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“We know you had the ice with you when you left the cabin,” the cop snarled. Anger made his face bright red, to match the blood on his knuckles. “You hand it over right now, maybe we get the DA up in Duluth to go easy on you.”
Renzo snorted, and was rewarded with a fist driving up into his solar plexus. For a long minute all he could do was gasp for air and fight back the pain. “Maybe – maybe you want me to hand over – the diamonds,” he finally managed to force out, “and you forget I was here.”
The cop laughed. “Maybe you hand ‘em over, or we forget where we dumped your body.”
“You – ain’t got the guts, Pearl,” Renzo said, not bothering to hide the sarcasm. He met the crooked cop’s watery blue eyes with his own emerald-hard green ones. “Besides, you think I’m stupid enough here to meet up with you and your boys here –“ He jerked against the hands holding his arms from either side. “— without some insurance?”
Pearl pulled out the gun he’d taken from Renzo’s coat pocket. “Nobody will believe the word of some mook that committed suicide.”
“But Sarge,” Mueller, a big blond kid, fresh on the beat, protested from Renzo’s left. “What if he’s telling the truth?”
Pearl lifted up Renzo’s beloved Goodwin .38, sighting down it toward its owner’s defiant gaze. “Let’s find out.”
And cut! Freeze. All right, everyone, take ten. She’s in the shower.
Everyone let out a sigh of relief.
Renzo – back to simple Larry for the moment – pulled free of the two cops on either side. “Jesus Christ, Pearl. You don’t have to make it that realistic.”
Pearl laughed. “Sure I do, Renzo. I don't know who writes this stuff, but I want this to be a bestseller, don’t I? Not just some desperation title at the airport? A good beating, build sympathy for the hero, get the reader –“
“She’s gonna be really sympathetic if you rupture my spleen, you goddamned –“
Hey! I said cut. Save it for the next scene. We’ll pick up where we left off – okay, looks more like twenty minutes now. Pearl, get up here, I do want to talk with you.
Larry flipped Pearl the finger as the man who wasn't really a cop (sort of) scowled sourly and headed down toward the edge of the garage, disappearing around a corner.
Larry snorted at the other two “cops.” “I’ll be in the Green Room,” he said. “Gimme a call five before.”
He took the steps up to the back door two at a time, though not so quickly he couldn’t hear Mueller mutter, “What an asshole.”
Down the hall, up a half-flight, third door on the left, “Alexandra,” and he was falling back onto the bed, letting the green poofy bedspread absorb the fall. Around him, murals of green boughs and pine trees almost seemed to sway in a non-existent wind.
He should get up and take off the light jacket. That plus the red and black flannel shirt – ah, Wisconsin – were already making him too hot. But it felt so good just to lie there in the quiet, away from the wind, with no prying eyes …
“There you are.” Sarah was in the doorway, looking down at him.
He sighed. “Pour me a coffee, sweetie,” Larry told her.
“Pour it yourself, Larry,” she replied, even as she went over to the big urn that was sitting on the low boy, pulling off a Styrofoam cup and filling it with dark liquid. She knew he took it black, so she carried it over to where he lay, sprawled.
He reached up for the cup, and she drew carefully back. “No way, Larry. You spill this on the bedspread – again – and housekeeping will have my ass. You want it, you can sit up for it.”
“So you came down here to bitch at me, or for some other reason?” He wasn't sure when he'd first met her -- he was certain it was sometime before this gig had started -- but she was easy on the eyes regardless. He let those eyes wander over the tight jeans, the pink and white sweater top, then patted the bed next to him. “Plenty of room for a second.”
“In your dreams, Larry.” She put up her hands in mock adulation. “Or should I call you Lorenzo?”
He made a face. “Not my fault someone decided a strong, handsome, Italian man would make a great noir anti-hero for a contemporary series of broadly accessible adventure-slash-romance novels.”
She snorted, going over to the window. “Not that you fought it.”
Laughter. “I know all the good Italian jokes, honey. My mom was a wop. We had the Italian-American Joke Book in the car when we’d go on vacations. Like the one where the Italian Army is fighting the German Army –“
“Give it a rest, Larry.” She looked out the window at the fall colors under a leaden sky. “Wanda’s coming to visit in a few weeks.”
