Free Fiction Monday: Mr. Alibi
No-nonsense private eye Belinda Sweet, the only person in Los Angeles who wants no part in fame, avoids cases that bring her attention. Until she stumbles on one in a bar, when a barfly asks her to act as his alibi for killing his wife.
When the cops arrest him but then let him go, Sweet needs to know why. She’s lived in LA long enough to recognize an actor when she sees one. And she refuses to stop until she uncovers the real story—even if fame inevitably follows.
“Mr. Alibi” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available in ebook here.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Will you be my alibi?” asked the man at the end of the bar.
He wasn’t an attractive man and this wasn’t the kind of seedy bar where you’d expect to find someone trolling for an alibi. In the eighties, we would’ve called this a fern bar, by which we meant a yuppie bar, something all woodsy brown and forest green with fake Tiffany lamps over each booth and actual windows which let in actual sunlight.
The guy was exactly the kind of guy you expected to find in a fern bar, a no-neck former high school jock with too much fat around the middle and a face that had settled in on itself. He looked like the guy central casting would’ve have put into the fern bar as wallpaper, and honestly, until he spoke to me, the wallpaper thing worked. I had seen him, but only as the stock character at the end of the bar.
He moved a seat closer to me, leaned across the bar—which was polished so heavily that its surface could act as a mirror—and said, “Miss?” in that tone which meant excuse me, but I asked you a question and I really really really need an answer.
Still, I glanced over my shoulder to see which miss he was referring to. I’m not the kind of woman people would call miss, not even when I was young. Back then, I had one of those faces that I had to “grow into,” and then, everyone promised me, I’d be considered “handsome.”
Like a girl wants to be told that she’s going to be “handsome,” which is a boy word and code for Jesus, she’s ugly now, but maybe she’ll gain a little character as time goes on.
Time went on, and I gained character, but not enough to keep my face from resembling decades-old shoe leather. Don’t suppose I helped it any by living in Southern California and going without sunscreen for my entire life.
“Yes, miss, I meant you,” the guy said, interrupting my train of thought. He smiled to take the edge off his words, because the edge had taken him from excuse me, but I asked a question to Hey, stupid, I’m talkin’ to you.
“What do you want?” I asked, and instantly regretted it. I had a rule: don’t engage in bars. Generally, the rule only applied near last call, when the guys got so drunk, they’d sleep with anything that walked.
The anything-that-walked category included me. It was damn near the only sexual category that included me. I was the woman all your hard-drinking friends referred to as the road kill they had to chew their arm off to escape from on the morning after.
“I was wondering if you would be my alibi,” the guy said. He probably thought it was a cute pick-up line, and he probably thought he’d try it on the ugly broad first. That way, if she poured her drink all over him, then he wouldn’t be out anything and he was free to try another lame-ass question with a slightly prettier woman.
“What the hell do you need an alibi for?” I asked, expecting him to answer Tonight, with a bit of a twinkle in those too-sharp brown eyes.
Instead, he said, “Yesterday afternoon,” and moved one seat closer.
Yesterday afternoon I was on a dirty side street in a dilapidated neighborhood, trying to take down a tweaker who’d accidentally kidnapped the wrong little girl. That little girl was in my car, crouched against the floor mats, covered in a blanket despite the heat.
I told her she could sit on the seat and wait for me, but she was too scared to sit, and frankly I didn’t blame her. I was a little scared myself.
The tweaker was one of those scrawny pus-faced bastards with rotating pinwheels for eyes. His brain had become as mushy as five-week-old bananas, and his hands shook as he trained a gun on me.
The gun looked rusted. It looked old. But there was no way I was going to let him pull the trigger. I had no idea if the damn thing was loaded. I also had no idea if the damn thing would explode if he rattled it too much.
He was shouting at me to back off, bitch, back off and I was backing. I wanted to get the kid the hell out of there, but I also didn’t want to attract this dude’s zombie tweaker buddies.
They had all cocked up this scheme together, the scheme to kidnap the mayor’s daughter, after they had sold all the scrap metal they could find including (but not limited to) the manhole covers from nearby streets, statues from one of the nearby parks, and copper wire from every air-conditioning unit in the county.
Only they hadn’t kidnapped the mayor’s daughter, they kidnapped the mayor’s daughter’s best friend, a little girl with the unlikely name of Karma Maggerty. Once I got her home to the idiots who named her, I was going to tell them to start calling her Kammie before I used my own gun on someone’s kneecap.
But that was all in my future—if I had one.
And you always had to doubt that you had a future when a pie-eyed tweaker shook a gun at you from less than fifty feet.
“I’m just going to leave,” I said, backing up. I had already called 911, begging them to come and arrest these assholes. Of course, the minute I gave the address, the 911 dispatch hung up on me.
She didn’t really hang up, of course. She just went to another line—“oops,” she said in that fake-competent voice they require from 911 operators, “looks like we have another emergency.”
They were going to have another emergency when I got through with them. If I got out of here. If the mayor’s daughter’s best friend survived.
I had to hang up and call again, becoming that other emergency myself, and this time, I told them that I knew where Karma Maggerty was, and they better get their asses over here before she got killed.
This time, the dispatch stayed on the line with me. She was nattering at me from my back pocket, where I had stashed the phone after the tweaker demanded that I put the damn thing down.
I wasn’t about to get rid of my only lifeline so I pretended to set it down as I tucked it into my back pocket. The tweaker pretended to be satisfied, or maybe he didn’t notice.
If he were by himself, I would trust that he didn’t notice a thing, but from inside the house, three other pus-faced tweakers with pinwheels for eyes watched me like I was Triple-X pay-per-view. I didn’t know if any of them had shotguns or semi-automatic weapons or even a simple old-fashioned pistol of the rusted variety now facing me.
“You can’t leave!” the original pus-faced tweaker shouted at me.
“And why not?” I asked in my most reasonable voice (prompting all kinds of alarmed noises from the phone in my pocket).
