Rest for the Wicked
After tossing back one last vodka shooter, DeAndre Moore tore through the crowded strip club, certain that the knee-breaker who was hot on his heels would send him to the hospital if he didn't get lost—and fast. He'd come early to have himself a couple drinks and try to calm down. Tonight was the night. Either she would leave with him or... or what? Would he really turn her over to the cops? Did he have that right?
As soon as Sabrina stepped onto the nightclub floor and saw him, she walked straight to one of the goons stationed at the front door, pointed back at DeAndre and said a few quick words. Time to bounce, he thought. He'd catch up with her later.
He took off running, dodging this way and that through the tables, thinking that if he could just put some distance between himself and the hired muscle he could make it to the kitchen, where he knew there was an exit out to the alley. Making a mad dash for a pair of swinging doors, he pushed inside. One of the line cooks thrust a knife at him and shouted, "Get the hell out of here."
DeAndre plunged out the back door into the frigid night air, hearing a click as the door shut and locked behind him. That would be enough for knee-breaker. He merely wanted him out, with as little fuss as possible. The front door, his only way back in, would be barred for the rest of the night.
Standing in the dank, narrow alley, trying to catch his breath, he cursed himself for ever coming to Minneapolis. He should have stayed in St. Louis, minded his own business, let her sink or swim on her own. And yet, when it became clear what she'd done, he couldn't let it drop. He loved her. She'd always looked out for him and now it was time he returned the favor. Even more, Sabrina held the key to his past. She'd been dangling it over his head for years and he was sick of it. He'd come for an answer. One way or the other, he intended to get it.
Passing several Dumpsters, he moved to the edge of the sidewalk. The snow was coming down so hard that he could barely make out the buildings across the street. For the last four nights, he'd been staying in a downtown hotel, an outlay of money he could ill afford. It had taken him months to track Sabrina to Minneapolis. Checking out the local strip bars had been the next logical step. He'd found her at GaudyLights, persuaded her to meet up for lunch the next day. Though they talked easily, just like old times, she refused to open up. He came back to the club that night. And the next. And the one after that. He'd smiled a lot, tried to talk to her when she was free. Drinks flowed freely.
Just before closing last night, she'd whispered in his ear: "You want to know what happened? Why I left St. Louis in such a big hurry? Here it is. I did it. He deserved it. And I'm not done." She walked away from him and left him sitting there, stunned. He'd been so sure she would offer and explanation that would somehow make it all right. Instead, she'd admitted to a cold-blooded murder.
And now he was here, standing at the edge of a a dark alley, unsure what to do. Removing his cell from his jacket, he fished inside his shirt pocket for the business card his uncle had given him. He held it up, tipped it this way and that until he could read the number at the bottom. Punching it in, he waited, hoping the call would be answered by a real live human. Instead, he was put through to voice mail.
Fixing his eyes on the driving snow, he said, "This message is for Jane Lawless. You don't know me. My name is DeAndre Moore. I need to talk to you. I can meet you anywhere you want, just name it. So you know, my uncle is Alf Nolan, your partner. He told me that if I ever needed any help and he wasn't around, that I should call you. Since this is a...a private matter, and he's family, I need you to keep this quiet." Here, he paused. "I'm desperate, Ms. Lawless. There's someone I know... someone I love... who's in bad trouble. I'm trusting you, okay? I need you to help me figure out what's going on before someone else gets killed. Anyway, that's enough over the phone. Hey... what—"
DeAndre felt a sudden fierce sting in his shoulder. Dropping the cell to the concrete, he whirled around, only to feel a second sharp thrust enter his gut. He doubled over, pitching backward against the bricks. A warm, sticky liquid oozed into his hand. In the darkness, he could barely make out the face of the person standing over him. "You're—"
His thoughts began to scramble. "Why?" he whispered.
"You stick your nose in where it don't belong."
"No," he repeated, feeling suddenly weak.
"At least you die like a man. That more than you would give me."
