The look on Carly's face was priceless. Her jaw dropped and her eyes widened in shock.
"Is that-" she began.
"Uh-huh," I said, rising to my feet.
She started to smile. It was devious and delightful. "How did you get it?"
"I stole it from the Walk of Fame," I said. "For you."
She ran into my arms and mashed her lips against mine in a furiously hungry kiss. I lost my footing and we tumbled onto the star.
* * * * * *
Carly had a thirst that couldn't be slaked. She fucked me three times, right there in the garage, on top of Jack Webb's star, and then we went back into the bedroom for more.
We didn't talk until hours later, laying in bed, bruised and scratched from rolling over the rough edges of the star and the hard, concrete floor of the garage. We were dirty and sweaty and exhausted.
"I want to know how you did it," she said, her voice raw from her moans and squeals and shrieks.
I told her. Of course I embellished the story a lot. I built it up into a elaborate scheme that took weeks for me to meticulously plan and execute, that involved recruiting expert drivers, stone masons, and electronics experts. The heist itself was a carefully choreographed operation that required clock-work precision, special tools, and cutting-edge technology.
And I did it all for her.
It was the most imaginative writing I had done in years. Already, Jack Webb's star was having an unexpectedly positive influence in other areas of our lives.
When I was done with the story, she gave me another deep kiss.
"It's the best gift anyone has ever given me," she said.
Me too, I thought.
* * * * * *
The big question was what to do with the star now that we had it. Carly wanted to put it the shower floor in our master bathroom. That way, she could see the star every day and it would be out of sight of any visitors we might have. But I knew there was another reason she wanted it there. We had a hand-held shower head that she occasionally used for wicked purposes.
But installing the star in the shower was beyond our home improvement skills, even though we had the Home & Garden channel on our cable line-up. Of course, we couldn't just call someone out of the phonebook to do the job, not unless we wanted to risk getting reported to the police.
I told Carly not to worry about it, to leave everything in my capable hands. If I could assemble a top-notch team of criminal talent to steal the star, I could certainly find the right person to remodel our shower and keep our secret.
"Sure, I can do it," Titus told me over the phone. "No problemo."
"What will it cost me?"
"Another grand," he said.
This was becoming a very expensive present. I'd have to work a lot of over-time at The Acorn to sustain our cash flow, but it was worth it.
"Okay," I said. "But if my wife asks how we met, tell her you were part of the talent I recruited for the score."
"Make sure she understands that I was the mastermind of the operation."
"Sure," he said. "You're a criminal genius."
* * * * * *
It took three days for Titus to put the star in the bottom of the shower. I was very pleased with his work. So was Carly.
We spent hours in the shower, making love in positions I'd only dreamed about. We were re-consummating our marriage on the altar of Jack Webb.
Two weeks after the caper, I was still working long hours at The Acorn to make up for the two grand I'd spent on Carly's anniversary present. On that particular day, I'd volunteered to cover the Calabasas Planning Commission hearings on a controversial new building complex. The debate was likely to stretch into the wee hours, so I talked my editor into letting me go home and take a shower.
I immediately sped home, imagining the carnal delights that awaited me.
When I rounded the corner onto my street, the first thing I saw was a Katz Construction van parked in front of my house.
The only thing I could figure was that all of our furious coupling had shaken loose some tiles around the star and Carly had called Titus to come fix it.
I opened the front door and was about to announce myself when I felt the humidity in the air, the kind that comes from running a hot shower for a very long time. Carly couldn't get enough of Jack.
And then I heard the bed-springs squeaking. Rhythmically.
Our bedroom was at the end a short hall. The door was wide open. As I approached, I saw Titus' naked back, my wife's hands clutching his pale, white buttocks as he pounded into her with animalist grunts.
I stood there for a good minute or two before Carly noticed me. I met Carly's gaze, which was defiant and unapologetic. She didn't give a damn. She was jump-starting her life.
"I always knew stealing the star wasn't your idea," she said. "You aren't man enough."
