By Robb White
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t hear you.”
I heard him, all right. I just needed him to repeat what he said.
“She’s playing the piano, see? The whole time she’s playing, she’s eating another girl’s pussy.”
I let my mind work on that for a second. It’s a sign of my age, I suppose, my first thought was the kind of music being played. What the hell . . .
“What kind of music—”
“Classical shit,” he said. “Beethoven, Mozart—who knows? The whole point is she don’t miss a note while she’s going down on the girl spread across the top of the piano.”
He didn’t smirk. I wondered whether to follow this up but before I could open up my mouth again, he said, “All I know is when I hired her, she said she went both ways. Everything but anal, she says.”
He handed me his card as an afterthought: Mr. M. Garrison Fortunato. Pres., Fortune Films, Sexcitement Media, Ltd. There was a phone number and a Youngstown address beneath it. It was about fifty miles from my office on the Strip on Lake Erie, which is in this flyspeck of a resort town halfway between Cleveland and Erie. But as far as the L. A. sex industry is concerned, anyplace in Ohio might as well be in Nome, Alaska.
“Like I said,” Fortunato rolled on in his scratchy voice, “Nikki plays piano in this bar, see, and she meets this girl. The girl’s boyfriend is jealous because Nikki is giving her the eye so when the girl climbs on top of the piano—”
“Why does she climb on top of the piano?”
He looked at me as if I had asked about the nocturnal mating habits of the nine-banded armadillo. “Why does she—so Nikki can get at her snatch, why else?” He resumed his plot recital despite my obtuseness. “Then he, the boyfriend, starts pitching a tent so he climbs on top and she, the girlfriend, starts teabaggin’ him—”
Even Mickey Spillane had to be rolling over in his grave by now.
“I can guess what happens next,” I said. “The piano collapses under their collective weight, bodies are flung everywhere. What’s left of the baby grand is kindling. Nikki, in a fugue state because her Chopin étude was so tragically interrupted, knocks over the candelabra causing a fire. Everybody in the place burns to death. The cops spend weeks identifying femurs.”
“Tell me you know what a porn film is,” he said.
Maybe another sign of my age. I had a case once that involved an illegal gambling den in nearby Conneaut. A VCR with a porno tape was left on in one of the rooms but nobody paid attention to it. The gamblers were the degenerate sort, all mesmerized by the crap tables. The credits came on and I noted the title: Private Dicks. An ugly, skinny man with an enormous penis had starred in it. Someone told me later that was John Holmes before he had his teeth straightened and years before he developed a heroin habit and did gay sex films to support it.
“What exactly can I do for you, Mister Fortunato?”
“I do a sideline business with some big hotels,” he said. “DoubleTree, Marriott, lots of big chains. Not these Crazy-8 places you see off the highway. They want soft-core packages for their adult menus. I can make two, three of these in a month. Quality stuff, not the amateur shit Vincent Voyeur grinds out with bar whores and Romanian runaways.”
Runaways were my stock in trade, actually. I do skip traces, matrimonial work, as Jack Nicholson liked to say in Chinatown, and yearn for that wealthy parent to come through my door to hire me to find a missing child.
“Pardon me for asking, Mister Fortunato, but why come all the way up here to the boondocks for an investigator? Youngstown’s not big but it’s big enough to offer several private investigative services right in the yellow pages. Cleveland’s straight up Interstate Eighty from you. Plenty of top-notch outfits. Me, I’m in the middle of nowhere.”
“I know that,” Fortunato said. “I useta come here when I was in college. This was a rockin’ place for college kids from all over the Midwest.”
He was right. But that was two decades and my bitter divorce ago. I had hung my shingle at exactly the time Jefferson-on-the-Lake was about to nosedive from families, college kids, and tourists to bikers, runaways, and dopers. The college kids showed for the big summer holidays but not as many. The local kids now are harder, full of tattoos and Kool-Aid-colored hair, some on the hustle. I’ve pried several teen prostitutes from their black pimps or the Pagans Motorcycle gang who owned them. You can smell reefer up and down the Strip on summer nights but what goes on in some of the low-rent cottages is worse: heroin, cocaine, gang rapes, a bloody gay-sex murder or two. Nowadays it’s mostly meth, Ecstasy, and crack turning the kids on. Below them are the Da-Glo huffers and the fiends who search for veins between their toes because every other vein is as shriveled as a slug in a box of Morton salt.
“I still want an answer to my question,” I said.
“It don’t matter. Nikki’s missing. I want you to find her,” he said.
“What do you mean, how missing? She’s fuckin’ missing, man. We were scheduled to finish the shoot two days ago, so I got to pay the bar owner for two more days rent, and she don’t answer her phone.”
