Authors: Ed Lacy
“She began pulling off her things slowly. A sweet little shape. The whole gang of men pressed forward, their intentions plain to see….”
It was an affair that ended in a strange lust to kill.
The new full-length thriller by
best-selling suspense writer Ed Lacy,
winner of the
“Best Mystery Story of the Year” award.
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
N A THIN PILE
of burlap bags—roughly covered by several spotted and torn white aprons—a man and woman lay in the musty cool cellar. They were both on the lardy side. The woman was young—in fact at times her face seemed that of a teen-ager—and her skin was a rich golden brown. The man was a pale and puffy white, except for the deep pink of his forearms and thick face, which had a mild sunburn.
The girl was on her back, gently smoking a cigarette, studying the heavy dirty wooden beams over head, in the faint cellar light. The man was on his side, contentedly staring at her sensuous, plump curves, and her pretty face with dark bright eyes, lush very red lips, and long black hair.
Suddenly turning, she blew smoke at him, then stuck out her long tongue, asked, “Whatcha thinking so hard about, fatso?”
“You, baby. Hey, where do you come off calling me fatso? You’re stacked like two watermelons up there. Baby, once you ever start spreading—timber!”
The girl sat up, crushed her cigarette on the concrete floor. “You don’t like what you see? I don’t have to be down here with a slob who don’t …”
The man bent over her, made certain the cigarette was out, then kissing her meaty breasts he mumbled, “Come on now, you know damn well I like you fine. Baby, you’re the hottest. If I was a younger stud, things might be real different for us.”
“No, I mean it. I think a lot about you. You have this something that … that … well, as if you’re sure what we’re doing now is the best and most enjoyable thing in the world. I like that. My wife, even when we were first married, never had that attitude about love. Always a kind of cold … a duty, with her.”
Pleased, the girl giggled. “No kidding, that the kind of wife you have? She ought to have my husband, he’d cure her—like a machine, the louse. But if you like me so much how come we’re always sneaking down to this creepy cellar? It stinks.”
“What’s the matter, you want air conditioning?”
“Damn right I do! And I’m scared of rats.”
The man sighed as he kissed her ear. “Hon, don’t worry, I’m the biggest rat here and I won’t bite.”
“Why don’t you take me to a hotel, some time?”
“I’d like to take you to the Waldorf, to the best rooms …”
“I mean it. But it costs. Everything costs, damnit.” He turned over and lay on his back, his face hard. “A chump wakes up and before he even steps out of his bed the day starts costing: rent, gas, food, carfare, electric, taxes, five cents for the newspaper, two-bits here, a buck there. Shakes a guy up to think about it. You want to know something, hon?”
“I’ll level with you, at first I took you for another dumb broad but … well, there’s a crazy reason why you get my water on: you’re exotic. With that coffee skin of yours, I can almost imagine you’re some South Sea Island princess, and I’m just lying with you in soft grass, waiting for a banana to fall from a palm tree. Well, when we get the money, I’ll show you how a princess should be treated!”
She turned, rubbing her thigh against his. “Aw, stop complaining, look at me. You’re rich compared to me. Smart guy, don’t you know bananas don’t grow on palm trees? And islands ain’t no paradise? I know.”
“Only island you ever been to is Coney Island, like me,” the man grunted.
“Yeah? Listen to me, islands stink—except in the movies. Big boy, if you want to day-dream, dream up I’m an Indian gal. Then I’d have money, big money, more than a number hit.”
The man put his heavy hand on her soft shoulders. “Sure, I’ll be Sitting Bull and you’ll be Princess Big Cow. Think it will make us a lead quarter? Hell, ain’t even got Indians on pennies no more.”
“You ain’t so smart, wise guy,” she said, trembling a little under the caress of his hand, turning her head so she touched his stubby fingers with her cheek. “I know a fellow, a
, who married an Indian babe—real Indian from some upstate tribe. Even has herself a hooked Indian nose. Last week, like it fell out of the sky, she gets a letter from Washington. They’re buying some of the tribe’s old land, splitting the money among the Indians left. She’s coming into several grand, maybe more. How’s that for a break?”
“How I wish it was me!” the man said, like a prayer. “Or … you!”
“She’s an oddball, real cool kitten. Dig this, she was mad, at first! Didn’t want to sell the old lands; but it wasn’t up to her, so she has to take the loot. Guess they’ll buy an apartment or a house with the dough.”
He suddenly sat up, an abrupt movement nearly rolling the woman off their improvised bed. “Honey, this real talk: they have cash in hand and looking for a house?”
