16 June 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Scarlett Fever, part 1


by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Once again SleuthSayers brings you a rare treat, an anthologized story from Jan Grape's CJ and Jenny series. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.

Originally published in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages very well.

— Velma

Scarlett Fever
Part 1

by Jan Grape

I

It was one those crisp, autumn-tinged November mornings that central Texans rarely get. The heat often begins in April – simmers – builds to a boil in August and barely slackens until December. With the heat people snarl, cursing the weather or each other. Some folks go limp with exhaustion or shoot someone to relieve the pressure cooker. But when the jet stream pushes cool Canadian air down across the plains and deep into the heart of Texas, people actually smile at each other and say inane things like “Isn’t this weather great?” and “Reckon we might have some winter after all.”

The old Balcones Fault line runs through the center of Austin, dividing the city east and west. The eastern side slopes to gently rolling hills. The western side is rougher terrain, full of limestone cliffs and hills and canyons. My office, on the fourth floor of the LaGrange Building, is in northwest Austin and the building sits on a small hill. My apartment is only a few blocks from the LaGrange.

It was seven fifty-eight a.m. when I arrived. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, or C.J., as she is known to most folks, is always in the office by eight a.m. We had just completed a big insurance fraud investigation and were behind on our paperwork and, I had promised to come in early. Okay, so eight is not exactly early to those who get up with the chickens, but it was early for me. I don’t do single digits of the day well.

The telephone rang as I walked in and C.J. answered. “G & G Investigations,” she said, listening briefly. “Yes, Mr. Porter, Ms. Gordon just walked in. Will you hold a moment?” Her professional-signal tone clashed with the surprised roll of her eyes when she noted the early hour.

C.J. punched a button, held the receiver out, and with a wry expression said, “Bulldog Porter wants you, Jenny.”

“Bulldog” King Porter, one of the best criminal defense attorneys money can buy, had sent work our way before. It began with us doing a bang-up job on the Loudermilk case, making Bulldog happy and a nice piece of change for us. His nickname came from being tenacious in court.

“You talk to him.”

“I don’t have time. He gets off on ‘those old rum-running days in Galveston,’ and ties a person up for hours.”

Bulldog’s stories can be endless depending on his mood. I hurried into the inner office, not wanting to leave him dangling. “Mr. Porter, how are you?”

His voice held a chuckle. “I thought we’d gotten past that Mr. Porter and Mrs. Gordon stuff by now, Jenny.”

“Well, we have, Bulldog, but. . .”

“Young lady, you don’t have to be polite to an old curmudgeon. Can’t say I deserve politeness even from a pretty lady like you.”

I could picture him, the widow’s peak and the thick steel gray hair, his piercing blue eyes startling in his seventy-eight year old face. I swivelled my chair around and looked out the window. A northerly wind swirled leaves around like a giant cake mixer whipping batter. Thick white clouds with black-streaked bottoms looked as if they would develop into thunder-boomers soon. “I’m sure you didn’t call just to pass out compliments, Bulldog.”

“Quite right. Complimenting you is a pleasant chore, but I will get to the point. There’s a young man I’d like you to see.”

“Fine. One of your clients?”

“Not exactly. He’s the son of an old and dear friend. The boy’s about your age. His is an unusual story I think you should hear. He’s looking for a young woman who’s disappeared. Someone special, but he. . . well, perhaps he should tell you himself. He does, however, need a good investigator and you lovely damsels at G & G fit the bill.” Bulldog held a whispered conversation on his end and when he came back asked, “Are either you or C.J. available today? Perhaps right after lunch?”

“Yes, I believe so,” I said, knowing full well we had all day free. “How does one o’clock sound?”

“One is fine. Wilson Billeau is my young friend’s name. Thank you Jenny, this means a lot. Wilson’s like the son I never had. His father, Jud Billeau, and I were deputy DAs back in the fifties and sixties and we . . .”

