A dark shoe settles evenly on the pavement as he steps out of the taxi and onto the wet sidewalk. A gust of wind lifts the planes of his coat. Over his shoulder, the St. Regis Hotel’s art deco façade looms impressively. Inside, amidst the velvety ambiance of lounge music and light laughter, he saddles a stool, whistles for the bartender to fetch him a whiskey.
“You’re new around here,” a soft voice hums in his ear.
He looks to find a woman wrapped around a Martini. Short, dark hair, cropped at the bangs, accentuates the angularity of her jaw. Quite pretty by conventional standards, her face struggles to compete against a figure that drips like an hour-glass. She’s wearing a dark dress and the scent of exotic perfume.
“Am I?” he says.
“If I had to guess, I’d say you’re here on business. And while I don’t imagine it’s the type that necessitates starred accommodation, you strike me as the type of guy who enjoys the sense of consequence it brings to invite clients back to your suite for drinks.”
“Are you always this friendly with strangers, or as part of the cleaning staff is it your job to welcome the newcomers?”
“Brooding sarcasm,” she says, lifting an eyebrow while cocking her jaw to one side. “I think I like that.”
A flared nose grows white around the edges as he breathes a breath of contempt.
“You’re so in the mood to talk,” he says, “how’s about you tell me something about yourself?”
“What would you like to know?” she asks, eyes dancing.
“Let’s start with a name?”
“They call me Dottie.”
Her lips spark with suggestion.
He laughs, reaching into his wallet for a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill.
“What’s this for?” she asks.
“Think of it as a napkin.”
“To wipe away the frown I’m going to leave on your face.”
“Will I be frowning?”
“You got a room in this place?” he says, finishing his drink in one pull.
She winks expressively over the rim of her glass.
“Then how’s about using part of that note to settle the tab so that the two of us can go destroy a hotel mattress?”
The elevator comes to a stop on the fourteenth floor. He lets her exit ahead of him. Down a shrinking corridor, past an endless row of matching doors, he follows, careful not to take his eyes off her. All the doors are painted red. She finds hers, opens it with the swipe of an electronic key.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she says, disappearing through a door on the left.
The main room is large and spacious, lit by the glow of moonlight pouring through a wall made entirely of glass. With the light of the hallway at his back, he stands, a deep shadow in the doorway.
His eyes are quick to adjust. Beside him, a bottle of champagne cools in a bucket of ice. From that door to the left, she reemerges bundled up in fur and little else.
His eyes grow wide watching the way her hips move under a silk negligee.
A single finger beckons him to follow.
On the sofa, she stretches out against a pair of fat pillows.
There’s a packet of Virginia Slims on the end table. She draws out a stick, places it to her mouth, and lights it. Taking a deep drag, she holds it, releasing the white cloud only after being forced by her lungs to breathe. In the darkness, her silhouette casts an alluring shadow, a deep swath of steep arcs and sweeping bends.
His pulse quickens.
A stream of effervescent smoke rises from the cigarette in her hand. With the opposite one she pats an open cushion.
In the moon’s pale glow, he catches a flash of her legs, slim, smooth, and bare.
A smile plays at the corner of his lips. Before crossing the room, he pulls the front door closed.
“So, what do you do exactly?” she asks.
“Are you genuinely interested or just making conversation?”
“Just making conversation.”
“Trust me, there’ll be plenty of time for conversation later,” he says, taking hold of the fur scarf, draped over her shoulders, and using it to pull her in.
“Are you French?” she asks.
“Was that a French thing to say?”
“It was a French thing to do.”
Starting at her thighs, he works his hands past her hips to her torso.
When he reaches her shoulders, she pulls back to seize another long drag from the cigarette.
“Find what you’re looking for?” she asks, exhaling out the side of her mouth.
“You’ll know when I do.”
“How about some champagne?” she says, drawing a line with her finger to the far side of the room. “There’s some over there, by the front door.”
He takes the cigarette from her mouth, places it to his.
“What if I’m not thirsty?”
“What if I am?” she says, taking back the cigarette.
“What if I make you wait?”
“What if waiting only makes me thirstier?”
“Then we order another one.”
“Are we not going to drink that one either?” she asks.
“All right,” he says, lifting his knee off the couch.
At the door, he wraps his palm around the neck of the champagne bottle. He begins to lift it, but stops. The bottle makes a plunking sound as it splashes back into the bucket. Hands free, he gathers a fistful of ice. Placing it against his temple, he lets the cool drops of water trickle down his cheek before turning to face the lovely outline of the woman on the sofa.
