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A Deadly Kind of Love [MultiFormat]
eBook by Victor J. Banis

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Nothing bad is supposed to happen in Palm Springs. At least that's what San Francisco private detective Tom Danzel and his partner Stanley Korski believe. But when their friend Chris finds a dead body in his hotel room bed, Tom and Stanley drive out to help the local police investigate. What they discover is a gangster's plot, a rather nasty green snake, and an elegant hotel that offers delicacies not usually found on a room service menu. The two detectives are going to have to rely on their skills and each other if they're going to survive this very deadly kind of love.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2011


11 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

"Whew. That was quite a party!" Chris Rafferty breathed a weary sigh and leaned back against the car's headrest, letting his eyelids drift closed. "I'm just past the next bend."

"Sweet." The car leaned gently around a final curve. "Whoa, you're staying here?" the driver, Eddie, exclaimed. "At the Winter?"

"Umm hmm." Chris's reply was heavy with threatening sleep. He was having trouble staying awake. "Is that special?"

"Special?" Eddie whistled faintly under his breath. "Gosh, the Winter Beach Inn is like the top place to stay in Palm Springs these days. The top gay place, for sure. I don't know, maybe the top place period." He turned his head to look at Chris in the pale greenish glow from the dashboard. "So, are you some kind of millionaire, or what?"

"Me?" Chris laughed. "Hardly. I'm a nurse. I told you earlier. Did you ever hear of a millionaire nurse?"

"No, but I don't know many nurses who could afford to stay here either. It's mostly rich, older queens. Let me guess, you've got a sugar daddy, right?"

Another laugh. "Not me. My best friend, Stanley Korski, he works sometimes for this big name decorator in San Francisco, Wayne Cotter, and Wayne drops enormous bucks here whenever he comes to town. He might even own a piece of the pie, I don't know. Anyway, when I said I was coming to Palm Springs, Stanley called Wayne, and Wayne called the Inn, and voila. I got a room on the house."

"Talk about lucky." The car slowed. "So, what suite are you in? They're all named for movie stars, right?"

"Right. I got the Jeanette McDonald. Oh, no, wait, they switched my room. Just as I was coming out tonight, as a matter of fact. I was headed for the door and stopped to powder my nose, and I realized my toilet had backed up, and as quick as you please, they moved me lock, stock, and barrel to the Alice Faye. I didn't even have to lift a pinkie. You can drop me here."

They pulled up by the massive gates--locked at this late hour. Eddie switched off the headlights. "You sure you don't want to, uh... you know?" he said. He glanced upward. The sky was still dark, but with the opalescence that foretold the morning. "We could greet the dawn, so to speak."

"Ah, thanks, um," Chris mumbled the name, afraid he wouldn't get it right. "I would, but I'm beat. I'm not as young as I used to be. Next time, okay?"

"Sure." Eddie sounded disappointed, but not too. "I'm kind of ragged myself, to tell the truth. You wanna have lunch tomorrow?"

"Too early. I'm going to sleep in. Let's say dinner. Why don't you call me? Only, not before noon, okay?"

"Sounds good. Hey, you know what, can we eat here? I've always wanted to see inside this place. This is probably the only chance I'll ever get."

"Absolutely. The food's good too." Chris leaned across the seat to give his companion a quick peck, which turned into something a bit more prolonged. They rubbed together for a long moment, lips locked.

"Sure you don't want to change your mind?" Eddie asked when they came up for air.

"Trust me, it would be a futile gesture," Chris said. He opened his door to slide out. "Tomorrow, okay? Not too early."

He used his key card to let himself through the gates, took the yellow brick path about the main building. During the day the swimming pool was sometimes so crowded with bodies that you could hardly see the water, but now it was empty, a huge turquoise kidney, smelling of chlorine. The fronds of the palm trees overhead rattled like ghostly castanets. A white napkin, missed by the cleaners, blew past his feet in the desert breeze, caught on the leg of a chair, a linen tumbleweed.

