Friday, July 25, 2008

BIG MONEY, Chapter 51

Clooneys bar is lousy with pretty, sophisticated women. But all the other birds fade into a gray background with Gina perched among them.

Arrow-straight, raven-shiny hair covers her ears and splits in two over each shoulder. Wonder how she lost the curls? Below a trim row of bangs, Gina’s super-sized, almond-shaped eyes are shadowed like an Egyptian princess. A thick necklace of oblong gold rectangles completes the Cleopatria package.

I bow before sliding onto the stool beside her. “You summoned me, your Highness?”

Actually, Clooneys was sort of my idea. I found Gina’s message saying she wanted to talk when I came home from the courthouse. I suggested a drink overlooking the ocean, maybe dinner if we found the right mood. Sure I’m kinda half in love with Franny. She’ll always be Ms. Strawberry, a vision across the Martha’s crowded upstairs barroom. But one-half for Franny still leaves one-half for Gina, right?

“I hear you refused to identify Mama Bones to the state Grand Jury today,” Gina as Cleopatria says. Her long fingers twirl a classic martini glass.

“And I thought grand jury proceedings were secret.” I check my surroundings, make sure our conversation doesn’t become public information as well.

“A friend of a friend was in the room,” Gina says. “She said Chapman went ballistic.”

“Promised to put me away for twenty years. She’s really pissed.”

Gina sips her drink. “I think I might know why.”

The bartender’s gaze asks me what I want. I order a double Wild Turkey on the rocks, wondering where Gina’s going with this one. Not much of a secret why Franny’s feeling foul.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I say. “Besides the fact I stiffed her on my testimony, maybe ruined her case, why is Captain Franny Chapman all over my ass?”

“Because she and Anne Marie were good friends. I saw them together once.”

“When? Where?” My heart rate ticks higher.

“It was five or six years ago,” Gina says. “I saw them at a private party in northern New Jersey. Tony went out one night to play poker. I was jealous, so when it got late I drove to his friend’s, found Tony and his pals frolicking with four half-naked prostitutes. Two of them were Anne Marie and Frances Chapman--or Dahler, was she was known then.”

“Why didn’t you say something before?”

“I didn’t put it together until this afternoon when I saw the picture of Chapman in the newspaper. It reminded me of Anne Marie, the two of them that night. That’s when I left the message on your telephone.”

“You’re sure about this?” I say. “Talbot and Chapman were prostitutes?”

“I can’t swear they were pros. But I’m positive they were two of the four girls acting like it that night. They loved it when I plastered Tony with his friend’s five-thousand-dollar Tiffany lamp. Tony needed eighteen stitches.”

How did two mob party girls find their way into such unlikely government and semi-government employ? One an investigator with the American Assn. Of Securities Dealers, the other a Captain with the New Jersey State Troopers? Could explain how Franny knew about Talbot’s tooth-removal trick.

Or is Gina delivering a ton of horse shit here?

If so, why?

“Let’s pretend you’re right,” I say. “How does Anne Marie’s past play into her murder? Is it connected to Franny being so hot to put Bluefish away?”

Gina raises an eyebrow. “Oh, it’s Franny now?”

Oops. I give her the full-boat Carr sheepish grin. “I was locked up with her for two days. I got tired of calling her captain.”

“Sounds like you two got to know each other pretty well.” Gina smiles like she knows what happened in my bedroom Sunday afternoon.

My bourbon arrives. I taste it. Still the same. Like the Kentucky woods, dark and sunny at the same time. “Well, it was close. But I didn’t play my cards right.”

Gina laughs, and then leans across the space between us and kisses my cheek. Her lips are cool against my skin. “You’re cute,” she says.

Sexy would be my first choice. Cute doesn’t make the top ten. But all in all, cute ain’t bad. I’ve certainly been labeled by worse adjectives. Silly. Stupid. Sexually retarded, I found most objectionable.

Gina finishes her martini. “I heard something else, too. The story Mama Bones told you was right. The initial Branchtown Police investigation did find a DVD and recording equipment in the next hotel room. The equipment was connected to a tiny hidden camera in Talbot’s room. Supposedly, the DVD showed the actual murder.”

“How could that be?” I say. “I mean, wouldn’t they have arrested the murderer by now?”

“The cops claim to have lost it,” Gina says. “That’s why Detective Mallory was suspended and will likely be indicted. The Seaside County prosecutor thinks Mallory destroyed the DVD to protect someone.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“Same person that was inside the Grand Jury room today. That friend of a friend.”

“Pretty impressive information, Gina. Think your friend knows what she’s talking about?”

“I’d say you can count on it. Shall we order dinner? I’m starving.”

I make my move after dessert, suggesting a nightcap at my apartment. Unfortunately, Gina’s not buying, and frankly I’m a little surprised. Not only did I maintain the full-boat Carr grin for over an hour, but she called me, right? I can’t believe she agreed to meet just so she could tell me about Anne Marie and Franny being party girls.

“I like you, Austin, and God knows my marriage was in bad shape when Tony died. But it’s just too soon for me to be dating. Try me in six months.”

Right. In six months Gina will be married again and pregnant with twins.

I should have cut the grinning and just kissed her.

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