Gumshoe Felix Driscoll
takes on the case of...

The Wrong Twin

A 6-Chapter Hard Boiler!

by Darryl Crawford
About the author

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Episode 2: Dangerous Men


  THE SEAFOOD JOINT WAS A SWANKY PLACE on the beach, partially built out over the dancing waves.  I smelled neither grease nor fish in the air outside.  Inside, a plate-glass wall enhanced the view of the water, sparkling in the late afternoon sun.  The dining room was deserted, the supper crowd not due for another hour.  I asked to be seated in Lisa’s section.

A few minutes later a girl with her hair in a bun tip-toed my way, cute in a nautical outfit.  Her beauty seemed more subdued than the girl in all those pictures.  I figured her to be a year or two younger than the missing Starling girl, about nineteen.

She set a glass of iced water on my table.  “I’m Lisa, can I help you?” she said almost shyly.

“I’m working for the Starling family, I’d like to ask you a few questions about Dana.”  

“Okay.  Did you want to order something, too?”   

I got the Friday special from the menu.  Lisa and I talked while we waited for the kitchen.

“I understand you have reservations about Dana’s boyfriend?”

“You’ve been talking to her mother.  She called to talk to me just this morning.”

“She asked I get in touch with you about this man.”

“Vinnie?”

“Uh-huh.  Do you know his last name?”

“Patucci.  Vinnie Patucci.  I can’t stand him.”  She cupped a hand over her mouth.  “I’m sorry!  I shouldn’t have said that.”

“That’s all right, impressions count.  Is he mixed up in any shady dealings that you know of?”

Lisa lowered her voice even though no one could hear us.  “He might be.  I’ve overheard some conversations with Dana.  And, and he carries a gun.  I know that for a fact.”

“What does he carry one for?”  I didn’t mention the automatic in the rig under my jacket.    

Mild contempt colored her words.  “He brags all the time he’s a professional gambler.  He sometimes wins big in Vegas and says he needs a gun in case anyone tries to heist him.”

“Why would Dana be attracted to that kind of man?”

Lisa wrinkled her pretty forehead.  “I guess she only likes the dangerous ones.”  Something told me Lisa did, too.

“The dangerous ones?”

“Yeah, only the wild ones excite her.  That’s her reason.  I guess Dana is a little wild herself, if you know what I mean.”  Lisa looked away from me when she said it.

“I’m afraid I do.  Do you know if Dana’s with Vinnie?”

“Maybe.  It’s not unusual for her to spend time with him, lots of it.  He never spent that much time with me,” she blushed, “I used to date him.  Before Dana.  She’s welcome to him.”

I didn’t believe that but tried to steer her back on track.  “Can you tell me where she is right now?”

Lisa shook her head.  She looked very vulnerable.

“Is she living somewhere other than your apartment?”

She hesitated.  “No.”

Friends will lie for friends.  I saw nothing to be gained by calling Lisa a liar, so I said: “Do you know how I can get in touch with this Vinnie Patucci?”

“Probably at The Carousel.”

“What’s that?”

“Where Dana met Vinnie.  She works there sometimes.”

“Mrs. Starling didn’t say anything about that.”

“Dana’s mother doesn’t know, she wouldn’t like it.”

“Is it the kind of place I think it is?”

She waited a long time before speaking, but it was easier for her to tell me than to tell Dana’s mother.  “It’s a burlesque house, peep shows and stuff.  Dana says that gangsters own it.”

“Why would a girl work in a place like that?” I wondered aloud.

“To meet dangerous men?”

I grinned at her: “You’re wise beyond your years, kid.”   

A bell dinged at the counter in back and she went away for my food.  Lisa gave me directions to The Carousel while I ate.  I left a big tip.  She may not have told the whole truth, but she’d told more than she thought she had.
***
Traffic on the coast highway was sparse and I got to The Carousel before dark.  Slightly out of the way, you had to know where you were going to find it.  The proprietors hadn’t spend a cent on neon or advertising but plenty on landscaping to keep things nice and private. The two-storied building they operated out of looked like old money to me.  Set back among the shade trees, it presented an austere exterior.  A paved parking area in the back was almost full.  At the door I found out the club was for members only.  Twenty of Mrs. Starling’s bucks purchased me a ‘weekend’ membership.

