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            PHOTO COURTESY OF COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, A 2004 JIM JARMUSCH FILM

A Taste for Murder
A missing gourmand leads Sid Moran, private dick, on a sordid journey
through Missoula's restaurant scene.
By Bill Vaughn

SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD OF THE LIVING my cell whined like a frightened nun. I groped around in the carnage under my bed and found the damn thing, ringtoning Carlos Santana.
     “Yeah?”
     “Mr. Sid Moran?” The guy’s voice oozed with that slimy Brahmin accent John Kerry uses when he was trying to impress somebody.
     “Yeah?”
“Mr. Moran, this is Anthony Hodgkins calling from Boston. I’m terribly sorry to disturb you on a Saturday, but this is an extremely urgent matter that requires immediate attention.”
I rubbed the guck from my eyes with the back of my hand and looked at my watch. It was 2:18. This was probably 2:18 in the PM because the sun was shining between my dusty blinds. Hodgkins sounded like a bill collector, but I couldn’t remember if I owed anyone in Bean Town money. “A matter in the nature of what?”
     “I’m the editor of Epicure Monthly, Mr. Moran.”
     He paused to see if I was impressed. I wasn’t.
     “Um, two weeks ago we dispatched our restaurant reviewer, Mr. Ned Singleton, to Montana for our continuing series about the regional cuisine of America. You may be familiar with Mr. Singleton’s work.”
     “I only take the Sporting Digest.”
     “Aha. Well, we haven’t heard a word from Mr. Singleton in over a week. And a check with his hotel in Missoula, the Holiday Inn at the Park, revealed that his room doesn’t appear to have been occupied for several days.”
     “And you want me to find him.”
     “Please.”
     “Hodgkins, why don’t you go to the cops”
     “Two reasons, actually. First, the police—especially your local authorities—are painfully slow in matters of this sort. Of course we fervently hope that nothing untoward has happened to Mr. Singleton, but he does have a deadline. Second, Epicure Monthly is an immensely respected institution among, shall we say, a certain demographic. Anything even hinting of misconduct on his part would tarnish the reputation of the magazine.”
     “Does this guy have a history of, uh, misconducting?”
     “Not at all. He’s always been very discreet.”
     “You mean he’s gay.”
     “We have a million loyal readers to consider.”
     The only thing I was considering was my bank balance. Adding in the loose change on the night table from my usual Friday night binge at Red’s with nightcaps at Al and Vick’s, I almost had enough to pay the rent on my room.
     “I don’t come cheap,” I lied.
     “I suspected as much, Mr. Moran. Therefore I have taken the liberty of Fedexing you a $1000 retainer. There’s also a contract stating that you will receive another $1000 when Mr. Singleton is located. And a rare photograph of the man we ask that you show to as few people as possible.”
     “Gurg,” I said, choking on my own schnapps-flavored spit.
     “Beg your pardon, Mr. Moran?”
     “Sorry. Heartburn. What’s the deal with the photo?”
     “For professional reasons Mr. Singleton is very sensitive about his identity. If a restaurateur were to recognize him he could inflate the normal quality of the cuisine and service, producing a distorted picture of the establishment. For that reason Mr. Singleton avoids publicity and often wears disguises.”
     “One picture’s not a lot to go on.”
     “I realize that. But I trust that you’re the only private detective in Missoula who can find Ned Singleton.”
     Things were looking up. “Now why do you say that?”
     “Mr. Moran, you’re the only private detective in Missoula.”

LOOKING DOWN AT THE STREET from my room I smoked a Camel and plotted my day. Clouds the color of a bruise rolled across the sun, and snow began to dust Broadway. It was going to be a long winter, but at least I wouldn’t have to worry about the rent, at least this month, anyway. I threw on a cheap suit—my only suit—grabbed my coat, and headed for the elevator. The doors opened to reveal the person of Sherry Barrett from the fifth floor.
     Me and old Sherry occasionally engaged in vigorous sport, but I hadn’t seen her around in a while. Despite the miles traveled and the baggage accumulated she looked pretty good, the way leftover takeout looks good to a hungry man.
     “Going down, Sid?”
