Click on Cover for larger image
THE man lay on his stomach. Snoring. Both arms raised above his head wrapped around the pillow. The hairy, trim body now dressed only in blue boxer shorts. Judy came back out from the bathroom, wrapped herself in a fluffy gold-trimmed China red hotel robe and sat in a chair near the bed. She lit up a cigarette and observed him. His snoring grew louder. Almost rhythmic. He had been good in bed. One of the best. She should know. Since she'd first experienced sex with two brothers from Bayou Cane at 15 and taken home the dirty ten dollar bill one of them had tucked into her bra, she'd learned how to make money when she needed it.
She exhaled swirls of blue smoke and thought of the men she'd had. Only one had ever made her feel anything special and that one had even been better than this. Chinaman. Well, not better exactly. But Chinaman had a sense of humor and this one didn't. Sometimes in bed Chinaman made her laugh so much she couldn't perform. He had to get her horny all over again. But that was different. That wasn't business. Besides, Chinaman was sexy; this guy wasn't -- just good in bed. Good in a technical way -- like most Germans. A little rough, maybe. But that might have been the whiskey. Whatever, it hadn't affected his performance. She only hoped he'd stay asleep a while longer; she had a job to do.
She checked his shirt pocket. Even the cuffs. Nothing. In the pockets of his neatly pressed suit trousers she found six twenty-dollar bills and two fives; three quarters and a dime; and a set of keys with a round piece of plastic attached. Inside the plastic was a condom. The plastic read: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS. Male humor. And that was it. She could hear a bellboy passing by in the hallway whistling "Summertime." She knew who it was because that's what he always whistled whenever she and a client took a room. Wasn't that just like a New Yorker. Whistling "Summertime" in the icy grip of winter in mid-town Manhattan. Then again maybe he'd come from some spot on the globe where it really was summertime. Judy put out her cigarette and stared at the man on the bed. He was lost in the depths of post-sexual slumber. She reflected that she was getting good sex in a perfectly appointed room of the New York Palace hotel. And getting paid for it. Not bad. She'd come a long way from her Louisiana days as the daughter of a dirt-poor sweet potato farmer.
She reached for the suit jacket. Midnight blue. Pinstripe. Silk-and-wool blend. "F. Tripler." Nice. The breast pocket was empty. One pocket held a neatly folded tissue and a comb with a tooth missing. The other held a Waterman pen. She found a glass case in the inside pocket. Reading glasses. When she tried them on the room blurred only slightly: The gold crowns on the China red wallpaper looked more like McDonald’s arches.
She took the glasses off and then hesitated while the man's snoring stopped then started again. In the pocket with the glasses was a nearly empty pack of Lucky Strike filters and a matchbook printed "Cafe Des Artistes" in gold letters. She used one of his matches to light up one of his cigarettes. Then she lay the cigarette across the hotel ashtray and lifted his leather card holder from his other inside pocket. She glanced again at the sleeping man, his form lit only by the light from the bathroom, and then silently began shuffling the plastic: Deutsche Bank A.G., American Express gold and a personal banking card from Dresdner A.G. All made out to one "Hans Schrieber."
Now the paper: A Berlin health club card. A London video club card. An international driver's license. In eight languages, no less. The man looked younger in the picture: shorter hair. No mustache. Two genuine forty-five dollar apiece tickets to "Phantom of the Opera"; Orchestra. Center. Row six. A folded hundred dollar bill. And that was it. No photos of the little woman, the kids, the dog, the vacation house, nothing. She picked up his silk Paul Stuart power necktie with the little yellow diamonds against a blue background and checked the lining. Nothing. She even looked into his black oxfords. Still nothing. She carefully put everything back in place and walked silently on bare feet to the chair near the door.
Judy slid the man's kidskin gloves over her hands. Made her think of O.J. Anyway, no secret compartments there. She removed the gloves and turned her attention to his topcoat. Town coat, really. Navy blue, wool, double-breasted. Her search of inner and outer pockets yielded a complimentary guide to Midtown theaters, a handkerchief, a small tin of Anacin, a box of throat lozenges and a roll-on stick for chapped lips. If nothing else, Hans Schrieber was well prepared for the winter weather. But if he was worried about the freezing temperatures, he certainly wasn't worried about money: He hadn't raised an eyebrow at paying $235 plus tax for a double room for a few relaxing hours with a woman he'd just met in the hotel bar. What was it he had said: His place would be "inconvenient." Probably married. What the hell. Luxury hotel rooms were fine with her.
