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The Final Portrait

Grant Tracey

—1—

“He stole my signature—”

Dalton Frieze bit the back of his hand and moved from the light cutting through my Venetian blinds. He sat sideways in a hardback chair, backlit by the frosted glass door. He wore a cream-colored shirt and red sweater vest. Shadows of a pocket protector poked through the vest’s worn fabric. He looked like an accountant. One wanted for murder.

“Signature?”

His gray hair had the frizz of an overgrown lawn. “My style, my artistic voice.” Frieze was a photographer, specializing in pastel-colored compositions: kids playing road hockey at the end of a block; folks eating hot chestnuts by a street vendor in front of the ROM; lovers holding hands as they strolled a stretch of the Prince Edward Viaduct.

“Why come to me?”

“I liked your name—”

That cracked me up. My grandfather was an Ashkenazi Jew from Russia and our original surname was Rabinovich. It was changed to Fuller upon arrival at Ellis Island. I guess that sounded more like Plymouth Rock. Anyway, Zeyda and his family later emigrated to Toronto.

“No, no, I’m teasing—Tom Frieze’s my cousin—the cult case?”

“Oh, yeah—” The newspapers tagged that yarn the Neon Kiss caper. Tom had helped me figure out the psychology of the killer—

“He recommended you—”

Light through my window now danced with bits of drifting dust.

“Look, I didn’t kill Johnson P. MacDonald—” Frieze’s shoulders tented with sadness. There were three rings on the fingers of his left hand. One was from the U of T, Trinity College, class of 1951.

A day ago, MacDonald’s remains, chunks of bone and spits of blood, were found in his Bay Street apartment. The lab boys figured a bomb was triggered when he opened the door to his bedroom.

“Because of the fracas at Kim Stabulas’s Art Gallery, you’re the guy they want—”

“That’s the local press’ opinion.” His words were hot rivets, bouncing with tympanic rhythm. He nervously lit a cigarette, eyes simmering with the wet glow of an icy blacktop.

Three days before JP checked out, Frieze and the decedent had a fist fight at the gallery. The Moon and the Stars was exhibiting MacDonald’s work, following a glowing review in The Toronto Telegram. The reviewer, Mitchell Sennwald, felt MacDonald’s photographs were full of a poet’s chiasmus-like eye (whatever the fuck that means), and they placed Toronto at the precipice of a 20th Century’s kaleidoscopic gaze, bridging the gap between retro whiteness and our “multicultural flags of the future.” Sennwald might have been putting us all on. He and his Van Dyke beard often existed in spaces of irony—

The police didn’t see things through a kaleidoscope at all. For them, Frieze was an angry, jealous nut, who couldn’t handle MacDonald’s “unwarranted attention.” According to their report, Frieze called MacDonald a punk-ass, and then tore at the fabric of the newbie’s flannel suit as bits of cheese, splashes of wine, and dots of blood marked the floor.

“I didn’t kill him.” Frieze’s eyes darkened, losing their glaze. A crowd of photojournalists captured the fight on film and the fracas became a page three story.

After Johnson’s murder the page three story got bumped to page one.

Frieze coughed through his cigarette, and took a short drag. “And all the goddamn photographers that were there because of—”

Kathryn Daoust, I said.

“Right,  his benefactress. High society dame. Easter Seals spokeswoman. And if you believe the story that was leaked to the press, she was also JP’s lover—”

He looked beyond the Venetian blinds to the blue stillness of Yonge Street. “The police got Kathryn in their crosshairs too. Reporters are clustered around her house, waiting for some kind of statement of guilt. Hell hath no fury like a woman—”

That sounds like a cheap paperback, I muttered.

“Okay, okay, I’m no Nobel-Prize winning author—” He held up a thin hand with apologetic surrender. “Look, I got a place in Richmond Hill, to hide. Cottage country, you know? But I don’t want to be in hiding for long. I’m an artist, I gotta get out and create—”

He tossed a 6 X 9 envelope across my desk. The seal was crinkled and one of the fastener tabs had broken off. “Five hundred—” It was all he had. “Find the real killer—”

“Tell me more about Sennwald and this puffed-up review—”

“There’s not much to tell.” Dalton separated out four crowded 4×5’s in the envelope and took one last angry pull off his cigarette, before crushing it into a twisted “L.” The photographs featured a set of kids playing road hockey and two still lifes of a four-year old sitting for a portrait under an umbrella of bones, a T-Rex. “Two are mine, two are his. Can you tell the difference?”