     “Aren’t we all?”
     We rode silently for a moment. “What are you doing tonight, Sherry?”
     She gave me that look. “Whatever it is you’re doing.”
     I trudged through the snow to the Missoula Club, which was full of aging college boys in town for Homecoming, and took a seat at the bar under a TV showing the Notre Dame game.
     Shane poured me a Moose Drool and handed me a FedEx letter. The check looked genuine, and the contract was everything Hodgkins said it would be. I studied the photo. This Singleton character looked like Jack Black after a shave and a good haircut. He was wearing a custom-made suit and cast the sort of theatrical shadows that can only be accomplished in a studio at the hand of a really good photographer. It looked like a Hollywood publicity shot. And it didn’t reveal anything more about the guy than that. Who says photos don’t lie? How tall was he, was he right-handed or left, how did he walk, did he have any scars or tats?
     I needed more info. That meant my assistant would have to earn his keep again. His cell rang have a dozen times before a voice answered that sounded like someone whose parents were Sleepy and Dopey.
     “Oh, hey, Sid.”
     “Patchouli, rouse your lazy ass and get me everything you can on a restaurant reviewer named Ned Singeton and a magazine called Epicure Monthly.”
     “Oh, man, Flaming Lips is at the Top Hat tonight and I got a ticket.”
     “I don’t give a damn if Blind Faith reunited and is gonna play in your bedroom. You want to go back to selling dope?”
     “Who’s Blind Faith?”
     “What? You don’t— Oh, nevermind. Look, this isn’t the usual cheating wife or bill collector deal. This is hot.”
     I hoped Patchouli was too stoned to remember that I still owed him $130. He was basically a good kid. Maybe I’d give him a bonus if everything turned out all right and we turned up Singleton.
     Nah.
     I ordered a double hot pepper cheeseburger, a chocolate shake and a shot of Lewis & Clark vodka. When the Mo Club had filled past legal capacity I went out on Main. I thought about getting my .38 out of hawk from Liquid Assets, but I’d never really liked guns, and the last time I checked this one’s trigger had locked up.
   So I headed for the Holiday Inn.

   
SINGLETON'S ROOM was on the top floor above the river. My universal swipe card opened the door instantly. The place was spotless. But that didn’t mean it hadn’t been lived in. The closet was full of clothes, and so were the drawers. Some of them were the sort of duds you’d expect to find in the crib of an alleged gentlemen—dress slacks and shirts, pricey shoes, silk ties and custom-made suit coats.
      But what was this? A bird colonel’s uniform? Jeans, a western shirt with snap buttons, a leather vest, and a pair of Ariat cowboy boots? Poking deeper I found a pair of bushy eyebrows attached to a pair of heavy black glasses, a mustache and a hooked rubber nose. Then a jar of blackface, a white satin eye-patch, a cellophane knife scar, a beard, two wigs, a plastic arm with a hook instead of a hand, a priest’s collar, a black Stetson, and a bolo tie with a turquoise clasp. Then, hello, I found a purple evening gown, various lipsticks, rouges, and eyeshadows, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (the one that smells like a cop’s wife), and a Frankenstein mask (well, Halloween was just around the corner).
     I checked the Ariats and discovered that there were no stirrup scrapes across the insteps. The meant Singleton has never ridden a horse, or at least he’d never ridden a horse wearing these boots.
     So what?
     Okay, so the guy was into disguises, cross-dressing or both. But here’s what was really weird: These were clothes made for someone no more than five feet tall. And someone who weighed at least 200 pounds. A human bowling ball. Jack Black on steroids.
     I went through the pockets and came up with 38 cents, which I pocketed. Then I remembered my old detective rule: Always check under the mattress. You usually found nothing more than stained Kleenex, but this time it paid off. A red notebook.
     I lit a cigarette and opened to the first page. Under a heading that said “Possible Openings” was “A gourmet’s tour of Montana would be a non-stop flight.” He might be right, but how would I know? The best meal I’d ever had in the old land of oro y plata was Christmas Eve at Deer Lodge, where I was serving a one-to-three for possession of a controlled substance, in this case hashish. I put the notebook in my trenchcoat and went out into the hallway.