Larry stood up. “Your sister?”
She turned and glared. “Of course, my sister. Finished her errands, back here for a quick howdy. I hope, with emphasis on the word quick.”
“I don’t know why you don’t like her.”
“I don’t know why you do.”
He leered at her.
A rap on the door. Mueller poked his head in. “Five minutes, Renzo. She’s drying off.”
Larry sighed. He took another sip of the coffee, almost undrinkable after most of a day of being kept over flame. “Okay. I’ll be there in two." Back to Sarah, who had her arms folded, a sour expression on her freckled face. "So when does she get in?”
Sarah shook her head. “You’ll know when she gets here.”
He would indeed, he thought. Wanda was coming to visit. Oh, yeah.
“And this is for Carlotta,” Renzo snarled, driving his fist down onto the mook’s upturned, ruined gaze. Already on his knees, Donato crumbled, blood welling from a dozen gashes in his pulpy face. The red liquid, black in the moonlight, soaked into the snow, just like the other spatters from the killer’s previous victims – a half-dozen women, clothes torn, embedded in the ice and snow of the cruel Wisconsin winter.
His dolls, Donato said the killer had called them. His blue dolls, preserved perfectly in their final moments of pain and terror …
Donato was out of the picture now. He wouldn’t be helping that maniac again. All Renzo had to do to clear himself was find the actual killer – before Pearl found him and gunned him down and killed him with the whole weight of the law as support. Renzo’s life wouldn’t be worth the price of a –
Cut! We’re - stand by, folks.
A long moment.
Okay, she’s dropped the book into the bottom of her bag. Hmmm. She may not pull it out until she gets home. Damn. Well, get yourself inside, people. It’s chilly out, and we might have a long wait this time.
Donato groaned, pushed himself up from the ground. He glared at Larry, who chuckled. “Hey, just hope she doesn’t lose her place and we have to do it all over again.”
Donato spat an unpleasant word and staggered off, even as the crew came and gingerly picked up the frozen girls, taking them inside the Inn, too, leaving Larry and his cigarette and the quiet of the snowfall.
“It doesn’t even look like Wisconsin,” Wanda said, stepping out from behind a tree.
He started, then coughed as the smoke he’d gulped filled his lungs. “Jesus Christ, Wanda –“
“The trees in Wisconsin are completely different. So are the hills. Still –“ She looked around them at the lonely quiet. No sounds even leaked from the few lit windows of the Inn behind them. “It’s not bad. Sort of like using Mormon Rocks to stand in for South Dakota’s Badlands. Nobody knows the difference, and you do it often enough and people think it’s the real thing, the real thing the fake.”
She stepped over to him, tall, her gloved hands reaching out, clamping onto his shirt collar. “Me? I like the real thing.”
“Jesus, Wanda,” he said, trying to pull back. She was stronger for the moment, though, the way she could be, and pressed her advantage, pulling his face to hers, driving her hot, wet lips onto his, tongue forcing its way into his mouth before he could even react. Talc and leather filled his nose; her perfect skin, artfully made up, filled his eyes.
He struggled for a moment, then gave in. A minute or twenty later, she pulled back, gasping, smiling. “You do have a way with words, Larry.”
“Jesus –“ He cut off, realizing that he could only say, “Jesus Christ, Wanda,” so many times before it sounded silly even to him. “You – we shouldn’t do that. Not with Sarah around.”
“Sarah?” She laughed. “What the hell, Larry? I know what you think about her. And about me.” Her eyes were pools of brown, deceptively solid. But, like a marsh, you could step into those pools and drown …
It had been great when she’d first arrived. She’d been just leaving when the story had first begun, and he’d barely had a chance to meet her, but the look she had given him promised sweat and musk and passions undreamt of. The first time he’d seen her, before, she’d been unreachable. Perfection, a marble statue of glory. But now –
He fancied himself a ladies man – Renzo certainly was – so upon her return, he was sure he’d score. And he had. He’d scored in ways, and intensities, he’d never imagined. Or, ultimately, ever wanted to. Wanda wouldn’t say no, and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he’d tried to cut things off a good dozen times, had begun staying in his room at the Inn between scenes to avoid her, but now she’d --
“Wanda …” He reached up, pulled her hands away from him. “I – we had some great times, Wanda. Really.”
