By Alec Cizak
“It’s funny.” He scratched his khaki pants, picking at the sleeves of a pink button-down shirt. “A couple of nights ago, my daughter asked what it means to die. I always figured the sex talk would be the toughest. Turns out, explaining to a child that someday she’ll no longer exist, well, that’s about as difficult as you can imagine. In my line of work, I discuss these things with strangers all the time, no hassle. When it’s your family, for reasons even I can’t figure out, it’s quite a bit tougher.”
I offered up an indifferent grunt. I’d overslept and missed my morning fix. The sun beat in from the window behind me. I sweat more than usual. Felt like ripping off my skin and howling like a dog. My patience with the toothpick sitting on the other side of the desk begged to skedaddle. Cunningham, the man called himself. Dr. Dennis Cunningham. Couldn’t find his sister.
“I’m a divorce specialist,” I said. “I don’t dig these sorts of gigs.”
“We talked on the phone,” said Dr. Cunningham, pushing his Lennon specs higher up his nose, maybe thinking it a show of strength. “You assured me you had no problem taking this case.”
“We’ve spoken before?”
“You quoted me an extraordinarily decent price. The best in Indianapolis, according to my research.”
I leaned forward. “You’re kidding.”
“Fifty a day plus expenses.”
“I would never work that cheap.” I slapped the desk twice. “Sorry, Dr. Cunningham, but you’ll have to take your troubles somewhere else. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“We have a verbal contract, Mr. Boyle. You don’t honor it, I’ll call my attorney.” He folded his left leg over his right knee. He looked like the kind of guy who’d never been in a real fight. All bones covered by the meekest layer of skin. Middle-aged. Balding with a capital U-shape on his scalp. A thick, manicured professor’s beard. Like a walking circumcised penis who relied on the system to keep his knuckles polished. The mention of a lawyer made me grind my teeth. I wanted to bash his face in and dump him in the White River.
He must have considered my momentary silence a concession. He pulled a photograph from a pocket inside his tweed jacket and put it on my desk. His sister, I assumed. He’d already told me her name: Lorraine. Invisible for over a month.
“Mother called me,” he said. “She wouldn’t have made the effort if she didn’t believe something was wrong.”
I rubbed my eyes. I hated serious work. My forte? Taking stills or video of husbands cheating on their wives or vice versa, doing my part to enhance the divorce rate and destroy Western civilization. Missing persons involved interviews and contact with the squares out there in the real world. The best I could do? Poke around until Dr. Cunningham considered me unqualified for the work. Pick up some dope money in the meanwhile. “All right,” I said. “I need the first week’s pay in advance.”
The bastard wrote a check. Uptight people always did business like that. He told me how to get in touch with his mother. Then he went back to his practice: Psychology. Second, in my book, on the greatest hits list of sleaze. Right behind lawyers.
Soon as he left, I put on a CD of whale songs and opened the top drawer of my desk. Using yellow water from the sink in the bathroom, I cooked up the day’s first dose of smack and plugged it into a vein in my ankle. Once the junk warmed my heart, I felt omniscient, better equipped to think.
I stared at the woman in the picture. She had wild, wavy brown hair. Deep green eyes. Wore a flimsy blouse with the shoulders sliding down, allowing a glimpse of a black bra underneath. Sexy. Desperate. My kind of woman.
After making a call to the mother and setting an appointment, I rested my head in my hands and let the dope and the whale songs transport me to a place where bills didn’t need to be paid and children didn’t ask questions about death.
Dennis and Lorraine Cunningham’s mother lived in the Brookland trailer park on the east side of Indianapolis. Rows of doublewides in need of repairs. Attempts at gardens out front. Dogs tied to bumpers. My mind, semi-clear at that point, couldn’t picture the geeky little doctor growing up there.
I knocked on the door of the mother’s trailer. A voice dragged over sandpaper barked from inside, “Who the hell is it?”
“Ms. Cunningham,” I said, “my name is Tom Boyle. We spoke earlier. Your son hired me to look for your…”
The door flew open and the barrel of an old rifle poked at my nose. I backed away, raised my hands. Dr. Cunningham’s mother, I presumed, stepped into the night, looking me over. “You didn’t sound so much like a salesman when we talked on the phone,” she said.
“I apologize. Sometimes I get into the bad habit of trying to seem more polite than I really am.”
