A Kiss Like Money
A Conner Samson Story

by Victor Gischler


......Most of the hardcore rummies, the derelict gin monkeys, the beer bellies and the winos had already drifted out for the evening. Two a.m. was closing time at Salty's, but Sid didn't shoo me off my barstool. He was a good egg, old Sid. I was face deep into my fifth vodka martini. Tony, the one-armed pool hustler, who'd been hanging around the place about a month, leaned over the jukebox pondering his next selection. It took about five minutes and twenty bucks to teach me not to play pool with him anymore. My pal Detective Sergeant Frank Morgan was relieving his much-abused bladder in the smelly trough which passed for a men's room when the safecracker spilled into the saloon, clutching his guts and leaving a trail of blood.

......"Holy Christ!" Sid dropped a tray of beer mugs and rushed to the safecracker.

......Johnny Amir was a squat little Egyptian with one eye and soft hands who Frank had sent up with my help three years ago. The rest of his gang had gotten away. Frank and the boys in blue had squeezed him pretty good, but he wouldn't give up his partners in crime.

......Sid folded an apron under Amir's head. "He's still breathing, Conner."

......I reached across the bar and dialed 911. "Send an ambulance. Salty's saloon on the beach. Hurry." I hung up and told Sid, "They're on the way. How is he?"

......"Looks like he's got a couple of slugs in the gut. He's a mess. Look at the blood. Christ there must be a gallon of it."

......Tony tried to shoulder his way in, get a look at Amir.

......Sid pushed him back. "Don't crowd. This guy's in bad shape."

......Tony frowned but stayed out of the way. "I was just trying to lend a hand."

......Every one-armed guy's favorite joke.

......Frank stumbled out of the can struggling with his fly. "What the hell's this?"

......"Johnny Amir," I told him. "Gut shot."

......"I think he's trying to talk," said Sid.

......"Back off," said Frank. "Give him some room." Frank knelt next to him, and when the Egyptian tried to talk it came out like a sad little croak.

......"Just whisper," said Frank. "Don't strain yourself." So he leaned in close. Amir's lips moved.

......In ten minutes, the place swarmed with uniforms. A pair of defeated paramedics zipped Johnny Amir into a body bag and rolled him away. Behind the bar was the best place to keep out of the way, so I helped myself to another martini. A uniformed cop approached and handed me a sour look.

......"Taking advantage of the self-service policy, pal?" asked the cop.

......"I don't get enough olives the other way."

......"Funny guy, huh? How about I let you dry out at the station?

......Frank saved me. "That's Conner Samson, Eddie. Lay off. He's okay, he's with me."

......"The private dick?"

......"Private investigator," I told him.

......He ignored me and told Frank, "Okay, Sarge. I'll leave him to you."

......When Eddie'd gone, I asked Frank, "So what's the story?"

......"Not now, Conner. I'll call you tomorrow."

......Frank was a professional hardass, but I could see he was even more sour than usual. I called a cab, went home and slipped into martini dreams.

****

......Frank's jackhammer knock on my apartment door pulled me out of bed at the crack of noon. My tongue tasted like five miles of dirt road, and I could only get one eye open. The summer Florida sun leaked through the blinds. I struggled into my robe, had the other eye open by the time I let Frank in.

......He came bearing gifts. Two big styrofoam cups of black, black coffee and a paper bag full of bearclaws. We parked at my kitchen table. I crawled into the cup of coffee with gratitude. The bearclaws were for Frank. He was short and round and bald and married, and a bearclaw might've been the only thing giving him the will to live each morning.

......"You look like shit, Samson."

......"I wish I felt as good as I looked."

......"Well, shake the cobwebs out and listen up," said Frank. "I just drew two weeks vacation from the department. I told the old lady we're going fishing."

......I sipped my coffee. "I got nothing against the fish."

......"We're not really going fishing, you dumb shamus. I got a proposition for you." He finished the last half of his bearclaw in one bite and washed it past his throat with a hot gulp of coffee. "Let me tell you a story."

......"Okay."

