Lucky Stiff: A Lucky O’Toole Novel
“Don’t you know somebody named Numbers Neidermeyer?” Teddie asked.
I folded aside the sports section of the afternoon paper to look at him. Half submerged on the opposite side of the hot tub, he hid behind what looked to be the front section.
Bright daylight streamed in the windows when we had gotten to sleep. Entwined, we had slept the day away and had almost slumbered through the cocktail hour, which would have been a crime against nature since I didn’t have to work tonight. As the day faded toward night, we had decided champagne and fresh croissants—both to be savored in the hot tub on the deck—were in order. Teddie popped the cork on a bottle of Dom Perignon, which we sipped from flutes of Steuben crystal while warm bubbles burbled around us. Our larders bare, we’d called out for the croissants, which had yet to arrive.
The patio of Teddie’s penthouse offered a panoramic view of the Strip—the lights pale in the fading light of day. Behind the skyline, in a ball of exploding oranges and pinks, the sun balanced on top of the Spring Mountains. The privacy hedge of rose bushes, verdant and laden with blossoms, infused the air with its perfume. A single hummingbird of shimmering green, a splash of ruby red at his throat, hung in the still air.
“Numbers Neidermeyer? If you’re trying to shatter this sublime moment, you’re doing a darn good job.” Lowering myself until the water touched my chin, I stretched my arms along the rim of the tub. Savoring the delicious feel of the water as it caressed my body, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. The uglies of the real world were not going to infect the rest of this day. My resolve lasted but a moment or two—curiosity reared its ugly head. “Why do you ask?”
“What?” I opened one eye, but didn’t move anything else.
Teddie extended the paper to me. “You might want to read this.”
Reluctantly, I floated to a sitting position and took the paper. If, in fact, Numbers Neidermeyer sported a toe tag, it wouldn’t exactly ruin my day. The article was short. I scanned it quickly. Bile rose in my throat as I reached the end.
Of all the ways I had imagined the demise of Ms. Neidermeyer, being tossed into the shark tank at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino as a pre-dawn snack for the tiger Shark was not one of them.
“Heck of a way to go.” I imagined her thrashing about as the shark tore off parts—I’m very visual. Sometimes that can be fun. This wasn’t one of those times.
“Did you read the whole thing?” Teddie’s voice was low, his expression serious. I shook my head. “Read it.”
I did as he said—this time I read past the part about Numbers being a tasty tidbit. Apparently murder was sufficient to get Metro’s attention. In their collective brilliance, the police were investigating the demise of Ms. Neidermeyer as a ‘suspicious death.’ No shit, Sherlock. Who would voluntarily hit the shark tank for a few laps? I read on. Already they had named a person of interest. The blood drained from my head.
The Beautiful Jeremy Whitlock was Suspect Number One.
I found my phone under the couch in Teddie’s living room. For a moment I wondered how it had gotten there, then the warmth of the memory washed over me. Oh yeah.
Clad in jeans with a hole in the right knee, Teddie’s Harvard sweatshirt, and an old pair of Merrells on my feet, I sat cross-legged on the floor. Flipping open the phone, I hit number three on the speed-dial.
Brandy answered on the first ring, “Customer Relations. Brandy Alexander speaking.”
“Brandy? What are you doing there?” I rose to my feet. In a few strides I had crossed the room. I grabbed my second set of car keys off a hook by Teddie’s door, and jumped into the elevator he was holding for me. He’d already pressed the button for the garage. I gave him a quick kiss goodbye before the doors closed. “Wasn’t your shift over a couple of hours ago? Where’s Miss Patterson?”
“She’s at home—something about Jeremy. She said she’d call when she left, but I haven’t heard from her.” The girl sounded exhausted.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I tapped my foot as I descended. One could get a good buzz from 3.2 beer in the time it took our elevators to travel from the Penthouse to the garage.
“I was about to. I didn’t want to get anybody in trouble.”