I pushed my choices toward the center of the desk blotter. “I like these ones better—”

“Why?”

“Something about the exposure—”

Very good. He smiled briefly. Post flashing, he said. You expose the negative to varying degrees of light before you develop it. That creates the pastels, the bleed, the look of the retro and the new. “Chiasmus my ass. Johnson has no feel for blending the present with the past, the past with the present. None. He’s trying it here. but he can’t pull it off—His lighting looks like a boy playing not with pastels but a box of crayons.”

“Yours are better—”

“Thank-you.”

So, is it true, he was a student of yours?

“Oh, you read that, huh?” His thin smile was now a jagged tear. There was a small moth-eaten hole along the collar of his sweater vest. “Yes, for nine months he interned at my studio—” He took a short, quick drag. I’ll check in with you, once a day, around five, he promised.

I told him to call from a public phone, not a private one—

He lit a second cigarette, and blew smoke toward a stilled ceiling fan.

“Does Daoust have something over Sennwald or vice versa?” I rubbed at the corners of my mouth.

The light returned to his eyes. “That’s an angle—” He snapped his fingers. The gesture seemed a little forced. “That is an angle. Find all of her past lovers, and there were many, believe me—” He frowned. “I bet one of those men will lead to murder.”

“Was Sennwald a lover?”

“That swish?” He laughed. “Sennwald owed Kathryn a favor—he was in a gambling jam, years ago, and she paid off his markers—”

I tapped my lower lip and pushed back my porkpie. “So he wrote the review as a favor.”

“I’m sure he got some change for the favor too—”

“Daoust, could she have—?”

“Killed MacDonald? I mean, anyone’s capable of murder, but—no, she was crazy about the fucker. She’d go to any lengths to promote him—” He leaned forward, two more quick puffs off his cig.

The edges of my mouth were dry. “Daoust’s husband—?”

“A fashion designer—got a new line of affordable dresses debuting with Eatons.”

Could he have killed Johnson P?

“Yes, he could have. I mean, he calls his wife his angel, my angel, my angel, but they’ve been sleeping in separate beds for quite some time.” Matter of fact, he’s barely been home since this story broke—

“Oh, where is he?”

The Albany Club on King Street.

I made a face. United Empire Loyalist types. Arch conservatives.

“Hey, man. It’s not like he’s a nazi—”

“That’s debatable—”

That cracked him up.

“Call me each night at five—”

He said he would.

He never did.

—2—

Kim Stabulas’s apartment was as I remembered it: white brick walls lit with soft diffuse lighting that gave off a warm glow; lamp poles that ran from the floor to the ceiling with fixtures that resembled flying saucers; a fireplace with ivory bric-a-brac along its mantle and a TV mounted on the wall above it. Her apartment doubled as a more private office away from her office at The Moon and the Stars.

Kim’s dark hair fell to her shoulders like lace curtains. Her white dress was off the shoulder and stenciled with enough peace signs to host a Haight-Ashbury music festival. Black Go-Go boots rode up to her knees. She smoked a king-size cigarette, no filter. I was on a chair across from her, my porkpie hat high on my thigh.

It was the least I could do.

Athol Leighton was there too with his trademark Oliver Hardy bowler. His hands were in his pockets and twin .45s pushed at the lapels of a white-linen suit. He was muscle for Babe Migano, Kim’s husband. Following the killing of JP MacDonald, and my talk with Frieze yesterday and his failure to check in, Babe worried for the safety of his wife. So for now his bodyguard was on permanent loan. The gunsel adjusted his hat so that it rested in a taut perpendicular T. His eyes floated about the room, looking but never locking in. The skin around his eyes was stretched Saran Wrap. He was like a young Jack Palance.

“You like having this mug around?” I gestured in the direction of Athol Leighton.

“Babe insisted—”

“Yeah, but is he any fun—the guy’s a mope—”

Athol made a face—

“Yeah, I like having him around—I don’t have to tell you, I’m scared—”

Athol belched—“Scared? Of Frieze? Fuck him—” He belched again.

“Bad clams? Can I recommend the salad next time?”

“Stow it, shamus.” Athol leaned forward ever so slightly. “You’re no stand-up comic—”

“And you’re packing too much heat. Twin .45s. What do you know that I don’t—how much trouble is Kim in?”

His eyes floated to the window that overlooked Nathan Phillips Square, then away from the outside world to the one in here, the couch, and the lamp with its flying saucers. How much he could let me in on, his eyes asked Kim.