Damn Sam. I choked back a sigh. He could go on for another half-hour, but for once I got lucky. Bulldog’s secretary, Martha May, interrupted him, saying he had a long distance call on another line. “I’ll finish this story one day, Jenny. You’ll enjoy it. And listen, I appreciate this.”

“Don’t mention it, Bulldog.”

After hanging up, I walked out to our kitchen/storage room, grabbed a mug of coffee, and went to fill C. J. in on the conversation with Bulldog.

“Who does Porter think we are, the frigging Bureau of the Missing?” C.J.’s haughty tone made it all sound distasteful. She slammed drawers, shoved things around on her desk, and said, “A missing person, huh? Sounds boring, too.”

Hoo boy, she’s in one of her moods, I thought. But despite her gripes, I knew she’d never want us to refuse a paying customer.

My partner was a Pittsburgh police officer for eight years before moving back to her native Texas. She stands six feet tall, is built a lot like Racquel Welch, and reminds me of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played in Star Trek, except C.J.’s skin tone is darker. Her tongue can be as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.

Good paying customers are her favorite kind. She’s not money-hungry, but her favorites are the ones with cash. We operate on a slim margin and, because of her excellent business head, manage to stay afloat.

“And who’s going to pay for this?”

“I assume Mr. Billeau is paying. Bulldog didn’t exactly say. Who cares? As long as we get paid.”

“You got that right. I’ve been going over the bank statement this morning.”

“We’re not overdrawn?”

“No, but damn these companies who run sixty days behind. Afraid we could be in deep dodo before then.”

Bank statements are Greek to me and I round everything off to the nearest dollar. C.J. knows her balance to the exact penny. I’d once offered to keep our office books, but she said not until our sun goes super-nova. She does the books, but it makes her cranky.

“Well, if the client’s due at one you can grab his check out of his hand and hot-foot it to the bank before it closes.”

“Aww, shit. Somebody has to worry about money around here.”

“I know, and you do it so well I don’t like to deprive you.”

“You just remember to get a retainer. We don’t do freebies.” The computer keyboard began clicking again. “Why don’t you get back to your desk and finish your reports?”

“Yessum, Miz Gunn, whatebber you say, Miz Gunn.”

“Smart Ass. You ain’t the right color to talk the talk.”

“Discrimination again. Boy, the things I have to put up with around here.” A Post-it note pad hit the doorjamb as I went through it.

I was tempted to say, Yah-ha ya missed me, but instead, I stuck my head around the corner of the door. “Are you going to join me when our client arrives?”

“Afraid not, Jen. I’ve got too much to do. These invoices need to go in tonight’s mail.”

“You just don’t want to listen to a tale of lost love.”

“You got that right. I heard enough of those when I was a cop.” C.J. came to the door to stand in front of me. “Besides, you’re so much better at that than I. You get all full of empathy and the client loves that shit.”

“Okay, I’ll wing alone, but if you think you can cut out early. . .”

“You just call me when the action begins.” Her laugh was evil. “That’s what I crave, Girlfriend. The excitement.”

“You are so bad.” I went back to my expense reports, glad she’d lightened up a bit.

Mr. Billeau walked in on time and introduced himself. He probably wasn’t thirty yet, but he had one of those faces that would look boyish for the next thirty years. His thick auburn hair was cut short, not quite a crew cut. He had a narrow waist and broad shoulders that looked like he wore football pads. His plaid western shirt was clean and his stone-washed Levis and scuffed cowboy boots, the working-type not the fancy dress ones, completed the picture. A burnt orange and white gimme cap with a U.T. Longhorn logo was tucked under his left arm.

“Mr. Billeau?” I held out my hand. He looked for a moment as if he wasn’t sure what to do and then took it. His hand was limp, but I gave him a firm shake and almost laughed at his surprise. Some men get uncomfortable when shaking hands with a woman. “I’m Jenny Gordon,” I said. “And this is my partner, C.J. Gunn.”

C.J. gave him a brief nod and went back to her monitor. Damn her, I thought, she could be a little more cordial, but she winked as I led the way to the inner office.

