Stranglehold

A Mystery

Dev Conrad Mysteries (Volume 2)

Ed Gorman

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

PART ONE
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CHAPTER | 1
All roads lead to motels. A private detective told me that once, and I remembered it as I watched Susan Cooper, United States Congresswoman Susan Cooper, aim her green Volvo into the last parking slot on the west side of the Family Inn.
The date was the second of October, which meant we were about one month away from the election. As a political consultant, I divide my life up by election cycles. And I was worried that this cycle might see the end of Susan’s political career, for which my Chicago office was largely responsible.
I wore a Cubs cap and sunglasses and drove a rental car—a scruffy disguise. I’d followed her through Aldyne, the Illinois city where her family name was still formidable. Though I wasn’t handling her campaign personally—I was working on a gubernatorial campaign in Michigan—a call to me yesterday afternoon had made her reelection campaign my problem.
The motel was on the south end of the city. The noontime sunlight was welcome but not warm.
After getting out of the Volvo, Susan stood on the walk looking around, a graceful blond woman in a well-tailored navy-blue suit and conservative black heels. She had the kind of face that had been chic for thousands of years. The family fortune had allowed her to go to Smith and learn how to dress handsomely without making too fine a point of it.
She continued to look around. If she’d been in an acting class, I would have guessed that her instructor had just told her to look frightened because she sure as hell did. A man and woman emerged from a room three doors down from where she stood. She turned away from them so they wouldn’t be able to see her face. After all, this was her hometown and she was its congresswoman.
The couple headed for a once-red Dodge with a cracked windshield and a broken taillight. They carried their belongings in duffel bags. They paid no attention to her.
After their Dodge disappeared, Susan spent another minute glancing around again before making her move to the door at the end of the walk. She moved quickly now. Furtively.
I watched all this from the parking lot of a McDonald’s that flowed into the motel lot. It was lunchtime, and with all the traffic in and out she didn’t notice me.
Apparently, the investors behind the motel had decided to spend most of their money on other projects. The macadam was cracked in places; a few of the windows had tape covering cracks; and the red-brick facing was filthy. I doubted this was the kind of place Susan Cooper frequented very often.
She knocked on the door. As she waited for a response, she started looking around again. I thought she had spotted me as she surveyed the merged parking lots, but her eyes moved on past me.
Ben Weinberg was running this campaign for my firm. He’d told me that for the past few weeks Congresswoman Cooper had been disappearing twice a week and had acted nervous, even distraught, when she returned. This was damaging her campaign. She’d been in a debate three weeks ago that had made her look unprepared and irritable. Internal and external polling showed that even her admirers thought she’d done poorly and wondered if something was wrong with her.
Our opponent, a man named Steve Duffy, was outspending us two-to-one and was starting to close in on us. Susan Cooper was a distraction for me, but Weinberg had insisted that I spend a few days here trying to find out what was bothering the congresswoman even though she refused to acknowledge that anything was bothering her. Weinberg had tried following her once himself. He hadn’t been good at it. She’d figured it out after only twenty minutes or so, pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and waved him to stop. According to him, Susan had come close to firing him.
She knocked again, but this time the door swung inward. Apparently, it hadn’t been closed or locked. She went inside.
For the next ten minutes I listened to NPR. The reporter was discussing all the jobs that had been lost in the past two weeks. He raised the most frequently asked question among talking heads: Are we already in a real depression? Just today three major corporations had laid off a total of twenty-four thousand people. With statistics like that, this should be an easy win for us, but Duffy was smart, good-natured, and appealing. He believed in the holy creed his side had been pushing for more than a century, but he dispensed it with smiles. There wouldn’t be any landslides here. Victory would be close.
She came out quickly. She tried to close the door, but it appeared to be resisting. She gave it a sharp tug, but I could see that it still wasn’t closed right.
This time she didn’t look around. She walked right to her Volvo, opened the door, slid inside. She put her head to the curve of the steering wheel and stayed that way for a brief time.
The brake lights flared and she started to back out. A van from a local electric company was behind her as she hit the gas. He leaned on the horn. She slammed on her brakes. She fluttered him a wave of apology. Her head dropped down. I wondered if she was crying. Or if she was going to lay her head against the steering wheel again.
