Chapter Thirteen (Part Two)
“I got it,” Vandalia grins, pulling a packet out of her bag. “The manager was more than delighted to help me and completely understood how a touch of arthritis made signing my name so difficult. He did so admire my ID, though.” She and Mowgli laugh in triumph, but I’m too focused on the manila envelope sitting on the bed in front of me. I pick it up and heft it in my hand. It seems too slim to have caused so much trouble.
“This is all there was?” I ask, toying with the clasp. Now that I have it, I’m suddenly nervous. What if it doesn’t have what we need? What if it’s all been nothing? All the scheming, the planning, the conniving. I dismiss these unworthy nervous thoughts and pull the envelope to me.
“That’s it, buckeroo.” Vandalia drawls. “Sean, the manager, assures me that nobody has been in the box except for moi.” The self-satisfied smirk on her face grows as she leans back on the bed.
“Open it, Del,” Mowgli says impatiently, itching to rip it from my hands and open it himself. “Let’s see what we got here.”
I slowly open the packet, my fingers suddenly cold. I pull back the flap and plunge my hand inside, pulling out first a sheaf of papers, then another key. The three of us stare in bewilderment at the key for a minute, not sure that we are seeing what we see. I turn the envelope upside down and shake it—empty. The silence is unnerving as none of us can think of what to say. I pick up the sheaf of papers and leaf through them, handing each page to Mowgli when I’m through. He, in turn, hands it to Vandalia. The three of us read, frowning as we do so. There is a bunch of legalese which makes no sense, but what it boils down to is that O’Reilly, Peters and a ‘silent partner’ own a nascent company called BLots which in a year or so will be ‘challenging the stranglehold that Nike has on the sneaker world’. The company is based in Juarez, Mexico, and a Senor Ramon Lopez-Garcia is the nominal president.
“This is it?” Vandalia asks, setting down the last page of the document. “This is the reason those girls were killed?”
“Not the whole reason, I don’t think,” I say, shooting a glance at Mowgli.
“I agree,” Mowgli nods his head. “I mean, it’s sleazy, but it’s not exactly illegal.” He leans back on the bed and closes his eyes to think. The three of us are huddled on my bed, all frowning.
“I think it’s a blind,” I finally say. “This stuff is crap, and I think Blanche understood that in her dim way. That’s why she put the second key in the box; it opens the box that holds the real stuff.”
“Question is, where is the second box?” Vandalia asks, her face serious for once. No one ask the question they are all thinking—how many boxes are there?
“Another bank?” Mowgli asks, his voice unsure.
“No,” I say, examining the key. “This isn’t a bank key.” I show it to them, displaying the number on it—A341. “Some kind of locker or perhaps storage room,” I muse, turning the key over in my hand. On the other side of the key is a tiny inscription that says, “R. Bros.” on it.
“Righteous Brothers,” we exclaim in unison. The Righteous Brothers own the largest storage warehouse in the Mission District; Blanche must have stored the real goods in the room she was given.
“Not exactly covert,” Mowgli comments caustically, but we all agree that Blanche was three or four slices short of a full loaf. Besides, unless you know the Mission District, it isn’t that obvious. Much like me, the Righteous Brothers don’t advertise their business and rely on word-of-mouth. Also like me, they are the best at what they do so they never lack for customers.
“I gotta go,” Vandalia says, looking at her watch. “Keep me updated.” She gives Mowgli a peck on the cheek and waves at me.
“Thanks,” Mowgli says, pecking her back. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Could, too,” I mutter, grabbing my bag. Mowgli and I head for the storage warehouse where we find Stanley Righteous manning the front.
“Hey, Trip,” he says, grinning from ear to ear. He’s had a crush on me since the moment he laid eyes on me, but is wise enough not to push it. He’s not bad-looking in a greasy sort of way. He’s well over six-feet tall with slicked-back blond hair and washed-out blue eyes. His body is hard from the weightlifting he did in jail, and he sports some pretty fierce tattoos. One of these days, I might give him a tumble. “How’s business?”
“Shitty,” I say, but don’t expand. If he hasn’t connected me to the papers, I’m not going to draw the line for him. “I need to get into this room.” I show him the key, hoping that I won’t have to provide identification or anything like that.
“Anything for you, Trip,” Stanley says, ignoring Mowgli at the same time. There is a glint in Mowgli’s eyes that tells me he’s about to get payback for my merriment with Jennie earlier this morning, so I trod on Mowgli’s foot to keep him in line. He opens his mouth, thinks better of it, then closes it. Stanley leads us this way and that until we reach A341. “Here you go.” He gestures to the room and hands me back the key. “Say hey before you leave, OK?” He flashes me another grin and disappears.
“I should give the poor boy your number,” Mowgli says impishly as I fit the key into the lock. I don’t bother to answer as I turn the knob. As soon as the door is open, I take an involuntary half-step back The room is crammed with stuff, mostly furniture.
“Great,” I grumble, stepping across the threshold. “This ought to be a piece of cake.”
“But it’s right up your alley,” Mowgli teases, still in a jocular mood. “You’re a repo man, remember?”
“Yes, but I always know what it is I’m repo’ing,” I reply, pushing furniture this way and that. “I don’t have the slightest idea where to start.” Saying so juices my adrenaline, however, and I start looking. “I’m guessing more paper,” I say, opening the drawers of a scarred mahogany desk.
“I’m guessing this is a wild-goose chase,” Mowgli counters, pulling cushions off recliners and peering underneath. “What if the paper is the evidence and this is all smoke and mirrors? Blanche wasn’t the smartest girl in the world. She might have concocted this crap thinking it’d confuse matters.”
