Her two-story house ranks as ancient so it’s no surprise the original pine floorboards creak. But do I detect a certain rhythm...like footsteps? I sit back on the blood red living room sofa and hold my breath to listen. A grandfather clock tick-tocks in the foyer. The oil-burning basement heater pops and rumbles. And yes, there...bare or stocking feet pad gently toward me down the hall.
I stuff the DVD under my laptop and work hard to put on my three-o’clock-in-the-morning, full-boat Carr grin. Not exactly a simple trick. And definitely not sincere. I mean, how am I supposed to be calm and forthright when this DVD suggests last night’s love interest may not be the innocent beauty I imagined?
Clever of me to wake her up.
I gasp when she steps into the living room light. Oh, my. And oops. Oh my, because Gina’s wearing nothing but white athletic socks. And oops because she’s using both hands and all ten red-nailed fingers to grasp a pump-action, single-barrel shotgun.
“You found the DVD, didn’t you?” Gina says.
“DVD?” If it wasn’t for acronyms, I’d be pretty much speechless. My gaze is tightly focused on her bare breasts and that shotgun in the same close-up. Visually and emotionally, it’s a lot to absorb.
Gina’s slender right foot slides back, toes out. Improving her balance.
“I know you found it,” she says. “Wrapped in my black dress.”
My lips move without sound. Maybe my throat’s choked with fear, but I’d rather think I’m distracted by the long curve of Ms. Shotgun’s hip, the loose weight of her breasts swinging below the carved gun stock.
“I just checked the bathroom,” Gina says. “You rifled the hamper, found the black dress. So...you’ve got my DVD.”
I take a long, deep breath. On tough stock and bond clients, this often works as a show of calm sincerity. “I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Gina racks a shell into the firing chamber.
Guess my pledge of innocence lacked conviction.
I lift my iBook and offer her the DVD. My heart ticks to an even quicker time. My ego slips a notch. Time was, the full-boat Carr grin and a reasonable lie got me over these bumpy spots with naked women.
“Play it,” Gina says. “We’ll solve the murder together.”
I slide the disk into my Mac and wonder if I’m really going to view what the Branchtown Sun calls the “MISSING HOTEL MURDER VIDEO.”
The DVD’s first images show a thirty-ish woman primping her hair before a gilded oval mirror.
“Don’t you want to fast-forward?” Gina says. “Get right to the choking and burning?”
On screen, the victim cracks open her hotel-room door. My jaw drops as Gina’s digital image rushes inside, pushing right through the startled hotel guest and knocking her flat on the carpet.
I turn from the laptop. “So it was you.”
Gina raises the pump-action level with my nose. “Watch the video.”
On my computer screen, Gina’s image finally stops kicking a motionless Anne Marie Talbot. And I do mean finally. Must have taken Gina at least five minutes to release all her jealousy, her sense of betrayal.
It was an outburst of rage and fury I haven’t witnessed since I refused to eat Susan’s pimento casorole.
Oh, my. Maybe Gina’s not quite satisfied. On screen, Ms. Shotgun throws her knee onto Talbot’s chest. Her hands lock around Anne Marie’s throat, the throttling action energized by Gina leaning forward. Transferring her weight.
My belly rolls and crashes like ocean backwash. This is worse than ugly. I’m watching a real murder.
On screen, Gina’s image hops through the sliding glass door onto Talbot’s hotel-room balcony. She comes back seconds later carrying a small hibachi, one of those Japanese-style cast-iron grillers. The barbecue coals already glow white hot.
Watching this video, I’m panting like I'm in childbirth, trying to keep my stomach right side up. I’m thinking the hibachi was never mentioned in the newspapers, but I must have been subconsciously wondering since Franny showed me the autopsy report. I remember asking myself what a “charcoal burner” was doing in Talbot’s hotel room. Sounds like a basic and serious violation of fire codes, not to mention common logic.
“Franny was having a barbecue?” I say.
Gina gazes intently at her own image on the computer screen. “Steaks for her and my husband. Although Tony didn’t stick around for dinner.”
I suppose my plan is to delay Gina for as long as I can, pray for the cavalry.
“Tony knew he was going to see her that evening? And you followed him to the Martha Washington?” I say.
“I heard them humping through the door, then fighting over whether or not he should stay. When Tony left her room, I hid so he wouldn’t see me, then went back. You should have seen her face when she saw it was me, not Tony changing his mind about dinner.”
“Jealous rage, huh?”
“Anne Marie and I are old friends. Screwing my husband was a really shitty thing to do.”
I feel my forehead bunch into a wrinkled mess. “Old friends? You mean that story you told me about Franny being a mob party girl with Ann Marie was really your story? It was you and Ann Marie?”
“All three of us,” Gina says. “The Poker Pals, Tony and his his guys called us. We were popular. Serving drinks. Bathroom blow jobs. For years and years, even after a couple of us tried marriage. Tony’s guys knew us so well, trusted us, one night they decided all three of us should get jobs aiding and abetting Tony’s businesses. Later, he rented our services to other...organizations.”
“Ingenious,” I say. “Worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, a Moriarty scheme. Anne Marie took accounting classes, earned her C.P.A. and went to work for the A.A.S.D.. Franny went with the New Jersey State Troopers. But how about you, Gina? Where did you hook up?”
Her mouth twists into something only resembling a smile. “Tony decided I’d be best suited for something else.”
Gina’s finger slides back to the shotgun’s trigger. “Keep asking questions, you might find out.”
“You’re a hit man--I mean, hit woman?”
Gina shrugs. “More odd jobs than anything else. A little procurement, or carrying weapons into places men can’t. Once and a while I surprise people who need surprising. Sometimes a combination.”
I need to line up an inventory of questions like icy bombs for a snowball fight. Keep’em coming. Although I still can’t figure exactly which calvary’s going to ride to my rescue.
“Where did the DVD come from?” I say. “How did Franny get it?”
“I’m tired of the questions. Stand up.”
“Oh, come on, Gina. What’s your hurry. Who was bugging Anne Marie’s room?”
Her big almond-shaped eyes stare at me. She shrugs. “Bluefish put in the recording equipment. Talbot was working for him. They were hoping to catch you in there humping her.”
“But I’m single.”
“Yeah, but she’s an A.A.S.D. official investigating your firm. The potential scandal would’ve made you think about cooperating.”
“So after the murder, Franny got the DVD from who, Detective Mallory?”
Gina smiles. “Whom...”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Mallory, or Bluefish. I just told her to get it for me.”
I’m almost out of snowballs. “But wasn’t Franny working for Bluefish? Pretending to be after him, indicting him, but really setting it all up so he’d be acquitted? Why would she give you the DVD?”
“With Bluefish dead, she didn’t have many options. Franny and Anne Marie were always freelance, this time working for Bluefish. I work for Tony’s family. My family. They’re the kind of people Franny knows she can’t refuse. Especially with Bluefish gone.”
Gina pushes the shotgun closer to my face. “Now stand up. We’re going to walk slowly through the kitchen and then down into the basement. I need you to help me carry something upstairs.”
I shake my head. “You mean that shotgun’s too messy to use in the living room.”
She shows me a real smile this time. Nasty and cold, but real. “Stand up.”
I stagger to my feet and head for her kitchen. I can walk but I can’t swallow.
There’s a live boa around my neck.
The conclusion of BIG MONEY continues next week.