N. D. Ostroff
How it all began
I knew I shouldn’t have answered my cell phone. One thing I’ve learned over the years is when someone calls between the hours of 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. it can only mean two things. First, the person at the dialing end is on a ravenous hunt for drugs (presuming you have a reputation for acquiring the stuff, which I don’t). Or second; there’s trouble, big trouble, and you’re going to play a part in resolving it.
“Spirits…” Tina said, one night while we were in bed together and after I’d noticed the small bottle of Prozac she kept on the bureau still contained all its pills. “Are starved for information about the living. That’s why they talk to me. Not to tell me things about the afterlife but for me to tell them things about mortal life. They miss it, as you can imagine. Death is quite boring compared to the stimuli of existence.”
I laid there staring at the ceiling wondering how I ever got involved with a woman like her. How much my life had changed since we’d met.
Tina had a tough life. When she was eleven, she and her brother Ritchie watched her dad strangled her mom while arguing over who answered first to one of the game show, Jeopardy’s questions. Her dad then got his pistol and put a bullet through his head.
For months after, she and Ritchie bounced around different state orphanages, finally ending up in foster care. Her foster parents had problems of their own, alcohol and all kinds of the craziness associated with heavy drinking. They were poor and strict, and mainly housed Tina and Ritchie because the state paid $335 a month in support for each of them.
By age fifteen, Tina had developed a nasty drug habit and ran away to live on the street. Prostitution, stripping, dealing drugs, it was the only way she could afford her daily bag of heroin. Eventually, she was arrested and brought back to her foster parents who quickly shuffled her away to a mental institution because the state wouldn’t pay for rehab.
Ritchie left the foster house the day he turned eighteen and joined the marines. He returned home after three years of intense fighting in Iraq; being dishonorably discharged for allegedly killing and mutilating a family of Kurds. He quickly became the neighborhood drug kingpin. The times Tina and I visited him he talked how the war was his life and when he got back his life became the war. It still raged within him.
When I met Tina she’d been off drugs for nearly three months. She was living in a dingy hotel room above a Chinese restaurant and dancing topless at a local dive called Double Visions. I’d just published my first novel and had used the entire advance on a down payment for a small rancher in the suburbs with nearly three acres of heavily wooded land. I was celebrating the purchase with a night out at a strip club and had paid Tina for a lap dance. It was an unconventional way to meet but the attraction between us was mutual and electrifying. That night I had the best sex of my life in my new house. The next day I asked her to move in with me.
I was in love.
A month into our relationship, Tina got a call from social services that her foster parents had been killed in horrible automobile accident and that she and Ritchie were the sole beneficiaries of their small estate. Tina took her share of the money, moved out of my place, and bought a duplex in a semi-upscale neighborhood a few miles outside of Philadelphia. She told me she wanted to live on her own for a while even if we did end up moving back in together. I hated the thought of her not being with me but accepted the fact that she wanted her own space.
Ritchie took up residence in their foster parent’s house and turned it into Grand Central Station for his drug dealing empire.
Four months into our relationship is when I noticed Tina had stopped taking her medication. Her body was in picturesque health but her mind was a shattered mess. Her mental illness was frightening. I’d wake up at her house in the middle of the night to the sound of her blabbering incoherently to the ceiling with drool leaking from the side of her mouth and her eyes wrapped up in her sockets like a woman possessed.
She told me two spirits lived through her, burlesque dancers from the 1920’s who were raped and killed by a serial murderer. These spirits wanted her to go back to stripping at the club so they could re-experience the excitement that was taken from them. I forbade it, though my novel had flopped terribly, barely earning back its advance, and my financial situation was in no state to support two households. The tiny articles I wrote in the garden section of the local newspaper for $125 bucks a week paid my basics. But that’s it.
A few nights later, I discovered to my horror that Tina had begun hooking again and one of her clients was the principle of a local high school. She and I had a tremendous fight and said horrible things to each other; words once spoken that we could never take back. And just like that our golden balloon of love popped.