A drink at the bar cost more of her dollars.  I ordered another after the delicious first one.  The main room looked like a poorly-lit ski lodge with lots of tables and chairs occupied by men and women who weren’t their wives.  Available girls sat in clusters, several of them smiled at me.  I smiled back.  I didn’t see anyone resembling the pictures I’d seen of Dana.  Four musicians played a tune with lots of stops and starts in it.  On a small stage a buxom young thing got herself undressed in time with the lurching rhythms.  When she finished a dark petite beauty took her place and the combo grooved into a slinky bump and grind.

Hoods in tuxes watched the clientele from the murky corners, others milled around.  I didn’t see a single one without a bulge under the left armpit.  I recognized one of the guests: Tony the Dentist.  They called him that because he allegedly extracted a couple of teeth from an uncommunicative rival using a pair of pliers.  He and two of his triggermen sat at a table close to the stage.

Would I see Dana in there?  The mysterious Vinnie?  What kind of a play was I going to make?

A redhead with fiery eyes and a lowcut dress about two sizes too small for her strolled over.  “Sitting here by yourself?”

“I guess not anymore.  Buy you a drink?”

“Why not?  I’m easy.”  I made no comment.  Closer up, her eyes looked glazed, like she’d been smoking reefer.

The bartender appeared while we introduced ourselves.  Her name was Suzanne and she wanted a daiquiri.  I ordered one for her and a beer for me.  More dollars on the expense account.

“I ever seen you in here before?”

“First time in.  A friend told me about it, said I could have a real good time here.”

“He wasn’t wrong.”  She giggled, and she was too old to be giggling.

I downed a healthy pull of beer.  Might as well take the bull by the horns: “He told me to look up a girl named Dana.”

Suzanne sniffed.  “I haven’t seen her in here, not yet anyway.”

“Does she work here?” I said with a meaningful look at the stage.

“She might serve some drinks in here but, no, nothing like that, her boyfriend won’t let her.  He’s got his pride, don’t you know?”

“Boyfriend?”

Suzanne fumbled around in a tiny purse for a cigarette.  When she got it lit she put her hand on my knee.  She lowered her voice, “You seem like a nice guy, Felix dear, so take my advice.  I don’t think you wanta be messing around with Vinnie’s girl.”

She was making it easy for me.  “Who’s Vinnie?”

“Vinnie Patucci, he’s a real tough boy.  And let me warn you, he’s very jealous.  Jealous and tough, a bad combination.  He beat some guy up bad in here one night cause he thought he was flirting with his Dana.”

“I’ll try not to be too scared.”

She couldn’t decide whether I was kidding her or not.  So she continued without breaking her train of thought: “All the girls pant for Vinnie Patucci.”  Her eyes spoke volumes.

“Why is that?”  In the last hour I’d met a girl who hated him and another who adored him.  It would be interesting to meet the cause of all this heartache in person.

“Like I said, he’s tough.  And very masculine.”

One of the dangerous boys, I thought.  “What does he do?”  

“Part of it’s just the way he carries himself.  He can have any girl he crooks his finger at.”

I tried to sound only half-interested.  “I meant what’s he do for a living?”

“He’s rich.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

“He plays the tables and the ponies.”

“Apparently the ladies, too.  My friend says Dana is a splendid creature, in his words.”

She sniffed again.  “Don’t I interest you?”

“Don’t be jealous.  My friend told me . . .”

“Just who is this friend of yours anyway?”

I’d pushed too hard.  “You wouldn’t know him.”

“If he comes in here, I know him.”

I flapped an airy hand.  “Forget him, forget Dana and this Vinnie character, too.  Have another daiquiri.”

“Let me visit the powder room first.”  She vanished into an alcove with a cigarette machine against one wall and a row of payphones against the other.  I thought she wouldn’t come back, but she did.  After that the conversation got mundane.  Which suited me.  I shouldn’t be asking too many questions in a place where the staff packed heat.  It’s nice to know that a man can take care of himself, and I can, but a bullet makes no distinctions.

