Checkdown - A Battle Red Blog Mystery (Chapter Six)

The following is, from start to finish, a work of complete fiction. Any resemblance to persons alive and/or dead are purely coincidental, so please don't sue me (because I own nothing of value); unless, of course, it's a reference to someone here on BRB, in which case REALLY don't sue me.

Chapter One - It's Good To Be The QB

Chapter Two - A Blogger Named Scott Brooks

Chapter Three - The Quarterback Is Dead

Chapter Four - Why Is Housekeeping Never There When You Need It?

Chapter Five - The Photograph

Chapter Six: I'm Looking For A Girl. Yeah, Aren't We All?

After stopping off for a macaroon at Katz' deli, Scott pulled into the parking lot adjacent to Trample. The lot belonged to a print shop which served, during the shop's off hours, as a backup parking lot for clubbers who were hesitant to spend exorbitant amounts of money for valet parking. He tossed the macaroon wrapper into the backseat of his beater car. The crumpled wrapper bounced off of other crinkled plastic and paper wrappers which had rapidly filled his backseat. Scott looked into the back of his car and sighed. He knew if he didn't clean his car out soon, he'd have to swim to get to the steering wheel.

As he got out of the car, he surveyed this "trendy hotspot" that Knile dismissed with his usual hipster disdain. For such a hip place, it sure didn't look like much from outside. It was a squat, two-story boxy building with little adornment on its outer walls. It didn't even have a sign out front, just a single row of neon light which bisected the two floors. The light was off and looked out of place on what had been an industrial warehouse once upon a time.

The valet parking lot next to the club was almost entirely devoid of cars, save for a single blue Cadillac parked with its wide nose almost pressed against the right side of the building. The lot had apparently been cordoned off in the time since the Cadillac had parked there.

Scott jogged across the street and grabbed the handle, hoping it was unlocked. The door opened with little effort and he entered the sleeping club.

The club itself was smaller and even more compact that the outside of the building led Scott to believe. Chairs were placed upside down on the few tables surrounding the dance floor as one of the waiters mindlessly swept the floor. The lack of windows and black-painted walls made him feel claustrophobic already. He couldn't imagine how crowded it would feel with hundreds of clubbers inside and dance music blasting like thunder from all directions. For a moment, he though he could hear the music. As he walked deeper into the brightly-lit club, the music on the stereo grew louder. It didn't pulse, it was just soft enough to be heard, and, to Scott's surprise, it sounded oddly familiar. He leaned his head forward to hear more.

"I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow," the radio crooned.

Scott pulled his head back with a jerk. It was Sinatra. In one of the most popular bars for college kids and adults who couldn't accept that they were no longer college kids, Ol' Blue Eyes was playing. Scott heard someone whistling along with Frank. The bartender walked around the wall of multi-colored bottles which divided the two halves of the bar, cleaning a pint glass with a towel. The bartender looked up at Scott.

"We're not open yet," he said pleasantly. The bartender was a tall, gaunt man who looked to be in his mid-30s. He had jet black hair with flecks of gray around his temples.

"I know. Actually, I wanted to ask you some questions."

The bartender froze in place for a long moment then put the glass on the bar, his eyes looking down below the bar. "You a cop?"

Scott shook his head quickly, "Oh, good lord no. I've been looking into Eliot Nash's death and it's led me here."

The smile curled up on the bartender's face again, "Oh, that. Whew. Thought you were here about something else."

"Something...else?" Scott asked.

"Never mind. It's not important. What did you want to know?"

Scott pulled out a copy of the photograph he printed from the copier at work. If it had been grainy on screen, putting the picture on paper didn't do it any favors. He handed it to the bartender, pointing at the girl in the blue dress, "Do you remember seeing her that night?"

"Do I? I think every guy in the club bought her a drink that night. I can't remember the last time I was so busy. I thought to myself, 'I have to see what this chick looks like,' you know? Just to see for myself if she was worth it."

"Was she?"