Dalton’s gone off the rails, she said, and “I’m on his hit list, along with Mitchell Sennwald and Kathryn Daoust. We’re the ones behind the exhibit—”

I pressed my lips together. “Funny, Dalton hired me to find the real killer—and now he appears to be missing—”

“Find the real killer, my ass—” Dalton doesn’t give a good goddamn about Johnson being dead, he’s delighted, Athol said. “He’s not missing—he’s hiding. There’s a difference—”

“We saw the fight at the gallery—” Kim held her arms fiercely, forcing the dress’s fabric to push the peace signs into a crowd of misshapen noses. “Frieze obviously wanted JP dead—” The fight? He elbowed Johnson’s head; chipped Johnson’s teeth with ring-fingered punches;  and placed him in a choke hold that just might have killed him if Athol didn’t intervene—

“Tell me about Mitchell Sennwald.” I shoved my hands deep into my chinos. “He brought Johnson P to your attention, right?”

She looked distracted, the lines on her hands raised. “Yes. And Johnson’s work is good.” She tapped a long ash off her cigarette into an ivory ashtray shaped like a polar bear.

“What’s so good about it? It’s flat. Now, Frieze’s photography has desperation, an air of unrequited love—” I reached into my leather jacket and slid four photographs across the low-slung coffee table. “Who’s whose?”

She looked them over. “I can’t tell—” She bit her lower lip.

I pointed out the strengths of Dalton’s lighting and the more mature mood of his post-flashing.

“I can see it,” Kim admitted. “But is that any reason to kill Johnson?”

“I don’t think Frieze did it—”

“It’s not just about the art.” The bowler atop Athol’s head shook slightly as he smiled, the twist wandering away from the corners of his mouth with the same careless abandon of his floating gaze, parking here, there, but failing to find a fixed point. “Okay, a few years back, Frieze is shooting a series on people and city parks and for four days he’s at Saint James Park, by the cathedral you know? It’s winter. And he shoots seven, eight, nine rolls of film, folks holding hands, necking, whatever—” The smile returned and then floated to another driftless area. “And Frieze in the dark room discovers this certain woman and this certain fella showing up again and again and again. They’re all over each other. French kissing, hands inside parkas, hands held tight. Well, It’s Kathryn Daoust and Mitchell Sennwald.”

“Sennwald. Dalton told me that Sennwald bats for the other team.” He also had called him a “swish.”

“Dalton’s full of shit—” The tight lines at the corners of Athol’s eyes were sharp fish hooks. “You can’t believe a word that fella says—”

Kim nodded with firm agreement.

“So, Frieze gets the bright idea of blackmailing the high class dame and the art critic. He threatens to tell all, to the press, to her husband, unless, and here’s the catch, Sennwald promotes Frieze’s work, tells the world he’s a great artist. Now, Sennwald, being the nasty sonofabitch he is, discovers Johnson is Sennwald’s former student and promotes the student instead of the teacher.  To get even, dig?”

“I dig—”

Kim gestured with the graceful arm movement of a figure skater.  “And the face, the look on his face when he attacked JP at the gallery. Christ, it was—”

A third face, I said, a face we don’t even know we have until it surprises us, letting loose all the hounds of hell buried deep within us.

I had believed that Frieze wanted me to find Daoust’s latest lover. That that would somehow solve everything, the motive for the killings, a crazed new lover wanting to destroy all vestiges of a woman’s past loves. But what if Frieze didn’t hire me to find the real killer, but wanted me to find one more person for him to get even with, one more person for him to target, one more person to sit for a final portrait?

—3—

Another day passed without Dalton bothering to call so I decided to check in on his home, scrounge around, and see if there was something that would tie this mess together.

He lived out in Scarborough, near the Bluffs, a small Cape Cod affair: triangular roof, small front porch, and a dormer window that you had to bend your head to look out of. The front door was locked and I got in by using my ESSO card.

The place smelled of mildew and mold, wool sweaters and food left to sit too long on countertops. Walnut furniture and small Chinese rugs filled the dining and living rooms, and none of his photographs were displayed anywhere. That seemed odd to me. Surprising even, given his ego. The bookshelf was crowded with a mix of Harvard Classics and Gold Medal paperbacks. There were a few gaps between the books, like shadows between teeth. A drawer by the phone was crammed with receipts and odds and ends, everything from flat-head screwdrivers to “D” batteries to scraps of yellow-lined paper with appointment reminders.