Judy lay the coat neatly across the chair, went into the bathroom and quietly closed the door. She stared back at the face in the mirror. She observed the lines about her mouth and eyes as she grinned. The crow's feet were definitely there but not too deep and not particularly noticeable. Not bad. Anyway, they could still be called "smile" lines, couldn't they?
Damn! Her mascara had streaked. She'd have to reapply it. She dipped a Kleenex into a jar of cleansing cream, then wiped off the makeup under her eyes. She tried to concentrate on what her contact in the bar had said: Hans Schrieber would have some documents on him. Three, maybe four. All they needed to know were the dates at the top of each one. For this they had paid her money. A lot of money. Up front. Industrial espionage for fun and profit. As American as Apple pie. Just check the documents. But there were no documents. Which meant that something had gone wrong. Or something was already wrong.
If there had been a foul-up and the man had stashed the documents somewhere, then it was all right. She would simply let them know and part company. Bad luck for them. She did all she could. They'd used her services before; they knew how good she was. If he'd had any documents she would have found them. But if they had known all along that there were no documents, then why had they paid her to sleep with him? She turned on the cold water, and began to dab anti-wrinkle cream around her eyes. Something Chinaman had always kidded her about. Said too much of that stuff would make her frigid. What was it he had said the Chinese call ‘crow’s feet’? Oh, yeah, ‘fish tails.’ Sounded a hell of a lot better than ‘crow’s feet.’
Chinaman. God, she missed him. She'd already made up her mind that the time had come to let him in on her clandestine activities over a drink. What was it he liked? Black Russian. A mean drink if ever there was one. He'd make jokes about the Yellow Peril consuming Black Russians. And he could handle no more than two without getting talkative. Well, not talkative really. Just not so damned tight-lipped. How many months since she'd seen him? Months, hell, a year. That's New Yorkers for you. They live in the same city and can't bother to call each other. Well, all right, Chinaman. Prepare for a call from yours truly before the week is out. She reapplied mascara and inspected the face in the mirror. It wouldn't launch a thousand ships but it could still get attention. That and her well exercised body was still worth $235 plus New York City and state tax plus her own tip to men like Hans Schrieber.
A noise in the bedroom. Two noises really. Like a door closing and a kind of whoosh. Or maybe a thump. Hans was up and about. Maybe even horny again. She could fix that. She'd been good at fixing that kind of thing for years. She often wondered if she was so good at turning men on precisely because she herself almost never got turned on.
She turned off the water. She drew the robe around her and retied the sash, then opened the door and stepped into the bedroom. At the sight of the two men, she probably let out a small scream. She wasn't sure because, at first, it was more confusing than frightening. It was almost like observing a carefully staged studio setting of two doctors looking upon their bed-ridden patient with concern and distress. Like somebody was shooting a photograph for a doctor's calendar maybe. Or a Norman Rockwell illustration of two caring rural doctors and their patient. A sure bet for the next Saturday Evening Post cover. One man -- wavy white hair over a well-sculpted, craggy face -- standing beside the bed and one -- a crescent of hair away from total baldness -- at the foot of the bed. Both well-dressed. Suit-and-tie. Respectable. Professional bedside manner.
They moved only their heads to stare at her. Body posture still suggesting deep concern for the patient. The man on the bed -- the second greatest lay of her life - no longer snoring but still asleep. No, not asleep. Not with that ugly, unauthorized opening at the back of the head and the red mess splattered across the pillow. Soaking it, really. Good thing for them Leona Helmsley had sold the damn hotel to Arabs or somebody. Would she have been pissed.
The man nearest her, at the foot of the bed, raised his eyebrows and gave her a kind of apologetic shrug, then raised his arm. Which brought the barrel of his silencer-equipped semi-automatic pistol in line with her smile lines. As she threw herself behind the chair she heard another strange sound. Not unlike the one she'd heard when she was in the bathroom. And now she knew. The sound of a gun's discharge when dampened by a silencer. Whatdayaknow. Live and learn.