Before I asked the obvious, he said, “I send one of my techs over to get her ass out of bed and he says she don’t answer. I go over there myself and wake up the manager and make him open her apartment door. She ain’t there. Vamoosed.” He made one of those whistling sounds with his lips meant to approximate somebody leaving in a big hurry. It reminded me of Daffy Duck bursting through the wall with Elmer Fudd chasing him with a shotgun.
I had to stifle my dislike of Fortunato. He was a small, thick man with an unpleasant raspy voice. Some people are born with a second coat of skin over their voice boxes and they sound as if they badly need to clear their throats all the time. He wore a black silk shirt beneath a beige sport coat despite the warm weather. The gold chain around his neck had a gangbanger-sized medallion. His cologne was too heavy, acrid, and he kept picking at his crotch as if he could not settle his package down. Maybe he couldn’t; the slacks were tight-fitting. I was afraid to look at his shoes in case my reflection stared back at me. Youngstown didn’t get the memo about the mob’s demise.
“What I meant to say,” I began, “was that maybe she got tired of the porn business or had a better offer or wanted to rush home to be with a dying relative. Maybe she just forgot to leave a message.”
He scowled at me. “Nikki’s family kicked her out years ago. They tried one of those—what do you call them things?”
“Did she take her personal things with her?”
“You think I know when these girls are on the rag?”
“I meant her purse, car keys, items she’d never leave behind if she went out the door.”
“Look, I’m tellin’ you, Nikki wouldn’t just up and go off like that. That’s not how she does things. She thinks things through. She’s very smart, not to mention fuckin’ gorgeous with big fun bags, all natural. Let’s forget the Doctor Phil bullshit, OK? You just find out where she is.”
The way he said it made it sound as if all I had to do was get off my lazy ass, step outside and point her out on the street.
“You do that,” Fortunato said, “I’ll take care of the rest.”
This time it sounded like a TV hit-man setting up an assassination. Fortunato had one serious Sopranos fixation, but the job seemed routine enough.
I gave him my standard line about involving the police; it was free service, after all, and they had the resources and manpower. He gave me a withering look.
“At least file a report,” I suggested.
He nixed that too and asked for my rates. I gave him a standard contract. He didn’t want me to explain it. He signed it with a flourish, left me a deposit in cash, all fifties, and we talked for twenty minutes more, although he seemed impatient to get going and I had to pull the necessary details out of him.
With his outline of Ms. Nikki Ingersoll, sex entertainment worker and classical pianist, I had what I needed to get started. I told Fortunato I would report at specific intervals unless I had something definite.
“Just don’t drag it out, man,” he said at the door. “I’m paying a huge overrun on this project already. It’s costing me a shitload and I got nothing in the can to show for it.”
He wasn’t the first client who whined poor-house out the door. And he didn’t take all his cologne with him. I have big picture windows with my name in Baskerville script across the glass but no windows to open. I used a paperback to prop the door open. This close to the lake, you can smell rotting fish from the annual shad die-off: hundreds of thousands like tiny silver dolphins beach themselves to death at once. It makes you question the purpose of existence.
Coming all the way up here to JOTL, as we locals say, didn’t make much sense, but working the phones can be done from here as easily as Youngstown and that’s what being a modern-day gumshoe means: surveillance, internet, phones, and a fax. For all his bravado, Fortunato must have had his reasons for preferring my one-man outfit in an out-of-the-way locale to find her. I guessed Nikki Ingersoll was more than a money-maker for Fortunato Films. It wouldn’t affect my search. This was the off season to the off-season, and I was short of clients. The alternative was to go across the street to Tico’s Place and tie one on by noon. I got to work instead.
I started making calls. I’m something like a homicide detective, which is what I used to be in Cleveland years ago. The difference is that the body’s there on the floor and it isn’t going anywhere so you don’t run up to it like a rookie with your mouth hanging open. It’ll stay dead a long time. Your best clues are sometimes in the periphery, so you circle it, and get closer until you see what the body has to give you about how it got there. There’s no body in front of a private investigator. I wasn’t likely to catch her on a street corner waiting to be found. But she wasn’t a ghost; like every straight or slightly bent citizen of the realm, she had a trail of numbers in her wake—we all do. We live in cities, pay taxes, apply for licenses to drive cars, own guns or dogs. We have credit cards, debit cards, and we use ATMs. Best of all, we use our cell phones. Pay a fine or go to jail, they’ve got you. Everybody’s in dozens of city, state, and national databases we wish we weren’t in. She might have boyfriends or ex-lovers, girlfriends and acquaintances, some who know her well, some who want to talk about her and some who won’t.