I sat at the kitchen table of rose-colored Formica, took off my hat and pawed at my buzzcut. A hall mirror was cut in the shape of a bottle cap. There was nothing of note in the cabinets, under the sink, or in the lazy Susan. I rubbed at the edges of my mouth. I don’t know why, but I opened the fridge. The orange juice was topped with spider-web spores and several slices of Kraft cheese had hardened because of an exposed edge to the wax packaging. The rye bread was well past its sell by date, and a jar of mustard looked like it was purchased in 1955. In back of the fridge were boxes of Kodak film, ISO 200. I’d read  in Popular Photography that it was a good idea to store film in a fridge to keep it fresh. I’d never done that but—there were nine or ten boxes of film there. Several were never opened. Four were. Of the four, three didn’t feel right.

I’m an avid photographer; during my NHL playing days I did glamor shots, portrait sittings of wives and girlfriends for the fellas. And I even got in trouble for photographing one gal’s indiscretions. Her husband had hired me to see if she were having an affair with another hockey player (she was), and when the story broke in The Toronto Telegram the league banished me to the AHL for “moral turpitude.”

Anyway, those three rolls of film were weighted differently, and none had any exposed leader dripping from them. 

I pocketed them and called Toronto’s Top Cop, Sal Lambertino.

SAL PLAYED with the fringes of his Hemingway beard and balled me out for breaking and entering.

They had an APB on Dalton Frieze. He’s in Richmond Hill, I said. No idea where.

“Hmm,” Sal grunted. “He your client?”

“Yeah—”

“You covering for this fuck?”

“No, he may be my client, but—”

“You can’t trust him—’’

“Yeah. I guess.”

Almost three days and he hadn’t checked in—

“You goddamn right, you guess. He’s nuts—” We were in Sal’s office, the lean track lights burning brightly, making the cinder block walls appear coated in coarse wax. On his desk was a photograph of his wife and two kids. On the desk’s blotter were enough fanned files to call in a fire marshall. “You’re not going to believe what the lab boys found in those two film rolls, Superstar.”

I held back one of the three rolls, for show and tell, to get raw reactions from witnesses I confronted—

“My boys should have looked in the fridge.” He leaned back, one hand in a pocket of his Sloan Wilson grays. He tossed a sheet of paper with the specs from the lab. “It’s some kind of radio controlled bomb that works on a megacycles frequency that could only be triggered with a device set to the same signal, probably a special camera. The signal has a range of about one-hundred feet. Think of the rolls of film as blasting caps and the camera as a detonator.”

“No one found this special camera—?”

“No—” He lit an Export and hitched up his gray flannel pants. “Your boy, Frieze. It’s his, no doubt. I can’t believe you’re working for that fuck—”

But what if someone planted the film in Frieze’s home to make him look like—

Sal wasn’t having it. “He’s not the victim—”

I wanted to meet with Sal’s lab boys, find if there were a way to block the deadly radio signals from detonating the film bombs. Christ, I didn’t want to be walking around with a grenade in my pocket that had lost its pin—

“We got boxes of Frieze’s junk impounded in our basement, but no such weapon—” He took a long drag. “Johnson P was blown to bits and I’m worried about the rest—” Sal had called the gallery to warn Kim but she was out on an errand. Kathryn wasn’t answering her phone. Her husband had taken up temporary digs down at the Albany Club. Sal had convinced him to relocate to the Edison Hotel on Yonge Street. A suite of rooms. Police protection. Daoust was now there. Sennwald was on assignment. An independent film festival in the St. Clair and Yonge neighborhood—

Sal’s eyes narrowed. “When Johnson got it, the killer had to be close by, like out in the hall or in a nearby room—”

And that’s when I thought of those photographers outside of Kathryn Daoust’s house—

KATHRYN DAOUST didn’t want to see me or Sal.

It was several hours later, 9:30 p.m. or so.

“What’s with you guys, you cops, you think whenever you want to talk, I’m available, I’m busy. We don’t do things on your time—we do things on my time.”

I told her she was running out of time.

Sal flashed his tin, pushed back his hat and said, listen, listen good. His firm voice gave Kathryn no wriggle room. Her lips pinched together at the news of radio signals and—

Crowded behind her shoulders were Kim and Athol. Her face was creased with worry. Athol’s face was full of discomfort as he suppressed yet another belch. He popped a Tums. Then a second—

I pointed at him. “Let me guess, Fish ’n’ Chips. Too much tartar sauce.”

