I swilled the first two bourbons, and while our bar-angel made third a charm I swiped Tara's phone. It pealed off her lanky thigh like postage off American made jeans. The Nokia fizzed. Second buzz Vitalle answered ... hacked "Yeah?" He would know ...

"I can't keep them Bimbos straight, Scranton", squawked the cell-phone. "Is the dead one tall or blond."

The plastic mic took a lick and I shouted "Chrissake Tony, that's Bambi -- not bimbo. Tara's a sweetie, a fawn ... now the dead whore ..."

A champaign glass cracked on the bar beside me. "Heh, palsy, whose the bimbo? Better fork over the tin can ... Wii-lyy ... gimme that thing ... I can get handsy!"

In my dreams ... They were long hands, supple and smooth and doe-tan and had been everywhere but Tibet. "Just a second, Tara, this is important. I'll get ..."

"Better get me another." Her face soured. "This mezcal tastes like rabbit guts." She wasn't tall, for a leggy, 6-3 brunette model, and she didn't figure to swing those 36s so fast - not nibbling a pawful of green swank called a Turquoise Torpedo. Not from a peg-leg barstool, so when she grabbed for the cell-phone I dodged a short man's dip into another artful swill of Turkey. It looked natural ... I shoulda been a palm tree. Bonded booze made my head spin, but the cellphone stayed glued to my face and even with the spin and the dip and those unforgiving 36s rap didn't stop.

"Yeah, Tony, plenty dead ... plenty reformed. No bruises on the torso, no new tracks on the arm ... but all the old ones. Oh yeah, one more thing ..."

I got finger-creep on my neck and an earful of red-lip whisper. "A crime reporter, palsy, that's what you should try. Jimmy sez you have a nose for life's bad things."

Life's bad, when a broad not your own gets psychic. My nose pried off the oak bar. I dropped the phone to my lap and stared straight up into Tara's turquoise sparklers. I stuck a Straight into the Zippo and it fumed. She made dirty-face and I said. "Ain't you waitin' for a guy or something ... like Okey - somebodies waiting for me," and except for the toasted ear it froze blood in my veins. Whatever was waiting.

Friday night at the GOTEE Bar & Grill - I'd made fast tracks after reading the evening edition, and seeing the photo - and got the swoon from Tara when I hit the front door - anyplace with people ... lotsa people ... A Coasters tune flipped on the juke - stew-eyed patrons rolled noisy down the stairs from Riverfront Drive and Tara started swaying ... I work Okey, on the move ... It kept my ear suckfaced to the phone - it kept my nose outa trouble. Tara wasn't tall ... for a black-swan in a duck-pond.

She cocked to the side a satin, butterfly hat and made red lips pout. So I patted her knee. Then rapped back confident at the postage-stamp-sized mic. "Same gal! Sure I'm certain, like Jack's gotta box ... no, not that one. The blond whore from North Charleston ... the one who left Erlyne-Eats when Tepy changed the name to Gas-N-Guzzle. Said the name was too tough to pronounce, and it ruined her play ..."

Vitalle howled over the line. "Too bad ... but the dame wasn't paid ta think with her mouth."

Yeah ... too bad ... I yanked a drag from the Straight. "The truck-stop still serving DMT with its blue-plate? Still Rivers Ave? " Vitalle yakked and I said too loud, "yeah ... me neither."

Tara smacked my shoulder with one, exquisite paw. She was still turned on the barstool and nose-hi was shooting me dead - those 36s hadn't missed since the 5th grade. "Don't play that innocent with me, palsy." A sweet voice, not hard, but hot, throaty and had heard all the right answers twice. "You joined 12-step, Will?" Her laugh trickled out. "And you bitch-bitch-bitch about women trashing women."

I didn't touch her paw ... nobody took-away Tara's hand from anything. I winked, but kept with phone-patter to my Charleston pal. "Nervous? Hell no, soon as I finish this anti-freeze. Just figured, Nicky oughta know ... Tepy's murder was his case."

Vitalle swore. "Was ... has been ... passed tense. Got that Scranton!"

Blue. My hand looked blue ... frozen blood will do that. Blue neon winked over the gal slinging booze. I took an earful and said. "He's where on a Friday? With Hricko! On the Cities nickel? I didn't know Baptist coppers heard confessions on Friday."

