The boarding house Ollie's address led me to may not have been a house of ill repute, but it was hard to be sure. After all, it was daytime and all the lights were off. I found the landlady, a matronly duck, with no trouble and explained that I was the uncle of Cassie Peters and that I was worried when I hadn't heard from the girl on Sunday night, as was usual. The landlady looked at me sideways, and asked to see some ID. I gladly produced it.
"Jackson?" she said. I don't remember Cassie talkin' about no Uncle Jackson. She was always goin' on about her Uncle Ulysses, though."
"Yeah, he's from the rich side of the family," I said. "Look, I'll prove it. Here's another piece of ID." I handed her another portrait of the late President Jackson. She slipped it and its twin into the pocket of her housecoat.
"Oh, yeah, Uncle Jackson. I do remember Cassie talkin' about you. C'mon inside, her room is up this way." She led me trough the shabby main room and up a flight of stairs to a hallway with maybe eight doors in it. Cassie's room was the second door on the left. She let me in and I looked around. The room was pretty messy; it did look like the woman had left in a hurry. And I did notice the purse sitting on a small night table.
"Cassie owed me some back rent, you know," the landlady quacked at me, "She was in to me for a good coupla hundred bucks."
I shook my head. "I'll be sure and mention that to Ulysses the next time I see him. Cassie often spoke of the friends she had made here. Are any of them around?"
The landlady shrugged. "She weren't friends with anybody that much. Melissa's in her room now; the two of them used to go out drinkin' together sometimes." She pointed me to Melissa's room two doors down. "I've got chores to do..." she said, turning to head down the hall, At the top of the steps she turned back and waggled a feathered finger at me. "Now no funny business up here, ya got that?" I threw her a sour look and she turned and waddled back down the stairs.
I knocked on the door of Melissa's room. I heard a sleepy-sounding "just a minute..." from inside, and then some rustling sounds. I heard the latch being drawn, then the door opened and Melissa looked up at me blearily. She was a red fox, and she wore a frayed, green satin robe that was doing its best to conceal her ample bosom, but not succeeding terribly well at the task. She smelled vaguely of booze, stale perfume and disinterest. Her dark red hair was disheveled, and her ears and whiskers drooped as she gave me the once-over. "So, what do you want?" she said at last.
"Your landlady said you were friends with Cassie. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions."
She glanced at me suspiciously. "You a cop?" she said.
"No, just an old family friend."
She snorted and averted her eyes. "You're a liar, I know that much."
"What do you mean?"
She looked at me, anger flashing in her eyes. "Cassie didn't have no family. She come out here from down south when her momma died. She never heard from no family since then. Who are you really, mister?"
I shrugged. "All right. I'm a private eye. I'm investigating a case and I heard that Cassie had disappeared. I thought it might have something to do with my investigation, so I came here to find out what I could."
She looked at me, disbelief still evident in the tilt of her muzzle. "Well, you're prob'ly still lyin', but at least that's a better one. All right, I'll talk to ya. Come on in." She stood back, opening the door a little wider and I stepped into her small room.
"'Scuse the mess." she said. The room was in pretty bad shape, with clothes strewn around, various bottles and drinking glasses sitting on tables and shelves, and some Chinese takeout cartons sitting open and empty on a small table. Magazines and unopened mail added to the general clutter. Melissa shut the door behind me, and I moved a couple of newspapers off of the nearest chair and sat down. She walked past me, cinching the robe shut with it's belt. The garment didn't even make it to the middle of her thigh and barely encircled her hips - it looked more like the top half of a man's suit of pajamas than a bathrobe. With the belt tightened, I could see she had a narrow waist - all in all, she was quite a knockout. I tried to bring my mind back to business as she sat down across the table from me and ran her paws back across her muzzle and up through her long hair. "So what did you want to ask me?" she said.
"Your landlady said you and her were drinking buddies."
She smiled, and I noticed that I liked it. "Well, we'd go out together. I did most of the drinking." She rolled her eyes. "Cats."