“Enough with the vaudeville act, Mr. Fuller—” Kathryn was a big, impatient woman, used to getting her way. Her body filled her cashmere sweater with thick, contoured curves. She had dark eyes and in the house’s cozy low-level lighting her hair trembled with the sweep of ocean brushed beach sand.

I told her about a special camera, probably locked into a certain F-stop and megacycles and bombs, rolls of film that could be planted all over her house. Radio signals of death.

“That sounds like something out of a comic book,” she said.

Sal leaned forward, his breath full of Clorets. “You all need to get the hell out of here for a few days until we get Frieze—” The Edison. Police protection.

Rock bands play there. That place is a dive, Kathryn said, her face a twisted ascot of disgust.

“It’s not the kind of place Frieze would expect to find you, ma’am.” Sal was full of polite contrition.

I pointed beyond the Bay window. She followed the line of my finger to the shadows of photographers and a white truck with a rotating antenna that looked like a manta ray. The killer could be out there right now, I said. Natural camouflage. All those men hiding behind bulky cameras.

“Huh?” Athol rubbed at a grassy patch of stubble along his jawline. His Oliver Hardy bowler looked too tight, uncomfortable on his head. “Slow down. And tell the story again—”

“We don’t have time.” Sal pointed with his gray hat. Grab your stuff and let’s get—

Along the hallway hung a series of inner city photographs, full of saturated colors, people  playing chess by Sam the Record Man; people enjoying 5-pin bowling; people standing in line, fighting the cold wind, waiting to be seated inside of Bassel’s.

“You know the size of an SLR film roll—they can be buried all over this place like arrowheads in a park playground—”

“What makes you think Frieze had access to my house—” Kathryn tapped at her chin—

“Because he got into Johnson’s house, planted film rolls there—” Sal said.

I glanced over at the photos—“Frieze’s?”

“My husband’s actually—”

Tony Daoust was an amateur photographer, a pretty good one too. His work displayed a fine sense of using spatial thirds.  “Here, catch—”

I tossed her the film roll I was carrying—

She caught it—no bobble. “It’s heavier than it should be—”

“It’s a bomb—”

She shuddered.

Sal wondered what the fuck I was doing with evidence.

I gave you two of three rolls—and nothing to worry about—the coating I painted on the plastic container blocks radio signals. “We’re safe.” I returned the roll to its proper place. I had made my point with Kathryn.

She was still shaking from holding onto a possible blasting cap. Her reaction told me she wasn’t the one who planted it in MacDonald’s apartment.

She was also now telling me that she was ready for the Edison, hurriedly packing clothes into a large Gladstone bag. “Can you believe my husband took lessons from the guy?” Frieze was blackmailing me, as you no doubt know, blackmailing me for an indiscretion, she huffed.

“Yeah, I’ve seen the city park series.”

Her eyes darkened. He got those photos, she said, because he was stalking me. Stalking, Mr. Fuller. I had broken off my affair with Frieze a few months before, and he took it badly.

Athol smiled with a half-grin and absently reached for her hand, before stopping himself, but I saw it. Damn. He was her new boy, the fella Frieze was trying to locate, the fella he wanted to pin everything on—

A faint tremor flickered along her lower lip. She folded a plaid skirt and a blue blouse into the bag. “What about my husband, have you notified him—”

We have, Sal said. He’s already at the Edison.

“And Mitchell—?”

We hadn’t been able to reach him. “The Telegram says he’s at some indie film festival.”

“Will I be staying with my husband—” Kathryn wondered about separate rooms.

We can arrange whatever you need, Sal said. But Tony wants you close by.

“Okay, okay.” She shrugged absently. “Same room.” She gently traced lip balm across her mouth. “Two Queen-size beds—”

She gathered up the Gladstone bag. Kim wanted to call Babe. We haven’t time, Sal said. Call him from the hotel.

Kim felt she’d be safer in her husband’s Etobicoke home, the place that looked like a ski lodge with its bullet proof windows and hidden, fortified rooms.

Sal said okay, and I offered to drive her there.

Athol, aware of what I’d seen, the small gesture of reaching for Kathryn’s hand, said he wanted to stay near Mrs. Daoust.

She smiled brightly.

—4—

The bomb went off an hour later.

I had barely dropped Kim at her husband’s fortress in Etobicoke, when Sal reached me there and said Mrs. Daoust was dead, blown to dust and bone. She was across the room from her husband, searching for a coke in the small refrigerator to her room. The bomb detonated as soon as she opened the door.