He got to the door of the Jeanette McDonald suite before he remembered he had been moved and half staggered to the next door over. He'd had way too much to drink tonight, plus smoking a couple of joints, and what was that pill he'd taken, anyway? Not to mention he had danced until his legs actually felt shaky.

"Getting old, Christopher," he told himself, letting himself into the Alice Faye suite.

The room was dark. From his earlier brief inspection, he remembered blue ruffles and lots of frills, and a parasol for a lampshade. More frills, maybe, than he wanted to face just at the moment. He didn't bother turning on the lights. The faint glow through the curtains was enough to show him his way to the bathroom door, a first stop his bladder was absolutely demanding. Always listen when your bladder demands, was his motto.

In the harsh glare from the bathroom's overhead light, he blinked and glowered at his disheveled appearance in the mirrors that covered all the walls--eyes bleary, hair in disarray, a big stain of some sort on the front of his shirt. Multiple appearances, he corrected himself. You could watch several of you, or maybe several of somebody else, take a leak.

He smiled sleepily, thinking of a friend or two who would find that pleasantly kinky--but at the moment, business was more urgent than admiring, or not admiring, himself. His little playmate popped out of his trousers just in time for a noisy pee that went on and on and on. It was definitely blessed relief. He sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. There were times he honestly believed it was better than an orgasm.

Flushing, he avoided looking at the mirrors again. One glimpse was enough to remind him he was no longer a kid and that late night carousing took its toll in ways it hadn't ten years earlier. His wool-coated teeth really needed a good brushing, but he was too tired. He flipped the light off before he opened the door and went out.

After the brightness in the bathroom, the bedroom was dark as pitch, nothing to be seen but the pale rectangle of the window across the room, the blue-green light from the swimming pool leaking through. He felt his way in what he thought was the right direction for the bed and, bumping into it, dropped down on it with a noisy, "oof."

In a minute or two, he told himself, he would get up and strip off his clothes and get under the covers like a civilized man. For the moment, though, he just wanted to lie there, catching his breath, savoring the memory of a great night on the town.

His breathing slowed. He did not, after all, exactly feel like going to all the trouble of getting up and undressing. He thought instead he'd just snooze for a little bit. There was always time to take your pants off, wasn't there? It wasn't like there was somebody with him to take them off for.

Which reminded him briefly of the young man who had dropped him off at the gate. Eddie, was that his name? Cute. Japanese, with almond skin and soft dark eyes and lips of velvet, sweet to the kiss. And horny, certainly, despite the late hour and all the entertainment. Maybe he should have...?

Too late for that, he told himself sternly. And he didn't think he had the energy to masturbate, either. He really was getting old. He turned onto his side, let one arm flop limply across the bed--and discovered there was something in the bed with him.

One hand went tentatively up and down. Yes, it was just what he'd thought at first, a body. As if his horny thoughts had conjured it up--a male body, lying on its back; it took only seconds of exploration to confirm the gender. A naked male body, which made the confirmation much easier than it otherwise might have been.

Even drunk and tired as he was, he thought there was something to be said for having a warm naked body in bed with you. Pleasant to contemplate, certainly. There was just one slight problem with that scenario, however.

This body was not warm.

* * * *

Chapter Two

Stanley Korski woke conscious of the warm body next to him in the bed. Or sort of woke, rather. He was really more asleep than awake when he answered the phone. It was nearly four in the morning, after all. He fumbled the receiver from the cradle, got it upside down at first, and reversed it.

"Stanley?" the phone asked his ear.

"Chris... uh, hi." He waited for his friend Chris to say something more, explain why he was calling in the middle of the night. Beside him in the bed, warm-bodied Tom Danzel stirred slightly.

"Who is it?" Tom asked, a grumpy mumble.

"It's Chris," he said in a whispered aside to Tom, and into the phone, in a groggy voice, "So, uh, how is Palm Springs?"

"It's nice. Hot though, really hot. In the daytime, anyway, but it cools down in the evening. I spent most of the day in the pool here at the hotel, very festive, and then I danced the night away. The boys down here really know how to party."