"If I wasn't working, I'd have bought her a drink myself. Hell, with the body she had, I'd have bought her a whole bottle."

"Does she come in here often?"

"No. Never. Saturday was her first time here."

"You seem pretty sure about that."

"Chicks like that don't come in here every day, you know," the bartender said with a wistful sigh.

"Did you catch her name by any chance?"

"Me? No. I never got a chance to leave the bar. But our VIP bartender overheard her and Nash. Told me her name was Julia."

"Julia," Scott repeated. "You said your VIP bartender saw her? Can I speak to him?"

"'Fraid not. He's not in. I don't know where he is either."

"Do you have his address listed somewhere?"

"There's a computer in the back that has it, but I can't access it. Only the manager can and he's never here. Always out on business or some such bullshit."

"I see," Scott said glumly.

Scott pointed at the picture again, this time at Nash's turned head. "When I saw this, it looked like he and this Julia were running away from something."

The bartender chuckled bitterly, "More like someone."

"Who's that?"

"Not sure, really. I do remember seeing someone dressed in a black suit who looked like he was itching for a fight, or worse."

"How so?"

"He was shouting at the bouncer for our VIP lounge. Said he was going to start shooting if he wasn't allowed upstairs. I think he meant every word of it, too. He wouldn't stop the bulge on his hip. If Nash hadn't let him up, God only knows what he would have done. Next thing I know, Nash is yelling that he's giving away free drinks to anyone who comes up to the VIP lounge and he's bolting out the front door with this Julia chick."

"The man in black couldn't have been too happy about that. Did you hear anything about what the man and Nash were talking about?"

"No. Didn't want anything to do with it. The way he was carrying on about shooting people, I think the entire staff kept a wide berth from him."

"I can understand that," Scott said animatedly. "Mind if I have a look upstairs?"

"Knock yourself out."

Scott walked up the narrow stairway to the VIP lounge. The lounge was as brightly lit as the club itself, the bottles behind the bar were safely locked up behind a clear lexan case. The floor had lush, deep purple wall-to-wall carpeting. Four blindingly white pleather swiveling chairs surrounded a small black round table in the center of the room. Hanging from the ceiling were glass orbs that, when hit with light, would glow like great twinkling stars. If you were willing to spend the money, you could be the center of your own universe in this room.

Scott looked out over the balcony and shouted, "How much would it cost to reserve this lounge?"

The bartender rounded the wall of bottles downstairs, "What do you do?"

"I'm a lawyer!"

"Partner or associate?"

"Neither. Corporate," Scott said.

"Senior level?"

"Second year."

"You couldn't afford it," the bartender shouted back.

But someone like Nash could, of course. Scott imagined the quarterback in the room, probably taking the seat closest to the bar and facing the stairwell, as if he were holding court and awaiting his adoring audience.

Scott plopped down on the pleather chair closest to the bar and breathed a long sigh. He'd never get another chance to be up here, he figured, so he might as well enjoy it. He sank his hands down into the cushions and relaxed for a moment, thinking about what this "man in black" as the bartender called him would want with Nash, and why he demanded to see him. Was Julia just caught up in something bigger than her, bigger than Nash, even? Scott found out the name of the blonde in the picture, but why did Julia show up on that night at a club she'd never been to. A thought struck Scott as he shouted down for the bartender, "Did she come here alone?"

"What?"

"I said," Scott shouted, "did Julia come here alone or was she with friends?"

"Alone. In fact, until she came up to the lounge, she didn't drink or dance once that night."

Scott pondered this. Women seldom, if ever, go to nightclubs alone. Could that be why she had the eye of every guy in the room? And if she could have her pick, why didn't she bother anybody until Nash invited her up?

His mind drifted along until his hands felt something underneath the cushion of his chair. He pulled it up out of the cushions. It looked like a receipt for...something. Scott couldn't make out what was purchased or the address. All he saw was a price and the insignia emblazoned on top of the receipt--a large, lowercase "g" with a pair of wide eyes above the crook of the letter.