......"Some of this you know already, but just listen," said Frank. "A few years ago, we sent Amir up for cracking an office safe over at Westinghouse. He'd planned to pawn some manufacturing secrets to a rival company. He slipped up, got himself nabbed and copped a plea."

......"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I played along, "and then he copped a plea. So?"

......"So," Frank bit into another bearclaw, before he continued, "about three weeks before, there was a bank heist. The University of West Florida Credit Union. Remember?"

......I remembered. It had been splashed all over the papers for months. Every two weeks, the credit union cashed state paychecks as part of its service to the campus. Teachers, students, custodians, anyone who drew a state paycheck could cash it at the union, so they stockpiled cash the night before every payday in preparation for the rush. If I remembered correctly, the bandits made off with nearly three hundred thousand dollars. The money was never recovered, the robbers never caught.

......"We knew Amir was in town," continued Frank. "Famous safecracker and all. The grapevine told us where to find him, so we were on him pretty quick after the heist. We leaned on him good, but the guy was a clam. And we weren't able to uncover any physical evidence linking him to the crime."

......"Maybe it wasn't him," I suggested. "If he was in town to pull the Westinghouse job, it might just be a coincidence."

......"Coincidence." Frank said the word like it had taken a crap in his mouth. "I might not of had anything on the guy, but I've been a cop for nineteen years. I can smell a crook. Amir was the safecracker for the credit union heist. You can hang your hat on that. When we busted him for the Westinghouse job, I found this on his key ring."

......Frank fished a silver key with big teeth out of his pocket and pushed it across the table. I picked it up and took a squint at it. Not a house or car key, and the teeth were too big to be a safety deposit box. "A lock box maybe or a footlocker."

......"Good eye. I got a footlocker at home, and the key for it's almost exactly the same. It's a good-sized locker. Big enough to hold three hundred thousand in cash by my estimation."

......"That's kind of a stretch. Maybe the guy kept his comic book collection locked up."

......Frank shook his head. "We checked his house and his car. We also went over the Westinghouse offices. It doesn't fit anything, and it's not a bus station or airport locker key. I asked him about it in interrogation, but he claimed he'd never seen it before. Okay, maybe it's a stretch like you say, but I don't think so. I'm going on my gut. I admit that. But I want that money. Help me, and I'll cut you in for half."

......That woke me up, and I forgot my hangover. "Did I hear you right, Frank?"

......His face clouded, and he sat back in his chair. "Listen to me, Conner. In a few years, my time's up. You know what a cop's pension is? Peanuts. I've been shot at, cursed at and spit on. Every junkie with a box cutter has tried to take a chunk out of me. And what's my reward? A gold watch and a plot in the old cop's graveyard. The insurance company's already made good on the money, and the safecracker's caught two bullets. Why should we let all that dough go to waste?"

......"Why me?"

......Frank laughed. "Not everyone wants to talk to a cop. You look up your contacts, and I'll look up mine."

......"I don't know, Frank."

......"What was your last job? Some broad that thinks her old man is putting it to his secretary? Peeping in some windows? What'd you get paid for that?"

......"Not much."

......"So give yourself a break. Tell you what. If we use up my vacation time and haven't found the money, we'll call it quits. But if we find it . . . " he trailed off letting his big grin finish the story for him.

......"A footlocker key. Not much of a lead, buddy."

......"Don't get me wrong," said Frank. "I'm not proposing we run around Pensacola with shovels digging for buried treasure. Amir told me something when he was lying there on the floor bleeding in Salty's. He said "Pretty penny."

......"What's that supposed to mean?"

......Frank said, "It's worth three hundred thousand to find out."

****

......I putzed around in my bathrobe awhile, poring over the copy of the police file Frank had left. Although I remembered the big bank job from the newspapers, it was good to plug the holes of my Swiss cheese memory. The investigators at the time figured three people for the job. Amir, of course, had been the safe man. Another guy had helped him, kept watch and filled in on odd jobs while Amir applied his expertise.

......I decided to concentrate on the third guy.

