Las Vegas, Nevada |1952
It’s hot in the house. Earl doesn’t know why she won't turn the fans on when it’s 101 outside and sweltering. She’s a peculiar sort of dame, but he’s sweet on her. As sweet as he can get, for his line of work. The banisters of the staircase are worn and rickety from years of tenants before them; it’s something he adds to his to do list for when they close on the house. They’ve got so much to fix, and not enough time to fix them.
“I’m home, Doll!” he yells, rounding the corner of the foyer and bounding up the stairs. There’s water running so he knows she’s taking another shower. Probably her third one for the day. She uses water like a damn mermaid, splashing about carelessly in the sink of their kitchen, way too much sudsy water for four measly dishes and a few forks and knives. And she showers a lot, bathes a whole lot more. She wants a swimming pool in the back yard but he’s got plans for that; besides, there ain’t the water in Nevada for a damn swimming pool.
Maybe he’ll buy her a horse trough instead and let her splash about in that.
The thought amuses him, and cools a bit of his temper. He’d hate to wreck that pretty face of hers, especially when he’s got folks to entertain in town tonight. He needs her on his arm cause his side pieces seem to all be busy and he’s tired of trash. Doll is a lot of things, but she’s no trash. She’s East coast uppity, born and bred in the best parts of Cape Cod. Earl still isn’t sure why she came to Vegas, only some silly story of wanting to get into pictures and getting sidetracked.
He wouldn’t be surprised if she’d gotten cut out her daddy’s will and ran off mad, then couldn’t get home. Either way, he’s all she’s got now and she’s stuck with him so it doesn’t matter anymore.
He twists his plain gold wedding band idly and makes it to the top of the staircase, a little bit breathless. He’s put on some weight, enough so that his belly juts out more than it had five years ago, but none that he can’t pull any dame he wants. He bangs on the door, though he knows he can go in whenever he wants; it’s his house. Or, it’s about to be his house. He knows better than to put her name on the title.
But for all the manners his mama tried to teach him, knocking on doors is one that somehow stuck. And, he likes the idea of startling her while she uses up all the damn water in the state. It’s oddly amusing.
“Hey! I said I’m home!”
“Come on in,” she drawls, over the rush of water and he turns the knob, poking his head around the corner of the steaming bathroom. It’s a small drab little closet with a toilet and a shower and a chipped sink that he mentally jots down to replace. He really doesn’t care about the aesthetic of a bathroom when all he does is wash and shit there. But he’d cut his hand on the sink a few days ago and he’s still pissed about it. He wanted to smash it into pieces except that Doll claims she can’t use the kitchen sink to brush her teeth.
A dirty plastic shower curtain hangs from the rusted curved bar; she’s humming something off key under her breath and he leans against the wall adjacent from the toilet, waiting on her to turn off the water. It’s taking too long so he begins a countdown. He knows it’ll make her itchy.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” she says by way of apology but he pays it no mind. The shower curtain’s been pulled aside and she’s wet and naked. She’s got the figure of a beauty queen, all long legs and tiny waist. Her breasts sit high and full and she’s got her toes painted red, just the way he likes.
“Well now...did ya get all gussied up for me?” Earl asks, waggling his brows with a leer. She smiles demurely, and lowers her eyes to the floor, taking her time in getting out the tub. She dries off slowly, inches away from his grasp but he won't reach out and touch unless she initiates it. There's no way quicker to turn her off than to touch her first.
He's lucky today because once she's finished toweling off she wraps her arms about his neck, presses that lush body into his and smiles.
“How was your day, sugar?” she asks, and she leans in to press a soft kiss to his cheek. He gives her a little run down, details about the dinner with Mr. Harvey that night and how he needs her there.
“Ray's comin'. I know you're friendly with his girl.” He thinks about the pretty Spanish broad Ray had been seeing for the last year or so. If she kept her mouth shut, she'd be more than alright.
“Mmm. I hadn't seen or phoned her in a while. What dress you want me to wear?”
He thinks it over. It's not the classiest affair, so nothing too modest. Perhaps she can get into that bright yellow number with the little flowers on it? He asks. She nods, picks up the towel and wraps it tight around her.
