"What I really want to do is direct."
Nothing. No reaction at all. She stares at me with those big Prussian blue eyes, waiting. Perhaps she is too young to recognize the cliché. Perhaps she is smarter than I thought. This is either going to make the task of killing her very easy, or very difficult.
"Cool," she says.
"You've done some acting. I can tell."
She blushes. "Not really."
I lower my head, raise my eyes. My irresistible look. Monty Clift in A Place in the Sun.I can see it working. "Not really?"
"Well, when I was in junior high we did West Side Story."
"And you played Maria."
"Not hardly," she says. "I was just one of the girls at the dance."
"Jet or Shark?"
"Jet, I think. And then I did a couple of things in college."
"I knew it," I say. "I can spot a theatrical vibe a mile away."
"It was no big deal, believe me. I don't think anyone even noticed me."
"Of course they did. How could they miss you?" She reddens even more deeply. Sandra Dee in A Summer Place.
"Keep in mind," I add, "lots of big movie stars started out in the chorus."
She has high cheekbones, a golden French braid, lips painted a lustrous coral. In 1960 she would have worn her hair in a bouffant or a pixie cut. Beneath that, a shirtwaist dress with a wide white belt. A string of faux pearls, perhaps.
On the other hand, in 1960, she might not have accepted my invitation.
We are sitting in a nearly empty corner bar in West Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the Schuylkill River.
"Okay. Who is your favorite movie star?" I ask.
She brightens. She likes games. "Boy or girl?"
She thinks for a few moments. "I like Sandra Bullock a lot."
"There you go. Sandy started out in made-for-TV movies."
"Sandy? You know her?"
"And she really made TV movies?"
"Bionic Showdown,1989. The harrowing tale of international intrigue and bionic menace at the World Unity Games. Sandy played the girl in the wheelchair."
"Do you know a lot of movie stars?"
"Almost all of them." I take her hand in mine. Her skin is soft, flawless. "And do you know what they all have in common?"
"Do you know what they all have in common with you?"
She giggles, stamps her feet. "Tell me"
"They all have perfect skin."
Her free hand absently goes to her face, smoothing her cheek.
"Oh yes," I continue. "Because when the camera gets really, really close, there's no amount of makeup in the world that can substitute for radiant skin."
She looks past me, at her reflection in the bar mirror.
"Think about it. All the great screen legends had beautiful skin," I say.
"Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner. Movie stars live for the close-up, and the close-up never lies."
I can see that some of these names are unknown to her. Pity. Most people her age think that movies began with Titanic, and movie stardom is defined by how many times you've been on Entertainment Tonight.They've never been exposed to the genius of Fellini, Kurosawa, Wilder, Lean, Kubrick, Hitchcock.
It is not about talent, it is all about fame. To people her age, fame is the drug. She wants it. She craves it. They all do, in one way or another. It is the reason she is with me. I embody the promise of fame.
By the end of this night I will make part of her dream come true.
The motel room is small and dank and common. There is a queen-size bed, and gondola scenes on delaminating Masonite nailed to the walls. The blanket is mildewed, moth-eaten, a frayed and ugly shroud that whispers of a thousand illicit encounters. In the carpeting lives the sour odor of human frailty.
I think of John Gavin and Janet Leigh.
I paid cash for the room earlier today in my midwestern character. Jeff Daniels in Terms of Endearment.
I hear the shower start in the bathroom. I take a deep breath, find my center, pull the small suitcase out from underneath the bed. I slip on the cotton housedress, the gray wig, and the pilled cardigan. As I button the sweater, I catch a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror. Sad. I will never be an attractive woman, not even an old woman.
But the illusion is complete. And that is all that matters.
She begins to sing. Something by a current girl singer. Her voice is quite pleasant, actually.
The steam from the shower slithers under the bathroom door: long, gossamer fingers, beckoning. I take the knife in hand and follow. Into character. Into frame.
