By Kieran Shea
Featuring Andy Caruthers
“Surely it’s not against the law to take pictures.”
Georgia Warren was tall. Middle-hitter-volleyball-tall really, and gorgeous in an untouchable, wealthy sort of way. The words Barbie doll and blonde debutante bubbled to mind. My guess was some southern finishing school like Sweet Briar or Hollins, never worked a real day in her charmed, Pilates-toned life. Late-thirties, unmarried, lots of jangling silver jewelry, black turtleneck, and tight four hundred dollar jeans. She perched across from me like she was preening for an Architectural Digest interview, as if to say, “Yes, that African mahogany is original to the estate.” A far cry from where we were sitting though. A sticky booth at Milano’s Pizza off of Route 175, a dismal stripmall wart smack dab in the crack of Laurel, Maryland’s ass.
Georgia Warren stabbed her straw over and over into the neck of a Diet Snapple and grimaced as I soaked a napkin’s worth of grease off a droopy slice of pizza.
“Depends,” I said, discarding the stained napkin in the trash can behind me. “I mean, sure, taking pictures is not against the law, per se. But see, it’s not so much whether it’s wrong or right or even against the law that bothers me. What bothers me is, this kind of thing? There’s always trouble.”
“Trouble. It looks easy, but things go wrong. Real wrong. Things backfire. People get angry. And when people get angry they tend to get violent.”
“What is there to be afraid of?”
“You’d be surprised.”
“Surely not my sister Sara’s husband? I’m surprised Paul even had enough balls to cheat on her. I’ll wager he’s never hit anyone in his life. Well, maybe he has, but not a fight-fight, at least not that I know of. He doesn’t even work out.”
“There are other types of violence.”
“Gunplay for one.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Well, I suppose….”
“People exercising connections to make my life hell.”
“But I know you can do this.”
“Yeah but why me, Ms. Warren?”
“Because Sara deserves better, Mr. Caruthers. My sister deserves better and she needs to know what a cheating prick Paul really is.”
I sighed and gave her a squint, “Look. You just plucked my name off a coffee shop bulletin board because I’m a photographer, right? Did my business card give you some kind of private detective vibe or something?”
“It said, ‘All Jobs Considered.’”
“I was thinking more like portraits, insurance pictures, that sort of thing.”
“But this isn’t as complicated.”
“So you say.”
“Please. Everybody makes a big deal about how my sister’s husband is such a saint. Poor Paul taking care of Sara, making sure she gets all the best medical attention. He should be fighting for her life every day. Devoting himself. It’s not like they have children. But instead Sara’s dying this horrible death and he’s out there sleeping with some…”
My head ached. I did a maraca shake on my slice from the red pepper dispenser on the table and I repeated the process with the imitation Parmesan.
I leaned forward.
“Let me tell you a story, OK? Once upon a time not too long ago I agreed to take a few pictures of a guy fooling around with a co-worker at the BWI airport garage. No biggie, right? I thought, well, it might be kind of interesting, you know doing the private investigator thing? Tiny guy, looked like a shrunken Morton Kondracke from Fox News. Anyway, I follow this twerp and his lady friend. They park. I wait a bit and let’s just say for flavor the car windows are far too steamed up for a simple cuddle. So, I edge closer. Next thing I know I’m getting my ass kicked. Nice little unwitnessed aggravated assault, thank you very much, because in this age of quote unquote heightened airport security the cameras in that little corner of the garage were totally roached. The guy, and I repeat, not any Captain America or anything, tagged me but good. Two broken ribs, a hairline fractured eye socket and a knocked-out crown. Who knew he liked steel-tipped cowboy boots? At the paper my editor took one look at me and I nearly got canned because management takes serious offense to moonlighting. I mean, honestly. No secret here that I’m no tough guy. To top it off, the woman who hired me to follow her philandering hubby stopped payment on her check.”
“Yeah. Oh dear. And since I’m not licensed and bonded like a real investigator I couldn’t really do anything about it. What? I had an agreement? Small claims court for a few hundred bucks? I trusted her.”
