“How can a single photograph start all this?”
The big cop asks me that question a second after he introduced himself as Detective Baquero.
I look at him, our eyes locking briefly. My fingers laced together, shoulders hunched in a meek posture. I’m on his turf and I have to be careful. That doorknob I can almost reach from here leads in two directions: to the parking lot or to the jail cells. I’ve spent too much time in the Graybar Hotel and am not looking forward to another stay.
Det. Baquero nods as if he’s in perfect sync with my thoughts, although we both know I’m peeing on his leg and telling him it’s raining. He’d like to slap the cuffs on right now. I’m stuck in this narrow cubicle, sitting across from a 250-pound detective.
“So, when you and Eldon—”
I interrupt him. “I thought you said on the phone you wanted some background on Eldon—you know, when we—”
He doesn’t let me finish this time. I was about to say when we bunked together, avoiding the fact we did time together in the state pen, both of us cellmates for the last five months of his sentence but suspected the ugly cop had probably memorized both our jackets by now.
“—sure, sure, Steve, take your time. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
All the time in the world . . . the phrase rubs me wrong.
“Call me Steven,” I tell him. “My ex used to call me Steve whenever she wanted to bitch at me about something I did wrong.”
His hoo-hoo laugh is as fake as my last driver’s license, and he fidgets in his chair, way too small to accommodate a man my size much less someone big enough to eat apples off my head.
“The photo,” I begin, collecting my thoughts, “it started with the last photo she sent . . .”
As long as the girlfriends or wives aren’t showing nipples or bush, the warden allows them in. Eldon’s “Barbie Doll collection,” I called it. A row of photos taped to the wall next to his bunk. Barbie and her three kids at the beach, Barbie cooking at the stove, apron bunched around her large breasts, Barbie smiling for the camera—nothing to make you want to flog the bishop at night—all G-rated, goody-goody poses. I told Eldon he was lucky to have such a fine woman, or some bullshine like that. When you share a crib, you have to get along.
Then that last one arrived in the mail . . .
“Eldon seemed upset,” I tell the cop.
“He didn’t think it was taken by Barb’s girl, the oldest daughter, like she said in her letter.”
“He thought it was taken by somebody else—some guy, maybe, huh? Somebody she’s seeing on the side?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, clucking away, both of us aware I’m leading him.
“So, tell me this. How did he come to think that?”
“I guess,” I reply, hemming and hawing, reminding him of every low-IQ witness who’d ever sat in that chair across from him. But I could sense the words prime suspect hanging over my head like a giant neon sign.
“Eldon, he must have had a feeling, like, you know?”
That comes off like some bubble-headed teenager where every sentence sounds like a question. Eldon and I were the only two white-collar criminals on our row, both of us in for fraud, except he’d stolen millions to my penny-ante schemes. I got busted hard for using the postal service the last time, which is criminal fraud. We were the low-ranking hyenas in the den is what I’m saying.
Oh Christ, he ‘sees.’ He sees me lying to him is what. I have to think fast. . .
“Something—in the reflection, shiny—the mirror,” I say. “He thought it was a man’s wristwatch on her—his wife’s vanity.”
Watch, hell. It was the torn foil packet of a rubber.
The cop looks at me for more details, but I remain stumm. In my head I’m reliving those last days in lockup. Eldon was bouncing off the walls in a jealous rage. I was having a bad case of the “short and shitties.” I told Eldon, who’d never been to jail in his life, when the release date gets close, you can get diarrhea from nerves. But it was more than that, much more than that. Besides, we both had to worry about other cons, not just the prison wolves and psychos, but the guys who like nothing more than screwing up a guy’s release date so he gets more time added on.
Eldon was far from his world of custom-made suits and six-figure salaries. He got roughed up by some tough dudes until he bought protection from the Brand. Jeff, a big tattooed hillbilly who acted as an enforcer for the Aryan Brotherhood on our tier, let it be known the AB “owned” Eldon. Everybody knew better than to mess with Brand property. Eldon paid a fortune for that protection. The alternative was to wind up some lifer’s punk. A soft guy with an Ivy League diploma you can wipe your ass on in that place. He told Barb to send money to five commissary accounts of men he never met. Now that his own released date was coming up and the money was going to stop, the AB cut him loose. Eldon got chin-checked in the yard, guys knocked the tray out of his hands in the chow line and if he didn’t have me to watch his back, he would have been playing “drop the soap” in the showers. I was on alert twenty-four-seven and it was getting to me. Twice I nearly got chalked up and that would have ruined everything.
“She’s pretty,” the cop says suddenly, waiting for me to respond.
“I’ve seen prettier,” I say. I manage to make it sound ordinary.