The Cadillac Escalade slowed to a crawl in front of Club Vibe: a sleek, glossy shark in neon water. The thumping bass line of the Isley Brothers' "Climbin' Up the Ladder" rattled the windows of the SUV as it rolled to a stop, its smoked-glass windows refracting the colors of the night in a shimmering palette of red and blue and yellow.
It was the middle of July, the slick belly of summer, and the heat burrowed beneath the skin of Philadelphia like an embolism.
Near the entrance to Club Vibe, on the corner of Kensington and Allegheny streets, beneath the steel ceiling of the El, stood a tall, statuesque redhead, her auburn hair a silken waterfall that graced bare shoulders before cascading to the middle of her back. She wore a short spaghetti-strap black dress that embraced the curves of her body, long crystal earrings. Her light olive skin glistened under a thin sheen of perspiration.
In this place, at this hour, she was a chimera, an urban fantasy made flesh.
A few feet away, in the doorway to a shuttered shoe repair shop, lounged a homeless black man. Of indeterminate age, he wore a tattered wool coat despite the merciless heat, and lovingly nursed a nearly empty bottle of Orange Mist, holding it tightly to his breast as one might nestle a sleeping child. Nearby, his shopping cart waited as a trusted steed, overflowing with precious urban plunder.
At just after two o'clock the driver's door of the Escalade swung open, spilling a fat column of pot smoke into the sultry night. The man who emerged was huge and quietly menacing. His thick biceps strained the sleeves of a royal blue double-breasted linen suit. D'Shante Jackson was a former running back for Edison High in North Philly, a steel girder of a man not yet thirty. He stood six three and weighed a trim and muscular 215 pounds.
D'Shante looked both ways up Kensington and, assessing the threat as nil, opened the rear door of the Escalade. His employer, the man who paid him a thousand dollars a week for protection, stepped out.
Trey Tarver was in his forties, a light-skinned black man who carried himself with a lithe and supple grace, despite his frame's ever-expanding bulk. Standing five eight, he had broached and passed the two-hundred-pound mark years earlier and, given his penchant for bread pudding and shoulder sandwiches, threatened to venture much higher. He wore a black Hugo Boss three-button suit and a pair of Mezlan calfskin oxfords. Each hand boasted a pair of diamond rings.
He stepped away from the Escalade and flicked the creases on his trousers. He smoothed his hair, which he wore long, Snoop Dogg style, although he was a generation-plus away from legitimately copping hip-hop fashion cues. If you asked Trey Tarver, he wore his hair like Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Trey shot his cuffs and surveyed the intersection, his Serengeti. K&A, as this crossroads was known, had had many masters, but none as ruthless as Trey "TNT" Tarver.
He was about to enter the club when he noticed the redhead. Her luminous hair was a beacon in the night, her long shapely legs a siren call. Trey held up a hand, then approached the woman, much to the dismay of his lieutenant. Standing on a street corner, especially this street corner, Trey Tarver was in the open, vulnerable to gunships cruising up both Kensington and Allegheny.
"Hey, baby," Trey said.
The redhead turned to look at the man, as if noticing him for the first time. She had clearly seen him arrive. Cool indifference was part of the tango. "Hey, yourself," she said, finally, smiling. "You like?"
"Do I like?" Trey stepped back, his eyes roaming her. "Baby, if you was gravy I'd sopya."
The redhead laughed. "It's all good."
"You and me? We gonna do some bidness."
Trey glanced at the door to the club, then at his watch: a gold Breitling. "Gimme twenty minutes."
"Gimme a retainer."
Trey Tarver smiled. He was a businessman, forged by the fires of the street, schooled in the bleak and violent Richard Allen projects. He pulled his roll, peeled a Benjamin, held it out. Just as the redhead was about to take it, he snapped it back. "Do you know who I am?" he asked.
The redhead took half a step back, hand on hip. She gave him the twice-over. She had soft brown eyes flecked with gold, full sensuous lips. "Let me guess," she said. "Taye Diggs?"
Trey Tarver laughed. "That's right."
The redhead winked at him. "I know who you are."
"What's your name?"
