It should have been a simple case. When sleek EMILY DAVIES begs ELVIN SUGGS to trail her philandering husband, NICK, it seemed like an easy request. Before long, Elvin and his friends, DIMOND “DI” REDDING and COBRA GLYNES, are entangled in a web of lethal deception. There is no escape.
The three Vietnam vets, now co-owners of Grapevine Investigations, agree to take Emily’s case. Di distrusts Emily, a nurse at St. Louis City Hospital. Soon, they are snooping around the Coral Courts Motel, a famous St. Louis “no tell motel.” The mousy desk clerk, WALDO E., knows his “regulars,” but he refuses to divulge his secrets.
Nick and his young lover, ANGEL CLEARY, are frequent guests. When Angel doesn’t arrive for a date, Nick is alarmed. He drives to her apartment, and almost hits a Mercedes driven by Angel’s landlord, OTTO PENNZEL.
Distraught, Nicks enters her apartment. He discovers her bludgeoned corpse, and his white shirt becomes soiled with her bloodstains. Sleazy landlord OTTO PENNZEL seizes his opportunity. He summons REGGIE COMBS, a St. Louis police detective, and launches a murder investigation. Nick becomes a suspect.
Emily begins an affair with LEON MORGAN, a married plastic surgeon. ROSA, a nosy motel maid, is mysteriously smothered in their room at the Coral Courts. FLORENCE PODOWSKY, the Davies’ babysitter, suspects Emily. She alerts her drinking buddy, MAISY, and soon, Maisy is found dead in a bathtub.
Elvin suspects Waldo E. of foul play, but Waldo is a victim. Through Waldo, Elvin learns of Pennzel’s sordid past, a tale that is rich with indiscretions and accusations. Pennzel also owns a significant portion of the city’s properties. “Otto gets what he wants…or else,” Waldo says. “Blackmail is his friend.”
Though Nick appears to be the murderer, Reggie isn’t convinced. Frustrated by the swirling rumors, and eager to snatch the “word on the street,” he collaborates with Elvin, Di and Parry to find the killer. Disappointed by Cobra’s drug relapse, Di and Elvin ask Cobra to move out. He moves in with his new girlfriend, VALERIE GAINS, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator.
When the group finally descends on the Coral Court Motel, chaos ensues. Nick encounters Valerie by mistake, and Emily overdoses on painkillers in the bathroom of a bungalow she shared with Dr. Morgan. Elvin, Di, Parry and Reggie discover that a despondent and guilt-ridden Waldo E. has committed suicide. Otto Pennzel is waiting, with a gun. He is desperate to conceal his notorious past and sordid present. Angel, Rosa and Maisy threatened to expose the real Otto Pennzel, and Otto murdered all of them. He is about to kill Di when Reggie corners him. Reggie is not alone.
Otto is no match for Cobra, a former Marine sniper. Cobra shoots Pennzel, and he dies. A grateful Elvin and Di ask Cobra to move back home.
Otto can check out, but he can never leave. Without Pennzel, the Coral Court Motel is an orphan, destined to be abandoned. Like its former owner, its past remains notorious—and immortal.
Nick scoured the curb in front of the Hampton Gardens apartments for a parking space, but as usual, none were to be found. He was going to have to go up one block and walk back, he decided. The sky was clear and the stars bright, while he eked his way into a spot between two pick-up trucks. He asked himself why he was doing this. He should go home where he belonged; but, these days, he didn’t seem to belong anywhere. In his mind, homeless had assumed a new meaning.
He checked his reflection in the rear view mirror. Except for the dried blood on the front of his shirt, he actually didn’t think he looked too bad, especially considering the way he felt. He undid his tie and threw it on the seat beside him, and rearranged his shirt collar. There. The casual Nick Davies look. He should have stopped for a bottle of wine, he thought, while he strolled up to the broad steel door of the rambling brick
complex. Well, he was here now, and besides, Angel usually kept beer in the fridge.
“Hey, buddy!” said a stranger’s voice. Startled, Nick glanced up to see a tanned, dark-haired man in his fifties, sitting on a balcony one floor above him.
“Looks like you made it after all, huh?” For a moment, Nick stared at him in confusion. The man seemed to recognize him, yet Nick had no recollection of his face. The man flicked cigar ashes onto the sidewalk below him before he spoke. “C’mon. Don’t tell me you already forgot this face! Okay, I’ll refresh your memory. You almost hit my Mercedes back there at the stop sign. Yeah, that was me, buddy. You sure you’re not drunk?”
Nick laughed. It felt good to laugh, he thought. He had almost forgotten how. “No, I’m fine. Really. It’s just been one of those days, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But, take some valuable advice from Otto here, buddy. First time, no charge. Next time you have one of those days, call a cab.”
