Authors: Michael Marshall
“You said you got Jessica into this,” Nina said. “How did that come about?”
“I met a girl at a party, like eighteen months ago. She was doing it already and she gave me email for this guy who sets up sites. This dude calls himself the Webdaddy, and never mind how fucking creepy
is, but basically he knows the science bit. You email him a picture; he emails you back and you talk some about ‘parameters’ and ‘boundaries’—like how naked you will go, what else you’ll do, if you got a boyfriend and if you’d do things together, if he’s on for it, stuff like that. If Webdaddy likes you, he mails you a CD with some shit on how to set it up. You get yourself cable internet and go over to Circuit City and buy a webcam for fifty bucks. Everything else, he takes care of it. Your site, your billing, the works. End of the month, a check arrives. Simple as that.”
“Do you have a street address for this person?”
Jean shook her head. “Email, is all. Jessica was the same. He’s right there on the web—why you going to meet him in real life?”
“But what if there was a problem with the system, or a check didn’t arrive?”
“You email him. This guy
on the web, lady. You mail him, there’s a reply before the Send button has bounced back up.”
You set your webcam in position—basically a cheap, low-resolution digital camera. A USB cable went from that into the back of your computer. Software there grabbed a picture of what was visible through the camera’s lens and automatically uploaded it, via cable internet, onto a server on the web. A little while later that picture was replaced by a new one, and so on and on. Meanwhile, out there in the universe of men with time on their hands, the user had your web page loaded in his browser, the picture right there in the center. A piece of code caused the page to refresh the picture regularly, uploading the new image from your webcam to replace the old one on the screen. An interaction of computers, software, and telecoms that would have been science fiction twenty years ago; years of research and millions of dollars, and
—people in Kansas, Cardiff, and Antwerp can desultorily jack off while you vacuum nekkid in L.A. Weird world? It surely is. But worth a more-than-trickle of two hundred bucks a week, and Jean didn’t have to have sex with strangers or go shake her stuff with scary-ass strippers. Jean was all for it. Jean thought it was progress that worked for womankind.
“Jessica would have been making a few hundred a week from doing this?”
The girl shook her head. “Nothing like. She’d only been doing it a few months, didn’t have many subscribers. She didn’t go out of her way to entertain, you know what I’m saying. Most the girls
She’d take her shirt off sometimes—you got to or you get dropped—but she didn’t like doing it. And she didn’t do no sexy stuff either, I don’t think. She was going to stop doing it at all, she said, going to get back into writing songs. She kept it really secret. Nobody here knew about it. Only me.”
“The men who subscribe to your site—how much contact do you have with them?”
“Just emails,” Jean said.
“They have no way of finding your address?”
“Not unless you give it to them.”
“Did Jessica give any indication she might have? That she was in special contact with any of her subscribers?”
“Like I said, she wasn’t really into it at all. She needed money. But she was a proud person. She wasn’t going to do nothing she was going to feel bad about. Leastways, not unless she was real drunk.”
“You guys were pretty drunk the other night, right?”
Jean gave a lopsided grin. “Could be.”
“And you left Jessica when you went to party.”
“I met some guys. When I left, she was still here.”
“The barman said he later saw her sitting with a man. You know anything about that?”
“Like I said, I was gone.”
“She didn’t have anyone in particular that you know about?”
“Not right now.”
“Any in the recent past?”
“She had boyfriends. But they were just guys.”
Nina sat in silence for a moment, and looked at the woman opposite. After the initial news of Jessica’s death, she’d bounced back fast. Jessica was evidently an acceptable loss. Nina thought again about the speed of A to Z, and Z to Jane Doe. It was hard not to when confronted with a girl who was twenty-three and mostly having a good time and thought it would always be so, that self-belief and attitude would work like a magic cloak.
She said, “You realize you’re not invincible, don’t you?”
Jean looked right back at her, cocked her head, and smiled coldly. “You neither, girl.”
OON AS YOU
called we got one of the techs into the machine. We have the physical location of the web server her site was on and we’ve also got an at for this Webdaddy person.”
“Geek slang for ‘email address,’ apparently.”
“You live and learn.”
They were standing on the balcony outside Jessica’s apartment, which was still being taken apart. Monroe was sipping from a cup of ice water, but he looked unusually hot and crumpled.
“Nothing of interest in there?”
“Not aside from the computer. She kept the place pretty clean. There’s not a lot of prints. LAPD will run what we have, but . . . There’s some notebooks with scribbles and what looks like very bad poetry. No numbers or names yet. Forensics are in the bedroom now, but there’s no sign she was killed here.”