“Why not?” the pus-faced tweaker asked. “Why not?”
Any reasonable person would then have added the very adult line, because I said you couldn’t, that’s why. But he didn’t. He actually tried to think about it, with that banana-mush brain of his.
As I knew he would.
I backed away, one step at a time.
“I said you can’t leave!” he screamed at me.
I stopped backing.
“Why not?” I asked. Note I did not tell him I’d already asked that question. I’d dealt with enough tweakers to know that their memory was as porous as their skin.
“Why not?” he asked. “Why not?”
Only this time, he turned toward the house, as if he were going to consult with the other pus-faced tweakers, and I chose that moment to get the hell out of there.
I sprinted to the car, pulled open the driver’s door, said, “You there?” to the poorly named kid in the backseat, and as she managed a shaky, “Yes,” I turned the keys in the ignition, thanked Almighty God that the engine roared to life, and floored the damn accelerator, pulling out like Starsky and Hutch in the only stupid scene anyone ever aired of that television show any more.
The car’s tires squealed as we zoomed down the block, and behind me, I heard an explosion. Either the rusted gun had gone off, or the barrel had blown out, or the united brainpower from the pus-faced tweakers ignited their at-home meth lab.
I wasn’t going to turn around to find out.
Besides, I had to swerve some more to avoid the phalanx of cop cars streaming onto the street.
I went up on the grass of a nearby house, the cop cars all stopped around me, and their occupants got out, keeping the doors open and aiming their goddamn not-rusted guns at me.
I had to get out, hands over my head, saying, “I’m the one who called! I’m the one who called!”
It took a while to convince them, but convince them I did. I never did find out what happened to the tweakers—I had to go to the nearest precinct, give my statement, endure the heart-felt gratitude of my clients a.k.a. Karma’s idiot parents (whom I forgot to advise on changing their child’s name)—and then I went back to my lovely apartment in beautiful downtown Burbank, and passed out from exhaustion.
Just a day in the life of Belinda Sweet, down-on-her-luck private eye (whose parents were not at fault for her name, Belinda being a perfectly acceptable moniker in the early 1960s, and Sweet being the name of the idiot she had the misfortune to marry and the good sense to divorce).
A day in the life—and, oh yeah, also yesterday afternoon.
“Yesterday afternoon,” I said to the guy at the bar, “I was entertaining ten cops, four tweakers, and a little girl. So sorry, I can’t alibi you.”
“Damn,” he said, and moved back to his original seat at the end of the bar.
He didn’t seem fazed by my oh-so-eloquent rejection, but the bartender raised his eyebrows at me. Dunno if that was a reaction to my description of my yesterday or if it was just a silent query about the state of my beverage, which was, by the way, one appletini. Not because I happen to like appletinis—I don’t. I don’t like any kind of tini except a martini, and even that’s stretching things a bit—but because the appletini with the three green apple slices decorating the slightly apple green martini glass was my signal to the potential client who suggested this place that yes indeed, the ugly broad at the bar was the person he was supposed to meet.
I’d been here exactly one hour, had exactly one sip to see if the damn drink was as disgusting as it sounded (nope, more disgusting), and no client had shown up. Unless the client was Mr. Alibi.
I wasn’t about to ask him, though. If he wanted my services for yesterday afternoon, he should have hired me yesterday morning.
As if he knew I was thinking about him, he looked over at me. “Do you know anyone who can give me an alibi for yesterday afternoon?”
He was sounding desperate.
“No.” I said.
And then, because I couldn’t resist, I asked, “What do you need an alibi for, anyway?”
“Oh,” he said, with a shrug of his left shoulder. “Nothing really. Except that I kinda sorta killed my wife.”
This was what they called in the trade a confession. I kinda sorta shoulda called the cops right then and there, but I was in a bar, and I had an appletini, and the guy didn’t look exactly sober, and he was asking me for an alibi, and he probably still wasn’t all that serious.
Or maybe he was. The bartender thought he was. The bartender said, “How do you kinda sorta kill your wife?”
“With a shotgun,” the man said, and this time it wasn’t me who called 911, it was the bartender, who wasn’t even really discreet about it.
The cops showed up and hauled the guy away, even though we had no real proof he shot his wife or that the woman was even dead. All we did have proof of—or at least all I had proof of—was that this bar was in a better neighborhood than the tweaker house because the police response time to a hint of an emergency in this part of town was twenty times shorter than their response time to an actual emergency in the tweaker neighborhood.
Me, I waited another half an hour for my client, who never showed, stiffing me for my time and the stupid appletini. And as I sat there, watching the apple slices dissolve into whitish goo, I had the horrible, awful feeling that Mr. Alibi really had been my client, and I had handled the encounter poorly. Maybe the poor bastard hadn’t shot his wife. Or maybe he hadn’t killed her. Or maybe he blamed himself for leaving her alone that afternoon when the boogeyman broke into their upscale apartment and shot her while she was waiting in her negligee for Mr. Alibi.
Yeah. And I was going to win the Miss California pageant next year.
Still, I couldn’t get him off my mind, which was why I was Belinda Sweet, down-on-her-luck private eye, instead of Belinda Sweet, rich-and-famous private eye.
I got obsessed with the strangest, most non-lucrative things. Like Mr. Alibi and his mysteriously shotgunned, possibly dead wife.
First, I tried to fight the obsession. I’d had these things before, and they’re not just bad for me, they’re bad for business, especially after all the great press coverage I was getting from the Karma Maggerty case.
If I really wanted to, I could’ve stayed in my office for the next week and answered the phone. Fifteen reporters called to each possible client, but that meant there were possible clients, which didn’t always happen to me.
Of course, the fifteen reporters weren’t real reporters. They were either tabloid reporters or some junior hack from the local affiliates. A few were from those goofy celeb shows like Extra and Entertainment Tonight, which had to have been hurting for real celebrity news. But this story did have, as one “reporter” explained to me, a connection to the mayor of the nation’s most important city, a kidnapped child, and gravelly voiced PI right out of central casting.
