The Cases of Lenora X, Domme Detective: The Cryptic Man, Part 10

Arty was only being so free with the PD's information on this case because the Department had absolutely nothing. Normally there would be a lot of pretty-pleasing and owing favors and the like; not this time. Arty was desperate for any lead, even if it came from a Lady Detective.

So in the spirit of having nothing, Arty was sharing the lab report on the latest victim to what the press had taken to calling The Cryptic Man. After the third murder there was no way to keep the clues a secret . . . the Blog City PD decided it was better to put it out there rather than have some pain in the ass reporter get it via a leak and embarrass them.

"The tox report is interesting, X."

"Oh? What did they find?"

"What didn't they, is more like it. The victim was heavily and very skillfully medicated. The ME told me it takes some skill to give somebody this much barbiturates and narcotics and not kill him. In the ME's opinion, the killer was attempting to make the death and the bloodletting as close to painless as possible."

Arty paused. "Fucking freak!"

I had to suppress a laugh. Arty wanted the killer to be a sick sadistic bastard -- warped sadism was something he could easily understand, but a guy going to all that trouble to basically drain a guy of all his blood without hurting him? Arty couldn't wrap his mind around that one.

It made sense in a strange way, though. Sadism was a luxury a good professional hit man could never afford. Any more than a banker could afford to get personal about money, a hit man couldn't get personal about violence. Once it stopped being a job, and being fun, he would be doomed . . . when you're having fun you make mistakes.

"Anything else interesting, Arty?"

"Only that is there is nothing interesting . . . in fact, nothing at all. Everything, except for the murder itself, was clean as a whistle. As you surmised, the murder weapons were various knives, all run through the high-pressure dishwasher and yielding nothing at all. No stray prints . . . no footprints in the blood or anything like that. The only blood was the victim's. No forced entry, no accessing of the alarm panel other than by the victim.

The call waiting beeps. It's mandy.

"I'll call you back, Arty."


* * *

Vallie's phone rang, just when he knew it would.

"Good afternoon. I wonder if you would be interested in a satellite TV system for just $29 a month."

Vallie looked down at his list a moment, just to be sure.

"No thank you, I only watch election returns anyway."

"You can pick up the back half . . . the number is 30099."

Vallie wrote down the number. He liked a client who didn't make a fuss about payment.

"And I have one more for you, and then our business is concluded. This one is a specific victim, and, in light of that and of several complicating factors, I won't haggle. $100,000 for this one."

Vallie did his best to remain impassive. "As long as it's not the President, we've got a deal."

The voice on the other end of the phone never wavered, never laughed, never faltered. Almost anyone else but Vallie would've been at least a little afraid of it, in some undefinable way. To Vallie there was nothing scary about it . . . for him it was more an intellectual curiosity, an interesting little peculiarity of circumstance.

"OK. This is not going to be the easiest contract you've ever done. The target is armed, and wary. But some of the background work has been done for you already . . . "

Vallie listened intently, making notes as he did so.


* * *

Day of Infamy is proof positive that a little cash, properly applied in the right places, works wonders. The club regularly featured live sex acts and all other manner of debauchery right on the stage, yet they were never raided, no do-gooder mayoral candidate ever made closing it down a campaign promise, nothing of the sort, ever.

I had a soft spot for DOI since it's where I first met mandy. And because, well, DOI specialized in D/s-type debauchery, My absolute favorite kind.

It felt weird being there alone. mandy had begged off, citing a stack of paperwork. Thank goodness she was interested in the day-to-day running of the business and totally committed to Me.  

I swirled the bourbon in My glass and looked again at the action on stage. A very muscular black man had just finished very skillfully whipping a waify redhead . . . she screamed like the skin was being ripped from her bones but there was hardly a mark on her -- Master Leo was very good with that whip.

His hand rakes back through her hair, and his big hand seemed almost the same size as the girl’s head. He pulled back until her whole body arched, and then shoved the whip handle inside her and began to fuck her with it, slowly at first, letting her whimpers of pain gradually turn and finally tip over to moans of pleasure. He started to take her harder, faster with the handle . . . holding her tight by the hair, her body caught, caught in the bondage, caught in his grasp, and caught in the slowly rising tide of excitement that she couldn't fight.

I realized all of a sudden how quiet it had gotten -- the crowd was rapt, their attention drawn to the stage and held there. The skinny redhead was shuddering in her bonds now . . . words here flying, pouring out of her as she begged Leo to let her explode. Leo’s powerful arm kept the whip handle hammering her cunt hard and fast . . . the squishing of it and the girl’s sobbing and begging were all that could be heard in the crowded club.

Leo finally broke the tension . . . his words finally giving her release. Her screams made Me shiver, the intensity and the absolute need she was expressing wordlessly were so real, so total, so right-in-the-here-and-now. By the time the girl finally collapsed, spent, I realized that I’d been holding My breath, watching.