......According to Frank's report, the robbers hadn't forced their way in. So the cops on the case figured an inside man. Terrence Ladd had been branch manager at the time. Not only did he have a key and the codes, but a recent merger had made his position obsolete. The police had had enough to pick up Ladd for questioning, but his lawyer bee-lined to the station and sprung Ladd before the cops could lean on him too hard. He'd been out just long enough to eat a bottle of sleeping pills, and too many people took his suicide as an admission of guilt to bother continuing the investigation.

......The file had listed a wife. Anne. But she'd moved back to Michigan to be near her sister after the suicide. The daughter, Penelope, was a student at the University of West Florida across town. It took about a split second of thought to shorten Penelope to Penny, so I looked up her address in the phone book, hopped in my Plymouth Fury and paid her a visit.

****

......"Conner Samson." Penelope Ladd held my business card like it was radioactive. "Private Investigator." She looked up at me from the lounge chair, shading her eyes against the sun. "You're tall."

......"I've been practicing."

......"Funny too. What can I do for you, Conner Samson?"

......I pulled up one of the other deck chairs near the swimming pool. I'd found Penelope's apartment, and her roommate had informed me she was catching her afternoon ration of ultraviolet. She was getting a tan all right, and she was good at it. She was a career blonde with long legs and a taut belly. Her breasts were small but stood up for themselves. There wasn't much to her electric orange bikini, and she had some bright, thin lines on her hips and around her arms where she'd recently traded in her swim suit for one of a different cut.

......"I'm looking into something, and I was hoping you could answer a few questions."

......"What're you looking into?" Her smile was big and white and full of trouble.

......"Some old business." I fished a cigar out of my pocket, unwrapped it and stuck it in my face without lighting it. "Can I call you Penny? Pretty Penny?"

......"Pretty Penny," she repeated wistfully and turned the volume up on her smile. "My father used to call me that."

......"Terrible thing, his suicide."

......Her smile hit a bump in the road, caved in a little around the edges. "I think I know the old business you're talking about."

......"An Egyptian safecracker named Johnny Amir fell dead at my feet the other night. That sort of stirred things up again."

......"I'll tell you what I told the police three years ago," she said. "My father didn't have anything to do with the robbery. I don't expect anyone to believe me. The police didn't, and of course I was just eighteen at the time. I don't see what good it is dragging it up now. But I know in my heart my father was innocent."

......"A lot of people thought him guilty when he took the pills."

......She sighed, sat up in the lounge, fixed me better with a hard look. "It was a bad time for my father then. He was losing his job. My mother wanted a divorce. They were waiting for me to start college to make it final. When they arrested him, it was the last straw."

......"I'm sorry."

......"Don't be, Mr. Samson. I'd like to know what you think I can tell you."

......"I'm not sure," I said. "But when the Egyptian died, the last thing he said was "pretty penny." I suppose it's some kind of coincidence."

......"I'm sure I don't know." She stood and wrapped a towel around herself. "I'm going in now. Before I start to burn."

......"Thanks for your time...pretty Penny."

......She shot me a dagger look over her shoulder on the way up to her apartment.

......I slunk back to my Plymouth and sat in the driver's seat. I didn't bother cranking the ignition because I didn't know where I was going. My chat with Penelope Ladd had been a bust. Pretty Penny. Those words had to mean something. But aside from a lounge chair full of eye candy, I hadn't gotten much out of my morning. I cranked the Plymouth , planning to drive out to campus and take a look at the scene of the crime, when Penny came bounding out of her apartment complex.

......She'd slipped into a pair of white shorts and a blue tanktop. Her sandals flop-flop-flopped out to a red Nissan. She hopped in and sped away. I gave her a little lead and followed in the Plymouth.

......I trailed her down Scenic Highway and over the bridge into Gulf Breeze. I kept three or four cars back the whole time, but I didn't get the feeling she was looking in her rearview mirror too much. We turned along the coast road until we hit Old Navy Cove where she hooked a left into Jerry's Marina. I parked at the bait and tackle shop across the street and lit my cigar.

......Penny left the Nissan and skipped down one of the docks between a line of boats. Jerry's was a small marina on one of the waterways so none of the boats were too big, certainly nothing commercial. There was no way I could follow her down the dock without risking her catching me coming back the other way, so I fished the copy of the police file out of the back seat for a little light reading.

