It’s not good to spend all your time with one social class.
That’s one of the things that has gone wrong with America. In a typical city, like mine for instance, rich people live here, middle class people live there, poor people live down there, and trailer park people come and go.
The rich people only go places where the other rich people go. They think God loves them the most. Middle class citizens stick to their tight circle. They think they love God the most. Poor folk can’t afford the gas to go anywhere. They think God will love them the best when they are dead. The trailer park types are a sub-set. They don’t give a shit. They think it’ll be time to deal with God after they die. One of these days I’m going to buy myself a trailer.
We were about to mingle; a thief, a disgraced cop, an unbalanced poor lawyer, and her lesbian ex-girlfriend. The car was a bit of the American melting pot.
The trip to the big party was a little tense. It didn’t help that Vandy was in a bad mood. He’d been forced off Terri’s case, and he would have to retire in a couple months. That bothered him. But what bothered him more was last night’s murder. Lonnie, like all of Vandy’s cases, had become family.
The press hadn’t paid much attention. They were still hyping Torey’s heroic rescue or some such fiction. Kim got more screen time than Chrysler trucks for a few days. Lonnie’s death notice was delivered by the anchor between a story about a new cosmetic use for oatmeal and the “Weather Watcher of the Week.” Vandy threw a styrofoam cup full of coffee at the screen. Like I said, Vandy took it personally.
He had urged the arrest of Officer Redlands. The Chief wanted to keep it quiet until they were sure he did it. My statement was not considered damning because of my obvious animosity towards poor James Redlands. Emilio Valasquez was now officially desk bound. The young detective had gotten splashed by Vandy’s fall into the shit pond. Two amenable detectives were assigned to find Redlands — not arrest, just find. They only worked half days on Saturdays, so hell, it’ll wait until Monday. Redlands had dropped out of sight. His house was empty.
On the way to the big event, Vandy was spewing obscenities into his cell phone to no avail. There would be no quick arrest. We stopped at Infant of Prague. Father Ken was packing up his Cavalier with his clothes. He didn’t own much stuff. His mother was weeping in the front seat.
“So off to Herunting?” It sounded like Siberia. It was worse, at least Vladivostok had a McDonald’s.
“I haven’t decided.” Corleone grabbed Valerie and hugged her. “Maybe I’ll marry Val and settle down.” Val laughed. I laughed. Sal glared, and Mrs. Corleone wept. There were no slot machines in Herunting.
“Good luck. Stay in touch.” I was trying to keep the conversation shallow.
He took my hand and made it serious. “Sorry I couldn’t keep Torey away from here tomorrow.” Kenny gestured towards the church. “Protect him, Marty.”
“I will, Father. I will.”
“Try to be a good dad. He’ll need one when this is over.” There was sadness in his eyes.
“If Kim lets me, I’ll try, Father. Sorry about what’s happened.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said.
I hate that kind of drivel. Did what happened to Torey have a reason? No, of course not. How can good come from that? It’s crap. I let it go. I whispered in his ear, “Thank you for what you did with Redlands.”
“I think I know what you’re doing, Marty. But… Well, maybe my sin will be forgiven.” He wasn’t sure, or maybe he didn’t care.
“Everything happens for a reason, Father.” I meant it differently than he had.
“I suppose.” He was sad. While he hugged everyone except Vandy — you don’t hug Vandy — goodbye, I made a quick run inside the church through the sacristy door. I just wanted to see the place. Trust me for now. I wasn’t in there very long. I didn’t need to be. It was a nice little church.
Speaking of Liz Nice, she was out front of the Chancellery when the four of us Musketeers pulled up in Sally’s Mercedes. There were two piercingly bright, high intensity lights on telescoping poles pointed straight at her. Maybe she looked good on the tube at home, but in person she looked like bad kabuki.
“Only the best people are here tonight at the annual Catholic Appeal Banquet. Archbishop Kunkler himself will be awarded the Glen and Ella Runciter Humanitarian Award. Named in honor of the former CEO of Amalgamated Metals and Foods Corporation and his wife, the local queen of philanthropy, ‘The Runciter’ honors the person in our community who has dedicated the most effort to help those less fortunate. The Archbishop is a three time winner and that makes tonight even more special. There will even be some Hollywood luminaries to brighten the scene even more. Gavin McLeod from the “Love Boat” is here with his lovely wife…ah…with his lovely wife and also…I’ve lost my notes…”
Liz was gesturing madly to the camera guy, who quickly put down the beer he was surreptitiously sipping and shoved some pieces of paper her way. She got most of them. One skipped off in the breeze under a Lexus.
“…also one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives will be here tonight… Joanna or Joanne…” She found her place. “Last year the event raised over three million dollars. Which enabled organizers to complete construction of the new Catholic Appeal Building in Rio Caliente, Northland. This year they hope to raise enough to complete the furnishing and landscaping. The cocktail hour is underway now, as these good people gather to do good for others. Remember, the strength of our community is in the hearts of our citizens. So be nice. This is Liz Nice for Eyewitness Six.” She froze with a hideous smile on her face. After ten seconds she broke into a frown. The cameraman turned out the lights, and Liz pulled off her mike and threw it at him.
“Where’s my beer, Mick? Give me my damn beer!”
The valet took our car.
The four of us were really something to see. You wouldn’t have recognized us. Valerie was in the blue cocktail number. She’s not rich anymore, you know. She doesn’t have much formal wear in the closet. Sally was even looking good in a black pants suit. She was not bad looking, really. I just don’t like women who are better built than I am. I had, lets say, borrowed a nice Armani tux while I was running my errands yesterday. I looked very well-to-do. I even acted rich. Costumes give you the freedom to be someone you’re not.
Vandy was a different story. You can’t do much with a body like his unless you have a lot of money or a lot of time. He had a blue pinstripe suit that Sally had scored from the community theater where she volunteered. She had been the lead in “South Pacific” last season. “I’m gonna wash that man right outa’ my hair…” took on a whole new meaning. Vandy’s suit was from “Guys and Dolls.” It was so wrong it was right. Damon Runyon would have been proud.
We got to the party around seven. Mattie had gotten me an invitation for two. Get me that, and I’ll get four in, which I did. The Chancellery was a horrid bit of fifties Gothic. Instead of stone, it was concrete made to look like stone. It didn’t. Long and flat, it was three tall stories high with huge rectangular leaded windows. Trimmed trees, too perfectly trimmed, fronted it like pencils topped with plastic cones. Every angle was unnatural.
Inside the doors was a huge reception area with a three-story-tall ceiling. Out of scale, ugly, bad Art Deco chandeliers ran in perfectly ordered formation down the length. It must have been fifty or sixty yards long and another thirty wide, with a long balcony feeding off of three huge Stalinist stairways. With all respect to Valerie, I half expected Hienrich Himmler to greet us as we entered to a German polka.
The music we heard wasn’t Bavarian. It was from old Mexico. A band was playing Canciones, incredibly full of life, and trumpets, and those giant Mexican guitars.
We may have passed Gavin Macleod on the way in. I’m not sure. It could have been the guy who made a fortune with his cut-rate dental clinic. They look a lot alike. As for Carson, I wouldn’t have recognized Johnny’s “ex” if she fell on me. About five minutes after we were there, a lady fell on me.
She was overdressed and over-served. As a Catholic, I’m proud of my religion’s drinking heritage. Sally and Val started mingling while I headed straight for the bar. Vandy was back on the wagon, but he wasn’t letting me out of his sight. He had frisked me in the car on the way. He wasn’t going to let me murder Shuldik on his watch. Funny how, when you hold something in your hand while being frisked, the frisker doesn’t find it.
So, anyway, I was fighting my way towards the booze when this Amazon, at least six feet, turned around and collapsed on my shoes. Her breasts were barely covered anyway, but the fall had freed them, and one mammary gland was smothering my big toe.
No one looked. Everyone turned their backs. It’s a Catholic thing. If I don’t see it, it didn’t happen. The broad at my feet shook her head, got to her knees, tucked in her tits, and stood up. I helped a little, with the standing part, at least. She straightened her hair, which was so lacquered that it was in more danger of cracking off, way before it became mussed up.
She got back into character quickly. Nothing had happened. Everyone pretended they hadn’t seen a thing. She was one foot from my face. Ah, sweet vermouth, a martini drinker. She licked her lips. “Helllllooo, have we met?”
“Darling, I am so hurt. Ten minutes ago we were shagging in the coat room. You were screaming like a mink in heat as I gave it all to you, my steamy dull surprise, my throbbing manhood, and now you pretend we’ve never been introduced? I’m hurt. Hurt, I tell you.”
She frantically searched behind her eyeballs to ascertain if she had indeed… No, it wasn’t there. Where were her panties? Wait, she hadn’t worn any… Had he? No. What time is it? So many things to think thoughts about. She furrowed her brow with the effort. Then she licked her lips again. “Helllloooo, have we met?”
She had already forgotten the start of our conversation.
I ducked out of that time loop and made it to the front of the line at the bar. A bored black guy with a name tag that said “Skip” greeted me.
“I’ll have a…” Shit, I hadn’t had a drink since Monday. But I better wait. I needed a clear head. Yes, no booze tonight. I would do what I needed to do and go.
“I’ll have a Boodles martini, a triple, please.” What did you expect, a bee to ignore the garden?
“Yes, sir.” He seemed mildly amused. I was encouraged.
“Yes, sir?” He was pouring the Boodles.
“Show it a vermouth bottle.”
He grabbed the vermouth and was about to pour…
“That’s close enough, Skip. I just needed to know that there was some vermouth in the room. I like my martinis very dry.”
“Yes, sir.” He put the vermouth away, laughing.
“I’ll give you twenty bucks if you can produce some ID proving that your name is Skip.”
He reached for his wallet, and I was a son-of-a-bitch if his name wasn’t Skip. I gave him the twenty. “Go ahead and make me another triple, Skip.” I didn’t want to lose my place in line. He was the first black guy named Skip I had ever met. Stereotypes get me every time.
Vandy drank Pepsi, even though he’s not of that generation. He watched me toss down the martinis and shook his head. One day sober, and he was holier than me again. He had time for three colas before I abdicated my position. Skip made me a tall Boodles and tonic in an oversize tumbler for the road. Get in good with a bartender, and he’ll always treat you right.
The band was playing “Y Andale,” one of my favorite love songs, especially the last line; “I want to keep on drinking, Get on with it.” I almost sang along.
On the way over towards Valerie and Sally — the blue dress was a beacon — I passed my shoe fetish friend. I had a snoot full, and she still didn’t look good. Maybe I should have stayed with Skip a bit longer.
“I didn’t stop. There was something in her eyes that told me she had planted what I said earlier, and it had grown into what approximated a real memory for her. I can move quickly in a crowd. Vandy wasn’t so lucky. I even might have sort of nudged her into him as I snaked by.
“Helllloooo….” she said, staring into Vandy’s limpid eyes from an inch or two away. Vandy was not amused, but he was occupied for a few seconds as he untangled his coat button from the lady’s decolletage. I could have ditched him then and there, but I didn’t need to ditch him. I just needed enough time to open a packet of thallium. I’m as good as a magician with a deck of cards and some flash powder. Only this flash powder was deadly.
When I got to the blue dress, a new delight awaited me. Valerie had reached out and snagged the arm of the man-half of a couple obliviously mingling by. It was Kensington. Even better, it was also Mrs. Kensington. This was definitely a party for big-wigs.
Val was looking ravishing. She was about to ravish. “Kensington! Joe Kensington, so good to see you again.”
Can a man sweat that much that quickly? “Ah, Valerie. How… ah …how are you?”
“And this must be your wife.” She grabbed the poor woman’s hand and pumped it.
“Yes, this is… ah… my wife Nancy.” He was standing still, but he looked like he was backing up.
“Her name was McGill, she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.” I had to butt in. Valerie gave me a “back off, jerk” look. I butted back out. There were wasps surrounding me. And the sweet perfume of Boodles. Val was pissed. She saw the giant size gin and tonic in my hand.
Her smile caught Kensington in a spotlight. Still holding Nancy’s hand she said, “Your husband is quite an artist. He wants to paint me in the nude.”
Mrs. Kensington smiled at her husband, using a lot of teeth. She turned to Valerie. “My dear, you should let him. You would be perfectly safe. He gets such a bad allergic reaction to Viagra.”
“Really.” Val and Sally were giggling like teenagers. I may have giggled, too. Kensington, himself, was beet red and starting to tremble.
“See him blush. That’s how he looks when he takes it. Oh, and he gets a rash on his belly. It’s quite unpleasant for the poor boy.” Nancy giggled, too. “When the Viagra does take effect, well, it’s hard to tell.” She stressed “hard.”
I was starting to like this Nancy. Even for a big time, rich bitch, newspaper publisher, establishmenty whore – well, I started to think that maybe this whole story might get told after all.
Val commiserated with her. “It must be hard to live with an artist.” She underlined “hard.” It was a female Greek Chorus.
I moved next to Kensington, clutching my tall gin and tonic. It was cold in my hand.
Nancy looked at Kensington and then back at Valerie. “Oh, yes, the burden of Art. My dear, you should pose for him nude. His art is so… well, you’ll be a rich woman. You can sue him for malpractice. Come by the house someday, and I’ll show you his work.” She laughed.
Kensington was about to have a massive stroke. He had a hideous “isn’t this fun” grin on his face. His hands were busy, nervously playing with his big Papal ring like it was magic and could make him invisible. He tried a sophistcated laugh, but it came out like a giggle. He had to act like it was all a joke. It was.
I was sure he would clutch his throat and hit the marble floor like a skydiver with a shredded chute. His unique case of social Parkinson’s kicked in. All I had to do was stand next to him. Offer a little nonverbal support, man to man, so to speak. Kensington snatched the tall drink right out of my hand. How rude. Well, as Mattie had told me at the Dreamy Fish, rich people don’t have to be polite.
He took the frosty glass in his well-manicured hand and downed the whole ten ounces in three big gulps. It seemed to calm him down. I was glad to be of help.
“Thanks.” Kensington wasn’t sure who I was. But at that moment, he and I had bonded. We were two harried men outnumbered by cruel liberated women. We were a small band of brothers, and the drink sealed our friendship.
“Have we met?” he asked as he returned the empty glass.
“No. I don’t think so,” I replied and looked straight into his eyes.
We were face-to-face, all alone, in a two or three-second bubble of silence. The cachophony in the room seemed to fade for that moment, then just as quickly, the party noise was back. Kensington broke the eye contact and uncomfortably turned back to his wife.
Nancy had a little more shredding to do. “Perhaps all three of us should pose naked for him all at once. It would be fun, wouldn’t it?” She was not bad-looking through the Boodles film on my eyes.
Sally stepped forward and kissed Nancy’s hand in the continental fashion. “I think I’d like that.”
“So nice to meet you, ladies. Do stay in touch.” Nancy smiled and with great dignity, waded away through the crowd like a shifty runningback. Kensington was left standing there like a lawn ornament, maybe a fiberglass deer. He moved his lips as if to speak. Then, since he had nothing to say, he turned and attempted his cat-like escape. He ran smack into a woman within five feet. She spilled her drink in the collision.
“Hellllooooo!” she said to him, flat on her back.
They announced dinner. I slipped away from my friends. I needed to ditch Vandy, and this was my chance. Vandy was busy helping Kensington lift Ms. Concrete-hair from the floor. I think Vandy kind of liked her. Val and Sal, what a cute couple, were still giggling, screening the detective’s view of me.
Yes, I was inebriated, but I’m used to it. I was in my element. It was easy to slip away into the crowd. A waiter crossed my path. I put the empty gin and tonic glass that Kensington had returned to me on his empty tray. “Make sure to wash that,” I said. The waiter looked at me like I was stupid. He was probably right.
I squirmed my way through the wealthy mob scene, stepping on very few prominent toes. I made it to the catering area behind the doors at the back of the hall. I could see where they were setting up the main course serving for the head table. The head table, where Chancellor Shuldik would sit next to the Bishop.
The good part was the toxic power of thallium. I wouldn’t need a large quantity. The white crystals were tasteless and dissolved in anything, or on anything moist for that matter. I had stolen five packets of five grams each. I had three full packets left in my pocket. That added up to fifteen grams. One gram would kill a man. And its onset was not immediate, so I would be long gone by the time the Monsignor’s insides turned on him like rabid weasels. The bad part was I couldn’t be sure which plate he would get. I would have to poison the entire bunch of them, including the sainted Archbishop.
Hell, he wasn’t Thomas a’Beckett was he? I’d have to dose the Mayor, the Chief of Police, The Governor, the three richest men in the state, and all their wives. They would be dead by lunch tomorrow. St. Pius XII Hospital’s ER would be knee-deep in prominent bodies. It would be a shit storm of mammoth proportions. The idea still appealed to me. After all, thallium sounded a bit like a pun on the name of the Roman muse of comedy, Thalia. The irony would be more delicious than the cardboard Chicken Kiev.
When I want to do something brazen, I am brazen. I simply walked over to the covered plates on the stainless steel carts. The metal was so similar to the autopsy tables at the morgue. The wine was to my left by another door. It was all so unsupervised. It was all so convenient. Fifteen grams can be distributed quickly, surreptitiously. I’m a card shark. I know how to use the old “there’s something hidden up my sleeve” trick.
I stood over the plates. I even touched the wine carafes. I even considered changing my plan. But I’d made my choice, and I would stick to it. I waited for the honored guests to arrive beside me, as they say, “in the wings.” I knew they would gather here, and they did.
The head table guests gathered around me. This was backstage. They would be introduced and then proceed into the thunderous ovation and up to their seats on the dias. The Governor’s security guy gave me a quick look but didn’t give me a second. We’re not a big state. Our Governor isn’t in “the bubble.” He rides around in a Town Car — it’s not even armored. He’s a dolt, but likable. I’d be sorry to see him go, but war is hell. The Archbishop vacantly shuffled in, supported by a young priest with a “Choose Life” button on his crisp black lapel. A rich couple, the Runciters perhaps, glided in. He looked like an over-made-up body at a funeral home. She could afford expensive perfume. She was wearing a month’s supply.
I saw the Monsignor stride in like a retired athlete, and then he was all I saw. He was built like a football player. Not a large man, but solid. He was about five-foot-eleven with a fullback’s neck, square shoulders, and short powerful legs. He had salt and pepper hair, cut short in a restrained flat top. Like I noticed when I’d seen him at the Dreamy Fish, he almost looked like a Marine. Father Lee. Leo. Shuldik — in his own eyes, the Saviour in the flesh. In my eyes, he was something quite different.
I was locked on as I approached him. I don’t recall walking at all. I was just there. We were face-to-face. I had decided he must die, I told you that. But I was drawn into the conventions of this sort of thing. The hero always makes sure the bad guy knows what’s coming. It’s supposed to be done that way, isn’t it? I didn’t want to break any rules. This had to be done properly. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the albinos.
I touched his arm lightly and bent to his ear. It was loud near the kitchen. It looked perfectly normal. And he was the Chancellor. People always whispered secrets in his ear. Everything looked oh so normal at this party. Just like “The Masque of the Red Death.” It was all perfect.
He even lightly held my elbow. Inviting me to speak, he tilted his head. He was always the warm shepherd.
My whisper was very controlled. “I have a video tape, Monsignor. An interesting video tape.”
He started to pull back, but I held him. “What?…”
I reached down and took his hand in mine. I may have gripped a bit too tightly, because I saw the Monsignor wince. I had surprised him. I pulled his hand up to my mouth and brought his ruby episcopal ring to my lips. Then slowly, almost sexually, I licked it. “I have a videotape. I know what you have done.”
I was being vague. I wasn’t showing all my cards. Evidence? Redlands’ little bonfire had put an end to those tapes. But I play poker from time to time. A good player never counts on the actual cards to win a big pot. Poker is all in the head – and up the sleeve. I played like I had a full house.
“Proof?” asked the Monsignor.
“A tape of a poor naked kid… and a big ring.”
Shuldik’s eyes darted around the room. Looking for help. Looking for escape. “I don’t… I don’t know what… It can’t show my…” He stopped himself. He was saying too much.
“Your ring? Is that what you were going to say, Monsignor? Doug Hunter said that the word you used was ‘mistake.’ A little ‘mistake’ on a video full of evil. I’ve seen that little mistake.”
