Enciso Martinez strolled down the unfamiliar street with an air of nonchalance. He had no undercover assignment to fulfill. His task today was social. He was looking for Flatly Broke’s place.
The neighborhood was shabby. In contrast with some of the other less desirable areas in town, the buildings showed few signs of neglect. The paint was faded, but not peeling. Steps were smooth with no uneven surface due to unpatched cracks.
People who chose to live here might be poor in pocket, but they were obviously not poor in pride. They had decided to make the best out of what they could control and not spend their days grumbling about how bad they had it.
Looks like a decent ’hood. That’s the reason I’ve never been here before.
Martinez was on this street today because he felt a bond with the ex-fighter and had decided to do what he could to cement their fledgling friendship. He admired the way that the man handled himself throughout a tense situation.
The big Latino stopped. He pulled a crumpled paper from his pocket. Checking the address written on the paper, he matched it with the stoop he stood before. He started up the steps.
The door of the building burst open. Martinez flinched.
A disheveled young black woman stormed out. Fire blazed from her eyes. Martinez stepped back down the steps to avoid the woman.
Ignoring all impediments, including Martinez, she barreled down the steps. At the bottom, she turned and screamed up at a second-floor window.
“Don’t nobody treat me that way! I’m not gonna take any of your slimy jive! I am too good for you! You a creep!”
Flatly’s head appeared at the window on the second floor. He called down to the angry woman.
“All I’m doing is tryin’ to help! You don’t want no disease, and I don’t want no disease neither! I can’t help if you don’t understand. I’ve gots to protect myself. AIDS ain’t nothin’ to fool ’round wit!”
The woman aimed a crude gesture in Flatly’s direction. She spotted Martinez, struck a pose, and adjusted her halter-top. The detective flashed his shield. The woman muttered something and hurried away, high heels clicking on the sidewalk. Martinez stepped back down two steps and shouted up at the man in the second-floor window, “Hola, amigo. Can I come up?”
“Cue Ball! Sure thing, man. Come on up.”
I gotta get him to stop calling me that. I’ve worked hard on that ID. I don’t want to lose it yet.
The undercover man went inside. He reached the second-floor landing and peered down a grungy hallway. One door stood partly opened. The smell of people crammed in living quarters too small for their numbers assaulted his nostrils. It reminded him of a thousand places he’d visited in his police career. It was also painfully close to the sights and smells of his childhood.
Flatly emerged from the second door on the left. He was dressed in silk pajama tops and threadbare designer jeans. He waved.
“Flatly,” Martinez called. “It’s good to see you.”
“Come on in, man.”
“You alone? I need to see you in private,” Martinez told the ex-fighter as he entered the dingy apartment.
“Yeah. You saw her leave. What’s happening, Cue Ball?”
“Well, first I need you to call me something besides Cue Ball.”
Flatly’s face radiated confusion.
“I only use that name when I’m working a case.”
“Ooooh. I gets it. That’s like your other Bruce Wayne name.”
“Yeah, you gotta know Batman. Bruce Wayne’s working name is Batman.”
“Yeah. Just like that,” Martinez said. He makes the weirdest good connections to things. “I want to tell you what a great job you did on the bust.”
“Thanks, man,” Flatly glowed. “It wasn’t no worse than some of the fights I was in. I ever tell you what a time I had with Crusher Carson back in ’79?”
“No, I don’t think so. Is it a long story?”
“Ac’chly, man, it’s a real short story,” was Flatly’s sheepish admission. “He knocked me out in two.”
“I thought this was going to be a story about something good,” Martinez laughed.
“I only got three, maybe four, good fight stories,” Flatly confessed. “Three of the fights I won, and one was stolen from me. I only had ten fights before I had to get out of the ring.”
“Got my bell rung too many times. Doctor said I was headed for some permanent eye problems if I got knocked around another time or two.”