I ordered another drink and My mind wandered of course to where exactly I was on the case.
What had I learned? It wasn't Bobby Astro, Arty and I were both pretty sure of that. It wasn't some guy named “Vail” from Chicago -- no one on either side of the law, except Squids, had ever heard of him. Thankfully the kind of money I was getting from King made the $200 I wasted on Squids an afterthought.

What else? Our killer was very professional, very careful, and very versatile. He could do clean, messy, and everything in between. And he had a grudge against King.

Which was looking like another dead end. The cops had looked into everyone they could think of who was known to have any reason to hate King. Funny thing was, the vast majority of those who weren't in prison were no longer living.

The stupid word game clues were no help. She’d been over the words a thousand times. Gangster. Arty Daniels. Royalty. There's no pattern, no meaning, nothing indicative of where or when or in what way the killer might strike next. There was no pattern to the victims, no relationship between them, or to King.

I write down the locations of the killings on a napkin. House of Domination. Pool Hall. Bar/restaurant. The addresses. I hold up the bourbon and look at the napkin through the amber translucence . . . laughing at Myself.

It was a prefect illustration of how life was totally unlike the movies. In the movies the geeky guy in the precinct would plot the locations of killings on a map of the city and they would form an arrow pointing to the location of the next killing. In the movies the first letter of each clue answer would start spelling out the name of the killer's mother. In the movies the killer would be sending Me love notes chock full of subtle but detectable forensic evidence that would lead us to him. In the movies we've had caught this fucker by now.

The truth was, a careful, unemotional, killer could commit plenty of murders and not get caught. The really, really smart ones were almost impossible to catch until they start liking it too much. Then they got caught.

I let the case go away for a little while . . . My bestie Astrid and Her new slave, chastityboy, were about to perform.

The Cases of Lenora X, Domme Detective: The Cryptic Man, Part 9

I had dinner with King at Memphis Blues, a BBQ joint and music club he owns. I was polishing off an especially succulent half-rack baby backs when the thought struck Me that maybe the best part of being as rich as King would be owning so many restaurants that one never had to eat at the the same place twice for a long time.

I brought King up to speed. Squids' little tidbit, my conversation with Astro.

King listened impassively, then slid another envelope across the table. Normally I'd be feeling as though I should have produced a lot more results for this kind of money, but something about King's demeanor made it clear that spending this money was like some kind of penance, as though he were paying some sort of karmic fine, the only way he knew how.

I pushed the plate away from Me . . . Memphis Blues had amazing food but eating all that wonderful stuff was going to keep Me out of all the designer clothes I could suddenly afford.

I saw that King was done, too. I lit a cigarette and turned to watch the band, who were starting up.

The singer is good . . . youngish, but with enough mileage on his voice to make the songs believable. I take another rather unladylike swig of Dos Equis and close My eyes . . .

One summer's day . . .
She went away
Gone and left me
She's gone to stay
She's gone . . . but I don't worry . . .
Cuz I'm sittin' . . . on top . . . of the world . . .

The guitarist is wringing a mournful solo out of his battered Telecaster . . . with My eyes closed the bass seems to be coming from inside Me . . . I have to open My eyes or I"ll cry, from the beauty and the crushingly sad irony of it.

I look at King. He's not moved by music that way . . . come to think of it I'm not sure anything moves him that way. A man like him, in the world he moves in, can't afford to let anything affect him that much. Not music, not a woman, not somebody leaving dead bodies in places you own.

King finally realizes I'm studying him and we both laugh. I make a gesture towards the door -- I need to be out of here. He nods, understanding. I feel like the music is practically chasing Me out as I thread My way through the tables to the door:

Hey Joe -- where you goin' with that gun in your hand?
Hey Joe -- where you goin' with the gun in your hand?
I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady
You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man . . .

* * *

I get up early, intending to have another one of those "productive Lady Detective" type days. I'm getting dressed when my phone goes off.

A text from Arty.

ROSCOE'S RANCH. DON'T EAT BREAKFAST.

Hm. Either Arty's buying, or . . .

* * *

Roscoe's Ranch is one of those places that has succeeded for decades despite itself. Thirty years ago it began life as a gay bar and had a good run. Somehow the name never got changed and it did well as a sports bar, a 40 and over pickup joint, and lately had established itself as a good solid neighborhood bar: a good place to have a beer and a decent burger and see a lot of the same faces every time .

The thought occurs to Me that I'm getting to see way too many crime scenes lately. Arty leads Me towards the kitchen, and grabs My arm before we go in.

"It's bad, X." I nod, take a deep breath and think good thoughts. Thoughts of envelopes full of cash. Thoughts of Manolo Blahnik and and Jimmy Choo.

Arty starts with the facts, reading from his little notebook, as if a recitation of the dry particulars can somehow lessen the impact of what I am seeing.