      Heading toward the stairs I was unfortunate enough to pass a bellboy wheeling a large room service cart. I looked at the kid and nodded. He looked back and said “Have a nice day, sir.”
     In the gathering gloom of evening the snow had melted, then frozen to a crunchy mess that went scritch, scritch as I made my way across it from the hotel.
     Two blocks away I stopped. Screw me blue, I’d left that cigarette burning on the night table. I made my way back through the lobby and into an elevator to the top floor and down the hallways again to Singleton’s room. Making sure there was no one around I let myself in.
     There was someone on the bed. “Whupps, ‘scuse me,” I blurted, backing out. I checked the number again. This was Singleton’s room. I opened the door again.
      And that was Singleton’s body.

OH, THE FAT DWARF WAS DEAD, all right, staring up at the ceiling like an overfed guppy in some snot-nose’s aquarium. There were no bullet wounds or knives sticking out of him, but his cold skin had a weird greenish tint. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, a biker’s cap, patched jeans and SS boots. The bed and the floor around it were littered with junk food junk—empty Twinky packages, banana split boats, candy wrappers, Styrofoam burger containers, Cheeto bags, a pizza box, onion ring cartons—a whole seven-course meal from hell.   
     Although I don’t like to touch other men I quickly frisked the little donut. His wallet didn’t have a cent in it, but it did contain his driver’s license and four credit cards, including, of course, a Diner’s Club. Stuffed in his pockets were meal receipts from Arby’s and Taco John’s, the wrapper from a Costco hot dog, and a half-eaten deep-fried cheese stick.
      Apparently the Last Supper.
      I went out the back exit and down the stairs into the parking lot, making sure no one saw me. By the time I got back to my room at the Palace I was gasping for breath. My brain was swimming, so I did what I always do when I need to add up the score: Take a bath and smoke a joint.
     A half hour later I had to admit I was in hot water. Fact: Ned Singleton was no longer missing. Fact: It looked like suicide from over-eating junk food. Opinion: It smelled like murder. Conclusion: since the bellboy had seen me leave Singleton’s room and I was an ex-con, guess who the prime suspect was?
     I ordered my remaining brain cells to give that bellboy the once-over. There’d been something familiar about him, I just couldn’t place it. Maybe the voice? He was clean-cut, twenty-something, thick Clark Kent glasses. I don’t know, he looked like a thousand other college kids working their way through school.
     Hold on. The room service cart the kid had been pushing was big enough to conceal Singleton’s pint-size person. Did the bellboy whack him? And why?
     Maybe there was a clue in Singleton’s notebook. I realized that I’d have a tough time explaining to the cops why I was in possession of the thing, but it was all I had to go on.
     Under “Reviews” there was a page of scribbles. “The Montana Club advertises itself as ‘Montana Fare with a Montana Flair,’ whatever that is. I found the steaks unexciting and only partly compensated by the “salad bar,” a frontier term no doubt coined to make the Marlborough Man and his little Fillie more comfortable consuming something that never had hooves.”
        Here was his take on Guy’s Lolo Creek Steakhouse. “Allegedly an eatery that will grill the game animal you’ve gone into the forest to bludgeon. As I gave my jaw muscles a rigorous workout trying to eat a filet mignon, a cowboy entered the establishment with a garbage bag. As he passed a table of buckaroos, one of them looked at the bag and said ‘Muskrat?’”
     There was a note about Shadow’s Keep up in the South hills above Missoula. “A prime example,” Singleton wrote, “of the restaurant formula holding that it the view is excellent the food will be mediocre.”
     Snotty bastard. I’d never heard anything except good about these restaurants, although I never seemed to have enough money to check them out.
     I knew I’d have to find another place to stay for a couple of days while I tried to solve this case and save my ass. Sherry would put me up tonight and maybe tomorrow night, as well, and button her lip if I asked her to. But I couldn’t face her on an empty stomach, and Singleton’s notebook had made me hungry.
     I went to my closet and put together a disguise that would probably get me through dinner at the Oxford without being recognized. The munchies wait for no man.

