DYING FOR A SMOKE - ALBERT TUCHER
Originally published, in a slightly different form, in the program of the 2004 Deadly Ink conference
“I wish he’d talk to me,” said Lou DiFranco over his empty plate. Bert’s paella had disappeared, and DiFranco had eaten most of it. “The State has a case, but it’s not perfect. We could win it, but he has to work with me.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to win,” said Diana. “If he killed his wife, maybe he wants to be punished. That happens, doesn’t it?”
She looked to Bert for confirmation, but he was too busy wearing the satisfied smile of a successful host to help her.
“It does,” said DiFranco, “and I have to remind myself that it’s about what the client wants. It just galls me, though -- knowing I could win it.”
“How?” she said. “From what the papers say, it looks pretty clear. He caught his wife in a hot-pillow motel and killed her. Then he just sat there and let the police find him.”
DiFranco sat completely still for a moment, and Diana could guess what he was thinking. He shouldn’t talk about the case, but he was with two people who knew how to keep secrets.
“Not exactly,” said DiFranco. “He was arrested in another room. Same motel, different room, across the courtyard. A maid found the wife’s body early in the morning. The cops went to notify him and couldn’t find him. They got his cell phone number from his brother, and they called it. That’s when they found out he was asleep back at the motel.”
“I know that place,” said Diana. “I used it a lot, back when.”
She visualized the layout.
“So they figure he checked into the motel to spy on her,” she said. “Could he see her room from his?”
“Only if he was awake,” said DiFranco.
“Why do you think the State’s case has holes?” said Bert.
“Because they have him at the motel, but they can’t put him in her room,” said DiFranco. “No witnesses. Lots of comings and goings at that place, but nobody saw him after he checked into his room. Fingerprints say half of Sussex County was in her room, but his aren’t there. None of her blood on him. Okay, the killer slashed her throat from behind, but still, he should have a little on him somewhere. Fiber evidence is a wash, because they use the same carpets and sheets and towels in every room.
“They have two things. His semen in her, which is why they don’t think her boyfriend did it, and two hairs consistent with hers on the bed in his room.”
Diana wondered how many of her own hairs she had left in places like that.
“They say he brought the hairs back after killing her,” said DiFranco. “I say, what the hell. He was married to her. I can explain everything.”
“Unless they find the knife with your client’s prints on it,” said Bert.
He grinned at the lawyer, who grinned back.
“There’s that,” said DiFranco. “You must have been a cop. Matter of fact, I did try to talk to him about a plea, but it was a one-sided conversation.”
“So they think your client raped his wife before he killed her?” said Bert.
“That’s what they say, but the usual injuries aren’t there.”
“What does he say?” said Diana.
“Not a thing. He didn’t talk to the cops, which is good, but he won’t talk to me, either. The only thing he does is cry. It’s eerie--not a sound, just tears coming down his face.”
“How did she get there?” said Bert.
“Good question,” said DiFranco. “His car was in the parking lot, but hers was at home.”
“Who got there first?”
“According to the register, she did, but not by much.”
“They didn‘t use their real names, did they?”
“No,” said DiFranco, “Phony names, but there’s no doubt who was who.”
“Did she have a bag?” said Diana.
“What was in it?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Stuff. Women’s stuff.”
“It could be important, Lou.”
That got his attention. He had learned to take her seriously years earlier, when her testimony beat him in an attempted murder case.
“Well, condoms,” he said. “Makeup case. Handiwipes. Cigarettes. And a red pen.”
“Ouch," said Diana."That's the kind of detail that makes it real. Remember when you were a kid, and you couldn’t imagine your teachers being real people who had lives? Well, here’s one teacher who did.”
She thought for a while.
“She also had cigarettes. What‘s that about?”
“I guess she smoked ‘em,” said DiFranco.
“Do you know that for sure?”
DiFranco paused. “No, I guess not.”
“I have to wonder how a teacher could even be a smoker these days,” she said. “Buildings are smoke-free, and teachers hardly have time to sit down, let alone go outside.”
“Does it matter?”
“If I’m right, it does. See if you can find out. Better yet, let me ask him.”
“If you can get him to talk, be my guest.”
“Did she have matches or a lighter?”
“Jeez, Diana, I don’t know. I’d have to look in the file.”
“I think you should do that,” said Bert. He knew her even better than DiFranco, The lawyer had represented her several times since their first encounter, but as chief of police Bert had once hunted her for murder.
DiFranco held up his hands.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll look.”
“If it matches,” she said, “it’ll be a book from one of a few places.”
She named several bars near the motel.
“Is he out on bail?”
“Yeah. His family paid my retainer and put up bail. Very heavy bail. Come on, what do you have?”
She shook her head.
“I might be wrong. Let me talk to him first.”
The next morning he called her at her business, Fanelli’s gym in Driscoll. She was still paying off the investors who had helped her buy it.
“Matches,” said DiFranco without preliminaries. “From Francie’s.”
It was one of the bars Diana had named.
“Can you come over now?”
On her way out Diana stopped at the front desk and asked Bert to take over.
“You’re the boss.”
He grinned. Bert liked his part-time job because the irony of a retired cop taking orders from a retired hooker appealed to him.
DiFranco met her in his waiting room.
“I hope you’ve got something,” he said. “Things aren’t looking so good all of a sudden.”
“I just got back from the prosecutor’s office. They‘ve been dropping little tidbits, trying to get me to plead him. Turns out the cops found a note in his wallet. Just a number, one-oh-six. Looks like her handwriting, and it’s in red ink. Take a wild guess what room she was found in.”
“It wouldn’t be One-oh-six, would it?”
