Paradise was a crap town. With the summer tourists gone, the main street was deserted after nightfall. Trash rattled along the gutters, blown by the harbor wind. Darkened storefronts stared into the emptiness beyond the far sidewalk. Somewhere in that emptiness, the ocean waves crashed down and whispered away.
Scott Weiss walked past the shops, heading for his hotel. He was a man in his fifties, a big man with a paunch. He had a sad, ugly face. Deep bags under world-weary eyes. A bulbous nose. Sagging cheeks. Unkempt salt-and-pepper hair. He wore a gray overcoat. He kept his hands in the pockets, his broad shoulders hunched. The shop windows reflected him as he went past them leaning into the wind.
His hotel was the only hotel on the street. It was two stories, clapboard, yellow with white trim. It had white pillars holding up a balcony with a white rail. Weiss moved under the balcony to the front door. The door was glass. His reflection was there too. He looked into his own mournful eyes as he approached it. He pushed inside.
The hotel lobby was paneled in oak, stained a deep brown. There was a fire in the large fireplace. There was a heavy oak reception counter in front of the manager’s office. There was no one behind the counter, no one anywhere in the lobby. The door to the office was closed.
Weiss stood at the counter and rapped his knuckles on the wood. He waited. The office door opened and a woman came out. She was about forty, short and chesty, frazzled, blond. She was wearing yellow slacks and a purple turtleneck, a cheerfully loud combination. She hesitated when she saw Weiss. Something flickered in the look she gave him. Whatever it was, it passed. She came ahead to the counter, stood across from him.
“Chilly out there tonight, isn’t it?” she said. Her voice was toneless. She didn’t look up at him. “Two thirteen,” she said, and turned to the cubbyholes on the wall behind her to fetch his key.
Weiss had a knack for reading people. He could tell what they were thinking. He could often guess what they would do. Sometimes the smallest gesture could give him what he needed.
Now, for instance, he could see that the woman behind the counter was scared.
He took the room key from her pale fingers. The woman pressed her lips together. It looked like she wanted to say something, to tell him something, to warn him maybe about what was waiting for him upstairs. But how could she? How could she know who the good guys and bad guys were, what was safe, what wasn’t? It was smarter for her to just keep her mouth shut. So that’s what she did.
Weiss smiled at her with one corner of his mouth. He wanted her to know it was all right. “Good night,” he said.
The woman tried to answer, but it didn’t come off.
Weiss moved away from her. He walked to the wooden stairs. He felt the woman watching him as he went. The hotel windows knocked and rattled in the wind. He climbed heavily up to the second floor.
He trudged along the second-floor gallery. He shifted the room key into his left hand. His right hand slipped inside his overcoat, inside his tweed jacket, to his shoulder holster. He wriggled out his old snub-nosed .38. It wasn’t much of a gun, a real antique at this point. A relic from his days on the SFPD, back before they shifted over to the Berettas. Slow and inaccurate, it wouldn’t be much use against the man who was after him. The man who was after him was a professional, a genuine whack specialist. If he wanted Weiss dead, he would make Weiss dead, ancient .38 or no. Still, Weiss liked the feel of the gun in his hand. Better than nothing. He kept it pressed against his middle as he went down the gallery.
He reached the room, two thirteen. He tried the knob, but the door was locked, just the way he’d left it. He unlocked it. He pushed it in.
The room was dark. He stood where he was, on the threshold. He reached in and felt along the wall for the light switch. He found it, flicked it up. Nothing. The light did not come on.
Weiss felt his heart beat harder. He cursed silently. Maybe that’s all the specialist wanted. Maybe he was watching from somewhere, spying on him, playing with him, cat and mouse. Maybe he just wanted to see Weiss pale and sweating and scared.
Well, congratulations, he thought. You sick schmuck.
He stepped into the room. He shut the door behind him. An act of defiance: to hell with the dark. The dark got thicker. The curtains were closed, only a pale beam from a streetlamp fell through the crack between them. Weiss moved in that light from shadow to shadow. He made his way to the bathroom, reached inside. When he flicked the switch, the bulb worked, the light came on in there, glinting off the white tile walls. That lit his way back to the main room, to the desk lamp and the bedside lamp. He turned those on as well.
The room was empty. A small wood-paneled room, crowded with a bed and a weathered writing table.
Weiss holstered his gun. He moved to the bed, sat down on the edge of it, letting out a sigh. His heart beat hard for a few more seconds, then it eased. The back of his neck felt damp against his overcoat collar.
Might’ve been nothing. Nerves. The hotel clerk might really not have been afraid at all. He might’ve imagined it. The lightbulb might have blown out on its own. The killer might never have been in the room at all.
Didn’t matter. He was here, sure enough. Somewhere. Somewhere close. Watching him. Listening to him. Dogging every step.
Weiss’s bottle of scotch, his Macallan, was on the writing desk, beside the blotter. After a while he got up, stripped off his overcoat, dumped it on the bed. He fetched a water glass from the bathroom. He sat at the desk and poured himself a measure of whiskey. He lifted the glass to his mouth with his left hand. Held it there and let the scent sting his nostrils. With his right hand, he reached into the pocket of his jacket and drew out his picture of the whore.
He laid the photograph on the desk, on the blotter, framed against the green felt. He sipped his scotch and looked down at her.
She was one goddamned beautiful whore, all right. Julie Wyant, her name was. She had red-gold hair and ...