By Michael Fontana
It was after midnight and rain beat my head like tympani. I checked my look in a shop window: mid-thirties, five-ten, black haired, green eyed and gaunt, nose flattened to my face from a case where it was broken by a punch from a semi-professional football player, a woman who seemed at the time about the size of Vanuatu. These days I carried a sweet little straight razor inside my overcoat pocket to even the odds.
I scoured the streets for any sign of Tamara. Shorten her name to Tammy and she verbally shredded you. She kept herself thin via scuba diving, which left her feeling beat and hungry afterwards. No wonder she always smelled vaguely like a saltine. She was near six feet tall, with bronze skin, blonde hair, a thin frame, wiry schoolmarm glasses, a nearly pointed nose, and teeth bleached an unnatural shade of white though perfectly aligned.
Eric, her husband, rang me up. He hid his paunch in sharkskin suits but still drank too much, fey little cocktails like whiskey sours. After drinks, he chain-smoked Turkish cigarettes, ashes flitting in his thin brown hair. “Buz,” he said, “Tamara’s gone missing.”
“Maybe she’s just underwater somewhere and didn’t tell you about the dive.”
“Or maybe she’s just underwater. That’s what I’m worried about. Concrete shoes. The usual concerns.”
Usual because Tamara dealt in millions of dollars worth of investments and some of that money was strictly for laundering. She would dump a kingpin’s dough into an international market and watch it disappear from the DEA’s radar. The trouble was, the DEA’s radar was always on and once in a while they pinched a customer. The kinds of customers seeking Tamara’s services weren’t ones to enjoy a pinch. More than once she had taken a call that threatened to send her body to Eric in seventeen different boxes.
“What was her latest transaction?” I asked.
“A mom-and-pop banking operation somewhere in the Middle East, run by a genteel man with the whitest hair you can imagine and his wife, a fashion model despite only having a single tooth left in her head. They bought some bonds signed over by a human spittoon named Lucky.”
“I know him,” I said. “A local. Hangs out at the porn theater downtown.”
“That’s him,” Eric said. “You likely know then that Lucky’s on his way out. Everyone wants to plant the dagger between his shoulder blades. He called Tamara to squirrel away the limited assets he had left.”
“So I’m not really searching for Tamara as much as I am Lucky. He’ll be the man with the answers.”
“I hope so. God I hope so.” I could hear Eric slurp his cocktail
“What’s from the bar tonight?”
“Rock and rye, with a cherry and a twist of lemon.”
Cherry. Twist of lemon. Why didn’t he just sprinkle it with pixie dust?
“I’m not taking this as a charity case,” I added. “Tamara has enough stashed to pay me a proper fee and expenses.”
“Expense isn’t an issue. I want her back.”
“I’ll work on it,” I said, and hung up.
That’s what sent me out into the rainy streets. I sought the adult theater where Lucky normally sat in the back. While the lobby glowed with soft orange lights, the theater itself was pitch-black except for the film’s blue aura. I stood against the back wall and tried to locate the cue ball shape of Lucky’s head among the rest. I couldn’t see well enough in the shadows. So waiting for the movie’s end was the only option.
The house lights went up after about an hour. I saw Lucky in the far right corner of the theater, back row, head tilted back. It looked like he was fast asleep. I moved over to him and saw a pinprick hole beside his left ear, just under the lobe. A string of blood rolled down his neck.
This didn’t make my job any easier. I rummaged through what portions of Lucky’s clothing I could without getting too intimate. Meanwhile an usher approached, trying not to look too close. “No sleeping in the theater, sir.”
“He’s not sleeping,” I said. “He’s a corpse.”
“Oh my god, you’re a killer! A real live killer in the theater!” The usher ran screaming out to the lobby.
I bolted to the exits near the front of the theater but discovered they were chained shut. Then I heard a police siren wail outside and figured the news was gruesome for me. The house lights stayed up. Options running out, I seized a patron by his throat and applied the cold edge of the straight razor to his jugular. He was a hefty guy and probably could have pounded me into orange juice if he was of the mind. He wasn’t. The sea of bodies parted like I was a pornographic Moses. I led my hostage into the men’s room and forced him into a stall.
From there I ignored him. A window hung open and I climbed out with the agility of a spider, landing in the mud outside. It was on the opposite side of the building from the cops, hidden by tall weeds and un-mown grass. I bolted when I thought the coast was clear enough, through the mud and across four lanes of heavy traffic, nearly getting picked off by a restored Chevy Nova. The pimple driving it made to get out and harass me but the flash of my blade sent him back into his bucket seat and out of there.
Cops would swarm the neighborhood so I needed a fast getaway. I went directly to the source. If Eric could hire me, he could sure as hell hide me.
Eric and Tamara lived in a beige McMansion on a cul-de-sac. I would have thought that with their resources they could do something a little better, but they appreciated the relative anonymity of it.
Eric didn’t answer my initial knock. I kept at it awhile until I heard his car idling from inside the garage. I tried the garage door but it was locked. So I crept to the back of the house until I made the back deck and sliding door. When the latter wouldn’t budge, I kicked my way through the glass, which set off a burglar alarm.
The alarm didn’t panic me. The neighbors would have to hear it awhile and realize it was no accident before they would ring the heat. So I had a good fifteen minutes to scour the place.
I knew where to go, following a ribbon of blood that started on top of the dining table and led out to the garage. Eric was inside their BMW, engine running just as I had heard. His head was positioned similarly to that of Lucky’s, and they had the same pinhole in the same location.