“It would. So, now they’re going to say he found a note that she wrote to herself about where she was going.” DiFranco frowned. “It‘s just one more thing they‘ve got that spells premeditation. Unless I can convince the jury that she didn‘t write it.”
“Oh, she wrote it,” said Diana. “Just not to herself.”
The man sitting in Lou DiFranco’s office seemed made of misery. He wasn’t weeping at the moment, but he could obviously start again.
“This is Mr. Wyatt,” said DiFranco.
Wyatt slumped in one of the two chairs in front of the lawyer’s desk. Diana took the other chair and turned it forty-five degrees toward the client.
“I’m Diana Andrews. Did your wife smoke?”
Wyatt blinked. DiFranco nodded, telling her that it was more than the client had given him.
“I’m guessing she didn’t,” said Diana. “From what I read in the newspapers, I think she was the kind of woman who is very careful about what she puts in her body.”
She winced. “Careful” sounded stupid, considering what the dead woman had been doing. But Wyatt didn’t seem to have made the connection.
“I was a prostitute for almost fifteen years.”
She had his attention.
“I’m thinking back to a couple who hired me once,” she said. “I generally didn’t do couples. There was something creepy about it--I don’t know what, exactly. But this couple said they just wanted to ask me about my work. They paid my rate, so I said okay.
“They asked me about what I would do, what I wouldn’t do, what kinds of weird things clients had asked me for, all kinds of stuff. They wanted it really explicit. I could tell when they liked the sound of something and when they didn’t, because they would give each other these meaningful looks. You know what I mean?
“Then they asked me for some little tricks of the trade, and I remember telling them that I always carried cigarettes for the clients--first-timers especially. See, sometimes a guy came to me at a point when he could hardly remember what sex was like. His marriage had gone so bad that nothing was happening. And he got to where he just gave up and went looking for it somewhere else. With me, for instance.
“So here’s my point. Sometimes, getting some after a long layoff made the guy think about other things he hadn’t done in years, like smoke a cigarette. And he would want one so much that I was like an angel when I said I had some. I got some very good tips that way.
“I think you and your wife were like this other couple. You had a fantasy about her being a hooker, and somehow you heard about the cigarette thing. Not from me, obviously, but from somewhere. So, who else does it?”
“Victoria,” said Wyatt in a voice that was hoarse from disuse.
Diana didn’t know the name. Her former profession seemed to be surviving without her. Later, she would decided whether that was a good thing.
“Okay,” she said. “I don’t know whether this other couple ever took it past fantasy, but I think you did. Was that the first time?”
“Yes,” said Wyatt. His voice was coming back a little.
“That’s a tough break,” she said with a sympathy that was mixed with exasperation. She wanted to ask him what would have been wrong with doing some roleplay at a swing party.
“I killed her,” said Wyatt.
“You mean, it started as your idea,” she said.
DiFranco stirred unhappily at the leading question.
Relax, she thought. We’re not in court.
“We both liked the idea,” he said, “but when I bought the lighter and cigarettes, that’s when we knew we would go through with it.”
He paused to let a sob fight its way out of him.
“I thought I could protect her if I was right across the courtyard.”
He started to sink back into his silence, and she groped for some way to stop him.
“I never worked with a manager,” she said.
She didn’t want to say “pimp.” The brutality of the word might shut him up again.
“A manager wouldn’t have been able to get there fast enough to protect me. Not unless I went really down market and worked in alleys and cars. What I’m saying is, there wasn’t much you could have done.”
“Maybe if I could at least have stayed awake,” said Wyatt.
This time, he did fall silent. DiFranco nodded to Diana. They had enough information to work with. He led her out into his waiting room.
“I’m thinking they planned to turn one trick, just to see what it felt like,” said Diana. “At the motel they were pretending not to know each other, because it might cramp her style to have him around. She either slipped him the note or left it where he would find it. Then she went to work in one of the bars. Maybe he was even there watching her get picked up.
“Afterwards, they were really hot for each other, so they met in his room. He doesn’t know about the matches, which says to me that she went out again after he fell asleep. I figure she wanted more, and she went to Francie’s and found another john. The wrong john.”
“This is good,” said DiFranco. “There’s a guy I can talk to in the prosecutor’s office. I’ll run it by him.”
Two days later, he called her at the gym.
“All those favors I did you?”
He had never billed her for anything, which had always embarrassed her.
“You are paid up in full. I ran it by my prosecutor friend. He was pissed. He was just starting to like his case, and here I come making him do some work.”
“Well, if they don’t buy our story, they have to explain the lack of physical evidence. And they have to eliminate other suspects, like all the guys who left fingerprints in the room when our guy didn‘t. One set belonged to a dirtbag who did time for beating on a hooker when he couldn’t get it up. Okay, his prints could have been there for days, but it was just too much coincidence. My friend asks the cops what this guy said, and they say they never questioned him. They figured they had a strong suspect who wasn’t denying anything. My friend hits the ceiling.
“So the cops go to talk to the dirtbag. They have nothing on him, but this one cop gets an idea. The guy lights up a cigarette with a disposable lighter, and the cop asks him if he took it off the woman he killed. The fact is, he didn’t. The lighter she lost under the bed is in with the other evidence. But it was like he just needed an excuse to fold. Right away he says, ’I should have known I couldn’t get that lucky.’ Meaning, I guess, that the husband would take the fall. He also said he freaked when he found her full of semen.”
“So,” said Diana, “your client’s going to have to punish himself. The taxpayers won’t do it for him.”
There was a pause, as they listened to what she had just said.
“Shit,“ said DiFranco. He hung up the phone.
Wyatt’s suicide made the Star-Ledger the next day.
BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of eighteen published stories and four unpublished novels about prostitute Diana Andrews. Like most authors of hardboiled crime fiction, he is a librarian in his day job.