Sunday, May 21, 2017

Autopsy of Circumstance

The fresh-faced detective sleeps well at night, content cuddling the fluffy notion that there is a vast difference between the hunter and the hunted. He doses off believing that he has the ability to easily discern between a grizzled, steely-eyed beast and a sterile white, halo-appointed saint. He dreams that his pursuit of an angel has carried him deep into the forest. When he can longer resist the desire to see her face, he reaches for the tail of her flowing gown. In a splintered second the woven silk within his grasp becomes a writhing serpent he can’t turn loose of. The flickering fork strikes him between the eyes. As the debilitating venom courses through his veins his world of candy skies turns brittle black.       

The transformation may not happen in the form of a dream turned nightmare, but it most certainly will happen. Twenty-three years investigating homicide has changed my perception of people. Race, gender, upbringing, and social status—none of it matters. Fast-food worker to C.E.O, every member of the human race has both a killer and a crusader living inside them.

Every homicide case is a stark white canvas waiting patiently for its artist. He or she should approach the easel as undecided as the medium. Their duty is to deconstruct the fragile chain of events that culminated in the ultimate crime against humanity. The goal is to tell a story as completely and accurately as the facts allow. To do so they must begin at the end, ‘walking things back’, or performing an ‘autopsy of circumstance’ as I like to call it. Every murder scene begins with a series of what if’s.

If Clarence Allen’s belly hadn’t sounded like a concrete mixer with a bad bearing, he wouldn’t have stopped off at a dingy saloon. If the Angus burger and onion rings had been average, he likely wouldn’t have ordered the first shot of liquor. If that shot went down like swallowing a razor blade sideways, like whiskey is supposed to, he wouldn’t have ordered an entire bottle. If Marla Zander’s perfume had not smelled so irresistibly of ripened fruit and vanilla, perhaps Clarence wouldn’t have offered to share his bottle. If there had been no invitation to drink, she would have been less inclined to have brushed her breasts across his forearm each time she reached for the bottle. Even then, if Marla had not gripped his upper thigh and whispered something into his ear at closing time, perhaps a great many regrettable things might have been avoided that night.

In a place as dilapidated as the Plain Cactus the last thing I expected was two hours and thirty-seven minutes of high definition video and audio surveillance, but years ago I learned to take what a case gives you. The owner, who insisted upon being called Ace, was in his early thirties. Ace was a hard, sculpted man, sporting a perfectly manicured flat-top. In a world filled with posers and prophets, Ace was a breath of fresh air. He wasn’t just playing the role of a bad-ass. Ace was an ex-special forces sniper who returned from Afghanistan with what he called ‘a heightened sense of awareness’. Heightened sense of awareness, mild case of paranoid schizophrenia, who am I to judge? Only the conceited or oblivious refuse to acknowledge their own eccentricities. As a man deeply rooted in logic, I’ve always adored formulas. Ace’s paranoid tendencies plus a disposition to tinker equaled 15 cameras in 1100 square feet, which in turn equaled one ecstatic investigator. Ace informed me that Delilah Jones, the barmaid during the evening in question would be arriving for shift anytime. He said Delilah was a college student tending bar part-time to make ends meet. What Ace didn’t tell me was that she happened to be working towards a double-major in….wait for it…wait for it…..criminal justice and home land security. To borrow a line from a dearly departed colleague hailing proudly from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, ‘Are you kitten me? What fer? Cat fur to make kitten britches!’ I could almost hear his deep-bellied chuckle, laughing at the good fortune thrown my way.

Under normal circumstances the information Delilah provided would have seemed too perfect, but the surveillance supported her every word. Video and audio don’t lie, unless they’ve been tampered with, and I didn’t see any evidence of such.  

I left the Plaid Cactus with a pretty good cache of solid information. It appeared this was a first time meeting of victim and suspected killer. Player number one: Clarence Lewis Allen, a thirty-one year old burly, bearded man, probably 6’2” and pushing 275 lbs. A little subsequent research revealed a self-describe loner who made a decent living doing freelance work for a small computer consulting firm in the city. He worked almost exclusively remotely, and according to his boss, produced his best code in the wee hours of the morning from the basement of his mother’s home. I worked hard to suppress the neon marquee scrolling in my mind, flashing ‘Classic Serial Killer Material’.  

Enter player number two. Marla Marie Zander was a petite, attractive, thirty-three year old blond with shoulder length banana curls. While I try to shy away from stereotypes, Marla looked like a runner-up for an eye-candy tryout for an 80’s hard-rock video. The footage showed her wearing cowboy boots, painted-on jeans, and a pale blue tank top with the acronym Y.O.L.O. emblazoned across the chest. Delilah said she was a single mom and a regular; a no-nonsense gal who by choice drank whiskey and by necessity was a stripper downtown that went by the stage name Cinnamon. Necessity, because each of her three children had different daddies, none of them willing to commit to anything beyond the initial 15 steamy minutes in the back seat of Marla’s 74 Chrysler New Yorker. According to Ace, Marla had a penchant for ex-military guys. He estimated she’d done more entertaining of servicemen in the back seat of her car than the U.S.O had in the last 40 years.  

Right about now you’re thinking this detective stuff is easy, practically solves itself, right? A sexually deprived, introverted, computer geek living in his mom’s basement, stumbles into an attractive and willing stripper who swills whiskey like water. At closing time the odd couple zig-zags toward the door looking to finish the night on a high note. But in the backseat of a car with more square footage than a New York studio apartment, something went wrong. Maybe she laughs at his inexperience. Whatever the reason, in a fit of rye-whiskey fueled rage the mountain of a man crushes her skull with one swift blow.    

That’s where this seemingly simple case turns sideways. Two grade-school boys playing Army in a rocky ravine discovered Marla’s vehicle around noon the following day. Neither Marla, nor her body were in the immediate vicinity of the vehicle, but Clarence Lewis Allen was still at the scene— dead as a hammer, slumped over the steering wheel of Marla’s Chrysler New Yorker, presumably succumbed to blunt force trauma and brain bleed.