“Sorry, amigo. I didn’t know.” As the massive, muscular detective looked down on the diminutive former prizefighter, he realized which of the two of them was the bravest. I wade in when maybe I shouldn’t, but it’s always because I’ve got more firepower or more size. This man stood up, with only his fists, and took whatever he had to to make a pitiful living.
“It’s okay, man,” Flatly told him. “I don’t let it get me down no more. How come you came to see me?”
Martinez shook his head to clear his thoughts. He had to focus.
“I was talking to Phil Mamba.”
“The Dancer. He’s o-kay. He tipped me off on the lady with AIDS. He saved my life.”
“Actually,” Martinez cleared his throat. “I’m here because Mr. Mamba asked me to come.”
“Dancer’s sent a message to me?”
“The lady’s name.”
“Oh, yeah. He never did tell me who it was. I ’member me asking after I got fake-arrested.”
“There’s a small problem.”
“Can’t be too much of a problem,” Flatly assessed. “Dancer’s one of the least problematic men I know.”
“The problem has to do with the lady,” Martinez said.
“What about her?”
“Well, uh . . . There, um . . . Well, there might not be any one lady.”
“You mean there’s more than one?”
“There might not be any.”
“Whatcha mean?” Flatly demanded in the same tone he’d used in Weston’s place when he thought he was being taken advantage of.
“Mr. Mamba sort of made up a little story for you.”
“What you sayin’?”
“Mamba’s not sure if anyone you know has AIDS.”
“But he said they was.”
“He said what he said because he needed your help.”
“He lied to me?”
“Only kind of,” Martinez was in a quandary. I don’t want to get Mamba in trouble. It’s probably too late for that. He sighed. Gotta finish what I’ve started!
“Mamba only knows that there’s a strong rumor that a girl name Sherleen, or something like that, was in for treatment for AIDS.”
“Sherleen! No wonder I ain’t seen her ’round for a while.” Flatly finished with a whistle, all thoughts of treachery on Mamba’s part now behind him. “It’s good to know. She was my main squeeze for a time.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Martinez asked.
“Do you know where she’s at?”
“I can find out. Where’s your phone?”
“Don’t have no phone in my room, man, that’s bread I can’t spare. They gots one downstairs, in the super’s place.” He scrounged around for a pencil and a scrap of paper. With labored effort, he wrote something down. He handed the paper to the Latino.
“Jus’ tell ’em it’s for Flatly when you call after you find her. They’ll get me the message.”
“I’ll do it,” Martinez promised. He looked at the paper. In a childlike script, a telephone number and name were scrawled. It looked like a third grader had written the information.
“Sorry ‘bout my writin’,” Flatly apologized. “I didn’t get too far in school.”
“No problem.” Martinez made light of the obvious lack of literacy. “Is this a seven or a four?” he asked before he added a fabricated explanation of his own. “I don’t have my glasses.”
Flatly took the paper and stared hard.
“Must be a four,” he decided. He closed his eyes in thought. His head bobbed up and down as he recited a telephone number to himself. “It’s a four,” he confirmed.
“Good enough,” Martinez said.
“I didn’t know you wore glasses.”
Martinez froze. The comment caught him off guard.
“Uh, only to, uh, to read,” Snake slithered his way to an answer.
Flatly nodded his acceptance of the reason.
Martinez started to leave. Then he turned and asked, “You had anything for breakfast, amigo? I’m starved.”
“Well, it’s kinda late fo’ breakfast.” Flatly hedged.
“Then, no!” The ex-fighter exclaimed, his face beaming. “I ain’t eaten nuthin’ since yesterday noon.”
“Let’s go then,” the undercover man encouraged. “You like eggs?”
“I could live on eggs.”
“Then I have got the place for you.” Martinez sat on the only piece of furniture he was certain would handle his bulk and waited while Flatly dressed. As he waited he described in delicious detail the size of the omelets at The Egg Shell Cafe.
By the time they left the building, he’d made himself hungry again even though he’d stuffed himself with two helpings of machaca, frijoles refritos y tortillas earlier that morning.