That put a rude smile at the edges of Tara's lips. They were drop-dead red. She pressed the blackboard-jungle silk-sweater into the bar-rail and looked down at me hopeful. "Make like an ear and listen, will you palsy? Gawd ... Will, give it a rest! I got a career. I have an agent who promised to call ... haven't you coughed a carload?"

Her eyes had widened under smooth creamy brows - the kinda smooth, whipped cream that thoughts wouldn't rattle if they snuck in. She had plenty ... if you could crowbar your eyes from the body. She shook a Straight from my pack. I burned it. She snuck a guilty little puff that wouldn't kill lung-cells in a foetus. The Straight dangled from her lips. "That your pal, your Charleston fatcat pal Vitalle on the telephone?"

I used a crowbar. "Yeah, sweetheart, an old Italian fatcat. He's unhappy, now. Ya know how wops get when they're unhappy ..."

Tara's eyes wrinkled crispy gold veins behind the blue. "Not Sicilian, is he?"

"From the knees up. No more."

"Oh Jeez ... sorry, Will." Tara stretched away from the bar - then her eyes sloed out as she whirled around. "Jim...myyy!" She coulda smoked a live ham with that long, low whistle and even across the room way past the pool table, the fat drunks and biker-gal in low-slung leather I spotted the tall, slim fella. Knit, reddish brows and dark eyes - a suit - but a good looking fella who looked three ways before giving Tara the hi-sign and slo-me-down.

She caught all three. "Moma got busy," Tara swooned sliding smooth off the barstool. "Take care of that cell-phone, will you palsy", she bleated breathy and doed off where the suit was already jawing a fat, shaved-head drunk who talked his whisky and acted optimistic. The suit twisted a thin moustache casual while Tara swooned him - he wasn't an agent so you could tell, but you could tell he had more than ten-percent. He had the gig - I wished him luck and hunched around, behind the Straight to the used blond angel behind the bar but for the smoke ya couldn't see how used. Or how tired ...

She was dipping brandy snifters in soap and didn't spit. "You need sunthin' else?"

"What ya got?"

"Her head flicked toward the pool-room. "Whatcha used to ... palsy." She could barely keep open both eyes. "Compared to that ... I got nothin' at all."

"Make it another Turkey, then, sweetheart."

The blond reached for a wet, soap filled tumbler and ran water near it. "You birds are all the same."

At the duck-pond. "At the black-board, sweetheart", I mumbled to nobody in particular and suckfaced the phone.

It was one of those modern, microsize jobs that stick under a thumbnail - and plastic love gotta taste better to the broad who owns one. I didn't sneer - I didn't know what Nick could do or what Tony figured he could afford. I tried one-plus-one. "Hricko tanked again?"

Tony Vitalle - he ran the Charleston docks ... floated them on a green sea. Vitalle, Hricko and Deleon. Pals. Charleston pals. Scranton too. Once. I bit into Virginia blend and it tasted south of rag-weed, north of a lefty ... Vitalle's Sicilian squawk sounded like two terns in an oil-spill - "Sure, Will ... like it's mystery-theater 2000" ... some silence ... "Peachy ... the Peachy thing."

"Got to be kidding."

"Like AIDS-on-an-anthill," shot back from the plastic.

I buried the Zippo into another Straight and it fumed harsh. "She's only been gone what ... a year? That's long enough for any man to forget a frail."

"You-da-tough-guy Scranton," Vitalle spit back. "Maybe a year's enough, for most broads ... for a change-a-heart but not when ya kill their brother!"

"Hricko never admitted that," I complained, knowing better. "It was ruled a suicide. Even Nicky ..."

"Yeah ... another suicide blond ... and what Nick DeLeon don't know about suicide blonds ain't been wrote down. Anyrate, them two are out shark fishing today on Hricko's Bayliner. Fishing with Nicky's shotgun. Sometimes it helps to kill something."

I growled "Shooting sharks, huh. They got the wrong coast, Tony. We got too many sea otters on the west side - eating all the damned Abalone, so open season ...".

It might have been a chuckle, scratched over the line. "Yeah, Scranton, you and the Feds ... I'll pass the grift along." The line hung silent and awkward ... for men who knew ...