Claremont High School didn’t offer Rocket Science 101 or Intro to the Painfully Obvious, but something told me I needed to pay ‘Cinnamon’ a visit. I considered showing up at her rundown excuse for a double-wide, but then I’d have been preoccupied thinking about the chair I was sitting in being swallowed up in a massive floor collapse. I’d also be competing for her attention with a trio of significantly cuter, curly-headed, crumb catchers. The scenery and odds would be much improved at the Teats and Beats Night Club. Who knows, if the stars aligned completely I might get to meet the marketing brain-trust behind such a catchy and tawdry name.

I never really understood the fascination with these kinds of places—lots of fake women with plastic smiles and replaceable parts, trolling the crowd in predictable patterns, each working their wares until collectively they had separated the drooling patrons from the contents of their wallets. Word spread fast when the well had run dry, and like satisfied buzzards they flew back to their roosts, cleverly disguised as elevated stages from which they could circle and watch for fresh opportunities. Call me jaded, but that’s how I see it.

I do have to admit, Teats and Beats delivered rather quickly on both counts of their namesake. While the kid checked my ID, a strange aroma wafted past me and out the door. I swear it was a 50/50 mixture, albeit the unlikely pairing of cheap dollar-store perfume and costly, freshly implanted, silicone. Before I could get my ID back in my wallet, the source of the aroma introduced herself as Cheyenne. She had to yell her name twice because the driving base of the sound system was not only on the verge of dismantling the interior of the place, but dislodging my kidneys from their anatomical resting place. I supposed it a statistical impossibility to keep from noticing her newly added ‘features’.  They rested comfortably on either side of the drink tray she carried in front of her. Practically speaking, I supposed they were high dollar side-rails to keep the drinks from tipping over. A flash of my badge erased her smile and redirected her to a more receptive group of young men. The only connection I could draw with her chosen name of Cheyenne was that hardened missiles of that magnitude belonged in silos in the middle of Wyoming.         

My eyes hadn’t completely adjusted to the dim lighting in this den of taboo delights, but I moved expectantly toward a very large man perched on a stool near the end of the bar. Rocky seemed like a nice enough guy, and did indeed provide security for the place. After explaining the nature of my business, he escorted me back to the dressing rooms. One would think said employee was benefitting their employer rather significantly to rate their own private dressing room. My assumption would be financially benefitting the employer, but fringe benefits within such an industry brings up an entirely different level of mental conjuring, the images of which are difficult to un-think.

Call it O.C.D., but I gave three hard raps between the double n’s in her stage name stenciled upon the door. “Marla, this is Lt. Reynolds from homicide, we need to chat.”

There was a slight pause before an agitated voice answered back, “Of course you’re a cop, loser. You’ve got two seconds to get away from the dressing room door, or I’m calling security!”

I nodded toward my escort. He laid a heavy hand against the door several times in succession. “Hey Cinnamon, this is Rocky, the guy’s legit vice. You need to let him in.”    

When there was no reply or indication of compliance, I put my ear to the door and observed a good amount of shuffling sounds going on inside. I whispered to Rocky, asking if there was a back door or a window. After receiving a nod of affirmation, I turned the knob and verified the door was locked. I turned back to find a boyish grin sprawling across a grown man’s jaw. In one fluid motion he brushed me aside and leaned hard against the door. For a second the duo appeared equally matched, but then Rocky grunted and the door exploded into a million splinters. While Rocky stutter-stepped to regain his balance, I slipped behind him into the room. Inside the threshold, with my sidearm fully drawn I began scanning. Just beyond the front sight of my weapon, Marla stood in front of an open window, perched atop a wooden crate, facing us. The woman was startled and naked from the waist up, mouth gaping, and eyes bigger than areolas. Before I could issue a command, she dropped the duffle bag she was holding, put her hands in the air, and began sobbing.

I holstered my gun, grabbed a tee shirt and tossed it at her. “Put a top on and save the tears, Marla. Let me get that duffle bag for you. I’ve reserved a table for you and me in one of our finest interrogation rooms.” 

Some people come by the truth more naturally than others. I’m not saying that everything Marla Zander told me that night at the station was an outright lie, but her initial claims definitely muddied the water. Sometimes you have to be patient enough for the fish to come up for air.      

At 5:03 a.m., approximately four hours after Marla and Clarence left the bar, she showed up at the station to file a police report. She claimed to be sexually assaulted by Clarence and her vehicle stolen. The police report was setting on the table between us.

“So let me get this straight, Marla. On the night in question, you stated you left the Plaid Cactus around 1:00 a.m. with Clarence. On the way to your vehicle, he pulled a knife on you, forced you into the back seat of your car, and raped you for approximately a half-hour. Once he finished he ruffed you up a little, tossed you out on the ground naked, and drove away in your vehicle? Is that correct?”

Marla never made eye contact with me. “Yep, if that’s what the report says, that’s what happened!”

I thought her response odd, but I left it to simmer a bit, and instead pushed the narrative forward. “So you would have me believe that Clarence was so drunk that he accidently drove a quarter of a mile across a pasture and plunged over a small cliff, or he suddenly got in touch with his sensitive side and was so grief stricken with what he’d done to you that he committed suicide by driving into a ravine. Do either of those scenarios sound plausible to you?”

“I said he kicked me out of the car in the parking lot. I don’t know what happened to Clarence after he left. I was traumatized, have you ever been raped, Lieutenant?”

“No maa’m, I haven’t. But if I was raped, I’d certainly want to do whatever necessary to catch the perpetrator. The reporting officer states you declined evidence collection via a rape kit. Can you tell me why you didn’t want the analysis done?”

“I’m not answering anymore questions until my lawyer arrives.”

I rolled a cigarette the length of the table and offered a light. “Suit yourself, but it’s the middle of the night, Marla, and he’s got a two-hour drive to get here.

We sat in silence until she finished the smoke. “Marla, to be honest, there are a lot of holes in your story. I’m just trying to fill them in. I figure the rape had taken place by 1:30 a.m., why didn’t you report it until 5:00 a.m.?”

“Ace and Delilah had left, Clarence had my car, and my cell phone battery was dead. I had to borrow the phone at the nearest farm house.”

“About a quarter of a mile up the road, Mr. & Mrs. Tyler’s place, right? I’ve already talked to them. The report said you were naked when Clarence kicked you out of the car, right?”