She smiled at that and invited me inside. Nice enough interior. An old yellow couch in the area she referred to as the living room. Stacks of magazines and books littered the shag carpeted floor like monuments. Mostly Home and Garden-type publications. Some interesting piles of books—Philosophy, Kafka, James Joyce.
“You like James Joyce?”
“Who the hell is that?” She sat on the far end of the couch.
I took the other side. We spoke without eye contact. “Well,” I said, “you look like an honest person. Let’s not dwell too much in the land of manure.”
“Good idea.” She lit an unfiltered Camel.
“How long has Lorraine been missing and have you notified the police?”
“Don’t know exactly when she stopped showing up at her girlfriend’s,” she said. “Angie called me last week. Said she told the cops and they did what cops do…They wrote a report, put it in a file cabinet, and wished her the best of luck.”
The corners of my mouth lifted. I’d worked in vice. Undercover. A long while ago. Never felt the brotherhood and loathed all the paperwork. “When you say girlfriend, you mean romance, or just plain old friend?”
“All of the above.”
“Any reason to think the two of them had some sort of split?”
She shrugged. “Don’t really matter. I know something’s wrong because Lorraine ain’t asked for money in a month. That ain’t like her at all.” She sucked on her cigarette.
“Ms. Cunningham?” I couldn’t contain the question I’d wanted to ask since pulling into the trailer park—“I have a hard time picturing your son, Dennis, growing up here.”
“That some kind of judgment?”
“No, no, it’s just…”
“My husband gave the bulk of his life to Allison’s. Then they laid him off, just like that…” She snapped her fingers. “In the old days, a man could work on an assembly line and support his family. We lived in a house, drove two cars. Overnight, all of it was gone. We’d just adopted Dennis and Lorraine then, on account we couldn’t have kids natural-wise.”
That sounded important enough to compel me to take out a notebook I toted around to make myself look more professional. I grabbed a pen from my jacket pocket and said, “Adopted?”
“Yes,” she said, dropping her cigarette butt in a can of Schlitz. “I suppose that’s why they were so rebellious.”
I laughed a little. “Dr. Cunningham?”
“In his time, back in the day, as the kiddies say, he was worse than his sister, if you can imagine.”
“I most certainly cannot.”
“Take my word for it.” She sparked another Camel. “I guess they had a hard life coming to them from the get-go. Their parents were scum. Got involved with coke dealers and ended up getting their heads blowed-off in a dirty deal. Cops found them in a storage shed over there by Lafayette Square. Dennis was seven at the time, which would have made Lorraine four. Anyways, they were inside a big old cardboard box, in the shed, with their dead parents for who knows how long.”
My notebook, filled with lonely, empty sheets of paper, gained some company as I scribbled down everything the woman said.
“They stayed at a foster home for a year or so, run by a Baptist minister and his wife. Then there was a scandal with the preacher and the state scattered all the children through the welfare department. That’s when we got them. They were just as cute as you could picture. Seemed like they was going to be good kids. They liked to read. Hell, neither Ernest nor myself ever cared as much for books as they did. And then came the drugs and the dressing weird and cutting school. Well, maybe not in that order, but you get what I’m saying. Dennis finally put his act together when he was twenty-three and enrolled himself at IUPUI. Lorraine never got away from the meaner parts of town, though.” She took a moment, pulled up her nose and said, “Maybe them streets finally ate her. Wouldn’t surprise me.”
I asked for the girlfriend’s contact information. Ms. Cunningham told me she only knew her name—Angie. Maybe a lie. Maybe a test. She said she’d let me know if she heard from her again, said she’d ask for her number and pass it on.
I headed to my side of town, Broad Ripple, to see one of my favorite people in the world—Huey. My personal pharmacist.
Most dope dealers annoyed me. Generally stupid and interested only in money. Huey had enough moral sense not to sell hard stuff to the youngsters. While I still worked undercover for IPD, I let him know about sweeps beforehand. Gave him the opportunity to duck out until the heat passed.
When I got to his place on 57th Street, a group of young hippies loitered around his living room sharing a joint and chatting about UFOs and JFK and the CIA. Some gawked at an old Hammer horror movie on a television on the floor, propped against the wall. The place reeked of weed. As soon as I stepped in, Huey, all three hundred and something pounds of him, stood and said, “Tommy! What’s up?”
