The ? Project with Betsy Hillstead

My friend and fellow writer Betsy and I are writing a short story? – novella? – epic? one paragraph at a time. I will begin, she will follow, I will continue, and so forth. There are no rules. No plan. No outline. No conversations. Just writing. It could be awesome. It could be terrible. But here we are. Enjoy.

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***

The sun entered through the mini-blinds like a noisy intruder. Stuart had been meaning to replace them with the curtains his mother had sent him for Christmas – the ones she spent way too much money on and reminded him way too many times. But they still remained in the bottom of his closet, along with the unopened show rack she had sent for his birthday (“Oh, hush. It was only $10. Besides, someday when you get a lady friend, you’ll be glad you have it”; Mom refused to say “girlfriend” or “wife” when referencing a life mate for her son. She didn’t want to be a “jinx,” as she called it, going through a similar circumstance with his sister – well, half-sister, really, but Connie Wright didn’t go in for that “mess of foolishness. Family is family.” – when she and her boyfriend parted ways after five years of dating).

The clock on his bedside table glared 6:38, mocking him in shiny red numbers. Stuart needed to be at his desk in less than three hours and he hadn’t even slept yet, again, for the third time this week. He reached over the naked woman (what was her name, Charlotte?) sleeping next to him and picked up the mirror and straw he’d left on the desk next to his bed. Fuck it, he thought, have another blow for your nose. The girl stirred slightly as he railed the line, and Stuart paused to look at her as he pulled himself up off the bed. She really was beautiful, whatever her name was. Deciding to wait to wake her until after his shower, he went ahead and called her a cab. It’d be at least another twenty minutes before the car actually arrived.

As he stood over his tryst (Stefi? No, Stefi was the redheaded stripper from Tuesday) and jolted (forget Folgers!), he wondered where they had met. It could have been Darren’s party, but that was two (six?) days ago. It could have been The Max – that horribly kitschy bar where his brother does stand up, the one decorated in Saved By the Bell memorabilia and all the cocktail waitresses are named “Kelly” – but he swore he would never set foot in there again after the last time the kitchen burned his Bayside BLT. Was she a prostitute? Not likely; one look at him in those jeans and the girls (and the boys) go wild. Most probably, they met in passing on the street, his favorite form of pick-up, noted for its danger; a test of his natural swag. The possibilities are endless; Rick James was right: cocaine is one hell of a drug.

Stuart shut the bathroom door behind him and turned the hot water handle on in the shower to full blast, then stood, naked, examining his face in the mirror. Was it his imagination or was his face looking thinner? When was the last time he’d eaten? The thought of food brought back a memory of the girl’s lip-gloss, and he could still taste the sticky tang of her chapstick around his mouth; there was a small hickey on the inside right corner of his collarbone. He liked the way she’d bit him. Had they used a condom? The scratches on his back looked like matching tic-tac-toe boards across his shoulder blades. As steam filled the room and Stuart’s reflection became nothing more than an obscure figure in cloudy glass he stepped carefully into the shower, letting the scalding water rush down his body, his skin taking on a crimson hue. The water felt good. The water felt real.

Melinda – or at least that’s the name she was assigned this go around – sprawled out in Stuart’s bed, “awoke” and slid to the edge. Now that the man – the one from her photograph – had left the room, she could rise from her feigned sleep and search for the box in peace. Previous targets had stored their sensitive materials in clandestine compartments in bookshelves, but Melinda had neither the time nor the desire to fumble behind this endless collection of Michael Crichton and Tucker Max. Sure, she could just throw them all on the floor in a fury like they do in the movies, but secretly she hoped to see him again and didn’t want to raise suspicion. She began to lift his antique looking-yet probably from Goodwill roll top desk, but it began to creak and these walls were most definitely thin – as they learned last night when Stuart’s neighbor pounded on the wall for them to keep it down. And then she remembered. Of course. It was under the bed. She had seen it only hours before when she threw him to the floor and he begged her to do what women usually didn’t. With his face buried deep in the carpet, she spotted that little black box Gretchen had described to her in detail, right down to the pearl handle. How could she have forgotten? The truth was she didn’t give a shit. This assignment was just that. There was no gangster giving her 24 hours. No kidnapped lover in need of some grand retribution for release. This was just another gig for cash. And the money was only mediocre at that. The thrill, as they say, was most definitely gone. Then why do it at all? Melinda had asked herself various versions of this question since she left the convent ten years ago, but had yet to arrive at a definitive answer. She began asking herself this question more and more lately. She had a good time with Stuart; the most alive she had felt since the dentist in Phoenix. The best sex she had had since Vegas. But Melinda knew when her time was up and her next venture began that afternoon. She grabbed the box, surprisingly without security – Was this Stuart’s first rodeo? – and tucked the address under her left breast. Quickly slipping back into her dress – Where did I leave those panties?! – Melinda applied her green apple chap stick (her favorite of flavors to combine with her morning dosage) and kissed the remaining scraps of coke off the mirror before heading for the door.