I retrieved Marla’s duffle bag. I unzipped it and began to sift through the contents.

“Hey, keep your mitts off my stuff!”

“Right now it’s evidence, Marla. You were naked right?”

“Yes, Clarence stripped me before he raped me!”

As I suspected, the duffle bag was filled with various outfits Marla wore during her performances. I tossed a pair of shorts and bikini top in front of her. “When Mrs. Tyler answered the door she remembered specifically what you were wearing. Do these look familiar at all?”

“Yeah, minus the hat, it’s my cowgirl getup for Friday night sets, but I swear to you I didn’t have a stitch of clothes on when I knocked on the Tyler’s door!”

“Marla, surely you know Ace has video cameras all around the Plaid Cactus, right? What if I told you that within the last month he added two cameras outside? Would that help you remember anything differently?”

Her atmosphere changed significantly, from one of defiance to submission. I noticed a tear rolling over the apple of her cheek.

“Look Marla, I don’t believe for a minute you killed Clarence, but I do believe you know who killed him. Help me to help clear you in this investigation?”

I rolled another cigarette her direction. Marla’s hands were trembling so severely it took a concerted effort to do what normally came natural.

“After that much whiskey you probably don’t remember, but the video inside shows you leaving the bar at 12:47 a.m. and return at 12:55 a.m. in the cowgirl getup. Soon after you re-entered the bar, you attract some unwanted attention from a couple of bar flies, one who slaps your butt loud enough it can be heard on the audio. Clarence moved in and sent the men grumbling back to their pool game…not something I would expect from a man who is about to violently rape you. You both take your former seats. At 12:57 you lean over and kiss Clarence, squeeze his upper thigh, and whisper something in his ear. The two of you immediately get up and leave together.”

After an extended exhale, Marla spoke. “You absolutely have to protect me from him or I won’t say a word!”

“Clarence is dead, Marla, he can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Look, Clarence seemed like a nice enough guy, kind of a computer geek, but with a kinkier side. He mentioned role playing in the bedroom earlier in the evening, so I guess I went to the car and got my cowgirl outfit. I don’t remember that at all. We piled into the back seat and started making out. He was awkward and apologetic at first, because even though I was straddling him and rocking back and forth, it was apparent all his parts weren’t in working order, if you know what I mean? Then there was nothing, the guy passed out on me just that quick. I was still moving back and forth when I heard an explosion and felt glass pellets pepper my back. Next thing I know someone grabbed a handful of my hair and yanked me through the window and onto the ground. It was Harley, the daddy of my youngest. Harley’s mean when he’s sober, and I could tell he was 10 miles south of sober. He opened the car door, yelling ‘I knew it…I freakin’ knew it…who does that bitch think he is!’ Harley grabbed my shorts out of the floorboard, worked Clarence’s lips apart and stuffed the shorts into his mouth. ‘That’s about as close as you’re gettin’ to bein’ in my old ladies pants!’ He screeched. Then Harley turned his attention to me. He snatched me off the ground, bent me over the hood, and told me that I was gonna get just what I was lookin’ for. He had his way with me more than once, the second time slamming my face off the car with every thrust. When he finished with me he demanded the keys to the car. He pointed to the back seat of the car and said he needed to take the trash out. He slapped the keys to his truck into my hand and told me to meet him in an hour and half. He’d be waiting in the ditch along the side of the road just past the intersection of Laurel and Switchback Lane, and if I didn’t show he’d hunt me down and kill me! I met him and when I did, he had concocted the story I gave in the police report. But Lieutenant, if you’ve got an ounce of decency in you, you have to keep me safe from Harley. If he knows I ratted him out you’ll be investigating my murder.”

“Things are much clearer to me now. That explains the extended time between the assault and reporting of it. No rape kit, because that would have shown Harley to be the rapist and your whole statement would have unraveled. Let me level with you on a couple of things, Marla. Mrs. Tyler didn’t say anything about your outfit, actually she confirmed you were naked when she answered the door, but I wanted to prompt you to tell me about the shorts. Those shorts and what happened with them were of paramount importance. You see, although Harley went to the trouble of pushing his victim over a cliff in a remote location, Clarence was dead at least an hour before. The autopsy showed the cause of death to be asphyxiation. The medical examiner removed several white sequins from his windpipe, the very same as the ones adorning you cowgirl shorts. I needed to know how they got there. Telling you that Ace installed outside cameras was total fabrication, a calculated bluff. I was very certain things didn’t go down as you first stated, but had no real way of proving it, until now. There is enough evidence in your car with your statements today to wrap this case up. If you’re willing to press charges for aggravated sexual assault on top of capital murder, we’re going to put Harley Daniels where he belongs for the rest of his days.”