“Are you expecting company?” he asks.
“What makes you say that?”
Leaning forward, his face touched by the curve of moonlight across his mouth, she watches as his lips stretch into a savage grin.
“What happened to the champagne?” she asks, as he comes stalking back across the floor.
“Oh, that’ll come later,” he says, “when we have something worth celebrating. In the meantime, I’ve got a better proposition.”
“Proposition?” she says, placing the cigarette to her lips. “Since when did this become a negotia—?”
Her voice cracks as the cigarette is struck from her mouth with violent force. Reaching into her purse, he removes a cellphone.
“Dial,” he says, handing her the device.
“Who?” she asks, behind a trembling voice.
She unlocks the screen, pulls up a number. When she tries to offer him the phone, he twists her wrist, presses it against her ear.
“What do I tell him?”
“Tell him you think you must have missed me. Tell him I never showed up and you’re scared. Then tell him you want to see him.”
The line picks up.
“Sam, it’s Dottie, give me Franco.” There’s a pause. She flickers her eyes up at him. His remain trained on her. A moment later, a voice on the other end says hello.
“Franco, it’s me,” she says. Then changing her tone, “He’s here at the Hotel! He’s all alone!”
He yanks the phone from her hand, places it to his ear just as the line goes dead.
On the sofa, in a pink negligee and mink, she smiles up at him. But the smile disappears when that same phone finds its way back to her ear, only this time with force and 195lbs of torque behind it.
“And CUT!!!” a voice hollers. “That’s a wrap. Let’s take a lunch and meet back here at three o’clock sharp.”
Lights power on. From every corner, figures emerge. Men and women dart about in a show of stellar efficiency, lifting gear and breaking down equipment. Beside him, Michael watches the room slide away as the walls are driven back on a roller track and tiny wheels.
The ballroom of the St. Regis hotel breathes, courtesy of a vaulted ceiling.
A man approaches, stepping over and around a loose network of wires and sound equipment. Frank Morrison. In that faded brown suit and trilby, he looks like a stand-in for a 1970’s TV cop. There’s a lit cigarette pinched in his mouth.
The two men greet each other in the center of the room with a firm handshake.
Years ago, back when Michael was first starting out in the writing business, he’d gotten a job as a copy editor for a local publishing house. On his way into work one morning, he ran into Frank on his way out. An industry heavyweight and the face of American crime fiction, Frank had already carved out an illustrious career for himself, picking up where his predecessors had left off with such storied detectives as Race Williams, Sam Spade, and Mike Hammer with his own highly-charged alpha-male detective, Danny Blaise, a man that never seemed to lose a fight, could drink twice his body weight without getting drunk, and somehow, managed to conquer half a dozen women in a week. This, of course, made him a target of literary critics, but endeared him to genre purists who saw him carrying on the legacy of creating characters to match the view America has always had of itself, proud and indomitable. At the time, Frank didn’t know Michael from the valet, but for whatever reason, he stopped him and said, “Just remember, son, once it’s in their hands it’s no longer yours, just let it go.”
A few days later, they’d run into each other again only this time in the agency’s breakroom, where Michael asked about what had prompted that statement. Behind a lip-clenched smile, as though dispensing a pearl of hard wrought wisdom, Frank explained, “About seven months ago, I was approached by a studio house wanting me to write a B-script for the bottom half of a double feature. The story was supposed to be loosely based on the real-life events of a pastry chef turned serial killer. The film was going to be called A Baker’s Dozen, and it was rumored Lance Henriksen from Aliens was being considered for the lead. I spent weeks researching the story, determined to get it right, exploring this guy’s backstory, his childhood, his parents, investing in all sorts of surrealist psychoanalysis garbage. For weeks, I was after this thing, reading up on Jung and Adler. Afterwards, I turned out what seemed to me an intriguing psych-thriller. Two days later, one of the producers came around, slapped it down on my desk, told me it was one of the finest novellas he’d ever read and could I please rewrite it as a screenplay. At the end of the day, he told me, what’s going to sell tickets is not what’s going on inside this guy’s head, but what’s visible on the screen.
