Read Dancer in the Flames Online
Authors: Stephen Solomita
The camera tilted down for a moment, then righted itself to reveal Chris Parker striding toward the Volvo. He spun on his heel to offer a brief smirk, climbed in, finally parked the car with practiced ease. Fade to black.
The Bronx Zoo followed. Parker or his girlfriend striding along various paths, watching various animals, eating hotdogs, eating cotton candy. All sunshine and smiles.
After ten minutes of sightseeing, Boots pressed search and was rewarded with Parker and pal on a sandy beach. Both wore bathing suits, the contrast between the pair so extreme Boots couldn’t ignore it. The woman – a girl, really, in her early twenties at most – was thin enough to be the victim of a wasting disease. Her skin was sallow, the undersides of her eyes dark and heavy, the muscles of her legs and arms slack. Next to the toned and tanned Chris Parker, she was small enough to be a child, an effect emphasized by the pink barrette that held her brown hair in place.
‘What, you’re into home movies now?’ Drago asked.
‘That’s Chris Parker. That’s the man Vinnie’s accused of killing. I found the DVD in a heating duct.’
‘Yeah? So what?’
‘So there has to be something on it that Parker wanted to keep hidden. If not, why hide it?’
Boots pressed search again, his persistence this time resulting in a pay-off of sorts: Chris Parker on a king-sized bed with a thirtyish blond, both naked, going at it for all they were worth.
Another press of the search button produced a second woman between the sheets with Chris Parker, then a third and a fourth, none of them the girl Boots had seen in the earlier footage.
Boots shut off the DVD player. ‘Frankie, you better go upstairs, tell your mother not to come down. If she sees this, she might get the wrong impression.’
‘Good thought.’ Drago ground out his cigarette, then rose. ‘I gotta take Mom to church anyway, and after that I’m gonna head for Silky’s. Be a lotta business today, what with the Mets playin’ the Yankees for the last time this season. You wouldn’t wanna place a bet, would ya – give me a chance to get even?’
Boots shook his head, his mind already turning back to the video. He waited for Drago to leave the room, then laid the remote control on a table and stared at the half-smoked butt in the ashtray with frank desire. If his cravings were more infrequent now, they were no less powerful. He got up, sat down, his eyes jumping across the room as though seeking an escape hatch. Boots found Drago’s resolutely early-American furnishings somewhat unnerving. Wing chairs and a three-seat couch with an unnaturally high back, American-eagle lamps with black shades, Washington crossing the Delaware on the wall behind the television. Every single piece, Boots knew, including a factory-frayed Betsy Ross flag, had fallen off the back of an eighteen-wheeler. Another day, another truck, and Frankie would have surrounded himself with chrome, glass and leather.
Boots was trying to decide if he needed to review the entire DVD. Parker’s reason for hiding the disc was obvious enough. What Boots had discovered was a kind of trophy wall – here the head of an ibex, there a gazelle, there an impala. The private journal of a man addicted to sex. Though Boots was a strong believer in the concept of consenting adults, he very much doubted that the women on the DVD had consented to being taped. Still, no matter how despicable Parker’s conduct, he wasn’t around to punish and there was no sense in getting worked up. There were other things to consider, like maybe some of the women in Parker’s videos were married and he was using the videos for blackmail. As a motive for murder, blackmail would definitely suffice.
When Boots heard the front door close, he crossed to the window and watched Frankie and his mom head off to Mount Carmel. Boots usually accompanied his father to mass when he had Sunday off. But not today. Today, Andy was in Astoria, driven from his home by his son’s bullshit.
Boots fetched a spiral notebook and a pen from his room, then returned to his chair and made a few notes about what he’d seen. When he finished, he knew that he had to review the disc. All of the video was shot in the same room through two cameras, positioned on the front and back walls. These cameras had a zoom capacity which could only have been implemented by a third party, and unless Parker was chronically quick on the trigger, the footage had been edited down. These factors, and the near certainty that the video had been shot over a long period of time, led to a simple conclusion: Chris Parker had maintained a private hidey-hole, a place where dreams come true, his own little Shangri-La. Finding that garden of Eden would be priority number one for Boots Littlewood.