Stuart heard the crack of his front door slamming as he stepped out of the shower. Leaving a trail of dripping water behind him he reached the front windows just in time to see the cab pulling out into the street, the girl tucked securely into the backseat. So that was it. Easier than usual, Stuart thought, as he headed into the kitchen for a glass of juice. 7:00am. Ticking off the day’s upcoming tasks on his fingers, Stuart made a list of all the carefully planned stops he needed to make on his way into work. He was meant to arrive at the address in exactly forty minutes. That mother fucker better not be late again, Stuart thought. The breeze from the open window sent chills down Stuart’s spine and felt crisp on his damp skin. And again he was reminded of the girl’s fingernails, digging into the small of his back. He shivered and imagined he could still smell her on the tips of his fingers, her perfume lingering like spider webs in the air around him. For a second, he almost regretted the fact that she was gone, had left in exactly the same way he would have had they ended up at her place. It was foolish to bring her here, he thought. How had he let that happen? There was too much at stake. Too much booze and too much blow and too much of the smell and taste of her had made him drop his guard. He wouldn’t let it happen again; he couldn’t let it happen again. But still he smiled as he headed back into his bedroom, remembering the way she had looked at him, those dark green eyes. What was the worst that could happen?

  *

Gina pulled the last strips of bacon from the frying pan at precisely the right moment: a consistent brown, never burnt, just the way Dante liked it. Pleased with her daily accomplishment, she called the troops to “Breakfast!” It had taken her nine years, but she finally had this whole mother and wife thing down pat. Quite a far cry from the dunes of Baghdad and the sweet embrace of an AK 47.

Dante walked into the kitchen just as she was setting the table for breakfast, and stopped to admire his wife’s ass as she bent over to position her enormous plate of scrambled eggs next to the giant stack of pancakes she’d made for the boys. It still surprised him how much those boys could eat. He snuck up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist, gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Morning Sunshine, smells great in here baby.” he told her. Gina smiled and turned around in her husband’s arms, kissed him good morning. “Hey I was starting to get worried you’d sleep all day. Don’t you have that early meeting today?”

Dante tried not to let his panic show. Had he told her in his sleep? This precarious habit had cost him his first wife when Gina’s name began entering the midnight ramblings of his marriage bed. The hypnotist – a “present” from his therapist – supposedly cured him of this annoying handicap, but lately Dante had been noticing a strange behavior in Wife #2. One night after returning from a business dinner he caught Gina going through his pockets for phone numbers and cigarettes (a habit in which he indulged only after sex). Other mornings, he would swear she was staring at him with antipathy as if she knew his double life. Or maybe it was just her PTSD. Dante was never sure. But this morning’s meeting was not one he was looking forward to attending; ten kilos of blow in your trunk would make anyone jumpy.

*

Stuart walked into his bedroom and stood in front of his open closet. He selected a pair of carefully pressed khaki trousers and a starched white button up, removed them from their respective hanging perches, and carefully laid the clothes out on his bed. His head was starting to pound and his palms were damp with anticipation. Steadying himself against his dresser, he stepped into his white boxer briefs. That’s when Stuart noticed his desk. His papers had been moved. What the fuck? Taking a moment to try and remember if he had been the one to leave the right drawer open, he surveyed the rest of his bedroom. The box under the bed, why was it out, in plain view, when he was sure had kicked it well under the night before, out of sight of the girl? Oh shit, Stuart thought, the address. Adrenaline surged into his veins. Where the fuck was it?

