Friday, July 16, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 513 - Albert Tucher

THE ONLY AMATEUR - AL TUCHER

Originally published at the now-defunct Scalped Magazine

I never looked at the jury.

My lawyer goaded me about it. “You’ve got to relate to them. Make them think you’re human.”

“Think. I like that.”

“You know what I mean.”

But I couldn’t make myself do it. I worried that I would smile at the wrong moment, and the jurors would send me to Trenton for life.

I remember part of my lawyer’s closing argument.

“And what was it that the Medical Examiner said about the bruises on the deceased’s throat? ‘Not inconsistent with the size and shape of the defendant’s hands.’ Do we deprive a man of life and liberty over a phrase like ‘not inconsistent?’ No, we call that reasonable doubt.”

It sounded weak even to me, and I wondered what kept the jury out for a week. When they returned, the foreman said the last thing I expected to hear.

“Not guilty.”

I did have a perfect view of the judge and his obvious disgust.

“The defendant is discharged.”

I didn’t move.

“That means you can go, Mr. Labuda.”

I turned and came face to face with my father-in-law.

“This isn’t over,” he said. Tears started from his eyes.

A sheriff’s deputy led him away.

I went home for the first time in over a year. In jail I had dreamed about doing what I felt like doing, but now my imagination failed me. I assumed the default position of the American male on my sofa, facing the television set. On the screen an unfamiliar woman explained why she had argued for acquittal.

“I don’t think they proved it. What was the motive?”

That was generous of her, or very dense. I would now inherit this house, worth over a million dollars, and even more in life insurance. My wife had been the breadwinner.

“And so what if she was cheating with her boss? I cheated, and I lived to tell about it.”

She fascinated me, and not because she told the world her secrets, nor even because her understanding of human nature seemed to come from an alternate universe. She looked so much like my late wife that my thumb hovered over the Off button on the remote.

“I believed him about the intruder. There was that twenty-minute period when anyone could have entered the house. Those smudges looked like footprints to me.”

No, I didn’t think my wife had come back to life. But this woman and Alice could have been sisters. I wondered why my lawyer had never mentioned the resemblance. He probably thought I had noticed it, and he didn’t want to be the first to bring it up.

The camera panned back to the reporter, who said, “That was juror Amy Heckman, explaining why she refused to convict novelist Robert Anton Labuda of murdering his wife.”

Then another reporter appeared. He introduced the foreman of the jury, a man who resembled a sixty-ish professor of Romance languages. The camera closed in on him.

“One juror was very persuasive. That’s all I can say.”

His expression said it all. He looked like a man just released from a hostage situation. As he reconnected with real life, he would consider and reconsider his thoughts and actions, and he would not like his conclusions.

Someone from my lawyer’s office had stocked the house with enough groceries for a week. I spent the time hiding from the world. I had such a good time that I added two days to my impromptu vacation. It was poor planning. I ate nothing for the last full day and, the next morning, I woke up too hungry to go grocery shopping. First, I would have to sit down in a restaurant.

Alice and I ate out a lot. The only local place that wouldn’t know me was a no-name diner on Route 206. I had passed it hundreds of times but had never tried it. It didn’t look like my kind of place, but I might have to make some changes.

My car keys had spent a year on the kitchen counter. The car itself was in the garage. I worried about the battery, but the engine turned over and caught.

The rush hour had ended, and the trip to the diner was easy. I took a seat at the counter and plucked a menu from the clip that held it ready. The waitress raised a coffee pot. I nodded. We were getting along well.

It didn’t last.

“No. No way. Out.”

The voice was male and it came from an obese, balding man behind the cash register. Even before I looked his way, I had no doubt that he meant me. In seconds, I had weighed all the factors and decided that I had no choice but to go.

But just then someone slid onto the stool to my right.

“Oh, lighten up,” said a woman’s voice.

It sounded familiar.

“Don’t tell me to lighten up. This is my business, and I say he goes.”

“He’s not guilty. The jury said so.”

“I wouldn’t let O.J. Simpson in here, and I’m not feeding this one, either.”