“Like in the Knotty Pine?” She laughed. “On the bar? I don’t think Antonio would ever forgive us if he knew whose Naughty Pine was … mounted there.”
“Jesus, Wanda.” He looked around again. He really didn’t want Sarah to see them, to hear them, but Antonio would be almost as bad. That guy had hands that could –
“Okay, okay. We won’t do it inside, Larry.” She chuckled, then looked coy. She wrapped a lock of hair around one finger. “How about – right here?”
He stared at her. “Here? What, in the snow?”
“Sure. Why the hell not?” She slipped her open jacket off, began taking off the sweater beneath it in a broad, graceful motion, perfect, made-up skin gleaming in the moonlight --
He stared at her some more. Then turned and fled back to the Inn, pursued by her laughter that turned to gasps of passion …
Three bullets spanged against the corner of the building. That toylike splat was the only sound they made, save the hollow pop of the silencers. Pinned down. If he stuck there for too long, they’d get to Maria, first. Then she’d join the stack of bodies out in the woods, and he wouldn’t let that happen.
Renzo’s back hugged the cold, grimy bricks. He thought of the tired old priest he'd met back in Eagle River, where this had all started. He was dead, now, too, and finally had the answers to questions Renzo had never thought worth asking. Then, letting out a deep breath, he pivoted around the corner and squeezed the trigger.
“You’re sure she’s gone?” Larry asked her. Today the Green Room was across the courtyard, up on the second floor. The Inn always arranged for housing and staging areas, though they tended to shift around at times because of other reservations. This room had murals, too, but they were of bottles, mostly wine-shaped, mostly deep green, all of them three to five feet tall. The labels were exquisitely rendered, detailing several vintages from the area, and a few more that didn’t exist (with post-dated vintages to match).
In keeping with the surroundings, Larry had a plastic cup in his hand, though it held bourbon, not wine. It was more his kind of drink.
“Yes, Larry, I’m sure.” Sarah rolled her eyes. She was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt today. “Got Rooms?” it asked. “She said she knew it would break your heart –“ Her voice was a dollop of sarcastic, and just a splash of bitter. “— but that the memories would sustain you.”
“She mentioned one of them in passing,” Sarah continued. “’Tell him he should get hold of that monocle again some time,’” she said, dropping her voice a husky octave. It was a good imitation “ ‘He’ll remember what I meant.’” Sarah looked at him, accusingly. “Larry, you didn’t.”
“It was – her idea.”
Sarah stared for a moment, and he braced for the storm. Then she laughed. And laughed.
When she finally came up for air, Larry was chortling, too, though he wasn’t sure at what. “I – I – my God, I can’t breath – whoa –“ She gulped for oxygen, then settled for another giggle. “You should have seen your face.”
At his expression, she burst out in laughter again. “Not then, you silly. Just now. Regret, embarrassment, lust, and wistfulness, all bundled into one expression. I can’t imagine even trying to convey all of that intentionally.”
Larry frowned slightly. “I’m glad it amuses.”
“Oh, Larry – it’s the most human, lovable thing I’ve ever seen you do.”
She cocked her head. “Especially, maybe the lust part.” She giggled. “Oh my God, you’re blushing.”
Larry looked around. “The reader’s got to be ready to pick up the damned book again,” he muttered.
Sarah crossed the room to him. Her eyes were blue, he noticed again. “You are a big goof, Larry. But I’m sorry my sister – caused you problems. She excels at that.”
"You two are like night and day. Hard to believe you're sisters."
She shook her head. "You're telling me. We have an ongoing argument between the two of us as to which the gypsies left."
Larry’s cheeks felt hot, but he also felt a stirring in him. “She’s – really something, Sarah. But not real. Not the way you are.”
“You’re not going to try a line like that on me, are you, Larry?”
He grinned. “Will it work?”
She looked like she was considering a glare, for just a moment. Then her expression softened … just a little. “We’ll just have to see,” she said, then smiled slightly.
The car careered around the corner, spraying gravel high into the air. To his right, the landscape dropped down into a tangled morass of rock and timber. Glancing into the wing mirror, he could see the Chinaman’s guards, including one on the running boards of the truck, taking aim at him for the brief straightaway they traveled.
