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By Lawrence Block
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Lawrence Block
All rights reserved.
Johnny Lane stood at a window and stared out over Central Park. He was a tall man with an athlete's build and a strong chin. Usually his gray eyes were keen, penetrating. But now they held a vacant expression as he viewed the dark expanse that lay beyond the bright lights of Fifth Avenue.
Central Park, he thought. Muggings, stabbings and rapes. Come and bring the kiddies and we'll all have fun.
He turned decisively from the window and walked with quick firm steps to a heavy Victorian wing chair beside a telephone. He sat down, hoisted the receiver to his ear, dialed a number. He listened impatiently to seven full rings, then slammed down the phone and slumped unhappily in the chair.
He heard the sound of a man clearing his throat.
Johnny turned his head. Ito was standing at his side, holding a small mahogany tray with a tumbler perched in its center. The slender man's face was impassive but his eyes twinkled merrily.
"Master appears troubled," Ito said. "This servant has prepared special potion of esteemed medicinal value. Potion especially useful when user is troubled."
Johnny Lane grinned in spite of himself. "Cut the honorable-son routine," he said. "Save it for company. But thanks for the therapy—it's just what the doctor ordered." He picked up the tumbler and sipped the straight bourbon it contained.
"The girl doesn't answer?"
Johnny shook his head. "The girl doesn't answer. The girl is supposed to be ready for two weeks of out-of-town rehearsals starting tomorrow, and it's a quarter to two in the goddamn morning, and the girl doesn't answer. Where in the name of hell the girl is, I do not know. Who in the name of Sarah Bernhardt the girl thinks she is ..."
He broke off, shrugged angrily and drank more bourbon. Ito disappeared long enough to get rid of the tray, then returned. The perfect servant, Johnny thought. And every producer needed a perfect servant, just as every producer needed a well-stocked liquor cabinet. Both were essential safeguards against insanity.
He thought that over, tried to decide whether it was original on his part or a line from some play, and decided that it really didn't matter. What mattered was the rest of the bourbon in the glass. He finished it off. He dialed the girl's number again, listened to the phone ring its brains out, and replaced the receiver.
"Damn it," he said. "Now what in hell is the matter with that girl? Ito, it doesn't add up at all. This is the first real part Elaine James has even been within yards of. She's had a few small supporting roles off-Broadway but nothing worth a damn. Now she's set up for the lead in A Touch of Squalor with Ernie Buell directing and Carter Tracy for a co-star. The play is a honey and the part couldn't be better. And with all of seven hours before it's time to grab a train to the hinterlands where is she?"
"I give up," Ito said. "Where is she?"
"Who the hell knows?" Johnny stood up, walked once more to the window. "Maybe she's over there, Ito. Maybe she's necking shamelessly on a park bench. Maybe she's in some guy's bed having a going-away party."
"Is honorable master jealous?"
"Is honorable servant becoming nosy?" Johnny's face relaxed into a grin. "You should know me better than that, Ito. Business and pleasure can't be combined. Not in this racket, anyhow. A producer who sleeps with his leading lady before the show opens is going to end up with a turkey."
"And after the show opens?"
"She's a lovely girl," Johnny admitted. "Very sweet and very bright." He returned to his chair and sank into it. "And what happens after the show opens," he went on, "is none of your damned business."
Ito recaptured Johnny's empty glass and left the room. Not because he, Ito, was insulted—he had long since proved himself impervious to insult—but because he sensed that Johnny wished to be alone. He was right. Johnny took a cigarette from the pack in his jacket pocket, put it into his mouth and scratched a match. He dragged deeply and filled his lungs. He blew out smoke and again glanced at his watch.
Two o'clock. Two a.m. and Elaine was still out on the town. Well, what the hell was he worrying about? She was a big girl, old enough to decide when to go to bed. And with whom, he thought sullenly. Besides, why was he trying to reach her in the first place? To tell her not to miss the train? That was brilliant. Hell, even if he got her on the phone he wouldn't have a thing to say.
He closed his eyes—which was pleasant, and pictured Elaine James in his mind—which was even more pleasant. Twenty-two years old, five-and-a-half feet tall, with all the requisite curves in their proper places. A red rosebud of a mouth that was designed for gentle kissing. Soft light-blond hair in a Dutch cut, a hairstyle damned few girls could get away with, and in which she looked childishly magnificent. Light blue eyes, cool eyes. An amazingly beautiful girl, all things considered.
But why did he want to assure himself that she was home? He toyed with the idea that it was a purely glandular reaction. But that didn't make any sense. When you were busting your hump trying to get a show on the boards, just two weeks remaining before you were supposed to open in New Haven, you didn't make passes at your leading lady. And Elaine had not struck him as much of a pass receiver anyway; there was something annoyingly virginal about her.
He stood up. "Ito!" he yelled. And he strode to the hall closet, opened the door and grabbed a topcoat.