* * *
Three evenings after she’d moved into the Royal Guard Hotel, Mary Carstairs once again unlocked room 214. She waited until she’d closed and bolted the door before feeling around for the light switch. She snapped it to the ON position. Darkness retained its grip on the room.
“Figures!” Mary grumbled. This place is a DUMP with all capital letters. She groped her way toward the kitchen.
She never made the linoleum flooring.
Strong hands grabbed her roughly from behind. Oh, God! One hand clamped over her mouth. Breathe, Mary, breathe. The fingers of another hand dug into her waist. Crap! I know what’s next. She was dragged to her right. After an initial squirm, she let her body relax as much as she could. She understood that fighting a rapist almost always brought more pain and abuse than compliance did.
Yep. He’s headed for the bed. This happened before. Once. Stay relaxed and at least pretend to enjoy what’s coming. I guarantee he’ll never do this again. If I have to, I’ll find me a rabbi with a circumcision flint!
“Keep quiet!” Her assailant spat out the command as he uncovered her mouth. His right hand moved to her arm. The sound of something tearing aroused her curiosity. What the… Curiosity morphed into an infantile form of panic as a large piece of adhesive tape was pushed roughly over her lips. I don’t like where this is headed. All bets are off now!
She beat her hands against her assailant’s chest. I hate you! Let me go! He continued as though she still hung limply. Her imprecations went unheard. The tape covering her mouth reduced them to meaningless noise.
She tried to scratch his eyes.
With a derisive snort, he grabbed both her wrists in one hand and squeezed. When she only winced at the pain, the attacker twisted her wrists to the right, spraining them both.
Oh, God! He’s going to break my arms! She willed her arms to relax, but that only fueled the sadist’s desire. He gave a final twist, this time to the left.
Oh, oh, oh! That hurts so bad! Mary felt her body folding into the fetal position. Stop! Body, please stop! He won’t like this! Don’t ball up!
Another snort. He released his grip. Oh, thank you, God! But, when she tried to move her hands, pain knifed up her arms. Panic began to build. Help! Help me, please! I don’t want to die!
Rough hands ripped the clothing from her body, leaving her naked. This is no ordinary assault! How’d Brewster find me? I’ve got to get out of here! I’ll give you money! Help! Oh, God, please!
The same hands threw her naked form to the bed. Before she could react, the male’s fully clothed body landed upon her. Push away! Get off me! She felt her muscles tense, but she didn’t move. This guy’s too big! I’m going to die! Think, Mary! Think! She forced herself to relax. She was minimally successful. Maybe I can wiggle out if I pretend to give up.
One end of a long piece of adhesive tape was wrapped around each ankle and wrist. This guy’s done this before. No way this is the first time he’s lain on a woman while taping her wrists.
Shockwaves of pain burned through the nerves up her arms. Don’t you know you’ve broken my wrists?
Tears erupted from her eyes. And, for the first time in a long time, the tears were genuine. Please don’t do this. Please!
She began to sob as, one by one, each wrist and ankle were taped to its own bedpost. Oh, God, no! This isn’t just an assault! I’ve got to get off this bed!
During the fleeting existence of that thought, panic matured from an infant to a fully developed emotion within her. No! No! No! You can’t do this! I don’t deserve this! She twisted from side to side as she attempted to pull at least one of the tape-ropes loose from its bedpost.
A flash of her Catholic school training brought the prayer of the Rosary to her mind. At least she recalled parts of it. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Why’s it start with the death line?
“Sidney Brewster hopes you don’t enjoy this at all,” the voice taunted. She heard a zipper opening. “But, I’m sure I will.”
Mary prayed even more fervently. O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy. Dear Jesus, that’s me!
She tried to scream. I’ll tell Brewster I didn’t mean it! Please don’t hurt me! Oh, my God! I don’t want to die!
Three sounds punctuated Mary’s final earthly thoughts.
First was the squeaking of bedsprings.
Someone help me, please!
Next was the speaking of a name, “They call me Big O.”
Help me, please! I don’t want to die!