How Hricko's lover, hair the color of ripe peaches had come to leave him. Hricko shagged her off a Shem Creek shrimp-trawler. Different women are different, for the next man - she swooned him with Forth and a bit of Alpha assembler. Hricko falls dead duck! Summer love, but Peachy's shadowy brother had shadowed her - from a mean, north-channel Brit island to Isle of Palms and meant her less good than rabbit guts and for his own reasons tried to drag her away ... or back or god knows because Peachy clampjawed. Then got beaten raw. Hricko in a fury, the shadow disappeared - then reappeared floating in a cistern next to a Folly Island juju parlor and from the Charleston coppers Hricko took a weeks grilling clapjawed as Peachy. Peachy claimed to be with him, riding rips on Folly Island's south end at the time of the killing.

Funny business was, Nicky ought to have been Hricko's alibi also, since he was attending his daughter's coming-out party at a back-island plantation south end of Folly. Same afternoon, beside the same beach, but Nick never saw either Peachy or Ben Hricko. Hricko smelled guilty as the Pope. How bad can it get for a bad Catholic? This bad! When his beaten kidneys left City Station Peachy had herself turned into a shadow and Hricko nowhere any man needs to go.

I knew a bit more and let it dim ... I let truth slip cause Lieutenant Nick DeLeon is a serious man and he'd drag a friend - a close one into gaol fast as he'd dart head first and no thought to a short life into a death-dark alley to save him. Whatever seemed right as he saw it. Whenever I knew a bit more I wrote careful, since to Nick justice is a careless thing. Careless ... and clean as the barrels of his shotgun and certain as the friend at his back.

Loud, angry voices drifted in from the pool-room, and the crack of a cue-stick on wood frame echoed against brick walls. My right hand went loose and casual - the 32-Colt under my right shoulder broke into a leather sweat. It broke the freeze.

My legs eased over the footrail, I stubbed out the Straight and barked into the plastic. "So where does that put Nicky? Ya know, that blond hooker just floated up in the Spokane River was the last one to see Erlyne alive ... the last person anyway, as I see it. Nicky still has that case in his drawers, doesn't he?"

Vitalle said. "He ain't gettin' much help from Charleston City Station, or his Captain. That case got Charleston politics written up its arse backwards and out the bellybutton."

"But no French kiss."

"Jerry ain't French."

"The Arab, huh?" I scratched a stale beard, where it itched beneath my chin. "Politics never stopped Nicky before from protecting his precious, Holy City."

"It ain't like before ... he's a Lieutenant, now ... got a family. He's gotta stay dry. Not a blo-dry but he can't be no sponge."

"Sez ..."

Tones bittered up like green apples. "Why I gotta tell ya this? Erlyne Tepy had wet friends ... them that admits it. Plenty wet, like Jerry-the Arab and our US Rep Peg Bottie. They float a lotta water ... like a stone wall. Even on Charleston peninsula - even on Isle of Palms."

"Does that mean Nicky dropped the case? He never minded a cold, stone wall."

I could hear Tony's teeth grind. "Don't go dim on me, pal. Nicky never drops nuthin'. Picking at the edges, poking around the fuzzy details until ... whammo!" I could hear him slugging at the scotch and he said. "Sure, I'll make sure he gets the word on your floater. Dy'a know how she died?"

"Lack of breath."

"Nicky's gonna love that, Scranton. That the kinda crap you try ta sell?"

"Maybe he'll like this better. The flesh on the whore's neck was all but eaten through with some kind of acid - stretched by some kinda rope! I didn't know you could have both on the same throat."

Vitalle hacked twice, on the Red that never left his mouth. "Jeezz, that's kinda like the Tepy ... Jesus, Mary and the Sailor Joseph. Better set the plates for company ... you packin' a rod?"

That and a cold sweat that didn't dry easy. "It's occurred to me."

"Ain't that many people, could be as unlucky as you, Scranton."

"It's occurred to me."

"Nicky'll be hot as a hornet! 'Course it don't help, that his pals are stretched slim. The docks run my ragged ass three ways ... Hricko ain't a basket case ... the bastard ain't got a basket, and you. What the hell you doin' in Spokane?"

"I eat twice a day."

"Crappola - never understood why you left Charleston. I got a dog eats more ... Spokane, huh, only place in the world where the Eskimos are Nazis!"