And what I am seeing is a guy, hanging by his feet, who has apparently been sliced until every drop of blood has run out because there is blood everywhere. I look at Arty. The only clean thing in the vicinity of the body is the little piece of paper with the clue on it:

King's 40% batty following winning hand (7)

This one takes a minute, then it falls into place: Royalty.

Arty tells Me the unfortunate guy hanging there is Manny Diaz, who typically opens the place up each morning.

"He's here a good two hours before anyone else, most days," they said. Arty is trying to be nonchalant but he's upset by this crime scene.

I look at the body, then at Arty. "Dead people don't bleed, Arty. The killer needed the victim alive. The other two jobs -- there was no extreme sadism like this."

Arty nods. "That explains the gag. Poor bastard would've been screaming his head off."

I try to find somewhere to look where I can see something besides blood. I'm getting a bit queasy -- Arty was thoughtful to tell Me not to eat.

Arty's gaze follows Mine to the industrial dishwasher. "It had been recently run, and there were a bunch of  knives in there, nothing else. Pretty sure those will turn out to be what our killer used to carve up the victim." I looked at the machine . . . these things use high pressure and very hot water -- they weren't going to get anything useful.

I turned to Arty. "Can we get out of here now?" We make our way out and walk down the street a little and duck into a Blog City Joe shop.

"Arty, the escalating level of violence . . . the first killing was ultra-clean, so clean you still have no idea how the hell he got in and got out -- he was like a ghost. The second one, messy, but contained. Tossing a dead body through a skylight. Spectacular, but, ultimately just for show.  This one . . . the killer was making some kind of point."

Arty grunts, cop-speak for "yeah, tell me about it."

"And the clue answers, Arty. They're all archetypes."

He stares at Me, which is Arty-speak for "I'm fascinated, please continue." At any rate I'm going to assume that's what it means.

"Well, think about it. Gangster. The name of a cop. Royalty. Cops and Robbers. Kings and paupers." And where were they killed? A place for sexual thrills. A pool hall. A bar/restaurant. Encompassing all the basic human drives: sex, recreation, food, drink."

Arty looked at Me thoughtfully. "So what's it all mean?"

I looked out through the window onto the busy street, then down into My coffee, Arty's question hanging there like an insulting remark you want to ignore but can't because deep down inside you think it might be accurate.

* * *

I take a cab back to the office. Just seeing mandy's smiling face wipes away the memory of that awful crime scene. I flop down in My chair and mandy, sweet thing that she is, knows I need a coffee. she brings us some and sits down.

I fill her in on the fact that the cops don't know anything about a Federal operation in town. she looks at Me, unsure a moment, but she knows Me well enough to know that I need her to tell Me her honest thoughts and suspicions, even if it might hurt Me.

mandy nods, reassured. "OK. Assuming this is the Feds, and I think You're right about that. It's the Feds. Who's the target?"

I sip My coffee as mandy reels off the possibilities. I have to tear Myself away from cleavage and force Myself to concentrate.

"That lawyer, Hughes. Some member of the Beckler family we don't know about. Could be almost anyone, really -- the Becklers probably did jobs with a thousand crooks." she pauses and I motion to her with My eyes for her to go on.

"Well . .. the Feds could be looking into Catherine Chambers for something? Somehow this is connected, maybe?"

I smile at her. I actually had considered that. And even now I couldn't give Myself a straight answer when I asked Myself if I'd help the Feds nail her.

"And, Miss, there's one more possibility. They could be interested in You."

I almost spit My coffee. Me? What the hell did I ever do? And even if I was thinking about not paying taxes on King's envelopes, thinking about it isn't a crime.

"It's just a thought, Miss. They have to know that You know a lot of people they have to be interested in. Who knows what odd ways the Feds might have of sneaking up on their real target?"

she's right, of course. mandy is sexy, smart, and efficient in addition to her other wonderful traits. Any number of people could've seen King giving Me envelopes in restaurants and at a crime scene . . . that alone is probably enough to appoint a Special Prosecutor, these days.

The Cases of Lenora X, Domme Detective: The Cryptic Man, Part 8

Vallie picked up the phone. "Hello?"

"I'm calling about a unique financial opportunity."

Vallie knew his lines. "I'm fully invested already."

The voice on the other end relaxed, hearing the correct response. "It's time for another."

Vallie was no longer the kind of person to stop and consider that those four simple words, "it's time for another" meant that he was going to kill another person. The dead bodies, and all the before and after stuff, had ceased to matter. It was 100% business. Do a job, get paid. He was also no longer the kind of person to wonder where the other Donald Vallie had gone.

"OK. Parameters?"

Parameters. That's how Vallie thought of them. Constraints, limits, to be fed into a formula, giving rise to a solution.

The voice continued. "It needs to happen at Roscoe's Ranch. Within a week."

