Sisco Fontaine had a problem. He also had that ridiculous name, but that wasn't the problem at hand. The problem at hand was that the husband of the woman Sisco was sleeping with was lying on a kitchen floor with a knife in his back. The knife wasn't moving and neither was the husband. Blood had puddled out on either side of the body and there was a vivid fingerpaint swirl of red on the white tiles under the man's outstretched right hand. Less than a foot away was a gun. A pistol. Ugly little bluish thing.
It was five in the morning. Not ten hours previous I had been happily ensconced in my ugly armchair reading the exploits of the thoroughly insane Theodore Roosevelt. A quiet evening at home. Dog underfoot. Soft strings on the stereo. An imaginary fire in my imaginary fireplace. The first of my two mistakes had been the decisionaround ten o'clockto go for a stroll. The stroll took me by the Cat's Eye, where pretty Maria happened to be singing. One thing led swiftly to another and I'd found myself sitting in the window sill behind pretty Maria slurping down pints of Guinness and humming along with her sweet voice. Along came one o'clock in the morning and during a heaving chorus of "Black Velvet Band" an errant tambourine slapped against my face. Not too bad a cut. Nothing that a tissue and a wee more Guinness couldn't staunch. By two-thirty I was negotiating a peace with my bed. The second mistake came a few hours later, sometime after four, when the phone rang. Well...the mistake was in my answering it.
It was Sisco. And he was insistent.
The dead man was barefoot. He was dressed in a pair of gray sweatpants and a dusty rose T-shirt advertising a restaurant in Ocean City called Moby Dick's. The knife had gone in between the angled uprights of the 'y'. As the Fates would have itand one way or another the Fates always have itI happen to have eaten at Moby Dick's in Ocean City myself just that past summer. I had the fish stew, which had come highly recommended, but which tasted metallic after the fourth slurp and had wound up giving me 24-hour food poisoning. Food poisoning does a real number on your back musclesamong other thingsand the creepy thing is that I had spent a large portion of the following day stretched out on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in the beach house where I was staying. The uncreepy thing is that eventually I was able to get back up and continue on with my vibrant and ever-changing life. Not so Mr. Sweatpants. His ticket was punched.
I'm an undertaker, I can tell these things.
* * *
I closed my eyes and put my fingers to the bridge of my nose and squeezed.
"For Christ's sake, Hitch, what are you doing? Praying?" Sisco's voice was rough and whining. I cocked one eyebrow, letting it drag the eye open.
"It's called a headache, Sisco."
"You want an aspirin or something?"
I released my nose. "I'll live."
Sisco pulled his hands from his pockets and bounced down to a squat. Sisco was a fairly lithe character, a wiry, lightweight kind of guy with dirty blonde hair and a pretty face that any mother worth the title could see right through. He was wearing baggy gray pants with pockets all over the place and a nauseating Hawaiian print shirt. Rayon. The flowers shimmered when he moved.
"This is a real god damn mess," Sisco announced, more to the corpse, it seemed, than to me. "Big time fucking mess."
"What's his name, Sisco?"
"Jake Weisheit." He pronounced it 'wise height'. I repeated the name to make sure I'd gotten it right. Sisco bobbed his head. "Uh huh. It's German. You spell it we-is-he-it. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Very cool, Sisco. And do we know what Mr. Weisheit is doing lying here with a knife in his back so earl-eye in the morning?"
"I've got no answer for that, Hitch. I swear I don't know."
"But I take it you two were acquainted."
That's when Sisco told me about Jake Weisheit's wife. He wasn't coy about it. I'll give him points for directness.
"I'm sleeping with his wife."
"Okay...And did Mr. Weisheit know this?"
"Yeah. The information came his way." Sisco craned his neck and considered the corpse. "Jake wasn't real happy about it. We kind of had a fight about it the other night."
My headache was making a renewed play on my temples. "How about some coffee, Sisco? I think it's time for you to start playing host."
Sisco rose and moved over to the counter and pulled open a pair of overhead cabinets. About a hundred brightly colored brand name products shouted out for attention.
"Jesus, look at all this shit. You see any coffee filters here?"
I was moving around to get a look at Jake Weisiheit's face. I ignored Sisco's question. I squatted down, careful to keep clear of the blood. The face was resting on its left cheek. The nose was prominent, the forehead high, the eye fixated on my ankle. For no good reason I reached out and snapped my fingers about an inch from the man's face.
"He's dead," Sisco said from behind me. "Don't worry about that."
The watch face on Jake Weisheit's watch was cracked, presumably from hitting hard against the tiled floor when the man fell. I squinted through the cracks.