The attacker climbed off her and the bed. She squirmed trying to find the rapist, but the darkness prevailed.
Oh, God! Don’t let me die like th—
Last was the muted sound of a single silenced gunshot.
The too-short roller coaster life of Mary Carstairs was over.
* * *
Typical of Manzanita, California, the day was warm. Residents’ wardrobes showcased shorts and/or flip-flops at least 250 days of the year. Not at all typical of Manzanita, California, was the humidity. Although, they weren’t particularly fond of the term, residents agreed that most of Manzanita’s heat was dry heat.
This day, the heat and humidity combined to make the day uncomfortable. The atypical weather conditions had many of the residents just a bit out of sorts, even Flatly Broke.
The day before had been a good day for the former boxer. He’d learned the name of the woman with AIDS. And, he’d had the best breakfast he’d eaten in at least a year. This day was far from a good one.
He was never in a hurry to get home to his empty apartment. Sometimes, when he had a particular friend with him or waiting for him, his movement up the stairway was snappy. Today, though, there was no lady by his side or waiting. Because of the humidity, he was sweating like a stuck pig. Sweaty and without immediate access to female companionship had the ex-boxer depressed.
Because of the atmospheric oddity and his depressed state, Flatly climbed the stairs to his apartment more slowly than usual.
Why can’t I gets me two days together that be good ones? He climbed one step. Yesterday was a good day. I tol’ that girl I picked up to get checked for AIDS. He climbed a second step. Well, that wasn’t good. But, then Cue Ball came by, and he told me ’bout Sherleen, and we had eggs to eat. That was real good. He climbed the final step onto the small porch of his building. But, today, I goes to see Sherleen, and that was all bad.
He was returning from a visit to Sherleen Hobbs, one of his favorite lady friends. Only she was not friendly anymore—to anyone. Sherleen was dying. The AIDS virus had eroded her body’s ability to fight certain infections. A couple diseases she could have fought off with a healthy immune system were destroying her. It was a hopeless situation. And she knew it.
Flatly didn’t know any of the details of how AIDS worked. All he knew was that a once fine looking lady was now a thin, wasted shell of a woman. They told him she had only weeks to live. He could believe that. He’d seen people die before.
His father had been shot while attempting a robbery. Flatly’d been in the getaway car. He was five-years-old.
He’d seen a pedestrian hit by a car. She was dead before he got to her. He remembered he was surprised by the lack of blood on the street.
He knew dying was a part of living. It’s the end part, he said to himself. But we all gotta go through it. It’s just too bad ‘bout Sherleen havin’ to go through it so young and all.
He reached the top of the stairs and looked down the hallway in both directions. He almost always did that. The ritual started when he’d seen a perfectly good nightstand outside one of the doors in his hallway. The sign taped to it read “Free.” He’d moved it into his apartment post haste. It occupied a spot next to his bed to this day.
In all the times he’d stopped at the top of the stairs and looked around, the nightstand was his only find. Regardless, he continued the practice in the hope of scoring another treasure. “Hey, man. You never know,” was his mantra.
Disappointed again by the lack of success in his quest for valuable finds, he shuffled down the hallway. If a depressed state showed as a color, Flaty’s aura would have been that hue.
At the door of his apartment, he fumbled with his key. He usually had trouble with the ancient lock. Today the delay was just another addition to his depressed state. His aura deepened a shade. I needs to gets some money from my dresser drawer and find somebody to sell me some crack. I knows it’s bad, but I needs to forget for a bit.
* * *
“Big 0” Briggs wiped the sweat from his forehead. He’d climbed up two levels of the outside fire escape and now crouched on the narrow balcony outside Flatly Broke’s flat. What’s wit this humidity? I feel like I’m meltin’, and I can’t be losin’ focus. He wiped his brow again.
This was no social call. His deal with Sid Brewster had two parts. The first was Mary Carstairs.
