The phone call jingled me out of the first decent dream I’d had in months. Instead of grappling with Japs in the stinking, maggot infested mud of Okinawa I was twisting the sheets with the new redheaded doll that waited my table at Joella’s Diner last night. And this dish was a helluva lot tastier than Joella’s chicken-fried steak and gravy special. The phone rang again. Red took a powder, vanishing and leaving me twisted and sweating in the rack all by my lonesome. I wormed out of the damp sheets and sat on the side of the rollaway bed. Five forty-two according to the clock on the stand ticking away my life second by second. I grabbed the receiver and grunted, “This better be good.”
“Dinger, what’s your lazy ass still doing in bed at this ungodly hour of the morning?”
“I was nailing a beautiful redhead, if you gotta know, Kroeger. Like I said, this better be good.”
“Give the sweet darlin’ my apologies. But I think you might be interested in what we got out here.”
“The dame already took a hike. What’ve you got, Kroeg . . . ? Out where? This better be damn good.”
“Crank up that Ford of yours, if it’s still running. Come on down the Boulder highway, about three miles before the town limits. I think you’ll wanna see this for yourself.”
I was there is forty minutes. Kroeger’s cruiser and a couple more city and county cars were stacked along the right side of the highway. The crowd was mingling on the left. I lit a cigarette, checked left and right, and crossed the road. Flashbulbs where popping where a small group of cops and their legal associates were gathered maybe thirty yards off the pavement. I saw Kroeger’s balding head near the center of the group and headed for it. The small crowd parted for me like the Red Sea as I approached. A couple of the Clark County coroner’s flunkies were still snapping away when I arrived.
“What’ve you got Kroeg?” I said as the big former Army First Sergeant approached.
He stopped a couple feet away and stared me down. “You had breakfast yet, Dinger?”
I told him no, which seemed to please him. “This ain’t pretty, ain’t pretty at all. I think you might know the victim.”
I drew in a deep breath and steeled myself. Since Peleliu and Okinawa, it took a lot to shake my shit. But I knew if Kroeger had something, it must be something I wanted no part of.
He waved for me to follow, and I took several tentative steps in his tracks. Kroeger halted just at the edge of a gentle sloping drop-off from the main trail. “It’s over here, Dinger.” He pointed. “A few feet down the ridge.”
I quickly made up the short distance I’d been lagging behind. Peering over the slope I saw the outline of a body covered with a sheet. I eased past the Las Vegas PD lieutenant and stopped short of the body. Flies were buzzing around in the July heat. Several were crawling at the edges of the sheet which was stained with the blood of whoever was underneath. I could make out the heads and tails of the victim, but I was in no hurry to touch anything.
“Go ahead, take a look. The camera boys are done; got all they need,” Kroeger said, fanning himself and shooing away flies with his sweat-stained Fedora.
I took a breath, bent over and lifted the edge of the sheet off what I figured was the head of the victim. My stomach lurched. Despite the throat being cut from ear to ear, and the once beautiful face crushed in by what looked to be the work of a sledge hammer, I knew who it was. The tiny tell-tale mole on the upper full left breast said it all—Sara Levitz, former showgirl with the Desert Sands. She had come to me a couple months ago, begging me to get her away from the clutches of Bernie Bonomo, one of the heavies at the Sands who kept the employees in line. Bernie “Bones” wasn’t your typical Boy Scout. He had a reputation for keeping the dancing girls corralled and obedient, never backing away from using the proverbial bullwhip to teach the young cows a lesson in not straying from the herd. This time he’d gone overboard with young Sara.
“Recognize her, Dinger?” Kroeger said as I let the sheet drop over what once upon a time had been the face of a princess. A face I had adored, even loved. But our short-lived affair had ended with Sara handing me back the bus ticket to Indianapolis I’d bought for her, with the promise I’d meet her there in a couple weeks after I’d taken care of business to insure nobody would trace us down. The bright lights and allure of Hollywood beckoned, she’d told me. Bones had promised to back off—at what cost I could only imagine. And now . . . this.
“Nah, don’t think so,” I said. “Looks like the kid had a little disagreement with whoever she was working for.”
“C’mon, Digger. Ain’t that the broad you were helping get away from the Sands a few months back?”
I stood up and turned to face Lieutenant Kroeger, LVPD. “No Kroeg, you know them showgirls all start looking alike after awhile. Sorry I couldn’t make this an easy wrap for you.”
Two weeks later I had what I needed. Bernie Bonomo had the use of one of the Sands’ three hundred rooms when they weren’t booked full. I’d staked him out enough nights to know his routine: bullshit one of the new girls with promises he couldn’t keep, take the young dumpling back to his room, and enjoy. It sickened me to know that Sara had followed Bones’ same routine with lights of Hollywood stardom flashing in her pretty blue eyes.
I waited until 3 a.m. when Bernie and a blonde who looked like she might pass for eighteen entered the room and shut the door behind them. After thirty minutes or so, the lights went out. A little after five I made my move. The Sands was a ritzy place, but they weren’t particular when it came to door security. Basic, inexpensive hardware for their doors. It took all of ten seconds to pick the lock. Maybe it was his impatience to get to his new meat, but Bernie hadn’t even bothered with the chain lock on the door. I eased it open and flipped on the lights.
“What the fu—!” were the last words that foul mouth uttered. My first round entered precisely through Bernie’s forehead, almost dead center an inch above his panic-stricken eyes. That was enough, but I walked over and placed a coup de grâce through his hairy-covered heart just for emphasis. Blondie, good girl as she proved to be, was too terrified to even scream. I pulled a couple of C-notes from my coat pocket and told her to get the hell out of Vegas as soon as she could—meaning that morning. As far as I know, she complied.
Yeah, Kroeger and his cohorts came calling later that morning. Me? I didn’t know a damn thing they were talking about. The murder weapon, a .38 snub-nose with the numbers filed off, would never be traced even if the piece was ever found, which had less than the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell.
That night I rolled out my bed and slept the sleep of those who’ve never had shit interfere with their perfect lives. Who knew what the morrow would bring? But tonight, I reveled in the dream world of the innocent.
Until the redheaded waitress from Joella’s Diner crawled in the sheets with me.