"That's nice." Another long pause.

"What's he want?" Tom grunted. "What time is it?"

"Umm, Chris, honey, it's, like"--Stanley squinted his eyes at the clock with its oversized numerals, easy to read with his contact lenses out--"it's like four o'clock in the morning."

"Three forty-eight."

"Is something wrong?" Tom asked, rolling onto his back and running his fingers through already tousled curls.

"Is something wrong?" Stanley asked into the phone.

"Yes. Stanley, there's... there's this guy in my room."

"You're calling me at four in the morning--"

"Three forty-nine...."

"Three forty-nine in the morning to tell me you got lucky? Let me guess, he's hot and he's hard--"

"Stiff."

"That's just semantics. I don't do semantics in the middle of the night. Sweetie--"

"No, I mean, he's stiff. As in, he's dead."

"Dead?"

Beside him, Tom sat up. "Huh? Who?"

"Stanley, there's a dead guy in my room. In my bed to be specific."

"Naked?"

A loud sigh. "Of course he's naked, silly. Why would a man be in my bed with his clothes on?"

"I don't think I understand what he's doing there naked."

"I don't either." Chris sounded as if he were about to cry.

"But he's there? In your bed?"

"Yes. He's in my bed. He's naked."

"And he's dead?"

"As a doornail."

"And the police...?"

"Are on their way. Oh, Stanley, I need you guys. Please."

Stanley flipped the bedside lamp on, kicked the covers aside, and sat up on the edge of the bed, the phone still to his ear.

"What's going on?" Tom asked. "Who's dead? Where are you going?"

"Get up, Tin Man, and get dressed," Stanley said, already shimmying into his trousers. "We're off to see the wizard."

* * * *

Chapter Three

On his own, Stanley would most likely have flown from San Francisco to Palm Springs. The flight only took about an hour and twenty minutes on Alaska--but that, of course, was not counting all the hassle one went through at airports these days.

And the hassle was particularly vexing for Tom. He had been caught in an explosion and a fire some time before, and the incident had left him with some burn scars and, more tellingly, a metal plate in one hip--and Stanley's nickname for him, Tin Man. Inevitably the steel set off alarms and created confusion at airports. Sometimes it took longer to get through security than it did for the flight.

Tom preferred driving down the I-5 in his big Dodge Ram truck, supercharged, and considering that his attitude toward speed limits was pretty cavalier, and with those airport delays factored in, the travel time generally wasn't all that much longer.

Plus, as Stanley liked to put it, it gave them quality space together. They talked, or, alternatively, since Tom wasn't a chatty type, drove in a comfortable silence. When the silence grew a bit lengthy, one or the other of them turned on the radio. Tom liked old jazz and Stanley's tastes ran to musicals, but heading through the middle of the state, both of those were the proverbial hen's teeth. Stanley had better luck finding country music on a Bakersfield station. Hank Williams cried lonesome blues while the big wheels ate up the highway, Kitty Welles sang of faithless men in a twang you could have sliced with a butter knife, and Dolly Parton's sweet soprano provided the leavening to all that rural angst.

Hank and friends began to fade in and out as they left the Bakersfield station behind, climbing the Grapevine up and down again, and got closer to Los Angeles. Stanley fiddled with the dial some more, found some jazz for Tom on a Hollywood station: Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Bix Beiderbecke. The music somehow evoked an older Hollywood--dark smoky clubs, dry martinis, Bogart and Bacall sparring wittily and swapping great lines.

They skirted the big city on the 210, which took them east through air already smeared with smog even in this early season. In summer's heat it would be brown and poisonous, blown inland by the ocean breezes. Had always been so. The Chumash Indians, long before the city had sprung up, had called the Los Angeles basin "the valley of the smokes." The coming of civilization had only aggravated the problem. Aggravated it greatly.