"Yeah, they just found one 9000 years old."

"You ain't gonna last that long. Get a job, a real one or get a dame. Fila sez ... she needs a tech for the office - computer crime stuff. No legwork."

That sideways-offer got me nowhere. "You two still together?"

"I'm not gonna call it that, Will, not together, not with Fila but yeah, she still lives here time-ta-time when she ain't too busy with her PI gig and I ain't gonna throw her out. Whatever she did with Jerry. Or for Nicky. Neither one ditched her. Nobody does ..."

Fila! I needed the woman like brain-cells need aluminum. "She mighta learned plenty." She all but had DeLeon murdered, or tried herself. It was either way, and plenty dim.

Tony's voice hitched, then hacked. "I'm a wine-soaked wop fool, but I ain't that one."

Him and Hricko, waltzing the same chocolate martini ... had ... but Tony Vitalle never touched a drop unless the bottle said GenFiddich. I swilled Turkey to the bottom. "That's how I'm feeling about this writing business, Tony."

"Feel crap! You ain't gotta feel - just write! Far as that goes it's Okey ... I read some . Ya make Nicky a silver-assed hero, but ya don't tell half what he really done! You gettin' sensitive?"

"Not lately ..." I tried to remember ... how a man made for the 15th century got born wrong and I tailed along ... writing ... scratching away at the half-dim parts ...

... then Vitalle growled. "You ain't gonna write anything about Peachy, are you? Not soon ... or about me and Fila ..."

It wasn't a threat. I never knew Tony Vitalle to waste time with a threat. "No, Tony. Not about Hricko and Peachy. Not till the blood dries, anyway, but hell, I might go back to La with that Denver broad and ... hell, nobody ever throws 'em out, do they?"

Like words got silver, because you wrote them down ... A chair flew casually over my head and crashed into the liquor display. I caught bonded, alcohol spray before the shock wave hit. Every glass mirror in the world shattering at the same time.

Then I caught the slap of shattered crystal and hot, salty streaks of blood dribbling into my mouth. A bottle flew by and I grabbed it - a tumbling bottle of Wild Turkey meant for the floor but not now, and slipped the 32_caliber from its holster into my jacket zip-all. One drunk at the bar fell into his red beer. Another hit floor in a crumble. I quick-stepped against the near wall. "While the beds still warm," I shouted into the cell-phone plastic.

And it came back ... "Or the body that brung ya'"... as a shriek rocketed from the pool-room, and right behind it a huge, tattooed pagan bounced out like a cylinder display at the Getty, slid across the floor and crashed chin-first into the bar and didn't move much but to twitch.

Fast wasn't how quick it happened. A second, shaved head darted passed with Tara's pal Jim in pursuit. Out the fire-exit. Both owned broken beer-bottles and neither seemed ready to keep it to himself. Then Tara danced over the body.

Black hair flying. She had a cut on her full red lips and quick, golden-sloe eyes that breezed over me as she slowed but didn't stop. "Drop the cellphone in the mail, palsy. Jimmy's name is on the back, and I have leather wants to get all over mine." Up the stairs to the left of the bar in stretchy leaps ... her long, model's legs were worth plenty.

Looking around seemed worthwhile ... "What leather ...?" I didn't need to shout.

I got two ticks from the stainless Rolex, when the biker-gal stumbled out of the pool-room, over the pagan and roughly but only so tried making drunken, staggering tracks after Tara. Just for that second, because I hadn't written a word in weeks I wondered what Nicky would have done, but ya don't really get all those seconds to think clever.

I dropped the bottle of Wild Turkey and biker-gal jaked me a cross-eyed look. I grabbed her arm and yanked it around. Most of her came with it - biker leather and black silk stockings. What didn't had a 3-inch wrist knife at my throat and scarlet eyes when her head slowly came around in a twist of black lipstick and coal-black hair cropped close and leather points and each one had a plan.

"Yer three seconds from the pearly gates, bubba," oozed the biker-gal "and I haven't the time to write down your name."

Funny ... the Brit accent, but just barely. I pressed 32_caliber cold steel where I thought it would do the most good fastest. "Pearls? That's paradise, sweetheart," I tossed rough "and whether the gates are pearly I haven't decided."