It was the Johnson P. MacDonald setup all over again. A final portrait.

Twenty-five minutes later I was in that very room with Sal and the police and the lab boys and Tony Daoust. They were scraping stuff off the walls, and placing items, like a shoe and Mrs. Daoust’s jangly purse in sealed bags. The door to the fridge was cut in half and parts of the wall and ceiling were now slammed with holes. Wires hung down and a tulip-shaped light fixture was scorched to muddy charcoal.

Daoust was a small, slight man, a buck thirty-eight weight wise, with a licorice line for a mustache and thin wrists which his shirt cuffs failed to cover. His eyes were salamander speckled. He acknowledged me with an absent wave of the hand, and kept muttering why, why, and his lower lip fought an urge to loosen like a rubber band. He faintly sobbed, and muttered my angel, my angel.

I thought this room was thoroughly checked by your boys, Sal—

“Look, Superstar. I’m feeling a little salty right now. So be careful.”

I smacked Sal’s shoulder with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry—I didn’t mean—”

“I know, I know.” Sal pushed back his gray fedora and grimaced. “Every crime scene is a goddamn accident report. What can we do to prevent it from happening again? But I tell you we did our due diligence—We did check the room. All the rooms. We checked and rechecked—”

I sighed. “Yeah—”

She must have had the detonating device on her person—that’s the only way it figures, he said.

“I didn’t plant it on her—” Daoust’s lower lip wobbled like a cosine wave. “Someone else must have—” My angel, he repeated.

On the nightstand near him was an unopened pack of smokes, half a glass of water, and car keys. Apparently, he was also planning to fill his time with some reading: Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and a volume of the Harvard Classics, something or other about Tennyson to Whitman.

I thought of Frieze. Outside the window, with his camera, pulling the radio signal trigger.

But then that got me to thinking, Frieze had to have an accomplice to plant the kill toy.

Who?

Athol? He had been all cozy with Mrs. Daoust, reaching for her hand, sharing bright smiles, and now where the fuck was he? He hadn’t returned with Kim and me to Babe’s. He wanted to be near Kathryn.

He’s looking for Sennwald, Sal said.

“Huh?” I guess I was thinking out loud. I do that a lot. Too many concussions during my NHL playing days. Right now a pain was riding behind my eyes. I dry swallowed two Anacin.

“St. Clair. The film festival—”

“Right—”

And then I thought of Tony Daoust. He wanted out of Kathryn’s life—or so it had seemed—living at the Albany Club and all, and now he was calling her his angel and sobbing uncontrollably, shoulders shaking, the cup of coffee in his left hand sloshing in rhythm to his body’s shudders. Maybe he was a hell of a Method actor. I don’t know. A doctor, by his side, offered him a sedative.

Tony rolled up his sleeve, and then changed his mind.

I reached into the pocket of my chinos and pulled out that additional roll of film again. This time I kept it in its container—

“Your lab boys told me you can block megacycle radio signals with shielding paint. Carbon based RF paint. You know the stuff you use in your home as a primer?” That’s what I had coated the plastic canister with, Sal. “It’s perfectly safe—” We need to get these folks somewhere where radio signals can’t reach—

“Why you carrying that damn thing around?”

I shrugged vaguely. “A talisman? I don’t know. I guess. I wanted it for when I interviewed people—great conversation starter—”

“It’s gotta be Frieze behind this, right? Who else could it be?” Sal shook his head. “Frieze.”

“I don’t know, probably, but when the arrows of the narrative all point in one direction, I get suspicious—”

“Hmm—”

I looked down at the loose plaster drifting across my Vans. The carpeting was dusted in streaks of what looked like fallen milkweed foam. I rubbed at the edges of my mouth and glanced at the off-white window shade snapped up in its roller blind. “Tony, was that shade raised? Or did you or your wife raise it?”

“No.” He couldn’t remember. “No, I didn’t go near the window. And we barely got into the room when she wanted a coke—”

Sal confirmed that. “They were the last people I escorted—” He looked into the lining of his hat. “I let them in, took two steps down the hall, and then—” We both glanced at the kill corner: the crumpled wall, the blue pumps in a sealed bag; one of the pumps still had a foot in it.

The effect of the bomb was fairly localized, I noted, maybe a three, four foot radius. 