"I'm going out," he told his butler. "I'm chasing a wild goose."
"Don't ask why, because I don't know myself. Just a hunch, I guess. Something doesn't seem right. I'm probably nuts but I want to make sure."
A gray-faced, thin-lipped elevator operator piloted Johnny down sixteen flights from the penthouse to the lobby. Johnny was privately convinced that the man, whose name he had never managed to determine, had not spoken since the Spanish-American War. Now the operator maintained his clean record and Johnny matched him word for word. Then Johnny passed through the lobby and went out into the cool crisp air of nighttime New York, crossed Fifth and grabbed a cab headed downtown.
"Six sixty-one East Fifth Street," he told the driver.
"You sure that ain't in the East River, Mac?"
"Almost," Johnny admitted. "Between Avenue B and C. Take the Drive down."
"That's a long way from Fifth and Sixty-first," the cabby said.
Johnny agreed with him silently. It was a long way in more ways than one, he thought. A long way from a penthouse with a park view to a railroad flat on the fifth floor of a building that should have been condemned when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. But girls like Elaine James didn't live in penthouses. When you were a trying-to-make-it actress who worked fifteen weeks out of fifty-two you took whatever you could get. Which, nine times out of ten, meant the Lower East Side.
The cab made good time on the East River Drive. They left the drive at the Tenth Street exit, cut through Riis Project, followed Avenue D to Fifth Street and number 661. Johnny paid the cabby, waved him away.
Standing on the curb, looking up at the faded tenement, Johnny wondered how anyone could live in it. From Fifth Avenue to Fifth Street was a trip to another world.
Well, Elaine James wouldn't be living here long, he thought. She had talent and now her break was coming. A Touch of Squalor was a hell of a play. It would put her name in lights for a good long time and the lights would be bright ones. She would move out of her cold-water flat the day the critics told the public just how great she was.
Johnny walked to the door, opened it. The vestibule needed sweeping and painting. There were no doorbells, just a row of rusted iron mailboxes with tenants' names scratched on them. He found one marked Elaine James—5D. He opened the inner door and walked into the building.
Inside the dirt was dirtier. The stairwell reeked of cooking, stale beer and human sweat, an irresistible combination. Penciled obscenities were misspelled on the walls. Johnny climbed four flights of stairs and cursed industriously all the way. He was breathing heavily when he reached the fifth and top floor.
I'll be damned, he thought. She's got the penthouse. And he laughed.
There were four apartments on the floor and he looked at all four doors before he found 5-D. A small card, carefully lettered, announced that Elaine James lived inside. There was no doorbell. He knocked.
No sound came from within. Well, what did you expect? he wondered. You damn fool, if she were home she would have answered the phone.
He tried the door on impulse. The knob stuck, but once he managed to coax it into turning the door swung open, creaking horribly as it did so. He hesitated in the doorway, looking at the darkness and wondering what the hell he was doing here. She was out and the door was open and he should close it and get the hell out himself. But it just was not like Elaine to leave a door unlocked. She was a careful, methodical person.
Which, come to think of it, was the reason it wasn't like Elaine to be out on the town at two-thirty in the morning when she had a nine o'clock train to catch.
And the door was open. Of course in that neighborhood it might mean simply that the lock was defective. Still, he wanted to check. It couldn't hurt.
He fumbled around on both sides of the door looking for a light switch. He gave up and struck a match. A metal chain dangled from a ceiling fixture in the middle of the room. He walked to it, yanked it, and the light went on.
The apartment looked as though it belonged in another building. The room—the living room, he guessed—was furnished inexpensively but well. It was small and at one end there were cooking arrangements—a two-burner hot-plate and an archaic sink—but the room was happily homey. The carpet on the floor was clean, if far from new. And the walls had been painted a pleasant beige.
Johnny closed the door, then surveyed the room again. Elaine's reading matter was stacked neatly on the coffee table. Copies of Variety and Show Business, a few numbers of the Village Voice, a half-dozen paperbacks. He looked through the books, raised his eyebrows at titles like The Jungian Approach to Dramatic Reality, The Cartesian Ethic in the Theatre, and Theatrical Gestalt in Twentieth Century America. He replaced the books gingerly, wondering what in the world their titles meant, then took a cigarette from his pack, struck a match and scorched his throat again with smoke.
There were two doors at the far end of the living room. He walked to one, knocked carefully, and finally eased it open. He saw a small closet, containing an overcoat and a pair of galoshes. He wondered why he had knocked and thought how strange it would have been if the galoshes had answered him. He closed the closet door and knocked loudly on the other door.
The bedroom, he thought. And if nobody answers I should not—repeat not—open the door.
So he opened the door.
The bedroom light was on. A soft yellow glow bounced off the beige walls and the dark carpet. The room was tiny, with space only for a single bed and a chest of drawers. One ancient suitcase stood at the side of the chest of drawers.
