Vacancy and ariel, p.7

Vacancy & Ariel, page 7


Vacancy & Ariel

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  Kerman, apparently the genius of the arcade, switches on the piped-in music, and metal-ish rock overwhelms the noises of man and nature. Ashford, with a pained expression, tells him to turn it off.

  “Got to have the music on after nine o’clock,” says Kerman.

  “Well, turn it fucking down!”

  “You got no call to be using bad language.” Kerman sulks, but lowers the volume; following Ashford’s direction, he lowers it until the music is all but inaudible.

  Ashford rubs his stomach, scowls, and then gets to his feet. “I have to hit the john. Don’t go away.”

  As he walks off, the blond leans the intervening stool and taps Cliff on the arm. “Do I know you? I believe I do.”

  Cliff mentions that he was once an actor, movies and commercials, and the blond says, “No, that’s not it. At least, I don’t think.” She taps her chin and then snaps her fingers. “The Shark! You used to come in. You were seeing Janice for a while last year. I’m Mary Beth.”

  All the women at the Shark Lounge, waitresses and dancers alike, are working girls and, after hearing about how Janice has been doing, Cliff has an idea.

  “Have you got time for a date this morning?” he asks.

  That puts a hitch in Mary Beth’s grin, but she says coolly, “Anything for you, sweetie.”

  “It’s not for me, it’s for my friend. He needs to get laid. He’s a cop and the job’s beating him up.”

  “You want me to ball a cop?”

  “He’ll welcome it, I swear. Make out you’re a police groupie and you saw his gun or something. And don’t let on I had anything to do with it.”

  “Whatever. It’s two hundred for a shave and a haircut. You know, the basics.”

  “Shit! I don’t have two hundred in cash.”

  “What about a credit card? I do Visa and Master.”

  She hauls up a voluminous purse from the floor beside her stool and digs out a manual imprinter.

  “Hurry!” he says, looking toward the bathroom door as she imprints his card.

  Once they’ve completed their transaction, he says, “I didn’t mean to go all business on you. It was…”

  “It’s no thing. I do a lot of business with older guys this time of day. It beats night work. They’re usually not freaks, so it’s easy money.”

  “I know, but you were being friendly and I…”

  “Oh, was I?” The blond shoulders her purse and smiles frostily. “You must have me confused for somebody else. I was working the room, Clifford.”

  “Cliff,” he says in reflex.

  “Okay. Cliff. I’m going to move to another stool so I can make eye contact with your buddy. But I’m down here most every morning, so if you need me for anything else, you just sing out.”

  Cliff doesn’t know why he does this type of thing, plays pranks for no reason and without any point. He wonders if had it mind to compromise Ashford, to get something on him; but he doesn’t believe it’s about manipulating people. He figures it’s like with the sea turtle—he’s showing off, only for himself alone, his audience reduced to one. Another instance, he thinks, of his nonchalance.

  Ashford returns and tells Kerman to bring him a glass of water. He swallows some pills, wipes his mouth, and says, “They should blow up that john. It’s a fucking disaster area.”

  “I can help you with that.”


  “I was in a demolition unit during Vietnam.”

  Ashford’s eye snags on something—Mary Beth is sitting across from him, eating her French fries, giving each one a blowjob, licking off the salt and sucking them in. He tears himself away from this vision and says to Cliff, “We haven’t been able to locate Miz Gerone, so officially you’re a person of interest. If that blood on your house matches DNA the lab extracted from her hair brush, I’m going to have to bring you in.”

  Cliff offers emphatic denials of any involvement with her disappearance. “We fucked occasionally,” he says, “but that was it. We didn’t have much of an emotional connection.”

  “I know this is a frame. But the way you’ve handled everything, telling that story, lying about your girlfriend, it…”

  “That wasn’t a lie. I couldn’t get back into my house because you were processing it. So I went over to Marley’s after you released me, and things got deep. I swear to God that’s the truth.”

  “Doesn’t matter. It looks bad. You want to know something else that looks bad? I got a copy of one of your movies in the mail the other day. Jurassic Pork. Came in an envelope with no return address.”

  “Aw, Christ. I did that picture for the hell of it. I was curious to see what it was like.”

