A CASE OF DO OR DIE
I was in the throes of Lola Blount’s charms when we both missed the three pops of gunfire from inside the house off of Laurel Canyon Blvd. There had been a few hours of boozing together earlier in the evening at Le Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and then Lola had insisted on joining me at a stakeout. It wasn’t her job to keep her ears and eyes open, and mine were busy on her obvious pleasures in the backseat of my Mercedes S500.
We’d have kept right on if it hadn’t been for the flashlight beam and the tapping sound on the window. The cops had responded to a neighbor’s call. I hitched up my pants and struggled to open the car window as the LAPD officer, whose gun was drawn, yelled for me to keep my hands where he could see them.
What happened next was bleary but I was sober enough to know that something bad was going on. The cop’s partner took my wallet from my left rear pocket and that’s when they noticed the bulge of my clip-on holster. Next thing I knew, I was on my face spread-eagle.
“Officer, I’m a licensed private investigator. My name is Nick Vitale. I’m a partner at White and Vitale Investigations. I’m here on a case,” I said as soberly as I could under the circumstances.
I lay there looking at Lola’s bare feet and legs as she leaned against the car and waited while they checked me out. Finally, they let me get up.
“Explain again what you’re doing here, Mr. Vitale,” said the smirking cop perusing my ID. The other cop continued to keep me covered.
“My client lives right there,” I said, pointing at the house. “She has been receiving threats from her estranged husband, and we figured that sooner or later he’d do something foolish. So, my partner and I have been taking turns staking out the house every night. What’s going on?” I had a bad feeling.
As I stood there swaying in the LA May evening, I watched the yellow crime scene barrier tape go up around the house and detectives arrive in all their rumpled glory. Nobody wanted to talk to me and no one seemed inclined to let me leave; not that I wanted to. I was on the hook in so many ways that standing there was better than any of the other choices. Finally, one of the detectives came my way. It was Detective Gonzales. We had a past.
“Hi there, Vitale. I guess you’re the fuck-up this time,” Gonzales said gleefully. “Thanks for involving the LAPD.”
“Hello, Julio. What’s the situation?” Not that I didn’t know the bottom line, but maybe he’d fill me in. It would come in handy later.
“Three shots through the torso. The victim was standing at the kitchen sink. Looks like she was putting some water in her scotch. I guess you probably know who shot her, right? Not that it did her any good.”
“I’ve got a good idea, Julio, so why don’t you try a little less sarcasm,” I replied.
“Sure, Nick. Anything for a friend,” with same grin and attitude.
“Gloria Michaels, estranged from her husband, Lee, hired us to protect her because of his threats. She was pretty sure that he’d never let her divorce him and get half the money. We didn’t think he’d follow up on the threats but sometimes you’re wrong. That’s about it, Julio. I’d be glad to come in tomorrow morning and share our files with you.”
“That would be nice, Nick.” He turned to walk away, and over his shoulder commented, “Nice job. I can’t wait to share this with the boys downtown. You can go now.”
I could still hear his laughter as Lola and I got in the car.
“Buenos Dias. Welcome to Leon, Mexico! The time is six o’clock AM, June 30th. Please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the plane has come to a complete stop.”
God, who wanted to stand up? I was so hung over that I thought I might need to sit on the plane for a couple more hours.
“Mas cervezas and a shooter of Cuervo Gold por favor,” I mumbled, struggling to wake from an alcohol-induced dreamless sleep.
Rubbing bloodshot eyes, and gaining some measure of consciousness, I surveyed my new life; no career, no strings, no direction; the perfect situation for Mexico. It was just the right combination for another drink.
Too hung over to care about much else, I stared out the jet window that had my face print smeared on it, and got a snapshot view of my immediate future. It would have to do. The change of scenery between LA, where I took off on a boozed up red-eye, and the sobering high desert landscape outside the plane, glared in stark contrast.
I retrieved my shoes lodged under the seat in front of me, glad they were loafers, and searched the overhead bin for a carry-on that looked familiar. So much to remember and so few brain cells to call on.
I finally spied a beat up stained Coach briefcase that could only be mine because of the small 22 caliber hole through the bottom right corner, a present from one of my adoring clients; the hole not the briefcase. I’d nearly lost my PI license that time, and on a few other occasions, but who’s counting? I asked myself.
I felt her before she spoke. There’s something about a woman pressing her breasts into the small of your back that’s as recognizable as the sizzle of a steak on a very hot grill.
“What are we gonna do next, sweetie?” a low throaty voice asked.
I turned to see a beautiful, petite blond woman in a halter-top and low-slung tight jeans smiling at me in an all too familiar way. We obviously had spent some time together in my drunkenness. Behind her was a tall lanky brunette with the same grin. I decided to play along.
“More of the same. Where to next,” I croaked.
“We are going to have to make sure you pace yourself,” she giggled. “You passed out on us last night, cowboy,” she added.
“Well, it’s a new day,” I replied, with as much bravado as I could muster. Somebody give me a clue, I asked silently.
“We’re all going to San Miguel de Allende, and we’ve got a car picking us up. If you hitch a ride, I’ll get the driver to stop at a liquor store and we can party all the way there,” the blond said merrily. “By the way, you can go now.”
I turned and realized that the cabin was empty in front of me and that the rest of the passengers behind the two women were starting to wish me dead. I hurried up the aisle. The flight attendant shot me a dirty look as I stumbled by.
It was a short walk to the terminal, during which time my female companions never stopped chattering. I was looking for a bar anywhere on the horizon. Inside, everything was marble; floors, walls, the works. It made me feel oddly comfortable, being Italian by heritage.