We talked one more time on the telephone after that heart-wrenching night. I warned her that she was heading for trouble screwing around with prominent, married men, but she’d brushed off my concerns, chiding; “You’re just jealous.”
I assured her I was not, wished her well, and said goodbye. It was painful, but in my mind she was out of my life forever. Deleted from the contacts list in my cell phone.
Then tonight’s frantic call. “Lance Starkey’s dead! Lance Starkey’s dead! Please come over!”
The sheer unexpectedness of Tina’s shrill, near hysterical voice rattled me into action. Without thinking about what I was doing, I left Jen asleep in my bed, threw on my jacket, hopped into my 1997 Nissan Sentra, and cruised down I-95 toward the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. Something I had sworn I would never do again.
Concern. Hope. Dread. Guilt. Love?
Emotions poured through me as I pulled off the interstate, turned onto POLK STREET, and headed into Tina’s development. I spotted a blue Jaguar XJS parked alongside the alley. I stopped in front of her house, shut off the ignition, and listened to the plinking of the cooling engine. The September night was black and moonless and tinged with a winter-like chill.
I sighed deeply and stared at her front door.
Do I really need another complication in my life?
I was already having an affair with the married, bi-sexual spouse of the gay woman who signed my meager paycheck. My sixth credit card had hit its limit. I received word that my eight-month wait for my second advance check was being withheld by Gotham Publishing until I made the absurd changes they wanted in my second manuscript. And I’d just discovered my recently deceased father owed ten grand from an internet gambling debt, which I’d now have to figure a way to pay.
Craving for a cigarette prickled through me. I reached into the ashtray and fished an old butt from the disgusting mishmash of filters, chewed nicotine gum, and ashes. The butt looked like a twisted worm. I lit the frayed end and dragged deep; my first drag in a week. I held in the smoke and felt a dizzying rush of nicotine jet through my system and relax my state of mind.
“Kevin!” a voice called.
I turned my head.
It took a moment for my eyes to grow accustom to the glow of the porch light, but when they did, I saw Tina’s slender figure wearing just her underwear. Her hourglass hips curved underneath the fabric of her white panties. Her breasts swelled against her bra. Corkscrews of golden hair rippled in disarray down her shoulders and over her petite, seraphic face.
My stomach somersaulted. I’d forgotten how beautiful she was.
She stepped toward me.
She looked worried.
She looked vulnerable.
She looked like a toy built for sex.
Do I really need another complication in my life?
I crushed the butt, opened the door, and unfolded from my car; feeling as if I were about to get involved in something that could possibly ruin me.
* * *
Tina ran up and embraced me the way a child embraces a parent coming to pick them up after spending a long summer away at camp; a tight, clinging squeeze. Perfume hit my nose. The warmth of her body quickly consumed my apprehensions. We stood mute in the awkward silence and the unspoken tensions of ex-lovers meeting after a long time apart.
She released and stepped back. Anxiety showed in the wideness of her eyes.
“Thank God you’re here!” she said. “I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t know who else to call!”
“Where’s your clothes?” I asked.
“Oh, Jesus!” She pursed her lips and rubbed her arms. “I’m so frazzled. I ran out as soon as I saw your car pull up. I’m surprised you came.”
I took off my jacket to give to her. “Me too.”
She draped my jacket over her shoulders, shivered, and started up the walkway. I followed. We stepped to the door. I reached out and jiggled the handle.
“It’s locked,” I said, and twisted again for certainty.
“Locked?” Her dumbfounded expression caught the porch light. “It can’t be!”
“I don’t have the key!”
“Any neighbors got a spare?”
She crossed her arms and huddled my coat around her. “My neighbors abhor me.”
“I’ll call a locksmith? I have my cell.”
“Just break the window above the lock. Ritchie got me in that way before.”
“I’ll call a twenty-four hour locksmith. It won’t take long.”
“There’s a dead body in the house! I don’t want anyone here! Got it? Break the damn window please, so we can go inside.”
