Franny laps at her last-call martini like a thirsty Labrador. “Ever see that old Jack Nicholson movie ‘Chinatown?’” she says.
“Not more than twenty times,” I say. “I think Robert Towne won an Oscar for it.”
“Who’s Robert Towne?”
“He wrote it. An original screenplay.”
“Oh. Well, then,” she says, “you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. They, I mean he, repeats the line a bunch of times in different parts of the movie. ‘It’s Chinatown, Jake,’ like there’s nothing Jake can do, things are unknowable in that part of the city.”
“Towne was writing about the dark side of people’s souls, not geography,” I say. “You never know what goes on inside a person’s heart.”
“Exactly,” she says. “That’s what I mean. You wouldn’t believe what goes on between powerful friends in New Jersey, Austin. You really wouldn’t.”
“What are you talking about?”
Franny sets down her martini glass and stares out Clooneys dark bay windows again at the invisible sea. “Me, Austin. I’m talking about me.”
Ms. Strawberry bows her head and begins to weep, eventually hugging me for emotional support. Perhaps persuaded by the electrifying sensation of Franny’s breasts pressed against my abdomen, I decide information-pumping time is over. I mean, I have no idea what the hell she’s talking about.
I work on something clever to say in hopes of facilitating the switch from pump to hump. Then I remember the pervasive Austin Carr tendency to overemphasize verbal intercourse.
Show her how you feel, ace, don’t tell her.
I slide my hand around Franny’s waist, pull her across the space between our bar stools, then bend down to kiss her. She doesn’t turn away, and our lips come together like pancakes and maple syrup. Tender at first, I let my passion build until our tongues are doing a slow wet tango.
When the kiss over, my mouth is numb and Franny’s whole body is relaxed against me. She tilts her head up and whispers. “Wanna follow me home?”
I kiss her neck. “I might be persuaded.”
The bar check has been paid, including a nice tip for the disappointed bartender. Franny’s stuffing a lighter and a pack of Marlboros into her purse.
“Listen,” she says, “I sorgot fumthing. Be a nice Austin and go wait for me in the parking lot, or take a pee, will you? I have to talk to someone.”
Huh? Where did this come from? And who the hell is she going to talk to. There’s only one table left in the dining area. No customers in the bar but us and one older man. “I’m not allowed to meet them?”
“He’s very shy.”
“A trooper friend. I have a subpoena for him in my purse. Now go pee, or wash your face, or wait for me outside. I just need a couple of minutes.”
I glance at the geezer across the bar. If he’s getting paid by the State Troopers, it’s a pension. “He’s already here?”
“Yes. Now give me five minutes of privacy. Please?”
Curiosity rules this stockbroker’s heart, and when I leave Franny in the sunken bar area, duck out Clooneys entrance, I make a sharp left turn instead of heading for my parked Camry.
The restaurant’s beach lights are off because the deck’s closed this time of year, so when I slip around the building, stand in front of the big bay window and stare unseen into the lighted restaurant, I can see Clooneys last customers talking at a table and Franny in the bar like I’m watching television. For the first time, I notice the very late, lingering diners. One of them is Vick’s daughter, Carmela Bonacelli.
My gaze slides back to Franny. She’s digging in her black purse, doesn’t see the person walking up from behind until the new arrival takes my empty stool. The familiar woman has large dark eyes, long black hair, and like Franny, also wears a black, sleeveless, scooped-neck dress.
What the hell is Gina doing here?
Side by side, Franny and Gina look like onyx salt and pepper shakers. My spiciest dream.
When Franny finally sees her, there’s no surprise. She and Gina seem much more disturbed by the similarity of their dresses.
Slowly, like she really really hates to give it up, might even take it back, Franny pulls a small thin package from her purse and hands it to Gina.
Could it be?
All previous chapters can be found in the archives.