Sampler: Kiss Her Goodbye by Harvey Burgess

I was putting an eight of hearts on a nine of clubs when she came through the door.

Houston Cash is an ex-cop turned private investigator who doesn’t expect his life to be extraordinary, and that’s just how he likes it.

But that’s rarely how it seems to work out for him. His cases tend to take him places where he has to employ his skills, his sense of humor, and his sense of right and wrong to maximum effect to solve the problems of the interesting people who walk through his door.

Even though his network of friends and contacts help him navigate the labyrinths he encounters, it almost always boils down to Houston’s own abilities to see a case through to the end.

Harvey Burgess

Sampler: Kiss Her Goodbye

Chapter One

I was putting an eight of hearts on a nine of clubs when she came through the door. I looked up, smiled casually, pulled the desk blotter over the cards. Always prepared for times like these. Tucked a straggling two of spades under the bottom. Had to remember to get a bigger blotter.

It took a second or two for my eyes to focus on her, and I quietly reminded myself to replace those two dead bulbs in the three-bulb ceiling fixture. At least it was too dim for anybody to see the walls needed painting.

Auburn hair fell to her shoulders, parted on one side, coppery strands draped sensually over one eye, high-arching brow setting off the other one, gray with green flecks, easy to see even in the bad light of the office. Didn’t somebody once say that people with gray eyes were never up to any good?

She was built like Jessica Rabbit, the hourglass cartoon in the movie that, with Kathleen Turner’s voice, was an exaggerated sketch of every heterosexual male’s dream. A feminine cliché in four-inch heels. Tall, sultry, perfect complexion, a little pale in the light.

“Mister Cash?” Her voice went with everything else. Low, husky. Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. An old-timer would have called it a “whisky voice.”

“That’s what it says on the door.” Already trying to be too cool. If Dawn had been in the room, she’d have kicked my shin for being a smartass. I wanted to take it back as soon as the words came out.

“Sorry. I just wasn’t sure. It’s this building. It’s confusing,” she said, gliding toward the desk. She was being kind, probably figured all private detectives were supposed to be smart alecks holed up in dingy offices, which wasn’t that far from the truth. I’d rented this closet in a building not likely to be around in another couple of years. My cube was supposed to be nine hundred square feet, might even have been fancy once, nice dentil work. Now the old office building had three empty floors overhead and my ground-level suitemates included a bail bondsman, a debit life insurance salesman, and a Hindu tailor who always stuck his head out the door when anybody walked down the hall. Bet Mr. Thakur got an eyeful this time.

I stood, motioned to one of the brown fake leather chairs flanking my cluttered government-type, gunmetal gray relic of a desk. “Please sit down.” Suave.

She flowed into the chair, I swear to God. Crossed her legs. I caught my breath, involuntarily sucked in my gut and tried to sit taller. The dress looked to be silk, green with subtle highlights. A good four inches above the knees. Clingy. Sharon Stone-ish.

“What can I do for you, Miss …?”

“Devore. Priscilla Devore.” She offered her hand. I wanted to kiss it but shook it instead. She had a firm grip, long fingers. Her palm seemed a tad damp, cool to the touch. Probably nervous at meeting such a famous private investigator. Her name rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember from where at the moment. Maybe I was a little too preoccupied with my visual analysis.

“Well, Miss Devore …”

“Please, call me Cissy. Everyone does.”

“All right, Cissy, now where were we?”

“I got your name from Aaron Drake. He said you might be able to help me with a little, uh, problem.”

Aaron Drake was a retired cop who ran security at the city’s largest bank. Orbited in pretty high circles these days, but still dropped by Billy’s Shamrock Lounge to smoke, lie, and drink with cops and people like me. We spent a lot of time together since his wife died, him helping me out whenever he could.

“Aaron and I go way back.” Confirmation. Put her at ease, Houston. “What can I do for you, Cissy?”

“It’s a little personal. I don’t actually know where to begin, to tell you the truth.” She crossed her legs again, and I tried not to be obvious, watching the green floral silk move, faint yellowish orchids merging in the folds.

“Everything you say here stays here, Cissy. Kinda like a lawyer-client thing.”

She seemed to relax a little and reached inside her purse. Little patent clasp thing. “Is it all right if I smoke? I know that’s so politically incorrect these days.”

“Sure. Here.” I fumbled my old Zippo out of my pocket and reached across, igniting the tip of her Virginia Slim, and slid a crusty metal ashtray across the desk. I’d quit a few years back but still kept the trappings handy, since most of the people who came through my door rarely saw the need to be politically correct. I could live with the cigarettes, but cigars did a number on my sinuses.

She took a long pull, blew the smoke out as she started talking. It just hung there. Maybe I should get a ceiling fan. “I think I’m being followed by a man.”

“I wouldn’t find that hard to believe.” What an attempt at levity. I sounded like I needed a pocket protector. She smiled, a humorless grin really, punctuating that hint of tension. She kept talking.

“I don’t think this man knows I’ve seen him. He tends to stay in shadows, but I know he’s there,” she continued. “At first, I thought I was just being paranoid. I felt silly saying anything to the police, so I asked Aaron for advice.

