The Extinction Event
By David Black
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 David Black
All rights reserved.
"Oh, God," the man said. "Oh, God ..."
"Sometimes to get over the fence, you need a little boost," said the hooker he was in bed with. "Hang on, honey."
The hooker, Jean Gaynor, wriggled out from under her john and on hands and knees crawled across the sagging king-sized mattress to the foot of the bed in the motel room. Mottled ass in the air, her prominent vertebrae like a ridged prehistoric backbone, she leaned over and fumbled for a tumbler, which she examined. The glass was dirty, streaked with a little cloudy water on the bottom.
"Hang on, Chief," Jean said.
She stumbled out of bed and lurched into the bathroom. The man, Frank Milhet, who was almost three times Jean's age, rolled over onto his back and gazed at the stained ceiling with unfocused eyes. The stain resolved itself into a cow, a continent, a face ... Like Jean, Milhet was naked. Unlike Jean, who had been partying for three days with other marks and had a gray pallor, Milhet was flushed pink. An unhealthy pink. The pink from a Saturday-morning cartoon.
Earlier that night, Milhet had met Jean in the bar attached to the office of the Dutch Village Motel, a one-story, pale-blue-shingled hot-sheet dump on County Route 9, a few miles north of Niverville, New York. Across the road was a cornfield. The shoulder-high stalks clattered in the August heat. Even at ten o'clock at night, the air was still, stifling, oppressive. It carried a whiff of damp ashes. Somewhere, far off, someone tried to start a lawn mower. Over and over. Unsuccessfully. Maybe someone who couldn't sleep. Or someone who just got home from a swing shift. Or someone soon to leave home for the lobster shift. Moonlight made everything shine like new tin.
Squatting on top of the far right end of the motel office building was a fake windmill. Each vane was made of two rows of nine-inch squares that, without sailcloth, looked like empty window frames. The vanes were bolted in place. A high wind would shatter them before they ever turned. The neon sign arched between the bottom two vanes advertised Color TV, in-house channels and displayed, outlined in the neon tubes, a reclining figure in thigh-high boots that was supposed to represent Rip Van Winkle, sleeping soundly, presumably undistracted by the motel's in-house channels, which carried one old VCR loop of Rear Action Babes. Spaced in a neat row in front of the individual cabins were five early-sixties concave circular chairs, like an array of miniature radio-telescopes.
When Milhet spotted Jean in the bar, about six-thirty that evening, she was sitting in one of the cracked, burgundy-leather banquettes, nursing an Irish whiskey, a pencil-mustache of whipped cream on her upper lip, eyes prowling the nearly empty room for a mark, for someone who could slip her a quick thirty for a gram of coke — more cut, mannitol baby laxative than coke — which the bartender kept behind the bar in the Yellow Pages, filed humorously, he thought, under fishing, supplies.
Over the front door, ill-fit in a rectangle that looked recently cut, wooden bristles along the saw-lines, new curdled-cream-colored foam tucked around the machine, an ancient, rust-speckled air conditioner rhythmically groaned, loud-soft, loud-soft, like a man suffering from the heat.
The bar had a funk of stale tobacco, cats, sour beer, and a cloying antiseptic stink wafting in from the candy floss–colored deodorizing pucks in the men's room urinals.
Through the opening door — as Milhet entered — came the sound of the distant lawn mower engine catching, a roar as it started up diminishing to a purr as it continued. The closing door cut off the sound.
Jean sat facing the bar, her back reflected in a mirror on the opposite wall. The spiderweb of black cracks in the cloudy glass gave the impression of an old-fashioned photographic plate of the Milky Way, and through that cosmic-looking tangle you could see the black roots at the back of Jean's blond head. It also reflected Milhet, facing the mirror, sliding, back to the bar, onto a high stool, his eyes, like Jean's, predatory.
Jean smiled. Milhet smiled.
She hadn't expected him to be there. He knew she was always there. Within half an hour, they were in the motel room, laying out lines on the scarred bureau top. A broken drawer angled out of the bureau front. A single straight-backed wooden chair lay on its side on the floor, knocked over when they entered the room and Milhet reached around Jean and grabbed her ass, which she professionally twitched.
A cracked lamp with a bare red bulb cast a bloody light. The TV, which was on when they entered the room, broadcast news about a hurricane, baptized Ruby. A satellite photo of the Gulf Coast from Tallahassee to Mobile filled the TV screen with the hurricane's whorl, which looked like a giant thumb print.
"A westward moving tropical wave is producing high winds and an advisory ...," the TV newscaster was saying. "Global warming may increase the frequency and intensity of ..." Milhet was having trouble focusing. "Moving northeast liable to make landfall sometime tomorrow morning at ..."