"Look, are you about done up there? If you stay up there any longer, you'll have to buy a bottle of something," the bartender shouted genially.

Scott folded the receipt up and put it in his pocket as he got out of the chair. He took one last look at the room and then made his way down the stairs. The stairs made a hollow "clomp" noise with every step.

The bartender was stocking cherries and wedges of limes and lemons when Scott walked past the bar.

"I do have one last question," Scott said, showing the bartender the picture one more time. "Do you know where I can find Julia? Or if anyone here would know how to get in contact with her?"

The bartender shook his head, "I don't. The valet station might be able to help you, though. That's the best I can offer you, I'm afraid. It's just outside in the lot next to the building."

"Someone's actually there at this time of day?" Scott asked.

"Well, someone has to organize it, you know."

"Thanks."

Scott went out into the frosty January afternoon, the cold air hit his lungs like hundreds of tiny needles. He briefly glanced at his car in the opposing parking lot when he noticed a massive black SUV parked on the street in front of the print shop. Inside, Scott could see two men staring intently at him, their eyes concealed by dark, expensive-looking sunglasses. When Scott returned their gaze, the driver hurriedly turned and faced the wheel, turned on the hulking vehicle, and peeled away.

He quickly shook his head, as if trying to shake the paranoid thoughts out of his head, and made his way toward the valet station. The attendant had wild blonde hair which flung out in all directions and dull, lifeless eyes. It looked out of place with his white dress shirt, which had been starched to within an inch of its life, black vest and trousers; the uniform of a Trample attendant, Scott presumed. The attendant had been watching cartoons on a small TV and giggling.

"Excuse me," Scott said as he tried to pry the attendant from the coyote falling off the cliff for the 30th time.

The attendant jerked out of his chair and desperately attempted to hide the TV from view.

"Who are you?" the attendant asked.

"I had a question about one of the patrons of the club the other night."

His vacant eyes blinked slowly, like a lizard staring into the sun. "We get a lot of them. I don't know if I would remem--"

Scott held the picture of Julia up to him. His lizard eyes took on a strange, unnatural glint as a thin smile curled on his lips. The effect was unnerving, to put it nicely; the kind of soulless lust that made Scott wonder how many restraining orders this guy had out on him.

"Her," he said, sounding as if he were about to trip on his own tongue. "Her, I remember."

Scott turned his head toward the parking lot, so he could only see the attendant with the corner of his eye. "Did she park here?"

The attendant slowly reached out for the photo, "N-no. She didn't," he said glumly.

"Then how did she get here? The lot across the street had to have been full that night," Scott said looking at his car, uneasily, as if sensing that a tow truck would haul his car away at any moment.

"She-she took a cab."

Scott growled softly. This was not the answer he wanted to hear. There had to be several dozen cab companies in Houston. Searching them all would take days, and by the time he found the right one, the killer, whoever it was or even if there was one, would be long gone.

"Can you describe the cab she came in?"

The attendant remained silent, his attention was fully fixed on Julia's picture, his hands mere inches from plucking out of Scott's hands. Scott pulled back the photo and tucked it into his pocket. This brought the attendant back to reality. Scott asked the question again.

"N-not well. It was dark, and I wasn't really paying attention to the car she came in."

"What do you remember about it at all? This is important."

"I remember it was green and white with a streaking star on the door. That's all I remember...about the car, at least." The attendant grinned like an idiot as he closed his eyes and tilted his head toward the clear blue sky. His body shuddered briefly and Scott knew that was his cue to leave.

"Thanks for all your help," Scott said as he turned and walked, almost trotting, away from the valet.

He got into his car, which had fortunately not been towed yet, and took his phone out of the glove box. He did a quick search for "green," "cab," "star," and "houston," and hit enter. Comet Cab Company was the first result that popped up in the search results. He copied the address to his GPS navigator and sped down the road.

The garage was a shabby brick building indistinguishable amid a row of other shabby brick buildings off the Katy Freeway just before the freeway stretched into the Galleria district. The only marks which told Scott he had reached his destination was a faded green star which looked more like graffiti than a company's logo.