Titus looked over his shoulder at me and sneered. A muscle flexed in his arm and the tattoo woman's boobs seemed to jiggle.
"I want a divorce," she said.
This wasn't the way it was supposed to go. I stole Jack Webb's star for her. I'd been betrayed by her. By Titus. By life.
I turned and walked away. The bedsprings immediately started rocking again. Carly moaned. Titus grunted. Something snapped in me.
I picked up the brass table lamp by the couch, marched back into the bedroom, and whacked Titus on the head with it as hard as I could. Blood spattered on Carly's chest and she screamed.
I dropped the lamp, grabbed the pillow beside her and covered her face with it. I placed all my weight against the pillow, smothering her. Divorce granted.
When Carly finally stopped moving, I placed Titus' limp hands on the pillow, picked up the bedside phone and called 911.
"Oh my God, you've got to help me!" I wailed.
"Calm down, sir," said the female operator in a robot monotone.
"He was raping her," I wailed some more.
"Are you in any danger?"
"No, I don't think so," I said. "He was on top of my wife, he had a pillow over her face and heâ"
"The police are on the way sir," she said. Her monotone was comforting. Familiar. Almost arousing. "They will be there in four minutes."
"He was attacking my wife and I hit him, I hit him hard. There's blood everywhere."
"I understand," she said. I knew why it was familiar. She sounded like Jack Webb.
"I can't talk anymore," I said. "I can't breathe."
That was true. It was beginning to dawn on me that I'd just murdered two people, one of whom was my wife. My chest felt tight.
"Please stay on the line," she said.
I hung up because I had one more thing to do, and I couldn't take a chance that I might be sidelined by a heart attack before I got to it. I went into the bathroom, put the sticky-plastic mat over Jack Webb's star and closed the shower curtain.
I sat on the edge of the bed, clutched my chest, and waited.
* * * * * *
It was a simple case, really. I came home and surprised an intruder in my house who was holding a pillow over my wife's face and raping her. I smashed the bastard over the head with a lamp but I was too late to save my poor, sweet wife.
Everyone knew I loved my wife, that we were happily married, and that we'd just celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. My co-workers, my neighbors, and even my wife's family stood solidly behind me. Not that they needed to, because the cops never doubted my story. Nobody did.
Why should they?
All anybody had to do was look at Titus, an ex-con with a big-boobed woman tattooed on his arm, and then look at me, a law-abiding citizen and devoted husband.
There was always the remote possibility that the police would discover that Titus and I were in the same traffic school class together, but I wasn't concerned about that. It would have looked like Titus was a deranged sicko who followed me home and then stalked my wife before he raped and murdered her.
The only thing that worried me was what would happen if the cops stumbled on Jack Webb's star in my shower. But they didn't. All the action was in the bedroom and that's what they concentrated on.
The tightness I felt in my chest right after I murdered my wife and Titus passed before the cops showed up. I think it was stress or maybe acid reflux. In any other circumstance, I would have taken a Pepsid and not given it a second thought
The homicide investigation lasted two, maybe three days and that was it.
I felt no remorse. I was certain that the only reason Titus helped me steal the star was so he could fuck my wife. He used the erotic power of Jack Webb against me. That made it justifiable homicide as far as I was concerned.
Carly wasn't any better. She knew what she was doing when she invited Titus into bed. She wanted to humiliate me and she succeeded. There are some cultures where women who commit adultery are stoned to death. Looking at it that way, things could have ended a lot worse for her.
I was sad, of course, and deeply depressed for days afterwards, but I felt a whole lot better after I received $250,000 from Carly's life insurance company, $75,000 from the State Crime Victim Fund, and $150,000 from a studio that optioned my tragic story for a TV movie. I was even hired to write the script.
The truth is, I'm happier now than I've ever been. And I owe it all to Jack Webb's star, which has given me a thought: He's buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood, plot #1999. I wonder how hard it would be to steal his tombstone?
