ADVENTURE THE FIRST: AS DARKNESS FALLS
So, there I was, out on the usual. For me it was easy, or I should say, at least, common. Daddy’s little girl hooking up with a guy with long dirty fingernails and lots of cash. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Still, as I rounded the corner with my forty-eight feeling snug against my side I could sense somehow that this one was going to be different. I couldn’t put my finger on it then. I still can’t find the words to square it away now. But that night, all thick and misty, with that unexpected chill rolling off the water like the cold touch of a gal you know'll do you wrong the moment your back's turned, I just knew I was in for the long haul.
I parked alongside a fire hydrant that looked as though it had seen better days. Granted, not the most conspicuous place to pause if you’re worried about a ticket, but who’s worried? Especially since I’m not going very far.
Positioning myself on a steel and wood bench overlooking the rooms of the idle rich I could see enough through the fog; lights flickering, then dimming inside 448 Laurel Terrace; daddy’s girl probably getting ready to tie one on with Tony Menendez - Jangles to his buddies, because he liked to jab a set of customized car keys into the throats of all who had done him wrong…for sentimental reasons.
The story goes that this particular set once belonged to a woman named Mavis Caswell, a certain perfumed feline shaking her tail in a seedy cabaret on the west end. Anyway, Jangles liked what he saw because he sequestered that slinky cat for some private lessons. Only she wasn’t the kind to kiss n’ tell or charge by the hour. Especially when there had been so many to talk about before Tony slipped in for his chaser.
Tony was good natured at first – after all, no use blaming any broad for what she’s done before tickling your fancy. But that’s not how Tony saw it. And Mav’ wasn’t into monogamy. Anything that girl couldn’t spell she didn’t follow, and Mav’ never went beyond the third grade.
So when Tony came home one night and found her rattling somebody else’s cage he decided to take matters into his own hands. He strangled Mavis’ lover right in front of her, then sent him sailing with a couple pounds of cement tied around the ankles – just so he wouldn’t get lost on the way down to Davie Jones' locker.
Mav’s sittin’ there, terrified in her scanties and thinkin’ she’s set for the second pair of pavement pumps. Now, I don't know much about women. I doubt any many ever does. But Mav doesn't sound too bright to me. Because Tony's gone for nearly an hour and what does she do? Nothin'! I mean she doesn't even crawl out'a bed to put something on; looking all puffy-eyed and plucked like a harp when Tony gets back in his blood-soaked shirt. After a few pensive moments, Tony begins to act like all’s forgiven - and Mav’…she buys into it.
He makes with a smile and does what he wants. She lets him too, but does only what she has to. Knowin’ Tony as I do that’s probably everything and then some. Afterward Mav’s in the shower scouring the rest of pug ugly off her with a loufa when Tony suddenly comes up from behind. She thinks she’s in for round two, but actually it's time for the knockout. Tony takes the keys to her car, pulls her head back nice and tight so the water’s hitting her right in the gullet and gives her a homemade tracheotomy.
Well, that’s the story. Since Mav's body never turned up you might as well call it a rumor. The only reason we know Mav' Caswell existed at all is because of Tony. He likes to brag. Mav' his a personal fav' of Tony's. In his line of business I suppose it helps to spread around such free samples. It says, 'I did it to her and I can do it to you', to the competition. You can't buy publicity like that. You also can't manufacture it. So it's probably true.
But tonight Tony’s got a new plaything: Carolyn Trent; nicely packed - that kit. Beveled in all the right places and with as little mind to give a damn about anyone else’s worries except her own. Shrewd, cynical and whacked out of her head for all the wrong guys, she’s Tony’s match in every way. I’m surprised he didn’t get to her sooner, what with old man Trent’s illegal bookmaking barely a thing of the past.
The Trent’s live like their old money, except they’re not. They’re not even second generation. Carolyn’s gran’pappy was a drunken wife beater who couldn’t find gold if it were yellow and growing out of the fillings in his teeth. Her father, Michael was the product of a rejected fling with somebody else’s mother. But ol’ Mike had a head on his shoulders bigger than the one between his thighs. He ran guns to Cuba for a while, jumped ship into narcotics smuggling, then buried himself neck deep in some plush racketeering that saw out the fifties with Bugsy and his boys. The guy’s got enough money to build a sandcastle in Spain and use real sand.
Me? I loathe the rich. I don’t suppose I’d care for them any more if I were the one sitting next to Carolyn and her cash cow at the country club or wasting my time with some thimble-headed socialite who though dictation was an S&M trip. No, I like the honest buck, the one that comes from knowing you paid for every cent with the sweat of your brow. It’s a good feeling going home at night an’ realizin' there are no hidden fees waiting inside your apartment to collect with a couple of baseball bats. Evidently, Carolyn Trent doesn’t share in my wisdom. She’s into danger, and right now danger is getting ready to bed down with her for the night.