Nancy Grace, he’d informed me, had gotten famous on a lot less than that.
In a valiant attempt to shake off the obsession, I called back every single potential client, realized that a large percentage of them were loons with decades-old cases that other people had tried to solve, and half of the remaining group had the deadly dull I-think-my-spouse-is-cheating-on-me cases that made my work so darn fun.
I sent most of those cases to my better-equipped colleagues (one of whom is a multimillionaire because [hello!] this is Los Angeles and everyone is cheating on everyone else) and kept the three new insurance companies who wanted another fraud investigator as well as one of the Missing Child organizations that wanted me on permanent retainer.
The company clients all wanted an actual meeting along with a rates card, which I did draw up. The meetings were all scheduled for the following week, which left this week with nothing for me to do except preen in front of every single camera in Hollywood—which I certainly would not do.
So I obsessed. And when I couldn’t take it any more, I trudged back to the fern bar.
Well, actually, I drove. It only felt like trudging because driving in LA traffic always feels like trudging.
The same bartender was on duty. At least, I hoped it was the same bartender. He too looked like a guy out of central casting, and the uniform didn’t help. It wasn’t a uniform, per se, just a white shirt with the bar’s name in green over his right breast, but he wore the shirt with the pair of black pants that the owner of the fern bar had clearly mandated.
“You remember me?” I asked the bartender.
I grimaced. “Not normally.”
“Duh,” he said and grinned. “Whiskey, right?”
“Not today,” I said, a little startled he’d guessed accurately. “Gimme whatever you got that’s on tap.”
He poured me a nice piss-colored name-brand American beer which both of us knew I wasn’t going to drink as I climbed into my place at the bar.
It worried me that I had a place at the bar. At this bar, anyway. In my neighborhood bar, which was properly dim and scarred up, with no windows at all and certainly no plants, I had a regular seat and a standing order, not to mention a running tab.
But not at this bar. With luck, I wouldn’t come into this bar again.
“That alibi guy we called the cops on yesterday,” I said, “you ever see him before?”
“No,” the bartender said.
“Did he, by chance, pay for his drinks before the cops came?”
“Handed me a credit card when he ordered the first drink,” the bartender said. “I closed out his tab as the cop car was pulling away.”
The bartender grinned at me. I looked at the bar’s name on his shirt and realized he didn’t have the standard fern bar metal name badge. Maybe this place had a bit more (less?) class than I expected.
“Ted,” the bartender said.
“Hmm?” I asked.
“You were looking for my name. It’s Ted.”
I grinned. “Belinda.”
He held out one of those sun-wrinkled hands. I took it. It was cold-damp, like he’d just had it in a bucket of ice, which was entirely possible.
“So why are you asking about the tab for a guy who wanted to use you as an alibi, and why were you drinking an appletini yesterday when you so clearly find them disgusting?”
I was thinking that he would be a better private investigator than I was. Which made me flush just a bit.
I took a deep breath and said, “I work as—”
“A private investigator, I know.” He inclined his head toward one of the three televisions angled over the bar. “Your face has been all over the news.”
My flush grew deeper. I wasn’t used to being recognized, and I didn’t much like it. Which decided me then and there. No interviews, not for the Karma case, not for any case. Once some other big thing happened in LA—and it would only be a matter of days (or hours)—my mug would be off the big screen, and people would eventually forget.
“Yesterday, I was waiting for a client who never showed,” I said. “Then I got to thinking that maybe Mr. Alibi was my client, only he didn’t approach me in quite the right way.”
“You want to work for a guy who killed his wife?”
“No,” I said. Which wasn’t exactly true. I didn’t want to work for him, but I did want to find out about him. “I mean, I’m not going to give him an alibi, but I do want to know what he really needed.”
“Someone to take the shotgun away before he turned it on his wife,” the bartender said.
“What he needed yesterday,” I clarified.
“I think we gave him what he needed,” the bartender said, picking up a bar rag and wiping the already highly polished bar with it.
“I do too,” I said, “but still…”
“You’re feeling guilty?”
“Then what’s the problem?” he asked.
“I just want to know what the hell he really did.”
There. I’d said it. I wanted to know how nutty Mr. Alibi really was and if he’d shot his wife in a jealous rage or if he’d just cold-bloodedly hauled out the 12-gauge and pointed it after she served him a tough steak.
Because even if he had shot her at point-blank range, it wouldn’t have made the news. Or it wouldn’t have on the kind of news day that yesterday was (and the day before), with Karma’s dramatic interview (that lady, she saved me) and the mayor promising to rid the city of tweakers so no family would ever have to suffer like that again and the dramatic audio of my second 911 call. (Gee, y’think they lost the first one?)
“You want to know what he really did?” the bartender asked, as if I were nuts. “You’re one of those chicks who gets off on blood and brains all over the wall?”
“Nooo,” I said, losing a bit of patience. “I’m one of those ‘chicks’ who sometimes discovers a question that needs an answer before she moves on to something else.”
The corners of his mouth twitched. He was holding back a smile.
Damn if Ted the bartender hadn’t been toying with me.
“You’re asking about credit card receipts,” he said. “That means you want me to either give you his name or his phone number or both.”
“You took his phone number?”
“No,” Ted said, “although I’m supposed to. Especially now when people’s credit cards are being denied left and right.”
“But you don’t,” I said.
“Because most people think I’m hitting on them when I ask.” He shrugged one broad shoulder. “It’s too much of a hassle. I just put a fifty-dollar hold on the card, and that does the trick ever so much better.”
I frowned. The hands told me he’d been bartending forever. The brains told me he should be doing something else.
“This your bar?” I asked.
“You think I’d be wearing this stupid shirt if it was?” he countered.
I acknowledged that logic with a simple move of my head.