*

17832 Washington. A crumbling facade with thick padlocked bars on the windows and a faded sign that once read Woofie’s. And Pho City. And O’Malley’s. Luciano’s. Viva la Cocina. And Nate’s Paint Shop. The neighborhood had been through more disaster and poverty than New Orleans and each time the smoke cleared, it seemed another business was trying their hand at the American Dream, only to face the inevitable. Dante figured it would be the perfect place for a drug deal. He knew these mean streets well and though he had moved up and out into the suburbs after his last great score – the one he thinks Gina knows nothing about – coming back to the neighborhood gave him an uncomfortable comfort, an ease he had not expected. The years had been many, but the miles of memory are few.

The mother fucker is late, Dante thought to himself as he looked down at the leather banded Cartier knockoff on his wrist. A gift from Gina for their latest anniversary. So you’ll remember to pick up the kids next time, she had joked as she’d presented it over dinner. Maybe with this score he would replace the damn thing with an authentic and get her that bracelet she’s always eyeing online. Where the fuck is this guy. Twenty past. Dante was starting to get nervous. The streets were still deserted so early in this part of town, so he jolted when he heard the sound of an engine rounding the corner and pull up outside the shop. He stowed the case, steadying himself and taking a breath before heading over to the window. He pushed aside the heavy, mildewed curtains just enough to get sight of the car. Through the tinted windows of a classic beamer he could just make out a figure before she stepped out into the light. Who, the fuck, is she?

Melinda shielded her eyes from the morning sun with her still sore hands; Stuart’s bulbous bravado was the one thing Gretchen had neglected to include in her dossier. As the sun’s rays created a backlight for her hands, she began to notice their imperfections. From an early age, Melinda had been championed for her beauty. Her mother, a failed beauty queen as is usually the case in these stories, pushed her avatar-like daughter into pageants and recitals, even helping her secure a major modeling contract when she was just 14. But this Dainty June was made for more and knew it – even if she was the only one who did. While the other models spent their time during Fashion Week on the Seine drinking cocktails and flirting with Frenchmen who had never even heard the term Megan’s Law, Melinda spent her free time reading Agatha Christie (a love she inherited from her grandmother), visiting the Louvre, and taking photographs of the local color, even comprising them into a book that saw a very limited release (rumor has it that you can find still find it on Ebay for a hefty sum; how the prices seem to skyrocket when you are infamous…). Melinda’s once alabaster skin was noticeably starting to roughen with age; her cuticles were in desperate need of a manicure; and she had recently broken a nail – no doubt somewhere in Stuart’s sheets. She noticed a scar on her left index finger, something she hadn’t spotted in years. Had it always been there? Where did it come from? It could have been one of dozens of jobs Gretchen sent her on. It could have been one of the many flagellations she administered herself at the convent; or it could have been something as innocuous as a fall from a tire swing at her Aunt Shirley’s farm when she spent her summers there as a youth. No matter now. As she dropped her arms, Melinda momentarily became dizzy, as she knew she would – a side effect of cocaine as it courses through your bloodstream. Quickly bracing herself in her 3 inch knock-offs, Melinda headed for her destination.

She knocked four times on the door through the gated, padlocked screen. Short – long – short – short, as per Gretchen’s meticulous instructions. “Who the fuck are you?” was her welcome from the other side as Dante inched the door open just enough so that she could see his right eye through the slit of sunlight passing through the still chained entry.

“Stuart couldn’t make it.”

“That’s not a fucking answer.” Dante didn’t like surprises.

“I’m Melinda.”

“Where’s the fucking money?”

“Open the door. You know I gotta see the product first.” She leaned back in her heals, presenting herself as she would have in one of those old pageants. Men were are so fucking easy.

Dante slammed the door shut in her face. Shit shit shit! This was not the fucking deal! He had a feeling about Stuart since the moment they’d met, three weeks ago in that bar; a meet arranged by Dante’s source. “That fucking prick” He thought to himself as he weighed his options. Why the fuck would that asshole send this broad?! But she clearly knows Stuart. She knows to meet me here, has the address… She knows his fucking name. And now I know hers. Mother fucking amateur hour. He unchained the door to let her in.   