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Penthouse Suite 3643

Alex Brumbaugh could literally feel a grin creeping across his face as he rolled through the scenario in his head—frame by beautifully, vindictive frame. First, he would ambush Michael Finch near the water cooler. Alex would forego the usual morning pleasantries, and instead help himself to a handful of Michael’s shirt collar while administering an incapacitating head-butt. With his co-worker folded neatly on the floor, Alex would sidestep him as casually as a gardener navigates a smoldering pile of compost. By now, the temporary receptionist, Alicia, would have shrieked and bolted for the cover of the ladies room. Poor girl would never see the leg-sweep coming until she was spiting carpet fuzz and barrel rolling toward the unforgiving steel of ‘file cabinet row’. 
Alex fully intended to use the chaos of confusion to his advantage. Harried workers scrambling in and out of cubicles would provide cover as he moved down the hallway with purpose—destination, last door on the right, the over-sized and elaborate dwelling space of Johnny Flynn, one of middle managements’ most pathetic offerings. He’d begin the final assault by stapling Johnny to his burgundy, Italian-leather, high-backed office-chair. With the threat of interference neutralized, Alex would smash the glass and rip the samurai sword from the display case. He would swirl the weapon overhead until he connected fully with the fury of the blade. Fueled by a steady rush of adrenaline he’d drive forward engaging the target until the once pampered bonsai tree became nothing more than a pile of splinters. For the finale, he’d slap his boss across the face with an open hand, on the way to retrieving a letter opener. In a full frontal assault Alex would drive the opener, handle deep, into the electronic brain of Johnny’s Keurig Elite while screaming, “Coffee anyone!”
“Next time they’ll think twice before recommending Las Vegas as the ultimate vacation destination”, Alex muttered.
The woman standing next to him at the luggage carousel shot a sideways glance. He countered with a sheepish grin, as an insurance policy in case he had verbalized more of the scenario playing in his head than intended.
No matter how dismal this trip turned out to be, the portly, forty-three year old CPA would return to the office his customary half-hour early, and from there it would be business as boring usual. Alex wasn’t capable of delivering a head-butt, or a leg-sweep, and he considered blades of any kind a special brand of dangerous. During the Winter Olympics Alex would flip the channel or leave the room at the first mention of figure skating. His friends would say, “You’re being foolish, Alex. It’s all about lace, glitter, and graceful dance.” But Alex knew the awful truth. On any given day someone could lose their balance or grip—and then what—bloody, severed, torsos spinning across the ice, entrails chasing behind them. Only in the gruesome aftermath of high definition would anyone come to their senses. Then, in a multi-national consensus of twenty-three different languages, the stunned announcers would declare, “Sure wish we’d left the room with Alex—what a visionary!”     
Alex Brumbaugh III lived in a hermitically sealed world consisting primarily of glass office buildings, stuffy clientele, horrendously late nights, and microwavable meals. His version of living on the edge was when he mixed up meal plans and ate Thursday’s Salisbury steak on Tuesday. Alex operated in the shadows of lesser things. Instead of clawing his way nearer the limelight, rather sadly, he chose to settle there and eventually setting the bar unrealistically low became a way of life. His only expectation for the ‘city that never sleeps’, was to avoid the dubious distinction of being the first to cause her to slumber.
The woman standing next to him reached for her carry-on and found a new waiting spot. Despite a cushion of several bodies between them, she continued to swivel her head. Alex supposed the nervous glances were an attempt to locate the nearest security officer. “Fantastic”, Alex thought, “Ten minutes on the ground and I’m being escorted off to have my cavities searched by some rent-a-cop with extraordinarily large hands.”      
He glanced back at the carousel and saw an opportunity for escape. Alex gathered his bag and settled into the middle of a pack of travelers heading toward the exit, breaking only from the anonymity of the group when he spotted an available cab waiting just beyond the sliding glass door. 
An electric circus played on either side of the boulevard and well into the height of a midnight sky. Miniature cyclones of neon light penetrated deep into the blanket of night before colliding and melting into a warm glow. Sparks and splinters of light cascaded down, content to have been seen in their finest moment before drowning in the pools of elaborate fountains. Alex cracked the window and a symphony of sound flowed through. An enticing din of life and laughter filled the empty space between the commanding booms of cannons. Sometimes even a tiny slice of life is too much for a man with a brittle soul.
Suddenly his focus became the thin pane of glass separating him from the chaos of the strip. Alex recognized the jittering in his belly, and feared a full-blown panic attack waited for him in the next block. He closed his eyes, and tried to forget all he’d seen.
“First timer, huh?” The cab driver smiled from the rear-view mirror.
“Yep” Alex replied with his eyelids still clinched.
“A few words to the wise” The cabbie offered. “Stick to the strip; it’s well-lit and heavily policed. Don’t get too drunk and take to the streets. Just like any large city, people do get robbed and killed. Definitely avoid making eye contact with the ‘Flippers’, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Oh….and welcome to Vegas, buddy!”
Alex did not intend to wander far from his hotel and as a rule didn’t drink alcohol. “What’s a flipper?” he asked.
“Generally Hispanics, illegals for the most part, paid under the table to advertise for strip clubs and escort services—it’s not legal to verbally advertise prostitution so they click or flip the cards to get your attention and do their best to shove a card or two in your hand. It’s a real shame that every day thousands of cards and flyers end up tossed onto the streets and sidewalks. If you don’t see flippers, Vegas ain’t open for business! And we all know she don’t sleep”, the cab driver laughed.
The cab slowed in front of the hotel and the prospect of leaving the flimsy-windowed sanctuary became real. Alex lost his grip on the reigns of his imagination, and doing a hard double take at the rear-view mirror did nothing to change the fact the driver had morphed into a helicopter pilot. The penetrating stare into the back seat screamed, “Like it or not I’m maneuvering this aircraft into a hovering position.” Suddenly Alex became expendable, just another fresh-faced and naïve soldier about to be dumped into a jungle of sensory overload. Better to suck up his fears and jump voluntarily rather than try and recover from a combat boot to the middle of his back.