The doors opened, and I ran for my car, a thirty-year-old Porsche 911. Like its owner, the car could be tempermental. I said a few quick prayers to the car gods as I folded myself into the tiny vehicle—someone my size didn’t so much drive the thing as wear it. “We both told you, Brandy. We are a team. The only thing you can get in trouble for is lack of communication. I can’t pick up the slack if I don’t know whose rope it’s in.”
“I’m sorry.” Now she sounded devastated.
I gave myself an internal tongue-lashing as I shifted the phone to my right ear. Holding it with my shoulder, I turned the ignition. The engine caught with its recognizable low growl. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry. Two months on the job isn’t a long time. You’re doing great. Now, go home. Get some rest.”
“But there’s no one here.”
“Call Miss Patterson, tell her to stay put. Then call security. Speak to the supervisor on duty. Ask him to cover for you—he won’t say no. Then forward the phones to his cell and hit the road.” I piloted the car through the garage to the exit. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m leaving home now, but I have one stop to make.”
Miss Patterson lived in east Vegas, just past the airport. Traffic willing, I’d be there in twenty minutes.
I’d been a bit optimistic. Cars, trucks, and the occasional RV packed the Strip and Trop was backed-up all the way to Maryland Parkway. Thirty minutes after I’d left, patience long exhausted, I finally pulled up to the gate of Miss Patterson’s subdivision—an enclave of cute single-stories clustered around an elaborate pool, replete with waterfall and hot tub, and bordering a public golf course. Technically, in a vain attempt at gentrification, public courses were now known as daily-fee establishments, which is like calling a janitor a waste engineer—gilding the lily. I punched in the code, waited for the gate to slowly open. I shot through the gap as soon as it was wide enough.
Miss Patterson’s house occupied a premier lot. Three houses from the pool, it backed up to the first tee box, close enough to hear the golfers’ expletives—which had been a bit disconcerting the first time she’d had a dinner party on the patio. Now, the invectives were part of the ambiance, or so Miss Patterson wanted everyone to believe.
A black Hummer hulked in the driveway. I assumed it was Jeremy’s. I wondered if that was a sticking point for the Prius-driving Miss Patterson. However, the two vehicles combined probably had a neutral carbon footprint, but I didn’t know. I had difficulty calculating my correct bra size—determining carbon footprints was well beyond my math skills.
Wrestling my thoughts back to the business at hand was harder than usual. An early morning of bedroom calisthenics and my brain had gone AWOL.
I parked along the red-painted curb in front of Miss Patterson’s house, shrugged out of the Porsche, and hurried up the drive. Lights lined the path to the door, guiding guests as night closed its grasp. A single brass sconce illuminated the front porch. The door flew open as I approached.
Put together beautifully, Miss Patterson stood in the doorway. I still wasn’t used to her recent transformation. Before Jeremy, who was fifteen years her junior, Miss P had been a frumpy fifty. Now, her short, golden hair purposefully spiky, her make-up understated, competent yet stylish in her tailored pantsuit and heels, she personified fabulous, feisty fifty. A cascade of golden chains and flashes of gold at her earlobes added glitz. Altogether she presented the embodiment of a future Head of Customer Relations—if you ignored the scrunched skin between her eyes, the dark circles beneath them, and the taut line of her mouth.
“Lucky! Thank God!” Miss Patterson stepped aside, welcoming me inside. “I knew you’d come.”
“Brandy got hold of you?” I walked down the small hallway to the great room at the back of the house.
Overstuffed couches, dotted with throw pillows in bright colors, filled one side of the great room. A glass-topped dining room set, each chair a different color, occupied the other side. A curved bar separated the kitchen from the other areas. Pastels and watercolors, each capturing a different mood of the desert, graced the walls. Plants softened the corners. Floor-to-ceiling windows, framed with plantation shutters, extended the length of the back of the house. Photographs of friends and family, lovingly displayed, nestled among the books in the bookcase and dotted the coffee table.
