed my arm and I informed him what my spiky heels might do to whatever he had hiding in his Armani pants. He laughed, but let go. We were not friends.
“Mr. Bigelow,” I said to the wealthiest attorney in the county.
“Eve.” He smiled, showing an abundance of tiny white teeth, almost too many for his mouth, almost as if he’d gotten his partial from a math-challenged dentist. His smile faded and he turned his gaze on Drago.
“Get rid of her.”
“Do it. Now.”
“You do this, there’ll be no second dance,” I said.
I could afford to be flip. I expected Agent Mansfield to pop out from behind the dessert cart any minute.
Bigelow threw his napkin on the table and headed for the bar. Drago and I headed for the car. He signaled me to drive. I understood, by now being fluent in pistol.
“I want to see the river in moonlight.” He chuckled.
A late night snack. And I was the snack.
I stood at the water’s edge, Al only feet from me.
“Down on your knees.”
I couldn’t do that. I was frozen with terror. I saw what he did not. Silent and still at the water’s edge lay a dark shape, nearer to Al than me.
I tried to tell him not to make a move, but he stepped forward, waving his damn gun again. Suddenly, the water exploded, and the creature pulled Al off the riverbank. The two slid into the depths entwined like lovers.
I jumped back and stood shaking at the suddenness of the attack and the quickness of the ending. The water was enticingly calm once more, the man-in-the-moon’s smile reflecting off the mirrored surface.
I hobbled around the launch area for some time, my knees feeling limp as overcooked collard greens, then drove Al’s car to the local sheriff’s office. I recounted my tale several times before the deputies contacted Agent Mansfield by phone.
“Where the hell were you?” I asked.
“There was a lot of traffic on I95. I lost you, but my men are on their way.”
“Never mind. I think Al thought Okeechobee gators were as discerning as West Palm’s. He never figured they’d grab anything as unappetizing as him off the buffet.”
Disgusted I had trusted him, I gave him Bigelow’s name and then hung up. The sun was topping the lake, and I needed a ride back to the hotel.
“There’s a bus through here around noon,” said one of the officers.
I had other plans.
By the time I hitched a ride, it was late morning. I could almost make it to my appointment if I didn’t shower or change. The driver of the old Toyota truck was not much of a talker and the chicken sitting at my feet turned his red eye on me and lunged for my ankle.
“Ouch! Your chicken pecked me.”
“He’s a cock and he don’t much like wimmen,” said my driver.
I sighed. I’d had a lot of that attitude recently.
I got back to the hotel with ten minutes to spare, ankles pecked raw, clothes smelling of oil, grease, and perhaps other bodies that Al had transported in his trunk.
“You look like hell,” Madeleine said as I entered the lobby.
“Thanks. I like your outfit too.”
“Agent Mansfield told me all about your night. I was worried sick about you.”
“Yeah. I have all the fun.”
“It looks like you’ll be having more. He wants to meet you in the bar after this for a drink. Says he owes you.”
Did he? That was nice.
The two of us hurried down the hall and I arrived just as they called my name. I ran a dirty hand through my hair and walked into the pitch room.
“I was looking for something more hard-boiled,” the agent said after I delivered my speech.
I thought for a moment. “I do have something else. How about a writer, I mean a free-lance journalist, who poses as a gangster’s girlfriend to bring down the head of an international drug cartel? With the help of a red-haired gal pal and a hunky federal agent, of course. Violence, action, and sex.”
Eh, so I was wrong about Madeleine being a curse.