Nick smiled and grabbed the steel handle of the front door. “Sure thing, Otto,” he said. “You did say your name was Otto, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Otto Pennzel, that’s me.” Otto leaned over the balcony, and squinted at the white-shirted figure in the doorway, illuminated only by the yellow porch lights. “Say, buddy, what you got on your shirt there?”
Nick glanced at the bloodstains on the front of his shirt, and instinctively brushed them with his fingertips. “Oh, that? It’s just a little blood, that’s all. Nothing to worry about, Otto. Have a good evening.” With that, Nick disappeared into the building.
Otto eased back into his lawn chair, and stubbed out his cigar. “A little blood, he says?” he muttered under his breath. “Nothing to worry about, he says?” He snickered to himself and opened the sliding glass door to his apartment. “Guy’s a goddamn drunk.” He spit over the side of the iron railing and stepped into his tiny living room. “Goddamn right.”
Nick hustled up the steps to the second floor. Now, he was beginning to feel at home. This was where he belonged. He knocked on the door to Angel’s apartment, and a surge of relief pulsed through his body. It felt so good to finally make a decision after all that had happened. He was convinced that fate had brought Angel to him, and they were going to be together forever. It was meant to be, Emily, was what he would say to his wife. It’s out of our hands.
Angel didn’t open the door. Nick knocked again, this time, a little louder. Beneath the jaundiced light in the hallway, he inspected his soiled shirt. The crusty stains were really repulsive, he decided. Maybe Angel would wash them out for him. He shifted from foot to foot. If he ever did, that is.
“Angel!” He pounded on the door. “It’s me, Nick!” He put his ear to the door and listened. Nothing. Okay, she was either still mad at him, he decided, or she wasn’t there. Wasn’t there? Where would she be this time of night? He knew her routine better than anyone; and when she didn’t come straight home after work, she was with him.
Unless…unless, she was with someone else. Oh my God, no. He’d made her wait too long. But, he’d decided now.
Now, he was ready to—what was the word Angel used so much? Commit. That was it. He was ready to commit. So, where was Angel? Again, he pounded insistently on the thick wooden door, until it rattled.
“Hey, buddy, keep it down, will ya?” The door across the hall cracked open, and Otto poked his square head into the murky dimness. “It’s you again!” he exclaimed. He ran his blocky fingers through his thick, greasy hair. “You’re not having much luck tonight, are you buddy?” He frowned. “You live there now?”
“N-no,” stammered Nick. “Just visiting.”
Otto gawked at Nick’s shirt again. “You really need a clean and press bad there, buddy. That’s no way to go visitin’.” He winked. “Trust me on this, buddy. Otto knows.”
Nick pointed to Angel’s apartment door. “Listen Otto, is Angel home, do you know?”
“Did she know you were comin’, buddy?”
“No, I wanted to surprise her.”
Otto glanced at Nick’s shirt again and winked. “So, surprise her.”
“Listen buddy, you got to lay off the sauce. I said, surprise the girl. The door’s open there, see?” Nick turned to check, and sure enough, the door seemed slightly ajar.
“All that poundin’ musta sprung the frickin’ lock,” said Otto. “So, surprise the little gal. And next time, clean yourself up before you come over. Good luck there, buddy.” With that, Otto slammed his own door, leaving Nick to contemplate his suggestion.
It wasn’t a bad idea, he decided. It might be good to surprise her, even if she was still mad at him. Besides, it wasn’t like he was breaking and entering. He was hardly a stranger to Angel Cleary. He pushed the wide mahogany door aside and stepped into the sparsely furnished living room.
“Angel!” he shouted in a friendly voice. “It’s Nick, honey!” He knew it. He felt it. She wasn’t there. The bed was still made; the kitchen untouched. And yet, what was that noise?
The bathroom. The radio was playing in the bathroom. From outside the shiny white door, he heard the muffled words of the Rolling Stones: She blew my nose, and then she blew my mind. She’s a hooonnky tonk woman… He put his ear against the cool white paint on the door, closed as tight as a safe. He put his hand on the steel knob and turned.
She’s a hooonnky-tonk woman, Gimme, gimme, gimme my honky tonk gal.” The beat of the music blared from a clock radio resting on the toilet tank, next to the bathtub. He couldn’t help himself. Nick was beside her in seconds, though his mind and body seemed paralyzed by the spectacle.
Scarlet water swirled about her gashed body like a whirlpool. The naked woman flung her arms around his neck. Her lips stuttered their final words. Weaker with each passing minute, Angel flailed and sputtered. A film glazed her eyes. “Waldo…Cor–al,” she whispered.
Nick’s heart broke. The salt of his tears tinged his tongue. Angel languished in the crimson bath water, her body limp and still. Sobbing the way he was, struggling with the drooping corpse, he didn’t hear the heavy footsteps behind him. Indeed, he did not know he had company until he heard the familiar voice that greeted him.
“Need a little help there, buddy?”