Second Hand Smoke by Bill Capron
Yesterday on a stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there,
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish to God he’d go away
- Hugh Means [1875-1965]
Prologue – June 22 – Thursday – 4:00 am
Mona Morgan loved the dingy motels. She wanted nothing of the Marriott or the Double Tree. Room service? Not a chance. There was one service she was concerned with; a service enhanced by the neon ‘Vacancy’ signs, the lumpy beds, the stained coverlets and the two day old sheets. Even the Gideon’s bible – where she could find her sins on feel alone – was a familiarity that fed her contemptuous love.
Contempt! Mona couldn’t remember a man she’d made love to more than three times without learning to hate him. Still, she married five of them, but they never got to be experts on Mona. No man knew Mona. No man understood how she needed the motel rooms, and the bodies, strong and young, old and flabby, married, unmarried. It didn’t matter if it was good sex, bad sex, no difference to Mona. They were cardboard cutouts or blow-up dolls; once they became flesh and blood with feelings and ideas, they became transparent, as if they weren’t there. They weren’t.
Mona Morgan didn’t merely hate men; she hated the concept of men, creatures led by their dicks. Hers was a lifelong a high school science lab project where she proved that any man, no matter how much in love with someone else, how rich or poor, how attractive or unattractive, could be seduced. But that was giving a reason to it, and there wasn’t a reason. She’d even forgotten when it began, or who was the first man she’d hated. Maybe it was her father, but no, she couldn’t call up a reason from her muddled past. She stopped rationalizing after the third husband.
Mona’s life was partitioned by her routines. There was her current husband and his friends; flirt but don’t touch was a concession to propriety important in her head alone. Then there was the singles scene. Often on Fridays and Saturdays she took off, no asking, no explaining, a short note saying she was going. She returned on a Sunday morning disheveled and distant, like a tomcat after his conquests. Over the years in Portland she’d bedded an ever widening cadre who lusted after her. They’d have her once, never more, unless they had the bad luck to marry her. At times it seemed she’d screwed almost everyone she’d met.
And one night a week she worked the convention trade, not for money, but for the sheer joy of the sexual moment. She compared it to her husband, a fisherman who didn’t eat fish; he cast his fly for the strike, that moment when expertise and excitement meet. That was Mona with men, proving she could catch them, but lacking the excitement. Once they were spent, she threw them back, though they always wanted more.
The wind blown early summer rain beat incessantly against the window. Propped up on the pillows, Mona had an unobstructed view of her post-coital feast. She’d ordered out to the pizza place for a salad; she container stood open on the little night table. The good looking young sales manager from Duluth hadn’t wanted to go, but she shoved him out the door, used and unwanted. His parting words, ‘Hey, let me get you off one more time.” Yeah, right, as if he’d gotten her off once. No, it wasn’t orgasm she was looking for … but she really didn’t know what she was looking for.
Once he was gone, she invoked her routine, like a psychological tic; dress, order out, wait for delivery, set the table and undress again. She’d sit on the bed, naked, bring herself to orgasm, and then eat. Once she seduced the delivery man, but that was too easy, and it ruined the meal, so she never did it again.
Yes, if she could get off, she could eat, but her right hand rested soft and unmoving on the dark brown pubic hair; the other hand held the bible open on her favorite page. Her bleached blond hair was spread on the pillow. A white feather was stuck in the corner of her mouth. A thin line of blood trickled down between her gravity defying, surgically enhanced breasts as life drained out her back into the mattress. Mona could no longer continue the charade of a marriage which was in its final chapter. In fact, she was starting a new career, death, and she was playing a starring role that would have satisfied her in life.
~ ~ ~
“Come on, get it open.” The young cop’s irritation overflowed onto the night clerk.
The ubiquitous anonymous caller had reported a gun shot in room 202 of the Sandhurst Motel, so he was working well past the end of his shift. It was his twelfth straight day on duty. He should be on his way home to a four-day weekend of partying. He’d earned it.
Instead he rang the night bell and pounded on the lobby door while a stream of cold water cascaded onto his hood. The night clerk rose from the desk, big ears like transparent jug handles on his backlit head. When he opened the door, the odor of whiskey was heavy on his breath, but then, if this was Jackson’s job, and his life, he’d take a snort or two himself.
The clerk pushed the key and whined, “I can’t; someone has put glue in the lock.”
The cop spoke into the intercom strapped to his shoulder; he asked for backup.
In three minutes the squad car pulled into the lot, silent but for the swish of water clearing the tires. His backup was there. She wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, but he couldn’t complain, it wasn’t allowed. He needed a man behind him, not some cute chick dressed up in a cop uniform. Sure, he could joke about it next week, but right then it wasn’t that funny with his life on the line.
She read the distrust in his eyes; “Well, you going to break in the door, Jackson, or are we going to wait for it to fall down.”
The clerk chuckled; the young cop stopped him with his eyes. He wanted to say, “I’m right behind you, beautiful,” but he’d be a laughing stock for weeks. Without a word he banged his shoulder into the door. Nothing. The young woman grabbed his arms and the two of them rammed the door. The frame cracked, and when she kicked the corner, the door swung open . . .
. . . to poor Mona, eyes on her salad, hand on her crotch, feathers everywhere. Jackson stood frozen, staring at the dead woman. His mouth hung slack as he sucked in air while the color drained from his face. Then he turned out the door to the railing and threw up.
The female cop said to the clerk, “Get me a clean sheet.” To his scurrying back she called, “Make sure it’s clean.”
