THE TROPHY WIFE - TERRY WHITE
I was coming up to the light at Lake and Ninth, fiddling with my favorite classical station, when my eye caught the vanity plate: 2RICH4U. The gleaming silver Lincoln looked dazzling even under the pewter skies of northeastern Ohio—certainly compared to the mud and filth-spattered cars all around it. The car I was driving was dirtier than most. They say correctly no one washes a rented car.
The way she took the time to adjust her sunglasses after the light changed galled me. She kept the guy behind her waiting. When he did give her a tap of his horn to get her moving, she glanced up with an insouciant pout, then checked her lipstick with an open smack. When she flipped him the bird in the rearview before turning, I must have smiled. Road rage today, you just don’t know who’s a psycho.That car, the arrogant brag of her license plate must have intimidated him.
She turned into the McDonald’s. As he passed by, she gave him another digit of contempt. I watched to see if he would retaliate but he kept his hands on the wheel. A minor contretemps for her, some low-class nobody daring to intrude into her world for the merest few seconds of her oh-so-busy, important life.
I followed her. I had nothing better to do that day than pay off my backlogged utility bills.
I pulled into McDonald’s and parked a few car lengths from her Lincoln. I thought about going inside for a burger but the smell of frying meat makes me queasy. I’ve been a strict vegetarian for three years now.
She strode toward the exit doors sipping from a milkshake container. Some white-haired old stooge going inside bowed and clucked at her like a nervous footman and made an effort to open the door but she stiff-armed the door and blew right past him without a word. This burgh’s full of tedious old men who wear pants up to their nipples and bore every young woman who crosses paths with one of these old cretins. I yearn for some species-jumping flu to carry them all off to their miserable graves. A clean sweep would do this place good.
But I digress...
The way her carmine lips compressed around that straw, as if she were sucking a wave through it, was erotic and changed the vibe of my day for good.
She passed right by my windshield. Her fawn coat disguised the package but it was obvious she had a high can and long legs. Her boots came up to mid-calf and were fur-trimmed. Big and blonde, an aerobicized body beneath the coat judging from the confident stride. Ash-blonde hair and a pretty face made glamorous with a little too much make-up. She had the clear complexion of a true blonde with that translucent skin, the kind where tiny blue veins ticked beneath the surface. All the blondes in this dump have black roots and wear NASCAR team jackets or sweatshirts with smutty sayings in glitter. The woman who took the duplex opposite me was a cut above the rest despite her colicky kid. I figured, some goon of an ex she’s running away from. Every day a knock. Then a slightly embarrassed smile as if she hadn’t done this before. The next words were: “Can I borrow some milk? Can I borrow some sugar?”
Blondie walked like money grew on trees only for her. Her perfume would be hand-engineered. Remember those cartoon wolves in the Looney Tunes? The wolf does a back flip, his eyes are bugged out like twin French loaves followed by hubba-hubba and a long whistle. Nice Freudian smut for the kiddies, I used to think. I had pegged m’lady as somebody’s trophy wife before she made the turn onto Lake Avenue.
She drove downtown, or rather, to what’s left of it in this recession. Mostly closed and soaped-up windows with out-of-business signs. Some replacement businesses had “Dollar” in their names, which should tell you everything you need to know about this rust-belt slum.
She parked across from Hair It Is and sashayed toward the beauty parlor swinging a purse shaped like a canned ham. Her coat clutched tight to her chest, the camber action of her hips moving her across the street was poetry in motion. I almost laughed aloud when she deliberately slowed down halfway across and did a little stutter-step as if she just remembered something left behind in the car. Cars slowed for her. Ha, the narcissistic creature, I thought. She needs an audience everywhere she goes.