I nodded in the direction of the kitchen. I didn’t want the kids seeing me buying the real stuff. Huey got the message and headed that way. As I crossed the room, one of the potheads, a boy, maybe eighteen years old, said, “Where’d you meet the pig, Huey?” He wisped his bangs from his eyes. Another Stringbean fooled into thinking Hollywood tough applied to the real world.
The other stoners laughed.
“Tommy’s been off the force for years,” said Huey.
I leaned over the shaggy dork who made the comment. “Son,” I said, “if I was a cop, I’d look just like you.”
Huey shook his head. “You didn’t need to go there.”
I smiled at the kids as I walked past them. All talk of Big Foot and Area 51 had been silenced. They glanced at each other, no doubt wondering which of them might be an actual narc.
In the kitchen, Huey cooked dope in a bottle cap and produced fresh rockets, the orange caps still intact. I pulled the dope into one, mixed it with my blood, and plugged it. Good stuff. It dragged my shoulders toward the floor with courteous urgency. Huey lit a cigarette and told me about his day. So-and-so owed money for whatever, another stole weed from him, and lord would that person be sorry.
Then he said:
“There’s this wacky broad in to me for some rocks I snagged for her from 38th Street. Real smart girl, but not smart enough to pay me on time.”
Barely looking up, I said, “How long she been holding out?”
My mind wanted to relax. To swim to the edge of the river Styx and taunt the Reaper. A nagging voice demanded I pay closer attention to the conversation. “Who is she?”
Huey tilted his head.
I waved off his concern. “Just curious.”
“Wacky broad, like I said. Lives with her girlfriend above the antique shop on 52nd and College.”
Indianapolis, despite boasting a few skyscrapers, remained, essentially, a small town. I considered that as I made the crazy play of asking if the deadbeat crackhead went by the name of Lorraine.
“Most call her Loco,” he said. “Because she’s crazy. Smart, though. Real smart. Always raps with me about Sartre or Camus, always talking about politics, psychology.”
“She smokes crack?”
He nodded. “Used to plug dope, like the best of us, but she said it wasn’t spinning the clock fast enough. Somebody, somewhere, let her torch a chunk and, like with anybody else, her rational life was over.”
“She ever talk about more personal stuff?”
“What’s going on, Tommy?”
“Her family thinks something’s happened to her.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Can you think of anything that might have brought her to a nasty place?”
He shook his head. “I know she earned her money the hard way.”
I waited for him to elaborate, just to make sure I understood.
He said, “Stripping, hooking, that sort of thing.”
“You ever pay her for a go?”
He laughed. “Too fancy for me.”
I woke early the next morning and fixed a rocket for breakfast. The whales sounded wonderful. I lay on my desk and stared at asbestos peeking from holes in the ceiling. Humored the Reaper, debated casket or cremation. When the sun furnaced the office to unreasonable temperatures, I gathered my notebook and pen and headed for the antique shop. Thurman’s. More of a garage sale than a boutique for dated junk rich people collected. Rusty chairs and couches out front. Inside, ancient doodads packed the way you might expect your grandmother, who never got rid of anything, to decorate her house while she waited to kick. Musical instruments, cooking utensils, clocks, and lots and lots of books.
A sturdy woman in a red and white flower-patterned housedress stood behind a glass counter in the center of the store. She read a skeleton key to Finnegan’s Wake.
She looked up from her book. “You a narc?”
“You know a girl named Lorraine Cunningham?”
She laughed. “You must be the hired dick.”
“Story I’m gathering is you were the first to notice her missing.”
“That’s not a stretch.”
“Nobody else gives a damn about her,” she said. “Her brother refuses to talk to her. Even when his wife forces him to invite us over for Thanksgiving or Christmas, he stays in his study until dinner, then goes right back when dinner is over. Too bad. His wife is gorgeous and his daughter is a little angel. That little girl may be the only person who loves Lorraine as much as I do.”
“And Lorraine’s mother?”
“She’s a cash machine. I give Lorraine a place to stay, feed her, love her, really love her, not like other people who just use her. But I refuse to give her money because I know she’ll spend it on crack. So, she works for sleazebags and she mooches off her mom.”
I scribbled in my notebook. “Last time you saw her?”