Vallie nodded. "Clean or messy?"

"Very messy." Vallie winced a little. He hated messy.

"All right, but this is more."

Silence on the other end. Vallie didn't care; he stayed alive and free by not taking any job where the risk/reward equation wasn't right. So he let the silence grow.

Finally . . . "How much more?"

"Twenty-five, plus five for messy. Thirty." Vallie was starting to get a little nervous about this job. Staying in the same town for more than one body was never a good idea, and messy was always riskier than clean.

A short pause, then, "All right. Half will be there by 4pm."

"If it's not, we never spoke. And the word for this one?"

"Royalty."

Vallie wrote it down an hung up.


* * *

In every large city there are people who are part of a worldwide network, a network for transferring money from one person to another without involving a bank and without drawing the attention of the SEC, the IRS, the DEA, Homeland Security, Interpol, or anyone else.

The system is simplicity itself. Person A, in, say, Toronto, wants to transfer $10,000 to Person B, in Blog City. So Person A goes to a certain neighborhood in Toronto where members of the network are known to have a stall, and gives the operator $10,000 in cash, plus the fee. Person A tells the operator what the destination city is and the operator gives Person A a five-digit number. The operator faxes the five-digit number and the amount to the operator in Blog City. Person A transmits the 5-digit number to Person B and Person B finds the operator in Blog City and presents him with the number, and the operator gives Person B $10,000 in cash. No questions asked. Don't lose your number.

Vallie took a circuitous route to his destination in Fairmont, a dilapidated neighborhood known unofficially as Little Beirut, in recognition of its bombed-out appearance and now predominantly Arab population.

To get to Fairmont from Vallie's place in the equally downmarket Morris Heights section on foot, one needed to traverse several other much better neighborhoods, and many good options for lunch. Vallie always "celebrated" a new contract with Indian food.

Vallie slipped into an unassuming little place called Rani, one of many pretty reasonable ethnic food choices in the neighborhood around Blog City U. He settled on the chicken adrak and bhujia and looked out the window at the busy street.

Mentally Vallie ticked off the activities for the afternoon. Pick up the money. Stash it. Check out Roscoe's Ranch and figure out how, when, and all that.

He was musing that Roscoe's Ranch was either a petting zoo or a gay bar, when the food arrived.


* * *

As usual things went without a hitch as far as getting paid. In the back of the market with the battered sign in Arabic only, there's a man with a ledger book full of neat columns of numbers, a fax machine, and a safe. He looks like he's been right in that spot forever. He's old, but clearly very alert, with an old man's focus and air of permanence and certainty, he looks like the absolute Emperor of his 40 square feet, and he is.

Half an hour earlier Vallie had gotten a text message that simply read: 78212. That's all that was needed.

Vallie approached the man's desk and he nodded. Vallie wrote "78212" on a piece of paper and handed it to the man. He checked his column of perfectly neat numbers, a long finger finally stopping when 78212 was found. He turned, opened the safe, pulled out an envelope, put the piece of paper in the envelope, and with his pen and a straightedge struck through the number 78212. He handed Vallie the envelope and their business was done. Vallie stuffed the envelope in his coat and walked away. He could hear the fax machine dialing, letting the originator know that 78212 had been picked up. Transaction complete.

Vallie had the money for cabs but he walked or took the subway, except when he needed possible corroboration of an alibi. In those cases he made sure to take a cab to talk the diver's ear off, or otherwise be a memorable passenger.

Vallie went back home and counted out the envelope. Fifteen large, all there. He grabbed $700 and put the rest in a coffee can in the freezer. This was a terrible hiding place but it was very temporary -- just until he could get to the bank tomorrow.

He looked at his bed. A nap would feel good right now but there was work to do. Time to go check out Roscoe's Ranch.


* * *

I had just been thinking that I hadn't heard from Arty in a while when My phone went off.

Arty was doing well. He'd weathered the storm over his name coming up in connection with the case, and had satisfied his bosses (and Internal Affairs) that the killer was just taunting the cops in general and he, Arty, in particular.

"Yeah, got grilled by the Rat Squad for a couple hours. The highlight of any day." Arty laughed derisively -- one truism that cut across time and geography and area of specialty was that all cops hate Internal Affairs. Can't really blame them.

Arty filled me in on what else they had learned about the murders, which was more or less nothing. I wasn't going to share with Arty anything I'd learned on My own, but I decided that wasn't really right. Some part of Me realized it was more important to catch this sick bastard than who got the credit. I laughed to Myself -- I must be slipping!

"Arty, you know Bobby Astro, right?"

Arty grunted. Like most cops he felt that a guy in prison belonged there -- if not for the specific crime he had been convicted of, then for the ten crimes before that one that he had gotten away with. So Astro being sprung on appeal was something that rubbed Arty the wrong way, to put it mildly.