“Like I’m trusting you.”
“Exactly. So much for trust.”
“I’ll pay cash, Mr. Caruthers. Up front.”
I started to pick up my slice and then tossed it down.
“Listen, I like it better when people call me Andy.”
“All right. Andy then. I will pay you cash, Andy. Up front.”
“Look, Ms. Warren, I’m real sorry that your big sister has this disease.”
“Inoperable heart tumors.”
“Yeah. And I am sorry her husband… Paul?”
“Yes. Paul Duval.”
“I’m sorry your brother-in-law is a real piece of garbage screwing around on her, but out of professional courtesy, I got to tell you, I don’t think I’m your man. Try the yellow pages, Ms. Warren. Hire a real investigator.”
“For a few pictures?”
“But I started looking into that and it seemed like overkill. All this talk about large retainer fees and multiple investigators and data mining. It all seemed so heavy-handed. Plus Paul’s husband is a corporate defense attorney.”
“Meaning Paul may know investigators, both in Baltimore and DC. Word could get around to him somehow, I don’t know who he’s friendly with. That’s why I value your anonymity. And what investigator would risk screwing a potential client? I’d rather not take the chance. He’s — ”
“Would it make any difference if I begged?”
“But I have the money right here.” She started to pull a tan envelope from a huge Louis Vuitton handbag. A tiny decorative bell with a pink ribbon fastened to the handle of the bag tinkled as she moved. I waved her off.
“Just stop. Stop right there.”
She feigned offense and made a big, huffy display, shoving the envelope back into the bag.
My pizza was growing cold. Fuck it, I told myself as I looked away from her. She was all pissed off at me anyway and any second she was going to stand up and walk out of the pizzeria . And what did I owe her anyway? It wasn’t like I was going to get her in the sack or anything. So I folded my slice and took a big, gooey bite. God damn, it was good. Best pizza around, I still swear. Just the right amount of airy crispiness in the crust and the warm, congealed cheese fed the hangover crater in my stomach like a salve.
Georgia Warren shifted tactics, “So, Andy…you’re an artist?”
“An artist? Didn’t you say on the telephone you did some gallery work some time ago, for that thing in Baltimore? Art for the soul or something?”
“Um, yeah. Art for Sail. The fundraiser for youth programs. They had a couple of my Annapolis pieces. A doctor bought both of them for his office. Sailboats. And I only told you that because I thought we were meeting to discuss some portraits — not some snaps of your brother-in-law screwing around on his wife.”
“Well, I’m sure you have other pieces.”
“What’re you saying?”
“I own a gallery in Annapolis, Andy. Down on Maryland Avenue? You know the quaint tourist shops just down from the State House? I could arrange a whole exhibit of your work there on top of your expenses and fee. I’ll even cover the promotion.”
I looked at the carryout windows framing a dismal February sky. Two doors down there was a shop carrying a vast assortment of small firearms. They had an indoor range, and through the thin retail walls I could hear the muffled crackling pops of gun owners letting their collective rage fly. Again, I tossed my slice down.
“Look, taking pictures of a bunch of sunburned boozers messing around Annapolis harbor is one thing. Taking cheating husband pictures requires stealth. It requires free time to stake a place out. I mean, look at me. I’m a county newspaper photographer. I take nice little pictures of chamber of commerce glad-handing and every now and then maybe a juicy car accident where four teenagers get treed before deadline. Occasionally I do a wedding or take a few portraits on the side. But I don’t have time to wait around all day for a subject to show at some motel, and I need my job. The pay may suck, but still I need it.”
The envelope was out again and she placed it on the table. I noticed it was pretty thick. I suddenly saw several overdue bills vanishing like so many popped black balloons. She slid the envelope across the table until in bumped into the tips of my fingers.
“Five hundred up front. Another five hundred on delivery. Plus the gallery show and your expenses. And don’t worry. I know when and where Paul will be.”