I did a little checking on Fortunato too. He had worked for Vincent Voyeur Productions five years ago before returning to Youngstown to start up his own production company. He met Nikki Ingersoll on spring break in Florida. By the time she was back in her college dorm, he was filing for his third divorce and besieging Nikki with gifts including a used Civic. His website claimed he wrote, directed, and produced all the films his company made. He liked seeing his name in the credits. Besides the big chores, he listed himself as script editor, gaffer, electrician, and best boy. In Bangable Bar Sluts, the film before this one, he was listed in ten different capacities. He said he would email me some jpegs of Nikki’s glam shots. I was tempted to ask for the outtakes of Bang Her on the Piano Slowly, the film Nikki abandoned halfway through, but I thought better of it.
Nikki Ingersoll never used her real surname. She had a rolodex of stock aliases: Misty Canyon, Dasanna, Candy Barré and some that didn’t rhyme or pun with smutty references. Maybe some pervert drooling over her DVDs decided to stalk her.
Nikki did know how to play classical piano. She had gone to the prestigious Dana School of Music at Youngstown State on a full scholarship six years ago. It took me fifteen minutes on the phone with somebody in the Registrar’s office to wheedle the name of one of her former piano teachers. The recent privacy laws have put a crimp in my business the way Miranda once did, but a cop learns fast how to get a suspect to talk in the interrogation room. You can’t legislate human nature; it’s a matter of finding the right button to push. Her senior recital was a Bach piece. Something that goes with a sarabande, the professor said, a stately dance, he called it.
I traced Nikki’s family in Chicago but I couldn’t get anyone to return my messages. Fortunato said she was a switch-hitter but he didn’t know the names of any current boyfriends or girlfriends.
I try to exhaust all the usual lines before I resort to asking for favors. Most cops like taking a private investigator’s calls as much as vegans like strolling through third-world slaughterhouses. At YPD I’m down to one cop, Det. Sgt. Jerry Pruel by name, and he’s tougher than a two-dollar steak when it come to granting my requests.
“Jerry, amigo, long time no see, no hear.”
“Oh Christ, Tom Haftmann. I was wondering when I’d next hear from you.”
“Got a favor to ask thee, laddie buck.”
“No shit, really? I thought you called because you were concerned about my hemorrhoid operation next week.”
I groveled a bit more, played the fool, and waited for him to get through jerking my chain.
“IRS ever do a deep audit on him?”
“I don’t work for the IRS, Tom.”
“He said he’s got deals with big hotel chains to distribute smut.”
“I wouldn’t know a thing about that. Are we done here?”
“Don’t mention it and lose my fucking number.”
“Not a chance. You’re my best friend. How are your hemorrhoids, by the way?”“Fuck off.”
After a few more obscenities and cursing his fate for ever knowing me, he clicked off. I didn’t learn much, but I wasn’t willing to rule out Fortunato as a harmless creep in a nasty business.
My work requires patience. You sift for nuggets and sooner or later, a pattern emerges. This might be the freest country in the world but nobody disappears like smoke. We’re still wondering which fender in which junkyard or fifty-gallon drum in a landfill holds Jimmy Hoffa’s last resting place.
I had arranged to meet Nikki’s piano-bar playmate at ten that evening in a Youngstown bar off Commerce. She didn’t want to meet at her place, she said, because she didn’t “want to be involved in whatever the fuck was going on.”
Alexis Webb wasn’t her real name but it was the name she used in Fortune Films. As an icebreaker, I asked her why she didn’t go in for lots of names like Nikki.
“Some girls do, I don’t.” That was all she had to say about it. I left it there. The bar girl came over to take our order. I asked Alexis about a Florida connection but she shook her head emphatically. “Nikki never mentioned Florida.”
“Alexis, I’m being paid to look for Nikki, as I’m sure you know. No one is talking about crimes of any kind,” I said. “It’s not illegal to go missing, no matter what Mister Fortunato might have told you. I’m just trying to get a line on where she might be right now,” I said.
“Look, all’s I know is Nikki didn’t show up one day,” Alexis said.
“That seem odd for her?”
“Right, man, like, fuck, you know? Like, everybody’s standing around with their thumb up their ass, as usual, waiting for the queen bee to get her own royal ass out of bed, and Fortunato’s running around screaming like a lunatic having his usual hissy fit. Yeah, like he’s Quentin Tarantino, that two-bit, cheap-ass wop fuck.”
“So it’s normal for Ms. Ingersoll to arrive late for filming?”
“What’s this Miz Ingersoll shit? That fuckin’ bitch sticks a plug in her twat same as me. She ain’t no goddam thing special, man. She expects everybody to do cartwheels the moment she shows up. Even Fortunato—he’s, like, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ The next, he’s like, ‘Oh, Nikki, honey, baby, can I get you some water, sweetie?’ Fuck me, it’s enough to make a person puke listening to him kiss her golden ass like that.”
“I take it you and she didn’t get along?” Why not toss a little more gas on the flame, I thought.