The smell was staggering. The kind of scent that stops you dead in your tracks, causing your body to waver like one of those inflatable clowns that bob and weave as they drunkenly dance in the wind. The kind of smell that causes your eyes to instinctively widen, when all they should be doing is pulling the shades and retreating for shelter into the back of your skull. The kind of smell that stays in your nose for days no matter how many times you rub perfume or Carmex above your upper lip. It was the smell of a death. While Dante paced around in a nervous tizzy with that scrunched up look on his face – the one we think will somehow make the smell so offended it will leave in shame – Melinda stomped confidently down her imaginary runway, threw herself into a chair, and pulled some crumpled up Virginia Slims from her bra. For a moment, she just eyed him, slowly packing her cigarettes, rhythmically, bouncing off the cadence of the nearby train as it hustled over the Davenport Bridge. She studied his weatherbeaten, yet somehow innocent face for any signs of danger. Dante looked away in discomfort from her penetrating gaze; she knew she was safe. With her thumb, she flipped open her pack of cigarettes, pulled one out with her mouth, and leaned back. She wasn’t trying to be seductive; she just couldn’t help it. Melinda fingered the bullet hole in the arm of her chair.

“Got a light?”

“No.”

“Febreze then? What the fuck is that smell?” Without taking her eyes from him she dug a little deeper into her bra and produced a small bic lighter of her own, or maybe she’d swiped it from Stuart. Men have no fucking manners in this part of the world, she thought as she lit her own cigarette. “So where’s my product?”

Dante waited a moment, taking in the full site of her in that chair. She exhaled slowly, the smoke escaping her lungs in one controlled release, twisting and snaking its way around her body, encircling each delicate facet of her profile. “What do you mean, where is it, little girl?” He was punctuating every consonant with an embellishment of saliva in her direction. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears as he struggled to maintain composure. I am in charge here, goddamit, this is MY fucking deal… Jesus Christ those legs. He turned from her then, crossed the room, and tried to force the thought of what was between those legs from his mind. “Why don’t you tell me where the fuck Stuart is, to begin with, and then you can tell me who the fuck you are, Melinda?”

Who the fuck am I? WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU? Melinda was not accustomed to being spoken to in this manner. Instead of flying into one of her infamous rages – the ones that caused her to join the convent in the first place in the hopes of channeling her aggression for Pierre inward, like a good little Catholic – Melinda laughed. A laugh that was a little too large to be appropriate for this situation. But the whole situation was absurd anyway, wasn’t it? A drug deal? In broad daylight? In Jimmy Choos? What would the Mother Superior say…

“Stuart’s dead.”

Melinda uncrossed her legs to expose her inner thigh, adorned with a black leather holster and a .357.

“And unless you want to join him, I suggest we get this fucking ball rolling.” Melinda ashed her cigarette into the bullet hole, recrossed her legs, and smirked.

“You’re kidding me right? You think I’m scared of that piece between your legs?” With a jerk Dante swung his arms around his back and reached for his own weapon, but before he was able to finger the cock blood was already streaming down his forehead. Melinda hadn’t even removed her gun from its perch before she shot him in the head. So much for channeling that rage.

“Fuck.”

The barrel of the pistol was burning her leg. Quickly, she pulled it from its holster and threw her Father’s gun across the room next to Dante’s body. Everybody just stay calm. Melinda was still. With each inhalation of her Virginia Slim, she became more and more at at peace. Everything is fine. Putting her butt out in the arm of the chair, Melinda placed the potential evidence in the waist band of her panties.

*

Stuart rounded the corner onto Washington three minutes before Dante’d arrived at the address. Stuart had told the cabbie to drop him a few blocks north and made the rest of the way on foot. He watched from a distance until the girl was tucked inside the rotting façade, then made his way toward the ally.

Dodging the hypodermic needles sprinkled among the Coke cans and used condoms, Stuart hopped his way to the side of the dumpster like Indiana Jones spelling God. From this inconspicuous vantage point, he could see through the ratty curtains of the agreed upon drop, conveniently parted just enough to know if shit was hitting the fan.