“We can talk more comfortably in here.” Once inside I indicated an upholstered customer chair for him and turned to walk behind my desk. I stopped. He had followed only to the doorway.

“Mrs. Gordon, I’m not sure about this.”

I put on my most disarming smile. “Fine, but you’ve made an effort to come here. Let’s discuss it. If you decide there’s nothing I can do to help,” I said, “you can be on your way. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

He stared at his feet. When he finally looked up, I could see he’d decided to give me a try. He walked to the chair. “Mrs. Gordon, if you can help, I’ll be obliged.”

He sat down and began staring at his feet again. He looked like a kid in high school taking a history test and looking for answers he’d written on his shoe tops.

Maybe he found something because he suddenly began talking. “I’m a country boy, Mrs. Gordon.” He raised his head. “Probably a little dumb, too.”

I smiled reassuringly after telling him to call me Jenny.

“‘Bout all I’m good at is farming. My grandpa left me a little place out near Dripping Springs. Nothing much, but it’s mine. I raise a few chickens - milk a few cows. I work hard all week and come Saturday night, I like to go into town maybe have a few beers.”

“Sounds normal to me.”

He began twisting the gimme cap in his large hands. “There’s this one place I like to go to - The Lucky Star Bar and Grill. You heard of it?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

“They have these girls that dance.”

“With the customers?”

“No, ma’am. I mean dance on stage. They take off their clothes, too.” He blushed. “For several weeks. . .one girl. She was so lovely and I, uh, I sorta fell for her.”

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

“Every man who came in - fell for her. I mean, this girl - pretty as a speckled pup - dancing in this joint. She made you feel special. Everybody stopped whatever they were doing just to watch Scarlett dance.”

“Scarlett?”

“Yes, ma’am. Her name is Scarlett Fever.”

I almost made a joke, but he was so doggone serious. “What happened?”

“It’s driving me crazy. Ten days ago her name was gone from that big sign out front. I went in and asked the bartender. He said she was gone. I asked where. He said maybe Los Angeles or Las Vegas. He didn’t know. He thought she’d moved on to a bigger city where she could make bigger money.

“Miss Jenny. I’ve gone to Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, even Nashville. I can’t find a trace. And ma’am, I’ve got to find her. She and I. . . Oh, we never went out or nothing, but I knew from the way she looked at me - we were meant to be.”

Could anyone be so incredibly naive? He was such a country bumpkin. “Wilson, this world is full of big cities. Bigger and better places than Austin, Texas. She could be in any city.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know it’s hopeless. I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” He blushed again. “It was crazy to come here. Take up your time.” He studied his feet again for a moment. “But the crazy part. I’m afraid something bad has happened. I’ll never believe she left without saying good-bye. And I don’t know where else to turn. Mr. Porter said if anyone could find Scarlett, you could.”

“His vote of confidence is nice, even if it is somewhat skewed.”

Forlorn couldn’t even begin to cover his hang-dog expression as he realized what I was implying. That I probably wouldn’t be able to find her either.

C. J. had nailed it when she said clients love it when they feel you care. The police don’t have time to give them personal attention. That’s why they come to a private eye in the first place, but that’s also why it hurts when you can’t help.

Girls like Scarlett change locations about as often as the weather changes in central Texas, and they never leave a forwarding address. I knew what the odds were. An impossible mission, right?

No one was more surprised than I when the next words came out of my mouth. “Wilson, it’s not hopeless.”

Did I really say that? “There are a couple of things I can do that might produce a lead.”

“Like what?”

Yeah, like what, smart ass. Me and my big mouth. “First, I’d check where she worked. Maybe someone there knows something.”

“Jim, the bartender, didn’t know anything.”

“Maybe she had a girlfriend and confided in her. What about the other dancers and the waitresses and the musicians?”

“I’ve already asked. Nobody knows nothing.”