The blankets were bunched up at the foot of the bed. A sheet covered the mattress. Elaine James lay on top of the bed on her back. She was nude.
He looked at her. He studied her nakedness shamelessly, because neither he nor she had anything to be ashamed of now. He looked at the perfectly tapered legs, at the firm proud breasts.
His stomach turned over. His cigarette dropped from his fingers to the floor and he ground it into the carpet with his heel.
Elaine James was a lovely girl, she was lovely from the neck down. She was also lovely from the neck up.
But her neck was not lovely at all, because somebody had slashed a hole in it.
There was a telephone on top of the dresser. He used a handkerchief to lift the receiver to his ear. His eyes focused hazily on the dial and he remembered listening to this same telephone ring and ring. And he had cursed the girl for not being there to answer it. She had been there, most likely. But in no condition to answer.
He felt numb. He managed to dial the right number, and he managed to ask the desk sergeant for Lieutenant Haig. Seconds later he heard Haig's voice. It was flat and tired and it fitted Johnny's mood.
"Homicide. Haig speaking."
"Sam, this is Johnny. Johnny Lane."
"Johnny? Hell, I thought you were getting out of town."
"Not until tomorrow," he said. "Well, today, really. Nine o'clock train. Sam, there's ... there's been a murder. I found a body."
A low whistle came over the phone.
"Six Sixty-one East Fifth Street. That's between B and C. Apartment 5-D. You'd better get over here."
"You there now?"
"Stay there, then. I'll be right up. Who got it, Johnny? Somebody you know?"
"I knew her. A girl named Elaine James. My—uh—my leading lady. You better hurry, Sam."
He hung up the phone, put his handkerchief back into his pocket and turned around slowly. He saw Elaine again, saw what had been Elaine, and nausea climbed in his throat. Her blood had soaked into the sheet. Some of it had trailed down into the valley between her breasts.
He walked out, closed the door. He sat down on the couch in the living room and waited. He picked up a recent issue of Variety and tried to kill a few minutes reading it but the print danced before his eyes. All he could see was Elaine, so nude and so dead, lying in a room where a phone rang again and again.
Theatrical, he thought. A good dramatic touch. Maybe a little too vivid, but loaded with impact.
Haig was on his way. Haig was sharp and thorough, and he would get hold of the bastard who slashed her.
Johnny hoped they caught him fast and killed him dead as hell.CHAPTER 2
"She must have been pretty," Haig said. "Once, I bet, she must have been pretty."
"She was," Johnny said.
They were in the bedroom. Haig's lab men were being busy, measuring distances, dusting for fingerprints, picking up dirt samples and doing other mysteriously scientific things which Johnny did not pretend to understand. He stood with Haig at the side of the bed. Now a thin white sheet covered Elaine James' body, stopping an inch or two below the gash across her throat.
Haig cleared his throat. He was a big man, heavy, with gray mixed into his black hair. He was not a pretty man. His nose had been broken twice and he had scar tissue around the eyes. He was a good cop and he and Johnny had been friends for years.
"Some people would say she's still pretty," Haig went on. "Maybe she is. I don't know. Once they're dead they stop looking good to me. All I can see is the death part of it. The ugliness. There's nothing pretty about death."
Johnny assented silently.
"I oughta get used to it," Haig said. "I see enough of them. Cuttings, stabbings, shootings—the works. You know what we had a week ago? A garroting. Got any idea what a garroting looks like?"
"A fair idea."
Haig shrugged. "We found this guy in the park. Central Park. Damn fool was walking through Central Park at three in the morning. You got to be a real clown to walk through Central Park at that hour. Pretty when we found him. His head swelled up and turned purple. A purple basketball with the eyes three-quarters out of their sockets. Pretty."
"No worse than this," Johnny said. "It couldn't have been worse than this."
"Who knows? To me they're all the same and I never get used to them. Maybe I'm in the wrong business." He sighed heavily. "We might as well get out of here. The microscope boys can do more than we can. We only get in their way. Amazing guys. They can take the lint from a man's pants cuffs and tell you who he's been sleeping with. They'll turn up something."
"They'll turn up a few thousand fingerprints that belong to me," Johnny said. "I must have handled half the apartment. I didn't know I was going to find a corpse." His eyes returned to the wound on the girl's neck. "You know what killed her?"
"Something sharp, most likely."
"Thanks a lot."
"Hell," Sam Haig said. "Who knows? Maybe a big knife, a long one. Maybe a razor. The lab boys will study it and find out it's a Malayan kris stolen from the British Museum in eighteen-fourteen. They're amazing."
"If they're so good, why do they keep you on the force?"
The big cop grinned. "They need a rough son-of-a-bitch to beat up suspects. And to crash through doors with a gun in his fist. Like in the movies. Let's get out of here, huh? I have to keep you up all night answering questions. You might miss your train."
Excerpted from Strange Embrace by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2012 Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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