Dumb thing to say—his cop radar sensed it. Nothing ordinary about Babs Cuda. Eldon told me he met her at a Ta-Ta’s, a poor man’s Hooter’s off Market Street, while he was married. That marriage went into the toilet fast. Barbie wagged heart-shaped ass every time she passed a table full of men. Eldon and his business pals took notice at once, and he asked her out. Straight to the nearest motel is what Eldon told me about his first date with Barbie where she squeezed him dry between those gorgeous legs. In short order, Eldon dumped the woman who’d supported him in graduate school while he toiled on his MBA, and Barbara Cuda, a high-school dropout from a trailer park near the railroad tracks, hooked her fish.
“It’s strange,” the cop says, “how they’d get into such a fight the first day he’s home from prison, don’t you think?”
“He was pretty drunk,” I say.
Three sheets to the wind, staggering drunk, puking-in-the-taxi drunk. I made sure of it. Our last stop, as we had it worked out, was to be his manor home in a gated community, easily worth half a million. His first words, spat out in anger and disgust: Where’s my wife, Steven?
“Barb was supposed to meet him at the gate,” I say to Baquero. “I don’t know what happened.”
I called us an Uber from Ta-Ta’s. He fumed the whole way in the back seat. I can hear him now: I gave her a Bentley, a Porsche, a Lamborghini, you think the least she could do is pick me up . . .
The cop says, “I saw some pretty expensive cars in the garage. What’s that one with the Italian name?”
“Ferrari?” I try to make it sound as if I’m guessing along with him.
“No, something else,” he says and scratches his head. He reminds me of a domesticated bear, tame, but not too tame.
“Ferrari’s got the horse on the hood ornament, right? This one looks more like a pitchfork.”
More head scratching as if he’s trying to solve a physics equation.
“You mean a Maserati?”
I’m half-expecting a clap on the back for my correct answer. Eldon had it imported from Modena, Italy. A Ghibli, his wedding present to Barbie. My brain is racing—he’s circling around to motive. Not a bear, a snake with its eye on the lizard: me.
“Come on, Steven,” he says, the gleeful note a fading echo in the tiny room. “What gives? All that and she’d want to go back to shaking her tits in some low-class dive?”
I look thoughtful, as if I’m grateful a detective is asking little old me to solve the crime with him. I’m not happy about the prospect of offering him a theory he can punch holes through and trap me with later. I say something about Eldon “wanting to surprise her,” but I can’t see my way to a happy ending and I fight the tendency to fidget in the chair.
Baquero tells me they did a deep dive on Eldon’s finances. They discovered what Barb had known ever since he got jammed with a three-year sentence for fraud: his assets were frozen by the court, and she wound up stuck in a mortgaged Tudor house in a gated community with three step-daughters to support and a bunch of bills to pay.
“The insurance money,” I say, finally, giving him what he expects to hear.
There. It was out. Let the big cop chew on that for a while. No secret Barb signed a prenup and Eldon dead was half-a-million in insurance payout as opposed to Eldon alive and worth nothing. His future as a moneymaker trashed, no brokerage firm would touch him with a barge pole.
The cop slips two fingers into a file folder and extracts a set of photos. He fans them out gracefully across the table. A card player, nimble fingers despite the size of his hands.
“Ever see what a copper-jacketed slug from a three-fifty-seven does to a man’s head, Steven?”
I look. My mouth drops open for effect.
I didn’t need to see the pictures. I was there, right there, when she leveled the barrel at him. I had him by the arm when the blast dotted my face and clothes with needle-hot spray. My ears were still ringing as I wiped Eldon’s brain matter from my face and sleeves; behind me, on the wall, clumps of bone and brain—
“You and the grieving widow,” Baquero says, watching my face with that same icy gaze; “you two spent a lot of time together after that.”
“We did,” I say, too quickly, admitting the obvious. “I felt I owed Eldon that much. You know, helping Barb—his wife—out. She was under a lot of stress.”
I need to keep my answers short. He knows.
“You and Barb,” he snorts with contempt, sits back, fingers laced behind his massive head, a man at full ease. “We had you under surveillance right from the funeral. Those poor little girls, bawling for their daddy . . .”
God damn her anyway. I wasn’t supposed to be there. Bring him to me, I’ll do the rest . . . her exact words. Two-hundred thousand, my cut. I had to keep coming around even though they had plainclothes everywhere except hiding in the shrubbery. I had to let her know she wasn’t going to fob me off with a couple blowjobs when that kind of money was at stake. My mind, however, rips me a single message: That’s what you get for dealing with a greedy psycho . . .