She spent a moment of our time pondering it. Or maybe James Joyce. I couldn’t believe anyone still read the old Irishman. She said, “Probably a month ago. She was dancing at the Magic Carpet, downtown. Sometimes she’d pick up a sugar daddy for a week or so, so I gave her a chance to surface. She didn’t. I went to the police. They were about as useful as a Bible in a whorehouse. So, I called her mother.”
“Do you remember who you talked to downtown?”
She sifted through a pile of junk on the far side of the counter. Beneath a stack of mail, she pulled out a small purse. She rifled through it until she found a coffee-stained business card. I looked at it.
“Dale Hopper?” I couldn’t stifle my amusement.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s about as useful as that same, misplaced Bible you mentioned.”
The high windows in the joint delivered the sun to the ceiling and not much more. The store felt like a basement. Or a morgue.
“Well,” I said, “you know anyone’s got a score with her?”
“Could be,” said Angie. “Lorraine lived on the side of the street that has no light at night, you know what I mean? All kinds of bile lurking in those dark lands.”
I searched for something else useful to ask. “Your apartment above?”
“Only way I can afford to eat and keep this place open.”
“Did Lorraine have anything here that might, I don’t know…help?”
She folded her arms and leaned back.
“Letters, pieces of paper with names, phone numbers…”
She put on a good performance, acted like she didn’t trust me. She knew, as well as I did, nobody else would make an effort to find her girlfriend. “Let me lock up the store.”
We climbed a winding a staircase around the side of the red-bricked building to three apartments above the shop. Angie explained she rented the other two to Butler students. Their money paid the property taxes.
She kept her apartment less cluttered than the store. Dreary, burgundy walls. No television, just a beige, leather couch in the living room and crudely painted bookshelves along the walls. “This is hers.” She pointed to a metallic bookcase near the kitchen. Fiction occupied the top shelves—Philip K. Dick, H.P. Lovecraft, Celine. Texts by Freud and Jung hogged the next shelf. Kant, Hume, Sartre and Camus took residence on the third shelf. The last shelf? Nothing but Nietzsche.
“My kind of woman,” I said.
“What?” said Angela.
“A stripper who reads Nietzsche. My kind of woman”
She laughed, walked into the narrow kitchen, and opened the fridge. “You want something to drink?”
I kneeled to check out the bottom shelf of Lorraine’s little library. Shoe boxes had been jammed in next to the Nietzsche books. Angie poured herself a glass of apple juice. I lifted the lid on the first box. Letters. Some dating back to the 1980s. Written to movie stars, Presidents Reagan and Bush, and even the current sleazebag in the White House, the one who claimed to be too stupid to know how to inhale weed smoke. Slips of paper with names and phone numbers on them hid beneath the letters. I considered stuffing them into my pocket.
Then I remembered: I didn’t actually want to solve the case. Just collect some scratch from the shrink until he gave up on me the way, apparently, he’d given up on his sister.
The next box contained several CD’s she’d copied on a computer. Mostly old country—Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, several George Jones albums. Also a few DVD’s. I grabbed one of them and looked for a label.
“Probably porn.” Angie had snuck up behind me. “She did a lot of local, private stuff for money.” She must have read my mind. “Go ahead,” she said, “you snooped through the other two.”
I opened the third shoebox, made a joke to try to ease my conscience, and found at least a hundred different photographs of Lorraine Cunningham, more often than not, wearing no clothes. Same expression on her face in every photo. If I’d put money on the matter, I’d have bet misery best described her mood during the shoots.
At the bottom, I found pictures of her as a teenager. In every photo from that particular session, she tugged her shirt, hoisted her skirt, showed the camera the little bow on the top of her panties. On the back of one of them, someone had written in fancy, refined handwriting, Duncan ♥ Lana.
“Any idea who Duncan or Lana are?” I said without turning around.
Angie said nothing.
I put the pictures down and looked over my shoulder.
“I think you should leave.” She walked to the door and opened it.
I grabbed the photo with the names on it while she made her way to the door, and quickly put it in my jacket. As I walked out, I said, “The last place she was officially employed was the Magic Carpet?”
“Far as I know.” She nudged me into the hallway and slammed the door.
I stopped back at the office to eat a piece of toast and fix up for the trip downtown. I had a couple of hours before the strip club opened, so I decided to kill some time at the City-County Building. An old girlfriend of mine, Felicia Hill, worked in the basement. In the morgue.