Alex fished in his pocket and passed some cash to the driver. He glanced at the ID badge hanging from the mirror. “Thanks for the advice, Mario, and keep the change.”
Via a deep breath, Alex summoned the courage to fling open the door to a place he’d already decided would swallow him up. Rather quickly, he waved off the bellhop’s assistance, perhaps too quickly as the gaps between the brick pavers made it impossible to keep a wheeled bag upright. Alex righted the carrier several times. He recalled how ridiculous his neighbor looked each morning as she waved nervously to him while pretending to be in control of the Great Dane that walked her up and down the block. He considered grabbing the handle and just carrying it, but if the bag were too heavy, the foolish move would only compound the embarrassment. He glanced in the direction of the bellhop and offered the same nervous wave as the dog walker back home. The gentleman leaned against one of the columns as if the engineer had penciled him into the blueprints. His arms were decidedly crossed, and he unfolded them only occasionally to draw angrily on his cigarette. Alex lunged forward and attempted a higher rate of speed. This time when the bag rolled, it carried a significant amount of momentum. The swift rotation of the handle tweaked Alex’s wrist hard enough that he squealed. It wasn’t at all a manly noise, like the grunt of a wide receiver as he absorbs the energy of a hard pass in his belly. It was more reminiscent of a high-heeled woman climbing for the sky when a mouse scampers into the open. Even as Alex contemplated blaming a squeaky wheel on his bag, the blaring of an automobile horn only inches from his backside frightened him so badly that he screeched again. This time the sound rebounded against the overhang and the echo lingered.
“You’re gonna get your stupid-self killed”, shrieked the doorman.
He brushed Alex aside to reach for the door handle of the Mercedes SL 550 convertible. Saddling up to the owner he spoke in a hushed voice, but not nearly soft enough that Alex couldn’t hear.
“That buffoon didn’t scratch the bumper did he? I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Dellheimer. Let me get your door. I’ll see to it your bags are delivered to your suite a.s.a.p.”
Alex glared steadily at the back of the bellhop’s head. He pictured himself unleashing the flurry of angry and vile words swirling in his mouth, but opted to swallow the poisonous sentiment instead. Alex had simply been out-classed and no amount of bellyaching would change that. The driver of the murder-mobile faced-up as sleek and polished as the automobile he commanded. His features were sharp and precise; attractive, Alex supposed, or rich enough to warrant the company of a beautiful female dangling from his right arm. A high-powered businessman, no doubt—the kind of creature having no purpose in life if someone removed the cell phone attached to the side of his head. Presently, he barked into the device in short, angry bursts, as though he treated everyone with the same amount of disrespect. His poor mother, Alex thought. He only hoped that by now, she had grown too hard of hearing to realize his grumbling, and too feeble minded to recall the disappointment of how her son conducted himself.  
Alex directed his attention to his bag. Gripping the handle, he gritted his teeth and visualized the receiver taking the quarterback’s pass in his gut.
“Hey you…walking away; I think this call is for you!” The businessman yelled out. 
Alex turned to find the phone extended in his direction. 
“Yeah, it seems Mr. Rogers has a gig on dancing with the stars and he needs his outfit back!”
Red-faced and deflated, Alex wheeled around before the chorus of laughter reached a crescendo. He gripped the handle with both hands, fingers interlocked as if they were around the businessman’s throat, crushing his windpipe. Alex navigated the revolving door without incident, but when the spinning cylinder spit him onto the marble tile, his left knee buckled, causing him to stumble noticeably. The bellhop watched him falter and took the opportunity to overtake him, singing quietly between snickers as he passed, “Won’t you be my neighbor.” The driver and his companion strolled past as well. When the couple broke off towards the elevator, Alex cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask what cologne you’re wearing. The aroma seems quite familiar.”
At the prompting of his companion, the man reluctantly broke stride and turned back. Following an extended sigh and a heavy roll of his eyes, the stranger offered to answer.
“It’s Clive Christian, 1872. And I suspect you’re bluffing about the familiarity because I suppose the management of any establishment selling such an exquisite and rare fragrance would have better sense than to hire the likes of you, unless they had floors that needed sweeping.” 
Alex feigned a puzzled expression. “Hmmm…I’d have sworn it smelled like the south end of a north bound skunk, and as for rarity, I supposed you might find it along most any rural highway in North America. My mistake entirely. Carry on smartly, good Sir. Or in your case, do the best that you can.”
As the elevator door opened he yanked the woman’s arm—a subtle form of punishment for coercing him to stop in the first place. Before the door closed, she glanced at her suitor as to avoid his watchful eye. While he pressed the button for their floor, she delivered a faint smile, an approving wink, and an almost imperceptible wave of her free hand—all of them directed at Alex.
Alex’s sweater pulsed visibly with every ragged beat of his heart. He couldn’t remember having ever insulted anyone so directly, nor could he recall such a deserving and smarmy recipient. But most remarkably, a mesmerizingly beautiful woman had acknowledged him. Filled with the hope of promise, Alex puffed his chest, grabbed his bag, and marched to take his place in line.        
He received a room assignment and as he signed the paperwork, felt a hand settle on his shoulder. Thoughts of the gentleman coming back for revenge gripped him. He braced in anticipation of the kidney punch that would plunge halfway through him at any second. Instead, he felt a tickle on his ear, followed closely by a whisper.
“In light of the absolutely dreadful encounter with my boyfriend, I’d like to buy you a drink. After you’re settled, of course. You’ll find me in the piano bar.”
A double kidney punch would have proved less embarrassment. The hotel attendant overheard the invitation and offered an exaggerated wink. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sir.”