“Watch what you’re doing, think I want to land on this greasy floor?” she said, adding a curse in Spanish.
He pulled her to him. “Sorry, sorry, baby. About that house, they really want one?”
“Sure, they want one bad. No sense buying an apartment, you lose the money in the end, when you move and they want …”
“Listen, can you arrange for me to meet them, soon? Hon, I ain’t joking, I want to meet them, but fast. I’ll just take their cash as a down payment on my house!”
“Your house? You for true? I told you these are
, darker than me.” She tried to pull out of his arms, then gave it up.
“That slop don’t go with me, you know that. It’s simple: they want a house, I have a house … and I need money.”
“What will your wife, the cold one, say, big boy?”
“Don’t you worry about the other woman,” the man grunted. “She’s in it as deep as me. For that much dough, she’d kill.”
The girl giggled. “Hey you, sounded like you meant it. I never heard you talk so tough and …”
He pulled her to him in a fierce, sweaty, embrace. Then he said softly, talking into her open lips, “Set it up for me to see them, honey. Listen, it’ll be a good deed all around—I have a hell of a fine house. Of course you’ve never seen it, but believe me, it’s a good house. Do it for me, sweetheart, and I’ll … take care of you….”
ARRY WAS ALREADY WORKING
out on the handball court although it was barely a few minutes past one. The old man was there too, taking the sun on his usual bench … and all the rest of the playground was empty.
The old man sat very still, in a trance, holding this silvered cardboard reflector around his thin neck: as if his head was being served up on a sterling platter. He was an ugly man with a thick hooked nose stuck onto a plump face. He wore a very black wig which anybody could tell was a phony from fifty feet. There was his usual contented, smile on his big face. It was odd, despite all his sun-bathing, his skin remained a pasty pale. He was wearing the same loud red sport shirt he’d had on yesterday, the baby blue slacks, and white sneakers. One could see he was a man who took care with his clothes. At first I had been afraid he was a
, and making a fool of himself with those loud clothes. But now that we had his wallet, I knew his name was Frank Rastello, so he probably was an Italian. Man, I truly wished I had the guts to wear a shirt red as his.
He opened his eyes as I passed but did not even nod. I wondered if Harry had given back his money. Walking across the empty basketball courts I felt tired. I was only here because of the house—to keep on Harry’s good side. He was okay, for a
. Harry moved around the court showing his character—nervous and intense, all his fat motions jerky. I said “Hello,” as I took off my old sweater, put on the pigskin gloves.
Harry was so intent on smacking the little black ball, he did not hear me. For a guy his size and age, Harry sure stepped about pretty fast, though. He was sweating good, his moon face red and flushed, his belly hanging over his belt like a thick apron. He finally hit a killer, which he must have been trying to do since he got there, turned and wiped his face with the back of his gloved hand, gave me a big smile. “Didn’t hear you come over, Joey.”
“I see you’ve been here awhile.”
“Way business is, it ain’t worth getting out of bed. I should never have opened the store today, didn’t even break the ice. It kills me, every second costing for rent and light and not a damn customer. Hey, will you listen to me shout? They been drilling over on the next block, damn noise has me deaf.”
“Did you give the sun-bather back his wallet?”
“Not yet. Snotty bastard. Soon as he sat down I waved at him and he’s so busy getting that cheap tan, he didn’t even pay me no mind. Maybe he don’t care about losing the eighteen bucks. I’ll give it to him when we’re done. Listen, I want to apologize about last night. May was … you know women.”
“Man, forget it,” I told him, holding out my hand for the ball and dancing around—reminding myself for the hundredth time how I ought to buy a pair of sneakers. My work shoes have a steel protecting toe and cost a fortune, but the concrete of the court acted like sandpaper on them.
“May wasn’t herself. I hope it didn’t upset your wife,” Harry said.
“Nothing upsets my wife’s Indian nerves. We’re still thinking about the house. Anyway, be some time until she gets the cash.”
“Maybe two weeks, or less. The government has okayed the deal, but it takes time to distribute the money.”
“Well, May was wrong about the neighbors. Tell your wife that,” Harry said.
I hit the ball against the wall. “No, she was probably right, but if I buy your house the neighbors won’t worry me. I mind my business and if they don’t like having a Spanish family, I don’t give a damn. I expect a little trouble, but it will pass long before my Henry is big enough to understand any insults. You ready?”
“Sure, there won’t be any rough stuff. Take off your shirt.”
“Wait ‘til I warm up.”