If he ever got back to town, he’d have to have words with Mister Li. Short ones, punctuated by fists.
He had a date that night. The final connection in the mystery, and his best hope of getting out of this with his skin intact. And, maybe, with a lot more than that. All he had to do was get to Maria.
Bullets stitched through the steel of the trunk. The glass window behind him shattered in a hail of lead ....
And that’s it, folks. Heading into the final chapter, the denouement. She should pick things up when she settles in at the hotel. Don’t stray far, but we should be wrapped for the day.'
Larry watched the rest of the crew scramble inside while he watched the gathering twilight. Then he dropped the pop pistol into his pocket, and sauntered up the steps to the broad, enclosed porch that overlooked the snow-shrouded apple orchard. He whistled something he’d heard on one of the housekeepers' radios, a jaunty little tune, happy, trumpets trilling in the background. Things were going great. The whole Wanda thing had weirded him out, but she was gone now, and he was finally making progress with Sarah at first out of her sympathy at his discomfiture, but now because she seemed to actually like him.
Well, hell, he kind of liked her, too. Nothing life-altering, mind you. This gig was wrapping up, and he’d be away from the Inn, perhaps for good (Broadway, perhaps, beckoned), and he had no intention of taking her along. Still, she was a sweet girl, vaguely reminiscent of every home town, wholesome, friendly, “Betty” (or perhaps “Mary Ann”) sort of girl you could call to mind. And if she wasn’t the ravening bundle of lust her sister was, there was something almost – touching in her naivete and freshness.
And a guy needed to sleep sometimes.
Naivete and freshness. He had something special planned for tonight. He looked forward to her reaction. He looked forward to it a lot.
“Got a light, Larry?”
He jumped. Yelped. “Jesus –“
Wanda laughed at him, getting up from the large wicker chair on the porch. She had a long, fringed suede coat, lined with sheepskin. “Never mind,” she said. “I’ve learned to light things – myself.” She grinned at him. “Want to see?”
“Wanda, I –“
She pulled out an engraved lighter, silver, and lit the long cigarette in her mouth. Drawing a deep breath, then letting it out, she wandered over to him. Leather and menthol blended about her. “So, Larry, how’s tricks?”
He could feel himself sweating, even though it was just over freezing there on the porch. His breath echoed the smoke from her lips. “Wanda. What are you –“
“I decided to cut this particular trip short. I’d – heard things. About you. And Sarah.”
He started. “Sarah?”
Gloved hands reached out, stroked his cheek. “About her. And you.” She leaned forward, nipped at his chin. “I might have to do something about that.”
“What are you –“
“Two things. First off – I show you that whatever you think you have with her –“ She was all around him, pressing against him. Despite himself, he felt his body reacting, and knew she felt it, too. She laughed, throaty and harsh and too sexy for words. “— it’s nothing compared to what you have with me.”
“Wanda, listen –“
“And then maybe a sit-down chat with her. Sister to sister. Share beauty tips. Jokes. Talk about our boyfriends.” Her lips were against his left ear, now, her breath hot in the frigid air. “Talk about what you and I have done. Do you think she’d like to hear about it? Remember – Room 6?”
A jolt in his gut. He’d known that was a mistake, and it was afterwards he’d finally realized he had to get away from her. But now –
She turned away. “Then, once she’s decided that you’re not suited for her Polly Purebred personality, you can be … all … mine.” She hugged herself, back to him, looking at the distant mountains through the porch windows. “Oh, what I'm still looking forward to showing a cutey like you. Why, I could just eat you up.”
The butt of the pistol slammed into the back of her skull, and he heard, felt, something give way, even as she staggered forward, then collapsed in a limp heap, a rag doll unsupported and twisted in a way that consciousness, that life, could never simulate.
He couldn’t see her face. That made it easier.
It was getting colder. He stared down at her, then out at the snow beyond, and remembered the blue dolls …
Sarah was in his arms. He’d pushed the thoughts of Wanda far, far into the distance, had enjoyed a nice dinner with Sarah at the main restaurant, considering at each step where he wanted to end up with her. And now he was there – in her room at the Inn, plain but comfortable, furniture covered in books and little troll dolls, an old black and white TV console against the wall opposite the bed.