ALTHOUGH I WAS WEARING A CALICO COSTUME from Cats, complete with whiskers, a fuzzy orange wig, cat ears and a circle around one eye, when I pushed through the door no one looked twice. Well, yeah, this was the Ox, after all, and Saturday night at the Ox. Plus, the Children’s Theatre was putting on the musical a few blocks away in the old Wilma. Still, even to myself I seemed a little weird.
     I sat down at the counter and watched as two drunk women rolled around on the floor between the tables, screeching at the top of their lungs and yanking on each other’s hair. An old man wearing a battered straw cowboy hat sitting next to me started laughing. He had no front teeth. His breath smelled like cat food. I vowed to quit smoking dope. Again.
     “A dollar on the blonde,” the old man said.
     “I’ve seen the blonde fight,” I told him, slapping a wrinkled bill on the counter next to his. “She can’t take a punch.”
     But we would never know the outcome because suddenly it was cops all over, pulling apart the fighters, who were now, in cop talk, persons to be removed. I turned away and buried my face in a copy of the Missoula Independent.  
     The fight didn’t help my concentration any. Who would have killed Singleton 3000 miles from Boston? How would I talk my way out of a murder rap? Will the Cubs ever win the pennant? When someone down the counter ordered brains and eggs and the counterman shouted to the cook, “He needs ‘em!” I had the distinct impression they were talking about me.
      The counterman was Eddie Pep, an ex-boxer whose final bout went seven seconds into the first round before Marvin Camel laid him on the canvas with a hard left jab. Eddie limped over, still a little punch-drunk after all these years, and so near-sighted he couldn’t see much beyond the tip of his beefy nose.
     “What’ll ya have, Sid?”
     “Jeez, Eddie, not so loud!” I whispered. “I’m working a case.”
     “Sure, Sid.”
     I ordered a steak san, hashbrowns drenched with gravy, and coffee, grateful, despite what Singleton said about Montana food, that there was still a place in town you could get honest grub that didn’t break the bank.
     While I waited for dinner I finished reading Singleton’s notebook. The last page listed reservations he’d made at restaurants in Butte and Helena. There was no mention of any visits to MacDonald’s, Burger King, or even that local fountain of greasy chicken, the Double Front.
     When Eddie slapped down my dinner I doused it with ketchup. Just as I was wiping up the last dab of gravy with a crust of bread Patchouli came truckin’ through the door like a character out of R. Crumb. One of the drunks at the bar ordered him to get a haircut.
     “Fuck you, dildo,” Patchouli said with enough menace to extract an apology from the guy.”
     “Hey, boss,” he said, waving over Eddie and ordering a whole grapefruit.
     Patchouli’s yard-long hair was tied in a pony tail. He sported a goatee and Yogo sapphire earings. He was wearing a Tibetan yak-hair sweater, baggy ragged jeans, and steel-toed work boots. In a crowd like this it took real energy to stand out.
     “Well?” I asked him.
      “Man, what a hassle. I had to wait an hour to get into the internet room at the library and then this one fascist librarian kept hovering to make sure I wasn’t surfing porn.”
     “I don’t care about that. What did you find?”
     “Your dude, Singleton, had done this restaurant thing for like twenty years? Never married. Except for the foodie thing, lived like Ralph Nader. Won all these bullshit awards from gourmet this and food writer’s that.”
    “Is that all you found?”
     Patchouli dug into his pockets and came up with a page ripped from Us magazine. It showed the human bowling ball dressed in his priest’s collar, the white eye patch and a frock sitting at a table in some restaurant, his hands on his way to covering his face. The headline said: “Us Blows Food Crit’s Cover.” Apparently, some paparazzi had been tailing Singleton for weeks, and finally caught him on camera at a posh Boston eatery called Mes Appetites.
     “What else?” I said.
     “Boss, you’re as jumpy as a cat on a hot tin roof.”
     “Please promise me you didn’t say that.”
     “So what’s scratching you, man?”
     I had to tell someone, forgetting that people who don’t have any friends always end up telling the wrong someone.
     Patchouli whistled and shook his head. “Bummer.”