“She wasn’t the smartest girl, no, but she wasn’t stupid, either,” I reply. “Besides, she’s dead. That’s proof enough for me.” I find a pack of papers, but it’s nothing more than some dreary poems Blanche had written to her ‘sweetie’. “There’s got to be something here.”
For the next hour, Mowgli and I methodically search the room; I start on one end, he on the other. There are glimpses here and there of the girl Blanche had been, but nothing relevant to our search. Some of her past diaries are here, and I leaf through them. Most of them are pre-life-as-a-stripper, and there is nothing interesting about them. I set them aside in case I want to go through them more in-depth, then keep looking. There is no rhyme or reason to her stockpiling, and it’s mind-boggling to think of someone her age accruing so much stuff. She has four times the amount of possessions I have, and she’s a few years younger. Then again, I never put much stock in material things because I like to be able to travel light. I admit to myself that my attention is flagging at the sheer banality of her collection. Nothing out of the ordinary for a twenty-year old stripper, nothing jarring to the eye.
We have cleared about a quarter of the room in the first hour. I am getting crankier by the minute. I sure as hell do not want to spend another three or so hours in this stuffy room, but I know I will if there’s even the slimmest chance of finding something that will get me off the hook. I am not a patient person by nature, but I have enough invested in this process to keep slogging through her crap. I’m beginning to suspect that Blanche dumped all this stuff in this room as an intimidation factor. Nobody but the most desperate would pick her way through this shit in hopes of finding something useful. It would also be easy to overlook something of importance, especially since Mowgli and I don’t know what we’re searching for. By unspoken agreement, we know we’re going through the whole room in one fell swoop so we won’t have to return ever again. I am beginning to loathe Blanche and her roomful of junk.
“I found something,” Mowgli says some two hours later. The second quarter of the room has taken longer than the first, so we are only halfway home. He straightens up from where he’s been stooping and holds up another key. “Found it taped to the underside of this chair.” He points at a hard-back chair, one of four. “Hopefully, it means something.” He slips it into his jeans’ pocket and continues searching. Neither of us get overly excited because we know it could be another blind, and even if it is meaningful, we still have to find the whatever it unlocks.
We take turns taking five minute breaks every hour. By the fourth hour, I am fuming. It’s beginning to feel like a waste of time to search this room, but my stubbornness kicks in. We are two-thirds of the way through, and I’ll be damned if I walk away from an undone job. I’ve never had to put in this much effort for one of my paying jobs but if I find whatever it is Blanche has hidden, it’ll be worth all the agony. I refuse to allow myself to even contemplate that there’s nothing to be found or that Mowgli and I might miss it. There is too much fucking riding on this to get pessimistic now. I won’t say I’m desperate, but we’re quickly running out of options. If we don’t find the evidence here, we are pretty much shit-out-of-luck. I attack an entertainment center with enthusiasm, pulling out drawers hither and nigh.
There are scads of pictures of Blanche, pre and post-life as a stripper. The ones from her childhood show an ordinary, healthy, cute little blond girl with dimples and braces. There’s nothing to distinguish her from the thousands of other girls her age. It’s only when she matures into a woman and learns the mysterious secrets of using her feminine wiles that Bertha becomes Blanche, and the pretty little girl becomes the femme fatale. Gone is the innocence of the early days. Acquired is the pretense and the posturing that is second-nature to someone who sells her body for a living. Her eyes are hooded, not giving an inch. In most of the pictures, she has her hand on her hip which is cocked out to an impossible degree. Her lower lip is artfully poking out, and in one memorable picture, she is twining a fat, sausage curl around her middle finger which is thrust into the air. In that picture, she is wearing nothing but a sneer, though her other arm is modestly draped across her pussy. Oh yes, there is a black slouch cap pulled low over her eyes as well. She is definitely not playing the lady in white she normally portrays, and it’s the best picture of the lot. She makes a much more interesting bad girl than good; it’s too bad she got pigeonholed as the ingénue type.
I shuffle through the pictures, noting that there are few which include other people. There is one of Blanche and a dark-haired girl who looks vaguely familiar. The two girls are hugging each other and laughing genuine laughs. Their faces are devoid of makeup, and their eyes are smiling along with their lips. It’s not a posed picture; it’s just two girls having fun. It takes me a second to realize that the second girl in the picture is Angelica. I stare hard at the two girls, both of whom are now dead. One blond, the other dark. I briefly wonder if they ever did a duo act at the club, but dismiss it as irrelevant. I set the picture aside and continue flipping through the rest of them. They are all in a heap, waiting to be framed. I find nothing else of interest as I rapidly skim through them. I toss them back into the entertainment center with disgust and tug on the last drawer. There are a few works in there, but they don’t look like they’ve been used for quite some time.
I shut the drawer and move the entertainment center to the side. Behind it is a small suitcase just sitting in the corner of the room. It’s a hardback which supposedly sustains less damage during flight. There is a sturdy lock on the suitcase, causing a small flutter of excitement in my stomach. How very purloined-letter of Blanche to make it something so obvious, it’s likely to be dismissed. Hidden in plain view with only the nominal obstacle of the entertainment center to jump over. My opinion of the dead girl goes up half-a-notch. So, the stripper hadn’t been as stupid as she sometimes acted—that comes as no surprise to me. Once in a while, I acted dumber than I really was when it seemed the expedient thing to do. It’s not a role I play easily, but it’s a handy trick to have in your back pocket so it’s there if you need it. I run my hand over the suitcase’s hard shell, appreciating the quality that went into making the thing. This is an upscale suitcase, and it’s a good thing we have the key. Or so I hope.