“That was your not-so-subtle way of asking what a smart boy like me is doing in a place like this?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Pissing off my mother,” he said, and walked away from me.
For a minute, I thought he wasn’t coming back, but he did. He just went to the back and came out with a slip of paper that had obviously come from a credit card machine.
“Stanley Donen,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Stanley Donen.” Then he spelled the name just so I’d get it right.
I must’ve had an odd look on my face, because when he looked up at me, he said, “What?”
“You might be smart, bartender boy,” I said, “but you don’t know your Hollywood history. Stanley Donen is a director from the 1950s. He directed Singing in the Rain.”
“I thought that was Gene Kelly.”
“Him too,” I said.
“You don’t think this guy is Donen’s son or something,” Ted said.
“Could be,” I said. “Donen’s last film was in 1984. But Mr. Alibi doesn’t seem like Hollywood royalty, does he?”
Ted looked at me oddly. “You think you can spot Hollywood royalty?”
“There’s generally an air of entitlement.”
“I dunno,” Ted said. “Asking to be alibied seems rather entitling.”
I shrugged. It didn’t seem that way to me, but I wasn’t going to argue it.
“It can’t be a fake name, you know,” Ted said. “He had identification.”
“You asked to see his ID?” I asked, knowing how old Mr. Alibi looked. No one in his right mind thought that man was under 21.
Ted made a face at me. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“I mean you need ID to get a credit card.”
“You do,” I said. “You just don’t need your own.”
Mr. Alibi had given the same fake name at the police station along with a home address where, the arresting office told me with some irritation, a lovely middle-aged woman (emphasis on lovely) had flashed a rock the size of Rhode Island with a matching wedding band on her left hand and claimed to be his wife.
His living wife.
She also claimed her husband had a flair for the dramatic and liked to spend his afternoons shocking people.
So the police had investigated no further, warned him that he was out of line and to never do anything like that again, mentally added the phrase in our jurisdiction because they had a hunch he would do something like that again if he had enough drinks in him, and sent him on his merry little way.
So off I went on my merry little way, trudging to the address the cops gave me, which happened to be a not-so-small house in Beverly Hills, which was probably another reason why the cop hadn’t investigated much further, since whoever bought the house could’ve paid for a dozen cops just like him (and probably had).
The house was on one of those quiet cul-de-sacs that had been all the rage back when Beverly Hills starred as the wealthiest neighborhood in Los Angeles, back when the idea of hillbillies with money was funny and outré and kinda ironic, instead of the unintended result of a reality TV show.
I had a moment of doubt as I pulled up in front of the long curving driveway. The house was a remodeled 1960s mansion that wanted to be a suburban ranch house, but looked like it had swelled out of control. It was painted forest green and white, and because it was in Beverly Hills, the forest green looked appropriate and lovely when compared to the green of the plants and the spectacular green of the lush lawn.
No water crisis in this part of the city, or maybe someone was ignoring the limit on water usage that had been in effect—gosh, since I moved here as a toddler, way back in the dark ages.
Maybe, I said to myself (well, not “said,” exactly, “doubted” is more like it), maybe he actually is Stanley Donen’s kid, and he inherited the house, and he’s the kind of crazy that 99.9% of all Hollywood offspring are, and his lovely middle-aged wife (emphasis on lovely) tolerated it because it included the money to support her in the style that only a failed actress/model could aspire to in middle age.
Then I came to my senses, remembered that even though I was a down-on-my-luck private eye, I was still a private eye, with all kinds of modern tools at my disposal, which meant that I had an iPhone that I didn’t entirely understand, and I leaned back in the driver’s seat, logged onto the Internet Movie Database, and looked up Stanley Donen.
He was still alive, although imdb didn’t tell me where he lived. He had three kids, all boys, two in the Biz, as folks say around here. Not a one of them was named Stanley, although all were about the same age as my fake Stanley. So if he had been Stanley Donen’s kid, he would’ve been listed in imdb. They had plenty of time to scope him out. He was too old to be a grandkid, so he was a fake.
My heart leapt, which is an actual feeling that some down-on-their-luck private eyes have when things go their way. (The first time it happened, I thought it might be a cardiac arrhythmia that was heading toward a heart attack—which tells you just how rare that leapy feeling is.)
Then I went to the LA County website and looked for the deed registration page only to discover that some bastard had taken it down in a fit of civic pride (more likely fear of a lawsuit because of all the personal information stashed on that site). I’d used that registry more times than I wanted to think about, and I felt momentarily irritated that the information wasn’t available to me and then I realized that if I were a true hacker, I could find the information anyway, but I wasn’t a true hacker, not that kind anyway, and besides, it would be easier to drive the county offices and just ask to see the deed because it was, after all, public information.
But first, I had to act like the good, old-fashioned private eye that I was.
I had to boldly go where no private eye had gone before.
I parked the car and walked up the driveway, determined to knock on the house’s beautiful oak door.
The woman who answered the front door was indeed lovely and just barely middle aged (damn that cop) and not at all willing to admit that one Stanley Donen lived in the house—at least, not until I mentioned the cop, and the fact that I would be happy to call him to the house right now to verify that this was the address on Stanley D’s arrest record and that he had, in fact, talked to her.
She didn’t look dumb. She knew that lying to the cop in the middle of an investigation was a very bad thing.
“Okay,” she said with a sigh. “I know him. But his name isn’t Stanley and this isn’t his house.”
I could’ve guessed the “his name isn’t Stanley part,” but I hadn’t been so sure about the house. I had a dozen follow-up questions, but she still had her manicured hand on the door ready to slam it, so I decided to ease into the toughest question.
“Whose house is it?” I asked.
“Mine,” she said.
“Just yours?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows in mock surprise.
“Yes,” she said with some irritation.
I nodded, not wanting to upset her too much. “And you are?”
“Not willing to suffer an interrogation,” she said and tried to slam the door.