I straightened my shoulders, aggravated by her brashness. “Sure.”
I turned my attention to the four small windowpanes rising vertically above the door handle.
“You got a brick?”
“Use your elbow. That’s how Ritchie did it. Bunch up your shirt sleeve and smash it.”
I did as she said and knocked my elbow against the pane. It bounced off.
“Harder,” she urged. “I’m freezing!”
I did it again with the same result.
“What is this?” I asked. “Bullet-proof glass?”
“C’mon,” she replied. “Put some muscle into it. Ritchie did it with one blow.”
I looked at her; so vulnerable, nearly nude, and wearing my jacket. Desire fired and flowed through my veins. I fought against my passion for her. Thought about the times she lied to me and the pain of discovering the truth of what was going on. The betrayal. The absolute hate of deceit.
I whipped my elbow and smashed with all my might. Simultaneously, I heard the tinkling of falling glass and felt a stinging burn along my forearm. I grabbed where the pain came.
“Dammit!” I spat.
Warm blood soaked through the fabric of my shirt and wetted my fingers. “Feels it.”
“Unlock the door,” she said. “I’ll take a look inside.”
I reached through the pane, careful not to brush against the toothy shards, twisted the lock, opened the door, and stepped inside. The house was as I remembered, spacious and clean, with large comfortable furniture and the perfect amount of lighting. Plastic plants interspersed with live ones hung from the windows. A large oriental rug covered half the carpeted floor. Pictures of her and Ritchie as kids adorned the walls. I noticed a picture of me. And then another.
She went quickly to the bathroom and came out wearing a pink robe and carrying a packet of gauze and bandage tape.
“Let me see,” she said.
I unbuttoned my shirt and peeled the sticky, soppy fabric from the wound. Blood dripped to the floor and soaked into the carpet. She reached out and sought my arm.
“It’s pretty deep,” she said, and compressed a wad of bandages. I bit my lip against the pain. “You should get it stitched.”
“I don’t have insurance.”
“I’ll pay the bill.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want your charity.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. But there’s probably gonna be a scar.”
I pulled the bandages away to see about the bleeding and unintentionally started a new flow. Bright red drops splattered. Tina reached for more gauze and taped a fresh wad to my skin.
“How’s that feel?” she asked, as she finished her patch job.
I flexed, stretched, and massaged the area around the wound. “Pretty good.”
She walked to a cabinet, took out a wine glass and an opener, and uncorked a bottle of merlot. Her hand shook a little as she poured the liquid nearly to the rim.
I looked at her sternly. “What happened with Lance Starkey?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. One minute I was um… you know, doing what I do, and the next Starkey lets out this little gasp… and then, that’s it. He stops moving. I checked his chest and he wasn’t breathing. What am I going to do? It’s Lance Starkey! I’m in so much trouble!”
“Calm down,” I said. “Were you two doing anything illegal?”
“You mean like drugs?” She turned her arms underside up to expose the pale, delicate flesh. “Of course not! I’ve been clean for two years!”
“He probably had a heart attack. Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.”
“It doesn’t matter what the cause! Don’t you get it? I can see the headline now; Son of Mayor Gerald Starkey found dead in the bed of a hooker. I can’t handle that kind of publicity! I’ve gotta get him out of here! I’ve gotta get him out of here now!”
I clasped her shoulders. “You need to calm down. This isn’t a big a deal. People die from natural causes every day. Everything’ll be fine. Trust me. The mayor doesn’t know who you are or what you do. He’ll be so embarrassed by his son’s affair that he’ll keep the whole story hush. You’ll see. We’ll call an ambulance and when the paramedics get here just pretend like you actually really cared about the guy.”
She snickered at my sarcasm.
“There’s something more,” she said. “Starkey’s spirit spoke to me right after he died. I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with your father.”
I let go of her shoulders and took a step back. “You’re off your medication again, aren’t you?”
“The meds don’t do shit!”