Thoughts were arriving at blinding speed as Alex unpacked his bag; his mind like a wood-chipper stuck in overdrive. It absolutely had to be a setup; six drooling goons waiting in a dark corner of the piano bar, sitting around afterwards grinning and picking their teeth with his remains. Maybe the delicious young woman served as bait for a larger operation, feeding naïve men drinks until the abductors arrived to usher them into an unmarked van that would transport them deep into the desert where merciless torturing took place. She appeared too sophisticated to dance with poles for a living, and too soft to collect the souls of men for sport. Outside of a beauty pageant on television, Alex had never encountered a woman so stomach-churningly exquisite and poised. While Alex was pigtails and braces, this woman had been carved from ivory and polished with a fine cloth. He paused in front of the mirror, scolding the reflection, as he often wrestled with himself. “It’s one drink…I’m going.”
Alex lingered at the entrance until his eyes adjusted to the lower level of light. He stared hard into the three corners visible from the door, scanning for gangly shadows. Five people total in the entire place, including a bartender in a tuxedo. On the far side of the bar where it made a ninety-degree turn, a pair of empty martini glasses marked her seat. She spotted Alex, offered the same faint smile, and summoned him with a very slow and seductive retraction and extension of her index finger.
“Whatever he wants put it on my tab, please.”
“All night, Miss Lundquist, or just one drink for the gentleman?”
She smiled broader and deeper as she made eye contact with Alex, “More than one, if he’ll have my company that long.”
Initially, Alex found speaking or looking directly at her a most difficult proposition, but each time he threatened to go she provided more incentive to stay. An innocent touch of his hand over another drink, leaning forward so that her dress drooped in the front, and giggling the first time she caught him looking. She invited him to dance; Alex refused. The first time due to insecurity, but the second and third because he learned to play the game of give and take more wisely. Alex traded a dance for allowing Lola, if that was her name, to guide his hand gently to places it had never been. They drank and laughed, and laughed and drank, until the two required chairs with backs. For the first time in his life, Alex felt like a man, and in her short amount of years, Lola finally felt heard. She shared a story of discontent, of abuse, and eventually a longing for escape. There, in the dim light of a piano bar, the two concocted a plan as evil as the gin coursing through their veins.
“He’ll leave the high rollers room between 4:00 and 4:30am. I need him to find the two of us in bed together. I’m offering that to you, Alex, but either way we have to give the appearance. I assure you he’ll be completely soused. Might knock over some furniture, but that will support our story. Vince will definitely come after you first, especially after you insulted him at the elevators.”
Lola reached in a sequin-covered purse and flashed a stainless revolver. “But that’s when I take him out for good. Let him hit you once or twice, that’s all I’m asking, so that the self-defense story is plausible.” Lola offered a glance at a large roll of hundred dollar bills. “I’ll pay for any medical expenses, in addition to a hundred grand for your trouble.”
Lola saw the hesitation building in Alex’s eyes. She took his face in her hands and drew him close.
“I really do want to make love to you, Alex. You’re genuine and sweet, and I’ve never been with anyone like that. Your first time should be something you always remember, and I can promise you that!” Lola giggled.
Alex’s head dipped without the support of Lola’s hands, bobbing several times before settling a few degrees lower than it began. Lola tossed a wad of cash on the bar and helped guide Alex in the direction of the elevator. He tried to protest, but the alcohol gobbled up the majority of his words, leaving only incoherent syllables dribbling down his chin.
He remembered lying naked on the bed, his head resting on an unbelievably plush pillow. When he opened his eyes again, locks of long blonde hair blocked off his peripheral view. The close proximity and effects of alcohol had robbed him of the ability to distinguish the subtle contour of Lola’s features, but he could see them fresh in his mind. He felt the heat of her body where it touched his. Her ample breasts were making impressions in his chest, burrowing dangerously close to his heart. Her voice arrived soft and undecided as she requested permission to make his parts function again. Alex managed a nod, or maybe his head slipped on the silk pillowcase, but in either case, Lola inched back down his frame and breathed life into him again.
Alex regretted his inability to play a greater role. When Lola placed her knees outside of his, he couldn’t stop himself from unpacking the bundle of guilt he dragged into the bedroom, but the moment she rested her palms on his chest and lowered into position; the indulgence of guilty pleasures swept him away. As if consumed by a rhythmic song playing in her head, Lola rocked and swayed. Stanza after stanza, layer by layer, she peeled away every misgiving like an anemic fog bending to the will of the sun.  
Lola had rolled from his chest an hour earlier and was sleeping in a fetal position facing the wall. When he awoke, Alex had a vague recollection of the plan; a plan he would have run a hundred miles an hour away from if not for the alcohol and her charisma. The alarm clock showed 3:30 am. Alex had time to slip on his clothes and head back to his room. Even as he scraped against one side of the hallway then the other, he reasoned with his unreasonable self, that in no shape or form should he be responsible for Lola. Just as the elevator chimed, Alex blurted out loud. “I owe the lovely Lola absolutely nothing.”  
Alex’s heart raced as he heard the door open and close again. The beating in his head turned moments into millenniums. The instant the black leather jacket moved through the opening Alex squeezed off the first round. His foot slipped from the edge of the Jacuzzi tub where he’d been perched, but he hopped quickly onto the tile and kicked open the bathroom door. The bullet struck Vince in the back, just above his right shoulder blade. Alex observed Lola sitting upright in bed, her mouth dropped open in horror. Alex turned back to Vince, his arm whipping the air, stretching to reach the edge of the bed. Alex thrust the gun at arm’s length, cocked his head and winced as he yanked the trigger. His second attempt sent a scorching round of lead squarely through the back of the victim’s head. 
The room began to spin horizontally, then at a forty-five. Alex stumbled backwards until he contacted the wall; his knees gave way and he slid to the floor. Lola snagged her purse from the nightstand and leapt to his side. Between frantic sobs, she scolded him, “Alex…..sweet Alex….what have you done? This wasn’t the plan at all!”    
She steadied the trembling of his hands long enough to pry his fingers from the grip. Lola wiped the weapon down with a towel and jammed it into her purse.  