But I’d been prepared for that move, and I caught the door with my hand. I was stronger than she was. She had gym muscles, which looked good. I had real muscles, which didn’t improve my appearance at all.
“I can find out at the county,” I said. “Then I’ll just come back with my trusty cop friend, and we’ll both find out what you know.”
She narrowed her eyes, shook her head slightly, and sighed. “Roxanne Winterbury.”
That name rang a bell, but I wasn’t sure which bell it rang. Could’ve been any bell, really. I wasn’t willing to ask her. Not yet.
“And how, Roxanne, do you know our friend Not-Stanley?”
“We go to the same gym,” she said.
Okay. That surprised me. I’d expected to hear that she’d met him in a bar.
“What gym is that?”
She named an upscale place in one of the upscale strip malls not too far from here. The kind of place that cost you $50 just to walk through the door and ask a question.
“And what’s Not-Stanley’s real name?”
Her lips thinned. She clearly wasn’t supposed to tell me this. “Doug Sirk.”
“Doug…Sirk?” Then I spelled the last name.
“Yes,” she said.
“As in Douglas Sirk?”
“I suppose. Why? Do you know him?”
I knew of him. Douglas Sirk was another director, not as well known as Stanley Donen. Sirk’s career, in movies anyway, only lasted through the 1950s. I didn’t know of anything he’d done after 1959—and I wasn’t sure why. Death, moved to television, retired—I had no idea. I was a movie buff, not a movie obsessive.
“No, I don’t know him,” I said. “Not personally anyway. But I do need to talk to him about what happened yesterday.”
“Oh,” she said. “It was just one of his pranks. It backfired because some bartender called the police.”
I blinked at her, a little too stunned to say much more. Actually, confessing to a crime when you actually hadn’t committed a crime was a misdemeanor, which was only enforced when you actually cost the city some money, which he had.
Only he hadn’t really cost it enough to make things terrible for him—not yet, anyway.
“Prank?” I asked.
She laughed a little nervously, then bit her upper lip and shrugged. “He likes to say outrageous things to upset people. Usually he gets a good story out of it.”
“But yesterday, he got arrested.”
“Well, who would believe that a man like that shot his wife?”
I would, I almost said, but didn’t. Clearly Miss Roxanne Winterbury wouldn’t. Proving, of course, which one of us was gullible and which one was cynical beyond belief.
(And making me wonder why the gullible one had the manicure, the rock the size of Rhode Island, and the mansion in Beverly Hills.)
“The bartender clearly believed him,” I said.
She sighed. “I know. I’ll have to talk to Doug about it the next time I see him.”
So he hadn’t talked to her since she lied for him. I found that fact fascinating all by itself.
“What made you lie for him?”
“It was part of the prank.” She waved that manicured hand, letting go of the door as she did, and nearly knocking me off balance.
“He set it up ahead of time?”
“He does that,” she said. “He goes around asking pretty women to be his alibi, and when they accept, he figures out something for them to alibi him for. It’s his way of picking up girls.”
Then she giggled in a wholly inappropriate way for a woman of recent middle age.
I could dispute the pretty part and I felt slightly vindicated about the pick-up line part, but I still didn’t understand exactly what was going on here. “When did he ask you to alibi him?”
“Oh,” she said and frowned. “Maybe a week ago? At the gym’s juice bar. You know.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know.”
I almost added that no respectable place calling itself a gym had a juice bar. But again, much as I wanted to alienate this woman, I didn’t dare.
She must have sensed my judgment, because she didn’t say anything. So I did.
“Did he give you his phone number?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “We see each other every day. We’re both there from nine until ten. By then the early morning crowd has cleared out and the staff has had time to clean off the machines.”
I shuddered a little. “Did you see him this morning?”
“No,” she said.
“Was that unusual?”
“I was running late. Sometimes he finishes early.” She said that with a bit of a blush, which made me wonder if that last sentence was a double entendre.
So she kept track of him, but he didn’t wait for her.
“How do you know it was a week ago that he asked about the alibi?”
Her blush grew just a bit more. “We decided to share a post-workout smoothie. We hadn’t done that before. I nearly missed a standing lunch date.”
“What exactly did he ask?”
“He asked me if I would be his alibi.” She smiled at the memory. She really was a pretty woman. Damn her. “And of course, I said yes.”
Of course. Because that was what any sane woman would do.
“So he told me that if anyone showed up asking for Stanley Donen, I should tell them I’m Stanley’s wife and that he wasn’t home at the moment, but that he had been home for the hours they were asking about.”
“Even if they were cops?” I asked.
“He said he knew people on the force. He said it would be harmless fun.”
I nodded, as if I understood. I guess I did understand. This Stanley Donen/Doug Sirk was a nutball.
And so was this woman.
“You didn’t ask why he needed an alibi?” I said.
She laughed. “Of course I did. He told me he was playing pranks on friends. He’d tell them something outrageous and if they were silly enough to check, my response would confuse them more.”
“Oh, yes,” she said and giggled again. That giggle would really be annoying from a two-year-old. On a woman in her late thirties, it was obnoxious as hell. “Those police officers frowned at me, looked a little angry, and then apologized. I think it was worthwhile just to have a member of the LAPD apologize, don’t you?”
I had a good relationship with the LAPD, despite its press.
“They may not see it that way, ma’am,” I said, sounding a bit like an LAPD officer myself.
The smile fled her face, and she suddenly looked frightened. Maybe she wasn’t as smart as I had originally given her credit for.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“You lied to the police in an ongoing investigation, ma’am,” I said. “They might consider that terribly wrong.”
Then I turned on one foot and marched back to my car, feeling a little less confused and a lot more satisfied. I didn’t hear the door close behind me until I’d reached the street.
So Roxanne Winterbury had watched me leave. Which meant she was thinking.
Wonder if that meant she had lied about her friend Douglas Sirk’s phone number. Wonder if she was reassessing the relationship or wondering how to warn him.
Then I decided it didn’t matter.