     I fished the photo of Singleton from the ridiculous front pouch of my costume and handed it to him. “Look, first thing tomorrow start asking the cab drivers the places they took him. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
     When Sid came over with a coffee pot and my bill I asked him not to tell anyone he’d seen me lately.
     “How come, Sid?” he asked.
     “Loose lips sink ships.”
     “I don’t know, Sid. My memory’s not so good lately. I might forget you told me not to tell.”
     I sighed and peeled off an extra ten. Heaven, I thought, is a place where you don’t have to bribe anyone.

I KNOCKED ON 5B and waited as Sherry came to the door to check me out through the spy hole. It was after midnight.
     “Hey, Sid,” she said, opening up. She was wearing bunny slippers and white silk pajamas. I had to admit she looked tasty. Tasty, and also tart, like a lemon meringue pie. She started laughing.
     “What?” I said.
     “It’s not news you’ve got the morals of a tom cat, so why advertise it?”
     Once inside I told her enough about the case to let her know what sort of soup I was in, but not everything I knew about it.
     Before long we were engaged in a full and frank exchange of views. As one of Missoula’s lesser scribblers had once written, the evening would include, but would not be limited to, oral love.
      Later, I dreamt that Colonel Sanders was serving me on a big silver platter to a dozen women at a church picnic. Waving around their knives and forks like Bantu warriors, they were mad because I was all wings and necks. But before the ladies could get rough the dream was interrupted by my cell, playing that Pretenders song, Back on the Chain Gang.
     It was Patchouli. “Dude, it’s noon.”
     “You woke me up to tell me that?”
     “A maid at the Holiday Inn found Singleton, man. Cops came. The coroner just announced the autopsy.”
     “Do I want to hear this on an empty stomach?” Lying next to me, snoring like a Cheshire, Sherry was still in the land of dreams.
     “You’re off the hook, boss. Death by natural causes. A heart attack caused by pigging out on junk food.”
     Note to self: Buy lottery tickets.    
     “Do you believe that?” I said.
     “Like, sure, why not?”
     Patchouli was living proof of why they called it dope.
     “The medical cause might have been heart attack," I told him, “but I was only out of that room five, maybe ten minutes. Not enough time for Singleton to come in, heave garbage all over, croak, then cool down to the temperature of lime Jell-o.”
     I didn’t realize until now that Singleton’s elf carcass might have been hidden in that room service cart. Was the bellboy the perp? But what was the motive? Had Singleton’s gayness overcome his discretion and got him into a tight spot with the local rough trade?
     Before I could make up any answers another call came through. Shit. It was Hodgkins.
     “Hello, Hodgkins. Look, I got some bad news for you.”
     “Save your breath, sir. A reporter from your local daily just called with the news and some very embarrassing questions. Mr. Moran, Ned Singleton would so more purchase a Slim Jim or a Tater Tot than a rabbi would order hog jowels. How he ended his days with that sort of trailer court trash in his stomach is obviously the result of foul play.”
     “Well, that’s what I figure, too.”
     “Someone is obviously trying to smear the good name of Epicure Monthly. And they’re probably going to succeed. The media will have a field day with this, as you can imagine. Since your local authorities aren’t going to pursue an investigation, I’m afraid, Mr. Moran, that I must send out a larger detective agency from here in Boston. The retainer you have already received is yours to keep, of course.”
     The money didn’t matter anymore. Well, it didn’t matter as much. I would have given it back if it would keep a real gumshoe off the case and me out of prison, or worse, the needle room. So what if a prosecutor couldn’t prove I had a motive? Juries in this state have sent guys up the river on weaker evidence.
     “Mr. Hodgkins, I have a couple of good solid leads that won’t wait for another agency. I need to jump on them right away. Give me forty-eight hours, I’ll have your killer, and you’ll save a bundle on this month’s detective bills.”
     Hodgkins was quiet for a very long ten seconds. “All right, Mr. Moran. Two days.”
     My hands were shaking when I got back to Patchouli.
      “We’ve still got a murder rap to solve, pal.”
     “Boss, why waste our time? It’s Sunday, man. Let’s do some weed and go bowling.”