The line for Immigration didn’t take long, and thankfully the uniformed man behind the counter did not speak while perusing and stamping my passport and tourist visa. My suitcase was waiting patiently, circling like an obedient pet on the motorized carousel.
The women had two bags each that I dutifully retrieved for them and we all proceeded to the final security check. Another uniformed gentleman stood silently beside what looked like a small stoplight on a post with a red button on top. Each passenger pushed the button and the stoplight either flashed red or green. Green light meant that you got to walk over to an x-ray machine and hand your bags to yet another uniformed man; red meant that you got to proceed to a table and open up you bag for a closer look. Naturally, red turned out to be my favorite color.
After the last uniformed persdon, who was a woman, of course, fondled my undies and discovered a half finished leaking bottle of Scotch, I was allowed to proceed to my next uncertain fate. If only I could remember my women companions’ names. They had waited patiently for me beside a guy, who had to be the driver, just outside the terminal.
“Hello. I’m Nick Vitale,” I said, extending my hand. He did not introduce himself or offer his hand in return, and stood there expressionless in a black suit and tie.
“Come on! Let’s go find some booze!” the blond finally said brightly.
“Senor Leeds is waiting in the car, senoritas,” the driver commented as they started across the airport parking lot.
“So what is that supposed to mean, Carlos,” she shot back. He did not answer.
“You may or may not like my boyfriend, Nick. He runs kinda hot and cold,” the blond said. Her girlfriend laughed sarcastically.
As they neared the black suburban with tinted windows all around, the rear right door opened and out stepped what looked to me like an extra from the Godfather films. Who are you kidding, I thought. Not with Leeds as a last name.
He wore a cream colored suit with a black silk shirt, open collared, which accentuated the fact that he kept his short frame in excellent condition. Wrap around sunglasses hid his eyes in an obvious looking way.
“Baby!” the blond squealed as she threw herself into his non-reacting arms.
He seemed to be concentrating on me, which did not make me entirely comfortable. After all, I had just arrived and was not looking for enemies so soon. I extended my hand and got the same reaction as with his driver. Finally, he took off the glasses with one hand and shook my hand with the other.
“Jonathan Leeds, and your name?” he asked. This man had very cold, almost ebony eyes.
“Nick Vitale, Jonathan,” I answered glibly, knowing that he was more used to being addressed as Mr. Leeds.
“Honey, we all got drunk together at LAX and on the plane, and got to be real good friends. Bev and I offered Nick a ride to San Miguel since he didn’t have one set up. You don’t mind, do you?” she asked nervously.
“Actually, I do mind. I have several errands to run on the way home and Mr. Vitale shouldn’t be held up from his appointed destination. I’ll be glad to set up alternative transportation for him,” Leeds answered, talking right past me.
Not to be ignored, which was hard to do since I was a head taller than he, I answered for myself. “Thanks for the offer, Jonathan, but I think I’ll just hang around here for awhile and arrange my own transportation.”
“Suit yourself. I’m sure we will see each other around town sometime,” he said, not meaning it. “How long will you be visiting?”
“As long as it takes.”
That’s my stock answer to most things. I turned and walked back toward the terminal without saying goodbye.
The cool Mexican morning breeze felt good against my skin, but it did little to stop the post-drunk sweat that poured out of my mid-fifties body as I walked back toward the terminal. I wondered if there was a God and if he’d opened the airport bar at this hour for sinners like me.
Just as I reached the double glass doors a voice behind me said, “Hey mister. You look like somebody who needs a ride and a liquor store.”
I turned and looked at a Cheech Marin look-a-like. I was tempted to say that Dave’s not here, recalling an old Cheech and Chong bit, but just replied, “Yeah.”
“Do you need a ride to San Miguel de Allende?” he asked, grinning.
“Yes I do. Can you direct me?” I asked.
“Si. I will take you there in a nice Chevy Suburban,” he replied. “And there is a store for the liquors just down the road. The price is $75 and you will want to tip me.”
“Lead on, my man,” I said in my meekest voice.
He grabbed my two bags and set off across the parking lot, saying no more.
Inside the roomy backseat of the black Suburban I felt marginally better, my savior at the wheel. This was a break, one that I needed in the worst way.
“My name is Paco,” he said, “And you are a lucky man. I am the best driver and just about everything else you need in San Miguel.”
“Well, nice to meet you Paco. My name is Nick and I need some cerveza, I replied weakly.
“No problema, senor,” he said heartily. “And I don’t mean that in the Arnold Schwarzenegger kind or way, if you know what I mean.”
We were out the parking lot gate in no time and I looked around at the countryside through the side window. It looked a lot like LA only it was missing all the buildings. Instead, it had people in small stands by the road selling what I would never eat, and other people burning the leftovers in small piles. I was definitely gone.
In an incredibly long ten minutes, we pulled into a gas station. “There is cerveza and tequila for sale here, Senor Nick. Do you have any pesos?” Paco asked.
Do I look like I would? “No,” I replied. “Is that a problema?”
“Of course not. I will front you the money.” Where did he learn that term?
We went into the small store at the gas station and I found a six-pack of Negra Modelo and a pint of tequila. Paco paid and I stood there not understanding a fucking thing.
Back in the car Paco produced a church key, something that I would have never thought of, and I opened a beer, taking a large gulp. “Can I offer you one?” I asked.
“No Senor Nick. One of us must concentrate,” he said with a laugh.