"What about him?"

"Well, I came to find out there was some old beef between Astro and King, and I was thinking maybe he hated King enough to do these murders to get back at King."

Silence on Arty's end while his mind ran the complex cop calculations.

"Not his style. A guy like Astro . . . he's more direct about things. He could kill King anytime he felt like it and we wouldn't have a clue. The man is the most professional, most efficient hitter I've ever run across, X. I don't see him doing this."

I lit up, making another mental note about having to quit smoking, as I listened. Even though that whole "word game" thing as we parted ways threw a little jolt of doubt into Me about Astro, I was pretty sure he wasn't involved, either.

"Thanks, Arty. That helps." The other thing I really didn't want to ask Arty about, but I had to.

"Arty, one more thing. Anything Federal going on lately?" If the Feds were doing a legit operation in Blog City, they'd make sure the local PD knew about it. The FBI enjoyed making the local cops feel as small-time as possible.

No answer from Arty. He was still hung up on why I was asking. Finally, about two seconds late, he answers.

"No, X. Nothing they let me know about."

He might be telling the truth or he might be answering carefully so to avoid lying too blatantly. No point getting Arty's radar any more engaged than it already was.

"Thanks, Arty . . . Astro mumbled something about the Feds -- I figured it was just a con's obsession but thought I'd ask."

"OK, X, no problem." Arty's demeanor was back to normal.

I hung up the phone and wondered if it wasn't too late to consider that career in direct sales.
* * *

Vallie kept bank accounts in all major cities he worked in, and his trade took him to Blog City often enough. Vallie put his cash into a safe deposit box, then parceled it out into the savings and checking accounts a bit at a time, keeping under the reporting threshold for cash transactions. Getting involved with a money launderer was not for him -- it was just one more person who could screw up and get him busted.

To go along with each bank account Vallie had an identity. To the Blog City National Bank, he was Michael Fitzsimmons. Vallie grabbed about $6,000 in cash and put the rest in his safe deposit box. Over the next few days he'd make several deposits at various branches and ATMs.

The other chore for today was to write the clue. For that, he needed a quiet place. The first one he did at the Library, the second in General's Park. As he was leaving the bank he passed a Blog City Joe location and on impulse went inside, grabbed a coffee, and sat down at a table in the far corner, meditating a bit on the word.

Royalty.

The first time the clue came right to him; last time he had to stare at the word a long time. This time it wasn't coming either. After ten minutes or so, Vallie got up, stretched, then sat down again and people-watched a bit. Then he turned back to word and the clue jumped out at him like it had been written there all the time:

King's 40% batty following winning hand (7)

Vallie finished his coffee and exited the coffee shop, walking down the street, feeling oddly relieved.

The Cases of Lenora X, Domme Detective: The Cryptic Man, Part 7

Frankie Boots had a saying: "There's two kinds of cases -- ground balls and haystacks." Ground balls, as the name implies, were easy. Haystacks, on the other hand, were big undifferentiated piles of possibly connected facts, lies, opinions, feelings, suppositions, and who knows what else all clumped together for the sole purpose of making the truth almost impossible to discern. I'm thinking about this when I should be thinking about how mandy's mouth on Me is making Me feel . . . thinking I'd like a few ground balls now and then. Then I think about King and his envelopes full of cash and the simple fact is haystacks pay a lot better than ground balls.

I close My eyes and run My hand through mandy's hair, pressing her tighter to My sex as the feeling of her soft warm lips on Me blots everything else out. My back arches as the warm tingles crackle and turn to pulsing heat . . . I'm gushing now, feeling My breath come in short ragged gasps. I alwyas tell Myself I can hold out longer . . . I can savor that magical part right before the explosion, longer, make it last, ride it like some kind of pleasure sled . . . but oh godddd mandy's mouth is too wonderful, her love and devotion pour through her and right into the very center of Me and it's over . . . before I know it I'm screaming, thrashing, and there's nothing -- no case, no frustration, no nothing . . . nothing but the feeling of being loved and served so amazingly well.


* * *

This case was definitely a "haystack." And the mission for today was to throw more stuff on the pile. King sent Me Astro's address, so that was first order of business. Then over to Madame Annika's to interview the girls and staff there. I didn't expect much to come of that, but 1) you never know, and 2) appearances to the contrary I did feel a responsibility to give King his money's worth.

I'm wondering how much I stock I can put in Squids' tale of a hit man from Chicago named "Vale." Another straw in the haystack . . . somehow it will all get sorted out. When Frankie Boots told Me to put all the things that don't make sense off to the side, he never told Me what to do when everything's on the side and nothing's in front of Me. Oh well.

Astro was living in Kirkland, a neighborhood of mostly small, neat, capes. Most of the residents were well into their golden years; a smattering of young families had migrated to Kirkland in recent years, drawn by the quiet tree-lined streets, the convenience to the City, and the relatively affordable real easte.