Past San Bernardino--and back to the country music--the air got better, but the urban sprawl did not. Strip malls, casinos, and truck plazas had taken over here, too, stood in for the old desert, but at least the sky was arrogantly blue, and between the malls and the commercial buildings you could still catch glimpses of spidery tumbleweeds nestled against bleached out fences, brown sugar canyons in the distance, and sand that glittered so brightly in the afternoon sun it hurt the eyes to look at it for more than a second or two. The occasional scrub brush or mesquite broke the vast expanse, and in the far distance, mountains loomed purple-gray, their tops still capped with winter's snow. It was the fifth of March, early spring.

They made a brief pit stop at a rest area, a grassy stretch enjoying the welcome shade of cottonwoods and willows. Families ate lunch at picnic tables, and children played in that hyper way they did when finally freed from the confines of a car on a long road trip.

Back on the highway, Stanley turned off the air conditioning and put down the windows. The air blowing into the cab was warm, not too hot, and dry, with what Stanley could only think of as "that desert smell, pungent and sweet all at the same time."

He had read once that what distinguished the "primitive" painters, like Grandma Moses, was that they painted snow as white, when in reality it almost never was white, but a reflection of its surroundings, or the sky above, a hundred different shades of gray or blue or green.

In the same way, it seemed to him, amateur painters always painted the desert sand beige, but when he looked out at it, he saw a myriad of subtle shades that only the first-rate artists--Georgia O'Keefe sprang instantly to mind--managed to capture.

They passed the wind farms, acre after acre of whirligigs arranged on a hilltop in rows, turning lackadaisically in the faint breeze, looking like giant aliens from some other world.

"I wonder what the archeologists will think when they discover these wind machines a few centuries from now," Stanley pondered.

"Probably think we worshipped them."

"I guess some people do." Stanley reached across the seat and put his hand on Tom's muscular thigh. Tom smiled briefly sideways at him, a smile that never failed to pierce Stanley's heart, and put his hand over Stanley's.

It felt good to Tom, holding Stanley's hand in his. Things hadn't always gone well for them. Tom was straight, or had been when they had been thrown together on their first case. Now he was, he admitted to himself, he didn't know exactly what.

The rubbing of a couple of bits of flesh together didn't explain love any more than the string a guitarist picks explains music. He loved Stanley. That was as much as he knew and as gay as he got. Otherwise, he had no interest in men. If it weren't for Stanley, he'd be doing what he'd done all his previous life, and with impressive success--chasing women.

But, Stanley was there, trumping all the other cards in the deck. Tom didn't know what exactly it was they had, or ever would have, but he knew if he wanted it, he had to work at it. That meant no more chasing women. At least men weren't a problem for him in that respect. He had never lusted after men, and had been mostly unaware of them lusting after him.

The ropes of love were impossible to break, but they had both learned through bitter experience that they were easily raveled.

* * * *

After the wind farms, the desert really did open up, but the increasing presence of billboards touting restaurants, hotels, and gas stations announced that they were nearing Palm Springs. A grandiose RV park proclaimed itself "a retirement community for active adults."

"Better check in with the locals first thing," Tom said. At one time, they had both been homicide inspectors with the San Francisco Police Department, where Tom had been something of a legend and Stanley, no way around it, a misfit.

Now they were licensed private detectives. Some police departments were welcoming of private operatives, some were not. Since it was never a good idea to get on the wrong side of a department, checking with the local police was always the first item on Tom's agenda whenever he came to a strange town. Just in case. They had come because Chris wanted them, and Chris was a friend, but they would have no jurisdiction here, no authority other than what the Palm Springs cops were willing to allow them.

Best case scenario, they got leave to snoop around, sometimes pretty freely. Worse case, the cops would shut them down. If it turned out that way, they'd have a couple days vacation in the high desert, and go back to San Francisco, and leave things up to the locals.

Stanley had gone to the computer and printed out maps for them before they left San Francisco. They exited the freeway on the Gene Autry Trail, skirted the airport, and drove directly to the Palm Springs Police Department, a modern structure, one-story, poured concrete with vertical grooves cascading down its front and a flat roof. In the parking lot, two pigeons were squabbling over a leftover scrap of donut and blinked resentfully at them when Tom drove over their dessert. A couple of fan palms tried hard to give the building some charm, and a sculpture out front showed a policeman helping a fallen comrade.