“How soon before someone knocks on Webdaddy’s door?”
“Not long. Email address was no direct help but we have a lead out of the registration information for the virtual server. Jessica and Jean were two of fifteen girls—here in town, two in San Diego, one in San Francisco, some out in the sticks. Barstow, for Christ’s sake. The overall domain was called ‘
“If it’s here in L.A. then we’ll go along,” he said. “If not, it’ll be whoever’s local. Speed is going to be important.”
“So what do you want me to do now?”
Monroe shook his head. “The guy you put on the barman said he just went home, smoked drugs while staring at the wall for three hours, and is now back heroically serving beer. From your impression plus what we’re waiting for, I don’t make him for it anyway. You could save me a phone call and bug Quantico over the note profile, but other than that . . . have you eaten today?”
“I would go do that. Somewhere close. I hear anything, you’ll know.”
Forty minutes later and halfway through a salad, she got the call. Swearing—it was a good Cobb, and her first meal in over twenty-four hours—she dropped money on the table and ran to the street.
By the time she was halfway to Fourth Street in Venice, her phone rang again. She pulled over on the boulevard and listened to a Monroe whose voice was flat.
“It’s not him,” he said. “His real name is Robert Klennert, and he’s fifty-eight years old and significantly obese. He’s basically a fetid sack of shit who sets up live porno sites. He knows tech, which is good for the hard disk, but I have a hard time buying him for being able to trap and kill a young woman—or, frankly, a woman of any age or level of fitness whatsoever—not to mention he’s way off the witness descriptions. File under ‘pervert’ and throw away.”
“So we’re back to the ‘one of millions’ scenario.”
“A little better than that, maybe. LAPD have Klennert’s records. Anyone who subscribed to or even guest-visited his sites will be logged. His computers are being carried past me as I speak.”
“On what charge?”
“None. He’s cooperating fully. Weirdly, he appears to have genuinely paternal feelings toward ‘his girls.’ Which is either a big-time bluff, or . . .” Monroe fell silent for a moment. “Or more likely not. It isn’t him. Meanwhile it looks as though the music on the disk is going to give us absolutely zilch. I can feel this drifting, Nina. Unless something happens, I think we may have lost it to the grunts.”
Right, Nina thought. Or you sense a slog through a bewilderingly vast virtual trail that you don’t understand, and you don’t see how it’s generating plot for
The Charles Monroe Story
She said good night. On the other side of the street a car pulled into a driveway and a small family climbed out. Husband, wife, a little girl. The adults appeared to be having an argument.
Nina wound her window down a couple inches and listened, and heard the little girl laugh. The adults cracked up soon after.
Nina realized the altercation had been fake, an impersonation of whomever the family had just visited. She thought for a moment of her own childhood, which in
general had been straightforward but had also featured enough genuine male anger that she doubted she could ever have laughed as that little girl across the street just had.
She watched the child as she followed her parents up the path, thinking that if the girl was greeted by some cute little puppy, bounding out of the house, tied with a ribbon, she might have to go thump the lucky little princess herself.
No dog. The girl lived to laugh another day.
Nina started up the car and drove toward the ocean.
GIRL WAS QUIET
D BEEN WALL
to wall—nice to meet you, hey great place, ooh that’s nice, oh yeah. Now, afterward, she had nothing to add. Maybe she thought that was the way he wanted it (and she was right, for the moment); perhaps she believed it was all over, bar the tipping (which case, she was wrong). Could be she’d had an embolism and was committing all her energy to not keeling over. Pete Ferillo didn’t know. Pete didn’t care. Not even a little bit. That was what was so great about it. Pete believed in compartmentalization. Not having to know. Not having to give a blue-eyed shit.
He reached to the table and got a cigar from his case. Ran it under his nose. No reason to, he knew what it would smell like, but he was feeling sensual. It smelled good.
He clipped the end and stuck it in his mouth. Lit it with a match—recently someone he respected had told him that was the best way, so that’s how he did it now—and puffed it into life. Thick smoke barfed out of the end. He watched it go.