Kirkland was not where you expected an ex-con to end up after getting out of prison, but Bobby Astro was hardly your typical ex-con. He'd made a very nice living doing hits for all those years, and Astro was the antithesis of the flashy gangster; his livelihood and survival depended upon keeping a low profile and blending in. And everything I'd ever heard about him indicated that he had been very good at all aspects of his job.

The cab lets Me out in front of 18 Barlow Street. One luxury I am granting Myself on this case is taxis.

I notice how immaculate the small front yard is as I walk up to the door. Like every other yard on the street. Astro might have retired from his trade but the instinct to melt into the wallpaper is still there.

I ring the bell and after a moment Astro answers. There's a momentary look of confusion, or something, as his mind quickly goes from survery-taker to real estate agent to whatever else. Then a polite smile as he quickly connects the dots.

He knows who I am, if not exactly who, and why I'm here. Apparently he doesn't mind talking to Me.

He offers Me coffee and I take the offered seat at the kitchen table and the opportunity to observe Astro for a minute. He's not tall . . . not overly muscular like some cons, no tattoos that I can see. The more I look at him the harder it seems to be to get a fix on anything. The guy is as average as average can be -- he looks he could stand in 100 lineups and never get picked out. He's Everyman.

I am used to being around dangerous people. My life has led Me there -- that is what it is. I'm rarely unnerved in that situation . . . I've been in plenty of scrapes, with and without Frankie Boots and Arty Daniels. I've been places I never should've been wearing what I was wearing, or being as young or foolish or bombed as I was. But Astro wasn't scary in the typical ex-con kind of way . . . the very averageness of him was what made him so scary, the idea of what the man before Me, so calmly making coffee -- what he was capable of, what he had done, and what he might still do.

I inhale the aroma of good strong coffee almost done. Thinking a bit more, I realize that Astro is only scary because I knew who he was -- to the folks in the neighborhood I'm sure he was 100% non-threatening. I imagined "Robert" making nice with the nieghbors . . . Mrs. Shipley from across the street wondering if she can fix him up with Marge's sister's spinster niece.

Astro puts a mug down in front of Me and sits down across the table. I'm about to try to figure out how to ask what I need to ask -- I really have no business being here . . . I'm here on the thinnest of pretenses to nicely accuse a recently sprung hit man of two murders -- when Astro puts sugar in his coffee and starts talking.

"So. You're here becasue King has two dead bodies in places he owns. It looks like someone is trying to get at King in some way. He hires you to find out who, why, etc. You ask him if anyone has a gradge against him. He names me. And here you are."

I'm mindlessly stirring My coffee and I must have had a stunned look on My face.

"How'm I doing so far?" He's angling his head down, trying to catch My eyes with his gaze, and smiling.

I laugh and snap out of it. "Sorry. And, um, yeah, that pretty much sums it up."

He laughs easily. He has the way about him of someone who's been dead and come back from it -- but not full of eerie insights, but rather very much at ease, like someone to whom the worst has already happened, and who thus has nothing much to worry about now.

His manner puts Me at ease. "So, Bobby . . . please, tell Me what the beef is between you and King and a couple other things, and, much as I love your coffee, I'll be on My way and you can return to charming the old ladies of Barlow Street." Astro is no less a suspect than he was thirty seconds ago, but you always get more when you're at ease. Astro of course knows this, having been in more interview rooms than most cops, so his easy manner is most likely an act; but we have to each go with our instincts and training.

Astro sips his coffee and gets a bit more serious. "I can't go into too much detail about the nature of my dispute with King. But it involved money, and at the time I was younger and more foolish and more concerned wtih appearances and image and the like and I said some things that I shouldn't have said."

I look at him a moment and then have some coffee Myself. He's told Me quite a bit, and clearly he meant to. Translation of what he just said: King hired him to do a hit. Something went wrong or something was not understood clearly and Bobby dind't get paid when or how much he thought he should have. He was mad and made threats against King.

I have to probe around the edges here. "This was . . . quite a while ago?"

Astro nods. "Yeah."

Then he looks up at Me. "But I do want to be clear. I had nothing to do with either of those murders."

I used to think My built-in lie detector was infallible. I now know it's not, but Astro feels legit to Me.

"Know anyone who might not be quite as well-adjusted about King as you are?"

He smiles. "As you can imagine . . . I don't travel much in those circles now, and . . . acquaintances from the joint as a rule didn't confide their deepest feelings to me."

I nod and smile Myself, keeping this as light as I can. There's nothing here anyway. I finish My coffee and dig through My purse for My cell phone. I have a chance to toss in a seemingly innocent question here on the way out.

"People say the worst part of prison is the boredom . . . how did you pass the time in the joint?"

"Oh . . . word games, crossword puzzles . . . stuff like that."