“We’ve been through this a hundred times. You can’t go off them on your own. You’re gonna end up running screaming through the parking lot shouting at ghosts that don’t exist.”
“Ha. Ha. Very funny. Look Kevin, thanks for coming and all, but you’re not my psychiatrist, okay? You’re not my boyfriend anymore either. So shut it! The meds make me tired. They make my head fuzzy. I don’t like them. And if I don’t like something, I don’t do it!”
I shrugged. “You’re absolutely right. I’m not your boyfriend or your psychiatrist. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’ll wait with you until the ambulance arrives and then I’m gone. Where’s Starkey?”
“In the festivity room.” She downed half of the glass in a single guzzle. “Where else.”
My stomach curled at the mention. The festivity room was a converted walk-in closet that had become Tina’s sex room. It was where her clients got to fulfill their perverted fantasies and do things to her that they were afraid to do, or ask of, their girlfriends or wives. Her clients weren’t street bums or drug addicts. These men lived respectable lives, had families, and held six-figure-a-year jobs. These men had it all. I never understood why they risked so much for anonymous sex. But then again, looking at Tina, I could reason.
I stepped around the entertainment center I’d bought for her twenty-third birthday and wandered down the hallway to the closed door beside the bathroom. Palm sweaty, I turned the knob and eased the door open. Light from the hallway washed over me and swept across the dingy space. My nose wrinkled as thick odors of sweat, sex, and perfume gushed out. I stayed back. The room was very warm, bordering on hot. Pornographic material plastered the walls. A chest full of adult pleasure toys was in the corner. Lying across the single mattress I caught sight of a shirtless figure lying on his back with the lower half of his body twisted up in the sheet. His eyes were open and staring at the ceiling. His skin was the color of milk.
Tina came up behind me with her wine glass refilled. “So, what do you think?”
I closed the door. “I think we’d better call that ambulance.”
“Do we have to do it right now?” she asked, and smoothed her robe. “I don’t want to deal with all the activity right now. I’m still thinking maybe we could move him to another place, like drop him off in the back of a parking lot or something and then make an anonymous phone call.”
“I’m not tampering with a dead body!”
She drank and then wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I can’t believe this happened. Why’d he have to die on me? Why couldn’t his wife have found him in his own bed?”
I looked away not wanting to connect with her callousness.
“How did you get involved with Starkey in the first place?” I asked.
She sighed. “We met a few weeks ago at a fundraiser. I was escorting another man at the time, but Starkey and I got to talking and when I informed him of my line of work he asked for my number. He called a few days later. I’ve been servicing him pretty regularly ever since. Straight sex. Poor guy is too guilt-ridden about cheating on his wife to ask for anything kinky. I’d always thought of him as easy money…” She gripped her glass and swallowed thirstily. “But now this. If cops start poking their heads around here they’re gonna make me the scapegoat for the investigation, you’ll see. Somehow I’ll be blamed for his death. They’ll make him into a hero and me a murderer.”
“They won’t,” I assured her. “Not if you call the ambulance right now.”
She drained the wine, stared at the empty wine glass a moment, and then went fetching more. I turned around and zeroed in on the front door, thinking I should get the hell out of there before Tina drinks too much and the situation turns into something other than it is.
“I’m gonna call Ritchie,” she said from the kitchen. “He’ll take care of this. The cops’ll find Starkey behind an adult bookstore or something. The depravity of the scene will keep the story from the press and the investigation to a minimum.”
“Don’t do that!” I replied, and walked toward her voice. “Your brother’s a drug-addicted psychopath who’s intoxicated every waking moment! I’ll call an ambulance like a normal, ordinary human being. Nothing’s going to happen to you even if the police do get involved. Having sex isn’t a crime. And neither is having an affair. No one knows he—” I hesitated as the reality of the situation pricked my insides. “Was paying you.”
She sailed from the kitchen looking even more alluring with a perceptible alcohol flush pinking her cheeks.