     “There’s a killer out there. Where’s your civic pride? Don’t you want to live in a decent community?”
     “Yeah, but I can’t get a visa to Havana.”
     “Funny. Let’s get back to work. You take the drivers at Valley Cab. I’ll take the Yellow Cab guys.”
     Sherry woke up, yawned and stretched and gave me a little smile. “Meow,” she said.

LENNY PRETZEL was one of those cabbies who made it his business to know everyone in town. Or at least all the bit players in town. His old man had driven a hack in Baltimore. And his granddaddy the same gig in Munich. Until Hitler, anyway. They said Lenny had a photographic memory, but since I’d given Patchouli my pic of Singleton a fat lot of good that was going to do.
     I’d spent all day striking out with the other drivers, then waiting for Lenny to  come on shift. Unless Patchouli had found a driver at Valley with a lead about Singleton The Pretzel was my last best shot. I suddenly had an image of a seven-foot serial killer the guards had just shoved into my cell. The maniac grabs me by the throat and says Does you wants to be the momma or the papa?”
     “Where to, Sid?”
     I described Singleton, my fingers crossed.
     “Yeah, I remember the guy. How could you forget a cantaloupe in a bird colonel’s uniform?”
     I handed Lenny a wrinkled Grant. “Take me where you took him.”
     We drove first to Buttrey's Eastgate. “Lenny this isn't a restaurant.”
     “Duh. Guy wanted razor blades.”
     Then we drove to Pearl's, on Front. It looked like a whore house, but it was actually a posh French eatery. Of course, I’d never been in the joint. Not counting the chains, Missoula had a hundred restaurants. And not counting the burgers at the Missoula Club or the hash browns at the Ox I’d never tasted the grub in any of them.
     “He tipped big and said he’d walk back to the Holiday Inn. Asked if I could pick him up the next night at 6 and take him out to the Nine Mile House.”
     “That’s what, Lenny, 30 miles?”
     “Yeah. So I drive him out. He don’t say a word the whole time, just scribbles in his notebook, scritch, scritch. We get to the joint, he pays me and tips big again, says come back at 9. That’s gonna be a 120-mile fare, which is great for me. He says don’t worry about it I’m on an expense account.”
     I lit a cigarette, ignoring the sign that said No Smoking.
     “Then what?”
     “I get there, and no cantaloupe. I honk a couple times, then go into the joint. I ask around and one of the waitresses said the cantaloupe just left with a guy.”
     Bingo. “Any idea who it was?”
     “Nah, I didn’t ask ‘cause I figured to see the cantaloupe again, and collect my fare.”
     As we headed out I-90 into the cold night Lenny launched into a joke.
     A rich lawyer is riding in his limo from his office in the city to his country estate. Along the way he spots a man down on all fours in the ditch next to the road. The guy’s eating grass.
     “Pull over, James” the lawyer orders his driver. The car stops and the lawyer rolls down the window.
     “What are you doing?” he asks the guy.
     “I lost my job and used up all my savings,” he says. “This is all I have to eat.”
     “That’s terrible,” the lawyer says. “Listen, why don’t you come home with me and I’ll see that you get a meal.”
     The man stands up. “What about my family?” he asks, pointing to a woman and four kids eating grass in the pasture.
     The lawyer grins. “Everyone’s welcome. Get in.”
     As the car speeds up the man turns to the lawyer with tears in his eyes.      “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your generosity.”
     The lawyer shrugs. “Hey, it’s nothing. You’re going to love my place. The lawn is a foot long.”

THERE WERE ONLY FOUR CARS in the parking lot, huddled in the falling snow like street people waiting for a free meal at Povarello. Inside, the waitresses were getting ready to piss on the fire and call in the dogs, as happy to see another customer after a long Sunday of fine family dining as they would be declaring their tips on a tax return.
     “Hello, Sid,” the tough little blonde said. “Take the wrong exit?”
     Here was a blast from the past—Coco Vann, my Senior Prom date at Hellgate High circa the twentieth century.
     “The years have been good to you, Coke,” I lied.
     “Wish I could say the same for my husbands.”