He was naked, lounging in an armchair with his legs stuck out straight in front. He never sat like that at home. He would be too aware of his gut, the dimpled thighs, the harsh contrasts between his sallow crotch, perma-tan
forearms, and the blotched and scarred alabaster of the rest. Here, this afternoon, he didn’t have to care about any of this. Didn’t have to feel it marked him down as aging or unfit or undesirable. Didn’t have to listen to its dismal messages about the passage of time or what it said about the likely state of his insides: didn’t have to try to use this pudding mess to jump-start a wife who said she loved him but who used her endless sessions on the step machine as a taunt. Yes, Maria looked better than he did. A lot better. So what? Hitting the gym and the malls was all she had to do. If that was
“job,” he’d look better too. He loved her, of course. He’d loved her twenty-five years. You learn to smile when you’re mad, and stay your hand, and everyone gets along most of the time.
The apartment belonged to a very important customer at the Dining Room, someone with whom Pete had done business for quite some time and in other places. He was also a man who came to dine sometimes with a lady who wasn’t the woman to whom he was married. Pete was discreet, could keep in his head who the guy had come with the last time. A friendly deal was struck, man-to-man, and now he had his own keys. A maid came in every day to keep the place spick-and-span and the fridge full of mineral water. The apartment was simple but well furnished. Bedroom, balcony, bathroom, living area. This last was a good-sized room, a section of it partitioned off with a little table for dining, also designed so you couldn’t see the door when you sat in the main area of the suite, so the place felt bigger. Clever. The balcony was good for standing on in a robe, savoring late afternoon fun times while the proles of the city toiled and honked below. Maybe later.
For now, the chair was working for him. He watched the girl as she moved around at the counter in the bijou little kitchen area. He didn’t know her last name. Didn’t know her favorite color, movie star, or show. Didn’t know the names of her previous boyfriends, hadn’t heard about high old times with them or anyone else. He knew about her on a want-to-know basis only. He knew she was tall and tan and called Cherri, and he loved the fakeness of her name,
the “And now . . . on stage 4”-ness of it. Her hair was every shade of blond from strawberry to platinum and fell straight and thick down between her shoulder blades. She was slim (
slim, not watch-every-mouthful turkey neck scrawny) and she had big tits and a pretty face and a cute little tattoo of a black rose on her lower back, actually pretty well done. Pete didn’t like tattoos, in general. Not on normal women. But on girls like this, he liked them. It was appropriate. It said here was a woman who was aware of her body; who owned it, used it as a resource. Pete knew of women, the girlfriends or wives of friends, who had tattoos done a year or two back, when everyone was doing it. Maria wanted one, can you believe it. Fucking cat, or something. He told her no, and he was right. Tattoos made you look like a stripper—which was fine if you
a stripper, but stupid otherwise. It was like pole-dancing, for Christ’s sake. Couple years back there had been this fad in the local yuppie class for the wife to “learn” pole-dancing, or at least take one blushing class with some smug aerobics Amazon who knew she was on to a good thing. The stupidity of it made Pete’s head want to explode. There’s no point in wives doing pole-dancing. The whole fucking
of pole dancers is
they’re not your fucking wife.
Any woman who gets into such a thing thinking she’s demonstrating some deep inner sexiness that sets her apart from the vanilla wives is more likely expressing the fact that (a) she takes herself too seriously, which is very unsexy—take note, Demi fucking Moore, (b) she thinks she’s pretty hot for her age, which is boring even if it’s true, or (c) she’s not too happy at home and would like to be having sex with somebody else. Anybody else, probably. Case in point was Pete’s former friend Johnny, guy who did his accounts for eleven years. Johnny was doing great, had the place in Incline Village, the works. Then Johnny’s wife went to one of these classes. Said it was the new boxercise. Did it at home for him. First time it worked, kind of, then after that it’s—right, but you’re still my wife, and really, you could lose a few pounds. Four months later she was fucking one of the pimple-faced slackers who worked in the personal
empowerment section of the Barnes & Noble. Somehow this turned out to be Johnny’s fault, so good-bye marriage, hello child support. Soon he was spending his afternoons watching real dancers, ones with scars and children, and drinking way too much. Pete moved his business to another company. So did everyone else.
Pete took another big puff on the Don Thomas, enjoying the way the smoke fugged up the room. It wasn’t Cuban, not even a particularly expensive Honduran—he didn’t throw money away, never had—but it tasted good. Been three years since he’d been allowed to smoke indoors at home. It wasn’t impossible, not like Maria set up snipers in the living room to bring him down, but there’d be the Disappointment. The silent deterrent, the weapon of mute destruction: the look that said that, despite all her dreams, life had turned out much as she’d feared. For a while you thought avoiding the Disappointment was worth it, that you didn’t mind. Then one day you realized you did, but you smoked outside anyway because who needs that kind of shit every night. You smoked outside, and you minded. Quietly.