Another sound. Something forcefully smashing into the chair, grazing her ear. All right, then. The chair. Throw it at the balding man, then rush him quickly enough to grab his wrist before he can fire again. And, whatdayaknow? It worked. Well, her robe fell open revealing far too much but she let it go. With the other hand she even managed to rake his face with her nails. While she grappled with one man, the man beside the bed lifted his own gun and pointed it at her. No shrug this time. No apology. But no anger either. Just business.
She twisted behind the man with the bleeding face and began screaming. She was about to take a breath to scream again when the man closest to her brought the gun down hard, cutting her nose and smashing her collarbone. Blood spurted onto her China red robe. She felt his wrist slip from her grasp. The room slipping from her vision. Legs buckling. Cheek colliding against carpet. Now both men had a clear shot. She'd been with two men at the same time before. Lots of times. But never like this. She couldn't seem to lift her head so she rolled her body ever-so-slowly backward until the men appeared in her line of vision. They didn't look like doctors anymore.
The body doesn't suddenly shut down. No way. That's what a second year med student she'd gone to bed with once told her. He liked to talk shop even in bed. Even while he was doing the nasty. That's what he'd called lovemaking: 'the nasty'. You'd have to blow your brains out for the body to shut down suddenly, he'd said. Or get shot right in the head. Even then, the heart would most likely keep pumping for a few minutes. Problem is, it's pumping the blood out of the system. Like, the plug's been pulled, and the heart's now working against itself. A brainless muscle if ever there was one. Then the body temperature falls and the system begins shutting down. Clinical death. Biological death. End of Story. Judy had asked why some people die with their eyes open and some die with their eyes shut. He had said either was acceptable. God didn't care one way or the other. But then he'd added that the guy with his eyes open was probably more dead than the guy with his eyes shut.
"More dead?" Judy had asked. The guy had just thrust his tongue into her ear farther than Judy had thought humanly possible, then laughed. Judy died with her eyes open.
EXCEPT for the bodies, the narrow Beijing street was deserted. The boy was alone. Unarmed. Running. Suddenly, dozens of furious people, faces distorted with hatred, were chasing him. People who had once been his neighbors. People who had played elephant chess with his father and prepared special dumplings for his mother's birthday. The red bands on their arms read: "Hung Wei Ping" -- Red Guards of China. Across a roof. Bright sun. Glare. A rock hit his head and he stumbled and fell. He felt hands grab him. One of those nearest him blew a loud whistle, and as the beating began, the whistle transformed itself into a ringing phone. The insistent rings pulled Chinaman out of harm's way with bovine slowness. He struggled to cradle the phone to his ear. He could feel his heart still trying to break out of his chest. His voice was thick. "Yeah."
Joseph Abrams, Manhattan's Chief of Detectives, spoke in his long perfected lion-toying-with-its-prey voice. More of a snarl: "Out of breath, are we, Chinaman?"
"Not quite, Chief. One day, maybe."
"One day, Chinaman."
The malevolent mood of the nightmare clung to him like a hangover. His hand shook. His palms were wet. "Until then?"
"Your gun permit."
"What about it?"
"I think we could have a problem with it."
Chinaman reached for a cigarette. Cops using the conditional tense always spooked him. Especially Homicide cops. Especially Abrams. He searched for the right response. 'Too many polysyllabic words in it for you to understand, Chief?' No, Chinaman crossed that one firmly out of his mind before it could escape. He said, "Expiration date's a long way off. I got-"
"What you got is a 'full carry' permit, Chinaman. That's for private eyes who carry a full load of cases. Obviously, that doesn't pertain to you. The way I hear it your last case was over the day the Dodgers left Brooklyn."
"I tracked them to L.A.," Chinaman said. "Then the trail got cold."
"And a 'full carry' permit is for businessmen who carry bags full, you see what I mean. Every day. Suitcases full of cash. Bags full of precious gems. Somethin' like that."