Boots dragged his chair to within a few feet of the television, then used the remote to start the DVD player. A moment later, the Volvo glided into view. Boots was hoping to get a plate number off the car. When that didn’t happen, he paused the disc, then concentrated on the setting. Boots was assuming the scene had been shot close to Parker’s hideaway and he wanted to remember the block when he came upon it. Finally, his eye settled on a five-story apartment building near the far corner. Flanked by two-family homes with sunken garages, the building’s white brick and featureless architecture made it the closest thing to a landmark.
Boots restarted the disc, then settled back to endure thirty minutes of zoo and beach before he caught a break. The particular footage he watched had been shot from the passenger seat of a car with the camera focused on Chris Parker. Boots watched for street signs, business signs, anything to place the car at a particular location. He was almost ready to give up when the car slowed to a stop at a red light and Parker gave the camera a playful shake. The lens zoomed out, hesitated briefly, finally pulled back.
Boots reversed the disc, then made three attempts before he managed to freeze the image at just the right moment. The camera was now focused on a small plaque mounted beside the door of a frame house. The plaque was easily read: A. Gubenkian and Son, Attorneys at Law. Better yet, after the light changed, the car drove for less than a mile before turning on to a street with a white apartment building at the end of the block.
Boots leaned back as the scene shifted to the bedroom and Chris Parker’s sexual exploits. He told himself to put aside his distaste, that he’d seen far worse in his time, that reviewing the entire contents of the disc was a job that had to be done and there was nobody else to do it. Plus, the room was dark and the focus poor. Parker had not so much recorded his triumphs as created a way to resurrect them in his memory.
Fortunately, the disc’s many segments were short, most around five minutes, with abrupt transitions as Chris and his partners skipped from position to position. Boots had the DVD set to run on double time, which made the whole thing even jerkier. At times, the mattress bounced up and down like a dinghy in a hurricane.
After a while, Boots realized that some of Parker’s love partners were common prostitutes, which made the whole business even more pathetic. He began to grow bored at that point, his mind wandering away from the action, but then he saw the face of his partner, saw Jill Kelly naked against a stack of pillows, beckoning Chris Parker forward, smiling that enigmatic smile, eyes sparkling with excitement.
In an instant, as if the pieces had only been waiting to jump into place, Boots knew everything. He shut off the DVD player, then stared at the blank screen until he heard the front door open. Mama Drago returning home.
Boots glanced at his watch to find that an hour had gone by, an hour in which he’d asked himself a single question: What am I going to do? An hour in which he’d been unable to form a single coherent response, though he did conclude that he was truly and irrevocably fucked.
he Yankee game was playing on the radio and Boots knew they were behind, though he didn’t know the score. He was parked in a nondescript neighborhood in the Brooklyn community of Bensonhurst, five minutes from the Verranzano Bridge leading to Staten Island. Outside, the sky was rapidly filling with dark-edged clouds, the string of perfect June days about to end, but he was as unaware of the weather as the ball game. Boots was feeling sorry for himself. Talk about your bad breaks. Talk about your dumb decisions. Boots had volunteered to brace Frankie Drago, figuring he was familiar with the bookmaker’s little quirks. How could he predict that Drago would name Vinnie? That Vinnie would be charged with murder? That Crazy Jill Kelly would land, feet first, in the middle of his contented little life? Even thinking about her, he felt himself stiffen.
Boots sighed, then glanced across the street at a baby in a stroller. The girl was staring directly at him, her gaze as intrusive as a slap in the face. Boots looked back at her, wondering what she was trying to decide. She was too young for language, too young to be guided by experience, yet her stare was all-consuming. Maybe she was trying to understand how a grown man could be such a complete asshole.
The self-accusations were still flying when the woman Boots awaited stepped from the white-brick apartment building. She looked in both directions, then walked directly toward him. Boots might have gotten out at that point, but he remained where he was, his mind kicking into high gear. Though he was too preoccupied to know it, his gaze was even more intense than that of the child across the street. And, like the child, words played no part in his calculations. Only a sense – derived from her bent posture and a heavy sweater that hung below her hips, from the way she stared down at the sidewalk, from her slow and hesitant gait – of how to proceed.