Instead of throwing another rod, she calmed down, shrank a bit in her seat, and appraised me coolly. I noticed her nose was asymmetrical. We’re just monkeys. We look in one another’s faces for validation, love, hope—anything but the truth.
“Look, man, she knows how to play a piano and eat pussy at the same time. You wanna give her the Nobel Prize for that, be my guest.”
Right then, some tall, buffed male came over with a couple drinks in his hand and slid beside her. He eyed me the whole time. “You got any more questions for my girl, you ask me, man,” he said.
I had noticed him when we sat down. He was sitting at the bar on one of those tiny metal swivel seats that reminded me of diners from the fifties. He kept swiveling our way. The fabric of his shirt was stretched taut every time he craned his thick neck.
“Shut up, Ron. This guy’s just askin’ me about Nikki.”
“Oh yeah,” Ron growled at me. “Well, fuckin’ let him ask me his fuckin’ questions then.”
They made a cute couple, I thought. It turned out Ronnie was the jealous boyfriend in the piano bar film. He was billed as Rodney Clitflick. When it was clear neither one had a clue, much less any interest in the fate of the missing member of their ménage a trois, I paid for the drinks, put a ten on the counter for the bar girl, and left these two silver-tongued soul mates nuzzling and cooing in the booth.
I was driving back along Route 11 in the dark; it’s an empty, fifty-mile stretch of road—nothing to see even in the light except for rotting barns and overgrown fields of scrub with scraps of plastic bags caught in the barbed-wire fencing. The only traffic besides me was a trio of Sidley’s gravel trucks heading for Ashtabula Harbor.
I called Fortunato’s cell number.
In no time he was cursing and demanding answers. I was bored and tired of his oafish invective, so I cut in.
“You knew Nikki was planning something—some scheme or hustle of her own. I don’t know what that is yet but I’m following a lead. Why don’t you just lay it out and stop wasting my time and your money?”
Silence. I thought maybe the service had cut out.
Fortunato’s phlegmy voice resumed: “I know she had somethin’ cooking in that big brain of hers. Right after the film, I was going to—”
He paused, looking for the right expression. Maybe he was afraid I would read something sinister into his words.
“—I was gonna ask her to, to marry me.”
I wasn’t expecting that. Love in the pornography business. The ringmaster of this sexual circus himself falls in love with one of his performers.
I suppose it was cruel of me, but I asked anyway: “What made you think she was interested in you? No offense, Mister Fortunato.”
“Like fuck, man, there’s plenty of offense in that! You’re goddamned lucky you’re in a car somewhere and not standing in front of me—”
“Then I apologize for asking,” I said, “but the question needs an answer from you.”
“Like hell it does. Fuck you, Haftmann—”
I made the exit to JOTL under a starless, blacked-out sky. No moon for the coyotes to bay at, if coyotes had the same habit as their wolf cousins. Nothing seemed to be alive in the world. My batting average on the day was not very impressive, so I debated whether I would have that tumbler of Glenfiddich when I got home. I wasn’t sure I still had a client, and I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Nikki’s secret website had an email address, and when I checked my email the next day, I found a reply to my request to meet her. I tried to sound like what I thought a rich but not-too-bright widower would sound like when he fell headfirst into a honey trap.
The response was curt, just a couple semiliterate sentences. Go too Mickey D’s on Market St., corner of Rt. 322, noon tomorrow, wait. I can meet you their.
I called Pruel at the precinct.
“What did I do in my last life to deserve you?”
I checked my watch while he ranted. This one could be a world’s record. When he finally ran out of gas and cursed me and all my ancestors back to Adam, he agreed to put the precinct’s technical guru on it, a guy who billed himself Danny G., the mad Samoan.
Danny found a second website under the alias Becka Ann Call. It would have taken me the rest of my life to sift through cyberspace’s porn sites to try to match up the photos Fortunato had emailed me from Youngstown. I had a hunch Nikki was casting her net for the depraved sugar daddies of cyberspace.
Danny was bragging how his program of robot zombies brought back the goods, but I wasn’t interested in his computer jabber about “necromancers,” “clusters,” and “botnets.”
“Danny, listening to this is making my ears bleed. Just send me what you found.”
One emailed photo, an artsy pose in a chair, showed her au naturel with the chair back covering most of that voluptuous body she so freely displayed in her films. The photographer had used light from a window and shade to obscure as much as reveal. A large print of a sad clown hovered over her shoulder. Polished blonde flooring in tongue-and-groove, distressed red brick walls. Somebody’s loft, maybe a rich man’s fuckpad.
He sent me a follow-up email on the clown photo. Danny couldn’t resist showing off. It turned out to be Emmett Kelly as “Weary Willie” and he said it was taken at the winter quarters of the Barnum and Bailey Circus in Sarasota, Florida. John Ringling had left a fabulous mansion and museum down there. Nikki’s text said she was interested in making contact “with youthful minds, hearts, and souls to explore passion’s horizons.” It sounded like new-wave horse manure to me. The IP address of the computer Nikki used was in Canfield, right next door to Youngstown.