He licked his lips at the memory of her body as she thrashed on the bed while he fulfilled the first part of the double deaths contract. A taste of salt from the sweat on his lips acted like a switch. His eyes opened wide. No matter how hard he tried to focus, a film of perspiration fogged the view.
He shook his head to clear his vision. The result was much like the end result when a child shakes an Etch-a-Sketch. The movement of his head cleared Mary’s picture and presented him with a blank mental slate. It also flung drops of salty water from his eyes.
He smothered a grunt with the back of his hand while he rearranged his position on the balcony. Periodically during the repositioning, he stared through the window at the door to the apartment. He didn’t like the glare on the window. I gotta know all that’s goin’ on in there.
The hitman pushed his fingers against the frame around the lower pane; then he pushed up. The window wasn’t locked and slid upwards with minimal force. That’s good. Now I can hear when the key’s in the door lock.
An unobstructed view was Briggs crucial to his plan to carry out the second death sentence on his list. Sid Brewster found out that the man who lived in this apartment had been Fargo’d during the bust at Mary’s place. That’s just bein’ stupid, man. He gave his considerable bulk another adjustment.
The idea of being exposed by something as underhanded as a police wire was offensive in the extreme to Brewster. He didn’t believe in “no honor among thieves.” That’s why the elimination of Flatly Broke was part of his contract.
When he was content with his position and the line of sight to the front door, Briggs relaxed. He removed the gun he’d used to off Mary from his belt, checked the load, and disengaged the gun’s safety.
A deep exhalation of breath and a second shake of his head cleared the mental residue from his mind and the residual sweat from his eyes.
The Big 0 turned full focus to his task.
* * *
“Hey, Mr. Flatly!” Marvin Dexter called out to his friend. The three-year-old boy lived across the hall from Flatly’s apartment. He was always excited by the arrival of the boxer.
Flatly pushed his door open and turned to see who was calling him. His depression lifted a little at the sight of the boy now waving his greeting with both hands. Marvin was one of his favorite people on his floor.
Flatly waved back and forced a smile. The boxer enjoyed hanging with Marvin. They both liked the same kind of things: foods like pizza; TV shows like Alf, Perfect Strangers, Amen, The Cosby Show, and the A-Team; and taking a bath.
“Hi ya, Marvin. You lookin’ good,” he said with more enthusiasm than he felt.
He stepped into his doorway.
“Hey, Mr. Flatly. Look,” Marvin called again. “Come see what my mom got me.”
The boxer began to turn his body to his left to face the youngster. It was that partial turn that saved his life.
The .44-caliber bullet from Brigg’s pistol tore through his right shoulder obliterating the joint as it plowed its path of destruction. Marvin’s screams echoed in the hallway long after the echo of the gunshot had died away.
According to the ER doctor, if Flatly hadn’t turned to see what Marvin wanted to show him, the bullet would have killed him.
* * *
Martinez pulled up in front of the Royal Guard Hotel. The place was an eyesore and, most likely, in violation of dozens of health code statutes. He was working out of homicide for a change of pace as he covered for a friend. Lieutenant Mulligan had okayed the arrangement.
He’d decided his motorcycle needed some enhancements. The extra shift would help cover the costs. Besides, Stallings had been out of his office for three days. New leads on any narcotics case were few, far between, and fought over by others in the unit. He made the unilateral decision to abandon his undercover identity for the time being.
As he climbed out of the black and white he’d requisitioned, he pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket. Both the notebook and the pocket were uncommon for the man who normally worked undercover in tank tops or muscle shirts and jeans. The collar on his shirt and the belt in the loops of his slacks also looked painfully out of place.
He reread his notes on the call. The manager had contacted the police in response to a complaint about an odor from room 214. The manager checked it out but would only confirm the smell. He said he refused to open the door to the room, “because it stinks so, uh . . . bad.” Martinez had toyed with filling in the blanks in the manager’s censored comment he’d copied down as the dispatcher narrated. There were so many options.
