Saturday, March 22, 2003

THE DECEPTIVE DAMSEL: It's never easy to turn down a pretty dame, especially when her face is flushed from tears she's barely had time to wipe away. This one stood before me, paced really, and refused to sit down or accept a drink until she had finished her story. There's always a story. I leaned back in my chair and propped my feet up under my desk, silently waiting for her to finish and working my way through most of my last deck of Luckies at the same time.

She kept talking, but her eyes never met mine; I could tell she was lying and planned to play me for a fool; I knew that the moment she walked through my door. A mink stole and too much jewelry marked her uptown, but the plain flats threw me off for a little while and I couldn't quite place her. Her face had that kind of familiar look to it, as if I'd seen her in a crowd the day before. Every few minutes she would pause and look towards me, not at my eyes but at my chest, and earnestly wait for some sort of acknowledgement. I'm listening, don't worry kid.

"Oscar left with the ledgers we'd been fighting over, except for the pages I'd taken earlier. I found a note that said he'd be back, but it's not his writing. I know my husband's handwriting," she repeated for the tenth time, shaking her finger at some point halfway between us. She'd shown me the brief letter, and it lay like a deflated ghost on my otherwise bare desk.

With flustered women, it's best to just sit back and let them run out of steam. I nodded at the right moments and let my eyes wander over her body as she paced back and forth. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

"I've called his family in Lakeshire and they haven't seen him. It's not like Oscar to disappear like this, it just isn't. We've fought over expenses before but he's never run off."

Maybe he got his fill of looking at your legs and ran out of cigarettes while you babbled. Eventually I did the same, and extinguished her as I dropped the Lucky to the floor and rubbed it beneath my shoe. "Mrs. Vinson, I understand your situation. What I don't get is what you want from me." I laid it out there and let it hang in the air with the stale smoke. Finally exhausted, she collapsed into the chair I'd set out for her nearly an hour before.

"I want you to find my husband; find Oscar," she said, pleading with me. Her body said agony, but her eyes were dancing everywhere.

I stood up quickly and she lurched back in the chair, a frightened look flashing across her ivory cheeks and creaseless forehead. I checked my movement and sauntered over to the cabinet; straight whiskey times two, and mine a double. I set hers down on the edge of the desk closest to where she was sitting, and when she leaned forward to pick it up I snuck a glance down her coat. A sheaf of paper was secreted in an inside pocket, and everything else I saw was gravy. I leaned against the hard oak corner and nursed my drink, letting my mind wander over Mrs. Vinson's flesh. When my double whittled down to a single, I circled behind her chair. Her head turned quickly to follow me, but I kept walking, making a semicircle around her and finishing back behind my desk.

I sat, drained my class, and dropped it sharply on the dark wood with a crack. My fingers itched for another smoke, and I made a mental note to pick up another carton downstairs on my way out. "Your husband's dead," I told her plainly, and she gasped. She looked shocked, but her eyes searched the floor. "The letter was written by a woman. That should have been obvious, even to you, but you didn't mention it. Why's that? Either you're desperately afraid for your husband's reputation -- and you'd let that fear slow down an investigation -- or you didn't want to draw attention to the only woman involved: you."

Her mouth moved wordlessly, and I tapped my finger on the arm of my chair. Her eyes met mine now, unchained by revelation, but her head shook with incomprehension.

"You changed your shoes to get around more quickly -- to see me? -- yet you had time to grab the remnants of the ledgers before you left." Her hand went immediately to the breast of her coat before she caught herself. "You brought the papers, but after more than an hour of storytelling you never showed them to me. The rest of the ledger's been stolen, and that's what you really want me to find, isn't that right?"

She stammered for a few seconds, and I let her turn it over. Her skin was flushed again, but this time there weren't any tears. When she started to speak I cut her off. "Whoever took the ledger could have killed Oscar, but if that's the case then why would you forge a note to try and throw me off? No, you killed him, but you were too late. Most of the records are gone. You brought the rest with you because someone's still looking for them." Every word hammered her deeper into the plush cushions, until she nearly disappeared. She huddled like a trapped animal and winced each time my index finger rapped against the dark grain. I waited while she gathered her mental strength. She still cradled the whiskey in her shaking hand, and she tossed it back with one swallow as she pulled herself together.

"I want the ledger," she said. "Will you help me or not?"

My lips twisted in what I've been told is a frightening grimace. It's been many men's last sight, and sometimes gets more of a reaction than finding my .45 cannon in your face. Mrs. Vinson's eyes went wide, and I told her in measured tones, "I don't help murderers. I'd call the police, but I'm sure that whoever has your ledger will come looking for the rest of it soon enough, and that's fine by me. Now get out."