     Yeah, Coke was on shift the night Singleton came in. She didn’t work his table, but who could forget a watermelon dressed like the Lone Ranger? He ordered prime rib, then sent it back. Then he ordered a T-Bone, and sent that back, as well. Finally, the little bastard seemed semi-happy with a pricey hunk of grass-fed bison.
     I asked her if she remembered anything about the guy Lenny Pretzel said Singleton hooked up with.
     “Another prick,” Coke allowed. “Sent back his steak twice. Sent back the fucking salad, if you can believe it. Anyway, so now these bastards got something in common and end up at the same table, jabbering away like they was long-lost brothers.”
     “Did you catch the drift of their conversation?”
     “I don’t eavesdrop on the customers.”
     I sighed and peeled off a twenty.
     “Oh, yeah,” she said. “They was talking about food. Blue fin tuna this, Cantonese that, seven courses at some frog joint.”
     When I asked her what the other guy looked like the description fit the bellboy at the Holiday Inn. But then a lot of guys fit that description. And then she said something that really got my attention.
     “He was a cook, Sid.”
     “What? Did he say something?”
     “Nah. His fingers was all scarred up from knife cuts. I’ve never known a cook who didn’t cut up his hands.”
     “I don’t suppose you happened to see what they left in.”
     “Orange ‘49 Chevy half-ton. Cherry.”
     “You’re a doll. Hey, sorry again about your prom dress.”
     “Don’t sweat it, Sid. The vomit washed right out.”
     The next morning I was on the job like any regular Monday-to-Friday Joe, my butt parked in the stacks at the library. I wasn’t looking for info about Ned Singleton. I was looking for people who might hate him. After reading some of his restaurant reviews I knew this was going to be a long list. I had to start somewhere so I started with the restaurant Patchouli had discovered in Us magazine, Mes Appetites. His review of the place was typically snotty, concluding with a slur about the joint’s crème brûlée: phlegm brûlée, he called it.
     I went into the internet room and was lucky enough to find a free computer. Although I was tempted to take a peek at a site called “The Sluts of Kappa Kappa Gamma” I got to work.  
      I looked up the joint’s number. Several rings and a receptionist later a woman came on the line who sounded like Jackie Kennedy. I told her I was a reporter doing a follow-up on Singleton’s untimely demise. Of course she remembered the review. The restaurant had taken a nosedive after it came out. But then they replaced their chef and things picked up. I asked her for the fired guy’s name.
     “His real name, sir, or his nom de guerre?”
     “Nome duh what?”
     “His theatrical name is Marcel Escoffier,” she sniffed. “But we learned his real name is Jake Grimes.”
     I googled both names and came up with one listing, in Face Book. My hands were sweating as I clicked on the link.
     And there he was. The bellboy at the Holiday Inn.

THE CLERKS DIDN'T RECOGNIZE THIS MEAT SACK, and neither did the manager. As I was leaving I noticed something I never saw before: a surveillance camera. Was it new? Or had it been up there on the ceiling of the lobby the night I visited Singleton’s room?
      I went out into the cold feeling like I’d been pumped full of chilled gasoline. I had less than twenty-four hours to come up with a perp before Hodgkins sicced his gumshoe army on the case. Would they go after a court order to look at the tapes from the night the bowling ball croaked? Does the Pope like little boys?
     Since I didn’t have a credit card I couldn’t rent a car, and didn’t know anyone with a car who’d loan it to me, I walked up Front to Higgins and flagged a cab.
     The driver was a Blackfeet guy named Ronnie Kipp who played hold ‘em at the Ox once in a while.
     “I seen that truck a couple times, Sid. My uncle had one just like it, only it was black.”
     “Jesus, Ronnie, where was it?”
     “Ho, I think maybe out on Reserve?”
      I called Patchouli and told him to get his butt in a cab and start searching for that old orange pickup.
     “Which part of town, boss?”
     “Take the North Side and downtown. Do every street. Do every alley. And leave your damn cellphone on, hemp-head.”
      “Sir, yes sir!”
     Three hours later we’d driven up and down the south side of the strip, checking most of the side streets around it. I was starving. “Hey, Ronnie, pull into that Subway.”