"Nice touch," Tom said of the sculpture. "Comrades in arms. I like it."

Stanley noted that the sculptor had made both the officers hot. Gay artist, he'd bet money. And, probably Tom hadn't even noticed that part of it. Much of Tom was still a mysterious and unexplored continent to him. Stanley loved him, but he totally did not understand him.

Whoever understood anybody, though, beyond the surface stuff? What he knew, knew for certain, was that Tom was there for him. Anybody who wanted to hurt him--and there had been a few of those--would have to come at him through Tom, and Tom made a hell of an effective barrier.

It didn't hurt, either, that Tom was dynamite in the sack. Really dynamite. Stanley didn't love in quite the same way Tom did, he knew that, but he loved the way Tom's big stick went boom.

* * * *

Inside the station, a small blonde woman in a black uniform waited at the front desk behind bulletproof glass. She would have been pretty were it not for a long ago bout with severe acne that had left her well-modeled face pitted beyond what makeup could disguise.

Trying not to stare at her pockmarked skin, Tom felt a brief pang of sympathy. His once handsome face had been scarred in that crime-related fire, the same fire that had left him with a metal hip.

Much improvement had been made to his face, but he was ever conscious of its damaged state. Oddly, some other people--women, and a lot of gay men--felt it made him more attractive, not less. That wasn't how he saw himself in the mirror, though. He would have given a lot to have his old face back, but that wasn't going to happen. Instead, he'd had to make peace with what the mirror showed him.

He saw the acne blonde register his glance and read it correctly. Feeling guilty, he asked her if they could see whichever detective was working the murder at the Winter Beach Inn. She slanted a measuring look up at him and just behind him at Stanley, a little surprised by the request and obviously trying to decide if she should ask them any questions.

"Have a seat," she told them, apparently deciding someone else could ask the questions, and disappeared through a door behind her desk.

Since they had been sitting for most of the last few hours, they remained standing instead. In any case, the wait was brief. A short, pudgy man in rumpled trousers and red suspenders appeared within minutes, an unlit cigar in one hand. He looked them over with small eyes that came close to matching the color of his suspenders, sizing them with a professional's speed and certainty.

"You're the fellows from San Francisco," he greeted them.

It was Tom's turn to be surprised. "As a matter of fact, we are from San Francisco, but...."

"I'm Detective Hammond. Dick Hammond." He nodded his head for them to follow him and led them to a small two-desk office at one end of the building. Through the window, Tom could see the parking lot and the Ram. Probably, Detective Hammond had watched them arrive.

The second desk in the room was unmanned at the moment but looked as if it were usually well occupied, its surface strewn with paperwork that was all too familiar to Tom from his time in the San Francisco bureau. Casework detail. Sometimes it felt as if you were drowning in paperwork, like a miracle that anybody ever found time to actually solve murders.

"Sit," Hammond said, indicating a pair of hard wooden chairs in front of his desk. "Either of you want coffee?" They both shook their heads. "Wise choice," he said. "It's like road tar."

It wasn't coffee, however, that Stanley smelled on the detective's breath. Apparently Detective Hammond was partial to Eau de Bourbon. Probably that explained to some degree the red-rimmed eyes--which, nevertheless, managed to look plenty shrewd as he looked over his visitors.

"So, I'm curious, how did you know we were from San Francisco?" Tom asked, taking one of the chairs. Stanley sat beside him.

"These days, just about everybody in town is, seems like. Ah, shit, it's no big mystery, though. We got a call from San Francisco PD, from homicide. An Inspector...." He paused to open a folder atop his desk and take a quick peek inside. "Inspector Bryce. He called to tell us you'd be stopping by."

