Brett Halliday

Million Dollar Handle

Chapter 1

The woman Ricardo Sanchez was hoping to intercept drove a shabby cream-colored Dodge, beginning to show rust at the seams. Which was eccentric of her, because in Ricardo’s opinion she should have been able to afford a much newer car. Charlotte Geary was her name. She played golf three or four times a week. This was one of the days.

Through the iron bars, he could see the exit of the basement garage. His pants were already ripped. He was holding a brown paper bag containing a hero sandwich and two oranges-lunch, theoretically-and he had a closed knife in one fist. It was a cool, pleasant morning, and couples from the big hotels further down the Beach were out strolling. Ricardo was given some curious looks. He had all the necessary muscles, an abundance of black hair. He knew he was conspicuous, standing in the sunshine on Collins Avenue in his ripped pants, boots, dark glasses, his tightest T-shirt. This was the wrong part of town; he was clearly no tourist. It wouldn’t take a psychiatrist or a mind reader to know he was up to something.

Deciding to make the attempt another day, he looked at his watch and started off. At that moment, the car appeared out of the garage.

The top was down, and Mrs. Geary, as usual, was wearing wraparound shades, her hair in a bright scarf. For her age, which had to be in the forties-and with a grown-up daughter, it had to be in the late forties-she was a great-looking woman. She looked like a model for something expensive.

Ricardo snapped the knife open and gave his bare leg a good scrape, taking off the top couple of layers of skin. Mrs. Geary came out at him with her blinker going. As she began the turn to go north on Collins, he stepped into her path.

His timing was a tick off. All he was trying for was a graze, but she turned more sharply than he expected, and her fender gave him a good thump. He went backward, waving both arms like a basketball player trying to draw the charging foul. His bag went flying. He made a complete pivot, hit the fence and slipped to the sidewalk.

The woman swerved over the center line. Recovering, she rocked back and came to a stop with one wheel off the pavement. She leaped out and ran toward him. Her hair had broken loose from the scarf.

“Are you all right?”

“I think so,” he said uncertainly.

But Ricardo was obviously not entirely all right. He stared down at his bloody leg.

“Oh, dear, oh, God, I didn’t see you.” She patted the air with both hands. Her breath came out in a long shudder, and she retrieved one of the oranges and stuffed it into the paper bag. “Listen, how badly are you-I thought I ran into a tree. Stay there, I’ll call an ambulance. Don’t try to get up.”

Ricardo made a scornful noise with his lips. “Are you kidding? Give me a minute. This is no big deal.”

The doorman from the apartment building above the garage ran out. Mrs. Geary called to him, “He stepped right in front of me. Call Mount Sinai-”

“No, no,” Ricardo said from the sidewalk. “I haven’t been in a hospital since I was five days old.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“It’s just a scrape. Afraid I got blood on your car.”

He rolled onto one knee and came to his feet. She jumped to help, but he was already up. A group of passersby had collected around them. Ricardo flexed each leg and did a comedy exercise to show that nothing was broken. As a matter of fact, the place that hurt worst was the point of his spine.

“It was my fault more than yours. I didn’t look where I was going.”

“Your leg-”

“Messy-looking, isn’t it? But I think I’ll live.”

“You ought to have it looked at. My insurance will cover it.”

“I’m not getting involved with anything like that,” he said earnestly. “You know how those sharks operate. If they ever have to pay anything, they cancel the policy.” He took a step on the bad leg and grunted.

“You see?” she said. “Getting knocked down by a car is no laughing matter.”

He tried another step, and conceded. “What you could do, is drop me off at the dog track. They’ve got a first-aid station. If the doctor isn’t there yet I can bandage it myself.”

“Certainly. Anything.”

The doorman helped him hobble to her car. He backed into the front seat and used both hands to swing the injured leg in after him. Mrs. Geary ran around to get behind the wheel.

“The dog track-you mean Surfside?”

“Yeah, that’s where I work.”

“That’s a coincidence. My husband owns it.”

“Are you Mrs. Geary?” Ricardo said, surprised.

“Indeed I am. Look, you’re going to need something to soak up the blood.”

She folded her blue scarf lengthwise. He pulled the rip in his pants back to the seam, and she worked the scarf in under his leg and tied it. The bloody abrasion was on the inside of his thigh. He had selected the spot after considerable thought. She seemed to be breathing more quickly by the time she was finished. Her hair was a soft russet color, long and cleverly cut. Probably she spent too much time in the sun. It had given her skin a leathery texture, but it was the very best leather. She wore a bra, of course. That was a necessity at her age. But she was slimmer and more supple, and generally in better shape, than most of the girls his own age. He didn’t think he could talk her into his scheme unless he could make physical contact, and the idea had made him a little queasy. Now he was beginning to think that it wouldn’t be hard to take, at all. He wished she would take off her shades so he could see her eyes. Eyes were important to Ricardo.

They jounced back onto the street.

“I don’t know why I said Max owns the track,” she said. “I own the same number of shares, for tax reasons, but that’s not the same thing, is it? He’s the man, he’s in charge. I hardly ever go near the place.”

“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that Max Geary’s in charge of Surfside.”

Geary was away at the moment, which was why Ricardo had picked today. That was unusual during a meeting. Geary decided everything, down to the number of ounces in the drinks and the size of the type in the performance charts. He was one of the first to arrive in the afternoon, one of the last to leave at night, after the take had been verified and loaded at gunpoint into the armored car.

“I mean, Jesus,” Ricardo said, “the boss’s wife. Lucky I didn’t try to get witnesses and sue you.”

“You wouldn’t have to sue. Put in a claim.”

“No, seriously. A friend of mine, he was in an accident and the lawyers got hold of him. He finally got a settlement, something like ten thousand bucks. The lawyers got half. And if you add up all the hours, not just in court and the lawyers’ office but sitting around dreaming, he could have made more money at Surfside leading out dogs. And nothing was really wrong with him, so he felt like a shit.”

“I don’t know what’s got into me lately. I’ve been driving like a crazy person.”

They were approaching the Kennel Club, with its huge sign: “Sensational Surfside.” When the track was built, in the early ’30s, the surrounding land had been jungle, but the great hotels had been pressing northward, year by year, and now the dog track blocked their way like a cork in a bottle. Real estate people thought dog tracks should be located on cheap land at the edge of the Glades, not here on one of the most expensive strips of sand in the world. The grandstand looked across the backstretch fence to open ocean. The only trouble was a shortage of parking. The track owned the blocks on the other side of Collins, between Collins and Indian Creek, but on big nights the parked cars spilled into the streets of Bal Harbour, to the annoyance of the rich retired white people who had

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