“Barbara stopped talking to us—oh, a week ago, I think,” the cop says.
I exhale—small relief. He’s still fishing so he doesn’t know everything, or he can’t prove it, which is the same thing. Barb had lawyered up after the first interview. No surprise there. She left the precinct smiling and assuring this same cop she’d be back to take a polygraph. Back in the house, she cussed, paced, and chain-smoked—even blamed me for bringing her into suspicion as if that made sense. I had to put my fingers to my lips and point toward the drapes over the picture window. Directional mic, I whispered. For all I knew, cops had the whole house bugged.
The way she looked at me froze my blood. I can see that big gun coming up in a two-handed Weaver stance, Eldon’s head disintegrating next to me, my eardrums ringing like cow bells—but not missing that look when she squeezed off the round. She thought about putting one in me, too, but the moment passed. Barb knew that was too much to explain on top of a dead husband. My nightmares replay those seconds every day since, that look stamped on her face—
“What are we going to do, Steve?”
He uses that name to let me know we’re done playing “friends.”
I flinch, an unconscious reaction, because Barb used those words after I gently pushed the barrel away from my face. We have to tough it out, I said, gripping her triceps hard enough to leave purple splotches. She showed the marks to cops when they drove her to the precinct to take photos of her bruised face and make her statement.
“I don’t know, Detective,” I say.
“Oh, Steve, I think you do. You know what comes next. Let me explain it to you . . .”
He took his time about it, sipping lukewarm coffee from his Styrofoam cup. I heard cop words with some lawyer talk. Your girl, he said, will sing like an Irish tenor. I couldn’t concentrate because I knew it was true. Steve, you’re the mastermind behind this whole business . . . An innocent person would panic, scream and protest innocence through the veins in his neck at this point, but I had nothing to say. You and that woman, that white-trash pole dancer conspired to kill Eldon Berryman for his money—
I speak, an almost unconscious act: “Ta-Ta’s.”
“She waits—waited tables at Ta-Ta’s.”
“You”—he jabs a finger at my face—“killed him, and it started the day he got assigned to your cell!”
I’d done a year by then, but I recognized him. He walked in with a bunch of his pals, ties undone, all of them slumming; they got drunk fast. I’d even made a play for Barb myself—hell’s bells, every guy who saw her did—but got nowhere.
“Your kite,” Baquero says and leans over the table, grinning. No more snake—wolf baring its teeth.
When I got out of SHU for bumpin’ titties with some gangbanger in the yard, I let my guard down. Convicts use several mail systems from climbing up near the vents to talk to emptying water in the toilet and talking through it—nasty. I used the old-fashioned way of writing on a piece of paper and folding it into a triangle and attaching it to a long piece of string. At first, it was just to play chess with a con a few cells over during lights out. He’d drawn a Buck Rogers sentence for murder-rape when he was a teenager; he’d be leaving the tier on a back-door parole. Another guy from the penthouse, the top tier, warned me the chess player was a monkey-mouth, not to trust him, but I didn’t care.
I can see it now, while the big cop holds his grin. His bishop was about to take my queen, and I had no defense for my king. I stared at my pieces, what else he’d written besides a pawn on the h file taking my queen followed by the hashmark signifying checkmate; it was a name I knew. Add Rhonda. Just that. Rhonda Jones was Barbie’s girlfriend from Ta-Ta’s. I’d had better luck with her, but I never thought to put her name on my visit list.
Rhonda wasn’t there to rekindle our romance. Barb sent her. Rhonda’s ex did time, and she knew jailhouse visits are recorded in case anybody’s too stupid to miss the signs. We talked in code. I’d get Eldon good and sloshed before taking him home. That was it—lead a sheep to slaughter, she’d do the rest. I wasn’t even supposed to be in the house . . . Hit me, damn you! The first words out of her mouth. I still couldn’t hear . . . Do it! I have to tell the police he attacked me . . . You’re in this too . . . shut up and do what I’m telling you . . .
So I did. I gave her a couple hard wallops on the cheeks and lips that raised welts and bruised skin. I was furious. She spat blood on the carpet and grinned at me, bloody teeth bared in a smile, an image that raised hackles on my neck and I’ll never get out of my brain.
She called nine-one-one, staring at me the whole time, her voice quavering, sobs, hysteria—an Oscar-quality performance. The ambulance and cops arrived. But after hours of cops milling about, sitting in the backs of separate cruisers, neither of us had cuffs slapped on. I began to breathe as dawn rolled in, maybe the half share she promised me was going to happen—
Fool, imbecile. The stupid stuff my brain was telling me then. . .
I re-focus on the big cop’s words: “Toxicology report came back yesterday. Berryman’s BAC was three-thirty-nine mg over dl.”