Detective Bud Flanek used a plastic knife to scrape the last bit of strawberry jelly from a tiny Smuckers tin, smeared it on his hot, cheddar cheese bagel, and took a big bite.
He didn't really like the bagels in this place much. The only way he could eat them was to smother them with anything that had some flavor, which is why he ordered a bagel that was covered with cheddar cheese to start with. What Bud Flanek liked was the hot, heavy, onionized air that filled the tiny shop all winter long.
Every morning, he left his city-owned Crown Vic idling at the curb, and while the worthless heater struggled to warm the icy, cracked-vinyl interior of the car, ate his breakfast at one of the chipped linoleum tables. Just for the heat and the smell.
It was pathetic, Bud knew that. But it wasn't like he was squandering any great promise. By his own reckoning, he wasn't much of a cop and even less of a man.
Bud became a cop because the perky recruitment officer who visited his community college had the best pair of breasts he'd ever seen. He thought he might get laid if he signed up and showed some enthusiasm.
He didn't, and twenty years later here he was, a pot-bellied, 38-year-old Spokane homicide detective with thinning hair and nicotine-stained teeth, hemorrhoids and perpetual rhinitis, all packaged in a polyester suit from Wal-mart's distinctive Perry Como collection.
Bud accepted the gradual hair loss, learned to live with the sore butt and runny nose, and didn't care about his suits, as long as they were cheap, didn't wrinkle easily, and didn't cut off his circulation. The only clothes he really shopped for were Hawaiian shirts because they had some artistic merit.
He gave up the cigarettes when he and Diane were trying in vain to have kids, and managed to stay away from them even after the divorce, but couldn't bring himself to have his teeth bleached, or whitened, or whatever the hell they called it. People would know immediately what he'd done, and figure he did it to get laid, which would be true, since he hadn't had any action in a couple of years and his prospects weren't good.
As far as being a cop went, Bud had managed to achieve mediocrity. He cleared cases, but nobody was going to mistake him for Lt. Columbo. Luckily for Bud, in reality very few murderers had the smarts of Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp, or even a reasonably intelligent goat. Catching killers was easy. It was the paper work that was difficult.
Bud's cell phone chirped. He didn't have to answer it to know that someone was dead.
* * * * * *
Every winter Bud Flanek inevitably found himself stomping through the snow in the park, taking off his nice wool mitts and swapping them for a tight, thin pair of plastic gloves to examine a frozen corpse.
More often than not, they were natural deaths, the natural result of being broke and homeless in a big city with brutally cold winters and even colder politicians.
The deaths were sad but simple cases, nothing that could qualify as a homicide, not unless the laws were changed, and the city council members who voted to slash shelter funding could be arrested for premeditated murder.
The park was virtually deserted; it was too early and too cold for anyone to be out, except for a couple of uniformed officers and Erno Pender from the coroner's office. Erno was the only person Bud knew professionally who made him feel superior by comparison, if only because Erno weighed thirty pounds more than Bud, had half as much hair, and the pock-marked skin of a kid who picked his face through adolescence.
"Did you think to bring me a bagel?" Erno asked.
Bud pulled a cheddar cheese bagel out of his jacket pocket and dropped it into the evidence bag Erno held open in front him.
"Thanks," Erno said.
"You gonna eat it or analyze it?"
"I'm saving it for later," Erno waved towards his meat wagon. "I'll eat it in the car on the drive back."
"Too bad. I was hoping you could tell me what passes for cheese on those things."
"You bring any cubes of butter, maybe some breakfast spread?"
Bud shook his head no, shivering in the icy wind. "What's breakfast spread?"
"The stuff that's not butter or margarine." Erno sealed the bag, stuffed it inside his coat, and led Bud off the jogging path into the shrubbery.
"I appreciate you putting that in layman's terms for me," Bud said. "Can you do the same on this stiff?"
"I'll need a little more than that."
"Female Caucasian, mid-to-late-30s, no apparent signs of trauma. Looks to me like she just curled up under a bush with her bottle and froze to death."
