Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland (Excerpt)

by T. Lee Harris

It was damned cold. I didn’t have any idea how cold that was. The electric company’s digital roadside thermometer was on the fritz, as usual, and the electronic boards spanning the highway blinked between time and road information. The current temperature field was dark which told me something in itself. The software that pushed the boards had a funky little bug in it that made it blow the whole shebang if the mercury dipped below zero degrees Celsius. That was OK. I didn’t really want to know. Damned cold worked―which was more than could be said for my car’s heater. The heater core crapped out the day before, so I was tooling toward Louisville wearing the mega-layered look with windows down to keep the windshield from fogging up. I couldn’t wait to cross the river. The nice, windy river.

Memories of my warm bed tried to seduce me into turning around, but I didn’t have that option. I was the head of the Louisville branch of Trueblood Investigation and Security and it was the second Wednesday of the month. That meant the regular meeting with the regional manager. The guy’s name was O’Malley, he was a dead ringer for Joseph Stalin and he didn’t like me much. The feeling was mutual, but that was too bad. Twenty plus years with the FBI gave me lots of practice fielding bureaucratic wonks. Having a group of home-grown terrorists drop a building on me taught me that there are worse things than being scowled at.

Most mornings, I’m the first into the office and this one was no different. I flipped on the lights, spun the thermostat off night heat and made a beeline for the closet that had delusions of kitchenhood. The pseudo-kitchen had two things to recommend it: the coffee maker and the louvered alcove where the furnace lived. I kicked the louvers open and started a pot of Kona blend.

The telephone rang just as the first fragrant stream of coffee hit the carafe. I debated answering it. Hot coffee versus cold responsibility. Hard call. Turned out I didn’t have to. My receptionist, Wanda Aiken showed up like cavalry in a puffy pink coat.

“I got it, Dallas!” she sang out.

Suited me. Coffee was kicking the crap out of responsibility and there was finally enough in the carafe for a mugful. I poured it off and drank deep. It was strong and almost too hot, but that suited me, too. I backed up against the heating vent and let the warmth from inside and out defrost me as I listened to the murmur of Wanda’s telephone voice. Before long she peeked at me around the door facing. She was wearing her “oooooo I don’t want to tell you this” look. Instead of telling me, she jammed a little yellow call slip in my hand and high-tailed it back to her desk. I looked at the name she’d scribbled at the top and understood. Lt. Ray Levitz of the Louisville police department, homicide division, wanted me to meet him over at the Burgess Insurance Tower construction site ASAP.

I groaned, topped off my elixir of warmth and leaned around the door. “Did you tell him about O’Malley?”

She looked up from carefully threading a hanger into her coat. “Mmmmmm, yeah. But . . . ummmm . . . he said to get your . . . ummmmm . . . backside over there, anyway.”

I cleared my throat to kill a laugh. Levitz damn well didn’t say backside, but Wanda just couldn’t bring herself to say the word ass. Wanda belonged in another century.

Wanda also couldn’t deal with the answering machine, call waiting, the fax machine or the built-in scanner. Why she was comfortable with the computer was anyone’s guess. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that she liked Solitaire. Slow as business had been, she’d gotten in a lot of Solitaire practice.

I was still pondering this when my assistant, Sandy Beech, blew in. Yes, that really is his name. I’ve never met his parents, but they must be truly warped; he has two sisters named Virginia and Myrtle. Sandy stomped and puffed in an effort to warm up. It was surprising he was even chilled given the long woolen coat and python-length knitted scarf he wore. With his frizzy hair, he could have passed for Doctor Who. One look at his face told me he had bad news.

“Sorry, Dallas,” Sandy said, unwinding the scarf. “I’ve been trying to reach my uncle Larry about repairing your car, but he’s still at that NASCAR thing in Alabama.”

Yep. It was bad. Sandy’s uncle was a wizard with cars. In another century he’d have been burned at the stake. “Oh man,” I said. “I was really hoping he could hocus-pocus the heater.”

“I talked to Aunt Jay just a few minutes ago. She thinks he’ll be back tonight, but there’s no way to be sure with Larry.” He pointed at the coffee cup in my hands. “Is there more of that?”

I shrugged toward the kitchenette. He tossed his scarf in the general vicinity of the coat rack and bolted past me. I followed. We’d need another pot before long. I said, “Damn! Any hope for a heat wave before nightfall?”

“’Fraid not.” He stirred another heaped spoonful of sugar into his coffee. Sandy didn’t so much like sweetened coffee as coffee-flavored syrup. How he stayed rail-thin was beyond my comprehension. “The Ohio River Valley is notorious for wild weather swings, but not that wild. You really ought to let me play chauffeur until Larry can get your heater fixed. It’s not healthy driving in this weather without it.”

“Then neither of us would get anything done. Thanks for the offer, but I’ll call around to find a cheap rental today―if O’Malley permits it.”

“O’Malley?” Sandy shot me a deer-in-the-headlights look over the rim of his mug. “Geez, I forgot it was O’Malley Day.”

“It gets better. Look at this.”

Sandy took the call slip. “All this and Levitz, too. What’s he want this time?”

“No clue, but I guess I’ll find out when I get over there.”

“Hey! You’re already juggling fireballs, why don’t I head over and . . . ?”

“Uh uh! You skated out of here last month and disappeared. No way are you going to pull that on me again.” I snatched the message back, drained my mug and plunked it onto the counter. “Especially since you’ll have to mind the office while I go down to find out what Levitz wants. The O’Malley mantra is that we’d have more business if I followed up a few more leads.”

Sandy trailed me out into the office. “You can’t do this to me, Dallas!”

Without another word, I grabbed my coat and ran for it. My plan was to head down the stairs in case O’Malley was coming up the elevator. He wasn’t. He was stepping out of the elevator as I entered the hall.

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