“Married men don’t withdraw a thousand bucks from their bank accounts every three or four days,” she replied. “Investigators will put two and two together and then come knocking on my door.”
“Don’t call Ritchie!” I reaffirmed. “He’ll make it worse!”
She sighed and relaxed her expression. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am overreacting.” She lowered her glass and reached for a cigarette. “But can we wait until morning to call the ambulance? I’m really tired. A few hours won’t make a difference to the guy.”
“That’s not a good idea,” I said.
“Please,” she whined and hiccupped, then tinked her fingernails against the glass. “I don’t want to deal with this right now. I’ll tell the paramedics he was like this when I woke up.”
I sighed, feeling a weird, creepy sensation at what I was about to say. Tina’s beauty had so much influence over my rational decision making that it warped my sense of better judgment.
“Do what you want.”
Relief shone in her smile. “How’s your arm?”
“The bleeding’s slowing down. No stitches needed.”
I crossed toward the front door and picked up a few of the larger shards of broken glass. Dark red spots of my blood stained the carpet.
“You got any cardboard?” I said. “I’ll tape this window before I go.”
“You can tear off a piece from that box beside the closet.” She looked to the ceiling. “What about Starkey’s spirit?” she said, in a near whisper. “And that warning?”
I camouflaged my feelings of unease, tore off a cardboard panel, and used the bandage tape to temporarily seal the broken window.
“If anyone asks about this just tell the truth; you were so upset that you locked yourself out.” I eased up and walked into the bathroom. “Are the bandages still in the cabinet? I’m gonna change this before I go.”
“They’re in the drawer under the sink.”
I washed the blood off my hands and splashed cold water onto my face. I pulled open the drawer: deodorant, tampons, Vaseline, joy jelly, large box of condoms, vibrator, my old toothbrush… bandages.
I took the bandages, closed the drawer, and caught sight of my own features in the mirror. I shuddered. My eyes were bland and puffy from accumulated lack of sleep; my cheeks bloated and rashy from the constant consummation of ninety-nine cent value food. Balding slightly at the crown at twenty-eight, the rest of my hair was a brown nest of split-ends and tangles from using cheap soap and shampoo.
I ventured back into the living room. Tina was freshly perfumed. She had pulled out the sofa bed and thrown a quilt over the mattress. She slid under the cover, propped her head with two pillows, unhooked her bra, and exposed her breasts.
Heat rose all over my body and collected between my legs.
“I should go,” I said, and my voice cracked as I concentrated on keeping my eyes steadfast on her face, though it was a battle.
She met my gaze squarely.
“You’re gonna drive forty-five minutes at four in the morning to avoid sleeping with me?” She patted the mattress and ended with a scratch. “Come on,” she said, and looked down at her breasts. “Whatcha afraid of? These girls don’t bite.”
Lust tore through my system. I thought about Jen asleep in my bed and what she would think when she awoke and I wasn’t in it… again.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“So, I… I don’t think this is a good idea.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Okay, Pope Benedict.” Shook her breasts back into her bra and snapped it. “I’m not gonna beg! You have a good night, Kevin. Thanks for stopping by.”
She doused the light and yanked the cover to her neck.
I stood a moment, dreading the drive, feeling my muscles relax at the thought of sleep.
“I am tired,” I said, in a surrendering tone.
“Don’t do me any favors!” she replied, and turned onto her side.
I slipped off my shoes and crawled onto the sofa bed. I had forgotten how surprisingly soft the mattress was, softer than my own twenty-year-old Serta. I pulled a flap of blanket across my chest, let out a deep sigh, and closed my eyes.
Tina’s fingers brushed along my chest and then slid down to my lap. She chortled and sat up on her elbows.
“You’re sleeping in your clothes?” she said. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I think it’s best.”
She shook her head disbelievingly. “Whatever. Goodnight, Kevin.”
She rolled over, pushed her warm rump against my hip, and gyrated her cheeks, sending another rush of desire through my system. Many minutes passed before my heartbeat finally slowed down enough that my mind could drift off.