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A Slight Case of Death

                                                                   Chapter 1


My name is Mandolin, Tony Mandolin. And yes, I know the name is a great straight line so go ahead, get the jokes and puns out of your system, I've heard more than my share pretty much all of my thirty-plus years. What I do is find things, all sorts and I've gotten so good at it that some folks tend to think I'm gifted with some sort of ESP or mumbo jumbo. No, I'm just stubborn.

Over the years, through a combination of word of mouth and, to be honest, dumb luck, I'd managed to solve some pretty big cases and unfortunately embarrass a few influential members of San Francisco's police force.

I keep an office that could have a second career as a large coat closet. It's located in a second floor walk-up in an office building not located in one of the fog city's better business districts. This month my in-basket held mostly bills and my out-basket held a partially eaten deli sandwich. I was busying myself with trying to find out what word fit in the Chronicle's crossword that used seven letters with hardly any vowels when she came through my door.

It took a couple of seconds before I managed to get my eyes in focus. Thick red curls cascaded past her shoulders, framing a heart-shaped face. She looked like Jessica Rabbit, only real. "Uh…" I said intelligently, blinding her with my witty repartee.

She smiled but it looked forced. "Are you Tony Mandolin?"

I gave up on the crossword and concentrated on the vision before me. She was wearing red to go along with her hair and the outfit looked like it cost more than what I paid in rent last year. A whiff of very expensive perfume floated my way and I coughed. "Um, yes, that's me. What can I do for you, Miss…?"

"I need your help."

I noticed she'd avoided mentioning her name. I leaned back in my chair, wondering who this lady was. It was obvious she was fishing way below her station. "What sort of help?"

"Your ad says you find things."

"That's right."

"What kinds of things?"

"All kinds."

She chewed that over for a couple of seconds and sat in the old wooden chair across from my desk. Like the rest of the furniture in my office, it had no hope of ever making the Antiques Road Show.

"I see…" Her reply came out in a voice so small I had to lean forward and ask her to repeat it. "…my sister."

"What about your sister, Miss…?" I tried again. You never know, sometimes information can be tricked rather than dug out. I still had to strain to hear what she said.

"She's missing. She didn't come home and it's been two days."

Probably a kid sister, I thought. With that kind of competition, you could see where the younger one would feel unfairly put upon. The kid most likely ran away to a friend's house, an easy job for easy money. "I see," I said. "What's she look like?"

She looked me straight in the eye. "Like me. We're twins."

Hoo boy. I leaned further back in my chair and considered. The city has its own red carpet set. A pair of twins looking like that had to have some sort of notoriety. A thread of memory began nibbling around in the back of my brain. You're obviously worried about her, I thought. What aren't you telling me?

I decided to try the direct approach. "All right, Miss whoever you are, I'll need to know a lot more before I can even decide to help you. I've tried twice now with broad hints, but you're giving me nothing to work with here."

A bit of heat inched into her eyes. "I don't know if I can trust you."

"Same here," I said and waited. We were playing a game of cat and mouse and I wasn't sure who was who.

Her deep breath spoke volumes. "Very well. My name is Roxanne, Roxanne Driver."

All of a sudden my interest went into deep freeze. She knew I recognized the name. Hell, I lived in the Western US, didn't I? The Drivers were one of those families everyone reads about but no one outside of certain elite circles ever meets. Miss Driver and her twin were heirs to a fortune some governments would like to control. According to the papers, Daddy earned a cool two billion last year, but only because business was a bit slow. This was way out of my pay grade. The Drivers lived in a highly rarified atmosphere and had for a couple centuries. Their great granddaddies did all the work, while the last couple of generations have spent their time in degeneration and other enlightening pastimes. Contrary to type, the current patriarch, Randall Driver III, spent most of his time buying and selling businesses; he was the odd one, a worker. The man was responsible for dozens of companies and thousands of careers. He petrified me.

I shook my head and picked up one of the papers cluttering my desktop. I held it out to her. "Fill this out and I'll see if I can work you into my schedule." You could have shipped fish with the temperature of my voice. I wanted her out of my office…now.

She didn't look at the paper. Her lower lip pouted and she sighed. "I…see." 

I turned back to my papers, heard a click and looked up into the barrel of a 38.

I hadn't noticed the handbag; it was too small. Who would have believed a gun that size would have fit into a bag that small? She held it rock-steady, pointed at yours truly.

Mama Mandolin did not raise a fool. I kept my eyes level with hers and placed both hands on the desk. "Are you planning on using that thing, Miss Driver?"

Her aim remained steady. "Only if I have to."

I nodded. "And that reason would be…"

She didn't reply. The muzzle of that gun started to look like the mouth of the city's water main.

We sat there for what seemed like hours, Roxanne holding a bead on me and me trying not to sweat. Finally, she let out a breath and murmured, so softly it seemed like she was talking more to herself than to me, "I love my sister."