The dispatcher, a troll-like man ensconced in his plexiglass cage, looked positively bored by Scott's existence and even less interested in helping him search for Julia.

"Why should I?" asked the troll, whose lips formed a cruel smile. He looked entirely too pleased with himself.

Scott thought for a moment. Pleading was out of the question, it would only make the troll more obstructive. Scott scowled at the troll, "if you don't, I'll throw your ass in jail for obstruction, now show me those records!"

The troll snickered loudly, "First of all, try that cop routine on someone a little dumber than me. Two, even if you were, you couldn't arrest me for obstruction. And three, if you are a cop," the troll said, emphasizing the word 'are,' "then where's your warrant?"

Scott understood now why the troll was behind the plexiglass. Five minutes out in the world and even the most kind-hearted gaggle of nuns would want to beat him senseless.

"You'll have to do better than that, Skippy," the troll said.

Scott let out an aggravated sigh, "Fine, I'll give you $100,"

The troll's face lit up. "Deal."

The dull, obnoxious thrum of a buzzer signaled that the door to the dispatcher's cage had been opened. He went inside, resisting the urge to strangle the dispatcher, and looked through the dispatches from Saturday night around the time Nash would have been at the club.

Several minutes later he came across a Julia who had paid with her debit card and a pair of addresses listed: her destination and her departing location.

Julia had taken a cab from Jersey Village all the way into downtown. This was by no means a cheap fare. But based on the fare log, Julia wasn't too concerned about price. She had paid the fare and given the cabbie an exceedingly generous tip on top of that.

Scott copied down the address in Jersey Village and was about to step out of the cage when he felt a sudden pull in the opposite direction. He turned his head, the troll had an iron grip on his shirt, his other hand outstretched.

"I believe we had an agreement," the troll said, his crooked teeth jutting out in gnarly smile.

He handed him the cash and dashed out of the garage. As he fought his way through the parking lot that was Highway 290, he thought about how much time he'd spent shirking his duties as a father and as a husband, to say nothing of his work life. He felt a sharp pang of guilt deep in his stomach; so sharp, in fact, Scott couldn't be sure if it was guilt or if he was just hungry. Why was he wasting so much time investigating a death that even the police didn't think was a murder? Nobody thought it was, except Scott; and based on what? Some fishy story from a housekeeper and an insomniac trucker? Why was it even his concern?

"Because I just can't let it go so damned easy," he yelled at his overactive conscience.

He turned up the radio and pulled off the exit to Jersey Village. Once upon a time, Julia's house might have been the envy of the neighborhood. Today, however, it seemed more like a house fit for demolition. It was crammed tightly between similarly dilapidated houses on either side. The garage door which looked like it might have been white long ago was now a dingy gray. It was an unfortunate match with the mud brown wooden frame and sandy brickwork exterior. In the yard stood a single desolate tree which looked as if it hadn't bloomed in a long time; a condemned tree for a condemned home. But what caught Scott's attention was the yard. It had patches of sickly green grass interspersed with the dead and dying yellow which took up most of the front yard. Scott shook his head slightly and groaned. It pained him to see a lawn so badly neglected compared to the thick emerald lawn he vigilantly maintained at home. The only sign that someone actually occupied the house was a pristine silver Mercedes coupe that shone in the driveway.

Scott went up to the door and knocked gently. The wind briefly swept past the house and the sound of wind chimes tinkled sweetly in the distance.

"Who is it?" asked a voice even lighter than the chimes.

Scott paused for a moment. He'd told so many lies over the last couple of days that he couldn't keep track of them. For once he decided he would tell someone the truth.

"My name is Scott Brooks. I'm an investigator," he said, cursing himself silently.

The door flung open and Scott's eyes widened with shock at the sight of the woman who answered. Her short hair was the color of fire which contrasted with her sunken sea green eyes. She wore a small black t-shirt with a torn midriff which exposed her pale white skin, and a pair of jeans with large holes near her knees.