Chinaman could hear ancient typewriters clacking in the background. Computers must be down again. He could almost see Abrams over the phone: Chair tilted back. Feet up on the desk. Phone stuck to his shoulder like a pirate's parrot. Ashtray overflowing. A cup of coffee in one fleshy hand. A copy of Chinaman's gun permit in the other. Chinaman had the sudden image of Abrams as a tubby child concentrating the sun's rays through a magnifying glass to fry an ant. Chinaman said nothing. Abrams spoke into the silence. "You protecting something valuable like that, Chinaman?"
An estimated two million guns in New York City and, outside of the police department, only about 50,000 legally registered. But Chief Abrams had a problem not with the unregistered million and two-thirds. Only with his. Chinaman wondered if 'Persecute P.I. Day' should be declared a national holiday. Maybe it already was. He threw his feet to the floor and looked about the disheveled bedroom of his East Village apartment. Dying snake plant. Broken humidifier. Wall calendar with Chinese characters beneath a drawing of the Eight Immortals. A woman's undergarments lying across a wicker laundry basket like beached mackerel. His unshaved face in a bureau mirror streaked with dust. His eyes focused on the .38 lying beside its holster. The highly polished black oxide finish glittered in the light of the early morning sun like a golden plumed bird fresh from a bath about to enter its nest. He felt a sudden inspiration. "The gun itself."
"What about it?"
"It's old. I think it might have antique value."
Abrams let four, maybe five, seconds pass. "So you're sayin' you gotta carry the gun -- to protect the gun."
"Something like that."
"I think you meant that to be funny. So why ain't I laughin'?"
Because you've got the sense of humor of a war memorial, Chinaman thought. Chinaman said nothing. Outside the bedroom window, bare snow-lined branches of a ginkgo tree rapped nervously against the glass of his third-story apartment. Just inside the window, an early model radiator released intermittent hisses of steam. Rap. Hiss. Rap. Hiss. Rap. Hiss. Rap. It reminded Chinaman of John Philip Souza's marches. No. More like the heroic beat of Chairman Mao's 'Sailing the Seas depends on the Helmsman.' But a former girlfriend had complained that sleeping in his bedroom made her feel as if she were trapped inside a low budget horror movie. And, with hindsight, that's how Chinaman had felt when as a young boy he'd been trapped inside China's Great Cultural Revolution. Rap. Hiss. Rap.
"Thing is, I figure somebody -- maybe even a friend of yours in License Division -- must have given you a break. I won't even try to think why. But I want you to know that -- irregardless of who the fuck it was -- if I feel like it, if something you do or don't do pisses me off, anything at all, I'll have your permit revoked. Revoked so that when I'm finished you won't be able to carry a water pistol. You won't be able to point your pisser without checking in with me first. Do we understand each other now?"
Chinaman weighed the pros and cons of pointing out to the Chief of Detectives in Manhattan that there was no such word as "irregardless." That he was most likely mixing up "irrespective" with "regardless." It was an easy decision. "Perfectly, Chief." Chinaman reflected that the only thing worse than an overbearing mother-in-law was an unforgiving ex-father-in-law.
Abrams seemed to pause. Chinaman had the impression of someone aiming a .44 Magnum at him over the phone. "Meet me at the Medical Examiner's office in one hour."
As the sudden loud click burrowed its way painfully into his inner ear, Chinaman spoke to the dial tone in mandarin Chinese: "My best to the family."
THE man with the Afro slouched behind the information desk didn't quite manage to stifle a yawn as he handed Chinaman a visitor's badge. He pointed sleepily at something behind him. Chinaman glanced at a notice above the desk:
All law enforcement personnel are required to display their shield
"I'm not with the police."
The man rubbed his eyes and opened them wider. When he realized Chinaman's confusion, he pointed to a door visible through a glass wall. "Room 106."