“Maybe they were leery about why you wanted to know. People working around singers and dancers, especially pretty ones, learn they have to be careful about giving out information. You can never tell who might be a sicko or a pervert. They might talk to me.” A faint hope shined in his eyes. And strangely enough, I started having a little hope myself.

There were a few other places I could check - the owner of the club - the person who wrote the checks. Maybe a talent agency or a dancer’s union. Surely a young woman moving on to greener pastures didn’t do it entirely on her own. Someone, somewhere knew Scarlett and knew where she had gone.

“Wilson, why don’t you give me a couple of days, let me see what I can turn up. That way you’ll at least have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot.”

“I’ll be happy to pay whatever it cost. I’ve got money saved. A lot of money.”

I almost said we could talk money later, but C.J. would have killed me. “Okay. A three hundred dollar retainer to begin. That’s two days. We can settle expenses afterwards.” I pulled a standard contract out of the top drawer of my desk.

He took out his billfold and handed me six fifty dollar bills. “I feel better already. Just knowing someone will be doing something. I haven’t been able to eat or sleep.”

Wilson Billeau walked out feeling hopeful and I wondered if I had lost my cotton-picking mind.


II

C.J. and I went into our missing persons routine. She began a paper chase via computer and since legwork is my specialty, I drove out to the Lucky Star Bar and Grill.

Beginning in front of the State Capitol Building and driving south on South Congress Avenue, you pass through the downtown area, cross Town Lake and continue along where eventually the area becomes a strip of nightclubs, bars, motels and prowling grounds for pimps and prostitutes. A scuzzy area only a few short miles from the state’s political power.

The club was on South Congress, a mile or so west of Interstate 35. As suspected it had a western motif, a big white Lone Star on the roof and country music twanged inside; also, as suspected, no one thought it was unusual that Scarlett had left. Dancers work here and there - leaving when the mood struck.

Oh, she had mentioned moving on, but who knew which bright lights had lured her. One day she just ups and didn’t show.

Jim, the bartender, looked like a Mexican bandido, but was talkative except he didn’t have a clue about Scarlett. I thanked him for his time and asked if he had a photograph of the girl. He found a black and white 8 x 10 publicity shot that the club had put in the lobby for promotion.

At the front door I had to pause to allow a young woman carrying a guitar case to come in, and Jim called out to me. “Hey, Detective Lady, this here’s one of Scarlett’s friends. I’ll bet Delia Rose can tell you what you want to know.”

The young woman was short, around twenty, a few pounds overweight, but chunky not fat. Her straight blonde hair was pulled back into a pony tail. Her blue eyes, more knowing than they should be at her age, told of all the hard knocks she’d received in her short life.

The bartender introduced us and Delia Rose and I slid into an empty booth. I told her I was a private investigator.

“And you’ve been hired to find Scarlett?”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Scarlett talked about going to Vegas, but I don’t know if that’s where she went. She didn’t even tell me good-bye. I’m a little hurt, too, because I thought we were friends.”

“Maybe she left with a boyfriend,” I said. “Was there a special guy? Someone you remember coming in to see her?”

She began shaking her head before I was through talking.

“Look,” I said. “She was a beautiful girl. Surely there was someone. . .”

“Not really. She flirted with everyone, but I don’t think there was a boyfriend.”

“Or a girlfriend?”

Delia Rose blushed. “She didn’t have any designs that way either and believe me I would have known.”

“Who of the regulars did she pay attention to?”

She thought a moment. “Only one guy - a farm boy. Sweet kid. He had a funny name.”

“Wilson Billeau?”

“Yeah, that was it. Wilson Billeau. He had the fever for Scarlett Fever.” She realized her joke and we laughed.

“He’s my client.”

“Scarlett was nice to his face, but she made fun of him behind his back.” Delia Rose looked wistful. “Man, I wish someone would get that kind of hots for me.”

I stood. “Well, I appreciate your help. If you think of anything, will you call?” I gave her my card.