Raised shade. Killer outside. No camera in the room. Killer had to be outside. “There has to be a leak, Sal. Someone told the killer where Mrs. Daoust was located and—”

“Yeah.” He rubbed a hand through his sandy-haired head and then smoothed the picket fencing to his beard. “Who raised the goddamn shade—?” He nodded. “A leak. A leak for sure—”

And why did the killer spare Tony? Why not kill them both? The killer waited for enough separation to just kill Kathryn.

The killer has nothing against Tony, Sal said. He wasn’t the one sleeping around; he wasn’t the one pimping a hack artist. “The killer’s got nothing against him—”

Well, what did the two victims have in common? Kathryn and Johnson P? And, who’s next? Kim, Sennwald? Maybe Frieze himself?

“I’ll tell you what the two victims had in common: Frieze. Kathryn dumped him and Johnson P allegedly stole his signature. Frieze is the killer—”

“I’m not so sure—”  Black clouds crowded my eyes. And the killer has a partner—

My angel, my angel, Tony silently sobbed, my angel—

—5—

It hit me about forty-five minutes later.

From Sai Woo’s I had just ordered takeout: moo-goo-gai gan, shrimp chow mein, and egg rolls for me and Stana, when I thought about the half glass of water, the car keys, and that damn Volume 42 of the Harvard Classics. Poetry. Tennyson to Whitman—

They were on the nightstand next to Tony Daoust in his room at the Edison.

Harvard Classics and Gold Medal paperbacks were on the shelves in Frieze’s empty home. And there were shadows in his collection of Harvard Classics.

I rushed to Scarborough. I was there in twenty minutes.

The Cape Cod home was dark, but faint light bled through a lower casement window that I couldn’t see through. The window was made of eight glass cubes that reflected back the silver flash of the evening stars and didn’t let one inside the subterranean world below the driveway.

Dried leaves brushed up inside the corrugated edges of a window well. 

I used my Esso card again. Side door this time. Quietly entered.

A clock on the stove ticked. The hushed rush of the furnace. A quick, low hum of the refrigerator.

But the smells were fresher this visit. Gone was the stale, hardened food. In the air, the faint taint of a recently cooked meal: bacon, eggs, toast.

I slowed, aware of my steps, my breath, my presence. Volume 42 of the Harvard Classics was indeed missing from the book shelf.

A faint murmur, almost a mewling whine, stretched from down below.

I reached for my snub-nosed .38 and moved to the basement door. It was slightly ajar.

I gasped when I saw what I saw from the top of the stairs.

Frieze was naked, strapped with gray duct tape to a chair. His feet were in a metal bucket half-filled with water, a cattle prod lay on the concrete floor near a graying towel roll. Frieze’s frizz of dry hair popped like scraggly bits of cattails. His eyes were empty, black leech-like pouches under them. And his damn face. Bits of skin were peeled, seven or eight strips cut away with a scalpel, the subcutaneous tissue exposed underneath. His mouth was a tawdry smudge of red. 

“Okay, Daoust, that’s enough—”

His shoulders tensed. He may have been a slight man, but with a scalpel in his hand he glared with authority, feet spread with command presence—

My gun stayed trained on him as I descended. The basement was cold, water stains ran along the cinder block like images of the Great Lakes; a lonely light dripping on a snake line hung over Frieze’s head. PVC pipes and electrical wiring spread above him. There was no drop ceiling. Carpet tacks and stapling showed clearly on the underside of the plywood flooring above.

I waved with the gun and Daoust backed up, away from Frieze, hands raised, the scalpel splashed with blood.

“I guess you have a story to tell, huh?” I was in a surly mood and didn’t really want to hear the fucking story, but he took up the invitation—and went on and on about men sleeping with his wife: Frieze, MacDonald, Sennwald.

He bumped into the small white desk behind him, a girl’s desk, maybe something Frieze had intended for a daughter that he never had—

They had to get theirs, he said. And he was enjoying getting Frieze. “The bastard. Him and his photographs, trying to leverage my misery into his gain. Taking those pictures of my wife and Sennwald. And—”

Frieze mumbled, pitifully, his mouth, a wobble of red; white noised nothings rattled like a dropped manhole cover.

“Oh, don’t worry. He’s got nothing to say—” Daoust flashed a dirty smile. “No story to tell. I mean, literally.” He laughed. “I cut out his tongue—”

Frieze swayed, his body a loose marionette within straps of tape. The chair leaned with his lazy movements. “Wait to you see what I have in store next—”

“There ain’t going to be any next,” I said.

“Guess again, shamus.”