I sat there two hours waiting for her. I thought things over very carefully. The interior turned so cold my breath fogged up the windshield, but I couldn’t break the spell I was under. It was as if my brain were telling me what to do instead of the other way around. Just a few minutes before she flounced out the door sporting her new coiffure, I snapped to and turned on the heat. But I wasn’t chilled any longer. I was observing everything from deep inside a zone where every thought is like a stone dropped into a pond. Each ripple is another thought that generates another and another until you’re watching your own thoughts move in symmetry to the shore. Whether it was a brainchild of the moment inspired by the glimpse of her vanity plate, I can’t say. She brought it out of me, whatever was percolating from the depths. I’ve always believed in fate. The biggest, brightest star in the sky is Sirius, the Dog Star. That has been my lucky star since my boyhood.
My blonde didn’t know she had met her fate, too. I was going to grab her and demand a ransom from her sugar daddy.
I’ve never held a full-time job since my Army days. But I can do what’s necessary, whatever’s necessary, to get a job done. I felt an actual love toward her at that moment.
I’ve often noticed when you try to do the right thing, the world goes out of its way to put obstacles in front of you. Go do wrong, however, and it’s magical how things are smoothed from your path.
My blonde girl was heading home. She ignored the 30 m.p.h. signs through town, took Route 45 and rocketed along the main drag of tiny Austinburg Township. I worried about losing her in my leased Pontiac. Rust was all that was holding the frame together. I forced down the pedal to try to keep up with her big engine as she cruised through the countryside. I was lucky she stayed on the main road, which was wet but clear of ice. Huge mounds of dirty snow bordered the highway. Some of the side roads were still unplowed from the last snowfall.
A local ordinance out here was passed last summer to get rid of the biker community. Now bikers can be hauled over for straight or aftermarket pipes. The rednecks haven’t bailed as the farmers all did decades ago, but it’s only a matter of time before the rich folks get them out next. You’ll still see the occasional clapped-out trailer with a couple beagles yipping behind a barbed-wire fence. Even some real hillbilly shitholes with missing doors, two or three pickups scattered out front like desiccated bugs missing their exoskeletons, more cars on cinder blocks out back, and bearded men in work coveralls lolling about or looking under hoods.
But you can’t miss all the newly-built, California-sized monster houses with golf course-sized lawns taking over.
Goldilocks turned into a sprawling estate. I saw at the end of a winding road where the architect had envisioned some kind of Gothic motif for the manor house. Locals driving past would be impressed by the turrets and towers. Overlooking a hill surrounded by woods of black alder, oak, birch, and maple, it was imposing. Rubberneckers might gape at the scalloped rooftop edge and imagine soldiers pouring hot buckets of oil on the attackers below.
Whichever demon was watching over me that day, I knew I had hit the motherload with this golden babe.
The name on the mailbox was familiar to anyone who read the local paper.
Even a transient like me knew who this guy was. The man was richer than God, for one thing. He had made a massive amount of money through a Defense contract selling air conditioners on a no-bid contract to the Army. There wasn’t a tent in Saudi Arabia that didn’t have his logo on the air conditioner.
Last year he bought the county a new sports complex worth fifty million.
Now, I reasoned, if he can give that much away, how much would he give to have his beautiful young wife returned? I figured ten million, easy. I’d ask for a quick three.
Two parts were already figured out while I was in that fugue state waiting for her to get her hair done: where I would make the grab and the drop site for the exchange. The exchange was always the tricky part. If hubbie broke bad on my command to keep law enforcement out (I would expect this), the place would be crawling with cops and FBI agents.
I drove home unconsciously, my brain buzzing like a pinwheel. I had to calm myself and think things through. The devil is in the details, they rightly say.
One week later I waited for her to come out of the beauty parlor. Different coat, same saucy walk, same arrogant tilt to the chin. She even demanded the same homage from passing traffic with another fake stumble.
I followed her home and gave her room. I feared my overstressed engine would seize up, so I gave her more distance. I needed to catch her before she made the full turn into her driveway. My hands on the wheel grew clammy and I was perspiring despite the chill in the air. Between my car crapping out and my limbs turning to spaghetti, I was fighting to stay clear-headed.