"Time of death, three ten," I said, telescoping my weary body back up to its full height. Sisco was flipping the cabinets closed.
"Hey. You're good." Sisco leaned down and picked up a red plastic bowl from the floor. He came over and stood next to me, looking down sadly at the corpse.
"Why did you have me park in the garage?" I asked.
"Well...you know. I mean, a hearse. It draws attention."
"Sisco, have you called the police?"
Sisco's innocent-act was thoroughly sub-Oscar. "The police?"
"The men in blue suits? With all those colored lights on top of their cars? Did you at least call an ambulance?"
"But he's dead."
"That wasn't my question."
"Don't bust my nut, Hitch, okay? This is a fucking mess here. I'm having a hard time trying to think straight. Check this out."
He handed me the plastic bowl. It was the kind you'd use to feed a pet. There was a hole in the bottom of the bowl, less than an inch in diameter.
"What's this?" I asked.
"It's the cat's bowl."
"There's a hole in it."
"It's a bullet hole."
"Jake Weisheit shot the cat bowl?"
"That's what it looks like. You can see over there where the bullet went into the floor." Sisco handed me the bowl and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and flicked a cigarette neatly between his lips.
"They don't like that," I said as he produced a pack of matches.
"Smoking at a crime scene." I held up the plastic bowl. "Or messing with evidence, for that matter."
"Who don't like it?"
"The men in the blue suits."
Sisco made a deliberate act of ripping a match from the pack, lighting the cigarette and blowing the smoke coolly from the side of his mouth. I didn't quite care for the look on his face. It was the look of someone who is about to honor you with information that you'd just as soon not be honored with.
"But that's just it, Hitch. We don't have a crime scene."
I ran a hand through my hair and took a grip. This wasn't going to be good. "Why don't you tell me what we do have here, Sisco? Why don't you tell me why I'm here?"
Then he told me. He told me the favor he wanted from me. I plucked the cigarette from his mouth and tossed it into the sink. I ran my hand up and down in front of my face, then in front of his.
Sisco frowned. "What's that for?"
"It's because one of us is dreaming," I said. "I'm just trying to figure out which one."
* * *
Polly Weisheit was sitting on a stone wall in a white robe tossing golf balls from a wire bucket into a swimming pool. It was a kidney-shaped swimming pool and maybe one day I'll meet someone who can explain to me how it was someone hit on the idea of designing swimming pools to be this shape. For reasons that should be so obvious I refuse to air them, she threw like a girl. Leading with the elbow. Something spastic in the pivot. Like her husband, she was barefoot, but unlike him she was still on the O2-CO2 circuit. She was a dirty blonde, with terrier-hair, a mass of hard curls with a mind of their own. So thick you could stick small items in there and lose them altogether. Her complexion was pale, but then you've got to consider the circumstances, not to mention the hour.
A morning nip was still in the air. It was late October. Maryland had finally had a wet summer and the leaves were turning early. Polly and Jake Weisheit's house was located in a section of the county known as Ruxton, a heavily wooded area in a north/south-running valley between North Charles Street and the Jones Falls River. The Weisheit house was one of several at the top off a ruse. There was a generous back yard, the grass still minty and silver with dew. There was an orange lacrosse goal, along with a couple unattended sticks. A line of trees separated the property from the neighbors, full blooms of ruby and yellow. A half dozen lounge chairs were scattered about on the stone patio. A gauze-like mist hovered just off the surface of the pool. Unseen, but near, a crow was clearing its throat.
Sisco made the introductions.
"Polly, this is Hitch. Hitch, Polly."
"How do you do?" I said.
Polly was rummaging in the wire bucket for a ball.
"Hitch isn't real keen on our idea," Sisco said. Polly Weisheit gave him one of those looks that I swear must be part of a woman's birthright. Sisco made the adjustment. "My plan."
Polly Weisheit cocked her arm and sent the ball plunking into the fat end of the pool. The wire bucket was half empty, though of course I didn't know how full it had been to start with. I spotted a number of golf balls scattered on the stone patio. A barn door would not have been in terrific peril with Polly Weisheit aiming at it. She looked up at me with a sleepy, unfocused expression.
"What happened to your cheek?"
"I got hit with a tambourine," I said. "What happened to your husband?"
"Somebody killed him."
"That's the conclusion I reached as well. Do you know who?"
"Did you hear anything?"
"It looks like your husband shot his gun. There's a hole in the cat bowl. You didn't hear the gun go off?"
"Are you the one who found him?" I asked.
"Can you say anything besides yes and no?"