  “Somebody’s trying to besmirch your character.” Ashford chuckles. “They’re doing a hell of a job, too, because you were definitely the shortest man in the movie.”

  “Yeah, yeah!”

  “Prosecutors love to drop that sort of detail into a trial. Juries down here tend to think poorly of pornography. But the frame is so goddamn crude. The person doing the framing must have no comprehension of evidentiary procedure.”

  “So you believe me?”

  “I wouldn’t go that far, but I believe something’s going on at the Celeste.” Ashford has a sip of water, sneaks a peek at Mary Beth, who returns a wave, which he brusquely acknowledges. “You know of any way a used car can be given a new car smell?”

  “Polyvinyl chloride,” Cliff says. “The stuff they make dashboards out of. It comes in a liquid form, too. The manufacturers use it as a sealant. When a dealer has to take a car back on warranty, some have been known to slap on a coat of PVC and resell the car as new.”

  Ashford takes out his notebook. “What was that? The sealant?”

  Cliff repeats the name. “The stuff’s poison. Every time America has a whiff of a new car interior, they’re catching a lungful of carcinogens.”

  Apparently unconcerned by this threat to the nation’s health, Ashford says, “I might have found that Ford Escape. About five years ago, we were investigating a stolen car ring and we thought Muntz could be involved. We put a man into his service center in South Daytona. Nothing came of it, but I still had my suspicions. I went up there Tuesday and there was a red Ford Escape sitting out back under a tarp. I had one of our people take a look at it. It had that new car smell, but the engine number had been taken off with acid and the paint job wasn’t the original. The car was originally gray, like the one you saw.”

  “If Jerry was chopping cars, they would have cut it up within an hour or two of bringing it into the shop,” Cliff says. “It’s been a month.”

  “He might have a special order for an Escape. It might be a present for one of Muntz’s bimbos. Maybe he had a buyer and the guy has a cash flow problem. Who knows? Maybe it slipped his mind. Muntz is no Einstein.” Ashford’s cough is plainly an attempt to disguise the fact that he’s taking yet another look at Mary Beth. “He’s got papers, but the name on them doesn’t check out. He claims the guy came in off the street and said he won the car on a quiz show. I haven’t got enough to charge him, but my gut tells me that was your Escape.”

  “So what’s next?”

  “I might check in to the Celeste tonight and see what’s what. Vice has some expensive cars they use for undercover work. I can finagle one for the night, tell the guy on-duty at the yard I need it to impress some woman. That should get me into Room Eleven.”

  “You think that’s a good idea?”

  “I can’t see what else to do. I don’t have much time. If Gerone’s DNA comes back a match to the blood on your house, you’re going to become the sole target of the investigation.”

  “I thought you said you believed me!”

  “I may buy your story. Some of it, anyway. But no one else does. The only reason you haven’t been arrested is there’s no evidence, no body. I’m on my own. The captain…” Ashford grimaces. “He’s a results kind of guy. He’d love to make this case. It would look good on his resume. You’re about as close
to a Hollywood celebrity as we got around here, and a trial would get him exposure. It’d be huge on Court TV. He won’t authorize me to do diddley until after the DNA comes back. If it’s a match, you’re in the shit.”

  “When’s it due back?”

  “Depends how far behind the lab’s running. Maybe two-three days. Maybe tomorrow afternoon.”

  “Fuck!” Cliff tries to concentrate on the problem, but he’s too agitated—he flashes on scenes from prison movies, the wavy smear of blood on his porch, the face of the witch. “You shouldn’t do this alone.”

  Amused, Ashford says, “Yeah, it’s going to be rough, what with demons and all.”

  “You don’t know what happened to all those people.”

  “First of all, we don’t know it’s ‘all those people.’ We don’t even know for sure about Gerone. Second…” He pushes back his coat to reveal his holstered weapon. “I’m armed, and I have thirty years on the job. I appreciate your motherly concern, but nothing’s going to happen that I don’t want to happen.”

  “Have you asked yourself why they only disappear people who rent Number Eleven?”

  “Well,” says Ashford after pretending to contemplate the question. “I guess because it has a magic stone buried underneath it.”