Warn him about what? That an ugly private eye was looking for him? That would frighten him how?
I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I found him. Except tell him to stop besmirching the names of beloved directors (even if that was stretching it in the case of Douglas Sirk).
Still, this whole case was getting curiouser and curiouser, to quote Alice in Wonderland. And I really did want to find out what was down that rabbit hole.
The gym felt like it was its own personal rabbit hole.
First of all, it wasn’t a “gym,” but a personal health and fitness club. And it nearly did cost me fifty dollars to get in the door.
No one got inside without paying some kind of deposit, preferably with a valid Black American Express card.
I got in because I had a valid private eye license, not one of those fakey things they sold on late night TV. To the bouncer’s credit (and yes, the place had a bouncer—although they probably called him a security guard), he actually knew the difference between a fake private detective license and the real thing.
He not only let me in with great reluctance, but he shadowed me with even greater distaste. If I hadn’t showered that morning and if I wasn’t wearing the cleanest of clean clothes, I would have thought that my body odor quotient was high—even for a personal health and fitness club.
The front desk put the reception desks at most five-star hotels to shame. It covered half a wall, had more computers than a bank, and a staff that looked so buff the soft lighting reflected off their perfect muscles. Unlike the folks who usually man the desk at a personal health and fitness center, these folks looked like they actually had an IQ as well.
I introduced myself while I held my wallet open, showing the license. Then one of the buffettes looked at me, then looked at another buffette who apparently was nonverbally dispatched to find the head buffette.
Who came out of the back wearing the gym rat equivalent of a suit—khaki pants, a designer golf shirt, and a watch that cost five times the price of my iPhone. He smiled, and I half expected to see that little starlike glimmer on his perfectly even, frighteningly white teeth.
“Ah, Miss Sweet,” he said in that unctuous tone used only by maitre d’s at upscale restaurants, “let me help you with your quest.”
I so badly wanted to correct him. I was Ms. Sweet, not Miss Sweet, and private investigators did not have quests. We had clients.
Only I really didn’t have a client here, now did I? I had a hunch. A hunch that was slowly turning sour.
We went around the lovely desk, past the banks of computers, and off in the distance, I could see high-end treadmills and ellipticals, filled with high-end (and somewhat desperate) people, all of whom looked extremely serious about their treadmilling and ellipticalling.
We slipped into an office twice the size of mine. The head buffette gestured toward one of the chairs in front of his expensive desk, and I sat down, discovering that the damn thing was as comfortable as my couch. I tried not to relax in it.
“Mrs. Wimberly Winterbury called,” he said, and I was so startled that I missed the rest of his sentence.
That’s why Roxanne’s name was familiar. Wimberly Winterbury had died less than a month ago, leaving her his 1.2 billion dollar estate, but his children (all twelve of them, with his six previous wives) were contesting the will. She was living on her generous allowance in the home he had bought for her before they married.
I knew all of this because, in LA, you can’t avoid the high-end gossip, particularly if it involves gold diggers, more than a billion dollars, and angry relatives.
“Miss Sweet?” the head buffette was saying in that unctuous tone. Apparently I had missed something after all, probably some crap about confidentiality, blah, blah, blah.
So I went on the offensive.
“I’m a bit disturbed here, Mr….?”
“Nevins,” he said.
“Mr. Nevins,” I said in my friendliest tone. “I’m investigating some disturbing reports concerning Mr. Sirk. It turns out he’s been using a fake name. Douglas Sirk isn’t his real name at all.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “His identification checked out perfectly.”
Meaning his credit card worked.
“What identification do you require?” I asked.
Nevins pulled up a file on the flatscreen computer next to his desk, discretely turning it away from me so that I couldn’t see the information as it showed up.
Wimberly Winterbury died, and his widow was involved with a con man who needed an alibi shortly thereafter. I was on the news and the next day, the same con man was talking to me.
Was that the link between us? Our trashy TV news coverage? Because it certainly wasn’t the fact that we were both middle-aged, pretty and rich. I was middle-aged, but pretty and rich seemed to have passed me by.
“He showed us his driver’s license, of course, and his credit card,” Nevins said.
Both of which were easy to get, even if they weren’t yours. “How long has he been a member?”
“Six months,” Nevins said.
“And have you been deducting the fees every month?” I asked.
“Heavens, no,” Nevins said, and he made that phrase actually sound convincing. “We charge annually.”
“One big lump payment,” I said.
“Along with an initiation fee in the first year,” he said. Then he looked at me blandly. “It does separate the wheat from the chaff.”
And I was clearly chaff.
“Would you do me a favor?” I asked. “Would you run a small charge on the credit card?”
“We can’t do that, Miss Sweet,” he said in his most disapproving tone. “We don’t give other people money from someone’s credit card.”
“It’s not for me,” I said, and resisted the urge to add, you dumbass. “I want to see if the card is still working. If it is, then you can reverse the charge and apologize if he sees his bill. If it isn’t, then I’d like it if you talked to me about Douglas Sirk and let me know what’s in his file.”
“I’m sure it’s legitimate.”
“You do know that he was arrested yesterday, right?”
Nevins looked at me with alarm.
“For shooting his wife,” I said.
Nevins’ alarm grew. I’d never seen a man’s eyes get that big.
“Roxanne Winterbury alibied him without even knowing why,” I said. “And he didn’t use the name Sirk. He used the name Stanley Donen.”
“The director?” Score one for Nevins.
“And if you go to the Internet Movie Database, you’ll realize that Douglas Sirk is the name of a movie director as well.”
That seemed to convince Nevins more than the credit card idea. Still, he punched several numbers into the computer, paused and said to me, “Do you think $20 will suffice?”
“I think it’ll tell us what we need to know,” I said.
He finished punching in the numbers, then stopped and stared at the screen. Then he punched in more numbers, and more numbers, seeming more frantic with each punch.