......During his initial investigation, Frank had interviewed a couple of campus cops who'd stumbled onto the tail end of the robbery. They'd squeezed off a few bullets at the two fleeing bandits, and one of the cops claimed to have winged one of them. They found a few splatters of blood, but a sweep of the area hospitals had come up empty.

......I'd smoked half the cigar, when Penny came back down the dock. She had a puzzled look on her face. When she got in her car, I had a decision to make. I could keep following or see what was at the end of the dock. I flipped a mental coin and watched the Nissan speed away.

......I strolled down the dock, eyeing the boats, chewing the stub of the cigar, half expecting what I'd find. The cabin cruiser was about ten years old and in good shape, nice lines, maybe twenty-six feet with a pair of husky inboards. Across the stern in fancy blue script was the ship's name. Pretty Penny.

......If Penny had just been through her, I didn't really think I could do any better, but I shrugged knowing I'd have to give it a shot. I stepped aboard and went through the boat by the numbers. The first thing I found was the registration in Terrence Ladd's name. If Penny had inherited the boat, she hadn't bothered to change over the title. A red footlocker in a closet all the way forward held a first aid kit and a flare gun but nothing like a big wad of cash. I slumped into the pilot's chair and scratched my chin. A framed map hung over the wheel and beneath the two-way radio. It was one of those souvenir charts of Santa Rosa Island the locals push on the tourists, stained brown around the edges to look like pirate parchment with a campy cartoon drawing of old Fort Pickens out on the western most tip. It wasn't anything you'd want to navigate by, but maybe it was Terrence Ladd's idea of nautical decor.

......I didn't know what else I could accomplish at the marina, so I got back in the Plymouth and headed for home. Just over the bridge, I spotted an old yellow pickup truck in the rearview mirror. I thought I'd seen it tailing me earlier that morning, but had put it down to paranoia. But the truck definitely seemed familiar.

......I took a couple of experimental turns, and the truck stayed close. But not close enough to get a good peek at the driver. I stood on my brakes and took a sudden right without signaling, then zigzagged through a residential neighborhood. I came out Ninth Avenue, satisfied I'd thrown him off. He may have been connected to the case somehow, but it was more likely one of my creditors out for his pound of flesh.

......At home, my answering machine blinked at me like a Christmas tree on crack, but I didn't have the heart to check it. I was tired and out of ideas, so I hit the sack.

......I didn't get much of a nap, though. I kept tossing and turning with the idea that something right under my nose didn't smell right. Finally, I gave up and made myself a pot of coffee and gulped down two cups. I checked the answering machine. All six messages were variations on a theme. I should go to the hospital, they told me. Frank Morgan had caught a bullet in the back.

****

......"It's was just before dawn," said Frank, "when the old lady heard something knocking around downstairs." Frank looked like hell and was setting some kind of world record for having tubes sticking out of him. The doctor had told me they'd dug a 9mm chunk of lead out of him, but it hadn't hit anything vital. They had him on his side now in the hospital bed. He looked pale and haggard.

......"So you went down to investigate." I asked, "Didn't you have your service revolver handy?"

......"It's on the nightstand," said Frank. "But the cat thinks she should be fed before the paper boy comes, so she's always making some racket. I thought I'd open a can of tuna-liver-whatzit and get back to bed. Thing is, I got downstairs, and it was obvious some one had taken the credit union file. I had it wrapped up in a couple of rubber bands on the dining room table, and I noticed right off it was missing. Well, that got me the rest of the way awake. I turned around to run back upstairs and grab the pistol. I got maybe three steps when I heard the shot and felt the slug in my back. Next thing I know I'm kissing carpet and the old lady's screaming her head off. I faded out, then woke up after surgery."

......"That's some story."

......"First thing I do when I come to is have one of the nurses dial your number. Flash a badge and you usually get service, even if your bare ass is hanging out a hospital gown."

......"You were afraid I wouldn't come visit?"

......"Ha-ha, wise-ass." He winced so hard I almost hurt. He talked tough, but he was in bad shape. "Anyhow," said Frank, "You needed to be told. If I was shot because I'm poking my nose into that credit union hold up, you may be next."