Despite Lola nearly pulling his arm out of the socket, Alex couldn’t will himself to move. With his good arm, he motioned for her to leave without him—eventually she did. He heard her tiny footsteps rushing down the hallway, each of them carrying her further from danger. Free from the obligation of protection, Alex fell into a deep stare, studying the steady stream of warm blood leaking from Vince’s forehead, swirling and pooling, before it seeped into the snow-white carpet of penthouse suite 3643.

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Those living in the six-hundred block of Sidewinder Lane were overexposed; at least whereas it pertained to the personal affairs of a particular couple living there. The Feldman’s drove a chestnut colored sedan, owned a poodle named Sherman, and raised two children who were presently away at college. Two people as ordinary as paper, except that each subscribed to the school of thinking that the louder of two points most often prevailed. It happened during the spring and fall of the year when windows were thrown wide open and voices carried. Primarily their disagreements revolved around toothpaste etiquette, missed trash days, and the like. Pretty average, if not boring, fare, I decided. But all of that changed one Saturday afternoon in late September when the dissemination of information spilled into the street like poison.    
“Yes, she’s an attractive woman, Margaret, but the world is full of attractive women. In fact, many years ago, you used to be….”
In an attempt to cut off his words, I sincerely hoped Mr. Feldman swallowed his tongue. Even then, I wasn’t convinced a medical emergency could save him.
“Used to be what, Harold?” She screeched. “Attractive? Enough for you? I’ll tell you one thing I refuse to be—that’s naïve!”
I’d just finished raking leaves when their words turned sideways. Without question, the proper response would have been for me to return indoors, but knowing the correct course of action and executing it are two different matters altogether. For two full years, I had endured every minor quibble. Now, having stumbled upon it, I felt entitled to a serving of meat and potatoes as it were. Glancing across the street, I discovered company—a familiar set of eyes hovering just above the hydrangeas. Mrs. Jones had found a unique and depraved use for her gardening stool—sandwiched between the garage and the landscaping she appeared to have settled in for the duration. I had never officially attended an eavesdropping before, but in the absence of experience, I supposed common courtesy prevailed. As such, I raised my hand in her direction. It became painfully apparent that she perceived my offering as an egregious and unforgivable breach of etiquette, as Mrs. Jones left me standing like a school-crossing guard frozen in time. This period of penance dragged on long enough that the connective tissue in my right shoulder became a series of angry and knotted muscles. Perhaps out of pity, even then rather reluctantly, she returned the awkward gesture, and I understood our exchange to be a shared oath of silence rather than a greeting.   
We, Mrs. Jones and I, would soon learn the mystery woman Mr. Feldman found attractive happened to also be his twenty-something secretary, Giselle. A damning bit of information that in my opinion only bolstered his underdog status. Mrs. Feldman taught Literature at the university, and I supposed painting pictures with words for a living made for a decided advantage in any argument. 
“Come on, Harold. Giselle hurdled past attractive in junior high and never looked back. Hot doesn’t even begin to describe her. The woman is….she’s….she’s…infernoesque!”
It wasn’t a word, but it didn’t matter. By the time Mrs. Feldman finished describing it, you’d be looking for an opportunity to slip it into any conversation where it half-way fit.  
“Those four-inch stiletto heels barely provide enough clearance to prevent leaving scorch marks everywhere she steps. Does she still wear those dangerously short skirts, and the black stocking, turned down at the top to allow the steam to escape? And who could possibly forget that first glimpse of skin lying just above the stocking turndown—a healthy, three-finger width gap of flesh—delightfully and evenly tanned, except when a man’s thumbs press it white again. Should we dust for prints, Harold?”
“That’s enough, Margaret. Can we stop this now?” Mr. Feldman pleaded.
She steamrolled his objection as if she’d gone deaf to the tone of his voice. “What a lucky bit of flesh indeed, as it plays quietly in a ‘W’ shaped shadow with the lower portions of the letter squared off—a shadow cast down by a plump and juicy apple-shaped derriere.”
Mrs. Feldman was exceedingly good. Despite never having laid eyes on Giselle, in less than a minute she carved the curvaceous, young trollop out of thin air. Suddenly, I felt dirty for considering the image frolicking in the dead space between my ears. 
Mrs. Feldman made it abundantly clear that she had nothing against attractive women, or an apple-shaped derriere. At one point, she even stated that she could understand a stolen glance now and again, but it became apparent that her understanding of such a glimpse did not extend to the man whom she shared a bed with, when she lashed at him with a renewed fervor.     
“Did you look at it, Harold?” His wife bellowed.
I sympathized with Mr. Feldman’s predicament, if for no other reason than we shared the same man parts. Saying nothing at all equated to a guilty plea, yet uttering a word in either direction instantly made him a liar or a pig.
Sadly, Mr. Feldman folded like a dove on opening day. His admission of guilt came out mushed, as if she had his face firmly in her grasp, and by now, I supposed she did. Her white knuckles milking the poison from his lips.
“Do you know how incredibly unbelievable it is that after a glance or two, you might suddenly find your conscience—unless, of course, it was pasted on the back side of your zipper. Are you naïve enough to think I can’t smell her on your clothes? Tell me, Harold, was there even a fleeting thought of me when you gripped her thighs and pressed those bits of flesh white again? Did taking hold of something so young and electric make your blackened heart race? And did you once consider our children, as that wayward worm of yours burrowed deep into the core of that rotten apple? The thought of it turns my stomach irreversibly inside out!”
I can only assume that Mrs. Feldman turned loose of his cheeks long enough to slap one of them soundly. A sharp snap sliced through the chilly air between houses, arriving with enough force to temporarily dislodge Mrs. Jones from her gardening stool and rattle the tines of my rake. In the silence that followed, I sensed a checkmate. If he responded at all, I anticipated a frantic plea from a man caught, in the most literal sense, with his pants around his ankles. But Mr. Feldman recovered and countered rather quickly, his voice carrying an air of sincerity that had been missing earlier.
Even with his wife’s stomach lining exposed, he suggested that the abuse of alcohol and prescription pills were more likely the cause of her digestive disorder than his indiscretions. He recommended that if she ever stumbled upon a minute’s sobriety she might eventually see her part in it. Mr. Feldman closed by assuring her that a decade of frigidity and inattention will almost always trigger a man’s appetite for apples.
To my knowledge, Mrs. Jones and I were the only neighbors outside that day. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, we always found something else to talk about. Neither of us admitted seeing Mr. Feldman throw a duffle bag in the back seat, before crawling behind the wheel of the chestnut colored sedan and driving away. I never told anyone that when he turned the corner and headed for the highway that an avalanche of emotion filled my belly and backed up in my throat. Or that I stared for a long while at the mound of spoiled breakfast covering my shoes—trying to make sense of what had transpired. I simply couldn’t shake the tremendous sense of loss, and eventually scattered the pile of leaves as to erase the evidence I’d ever been there.
Within a few weeks, a knock came at our door. Mrs. Feldman announced she’d be searching for an apartment in the city. Closer to her teaching job at the university she said. After signing a lease and settling in, she’d return for her belongings. 
Her words sounded too rehearsed and I couldn’t get past the runaway look in her eyes. Even when she tried to bluff, the wringing of her hands said something altogether different. “Could you help move some of the heavy things? I mean…..when I…when I come ba…..” Her voice cracked and the syllables crumbled completely.