Delia Rose arched an eyebrow and smiled. “When you find her, tell her I said to drop dead, okay?” She smiled wistfully again and that’s when I knew she also had the fever for Scarlett.

“Will do,” I said.

Before I was halfway to the door, she called me back.

“I just thought of something. The day before Scarlett left an older man came in. She was dancing and suddenly got a sick look. When she came off stage he grabbed her arm and said, ‘We have to talk.’ Scarlett pulled away and told him to leave her alone. His face got all red and Scarlett had this funny look. Not scared exactly, but sorta like resigned.

“The old guy doubled up his fist and I thought sure he was going to hit her. Jim saw the guy was acting up and came over. Told him we didn’t want any trouble and asked him to leave.”

“Did you ask her about this guy afterwards?”

“Yeah, but she said she didn’t want to talk about him and for me to forget it. So I did. I guess I forgot all about it until just now.”

“What did he look like?”

“Let’s see, I can’t remember much. Maybe late fifties. Dark hair, turning gray. Jim might remember. He got a better look.”

She called Jim over, but he couldn’t add much more. He said the guy was plain vanilla. “Some old fart. Dressed in a business suit that went out of style twenty years ago.”

“I remember thinking at the time he reminded me of a movie star,” said Delia Rose. “One of those older guys, but I can’t remember who.”

They couldn’t think of anything else and this time I really did leave.

I tacked Scarlett’s picture to the wall next to my desk hoping to be inspired. A striking dark-haired woman, twenty-two or thereabouts. Her eyes were dark, too, but with only a black and white photo, I couldn’t be sure of exact colors. A smile extended to her come-hither eyes, yet there was an innocence, too. Try as I might, I couldn’t see much to make her star-quality. Dark-haired beauties aren’t exactly a novelty. Obviously, you had to have seen her dance moves.

Strippers don’t belong to a union, but C.J. traced the photographer who’d taken the publicity picture. I talked to him and to the talent agency who’d booked Scarlett into the Lucky Star. Sure they knew her, but she hadn’t confided any plans to them.

C.J.’s nimble computer fingers found no records of credit cards or bank accounts. Scarlett Fever didn’t have a car registration or a driver’s license, either, but C.J. discovered Scarlett had a room, for the past six months, at the Stagecoach Motel, a half-mile south of the Lucky Star. She was registered as Scarlett Fever O’Hara.

A trip to the motel seemed logical. It was sleazy-looking, more like a place for rent-by-the-hour trysts than a home for a young girl. The manager was also a sleaze-bag, but he took my twenty dollar bill greedily and gave me the key. The room was pathetic; an old iron bedstead held a sagging mattress, a vanity-type dresser from the fifties stood against one wall. Worn carpet and torn drapes over yellowed window shades completed the decor. I found a rust-speckled can of Lady Schick shave cream and one lipstick tube, fire engine red, used down to the metal. Nothing else to show a young woman had lived in that depressing room for six months - no clothes, no receipts, no pictures. Scarlett appeared and disappeared - end of story.

As I left I asked the manager how Scarlet got around as she didn’t have a car.

“How should I know? Walked maybe?”

My twenty must not have extended to his answering questions.

It was discouraging, although I hadn’t expected much to begin with. Yet one tiny cell in the back of my brain kept taunting in a sing-song voice, “Nah-na, nah-na, nah-na - you’ve forgotten something.”

C.J. and I checked and double checked every scrap of information we had. It was wasted time.

At the end of two days I called Wilson Billeau. He didn’t seem surprised. The slight hope he’d nursed must have dwindled soon after he’d left our office.

“Thanks for trying, ma’am. I know you did your best.”

“Wilson, I believe things happen for a reason. Scarlett came into your life. Maybe to remind you that you ought to do something besides muck around with cows and chickens. I’ll bet if you tried, you’d find a young lady who’d like to live on a farm in Dripping Springs.”

“I guess. I promised myself I’d put this all behind me if you couldn’t find her, but I can’t give up yet.” His voice didn’t sound as if his heart was in it, but he was determined.