An hour and three drinks later Suzanne said, “Oh, there’s Vinnie now.  Isn’t he gorgeous?”  A cocky young punk in a tan suit and a blue shirt and two-tone shoes made an entrance like he owned the place.  Brillcreme stayed in business because of guys like him.  His hair almost glowed, it curled up in the back.  I failed to see what all the fuss was all about.  He looked like a punk, not an actor.

Tony the Dentist got up to leave as the Patucci kid came in.  They spoke briefly, I couldn’t tell about what.  Both of them looked at their watches.  They weren’t exactly smiling at each other.  Tony headed for the door followed by his two boys.  Vinnie moved away to his table mumbling to himself.  A blonde and a brunette sheathed in evening gowns joined him as soon as he sat down.  A waiter hovered, speaking familiarly to Vinnie.

“If one of those girls is Dana I don’t see what the fuss is all about.” I said to Suzanne.

“I thought I told you she wasn’t here.”

“That’s right, you did.  Wonder where she is.”

“Are you going to start asking questions again?”

“You’re the one who brought it up.”

She looked at me like she was going to sniff again.  “Excuse me for just a second,” she said archly.

“Hurry back.”

She stood up from her barstool and, with her back very straight, walked over to Vinnie, whispered something in his ear.  He looked over his shoulder at me with a sneer forming on his face.  Suzanne departed the room without a backward glance to me.  She went through some parted curtains and I never saw her again.  Vinnie held a hurried conference with the two girls at his table.  Then he pushed his chair back, came over and slid onto the barstool vacated by Suzanne.

He fixed a belligerent stare on me.

Which I ignored.

He asked the bartender for a drink and lit a cigarette.  I sized the kid up with a sidewise glance.  Younger than I’d have thought, early twenties, sober but maybe hopped up, with dull black eyes, an effeminate nose and lips.  Not as tough as Suzanne had thought and certainly no match for Tony the Dentist, but he didn’t come across as a milquetoast either.  He allowed me to see the chrome-plated pistol with pearl grips inside his tan jacket.

“Looking for me, pal?”  His eyes were heavy-lidded.

“Do I know you?”

“You was asking questions about me.”

“I was making conversation with a stranger.”

“More like pumping somebody for information.”

“You the guy who’s engaged to Dana Starling?”

His hostile routine intensified, one of many reactions I had anticipated.  He snarled some foul words to me.

I continued without missing a beat.  “I’m a friend of the family.  The mother’s worried, hadn’t heard from her.”

His oily black eyes shined suddenly.  He raised his voice louder than ever when he said: “You can tell Dana’s mother that Dana’s doing just fine!”

He pushed away from the bar, glanced away from me, then back. I wondered how many of his friends worked in the joint.  My scalp crawled.  Two hoods in tuxes stepped up and stood at each side of my back.

“Any trouble?” one of them asked Vinnie.

“Nah,” he said nonchalantly.  “This gentleman was just leaving, whatn’t you?”

I chuckled, the kid was too young to know better.  There was nothing more to learn in there.  The best thing to have done was leave.  Instead I said to Vinnie, “Why don’t you tell me where I can find Dana?”

Vinnie uttered something uncomplimentary to me, this time in one of the Mediterranean languages.

“Beat it, chum,” said one of the tuxes.  “Leroy here will escort you out.”  He pointed with his thumb at the big bruiser beside him. Leroy smiled an unfriendly smile at me.

I gave them one of my own.  “I’m waiting for my change.”

“You ain’t got no change.  We want you out!”

“And find out what he knows,” Vinnie said to Leroy’s back.

Leroy clamped a big fist around my arm.  Everyone in the room watched the scene play itself out, even the stripper.  I shook loose from Leroy’s grip and headed for the door, in no hurry.  He marched behind me on my heels.  He followed me out into the parking lot...


Back to Episode 1 :Many Faces
On to Episode 3 :Two Holes


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The Wrong Twin is copyright by Darryl Crawford. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)