Authors: Stephen Carpenter
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Hard-Boiled, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers
Copyright © 2011 Stephen Carpenter. All Rights Reserved.
She looks up from the bed, her blonde hair in loose coils down her neck, the silk strap of lavender lingerie falling off of one shoulder. Her lips are parted, her toned legs slightly open, her right knee bent a little so that the back of her thigh hovers above the pearly satin duvet beneath her. She is lovely, even in the bright lights. Her body is carefully, perfectly posed, her lips carefully, perfectly glossed, her aqua eyes carefully, perfectly lined and shaded.
Her eyes follow me as I approach her. They follow me without moving, like the eyes of a portrait in a museum, focused on everything and nothing at the same time. She doesn’t look at the people working around her in the crowded room—busy people, scrutinizing every detail of her from the hushed shadows behind the light stands. She looks up from the bed, her face impassive, as though she were above it all, as though she doesn’t notice all of this quiet, businesslike activity around her. She doesn’t move, she doesn’t blink when the strobe from the photographer’s camera flashes. No part of her is moving, not even her heart, because although she is very pretty, she is also very dead, and dead trumps pretty much everything.
“Anything?” Melvin says to me as we ride the elevator down from the suite at the Chateau Marmont. I shake my head. Melvin looks away without expression. Melvin is never very expressive, and the less expressive he is, the scarier he seems. Even to me.
“This isn’t gonna end up like your typical murder mystery,” Melvin says. “Not like one of your books, Jackie-boy.”
“Gonna get twisted,” he says. I nod again.
We lapse into silence in the elevator. It is large and unadorned; in any other building it would be used for freight. But at the Chateau Marmont it was installed after the umpteenth celebrity had overdosed in an upstairs suite and they couldn’t fit a gurney into the regular elevator. This was only rumor, of course, but in Hollywood rumors are always true.
The elevator doors open to a dark, narrow corridor. Melvin and I head down it and a cook—a kid in his twenties—appears at the other end of the corridor, heading toward us. The cook reaches into his pocket and I feel Melvin slide his hand under his jacket, for the S&W 500 holstered just under the left side of his chest. It’s not a gun most people could wear there, but Melvin’s 55” chest could conceal a grenade launcher.
The cook pulls out a smartphone and sticks it in my face.
“Did you kill her, Mr. Rhodes?” the kid in the cook’s outfit says. He has long blonde hair and a stringy little soul patch under his lip. I recognize him from one of the celebrity gossip programs on TV. Melvin and I ignore him as we head for the door at the end of the corridor. The kid follows us.
“Jack? Mr. Rhodes? Did you murder Penelope?” the kid says. Then he makes a big mistake. He sticks the phone in Melvin’s face.
“Detective, are you arresting Mr. Rhodes?” he says.
Melvin stops and moves the kid against the wall. He doesn’t touch him, he just kind of leans toward him, and when Melvin leans toward someone, they tend to lean backward. Melvin is 6’5” and 260 pounds and not an ounce is fat. Melvin reaches up and pinches the kid’s nose between the knuckles of his index finger and his middle finger.
“First of all, I’m not a detective. I’m a Special Agent with the FBI,” Melvin says, his tone low and slow, almost bored. The kid reaches up to grab his nose, dropping the phone. Melvin crunches the phone with a size sixteen Ferragamo.
“Second,” Melvin says, “If you don’t get the hell out of here instantly I’m gonna arrest you for impersonating a person.”
Melvin releases the kid’s nose and the kid runs away.
We reach the door at the end of the corridor and stop. Melvin turns to me, his high, gleaming black cheekbones reflecting the bright red light from the exit sign over the door, just a few inches above his head.
“Ready?” he says.
“As I’ll ever be,” I say.
Melvin pushes the heavy door open and we charge out into the explosion of light from TV cameras, strobes from still cameras, and dozens of voices yelling at us over the pounding rain.
“Mr. Rhodes! What can you tell us about the murder—?”
“Jack! Jack! Do you have any idea who might have—?”
“Mr. Rhodes, where were you when the murder took place?”