And he was smiling at her, and peeling off her clothes, and she was smiling, too, her eyes bright --
-- and they were making love, and he was surprised at her intensity. Maybe there was something of her sister in her after all. She asked him something, insistently, and he kept putting her off, getting her to touch there, to do that, thrilling to her reaction, and revelling in his own.
And ... it was over. For now. Chests heaving. Cool air banished by the heat of their bodies, and – she was still talking to him – what --
She’s in the bathtub, people. Places. And -- action!
“My sister,” Sarah said, lying with him afterwards, her flesh glistening with sweat in the light of the lamp at her nightstand. “Where is she?”
Renzo flung Sarah away from him. “It takes more than the soft touch of a woman to make me talk,” he snorted. What was happening? The story had started again, but --
Sarah's blue eyes flashed, and she pulled out a gun. “I've got a gun,” she said. “And I'm not afraid to use it.”
Renzo stood up from the bed and pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the drawer next to the television. What was Sarah doing? Where was -- “Me, neither,” he said.
“Where is my sister?” Sarah screamed.
Renzo poured himself a double in a plastic cup and rummaged around for a piece of ice bigger than a fingernail in the melted ice bucket. “Keep it down, babe,” he leered. “People might start coming to the wrong conclusion about me and you. Especially if you don't use that gun.”
"Where is my sister?” Sarah asked, quieter this time.
He didn’t want to say. But the words were pouring out of his mouth, as the story drew to a terrible close. “She's dead, babe,” Renzo said.
Sarah wailed and the gun went off ...
The sandy-haired little boy found her sitting in the bar, wrapped in a foofy white robe one of the cast members had grabbed for her before they struck the set. On the counter before her, almost untouched, was a tall glass with something icy and blue inside, a slice of pinapple on the rim, a small purple paper umbrella lying on the counter.
He caught Antonio’s eye, and the tall blond man put down the glass he was polishing and went through a door behind the barm, vanishing from sight. He had to clamber up the bar stool to get up to a level with her, but even then she didn’t acknowledge his presence.
“I hate it when folks change the story,” he finally told her. His voice belong to his father, from the sound of it, belying his child-like body. ““It was supposed to be ‘Maria,’ among other things. I don’t think the reader noticed – she was pretty drowsy – but, still, it rankles. I am an auteur, so to speak, and at very least the director of the story.”
Sarah was quiet for a long moment. Her eyes were red, and there were still small spatters of blood on her face. Finally, she replied, “They said – it was my story now. Sir.”
“Blue Dolls in Wisconsin? A Renzo Novel? Does that sound like yours?”
Her words weren’t quite a monotone, but close. “They said it was a good way to end the series.”
He snorted. “Well, that’s certainly true, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I suppose makes it all terribly ironic. But more importantly, Sarah, who are ‘they’?”
“The Aarons. The three of them. When they told me about – Wanda. And what he’d done. They said I had to --”
He sighed. Too many cooks. “I ought to have known. I’ll have to have a word with them.”
“They said it was about family. My sister. I didn’t even like her that much. Sir. But he – after they –“
He shook his head. Only nearly spoiled. And, to be sure, there were proprieties. Lorenzo had to be punished – or, at least, Larry had to be – and Wanda had been starting to get even on his nerves. “You were coming along so well, too, Sarah. Ah, well, never mind. What can’t be cured must be endured.” He climbed back down the bar stool, then held up his hand to her. “Let me take you – well, can’t be your room. Housekeeping is still working on it. Maybe 42. Nice things sometimes happen there; it should make your dreams easier.”
She nodded, acquiescing without comment.
She’d be back to normal, more or less, in the morning, he considered. He had too many plans, too many things she had to do for what was coming up. Folks were already gathering, and he needed her help, her role, in too many ways and places for this to have a permanent effect.
Besides, the reader had enjoyed the book. The next one she chose would be even more interesting. He’d have a new talent for the star, but it was certainly intriguing to think of Sarah in a bodice.
A romance. A boyfriend. A fiancé. There would be a walk-on role there for Wanda, too. He'd have to make arrangements for that.
As they crossed the lobby, the neon THE LAND’S END sign in the window flickered, and the middle word went dark.
-- Dave Hill