I wished him luck and broke the connection.

C.J. said Wilson’s money helped to ease our cash flow, but the whole episode left me feeling sad for a couple of days. Soon though, we both put the missing Scarlett Fever out of our minds.


III

Three weeks later, I unfolded the morning newspaper, The Austin American Statesman and, there she was - Scarlett Fever O’Hara. The grainy picture was the same publicity photo I had and she was identified only as Scarlett. The headline for this rainy December day read SCARLETT IS DEAD. The story said a hooker’s nude body had been found in one of Austin’s better downtown hotel rooms. The woman had been beaten severely and then, stabbed to death.

Unholy murder served up with notes of Christmas cheer.

A man registered to that room as Marshall Tolliver from Houston was now in police custody.

C.J. called me at home. “Did you see her?”

We discussed the murder for a few minutes and I said I’d better contact Wilson Billeau. “I hope he’s already seen the paper because I’d hate to be the one to tell him.”

There was no answer when I called Wilson, so I tried Bulldog Porter. The attorney said one of his informants had called him soon after the girl’s body was found and he’d notified Wilson of the girl’s death. He said Wilson had gone to the funeral home to make arrangements for her and would drop by Bulldog’s office later. Bulldog said he would give Wilson our condolences.

My next call was to Lieutenant Larry Hays. Larry works in the homicide unit of the Austin Police Department. He and I have been good friends for years. I’d first met him when he and my late husband, Tommy Gordon, entered the police academy together. They were partners until Tommy left APD to become a private detective.

After Tommy’s death Larry took a brotherly role with me. One I was grateful for, except when he got too protective. Especially where it related to the detective agency. Larry is sensitive, witty, and stubborn as only a Swede can be. He is also one hell of a good cop.

When he returned my call, I asked, “What’s the story on the dead hooker?”

“The one known as Scarlett? What do you know about it?”

“Nothing about the murder, but…”

“Just a minute,” Larry put me on hold, briefly. When he came back, he said in his official voice, “Meet me at Casa Mañana!”

His gruff, insistent order hit me the way that tone usually does and I almost told him to go take a flying leap from the Congress Avenue bridge, but with a conciliatory tone he said, “Please, Jenny. I could use your help here.”

I said I’d be there by one-thirty.

Casa Mañana is a Tex-Mex restaurant near APD headquarters and the officers frequently go there for lunch. It’s a converted old stucco house, yellow with green trim and the feel of a cantina. Inside were plain wooden tables covered with oilcloth and the tables at each booth had Mexican tile tops. The food is excellent, the price is reasonable and the service is top-notch.

Larry is attractive, long-legged, and wears a size 13 shoe. He’s five years older than me and I was unmerciful when he turned forty recently. He was seated in the corner booth when I arrived, two iced teas, hot salsa and tortilla chips already on the table. I slid into the booth and he said, “Where you been keeping yourself?”

“C.J.’s been cracking the whip. We’ve hardly had time to go to the bathroom.”

“That explains your pained expression.”

“If I have a pained expression, it’s because you haven’t called or come by to see us.”

“Hah! I used to complain when we had one homicide a month. Little did I know those were the good old days.”

“Makes you wonder what’s happening to our normally laid-back capital city.”

“Fast growth, drugs and hard times.”

We were interrupted by Paco Hidalgo, the owner, as he placed chicken enchiladas - with all the trimmings - on the table and refilled my glass. The chips and salsa I’d been nibbling called for constant mouth-cooling, but I get anemic if I don’t get my quota of Mexican food.

“I hope you don’t mind, I ordered your usual. Thought we could save time.” Larry began eating without waiting for my reply. “Tell me what you know about Scarlett.”



See you tomorrow for Part 2!

3 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Intriguing and enjoyable, Jan! Looking forward to part 2.

Eve Fisher said...

Looking forward to tomorrow!

Leigh Lundin said...

Jan, I always enjoy your storytelling, and this is no exception.