DE SFINX - PATRICIA ABBOTT
When Milowitz suggested placing red carnations in their lapels, Pappas vetoed it.
“I always tell our clients to wear a carnation.” Milowitz was using the same persuasive tone he'd used twenty-odd years earlier when urging Pappas to help put the pommel horse away after gym class. “The coach’ll cut you a little slack.” By June, the gesture was forgotten and Pappas, unable to climb the rope or make foul shots, got the predictable C.
“With those huge hands and feet, you ought to have some talent,” the teacher had said. “Try out for wrestling or football.” But he never did.
“Changed that much?” Pappas asked his friend, coming back to the present.
“You’ll never recognize me,” Milowitz insisted. “The zits dried up and I shot up in college. And you? Still wear your sideburns cropped like a Nazi? I have very little memory of you, Edward.”
Even over telephone lines, a palpable shadiness clung damply to Milowitz like late winter wool and Pappas found himself alternately repelled and drawn to him. “I was the kid standing in your shadow,” he said, but only after the call was finished.
Pappas had heard through the grapevine that Milowitz lived in Amsterdam. When he bumped into Milowitz’ sister, Meryl, at Trader Joe’s a few weeks back, she confirmed it, pushing the front wheels of her cart over his toes and nailing him to the spot. She’d heard through the same grapevine about him. A number of candlelit dinners and intense conversations followed, leading to his decision to visit Milowitz in Amsterdam.
On the plane, next to an elderly Indian woman gently burping turmeric, Pappas wondered if he’d actually be able to ingratiate himself with Milowitz again. They’d never been that close, he decided over Limerick, gently easing his dozing neighbor off the armrest.
At Schiphol Airport, Pappas spotted his friend at once. Neither flowers nor a sign were necessary.
“And how long were you and Hilary married?” Milowitz asked an hour later, his silk-socked foot shoving a platter of cheese across the coffee table.
“Heather. Her name was Healther. About four years.” The seventeenth century building where Milowitz lived overlooked the Amstel River, where an old tweed couch, commandeered by half a dozen seagulls wearing bits of white batting, made its unhurried way toward the North Sea. “Is Heather,” he corrected himself.
“So how did Meryl and you hook up? Bet she’s still playing the role of caretaker with my father.” Milowitz murmured something else, something sounding unsettlingly like cunt. Then he looked at his watch and jumped up, nearly knocking his beer over. “Doesn’t do to eat too late if we want the best choice in after-dinner fare.”
Pappas had, of course, heard about the Red Light District. As he hurried to keep up, he began to see intimations of local “business” although the boundaries were vague. Pimply youths with tattooed body parts rubbed up against families of tourists and panhandlers. The occasional police officer did little to alter the mood.
The canal reflected the lights above like gooey oils while Milowitz delivered a practiced patter, ending with, “So what’s it going to be old friend? How about the lady we just passed?” He put a proprietary arm across Pappas’ shoulder. “She’s gifted, you know. Has this trick she does with her index toe...”
An Asian woman writhed against the tinted glass, wearing only a red-braided leather thong and matching tasseled pasties. A spray of water drew a silent gasp from her mauve lips. Shivering, she bobbled precariously in six-inch heels.
Pappas was beginning to wonder if Milowitz had gone so far as to set something up when a man in a pinstriped suit arrived and made a quick arrangement with her pimp—a fellow so replete with tattoos that he seemed to be composed of ink. His cackling laugh brought a black woman outside. Leaning heavily on a carved cane and speaking a melodic language, she held the door open, her withered leg exposed by the streetlight. The window went dark. When Pappas showed no inclination toward such an arrangement, his friend said, “Purchasing the services of a professional in Amsterdam isn’t like paying for a Broad Street hooker, Ed.” Grabbing Pappas’ arm, he steered him down a narrow alley.
The next night they drove to Yab Yum.
Milowitz eased his Saab up to the canal side mansion, saying, “Thought you might prefer something a little tonier. Street whores, even ones who’ve been snaked with penicillin, aren’t for every taste.”
Pappas looked warily at the building. It boasted an elegant stone façade with marble trim. Delicate, almost lacy, iron railings bordered the black granite steps. The carved door was wide enough to allow six men entry at once. A well-dressed man with an attractive woman rounded the corner and mounted the steps, both flashing him lewd glances.