448 Laurel Terrace; big brick and stone place with a garage the size of most corner drug stores. Nice work if you can get it and Tony’s got it and Carolyn’s got Tony. It all works out neatly for the stock and trade that’s so stained under their clean white collars that not even a bathtub filled with bleach could scour them clean. But Tony Menendez? The only smart thing that hood ever did was plant his hacienda across the street from a park bench under a burnt street lamp – ideal for my ‘bird’ watching.
As I sit there admiring the shrubbery and light my cigarette I can see vague shadows rubbing up against the walls inside Carolyn's place. From one window to the next, with his hands in all the right spots and her head cocked back like a shotgun about to go off. In fact, I’m so in tune with what’s happening behind closed doors that I forget to have a look-see at what’s taking place right under my own nose.
“Good evening,” she says.
“For what?” I ask her.
But then I get a better look and suddenly the night’s improving. She’s cut like a diamond, a real flash of culture on this otherwise bankrupt corner. I didn’t even see her coming.
“May I” she says, pointing to my lighter.
I even flick it for her to keep those shiny red fingernails from getting cracked.
“Thank you,” she says.
And off she goes, the click of her patent leather heels echoing along the damp cobblestone until I think I can still hear her even after I know she’s gone. That’s class.
I’m still thinking about her an hour later, long after lights out at the Menendez place. I don’t have to guess what they're doing. I can smell it from the curb, as thick and heavy as the fog is right now. I can barely see the front door of 448 but I know it's there. And it’s a good thing too, because suddenly there’s a scream that jerks me from my complacency. It’s followed by a bright flicker of light in the upstairs window and three quick shots startling the German Sheppard tied up next door.
I rush up, gun drawn, with plans to kick in the front door, but decide to give my left the night off when I spot an open window leading into the living room. Inside it’s black, like the whole place was dipped in axel grease. I fumble for a switch but stop myself when I hear the sound of clumsy footsteps coming my way. I think I’m in the hall because I can feel the edge of a banister leading upstairs.
I hold my breath. The footsteps stop.
Whoever’s there isn’t exactly in a hurry to leave. If they were, I’d already have a slug in me – two if he’s a good shot.
“Who’s there?” I call out, my forty-eight aimed for an upward shot.
But I don’t get an answer and that makes me mad. I decide to reach back for the light switch. On the count of three then,…one…two…
There she stands, Carolyn Trent. The flood of light startles us both, but I’m quick to recover. She just stands there, her soft naked body pressed so tightly against the wall she’s going to leave wallpaper stripes down her back. I look her over, once for the record, then once more slowly…just for me. Even with her hair all disheveled, tear-stained and glassy-eyed she’s a looker, like something those guys doing the calendar pin-ups would paint. But there isn’t time for that now.
She just stairs back in my direction – not at me but looking through as though I’ve got a second head growing from my left shoulder. I check, just to make sure, then slowly move up the stairs. Carolyn doesn’t flinch. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to breathe. I look at her again and ask her the same question with the same reply. I’m so close to her now I can recognize the perfume she’s wearing.
That kid doesn’t need dialogue. But I need some answers. So I take her chin in my free hand and try to shake some sense into that alcohol dulled brain. It’s no use. I’m about to give up when I notice her eyes slowly shift upwards to the end of the stairs. She’ll keep.
I go into the master bedroom with my piece cocked and ready. What a mess. There are bits of Tony Menendez everywhere. I didn’t think jelly spread that thin. I find what’s left of him eagle on some very expensive blood-soaked silk sheets. His face is missing. So is his crotch and his ring finger, but it’s Tony all right. Someone was certainly sending a message. Funny, I didn’t think the baby on the stairs had it in her.
I move around the room like a cripple playing Twister, careful not to step in any of the patches of Tony splashed about the room. No gun. Not even shell casings. It’s never that easy. But there’s a couple of mirrors, one on each nightstand lightly frosted with the white powder; his and hers. So that’s what silenced the baby.
Just then I hear a thud downstairs. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. By the time I get to the top of the banister the baby’s lying face down on the carpet in the front hall – not as sure-footed as either of us thought. Still, she’s beautiful in a way only an artist would appreciate, her blonde tresses perfectly splayed in a semicircle, her limbs curled up as though she were snuggling a Teddy Bear. Some sweet kid.