“Then you can do without my business.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Okay, fine.” The woman slid off her stool. “Let’s go.”

She took my elbow. I let her guide me outside into the parking lot.

“Where’s your car?” she said.

“Where’s yours?”

“I’ll get it later.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“I’m going to take you to my house and feed you, for starters. You look starved.”

“You want to get in a car with me?”

I almost added, “Do you know what they say I did?” But of course, she did. She had heard all the evidence and still voted to acquit me.

She stood, waiting. I opened my passenger door and helped her into the car. My wife had always liked the gesture. Amy Heckman seemed to like it, too.

“Which way?”

“Go south.”

We rode in silence for several minutes.

“Okay,” I said. “You’ve never been to that place before.”

She let my words dangle.

“So the only conclusion I can come to is, you expected to meet me there.”

“You’re right.”

“What made you think that? I’ve never been in there until today.”

“I figured you would find cooking too much of a drag, on top of everything else. And where else were you going to go?”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you want to meet me?”

“Somebody owes you something. You weren‘t going to get it unless I took steps.”

I thought about that one.

She directed me down 206 into an older development in Lakeview. It had stayed nearly intact. Only two of the lots had second-generation McMansions on them.

“This neighborhood belongs in the Smithsonian,” I said.

She laughed, and I wasn’t sure that I liked it. I hadn’t expected Amy to follow my train of thought. My wife Alice had always been able to leap across the ellipses in my conversation, but no one else I had ever met could match her.

Amy Heckman’s house was a two-bedroom ranch. I parked in the driveway and looked at her. She understood the question.

“There’s too much junk in the garage. Anyway, who cares what the neighbors think?”

I walked around and helped her out of the car. She led me to the front door.

I couldn’t detect a masculine presence in the house.

“Is there a Mr. Heckman?”

“There’s a Mr. Primdahl. I went back to Heckman after the divorce. Come.”

We went to the kitchen.

“Omelets okay? I don’t have much besides eggs.”

Omelets were okay. With peppers, onions and Swiss cheese, they were more than okay. And it was okay when she stood, took my hand, and led me into her bedroom.

It wasn’t like making love to my wife. Amy was Amy and, unlike my wife, she craved me. Alice had sometimes given me sloppy seconds when she wanted even more than her boss could give her, but I knew the difference.

And, yes, I had been pathetic enough to accept anything from her.

Amy lay with her leg over mine and her head on my chest. I stroked her hair.

“What was Alice like?”

“Kind of like you, only different.”

“That’s not much help.”

“It’s the best I can do.”

“Come on, you’re a writer.”

“Not anymore.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I haven’t given writing a thought in over a year.”

“That’s understandable.”

“No, I think it will always seem silly to me now.”

“You might surprise yourself. I mean, look at Nine-Eleven. A month afterwards, would you have imagined you’d ever think about anything else? Now, it’s history. People go on living.”

“I wrote on Nine-Eleven, and the day after. This is different.”

“Maybe you need someone around.”

“You volunteering?”

“I might.”

The words turned into a kiss and another round of not-Alice. This time, Amy was both more and less like Alice--more because Amy had become more familiar to me, and less because Alice had started to recede into memory. Could Amy make that happen? A year in jail hadn’t done it.

“I understand,” said Amy a while later.

I had only thought about getting up to go. I hadn’t said the words.

“We’re already going fast enough. Go on home. I know where you live.”

I wish I had thought more about those words. And I wish I had looked behind me on the way home. I would have noticed the elderly Taurus tailing me home.

I climbed out of my Lexus and bent over to lift the garage door. The automatic opener had stopped working some time during my year in jail. A pair of feet in plain black oxfords appeared in my peripheral vision.

“Detective Berenger.”

“You even know my feet.”

“How many people have arrested me?”

“Probably not enough. Got a minute?”

“For you, Detective, anything.”

He didn’t react.

“That was sarcasm, Detective.”

“I remember. You’re good at it.”

“It’s a good thing for a writer to know.”

“For a suspect, not so good.”

“I know. You made a special project out of me.”

“I would have done that anyway. I like putting guys like you away.”

“All that work gone to waste.”