“I was furious. I´d poured real effort into turning out that script. So, when I sat down to rewrite it, I decided to make it as outrageous as possible, dumping all the psychological intrigue for the purely absurd nature of the murders. None of which paralleled real life, you understand. And some of which were just preposterous. For instance, in one scene, I had the chef feed a guy this thick sludge of homemade cookie dough. Afterwards, he locked the victim in a room with the temperature cranked so high that the dough began to rise inside his belly until it burst right through his stomach. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Is that even possible? Of course, not. There are all sorts of acids and bacteria in your stomach that act to denature the yeast and blah, blah, blah. I didn’t care. I wanted to get fired. I wanted to make a point right then and there that even cheap entertainment has its limits. To my surprise, they loved it. It’s already being touted as this year’s sleeper hit with hints it might even out gross Stranger on the Third Floor.”
Following Frank’s admonition not to cut his own throat just for a crack at some fresh air, Michael returned to his own writing, finally agreeing with his literary agent’s suggestion to rewrite the first half of his debut romance novel, Spicy After Dark, a decision Michael had been resisting for months. This lead to a book contract with Harlequin Books and the start of a friendship between Frank and he that had lasted the better part of fifteen years.
“How are you, Frank?” Michael asks.
“Oh, I’m better than nothing,” he croaks in that signature guttural, smoke-damaged growl he’d come to possess over the decades. “You got an ashtray?”
“Not on me, no.”
“The hotel maids are always hiding the ashtrays.”
“That might have something to do with the city ordinance banning smoking in hotels.”
“Is that so?” he says, looking suspiciously at the cigarette in his hand as though it were knowingly breaking the rules without telling him. “Oh, well,” he hums, stashing the lit cigarette in his breast pocket and muffling it with his hand.
“What do you make of it?” he asks, a waft of smoke rising from his jacket.
“The film? It’s got something.”
“Don’t dress it up,” Frank derides. “The acting is spit, the directing is spit, and the budget is spit. About the only thing it’s got going for it are the tits on the female lead, which the producers keep trying to get me to write into the script. Here, take a look at this,” he says, handing Michael a rolled manuscript. “Start on page 52.”
“Frank.” A large, out of breath man approaches. There’s a grim look on his face.
“Sully,” Frank acknowledges.
“A word, if I may?”
“I was hoping we could speak privately.” His eyes flash in Michael’s direction.
“Will you excuse us?” Frank says as the two men remove themselves to the far corner of the room.
Left alone, Michael props his shoulder against the nearest support column.
When he looks up, a movement from the shadows of the darkened stairway draws his attention. The first body part exposed by the light is a knee, as white and elegant as a new moon, balanced atop the amethyst sheen of patent leather knee-high boots. Her footsteps fall in cadence with his quickening pulse.
He straightens his posture.
Purple spills from her dress. A thick rush of dark, almond-glazed hair tumbles out around her neck. In a slow-motion gesture, she throws a sweep of it over her shoulder. Deep striations run along the sleek part of her left leg, which flirts out from beneath the side slit with each closing stride.
All this he sees in three seconds.
She speaks a greeting with her eyes.
He responds with a flexed grin.
An arched eyebrow asks a question.
He answers with a nearly imperceptible nod.
Her eyes, violet wells of churning passion, remain fixed on his as she opens a pair of wine-dashed lips to speak. “Long time no see, stranger,” she says, her mouth wreathed in a voluptuous smile.
Her voice suits him. So too does the rest of her. It’s as though she’d been taken to the tailors, sewn and hemmed to fit him perfectly. He takes a deep breath, inhaling a fragrance so rich it nearly tastes like it smells.
“Have we met?” he asks.
“Michael, yoo-hoo, earth to Michael.”
Michael looks up to Frank snapping a pair of fingers in front of his face.
“You know this scene reads like the opening to a porno,” Michael says, glancing at his watch.
“Yeah, well, that’s about where it’s headed,” Frank says. “So, what brings you downtown, business or leisure?”
“I need your advice,” Michael admits.
“On women?” Frank says, smiling as if he’d just been paid a compliment.
Frank laughs. When Michael doesn’t the smile vanishes, replaced by a blank stare and a look of confusion. “You’re serious?”
“I’m afraid so,” Michael says, swallowing hard.
“In that case, perhaps, we should be discussing this over a drink.”
Frank leads the way from the ballroom, with its large wood-paneled walls, barrel-vaulted ceilings, and tall windows draped in a unique scarf treatment, to a wide corridor and a carpeted, curved staircase that opens to the lobby and a bar on the left.
Frank puts in for four shots of whiskey. The first disappears before the bartender even finishes filling it.
A woman walks by in a showy red dress. Tall and tanned, with subtle green eyes, she’d remind you of a mature Sophia Loren.
Frank lets go a low whistle as she walks by. “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore, do they?” he says.