Soon as she saw me, she frowned. “What do you want?”
“Come on,” I said, “how long you going to be mad at me?”
She leaned on a slab occupied by an enormous dead guy. Big as a walrus. “Maybe the day they wheel you in here, the day you finally finish digging your grave with a needle, maybe I’ll throw you a smile.” She adjusted the collar on her white coat.
I said, “I won’t be able to appreciate it then.”
“Why should anything change?”
“I know, I know. I’m a jerk. You’re an angel.”
“I’m so wonderful, why’d you choose your skanky partner over me?”
“Gina was a good spotter.”
“An even better junky.” Felicia backed into her office. “I guess that’s why she got it right, and you’re still hassling the living.”
“You know how things went down.” I didn’t want to lose my patience, waste the high singing lullabies to my anxiety. “The woman is dead. Maybe you can get over your animosity and let her rest in peace.”
“Did you get my letter?”
“The one where you called me a bastard, said I don’t know how to treat the people dumb enough to love me?”
“I put a frame on it. Hung it over my bed. I say prayers to it every night.”
“What kind of prayers?”
“Asking forgiveness, I figure.”
She stood under my chin, gawked at me through her card-shaped smart-girl glasses. I could smell bubblegum twisting through her chompers, making music. Her breath swirled around in the air with mine. I said, “Asking for another chance, maybe.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I need a favor.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“You had any Jane Doe’s drop in this month?”
“Is that a joke?”
I told her the situation. She said she’d get dental records and see if she could find a match. I almost had her convinced I might be a decent man. Then I asked if she wanted to join me for a drink at the Magic Carpet Lounge.
She didn’t even say good-bye, just pointed to the exit.
The Magic Carpet Lounge sat on a piece of land between Illinois and Meridian Street, south of the circle. A stain on the city map, according to several local churches and Puritanical politicians. Such performative finger-wagging failed to slow business at the gentlemen’s club.
No different than any other strip joint in the free world—One runway-like stage in the middle and two smaller, round stages on either side. A bar and DJ booth flanking the front door. On the far end, a row of red, vinyl couches allowed the dancers to earn bonus cash grinding the laps of generous perverts.
A noodle of a man in his sixties named Ronald Darby owned the joint. He wore a sports jacket with patches on the elbows and smoked a cigar bigger than his thumbs. Brutes who looked like they ate broken glass for breakfast stood over him. Ronald probably couldn’t fight to save his life. He’d never have to. He reminded me a lot of Dennis Cunningham. Two merchants of sleaze, one honest, the other hiding his dementia behind Freudian gibberish.
I made my way to his table, let his bodyguards know I carried no weapons beyond an anti-social disposition. He invited me to sit down. We’d talked before—Two or three of my disgruntled male clients from the past had found their wives moonlighting as dancers, and usually more, at Ronald’s club. Most understood the couch dances often led to more lucrative business opportunities in the shadows.
“Tommy…” He raised a beer mug filled with something darker than Pabst.
“Mr. Darby,” I said.
“Don’t tell me,” he held up his hand, “you got another chump from Carmel looking for his old lady?”
“Not quite.” I showed him the picture of the missing woman.
“Looks like half the girls who work here,” he said.
“Name’s Lorraine,” I told him. “Her significant other says she hasn’t been home in a month.”
He shook his head.
I added some info: “Some folks called her Loco.”
He tapped his forehead. “Mercedes!”
I said nothing.
“Mercedes,” he said again. “The girls called her Loco. She danced under the name Mercedes, though.”
“I see.” Despite my distaste for Freudian mythology, I suspected a woman with multiple nicknames juggled a variety of demons.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “She stopped showing up about a month ago.”
“You didn’t say anything to anybody?”
“Girls come and go from this place like Choo Choos at Union Station. Half of them end up right back here, so I don’t fidget when they disappear.”
I sat back. Three brunettes in thongs and nothing else twirled around on the stages for a dozen rapt spectators.
“I guess that’s that.”
Darby snapped his fingers and motioned for me to sit down. He pulled me in close and spoke just loud enough for me to hear. “A few nights before she disappeared, she asked if I knew where she could hire someone to kill somebody.”
My eyes must have gotten bigger. He made a shoo motion with his hand, as though the shock of what he’d just said shouldn’t have been a shock at all.