It is a scene we’ve all seen hundreds of times on TV—a clammed-up perp escorted past a gauntlet of jackals with cameras and microphones and insults designed to raise ire or provoke some kind of response. It’s such a tired visual that it’s hardly remarkable. But it’s a hell of a lot different when
the focus of the brutal ritual of street theatre. The rain hammers Melvin and me as we dodge and slide past the reporters and their cameras, who are barely held back by police tape and the handful of uniformed LAPD crowd control. Thirty feet more, to the black Lincoln Town Car waiting for us at the curb, and we’ll be done with it.
“Jack! Do you have anything to say about the murder scene?”
“Was she naked, Jack?”
“When was the last time you saw her, Jack? Were you seeing her as a prostitute or as your—?”
We press on. I am glad for the rain. Lenses will be smudged, sound will be muffled, and we have a reason to hurry, to get out of the weather. At the end of the gauntlet I spot the guy who is going to be the most trouble: Fat Zach, a notorious gossip-monger and Hollywood bottom-feeder. I recognize him from the old days, when I was scuttling around town as a struggling screenwriter. As bottom-feeders go, Zach is the best. He knows exactly where to be, and he isn’t shy about using his 300 pound frame to bully his way into position for the primo shot—the one he can post on his infamous blog, the one the networks will pay handsomely for. He positions himself with the skill of an NBA rebounder, knowing exactly when and where the bounce will come. Zach also knows the precise words to spit at someone to get them to turn and curse him, or hit him, or do something that would be worth the two to five grand he could command for his exclusive shot.
Twenty feet from the car. Fifteen. I can see Zach clearly now; his sparse comb-over has washed out in the hard rain, leaving long strands of wet gray hair dangling down one side of his pasty face. He looks like a fat Cryptkeeper, or Jabba the Hut with advanced male pattern baldness and crooked, nicotine-stained teeth.
Ten feet, and the driver gets out of the Town Car and opens the rear door for us. Zach makes his move, pushing his gut through the police tape, popping it open. He stands between me and the car.
“Hi, Jack,” Fat Zach says in a friendly tone, his lightweight video camera at his eye. “Did you kill your fiancée back in ’96? Did you blow her head off?”
Almost to the car. Zach shoves his stomach into me.
“Hey, Jack,” he says. “Was your fiancée a whore, too? Like Penelope?”
Just before I duck into the car I step on Zach’s foot, putting all of my weight on it—then, when he looks down, I turn back to face the gauntlet of cameras and snap my elbow up behind me, right into Zach’s chin. I hear the pop of his jaws slamming together and Zach gives a loud grunt as he drops his camera.
“Unh! You prick!” Zach says, blood burbling down his chin.
I kick Zach’s camera out into the street, where it is instantly demolished by a speeding Range Rover, then I duck into the Town Car, Melvin’s hand on my back, and Melvin slides in after me and we pull away onto Sunset Boulevard.
I glance back and see Fat Zach doubled over, blood running down his shirt.
“Think he bit his tongue off,” Melvin says, with a slight smile of satisfaction.
“He’s a reptile,” I say. “It’ll grow back.”
Two days earlier I was sitting in my office in my apartment, looking out at the bare trees in Central Park and wondering where the ducks go in the winter. The piles of January snow had turned into pools of February slush, and everywhere pedestrians were leaping over big brown icy puddles. There are advantages to working at home.
There are disadvantages, too. I was working on my eighth novel and it was not going well, and things like windows overlooking Manhattan can be distracting. My first seven books were crime novels, most of which can be found in your neighborhood supermarket or pretty much any airport in the world. But for my eighth novel I had chosen to break away from the stuff I had written before, and write something more “serious,” as if murder wasn’t serious enough. I was writing about love and loss—subjects I know well—but it was slow going. Maybe it was too personal, or maybe I had become too set in my ways as a crime writer. Or maybe I just wasn’t good enough to write “serious” fiction. I was thinking of calling Nicki, my former attorney and on-again-off-again girlfriend. We were currently on-again, but before I could call her, the phone rang. The caller ID said FBI. I picked it up.
“Hey, Melvin,” I said.
“What’s up, Jack,” Melvin said. I could tell from Melvin’s tone that he hadn’t called to shoot the breeze, which he never did, anyway. I had consulted Melvin Beauchamp over the years as a technical advisor for my books and, over the years, we had become friends.
“I was just wondering where the ducks in Central Park go for the winter,” I said.