Through the open bathroom door, Milhet gazed with zombie eyes at Jean, who rinsed the glass, filled it two-thirds with fresh water, and, unfolding an origami-like paper bindle, spilled in a gram of coke. She lit a small butane torch and heated the solution, constantly swirling it, waiting for the drug, spiraling like an insignificant galaxy, to start crystallizing into a rock of crack.
"The trouble with immediate gratification," Jean said, "is it takes so long."
She dropped a pinch of baking powder into the glass, which cracked from the heat, spilling the solution.
"Damn!" she said.
Jean backed out of the bathroom to avoid cutting her bare feet on the broken glass on the floor.
Reaching over, Milhet snagged his pants and, from a pocket, took out another bindle of coke.
"You want me to run out to the shop," Jean asked, "get a Pyrex?"
"Don't we have another glass?" Milhet asked.
He crossed the room, picking up another tumbler, and gave her the glass and the drugs to cook up.
"Keep it more away from the flame," he said, "so it doesn't crack, okay?"
He embraced Jean from behind and moved his hands over the front of her body.
"You get me any hotter," Jean said dully, "I'll crack."
Jack Slidell's cell phone rang, two old fashioned trills, imitating a bell from a Fifties rotary telephone, a retro touch that pleased Jack. Jack fumbled in the bedsheets. The cell rang again. Jack found the phone under a pillow tossed to the foot of the bed. Answered it.
Jack, a muscular sixty, had the body of a laborer and the manner of a gentleman. He got the muscles from working construction in his twenties to put himself through Columbia Law School, where he got his polish. Ever since his divorce when he was in his early fifties, women had begun telling him he reminded them of Sean Connery.
"If only they'd thought that when I was thirty," Jack used to say before he stopped taking notice.
"Who?" Jack asked the telephone. "What?"
Where? When? thought Jack, who had spent two years before law school as a general assignment reporter on the New York Daily News.
"I'll be right there," he said.
The digital clock on his Bose Wave radio blinked 12:00 red. Jack never set it.
In Jack's bedroom it was always midnight.
Outside the Dutch Village Motel, the neon sign fizzed. Rip Van Winkle's left hip boot flickered. Jack drove past the office, where, through the dirty window, he saw the night clerk asleep in a chair in front of a small TV, grainy blue light from the screen pockmarked his face. On the wall behind the night clerk was a calendar with a photo of a girl in a green thong standing next to a tractor tire as tall as she was. On the counter was an iron desk spike, used for paid bills, and on a fraying wire was a button that rang a buzzer in the back of the house, where the clerk often slept in front of a TV.
Jack swung his car behind the office and stopped in front of the detached cabins, which had been built in the early Fifties and hadn't been painted since. He parked in front of Cabin 4, the only unit with a light on inside. The thin drapes were streaked with soot and glowed red from the lightbulb in the room. When Jack turned off the car engine, he heard the sizzling neon sign, the whine of the cicadas in the woods behind the motel, and from across the road, the rattle of corn stalks. Far off, Jack heard a power mower. The air had a trace of the sweet smell of cut grass. The air was heavy with the threat of the storm moving up the East Coast.
Jack knocked on the door and called, "Frank!"
He knocked again, called again, "Frank, you in there?"
Jack tried the door, which was unlocked. Not a good sign. Jack figured it was stupid to enter, so he entered. The room reeked of something chemical. Burned rubber? Frank sprawled, obviously dead, half off the bed. An OD? In the corner of the room, Jean curled, beaten so badly her body was purple with bruises. Unconscious.
From outside, Jack heard the siren of approaching State Police cars. Their revolving red and white lights flashed through the thin motel curtains. Jack upended the wooden chair — a mistake, Jack thought, leave the scene intact — and sat in it, waiting. On TV, the weatherman stood in front of a blue-screen projection of the hurricane, which was growing. The low pressure plugged Jack's ears. The storm was coming.
The door slammed open. Two cops burst in, guns drawn. Aimed at Jack.
"Easy," the first cop said to Jack, who, hands in the air, slowly stood, saying, "You know what they say: Walk careful among the dead, and don't trust the living. ..."
Milhet & Alverez — a law firm in Mycenae, New York, which catered to the Hamptons' refugees who had begun moving into Columbia County — was in an uproar. Secretaries and clerks stood in groups of threes and fours, gossiping and glancing sideways through Jack's office door at Jack, who, rumpled and unshaven after the previous night's misadventures, was cleaning out his desk, packing everything in a brown cardboard banker's box.
Earlier, while the police were questioning Jack, Frank's partner, Tony Alverez, ten years younger than Jack, arrived at the station house on the corner of South Third and Division Street. At five o'clock in the morning, when the cops released Jack, Alverez was waiting, impeccably shaved, wearing his blue shirt with its high white collar, and red suspenders like bloody vertical stripes under his seersucker jacket.
"This is the fourth time in the past two years, I've gotten a late-night call from the police about you," Alverez told Jack. "Maybe you should take some time off."
