By Gerald So
Gerald So's stories have appeared in HandHeldCrime, Hardluck Stories Zine, SDO Detective, and Shred of Evidence. He is Fiction Editor for The Thrilling Detective Web Site and moderator of three crime fiction discussion lists, all of which can be reached from http://geraldso.blogspot.com/.
Tom Gregory stood outside his sister’s door, his index finger frozen half an inch from the bell. The house was red brick and white siding, modest for Westport. Certainly not the beach house they grew up in.
“Hi there, Lisa. Long time no see. I know this is kind of sudden, but I was passing through town and saw Irene’s obit in the paper...”
It was not the smoothest opening, but no words would sidestep the eight years he’d been gone.
Part of him rationalized-he didn’t have to see her, not at this moment; she wouldn’t want to see him anyway. But another part of him, the part hardened by the Corps, demanded he follow through.
“Semper fi,” he muttered, and rang the bell.
A two-tone chime sounded from inside. The inner door had a peephole. He heard no one rushing to it.
Saturday night. Was she home?
“May I help you?”
Preoccupied, Tom looked to the door before realizing the woman’s voice was behind him.
“This is my house. Who are you?”
The voice was husky, like she was catching cold. Her steps were heavy up the walk.
He shifted into the porch light, back still to her. She froze.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said.
She hugged him from behind. “What are you doing here?”
Disbelief, Tom noted. Not anger. Anger would come later.
“I heard about Irene.”
Lisa tensed when he said the name. She stepped out of the hug and fished for her keys.
Still in denial. So am I.
Lisa unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Tom did not follow.
She nodded him in and closed the door, but stopped there.
“I’m happy as hell to see you; I am.”
Their conversation was more silence than words. Tom knew he had to bear this to show he was sincere.
“Are you back for good?”
He couldn’t make that promise. “I’m not sure. If you need anything-”
Lisa shook her head. “Irene needed you when she first heard it was cancer. She needed you to drive her to CAT scans and treatments. She needed you to feed her when she didn’t have the strength. I, I don’t need you. I haven’t needed you for a while.”
Reaching behind her, she opened the door.
On his way out, Tom asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
The question caught her off guard. “What?”
He put up a hand, showing it wasn’t a jab at her, and said it as best he could. “I’d like to know you’re not alone.”
“I’m with someone.”
“Thank you,” Tom said.
He was left to assemble a new picture of her from memory as he walked away. Her brown hair was going blonde, but she’d kept it long, the way she’d worn it to start high school. She had on the purple blouse and black slacks uniform of Chandler’s Grill. There were dark circles under her eyes.
He replayed her speech and her response when he asked about a boyfriend. Lisa might call it a brotherly instinct he had no right to feel, but he could’ve sworn she hesitated.
Not wanting to look like a freeloader, Tom had parked three blocks away. By the time he got behind the wheel, he’d decided to check on that instinct.
The last time Tom ordered a drink at Chandler’s Grill, he was seventeen with a beard and hair down to his shoulders. The bartender phoned Irene, and she arrived along with the drink.
The place had been refurbished since then, and so had he. Clean-shaven, crew-cut, six-foot one-inch of lean, green Marine-no one recognized him. Just as well they didn’t. Most of Tom’s old neighbors would give him a reception even colder than Lisa’s.
He sat at a table just off the bar and ate beer nuts while waiting for a club soda. When it came, he thanked the waitress-whose name was Kathy-and asked about Lisa.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’m her brother.”
“Sorry. Can’t help you.” She shuffled away.
Lisa could have called ahead, warned the staff about him, but he doubted it. Nor had Kathy caught on to him. She was just looking out for a friend.
A new bartender came on duty. About Tom’s height, ruddy-faced with slick black hair and thirty pounds more bulk. Tom left his table for a stool.
He watched and waited the next two hours, ordering soft drinks as the late crowd came and went. Finally alone at the bar, he ordered a Belgian White Ale.
The bartender poured it with a smile and said, “I was beginning to think you were making a statement or something.”
With that, Tom knew he’d placed the man correctly. Staples High, Class of ‘96.
Still, he had to play this right. “Well, I would like to take a statement.”
“What happened to-”
“You tell me, Bruce. I’ve got eight years to catch up on.”