“Good Lord,” he said as that unctuous mask dropped away. “I’ll tell you what I can, Ms. Sweet, but I really don’t have much here.”
Damn if he didn’t suddenly become a human being. One who might have helped in a very large theft. But I didn’t tell him that. I figured he was smart enough to figure that one out on his own.
“I’ll take what you have,” I said, unable to resist sounding just a little unctuous myself.
What he had were two bogus credit card numbers, one stolen driver’s license number, an address and a cell phone number. Nevins wanted to call the cell, but I persuaded him not to. I also persuaded him to wait until I was done with my investigation before he called the police.
“We don’t want to tip off Mr. Sirk, now do we?” I asked.
Nevins agreed. Besides, he probably needed some time with his lords and masters to figure out how they handled account fees paid with a credit card issued to a man with fake identification.
That the ID was fake was pretty easy to prove. The California Department of Motor Vehicles couldn’t tell you who a license belonged to, but they could tell you who it didn’t belong to. And a call to the DMV with the license number came back with the information that that particular number and that particular name did not go together.
Which was more than enough for Mr. Nevins, but not quite enough for me.
As I left, I called a buddy at the LAPD to see if he could (quietly) let me know who the number did belong to.
It belonged to one Fred Zinnemann, yet another director, whose last film came out in 1982. But the heyday of his career was—you guessed it—in the 1950s (if you ignore my two favorites, Day of the Jackal and Julia). He was the guy who directed High Noon and I was tempted to whistle the theme song as I trudged through the streets of LA because I was beginning to feel like Gary Cooper, all alone in my quest for justice.
Donen/Sirk/Zinnemann had to have used more fake information to get that driver’s license. The fact that he existed in the DMV’s database meant that he had actually gone through them to get the Zinnemann license. Which meant that the birth certificate he presented had to look real to them. What I couldn’t get my LAPD friend to find out was how long Zinnemann had the license. Cops weren’t supposed to dig in DMV records either (weird California laws) and so he didn’t want to go back to his source.
So I had three fake names, two bogus credit cards, a real driver’s license number, a cell phone number, and two addresses.
And then, I realized, if the driver’s license was real, then the address on that license had to be real too.
And that’s how I found myself driving to Encino at sunset, when I really should have been driving home.
Encino, California, where Michael Jackson died. Encino, California, home of some really bad movie jokes (including a movie-long joke called Encino Man). Encino, California, which had waaaaaay too many houses for my tastes.
Encino has these lovely, big, expensive houses where the stars and their support systems live (although why they’d live in this part of the Valley, I’ll never know). It also has some smaller houses, the kind where real people live—or people as real as people can get living in Los Angeles.
Zinnemann’s house was in one of the real neighborhoods. Each house was maybe 3,000 square feet max, and some were much smaller, maybe 1,500 square feet. Not every house had a second story, but all had lovely landscaping, much of it turning brown.
This was a neighborhood where the people followed the water rationing rules, where they did their best, even though it was never enough to compare to the fancy houses just a few blocks away.
This house had actual trees in front, although what kind I had no idea. I’m a people detective, not a tree detective. A deliberately crooked brick walk led to a nice front door with its own little roof—a 1920s style that belonged in the Midwest, not in Encino.
The house was old enough that it might have been considered upscale in its day. Now it was a bit dowdy, in need of paint, a good pressure washing, and some de-cobwebbing.
Oh, yeah, and someone needed to remove the police tape from the front door.
The tape looked relatively new. It was still bright yellow and it didn’t have the dirt that coated the rest of the house. The yard bore lots of evidence of a police presence: tire tracks on the brown dirt where flowers had died long ago, crushed brown grass that still showed the marks of footprints, and one plastic folded number, the kind that crime scene techs use. They must have been irritated that they forgot it—and wondering just where they left it.
The number reassured me. It meant they had already photographed the scene. If I didn’t disturb the police tape, then I wasn’t truly messing with a crime scene.
I stepped off the brick walk and stepped over the tire tracks, heading to the picture window on the east side of the front door. I looked behind me to check if anyone could see me from the street. They couldn’t; those willowy trees were in the way. I stood on my tiptoes and peered inside the house, cupping my hands around my face.
The living room was a shambles. The couch had been moved, a coffee table was overturned, and something large and glass had shattered on the floor.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the floor and the built-in bookshelf. The floor was hardwood. It had once been covered with a rug.
I knew that because there was a stain around the floor in a rug-shape. In the center of the non-stain area (where the rug had been) was a brown stain, this one thick and oblong. Ish. Oblong-ish. Something had gone through the rug all the way to the floor.
Judging by the spatter at the edges of the rugless area, that something was blood.
The crap on the bookshelf wasn’t just blood. It was blood and brain matter and bone fragments.
Someone had been shot and that stuff was blowback.
I tried to remember if I had heard about a shooting in Encino recently, but nothing came to mind. That didn’t mean anything. Millions of people lived in the LA Basin, and some of those people belonged to gangs, while others were thieves and murderers—probably at the same proportion that any other community had thieves and murderers.
What I wanted to know was who this house belonged to, who was investigating the shooting, and who the hell died.
I figured that wouldn’t be too hard to find, and I was right.
Once I returned to my car, I pulled out my trusty iPhone with its wonderful Internet connectivity. I used to do my job without an Internet connection at my fingertips, but damn if I remember how I did it.
I plugged in the street name, the word “murder,” (figuring the cops wouldn’t do this much work for a simple shooting; not that anyone could have survived that much bone, brain, and blood loss), and came up with some relatively minor news reports.
Interestingly, most of the reports were on the various evening news shows—the ones that had sent their junior hack reporters to interview me. Those shows loved blood-and-guts news stories, especially those with video footage, just like they loved car chases, because those also had lovely video footage.
This crime was basic evening news fodder. A single woman, murdered in her home in a quiet Encino neighborhood. The news ate this thing up, particularly when it had aerial footage of a coroner’s van parked outside the house, and the crime techs at work in the yard.