As I parked myself on a couch, I picked up the photo of the two of us taken at the Babylon’s opening gala. Arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, we grinned like fools and looked like we’d had far too much to drink, which we had. Unfit to drive home, Miss Patterson had spent the night at the hotel. Somehow I had staggered home—I still don’t remember how. It had been a great night.
“She said you’d called, and I was to stay put. Knowing you, I figured you were on your way.”
I set the frame back on the table. “Is Jeremy here?”
Miss Patterson paced in front of me, wringing her hands. She cast a furtive glance out the back windows. “He’s sitting on the patio by himself. He refuses to come in.”
“Has he been drinking?”
She shook her head. “No. He just sits. I was afraid to leave him like this. I can’t tell if he’s angry or scared.”
“Both, I suspect.” I pushed myself to my feet. “Let me handle your Aussie. Are you up for work? Brandy’s catatonic after fourteen hours on the job, and I have a nine o-clock dinner with the Big Boss.”
“Work sounds like the tonic I need.” Miss Patterson straightened her shoulders. “I can handle the office if you can figure out how to get Jeremy out of this mess.”
“You got it.” My voice held more confidence than I felt. Clearing people in murder investigations was a bit outside my areas of expertise. Now, if he had a pesky little rash… “I’ll give it my best shot,” I said as I gave her shoulders a squeeze. While she was made of stalwart stock straight from America’s heartland and could probably handle more than I could, a hug never hurt. “Now scoot. I’ll check in on you before my dinner.”
My eyes needed a moment or two to adjust to the darkness before I found Jeremy sprawled on a chaise near the back fence.
“Mind if I pull up a chair?” I asked as I dragged one over to him. If he glanced up, I couldn’t tell.
“Man, I really blew it giving that cow such a mouthful. Nothing like being a dickhead for the cameras.” Jermey’s voice, while tired, still had a sharp edge.
“It doesn’t mean you killed her.” I paused for a beat. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Don’t be a dill.”
“Not being fluent in Aussie slang, I’ll take that as a no,”I said as I leaned back on the chaise and stared up into the velvety darkness. Living under the canopy of light over the Strip, I’d forgotten how many stars hung in the night sky. “Want to tell me what happened? In American?”
“I don’t know what happened. My client hired me to check out her hunch that somebody was playing fast and loose in the Sports Book at her casino. The house had lost money it shouldn’t have.”
“And that led you to Numbers Neidermeyer?”
“Not directly. I wasn’t checking leads as much as following hunches. I hit a nerve when I cornered Ms. Neidermeyer. She lit into me. I didn’t handle it well, but I didn’t kill her.”
“Is that what you told the police?”
“Yeah. Your buddy, Detective Romeo, banged on the door here around noon. He wanted to talk. I didn’t see any harm in that, so I agreed and followed him to the station. I told him everything I know, but the bloody wanker kept me there for five hours.” He rolled over on his side, facing me. “If I was going to kill anybody, right now he’s at the top of the list.”
I could see his eyes, but the darkness shadowed his features. However, the line of his body betrayed his anger.
“Understandable.” Secretly I was glad it was Romeo. The kid owed me, big time. “How do you think they tied you in so fast?”
“I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. Somebody must’ve ratted me out.”
“Yeah, but who? The casino was practically deserted when I saw you two going at it.”
“Were you the big mouth?” Jeremy asked, his voice tight.
“To quote a good friend of mine, don’t be a dill.” I shivered. The night air had turned cool. Even Teddie’s sweatshirt wasn’t quite enough. “Who’s your client?”
“You know I can’t tell you that. If it’s any consolation, I didn’t tell the police either.”
“Last time I checked, this country had done away with thumb-screws and waterboards. You don’t have to tell the police anything.”
“I do if I want to keep my P.I. license. But my client isn’t germane to the investigation. At the time, I hadn’t given her a report so she didn’t know anything.”
