(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: The Atlantis Hotel)
They made Ezmerelda wait in the dining room without even offering her a cup of coffee or even a few words of commiseration. She had been there for hours, listening to the distant sift of the Atlantic surf striking against the sands. She kept mental note of the glacial downward crawl that the shadows of the blinds had cast upon a wall with a horrific painting with clashing colors of a horse galloping in front of a rainbow — the kind of grotesque and wildly overvalued art that bumpkins usually pay big money for at an estate sale. She presumed the painting had been Sophie’s choice rather than Paul’s.
“What a sad son of a bitch,” said one of the detectives.
“Not the way I’d want to go,” said another.
“How do you know? Barney found a sizable semen sample under his left thigh.”
“I saw. Hope the family tips the sad son of a bitch who has to clean that sticky mess up before the funeral.”
“The guy was a horse.”
“Yeah, but he wasn’t hung like a horse.”
His colleague grunted.
“Ted, how many times do I have to tell you?” His voice became gentle, matching the tenor of a father telling his son about the birds and the bees for the first time. “You don’t want to kink-shame the dead. Show some respect.”
“He didn’t have a smile on his face.”
“Buddy, they never die with a smile on their face. Cadaveric spasms? Rigor mortis? Come on, I thought you got your MFS at Stevenson.”
“It was just a joke.”
“Work on your material.”
The trabeation between the living room and the dining room was, like most of the house, excessively high and wide. And it afforded Ezmerelda a vista of Van Kleason’s bare dead ass, the numbered placards gradually placed upon the floor, and the many men hunkered around the corpse measuring distances and collecting surrounding items into evidence bags.
“Hey Barney! Check this out!”
One smiling cop had lifted up Van Kleason’s dead head with one hand and had angled his phone for a selfie.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Come on, Barney. I’m just having a little bit of fun.”
“You’re contaminating the scene!”
“I’ve got gloves on, man!”
The horse motif was in full display throughout the dining room. A small shelf of Jane Smiley novels — the ones with the horses — was neatly installed just above the silverware drawer. There were metal pony figurines melting into onyx napkin holder bases. Salt and pepper shakers with horse head tops that could be screwed off. She recalled the disturbing morning when Van Kleason had torn off all of his clothes and followed her around the house on all fours while she cleaned, neighing and eerily resembling a Shetland pony from certain angles. She had never asked Van Kleason what his love of horses meant. She figured the answer would be worse than anything she could possibly imagine.
“She’s the only witness?”
She was losing potential income by the minute. And she certainly wasn’t going to demonstrate the physiognomical advantages of being alive. And if they didn’t question her and let her leave soon, she wouldn’t have time to prepare herself for peak daytime jerkoff hour on OnlyFans. The stay-at-home dads who wanted to stroke their jokes away just before they picked up their kids from school.
If these creepy cops were that committed to memorializing their desecration of the dead, maybe there was an untapped audience here. Take the idea behind that old website rotten.com and put a personal spin on it.
Barney slapped the camera-happy officer across the cheek.
“Never again, Clark. One more selfie and I’m filing an internal affairs report.”
The police had sealed off the living room with yellow tape and the flashes of the forensic team’s cameras were so frequent and blinding that Ezmerelda regretted not packing a pair of sunglasses. She didn’t have a book. She didn’t have much in the way of distractions. They had taken away her phone. They had pressed her for her password, but she didn’t spill the four numbers. And she presumed this was the biggest reason why the detectives kept her waiting. But she wasn’t going to betray her online johns. Now two cops who were humanity’s answer to walking ground chuck (the three-day stubble of one of the junior detectives reminded her of Beef Stroganoff) were studying the lock screen from several corners, trying to figure out how to penetrate it.
“Do we have to call Oscar?” said Beef Stroganoff.
“He’s the only guy, but he’s a little prickly.”
“Even if she budges,” said his more confident and more sleep-deprived colleague, “we’ll need a court order.”
She hated it when people referred to her in the third person. Many white people did this. It was a subtle form of racism. Don’t address the Black woman, but don’t pretend that she isn’t there.
“Hey,” said Ezmerelda.
“Foul play?” said Beef Stroganoff.
“It’s going to take a day for the toxicology report to clear,” said Sleep-Deprived.