A gun jabbed into my back. It was hard, blocky, and felt like a goddamn .45.

Fuck. I didn’t look behind all the doors upstairs. I didn’t think—

It was Athol. He had never gone to St. Clair; he had come back here. “Drop the heater—”

I did.

“Kick it across the room, in the direction of Tony—”

I did that too. “Why are you in league with this guy?”

He was offering my $25,000 a hit. He belched. A wash of clam sauce filled the air. “I knocked off Mrs Daoust with this gizmo—” He walked past me and tossed the camera. I caught it.

It felt lighter than I expected—

“You’re a shutterbug,” Athol said. “Got kicked out of the league, right, for taking pictures of Bobby Ehle’s wife with another man—?”

“They let me back in. Eventually—” I tumbled the camera gizmo around in my hand—

Athol admitted to also killing Sennwald. Snuck up behind him in a movie theater. “The fuck’s now stuck to a chair. Pierrot le Fou. I waited and waited and then there was a music number—Goddamn Frenchies—and I took him out—he’ll never know how the movie ends.” He laughed and approached Tony.

It wasn’t going to end well for these assholes either.

“Would you have killed Kim too?” Your boss’s wife?

Athol took a step back. “If the price was right, but she didn’t sleep around—she wasn’t on the hit list—” He scrubbed a hand under his nose.

“The Johnson hit was mine,” Daoust bragged. “It was fun to put my personal stamp, my signature on the proceedings. You like that word, Frieze. Signature?” His laughter caught a wave and crashed against the walls of the room.

And what about Frieze, you had a perfect setup, framing him brilliantly—the exploding bombs of film rolls hidden away in his refrigerator, but now, this—

“Oh, don’t worry, nobody’s going to see this—” Daoust jabbed the air with his scalpel, a stiff swatch of red. “We’ll bury Frieze, somewhere. He’ll still fit the frame for the killings—”

Athol bent at the waist and stared at Tony’s handiwork on Frieze’s face. “Doesn’t the left side need a little more—peeling?” He laughed, bending farther at the waist.

“Yes, yes.” While Tony contemplated his next artistic choice, I reached into the pocket of my leather jacket and popped the film free of its canister.

“You’re right, Athol,” Tony said. “Art is all about symmetrical lines, isn’t it?”

Frieze’s garbled cry was something completely unholy—

My wife was a cruel woman, Mr. Fuller. Daoust paced as he spoke. “She used to boast about what better lovers her lovers were than me.”

I now had the pseudo 200 film buried in the palm of my left hand.

“Just for the record, how did you find me?”

“Volume 42—”

“Oh, the Harvard Classics.” Daoust increased his steps, moving in a tighter circle, closing in on Athol. “Should have left them alone, but I always was an avid reader.” He laughed with his hands. Everything was funny to these fucks. “Oh well. I admit it, I admit, all right, I was somewhat ineffectual in the intimacy department, could never quite bring her to orgasm, but still—must I hear of the prowess of all these other men?” He smiled in the direction of Frieze. “And she raved about your powers of cunnilingus.  That was your signature—”

The art school boys laughed.

“And now—” He raised the swatch of a scalpel—

The furnace’s chug was a quiet hush.

Frieze’s face was pulled down, his eyes following the vague water stains on the floor.

I glanced at the camera, in my right hand, the F-stop set af 2.8. I tried moving it. It wouldn’t budge. “Two point eight, that’s for the megacycles, right—?”

Yes, the clear signal, Daoust said.

“How did you come up with this? I mean, this way to dispose of—”

“Brazil. I ordered it from Brazil. It was amazing what you can find in the back pages of Guns and Ammo.”

“Uh-huh—” I looked at the gadget camera and then the roll of film. “My angel, my angel,” I said.

“Huh?”

The distraction worked. “Hey, asshole, catch!” I tossed the roll their way.

I’m not sure if Athol heard asshole or his name. It didn’t really matter—the answer wouldn’t help none.

Daoust dropped the scalpel and Athol, on instinct, reached for the film roll with his free hand—

Just then I took their final portrait; it was a helluva picture.

▪ ▪ ▪

Grant Tracey’s Five Hard Bites, a collection of Hayden Fuller novels and stories, was published by Twelve Winters Press in 2021. Other crime noir pieces have appeared or are forthcoming in Tough and Groovy Gumshoes. He currently edits North American Review and is at work on a new Hayden Fuller novel. Read an interview with Grant in which he discusses Five Hard Bites and related matters.

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