* * * * *
To firm up Georgia Warren’s backstory I checked some online cancer support sites, the local Baltimore and DC hospices, and ran some doctor queries through the health editor at the paper. Not pretty at all. I came up with whole, swollen crock of sad untreatable tumor information that made me want to yank the covers over my head, ditch my Marlboro Lights for good, and blow out the stale air out my condo with a flamethrower.
I dug up some more on Mr. and Mrs. Duval and that prompted a drive-by of the their ritzy colonial over in West Annapolis. It was a huge place, high on the Severn River, complete with a sixty-foot dock, a couple of boats — one power, one sail — and plenty of manicured landscaping. That whole Washington-Baltimore gentry nine yards.The place had been in the family for years apparently, Sara inheriting it from her folks long before Paul Duval slipped the shiny carbon on her finger.
Waterfront real estate in Annapolis is so crammed that in many places you can just pull right up to some pretty palatial digs. I parked my Civic on the Duvals’ street and peered through their front bay window. There was a hospital bed set up in the living room and the gauzy floor-to-ceiling curtains were pulled wide. Creepy.
I suppose this allowed Sara Duval a chance to see her neighbors pass by, but it also allowed them to watch her slow, agonizing fade. A dark-skinned nurse in pink scrubs came to the window and looked out. I flipped open a dog-eared road atlas, looked lost, and rolled away.
* * * * *
That afternoon my big assignment for the paper was to shoot an eleven-year-old girl who won the state spelling bee. La-dee-dah. The champ, her mother, and a teacher. It was scheduled for after school and the gig was going to take me all of twenty minutes but I dragged it out for an hour so I could blame traffic for getting back to the office late.
I stared into the rush hour taillights on Route 97 back to Annapolis and my cell phone rang. It was Georgia Warren.
“Are we set for Saturday?”
“Yeah.” I said, “I got your email. I’ve got the whole day blank.”
“You said ten a.m.”
“I got to tell you, that sure seems like a strange time of day to…umm….”
.“I know. But a while back I checked Paul’s calendar when he was occupied at the house. It’s always blocked for two hours on Wednesday and Saturday mornings and those are the days when I’ve caught him being suspicious.”
“Suspicious how exactly?”
“Trust me, he was suspicious. A woman knows.”
I let this nugget of Oprah bullshit slide.
“He wrote it down. With a doodle of heart of all things,” she said.
“Oh. Well then, I guess he’s not too smart.”
“No, not too.”
I reached for my cigarettes.
“Not for a lawyer anyway,” I added.
“No. Not for anybody.”
She gave me the address again. I scribbled it down.
* * * * *
My shutterbug gear. Nothing fancypants, but all digital. A Nikon D3 and D200 with interchangeable lenses that I was still paying off. For distance I used an F2.8 300mm with an optional teleconverter, and for close ups I had a wide angle lens and a speedlight. I told myself that it would be a piece of cake. Just keep the gig simple. Snap a few of them going in, snap a few of them coming out, done. Okay, maybe a few shot backs, just in case, safety shot-ace-in-the-hole kind of things to cover my ass. But shit, I could not believe I was doing the private eye crap again. Paparazzi for the Damned.
I found the motel. There were only a couple reasons on the planet to choose an achy shithole like the one given at the Linthicum address on the fringes of Baltimore, and Paul Duvall didn’t seem to be the type that was spreading for cash or hitting the pipe. Maybe the man just got off on the sheer sleaze factor. A two story sixteen unit flat stack, sooty white with peeling butterscotch trim. One unit on the second story had a four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood nailed over a window and even in the cold parking lot the place smelled soiled and rotten. Sandwiched next-door to the motel there was a biker bar with dark, gated windows and faded banner advertising $1.99 Bud Lights all day long. Across the four lane highway’s sporadic traffic there was a cemetery littered with blown highway trash and dying trees.