This wasn’t going to be like last time, I told myself. Keeping my head low in another jerkwater town for dreary months on end wasn’t going to happen twice. This time I had no partner who could foul things up on me.
I closed to within a hundred yards of her as she approached the driveway. She had to slow that big-assed car down or risk sliding on an icy patch into the brick wall. Time enough to make my move. Maybe five cars had passed going in the opposite direction since the township limits. How do you like your splendid isolation now, rich bitch? None of the unwashed proletariat out here to help your ladyship. No trailer trash to hear you scream. Just you and me...
I gunned it. I timed it to perfection. My front bumper just kissed the rear bumper of her car as she slowed to make the turn.
I skidded to a stop a few yards ahead. With my peripheral vision, I saw her brake lights as she slammed to a halt just inside the gate; the driver’s side door was opening as I was pulling over to the shoulder. I needed to get my car off the road at the same time avoiding the slope of the culvert. I set the emergency, left the engine running, and got out slowly.
She headed toward me. Her face was scrunched up in a mix of disdain and anger as she scoped the black shag wig and moustache. All I wanted her to think about was the odd-looking duck in a quilted parka who had just clipped her car, not the fact that even the local buffoons had better fashion sense.
The loopy expression on my face jerked her back to righteous indignation. She called me a vile name. Somewhere in my brain I detected her sole flaw as a beautiful woman: the voice didn’t go with the body. I wasn’t expecting the dulcet tones of Leontyne Price—the woman’s car had just been rear-ended—but I was expecting something more feminine than, say, than the nasal whine she brayed at me.
She mumbled a few more obscenities and turned her back to feel the scrape alongside her bumper. I looked both ways down the highway: nothing coming. That’s when I hit her with the wrapped end of a piece of steel rebar.
I hit her hard enough to knock her out cold. Extricating the bar hidden up my sleeve had taken a moment. I knew from the sizzling sound of its arc I had put too much torque into my swing. Blame the adrenaline churning in my guts that was buzzing me or the fact that a week’s practice cold-cocking pillow cases stuffed with old magazines doesn’t train you to stun someone senseless without permanent brain damage. I watched her sink to the ground in slow-motion, her face loosening altogether from that grim look I had seen a moment ago. She slipped down beside her left rear wheel cap, knees up, as if she intended to take a brief nap.
I had her under the arms. She was dead weight. Even if I had lugged one-hundred-pound sacks of potatoes around the house, I wasn’t going to get a feel for how loose and heavy a human body can be. She was a big girl, my cruel goddess, and I half-carried, half-dragged her. Her expensive shoes dropped off one after the other as her heels dug parallel tracks all the way to the trunk of my car. I grabbed the shoes and went back to her Lincoln for her purse.
I flipped the trunk lid with a catch I had designed that week—no point in wasting precious seconds fumbling with a key. The rigged latch worked perfectly and couldn’t be manipulated from inside. I heaved her inside, head first, and pushed the rest of her in a leg at a time. It seemed to take a ridiculous amount of time, and I was really sucking air from the effort. I tossed her purse in with her and took off.
I left boot prints in a size larger than I wear, but nothing else besides my beat-up car and fake tags to identify me. The spray job I added yesterday wasn’t a lacquer finish so the color would wash off. None of these precautions would matter if some passing Good Samaritan decided to stop and check out the scene.
On the Cleveland job that came apart at the last second, I did one thing right that got me out of there fast. I carry Black Talon .357 rounds in the magazine of my Sig Sauer. The sharp edges and Lubalox finish create a snowstorm effect inside a human body. I just have to graze my target. When I saw that my partner was being followed after the money drop, I blew a grapefruit-sized hole in the mark’s chest and made my getaway. Of course, I had to leave the money behind. You see, it’s about being disciplined. I don’t believe in half-measures.