Chinaman glanced at the open door and the slice of sickly yellow wall visible inside the room. He passed through the inner doorway, turned right and then left, and stepped into room 106. It was a small carpeted room with two couches, several chairs, one table and a desk. As if someone couldn't decide if it should serve as a lounge or a classroom. The pale yellow of the walls was broken up by a clock, notices against smoking and eating, and an incongruous mounted poster of a dispirited looking Albert Einstein. The clock was several minutes fast and the droopy, sad, basset hound Einstein eyes stared out in sympathy with all those bereaved. Nothing in the room was out of the ordinary. Except for a large brown envelope on the table beside a lamp. He stood briefly at a window and tilted the venetian blinds upward to watch black-bottomed clouds race each other to block out the sun. He adjusted the blinds to a horizontal position. Across 30th Street, a brick building was fronted by an imposing, prison-like, wrought iron fence. A pair of men's trousers impaled on a picket's spike waved limply in the wind like the tattered banner of a defeated army.
He sat in a chair away from the envelope and, ignoring the 'No Smoking' sign, lit up a cigarette. He looked around the small room and tried to think about other things. The trip to Taiwan he'd been promising himself. It had been nearly a decade since he'd been stationed in Taipei as a linguist attached to the army's Criminal Investigation Division and he damn well missed that island. He remembered his chagrin at having to improve his Chinese characters when he'd first arrived -- the 'short forms' he'd learned while growing up on the mainland were seldom employed on more traditional Taiwan. Indeed, most Taiwanese considered 'simplified' Chinese characters an abomination. So had his scholar father, but spies in their Beijing neighborhood made certain his father had little chance to train him in writing traditional characters.
He thought of Taiwan until he admitted to himself that he was thinking of Taiwan to avoid thinking of the envelope on the table. He forced himself to stare straight at it. Rectangular, plain and ordinary -- so why did looking at it chill his bones.
He felt as if he was in the presence of a Pandora's Box cleverly disguised as a harmless brown envelope. Had it been left there because Abrams thought he would open it while he was waiting?
As soon as he thought of Abrams, he heard the man's footsteps -- no-nonsense, aggressive, loud. It reminded him of the footsteps he'd heard on his ninth birthday. When the bespectacled and uniformed Chinese Communist Party members came to his house in northern Beijing. The men who had once been his father's colleagues in the university's Department of Literature. The men who now accused his father of teaching his son the language of the imperialist enemy -- English. That was shortly before his father had been forcibly marched away by a fanatical gang of teenage Red Guards shouting Mao's slogans as they forced a dunce cap upon him and pummeled and kicked him for being a "right opportunist." Before his father's ancestral shrine had been smashed, his library burned, his "bourgeois" pets destroyed and his family given notice that the house would be confiscated. Before his mother had been told to collect his father's body. Before his mother, in her grief, torment and despair, took her own life. Red China’s Great Cultural Revolution. Millions dead and millions more emotionally scarred for life. Chinaman had suffered far less than his parents. But it had aged him in ways he didn't even like to think about.
Abrams walked in and, for just a second, hesitated. He ran one hand through a head of hair in an early stage of male pattern baldness, then sat heavily opposite Chinaman. His bear of a body was covered by an ill-fitting brown suit and a loud chartreuse tie which needed straightening. The outline of a 9-millimeter pistol in a shoulder holster lent his suit jacket a rumpled, wrinkled appearance, as if he'd just gotten off a long, uncomfortable flight.
His face was ruddy, rough-hewn and perpetually in need of a shave. And it reflected the same disheveled exhaustion as his apparel. A plethora of wrinkles bracketed his mouth and others bulged above his shirt collar. The winter chill had reddened his nose and imbued his cheeks with a facade of glowing health. Only the clear, green, alert eyes, ensconced beneath heavy black brows gave a clue to the man's intelligence. Over the years, Chinaman had often seen them flare at him in anger or narrow at him in menace. Sometimes unfairly. But he had learned to respect the resourceful and perceptive mind behind them.
Chinaman tried to recall if he'd ever seen Abrams smile. Certainly not at the wedding. Abrams had known with a daddy's unerring instinct that on his best day Chinaman wasn't good enough for his only daughter and, hell, didn't events prove it?
Abrams glanced at the poster of Einstein as if the scientist were an intruder; then, apparently deciding against ordering the poster out of the room, lowered his eyes. He withdrew a handkerchief from his overcoat, blew his nose loudly, and shoved it back into his coat pocket. He seemed to hesitate before speaking, as if trying to find the right words. It was the first time Chinaman had seen Abrams attempt to show consideration for another's feelings while on duty. Which only confirmed Chinaman's suspicion that the meeting in the morgue was ominous.