We played for serve and Harry won. In fact he won the first game—I couldn’t seem to get started. It had been too hot in our room last night for much sleep. The drilling began again on the next street and Harry went over to his shirt and jacket, lit a cigarette, offered me one. I shouted that I didn’t smoke. I had to remind him of that every day … still, not many
offer me anything. Harry puffed out smoke like a motor—the man couldn’t ever relax—while I kept hitting the ball, still warming up. The drilling stopped for a moment and Harry said, “Sure quiet around here. Ain’t the other guys working?”
My corner shots were off. “Guy at the garage said the truck drivers went on strike yesterday, so the others had to quit. What they call a wildcat walkout,” I said, ashamed because I was stumbling over the words.
“Joey, every day they delay putting up the houses it’s a kick in my pocketbook. My landlord, the lousy bastard, already told me he’s jacking my rent one hundred per cent when my lease is up this September. I told him, what the hell, the project won’t be open for at least a year … so he says take it or lump it, he has plenty of offers to rent my store right now. Gives me the pitch about how valuable the store will be when the project is up. He’s right, but why jack the rent
the houses are open?”
“Do not the rent curbs go for the stores?” I asked, to be polite and show I was interested in his problems.
Harry shook his head as he stepped on his cigarette. And he had hardly smoked any of the butt; such a waste. “Naw, kid. They keep us storekeepers over a big barrel. All we can do is stay small and die. If it ain’t the chain-stores knocking us for a loop, then … look at me, when I finally get a steady trade built up over the years, they have to take down all the houses…. Damn, I’m for slum clearance and all that, but why should I get a kick in the rear?”
“I do not know why, Harry.”
He stared at me for a moment, as if suddenly realizing I was a Puerto Rican, then he laughed. Harry had a deep belly way of laughing. “Joey, you’re a gasser. Me, I’m one too, for spilling my troubles all over you. I’ll get by, I keep telling myself. Well,—ready for another beating?”
“You’ve only been lucky. Serve, you won.”
The second game was tighter, but I was still wild. I tried too hard to scoop up one of Harry’s low fast serves, hit it over the wall. Running around into the other court for it, I wondered how I would tell Harry he should not sell his house to anybody but us. I could argue my Helen into buying it. Before, when he had talked about the demolished houses, had been my chance … but I would tell him. I was thinking so much about the house, no wonder he was licking me.
Harry had me eleven to six then, but he was tiring. A couple of hot minutes later I was ahead thirteen to eleven, when Harry sent the ball over, mumbling with disgust, “Hit my wrist—a big lousy home run!” He trotted around the wall to the other court.
I never saw Harry again … alive
Walking over to where our clothes were, next to the entrance, I pulled off my T-shirt, wiped my face with it. The sun felt good on my sweaty brown skin. I looped each sleeve through a part of the wire fence, so the shirt would dry. I would get Harry talking about his store again, work in the houses … and then mention his house; get around to it in that manner without seeming eager. I called out, “Come on, Harry, I have to be back by two.”
He did not answer. I figured he was pooped, sneaking in a few minutes rest. I pulled out my watch. It was only 1:32, I had time.
I enjoyed the heat of the sun for a moment, then called out again, “Come on, Harry … Hey, the ball didn’t go all the way over the outside fence did it?” I was talking to myself: they’d started the drilling and of course he couldn’t hear me over the racket.
I waited another couple of minutes. I mean, the way Harry puffed sometimes, and he said he hadn’t played in a lot of years, well, maybe he was tired badly and didn’t want to show it to me. A man fat as Harry could have a heart attack with so much exercise. I gave him another minute to rest, then walked around the wall to the other court, expecting him to jump out any second (Harry went in for practical jokes, too).
The other court was cut cross-ways by the shadow of the wall and the bright sun. The court was empty. I darted back onto our side of the wall. No Harry. I called out, “Come on Harry, we’re wasting time. You trying to get me cooled out and off my game?”
The very sound of my own words, yelled over the noise of the drilling, had a silly ring. I mean, a handball court is an open place—where could Harry be? The two courts were back to back, separated by the one wall—where could he hide? And since we were fenced in, there was no way Harry could have gone out except by passing me. I even glanced at our clothes. His shirt and jacket were still in a small heap by the entrance.