"He did?" Another surprise for Tom. He had worked with Bryce not so long ago in the past, when he'd been in homicide detail there. But how had Bryce gotten onto this, he wondered? He hadn't called him, though if he had thought of it, he'd have considered it a good idea. He and Stanley had no official police connection now, but Bryce could open doors for them. Cops responded to cops.

Stanley answered that question for him. "I called Bryce," he said, looking a little embarrassed about it. "I asked him to call and put in a good word for us. I thought it might help."

"Really?" Stanley and Bryce had never been the best of friends. It was no secret that the deeply closeted Bryce had the hots for Tom, a fact which Stanley resented. Which to Tom's way of thinking made it doubly surprising that Stanley should have called him to ask for assistance and that Bryce should have agreed. Not for the first time, he marveled at Stanley's ability to get things done.

Ignoring their exchange, Hammond went on. "Anyway, this Bryce, he said you were on your way, and he asked us to, well, to cut you some slack, sort of. You're not with SFPD, as I understand it."

"Not anymore," Stanley said, and quickly added. "We used to be." Hammond gave him a not-quite-convinced look.

Stanley was used to that. When people, especially police people, looked at him, homicide detective was not generally what they saw. Tom was masculine and burly, with a massive chest and long, heavily muscled arms, and shoulders as wide as a football field. He looked the part of a detective out of some fifties pulp novel. Made most of the fictional tough guys, in fact, look like sissies.

Stanley, by contrast, was little and just shy of effeminate, and even in the often macho world of gay San Francisco--bears and bikers and serious leather drag--he was frequently marginalized. When gay conversations turned to uniforms, as they often did, he liked to say he had an old WAAC outfit from World War II he could don in a pinch. Serious uniform people, and uniform queens could be serious indeed, did not laugh when he said it.

Or, put it another way, Tom was body shirts and denims or camo, with boots. Stanley was cashmere and designer jeans and sneakers. They were mismatched except according to the law of opposite attraction.

"We have a detective agency now," Tom said.

Hammond looked a bit unhappy with that. "That's what your Bryce told me. Private dicks."

"Yes," Stanley said, still a bit miffed at that look Hammond had given him, "definitely private."

Tom leaned forward in a kind of man-to-man gesture. Hammond responded by leaning forward slightly as well. Stanley looked from one to the other and suppressed a titter. Bad boys, bonding. Next thing they'd be arm-wrestling.

"Look," Tom said, "here's the thing. We don't plan on getting in your way. The gentleman who has the room where this body was found--"

Hammond took another peek at the file folder. "Christopher Rafferty."

"Right. Chris," Stanley said. He leaned forward into the conversation. Hammond settled back in his chair. "He's a friend of ours, he called us about the body and asked us to come down. I guess as much to hold his hand as anything."

"But to be honest, we would like to poke around a little while we're here," Tom said. "Enough to make our friend feel better, anyway. You know, like we're doing something. If that's not a problem for you."

Hammond sighed and put the folder aside on his desk. "No," he said, a shade reluctantly. "Not a problem, exactly, as long as we all understand this is a police matter. Palm Springs PD is doing the investigation. Anything you learn with your poking around, as you put it, I'll expect you to turn over to PSPD first thing."

"Agreed." Tom gave his head a shake and added diplomatically, "And most likely, we aren't going to learn anything your boys don't already know anyway. I've worked both sides of the street. It's a bunch of bull that private dicks are better at figuring things out than the police, that's just in the books and movies."

"Glad to hear you say it," Hammond said.

"Still, it can't hurt to have a couple extra pair of eyes looking things over, can it?"

"Probably not. Are you carrying?"

"I'm not," Stanley said. He wasn't fond of firearms. Some while back he'd had to shoot someone--dead. His own brother, as it happened, though for most of his life he hadn't been aware that he had a brother. Even when he had been with the San Francisco Police Department, he hadn't liked firearms. Since then, since shooting his brother, he'd had a serious aversion to them.

Tom opened his sport jacket to reveal a shoulder holster.

"Sig Sauer?" Hammond asked. Tom nodded. "You're licensed?"