Tom had to salute before Bruce Ritti caught on.
“Holy shit. ‘Bout time, you sonovabitch.”
Angry, but not boiling mad.
Tom kept his voice level in response. “I saw her first thing. She threw me out. You tell me she’s happy, and I’ll move on.”
Thick hands supporting his weight, Ritti bowed forward, looking like he would make Tom move on.
Wouldn’t work, but he could try.
Tom hoped he wouldn’t. It was pretty clear Bruce had played big brother in his absence.
Every second now was a point in Tom’s favor. Ritti might fill him in after all.
“Lisa’s doing her thing,” he said.
“What is she doing, besides working here?”
“Acting. She’s in New York three days a week. Classes, auditions...” Ritti’s face flushed. He was talking out of his realm and didn’t like it. “What about you? You jump ship?”
Tom shook his head. “I’m a photographer. Freelance.”
“What, like Peter Parker?”
Tom was glad he hadn’t told the whole truth. That he hadn’t actually sold any photos yet. “You didn’t answer my question. Is Lisa happy?”
“Did she say she was happy?”
“She said she was with someone.”
Ritti started to say something, but bit back whatever it was.
“Who am I going to tell?”
Ritti shook his head, then surprised Tom, saying, “I don’t know what she sees in him.”
He shrugged. “She hasn’t introduced me. You believe that?”
Tom believed it. I don’t need you. I haven’t needed you for a while.
Ritti was saying, “He picks her up after every shift. Six months they’ve been dating, and I know him as the beanpole in the beret. You should see this guy.”
“Can you get me a copy of Lisa’s hours?”
More stalling, weighing one suspicion against the other. “Wait here.”
It rained the day he read about Irene, and yesterday had been overcast, turning to rain only past midnight as he left Chandler’s Grill. By morning, the sky had cleared well enough for photos. Lisa was working eight-to-midnight, and Tom was glad to have the distraction until then.
Dressed in jeans and a camouflage jacket, he walked from his motel into the woods. He used up his film shooting birds, rocks, trees, streams. Before the Corps, he wouldn’t have noticed any of this. At boot camp, Dolph Shulz loaned him Walden, and the prospect of “living simply” enthralled him.
He had always thought of Westport as the high life, a life he and Lisa were thrust into when their parents died and Irene took custody. Lisa had been four, almost too young to remember. Tom had been eight, and had never fit in. He hadn’t built a life to go back to, so when his six-year hitch was up, he stayed away.
Now he was having second thoughts. The land surrounding Westport hadn’t changed much in a hundred and fifty years. Take away all of the town’s ambitions, and it was the natural haven he’d read about in Walden.
Hiking back, Tom found a camera shop in the town square, but it was closed Sundays.
Four p.m. Time to shower, nap, and dress for tonight’s recon.
Tom could have sat in his car across the street from Chandler’s Grill, watching for a “beanpole in a beret.” He could have had Ritti call and confirm the beanpole's arrival. But he wanted to see the subtleties, how the guy treated Lisa. The only way to do that was to go in.
Without a shave that day, his sideburns and beard had crept in nicely. A varsity jacket and baggy jeans made him look a little wider, and a Red Sox cap covered his crewcut. Getting into character, he used a weary slouch in place of his assertive march.
He had to admit, though, the one factor that would make or break his disguise was psychological. The way they left things, Lisa might try to forget seeing him. She might not remember his appearance as well as he did hers.
At seven-thirty, he went in with a stream of people gathering to watch a Patriots preseason game on the big screen. Safely somewhere in the middle, he watched Lisa take drink orders. He wasn’t confident he could disguise his voice from her, so he moved every so often, not letting her catch up.
The game ended around eleven-thirty, thinning the crowd. Tom saw Ritti behind the bar and made his way to a stool.
“What can I get you?” Ritti asked.
Ritti raised an eyebrow. Tom propped up his cap, smiling through stubble. He put a finger to his lips before Ritti’s surprise could get the better of him.
“Guy hasn’t shown up yet,” Ritti said.
“You think he will?”
At eleven forty-five, Lisa began wiping off tables. A man wearing a khaki beret appeared at the door.
Ritti touched Tom’s shoulder. “Bachelor number one. I call him The Professor.”
