Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Hollow Point - Chapter 2, Part 2

I stepped off the shuttle bus at the Hilton's main entrance. An old man in a ratty gray sweatshirt huddled near the door, avoiding the driving wind and snow. His hair was long and greasy beneath a baseball cap too filthy to read the team insignia.

"Spare some change?" the old man asked.

I felt the flutter of excitement again rise in my chest, and my hand wrapped around the .44's grip. I wanted to stain the snow red with his blood.

Instead, I pushed the sensation down, opened my overcoat and suit coat, then reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a dollar. I handed the bill to the old man as I stepped into the hotel's revolving door.

The hotel Christmas tree was a Colorado blue spruce, brightly decorated and towering in the middle of the lobby. The bar, the Satin Rose, was located just off the lobby. It offered welcome shelter from the cold and wind-whipped snow.

Frank Nelson sat at the piano, playing a Rogers and Hammerstein medley. The tall, thin black man nodded as I entered and sat at a table near the rear. A waitress trying to escape from a red cocktail dress took my order—a Guinness and a shot of Jack Daniels.

The bar was nearly at capacity and noisy, yet everyone clapped as Nelson finished the medley. He immediately began playing Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, the signal that he would break after the song and meet me in the hotel's underground parking garage. It was late enough he was probably finished with his final set.

The waitress returned, and I threw down the shot and the beer, leaving payment on the table with a couple dollars tip. I got up and went into the hotel lobby, then walked to the elevator bank and thumbed the down button.

As I waited for an elevator car I glanced around the lobby, making certain no one had followed me out of the bar. I spotted no one, just as I had assumed would be the case. But it never hurt to be sure. Besides, old habits die hard, particularly those that had to do with preserving one's life.

An elevator pinged and the door slid open. As I stepped in a flash of panic flared in the pit of my stomach, as always happened when I entered an elevator. I pressed the button marked P-4, the lowest parking level. The door closed and I forced the panic down. By the time the elevator stopped I had both my stomach and my mind somewhat under control.

The door opened and I stepped out. The unpleasant musty smell of the hotel's laundry, located on this level, assaulted my senses. No one was about, and there weren't many cars—this level was mostly reserved for hotel employees. Five cars squatted in the left rear corner. Frank would look for me there.

I went to the corner and leaned against the rear of a large black SUV. I didn't have long to wait.

Within a couple of minutes I heard the elevator door slide open, then closed. Nelson came around the SUV, pulling a cigarette from a nearly empty pack.

"Frank," I said, offering my hand. "You still smoking those damned things?"

"You still drinking like a God-damned fish?"

"Touché!"

"How are you, John?" he asked as we shook hands. I detected concern in his voice as it resonated in the empty garage.

"I'll live. At least tonight."

"That's good to hear. After the way you were talking last week, I was beginning to wonder if you were on a downhill slide."

"Something intervened."

He nodded. "I'd miss you coming around."

"It's that something we have to talk about."

Nelson frowned. "It's not about Sylvia's case, is it?" I shook my head. "Good. I don't have anything new there. But it must be something serious for you to come looking for me this late."

"Billy Simpson's dead." Six years ago, when Frank Nelson was using, Simpson had been his supplier, too. We'd talked about him more than once in the two years I'd known Frank.

After a few seconds, Frank said, "I think we both could have predicted that outcome."

I nodded. "It's the circumstances of his death we couldn't have predicted." I told him Crystal's story and about the bloody scene I'd found in the alley.

He whistled. "Someone didn't want the body recognized."

"That's what I thought."

"You think they took his teeth?"

"I wouldn't be surprised."

I told him about Billy's clothing, and he frowned again.

The elevator opened and a woman in a gray business suit approached. We both fell silent. Frank puffed on his cigarette and I shuffled my feet nervously as she went to a small red Mazda sports car parked on the other side of the SUV. She was careful to avoiding eye contact with either of us.

"What was Billy into?" Frank asked after she pulled away. "Any idea?"

"Other than his regular trade—none."

"Excuse the pun, but don't you think what you described was overkill for his regular trade?"

I nodded, and Frank dropped his cigarette butt and crushed it under foot. "What can I do for you?" he asked.

"I need to know if there have been any other murders like Billy's." Frank was a retired Denver police officer; he still had contacts on the force.

"I think I'll wait until after the body's discovered before making any inquiries, though."

"That might be a good idea," I said.

"By the way, what's with your teeth?"

I didn't know what to tell him. Finally, I simply said, "You don't want to know."

He nodded. "Is that all you need?"

"That's it," I said. "Thanks." I turned and started for the elevators.

Before I'd taken three steps, Frank said, "John—" I stopped and turned back around. "Take care of yourself. These guys sound dangerous."

"I'll do that," I said, patting the pistol in my overcoat pocket. I put up my other hand and waved nonchalantly as I turned and headed for the elevators.
#

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