......"Only kryptonite can hurt me."

......"Yeah, well--ugh. Geez, I think my dope's wearing off. Call the nurse, will you, Conner?"

......I hit the button, and the nurse knew what to bring. She injected the painkiller directly into the tube that flowed into Frank's left arm. I saw relief immediately wash over him. That was strong stuff, and he'd be out soon.

......"I'm out of the loop for awhile," he said weakly. "You keep poking around."

......"I might have to make some executive decisions."

......"You're . . .in charge." He could barely keep his eyes open.

......Then it hit me. Why I couldn't get a nap earlier, what was bugging me about this case. "Frank, why did Amir go to Salty's when he was shot?"

......"Salty's. . .Amir."

......"Frank, listen." I leaned in close, pronounced my words clearly. "Did you know Amir would be there? Was he looking for you?"

......"I'm sorry," said the nurse. "He needs to rest."

****

......The thought was clear now, and I didn't like it. The idea that Frank was more connected than I'd first thought with the credit union hold up. Not that he'd help stick the place up. I couldn't quite swallow that. But maybe he'd cut a deal with Amir. Maybe he'd sent Amir up for the Westinghouse job to keep the money safe, to keep Amir away from his partners. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. I could choke a hippo with so many maybes.

......At home, I had a visitor.

......Penny Ladd had draped herself across the two steps that led up to my ground floor apartment. She wore the same tanktop and shorts, and her skin glowed bronze in the waning rays of the day's red sun. She nudged a pair of sleek sunglasses to the end of her nose and regarded me over the dark lenses.

......"I think we got off on the wrong foot this morning," she said. "I thought maybe if you were looking into what happened with my father, it might not be a bad thing. It might be something that could clear his name."

......She was offering a way we could be okay with each other, and I hopped aboard. "That's right. I'm just trying to find out the truth."

......"Can we talk about it?"

......I climbed the steps past her and unlocked my front door. "Come in. Want a drink?"

......Her smile came back full volume. "I'll have whatever you're having."

......Inside, I built us a pair of vodka martinis. She choked on the first one. The second went down a little easier, and by the third it was like mama's milk. I made mine weak and nursed them along. She talked about her father.

......"It just seems like yesterday he was hanging my grade school art projects on the refrigerator." She leaned across my kitchen table, ripped a clean sheet of paper out of the spiral notebook I used to keep track of my thoughts. "At Thanksgiving, I made him a hand turkey." She put her thin, brown hand over one of my hairy paws, placed it in the center of the page, traced an outline of my hand with a blue pen. She finished the turkey after I removed my hand, the fingers as the tail, the thumb the turkey's head and neck. "Of course, I had a full set of crayons in the first grade."

......I smiled at her. "I think I filled a whole closet with popsicle-stick sculpture. You should have heard my old man gush. You'd think I was Leonardo Da Vinci."

......I was aware her hand was still on mine, and she was aware I was aware and let it stay. She was warm. She pulled away from me slowly, her eyes full of promises.

......"I meant to tell you. My father's boat is called Pretty Penny. I suppose it's my boat now."

......"Really?" I kept my voice neutral.

......"I went out there to take a look," said Penny. "I couldn't imagine what it might have to do with anything, but I couldn't stop thinking about it." As she talked, she absently flipped over the turkey-hand drawing and drew a near perfect copy of my hand.

......"That's good," I said. "You didn't have to trace that time."

......She laughed. "Actually, I did trace. The pen marks push through from the other side. I just drew over them." She pushed paper and pen aside and asked, "Why don't you come out to the boat with me? Have a look around. Maybe you'll see something I didn't."

......I didn't want to confess I'd followed her, so I agreed to meet her the next afternoon at the marina. She gave me directions, and I nodded like it was all brand new. I told her I had to visit a friend in the hospital and I'd see her on the deck of the Pretty Penny about four o'clock.

......She kissed me goodbye, and her taste lingered a long time.

****

......I dressed for boating, deck shoes, khaki shorts, green polo shirt.

......The nurses at the hospital told me Frank had just taken another dose of pain reliever. He was out like a light. I asked the nurse to mention I'd stopped by.