But when I noted the house address for replies to the advert, I nearly choked on my coffee. I called Danny back.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said. “Erieview Road, Jefferson-on-the-Lake. Your turf, man.”
My turf—hell’s holy bells, it was walking distance from my office.
Tico set a beer and a malt whiskey in front of me. I usually had to ask for the second.
“Tomàs, you hear about the fire?”
“Three cottages burned down last night. You didn’t hear all those sirens?”
“No, I was out of town. I got back late. What time was this?”
“‘Bout eleven, maybe later. The fire trucks woke us up. Even Cesar, and you know how that kid likes to sleep.” Cesar was Tico’s boy but he was thirty years old and three years retired from a professional boxing career at welterweight. He used to spar with Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik at Jack Loew’s Southside gym in Youngstown.
What he said next reignited that gaseous little puddle of dread sitting behind my solar plexus.
“They found a body in one of them.”
“Was the fire on Erieview?”
“Man, how you know that if you wasn’t even here?”
“Man or woman?”
“The body, Tico. Was it a male or female corpse—”
“Beer guy, he come in at eight, he say they found a body. Crispy critter, he say. Can’t tell if it’s a man or woman. That’s all I know.”
I left the malt on the bar. Tico’s eyes must have been bugged. Halley’s comet will be back before he ever sees that twice.
I jog-trotted over to Erieview, which is just a gravel lane that deadheads at the Lake. I had a nodding acquaintance with the owner. He spent most of his time caring for his invalid mother in Sharon, PA, but the caretaker was a regular at Tico’s. I knocked on his door.
He had a pretty name, but Charlie Beausoleil was about as poetic as a wall sconce in a latrine. He had the last cabin opposite the three smoldering ruins. I knocked.
“Charlie, what happened?”
“Huh, I don’t know. I woke up when I saw the flames in my bedroom window. I was sound asleep, man. Gene’s on his way up from PA right now.”
“Cops say what happened?”
“The arson investigator just left. He was here all night. Look, I got to get down to the Jefferson Sheriff’s to make a statement. I was just about to lock up.”
“I heard they picked up a biker,” I said. “Some guy from Annie’s.” I was fishing.
“No friggin’ way, a biker! It was them kids. I seen ‘em coming and going all week. It was one of them little assholes sure as shit set the match. ”
Charlie spent a few useless moments trying to tuck in a shirt below his mountainous belly but gave up. “Fuck it, man, I got to go.”
The kid who slid into the seat opposite me looked about fifteen. I was about to tell him to go cadge money somewhere else when I realized from the smirk on his face he was my contact.
“You bring money?”
“You didn’t name a price in your email,” I said. I had no idea what I was negotiating for.
“Three bills,” he said.
“How do I know I’m getting the real goods?” I asked him.
He lifted up a Metallica t-shirt. I saw a crescent of silver next to a belly button. So I was buying a disk.
I took a big chance: “Nikki gave me a lower price when I spoke to her,” I said.
His eyes narrowed a touch. “Nikki ain’t running the show. I am. Price is three hundred. Pay it or fuck off, man.”
“OK,” I said. “I’m good for it.”
“That’s better.” He relaxed a bit but I noticed his eyes cutting from one side to the other, sensing a trap. He had a blue glyph tattoo around one skinny bicep. The place was packed: office workers on lunch break, single mothers with little kids, retired men gabbing at tables and hopping up to get a refill for their senior coffee every few minutes.
“Look,” I said, “if I like what I see, I’m going to want a lot more.” I pushed a wad of fifties across the table at him.
His eyes popped and he snorted. “Shit, man, what’s the matter with you?” He palmed the money and swept it toward him. It disappeared under the table and went into hiding in his BVDs next to the disk. He leaned forward and rapped my knee with the edge of the disk. Everybody watches the same films, I guess.
“For future reference,” I said, “don’t call a meeting in a public place like a McDonald’s.”
“Don’t tell me what to fuckin’ do,” he snarled.
“Sure, fine, sorry,” I said in as contrite a voice as I could muster. I was relaxed now; it was amateur hour with this young bozo, but I had no clear fix on how Nikki fit into this. Bootleg porn made no sense in a sex-drenched society; it had to be something beyond the pale. I followed another hunch.
“When I met Nikki in Sarasota last winter, she said she could get me a steady supply. We were supposed to go wholesale. Didn’t she tell you? I have the contacts all lined up. Doing this one at a time for chickenfeed is a waste.”
“Let me think about it,” he said. “Give me your cell number. I’ll get back to you.”