“I said, hey!” said Ezmerelda.
“Do you think she killed him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m right here,” said Ezmerelda.
Beef Stroganoff loosened an exasperated sigh. He glanced at Ezmerelda, his eyes darting to her ass before returning to his colleague.
“Mike, I don’t want to call Oscar,” said Beef Stroganoff.
“Don’t you read comic books, Ted?”
“Not really,” said Ted, who knew that he had perhaps one day left of not shaving before someone would call HR and complain. Because Ted always looked repugnant with facial hair. He had once grown a moustache for Movember in his early days as a traffic cop and everyone in the precinct had given him hell. So he had shaved it off. But that hadn’t swayed him from seeing November as the month devoted to massive endeavors. I mean, total strangers on the Internet were spending the weeks before Thanksgiving writing hack novels, weren’t they?
“Well, summon a bit of that knowledge. You know the techies. Get them talking about the Annie Nocenti run on Daredevil and they’ll do anything you want.”
“Maybe you should call them.”
“I’m more of a DC guy.”
“Wonder Woman and her golden lasso?”
“Barry Allen, motherfucker. Better than Gilpetperdon any day.”
“Elders of the Universe? That was some of the worst shit imaginable.”
Mike rolled up his gloves and tossed them onto the floor. “You want to get into it right now, brother? Because I will fuck you up right now if you talk any more shit about The Flash.”
Ted laughed and slapped Mike on the shoulder. “Relax, Mike. I’m just busting your balls.” He turned away, darting a quick glance at Ezmerelda’s legs before returning to Oscar. “Although that Final Crisis shit? They should have stuck with Grant Morrison. That never would have happened at Marvel.”
“Why, you fucking asshole…”
Mike’s face turned beet-red with fury. He was prepared to jump Ted right then and there, but two of the guys held him back. They told Mike that if he would calm down and concentrate on the investigation that there would be nachos and margaritas awaiting him at the end of a long day.
“Yo! I’ve got places I need to be,” said Ezmerelda.
Ted walked to the long refectory table where Ezmerelda was sitting: the footfalls of his Cole Haan patents echoing against the high ceiling. Van Kleason had told her that she was never to sit there. It was a fantasy he developed after reading about how Jeff Bezos had prohibited his cleaning staff from using his bathroom or eating lunch anywhere in the house. And while Paul Van Kleason had often pretended to be a sensitive leftist, he was — like many of Ezmerelda’s clients — an aspiring tyrant bucking the belabored Leo Buscalgia sensitivity he had practiced online. Most men who longed to be tops were bottoms in their regular lives. When he had been alive, Van Kleason had told Ezmerelda that his marriage had been on thin ice and that he had not fucked his wife in years. But so long as they entered their credit card numbers into Stripe, Ezmerelda would pretend that their aloof alpha pretense was persuasive.
“When do I get to leave?” said Ezmerelda.
“You’ll leave when we say you leave. This isn’t a fast food joint. It’s a crime scene.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s evidence.”
“It’s my livelihood.”
“Yes, your livelihood. What is it you do exactly? Dressed like that?”
Ezmerelda stretched the very short hem of her miniskirt as far down as it could go.
“What I do is perfectly legal.”
“Was the deceased one of your clients?”
“How many times did you meet with him?”
“Once or twice a week. It all depended on whether he was alone.”
“He still lived with his wife?”
“Yes, but she’s often away during the day.”
“Did you know his wife?”
“And where were you before you discovered his body?”
“I was getting ready to come here.”
“Do you have an alibi?”
“Are you serious?”
“We have to consider every possibility. You live alone?”
“Did you harbor any jealousy towards Mr. Van Kleason?”
She laughed. “Jealousy? Are you serious? He was a client. He had nothing. Nothing more.”
“But a prominent one. An author of twenty-two books.”
“What kind of books?”
“Fantasy, speculative fiction. Really, just Google the dude.”
“Did you read any of his books?”
“No, they were impenetrable.”
“Did you know anyone closely related to Mr. Van Kleason?”
“His friends? His family?”
“No, I was just the maid.”
“But more than a maid? Did you and Mr. Van Kleason have sexual relations?”
“That wasn’t our arrangement.”
“It’s a simple yes or no question, Miss Gibbons.”