“Hey...give me some sugar, Doll,” he says, the subtle edge of a demand in the request. She pauses for just a split second, face falling a bit, but she corrects it before he has to with his fist. She leans in then and presses her lips to his, gently at first. There's a little hesitation in the kiss, and he's not sure why when she's done this (and more) more often than he can count. But he figures maybe she's playing coy with him so he chuckles against her lips and then pushes her head into his so that she kisses him harder, deeper. Teeth clash and tongues meet and he's this close to having her right in the little dingy bathroom but there's shuffling behind him and she pulls away and then-
Her narrowed, remorseless eyes are the last things he sees as he loses consciousness.
“I'm putting you on this one,” Lieutenant Craig says, sliding the paperwork in front of his desk. Jack eyes it wearily but picks the stack up. One more case and he's out this dusty, piece of shit town. Whoever told him Vegas was the place to go was lying. He'd have done better to stay in New York.
Bullocks. You'd be dead if you were in New York.
“Pretty cut and dry, I think,” Craig is saying, a cigar in the corner of his mouth. “Guy gets bashed over the head as his lady's taking a shower. She says she didn't see anything suspicious so we figure it's a colleague of his done the job. He was in some pretty shady business.”
“So all you need me to do is...”
“Snag the fellow that did it. You'll need to take some more statements from the dame; she's the only witness. It's just legalities and all that jazz.”
Jack thinks it over and takes out a cigarette. He's got three left and then he'll quit smoking, move back home to England and take care of his mum. He has a vision of a three story farmhouse where he can help his sister raise his niece and nephew, maybe start his own construction company...plans he'd had before the war when he was young and green and that had never quite come to fruition.
Dad won't be there to see it, but he likes to think the old man is somewhere tapping his fingers impatiently, waiting on his son to finally do something less stressful with his life.
He's brought back to the present by Craig's gravelly voice.
“Anyway, I know you're itching to get back home across the pond, son. One more case and you're good to go, with my blessing.” Jack nods, stands and leans forward so the lieutenant can light his cigarette.
“I'd best get started then.”
The drive out to the two story house takes about fifteen minutes. It's a little ways away from the city proper, past development though Jack is sure there will be subdivisions and roads popping up within the next decade or so. For right now, though, it's quiet. He pulls into the long driveway and idles outside for a few minutes, taking a few notes so that he can collect his thoughts. If Craig is right, he should be in and out of this house in less than ten. He thinks of grabbing a steak at Myrna's on his way home, maybe even get a slice of cherry pie while he's at it. It's been a while since he's had dessert.
By the time he cuts the engine off, it's a quarter to 4. There's slight movement from the corner of his eyes; a rustling of curtains in the window beside the front door. She knows he's here, which makes his job a little easier. There won't be any surprises.
Even still, he knocks. Three quick raps on the door, peeling paint flaking off when he moves away. The house isn't quite rundown. There's still hope for it yet, and the architect in him, the one that never got to be an architect, quickly dreams up visions of new shingles and a wrap around porch.
Footsteps bring him back to the job at hand and he smooths his face into something neutral but serious. It's hot as hell right now, so he can't help a slight grimace, but he's certain she'll understand. He's met with red rimmed eyes and worry bitten lips when the door opens, and for a moment he's at a loss for words.
She's one of the most beautiful women he's ever seen.
A smile flits to his face unwillingly and he softens his voice a bit.
“Good afternoon ma'am,” he starts, noticing how she raises a brow at his accent. He's used to the affect it has on people, especially women, but for whatever reason, a frisson of pleasure shoots through him to know that she notices.
“I'm Detective Killsworth, with the LVPD. I just need to ask you a few questions about your husband's death.”
She blinks and sniffles and looks adorable all the while, but she somehow manages a slight smile and she steps back to invite him inside.
“You want anything to drink, Detective?” she asks, and her voice is like candy, like sugar floss and cherry licorice and lolipops. She's got this breathy sort of lilt to it, an accent he can't quite place, a femininity about her that is both sweet and beguiling.
Jack knows, as he nods, that she's incredibly dangerous.
“Just water, please. It's hot as the dickons out.”
She gives a soft giggle at that and leads him into the living room, battered couch next to two soggy chairs. Nothing matches. The carpet has seen much better days and the furniture is all scuffed and chipped. But with her standing in the middle of the room, it seems almost charming.