......I chipped the hours away with small errands. I filled up the Plymouth with premium. At the supermarket, I bought a sixpack of Mexican beer, cold cuts, rye bread and potato salad.

......At Jerry's Marina, I passed a leather-faced old salt at the rental counter. "Nice day to sail. You want a boat for the afternoon? Fish or ski."

......"No thanks. I'm on the way out to the Pretty Penny."

......His smile became half leer. "I seen that boat. She comes well equipped."

......I found out what he meant. Penny was on deck in one of those red, white and blue American flag bikinis. Her skin glistened with oil. She smiled big as I approached and waved me aboard. We ate on deck, then moved into the little cabin below to finish the beer.

......We kissed lightly at first, but soon I shucked my clothes and untied her bikini. Her hands worked over me, fingers lingering on old scars. It was hot in the cabin, no breeze, and our sweat and oil mixed. After, we lay in the sheets sticky with suntan oil. Penny's breathing was steady. She'd eased into sleep, coiling like a child next to me.

......But for me, it was too hot to sleep. I climbed out of the tight cabin, back to the pilot's station aft, out in the open air. I sat on the stern trying to catch the breeze off the water. I thought long and hard about Johnny Amir and his box of money. He'd said "Pretty Penny." Frank was very definite. But if the money wasn't here on the boat, then something else was. Some clue. Something that would tell Frank where to look. Why Amir would confide this information to Frank was a problem I filed away for later. So I sat there thinking around and around in circles, squinting hard at the souvenir map of Santa Rosa Island over the pilot's wheel.

......The sun was sinking fast now, the last rays glinting off the glass in the map's frame. I thought about Penny tracing a perfect outline of my hand using the pen marks on the other side, and rose slowly, took the map in my hands, knowing what I'd find. I found where the back of the frame had been taken apart and not put back together quite right. I took it apart slowly, separated map from frame, turned it over, and it was all there.

......Thank you, Johnny Amir.

****

......"You mean it's been here the whole time?" Penny held Amir's map with reverence. The safecracker had used the souvenir drawing of Santa Rosa Island as a guide for his own map. He'd traced the shape but filled in directions, channel markers and mileage-everything someone might need to track down the hidden loot.

......"Yeah." I didn't say what we both knew, that the map was hidden aboard her father's boat, and any notion that he might have been innocent floated away when I found it. If she didn't want to talk about it, that was fine by me.

......I flipped on the Pretty Penny's running lights and eased her into the channel. The inboards chugged steadily, and I pointed the bow toward Santa Rosa Island. Amir's map clearly indicated we'd need to sail for the western most tip of the island where I supposed a circled dollar sign meant the money was located. No "x marks the spot" for Johnny Amir.

......Beside me, Penny stood rigid with anticipation, her little hand on my forearm squeezing just a bit tighter with each mile that passed. Soon we rounded the buoy which marked where the channels crossed, and I knew we were close. I brought the boat near to shore and when we reached the fishing pier-rebuilt after the last hurricane-I pulled along side and tied her off near one of the ladders.

......Penny strapped a fanny-pack around her waist, claiming it was handier than a purse.

......"I don't think you're going to need anything," I said.

......"A girl never knows."

...... We climbed up to the pier, and old Fort Pickens was lit from the bottom by the ground lights. It looked ancient and eerie in the clear night. If a park ranger came by, he'd send us away, but in the meantime, we had the place to ourselves.

......"This is it, isn't it?" Penny's voice was low with awe. "It's here."

......"Let's see." I held the map up to the moonlight. Amir wasn't a bad artist, those safecracker's hands, I guess. He'd drawn a row of cannons facing the gulf, and the dollar sign was drawn over the third. We hiked around the outside of the fort until we came upon a gun emplacement which guarded the approach between the island and the mainland. We counted three cannon, and Penny looked down the dark barrel.

......"It's cemented over," she said.

......"Amir wouldn't have hidden it there," I said. "Kids would find it."

......"Underneath?"