Be firm, but gentle, he told himself as he withdrew his shield and opened the door. Be her daddy.
Be her daddy? Not unless her daddy had a scar on his forehead and one eye halfway closed. When Boots stepped into her path, the woman raised a hand to her mouth and began to quiver.
‘Excuse me, Miss.’ He placed his shield directly in front of her face, the better to block her view of his own. ‘My name is Detective Littlewood and I need to speak with you.’
‘Tell me your name.’
‘Madeline Gobard.’ Up close, she wasn’t unattractive, just unhealthy. Her brown hair was lifeless, perhaps even dirty, her eyes dull, the whites yellowed. ‘Did I do somethin’ wrong?’
‘I don’t think so, Madeline. But we need to talk.’ Boots held up the disc, trying to keep it simple. ‘We need to talk about this DVD. And about Chris Parker.’
Madeline pulled the sleeves of her sweater down over her trembling hands. ‘Do I gotta move?’ she asked. ‘I don’t have no place to go.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Eighteen.’ She ran her fingers through her hair, which fell right back over the sides of her face. ‘I didn’t have nowhere to live when I hooked up with Chris. Chris gave me a home.’
Boots nodded agreeably. Like so many of the men and women he dealt with, nature had left Madeline woefully unprepared for survival in the modern world.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘first thing, we’re going to inspect your apartment.’
‘It ain’t really mine.’
‘Then you have nothing to worry about.’ She didn’t resist when Boots took her arm. ‘Why don’t you give me the keys?’
Chris Parker’s living room might have been plucked from a department store showroom. A couch and matching side chairs, end tables supporting green ceramic lamps, a tall bookcase filled with popular novels. A large vase sporting a flock of cranes and a school of leaping fish rested on a cabinet by the window. Across the way, a Bose stereo surrounded a flat-screen TV with a built-in DVD player. Boots stared at the television for a moment. He wanted to put his foot through the screen, but knew, if he did, Madeline was likely to jump out the window.
‘Is this where Parker watched his home movies?’ Boots asked.
Madeline had yet to raise her eyes from the floor. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘And what did you do while he indulged his fantasies?’ The words were out before Boots realized that the last thing he wanted to know was the answer to this question. ‘Scratch that. Let’s see the rest of the apartment.’
The bedroom Madeline led Boots into was dominated by a familiar king-sized bed. Boots looked to the corners of the room, found the pin-holes at the junction of walls and ceiling.
‘Chris was very strict,’ Madeline declared without being prompted. ‘I did whatever he said.’
‘Did you want to?’
‘My mother dumped me out when I was seventeen, so I had to live on the street. That was very hard. People hurt you on the street. Sometimes they hurt you bad.’
‘Why did your mother ask you to leave?’
When she responded after a moment’s consideration, Madeline’s inflection was ruler-flat. ‘Her boyfriend was makin’ a move on me, ya know. Comin’ into the bathroom when I was in the shower. Comin’ into my bedroom when I was gettin’ dressed. She said I was leadin’ him on.’
Boots sighed. He wanted to hate her, but it was impossible. ‘Where did Chris sleep?’
‘He usually didn’t stay over.’
‘Where did he sleep when he did stay?’
‘On the bed.’
‘Sometimes with him, when he wanted me. The rest of the time on the couch.’
Boots nodded, then walked into the second bedroom. Aside from a large table dominated by a computer and various bits of peripheral hardware, the room was empty. Boots traced a pair of cables that ran up the wall, then across the top of the room to a closet. He opened the closet to find it, like the room, almost empty.
‘You have to push,’ Madeline said.
‘On the back.’
Madeline walked into the closet and gave the wall a shove. A concealed door popped open to reveal an extremely narrow space. Parker’s carpentry skills were much in evidence here.
Boots stepped into the small space behind the closet. He had to duck to get through the door, then turn sideways to fit into the makeshift room. To his right, a pair of small monitors, each with its own controller, rested on a shelf. There was no ventilation in the room, and no place to sit down.
‘Whose name is on the lease?’ Boots asked.