“I don’t know you,” I said. “I feel I have an obligation to Nikki. After all, it was her set-up.” I was trying to stay within the lines without knowing where the lines were.
I wrote the number of Tico’s Place on a napkin and handed it to him. “I’m going to check you out, asshole.” He got up to leave. “You better be who you say you are.”
Decision time. Brace him now or follow him. He was a lanky, wiry teenager. I was a middle-aged two-hundred-fifteen. I decided to follow.
He strode across the parking lot straight for a beige late-model Civic driven by a girl with a shaggy mop of dirty-blonde hair. I didn’t have to look at the plates to know it was Nikki Ingersoll’s car.
I followed them to through the 422 interchange and into Niles. Some president was born here, maybe McKinley. Ohio has sent more mediocrities and corrupt politicians to the White House than any other state.
Niles is a small burgh; it wouldn’t be possible to stay behind them for long without being detected if they were looking for a tail. I was hoping the girl driving was every bit as naïve as the boy.
They turned into a driveway in front of a small, shabby house across the street from a Dairy Queen. I kept driving past. I turned into a strip mall where dentists, insurance agents, and chiropractors offered services and parked close to the street end. My field binoculars were back in my office, but I keep a Zeiss riflescope in the car. I had a clear view of the Civic’s rear fender.
I called Elizabeth Bhargrava’s office and left an urgent message to call me back. I was counting on her memory of me with a bit more affection than the mad Samoan’s.
An hour later the Cuyahoga County pathologist returned my call.
“Doctor Bhargrava, this is Tom Haftmann. I’m a private investigator nowadays and I’m working a missing person’s case.”
She said something rapidly in her lovely sing-song voice that convinced me she did remember me.
“Was the body found in the rubble up at Jefferson resort a female?”
“Yiss, a girl. Very young,” Elizabeth said. “Maybe thirteen or fourteen at most. Barely into puberty, I think.”
Before Elizabeth could wax eloquent on pelvic angles or tibia length, I thanked her and rang off. I had seen burn victims before. The boxer’s pose from the contracted muscles, the burst skin from the intense heat—most of all, the hideous barbecue smell which you can’t dry-clean out of your clothes.
Nikki was twenty-four. Those teens I followed had sun-bleached hair, not dye jobs. Ohio isn’t hot enough to do that. There was a Florida connection. The boy didn’t bat an eye when I mentioned Sarasota, but everything else put him on edge.
I took my laptop out of the trunk and put the disk in. I was pretty sure by now what I would be looking at, and two minutes into the film, it was confirmed. Three teenagers, a ménage a trios. The McDonald’s boy, the dirty-blonde girl in the car. The same piano bar, the same piano. The action was a duplicate of the Fortunato film except that Nikki wasn’t in it. I watched the teenagers ape their professional betters in their own clumsy style and it was anything but prurient. The stick-thin girl atop the piano was almost certainly the girl found in the middle cottage. I waited another forty-five minutes and called Elizabeth again.
“Elizabeth, I have something for the detectives investigating the girl you just did the autopsy on,” I said.
“One of them just left,” she said. She gave me his name and number at the Jefferson precinct. I knew him slightly.
“One last question, if you don’t mind,” I said. “Was she dead at the time?”
I heard what sounded familiarly like a tongue clucking and remembered her from my detective days at the autopsy tables. The pathologist emigrated from Madras in India when she was a girl that age; now she was a kindly grandmother with a long iron-gray braid who spent hours on the phone with the victims’ families. She was also a stern taskmaster for her crew of assistant pathologists.
“No, no,” Dr. Bhargrava said and her voice dropped a full octave. “She was alive.” More tongue clucking. “She was very much alive when she was burned. I found ash in her lungs.”
A child burned alive. What could she have done to deserve this fate?
Fifteen minutes later, the Honda backed out of the driveway. The boy was behind the wheel and he was alone. Another decision.
I drove straight for the driveway and pulled in. I banged on the door. Maybe she’d think her boyfriend had forgotten something and was back.
I heard the chain lock come off and the door cracked open. I kicked it all the way with my foot and put her on her ass in the middle of the floor. I stuck my p. i. badge in her startled face before she could get off her haunches. Cops have to worry about this sort of thing in court, not me.
“Where is she?”
“Wh-Who—I don’t know—”
“Listen to me,” I put a little basso-profundo in my voice to complement the blitzkrieg. It doesn’t work on everybody. “Where is Nikki Ingersoll?” I hauled her to her feet.
“Ow-ow-ow, you’re hurting me,” she said.
What I said next wasn’t especially polite or G-rated, for that matter, but it worked on her.
“She—she’s in the basement,” she moaned. “I didn’t do it.”