I smiled back. "Right. Anyway, when was the last time you saw her?"
"We were out on Thursday night. She had to leave early, though. She had a gig, and she thought it was gonna be a steady thing, so she didn't want to be late."
"What did she tell you about the gig?"
She thought for a moment. "She didn't say too much about it. It was kind of hush-hush. She met this dog in a bar last week, and he said his boss was lookin' for somebody like her to do some acting. She said she met his boss and he gave her the job but told her it was a secret project, so she shouldn't talk too much about it. She did say it wasn't a movie project, that it was a special event or somethin' for a big company. She said if she told me who they were, I'd know 'em right away, 'cept she couldn't tell."
"Did she say anything about the dog or his boss? Did she say what they were like?"
"Um... not really. She said the dog was big and good-lookin', and that his boss was a really sharp dresser. Cassie always noticed people's clothes."
"Hmmm..." I thought for a moment. I was beginning to think that Ollie's hunch about this might have been right. On the other hand, I didn't have a lot to go on, and maybe I was only seeing what I wanted to see. There were some coincidences, but no real evidence that there was any connection between the missing girl and Marlene's death. She hadn't even be gone that long - or all I knew she might be back in her room right now. Something told me she wasn't though. My own instincts were that this girl might prove to be important to the case.
Finally, I said "OK, thanks. You've been a big help, Melissa. I wonder if I could ask you to do something for me?"
She looked at me sideways, with just a hint of a sly grin. "That would depend what it is," she said.
I pulled out my wallet, and extracted a business card and a ten dollar bill. I folded the bill and put it under the card, then handed them across the table to her. "This is my business card. If you could give me a call if Cassie shows up, I'd appreciate it. There's a little something for your effort," I explained. "I just want to make something clear - Cassie may only be a small part of a larger case I'm working on, and she's probably not involved at all. In fact, if she shows up, it means my hunch is wrong and she's got nothing to do with it. I'm not looking for her because she's in any kind of trouble, and there won't be any trouble for either of you if she comes back and you call me. Will you help me out?"
She looked at the card, then fixed a narrow gaze on me. "How do I know you're not lyin' now?" she said.
I shrugged. "You don't. But if I was really after her, why would I show my face around here now, so her friends could tip her off about me? I'd just wait until she showed up. The fact is, all I want to know is if she comes back or not. Have her call me herself if you want to, or wait until she leaves again to give me a call."
She considered what I'd said for a minute, then nodded, looking down at my card. "All right, Mr. Spaniel. If I see her I'll give you a ring." I thanked her, and she showed me to the door. "Say," she said as I was on my way out, "if you're ever in the neighborhood, look me up. Maybe we could go out for a drink... I mean - just so you could see where she and I go." There was a twinkle in her eye, as she pushed the door closed until just her face was visible.
I gave her a wink. "OK, Missy - I might just do that." I smiled and she pushed the door shut the rest of the way. I made my way downstairs and back to the car.
As I drove back to my office, I tried to put things in perspective. The mafia boys claimed they hadn't killed Marlene Milkbone, although it seemed likely they were still gunning for her hubby. Whether I could believe them or not was still up in the air, but it didn't make much sense for them to reveal themselves to me if they were really guilty of the crime. And now this girl turned up missing, last heard of in the company of - unless I missed my guess - Lou and Georgie. What did they want with her? She looked like the boss' wife. I could see where that might appeal to some guys, but I had to believe their association with her was strictly business. Why would Milkbone want a double for his wife? Was he trying to trick the gangsters somehow? Had they gotten to her before he could put together his scheme to trick them? They had seemed to think she was really dead, and now that the police were working with Milkbone, their job wouldn't be any easier. Was Milkbone enough of a fool to try and pull a fast one on the mob? He'd have better luck trying to...
I swallowed hard as the thought hit me, and it seemed to get stuck in my throat.
Cassie Peters was dead. Marlene Milkbone was not.
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