“Let’s get this done,” he said to the uniformed officer he’d been assigned. His friend’s partner had picked up a lead on a cold case and hadn’t been available to work this shift. That was fine with Martinez. He was working outside his usual haunts. It didn’t matter with whom he worked.
The manager led Martinez, followed by the uniform, to room 214. Even with the door closed, the odor of decay reeked.
“I can do this if you want,” Martinez said to the manager as he held out a massive hand for the key to the room.
“Drop it back at the desk on your way out,” was the relieved directive.
“Glove up!” Martinez ordered once the manager was headed away from them. He pulled the XL latex gloves he always carried from his pocket and onto each hand. Come on, kid. The uniform struggled to convince the reluctant rubber fingers to allow his digits access inside.
“Pull the glove off.”
The uniform complied, embarrassed by his lack of skill.
“Try this.” Martinez grabbed on of the troublesome gloves, wrapped his thumb and forefinger around the opening, and blew a big puff of air into the glove. It inflated to the size of a cow’s udder. He handed the glove back.
The uniformed officer took the now deflated glove and slid one hand inside with little resistance. In a short period of time, gloves covered the both the officer’s hands.
“Thank you, sir.”
Martinez gave a nod of recognition as he turned the key in the lock. He reached for the doorknob.
“Unholster your weapon. I’ll go in first and go to the left.” He indicated the direction in which the door opened. That would be the most probable location for an assailant. “You wait ’til I clear the doorway. Then you come in and immediately sweep right. Got it?”
“Yes, sir! What about that smell?”
Martinez, who’d turned back to the door immediately after he finished his instructions, rolled his eyes and chose to ignore the question.
As soon as the door pushed away from the jamb, the Latino regretted taking the lead. A monsoon of the stench of putrefaction engulfed him. Mother of God! This smell is awful! He paused a beat, choked off a cough, and announced himself.
He stepped through the doorway and made his visual sweep behind the door.
“Clear!” he called.
The horrific odor permeated the small enclave. Martinez’s first glance failed to reveal the source of the smell.
The uniformed officer entered. Martinez heard his gasping and choking before he coughed out a barely audible, “Clear.”
Martinez moved toward the kitchenette and waved his partner to check behind the half-wall. The uniform took a brief glance over the wall. He didn’t quite finish his turn toward Martinez before he lost his just finished lunch on the dirty carpet in a series of gagging sounds.
The undercover man stepped around the pool of vomit to investigate. One quick survey of the bed was almost enough to trigger his gag response as well.
What had once been the very pretty Mary Carstairs was reduced to a badly decomposed corpse. Because of the amount of decay, all Martinez saw was the tortured remains of a naked female held in place between peeling bedposts with long pieces of adhesive tape. A brownish-red stain covered the pillow on which her head rested. The poor woman.
The uniformed officer retreated to the hallway where he concentrated on taking deep breaths in an unsuccessful attempt to settle his stomach. He heaved again. Martinez shook his head. Some guys should never work homicide. He picked up the purse that lay on the floor by the kitchen. The contents of the purse were untouched. Do we have ourselves a sex psycho?
He removed the leatherette wallet from the purse and stuffed the bag under his arm. He flipped through plastic cards as quickly as he could with gloves on. His goal was to locate some form of identification.
The purse dropped to the floor. Lipstick and a small package of tissues spilled onto the carpet. Unaware of the purse’s escape, the giant stood, eyes fixated on the surprisingly good picture on the California driver’s license. A smiling Mary Carstairs stared at him.
He felt tears welling up as he turned on his heel and strode from the room. He tried to convince himself the tears were from the odor, but he didn’t succeed. Brewster found out Mary tipped the police and made sure that would never happen again.
“I’ll call for the meat wagon.” Snake’s voice was a monotone as he passed the pasty-faced officer in the hall. “You keep everyone away from this room.”
Down at the car, he bent over and deposited his partly digested lunch, along with the tears in his eyes, into the gutter beside the front passenger tire of the car. Some guys should never work homicide was his macabre thought.
He called the homicide in. It was time to wait for the coroner.