I cut my eyes back to the house. Maybe he was looking out the big gabled windows and wondering why his wife’s car was parked at the end of the driveway. He could not see my car because of the vantage.
When I got home, I pulled into my garage. I walked over to my workbench and turned the radio to a classical station. I was in luck; it was a Wagner tribute. A good omen, I thought, with my very own Valkyrie stowed inside the trunk. She wasn’t about to whisk me off to Valhalla.
I tore off the wig and peeled off my moustache. I dropped them into a barrel for disposal. Her eyes popped when she saw me leaning in toward her. I could tell she was concussed from the blow, her pupils too large, and she was not sure what was going on. No barnyard language for me now, as she understood something was horribly wrong. I laid the barrel against her temple, lightly brushing aside a strand of her hair. She’d had the ends frosted—a nice touch. She tried to jam herself deeper into the cavity of the trunk. The garbage bags lining it should have told her something the moment she came to.
The bags caught the spatter but the blowback would have dusted me with a fine red mist. I stripped off my clothes unlike the knuckleheads on TV who toss their clothes into the laundry and figure high-velocity spatter washes out. I stuffed everything—shoes, socks, underwear, pants, shirt—into a leaf bag. I savored the cold rush of air into my lungs. I don’t care what FBI profilers think. You cannot describe moments like this. Try explaining the color blue to a person born blind.
I took my gloves off but kept the latex on as I sliced her right ear lobe off with a filleting knife.I used a pair of wire snips to remove her diamond wedding ring. Three, maybe four, carats—a little something extra for my trouble. I had the box of dry ice ready. I wasn’t sure if her husband would recognize the sapphire earring, but one simply can’t plan for every contingency.
I went inside, made a drink, and lay on the couch. I slept one of those dreamless kinds of sleep like being sucked into a warm black vortex.
I awoke at ten P.M. on the button. I don’t use alarm clocks. I trained myself to do this in the Army. When everyone else has control over you, you learn ways to get as much back as you can.
I drove out to the estate and saw lights blazing in the big house. I rolled down the window and timed my throw so that I hit the masonry wall right beside the iron gate post. I kept going past to the next town about twenty miles east and pulled into a plowed cul-de-sac. I called the husband with his wife’s cell phone. I held a voice scrambler from Radio Shack in front of it.
He sounded frantic and I had to wait until he understood me. I had to repeat myself several times so that he knew it wasn’t a prank. He hurled the expected threats at me. Better he get it out of his system, naturally. I described his wife’s clothing and the contents of her purse and finally he believed me. I didn’t mention a couple men’s names on her cell directory because they might be secret lovers. No sense in muddying the waters.
When he began to protest about needing more time to gather the money, I said there was a little package at the end of his driveway he should fetch immediately. I hung up, checked my watch, and drove home.
An hour later I called from a pay phone outside the Duke and Duchess. He picked up on the first ring. He was sobbing; then he was screaming. I assumed he had been drinking since he fetched the package.
“If you hurt her again, I swear to you, I swear to God Almighty, you bastard, I’ll use every cent I have to see to it you rot in the blackest hole in the United States prison system before they fry your worthless ass!”
“I assume you recognized the earring?”
“You sick, evil son of a bitch—”
“This is not helping, sir.”
That triggered another long emotional outburst.
I was told how often and not very nicely how I was going to be sodomized in the most dangerous prisons in the country and how his influence with the government would ensure nothing less. I was going to regret being born and so on and so forth. I found his distress both tedious and somehow exquisite.
His voice changed pitch and timbre but it seemed to me he was walking from room to room communicating via his Bluetooth. His voice quavered with wrath, fear, and confusion. A man richer than Croesus used to wielding power his money brought him, his blonde babe on his arm in swanky private clubs and surrounded by fawning politicians. Here he was, in the palm of my hand, seething in a stew of unfamiliar emotions. I would have given a million of the ransom money to be a fly on his wall.
