Hold That Hot Phone
by Gary Clifton
I had just dropped fifty bucks on a lame snooker game at Peewee’s Billiards on Westheimer. My cellular rang. I figured it was God telling me to change my evil ways. I stepped out into evening Houston’s sweltering humidity to answer. “Kratzert and Associates.”
“Mr. Kratzert?” The timid tone sounded like she might hang up and leave town.
“Mr. Kratzert, this is Marilyn Mikos. You recall my husband who—"
“Yes, Ma’am, I remember.” Hell yes, I remembered Gustavus Mikos, a shipping big dog who’d been murdered three years earlier. I’d handled the case. Mikos had gotten crossways with some union heavies. One or more of them waylaid him outside his office on the Houston Ship Channel and put three .38 slugs in his gut. We pulled his carcass out of the Turning Basin off Clinton Drive, but we never recovered the murder weapon.
I’d managed to convict Gino Feralli — street handle “Tank” — now in the joint down at the Jester II unit, doing life without parole. The little maggot had undoubtedly had some help, but his solo conviction was the best I could manage.
“Mr. Kratzert, I didn’t realize you were no longer with the police department. They gave me this number.”
“Yes, Ma’am, took a pension last year. Now run a private detective agency.” I didn’t tell her Kratzert and Associates were me and my cat, Hector.
“I... I’d like to hire you.”
The irresistible music of incoming cash. “How can I—"
“I’ve received death threats, demanding money if I don’t pay up. My lawyer Cletus Bobbit thinks they’ll give up, but I called you anyway.?”
I stood on the sidewalk, dodging mosquitoes and traffic, pondering what I’d just heard. Marilyn Mikos was a lovely specimen; she’d sat in the courtroom stoically demure during the Feralli trial. She was thirty years younger than her deceased husband. A couple hundred million bucks probably made a grunt hog like Gus Mikos much easier to love.
“We could meet in the morning, Mrs. Mikos.” Although I’d eye-balled the merchandise pretty good, I’d never spoken to her.
“Tonight, would be better. I’m afraid of... well, just afraid.”
“My recollection is that you’re in River Oaks. Is there a cafe open around there?
“Can you just come to my house?”
“Of course.” Going to a chick’s home, alone and late was a bad idea, but a payday wasn’t.
She gave me an address and said the gate would be unlocked.
* * *
When I rolled my F150 up front, the gate opened automatically. I swung up the circle drive. She was standing on the steps, a remote in hand, obviously to open the gate.
She was lovely in a sheer, light blue robe; her blond hair trailed below the shoulders. I didn’t want this kid to tell some mope I tried to take advantage of her. “Have you remarried, Mrs. Miklos?” I asked brilliantly.
She motioned me to follow her to the impressive front door. “Uh, no, Mr. Kratzert. I live in this mausoleum alone. Maid comes in daily, and Boris lives over the garage.”
“The chauffeur. He worked for Geno before his murder.” She smiled as she ushered me inside. “He’s not my type.”
She smelled of lavender. We sat in an ornate, massive library off the entry hall. Nobody could read that many books in two lifetimes.
Another smile through gleaming ivory. “Would you like a drink?”
“Please. A beer, if you have one.” I stuck out in that mansion like a toilet seat displayed among crown jewels.
She swayed out and returned with a beer and a martini. I did my damnedest to avert eyes from her chest as it tried to escape her robe.
“Tell me about your threats and anything connected, please.”
She slid into a chair that had to cost a year’s pay and sipped her drink. “Couple weeks ago, I began receiving calls.”
“Home first then, after a week, on my cell. Male voice distorted with one of those gadgets. Cletus got me a recorder. I have several calls you can listen to.” She dug in an end table drawer and tossed me a sandwich bag stuffed with cassettes.
A threatened rich, damsel on a first-name basis with her lawyer was rarely kosher. “Were you able to capture a number for the caller?”
“Burner. That’s what Houston PD to told me. It’s written on the tape labels there. And the caller ID of the number calling. “
“Somebody’s been busy. Any idea at all who may want to cause you harm or threaten to?”
“Only those Feralli brothers and that damned longshoreman’s union bunch they suck up to.”
We chitchatted while we finished our drinks. Although she exuded sexuality, Rule One of the common-sense manual said: “Thou shalt not make a pass at the client, even when she’s a gorgeous, rich widow.”
I rose to leave, cassettes in hand. “Uh, Mrs.—?”
“Marilyn, Mr. Kratzert, please.”
“Marilyn, it’s the old nuisance: money.”
“How much do you charge Mr.—?
“Dave. I charge fifty an hour with a minimum advance of five hundred.”
“No problem, Dave.” She dug a checkbook rubber-banded to a fistful of cash from the same drawer that had held the cassettes. “Uh, I have...uh,” she counted. “Twelve hundred in cash. Will that do for starters?”
“Absolutely, but I said five—"
“Find out who’s screwing with me... or trying to. Listen to the tapes. Money is no problem.”
I’d just heard that money line in an old Bogart movie. “Mrs... er, Marilyn, have you seen anyone socially... like a date or male friend, who might be good for this?”
The smile was golden. “No. I’ve been pretty frigid, so to speak, since Gus.”
“How about Cletus Bobbit?”
“Pretty personal” she smiled. But she didn’t say, “No.”
I stuffed her cash in my pocket and walked out the front door. Standing like a drugstore Godzilla on the top step was a hulking freak in a muscle shirt.
“Why are you here so late?” He smelled of garlic and body odor. I figured I was meeting Boris, chauffeur.
I tried to step by without acknowledging him, but he moved in front of me.
“Minding my own business, Lurch.” I tried again to brush past, but he put a ham hand in my chest.