“Cookie? Cake? I don't have much else, you know. Earl's funeral was yesterday, so I've only got what the ladies at the bingo hall brought by. He was a regular there on Thursdays.”
Jack waves the suggestion of snacks away and she bobs her head in a nod. “Just a water, if you will. Thank you.” He flashes her a his best smile, and she returns it best she can. He figures that for a woman who's lost her husband only a few days ago, she's holding up rather well.
There's tinkering in the kitchen and he thinks he hears humming, but he can't tell over the fans blowing in the living room. He gets up then, looks around to see if there's any clues hidden in the drab interior design of the home. There really isn't, only a photograph of she and Earl on the mantle. Her hair's different in this one; it's dark and tucked back into a bun, a tiny fascinator on the side. From what he can tell, it's probably a wedding photo.
The couple are mismatched as he'd thought they'd be. Earl had been squat and broad chested, not attractive by an stretch of the imagination. There was a slimy sort of glint in his eye and he gripped his wife as though she were merely a stuffed toy he'd won at the fair. The guy gave him the creeps just looking at him. He felt some sort of indignation that someone so beautiful had even thought to marry something like that.
But he didn't know her circumstances before she married. And maybe Earl had been unbecomingly sweet to her.
There's other pictures scattered about the room, most of these of landscapes and Earl beside a car. There's a picture of a little girl, but it's old and faded and Jack guesses it's her when she was a child. He wonders how old she is. She doesn't have a record, the way her husband had, so he doesn't have much information.
In fact, he's forgotten her name.
Something with a K or a C. Cara? Carly? Kira?
No sooner had he gone through the list of names he thought would be reasonable for a young woman of her stature did she reappear with two cool glasses of ice water. He took the drink with a thank you and a nod, sipped it slowly, and watched as her pink lips left a smudge of lipstick around the rim of her glass.
She, in turn, stares out the picture window.
“What sort of questions do you need to ask?” She finally said, after several long minutes of sipping ice water and dripping condensation on the couch. Jack whipped out his notepad and glanced through question after question and yet...
None of them seemed right to ask.
He decided to ask her about herself, instead.
“About me?” She blushed, sat her water down on the coffee table and folded her hands on her lap. She wore a checkered pair of pedal pushers and a black halter, her bleach blonde hair piled up on top her head in a neat bun. Shades rested there, right above where her fringe began and two little bobby pins with cherries attached swooped back stray strands of hair.
“Well, there isn't really a lot...”
“Then start at the beginning. Of you, and Earl, I mean,” he said, and she gave him a sad, soft smile.
Earl Simon had been a numbers runner and his wife was a former heiress.
She was 24, from Massachusetts originally, was the oldest daughter of two girls, and had left home at the tender age of 17. “I wanted to be an actress,” she said, with a melancholy sort of air. The fan blew directly on her forearms, causing little goose flesh.
“Somewhere between Cape Cod and here, I realized that the likely hood of making it in the movies was a little more hard work than I was willing to put in. So I got to Vegas and found Earl and he told me I was pretty and made me laugh. We got married after two months.”
It sounds like something out of a penny novel. He keeps the smile for her sake, even as she describes her years with Earl. They're not nearly as glamorous as she'd imagined they'd be, she confesses, but they had been good.
“I know he wasn't the best man,” she says, her voice wavering. Jack tugs his handkerchief out his pocket and hands it to her. She accepts and dabs her eyes. “But he was mine. And he's gone. Right up under my nose!”
She starts to cry then, little choked sobs that don't have the desired affect on him as they should. Instead of sympathy, he feels borderline suspicious. And somehow, he finds her incredibly beautiful because of it.
“Mrs. Simon...please, I'm sorry to have upset you.”
It's more so for appearances than any real meaning. He doesn't think she's truly as upset as she should be. And to be quite honest, he can't blame her.
She has the nerve to look embarrassed and bashful when she looks up, handing him his handkerchief back with black smudges on the corners.
“Call me Carmen, Detective.”
Jack skips dinner that night and pours over everything his department knows about Earl Simon.
There's not a lot of information, save his mile long record, but details about his personal life are skimpy as he knew they would be. He then makes a few phone calls, one to a buddy in Boston.