I repeated my warning of no cops, and when he launched into another tirade of useless cursing and demands to speak to his wife, I thumbed off the connection.
The next forty-eight hours would be grueling, but as I said, it’s all about the discipline.
In movies the rich guy is always given the same ultimatum: get the money together in a couple hours... Even if he had that much lying around in desk drawers stuffed with millions in bearer bonds, I would have cooled him out. In fact, I do know a few shady financiers who could have made a black market connection for me. Playing poker around the world widens one’s acquaintances in strange ways. There’s another thing Hollywood never gets right: that much money is too heavy to carry. You don’t sling a garbage bag of ten million dollars in small denominations over your shoulder and run off with it. Even a world-class distance runner can’t carry that much weight.
Two weeks before the Cleveland fiasco, I had taken fifteen thousand from some lawyers and businessmen in stud poker at the Marriott in Cincinnati. It was set up by a man who claimed a connection to some mob in West Virginia. He wanted a bigger fee for arranging my place at the table than we had agreed on over the phone, so I told him to come next door to my room in the hotel after the game where we’d settle up. The only thing we settled was the fact a fragmentation round going into his stomach made a hole so big his intestines came out in a blue avalanche. The Cleveland snatch job was set up too fast because of that little indiscretion. The rich man wasn’t that fond of his son, who had a large heroin monkey on his back and dear old dad was sick of the boy and his dissolute life. I wanted to get the money and get as far out of this state as possible before some investigator picked up my tracks. That’s why I was doing the backstroke in this toilet fifty miles away until the blonde goddess walked past my gaze.
I was sure her husband would have called the cops by now. It’s what I’d do if somebody grabbed my wife. I played a lot of solitaire and re-read my dog-eared paperback library of books on beating odds and statistical probabilities.
I checked my watch and got up. My hands were shaking. That had never happened before.
I went to the garage and started the car. No federal agents leaped out of the rafters or appeared behind the bushes with drawn guns.
I drove the speed limit to Cemetery Road. It’s where the township residents who don’t have access to city garbage pick-up take their old sofas and TVs and push them off the backs of their pickups. The city agreed to put a couple dumpsters out near the field where the power company mowed for its towers. The heavy black cable overhead runs in a jagged diagonal across the land like the thick black sutures of a Y-incision on a cadaver’s chest. Anybody could take anything to the site and it would be collected on the routine garbage day.
I had a clear view of the road from both directions. None of the citizens sleeping under their gray slabs of stone were going to complain about my dumping her body or my garments into the collection bin. She was past full rigor but easier to handle as weight. I hoisted her up to the lip and gave her a big push. I heard the crack of bones breaking as she landed on the metal bottom with a loud bang.
I hissed into the black open maw of the container: “Look at you now, honey. Hanging out in a stinking dumpster like some shithouse rat. Not feeling too rich now, I’ll bet.” Stupid of me but one learns to savor the little moments, too.
No one followed me back home.
I lay down on the old velour sofa that came with this rental and eased my muscles with a tumbler of Glenfidditch. I imagined the drop site as if I were watching it on television. I played out one scenario after another, each one more vivid. I returned time after time to the husband’s anguished face. His heart had to be beating like a conga drum. I laughed and spilled some of my drink on my shirt. At the time he was hoisting six duffel bags of banded denomination of fifties, twenties, and tens into the dumpster behind the Dollar General store, I was tossing his wife’s Gucci shoes into the dumpster after her corpse. I resisted the urge to drive by—I didn’t need to be in physical proximity to it. My mind has many rooms to move around in, and I can entertain myself.
The husband’s hatred of me would dissolve to real alarm when the SAC told him nobody showed. He might even blame the police. He’d never guess a license plate had started it all.