I parked my Civic slightly back from the motel office. The office was staffed by a grim Middle-eastern guy named “Mo” or at least that was what his brassy name tag said. No doubt an Americanization of Mohamed. Even from behind the safety glass my bro Mo bowled me over with personal hygiene challenges. I showed him my newspaper ID and floated a story about how I was doing an investigative piece on child support dodgers hanging out at the biker bar next door. I asked about the motel’s extended rates, its patrons and he offered zilch in return. I slid him a couple of twenties and asked if it’d be all right for me to hang back in my car alongside the office. Mo sneered at the money shoveled in the metal well below the safety glass and gave me what in Islamabad must be taken as the hairiest of hairy eyeballs. The forty bucks disappeared and Mo marched back to his computer.
Paul Duval was about ten minutes early. Talk about an attention-getter. The black GMC Denali was huge and shiny and looked fresh from detailing. He was alone. Chirping the SUV’s alarm he moved across the pavement with an eager bounce in his step. He looked pretty shiny and freshly detailed himself. I had my D3 up and shot him as he unlocked a room on the motel’s bottom level.
Then I waited.
Almost a half-hour ticked by and there was no movement in the parking lot. No one pulled in, no one stepped up, no one came by knocking on Duval’s door. I kept an eye on the room’s window to see if there were any anxious peeks from behind the blinds and then a thought hit me flat and hard.
Maybe the woman was already in the room.
I checked my camera and speedlight and got out of my car. I adjusted the stop on the Nikon for closeups and tugged at the strap. Now I had to see if I could snag a shot through the cracked blinds and greasy glass of the window. I slipped a polarizing filter into my pocket. An impossible shot for sure, but I might get lucky. Maybe.
In the backseat of my Civic I had a bunch of dress shirts that were way overdue for the dry cleaners. I opened the back door and bundled the shirts over my camera. Just another unfortunate guest taking his clothes to get laundered.
I surveyed the motel and highway one last time, just in case number two was late to the party.
My heart pounded and the muscles in my shoulders wrenched tight as I moved across the lot and made my way to the edge of the unit’s window. From within came the enthusiastic sounds of smacking flesh, sobs, and assertive muffled commands. Duval’s partner was already in there, alright. I shifted the shirts under an arm and inched closer. The blinds concealed everything, just as I’d suspected. It would be impossible to get a shot off even with the polarizing filter. I stepped back and eyed the door.
No sane person would leave a door unlocked, in that neighborhood. Basic common sense and security would have a door with an automatic locking mechanism. I stared at the scuffed aluminum door knob. The door was not snapped fully into the lock. It was, amazingly, open.
The moans continued and I dropped my shirts quietly to the concrete. I readied my Nikon and took a breath, exhaling slow. Then I toed open the door.
The main event was well underway and suspended in time.
I’ll cop to surfing my share of Internet porn, but the scene before me took the proverbial cake. A sleek woman sleeved in a full, black latex body suit and jack boots wheeled at the sudden, harsh blast of late morning daylight. Her head was covered with a hood and welder’s goggles were strapped tightly to her skull. The lenses were all Orphan Annied with the washed in sunlight and the mask’s mouth was zippered shut. She sported a double strapped bandolier of alligator clothespins, all of which were painted black.
I shot rapidly, three frames per second, the click-clack, click-clack, click-clack of the camera’s mirror and shutter chattering like novelty teeth. Across the queen sized bed, a spread-eagled Paul Duval jerked his head up and his eyes jumped off like a bomb.
Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack.
My camera’s speedlight projected an eerie red grid of multiple cross-hairs on him before each shot and the flash blinded him. He blinked and scrambled. Whatever lime-colored alien prong that was lubed up and wedged in his rectum shot out, bounced off the bedspread, and smacked the carpet with a buzzing plunk. The dildo moved around and around in circles with a life of its own, inching toward my feet like a hungry robotic worm. I leapt back and kept shooting.
I wasn’t even aiming anymore, just letting the tiny camera’s mechanisms whir. Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, the speedlight strobing making the room a virtual, seedy disco.