......"Maybe." I knelt next to the cannon. It was raised on a wooden platform so it could fire over the rampart. I ran a hand along its smooth surface, but found no sign the planks had been forced apart. In front was a different story. Three of the boards looked newer then the ones adjacent. The nails were newer too. Could it have stayed under there three years? It was nailed up tight. No reason to move the cannon.

......"I need something to pry with."

......"I'll look around." Penny was gone five minutes before returning with a claw hammer.

......"Where'd you get that?"

......"They're working on the restrooms by the pier. There was a pickup with a toolbox. I had to knock off the padlock with a rock."

......"Good girl. Was there a prybar?"

......"It was this or a big screwdriver."

......I went to work. I had to bang out the corner of the platform where the planks met to give the claw some purchase, but it was easy after that. I pried out three boards, putting my back into it, trying to find leverage with the hammer's short handle. I was drenched in sweat and dirty when I was finished.

......I had to go flat on my belly and reach in with both hands. The box was actually a green suitcase of thin metal covered with a three-year layer of crud and mold where water had leaked on it. Penny and I stood over it breathless, soaking in the moment before the final unveiling.

......"We're rich, Conner" Somewhere in the back of my brain I realized her quest had shifted gears. She was a treasure hunter now, no longer the avenging daughter out to clear the old man's name. But I was caught in the moment myself and let it pass.

......I didn't have Frank's key, so I banged the lock apart with the hammer, then threw open the suitcase. The money was stacked in neat rows, still bound in the credit union wrappers, pristine bills, twenties and fifties and hundreds. The smell of money wafted over us.

......From behind, a husky voice growled, "Let's not make any sudden moves, okay?"

......Penny coughed up a startled yelp. I turned slowly. Tony Dale stepped out of the darkness like a ghost, an automatic pistol in his one good hand. His eyes shifted from me to Penny to the money.

......"I thank you for finding my money," said Tony. "I've been waiting a long time for it." He tapped his empty sleeve with the gun. "Took a bullet for it."

......Something in my head clicked. "You had a little trouble following me yesterday, didn't you Tony." I finally remembered where I'd seen the yellow pickup before, in the parking lot of Salty's Saloon.

......His grin wasn't friendly. "You threw me off pretty good, Samson. I guess you know your business. Penny was much easier. I waited at the marina about two hours when it occurred to me you might take off somewhere in the boat, so I rented one myself right before the guy closed up shop. It was a lot easier to follow you by boat. I just kept my running lights off and stayed back far enough so you wouldn't catch on."

......"Now what?"

......"Now you and Penny carry that suitcase of money back to the boat and we get out of here. I don't want any trouble. When we get back to the marina, you two can tie each other up or something. As long as I get a head start."

......We carried the money back to the Pretty Penny, and Tony kept his gun on me while I started the boat. I'd thought I might make a play for him when he tried to negotiate the ladder, but the pier wasn't that high up and he made the jump with no problem. So I steered the boat into the channel and we made for Jerry's Marina.

......In the boat, Tony and Penny sat on opposite sides of the stern while I steered.

......"I suppose that's a 9mm you got there, Tony?"

......"What about it?"

......"Nothing. It's just that Frank Morgan's in the hospital right now cause he took one in the back. I was just wondering how the ballistics would match up."

......"It was a shame," said Tony. "All I wanted was the files. If the guy would've just stayed asleep, he'd still be okay."

......"I owe Frank an apology," I said. The channel buoy sprang up ahead of us in the distance, its red light bobbing with the current. I pointed the boat right at it, but it was still a ways off. I turned to face Tony and kept talking. "I wondered why Amir would come to Salty's to spill his secrets to a cop. Now I realize Amir was there to see you, Tony. Amir was so out of his mind from blood loss, he didn't know who he was talking to. Frank must have suspected your involvement and had been keeping an eye on you for three years."

......Tony laughed. "Yeah, the three of us made an unlikely team. Me and Johnny Amir and-"

......The silver automatic in Penny's hands spat fire twice, and Tony fell to the deck dropping his pistol and grabbing at his belly. I'd seen Penny fumbling with the fanny-pack while Tony and I were talking, but I hadn't realized what she was up to until the gun had flashed in the moonlight. By then it was too late. Tony groaned on the deck half unconscious.