Tom moved for the jukebox, closer to the door. As he got there, Lisa flinched, noticing the Professor.
“Hi, honey,” he said.
The word gangly came to mind. He could be anywhere from eighteen to thirty. Hadn’t outgrown his gawky phase. His voice was almost a whisper, but Lisa heard it.
“How was your day?” she asked.
“I’m almost through.”
“Good. I’ll be at the bar.”
Tom paged through the jukebox selections. He needed a song that wasn’t too loud, so he could concentrate on the couple. He chose “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Lisa finished cleaning up and went to the employee closet.
The Professor ordered a double bourbon.
Lisa returned wearing a gray windbreaker. She took a stool next to the Professor while he finished his drink. When they stood, the Professor reached an arm around Lisa’s waist. She recoiled.
He gave her a peck on the cheek and followed her out.
“See that?” Ritti said.
“She used to wave and say goodnight to me whenever we were on the same shift. He comes around, and she forgets I’m here.”
Tom wished he’d been around for her to forget.
“So anyway, whaddya think of the guy?”
“I’ll get back to you.”
The motel was about ten blocks from Chandler’s Grill, but Tom didn’t go back right away. Seeing Lisa with her boyfriend hadn’t been the clear sign he hoped for, that would dictate his next move. What would it take for him to believe Lisa had her own life?
Monday morning was cool and clear. Having slept on it, Tom decided he would shoot two more rolls of pictures, then move on.
He shaved off last night’s disguise, checked out, and drove to the camera shop. He went in expecting to buy film, but put that idea on hold, seeing the Professor in the camcorder aisle.
Tom turned to look like he was browsing while he kept tabs on the khaki beret.
The Professor went to the counter with a camcorder battery pack and three 8mm cassettes.
Moving to the lens aisle, Tom watched the Professor leave the shop and pass in the window. He waited twenty seconds and followed.
Across the street, the Professor was considering brunch at a deli.
Back in the camera shop, Tom bought the film he wanted. The man behind the counter wore thick, black-framed glasses, his gray hair in a comb-over. At Staples High, he had taught biology, photography, and computer classes.
“Hey, Mr. Sykes.”
Sykes squinted behind his lenses. He frowned without recognition.
All that got was an “Ah.”
“I was wondering about the man who just left, in the khaki beret.”
That got even less.
“I can pay you,” Tom said.
Sykes put out a hand, taking four of Tom’s five twenties before he talked. “His name is Rodney Hammond. Been in town about six months. I think he followed your sister here from New York.”
“That’s all I know.” He smiled. “Really.”
“Nice doing business with you, Sykes.”
Tom walked out and started his car, but his hand stalled on the shifter. In the passenger seat, the varsity jacket caught his eye. He was glad the disguise had worked. It hadn’t been cold enough for a jacket all day. That made him think of Lisa’s windbreaker.
He replayed the scene at Chandler’s Grill: Lisa’s flinch when she saw Hammond, asking “How was your day?” The way she recoiled from his touch.
She might have been embarrassed to show affection in front of Bruce. Still, why not even introduce the guy in six months?
Then he thought of Kathy, looking out for a friend.
Turning to the deli, Tom hoped he was wrong about Hammond. But if he was right, he couldn’t leave town just yet.
Lisa’s next shift was Wednesday, midnight-to-closing. Tom had checked back into the motel, using Tuesday to arrange things with Ritti. Wednesday he ironed his best dress shirt and slacks. Dyed his hair black and slicked it back. Spent an hour relearning how to tie a tie. He topped off the look with his driving glasses and rubber-soled, looked-like-leather shoes.
He was on a stool at the left end of the bar when Lisa reported for work. Johnny Corporate Ladder. He thought he saw it when she picked up her first drink order. By her third, he was sure of it: She had extra foundation around her eyes and left cheek.
Tom moved to a table in another waitress’s section. He ordered a steak platter and ate slowly, waiting for Hammond to arrive.
By one-thirty, the place was nearly empty. Someone had selected “Send in the Clowns” on the jukebox, but didn't stay to hear it. Lisa was wiping off tables. Tom was at the bar drinking ginger ale.
Hammond came in at one-fifty. Their interaction was eerily identical to the other night. Only when Hammond hopped off his stool, reaching his arm around, Tom was behind him.
