Henry waited for thirty-five minutes then drained the remainder of his whiskey and left a hefty tip for the waitress, money he would’ve mashed into Alisha’s hand for some trinket she always seemed to need.
Spring had taken winter by its toes and hurled it into the past. It had happened during Henry’s “business trip” to Spain, in Barcelona, where Alisha and he had munched olives and strolled the city’s bustling harbor. They’d perched beneath a statue of Columbus in Del Rey Square, swilling watery Cervezas, pretending it was aged champagne. Champagne that mutated to arsenic when Alisha gave him the news.
Now petunias and daffodils piled in redwood boxes that lined the sidewalk courtyard of Bistro de Luc. Lunchtime clientele were dressed in suits of linen instead of wool. Fifth Avenue cabbies honked and screeched their tires. Brisk air shoved against Henry’s chest, fragrant and rich with the vitality and drama of New York City’s eight million inhabitants.
Henry kept visualizing the room he’d reserved at the Plaza. The two hundred dollars a night cheap-rate room would situate Alisha and him in a closet-sized chamber at the end of a dark corridor on the hotel’s underbelly, overlooking pigeon-littered courtyards and crumbling brick facades. The perfect scene.
Jaywalking across a busy city avenue was a dangerous game, but danger satisfied Henry’s mood today. His limbs tingled as he entered the Plaza’s lobby. Alisha would have to locate him. She’d have to scurry around the bistro, then venture across the avenue, then search the Plaza’s lower floors, its eateries and shops, worried that Henry may have decided not to show.
Let her sweat. He’d agreed to her terms. What choice did he have? Now, she had to understand the concept of limits.
Rounding a corridor’s corner, he stuffed tense hands into his trouser pockets. Alisha stood in front of a mini-Tiffany’s ogling a bracelet with big, red stones. He glanced in both directions then kissed the top of her head.
She’d shampooed with the lavender-scented product he picked up for her at Saks. Her wavy locks draped her shoulders like fine mink. She tipped up her chin and saucer-shaped eyes sucked him into their alluvial shadow. Taking his hand, she pressed it against her belly. Not much development yet. Her breasts behind the pink sleeveless blouse were still the size of small tangerines, her hips boyish in the baby blue capris.
“Hi Henry.” She stepped in close and toyed with his necktie. The giggle inferred the tie’s flower print amused her. “Brooks Brothers?” she asked.
“Penney’s. You’re late,” he said.
“You know the club shuts down at four.” She ran a finger across his belt. “And usually I work overtime. Not for long, though, right?” Those big eyes drilled his face, searching for lies.
He snapped away, catching his reflection in a window facing Central Park. His tall, broad frame regenerated his confidence, and he told her, “Don’t worry. Everything’s arranged.”
“Everything?” She fiddled with her hair.
“You know I want to please you.”
“I can’t help myself. Don’t always test me.”
She smiled, exposing little, sharp teeth. “You’re so sweet.”
The impulse to crack a few of those teeth almost hijacked his arm. “Our room’s ready. Let’s go use it.”
“You’re always in such a hurry,” she said. “Did you eat without me?”
“I have a meeting in a couple of hours.”
“But I’m so hungry.”
“Me too. We can take care of it up in the room.” He grabbed her elbow.
She jerked away. “You’re more rushy today than usual. Is that because he’s upstairs?”
Henry’s stomach lurched. “He who?”
Alisha’s eyes twinkled. “The man with the knife.”
“Stop it,” Henry said. “And they don’t use knives. I already explained what’s going to happen. Later . . . at the clinic. Right now, come on. I’ll order champagne.”
Alisha sunk into a hip and folded her arms. “You know I can’t drink.”
“I thought it wouldn’t matter any more,” Henry told her. “Besides, it didn’t stop you in Spain.”
“That was different.”
“Alcohol isn’t harmful early in a pregnancy. It would be now.” One finger twined her hair. “I read a book.”
He forced a grin. “A girl like you reads?”
She shrugged and backpedaled toward the mini-Tiffany’s display, pulling him along. Her hips swayed, and her pink tongue tip protruded between her lips like a ripe nipple.
“Oh no, you don’t,” he said, and yanked her to his chest.
She slipped her arms around his waist, her heat making his polyester blend shirt stick to his skin.
“Bracelet first,” she spelled out. “Then I make you feel young again, then you give me my other present, then you drive me to the doctor . . . and wait for me like you promised.”