My stomach, sour as spoiled milk all day, felt the adrenalin jolt her words produced. The acid burned all the way up my esophagus. My Sig Sauer was in my trunk inside a gun safe. The ammo was on the other side of the trunk as the law requires. I never bothered to get a CCW license to carry. I didn’t know when the boyfriend was returning. Yet one more decision in a day full of them.
“Show me,” I said.
She led me past the kitchen, my fingers still tight on her upper arm, and down a narrow set of stairs into a dank basement. The walls were field stone but some homeowner had lain down plywood sheets. They were streaked with spray-paint graffiti in a variety of colors. My brain refused to read whatever the words said. I was concentrating too hard; the flooring was spotted with the same colors, a huffers’ meeting place.
The girl led me to the other end of the basement. We had to go single file because the litter and debris on the floor reached past my knees. There was too much stuff and the smell was too rancid for this to be the sole work of a pair of teenaged renters. My right foot went into something soggy and I pulled it out.
“Jesus fuck,” the girl said, stopping to turn toward me, “what’s that fuckin’ smell?”
“Never mind,” I said. “Take me to her.”
“There ain’t no light back here,” she said. I had to resist an urge to break her neck right then.
There wasn’t enough cleared space at the end for anyone to turn around in, and the accumulated smells from the corner wafted upward into my nostrils no matter how hard I tried to breathe through my mouth. There was one small rectangle of smeared window that shone a bar of light in front of us. I was too mesmerized by the seething mass of squirming maggots on the floor to notice; then something, some instinct told me to look just past the horizontal bar of greasy light.
The crown of Nikki Ingersoll’s head was illuminated like a blonde halo. I noticed squirming going on there too. Maggots were crawling in and out of a scalp wound. I could make out the hands bound behind her back. Her long legs were duct-taped in front. She was nude. Black worms of dried blood from the scalp wound crisscrossed her face. I couldn’t see her eyes.
If it weren’t for the barrage of smells, I might have detected more easily that one unmistakable odor of death, but it would have been like trying to pick out a Flutophone in the midst of a symphony warm-up.
I’d seen enough. “Let’s go,” I said.
“Look, man, I didn’t do it!”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Move.”
“Man, I’m tellin’ you, Dollar did her—he did Melissa too!”
“What’s Dollar’s real name?” I asked her. I had to keep shoving her forward. She kept turning around to plead as if this was a police station or a court of law.
“I don’t know. He goes by Dollar. That’s all I know,” she said.
I was used to it. Mindless fornication, nobody knows anybody’s real name. It didn’t matter to Nikki Ingersoll. It was all cop business now. I wanted out. My stomach was on rolling boil.
As we got to the huffers’ spot, I noticed a pair of skinny hairless legs on the bottom of the stairs.
I looked up just in time to see the gun in Dollar’s hand. It looked like a Glock and he was aiming it between the two of us. Before she could form a word with her open mouth, he said, “You cunt.” He fired. I was still clutching her bare arm.
Her entire head exploded in a red mist. My face felt the velocity spatter. A fragmentation round—that was my last coherent thought because the rest was pure instinct. I hurled myself backwards into the dark basement and plowed through the litter as fast as my churning legs could carry me. I heard two more shots and I heard the whizz of air molecules being ripped apart next to my head. Whatever the rounds hit burst into pieces and chunks as if somebody had tossed a handful of silver tubes into the piles.
I was frozen for long terrifying seconds in that dream where your legs can’t move because they’re sunk in mud or wet cement. Running and stumbling through that muck was like running in waist-high water except that I felt sharp objects ripping into my flesh. I felt nothing. Another shot smashed into the timber just above my head and sprayed me with splinters. A goddamn automatic, I remembered. I would be trapped in the corner and he’d have a whole bunch of bullets left in the magazine.
I was almost back to Nikki’s corpse in the chair. Nowhere else to go. That window wouldn’t allow a man half my size to get through it. He was much closer now, although I could hear nothing besides the sound of things being thrown to one side or another as I bulled my way deeper into the basement. The next shot blew a hole into the cement wall over my right shoulder; the blowback of stone fragments cut my jaw and cheek. I felt warm blood flowing down my neck. Before another shot left the barrel, I dove headfirst into a pile beside Nikki’s body and hoped he hadn’t seen me.
I tried to lie as still as possible and curled myself in to a fetal position. I heard him coming toward me, cursing and growling like an animal.
He fired a cascade of shots all around, spraying the basement from one corner to the other. Slugs cut channels through the debris in front of my face and close enough to my tucked-in legs that whatever was hit ricocheted off something hard and smashed me in the middle of the back. I had the insane thought he was using a Louisville slugger to drive me out of hiding.
Then I heard the blessed sound of dry fire. A big decision now: reveal myself, go for him before he has a chance to stick another clip in there. Or stay where I was. I chose the cowardly option.