Jane Lawless felt like a waitress who knew she wasn't going to get a good tip. Carrying as much as she could manage on the only small tray she could find in Nolan's somewhat less than state-of-the-art kitchen, she entered the living room and began to hand out food.
Cordelia sat cross-legged on the couch, staring at Nolan's new forty-six inch flat screen TV, bought especially for this year's Super Bowl. During the past year, Nolan and Cordelia had bonded over the TV show, "Friday Night Lights," which had sparked an interest—for Cordelia—in all things football. Since Jane had no interest in the sport, and tonight was the big night, she was happy for something productive to do—if you could call making a rather boring array of snacks for the game productive. She handed Cordelia her bowl of popcorn.
"Extra butter?" Cordelia asked, never taking her eyes off the screen.
"I sprayed it with rat poison," said Jane with a smile.
"Perfect," muttered Cordelia. "Thanks."
Moving on to Nolan, who sat riveted in his leather La-Z-Boy, Jane set a beer next to him on a small end table, and then handed him a bowl of Totino's Pizza Rolls. She'd offered to make them all something from scratch. Nothing too gourmet. Buffalo wings. Barbecued riblets. A baked brie covered in brown sugar and cranberries. But no, they all wanted what they wanted. Nolan said that pizza rolls were his Super Bowl tradition. Far be it from Jane to get in the way of a longstanding gridiron ritual.
On her way back to the kitchen, she handed Hattie, Cordelia's seven-year-old niece, a pint-sized carton of Nestle's Quik. Mouse, Jane's brown lab, had curled up on the carpet next to the little girl. Jane was able to satisfy him with a quick scratch behind his ears. The girl lifted her eyes to Jane, offered a coy smile, then stuck her nose back into her book. She was precocious for her age, reading at a fourth-grade level, according to her proud auntie. At the moment, she was deep into The Dangerous Book for Boys. She'd already finished The Daring Book for Girls. At least she wasn't into any adventures with kid wizards yet. That would be a particularly difficult phase for Jane.
Returning to the kitchen, Jane sat on a stool next to the breakfast bar and watched the snow fall outside the back window. It had been a hectic seventeen months. Jane owned two restaurants in the Twin Cities, which were more than enough to keep her occupied 24/7. And yet this had been a time of radical change in her life. She'd finally succumbed to Nolan's pressure to join his P.I. agency and work on a Minnesota state license of her own. She'd finally been granted that license two weeks ago.
In truth, it wasn't Nolan's pressure but her own personal needs and desires that had driven her to make the decision. Her two restaurants were both going strong. Seven months ago, her original partner at the Xanadu Club in Uptown had sold his share of the business—with Jane's approval—to a local restaurateur, Barry Tune. Jane liked Barry, trusted his judgement because of his success with other venues in his thirty-plus years in the business, and was pleasantly surprised when he offered to take over the everyday management of the club. She felt she was in a great place in her life—confident about how her restaurants were doing and deeply absorbed by her new role as a licensed P.I. Life was indeed good. Crazy busy, but good.
As she nibbled absently on one of the pizza rolls, she wandered back into the living room, thinking about taking a walk. This was her day off. She hadn't had one in... well, she couldn't remember when. She loved windy, snowy nights. Nolan lived close to Minihaha Creek, one of Jane's favorite parts of the city.
As Cordelia and Nolan jeered in unison at one apparently sightless referee, she could tell her presence would not be missed. She'd retrieved her coat from the front closet and was about to put it on when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," she called, smiling at her dog, the only other soul in the room who'd heard it.
Melanie Gunderson, Cordelia's main squeeze, stood outside on the porch.
"Come in before you get buried in white," said Jane, helping Mel brush herself off. For some reason, the usually chipper Mel looked less than happy. "Something wrong?" asked Jane.
"Cordelia," said Mel, stepping over to block her view of the TV.
"Hey," said Cordelia.
"We need to talk."
"Can't it wait? It's third and twelve."
Nodding at Jane, Mel issued an order. "Get her up and tell her I'll be in the kitchen."
"I hear you," said Cordelia with a groan. "Your timing is lousy."