When the van passed, she backed out, this time slowly. I could almost feel her forcing herself to get control of the moment. She pointed her car to the exit and left.
There wasn’t any point in following her. Something had happened in the motel room, and I needed to know what it had been.
My instinct after so many years in army intelligence was to reach for the glove compartment, where I’d stashed my Glock. I had a license to carry in Illinois. We’d gotten some serious death threats on a campaign and packing it seemed—to quote the first of the two failed Bush presidents—prudent at the time. But that was a little too much drama for what I was planning to do.
I got out of my car and stretched. In case anybody was watching, I would look like just another weary traveler.
When I reached the door I saw that the metal frame had a small jagged piece sticking out. The rust on the edge of it showed that it had gone unrepaired. Getting in or out took some effort. I knocked. The traffic noise made it difficult to hear. I pushed my ear to the space between door and frame and knocked again. Still nothing.
I pressed the door with two fingers. It opened wide enough to let me pass through. I was pretty sure that whatever I would find inside would not make me happy.
Beer and marijuana were the dominant odors, thick enough to slice. Everything swam in muzzy darkness, the drapes closed. The TV set bolted high to the wall was on but the sound was turned off. Two arch actors performed a soap opera scene. On wire hangers in an open closet were three or four blouses and a dress. The stand between the beds was filled with used Bud cans. I walked over to them. One had a tiny roach on its top. In my day we’d eaten the roaches. Roaches were the best part of smoking weed. Or so the myth had gone, anyway.
A large old-fashioned cardboard suitcase lay on the bed, coffee colored, tan stripes on either end. The edges were worn away. They had a gnawed look, as if rats had feasted on them.
In most motel rooms there are the spirits of lust and loneliness in the corners. If you listen carefully late at night, you can hear them. They speak to you. They’d told me many things over the years about others as well as myself.
I walked over to the small desk. The surface of it was covered with a plastic-like coating. Never mind that the blond desk wasn’t worth saving. The coating had done its job. It had stopped the small pool of blood from leaking onto the floor.
In the bathroom I found traces of pink water in the white sink. In the waste can I found a balled-up motel towel. It was stained bloodred.
I went back to the bed and the suitcase. I’d been careful not to touch anything except the doorknob. I was tempted to open the suitcase. I took out my handkerchief and started to drag the case closer to me when somebody knocked on the door.
I didn’t say anything. I heard my heart in my ears. Finally, in singsong, a Latina voice said: “Cleaning rooms. You want it done now?”
A voice I didn’t own or control said: “No thanks. Later.”
“Aw right.”
I let my heartbeat slow before opening the suitcase. Inside I found a jumbled mess. I covered my hand with the handkerchief and started pulling things out to examine them. The clothes ran to two T-shirts, two sweatshirts, two pairs of jockey shorts, two pairs of socks, a pair of jeans, and then a range of toiletries from toothpaste to razor blades to pocket combs to mouthwash. There were four paperbacks, Camus and Sartre and Kerouac and William Gibson. I pictured a college student, though the owner could be older, of course. Stuck in a corner was a business card. I brought it up to my face so I could read it in the bad light. I didn’t like what I saw at all.
Larson-Davies was a group that specialized in opposition research. Detective work using not smoking .45s and bourbon but newspaper files and the Internet. They were ruthless and very good. For most of us in political work, elections are a contact sport. There are no saints in our business, just degrees of sinners. The Larson-Davies group believed in mortal combat. When their oppo people go after the background of their opponents, they rarely fail to dig up at least a modest scandal—or something that can be spun in the media as a scandal. They have helped bring down two or three senators once considered unbeatable.
Beneath the logo on the card was the name Monica Davies. Like Greg Larson, she was a former gossip columnist. She made considerably more money outing politicians than she ever made outing action heroes.
I’d learned something by coming in here, but I wasn’t sure what as yet. How did Susan Cooper tie into the blood and the shabby suitcase and the business card?
The door was difficult to close. I had to jerk it hard before I heard the lock click. I put my head down the way people do in a perp walk and headed to my rental car. The temptation was to run, but I forced myself to just move quickly. Only when I got behind the wheel did I look to see who might have seen me. The walk was empty. The cleaning cart was in front of an open door but there was no sign of the woman.
I started the car and drove away. I rolled the window halfway down. I needed the breeze to dry me off. Even the tops of my hands gleamed with sweat.
All the way back to campaign headquarters, my mind kept flashing on that splash of blood on the desk. And the bloody towel in the waste can.