Once upon a time, Jerry’s was a Methodist church. Decades ago, stern Victorians listened to some stentorian minister rail on the evils of gambling and booze, and probably would have gone into histrionics over rock, hip hop, and country. Today, Jerry Mussini served that same evil booze while patrons bet on sports piped in via satellite, all to the strains of Alice in Chains, Snoop Dogg, and Shania Twain, depending on the night. Neon beer signs had replaced the stained glass, and the pews gave way to tables and a jukebox. It was my home away from home.
Aside from my blind, lifelong devotion to a baseball team once owned by a dead man for several years, I went there for these nasty, grilled things called Thermal Wings. The sauce consisted of one-part garlic, one-part mustard, and five parts hydrochloric acid. They required at least one pitcher of beer to finish.
By the third inning, I’d seared my tongue and was into my second pitcher of beer. As Danys Baez fanned an Oakland hitter to bring Cleveland up to bat, she walked in.
She stood about six-foot even, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, make-up in place, thousand dollar silver pantsuit crisp and fresh. All that for little ol’ me, I thought, then realized she said something about meeting clients. I watched as she searched the bar for me. Jerry, a short, blocky man who looked like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s meaner twin, pointed me out to her.
“Nick Kepler?” she asked in that same smoky voice I heard on the phone.
I looked up from the last of my Thermal Wings and nodded, politely wiping sauce from my chin. “Yes?”
She thrust out a long, slender hand. “Tanya Molnar. We spoke on the phone earlier.”
I shook her hand. She had a firm grip. “Please, have a seat. Can I get you a drink?”
“I don’t drink. I’ll just have an ice water.” She looked down at the pile of stripped bones on my plate. “And whatever you just had.”
“Thermal Wings? You sure you don’t want something more than ice water? At least a pitcher of ice water?”
She smiled, her blue eyes sparkling. She seemed to be sizing me up as we talked, as a stranger, as an adversary, as a consumable. I liked that last part. “I can stand anything I’ve got to stand, Nick. Can I call you Nick?”
I shrugged. “Sure. If I can call you Tanya.”
Her smile became a grin. I had just become a consumable in her mind. “Tanya is fine. What did you want to see me about?”
I took a sip of my beer. “Frank Colbert.”
“What about him?”
“Mr. Shannon said you knew him and his wife quite well.”
She rolled her eyes. “George thinks I screw anything that moves.”
“So his assertion that you had an affair with both Mr. and Mrs. Colbert is…”
Tanya threw back her head and laughed. “I don’t believe him! What an idiot! You know the only time that moron ever checks the chlorine levels in the pool is if I happen to be laying out? Jesus, I think he masturbates to my real estate photo every night.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “So George Shannon is lacking in his love life.”
“I think he’s still a virgin, to be honest with you.”
“How well do you know the Colberts?”
“As well as anyone, I guess.”
Cindy, Jerry’s slender twenty-something waitress, came over to take Tanya’s order. I felt embarrassed when I couldn’t take my eyes off her tank top and cut-offs. I avoided looking Tanya in the eye.
“Isn’t she a bit young for you?” said Tanya when Cindy went off to place her order.
“There’s a big difference between admiration and desire.”
“Not in my experience.”
“She doesn’t have enough miles on her. She’d probably giggle in bed. I hate giggling.”
“Really? So what kind of woman do you like?”
How did this end up being her interview? “I like a well-rounded woman, even if it’s a casual fling. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
“You’re looking for a relationship?”
“Not actively.” I signaled for more beer. “Enough about me. I’m just a simple man making his way in the universe. Tell me about the Colberts. How well do you know them?”
“Socially,” she said. “I’m in real estate, and Frank and Marti had a lot of contacts. They made introductions for me.”
“Did you go to parties with them?”
“All the time.”
“And did these parties ever get a bit wild?”
“That’s a bit personal.”
“Sorry. It’s my job to ask.”
“Right. You’re a private detective. Where’s your trench coat and fedora?”
“Well, it’s mid-August and eighty-five degrees at noon, so the trench coat’s in my closet, where it’ll probably stay until November. And I don’t own a fedora. It’s just a job. About the parties, did they ever get wild?”
“Frat party wild. Hollywood wild. Roman Imperial wild.”
She folded her hands and rested her chin on them with a practiced innocence. “Why, Nick, it sounds like you’re on a fishing expedition.”
I knocked back the rest of my beer. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“So what are you looking for, Nick? Just ask me.”
As the alcohol soaked deeper into my brain, temptation boiled up from my nether regions. Not now, Kepler, you’re working. Instead, I said, “Specifically, did Frank Colbert ever do any drugs at any parties or in your presence?”
Tanya laughed hard again. “You’re kidding, right?”
I returned the laugh, though not with as much gusto. “I wish I was. Look, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but it’s a bullshit case as it is. Claims is ready to pay up, but the underwriter’s ass is on the line since he wrote the policy. If Claims pays out, he’s out the door, with the Ebersole family’s collective boot up his ass.”
“Okay, he smoked some weed. Does that help?”
“Nope. Colbert was too honest for my client’s good. He admitted it before the mandatory drug test. Did he do anything stronger?”
“I saw him drink half a bottle of Jaegermeister once.”
“That’s stupid, but not prohibited by his life insurance. I need something illegal, like cocaine or ecstasy. Crystal meth.”
“Nope. Sorry. Worst I can give you is pot. That, and he fooled around a little bit.”
“Not exactly banned by the insurance company. Oh, well. Guess Al’d better update his résumé.”
The wings and a glass of ice water arrived. I gestured at the plate of corrosive meat. “Dig in.”
My eyes watered as she took a wing, stuck it in her mouth, and stripped it to the bone, slowly. She licked her lips and stared at me, daring me to say something. When I just sat there, my jaw hanging open, she said, “Not bad. I’ve had hotter.”
“I am impressed.”
She just smiled and suggestively stripped another wing. I don’t know what I liked better about her being there: being able to expense dinner to Polnacek or watching her do lewd things with wings.