She called in the murder. The gun lay on the floor next to the door, six feet from the dead woman. When the clerk returned the officer took off her shoes and raincoat and entered on her socked feet. She spread the sheet over Mona. She wanted to rearrange her, to reduce her shame, but she was a good cop, and Mona wasn’t a person any longer, she was evidence.
She stepped out of the room into the dark rain to wait for Homicide and the evidence guys. It wouldn’t be her case once Homicide arrived.
So where is my unintended partner? She heard him through the hum of the thinning drizzle, by the far bushes, still retching. She barely knew him, despite working the same precinct and shift for a year. She didn’t like him; he was too judgmental for police work.
She called down, “Hey, Jackson, get it together. Company’s coming.”
When he entered the cone of light, she said, “Go wash your face. When you get back, try acting like you belong here.” He gave her a hard look but did as he was told.
The evidence collectors showed up in their blue and white van with the lights flashing. She motioned down to them. When the big black cop, Bobbins, got to the door, he asked where Homicide was. She told him they were on the way. She said the woman was definitely dead. Bobbins’ two assistants unfolded a blue tarp tent-like contraption outside the door and laid a dry piece of anti-static carpet on the wet surface; the four of them huddled on the wet walkway.
Jackson trudged up to the second landing. He motioned with his head to the officer and pointed to the guests gathered under a tight knot of umbrellas.
The woman said, “Get them back to their rooms. Tell them we’ll be around to talk to them soon.”
Jackson pouted. “Who died and left you boss.”
She almost said, “You did,” but instead she stared at him until he blushed. “Do it, Jackson.”
A broad smile cracked Bobbins’ face and wrinkled his bald head. He liked women with guts. The hiring over the last twenty years had filled the department with gender equality types; not this one. He checked out her badge. ‘Officer Simpson’. He chuckled to his notebook as he scratched, ‘ass kicker and name taker.’
The unmarked car cut through the pool of standing water between the motel and Sandy Boulevard to pull behind Bobbins’ van; seconds later a blue and white swung behind it with its lights and siren going. A woman got out of the unmarked car and raised her umbrella before knocking on the blue and white’s window; she talked into the open window; the siren died.
The detective bounce up the stairs signaled the start of her shift. Her perkiness was out of place in the drear of the cold summer night, but a long day of murder and mayhem would suck that from her.
She noted the badge; “Simpson. You the officer in charge here?”
The patrolwoman made a quick decision; “Yes, ma’am.”
She looked inside. “You put the sheet over the body.”
Their eyes met. “Don’t ever do that again.”
“Okay, Simpson, get those rookies downstairs talking to the guests. I want to know who heard what, and who called the shot in.”
She turned to Bobbins. “Hey Jake, we got to stop meeting like this.”
They got under the tarpaulin contraption and hung their coats on the hooks at the top of the metal frame. Bobbins pulled on clear plastic booties. He handed a pair to the detective. “Right, Maureen. Where’s John?”
She stooped to pull on the foot coverings. “In the hospital having his appendix out. With any luck at all, it’s attached to his libido.” There was a hard edge to her voice; it was her first time alone, and she didn’t want anyone thinking she wasn’t in control.
She looked up at Bobbins. “You ready?”
He nodded, and they entered the room.
She looked right and left as she made her way to the bed. She pulled the sheet from the body, releasing the odors of death. She turned deliberately, taking it all in.
To Bobbins, “What’s your first impression, Jake?”
“It was a woman –” She nodded her agreement. “– too arranged for a guy.” He pointed to the door. “The gun, left there, like it was dropped.”
“Maybe that’s all it was, dropped as the killer ran out the door.”
Bobbins didn’t see it that way. “Yeah, but –”
He scanned the room with dark eyes. “Too much like a movie set.”
She took in the room again. “Maybe, but that impression’s passing.” She knelt down next to the door frame. “This looks like a fresh dent, maybe from the hammer, like the gun fell against the wall, then bounced where it is.”
The black cop nodded and shook his head at the same time. “Maybe.”
Bobbins’ assistants entered the room. One snapped pictures, the other drew a layout of the room. They bagged the gun, some of the feathers, Mona’s clothes. Two fingerprint guys powdered up most of the surfaces. They’d vacuum the floor for the remaining evidence once the medical examiner’s people took the body.
Maureen pulled on rubber gloves to pick up the dead woman’s purse.
Officer Simpson called from the doorway, “We’re interviewing the guests, Detective. What else do you need?”
She motioned with her head. “Put on the booties and come here.”
The detective opened the purse; without looking up she said, “It was Jackson who took the call. Why isn’t he in charge? Pretty gung-ho type, if I remember right.” She turned Irish green eyes up to the much taller officer. “Not the kind of guy who’d let a woman take charge.” They all came out intoned as questions.
Bobbins listened in. Two very pretty women; they should be home with the kids, he thought, and then dismissed it. He started to say something, but the detective held her palm out. She kept her gaze on the officer.
Simpson stammered, “I … I think Officer Jackson knew the dead woman. Somebody had to take charge.” Simpson blushed under the woman’s stare. A little more tentative, “It was an impression I had.”
The detective nodded; she looked at her watch. “Tell Jackson I want to see him here in fifteen minutes.”
She gave a questioning look to Bobbins who nodded.
“Yes, fifteen minutes.”
When the officer left, she said, “Jake, I want you to sit it on this, play John, okay?” She laughed. “No, I got that wrong. You play me, I’ll play John.”
The black man laughed with her. “Sure, Mo.”
~ ~ ~