I find the phone and call the cab . . . thinking about coinicidences and haystacks.

The Cases of Lenora X, Domme Detective: The Cryptic Man, Part 6

The best part of this job is no alarm clock. Today was one of those mornings where typically I'd see it was only 8:00 and roll back over and grab some more sleep. Last night was dinner with King at Soixante-Trieze, a comfy little bistro. Nice comfortingly heavy meal, a few glasses of wine, another magic envelope that I hadn't even bothered to count yet . . . a good morning to sleep in.

Normally. But not this morning. Much as King seemed to like giving Me large sums of cash and didn't seem particularly perturbed by the lack of progress on the case, I felt as though I needed to make some real progress on this thing, and soon. Plus I was anxious to find out what mandy had found out the supposed five million dollars I was going to get from Freda Beckler.

I looked at My to-do list from yesterday. Item 2: "Get Astro's address from his PO," was going to be a problem . . . last night, somewhere between the steak frites and the Gateau au Chocolat it hit Me that Bobby Astro was not out on parole, therefore there was no Parole Officer to contact to get his address. Astro had been sprung -- he was an unsupervised as any other free citizen. I scratch that item out and replace it with "Ask King if he knows or can find out where Astro is living now." I was going to ask him that last night but between the food, the wine, and the magic envelope it somehow slipped My mind.

* * *

The other best part of My job is mandy . . . I float in at 10:05 and mandy's clearly been there a while . . . coffee's made, the filing is done, My e-mail's been gone through and the important stuff printed out in a neat pile on My desk. I lean over her desk and give her a kiss, along with an impromptu bonus of a few C-notes from King's latest payment.

I take it back -- the absolute best part of My job is that there is no sexual harassment policy.

The case might be in the toilet, King might be trying to complicate My life, Arty might be lying to Me about this involvement, but right now I feel great. I pull up a chair and sit with mandy.

"So tell Me the good news, pet . . . this whole Freda Beckler/Chicago lawyer/five million dollars thing is a scam, right?"

mandy pulls out the file and opens it, then adjusts her glasses. Sexy thing . . . I force Myself to listen and not tackle her and lay her out across the desk and have My way with her right then and there.

"Well, Miss . . . it's weird. The lawyer and the law firm are 100% legit. I called them, pretending to be a prospective client -- everything seemed on the up and up. I contacted some firms here that we have a relationship with -- they know CH&R and vouched for them. The partner, Hughes, who wrote the letter . . . I called the Illinois Bar Association -- admitted to the bar 17 years ago, perfect record, no ethics complaints against him or the firm, ever. Totally on the level."

I look at her. "Whats weird, then?"

'"The law firm is on the level, but Freda Beckler doesn't appear to be."

"Hm? She didn't win the lottery?"

mandy looks at Me with that "I hate to break it to You" look. "I mean, Miss . . . that she doesn't appear to exist."

I'm sitting there, silent as a golem, so mandy wisely just continues.

"Remember when you had Mary Jane Beckler checked out, when she was going by the name Adele Peterson? She reads from the summary Arty had given Me then.

Adele Pearson, real name Mary Jane Beckler, and as you can see, owner of a number of other aliases. Born in Cleveland, orphaned at a young age, bounced from foster home to foster home, started getting in scrapes when she was 12. Gradually became an accomplished con artist. 7 arrests, 1 conviction . . . did 18 months in Stateville for passing bad checks in 1996.

"So I figured Freda Beckler was her adopted mother -- took her in at the end of that string of foster homes. Except there's no record of any adoption of Mary Jane Beckler, not in Ohio, or Illinois, or any neighboring state -- as far as I can tell Mary Jane simply aged out of the foster care system. On the other end of it, there's no record of any Freda Beckler before six months ago. There's documents, but . . . not enough of them. It doesn't feel as though there's enough of a record out there as there should be for a woman this age who's lived anywhere but a cloistered convent her whole life. I looked at genealogy sites, too . . . if there's a Freda Beckler she was abducted by aliens at a young age and returned to Earth six months ago."

I'm slow in the mornings but not that slow. It's a fucking scam, but not your garden variety, stand-up, good honest crook type scam. This was your double secret Federal type scam. No one else had the juice to plant that fake lottery story in the media and create Freda Beckler out of whole cloth. The thought occurs to Me that as time goes on the Feds are going to have more and more trouble doing this -- there's simply no way to create a 100% airtight backstory for someone the way you could prior to the Internet -- there's too many places a real person would show up on the Web that you can't be sure to cover starting from square one and trying to create someone from nothing.

I finish My coffee, give mandy a hug for her good work, and flop down at My desk. Which part of the government invented Freda Beckler and involved Me in it? The law firm was clearly on the up and up and not in on the charade. What was the motive? If I wasn't the target (a good assumption -- whoever went to this trouble was after bigger fish than Me), who was? But how did I fit in?

