Blackmail in Grand Saline
BOOK ONEóóACEíS STORY
I donít know where you are or what youíre doing at three in the morning, but ninety-nine percent of the time, Arthur Conan Edwards, Ace to my friends, is home alone, wrapped in my Dallas Cowboys blanket, dreaming sweet dreams of beautiful women. The other one percent, Jake Adams exacts his unique form of revenge by waking me. Why? Beats me.
Terri Hart, the woman I met in an earlier case, had the leading role in that nightís dream. My waking process began with Terri lightly raking a fingertip across my cheek. I rolled to my right, toward the center of the bed, and whispered, "Terri." Maybe it was the sound of my voice that finally drove me from sleep, I donít know, but suddenly consciousness was there. Two amber eyes were inches from my nose and a claw gleamed in the moonlight as it reached for my face.
"What the helló" My question disappeared under the buzzing of the telephone. I glared at Sweeper, one of my cats, who now groomed himself. I swear he had a self-satisfied grin on his face. Could he have known the phone would ring? Nah, no way.
I rolled to my left, untangling from the sheets and Striker, my other cat, who had attached himself. Not a simple task. One of those facts of life Iíll never understand is how a twelve-pound cat anchored to a coverlet draped over your body weighs two-hundred-fourteen pounds and has the consistency of a balloon filled with water.
As I wrestled myself free, the accursed phone committed its noise again, and my answering machine kicked in:
Hey, youíve got Ace Edwards here. Give me a name, give me a number and enough to make me want to call you back. When time allows, Iíll be in your ear.
Okay, so my ego might have swelled a little after my back-to-back successes in Cisco and Canton. But I had a few bucks in the bank, a couple of working cases in my files and enough pocket change to buy premium cat food. I didnít have to grovel before prospective clients.
I finally found a phone and cut in on a man who was busy using my microchip to record a tale of woe. Just as he said, "She had pictures," I interrupted.
"Hey, enough, enough. Itís meóAce Edwards. Iím live on the phone. Slow it down a bit."
"Arty, is that really you? Iím so glad I caught you at home. Jake saidó"
"Hold on. Slow down, identify yourself, and then tell me why youíre calling at three in the morning," I managed to say in what I thought passed for a civil tone.
"Itís Johnny, Johnny Nichols. Jake told me to call you. He said youíd get me out of this mess. He saidó"
Since it was my phone and my three in the morning, I cut in again. "Hold it right there, Nichols. Leave Jake out of this and tell me why youíre calling." Nichols. The name faintly dinged in the deep dark recesses of my memory.
"Damn, Arty. Thatís amazing. Jake said youíd get pissed if I used his name. Man, he really knows you."
"Look, either produce a story or hang up. I donít really give a damn which, and donít call me Arty."
"Okay, okay, donít hang up. I need your help. Iím in a bind and need the best PI I can get. JakeóuhóI heard youíre good."
"Youíre getting the idea. Now, what exactly is your problem?"
"Iím being blackmailed."
That got my attention. Blackmailers are the slugs of society, leaving their slimy trail wherever they go.
"By whom?" I asked.
"Iíd rather not say over the phone. In fact, I donít want to say anything else. They took stills, a video and recorded everything. They could have this phone bugged."
He sounded like he might weep at any moment.
"Stop where you are. Hereís what I want you to do. Hang up the phone, get in your car and find a pay phone. Call me from there and weíll talk."
"Yeah, I can do that." He hesitated. "I could if I knew where thereís another pay phone. This is the only one I know. I donít usually use pay phones."
"You mean youíre already at a pay phone?"
"Well, yeah. I couldnít call you from home or my cell phoneónot with this kind of news. If my mother-in-law finds outó"
"Hold it." This conversation seemed to be going nowhere. "If youíre at a pay phone, itís probably safe. Does that sound reasonable?"
"I guess so," he replied. "Youíre the expert. Do you have one of those things that can tell if someone is listening? Jake said . . . oh, I shouldnít have used his name, should I?"
"Thatís okay. Iíll let it ride this time but watch it." If I didnít do something, Iíd never get back to sleep and to my dreams of, oh well, you know. "Tellómeówhyóyouócalled." I hoped heíd move along with his story.
"Iím being blackmailed, and if I donít pay, sheíll tell my, uh, I just have to pay. But, I donít want to. I want the pictures, the negatives, the video, the sound recordingóeverything. I want you to get them. Jake said Arty Edwards is the best. Thatís why I called."
Using that nickname again definitely cemented my attention. "Stop right there. First, donít ever call me Arty again. Nobody calls me that. Especially some guy who wakes me at three in the morning with a story that makes no sense at all. So you have no more than thirty seconds to say something thatíll convince me to stay on the line. Otherwise, itís bye-bye-birdie. Talk."
Twenty minutes later, I had agreed to head east in the morning to meet him for lunch. His story impressed me so much Iíd have left immediately, but I needed someone to cover my other cases. Unfortunately, not all the PIís in Dallas are as understanding as I am when awakened at oh-dark:thirtyóespecially "Kit" Carsen Levitt.