“I think you’d be surprised how they’re making them these days,” Michael defends.
A tortured laugh escapes Frank’s lips before downing his second shot.
“So, what’s this about a murder?”
Michael recounts the events of the night before, including his failed encounter with the police.
Palming a fistful of peanuts from the bowl on the counter, Frank listens carefully while popping nuts into his mouth every few seconds.
When Michael finishes, Franks asks pointblank, “Why come to me with this?”
“I don’t know,” Michael says, shrinking. “With you being a crime writer, I guess I figured you, of all people, would know how best to handle a situation like this.”
Franks nods, downs his third shot of whiskey. “Well, I can tell you one thing, the trash idea is a bad one.”
“What good is a dead body in a dumpster shared by forty people?”
“What about DNA? If the killer’s is anywhere on the body, it’s a certain conviction.”
“Is it?” Frank challenges.
Michael cocks his head, confused.
“You ever heard of touch DNA?” Frank asks.
Michael shakes his head.
“Imagine you and I shake hands. DNA from the sweat and skin cells on your hand transfers to mine. Then, let’s say, I go and shoot someone using a gun you’ve never even laid your eyes on. Except, when it’s swabbed for DNA, they find your sweat and skin cells on there, because it’s now been transferred from my hand to the gun.”
“Is that really possible?”
“It is. And all the killer would have to do is claim that DNA from some of his garbage came into contact with the victim’s body after being dumped and then your case is all circumstantial.”
“What do I do then?” Michael asks.
“Have you thought about hiring a private investigator?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” Michael admits. “But, if the police wouldn’t take me seriously, why would a PI?”
Frank nods, conceding the point. “And you’re confident that body’s still in the apartment?”
“I’d put money on it.”
Frank thinks about it, rubs his chin. “If I were writing this, and I needed you, my main character, to get ahold of probable cause evidence, I’d say, you’ve got to get in there.”
“Get in there, as in break into his house?”
Michael shakes his head. “You make it sound easy, as if penetrating a locked door was a matter of mere choice.”
“It’s easy,” Frank says. “All you need is the right diversion.”
“What kind of diversion are we talking about?”
Frank clears his throat, leans in. “Do you know how fire sprinklers work?”
“Not exactly,” Michael admits.
“Fire sprinklers work by utilizing a frangible bulb of glass filled with a liquid that when heated explodes the bulb releasing a plug that sends water spraying everywhere. The bulb, itself, hangs like a uvula from the ceiling just above the sprinkler head and requires little more than a rise in temperature or slight contact with a flame to go off. Wedging a lit cigarette through the sprinkler head means, as soon as the cigarette burns past the bulb, the heat from the lit end would be enough to burst the bulb and trigger the alarm.”
“You want me to set off the fire alarm?”
“By tripping the alarm, you’ll force an evacuation of the entire building, giving you the necessary time you need to enter the apartment and locate the body.”
“And how am I supposed to get through the front door if it’s locked?”
“Who bothers to lock their door during a fire evacuation?” Frank challenges.
Michael mulls it over, probing the idea for weaknesses. “Okay, but how am I supposed to get in without being seen?”
“Easy,” Frank tells him, “you just wait inside the elevator. Elevators are deactivated during fire alarms, so, when the alarm goes off, everyone will head straight for the stairs.”
“Won’t that leave me trapped inside?”
“You’d think so, but no. Elevators don’t lock their doors unless the electricity fails, and, even then, most have built-in override systems. So, while they won’t respond to level commands during a fire alarm, anyone inside the elevator would be able to open the doors manually, if not automatically.”
Skepticism wrinkles the skin between Michael’s forehead, “And you know all this how?”
Frank laughs, “You remember my book Ashes Remained? It was all part of the research.”
“I don’t know,” Michael says. “It seems a little—”
“Risky? Of course, it’s risky. That’s where heroism is borne out. You want to be the hero, don’t you?”
Frank slaps his palm against the counter. “Isn’t that what you’re always writing about in those romance novels of yours, some damsel in distress, rescued by a man fitting your description?”
Michael balks. “Fitting my description?”
“Come on, you know you’re the protagonist in all your novels, in the same way I’m the protagonist in all mine. We write the stories we wished we lived. Mine involve a gun, yours a beautiful woman. Well, here’s your chance to live the life you’ve only ever written about. And if you don’t do it for you, do it for the girl whose dead body is about to be tossed in a dumpster like a piece of trash, do it for her friends, do it for her family.”