The woman was bundled up in a ratty, men's overcoat that was at least two sizes too big for her, hugging herself, her face turned to the ground. An empty bottle of Scotch lay at her feet.
"Any ID?" Bud asked.
"Pockets were empty," Erno replied. "We'll roll her prints when we get back to the morgue."
Bud leaned down and looked at her face. She didn't die peacefully, she died defiant, her eyes closed and lips drawn tight in an expression of stubborn refusal. Her skin was chalky white and perfect, her black hair short and ragged, like she'd cut it herself in a frustrated hurry with a pair of rose shears. It was probably the kind of thing she'd do.
He hadn't seen her in two years. Nobody had.
"You know her?" Erno asked, reading his face.
Bud nodded, overwhelmed with sadness and dread and unanswered questions. Where had she been? Did she just come back from somewhere else, or had she been living in the city all along, managing to hide from them all?
"I got to give the Chief a call," Bud said, his voice a barely audible rasp.
Erno looked at the corpse, then at Bud. "She's somebody that important?"
Bud turned up his collar against the cold, shoved his fists into his pockets, and trudged off towards his car, mumbling into the wind.
"Just his wife."
* * * * * *
When Lissy Masters woke up during the night, wanting a smoke and not finding one, she'd get out of bed, grab some change off the nightstand, and walk a couple blocks to the Stop-and-Go on the corner.
It wasn't the hour, or the walk, that unsettled people on the streets. It was that Lissy didn't bother getting dressed to do it.
The first time she showed up naked at the Stop-and-Go, demanding a pack of Marlboros, the startled clerk didn't know whether to sell her the cigarettes, call the cops, or drag her behind the counter for his interpretation of how the market got its name.
He sold her the cigarettes and let her walk out, a decision all the more astonishing considering the clerk was a paroled sex offender who only took the job so he'd have free access to girlie magazines.
When the clerk found out later that she was the wife of the deputy chief of police, he considered her naked, nocturnal visits a divine test of his character, proof of God's hand at work. Later, sometime after she disappeared, he would credit her for leading him to Jesus.
Lissy was blessed in that way. She didn't have to adjust to the world; it twisted itself all out of shape to adjust to her.
At least, it used to.
Bud Flanek sat in Chief Masters' office, trying to look anywhere but at Fred Masters, who stood with his back to him, staring out the window in deep contemplation.
Chief Masters was a big, muscled man in a tailored suit who looked like he'd be much more comfortable in a loincloth, letting his abs and glutes flex in unfettered glory. No matter how well-fitted his suits were, Masters' body always seemed to be straining at the seams to break out.
But if Chief Masters was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. He was a man who prized control, over others and over himself, which was why it was so important for him to hide his pain from Bud, and why it was so important for Bud not show he saw it.
So Bud concentrated on the badges, awards and commendations on the walls and the one, small photo of Lissy Masters on her husband's spotless desk.
There was something disturbingly erotic about the picture, although it was nothing more than an innocent head shot. It was a rawness to the smile, and a mischievousness in the eyes, that seemed to promise trouble, and a lot of fun making it.
Lissy often disappeared for days at a time, only to show up again in a big way, like the time she took a Mercedes Benz on a 230-mile test drive, abandoning the car and the salesman on the side of the road in Idaho when she finally ran out of gas. Masters ended up buying the car, taking out a second mortgage on his house to pay for it, just to smooth things over as fast as possible.
At the time, even the officers who were snickering behind Masters' back at his embarrassment felt sorry for him.
Once, Bud picked her up at a McDonalds, where she was sitting naked, casually eating a Happy Meal, at 3 am. Bud sat across from her, sharing her fries, before he drove her home and dropped her off outside her door. He didn't want the Chief seeing him.
A few hours later, she walked back out into the sunrise and wasn't seen again. That was two years ago.
"You know I tried to help her," the chief finally declared. "I put her into rehab three times, though drugs and alcohol were never her problem. I wish they were, at least I could have understood that."