Abrams picked up the envelope and stared at it. Then he placed it flat on the table. He made his large hands into large fists and placed them on the envelope. "You read the Post this morning?"
"Nope. And I don't really give a damn how the Knicks made out at the Garden, either."
Abrams ignored the flippancy. Another ominous sign. "Listened to the radio?"
"Nope...What is it, Chief? The NYPD got you working sociological surveys, now?"
Abrams slid the envelope over to him. "I think you better take a look at these first."
"Then we'll go downstairs...if you want to."
Chinaman slid the color Polaroids out of the envelope without quite looking at them. On normal, ordinary days, for normal, ordinary people, color Polaroids conjured up images of family get-togethers, Junior's graduation, sister's wedding, and highlights of happy vacations. Color Polaroids in room 106 meant only one thing: A corpse had been photographed. A corpse needed identification. Easier on those left behind to identify the remains of a loved one by photographs in room 106 -- than by looking directly at a body lying on a metal gurney two flights down. Especially when the familiar features of their loved one had been horribly disfigured by a knife, transformed beyond recognition in a fire, or mutilated beyond belief in a traffic accident. Still, it was one step removed from the actual presence of death. And most of those left behind were wise enough to be grateful for small favors.
Chinaman let his eyes focus on the top photograph. His mind held back as a swimmer might wait to see if the water was warm enough before proceeding farther. A man's face. Chinaman inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. The man was a total stranger. Not bad looking. Mid-30s. Lots of wavy black hair. High cheek bones. Asleep. But, whoever, a total stranger. Chinaman shuffled the top photograph to the back and looked at the next photograph. Uh, oh. A rear view shot. Something had been done to the back of his head. Whatever it was it had earned him a one-way trip to the morgue.
Third photograph. Focus the eyes. So far, so good. Now focus the mind. Mind doesn't want to stay focused. Suddenly rebellious. Hey, cool it, Chinaman. Just look at the picture of the pretty lady. Asleep. He had seen her asleep many times over the years. Not lately. Before. Mainly up in Connecticut. Sexiest student any young Creative Writing instructor could ever wish for. But she didn't have that hole in her forehead then. Or the ugly crease in her nose. Aren't you forgetting something, Chinaman? Huh? Oh, right. Better start breathing again. Force your emotions to loosen their grip. Little by little. Keep your systems working. And, lest you forget, Abrams is watching. Noting every reaction. Don't give the bastard satisfaction. Slow it down. That's it. Tune out for a minute. What was it you used to tell Judy when yet another gray Connecticut winter morning had gotten to her? 'Nothing is so bad but that thinking makes it so.' O.K. So now you know. Judy's dead. The woman who may have gotten the closest to you of anyone alive. The frenzied passion, the intimate -- Hey! Fella! She's asleep forever. You’re a big, strong man: deal with it. O.K. Check the next photograph. Side view. Hey, kid, wake up -- time for class. You call me 'kid' again, Chinaman, and I'll belt yah.
Next. What's this? Somebody mixed in a wound chart. By mistake? Plain outline of human forms printed on a piece of plain white paper. Front and rear. Horizontal and vertical. Almost like a kid's drawings. Unembellished outline of a face -- front view, right side view, left side view. No hair on the head or at the crotch. Everything unisex these days; even wound charts. But tiny eyebrows and no eyelashes gave the drawing's childlike face a look of astonishment. Chinaman reflected that every wound chart had exactly the same face with the same look of astonishment: Hey, man, I was living! What the hell happened? Simple horizontal dotted line across the eyebrows and a small hole drawn above it in the forehead and a short solid line connecting them with the notation "1/4 inches." And that's it.
O.K. Listen carefully. Three priorities: Keep hands from shaking. No tears. Make Abrams speak first. You can do it. If you pull yourself together. Chinaman forced himself to slip the photographs back into the envelope, fold his hands on the table and stare at Abrams without any visible display of emotion. It took everything he had.
Copyright 2014 Dean Barrett
Contact Dean Barrett
Preview of SKYTRAIN TO MURDER - a mystery novel set in Bangkok