     “Nah, Sid, you don’t want to eat there. It’ll make you fat. Lemme take you someplace better.”
     Everyone was a critic.
     When he pulled into the parking lot of Rosauers I turned to him. “Ronnie, I don’t want to go on a damn picnic.”
     But I followed him into the grocery anyway and over to the deli, where he ordered us free-range chicken breasts and lentil salad. We ate in the supermarket cafeteria surrounded by the Depends crowd, also having their dinners at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had to admit, Ronnie was right about the food.
     As the sun set we searched the student ghettoes and the University district all the way out to the golf course. Ronnie’s shift was ending so he began heading back downtown to trade himself in on a new driver. All I wanted to do was smoke a joint, drink a brewski and watch Monday Night Football. My cell rang.
     “Bingolino, boss.”
     “You found it?”
     “I followed the guy,” Patchouli said. “He parked. He went in.”
     “Where?”
     I knew the building. It had been around since Lake Missoula emptied.
I handed Ronnie a Benjamin that smelled like cocaine, and he agreed to drop me before he quit for the night.
     The place was in one of those dark North Side neighborhoods where the cops are always busting up rock fights between the neighbors, hauling off wrecked cars, and collaring guys for probation violation. The building was a nightmare, a former grain elevator, four stories of rotten wood next to the tracks. There was light coming from a window on top, partially boarded. I regretted not getting my gun out of hock and fixing the damn thing, but it was too late now. I found a chunk of two-by-four in the snow between the rails, and went to the door.
     The stairs creaked and groaned as I made my way heavenward. The wind sounded like Tom Waits singing with food in his mouth as it streamed through the holes in the walls.
     There was a small room on the top floor, and light coming from under the door. I listened for awhile, but didn’t hear a thing except the wind and my stomach rumbling. Finally, I got up my nerve and eased open the door with my foot. There was only one thing in the room, a guy, looking out the window, his back to the door. When he turned around I crouched, ready to brain him.
     It was the bellboy from the Holiday Inn. Er, the chef from Mes Appetites. Wasn’t it?
     “Hey, boss.”
     My brain went into neutral and idled. Okay, fine, let’s go over what I knew about Patchouli. I met him one July day when he sold me a Chicago-style polish sausage from a steam cart on Main. This Dog Bites, it was called. We started talking, one topic led to another, and then to the subject of cannabis, and we circled around each other like pit bulls sniffing butts. That pm in the alley behind Charley B’s I handed him a wad of hard-earned cash for some of the best sensimilla I’ve ever smoked.
     Someone who had a good eye for faces would have seen the resemblance right away. I only saw it now.
     “Stash the two-by-four, Sid.”
     “Eat me.”
     Patchouli leveled a .38 at my chest. I knew it was my .38 because it had a knotty pine grip. Don’t ask why.
     “You’re gonna fry, Jake.”
     “Don’t call my Jake.”
     “What, you like Marcel better?” I said, lisping the word Marcel.
     “I didn’t kill the bastard,” Patchouli said.
     “Right.”
     “Well, yes, I kidnapped him but I didn’t kill him.”
     “I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy?”
     “Excuse?”
     “It’s a song, dipshit. What’s your side of it?”
     “After going without food for three days in my apartment even the great Ned Singleton lowered himself to take a bite of junk food. He wasn’t even halfway through his Happy Meal when the bastard started choking. Too bad. But, as we French say, revenge is a meal best served cold.”
     “You’re not French.”
     “I’m anything I want to be.”
     “That’s the dope talking. You won’t get away with it.”
     Below us a freight was rumbling through the neighborhood. Patchouli had to shout to make himself heard. “Once I’m finished with you, Sid, I’m going to burn this building down.”
     “Better not, Jake, it’s been nominated for the National Registry of Historic Places.”
     “You’re a funny man, Sid. It’s been a pleasure. But, au revoir.”
     “Put the gun down,” I shouted “It doesn’t work, anyway.”
     Patchouli grinned.
     I knew I was wrong. For the second time in a day.  •

COPYRIGHT©2009 BILL VAUGHN








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