“I did my job.”

“Then what is this about?”

“My next case.”

“Which is?”

“That’s up to you.”

“How’s that?”

“I followed you home just now. You didn’t make me.”

He was right, but I refused to admit that I hadn’t noticed him.

“Think about that. Whatever you have in mind for Ms. Heckman, I just might be there to see it.”

“What would I have in mind?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A brunette with a nice, compact build. Just your type.”

He leaned in close. I fought my urge to back away from him.

“And we know what happens to nice trim brunettes who get close to you.”

“Somebody knows. My lawyer is not going to be happy with this conversation.”

He gave me his cop stare.

“That’s your cue to go.”

He went. As I watched him, I remembered that I hadn’t accomplished my mission. There was still nothing to eat in the house. I got back in the car and drove out to the superstore on 206. I had to pass the no-name diner again. Amy’s car was gone. I wondered how she had retrieved it. She had looked so comfortable staying behind in bed that I hadn’t thought to offer her a ride back.

The next morning, she called me.

“This time, you can treat. You know Enrico’s?”

I liked the idea. Enrico’s had opened in Mendham just before my arrest. It was expensive and private--the kind of place where disgraced politicians and CEOs could go without fear of harassment. Maybe I could do the same.

“Pick me up at seven.”

I put on a blazer and gray slacks. Wearing one of my suits would have reminded me of court. Amy was ready right on time. Alice had always been late.

In Enrico’s, we attracted a few glances, but no one looked twice. I don’t remember the food, which would horrify the management if they knew. We lingered over coffee.

“Why do you live here?” said Amy.

“As opposed to where?”

“Well, New York. Where else does a writer live?”

“I grew up here.”

“Sounds like a reason to get out.”

“I did. Williams College, then Oxford.”

“And?”

“And I found out that I could only write here. Suburbia gives me my material. Gave, anyway.”

“Your wife commuted to Manhattan.”

“And she wasn’t happy about it.”

Amy had heard hours of testimony on our fights about living in Witherspoon.

I paid the waiter and pulled Amy’s chair back for her. We left the restaurant.

Only a couple of lights over the entrance illuminated the parking lot. The rich can afford the security that allows them to enjoy darkness.

I started the car. The air conditioning blew blessed cold air. The interior lights went out. I could barely see Amy.

“So,” she said. “Why don’t you ever tell me you didn’t kill her?”

“You’re the one who said I didn’t.”

“That’s my point. Why don’t you?”

I thought about it.

“I think it has to do with what I learned about the system. It‘s a game. Only amateurs cared whether I killed her. I didn’t want to be the only amateur in the room. Not when I was the one who stood to lose everything.”

“You know what I keep thinking about? You made love right before she was killed. She had minutes to live. What was that like?”

“It was like making love to my wife.”

Sex had always worked between my wife and me, but ‘making love’ didn’t describe it. The more relentless the hostilities, the more sweat had drenched our sheets. Then she would go to her boss without showering. She told me he liked that.

“Come on. You must have sensed something.”

“How does that follow?”

“I think you both knew she was about to die. That must have made it the ultimate.”

‘The ultimate what?”

“Experience. The only thing you can do just once in a lifetime.”

“How could we know? You’re sounding as if you think I did it.”

“Did you?”

“Amy, are you wearing a wire?”

“Why would I wear a wire? You’re not guilty.”

“Remember O.J.? There’s always a civil case. And maybe Federal charges, for all I know.”

“Why would I help them?”

“Suppose you and Detective Berenger had a bet. You say I didn’t do it; he says I did. If I confess to you, he wins, and you have to testify.”

I heard her clothes rustling.

“What are you doing?”

She took my hands and ran them over her body. Her blouse was open and her bra pushed up to her neck. She had pulled her full skirt up and her pantyhose down.

“Do you feel anything? Anything but me?”

She leaned over and kissed me. Her hands went to my belt and undid it. She unbuttoned and unzipped my trousers more deftly than I could have done it myself. I arched my back to help her pull everything down to my knees. Amy leaned over farther and took me in her mouth. I was ready. I think the car setting made me feel young. Anyone would have had me writhing in minutes, but Amy wasn’t just anyone. She made me spurt in seconds. She kept teasing me with her lips and tongue. I rebounded like a high school boy. In a few minutes, I was on the verge again.