He pulled Hammond’s arm back from its socket and slammed him headfirst onto the bar.
Ritti sprinted from behind the bar, locked the door, and flipped the sign to “Sorry, We’re Closed.” Coming back, he dragged the knocked-out Hammond toward the restrooms.
All Lisa could manage was “Bruce?”
Ritti said, “I’ll leave you two alone.”
Lisa turned, speechless.
Tom took off the glasses, and she slugged him.
He’d turned in time to deflect some of the blow. Not enough.
Shaking it off, he said, “Why can’t you do that to Rodney?”
Lisa tried to cover it, but Tom saw her shrink at Hammond’s name. When she didn’t answer, he reached out slowly, smudging her makeup with his thumb, revealing a day-old shiner. Gently, he smoothed back her hair and saw a welt on the side of her neck.
“It’s not his fault,” she said.
“He tries so hard. I knew him for years before we started dating. He was there for me. You weren’t. I owe him.”
Tom breathed deep. “How did you meet?”
She didn’t want to answer, but could see he wouldn’t drop it.
“He directed a pilot I starred in. My first break, four years ago.”
Right out of high school. Tom said, “He tries so hard, comes home dog-tired, frustrated, and takes it out on you. You owe him that?”
“I’ve thought about leaving,” she said after a while, “but...”
He could see the fear, the denial in her eyes. He waited until she put it into words.
“He has a tape of me. Of us having sex. We filmed ourselves once, for fun. He’s never threatened to use it-”
“-but you’ve never threatened to leave.”
Lisa nodded. “I don’t want the tape to be part of my career. I want to break in the right way.”
“Are you sure?” Tom asked.
“What are you saying? Of course I am.”
There was conviction in her words, but more important, Tom saw fire in her eyes.
He asked, “Where does he live?”
Rodney Hammond’s studio apartment was three blocks from Chandler’s Grill. The door had a deadbolt, but Lisa had a key. Tom had waited just over twenty-four hours, giving Ritti time to lift it from her purse. If all went according to plan, Tom would return the key when he was through. Ritti would claim someone turned it in at the bar.
The wait also gave Hammond time to recover. For best effect, Tom needed him lucid.
The sound of the deadbolt sliding back didn’t wake Rodney. Nor did Tom’s moving through the apartment by the light of a pencil flash.
Reaching the bedroom, Tom slid into bed next to Rodney.
An owl hooted through the window. Rodney stirred and Tom made him aware of the knife at his throat.
“Hello, Rodney.” Tom’s voice was soft but clear. “I want you to tell me calmly where you keep your tapes. All of them. New and old, masters and copies. That’s all I want to hear from you, or my hand might slip.”
Tom relaxed his hold.
“Three new eight-millimeters in the desk.” Rodney gulped. “One eight-millimeter and four VHS in the safe, hidden in the closet floor.”
“You’re not lying, are you?”
Rodney took in air to speak, then stopped himself. Good. He got the rules.
“I don’t think you are,” Tom went on. “I’m going to trust you. What’s the combination?”
Rodney said nothing.
“Oh, I want to hear the combination.”
Rodney gave the numbers as calmly as he could. When he was done, Tom tapped him to sleep with the butt of his knife.
Sliding the knife into its ankle sheath, Tom went for the safe. The combination worked. He gathered the one 8mm, labeled “Lisa,” and four unlabeled VHS tapes into a black duffel.
Turning, he saw Rodney coming out of it, getting to his elbows. Before he could warn Rodney to stay put, he heard the click of a safety.
Tom dropped everything, tucked and rolled. If Rodney got a shot off, he didn't hear it.
The rest was muscle memory. Coming up with his knife inside Rodney’s shooting grip, Tom plunged the blade into his throat.
He cradled Rodney’s gun with a gloved hand.
He had told Lisa he would talk to Rodney. That wasn’t a lie. They had talked. But Tom was gravely certain going in he'd have to kill Rodney. Couldn't risk him making the connection to Lisa, abusing her further. He was glad Rodney had put up a fight.
Tom left Lisa’s key in Ritti’s mailbox. Before daylight, he dropped the gun and knife in separate lakes, heading south.
By afternoon he made Georgia, where he mailed the tapes to Lisa. He didn’t say anything about coming home.
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