I sunk my fist into his ample belly far enough to hit bottom. It might have been backbones, but I doubted he had any. He exhaled like a sperm whale in heat, bent double, then hard-landed his wide butt on the top step.
The gate opened automatically to outbound traffic. I drove toward downtown. I’d listen to the tapes as soon as possible. First, a visit to the only other Feralli I knew of. Geno had a brother, Marco — street name “Zero” — who operated a puke-joint bar on the service road of the Gulf Freeway.
I pushed into the smoke, both marijuana and otherwise at just past 11:45. About twenty hardcase losers were sitting at the bar, or at tables, or around a pool table in the rear. The music was loud and awful, but speech was possible.
I slid onto a barstool. Zero Feralli, in the flesh, was tending bar. “Whadaya have?” he asked without looking fully at me. Then, “Kratzert, you need to land your oversized ass elsewhere else.”
“Zero, Zero. What a hell of a thing to say. Why didn’t you return my calls today? I feel absolutely hurt and neglected. Did the check bounce?”
The “snitch” implication was plain. Most mopes within earshot knew better, but only just most and worse for Zero, most of them knew me. That part caused Zero an automatic pucker factor. He leaned across the bar. “Kratzert, you sumbitch, whadaya tryin’ to do?”
“Order a beer, Zero.”
“Sumbitch!” he repeated as he slammed a cold one on the bar. “Kratzert, most a’ this crowd is union longshore guys. A word from me and they’ll pull off your arms.”
I slid off the stool, raised my shirt, and showed him the .38. “Lemme see, Zero, one between your eyes, one in the fat loser’s guts next to me here, then a couple more of my choice, When the cops show, they’ll cap four or five more but, dude, you ain’t gonna know about it, ’cuz you’ll already be in hell.”
He held out both hands, palms up. “What do you want, Kratzert?” The fat guy next to me was already out the door. I motioned Zero to an empty end of the bar. He followed like a snake on a rope.
“Zero, I have reliable proof that you’ve been hassling Gus Mikos’ wife. Got the tapes she made, HPD matched them to your voice. You’re lookin’ at forty years.”
“Kratzert, I ain’t had no contact with that woman. She the doll that sat in the front row while you framed my brother?”
“You know she is, dummy.”
A lawyer in the mix created an automatic need for toilet paper. “I understand you’re tight with Cletus Bobbit, greasy lawyer.” I knew Bobbit. The description was charitable. In real life, he left a trail of green slime behind him wherever he went.
“That’s crap, man. Never really met him. I swear on my mother’s eyes.”
Yeah, I know. The greater the oath, the greater the lie. “Dude, I’m makin’ you my hobby. When I catch your ass dirty, you’re my bitch.”
Damn, I sounded just like John Wayne. He must not have heard I was off the job. Hard to read a mope like Zero. He was dumb, but smart enough to dial a telephone.
At home, I spent a half hour sampling tapes: typical macho crap with sexual threats added for color. This deal began to smell funny. Threats for petty cash?
* * *
First thing the next morning, I visited Frank Small, the audio specialist for the Houston P.D. A lamebrain who makes enough dumbass calls until the vic records them doesn’t seem to realize that if he can buy one of those voice distorters, the cops can, too.
“Hey, Dave, how’s the leg? Heard it was a .38.”
“Lost all limp, Frank. Don’t need the pills. They gimme Viagra to stiffen it up.”
He laughed. “Crappy of the brass to pension you out.”
“Aw, hell, Frankie, the PI bidness is all roses. Can you make a stab at bringing up this asshole’s real voice?”
“Sure, Dave. Gimme a couple hours. And don’t breathe to a soul I’m workin’ for a PI.”
Marilyn Miklos had labeled the tapes by “home” and “Cell.” A loose end was niggling at me. I dialed her cell.
“Yes,” came the sexy voice.
“Kratzert here. Marilyn, does Boris have a telephone number?”
“Yeah, Dave, hold on.” She read me a number. “It’s a cellular. He’s not out there. He left in the Rolls a few minutes ago. Think he goes to a gym. Want I should call you when he—"
“No. What’s his full name, Marilyn... and approximate age?” I wondered if Boris had gone to see a busted gut specialist.
A drawer opened. “Boris Kostas, born in Greece, and he’s fifty. Is he involved?”
“No, just learning the players. What’s Cletus Bobbit’s cell?”
“He won’t answer it.” She read me the number.
“Feel free to drop by for a drink. I get lonesome for some down-home talk around here.” I couldn’t tell if that was an offhand invite to re-examine that thin robe or if she was just lonely.
I hung up and googled the number for Farelli’s joint. Then, I called Maurice DuPree, security guy at Texas Bell. Maurice had been FBI but, despite the odds, he was a capable man.
I read off the combination of numbers for Marilyn Mikos, Bobbit, and Forelli, and asked if he do some crunching to see if any calls bounced back and forth between them.
“Sure, Dave, via the magic computer. Can’t give you any hard copies, but I can give you the info verbally. How’s the leg?”
“Gonna live, Maurice, unfortunately.”
I called Rose, my old secretary in Homicide, and asked her to see what she could dredge up on Boris Kostas.
“Sure thing, Dave. Hold on a sec. How’s the leg?”
“Runnin’ the high hurdles in next year’s police Olympics, kid.”
Computer keys clacked. “Dave, this Kostas guy is trouble. His sheet shows arrests for assault, burglary, resisting arrest and two years in the Illinois prison system for arson. Hey, and three years ago, he did 60 days right here in the Harris County Detention Center for fighting in a bar.”
I needed to drop by and lean on lawyer Bobbit but, first, why the hell was a thug like Kostas living over the Mikos garage? And why the hell was he driving “the” Rolls?
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton