I’m really good at keeping secrets.
As long as the secrets involved pertain to something sacred to me. Specifically, I am good at keeping secrets if revealing them will interfere with my drinking. Otherwise, I’m a poor security risk. If I had become a priest, I’d have been babbling about all of Mrs. Guilt-Ridden’s impure thoughts within twenty minutes of leaving the confessional. Your secrets have no value to me. Mine are priceless. I keep them under a lock even I can’t pick.
I didn’t tell Valerie about the talisman. I didn’t dare. She knew Mikey was innocent. This was her chance to embarrass the authorities. Her hometown power structure hadn’t treated her well when she started making public legal noises about her dad’s violent habits. That’s not surprising. After all, he was the power in the structure. She loved sticking it to those good old boys, in absentia, by proxy, however you want to put it. She smelled a little more revenge. I didn’t dare take that away from her. The medal stayed in my Cubs Jacket.
The drive back to Valerie’s was quiet. At least I was quiet. I wasn’t paying attention. I was trying to think. I don’t know how many near misses occurred en route. When I closed the door to the apartment, all I felt was tired. Val kicked off her shoes.
I walked over to her, took her face in my hands and – slowly crumpled to the floor after she kneed me, lovingly, in the groin.
“So you’d rather play Scrabble?” I barely had enough breath in me for a hoarse whisper.
“I’m going to take a quick shower.”
“Really?” I couldn’t keep the “I’ve-seen-you-naked-and…” out of my voice.
“You stay the hell out. I don’t have time for any of your charm right now.”
“What’s up?” The nausea was fading.
“I’ve got a date.”
The nausea returned. “A date? Who in the hell have you got a date with?”
Val was already halfway down the little hallway off the kitchen, shedding clothes on her way to the bathroom. “You never listen. My dinner date – Slow Joe Kensington. Remember the guy we saw over at St. P’s?”
“You’re going on a date with that letch?”
“You are thick, aren’t you?” I heard the squeak of the faucet as she turned on the water. There was a splashing sound and then a hiss as she switched it over to the showerhead. “It’s not really a date. It’s more of a meeting. Somebody has to save Mikey.”
“I’m jealous.” I was also having a hard time keeping myself from sneaking down the hall and peeking in the half-open bathroom door.
“Just shut up and go put on some khaki slacks and that nice blue blazer you shoplifted from the Mark Shale store in Kansas City.” Val’s voice was loud over the white-noise of the shower.
The water was splashing again as it hit her taut body. I could hear it touch her. I could see it in my fantasy, flowing like a steamy, crystalline skin over her soft, round, creamy…
“And if you take even the quickest leering dirty look in here at me as you walk by, I’ll land on your puny Johnson with both knees. Now get dressed.”
“Yes, dear.” I always do what Val tells me. Though I must admit I did get half an eyefull on my way to the bedroom closet.
“So I’m going along?”
“Don’t get your hopes up. This is strictly business. I figure Kensington might be able to fill us in on what they’ve got on Mikey.”
“Oh yeah, Mikey.” I honestly had almost forgotten about him. Fingering the little Saint Christopher medallion in my pocket, I thought about telling Val that I’d changed my mind. Mikey had done it after all. Maybe I was still clinging to the outside chance he hadn’t. Maybe I just didn’t want to get in Val’s way. That’s never a good idea.
So I was designated back-up for the little tete-a-tete. We grabbed a cab. For good reason. If we had pulled up to the eatery’s palatial entry in Val’s rolling-slum Neon, the valet might have called for an emergency tow rather than open the door for her. The date was at the “Sans Culottes,” the best of the best. Not an easy place to get a table. Val went in the front. I had another idea. I’m just not comfortable with front doors, anyway.
I made a quick stop in the valet lot to check out the car alarms and glove compartments. I bribed the pimply-faced dishwasher at the backdoor to the place with a really nice CD player – fresh from a Jag. The headwaiter was a little tougher. I had to give him a gift certificate for a set of Toyo tires. It took a couple months, but I got them to him eventually. My word is my bond.
Hell, even the busboys were snooty. I had to bribe them with Duetche Grammophone CD’s I found in a Beemer M-5, mostly baroque stuff with some Debussy mixed in.
Next thing I knew I was wearing a white jacket and standing in the corner six feet from the cute couple’s table. It seemed to me I could offer Val more help close at hand rather that seated across the room chewing on over-priced lobster. It was a good thing I was there. Valerie can’t hold her liquor.
Sitting at that elegantly set table next to the fireplace with a tuxedoed waiter – that is to say, me — lighting her cigarettes as fast as she could pull them from her little beaded purse, and a rich putz pouring her glass after glass of Cuvee des Caudalies, she was in danger. She loved danger. I could see it in her eyes.
Kensington gave me an odd look or two, but there was was no way he was going to recognize me from our days at Assumption. I had been a high school geek and he was a big college football star. Besides, to guys like Kensington, the help is always next to invisible. It was a perfect set-up. Besides lighting Val’s cigarettes, I would remove the mostly empty wine bottles when a replacement arrived. I managed to sneak in a few surreptitious swigs and take in everything that went on.
Let me explain something. Valerie looks very good in a simple T-shirt. There is just something about the way the cotton follows her outline. A plain white T-shirt, so there’s no graphic noise to interfere with the signal. She can knock you back a step or two in a pair of jeans or a dress from Target. If you saw her walking, you’d want to know where she was going. But she had this one outfit, a little cocktail number with spaghetti straps, a loose neckline, a swirling short hem that let her legs swim through the air, that made you want to include her in your will. It was blue, but a unique shade that only comes in a big box of Crayolas. She was wearing the dress that night.
Her hair flickered like the fire and her green eyes….but hey, I was just standing in the corner watching like a good butler should. Now, I may have been a little more of a D. H. Lawrence as opposed to a P. G. Wodehouse-type servant, but I was just the hired help. The fact that I was a little turned on and the random gulp or two of wine beyond my price range will have no effect on the accuracy of my account. Trust me.
When Val wants to research a topic, she goes all out. She had decided that Mikey was innocent. She was sure the power structure needed to be punished. D.A. Joseph Kensington was a perfect target. The fact that he had the hots for her since she came to town made it simple. And like that security guard Terri helped me with once, he was easy. When, after years of putting him off, Valerie asked him if he was free for dinner, he didn’t blink. Of course she asked him out. He had always known she wanted him. Gravity had asserted itself. As far as his scrotum-enclosed brain was concerned, the natural forces of the universe were in balance again.
Earlier in the day while I was getting drunk, Val had chased Kensington down. She batted her eyes. That’s what she told me. Then she said that Joe kissed her hand, right there in an alcove of the courthouse. My guess is that he rushed straight into the nearest restroom where he called his wife. While urinating, and since he was alone, admiring his member, he gave her an awful excuse for missing dinner.
“Godzilla is loose again. I must save the people of Tokyo.” Or at least, I figure it was the equivalent of that. After his last case of the day, he hustled back to his office, splashed on some Tabarome cologne, and donned his twelve-hundred-dollar suit, kept in the closet for just such an occasion.
Val filled me in on Joseph F. Kensington on the way to the restaurant. He had been the D.A. for six years and had never tried a case himself, which tells you a lot about him. He was from old money. His great-great-grandfather had cornered the molasses market about a hundred and some years ago. Thousands of honest suppliers, farmers, families, and their progeny had been cast into generations of poverty. That made the Kensingtons very respectable. They were still living off the proceeds here in the twenty-first century. The crippling power of the evil “Death Tax” hadn’t cost them a single piece of crystal glassware. And yet, with all that money and status, Kensington was just a D.A. That’s because he was a buffoon, and not burdened by genius. The “Slow Joe” moniker was well-earned. Keep in mind, all the above being true, he was likely to be Governor in a few years. That’s the perfect office for a buffoon. Hey, you think Governors are not buffoons? Just look at our recent crop of Presidents.
Anyway, the blue dress — ah yes — Val wore the dress. The rest is history.
“Notice the subtle feel of oak on your tongue,” Kensington said, as he poured her another glass of the Caudalies.
At this point, to Valerie, it might as well have been cardboard. In my opinion, if you drink enough, it all tastes like box wine. And Kensington had been pouring all night. Val wanted information and was determined to get it.
“A delicious Chard Champagne, I’m sure you agree?” If he got any more full of himself, Val was going to throw up. I knew that look.
“Yes, it’s wonderful.” She half turned, looked at me, and made a little face like she needed to go to the ladies’ room and stretch out her tongue. She turned back to Kensington. “So have you prosecuted any of the thugs who blockaded Planned Parenthood last week?” That would stretch her tongue — an argument.
Kensington sipped his champagne and shook his head. “My dear Valerie, why don’t you stop volunteering down there? You could work for me. We could travel together. I have business in London almost every month; family business. You’d love the shopping. So much more fun than social work.”
“So there’ll be no charges?” A little anger cleared Val’s head. Frankly, I half agreed with Kensington. Val was starving as a Public Defender and getting nothing at all for her hours at the Family Planning Clinic.
“The Church is powerful, Val. It’s politics. What the Pope says goes,” he smirked.
“What about the death penalty? His Holiness doesn’t like that, either.” Val was starting to sober up a little.
“Well, let’s just say his followers aren’t behind him on that one. Listen, Valerie, you know the realities. It’s a Catholic conservative city. I will be true to my creed and my office.”
Val gave up on sobriety and finished off her drink. “Sure.”
Kensington refilled her glass. “You really must come to my studio.”
“Yes, I paint. Surely you knew that. Nothing too ambitious, I assure you. A few abstracts. Neoclassical abstracts — nothing so mealy as Pollack, more in the vein of Paul Klee. And, from time to time, a few nudes ala George Grosz.”
She had no idea what he was talking about. But that didn’t stop her. She was good at faking it…not with me, of course. At least, that’s what I told myself.
“Oh, I love Paul Klee…so…so…so linear.” She was so sophisticated. Even though it’s hard to even say “Klee” without giggling when you’re a little tipsy.
“Well, you must come by and see my work. In fact, I’d love to do you.”
“What?” She arched her eyebrow.
“Heh heh, I mean paint you. I’d love to paint you.”
“In the nude? You’d want me completely naked, wouldn’t you? I do hope your studio is warm. My nipples are very sensitive. The slightest bit of cool, and they stand up like little pink pawns on a chess board.”
Kensington swallowed, and swallowed again. So did I. He tossed down the remaining vintage, fiddled with his empty glass, adjusted himself in the chair, looked in his empty glass, trembled a bit, reached across the table and drank down Val’s champagne, chewed on a fingernail, motioned to a waiter who refilled his glass, smiled at her, switched to the serious seductive look, smiled again, took another sip of wine, wiped his mouth with his fine linen napkin, fiddled with his tie, then he finally nodded yes. Kensington had some issues with assertive women.
“Oh, that might be fun.” Valerie was back in control. A little sexual intimidation goes a long way. “Say, did you hear anymore about the Header murder?”
He was so grateful she had changed the subject. “Yes, there have been a few developments, but…”
“It’s all right. I’m not going to be involved in the case. You can tell me.”
She leaned forward, remember the neckline? She didn’t lean too far, he wouldn’t be able to talk if she did. She gave the bad little boy just the slightest hint of heaven. I had a bad angle, but like I’ve said, I have a great imagination.
His eyes, shifting from her decolletage, were looking for something to roost on behind her. They scanned right by me and settled on a heavy, patterned drape at the window behind me. “Yes, a few developments…”
“Go on, go on. Don’t tease me, what’s the gossip?”
“Well it’s more than gossip. As you know, I’m deeply involved. In fact, I may take the trial myself.”
Kensington would only take the case personally if somebody delivered weapons grade anthrax to the DA’s office and wiped out all the real lawyers while he was on vacation. He was a political D.A., not good at all in the courtroom. He didn’t — and I’ll be kind here — think quickly on his feet. Valerie knew that, she’d told me all about him, but she let it pass. Never hit a puppy who plays with a stick and thinks he’s a wolf. They’re too cute.
“So?” That’s what Val said instead of what I knew she was thinking — “Jesus! Talk, you stiff!”
“The murder is really open and shut. We’ve got witnesses who have Mr. Hutchence arguing with the victim. Her past history of prostitution and drug dealing with him…oh, he is the corrupter, indeed. The jury will lap it up. He’s the last person seen with her. His semen stain on her blouse…”
A snort involuntarily escaped from my throat. I had been mid-chug on the dregs of a Chateau Rothschild. Mikey’s semen on Terri’s blouse. Now I wished I’d told Val about the medallion I found. The son-of-a-bitch was guilty. Val gave me a quick Marian deathray look. I settled back into servant mode. But I was pissed.
“Really, a semen stain. How do you suppose that got there?” The way Valerie said “semen” was positively Penthouse forum. Was he blushing? “You did DNA?”
“Sure, it’s not back yet. It’ll take a couple weeks. But the blood typing matches. The DNA will match, too.”
“Shades of Bill Clinton.”
He laughed. Nothing he liked more than a Bill Clinton joke. Like I said, it’s a Republican town. And the Kensingtons are veddy Republican.
“Well, that’s probably enough, but we also found her purse. It was under her. Mostly empty, but there was one thing of interest.”
“This is pretty sensitive. You can’t leak it.”
“Do I ever talk out of school? You know me better than that.”
Everybody knew her better than that. He knew better. Valerie was a barracuda. If she knew something she could use, she used it. Secrets were power. Secrets were bait. The Barracuda was swimming his way, and “Slow Joe” swam right into her mouth.
“It’s a videotape,” he whispered.
“What’s on the tape?”
“It’s really quite upsetting, but what do you expect from people like that? There’s some very sick pornography on the tape.” Kensington’s lip sneered. His eyes didn’t. “Perversity. Quite upsetting.”
From where I stood it was hard to believe that Kensington was a stranger to the concept.
Val leaned forward. “Oooo, perversity? Pornography?” Thew way she said it was perverse and pornographic. “Just what variety of perversity?” I could see Val’s tongue as she enunciated each of the “T’s.”
“Well the tape is very worn. I really can’t go into detail. Suffice to say that it does not show Mr. Hutchence in a very good light.”
I might have laughed had the situation been different. Mikey in a porno tape? I hoped the lighting was bad.
Val must have been thinking along the same lines. “Mikey… er… Mr. Hutchence is in the tape?”
“We think it’s him. The tape has been played a thousand times, our expert thinks. But in the context it seems clear. Miss Header found the tape. Mr. Hutchence found out she had it when she tried to blackmail him. One witness heard her mention some sort of pictures to him at the Palomino Club just before the accused got very angry. And so he killed Miss Header.”
“A tight little package, Mr. Kensington.” She was trying to sound light.
I was thinking, “Bullshit.” I mean, how in the hell do you blackmail a meth-dealer, who hangs out in topless bars, with a pornographic tape? That’s like trying to extort money from Rupert Murdoch with a photo of him buying white-slaves in North Dakota. He ain’t gonna fucking care. Everybody knows about his Dakota deal already. It was in the Wall Street Journal, for Christ’s sake.
“We will convict him. If it comes to that.”
“If it comes to that?”
“There will never even be a trial.” Kensington sounded like a man discussing green beans.
“If he’s lucky.” Was Kensington more than a doofus? He sounded like he was trying to communicate something to my dear brother through Val. A bit of play-acting? This guy was very different.
Valerie turned, grabbed a mostly empty bottle right out of my hands, sloppily refilled her glass with the dregs, and chugged it. That was about a fifty dollar chug. Kensington signaled me – the humble servant — for another.
“Mais Ouis, Mon Sewer.” My French was rusty. I turned to the wine steward and shouted the only phrase I could remember from high school. “Je voudrais une coupe de cheveux. Toute suite.”
Kensington did half a double-take, then he dismissed the small thought that may have briefly appeared in his brain-stem and turned back to Valerie’s breasts. “There are other little items involving Mr. Hutchence’s family.”
“Scandalous stuff?” Val asked.
“Perhaps worse than the pornography. He had a lot to cover up.”
Val was thinking like a lawyer again. “Then why did he leave the tape behind?”
“Mr. Hutchence is a criminal, Valerie, not the most intelligent exemplar of humankind – a waste of God’s breath.” Kensington had an odd way of phrasing his conceit.
“He’s never shown any history of this sort of thing in his past, has he?”
“Now you are sounding like a defense lawyer, dear. The fact is, he did it. We have him and we will convict him.”
“Yes, of course you will.” Valerie was leaning again. She used leaning like Big Carl did. But she used a different kind of threat. “I wouldn’t want to go up against you…on this case.”
“Yes, but I’d like to go up against you…? Are you sure you wouldn’t like a trip to London? All expenses… paid, shall we say?” He was trying. But he wasn’t used to a woman like this. He liked the victim type. Flirting is an art. Kensington was no artist.
“A real shame. I heard that the Header woman was turning her life around, too.”
“Do people like that ever really change?” Kensington savored the rhetorical question. What an asshole. “A waste of God’s breath.” He’d said it again.
“She was clean — off drugs. She had a job.”
“You’re right about both. Toxicology did come back clean, for known drugs, anyway. And she did have a job. I should say, she had a job– past tense. According to her employer, she was fired Sunday morning. Maybe that’s why she decided to blackmail the paternal Mr. Hutchence.”
“She got fired? Where was she working?”
“Weren’t you her lawyer?” Kensington was sipping his bubbly now. Dessert arrived. I stepped forward quickly with a lighter as Val pulled out her fifteenth cigarette of the evening. I was determined to give only the highest level of service. Maybe I’d get a tip.
Kensington had a chocolate mousse. Valerie’s weakness was creme brulee.
“You were her lawyer?” Kensington asked like Val was on a witness stand. “Did she tell you about any of her drug activities? Were you aware of her involvement in any crimes other than prostitution? When was the last time you spoke to her? Kensington hardly took a breath. The string of questions was amatuerish. If “Slow Joe” was trying to get information out of Val, he was sniffing at the wrong crotch.
“That would be confidential, Joe.” She sighed his name.
He heard the sex in her voice. There was a pause. “It’s… It’s a criminal investigation. If you know anything about her involvement with selling drugs… street drugs… or… Did she ever say she was selling prescription drugs?” Kensington was way too interested.
“How would I know, Joe?” That thing in the way she said his name again. Hot.
He cleared his throat. A waiter passed, and Kensington grabbed a gin and tonic, tall, right off the tray. He chugged it, slammed the empty glass back down, and ignored the waiter’s cross look. “You must know. You were her lawyer.”
“Was….haven’t seen her for over a year.” Val tapped on the crust and lifted just a spoon-tip full to her lips. If men tasted like this, she would give head every night. I knew that’s what she was thinking. I hoped, anyway.
Kensington saw something in her eyes as she licked the spoon clean, with an almost obscene method. He returned to the subject.
“She was fired for stealing.”
“Really?” Val raised another spoonful to her moist lips. “What did she steal?”
“Things…just things, I don’t think that’s specifically in the report. She was taking household goods, I imagine.” He couldn’t watch her eat. “Did you know that there is still an outstanding warrant out for Terri on a drug charge?” Kensington asked the question as casually as he could.
Val’s tongue was so pink. “An old charge lost in your efficient office.”
Kensington looked up, and there was a second when his eyes looked very cold – very cruel. For just a second, I had the uncomfortable feeling again that he was playing her. Then the moment passed, and he had the look of a dog who wanted to hump a leg again. “Well, we are very busy.”
She raised another spoon of the crème to her mouth. Her tongue slowly reached out and touched it, pulling away with a small dollop on its tip. His eyes were wandering around the room. She looked at him. “So where did she work?”
He remembered to breathe. “Another…another bit of irony there. She was a housekeeper. She worked for Father Hunter at St. Philomena’s. He was quite upset with the news. Detective Vandy told me he almost cried.”
Father Hunter? I knew Douglas Hunter. I knew he was in virtual exile at the old parish. I hadn’t realized that Terri had worked there. My stomach was turning sour. Val’s little show with the dessert distracted me again.
Another spoonful stopped halfway to Val’s mouth, then after a heartbeat, continued until it was just an eighth of an inch away. “He must be a very sensitive man.” The creme brulee melted.
“Oh, yes, as a matter of fact, he is. I met Father Hunter at my last art show opening.”
Val licked her lips. “You didn’t know Father Hunter from your days at Assumption?”
“No!” Kensington almost yelled the denial. His eyes widened. Val even flinched a little. The anger was red-hot and sudden. “No!” Then a little suck of air. “I mean… No, I never knew him there that I recall.” It was the common non-denial denial of our American political class. “I don’t recall…”
Val licked her spoon and let him off the hook. “Go on.”
“As I was saying, I met Father Hunter at my last art show. He was there with the Chancellor. Wonderful man, he even bought one of my works. Or, I should say, the Chancellor bought it for him. It was an exploration of man’s separation from the Divine. I used a palate full of primary colors. Those, in my mind, speak to the original state of creation. Yellow, blue, red, the primacy of the primary. Then I mixed in umber and a steely gray to build the wall of original sin…”
“Ah, yes, original…” the spoon again, “…sin.”
“I’m heavily influenced by Mirot.”
I remember wondering how a world that produced anything as exquisite as the creme brulee on Val’s pink tongue could also have room for the asinine turd on the other side of the table from my Valerie. And why had he so clearly indicated that he had met Father Hunter at one of his art shows? I hoped Val wouldn’t ask about the D.A.’s presence at the Rectory the previous night. That might be dangerous. I felt that strongly.
“I titled it…”
“Let me guess. You titled it ‘Man’s Separation from the Divine’.”
“You are a wonder, Valerie. Shall we go over to my studio? I could show you the studies I did while working on it.”
“Perhaps we could start on my portrait as well. I would love to get out of these clothes.”
“Yes…well…if you like.”
They left without paying the bill. Kensington had a tab. She was sure he was a lousy tipper, too. On the way out, she slipped the guy who had been lighting her cigarettes a twenty. You never penalize a working stiff for a bad dinner companion. Valerie was really feeling the wine. I think she forgot who I was. It’s the kind of thing that happens to people when they drink for a good chunk of time sitting down and then suddenly stand up. I took the twenty. Watched the two of them head for the exit, and then I ducked out the back to catch the final scene out front.
I could see it in her eyes when I came around the corner of the building;. Val had decided to go for the kill. There they were, standing at the curb, waiting for the valet to get Mr. Kensington’s car. Valerie whispered something in his ear. He seemed to take half a step back, but she pursued. She whispered again, and his shoulders started to twitch a little. She put her hand on his forearm and licked her lips like an expensive call girl in a cheap porno reel. He craned his neck. Where was that car? Why was it taking so long?
Then the piece de resistance, and why I love Val so much. She snuggled into him, and her hand drifted from his forearm down past his belt buckle to his crotch. She firmly, but not painfully, gripped his penis. This wasn’t easy. Apparently it was a small target, and getting smaller. And then she said, loudly enough for the parking attendants to hear, “It’s just a small herpes episode, Joe. And I’ve taken my anti-virals. This will be fun.”
Kensington backed up six feet in half a second. He almost left his zipper behind, but she had mercy. He answered his cell phone, which hadn’t rung, and mumbled an excuse.
“My son has come down with leprosy. I must hurry home,” Or at least, it was the equivalent of that. He handed the kid a one dollar bill, jumped into the Big Black Benz and squealed away from “The Sans Culottes.”
Val gave the kid a five, and he got us a cab.
Valerie’s got style. She looked so good in that blue dress. It was like the prom night I never had. Val was going on and on about how she was going to get Kensington. She mumbled some stuff about her dad. She cried on my shoulder and told me that I was the only man who understood her. And she gave me a big hug when I paid for the cab at the end of the trip back to her apartment. I used the twenty she’d given me earlier.