"No worse than yours."
Jane watched Cordelia's face turn as grim as Mel's.
Giving Jane a look that said, "Jeezsh, Girlfriends," Cordelia stomped past her into the kitchen. Since there was no door to close, Jane assumed they knew their conversation couldn't be completely private unless they whispered. She stood in the archway between the dining room and the living room and had no trouble hearing everything they said.
"So," said Mel. "Have you decided? Did you go see the place?"
"It's exactly what I've been looking for," said Cordelia.
"That's the plan."
"Even if I'm against it."
"Why would you be? Don't you want me to be happy?"
"This won't make you happy. You're Cordelia Thorn. You have a reputation to uphold. I mean, why not simply jump off a building. It would be quicker."
"You're such a drama queen."
"I'm a drama queen? Do you even hear yourself anymore?"
"Are you going to throw that pan at me?"
Jane moved closer to the door. Cordelia and Mel's fights were legendary, often involving pots and pans. Their romantic make-ups were equally legendary, but at the moment, they were in full battle mode. What upset Jane most, if she cared to admit it, was that she had no idea what they were talking about.
"Put the pan down," said Cordelia.
"You're telling me there's no way to make you change your mind?"
"This is my destiny."
Melanie hooted. "Well, it's not mine." A moment later, she flew out of the kitchen, past Jane, and slammed out the front door.
"That was charming," said Jane as Cordelia emerged, a stony look on her face. "What's going on?"
"Are you two—"
"We'll work it out." She pointed at the TV and said, "Now, where was I?"
No sooner had Cordelia resumed her Buddha-like position on the couch than Jane's cell phone began to vibrate inside the pocket of her coat. She pulled it free and said hello.
"Who's this?" came a deep voice.
"Who am I talking to?"
"You called me and you don't know who I am? I'm hanging up now."
"Wait, wait. This is Sgt. Kavante Taylor, Minneapolis PD."
Jane eased down on the arm of a chair. As it happened, she knew Sgt. Taylor. "This is Jane Lawless."
He didn't respond for several seconds. "Ms. Lawless." He sounded annoyed. "Do you know a man named DeAndre Moore?"
"He was knifed less than an hour ago in an alley outside GaudyLights. I'm at the crime scene right now."
She'd heard of the downtown Minneapolis strip club—or Gentleman's Club, as it was advertised—although she'd never had any desire to go inside. "Is he okay?"
"He's dead. Thing is, looks like he was talking to you on his cell when he died."
"Talking to me?"
"Either that or leaving you a message."
"You say this guy's name was DeAndre Moore?"
Nolan swiveled around to look at her.
"Honestly, I've never heard of him."
"Then why would he be calling you?"
"Can't answer that."
Standing up, Nolan said, "What about DeAndre?"
"Hang on a minute," said Jane. Drawing the phone away from her ear, she said, "You know him?"
"My nephew's name is DeAndre Moore."
Jane returned to Taylor. "Can you tell me anything about this guy?"
"He's black. Late twenties. Driver's license says he's from St. Louis. One of my men just handed me a business card. Found it in the snow a few feet from the body. Nolan & Lawless Investigations."
"I thought you owned a restaurant."
"I do. But I'm also working as a part-time P.I."
"That's what I'm told."
"Hell." He shouted for someone to watch where they were walking. "Look, I need you to check your cell phone messages and get back to me asap. I'll be busy here for the next couple of hours. I need that information. Don't erase it." With that, he hung up.
Nolan stood over her, his eyes demanding an explanation. "What's going on?"
Jane repeated what she'd learned, ending with, "The man was in his late twenties. From St. Louis."
Nolan sank back down in his chair. "My nephew is from St. Louis. But he wouldn't come to town without calling me."
"So maybe it's not him."
"What are you two talking about?" asked Cordelia, tossing a popcorn kernel into the air and catching it in her mouth.
While Jane explained, in couched terms because of Hattie's presence, she tapped her phone and brought up her missed calls, finding only one. She played back the message, then handed the phone to Nolan.