This meant I wouldn’t get paid, which was inconvenient. Without the promise of pay, I wasn’t about to continue to nose around all these fresh corpses. So I made to leave the scene and return to my office.
As I walked back through the house, I took a blow to the skull. Thankfully it glanced there rather than striking full on. Still, I faked a direct hit and dropped to the floor to entice my attacker to relax guard. Indeed, a shadow knelt next to me and I saw a small glint in its hand. A needle. I was the next pin-cushion if I didn’t react.
I struck my attacker’s body with a mule kick so hard and direct it toppled backward. The needle shined as it spiraled in the air. I didn’t dare reach for it in case it landed pointed side first and drove itself into my palm. It ended up lodging in the carpet.
Meanwhile my attacker went into retreat mode, fleeing out the same broken sliding door that I had used to enter. I made chase. Behind the house plots of land were being cleared to make way for more McMansions. Construction had already begun in some cases; a foundation laid here, beams standing upright for a wall there. My attacker made use of one of these works in progress and went down into a basement.
At the same time, the police pulled up in Eric and Tamara’s driveway. They stood outside and shined flashlights on the scene. I knew they would soon tromp their way through the mud to find us. And I was the one they wanted, given events at the theater.
I wasn’t about to stick around. It would be the killer’s word against mine and the former might just win. So I high-tailed it out of there.
Where I really wanted to go was my office, so I made my way there. But as soon as I turned the final corner I saw a cop ahead of me, standing at my building’s front door.
So where to go from there? The fact that they knew my name quick enough to locate my digs drove me back to the theater. It was one thing for the men there to have seen me and sent out a description the police could use. It was another thing for the cops to know conclusively that it was me, enough to guard my door in case I returned. Somebody inside the theater had known me, like they knew Lucky and Eric.
The outside of the theater was dark and absent cops when I arrived. The staff and patrons appeared to be gone too. I made a circle of the building and saw nothing except for a solitary light in what was once probably an attic, now the projection room. Having given up all polite means of exit and entry by that point, I again used my feet to bust through the glass in the front door. Another alarm rose and I was as equally unconcerned about it as the last.
Inside the theater I paced around until I found a small stairwell cloaked by a curtain on one side of the building. The steps were metal so my shoes clanged against them as I ascended. Under other circumstances I would have been fully prepared for a greeting by means of gunfire. But in this case the killer, if that was who was up there, had been much more intimate and undemonstrative with each victim. I would be allowed to approach before anything happened.
I arrived on a wooden landing that held a box of a room with a red door. Light projected from the box. For the first time since my re-entry into the theater, I noticed the film as it played on the screen. It looked like the typical skin flick: penises here, vaginas there, orifices everywhere. Except that when the camera panned away from the copulating close-ups, I recognized one of the actresses. Tamara.
The thought of kidnap and sexual slavery entered my head so I knocked on the red door, feeling foolishly polite but no longer certain whether the person inside was a killer or simply another victim. The door opened to my knock. No one was inside.
It was my turn to hear feet clang on the landing behind me. I readied my razor. Until I caught a whiff of saltines.
Tamara was clearly naked beneath a purple silk kimono. Only she wore no sandals or other footwear. She carried a black purse over her shoulder. “Greetings, Buz,” she said as if we were at a debutante’s ball. “Drop the razor, if you would.”
I did as she asked, the razor banging on landing’s metal floor. “Where did you get the gun, Tamara?”
“From home, of course. It was Eric’s. I figured that the intensity of things might increase to where a needle would become ineffective.”
I kept talking while I thought the situation through. “Why did Eric think you were missing?”
“Eric’s not in the loop on much of what I do. I never tell him the truth about my business. Otherwise he would want to meddle. And I hate meddling.”
“So you killed him.”
“Of course,” she said.
“I thought you loved him,” I said, feigning sentimentality so as to buy time.
“I did. But he began to interfere with my proclivities.”
I nodded toward the front of the theater. “The movie?”
“More than one. I began to discover what beautiful young bodies can be purchased with the right amount of money. There were few limitations in that regard. Eric, sadly, became one of those limitations.”
“A favor for friends in the Middle East. They didn’t like my new enterprise, so I offered them an arrangement. I would eliminate the blight of Lucky from their lives, in exchange for their turning the proverbial blind eye to my cinematic ventures.”
“So now I’m a problem too,” I said.
“Yes, you are. It’s unfortunate that Eric got you involved.”
“And I won’t even get paid.”
She laughed, showing off her bright white teeth. “But you’ve been a perfect gentleman. That’s its own reward.”
This time when she laughed she made the inadvertent movement of placing the pistol over her heart. It was enough to allow me to reach right out and, in a very ungentlemanly manner, box her right in the throat. She fell backward onto the landing but held onto the gun, raising it up with a bead on my head.
What she didn’t note was that the razor remained open on the landing. It only took a quick motion of my shoe to shove the open blade of the razor into all the nice veins and arteries in her bare feet. She practically swooned with the impact, the pistol pointing away from me and toward the ceiling where a single round spent itself shattering an unlit orange bulb. The blood ran quickly from her, enough to weaken her and render her unconscious. She was soon dead. I didn’t about to do a damn thing to stanch the bleeding.
Instead I picked up the pistol and tucked it in my belt. Inside her purse, I discovered the needle along with a surprisingly large amount of her financial information. I absconded with the latter. I was about to become a very wealthy man.
Bio: Michael Fontana has published two novels and a pile of short stories. A retired activist, teacher and fundraiser, he lives and writes in beautiful Bella Vista, Arkansas.