"Yeah," I said, "I can see where that'd make any woman pull a gun on a stranger."

That was stupid. Her eyes flashed and she brought up her other hand, moving into the Weaver stance. "I won't be mocked, Mister Mandolin."

I held up my hands. Right, as if they'd stop a .38 slug. "Look, I'm sorry if I was rude; your people and mine, they tend not to mix too well, okay? Your sister is missing. All right, how long has she really been missing? Was it just the two days? Where did you last see her? What are her habits? Who does she hang around with? Have you gone to the police? I don't know about other departments, but there's a couple of detectives downtown I know who are pretty heads up when it comes to solving missing persons cases. With your family, I'm sure they'd do something."

My rapid-fire questions rattled her. The gun lowered as she looked away in thought. After a second it went back into the purse. Maybe I wouldn't have to change my pants after all. My insides held a parade in celebration.

"I can't go to the police," she stated in a voice so flat it was almost monotone.

"Why not?" I asked. Her daddy owned more than half of the bayside waterfront and most of city hall, and she couldn't go to the police? They'd fall all over themselves trying to please her just because of daddy's money. Hell, the Chief would probably order her lunch while she waited.

She crossed her arms under her breasts. "Because I can't. Let's leave it at that."

"Ok." I make a point of never arguing with a lady with a gun, even if it was no longer pointed at me. Closing off that option also left out Pat Monahan, one of the few city detectives who didn't hate my guts. "So how long has she been missing?"

"Like I said, two days."

I looked at the clock stuck to the wall behind her. It read 11:05am. Seemed like it should have been one heck of a lot later. I asked, "Has she done anything like this before? Tell me something about her usual routine."

She chewed her lower lip. I could see she still had trust issues.

"Look, Miss Driver, if you want me to help you, I'll need to know some things, some of them probably personal."

"Very well," she sighed, "I'll tell you. The last night I saw Randi, she and I went slumming. We had heard about other girls doing it and having a great time." She smiled tentatively. "We thought it would be fun, sort of a guilty pleasure."

I managed to keep my face professionally interested. Put me down for an Academy Award. "Go on."

"At first," she tilted her eyes toward the ceiling, "it was fun. Most of the men in our circle have considerably higher opinions of themselves than they deserve."

The women, too, but that's just me.

She continued. "But I found myself becoming bored after the first couple of hours. As diverting as the men were, we had nothing in common and they were only interested in one thing."

Welcome to the human race sweetheart. "So, you left, but your sister was still partying?"

She looked away. "Yes."

"And that's the last time you saw her?"


"Where was this?"

"A bar called the Summersault. We had never been there before. I usually stay away from that portion of the city."

I wasn't surprised. The club she mentioned sat in the 600 block of Eddy Street. At night, the seedier elements prowled the shadows and alleys in search of prey. Take a girl with Randi's looks; add a few measures of gin, shake, and serve. Easy pickings, that is, unless Roxanne's twin got a wild hare and was shacking up with someone in another part of the city.

"I know the neighborhood. What time did you two separate?"

She shivered, hugging herself. This one wore all her emotions on her skin. "I'm not sure. I'd had a little too much to drink. It was after midnight when the cab dropped me off at home. I went straight to bed. When I woke, it was after nine. That's when I noticed Randi hadn't come home at all."

"How could you tell?" I think I already knew, but I had to ask.

"Her bed had not been slept in. Our rooms sit across from each other and the maids don't come until after ten."

I nodded. "Ok. Do you recall anyone, in particular, paying attention to her more than anyone else? Did she seem attracted to anyone over and above the other men you saw there?"

She shook her head; red curls flew. "No," she said, "not that I can recall."

"Have you got a photo of her I can take with me? Believe it or not, most folks don't have that much of a memory."

"Here." She held out a wallet-sized photo.

I had to force myself not to glance back and forth between her and the photo. Randi and Roxanne were indeed twins, identical right down to the tiny mole to the left of their identical pouty mouths. In spite of their family history and fortunes, the girls were stunners. I shouldn't have much trouble raising a trail.

I nodded at the shot, trying to look thoughtful rather than licentious. "This'll do. Now, about my fee..."

She reached into the handbag again and pulled out a horse-choking, thick wad of bills. She dropped the roll onto my desk. "I don't believe in dickering, Mr. Mandolin, it wastes too much time. If that isn't sufficient let me know. I just want you to find my sister," her voice faltered, "even if..."

I eyed the money. "Yeah, sure." That zero I had added had gained friends. The outer bill was a Franklin. "I'll need a contact number."

A business card landed next to the wad. "That is my private number. Leave a message if I don't answer." Then she walked out; her expensive perfume stayed to flirt a little longer.

I picked up the card. It was glossy white with black printing, a phone number and nothing else, not even an area code. The rich, they like to do it in style.

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