“Wanna do me a favor, Todd?” he asks, wiping his sleep deprived eyes with the back of his hand.
“Hey, I said I owed you one, didn't I? So long as it doesn't involve roller coasters and squid, we're good.” There's a hearty chuckle on the other end and Jack squints to see the sun coming up outside his window.
It takes Todd two weeks to get back to Jack with anything substantial. In the time it does, he visits Carmen enough to know that she's both lying about her involvement in Earl's death and that he really doesn't care that she is. But he's got to pin this case on someone and it's not really sticking to any of Earl's old acquaintances, be it friend or enemy.
Carmen suggests a man named Ray.
“Ray Contrell. He lives a few streets over from the pawn shop in town. They were real chummy, him and Earl. But there was always something about Ray. Something suspect. It was like, whenever Earl got a good deal, Ray had to make sure he was in on it too, even if he had nothing to do with it.”
“What did Earl think of Ray?”
Carmen shrugs. She's in a little red skirt and a white sleeveless top today, barefoot in the house with the curtains open and a fan blowing directly onto her chest. It doesn't stop sweat beading down her collarbone. Jack follows the movement of one sweat drop unashamedly. He catches her eye, and her smile is slick.
“He didn't really pay him much attention. I mean, he liked him alright I guess.” He taps her cig on the chipped glass ashtray and exhales beautifully.
“Ray was like a puppy to Earl. Followed him from boss to boss and job to job. And ya know, he was good for what he did. But he was so annoying. A real meathead. I don't really understand why Kali stayed with him.”
Jack raises a brow and cracks his knuckles, more out of habit than for any other reason.
“His girl. They weren't married, or nothing. Kali doesn't quite believe in all that matrimony shit.” She laughs daintily and it juxtaposes with how she'd just cursed openly and crudely and he can't help how turned on it makes him. He shakes his head slightly and blinks in the smoky bright light of afternoon.
“Think she'd know something, then?” he asks. Perhaps Ray is his culprit. Or, at the very most, his pin man. He doesn't quite care at this point who goes down for whacking Earl Simon; he just wants this solved so he can get the hell back to England.
Carmen seems to think this over and then she gets up, slowly, leaving her cigarette in the ash tray, its cherry still burning bright. It's as red as Carmen's skirt, as red as her lush lips, her shiny new pumps.
“I'll give her a ring. Maybe she can come over and we all can have a little chat tomorrow night, yeah?”
He gets the package in the mail hours before he goes to Carmen's.
There's pictures; in one, a dark haired, long legged girl with pigtails and sad eyes and a pouty mouth leans against an old barn. She's lean and lithe and almost pretty but not quite yet. The name on the back of the photo reads 'Lana, 13. 3/5/36.'
In another, the same girl sits on the back of a work truck. There's rips in her dirty shirt and mud on her shoes but she's grinning like a Cheshire cat, all knobby knees and elbows. She is on the cusp of adulthood it seems; there's a fine line of where the little girl ends and a woman is starting to emerge, like a dirty stained butterfly. 'Lana, 16. 8/24/39.' it reads.
The last is one of the girl, now older, a baby in her arms. Chubby little cheeks and bright eyes stare out across the picture while the girl, Lana, stares grimly to something out of frame. She looks tired, worn and frayed though when Jack looks for the caption on the back, he finds that the girl is now only 19. No more youthfulness, no more vitality. In the course of two and half years, it'd all been sucked dry.
There's a letter there with the pictures, typed up by Todd he assumes, because it's riddled with spelling errors and punctuation faux pas. But it's readable. And it makes his stomach sink, though he's putting on his shirt, his tie, his hat. He thinks about the letter the entire drive to the sticks, out to Carmen's broken down home. And when he knocks on the door, finds her waiting, he thinks she probably knows that he knows now.
No...he's sure she knows.
Any other time and he'd have called for backup but he has to do this alone.
He's got a gun in his waistband and a knife in his sock if he really needs it. He doesn't think it'll get to that. Or, he hopes it won't.
But like she'd promised, Carmen has made cookies and lemonade and he drinks a tall glass, sipping casually as not to raise suspicion. It's for naught. No sooner does he stand, while they wait for the elusive Kali, does his head spin, and he's out like a light.