Amy paused.

“Tell me you did it. Tell me you killed her.”

The voice was hers, only more so. It was the voice she would use to sing her last aria.

I know what happens at the end of the opera, and I didn’t feel like it. I pushed her upright against the passenger door and arched again to pull my pants up. I didn’t bother with the zipper. I just needed my wallet.

I reached up and turned the courtesy light on to verify that the bill between my fingers was a twenty. I dropped it in her naked lap.

“Get a cab.”

She looked at me with nothing in her eyes--no hurt, no anger, no embarrassment

“Do you need help getting out?”

“That story of yours?” she said. “About person or persons unknown picking those twenty minutes to break in and kill her? Just how stupid do you think people are?”

She put herself together and got out. I put the car in gear and drove away.

As I left her in the dark, I remembered that she had called me at my unlisted home number. That’s not such an impressive trick--unlisted numbers are for sale all over the internet. But it showed planning and a tenacity that I didn’t like. It was also obvious that she had followed me to the diner the day before. Her story about guessing that I would go there was impossible.

When I got home, the time was still short of ten o’clock. I needed answers.

I tried to remember what Amy had told me.

Primdahl--that was her married name. It didn’t sound common. Amy had never mentioned living anywhere else but Massachusetts. I turned my computer on and opened Google. A search of local Primdahls gave me seven hits. The nearest was a Stephen Primdahl, who lived in Morristown. He had a listed phone number.

Somehow, I knew he was the right one.

I decided to risk calling after ten. The man who answered admitted to being Stephen Primdahl.

“I‘m calling about your ex-wife, Amy.”

“Not interested. I’m not responsible for her anymore.”

I could tell I had almost lost him.

“You can help me stop her from doing a number on some other guy.”

“Who’s that?”

“Me.”

“That’s your problem. You fell for her line, whatever it is at the moment.”

“I’m guessing you did, too. Cut me a break here. You know how it can happen.”

He breathed.

“Talk.”

How much should I tell him? Maybe his impatience would help me. I could give him the short version, and if my indictment ever came up, I could say I hadn’t wanted to bore him with my whole life story.

“We had a short fling, but I broke it off. I think she’s starting to stalk me. Does that sound plausible?”

“Hell, yeah.”

“How bad does it get?”

“Shit, don‘t ask me. Ask the guy she cheated on me with. I never bothered to go looking for him. He got the full Amy treatment. Beats anything I could do to him.”

“Who was he?”

“A guy at work.”

“Whose job--hers or yours?”

“Hers.”

“What does she do?”

“You don’t know?”

“No.” I felt stupid admitting it.

“A little advice. Don’t screw anybody you don’t even know that much about. I mean, isn’t that the first thing you generally talk about?”

“Not in this case.”

“She teaches high school English. In Driscoll.”

That was bad. Driscoll was a hardscrabble older town to the north. If Amy could fight Driscoll teenagers to a draw, she could handle me.

“When did she stop seeing him? I assume she did.”

“Probably June. She called a few times, trying to mend fences with me. Then she disappeared again, which meant she had a new obsession.”

I started to get the idea.

“What’s his name?”

“Hird. Joe Hird.”

We hung up and I went back to Google. It was what I had expected. Joe Hird had several domestic violence incidents in his past.

Jury selection had started in June. Amy had seen me and decided that I met her needs better than Hird.

Sometime after midnight, the phone rang.

“It’s not over,” said Amy. “Not until I say so.”

I hung up and waited.

Five minutes later, the phone rang again.

“Hi,” said Amy, brightly. “Listen--can I apologize?”

“Amy, you can say anything you want, but it won’t do any good. I know about Joe Hird.”

“Who?”

“Don’t even try it.”

I could hear her breathing.

“Amy, have you ever talked to anyone about the things you do to yourself?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What is it about men who will hurt you? Do you want that to happen?”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Please. You never gave Joe Hird a thought until you heard that he had beaten two wives. Then you found me, and Joe was off the hook. Why get beaten up, when you could get killed?”