Outside Jack's window, two stories down, on Howard Street, a small crowd milled, faces tilted up, eyes squinting in the sun, hands to foreheads like military salutes, as if they were looking at an eclipse, locals who had heard rumors. The breeze blew one woman's long hair out behind her like living snakes.
"Jack doesn't look so good," one of the clerks said.
"You don't get a lot of beauty sleep in jail," another clerk said.
"Obstructing justice, resisting arrest —," a third clerk started.
"The boss was in trouble," the first clerk said. "Jack was trying to keep things quiet."
"Yeah, well," the second clerk said, "murder is noisy."
"We don't know Frank was murdered," the third clerk said.
"Jack should've called EMS," the first clerk said.
"Jack should've let his machine answer the phone," the third clerk said.
The second clerk nodded and said, "Someone rings you at three a.m., you know you haven't won the sweepstakes."
"Remember that time Jack was late for court," the third clerk said, "and Frank had to bail him out of —"
"Which time?" the second clerk asked. "We talking the assault? Or the disturbing the peace? Or the —"
"The time that bartender said Jack was full of piss and vinegar," the third clerk said. "And Jack tried to prove him wrong about the vinegar."
"I thought he'd be disbarred for sure," the second clerk said.
"What a knucklehead," the third clerk said.
They all smiled. They liked Jack.
"If the hooker dies," the first clerk said, lowering his voice, "they hit Jack with manslaughter three, accessory."
"Is he leaving the firm?" the first clerk asked.
"No," the second clerk said, "he's cleaning out his desk because they're giving him a free trip to the Virgin Islands."
Caroline Wonder, one of the firm's new hires, rushed past the gossiping clerks into Jack's office.
"Speaking of virgins ...," the second clerk said, following Caroline with his eyes.
Caroline, twenty-eight years old, was a thoroughbred, a Dutch-Knickerbocker bluestocking with a character as straight and strong as the whalebone reinforcing the corset she would have worn a hundred years ago. Even without the corset, she had a waist you could span with two hands, a face like an ivory cameo, and hair as pale as heated tungsten.
Ever since she started working at Milhet & Alverez, Jack called her Five Spot.
When she asked him why, Jack shrugged.
Caroline didn't trust Jack. She slammed Jack's door behind her.
"When God handed out brains," she said, "you thought he said rain and ran for cover."
"The woman on the phone," Jack explained, "said Frank was in trouble. ..."
"And Frank asked her to call you? Jack, you know that's an old scam."
"The boss was in trouble."
"And now he's dead. And you're up the creek. Given your reputation. I'm surprised they didn't shoot first. ..."
From a bottom drawer, Jack took a few files, a penknife, an antique silver letter opener, and an old wooden desk nameplate, which Caroline picked up.
"Put it down, Five Spot," Jack said.
Caroline examined it.
"Hand carved," she said.
"I said, put it down."
"What is it? Walnut?"
Jack made an unsuccessful grab for it.
"Jack Slidell, Attorney at Law," Caroline read.
Jack grabbed it.
"What's the big deal?" Caroline asked.
"I made it when I was a kid," Jack said. "Sixth grade. A gag."
Caroline studied Jack, who dropped the nameplate into the banker's box.
"From the first day I was here," Caroline said, "you never did like me."
"I like people who earn what they get."
"So do I. That's why I'm working here, not in the city, at my uncle's office."
"I heard when you passed the bar, your uncle dropped Frank a note."
"That's called a reference."
"That's called a free ride."
"You always believe rumors, Jack? I heard a rumor, one going around the office. Something about your saying going to bed with me would be like making love to a bicycle."
"Maybe it was icicle?"
"No, it was bicycle."
At the door, Caroline half-turned back to Jack and said, "I'm a twelve-speed. ..."
And slammed out.
With its red-flocked wallpaper, greasy in spots, couches lining the walls, and crystal lamps, Saul's Grill evoked one of the brothels that populated Mycenae ever since the War of 1812, when all the other whaling ports in the Northeast were blockaded by the British. The walls were covered with pictures of notorious local madams, including a late-nineteenth-century engraving of Kate Church, an early-twentieth-century photogravure of Rae Ann Best, and the faded snapshot of Eleanor Fitzpatrick, called Fizz by everyone in town, who died at ninety-seven in 1976.
Jack sat in a banquette with a law-firm colleague — a former colleague now that Jack was no longer employed by Milhet & Alverez — Robert Flowers.
"She's been in the firm, what ... three months?" Jack said. "I've been there five years. And she's telling me what's good, what's not good for business."
Robert wasn't paying attention to Jack. He was gazing at a beautiful woman with red hair and long legs.
"Robert," Jack reached across the table and tapped a finger in front of his friend. "Robert ..."
"Why don't I ever date women with seams on the back of their stockings?"
"You're lucky to date women with seams on the back of their legs." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Extinction Event by David Black. Copyright © 2010 David Black. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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