His head feels like cotton and his mouth is dry. He can hear her talking but she sounds underwater.
“Wake up Jacky...I need to tell you something.”
It takes all the strength he has to open his eyes. When he does, he finds himself in bed, tied by his ankles to the iron footboard. The bed smells like mold and mothballs, and it's only by the glint of the setting sun does he realize he's in the attic. There's nothing up here but this bed and cobwebs.
“Carmen,” he slurs, blinking furiously to clear his vision. “Why?”
“You know too much,” she says simply and he has to agree that perhaps he does know too much. He starts to talk like someone has opened a floodgate.
“Why'd you change your name to Carmen?”
She gives him a sad smile. Carmen, no...Lana, shifts on the bed and presses a cool glass of water to his lips. He hesitates, but there's a sharp prick in his side and he moves his head to his left, finding a olive skinned woman standing behind and beside him. She's quiet.
Kali. Has to be.
“You'll drink it, if you don't want to get any sicker,” she says, her accent pronounced and clipped, and Jack takes in a shuddering breath, then lets Lana tilt the glass against his mouth.
It's water. Only water. There's no weird bitter aftertaste as with the lemonade. Thought it was just too much pith.
“I had to leave, you know. Not Cape Cod. I've never been to Cape Cod.”
It's so hot in the attic. He can feel the sweat drenching his back as he sits up as far as he can in the bed. At least he still has his hands free.
“Grew up in Mississippi. I got married young-at 17-to this reckless fool who ran off to war and died on me. I had a son. Have a son. He's still living with my momma. He sends me letters every so often. And Earl found em. Threatened me, threatened my baby boy. Said he'd send someone to kill him and my momma if I didn't act right.”
Jack swallows. “So you killed him.”
She shrugs nonchalantly and glances up to Kali, smiles. “He had an insurance pay off. I needed the money. You see, I wanna get a swimming pool and a big house and raise my boy the way I should have before I moved out here to Vegas. I only intended to make some money dancin' and send it back but...”
She smiles again. This one is both sad and terse with pent up anger. He can't blame her in the slightest.
“And you're helping her?” he asks to the figure behind him. Kali only gives a hum of acknowledgement.
“Kali's the reason I ever worked the nerve up to do it. She's comin' with me to California. And I'm sending for Momma and Teddy and we're all gonna live on the beach-”
“Santa Monica,” Kali says, softly and it sounds like a dream two lonely, misabused women had dreamed up when the nights were a little too long and a little too much. He doesn't miss the way Kali grasps Lana's hand, how she squeezes tight, her thumb circling patters in Lana's skin. There's an intimacy there that belongs to lovers.
“What are you going to do with me?” he finally asks, working up his nerve. Kali scoffs, and in a flash of gleaming silver he sees the gun. He panics, his body going tense with anxiety and it's only when he moves to twist off the bed and under does her remember he's tied to it.
She only laughs, though Lana is a bit more sympathetic.
“You get to decide. It's all up to you.”
They untie him, after a time. It's still hot and stuffy in the attic but he'd much rather sit here on the bed than try his luck by running. He's got twenty minutes to decide if he'll pursue this case or if he'll quietly run back home. He's thinking home, but a very dogged part of him wants to see this to the finish. He's got two murderesses to bring to justice.
It's only when Lana shows up in her tap pants and a robe does he change his mind. She starts to sing, sits at the edge of the bed and leans back, watches him. Kali is no where to be found. The wind outside whistles and dust taps against the attic window.
When she kisses him, it tastes like cola.
When he's inside her, it feels like heaven.
Las Vegas PD don't find Jack's body for another week. At this point, he's a bloated, sweltered, decomposed mess. Even the desert heat couldn't keep him from turning into blackened mush. Lieutenant Craig covers his mouth with a rag and pretends the tears in his eyes are from the smell.
“A single shot to the head,” one of the patrolmen say. The house is abandoned; nothing has been taken. The bed is still unmade, the dishes still in the sink. There's a half finished glass of what was lemonade crawling with dead ants inside it, and a plate of hardened gingersnap cookies beside it.
Jack Killsworth lies in his own coagulated, dried blood, pants missing and a grin on his face.