“You and Holden,” Melvin said, after a short snort—his version of a laugh. “You remember Detective Marsh, with the LAPD,” he said. Good old Melvin. Always right to the point.
“How could I forget,” I said. Detective Marsh had chased me across the country a few years back in the misguided belief that I was a serial killer. I was not.
“Well, I just got a call from him. Does the name Penelope Diamond ring any bells?” Melvin said.
“Nope,” I said.
“How about Penelope Fox?” he said.
“No,” I said. “Who is she?”
“An actress—sort of—in L.A.,” Melvin said.
“Actress/stripper/porn star/hooker,” Melvin said. “She disappeared a week ago.”
“Mercy,” I said. “An actress/stripper/porn star/hooker gone missing? What’s the world coming to?”
“May be coming closer than you think,” Melvin said. “Try this one: Penelope Rhodes.”
That one stopped me. I sat still in my chair.
“I think you’d better tell me what’s going on, Melvin,” I said. “Who is she and why is one of her surnames mine?”
“She’s your wife, Jack,” Melvin said.
The Town Car glides through the rain on the Hollywood freeway, then heads into the heart of downtown as I stare at the photograph Melvin borrowed from the crime scene at the Chateau Marmont. I wipe drops of rain from the clear plastic evidence bag and examine the picture: it is a grainy, faded 4 x 5, slightly out of focus, in a bent cardboard frame which has the words LUCKY ‘N LOVE CHAPEL – LAS VEGAS embossed in swirly script across the top. The chapel in the photograph is a tiny, sooty storefront in a strip mall, wedged between a 7-11 and a check-cashing place. Standing in front of the chapel, squinting in the desert sun, are Penelope and me, arm in arm, apparently recently and happily conjoined in matrimony.
Love is grand,
is a sickness full of woes, all remedies refusing.
I was refusing no remedies when this photo was taken. I was taking every remedy available to man: booze, drugs, sex with women who had multiple surnames. I look at myself in the photograph, in the orange glare from the streetlights sweeping rhythmically through the car’s interior. It’s me, alright. But I barely recognize me. I’m skinny and sallow and hollow-eyed and canted to one side like a lost ship, listing in a strip mall parking lot.
At the bottom of the photograph, printed in faux gold leaf, is the date, July 8, fifteen years ago. It is from a time that was, and will forever be, a hole in my life.
Months before this photo was taken—before I’d even met this woman Penelope—I had found my beloved fiancée Sara in our backyard, her face blown off by a shotgun blast. She had terminal cancer and she had chosen to kill herself rather than subject me to the trauma of her lingering death. So she took her life, in the time and manner of her choosing, and I found her in our backyard, and the trauma happened anyway. I spent a year and a half drunk after that Unspeakable sunny afternoon in San Gabriel. I became a devoted, dedicated,
drunk—a blackout drunk. My memories after that day are hazy and full of long, empty stretches, until I sobered up, a year and a half later. And, apparently, during this hole in my life, I had married this woman—this sort-of actress, this pornstar/hooker who is a stranger to me now. Life is unpredictable, even when it is whole, and mine is not.
We take the exit that leads to 1
street and I look up from the picture and stare out through the window beside me, watching the rain. Something is bothering me—something about the picture, about Penelope. Her hair looks different in the picture than it had at the crime scene. I reach for the pen that is always in my pocket and I begin to draw on the plastic evidence bag, over Penelope’s hair, coloring it black instead of blonde. And then I remember.
“Penny,” I say. “I knew her as Penny Gold. She was a brunette when I knew her.”
I can feel Melvin looking at me, waiting.
Brief flashes of memories come to me: Penny and me in a cramped apartment…watching TV, buying booze at a liquor store somewhere.
“I think I hung out with her after Sara’s death, when I was drinking. It could have been for a couple of nights or a couple of weeks, I have no idea. I don’t remember how I met her, and I certainly don’t remember marrying her,” I say, staring at the picture, trying to conjure that time to consciousness.
“The sport coat,” I say, finally, and tap on the photograph. “Somebody at the chapel loaned it to me and it was heavy wool. Made me sweat.”
Melvin is quiet. He is the most patient man I have ever known.
“That’s it,” I say.
Melvin looks away from me and I watch through my window as the gleaming new ten-story LAPD headquarters comes into view. The rain picks up.