I reach for the phone so that I don't have to keep considering how clueless I am in the face of
those very good questions.
* * *

King doesn't know where Astro is living but is sure he can find out faster than I can. Normally I would run it down on My own but I'm trying to get somewhere on this case before another corpse shows up, so I let King and his minions figure out where Astro is living while I look up Squids, aka Johnny Calamari.

Squids is a snitch straight out of Central Casting -- small and skinny and fidgety, chain-smoking, always looking around to make sure someone who wants to kick his ass (or worse) isn't lurking around the corner. A bundle of nerves and barely repressed perversions, living on the ragged edges of the city, that's Squids.

People who watch detective TV shows and movies and scoff at the stereotypical characters forget that cliches are based in fact, and Johnny Squids is the fact behind the stereotype.

Squids can often be found at Smokey's, a decrepit little scab on the left butt cheek of Blog City. I hate going in there, not only because smell and the clientele -- bitter alcoholic veterans, bitter alcoholic pervs, bitter alcoholic retired postal workers, and Squids -- but also because of the persona I have to adopt to go in there. The part of My job that I hate is having to act tough . . . oddly, actually being tough I don't mind nearly as much.

I take a chance. thinking it's still early enough that Squids might not have had breakfast yet . . . and duck into Cappy's Caboose, one of those diners that was actually made from an old train car. As a result it's some sort of historical landmark now, which gives the owner a perfectly good excuse for not doing anything to the place . . . even cleaning, apparently. I know Squids often eats a little here before he moves down the block to Smokey's for the liquid portion of breakfast.

Normally I'd dress a little more fetishy to get info out of Squids -- he gives it up for free when he sees leather or latex and some boots, but on this case I've got more money than time, for a change, so I don't care if I pay for the info. And one thing about Squids -- he's a good snitch -- he knows which side his bread is buttered on and never burns a paying customer.

I'm in luck -- Squids is there. I slide into the booth opposite him, making a face as I feel My skirt catching on the ripped vinyl seat. Squids looks up from his coffee.

"Oh . . . Madame Ecstasy! How pleasant that You should find Your way down here." Squids' self-preservation was rooted in his knowledge that the rougher the environment, the higher the value of manners. Didn't matter if they're genuine as long as they're convincingly presented.

"Madame Ecstasy" is a name that some have called Me from time to time. In this part of town it helps to "be" somebody, so it's all good. And the title helps Squids remember our relative positions.

"Hi Squids." I'm in no mood to play around and I don't mind if Squids knows that, too. I pull out two crisp $100s and lay them on the ancient Formica. For Squids this represents a week's worth of culling scraps and selling them for peanuts. But every good snitch is a good businessman -- from Squids' face you can't tell if he's got pocket kings or 8-2 off suit.

I focus on Squid's eyes. "You've heard about the DBs popping up lately." It's not a question -- Squids ceases to exist if he doesn't know about recent events, especially those of a sketchy/criminal nature. DBs (dead bodies) were clearly in that category.

"Yes, Madame. A terrible business."

I nod and look at the $200 a moment. I can let Squids know I have nothing -- he knows that I'll see through it if he tries some BS story.

A good snitch like Squids needs no more prompting. Either he has something or he doesn't. Might there be someone willing to pay more than $200 for it? Maybe so, but that person isn't sitting across from him with Her money on the table. Squids operates in a spot market -- acquire, sell, move on to the next transaction.

Squids looks around a little, not because he thinks anyone is listening but because he's habitually very careful. Like a hyena separated from the pack and forced to scavenge on his own, he never lets his guard down.

"Out of town hitter. No one knows who hired him. It's none of the Families. Seems to be targeted at King in some way."

"Out of town, Squids? How far out of town?"

"Chicago, Madame."

"Got a name?" I can tell right away that he doesn't have the whole package. If he did $200 wasn't going to get it and Squids isn't bashful about letting the buyer know his price.

"Not really, Madame . . . the only name I've heard in connection with him is 'Vale.' " It's someplace to start, anyway.

"You know Bobby Astro, Squids?" I look for any abrupt change in his facial expression. There is none.

"I do, Madame -- I heard that recently the slow turning wheels of Justice have eventually tuned in his favor. Why the interest in the recently-sprung Mr. Astrinelli, might I ask?"

"Just . . . exploring leads, Squids. No idea who wants to hurt King, or why?" I rub My fingers over the $100s, silently letting Squids know I have more if he has more.

"No, Madame . . . but You know as a concerned citizen I'm always hopeful to find out information helpful to the cause of a safer city and relay it to the appropriate people . . . "

I laugh and slide the $200 across to him. "You do that, Squids . . . I like to reward concerned citizens for their efforts. And of course, we never spoke."

Squids takes the money. It's good to know that $200 still buys something these days.