After listening, Nolan said, "I'm going down there." He was already on his way to the closet to get his coat.
He seemed so shaken that Jane said, "I'll drive." To Cordelia, she added, "Will you let Mouse out before you leave? He can stay here until I get back."
"Not a problem," said Cordelia. "I'll lock up the house when I go." Looking up at Nolan with concerned eyes, she said, "I'm sorry."
"Yeah." Opening the front door, he motioned for Jane to precede him. "Let's go."
Nolan spoke little on the way downtown. Under the best of circumstances, he wasn't a man given to easy conversation. Jane had a ton of questions, but kept them to herself—for the moment—allowing Nolan the space he so clearly needed.
Turning onto Washington Avenue, Jane saw the throbbing lights of several police cruisers toward the end of the block. Since parking was problematic on any wintry night, and Nolan was itching to get to the alley, she stopped as close as she could to the nightclub, telling him that she'd be along as soon as she found a place to stick her car. If she'd been driving her Mini Cooper, she might have been able to fit into a smaller space. Nolan had advised a more "generic" kind of vehicle for investigative work, thus she'd purchased a second car, a 2004 Honda CR-V. She had to drive several blocks until she found a spot big enough to accommodate even such a modest sized SUV.
Flipping her collar up and digging her hands into the pockets of her pea coat, she jumped over a mound of snow left by a city snowplow and headed through the deepening drifts for the club. The alley in question was in the middle of the block and ran from the sidewalk to the rear of the building. The entrance was approximately a hundred feet from the main club's front door, which sat at an angle to Washington and Second Street.
Nolan stood at the edge of the alley, inside the police tape, talking to Kavante Taylor. Three uniformed officers were doing their best to keep gawkers at bay. If it hadn't been for the wind gusts and the swiftly falling snow, more people would likely have gathered.
Slowing her pace, Jane edged her way through the crowd and waved to Nolan. Taylor, a black man wearing a heavy wool topcoat, motioned for an officer to let her through.
"Ms. Lawless," said Taylor, nodding slightly as she moved under the tape. "Nice to see you again."
Based on their last encounter, she doubted his sincerity. "Is it your nephew?" she asked Nolan.
He gave a curt nod. "There's a wound just below his left shoulder and one in the stomach. If someone had found him sooner—" He choked on the words and couldn't finish the sentence.
Forensic workers had set up lights and were hard at work taking photographs and documenting the scene. Jane guessed that, by the looks of all the Dumpsters lined up against one wall, the battered door toward the back probably led to a kitchen. With the temperature in the high thirties for most of the week, and only a few degrees cooler now, the alley stank of garbage. Nolan's nephew had sunk down against a brick wall. His leather jacket was open, the dress shirt underneath soaked with blood. Bloody footprints led away from the body and disappeared into the snow at the edge of the sidewalk.
"Those prints look like they came from an athletic shoe," said Jane.
"This guy," said Taylor, rubbing the back of his neck in contemplation, "made a mess of it. Makes me think it wasn't premeditated, that it was a spur of the moment decision. The way I see it, Moore probably came out that door to make that call to you. That's when he was attacked."
"By someone who saw him leave?" asked Jane.
"Would be my guess. I need to hear that cell phone message."
She took her phone out of her back pocket and set it up. The sergeant listened to it twice before handing it back.
"You have no idea what he was calling about? This private matter he referred to?"
"None," said Jane.
"Have you found the murder weapon?" asked Nolan.
"I've got men canvassing the area, and I'm about to head inside and start the interrogations. Far as I know, nobody saw it happen. We'll apply some pressure, see what we can shake loose."
"Would you call me when you find the guy?" asked Nolan.
"Of course. My sincere condolences. Will you call his family, or would you like me—"
"I'll take care of it," said Nolan, his eyes fixed on his nephew.
On the way to back to the truck, Jane asked Nolan if they should spend some time looking into DeAndre's death themselves.
"No reason," he said, his voice heavy with resignation. "The police are good at what they do. They'll get to the bottom of it."
© Ellen Hart.