I raced around to the other court and looked through the mesh fence at the back of the warehouse building, and the empty factory, across the street. I don’t know what I expected to see. Farther down the block, on our side, were this giant boom-crane, the bull-dozers, trucks, and the couple blocks of bricks and rubble … where they were leveling the old houses to build the project. I glanced around the court, trying to find the ball. That was gone too. I guess I had some sort of idea that if Harry had taken off, at least he would have left the ball. Then I tried putting my face through the wire mesh of the fence, to see the opposite corner way down the street, where Harry’s butcher shop stood. I couldn’t see it, of course, and it was all a waste of time, strictly
stupid as hell: as both courts were fenced in, there wasn’t anyway Harry could have gone out.
He simply had to be here
. I called-to the empty space, “Aw come on, Harry, the joke is over. It’s getting late and I’m losing my sweat.”
The drilling had stopped and my words had a dull echo, then were lost in the sunny silence. I ran around the courts twice, told myself to stop being stupid: Harry
here. Okay, somehow, he had got out. I went over and picked up his old suede jacket, hesitated, then felt of his pockets. I found the keys to his store, a wallet with twenty-seven bucks and some bills awaiting payment Rastello’s wallet was there, too, but it was empty. Maybe Harry never meant to give it back … I glanced over at the benches; the old man was gone. That was odd—usually I’d notice him leaving. Rastello and the queer way he had the $18 in his wallet—the dollar bills plain, the five buck bill folded in half, and the $10 bill rolled tight. Could Harry and the old man in the bright shirt have gone off together?
But I was talking and thinking crazy: Harry wouldn’t go without his keys and wallet. I glanced around the empty playground, then put on my shirt and sat on my heels beside the entrance to the handball courts. I’d bawl the devil out of Harry when he showed … and he
to show. I didn’t believe in magic and spirits like some dumb
. Take a
to play a trick, make a fool—or think he was making a fool—out of a
. But Harry was a good guy … and where could he possibly be? I even glanced up at the top of the thin concrete wall that separated the two courts, as if expecting to see Harry perched up there like a grinning monkey.
It was ten minutes to two, I was getting both angry and alarmed (I’d be risking my job over Harry’s clowning). I put on my sweater and picked up Harry’s things. I didn’t know what to do. Should I leave his stuff here? But suppose Harry was hurt or sick? But
I thought hard for a long minute, then took his things with me as I left the playground. Merely moving made me feel better. Hell with Harry, I had to think about my job. As it was, I was goofing off to play handball, bringing a sandwich and a container of milk in with me, taking an extra ten minutes on my lunch hour.
I trotted down the block, crossed the street. The faster I moved the better I felt. Harry’s store was locked, of course. I started up the other street, then stopped short, remembering Louisa no longer lived there, her house was one of those condemned and knocked down. And that was another
idea—Harry certainly wouldn’t have called on
with his shirt off.
Standing still made me uneasy. I ran back to the playground, getting my sweat up again, as if I were in training. Running down the hot empty street, passing the leveled buildings, reminded me somewhat of the shelled towns I’d seen in Korea. Of course they never had houses so big over there…. What was I thinking about Korea for? I had a spooky feeling of fear. I tried to fight it, to stop acting like
was evil in the air … I could almost taste it, the very bitterness
I crossed the street. The factory building was locked tight, it had been closed down for longer than I could remember. All the doors and windows looked dusty and unused. The rear of the warehouse had a shuttered driveway and a bell. I rang. A few minutes later an old man wearing a worn pair of white coveralls raised the steel door—mad at seeing only me. He said, “Goddamnit, knew wasn’t no truck due this time. Whatcha want?”
“Have you seen a man … ah … stripped to the waist? We were playing handball over there and he’s gene.” My voice died at the very foolishness of the words.
“Go around to the other side of the block and ask
the office. Now what would a handball player be doing here?”
“I don’t know. But he’s gone. You see, I really don’t know … truly, but … well, I had to ask.”
“Of all the damn fool reasons for spoiling my coffee. Ya should be working in the middle of the day instead of playing!” The old man banged the iron door shut. Under his breath he was certainly cursing me. I could almost hear the familiar insult.
I walked across to the playground, even back into the handball courts. Somehow I was still expecting Harry to be waiting, or suddenly jump out of empty space. Maybe yelling at me for taking his clothes and money. I shouldn’t have taken them … all these damn
suspect us of stealing every time we breathe. Still, couldn’t blame Harry … I’d only known him a few weeks.
I called his name and realized I was whispering. I yelled, “Harry!” a few times … and the answering silence frightened me. I was completely puzzled. Should I put his stuff back by the entrance and go on to work? But it would certainly be stolen? Yet when Harry returned and didn’t find his jacket and wallet … Returned from
Anyway, he knew where I worked … could always find me.