“Is that a confession?”

Damn.

“We’re talking about you.”

“You make me sound like some kind of sicko.”

“You’re not a sicko. You have a sickness.”

“You would know.”

“You don’t have to listen to me. But you do have to leave me alone.”

“Or what happens?”

“You know,” I said, “you don’t really need me.”

“I don’t?”

“There’s something you might try. It’s called autoerotic asphyxiation.”

“It’s overrated,” she said.

“Okay, why don’t you find a nice pen pal in prison someplace? That should meet your needs.”

Silence, this time from her.

“No, it won’t,” she said in her operatic voice. “That won’t do it at all.”

She hung up.

Sometime in the small hours, I woke up with that hollow dread that comes from knowing I have missed something. Then I heard the footsteps of large men trying to move quietly. They were on the stairs up to my bedroom. I climbed out of bed and ran for the closet, where I kept the remnants of old enthusiasms. I grabbed one of my golf clubs--a three-iron, I think. As I hefted the club and took a batter’s stance with it, the bedroom door banged open, and a powerful beam of light caught me in the face.

“Golfing naked is a felony,” said Detective Berenger. “Or if it isn’t, it should be.”

The room light went on overhead. A uniformed officer turned his flashlight off and stepped back. Berenger appeared in the doorway. As I dropped the club, Berenger entered the bedroom and approached me.

“You have a warrant?” I said.

“Where is she?”

“Where is who?”

“Ms. Heckman.”

“Not here. That’s all I care about.”

“Nine-one-one got a call about a woman screaming in this house. The term is ‘exigent circumstances.’”

“Convenient.”

“Nothing convenient about it. It was a real call.”

“I would like to hear that call. I can identify her voice.”

“I already asked. The operator said it was a male voice.”

It was probably true. I could imagine Amy picking some loser up and promising him all kinds of delights, if he did her a small favor. I wondered whether she had kept her word.

“Look around,” said Berenger. “Make sure.”

More uniforms had crowded in behind Berenger. They looked everywhere a human body could have hidden, and some places where it couldn’t. When they had finished, everything I owned lay out for scrutiny. The cops even checked inside the clothes washer and dryer in the basement.

“Like I told you, she’s not here.”

As I told you,’” said Berenger. “Not Like. You‘re supposed to be a writer.”

“Is that what you really have against me?”

I didn’t expect an answer.

“Let’s go,” he said to the uniformed officers.

The nearest bar to my house was Keenan’s, just across the town line in Lakeview. It was just after two when I drove into the parking lot. Amy must have recruited some moron to make the nine-one-one call for her. That spelled barfly. She would have wanted to get as close to the fun as she could. That meant Keenan’s.

She was unlocking her car. I had arrived at closing time.

I didn’t think she had sensed my approach, but when I said, “Amy,” she showed no surprise. She turned toward me and smiled.

“Hi,” she said, as if we were lovers meeting after long hours apart.

“Congratulations. That was pretty annoying. I don’t think it will work again, though. The cops were also annoyed. You don’t want them to make a project of you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t,” I said. “Just don’t.”

She watched me.

“It stops here, Amy. I’m warning you...”

“You’re warning me. Good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“No, we’re not. I’m warning that you’re wasting your time. I’m not what you’re looking for, any more than Joe Hird was.”

She took a step toward me, which left me unprepared for what she did next.

“Get away from me,” she shrieked. “Get away! Help!”

The door to Keenan’s banged open and a half dozen men spilled out.

Barflies, I thought. I was right.

I raised the golf club I had been holding at my side. For a moment, Amy’s mouth fell open. She hadn’t noticed the club. For once, I felt a step ahead of her.

But only for a moment. She smiled in anticipation.

The two most enthusiastic of her protectors had almost reached me. I swung the club and rapped one of them on the wrist. I didn’t swing hard, but the head of the club still had some nasty momentum. The man screamed and held his wrist under his belly, which hung over his belt. The other men stopped. One of them, bringing up the rear, ran into the man ahead of him, who fell forward at my feet. I feinted toward him with the club. He scrambled backwards on his hands and knees.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “do I have your attention? I’m not here for trouble. I’m just here to talk to the lady. Privately. Nobody needs to get hurt.”

