“Yes, and if you want to catch her you’d better hurry. She and her date have already ordered dinner and I suspect they’ll be going somewhere else for dessert.”
It took me fifteen minutes to reach Rickie’s. Nina was starting down the staircase as I was starting up. We met in the middle and she took my arm, leading me to the downstairs bar. She was excited.
“Same table in the corner. Hester is wearing mallard blue tonight. The gentleman is wearing tweed—a little more tony than her usual date. They asked for their check as soon as dinner was served. Good Lord, you look worse than you did this morning.”
“Thank you for noticing.”
“Is that blood?” she asked, noticing the stain on my sleeve—I had changed my jacket but not my shirt.
“You might find this hard to believe since I’m a saloon keeper, but I never encourage customers to drink alcohol. However, in your case …”
“I could use a drink,” I admitted.
She poured one for me on the house. Booker’s neat. The shot was like a cold shower, it jolted my senses, making me more alert. Or maybe it was Nina’s brilliant silver-blue eyes, the way they kind of flickered at me, demanding my attention. The second shot she poured had nearly the opposite effect, quieting my nerves, warming me like the blaze from a fireplace. A feeling of perfect comfort and ease settled over me—the way it does when you unexpectedly find yourself somewhere familiar and safe. But again, I don’t think it was the high-priced bourbon, as delicious as it was. It was Nina. There was an expression of concern on her face that went well beyond caring about my appearance. Suddenly, inexplicably, I felt as if I had known her since the beginning of time.
I asked for a third shot.
Nina refused. “Two ounces of alcohol acts as a stimulant, three is a depressant.”
She would know, I decided. After all, she was a professional.
“How are you doing, McKenzie?” she asked with all sincerity.
“I am so glad to see you,” I blurted out.
“Where did that come from?” The smile on her face told me she didn’t mind my declaration at all.
“This has been one of the hardest days of my life. Yet seeing you tonight makes it all seem—easy.”
“That might be the finest compliment anyone has ever given me. Must be the bourbon talking.”
“It’s not, Nina. Truly it’s not. Believe me, please.”
“I do, McKenzie. Thank you. It’s just that I’m thirty-seven years old now and when I hear a compliment I tend to look to see what’s beneath it.”
“We’ll have to work on that,” I told her.
“First we’ll have to work on your timing.” She moved to shield me from view. I peeked around her at the staircase. Now I knew what mallard blue looked like.
Hester was wearing an ankle-length silk dress that clung to her devious curves like plastic wrap. It was the bluest blue I had ever seen and if the dress had a button, zipper, or snap, I couldn’t find it anywhere—and believe me, I looked hard. Nina gave me a “Hrumph” as I slid off my stool.
“Strictly business,” I promised her.
I feared that Hester might be more alert than Cook had been and search for a tail so I decided to make my move before she and her date made theirs. I brushed past them just outside the door. I gave Hester a hard look but she must have been used to stares from strange men and didn’t acknowledge it. Her date didn’t notice me, either. I went to the Cherokee, which I had parked in the stall directly behind her Audi—her license plate number was already in my notebook. I was on my way to the Paradise Motel before they unlocked the doors of Mr. Tweed’s Volvo.
I parked in the Paradise Motel lot in front of Bungalow Seven and waited. I didn’t wait long. Less than five minutes after I arrived, the Volvo turned in and drove directly to the stall in front of number sixteen. Mr. Tweed walked across the lot to the office. I watched him as he went past. About thirty-five. Sandy-blond hair. Carried himself like he had done this sort of thing before. I waited until they were both inside the bungalow and then jotted down the Volvo’s license plate number. Twelve minutes later I was in the parking lot adjacent to Rickie’s.
I thought about going in for another Booker’s but decided Nina would be too much of a distraction. Besides, I was afraid of bumping into young, beautiful, and smart as hell Jeannie. Nina had promised to call her. Instead I turned on my CD player and listened to some early Johnny Cash while I waited. I should have gone inside. It was almost ninety minutes before Hester and her date returned. Well, at least this one got his money’s worth.