Tom dug out his P.I. license and the permit for the gun and handed them across the desk. Hammond gave them a cursory read and handed them back.

"For the record, Stanley's licensed too," Tom said. "And he has a Beretta, but it's back in San Francisco."

"Just bear in mind," Hammond said, "you're here on private business. The laws apply to you the same as to all other citizens. Act accordingly." He thought a moment. "And understand, a lot of wealthy people live here. Wealthy, powerful people. They can be funny about their privacy. Be careful whose toes you step on."

"Got it," Tom said. Stanley started to say something, but Tom bumped his shoe unobtrusively against Stanley's, and Stanley bit off what he had been about to say. When dealing with other police officers, it was generally wiser to let Tom do the talking.

Hammond saw the hesitation and lifted an eyebrow in Stanley's direction. "You okay with that?"

"Absolutely." Stanley bobbed his head appropriately. "Not stepping on toes is a specialty of mine."

"Uh-huh," Hammond said, in a not-very-convinced tone.

"Can I ask," Tom said, "have you got any leads on the murder?"

"Well, now, to tell you the absolute truth, we're not even one hundred percent sure it was a murder."

Another surprise. "A dead guy dumped in a stranger's room...?"

"If he was a stranger. Right now, we're not sure about a lot of things, to be perfectly frank."

"We know Chris Rafferty. If he says the victim was a stranger, you can take that as a given," Tom said emphatically. "How did this guy die anyway, if you don't mind telling us?"

"I don't mind." Still, Hammond hesitated as if he might, in fact, mind. "Snake bite, it seems like," he said finally.

"Snake bite? Inside a hotel room?"

"Might not have happened there, of course. Somebody gets bitten, they don't always just keel over on the spot. Generally they don't. That's just in the books and movies too. But that was the initial report. You'd be surprised how often snakes show up inside. Scorpions, too, or black widows. It goes with the territory. Responding officers said there was evidence of a snake bite, though. Which means, being where we are, it was probably a Green Mojave. Ever heard of them?" Tom shook his head. "Meanest rattlesnake there is. Aggressive bastards, get 'em riled up, they'll come after you."

"So you think--?" Tom started to say.

Hammond interrupted him. "I expect we'll know more in a bit."

Hammond's face was blank, but the pause this time seemed oddly significant. "The body's over at the county morgue. I doubt they've started cutting on it yet."

Tom thought about that, about the pause. It felt like the policeman was giving him a hint. Something Hammond wanted him to pick up on, but couldn't actually say. "Can we see it?" Tom asked. "The body?"

Hammond nodded, as if Tom had correctly answered some unasked question. "I don't see why not. Like you said, some extra eyes can't hurt. The morgue's in Riverside. I expect if you're going over there, though, you probably should go pretty quick. That's if you're wanting to see anything before they start cutting."

"Gotcha," Tom said, standing.

"Sandy out at the desk can draw you a map. Ask for Doc Murphy when you get there, he's the chief forensic. I'll call and tell him you're coming."

"Thanks." They started toward the door.

"Oh, Danzel...," Hammond called after him. Tom paused at the door and looked back. "You got a car phone?"

"I drive a Ram pickup," Tom said. "That big red one you can see out your window there. They don't usually come with car phones. Why?"

"Cell?"

"Sure. Both of us." He waited for Hammond to take it further.

"Just wondered," Hammond said instead and turned his attention back to his desk. He opened a bottom drawer, looked down into it, and glanced up again at Tom and Stanley--obviously waiting for them to go.

So he could have a nip at the bottle stashed in the desk drawer, Stanley rather supposed.

They were half out the door when Hammond thought of something else. "Just so you know, the doc, Murphy--he's not the coolest guy in the desert." He looked significantly from one of them to the other and settled his gaze on Stanley.

Meaning, Stanley thought, but did not say, the forensic expert was homophobic.

Well, he'd run into that kind before. And he could dish it out as well as take it, if he had to. But he did wish the straight world could just get over it.


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