“These girls make enemies. Men see them one way, they see themselves differently, and, you know, sometimes a man gets angry with them not cooperating, maybe he beats her, she decides she wants the sonofabitch to pay with everything he’s got.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Shame on you, Tommy Boyle,” he said. “You, of all people, should know when it’s time to head for the exit.”
Felicia called around ten the next morning. Said she had something. After plugging a breakfast fix into a vein in my right leg, I drove downtown again. Parked at the city market and walked to the morgue.
Felicia told me she’d talked with Dale Hopper about getting dental records. “They’re going to be necessary.” She led me to the cooler. Before we stepped inside, she said, “Have you eaten?”
I followed her to the big file cabinet of corpses. The slab she pulled presented a black vinyl gym bag. She unzipped it and informed me, “This came in about two and a half weeks ago.” Little more than a pile of black, crusted bones. Looked like they’d crumble the moment someone touched them.
“They found it in a trash bag left on the curb near the doggy plant, you know? Where they incinerate unwanted dogs and cats from the pound.”
“That’s right.” She pulled out a smaller, clear plastic bag with what looked like a jawbone with two teeth attached to it. “This is our best shot.”
“You haven’t done any work on this?”
“You have any idea how many nobodies land here? It’s easier to wait for someone to come looking for them. Long as the press never catches the mess being wiped off the street, we’re not going out of our way, break our backs, putting a name on someone the world clearly wanted to get rid of.”
“Now you’re sounding like the kind of woman I’d never take home to mother.” I rubbed her shoulders. “My kind of woman.”
“Maybe I want to meet your mother.”
I nodded at the remains on the slab. “Find out who this is and it’s a deal.”
She zipped the bag and shoved the slab into the wall. “You told me your mother passed when Reagan was still running this circus.”
“Cemetery’s as good a place as any to get to know someone.” I kissed her hand. Got a whiff of formaldehyde. “Now you’re really turning me on.”
The afternoon might have been pleasant if it hadn’t been for something heavy and metal crashing down on my nose the moment I stepped into my office. Felt like going under for an operation. Fendi filled the air as I dropped from consciousness. Then I opened my eyes in a small bedroom in a house somewhere with a hundred too many birds chirping on the top of their tiny lungs outside the window.
I’d been placed on a bed meant for a child. Flowery sheets. No more than five feet long. A round window sat in the center of the room’s angled roof. I sat up and grabbed my nose. Let go right away. It’d been knocked out of place. Possibly broken.
Seated in a chair across the room, a child’s chair, low to the ground, a lean, middle-aged man with square Steve Allen glasses worked on a sifter I assumed filled with brandy. He sported sharp, slicked-back hair. Scars on every one of his knuckles. He lounged with his legs crossed. Elegant. Unlike Dr. Dennis Cunningham, however, I would never have braved a fistfight with this guy.
“How’s that nose?” A rough, deep voice. Someone used to getting his way through force and will.
“Nothing a little time won’t heal.” No way would I let on how much it hurt.
“Or maybe some heroin?” He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a rocket, brownish fuel already loaded.
I started to protest, considered asking him what made him think I indulged in such a degenerate pastime. Then I remembered the yellow splotches on my arms. Tells to anyone in the know.
He handed me the needle. “Morphine,” he said. “Won’t kill you when Sheila arrives.”
“Just fix yourself up there, Mr. Boyle.”
I plugged the dope below my knee. When I finished, I gave the drained rocket back to him.
“That’s good,” he said. “Just relax.”
Like I had a choice…
He set the syringe on a small white dresser near the door to the room. “I don’t want to be any more of a nuisance than I, or you, have already been.”
“I appreciate that.” My voice struggled to climb from my throat, a hollow sound originating from a time dinosaurs roamed the planet.
“Darby told me you asked about Mercedes.”
He waited for me to deny it. I didn’t.
“I thought you should know,” he said, “I’m the man she came to see about a hit.”
I forced myself to look up.
“Do you want to know what she asked me?”
“Sure.” Now I sounded like a tire with a slow, lazy leak.
“She wanted me, or someone I employ, to kill her. She was willing to pay for it.”
“That was my reaction, Mr. Boyle.” He picked at his pants like someone trying to remove a spaghetti stain. “I asked her what the problem was. I knew her from the club and I’d hired her out for several private video shoots.” He paused. “I knew she was on the pipe. There’s no doubt she sold herself for it. You understand what that garbage does to your brain?”