I heard a litany of unoriginal cursing just a few feet from where I lay curled. He spat out one last “motherfucker” and then he left. My sense of sound was about as rarefied as a blind man’s at that point. I heard him going fast up the cellar steps. I got up. I had to use all my willpower not to vomit right there. I moved in the same direction as fast as my wobbly legs could go.
I held on to the walls as I went up the stairs to keep from fainting. At the top someone had spray-painted: “I got all the virgin tickets in my homeroom.” It was signed Megan D. in big loopy schoolgirl letters.
The Honda was gone by the time I made it to the porch. It was the middle of the afternoon and cars went past the road in front of the house. It was a beautiful late summer day with a baby-blue sky and birds chirping in the trees. I stood there feeling the sticky blood on my face and neck and smelling the garbage-truck reek of my clothes and wondered why the sky wasn’t pitch black with gobs of fiery rain pouring down from the skies.
I was in the Jefferson station house for eight long hours. Fortunately, they let me clean up first and get some food on my stomach.
I’m cynical enough to admit that I thought seriously of calling Fortunato to get the rest of my fee before the cops got to him. In the end, I let it go.
The trial was pretty sensational and both the Youngstown Vindicator and the Cleveland Plain Dealer covered it in lurid detail over the two weeks it lasted. In the end, the prosecutor couldn’t make all the accessory charges stick. Dollar, whose real name was Jordan Hyslop, was a Florida runaway, a juvenile delinquent who sold himself under the piers around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He moved up north to Sarasota with an aged gentleman who took him in and gave him money for sex; that’s where he met Nikki Ingersoll, who traveled the state cruising for young boys and girls for the porn films she and Fortunato were making and selling. What they didn’t count on was Hyslop being more than an actor in these films featuring girls between twelve and fourteen. The state’s psychiatrist called him a sociopath once you peeled away the rest of the mumbo-jumbo. Two days short of his sixteenth birthday at the time he poured a gallon of gas over a Michigan runaway named Felicity Monroe, however, was the reason they didn’t try him as an adult. They figured it was too controversial at his age and he’d get a conviction overturned on appeal. As an ex-cop, I’m used to the antics of lawyers. It’s always about lawyers, never justice. Hell, I was once married to a lawyer. The kid will go away until he’s twenty-one and he’ll be re-evaluated. It won’t even make the newspapers once he’s released. Ohio will kick him across the state line and he’ll be somebody else’s problem.
Fortunato managed to get a pretty good lawyer. His trial date keeps getting put back on the docket. In a couple years, he might plead to the lesser child porn charges but even that’s not a sure thing. His lawyer keeps referring to Nikki Ingersoll as the “inspiration for this diabolical business” and calls her “the procuress.” I can imagine what the jurors’ faces will look like if he manages to get the piano film into it. Her family sent someone in from Chicago to claim the body and they put it on a train for the ride home.
Two days ago I had a call from him. He’s back in his office in Youngstown. His lawyer convinced the judge he wasn’t a flight risk and bail was set at two-hundred-fifty thousand. Fortunato paid it in cash. It made me wonder whether he was mobbed up after all.
“I’m sending you a check,” he said as soon as I answered. “I pay my bills.”
“I’ll send you a receipt,” I replied.
“I loved her, you know,” he said after a long pause. “I had no idea she was into this—this other business with teenagers. I swear to God.”
“I don’t care,” I said.
“Did she—did she suffer?”
“Why don’t you think about that over the long winter nights ahead,” I said.
“I’ll toss in a bonus,” he said.
“Pay me what you owe,” I said. “You send me a dime more than my bill and I’ll give it charity. That’s after I wash it off.” I don’t know why I was being so melodramatic. Maybe my adventures in that basement in Niles were still troubling me at some deeper level. I had no trouble sleeping at night. It was something else.
“What’s your problem?” He sounded more like the arrogant clown who walked into my office that hot August morning.
“She played Bach at the piano bar,” I said suddenly. I don’t know what abyss I had pulled that from.
“What? What did you say? Go fuck yourself.” He clicked off.
I have an old-fashioned Bakelite phone in my office; it’s solid, black and it weighs as much as a Smart car. I don’t know why I keep it. I picked up the receiver and mashed it on the toggle button as if I were crushing a bug.
I have two images of Nikki. I see her playing on a gleaming black Steinway. Her long, shapely fingers glide gracefully over the keys. That image blurs, refocuses like a camera lens being twisted, and then I see her slumped over in the chair in that basement. She was down there for almost five days, surrounded by stink and crawling insects; they never fed her or gave her any water. The wound on her head came from Dollar hitting her to subdue her to get her into the trunk of her own car.
Five days, five long days in that basement. I’m no believer in hell or heaven, but Nikki Ingersoll paid for her sins of the flesh in a way that even Dante and the medieval church fathers would have approved as a worthy form of expiation. Sartre said it: Hell is other people.