The name “Doug Hunter” and the word “mistake” made him flinch like he’d been slapped. Shuldik tried to wiggle out of the corner. “You must be making a mistake.”
“Your mistake is what we’re here to talk about. Just listen very carefully. Your life is in the balance.” He listened. “This video I have will destroy you.” He pulled away slightly.
“There must be a mistake here…” I smelled ginger. There was no mistake.
“Love your cologne, Your Eminence. Was it a gift?”
His eyes were very wide. I could almost hear the short circuits in his brain. My little plan was in motion, and his was falling apart. “My cologne…” The only words he could get out. “My…”
“Tabarome is the brand, I think. Very expensive. Hard to find here in the States. Sold in those exclusive London shops. Too expensive for a priest don’t you think?”
“I… I…” Shuldik was completely off balance. It wasn’t because I knew the brand of his aftershave.
“Of course it was a gift.”
“How do you…”
I cut him short. “Just listen, I am not here to answer your questions. The boy on that tape is my son.” Shuldik’s eyes finally blinked – an almost convulsive series of blinks. “Torey is my son, Shuldik. My son. Tomorrow he is your altar boy. I’ll be watching. If you touch him, I will yell it out in church. I will tell everyone what you did. If you touch him even once.”
Shuldik was having trouble swallowing his spit.
“I hope you understand me. Do not touch him.”
They were beginning to introduce the dignitaries. One by one, they left the holding area, and the applause would swell as they emerged. They waved and smiled as they took their places.
“What do you want?” Shuldik asked.
“What do I want? I want to kill you.” I held his arm tightly. I knew he would recoil. He was frightened. I wanted him to be frightened. Torey had been very frightened. I repeated, “I want to kill you.”
He was so close I could hear the small involuntary sound of fear. His stiff gray hair bristled against my cheek.
“But I won’t kill you if…”
“What do you want?” Arrogance started to creep back into his voice. Even then, he was sure, given an opening, he could out-maneuver such riff-raff as I. “How much? How much? How much?”
“I knew you were an intelligent man. I want three million dollars. I will not negotiate. I will be at St. Philomena’s tomorrow for your Mass. I will come to the rail at Communion. If your answer is no, place the host in my hand. If your answer is yes, put it on my tongue. If the host is not on my tongue you will die. Three million dollars, Father. God bless.”
He fell back a bit when I let go. He was puzzled. But he had to be thinking things were on his turf now. Money was something he understood. He had regained his balance. I wanted him to.
Kensington entered the holding area and went straight to the Monsignor’s side. Shuldik whispered something in his ear. Kensington turned and looked at me. He looked like a man with a piece of chewed meat stuck in his molars as his tongue works madly to worry it free. I could see that familiar expression. He knew me from somewhere. Then something clicked, and his face began moving with a slight tremor. The DA looked for a drink to grab. There wasn’t one. I couldn’t help him this time. No one could. Kensington grabbed the Monsignor, and they turned their backs to me, hunched over and talking intently. Then the M.C. began to introduce Kensington. He gave me a final look, and it wasn’t friendly. He and his lovely wife headed for the dias.
The Monsignor stared at me intently for a few seconds. He went to the little temporary curtain. They were introducing him. He nodded at me. “Three million dollars. You will have my answer tomorrow,” he said. Then he turned and ducked out. The spotlight hit him, and he got a standing ovation. He was such a popular man. I smiled.
I had done what I came here to do. I looked at the plates, ready to be served. I looked at the wine. I looked at all the tableau of important people on the dias. Quite an image. It was the Last Supper at the Borgia’s.
I went towards the other end of the hall. Everyone was seated and enjoying the meal. I tossed two empty thallium packets into the bar trash can. Ten grams gone, enough to kill ten people. They were just more plastic trash now. I ordered another martini. Gin and tonic is an abomination. I never drink anything favored by colonial oppressors.
I’d had two or three more, very dry, by the time the speeches started. Vandy ate dinner at the table with the girls. Facing the bar, his eyes never lost sight of me. It’s hard for Vandy to chew without blinking, but he managed.
Us real alcoholics were in the back, talking to Skip.