“Except what she suspects,” I reminded him. “You’re splitting hairs with the police—not wise considering they have your neck under a boot. You’d better tell them and, if I’m going to help, you’d better tell me.”
“Your young detective is in over his head,” Jeremy said after a moment of staring into the darkness. “He let me run him around a bit, but I suspect he’ll figure out he’s been had and come sniffing around again. When he does, I’ll tell him then.”
“A wise man. “ I rose to go. “So, tell me. Where do I start turning over stones?”
Jeremy followed my lead, pushing himself to his feet. “The yellow brick road starts with your Aunt Matilda.”
Aunt Matilda! Terrific. Lately life had been going swimmingly—I should have known it wouldn’t last.
After a good look at Jeremy in the light, I’d sent him to the shower, then to bed for a couple hours of shut-eye. Matilda wouldn’t be receiving guests until at least eleven, and, in the meantime, I had a dinner with the Big Boss.
This time I drove more sedately as I piloted the Porsche toward the Babylon. Earlier, when I was coming the opposite direction, halfway to Miss Patterson’s and weaving in and out of traffic like a maniac, I realized I’d left my purse and my driver’s license with it, at the office when my shift had ended early this morning. At four in the morning I was lucky to still have my sanity intact. Rounding up personal possessions was an impossibility. So, my prized Hermes Birkin bag, a gift from the Big Boss, was locked safely in my office—I hoped.
Traffic much lighter now, in the fifteen minutes it took me to get back to the Strip I barely had enough time to chase down the young Detective Romeo on his cell and invite him to breakfast. Since Miss Patterson always parked in my parking space, I spent another ten looking for an appropriate place to stash my baby. Not finding anything, I gave up and turned her over to the valet.
Miss Patterson manned her desk in the outer vestibule. She looked up when I entered. Worry clouded her eyes.
I shrugged. “Shaken. Angry. I sent him to bed for a couple of hours”
“This is going to be okay, isn’t it?”
“Sure. In time.”
“But the police—”
“—Are doing their job,” I said, finishing her thought for her. I headed toward my office with Miss P in trail, clipboard in hand. “Speaking of which. Expect a call from Romeo. He’ll want to verify when Jeremy came home.”
Her eyes widened. “What should I tell him?”
“The truth.” I stopped before rounding my desk and gave her hand a squeeze. “As corny as it sounds, the truth will win the day. We just have to find out what exactly the truth is. Trust me.” I adopted an exaggerated stance with a hand in the middle of my chest, and, I hoped, a semblance of a grin on my face. “Really, have I ever let you down?”
She tried to smile, but didn’t quite make it. Taking a deep breath, she gave herself a reassuring nod as if giving herself a talking to. Then, focusing on her clipboard, she switched gears and started in with the run down. “Jerry called. He said he had the tapes of the twelfth floor you wanted. The police seized all the tapes from the lobby and casino cameras. There were too many for him to make copies in the time he had.”
“The police showed up pretty quick.” I checked my closet for my Birkin. Still there. “You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of their search warrant, would you?”
Miss Patterson gave me a look over the top of her glasses.
“Of course you do. May I see it?” She pulled a piece of paper from under the clip and handed it to me as I plopped myself in the chair behind my desk. Miss Patterson remained standing.
“Would you sit?” I said as I scanned the document. “You’re lurking and it’s making me nervous.”
Miss Patterson perched on the edge of one of the chairs opposite the desk. She looked like a bird ready to take flight as she waited while I finished reading.
Our very own District Attorney had signed the application and Detective Romeo had John Hancocked the probable cause affidavit. Interesting.
“Anything else?” I asked when I’d finished.
Miss Patterson scanned her list. “Not of any importance, for now.”
“That will change.” The biggest fight of the year was scheduled for this Saturday night. A guarantee of sixty-four million dollars had lured Tiny Tortilla Padilla out of retirement for one final fight. His opponent, the current titleholder, was some upstart from Germany who had fought to a 46-0 record. The promoters anticipated a record crowd. The first wave would hit tomorrow, but the real craziness would begin the day after—on Thursday.