  “You don’t have an answer, huh?”

  “Maybe there’s a hidden entrance,” says Ashford, registering annoyance. “Or you just didn’t see the people leave. Maybe they take them out in little pieces. I got way too many answers. I got them coming out of my ass. That’s why I’m going up there, man. That’s how you work a case.”

  Unhappy with this attitude, knowing he can’t influence Ashford, Cliff says, “I don’t understand why you’re doing this for me.”

  “Jesus!” Ashford gives a derisive laugh. “You think I’m doing this for you? I don’t give a flying fuck about you. I’m doing this because I enjoy it. I dig being a cop. I hate to see bad guys get away. And that’s what’s going to happen if you become the focus of the investigation. We might get Muntz and the What’s-the-fuck’s-their-names for auto theft, but if they’re guilty of murder, I want to make sure they don’t slide.”

  Cliff has new picture of Ashford as a rebel, a loner in the department who never advanced beyond the rank of sergeant because of his penchant for disobeying his superiors. He realizes this picture is no more complete than his original image of the man, but he thinks now that they’re both part of Ashford’s make-up. He wonders what pieces he’s missing.

  “Go on, get out of here,” Ashford says, still irritated. “We’re done. Go play your free games.”

  Cliff hesitates. “Give me your cell number.”

  “What the hell for?”

  “If you’re in there more than two hours, I’ll call you.”

  Ashford glares at him, then extracts a card case from his jacket and flips a card onto the counter.

  “Call me before you check in,” says Cliff. “Right before. So I’ll know when the two hours are up.”

  “Fine.” Ashford signals Kerman, holds up his cup, and grins at Mary Beth. “See you later.”

  Chapter 10

  AS OFTEN HAPPENS when Cliff is under duress, he’s inclined to put off thinking about crucial issues. He returns to Jungle Queen and finds that his place has been taken by a bald, sunburned, hairy-chested man in a bathing suit, a towel draped around his neck, who has frittered away all but two of his free games. Cliff watches for a bit, drawing a perturbed glance from the man, as if Cliff is the reason for his ineptitude.

  He spends the rest of the morning pacing, puttering around the apartment, his mind crowded with thoughts about Stacey. They didn’t care for each other that much, really. The relationship was based on physical attraction and sort of a mutual condescension—they both viewed the other as being frivolous and shallow. Nevertheless, the idea that she’s been murdered makes him sick to his stomach. He switches on the TV, channel-surfs, and switches it off; he vacuums, washes dishes, and finally, at a quarter past one, needing to talk it out with someone, he calls Marley.

  “I’m in the middle of something,” she says. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

  From her emphasis on the word, he understands that she probably won’t be home tonight, that she’s trapped by her mother’s impending breakdown.

  He drives to the Regal Cineplex in Ormond Beach, where a movie’s playing that he wants to see, but after half an hour he regrets his decision. It’s not that the movie is bad—he can’t tell one way or another—but sitting in the almost-empty theater forces him to recognize his own emptiness. It’s still there; it hasn’t gone away. He’s reminded of the first month after he returned to Daytona, when he attended matinee after matinee. He missed being part of the industry, and watching movies had initially been a form of self-punishment, a means of humiliating himself for his failure now that the work wasn’t coming anymore; but before long those hours in the dark, staring at yet not really seeing those bright, flickering celluloid lives, brought home the fact that he was missing some essential sliver of soul. He hadn’t always missed it—he was certain that prior to Hollywood he’d been whole. Yet somehow, somewhere along the line, show biz had extracted that sliver and left him distant from people, an affable sociopath with no particular ax to grind and insufficient energy to grind it, even if he had one. He hoped Marley could bring him back to life, and he still hopes for that, but hope is becoming difficult to maintain.

  He walks out into the empty lobby and stands at the center of movie displays and posters. Pitt and Clooney, Will Smith and Matthew McConaughey, posed heroically, absurdly noble and grim. He buys a bag of popcorn at the concession stand from a pretty blond teenager who, after he moves away, leans on the counter, gazing mournfully at the beach weather beyond the glass. Thinking that it was the violence of the film that started him bumming, he tries a domestic melodrama, then a bedroom farce, but they all switch on the Vacancy sign in his head. He drives back to Marley’s apartment in the accumulating twilight, a stiff off-shore wind beginning to bend the palms, and waits for Ashford to call.