“I have a pretty good idea.” Frankly, I couldn’t believe anyone smoked crack anymore. Seemed almost as impossible as people in Indiana reading James Joyce.
“It turns you into a zombie. Your ability to feel happiness is wiped out. You literally cannot smile. A recipe for suicide.” He sat quiet for a moment. “I asked her if she was feeling this way and she said she was. I suggested she do it herself, perhaps save her, or someone she loves, some money. But that wasn’t good enough.”
“Really?” I had to set my palms on the bed to keep from nodding onto the floor.
“She said life had absolutely no meaning. She didn’t just want to be killed, Mr. Boyle, she wanted to be physically eliminated in every sense of the word. It is, if you can fathom it, the most ghoulish thing I’ve ever heard.” He had the courtesy to answer without being asked: “I told her I couldn’t help her. But I did put her in touch with several people I was sure would do anything for the money.”
“Well…” I looked up at the window. A task, let me assure you. “I guess that’s that.” I tried to stand.
The man in the chair put his hand out flat and gestured for me to stay seated.
“I have to be certain, Mr. Boyle, that you will not look into this matter any further. What’s done is done. It was her decision and I cannot allow the people who helped her to be punished.”
“I was hired to find her, nothing more.”
“You know I can have them remove you the exact same way, yes?”
“I get that impression.” I told him Dale Hopper had been assigned the case, meaning, nobody had anything to worry about. It would remain unsolved. “That guy couldn’t find a yuppie in a coffee shop.”
The man raised his sifter for a toast. “Excellent.” He walked to the door, opened it, and motioned for someone to enter. A blonde, somewhere in her twenties, all legs and cheeks hanging out the back of torn Daisy Dukes, entered. “And now,” said the man, “say hello to Sheila.”
The pleasant, if demanding, scent of Fendi surrounded the woman. She clutched a medicine bottle in one hand and a washcloth in the other. She smiled at me as she let the contents of the bottle spill onto the rag.
“Sorry about the bump on the nose.” Her voice reminded me of music. Of Debussy. Of summer nights with summer girls, back when they gave me the time of day. The small towel covered my face, and I slid into oblivion.
I woke where I’d been dropped in my office earlier. Pitch black night draped itself across the city. A thin layer of smog providing enough interference to silence the stars.
The answering machine on my desk blinked, strobed a deep red…on and off, on and off. My head spun like the gravity machine at the state fair midway. Weighed too much for me to pick it up off the ground and stand or even just sit. So I stayed there, watching things go from scarlet to darkness, over and over.
I dreamt with my eyes open. Dreams, as always, nothing more than a filing system for the past. Vivid memories. Me, seven years old. My parents dropped me off at my grandpa’s farm near Wabash. He had a giant pig named Bobo. Fascinating to a kid from the city. A real pig. Nothing but intelligence radiating from its round, mocha eyes. A deep, rich sadness. I knew the beast understood its fate.
One day, grandpa hired some kids from the area to help out on the farm. They found a broomstick and beat Bobo on his back for no logical reason. The pig grunted and protested. That only encouraged them to hit it harder. I said I’d tell grandpa if they didn’t stop. They proceeded to punch me until I agreed to keep my mouth shut.
Then I thought about Lorraine Cunningham, too smart for her own good. Nietzsche convinced her life had no meaning and crack-cocaine confirmed it.
I rolled over and crawled toward the desk. When I got there, I used all my strength to hoist myself higher and hit the Play button on the answering machine. A message from Felicia crackled through the ancient speaker. The dental records matched and Dale Hopper suddenly had an interest in figuring out who’d snuffed the woman.
Nothing I could do about that. I prayed whoever the man I spoke with earlier understood I had no control over the city hacks.
I turned on a lamp on my desk. I punched myself in the nose to set it again. Wove a cobweb of pain across the top of my skull. Fixing up a rocket to kill it, I got ready to let Ms. Cunningham know her daughter had joined her favorite authors and philosophers in the Great Whatever waiting beyond the teasing warmth of this brief, cruel existence.
I told Ms. Cunningham Lorraine’s remains had been found, identified, and the cops now sought the killer. My job as private investigator concluded at that point. She lit a Camel, took a drag, and said, “Can’t say I’m surprised.” A tear bubbled from her right eye. She ran her arm across her face to wipe it away. “Thank you for helping us.” She pursed her lips. Working to come off as though the news didn’t affect her in the slightest.