It wasn’t my lie to tell, but I helped her anyway. “When you come back”, I offered. She managed only a nod. The moment I reached to steady her trembling hands something moved between us; she instantly knew that I knew everything….about the affair, her drinking problem, and that if she survived the escape she’d never return to this place of brokenness. When the tears of shame and frustration became too many to disguise, she hugged me quickly before wheeling and heading down the steps.
Mrs. Feldman could have easily slipped away in the middle of the night, but she hadn’t. She needed something from me. I searched for the words that might be appropriate for the last she heard from me, but my mind malfunctioned under the pressure. I called after her. “Infernoesque, Mrs. Feldman…you’re a classy version of Infernoesque!” Her determined gate stalled and resumed more than once, I supposed until she decided it was o.k. for me to see her cry. She turned and mouthed the words “Thank you”.
After a few months, the bank foreclosed on the property and auctioned off the contents. Even when another couple moved in, I avoided walking past or even looking at the place. Something significant died there. An accidental death, I supposed.
Claire leaned close to the mirror, waiting for the eyelash glue to set. She tossed her head from side to side and blinked from every imaginable angle. I often wondered what determined whether they passed inspection or she ripped them off and started over again. Waiting for the sink, I picked up the box and looked on the back for some type of ancient algorithm harkening back to the days of Cleopatra. My first disappointment of the day—nothing but made in China stamped on the case.
She finished at the sink and walked across the hallway to the bedroom. Waiting for the water to get hot again, I spied on her from the bathroom mirror. Maybe spied wasn’t the correct terminology, but I supposed even if you’d been married a hundred years, people did things, or at least did them differently when they knew someone was watching. Claire reached inside her slip with the opposing hand and yanked her left breast into alignment before jamming an enhancer into the bra. She applied the same violent method of compliance to her right breast. I imagined a migrant worker tossing cantaloupes onto a wagon, and resented the fact I would have been scolded for handling them so roughly. Sometimes I missed the youthful days when we pawed at one another without permission—when we had to fight back the impulses instead of trying to manufacture the moments. I wondered if Claire missed those moments too, but long ago I determined finding out otherwise would cause more damage than asking hard questions. I guess Claire decided the same, as we didn’t talk about the old days. For a married couple, we didn’t talk much at all.       
With the aids in place, Claire leaned forward at the waist and shimmied her shoulders back and forth until she achieved maximum boost. Over the years I’d quit telling her how ridiculous and unnecessary I thought the enhancers were, but I did still snicker when the packages arrived. Claire shopped on-line and ordered from a place called the ‘Spillage Village’. 
“I wish the Spellman’s would have cancelled.” Claire complained. 
“What? I thought you liked Mark and Sherry?”
“Mark’s alright, but that Sherry is so fake. Did you hear she’s got a new set of knockers…like D’s weren’t enough.”
The word hypocrisy flashed long and hard in my mind like a neon sign. Maybe Claire made a distinction between her own temporary fake, and Sherry’s more permanent. Maybe in a few days or weeks I’d mention the contradiction, maybe I wouldn’t.
Claire appeared in the bathroom doorway. Sometimes it felt like she heard me thinking.
“They’re like 38’s, you know?”
I said absolutely nothing, but it didn’t stop her from pulling me in.
“You do know, Charlie. I’ve seen you look at them, especially after a couple of beers. But looking’s not cooking, right?”
Remember when I said that people do things when they think no one’s looking. The truth of the matter was I had looked. I specifically remembered a Christmas party ten or more years back. Sherry wore a red sweater with an embroidered Christmas tree on the front. The designer’s focus was clearly the angel topping the tree, but the combination of a plunging neckline and ten pounds of heaving breasts framing the head gave the disturbing appearance that the cherub had been involved in an accident with air bag deployment. The pressure applied equally from either side contorted and creased the saint’s features into a slightly heavenly version of Chuckie. Every time Sherry sauntered across the room and her goods began to float and gyrate, I swore the angel winked at me. When I caught Rick outside and asked his take, he relayed a similar version of a fallen angel living in the valley deep. The simple fact that such vivid imagery had survived in my mind for a decade was enough evidence to convict.    
I pretended that the trimming of my beard required my full attention. I supposed much the way Claire pretended my looking at another woman hadn’t wounded her. Claire didn’t pretend well. The turned down corner of her mouth indicated extreme disappointment—usually in me. 
“I need the truth, Charlie. Do you think Sherry is attractive?”
Low and behold, it was the deadliest kind of Déjà vu. The attractive question—the loose end that unraveled Mr. Feldman. Stretched across the doorway like a barricade, Claire had loosed a question so heavy it displaced every ounce of oxygen in the room.
“No…the answer is absolutely not.” I had blurted out of panic, but as soon as the words left my lips, I decided if she turned up the heat I was sticking to it.
“Then you must find her breasts attractive.”
We both knew I was operating from a point of weakness, but still I attempted a redirect. “Mark’s a gym-rat and a pretty buff guy, are you attracted to his physique, Claire?”
“You’re not leaving this bathroom until you answer the question….do you find her boobs attractive?”
After putting away my toiletries and wiping down the sink a second time, she still hadn’t budged.
“I suppose a little, but that’s the defective gene thing. Take a professor who’s got five P.H.D’s in his back pocket; flash a set of boobs in front of him, and suddenly he can’t work third grade math. Honestly, I think it goes way back to Adam in the Bible. Remember, God created him from dust… according to divine design all men are kind of dirty like.”
Claire gave me the benefit of appearing to consider my absurd proposition, but only for a moment.
“A long time ago, you used to look at me like that, Charlie. What happened to the way we used to be?”
My initial answer covered broad topics like jobs, children, and life happened. Claire didn’t offer a response. She couldn’t because the corner of her mouth turned down again.
I’m not even sure I understood exactly what constituted an epiphany, but if it came in shots, I think the reflection of the man staring back from the mirror slipped me a double. I suddenly realized that Claire objecting to the fake Sherry wasn’t hypocrisy at all. The only reason she shopped at the ‘Spillage Village’, put on the fake eyelashes, wore freakishly high heels, and did a hundred other things was because of my extreme stupidity. I had either glorified or crucified certain things by offering undue attention or complete and utter inattention. To the best of knowledge, there had been no infidelity in our marriage and we weren’t the type to engage in loud verbal exchanges, but our marriage was just as broken as the Feldman’s. I supposed it high time that I quit stumbling in circles, stepping on my wife’s feet, waiting for the song to change.
“Hey, Mark, this is Charlie. Sorry about the late notice, but Claire and I won’t be able to make it. Awesome news, brother, I have a gorgeous wife that’s been pretending to be someone else for years. Never mind, I’ll call you next week and explain.”  
I joined Claire standing before an open closet, slipping hangers from right to left, moving more to the rejection side. Positioned behind her, I massaged her shoulders for a moment; a diversionary tactic designed to disguise the moment I slid my hand past her shoulders and retrieved the merchandise from the Spillage Village. She turned on me and issued a half-serious glare.
“I haven’t listened in a while, and that’s probably why you quit talking, but I hear you now, Claire.”

She watched intently as I worked the scissors through each of the aids and tossed the useless halves onto the bed. “You used to say the sparkly purple dress made you feel sexy. Put it on. I’ve made reservations for Mandini’s downtown at 8:00.”