  By the time the call comes at ten past nine, Cliff’s a paranoid, over-caffeinated mess, but Ashford sounds uncustomarily ebullient.

  “Black Dog, Black Dog! This is Dirty Harry Omega. We’re going in! Pray for us!”

  Cliff hears high-pitched laughter in the background. “Is someone with you? I thought you didn’t have any back-up.”

  “I brought along the hoo…” He breaks off and asks his companion is it okay he refers to her as a hooker. Cliff can’t make out the response, and then Ashford says, “I brought along the beautiful, sexy hooker you set me up with.”

  More laughter.

  “Are you crazy?” Cliff squeezes the phone in frustration. “You can’t…”

  “He wants to know if I’m crazy,” says Ashford.

  An instant later, a woman’s voice says, “Ash is extremely crazy. I can vouch for that.”

  “Mary Beth? Listen! I want you to have him pull over. Right now!”

  “Everything’s under control, Coria,” says Ashford. “I’m on top if it.”

  “And behind it, too. And on the bottom.” Mary Beth giggles.

  “You can’t take her in there!” says Cliff. “It’s dangerous! Even if there’s nothing…”

  “Bye,” says Ashford, and breaks the connection.

  Stunned, Cliff calls him back, but either Ashford has switched off his phone or is not picking up.

  There’s the missing piece to the Ashford puzzle, the one that explains why he never rose higher than sergeant: He’s a fuck-up, likely a drunk. He didn’t sound drunk, but then he didn’t sound sober, either. His friends on the force probably have had to cover for him more than once. He has to be drinking to pull something like this. Cliff tells himself that Ashford has survived this long, he must be able to handle his liquor; but that won’t float. He should go over to the Celeste…but what if he fucks up Ashford by doing so? He puts his head in his hands, closes his eyes, and tries
to think of something that will help; but all he manages to do is to wonder about Mary Beth. Recalling how she slipped into business mode this morning, he’s certain Ashford is paying for her company. Six or seven hundred dollars, plus dinner and drinks—that would be the going rate for all-nighter with an aging hooker. Ashford, he figures, must earn thirty-five or forty K a year. Spending a week’s wage for sex would be doable for him, but he couldn’t make a habit of it. But what if this is his farewell party and he’s crashing out? Unwed, unloved by his peers, facing a solitary retirement—it’s a possibility. Or what if he’s on the take and this sort of behavior is commonplace with Ashford? Cliff has a paranoid vision of Jerry Muntz slipping Ashford a fat envelope. He rebukes himself for this entire line of speculation, realizing there’s nothing to do except wait.

  Thirty minutes ooze past. Wind shudders the panes, rain blurring the lights of the boardwalk, and he calls again. Ashford answers, “Yeah…what?”

  He’s slurring, his voice thick.

  “Just checking on you,” Cliff says.

  “Don’t fucking call me, okay? Call when it’s been two hours…or I’ll call.”

  “Are you in Number Eleven?”

  “Yeah. Goodbye.”

  To ease the strain on his back, Cliff lies down on the bed and, perhaps as a result of too much adrenaline, mental fatigue, he passes out. On waking, he sits bolt upright and stares at the alarm clock. Almost midnight. If Ashford called, he didn’t hear it, but he’s so attuned to that damn ring…He fumbles for the phone and punches in Ashford’s number. Voice mail. After a moment’s bewilderment, panic wells up in him and he can’t get air. Once his breathing is under control he tries the number again, and again is shunted to voicemail.

  He talks out loud in an attempt to keep calm. “He’s fucking me around,” he says. “Motherfucker. He’s twisting my brains like in high school. Or he forgot. He forgot, and now he and Mary Beth Hooker are passed out in bed at the Celeste.”

  Hearing how insane this monologue sounds, he shuts it down before he can speak the third possibility, the one he believes is true—that Ashford and Mary Beth are no more, dead and done for, presently being carted off to wherever the Palaniappans dispose of the bodies.

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