We’d doubled the security staff to handle the incendiary mix of Hollywood celebrities, big money and hookers, both professional and amateur, from all over the country. The good ones cleared thirty grand in three days, which they spent flat on their backs.
Sleep for me and my staff would be in short supply—we had the unenviable task of trying to keep a lid on this insanity. And now I had Jeremy’s problem dropped in my lap. Good thing I didn’t need much shut-eye.
“I think we’re ready.” Miss Patterson’s eyes scanned down her list. “I can’t imagine anything we’ve missed.”
“There’ll be something. There always is.” Las Vegas had the same problem with fight weekend that the military had with war—what we prepared for was rarely what we got. “Have we heard anything out of L.A.?” Unbeknownst to Teddie, I’d sent a CD of his original tracks to an agent I knew in California. Impressed, she’d been schlepping the thing all around Hollywood and Vine or where ever the center of the West Coast music biz had migrated to.
Miss Patterson, my co-conspirator, shook her head. “Not yet.”
I rose and rooted around in my closet. Dinner at the Big Boss’s required more than tattered jeans and Teddie’s sweatshirt. Several outfits covered in plastic hung in the very back—this wasn’t the first time I’d found myself short on time and in need of an appropriate costume. “Heard anything out of Mr. Padilla’s camp?”
“Not a word. For a big time fighter he has the smallest entourage I’ve ever seen. And they don’t ask for anything.” Miss Patterson finally settled back in the chair. “The staff really likes him. He’s doesn’t gamble, he doesn’t drink, he’s approachable and friendly, and he tips big. I heard the employees were thinking of adopting him.”
“An interesting idea, but I don’t think it’s possible.” When she was looking the other way, I snuck a peek at Miss Patterson. Worry still lurked under that brave face she wore. “What about hiring him to teach our other important guests how to behave?”
“You have anyone specific in mind?”
“The whole Hollywood crowd for starters,” I said. “you’d think etiquette died with Fred Astaire. “Frankly, I don’t think Mr. Padilla wants to leave,” Miss P noted.
Tiny Tortilla Padilla had been in residence in the Kasbah, our high-roller apartments, for a month now. I’d checked on him a couple of times, but he was amazingly maintenance-free.
“With a staff-to-guest ratio of five to one, I can understand his reluctance to the return to the real world.” I ducked into Miss Patterson’s office and behind the partition separating the vestibule from a miniscule kitchen area. My office had a wall of windows overlooking the lobby—I’m not shy, but I draw the line at stripping for the guests. “Doesn’t he have a bunch of kids?” I raised my voice so it would carry to my office.
“Somebody ought to tell him what causes that,” I said, but didn’t get even a chuckle from my audience of one. Keeping in mind I would be calling on Aunt Matilda after dinner, I chose a pair of tight suede pencil pants in a muted shade of olive, a silk tunic in peach with gold threads woven through it and cut to the very edge of decency, and strappy, gold knock-me-down-and-fuck-me shoes. Matilda tended toward tacky and took offense if her guests showed her up.
Miss Patterson was suitably impressed when I reappeared. “Wow. What’s the occasion? You and Teddie going partying at Babel?”
“I wish.” Babel was our new lounge. Technically it had been open for six weeks, working out the kinks. Don’t even ask me how much of a problem the clear retractable cover for the pool had been. Finally we had given-up and turned the pool into a giant aquarium with a permanent clear cover which served as our dance floor. We’d stocked the thing with all manner of flesh-eating pretties from the deep—which, come to think of it, made it sort of creepy in light of the late Ms. Neidermeyer. Officially, the grand opening bash was this weekend when the Hollywood crowd would be fully represented. “I have a date with your squeeze after dinner,” I told her. “We’re going on a fact finding mission.”
“Ms. Neidermeyer?” A little concern crept in Miss P’s voice.
“Worried?” I shot her a lopsided grin.
“Don’t be a dill.”