Duvall wailed and spilt off the bed like a giant, leather chapped crab. Even with the plastic zip cuffs fastened around his wrists he managed to yank the yellow bedspread over his balding head. As he hit the floor there was the sound of glass crashing into pieces in the corner and the rasp of skin scraping raw on the stuccoed wall.
Through her cowl the latexed dragon lady let fly a string of muffled obscenities and vicious pointed barbs of “What the fuck is this?”, “Who the fuck are you?” and “Get the fuck out of here!”s. I half-stepped and swung my camera at her and kept firing, her welding goggles popping hot in the white flash. She turned and reached behind her. There was a blur of something black and the right side of my face detonated with pain.
I flinched back and staggered.
Now I was being whipped by the dragon lady.
Even through the rush of adrenaline I knew my ear was bleeding. I lunged for the doorway. A series of assorted rubber and metal objects whapped the back of my head and shoulders as I clutched and pushed off the doorjamb.
In the sunshine I scrambled over my pile of dropped dress shirts and bolted across the parking lot just as a giant purple capped bottle of Astro-Glide sailed past my head and skittered across the broken pavement. More muffled shrieking from behind me and the motel door slamming with echoing velocity.
I ran like hell. Mo stepped stiffly out of his office to investigate and he stood slackjawed with a ceramic mug of tea looped in his hand as I made it to my car.
“Thanks,” I said to him franticly as I climbed in and threw the camera onthe passenger seat.
I fired the ignition. I caught him giving me the finger in my rearview mirror as my Civic stomped off the dip and careened into traffic.
My tires actually screamed.
* * * * *
Three hours, a shower and three Heinekens later, I had the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill bopping low on my Bose as I stewed on the edge of my bed in a damp towel. I had a flimsy home-made dressing on my oozing sliced ear. I resisted the temptation to scratch the wound. I clicked through the motel images on my laptop instead.
I called Georgia Warren to give her the news.
“Where are you?”
“All done. You’re not going to believe this.”
“What is it? Did you get it? Did you get it?”
“Oh I got it all right. I got some pictures in the room too.”
“You got what!? Oh my God, what, how did you manage that? You mean, wait, don’t tell me there’s pictures of…”
“Oh my God, Andy. That’s-”
“Pretty amazing, I know. There was some damage though. To me at least.”
“What? Are you all right?”
“Nothing that won’t heal.”
“Oh God, I am so sorry. Oh my God. Are you okay?”
“Oh my God.”
Her voice dropped the concern and got down to business, “Jesus. So how soon can you get the pictures to me? Can you mail the photos to my home or better, my gallery in Annapolis? Either would be fine, I mean, the sooner the better naturally. Here, let me give you the address.”
“Um, I’d really like to give the disk to you in person.”
“What? Nonsense. No, it’s better if you just mail it to me.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Look I’m sorry but I think that’s the deal. That’s what I feel comfortable with right now after today.”
She let out a puffy, exasperated breath, “Don’t be ridiculous, Andy. Just send it along with your bill. I’ll mail you a check as soon as I receive it.”
I groaned, “Look, this is pretty messed up, Ms. Warren. Really messed up. I don’t think it’s the best thing and, well, I just don’t want to get burned that’s all.”
“Burned? Did you just say burned? Andy, please. I paid you cash up front. I think you should honor–”
“I’ve got to go.”
“Wait!” Silence over the line. Then I heard cursing. Papers shuffling. The jangling jewelry again. There were curt mumbles to someone close by, maybe a customer in her gallery, I don’t know. A slurp of a beverage, probably hot.
I asked, “Ms. Warren? You still there?”
“Yes,” she snapped back with disdain, “Fine. Outside my gallery at five this afternoon. I can’t believe this. This is so unprofessional of you.”
“I’m not unprofessional.”
“Oh really? Then why can’t you just mail it?”
“Maryland Avenue right? Which side is your gallery on?”
She hissed, “Figure it out. You’re the professional.”
I rolled over the thumbnails on my laptop one more time and cracked my fourth beer with the opener on my keychain.
Figure it out. You’re the professional.