He swiped back salt-and-pepper hair men his age would mortgage their houses to possess. He knew the hair made the creases across his forehead and down his cheeks appear manly instead of old. He brushed his hair again, using the asset.
It must’ve worked because she abandoned the bracelet idea and walked toward the elevator, spine pulled erect, both hands propped on her hips, practicing her courtroom litigator strut.
“Come on, baby,” she said, holding the open elevator door. “Is there a nice view?”
He strolled forward, giving her the up-and-down wolf look.
She reached out and tugged him into the elevator car by his necktie. “I meant the view from the window in our room. You’re so mean.”
They road to the second floor and walked along a dim corridor with floral carpet. Inside the room, Henry laid the money he’d promised on the dresser.
She kissed his cheek, then headed for the bathroom, ooo-ing at the assortment of bath oils and body lotions arranged on the vanity’s faux-marble counter.
He took off his shoes and sat on the bed. Imagining. He’d begin with a pillow over her face. At first, she’d wriggle and think it was fun. He’d hold it firmly. Then she’d kick her legs and pound his back with her fists, but he had enough brawn to take the abuse. She’d probably try to knee-punch his groin, but he’d press his pelvis against hers, protecting his vulnerable spot. Her muffled screams wouldn’t last long; they would speed the process in fact, lessening the suffocation time from two minutes to one. He’d feel the strain of her muscles seizing, her lungs unable to suck in air. Finally, she’d gurgle a last breath. Then she’d stop fighting.
When he removed the pillow, her bugging eyes frozen in an expression of terror and surprise would thrill him. The tongue bulging from the corner of her mouth would remind him of a cartoon character just popped over the head with an anvil. Usually, within the first hour their skin turned purplish, lips and fingernails pale, skin waxy, almost translucent. Often he stayed that long, while he wiped his fingerprints from the few items he’d touched and added assorted hairs and fiber to the crime scene to waste the police lab’s time. He always used a stolen credit card to pay for the room and avoided dress and behavior that a passerby might remember. Afterward, he enjoyed alone time with his girls—finally quiet and submissive.
The toilet flushed, and Alisha slinked out of the bathroom, wrapped in a terrycloth robe. The .38 caliber Beretta, a petite pistol, looked big in her hand.
She said, “You think I’m stupid,” and leveled the muzzle in his direction.
Henry’s chest gripped with shock. Adrenaline kicked on, making his hands shake. Who was this Alisha? What kind of con was she trying to pull? What the hell was going on? He stared at the pistol and considered a lunge forward, but her expression, aged from twenty years to forty in the span of a bubble bath, her posture, transformed from willowy and vulnerable to solid and tough, inhibited his action.
Sweat oozed down his back. “How can a girl with so many books in her apartment be stupid?” he said. His smile felt as supple as a blown-out tire. “Where did you get that gun?”
She snapped the mechanism that chambered a bullet. “How do you think I paid for all those books?” Her voice savvy and cold. “Working at the club barely covers my rent.”
His stomach muscles felt like rocks. “I paid for some of them, didn’t I?”
“You’re so naïve.” Now she picked up a pillow and positioned it in front of the pistol’s muzzle. “I’m taking your money, and I’m having this baby, and I’m going to law school, and you’re out of the picture. Get it?”
“Sure sweetie, but—”
“Baby, I’m not sweet.”
“Alisha.” He raised his hands, palms out. “You want to have the baby, okay, all right. I thought you didn’t care. You said a kid would stand in the way of your career.”
“You said that.”
“Okay. But I thought—”
“You thought you could get rid of me.”
He froze, heel thumping the carpet, worried about how she knew, and if she planned to use the gun, or maybe this scene was just another one of her games. “Why are you talking like this?”
A smile played at her mouth corners. “I know who you are.”
“Yeah? Who am I?” Clammy palms closed into fists.
“I knew in Barcelona,” she said, watching his hands. “You took them all to Barcelona. The waitress at the railway station recognized you. When you left to load our bags on the train, she told me all about your girls. She warned me. That’s when I made up my mind about the baby . . . and about you. What to do with a sick, arrogant bastard who knocks girls up.” She trained the pillow-silenced pistol at his forehead. “Then disposes of them like used condoms. You should’ve used one.”
Like an amateur, he raised his arms to cover his face.
She emptied the clip into his chest like a professional.