At that point, Ezmerelda noticed a smiling woman in her mid-thirties just outside the French doors leading to the backyard. She was taking pictures of her and seemed to be having a blast. A reporter’s notepad dropped out of her coat. She picked it up, fluttered the pad to the right page, jotted something down with a pen, loosened a chortle, and then carried on taking pictures.
Ted’s eyes tightened into a vicious squint. He snapped his fingers and the two men who had held down Mike raced over.
“Looks like we have a press problem.”
The two cops opened the doors. And the ocean breeze was so cold that Ezmerelda shivered in her seat.
“Hi there, Ted!” said the woman, saluting him with a ironically deferential flourish of the hand.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in? I brought a bag of bear claws for the boys.”
Ezmerelda had skipped breakfast. Her belly rumbled at the thought of a donut, although she knew Rollins would chew her out if she didn’t stick to her paleo diet.
“It’s a crime scene. We’ll be issuing a public statement later today.”
“Oh, Ted,” said the woman. “You’re no fun these days. Remember the Lish murders? Didn’t we have a lot of fun with that? That picture with you holding the axe? Well, it won you a lot of points in Yaupon Circle.”
“I’m sorry,” said Ezmerelda. “Who are you?”
“Ali Breslin. Crime reporter for The Myrtleist!”
“It’s an online rag that gets a lot of eyeballs. And speaking of eyeballs, Ted, what’s the story with the stiff?”
“He died with a smile on his face,” shouted Mike from the living room. He had calmed down quite a bit.
“Shut the fuck up, Mike.”
“Hi Ali!” cried Mike.
“Hi Mike! Is Ted giving you shit about Barry Allen again?”
“Ted, you’ve got to give The Flash another chance! I mean, we all know that Ezra Miller is such a disappointment off-camera.” Ali turned to Ezmerelda and whispered to her. “I wrote a little #metoo story about Miller that went viral.” She unzipped her bomber jacket, revealing a bright T-shirt with a Francis Manapul panel. “But fuck the TV show! The Carmine Infantino run? You’re really going to shit on that?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell him, Ali!” cried Mike, who was newly galvanized by the appearance of his comic book ally.
“You know I can’t tell you.”
“You know I can’t go away.”
“Excuse me,” said Ezmerelda. “Can I go now?”
“Not yet,” said Ted.
“You’re Ezmerelda Gibbons, aren’t you?” asked Ali.
“How do you know about me?”
Ali held up her phone. “TinEye is your friend. Well, TinEye and a few other tools.”
“Ali,” said Ted gently. “We still haven’t determined the cause of death. And because the deceased is a public figure, we’d appreciate it if you kept this out of the headlines.”
“Oh, you’d appreciate it,” said Ali. Her voice shifted to a flirtatious murmur. “Well, Teddy, you should have thought about that before you ghosted me.”
“Wait,” cried Mike. “You two are fucking?”
Ted cleared his throat. “Not anymore!”
Mike laughed. “Wait until the boys here about this.”
Ezmerelda slammed her fist onto the refectory table.
“You’ve kept me here long enough,” she boomed. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
“Now, ma’am, you can’t do that.”
“The hell I can’t!”
Ted was prepared to put Ezmerelda into her face. That’s when he noticed Ali filming him with her camera. Fuck. The last thing the MBPD needed was another Ali Breslin hot take.
He cleared his throat and made the greatest possible effort to swallow his natural gruffness.
“Uh, thank you, Miss Gibbons.”
“You’ll get it later.”
He handed Ezmerelda his card.
“You can contact us if you remember anything.”
“And how the hell am I supposed to call you if you have my phone?”
“You’ll figure something out.”
“That’s it?” said Ezmerelda.
“For now.” He turned to Ali’s camera. “You see, Myrtleist viewers? Consummate professionalism.” Then he put his hand up in front of the lens.
Ezmerelda picked up her purse and walked past the corpse to the front door. Ali followed her.
“Yoo hoo,” said Ali. “Miss Gibbons?”
Ezmerelda walked faster. The clicks of her heels dwarfed the bleak small talk that buzzed through the room like a hornet’s nest newly destroyed by a baseball bat.
(Next: The Physical Trainer)
(Word count: 8,691/50,000)