Well, hon, I thought, tipping back and drinking deep. I pretty much already have.
* * * * *
It was a wet late winter evening. The bone-sucking chill was harsh and the windy darkness was on the move. Up the avenue the Maryland State House flags daggered toward Annapolis harbor and the open gray slap of the Chesapeake. I crunched some Altoids and handed her a disk on the sidewalk.
“Here you go,” I said.
“So this is everything?”
“No, no copies. The camera downloads straight to disc. I haven’t even looked at them, not really. Just the thumbnails to make sure there were no glitches. It’s all there.”
She clutched the tiny disc in one hand and with the other gave me a sealed envelope, just like before. I dropped it into my jacket pocket.
“I take it we won’t be seeing each other after this?”
She caught my sarcasm. A wry smile.
In my life there have been smiles that just creep me the hell out, the stuff of goose bumps and sweat soaked dreams. Clown paintings. Old black and white photographs of Hitler patting school children on their heads. Dick Cheney dancing at the inaugural ball. Georgia Warren.
“You mean your exhibit?”
I snorted, “Yeah. My show. I guess that was all a line to get me to do this, huh?”
She seemed a bit thrown by my observation, flipped her perfect blonde hair and started back for her gallery door, “I’m afraid that was my mistake. I think my calendar is booked for the foreseeable future.”
“I thought it might be something like that.”
“So sorry, Andy.”
“But I mean…is this a rush job?”
There was a tint of caution in her voice as she turned, “Pardon me?”
“I mean are you trying to convince your sister Sara to change her will or something? Or maybe you just don’t like her? Bash her weakened heart to death, some old childhood resentment or something? Or do you just want her husband Paul all to yourself?”
“Oh really now, Andy.”
“I mean, did she steal Paul from you or was this Paul’s idea? Or are you setting the poor guy up? There are so many scenarios I get confused.”
“You have some nerve talking to me like this.”
“Yeah, maybe I do, but next time you really should think about your accessories. And I don’t mean just the dildos.”
“Your accessories. Your pocket book. That massive, expensive Louis Vuitton handbag with the pink ribbon and bell you had when we first met? It was on the credenza in the motel room. Look, hon, if you want to stage something make sure to think about the details. Details always kill the shot.”
“You… I should… how could you…” She sealed the widening cracks in her voice with a tight sigh, “You’re insane. You’re not making any sense.”
I started back to my car.
“Right. Sure I’m not.”
Back in the Civic I pulled out the envelope and didn’t bother tearing it open because I knew it was padded with blank paper, maybe a twenty on top and bottom to make it look good. I flipped open my still hot laptop and enlarged a thumbnail of Georgia Warren’s perfect ass in stretched black, bondage latex. I scratched a Bic to the tip of a fresh cigarette and dropped my car into drive.
My wheels bumbled over the historic pale bricks of old Annapolis. At the light I swung down past the U.S. Naval Academy’s cream-colored walls on King George Street and hooked down to the waterfront, stopping off at Mill’s Liquor Store on the city dock’s roundabout to pick up a half pint of Hennessey.
Back in the car my cell rang as I cruised up Main Street. I ignored it. I suspected Georgia Warren was pretty well briefed with the goofy grins of the Maryland state spelling champ on the disk I’d given her by then, and was going Grade A apeshit a mere few blocks away.
Running some blackmail figures of my own in my head, I unscrewed the half pint and took a nip as I looped past the governor’s mansion and headed out of the state capitol proper. The brandy blazed down my throat, warm and sweet.
My cell phone rang and rang and rang.
* * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR (January 2009)
A native of New Jersey now residing outside Annapolis, Maryland, Kieran Shea’s crime fiction placement reads like an e-zine laundry list. Plots with Guns, Demolition, Thuglit, Dogmatika, Pulp Pusher …he even has a piece upcoming in David Canmer’s Beat to a Pulp. Cut him and he’ll bleed whiskey-spiked black coffee all over your nice, clean carpet. E-mail him, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.