Cherri finished cutting a slice of citrus—there were fresh lemons and limes in the little fridge, how’s that for a nice touch—and dropped it into her drink. Gin and tonic. Pete could smell it. His nose was very good. Had to be, in the food trade. Maria drank a nice glass of Chardonnay, always had. The girl sensed him watching, turned around. “You want something?”
Pete laughed. “Oh yeah,” he said heartily. “But give me a minute here. I’m still breathing hard.”
She smiled professionally. “Not that. I meant to drink.”
“Oh. Vodka,” he said. “Neat. No fruit. Lots of ice.” He winked. “And there will be a second time, trust me.”
“Can’t wait,” she said, and turned back to fix his drink.
Pete smiled. He heard a clank from out in the corridor—some job donkey getting back from work. He took another puff off the cigar, settled back. Savored sitting there. Loved it, the full naked ugliness of it. Out there some spent management consultant with Tums breath,
some exhausted attorney struggling home with an armful of files. And him, in here, balls in the wind and a big drink on the way.
Sarcasm? Almost certainly. Didn’t matter. She looked forward to it, or not. She found his body bearable, or not. She liked doing what he asked—nothing weird, he didn’t need weird, just the usual from someone new and young and beautiful was enough—or not. None of it mattered. She had four hundred dollars of his already. At the end he’d most likely make it up to five. Maria could drop that much on some Manolos without blinking; and did, regularly. Meanwhile, that was all it took to get someone like Cherri to give it all up.
As she clattered about, pouring Stoly Black into a glass, then adding the ice, Pete considered booking her again. Though she was cute—really
cute, when she squatted to pick up a spilled cube, looking briefly unpoised—he knew he wouldn’t. Having a new one each time was the point. If he went with her again, there’d be the question of whether it was better or worse than last time. She’d use his name, know what he wanted to drink, and familiarity would start to set in. He’d have time to notice things about her, to wonder why she didn’t have the sense to put the ice in the glass first, or how she hadn’t learned that gin went better with lime. And now, this afternoon, when they had sex again and this time he got only semihard and had to finish it off himself, that’d be just the way it was. He knew it would be that way, but she didn’t. Next time, she would. Not knowing was the big thing. Not knowing, not having to care.
She was out of sight now, making some god-awful noise with the icebox. What the fuck for? The glass was sitting there on the counter, full right to the top. Any more and it would be spilling out the . . . Hey. Ice cube around the nipple. That was a thought.
He leaned across to the ashtray to rest out the cigar. Save it for later. “Babe,” he said, indulgently, “the ice is fine. You can bring it on through.” He turned back.
There was a man standing in the room.
“Who the fuck are you?” Pete said.
The man’s smile said he had no intention of answering. Pete knew straightaway that this wasn’t some other guy with a key to the fuck pad. The girl stepped into sight behind him, putting on her shirt. “I’m done, right?” she asked the man.
He didn’t answer her either. Without taking his eyes off Pete he reached to the side and grabbed her by the hair. Before she’d had time to squawk he’d smacked her face into the partition wall. She grunted, went straight down.
Pete put it together quickly. The clank in the hallway; the rattling of the ice bucket to disguise her opening the door. He didn’t know who the guy was, or what he wanted, but he could see now that he had a knife. It was a big knife, could be a cook’s knife. Except it didn’t look at all clean.
The room seemed cold suddenly, flat and full of stale smoke. The man stepped over the girl, glancing away for a moment. Pete dimly realized this was a chance, that he had to get up, move, get out of there. He couldn’t seem to do any of these things. The man was only a little over average height, and trim. Pete outweighed him by many pounds and had long-term experience in smacking people’s heads; he just wasn’t convinced either would make a difference. He felt fat, naked, and in no position to change anything about the world.
“You’re Peter Ferillo, is that correct?” the man said, picking something up off the counter. When it glinted Pete saw it was the apartment’s bottle opener, and when the man turned his face to him, all thoughts of movement seemed to fade away.
“Look,” Pete said, “I don’t know what the fuck’s happening here. But I got money. With me. If that’s what this is about, it’s okay.”
“It’s not about money,” the man said. His voice was soft, almost friendly. His eyes were not.
“Then what?” Pete said. “What have I done?”
“This isn’t about you,” the man said.
“Who the hell are you?”
“My name . . . is the Upright Man.”
The man watched Pete’s face for a reaction. He rolled the bottle opener in his hand absentmindedly, then nodded—as if, with sudden inspiration, he’d thought of a use for it. Pete didn’t know what that might be.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, he found out.