"Damn. For real?"
"Like that movie?"
Trey Tarver considered it all for a moment. "My money better not be gone with the wind, hear'm saying?"
The redhead smiled. "I hear you." She took the C-note and slipped the bill into her purse. As she did this, D'Shante put a hand on Trey's arm. Trey nodded. They had business to attend to in the club. They were just about to turn and enter when something caught the headlights of a passing car, something that seemed to wink and glimmer from the area near the homeless man's right shoe. Something metallic and shiny.
D'Shante followed the light. He saw the source.
It was a pistol in an ankle holster.
"The fuck is this?" D'Shante said.
Time spun on a crazy axis, the air suddenly electric with the promise of violence. Eyes met, and understanding flowed like a raging current of water.
It was on.
The redhead in the black dress --- Detective Jessica Balzano of the Philadelphia Police Department's Homicide Unit --- took a step back and in one smooth, practiced motion, pulled the badge on a lanyard from inside her dress, and slipped her Glock 17 out of her purse.
Trey Tarver was wanted in connection with the murder of two men. Detectives had staked out Club Vibe --- as well as three other clubs --- for four straight nights, hoping for Tarver to surface. It was well known that he did business in Club Vibe. It was well known he had a weakness for tall redheads. Trey Tarver thought he was untouchable.
Tonight he got touched.
"Police" Jessica yelled. "Let me see your hands"
For Jessica, everything began to move in a measured montage of sound and color. She saw the homeless man stir. Felt the weight of the Glock in her hand. Saw a flutter of bright blue --- D'Shante's arm in motion. A weapon in D'Shante's hand. A Tec-9. Long magazine. Fifty rounds.
No, Jessica thought. Not my life. Not this night.
No. The world uncoiled, shot back to speed.
"Gun" Jessica yelled.
By this time Detective John Shepherd, the homeless man on the stoop, was on his feet. But before he could clear his weapon, D'Shante spun and slammed the butt of the Tec into his forehead, stunning him, flaying the skin over his right eye. Shepherd collapsed to the ground. Blood spurted, cascaded into his eyes, blinding him.
D'Shante raised his weapon.
"Drop it," Jessica yelled, Glock leveled. D'Shante showed no sign of compliance.
"Drop it, now," she repeated.
D'Shante drew down. Aimed.
The bullet slammed into D'Shante Jackson's right shoulder, exploding the muscle and flesh and bone into a thick, pink spray. The Tec flew from his hands as he spun 360 and collapsed to the ground, shrieking in surprise and agony. Jessica inched forward and kicked the Tec over to Shepherd, still training her weapon on Trey Tarver. Tarver, hands up, stood near the mouth of an alley that cut between the buildings. If their intel was accurate, he carried his .32 semi-auto in a holster at the small of his back.
Jessica looked over at John Shepherd. He was stunned, but not out. She took her eyes off Trey Tarver for only a second, but that was long enough. Tarver bolted up the alley.
"You all right?" Jessica asked Shepherd.
Shepherd wiped the blood from his eyes. "I'm good."
As Jessica sidled up to the alley entrance, peering into the shadows, back on the street corner D'Shante pulled himself into a sitting position. His shoulder oozed blood between his fingers. He eyed the Tec.
Shepherd cocked his .38 Smith & Wesson, aiming it at D'Shante's forehead. He said: "Give me a fucking reason."
With his free hand, Shepherd reached into his coat pocket for his two-way. Four detectives were sitting in a van, half a block away, waiting for the call. When Shepherd saw the casing on the rover, he knew they would not be coming. When he had fallen to the ground, he smashed the radio. He keyed it. It was dead.
John Shepherd grimaced, glanced up the alley, into the darkness.
Until he could get D'Shante Jackson frisked and cuffed, Jessica was on her own.
The alley was littered with derelict furniture, tires, rusting appliances. Halfway to the end was a T-junction, leading to the right. Her gun low, Jessica still-hunted down the alley, hugging the wall. She tore the wig from her head; her newly cut short hair was spiky and wet. A slight breeze cooled her a few degrees, clearing her thoughts.