And it was one of those scary headline crimes—single woman murdered, no apparent motive. She lived alone and had died alone. The only reason anyone even knew she was shot was that a neighbor peeked through the window and saw the body.
The neighbor was a short-term suspect, particularly when it turned out he had an arrest record a mile long. He was the neighborhood peeping tom—with a conscience, apparently. He didn’t have to call the police, but he did.
The woman, Katalin Voight, had moved to Los Angeles two years before. She was forty, not interested in any Hollywood work at all, and self-employed. She was a freelance bookkeeper who found work on Craigslist.
The Craigslist connection kept LAPD detectives busy for a long time, particularly since the 2009 Craigslist Killer case back east made everyone think of murder in connection to the site. But her records showed no murderous connection to Craigslist, nor did they show any murderous connection to anyone. Her family lived in the Midwest, and all they would say (sadly, of course) was that she wanted a new life.
Her neighbors knew nothing about her, her clients knew very little, and she hadn’t made many friends here, although she had a wide and varying social network on the Internet.
A quiet woman in a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood, loudly shotgunned to death even though no one heard, found by her peeping tom neighbor days after the event.
The news played it up for nearly a week before the coverage faded. That was almost two months ago. The fact that the tire tracks and footprints remained showed just how dry it had been in LA lately. I hadn’t realized how long it had been since we last got rain.
I set the iPhone down and looked at the house. A woman had died here. She had become more famous in death than she had in life—a curiously LA phenomenon. Even that fame was fleeting.
Roxanne Winterbury had become famous for marrying and being widowed by a very wealthy man. Her fame rose a few weeks ago as the court cases involving her inheritance began.
I became famous a few days ago for rescuing a child. My fame would pass within the week, but it did exist.
And while it was happening, I met a man who claimed to be a director. He almost voluntarily went off to jail, but not before orchestrating his own alibi. Which he tipped off when he was talking to me.
I frowned. A man who claimed to be three different directors. He didn’t orchestrate that alibi. He directed it.
I needed to get to a computer with a bigger screen and a lot more firepower.
I went to my crummy apartment which had my incredible high-speed Internet access, my up-to-the-minute computer and my extremely empty refrigerator.
I stopped for pizza on the way there.
Amazing how much of the world is at your fingertips nowadays. Amazing how little the police knew about taking advantage of that.
It took me less than an hour to call up Katalin Voight’s records from Rapid City, South Dakota. She had been a full-fledged CPA there, with actual big-time clients—or as big-time as clients got in Rapid City.
She was Katalin Voight to her clients, but in her personal life, she was Katalin Johnson, wife of Kenneth Johnson, who owned one of those movie palaces that had once been a vaudeville theatre.
The arrival of multiplexes, easy DVD rentals, and affordable big-screen TVs closed the movie palace. The papers soon carried a divorce notice for Katalin and Kenneth Johnson. Then the papers carried a one-paragraph mention of a restraining order. Then they carried an announcement that Katalin Voight’s business was closing its doors after fifteen profitable years while Ms. Voight was going into retirement.
It didn’t say she was retiring in Los Angeles, but she did.
And Kenneth tracked her there.
How do I know that?
Because those same papers ran a photograph of Kenneth when they announced the closing of the movie palace that he had owned and loved forever. The movie palace that closed despite his best efforts. The movie palace that had lost money for nearly a decade, despite his efforts. The movie palace that may have lost money because—he said—of the mismanagement of his CPA, one Katalin Johnson.
That photograph looked just like Stanley Donen/Douglas Sirk/Fred Zinnemann. The man who had briefly enjoyed the limelight as a movie palace owner. Who limelighted again (although somewhat privately) as the LA press discussed his wife’s mysterious murder. Who sought others in the limelight so that they’d help him regain that limelight.
He directed Roxanne Winterbury to give him a bad alibi that any cop should have been able to see through, and he directed me to search for the same bad alibi.
Which I did.
And that led me to his ex-wife’s house, and the detective on his ex-wife’s murder, who was somewhat annoyed at me for finding the ex-husband, whom he had no idea existed.
Kenneth Johnson was staying at one of those anonymous by-the-month business hotels that dotted all of LA County. He’d been there for a month before his ex-wife’s murder, and he stayed there throughout the publicity.
It wasn’t hard to find him, if you only knew where to look.
Kenneth Johnson got his fifteen minutes of fame. In tried-and-true LA tradition, he gave interviews to the press against his attorney’s advice, appeared on all the talk shows, and proclaimed his innocence. That went on too long for my tastes, but how long I have no idea, since I stopped watching after the first two days.
The problem was he extended my fifteen minutes of fame to nearly six months. I became the most famous detective in Los Angeles. Someone even ran a special about me on Court TV, although they didn’t interview me or my friends or most of my clients, and used only stock footage.
I tried to see this as a good thing. New clients, a better office, and enough money to afford a really good secretary who could screen my calls, turn away unwanted visitors, and tell the press to go to hell.
But I gotta say, I resented Kenneth Johnson. I felt like some flat-faced extra who had somehow become an unlikely star of a blockbuster film. I didn’t want the fame he’d directed me into, and I couldn’t seem to get out of it.
But it’s my new reality. Well-known detective Belinda Sweet, the go-to girl for the biggest of the big cases. Those cases do pay well, and I’m smart enough to solve them.
But getting used to this new persona is a bit rough.
I keep reminding myself: New personas and new realities are an LA thing. They’re exactly what Katalin Voight wanted when she moved to the city. A chance to start over. A chance to remake herself.
A chance to be someone else.
I am someone else, and I’d rather be me.
But that’s the LA curse and the LA blessing. At least no one will ask me to alibi them any more—at least, not after the fact.
Although some director’s been chasing me for weeks now, wanting me to host a cable show on alibis.
Which, of course, I will never ever do.
Copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September/October, 2010
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2016 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Loke Yek Mang/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.