“Coming?” The woman had turned, her eyes glittering in the dusk. Pappas bounded up the steps in response, waiting with trepidation until a tuxedoed man opened the door.
Stalactite chandeliers lit red velvet walls in a room brimming with gold embellishments, plush carpets, heavily framed oil paintings, and glass nudes. A horned man suddenly stepped out from behind the splashing Venus Fountain. The women here didn’t look the type to beckon from storefronts; in fact, Pappas couldn’t separate the prostitutes from the guests. But could guests here be classified as normal women? He wasn’t sure.
The last heart-shaped seat at the bar and the requisite martini cost Pappas thirty dollars. Milowitz was at his elbow now, a drink already in hand, whispering, “Surely, you can find something to please you here.” Both men eyed a blonde making her way across the room. Her ice-blue gown swung open as she sank onto a stool, revealing a perfect thigh. Obviously, there’d be no thongs and pasties on display tonight, no sprays of water to spot the velvet or mar the mahogany. Yet the objective was much the same, wasn’t it?
“Am I expected to hand over a month’s salary to get out alive?”
“Depends on what you make in a month,” Milowitz said, casually fingering a red Chinese vase. “You’ll let me take care of tonight, won’t you? Or Nederlanders, that is?”
“Just what sort of job do you have?” Pappas fingered his half-empty glass nervously. He was once again the pimply schoolboy, learning the ropes.
“I bring people here—or to places like it. Didn’t know that?”
“Meryl told me you were in marketing. I imagined you hawking lager at backdoors.” He was momentarily impressed with his ability to come up with that word.
“I market Amsterdam,” Milowitz said, draining his glass. “Shall I summon a girl? It’s worth the price if only to see the suites upstairs. A room for every taste.” He looked at Pappas closely. “Or should I send for a boy? I know you mentioned a Heather but...”
Pappas shook his head. “No thanks. I guess I’m pretty traditional...”
“Paying for sex is a highly traditional activity, Ed. And this place—Yab Yum—has been here forever. I’m worried you’re going blame me later for not showing you a good time.” Sighing, he patted Pappas on the shoulder. “Who put you on to me anyway?”
There was a slightly scabrous tone to his voice. “I’d heard you were here through the usual grapevine.”
“And you just couldn’t stay away?”
“I needed a break. And who doesn’t want to see Amsterdam?”
“And yet you refuse to see its most famous sites. A break, huh?” Milowitz shook his head as they stepped outside, the warmer air slapping them moistly. “I’m starting to remember some things about you, Edward. Didn’t you bike out to the camp my parents sent me to in eighth grade? Turned up in the canteen and scared the shit out of me? My God, it was more than forty miles. You must have pedaled your heart out on that little Schwinn.”
“Raleigh. I did it on a dare,” Pappas flushed. His parents were called to come get him. The boys’ laughing faces popped up at the bunkhouse windows as he waited on the macadam drive.
“So you said at the time.”
Milowitz rented a bicycle for Pappas the next morning. Midway, Milowitz exchanged his ratty old bike for an expensive model at a roadside kiosk.
“Why don’t you just buy a new one?” Pappas asked, watching the elderly woman wheel the old one away.
“It’d be pinched before I broke it in. I keep this one out here for weekends.”
“Why so much theft in a welfare state?”
“The Dutch like to indulge in small acts of crime. Muggings, bike theft, pot, prostitution, graffiti.” He allowed Pappas to catch up. “They save the bigger stuff for the Eastern Europeans and Americans.”
They rode for nearly an hour, finally stopping in a remote part of a woods. The sounds of traffic or even civilization had been long left behind. Milowitz set his bike down and sank onto the ground. “Hotter than I thought.” He wiped his forehead with a handkerchief.
Pappas nodded. “But not as hot as New Jersey.”
“Well, what is? Hey, Ed, mob still running the state?”
Pappas laughed mirthlessly. “I wouldn’t know much about that.”
Milowitz grabbed a bottle of water from the saddlebag and took a long sip. He held it out to Pappas, who shook his head.
“Right. Hey, I gotta ask you something, Ed. Is this where I get whacked?” Milowitz folded the cloth and put it back inside his pocket. “That’s what you’re here for right. The old whack job.”