She peered around the corner. No movement. No Trey Tarver.
Halfway down the alley, on the right, the window of an all-night Chinese takeout poured out dense steam, pungent with ginger, garlic, and green onions. Beyond, the clutter formed ominous shapes in the gloom.
Good news. The alley dead-ended. Trey Tarver was trapped.
Bad news. He could be any one of those shapes. And he was armed.
Where the hell is my backup? Jessica decided to wait. Then a shadow lurched, darted. Jessica saw the muzzle flash an instant before she heard the report. The bullet slammed into the wall just a foot or so over her head. Fine brick dust fell.
Oh God, no. Jessica thought about her daughter, Sophie, sitting in some bright hospital waiting room. She thought about her father, a retired officer himself. But mostly she thought about the wall in the lobby of the police administration building, the wall dedicated to the depart-ment's fallen officers.
More movement. Tarver ran, low, toward the end of the alley. Jessica had a shot. She stepped into the open.
Tarver stopped, hands out to his side.
"Drop your weapon" Jessica shouted.
The back door to the Chinese restaurant suddenly flew open. A busboy stepped between her and her target. He brought a pair of huge plastic garbage bags out of the restaurant, obscuring her line of sight.
"Police! Get out of the way"
The kid froze, confused. He looked both ways up the alley. Beyond him, Trey Tarver spun and fired again. The second shot smashed into the wall over Jessica's head --- closer this time. The Chinese kid dove to the ground. He was pinned down. Jessica could no longer wait for backup.
Trey Tarver disappeared behind the Dumpster. Jessica hugged the wall, heart pounding, Glock out front. Her back was soaking wet. Well trained for this moment, she ran through the checklist in her mind. Then she threw the checklist out. There was no training for this moment. She edged toward the man with the gun.
"It's over, Trey," she yelled. "SWAT's on the roof. Give it up."
No reply. He was calling her bluff. He would go out with a blaze, becoming a street legend.
Glass broke. Were there basement windows into these buildings? She looked to her left. Yes. Steel casement windows; some barred, some not.
He was getting away. She had to move. She reached the Dumpster, put her back to it, lowered herself to the asphalt. She peered beneath. There was enough light to see a silhouette of Tarver's feet if he was still on the other side. He wasn't. Jessica edged around, saw a mound of plastic garbage bags and loose refuse --- piled drywall, paint cans, discarded planks of lumber. Tarver was gone. She scanned the end of the alley, saw the broken window.
Had he gone through?
She was just about to return to the street and bring in the troops to search the building when she saw a pair of dress shoes emerging from beneath the pile of stacked plastic garbage bags.
She drew a deep breath, tried to calm herself. It didn't work. It might be weeks before she actually calmed down.
"Get up, Trey."
Jessica found her wind, continued: "Your Honor, because the suspect had taken two shots at me already, I couldn't take a chance. When the plastic moved, I fired. It all happened so fast. Before I knew it, I had emptied my entire mag into the suspect."
A rustling of plastic. "Wait."
"Thought so," Jessica said. "Now, very slowly --- and I mean very slowly --- place the gun on the ground."
After a few seconds, a hand slid out, a .32 semi-auto ringed on a finger. Tarver put the gun on the ground. Jessica picked it up.
"Now get up. Nice and easy. Hands where I can see them."
Trey Tarver slowly emerged from the pile of garbage bags. He stood, facing her, hands out to his sides, eyes darting from left to right. He was going to challenge her. After eight years on the force, she knew the look. Trey Tarver had seen her shoot a man not two minutes ago, and he was going to challenge her.
Jessica shook her head. "You don't want to fuck with me tonight, Trey," she said. "Your boy hit my partner and I had to shoot him. Plus, you shot at me. What's worse, you made me snap a heel on my best shoes. Be a man and take your medicine. It's over."
Tarver stared at her, trying to melt her cool with his jailhouse burn. After a few seconds, he saw the South Philly in her eyes and realized it wouldn't work. He put his hands behind his head and interlaced his fingers.