A question nagging me for a while found oxygen: “Do you have any idea who Duncan and Lana are, or were?”
She looked away.
“Those names were on a picture Lorraine had kept.”
Clearing her nose, this time for real, she said, “Duncan and Lana were their names, before they came to us.”
“You mean…Dennis and Lorraine?”
“We changed their names. It’s all legal, you can check.”
“I bet I can,” I said.
“Do you know what that filthy preacher did to Dennis at the foster home?”
“I sure don’t,” I said, “but I’m starting to get a notion.”
“He had to have surgery,” she said, shaking. “Back there, to fix the damage that piece of human waste did to him.”
My stomach flipped one time.
“As far as we could tell,” she said, “the preacher never molested Lorraine, but we felt it appropriate, just the same, to get rid of both their old names. Like we was getting rid of their old lives, you understand?”
“I sure do.”
“The kids still called each other by their original names when they were growing up, I don’t know why.”
“I bet they were close.”
“Wouldn’t you be? You gone through hell, several times, and the only person who didn’t harm you was your sibling? Damn skippy they were close.”
I took a deep breath. “Angie said Dennis wasn’t very welcoming to Lorraine these last few years.”
“I gather he didn’t think much of her once he cleaned up. Can’t say I blame him. Who knows. Maybe she might be alive now if he’d given her more support. The way he did when they were younger.”
“Yeah,” I said. I said it very, very slowly.
I asked Dr. Cunningham about the memorial service for his sister. He got defensive. At least, if he’d been a patient on his couch, I’m sure that would’ve been his professional interpretation.
“What does it matter to you?” he said.
I figured he might be sour that he’d paid me for an entire week and I had no plans on refunding him for the days I didn’t need. I didn’t care. I said, “Dr. Cunningham, I feel like I got to know your sister during my investigation. It’d ease my mind if I attended the ceremony.”
They held service at a church on the corner of 56th and Broadway. Then we all got in our cars and followed a very light casket to Crown Hill. I decided Dennis must have felt some remorse about the way he treated his sister and put up for a nice spot in the city’s finest graveyard. I knew better, though. And I wanted to make sure the good doctor knew as well. I stood near the back of the small crowd and waited for the box to be lowered into the ground. People shook Dr. Cunningham’s hand and made their way to their cars, most promising to talk to him more at the reception.
I had no intention of following them.
The last members of the grieving party dispersed. I approached Dr. Cunningham. He stood with his wife, a woman just as gorgeous as Angie had promised, and his daughter, who had a sharp look in her eye suggesting she’d be no less plagued by deep thinking and all the pain that comes with it.
“Detective,” he said to me, offering his hand.
“Dr. Cunningham.” I spoke in a quiet voice. “I wonder if you can tell me about this…” I produced the picture of his sister as a teenager. Turned it over and showed him the writing on the back.
The expression on his face matched mine when shooting a rocket full of primo dope. Reality had grabbed him by the shoulders and threatened to drag him to the dirt.
“You killed your sister, Dr. Cunningham. A long time ago. The preacher did what they’re famous for these days, and you took it out on the one person who needed you to be anything but the monster you chose to be.”
He wept. He couldn’t hide it. “Like I had a choice, Mr. Boyle.” Anger seasoned his voice. Anger at me, no doubt, and anger at himself. “It’s like dominoes. One child’s innocence collapses, then another, and another…”
His daughter took his hand. “Are you crying for Aunt Lorraine?”
He kneeled next to her. “Yes, sweetie. Yes, I am.”
“So, this is what it means to be dead.” She swept her arm across the sea of tombstones surrounding her.
“Not now, sweetheart.” He brushed away his tears with the back of his hand.
“Aunt Lorraine is gone,” said his daughter. “I’ll never see her again.”
The doctor put his index finger just above her nose, pointed to a spot sometimes referred to as the third eye. “She’ll always be here. As long as you remember her, she’ll never disappear.” He rubbed her back gently as he carried her to her mother.
The way he held her, soothed her in that garden of death, I decided she might have a chance. She might just grow up without a scratch.
Bio: Alec Cizak is a writer and filmmaker from Indiana. He has also written several books and appears in various journals and anthologies. His books can be found on Amazon.
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