“He said if anyone could find out what was going on, it was you. Said you were a police officer once. A pretty good one.”

“Aaron and I worked together.” In fact, Aaron had been my training officer and, though he denies it, he was the one who got me put in investigations. I’d probably still be there if it hadn’t been for that bastard Frank Malone, but that’s another story.

“I know I’ve seen this man in my neighborhood, even though we have security, and I’m sure I’ve seen him following me at a shopping mall and at least one social function. When I told my husband, he just laughed and told me to look in the mirror. Carson doesn’t take me very seriously sometimes.”

“So Carson Devore is your husband.” Bells started ringing. Chairman, CEO of the bank Aaron protects against the bad guys. Had to be a good twenty years older than Cissy. Money talks, bullshit walks, and apparently earns you a trophy wife.

“We were married four years ago, two years after his first wife died,” she said, making me feel bad about the “trophy wife” thought. “I was a loan officer at a branch and we met at a company staff meeting. He asked me out and, well, it just happened.”

“Does he know you’ve come to me?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. I mean, we talked about it, the possibility of kidnapping and all that, but he just says this is a nice town and things like that don’t happen here. He said if I was troubled enough by it to talk to Aaron. I did, and here I am.”

Reasonable assumption, I thought. “I’m going to ask you something I don’t want you to take the wrong way, but before I ask it I need to know if you really want me to take this case. My fee’s three hundred a day plus expenses …”

“Mister Cash, money is no problem. I simply want to quit looking over my shoulder every time I go somewhere.” I got the feeling that she was holding back. Don’t know why, necessarily, but the instinct doesn’t usually fail me. I plunged forward.

“Would there be a reason why your husband would have you followed?”

She had to reflect a minute, though I had the odd feeling it was an act. She tamped out her cigarette. “No. I think when I told him about it, if he had anything to do with it I would have been able to tell. Carson’s not a very good liar.”

I wanted to say that’s not what I’d heard, but I kept my mouth shut. Discretion, valor, and all that.

“You might have to let him know I’m working for you.”

“I’d rather not just yet, if we can help it.”

“All right, we’ll worry about that when the time comes.” I had no doubt she could pay me out of her pocket change, so I shuffled some papers on the desk. It always seems to impress people when you do that. Probably messed up a good solitaire hand in the process. I reached into a drawer and pulled out a narrow notepad. “I’ll need your itinerary for the next few days.” After patting every pocket, I settled on a chewed Bic in a glass thing on my desk. Somebody had given it to me when I opened the office. The glass thing, not the desk. Bought that at Goodwill for twenty-five bucks, scratches and all.

She told me where she’d be and when she’d be there. I scribbled furiously, hoping I could read it later. When she was through, we both stood. Before I could say anything, she stuck her hand back in the purse and pulled out a wad of bills straining against a gold money clip. She peeled off ten hundreds and handed them to me.

“Will this be enough to start?”

“I should think so. I’ll give you a receipt …” I shuffled some papers again but she stopped me with a touch on the arm. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn a spark flew. Maybe the carpet and my crepe-soled shoes. Cheap carpet. Probably came from Goodwill, too, but it was here when I rented the place and I couldn’t afford to replace it. Dawn said it gave the place character.

“That won’t be necessary. You can total it all up when you’re through, something like that. I’d just as soon keep this as off-the-record as possible.”

“Fine. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow at …” I looked at the notepad. “Fynwyck’s. Actually, you might not see me. The best way to shadow a shadow is to be less conspicuous than he is.”

She smiled again, clueless to what I was saying. Dazzling. Perfect teeth. Lucky Carson. I silently prayed my tie was straight, there was no spinach in my teeth from that lunch calzone, and my pants weren’t too shiny around the knees.

“One more question, if you don’t mind. Could you maybe give me a little better description of this guy who’s following you?”

“Not really. I’ve never seen his face; just his, you know, shape. Average height, average build. I’m not very good at those things. I couldn’t honestly say the man I saw would even be the one who’s following me, I guess. But I’ve seen him twice and it seems like more than just a coincidence.” Modifying her story already.

“Could you tell if he was white or black? That’d help some.”

“Not really. You know, I hadn’t even thought about it,” she said, reflective. “I’d say white, I suppose, but I really don’t know.”

I had the odd feeling that she really had not looked at this guy at all. “That’s okay, but if you happen to think of anything else, I can always use the information.”

“I’m sure you’ll do just fine.” She turned to walk to the door, not a very long trip. She looked over her shoulder. “Aaron’s a good judge of character,” she said, and then she was gone.

A funny thing to say after only a few minutes of conversation, I thought, but what the hell.

I plopped back down in my squeaky, cracked black leather chair and exhaled loudly. Then I picked up the phone and called my answering service. The girl on the phone was popping gum between words. It was a cheap service, one of those deals where you got the first month free.

No calls, no cases pending. No real shock. Looked like Cissy was going to be a full-time job for a while, and it sounded easy enough. Find her stalker, rattle his chain. Maybe some poor stiff who’d defaulted on a loan, or some backroom computer geek from the bank who had the hots for the boss’s wife. Cut and dried, but it would pay the rent.

Then the palooka walked in.

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