He almost lost his footing when the shot rang out. The fuck! Stuart elbowed the windowsill hard enough to nudge the safety stick out of position and pulled himself inside.

The floor was a lot lower than it looked. Stuart landed with a thud on the grimy linoleum, hitting his left hip on what must have been a concrete cabinet, and rolled to the ground. Goddamn it! Stuart cocked his gun in haste and surveyed his make-shift hideout. All clear. He was somewhat surprised that he hadn’t happened upon a similar drug deal like the one he was supposed to be at next door. This whole block was nothing but a series of abandoned buildings, ripe for shady dealings and squatters. But Stuart had no time to consider who had died here or who was buried in the floor boards (or even why that concrete cabinet looked like a safe…). Those shots were fired from his drop. And one way or another, it was going to come down on his head.

Stuart kept low and made his way across the room. With his back to the wall he caught a glimpse of her beyond the door frame.

“So you made it after all,” She mused as their eyes locked. “You might as well help me clean this up since you’re here.” Melinda gestured in the direction of the dead guy laying on the floor, surrounded by an ever widening pool of his own blood. “Hope this jerk wasn’t a friend of yours. No fucking manners I swear.” She pulled two more Virginia Slims from the bust of her dress and extended one in Stuart’s direction, offering it to him as if coaxing a small cat from under the deck of an old house. “Smoke darling?”

He stared at her quizzically, trying to mend the images of that little girl from last night and this seemingly cold blooded dame in front of him. Last night, she was a sub – trained to perfection by what must have been a long line of Doms to obey his every command (and anticipate the needs he didn’t even know he wanted). But now here she was, completely dominating the situation, blood on her hands and a glint in her eye. Confused whether her power excited or terrified him, Stuart emerged from his place in the corner and grabbed her peace offering.

She glared at him amusingly, trying to see if he would take her lead or start firing with his own guns a blazing. Gretchen had warned her about his temper – and the whore he killed in Fresno. But Melinda knew a thing or two about quieting the monster within and decided to play chicken with this lion. She wondered how he would respond to this suddenly brazen vixen before him, hoping it would not break down the Walls of Illusion for their next sexual encounter – and for Melinda, there was definitely going to be a next time. Something about his power, his thrust, challenged her. And she had to figure out what it was. And what that said about her own.

Slowly and without taking his eyes off hers, Stuart reached around to his back pocket and pulled out an old zippo. He ignited the flame and with a gesture offered to light her cigarette. She leaned in slowly, letting the tip of her slim catch fire before taking a deep pull. She smiled at him.

“It was my grandfather’s” he said.

“Pardon?”

“This lighter. It belonged to my grandfather.”

It was silver, real silver. Melinda had learned to spot a fake at the convent; the Abbot, with whom she was having a torrid affair, had schooled her during their late night rendezvous in a myriad of ways – one of which was how to know if the Vatican was cheating them out of the supposedly pristine bric-a-brac he had earned for pulling an astounding 20,000 euros in tithes for the fall quarter. And yet, the purity of this metal wasn’t the only thing that caught Melinda’s keen eye for detail. An engraved swastika adorned its back. Her flirtatious smile turned to a caustic grimace.

“Nazi’s are good at taking care of bodies, right?” Melina gestured in Dante’s direction.

“Drugs first.” Stuart replaced the lighter in his back pocket and folded his arms across his chest.

Melina couldn’t help admire the site of his biceps across those pecs. Why is his shirt so tight?Stop staring, Melinda! she shook it off with a barely perceptible roll of her eyes. Refocused she said, “We were just getting to that, but then he got shot in the head. Figured you and I could take this one step at a time.”

Stuart stood his ground. “Drugs first.”

Melina squared off, “They’re leaving with me.” The flash in her eyes let him know only one of them would leave there alive if he disagreed.

“Then I’m leaving with you too.”

***

The beautiful morning sun shone through the kitchen window across her face. Gina waved to her boys as they boarded the school bus. Once Max and Dante, Jr. rolled from view, that smile, that “mom” smile, that carefully rehearsed smile parents (and assassins) flash whenever they don’t want you to know their true feelings, melted into a reserved panic. Spinning from the window, Gina pushed herself from the sink and nervously paced her newly polished linoleum floors in her socks.