I go into the can and find a bathrobe on a hook behind the door. It’s green and terry and it’ll keep her warm until the cops arrive. By then I’ll be long gone and she won’t remember me any more than she knows her own name right now. As I’m turning her soft flesh over in my arms I get second thoughts. After all, I still need to get paid and Mike’s the guy with the funds. No, Carolyn can’t be found at the scene of the crime. She’s got to be home – the only one she knows and I know it too. But I can’t take her out the front like this. So, after I prop her in a corner as a precaution against swallowing her own tongue, I check between the lace curtains for any late night joggers.
There doesn’t seem to be any but you can never tell when a health nut or hobo is going to pop out of the bushes. So I hurry over to the back of the place – a cavern-like playroom with wall to wall glass overlooking the bay and Tony’s little speed boat, and that gives me an idea. I turn up the collar of my trench, leave by the patio doors, then walk the extra distance around to the front and get back inside my car. I drive clear to the other side of the bay and park in a secluded spot with my headlamps pointing across the water at Tony’s place. I leave them on so I’ll be able to spot the car from the other side, and as I sprint all the way back to the house I can still see them faintly glowing through the fog.
By the time I get back on foot I’m expecting Little Miss Shell Shock to be coming around. Instead, I find her in the same condition and posture. I pick her up. She weighs nothing, and carry her to Tony’s two-seater docked out back. Then across the bay and into the rushes we sail. Despite my general aversion for sticky bad girls, this one feels tailor made. Still, I can’t risk being seen with the only witness to a gangland hit. So, into the boot she goes. She’ll never know the difference, and if she wakes up before I get her home no one will know. Time to surprise daddy with his midnight girl.
. . .
I get to the Trent house just before one – another imposing brick and stone place with centuries of corruption buried between its walls. Opening the boot, I sling the baby over my shoulders. Fine thing when you have to burp a twenty-four year old.
It’s dark, but that doesn’t stop me from making inquiries. Sakal, the butler is the first guy on the scene and a more reliable bugger I've yet to meet. Even at this ungodly hour he’s dressed for dinner, like a lost mother penguin without any eggs to fertilize.
“Good evening, Mr. Mars,” Sakal says.
He’s not surprised to see Carolyn like this. Why should he be? I’ll bet he’s seen more than he’ll ever tell about this place.
“Mike in?” I ask.
I’m directed to the parlor, the only room I’ve ever been in except for that hand-carved cherry and cut-glass mausoleum they call a foyer. I don’t have to wait long for Mike. He enters with the air of a concerned patriarch from Good Housekeeping – good enough to fool anyone who’s meeting the man and his daughter the first time. As for me, it doesn’t play.
“I brought in the trash,” I tell him.
He’s less than pleased with my comparison, less than I expected him to be.
“Where did you find her?”
“Where do you think?”
Mike has a closer look at his property.
“Like this?” he asks.
“Not exactly. The robe was my idea.”
“Tell me everything.”
So I do, but I leave out a few details about the crime scene as a test. Mike passes with flying colors. He didn’t kill Tony. He didn’t have the guts to, and any guy who could love this kid without expecting payment in trade can’t be all bad.
“Now what?” I ask.
“I thought you might have the answer.”
I shake my head.
“This is where I get off,” I explain. “You wanted to know if she was and she was but she can’t, at least not with him anymore, unless she’s into necrophilia and even then, whoever did Tony didn't leave much to enjoy below the equator either. So our business is through. I don’t think Tony’ll be publishing his memoirs any time soon.”
“But what about her clothes?”
“What about them? Some broad’s skirt and panties that nobody can trace because nobody knows she’s been there. In fact, she hasn’t. Remember that. She’s been with you. All night, crying long hot tears about being dumped or cold short ones for the late night romance on PBS. Have Sakal empty out some warm cocoa in a glass by her bed just in case anyone asks.”
I pause for a moment, having one last good look at the baggage curled up on the couch.
“On second thought you better pass on the cocoa. Nobody’d believe it. Gin’s more her speed. Oh, and I haven’t been here either. You don’t know me. We’ve never met. Make sure you fill in those details later with the help.”
“Did anyone see you?”
“Yeah, a German Sheppard named Fifi but I threw her a bone.”
Mike reaches into a desk drawer for his check pad. He cuts a good bunch of zeroes and seven hundred extra for covering up.
“You’ll hear from me,” he says as I exit the room.
“I hope not,” I shoot back.
Mike's a con but at least he knows it. He doesn't pretend. Not that he could. His daughter? She'd like to be sugar and spice and everything nice. She works hard at it too. But she'll never be more than what she is tonight - a flaxen-haired punching bag who doesn't mind it when she gets the stuffin's knocked out'a her. Heaven help the guy who finds that attractive. God help me too, because I think I'm that guy.
THE END?...not by a long shot.
EDDIE MARS WILL RETURN JAN. 14 - in ADVENTURE THE 2ND
@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).