"Pearls or bleedin' steel teeth none but a lover knows."

I could taste the steel blade. It tasted like a dead whore. "Suits me fine, sweetheart. They'll bury us in the same box - nose ta nose if you can imagine ..."

Biker-gal close enough to kill, in a black leather sweat. "You don't have the stones," she spit.

"That knife ain't finding them, sweetheart. Moma didn't teach you right?"

She shifted ... x-rayed me with green sparklers. "Prisoners' dilemma." Her leather cap pulled down to hide them. "Shape up, yer stupid bugger" hustled out of her black mouth like Oxford-on-Spokane and the lips curled a bit at the edges like the knife pressed closer, but for a mercy I was getting more points than blade.

Even when he's packing, a man in Spokane needs that kinda luck. Cold steel barrel raised to her diamond-stud navel. "Tit-for-tat ... whatever you've got."

"A smarty, huh." Her other hand grabbed my wrist, at the stainless Rolex and pawed. "Not likely, are yer, to be late."

"Never. When I take a date, sweetheart, I always bring her along."

"So you say ..." Eyes glittered. " I ride a Harley - '56 ... soft-tail."

"I take the cab, when the tail is hard."

She dropped the blade to my belly. "Fecking, optimistic ... could still go either way, mate." A black nail scrapped across the bloody slash on my cheek. "Don't take a cut very well, do you?" "Not very ..."

"Keeps a girl guessing, don't ya now, matey?" She stepped away, to the huge tatooed body twitching noisy against the base of the bar and thumped it sound with her Doc Martins. "You aren't one of those funny blokes are yer," she looked over at me ..." all mouth and no teeth."

I slipped the 32-caliber back under my shoulder. "Sweetheart, if I have to chew through the leather, it could still go either way."

Coulda been Ash Wednesday, at the GOTEE_Bar&Grill - I had the dead, dry taste in my mouth, and you coulda heard a palm tree sway. Biker-gal hesitating ... Her wrist-knife slipped off into pocket-zip, hands tucked in at the waist and chin sucked back and defensive. "I hate chasing with good losers."

Another dodge ... I shoulda been a palm tree, cause that was taking me nowhere. "What about a bad one? That why you were chasing the frail?"

"Anyone ever chase you?"

"Chased? No ... no one I care to talk about. No frail, anyway."

She pawed at that some, and her steel-blue hair. "Some frail, matey." Doc Martins crunched through a silver watch the pagan didn't need. She pointed to the stairs, where Tara had scampered. "You know her?" I nodded.

"Did you care ... her swell groped me ..."

"Just another broken watch," I muttered stepping out of the murky, Turkey-flavored puddle on the floor It didn't pay to be on the floor anywhere near that gal.

She musta read my mind, cause a real smile broke the black lipstick, and she turned in a careless way full face toward me. " She cold-cocked him, the skinny-assed beur. Some pagan he was, but a lady still doesn't do that!"

Certainly not standing up ... "Then she better do it fast," I offered and poked out a Straight. First her arm ... then her hand, a frail's hand reached out in slow-motion blur and she took it, turning the fag over - tamping it solid and it was never that easy, in the Prisoners Dilemma like slipping quarters into a juke and the song played.

"It's soft leather," she whispered - I didn't think a gal like that ever whispered - rattling her own watch-chain ... gathering up a leather pouch and listening close, " soft, however you chew it mate and I like you Yanks music."

"Then you must love The Dead."

Her nose wrinkled. "Aren't they country and western?"

"No. That's ZZ_Top."

Sirens wailed, on Riverfront Drive, and a Coasters tune flipped on the juke. The biker-gal started swaying. "It's hell-on-wheels to catch a Harley soft-tail."

I pointed up the stairs. " And a Zippo works best in the wind ..."

Some lines ... like some women or the last ounce of Turkey in the bottle slip down fast as silk stockings. It wasn't something Nicky would have said, and I respected him for it. He's a serious man, and more than I admit when I step past a dark alley or into one or the need to run comes clawing I wonder what Nicky would have done. People too are like that ... the dark alley and I'da listened to him now but bar-lights flickered out behind us, alone and the biker-gal and me made the Melrose plaque on 8th at a hundred-ten with cigarette-tips flaming red.