“What’s that in English?”
“He was plastered. Barely conscious. Science, Stevie boy. Witnesses say you refused to let them call a cab for him at that tittie bar. You insisted he was OK, you’d see he got home OK—”
Rhonda made sure she was working that night. She doubled his drink and gave me ginger ale. She made a big deal to the bouncer about calling him a taxi. I thought she was grooming him to be a witness when the cops went looking for witnesses but maybe there was something else—
He won’t shut up. I wish he’d shut his piehole for a second and let me think this through. . .
“That pretty much blasts a truck-sized hole in your story, Steve—not to mention that high-velocity blood spatter on your shirt . . .”
I see the gun come up again. My brain starts to scream No, no, wait! . . . but the roar of the gunshot deafens me, blood and gore hit me, I stumble backward against the wall—
Det. Baquero snapped his fingers in my face, all pretense at courtesy gone. My eyes box the tiny room again. The chipped table, pale green wall paneling, cracked linoleum floor tiles, the camera in the corner with its winking red eye. I know I’ll hear my own words again except that the next time I’ll be wearing orange peels, the prison jumpsuit I thought I’d left behind, probably in a four-piece suit, too—the convict’s full set of restraints including handcuffs, leg irons, and belly chain.
“You drifting off there, Steven? Am I boring you? You do remember the shirt—”
“I . . . remember,” I said.
“That’s all? You remember?”
“Have you arrested her?”
“She’s pinning it on you, dummy, and you sit there and don’t say jackshit.”
“Barbara,” I start to say, but I can barely form the hated name in my mouth.
“Barbara? Rhonda Jones and you put this together. The widow gave us all the proof we need. You added Jones to your visitor list, you and her worked it out before you got out. The wife said you kept showing up, making demands, pressuring her for sex. You thought once she had the life insurance money, you two could sail in and demand it. You con women like her for a living, don’t you, Steve? You thought nobody’d guess what you were saying during those three visits that week before you got out. We have the transcripts. Hell, man, give us some credit! That was as easy to break as a schoolboy’s pig Latin. I told you your girl was singing—”
. . . singing like an Irish tenor . . . your girl . . . Rhonda. He meant Rhonda, not Barb.
“Stand up and turn around. I’m done talking to you.”
I complied, put my hands behind my back. He leads me to the door and hands me off to a uniform to be taken down to booking.
Halfway down the corridor, I look back and see Baquero and two other cops, all three with big smiles—the winner’s circle in a race that’s over. Beautiful, sexy Barbie had it all prepared, right down to the photo of the opened condom packet. This cop didn’t have to tell me they had that, too, and my DNA was found on it, although I’m guessing Rhonda could have had something to do with it. That day I looked through the plexiglass and saw Rhonda sitting there, showing some deep-dish cleavage, looking hot to trot in a black, thigh-length skirt, her fake eyelashes batting at me; the whole package on display was done for a night out clubbing, not for a penitentiary visit to some con she’d banged a couple times in her one-bedroom apartment off Jericho Street near the docks. Most of these frumpy wives and girlfriends of the cons they visit every week don’t look half as good. Her eyes took me in before I sat down; she briefly nodded to the phone in its cradle as if to say: Pick it up, stupid. Time to start your role in the farce . . .
Barb will make a terrific impression as the grieving widow when she shows up at my trial. Nothing she can do about those womanly breasts, but she’ll them strapped down, her long raven hair in a practical bun, and will look as ordinary as she can without makeup wearing a cheap print dress from Goodwill’s. Tears for Eldon will drip down her cheeks like water from a broken faucet. Rhonda’s plea deal, whatever it is, won’t amount to much time; when she comes out, she’ll have a very hefty payday because Barb will see to it. On the other hand, Rhonda might want to be careful when she goes to collect her money for setting me up. Barb might not have her GED, but she can create roles for people to play.
In the secret heart of a con artist is a desire to be conned. But I never imagined, with all the tricks I’ve used to swindle people out of their money, that a childish low-tech form of communication would be the evidence to bring me down—a lousy couple of words inside a folded piece of paper attached to a piece of string.
Robb T. White is the author of numerous short stories and three hardboiled Thomas Haftmann mysteries; one collection of short stories featuring his series character was published by New Pulp Press in 2017. He has authored two noir novels: Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots (2015) and When You Run with Wolves (rpt. 2018). A recent collection of crime stories is Dangerous Women: Stories of Crime, Mystery, and Mayhem. White’s latest publication is Perfect Killer (2018). A hardboiled novel to be published by Fahrenheit Press in the U.K. is Northtown Eclipse.