"I'm afraid you'll have to come down and identify the body, sir."
The chief turned around and looked at Bud, who immediately straightened up in his seat.
"I'm aware of what I have to do, Flanek," the Chief said.
Bud swallowed. "Yes, sir."
During his entire career, such as it was, Bud was careful to go unnoticed, a feat he accomplished by showing absolutely no ambition or initiative whatsoever. Everybody took him for granted, a familiar piece of squad room furniture, and he liked that. Now here he was in the Chief's office, where he couldn't help but make a resoundingly bad impression. Why couldn't some other cop have found Lissy Masters?
"Any idea where she's been," The Chief asked, "or how she ended up in the park?"
"No sir," Bud replied, "but I've got officers questioning the homeless to see if any of them knew her."
"She wasn't homeless," the Chief snapped. "She had a home, a good home."
"Yes, sir." Bud felt beads of sweat rolling down his back.
"If she was living on the streets in my city, don't you think I would have known about it? That we all would have?"
"Of course, sir."
There was no way this could turn out well for Bud, but at least it would be over soon. He thanked God that it was clearly an accidental death, something that could be wrapped up in a day, as opposed to a protracted murder investigation, which could drag on for weeks and give the Chief ample opportunity to be dissatisfied and disgusted with him. With luck, in a couple days the Chief would forget Bud Flanek ever existed.
"You're sure about how she died?"
"There's nothing at this point to indicate a homicide, sir. The coroner is pretty certain she froze to death, but we'll have the results of the autopsy this afternoon."
The Chief nodded, as much an acknowledgement as a dismissal. "Go down to the morgue, wait on that report, I don't want the press getting it before I do."
Bud rose from his seat and gathered his overcoat from the adjoining chair. "I'm very sorry, sir."
"So am I." The Chief turned back to the window.
Bud glanced one more time at Lissy's picture and left.
* * * * * *
He had no desire to see someone he knew dissected, so Bud waited in the hall, eating a bag of chips and staring at the diagram of the building's emergency exits on the opposite wall.
By the time Erno Pender finally emerged in his blood-streaked lab-gown, Bud had memorized the ingredients of Nacho Cheese Doritos and knew how to get out of the building in any situation.
"How did it go?" Bud asked.
"As hard as I tried, I couldn't revive her," Erno held his palm out to Bud. "You got some change for the vending machine?"
"I meant were there any surprises?"
"Low blood sugar makes it hard for me to recall."
Bud dug into his pockets and scowled. "You make at least twenty grand more than me."
"But you have pockets and I don't."
He handed Erno a handful of assorted change.
"Thanks," Erno shuffled up to the machine. "She froze to death."
"Is that all you've got to tell me?"
"I thought you'd be relieved."
"I am, but with the Chief involved, I need all the details."
Erno scrutinized the selections. "Besides being a little drunk, there were no drugs in her blood stream, no needle marks, no suspicious cuts, bruises or abrasions. All that's left are corn-nuts."
"What corn nuts?"
Erno wrapped a knuckle against the glass. "Those corn nuts. Nobody wants to eat corn nuts. You cleaned the machine out. You ravaged it. If you gave a damn about any of us down here, you'd have the courtesy to leave at least one bag of chips."
"Does that mean I can have my change back?"
Erno angrily jammed coins into the slot. "She had sex before she died."
Bud immediately looked at the nearest emergency exit. "She was raped?"
"I didn't say that." Erno punched a button on the machine. "There was no physical signs of force, but I got enough seminal fluid for a DNA match if you think you'll ever need it."
Bud wondered if this was information the Chief really needed to know, because if he did know, then he probably would want the poor guy hunted down, and he'd want Bud to do it. That wouldn't do anybody any good, particularly Bud, who knew he'd never be able to find the guy.
All of this ran through Bud's mind in the time it took for Erno's bag of corn nuts to drop from the shelf into the slot. Bud was working out a way to ask Erno to do him a big favor, and omit the semen findings from his report, when Ermo spoke up.