"Now turn around," Jessica said.
Trey Tarver looked at her legs, her short dress. He smiled. His diamond tooth glimmered in the streetlight. "You first, bitch."
Jessica glanced back up the alley. The Chinese kid was back in the restaurant. The door was closed. They were alone.
She looked at the ground. Trey was standing on a discarded two-by-six. One end of the board was perched precariously on a discarded paint can. The can was inches from Jessica's right foot.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Cold flames in his eyes. "I said ‘You first, bitch.'"
Jessica kicked the can. At that moment, the look on Trey Tarver's face said it all. His expression was not unlike that of Wile E. Coyote at the moment the hapless cartoon character realizes the cliff is no longer beneath him. Trey crumpled to the ground like wet origami, on the way down smacking his head on the edge of the Dumpster.
Jessica looked at his eyes. Or, more accurately, the whites of his eyes. Trey Tarver was out cold.
Jessica rolled him over just as a pair of detectives from the Fugitive Squad finally arrived on the scene. No one had seen anything and, even if they had, Trey Tarver didn't exactly have a big fan club in the department. One of the detectives tossed her a pair of handcuffs.
"Oh yeah," Jessica said to her unconscious suspect. "We gonna do some bidness." She clicked the cuffs shut on his wrists. "Bitch."
There is a time for police officers, after a successful hunt, when they decelerate from the chase, when they assess the operation, congratulate each other, grade their performance, brake. It is a time when morale is at its peak. They went where the darkness was and emerged into the light.
They gathered at the Melrose Diner, a twenty-four-hour spoon on Snyder Avenue.
They had taken down two very bad people. There was no loss of life, and the only serious injury came to someone who deserved it. The good news was that the shooting, as far as they could tell, was clean.
Jessica had been a police officer for eight years. She was in uniform for the first four, followed by a stint on the Auto Unit, a division of the city's Major Case Squad. In April of this year she had joined the Homicide Unit. In that short time she had seen her share of horrors. There was the young Latina woman murdered in a vacant lot in Northern Liberties, rolled into a rug, put on top of a car, and dumped in Fairmount Park. There was the case of the young man lured into the park by three of his classmates only to be robbed and beaten to death. And there was the Rosary Killer case.
Jessica wasn't the first or only woman in the unit, but anytime someone new joins a small, tightly knit squad in the department there is the requisite distrust, the unspoken probationary period. Her father had been a legend in the department, but those were shoes to fill, not walk in.
After her incident debriefing, Jessica entered the diner. Immediately the four detectives who were already there --- Tony Park, Eric Chavez, Nick Palladino, and a patched-up John Shepherd --- got up from their stools, put their hands against the wall, and assumed the position in tribute.
Jessica had to laugh.
She was in.
She is hard to look at now. Her skin is no longer perfect, but rather torn silk. The blood pools around her head, nearly black in the dim light thrown from the trunk lid.
I look around the parking area. We are alone, just a few feet from the Schuylkill River. Water laps the dock --- the eternal meter of the city.
I take the money and put it into the fold of the newspaper. I toss the newspaper onto the girl in the trunk of the car, then slam the lid.
She really was pretty. She had about her a certain freckled charm that reminded me of Tuesday Weld in High Time.
Before we left the motel, I cleaned the room, tore up the room receipt, and flushed it down the toilet. There had been no mop, no bucket. When you shoot on a shoestring, you make do.
She stares up at me now, her eyes no longer blue. She may have been pretty, she may have been someone's idea of perfection, but for all she was, she was no Angel.
The house lights are down, the screen flickers to life. In the next few weeks the city of Philadelphia will hear a great deal about me. It will be said that I am a psychopath, a madman, an evil force from the soul of hell. As the bodies fall and the rivers run red, I will receive some horrendous reviews.
Don't believe a word of it.
I wouldn't hurt a fly.
Excerpted from THE SKIN GODS © Copyright 2011 by Richard Montanari. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.