They didn’t like my suggestion, but there were no real fighters in the group. After some glaring and muttering, they dispersed to their cars. Before they had gone, I had Amy by the elbow. I guided her toward my car.

We had to go somewhere else. When I ruin my life, I don’t do it in a parking lot.

I stowed Amy in the passenger seat and tossed the golf club onto the floor in the back. I walked quickly around the back of the car to the driver’s door.

“Seat belt,” I told her as I climbed into the car.

She ignored me. I shrugged and started the car.

“Where are we going?”

It was a good question, which I didn’t answer. I drove and tried to think.

“That was impressive back there.”

“Amy, shut up.”

“You impressed me from the beginning. The first moment I saw you, I knew you could be great.”

I recognized the route I had chosen. Her house was the worst place I could think of, but I kept going. I parked in her driveway.

“Hungry?”

“No.”

“It’s no trouble. I’m told I make a good omelet.”

“That’s true, but I’m not hungry.”

“Okay.”

“Amy, it stops. Here.”

“Okay.”

I looked at her closely. How could I believe her?

“On one condition.”

That voice. It promised nothing good. How could I resist?

I climbed out, circled the car, and opened her door. She stood in her driveway and unbuttoned her belted wraparound dress. She let it fall and was naked. Amy held her hand out to me. I let her lead me into the house.

In her bedroom, she kicked her shoes away. She threw the bedspread, blankets and top sheet aside with one motion. Amy lay back on the bed and spread her legs. She began to play with her clitoris. I had never seen anyone so utterly exposed, but her face told me nothing. I undressed. Every button and zipper yielded instantly. I climbed onto her and into her and began thrusting.

I was only half on the bed. Amy reached up as if to smooth her hair. Instead, she jabbed her index fingers into my eyes. I closed them just in time. Lights exploded behind my eyelids. I caught her wrists and pressed them down into the mattress. My erection seemed to grow. As I thrust, my strokes felt a foot long. She shredded her throat with screams too hoarse to penetrate the bedroom walls, as if I were disemboweling her with fucking.

Amy jerked her head forward several times, trying to break my nose. I turned my face left and then right. She battered my cheeks with her forehead. I would be one large bruise tomorrow, but I could take her punishment, if she could take mine.

She jerked her right hand free and reached under one of the pillows.

“I have a gun,” she said.

I tried to grab her wrist, but I left myself open for another headbutt. My eye started to swell. In moments, it would close.

I could reach nothing but her throat. I leaned on it with my right forearm.

I wedged my other arm under the back of her neck and gripped my right elbow with my left hand. I squeezed.

“I have a gun.”

It was the last thing she said. She had no chance, but she wanted none. I watched her eyes die.

Then I was standing and looking down at her. The urgency of a minute earlier might never have been.

Someone pounded on the door several times. I heard the screech of wood giving way and then the familiar sounds of running men.

“Exigent circumstances,” I said without turning around.

My whole defense was the gun under Amy’s pillow, but there was no gun.

A month after the verdict, Detective Berenger visited me here in Trenton. He told me about a burglary suspect he had just questioned. The suspect had gone on a confession jag. He told Berenger about the time, about a year earlier, when he entered a house and came face to face with a woman.

“I don’t know what got into me,” he said. “Up to then, if I met somebody, I always turned around and ran. I ran this time, too. After I strangled her.”

The suspect agreed to point out the house. It was my house. Berenger showed him a picture of my wife.

“Yeah, that’s her.”

“How’s this sound?” I said to Berenger. “I’ll take his life sentence, and he can have mine. It’s no fun doing time for something I actually did.”

“Wish I could help you.”

BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of over thirty published hardboiled crime stories and five unpublished novels about suburban prostitute Diana Andrews. In his day job, he is a librarian.

1 comment:

Richard Godwin said...

Great stuff. The tension builds instantly at the beginning and it keeps getting better.