“Are you joking?”
“At first, I thought maybe you came here like the rest of them. Those good old boys from New Jersey. Here to sample Dutch wares,” Milowitz said, massaging his calves. “But last night put an end to that idea. Didn’t even flinch when I showed you Amsterdam’s finest.”
“I’m allergic to penicillin for one thing.”
“Pshaw, boy.” Milowitz stretched his arms. “I assume my father’s near death.”
“Meryl didn’t take me into her confidence.”
Milowitz started in on his thighs, massaging muscle after muscle. “But she did hire you to murder me? That much confidence was shared. Right?” When Pappas didn’t answer, he continued. “When I saw you at the airport you looked much like you did at camp. You came crashing into the canteen then looking like you’d won a race. We all just stood there in our tee shirts with Camp Walla Whatsit emblazoned across our chests waiting for an explanation. I’m still waiting.”
“Maybe we should start back.” Pappas prepared to rise. The bottle of water tipped over and ran uselessly into the damp earth.
They both watched it for a minute and then Milowitz pushed him down. “One of the difficult things about entering a foreign country is you can’t bring in a gun. So I’m assuming you plan to strangle me because I heard strangling is your specialty. I remembered the size of your hands before I remembered your face. Your most impressive characteristic. They even call you Sphinx, right? Sphinx means strangler in Greek, doesn’t it, Pappas?”
“Just because we’re from New Jersey...”
“Hear me out, Edward,” Milowitz interrupted. “Because I think you’ll be interested. If you live in Amsterdam, as I do, you have more resources for this sort of game. I, in fact, do have a gun—not registered—despite the tough laws.” He went over to his saddlebag and pulled out a sizeable piece.
Pappas had never liked guns. Especially when he had such a nice pair of mitts on him.
“Now if I pull this trigger, and the guy I dispatched last night to take care of things in New Jersey is successful, well, then I have myself a way out of this fucking pimping business, along with a huge house in New Jersey. I figure I’ll be sitting on $20 million or better.”
“Are you out of your mind? The only place you’ll be sitting is in jail.”
“I think not, old friend. I’m betting no one except Meryl knows you’re here. I’d never have thought of getting rid of my sister if you hadn’t turned up.” His fingers flexed. “But I have a deal for you.”
“It’s probably a sucker’s deal, but if you tell me why you came up to that camp in 1980, I’ll let you go.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I don’t particularly relish killing you. I could take off right now and you’d never find me. Was it some sort of teenage crush that brought you up there?”
Pappas shook his head. “You won’t like it.”
“Try me. What’ve you got to lose?”
He shrugged after a minute. “Some kid paid me twenty-five dollars to bike up there. I was supposed to catch up with you, and when the other kids were distracted, beat you up.” Pappas paused. “He had some grievance about you cheating him out of a Willie Mays baseball card. Or maybe it was Joe DiMaggio. It was a lamebrain scheme but I’d always been curious to see that camp you went to. That camp you bragged about every fall.”
Milowitz laughed hoarsely. “Then why didn’t you do just that? Beat me up.”
“I took too damn long getting there. It was hell riding those wet roads.”
“And you were a wee bit tubby if I remember. So you finally arrived and...”
“You were at the canteen eating candy with all the other rich kids. No way to do it then. Before I knew it, they had called my parents.” He could remember well the long drive home, the unanswered questions his parents had fired at him.
“A touching if pathetic story, Ed.” After a second or two, Milowitz pulled the trigger.
“Hey, you promised,” Pappas said, sinking to the ground, looking surprised, even though he really wasn’t.
“Sorry, Ed, but I don’t much like my odds in waiting for the next time you decide to come after me. No one could be that lucky a third time. I will always wonder how much Meryl offered you. I hope it was more than that chump in middle school.”
Milowitz pulled the trigger again and Ed was dead.
BIO: Patricia Abbott has published more than fifty stories in literary and crime fiction outlets. She won a Derringer last year for her story, "My Hero." She has stories in the Thuglit anthology "Sex, Thugs and Rock and Roll" (Todd Robinson, ed.) and "Between the Dark and the Daylight" (Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg, editors). Check out more from Patti at Pattinase.