......She fired again. Tony twitched and died.

......"It's done," said Penny. "The money's ours."

......"It's not done," I said.

......She swiveled the gun in my direction. "What are you talking about?"

......"You shot Tony twice in the belly, the same way you shot Amir."

......"No."

......"Yes. You were in it with Amir and Tony. You had access to your father's key and alarm codes. You were in on the robbery. That's why your father committed suicide. He was wrongly accused, but he couldn't-or wouldn't-turn over his own daughter to protect himself. When Amir came to you after he got out of the pen, you shot him. I haven't quite figured that part all the way yet. Maybe you wanted to cut Tony out of it, but Amir wouldn't go along. It doesn't matter. It had to be you who shot the safecracker."

......"That's ridiculous. Tony shot the cop. He shot Amir too."

......"Sorry, honey. Tony was at Salty's that night when Amir came stumbling in. I saw him myself."

......And I thought all of a sudden that I might have been a little too clever for myself. She set her jaw and lifted the gun toward my midsection. She was too far for me to make a play.

......The boat shuddered like a train wreck when it collided with the buoy, jerking to port with the horrid screech of fiberglass on metal. Penny was thrown against the gunwale but managed to hang onto the pistol. But it gave me an opportunity, and I was on her. She tried to bring the pistol around again, but I caught both her wrists, twisted hard, and she dropped the gun into the water.

......She fought a moment, but I was stronger and she gave up quickly, melting against me. "Conner, please. We've got the money. We could go away. We could take the boat to Mexico. You could have me." She glanced down the length of her own body, and then her eyes rose up slowly to burn into mine, in case I didn't get it.

...... Her lips found mine, and for a moment, I yielded. I kissed back hard. But her kiss was like the money, sweet and alluring, but too many men had died for it. "I'm sorry, Penny. I truly am." I reached for the radio. Pensacola PD would meet us at the marina.

****

......"What did you tell them?" Frank was sitting up now. He looked better, but not happier.

......I shrugged. "That I was helping you on an old case. They took the money, but you've been put in for a commendation."

......"Great. Maybe they'll give me a medal," said Frank. "Something to pin on my dress uniform when they lower me into the ground."

......"Yeah, well what was I going to do, shoot her? I mean, c'mon, Frank."
He grunted, and made a dismissive, sweeping gesture with his hand, but the question hung in the air.

......"Look, I'll buy you a drink when you get out of this place." And then there wasn't much left to say. I made some goodbye noises and left.

......I didn't figure Frank was in the mood to hear what the police had found after an early morning search of Penny's apartment. Letters. A whole stack of them between her and Amir going back two years. She'd been writing him in the pen twice a week detailing how they'd get together when Amir was released and how she'd look after the money if only he'd tell her where it was. Amir was smart not to tell her, but not smart enough. When Amir was finally released, he'd found out there was a lot more to Penny than a tan and a smile.

......I hopped into the Plymouth and pointed it toward Salty's, stuck a cigar in my mouth. I wanted a vodka martini and to see if there was anybody left in the place I still knew.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Victor Gischler.


Victor Gischler's fiction has appeared in Blue Murder, Cozy Detective, Panic Attack, Plots With Guns, HandHeldCrime and elsewhere. His short story "Hitting Rufus" was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 1999.

Victor also perpetrates Hardboiled Dixie, a regular on-line column that appears on Themestream. He's also one of the few people to interview notorious hardboiled crime writer (and possible murderous lunatic) Z.Z. DelPresto, and live.

Another tale from the Conner Samson casebook will appear soon in Nefarious, and a Conner Samson novel is in the works. Victor lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife Jackie. He's currently annoying agents with the
manuscript of his first novel.

And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!




| Table of Contents | Detectives A-L M-Z | Film | Radio | Television | Comics | FAQs |
|
Trivia | Authors | Hall of Fame | Mystery Links | Bibliography | Glossary | Search |
|
What's New: On The Site | On the Street | Non-Fiction
| Fiction | Staff | The P.I. Poll |

Drop a dime. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.
"...and I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

ÿ