O is for Outlaw Page 91


"Here or the Tonk. You want me to walk you out?"

I said, "Please. It's dark as pitch out there.."

"Any names or dates on the back of the photograph? "

TWENTY-TWO.

I let myself into my apartment at eleven-fifteen, surprised to realize my entire conversation with Duffy had only taken an hour. I set up a pot of coffee and flipped the switch, letting it brew while I stretched some of the kinks out of my neck. I felt a faint headache perched between my eyes like a frown. I was longing for bed, but there was work to do yet. While the information was fresh, I opened my desk drawer and pulled out a new pack of lined index cards. Then I retrieved, from their hiding place, the various items I'd snitched from Mickey's.

I sat in my swivel chair, jotting down everything I could remember from the evening. Activities at the Honky-Tonk were turning out to be less sinister than I'd imagined. Maybe, as Tim had said, Mickey simply went there to drink and hustle Thea. I had to admit philandering would have been in character for him.

When the coffee was done, I got up from my chair and poured myself a mug, adding milk that seemed only mildly sour. I returned to my desk, where I remained on my feet, idly pushing at the index cards. There were still countless minor matters that didn't fit the frame: Mickey's being shot with my gun, and the long hissing message on my answering machine. That had originated from his apartment the afternoon of March 7. Who'd called me and why? If Mickey, why not leave a message? Why let the tape simply run to the end? If it wasn't Mickey, then what was the purpose? To imply contact between us? It had certainly made me look bad in the eyes of the police.

I sat down at my desk and began to play with the cards. I had to assume Mickey was on the track of Benny Quintero's killer. That question would nag at him as long as he lived. Benny's death had never been officially ruled a homicide, but Mickey knew he'd been blamed, despite the fact that charges had never been filed. In light of his checkered history with the department, his involvement in the matter had called his credibility into question and further damaged his already tainted reputation. As he saw it, his only choice was to abandon the profession he'd loved. His life after that had never amounted to much: booze, women, a shabby apartment. He couldn't even hold on to the sorry job he'd found: Pacific Coast Security with its faux-cop uniform and dimestore badge. He must have dreamed of escape, creating a way out with his caches of money and his phony IDs. I turned over a few cards, making a column, sorting facts in no particular order.

Idly, I set two index cards on edge, using the weight of each to support the other. I added a third, leaving the right side of my brain in neutral while I constructed a maze. Building card houses was another way I'd amused myself as a kid. The first floor was easy, requiring patience and dexterity but not much else. To add a second story to the first, you had to append a flat layer of cards, deftly floating a "ceiling" on the substructure until the whole of it was covered. Then began the real work: starting again from square one. First balance two cards atop the structure below, using the pair for their mutual support. Then add a third at an angle to the first two. Then add a fourth, then a fifth. At any point in the process, as the overall dimensions increased, there was always the danger that the whole of it would collapse, tumbling in on itself likewell, a house of cards. Sometimes, perversely, I'd even done this myself, snapping a corner with my finger, watching as the cards deconstructed in slow motion like a demolition project.

I glanced at the card in my hand, reading the note on it before I added it to the pile. Carefully, I added another card to the maze. I paused to remove it, reading the datum again. I experienced a jolt of insight and felt myself blink. I'd seen a connection, two index cards suddenly appearing in conjunction. What a dummy I was that I hadn't seen it before! A name showed up twice and I could feel my perception shift. It was like the sharp dislocation of a tembler, coming out of nowhere, fading away soon after. What I spotted was the name Del Amburgey, the man to whom Shack had introduced me at the Tonk. Delbert Amburgey was also the name on one of Mickey's packets of fake IDs: California driver's license, credit cards, social security card.

I set the index cards aside, pulling out the documents with Mickey's face laminated on top of what were probably Delbert's vital statistics. I swiveled in my swivel chair and studied the effect. Did these documents belong to Delbert or had his identity been lifted? Was the date of birth real or bogus, borrowed or invented, and how had it been done? I knew credit card scammers often got into "Dumpster diving," coming up with charge slips or carbons, even credit card statements discarded once the monthly bills had been paid. The information on the statements could be used to generate additional credit. The scarnmer would apply for cards based on lines of credit previously established by the individual in question. Any number of new accounts might be opened in this way. With a name, address, and social security number, ATM cards could be obtained, along with blank checks or proceeds from insurance policies. The scammer would supply the credit company with a substitute address, so the owner of the card remained unaware that goods and services were being charged to his or her legitimate account. The cards could also be milked through a series of cash withdrawals. Once the credit limit was exceeded, the scammer could either make the minimum payment or move on, fencing items or selling them at a discount and pocketing the profits. Actually, counterfeit documents like those in Mickey's possession were worth money on the open market, where felons, illegal aliens, and the chronically bankrupt could buy a brandnew start in life with thousands of dollars of fresh credit at their disposal.

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