"Have you seen Christine?" Anxiety thinned Cassie's
voice to a whine. "We've been calling her, like, all day.
We even stopped at her apartment."
"She'll show." I deflected the Rott with my knee and
told him to sit. "She's already seen the photographs so she's
probably planning a big, fashionably late entrance."
"Christine, she's late to everything," Nephthys said,
then wrapped me in a congratulatory hug, not oblivious to the
fascinated stares of both men and women in the crowd. She wore
a thin black halter and stretch shorts, showing as much of her
tattooed body as possible in public without getting arrested.
She was insanely proud of her tattoos, precise recreations of
the hieroglyphics and pictographs depicting her namesake, the
Egyptian Goddess of the House and Friend of the Dead in Egyptian
mythology. She gave the hug full body contact then pulled her
head back to drop a lip kiss on me, unexpected at that moment
but not so bad really, in a non-lesbian girlfriend kind of way.
"You rock, girl," she said. "The photographs are
"Cindy Sherman meets Weegee," someone said behind me
and I turned to see who, because those were exactly the two traditions
I intended to cross when I began composing the photographs in
my head. The man who had spoken turned to look at me over his
shoulder and then this really weird thing happened to time, the
glittering hum of voices ground down and vectored out to silence,
the crowd at the peripheral fringe of my vision spun into a centrifugal
blur, and if I knew I had a soul I'd say it broke its moorings
and lurched momentarily free of my body. I'd never seen the man
before but still, his face looked strangely familiar, and I would
have sworn I knew him in a previous life if I believed in such
things, which I don't. Yes, he was handsome in a black haired,
blue-eyed, and black-leather-jacketed way, but I wasn't that conscious
of his face; I felt him more than saw him, as though I'd found
something I wasn't particularly looking for and never thought
I needed until that moment, and now that I saw it, didn't know
whether to grab it or run headlong in the opposite direction.
I floated toward him, not consciously moving my feet at all, and
then the sensation of timelessness wavered and broke, because
I'd walked right up to a strange man without an idea in my head
about what to say, and that made me feel uncomfortably self-conscious.
"You're the photographer, aren't you?" He turned a
knowing look to a photograph of Nephthys on the nearest wall.
"I can't tell you how many times I stepped into the grubbier
version of this scene."
I'd taken the photograph at night off the Pacific Coast Highway
a few miles south of Malibu, a white gowned Nephthys hitchhiking
in the headlight glow of a Mercedes convertible stopped on the
shoulder, a little chrome automatic pistol dangling from the forefinger
of her opposite hand. The driver's door to the Mercedes wings
open into the center of the image and the body of an elegant young
man in a white dinner jacket sprawls toward the pavement, his
legs and hips still inside the car, the back of his jacket stained
with vivid blossoms of light gray, the color of blood in black
and white photography.
Frank stuck his shaggy head between us and introduced the man
I'd been speaking to as Sean Tyler. We shook hands, his palm leathery
smooth, like a good work glove. "Let's go out to the car
for a sec," Frank said and hoisted toward Sean the laptop
bag slung over his shoulder. "I got something I want to show
you." And then they were gone, just like that, Sean's big
shoulders gracefully creasing the mob, leaving me face to face
with Terry Graves, my parole officer, who pinched the muscle between
my neck and shoulder and said photographs weren't her thing but
these wouldn't be so bad if she could drop a neutron bomb in the
middle of the room to eliminate the poseurs. I noticed that her
steel-gray suit matched her eyes and tapered neatly at the breasts,
her shoulder holster not part of her evening attire. She'd never
touched me that way before and I couldn't decide if it was a gesture
of affection or control, reminding me that no matter how great
my success that evening, my fate was still hers to control. I
told her I needed a glass of wine and pressed toward the door,
curious about Sean and what kind of business he had with Frank.
He didn't look like the kind of scamming tipster Frank usually
took to meet in alleyways and parking lots.
Out in the parking lot they stood hunched over the open trunk
to Frank's Honda, a silvery light illuminating their faces from
beneath, the blue-black of Los Angeles night blanketed around
their shoulders. Frank had parked at the far end of the lot, near
the street and away from the casual glance of passing eyes. When
he heard footsteps and glanced to see me walking toward them he
reached down into the trunk and shut off the light of whatever
they were doing.
"There's really nothing you want to see here," he said
and I realized then that the source of light had been his laptop.
"Maybe I should be the one to decide that," I said.
In the washed out streetlight his face looked flush and his eyes
glazed. "The disk somebody mailed you?" He cleared his
throat, referring to the disk sent to me care of Scandal Times.
"It wasn't music."
"If it was sent to me, then I should see it," I said.
"In fact, if it was sent to me, you shouldn't even be looking
Frank stared at me like I really didn't get it.
"No, it's all right, she probably needs to see this,"
Sean said. "I mean, you're not sure, right? She'll know better
Frank reached into the trunk, pressed something and moved aside.
"This was supposed to be a good night for you," he said.
I stepped up to the rear bumper and looked into the mouth of
the trunk, where Frank's laptop played a high resolution amateur
bondage video, the scene already well in progress. The scene depicted
what I imagined to be a routine S&M scenario: a young woman,
semi-clad in red latex and bound at her wrists to a metal rack
bolted into the wall, a man in a black latex suit and ski mask
style hood mounting her from behind. A similar hood covered the
woman's head, slits cut for her eyes and nose. A rubber ball wedged
into her mouth, held in place by a strap. With strips of latex
disconnecting her features, the woman's face could have been any
young woman's face. The eyes were listless. She didn't seem to
mind being tied to a rack.
"Ruffies," Sean said.
"Rohypnol." Frank added. "The date rape drug of
I wanted to ask Sean how he knew she was drugged, but before
I could speak the man slung a rubber strap around the girl's neck
and jerked it taut. The girl's head snapped back and she twisted
her shoulders, trying to pull away, but the chains bound her fast
to the concrete wall. The man strangling her stood over six feet
tall and pinned the girl to the wall like a butterfly. I looked
away because I didn't want to watch but then I felt Sean's hand
gently supporting my back. The light from the screen illuminated
his face from beneath, as though by theatrical stage light, the
lupine curve of his lips and miss-nothing intensity of his eyes
sadly predatory. I knew then what he was doing there, what he
did for a living, and what was happening to the girl. When I glanced
back at the screen the latex suit had been unzipped at the back
and my eye met the mischievous wink of Betty Boop, tattooed along
the upper curve of the woman's right shoulder.
* * *