Amanda Pepper's friend Sasha has a photography assignment in Atlantic City, and she invites her broke schoolteacher friend to come along for a free mini-vacation. But the two quickly discover there's more to lose than money at the shore when Sasha finds a stranger bludgeoned to death in her bed. When a witness identifies Sasha as having been at the scene, she Goes Directly To Jail and does not pass "Go." Under the boardwalk and between the slot machines, and sometimes with the help of a motley crew of gamblers, Amanda works to unearth the truth and free her friend.
One more unanswered prayer. Or maybe Frankie was trying to frame Sasha. I surely wasn’t suddenly accepting Sasha’s judgment as to whether a man was or wasn’t someone to have faith in. “Do you know if he’s in debt?” I asked. “In trouble?”
Frankie laughed. “You mean was like the Godfather after him?” He laughed again. “The man was clean. Gambled a lot, but he had the money. Always paid up. I got the feeling he’d never mess with his image, you know? They called him Professor Money. He taught in the junior colleges and retirement centers and he was even going to have his own show on TV.”
“What do you mean?”
Frankie put his finger up, signaling me to wait while he poured a draft for a young man whose belly testified to a precocious and continuing affection for the brew. And then he was back. “An infomercial. He’d be selling his business, but it’d look like a seminar on investing. A first seminar—there were also going to be tapes to buy. He’s—He was—pretty good at what he did, I hear. And successful. Costs a lot to produce those things, don’t you think, and it came from his own pockets. And he was ready to roll. Already taped the whole first show.”
“I wish I could see it.”
“Won’t air now,” Frankie said. “Besides, it’d be boring. Or maybe that’s just my point of view. Financial management is not my strong point.” He laughed softly, a little bitterly.
“But it’d give me a handle on the man.”
Frankie shrugged. “Like I said, the man was doing fine. Only trouble he was likely to get into would be with his wife, because half the time he’s up in that suite with somebody else. As a matter of fact, his wife used to be one of those somebody else’s, and she can’t forget how she got her current position, so she’s always looking over her shoulder to see who’s gaining on her, especially since the accident.”
I must have looked puzzled, because he offered further explanation. “Car crash a year or so after they married. Something doesn’t work in one of her hips anymore. Uses a cane and has to drive a special car. Damn shame. She was a gymnast when she ran for Miss America.” He wiped at the counter. “But the thing is, this one time, he was here on business, he said. No hanky-pank. Not even gambling.”
The good news was that there was a perpetually jealous wife as suspect. The bad news was that she was lame.
“And she didn’t seem angry last night, anyway. She smiled at some dumb joke I made about Sasha sleeping in Jesse’s room.”
“She was here?”
“What’s she look like?” I asked.
He shrugged. “You know,” he said. This, then, was the definition of a not-trained observer. “Nice-looking.”
Which one had been Mrs. Jesse Reese? Not the sari, not the pregnant ponytail, so if I remembered correctly, that didn’t leave a wide field, and as she’d once been a pageant contestant, she wasn’t the drab one, I’d bet. “Does she wear a lot of metal on her clothing?”
His eyebrows rose. “So you’ve seen her. Sure. Mrs. R. designs the stuff. Once, she’s sitting in here and I comment on the brass trim, and she says, ‘Frankie, this is not trim. This is a fashion statement.’”
Good. The wife, the often deceived wife, had been here last night and had known who was occupying the suite. And she had big, teased dark hair, Sasha had said. “She’s tall, isn’t she?” I asked, allowing myself a flare of hope.
Frankie shook his head. “You’re thinking of somebody else, then, maybe. Mrs. R.’s an itty-bitty one.”
A small, lame woman. We were back to zero. “Who else was here?” I asked. “Who else heard the joke about the suite?”
“Anybody who was around, I guess.” Frankie worked at an imaginary stain on the bar top and I drummed my fingers. Finally, he looked up with an expression that suggested that he was tired of the conversation and of me. “There were people all over the place. I don’t pay much notice. They’re faces and orders.”
People were haircuts and bad music to the secretary in Wisconsin, faces and orders to Frankie. I couldn’t decide whether I’d stumbled on a great unifying truth or a trivial sadness.
“Was anybody else here, aside from his wife, who knew Jesse Reese?”
“How’d I know something like that?” Frankie asked, with some justification. “He had his briefcase. I guess he was doing business down here, so whoever that was with might have been around.”
“Do you have any idea with whom?” Why did I ask?
He shook his head.
“Do you remember anybody else? How about a woman in a sari?”
“Probably. There often is, even though they’re not drinkers, you know.”
“Somebody pregnant with a ponytail?”
Frankie shrugged. “Why would I remember? And what are you trying to say? That somebody who heard my joke about the room framed Sasha?” He sounded nervous, overly incredulous, like a bad actor. “That doesn’t make any sense.” He wasn’t doing a convincing job of making the idea preposterous.
Neither of us mentioned that there was one person who didn’t have to overhear a thing in order to know about the room because he’d arranged for the switch.
“Who’d have done such a thing?” Frankie asked.
“Somebody who wanted to get away with murder, that’s who.” I left him a generous tip, to stay on his good side.