She sat motionless for just a couple of seconds before leaping to her feet and darting out of my office, leaving the stenciled doors swinging behind her. I knew who'd be in my dreams tonight, and another double was most definitely in order.
A LONG NIGHT: The rain had finally stopped. All the lights were off in the house and Martha was upstairs crying. I sat in the dark for a few more minutes and waited for the last drops of rain to quit rattling the gutters and let the silence of the night take over, but the clatter in my head just wouldn't shut up. I swirled the plastic cup in my hand one more time and lifted it to my lips, tilting back the last of the Jack before tossing the red plastic across the room. It was Jenny's favorite cup and I shouldn't be using it to clear my mind.

I sat slumped down, my head at a sharp angle and the small of my back nearly against the seat of the leather recliner I had indulged myself with the Christmas before last. The rain had stopped, and there was a lot more to do before the sun peeked over the roofs and chimneys of suburbia.

My lips were welded shut, but I groaned inwardly as I pushed myself unsteadily to my feet and trudged back upstairs. Even in the utter blackness I knew my way, and even in my half-drunken stupor I avoided the kids' toys and displaced knick-knacks that littered the floor of the hall at the top of the stairs. Martha was still crying in the bedroom, and the lights were still off. How could she stand it in there, crying in the dark with that thing?

I didn't want to surprise her (again) and I made enough noise in my boots to wake the dead. The crying was muffled before I flipped the lights on and surveyed the harsh reality I had wrought. Martha was huddled in the near corner between the nightstand and the wall, and she didn't even look up at me when I stepped into the room. She had wrapped herself in the ragged blue terry-cloth robe she loved and looked like such a tiny thing, trying to disappear from the world. She was silent.

I moved my gaze over the rest of the room, the walls, the bed, there wasn't a lot of blood. My rational mind fought to push my panic aside. The sheets would have to go. The walls could be scrubbed with bleach -- I'd seen that work on CSI. The carpets too, I guess. Jim was still lying where he'd fell, half-hidden on the far side of the bed. I assumed he was dead, and when I walked over to get a closer look it was obvious that I was right. The back of his skull was a bloody mess, smashed, and with the obvious imprint of my flashlight embedded in the bone and flesh.

There wasn't a lot of blood. He must have been dead before he hit the ground, and it was just as well. He was my friend. At that thought the animal within me surged to break free, but its time was past and it was well-sated with alcohol; strangely, that particular poison gave me an acute clarity, and the thoughts poured like rain through the gutters of my mind.

The shower curtain came down easily enough. I didn't like the floral pattern that Martha had chosen at Wal-Mart, and I tore it down with relish. That's what happens when you cheat on me, say goodbye to your florals. If my jaw could have moved I would have laughed, but the muscles wouldn't budge and I just grunted. Maybe I wasn't as clear-headed as I thought. I dropped the plastic over Jim and wrestled it around him as best I could. He was a lot heavier than I had expected. Tape.

There was some duct tape downstairs in the kitchen. I turned to look at Martha again but she was still sitting motionless, sobbing silently. You'd better not let me hear you crying for this bastard. Don't worry, everything will be fine by morning. The plastic was secure enough to let me drag Jim downstairs by his ankles. Gotta keep the blood from getting all over the house.

Through the door, down the hall, down the stairs, into the kitchen. There was blood in the curtain, but I hadn't left a trail behind me. The tool drawer coughed up a half-roll of red tape and I pulled the end up and stuck it to the plastic near Jim's ankles. Round and round she goes. Tear. A few times around the waist. Tear. Fold the plastic over his head, tape around the forehead and neck (gotta keep the plastic tight if you don't want blood in the car). Tear. Good enough.

Jim wasn't being cooperative, and it was a struggle to get him into the back of the station wagon. I tried to be as quiet as possible, and it was so late that I'm sure no one heard me. Once he was in I sat down in the front seat and turned the engine over. Mike had come early to take over for me, and he'd be there until Tony showed up around six. All I'd have to do is tell him that I dropped my wallet over by one of the far pits and he'd let me through, no problem. Drop Jim off next to one of the gravel piles and push enough onto him so that he wouldn't be found for a few days, and I was home free.

I put the car in drive and pulled slowly out into the street. The bedroom light was off again upstairs, and I got the feeling that Martha wasn't busy scrubbing the blood off the walls. She just wasn't thinking clearly tonight; there must be a lot on her mind. It's ok, there should be plenty of time to sort it all out before morning.