"What do you want?" she asked, her gentle voice now hostile and defensive.

"I'm looking for a woman named Julia, Julia Quinn. Do you know her by any chance?" Scott handed the photograph to the redhead and pointed at Julia.

Her scowl softened slightly, "Yeah," she smiled a half smile. "She's my sister. Why are you looking for her?"

"I just wanted to ask her a couple of questions about Saturday night," Scott said, grateful to be telling the truth for once.

The redhead sighed as her smile vanished, "They always do," she lamented, "She's not here, though, if that's what you're here for."

Scott's face dropped as he let out a muffled groan. "Do you know where she is?"

The redhead tilted her head and looked up as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Yeah, I remember now. She said she was going to St. Maximilian Kolbe's Church. If you hurry, you can probably still catch her there."

Scott closed his eyes and committed the name of the church to memory. The redhead watched him do this with a vaguely uneasy look on her face.

He thanked the redhead and returned to his car. Scott knew his time was running short. The low-hanging sun cast a long shadow and the once immaculate blue sky was now tinted with a faint orange hue. He drove as fast as the suburban traffic would allow him, which wasn't very fast, swearing at drivers all the way to the church. Scott wondered if being blocked like this was how pass rushers felt when stopped by Duane Brown.

St. Maximilian Kolbe's Church looked more like a tin roofed pyramid than a church with its broad base and the roof forming a single point atop which perched a white cross. As Scott parked, he saw other cars scattered through the expansive parking lot, telling him he had not been too late. Here he would finally meet Julia, finally get the big break he was looking for in the case, finally get to write about his theory of what happened to Nash on Battle Red Blog.

He entered the large ornate doorway. The interior of the church appeared somehow larger than the exterior. The walls were spotless and the countless oak pews were coated in a deep espresso finish. Scott searched frantically, scanning the pews for any sign of the blonde he'd been looking for half the day. The few people praying in the church did not match Julia's appearance in any way. Maybe she was in the confession booth? He glanced over; the booth was open. There was no sign of her anywhere.

Scott let his shoulders slump down when he suddenly felt a cold hand thud on his shoulder. He whirled around in a flash and saw a wisened old man wearing the traditional clergyman's outfit.

"Whoa, there son," the priest said with the thickest drawl Scott had ever heard. The priest was an old man with wavy gray hair and eyes which twinkled despite appearing closed. His hand, still hanging in mid-air after Scott spun away from him, was wrinkled and riddled with liver spots. "Where's the fire?"

Scott let out a deep sigh of relief. "Sorry, Father. I've been looking for a girl and I was told she was here."

"I don't know if you should be lookin' for girls," the priest said, indicating Scott's wedding ring, "Especially here."

"Oh," Scott said, spinning the ring around his finger absent-mindedly. "No, I meant I was looking for her to ask her some questions. Her name's Julia. Julia Quinn. Do you know her, Father?"

The priest smiled warmly. "Sure do," he said, the drawl thicker than molasses, "But I ain't seen her here all day. I'm sorry."

Scott shot the priest a puzzled look. "Really? Her sister said she was here."

The priest returned his look of puzzlement, "Sister? Julia doesn't have a sister."

Scott scratched his ear, as if he didn't hear the clergyman correctly. "She what?"

"Son, I known Julia since she was runnin' around here wearin' diapers. She ain't never had a sister."

Scott could feel the hamster wheel in his head turning. "If Julia doesn't have a sister, then that must mean..." his voice trailed off. "Thanks, Father," he added as he ran down the wide aisle between the pews.

"Stop runnin'! This here is a church, after all," the priest hollered.

Scott ignored him and raced out of the church and peeled out of the parking lot in his car. His mind centered on the conversation he had with the redhead at that house earlier in the day, replaying it over and over until he returned to the house. The car came to a screeching halt and Scott surveyed the house. The Mercedes that had been in the driveway was long gone. Scott stared blankly down the street and smacked his head on the car horn which let out a loud, prolonged F-sharp.

TO BE CONTINUED...

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