The news hit the morning radio stations. You could feel it just driving around town. The vans from three big stations in Cleveland and one from Youngstown poured in like locusts off the desert, their logos displayed in jazzy colors, big satellite dishes on top. It was national news by six o’clock because the husband was such a big shot. Apparently he wasn’t exaggerating about his clout with the government. The FBI presence was out of the closet; you saw the suits everywhere. Their SAC on the case was interviewed every day by the media. After three days I thought of making an anonymous phone call to goose things, stir up the frenzy, but I thought better of it. No percentage in poking a hornet’s nest. I was safe among the crowd. Why mail in the revelation that the perp everyone was seeking was just a local, not some criminal mastermind the media kept speculating about?
Cadaver dogs found her before the next scheduled garbage pickup. I don’t know what led them to that area. I stayed far from Cemetery Road just in case there was a trap.
The husband’s grief on television was palpable. I recognized him instantly. Whether she cheated on him or not, he really must have loved her. He was grim, somber in his speech to the press, his eyes bloodshot. Maybe he was not altogether sober. He had the heavy face of a full-time boozer. But his face had nothing like the sag of his blonde beauty’s face when they pulled the scalp over her face to extract the brain at the autopsy. Her days of dazzling men were long gone. My kidnapping of the trophy wife was all for pleasure, not for profit. I was going to leave town as soon as I found out what that irritating bitch from next door was looking to borrow next.
There’s a proverb I heard once, and it goes like this: if you run with wolves, don’t trip.
How many times had I said it when she trotted over to borrow some coffee or milk? “Your baby cries too much. Can’t you give it something to quiet it down?”
My innate dislike of babies and kids blindsided me. That baby’s cry next door—it never changed pitch. A recording. How stupid of me not to notice such a big detail, wasn’t it? When I went to open the door, it was only to complain a last time through the veins in my neck about the squalling brat and his croup.
Hey, come on, wake up. We barely started here. You sure do like to talk, don’t you?
“Was I talking?”
You was muttering all kinds of crazy shit. Talkin’ about babies—or blondes. Something about blondes.
“What was in that shot you gave me? I might as well talk while you’ve got me strapped down like this.”
Sure. We got lots of time together, you and me. My cousin there, he don’t say much but he’s real good at some things. Like skinning muck rabbits when we was kids. Knock ’em on the head with a short stick. Charge two dollars for a muck, three for a cottontail.
“Want to hear something ironic? Yesterday I saw a really good-looking woman, a real fresh-faced beauty unlike the hatchet-faced skanks I usually bump into at the Sav-Mor. I pegged her as a female decoy cop working the kidnapping. She was just a handsome woman buying Hamburger Helper for the old man and the kids...”
I get it. You have an eye for the ladies. A ladies’ man, that you?
“I should have clued in to the fact you keep your fingernails cut even. No polish. You might remember that next time. Some local welfare trash would either have painted up her nails like a voodoo queen or they’d be chewed down to nothing.”
You ain’t in no position to give me or Jimmy Lee tips, now are you, sport? We’ll see how much you talk when Jimmy Lee gets to workin’ on you with his buck knife. This histamine shot will make sure you feel the pain. I’m going to film it. That’s what that camera equipment over yonder is for. They’s some people back home want to see this extra treatment. We gonna put you on Skype. Otherwise my cousin and me, we’d just as soon put a bullet in you and go on home.
“How did he find me... it doesn’t matter... I tripped, didn’t I?”
You tripped big time, sport. You should have cleared out of this state for good when you shot Buster.
“Buster... Who is Buster? Y-you mean this isn’t about the girl?”
What girl? There ain’t no girl. They’s just my brother you gut-shot like a dog in that hotel in Cincinnati.
“So this... this is my fate.”
Whatever... Now, you ain’t gonna like this next part very much neither, I’m figurin’. OK, Jimmy Lee, everybody’s online. He’s all yours.
BIO: Terry White has been writing crime or hardboiled fiction for several years. His most recent publications include Thrillers, Killers ’n Chillers, Flash Fiction Offensive, Sex and Murder Magazine, and Powder Burn Flash.
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