She tugged the sash of her robe tight and fixed me with her weary look. "I came downstairs this morning to let the cat in. She's a smart cat. She stands under the bedroom window and howls and she won't let up until you let her in. It'll drive you nuts.
"What's her name?"
"Priscilla. We call her Silly."
"Why do you let her out in the first place?"
"Same thing. She howls to be let out. We're completely at her mercy. Jake calls her Rosemary's Cat." She grimaced. "He called her Rosemary's Cat."
"What happened next?" I asked.
She didn't answer. She fished out another golf ball, but before she could toss it I caught her wrist. I don't know why I did it; my hand simply shot forward. Polly didn't seem especially happy about it. She flicked her wrist free. Sisco had pulled out another cigarette, but I backed him down.
"You're friend's kind of bossy," Polly Weisheit said.
"His friend is operating on two hours sleep," I said. "He couldn't be nicer when he's had his full eight. Ask anyone."
Polly Weisheit started to respond, then thought better of it. She dropped the ball back into the basket and took a deep breath.
"Okay... So Silly was howling and it woke me up. At least I guess that's what it was. Jake wasn't in bed. I figured he'd gotten up and was letting her in. But she kept on howling so I finally got up and went downstairs. And there he was."
"On the floor."
"And you hadn't heard anything?"
"You mean besides Silly?"
"You didn't hear his gun go off?"
"I told you that already. No."
"And you don't remember you husband getting out of bed?"
She shook her head. "I was having trouble getting to sleep last night and I took a couple of Tylenol P.M. Those things really knock me out. I should only take one of them, but sometimes I take two."
"But you took two last night?"
"Any special reason?"
"For taking two? No. I just wanted to get to sleep. I could tell I was going to have a rough time dropping off so I popped the Tylenols. I'm still feeling a little dopey. Maybe you can tell."
"But you weren't knocked out enough to hear the cat," I noted.
"Believe me, you could hear that cat yowling from the grave."
Three pair of eyes shifted momentarily to the direction of the house, then back again.
"How was your husband before you went to sleep?" I asked.
She gave me a queer look. "How was he?"
"How did he seem? Was he anxious? Was his behavior at all unusual?"
"What are you, a psychiatrist? He was fine. He was normal. He was Jake." She made what I assumed was an attempt to roll her eyes, but I guess her heart wasn't in it. "He was Jake," she said again.
"What does the mean?"
"It means he got into bed and gave me a good long look at his back."
"Are you married?"
"Then maybe you're not familiar with this custom."
She gave me a heavy-lidded look. I sensed a smirk deeply embedded. I steered elsewhere, tipping my chin to indicate Sisco.
"So when does cutey pie come into the picture?"
Sisco sniggered. "Funny guy."
"I called him," Polly said flatly. "He came out right away."
"The police are going to wonder why you didn't call them," I said. "The killer might have still been in the house. He might even still be there now."
"I called Sisco," Polly said again.
"And Sisco came right over, took one look at the situation and decided to call his friendly neighborhood undertaker to come out and do you a little favor."
"It was a dumb idea," Sisco muttered.
"No offense, Sisco," I said, "But I think you meant to say 'diabolically dumb.'"
"It's like I told you, Hitch, Jake and I had this huge fight a couple of nights ago. Out at the roadhouse. A ton of people saw it. I really lost it, man. A couple of guys had to grab hold of me."
"So then you came out here a couple nights later, got Jake down to the kitchen and stuck a knife in his back."
"Aw, listen to you. That's exactly what the cops will say. That's the whole point."
"So let's see if I've got this straight. To save you the hassle of explaining yourself to the police I'm supposed to whisk this body off in my hearse and figure out a way to quietly tuck it into a grave? Just make the damn thing disappear? When you hear it said out loud, is it stupid enough for you?"
"He left something out," Polly said.
"Why am I not surprised?"
"When he and Jake were going at it the other night, Sisco told Jake he was going to kill him."
Sisco rolled his eyes. "It's a figure of speech."
Polly made a pair of quotation marks in the air and pitched her voice lower.
" 'You don't know who you're fucking with, Jake. I can have you killed like that'." She snapped her fingers about an inch from my nose. It was a frighteningly good imitation.
"That's good," I said.
Sisco was scowling. "Yeah, yeah, you ought to hear her Jimmy Stewart."
"I do a good Jimmy Stewart," I said. "Let's hear yours."
Sisco whined, "I'm kidding."
Polly and I shared a look. She turned to Sisco. "So is he," she said softly. She pulled another ball from the wire bucket and handed it to him. "Here you go, honey."
"Yeah, yeah." Sisco bounced the ball in his hand then reared back and let it fly. No girlie toss here. Sisco wasn't aiming for the pool, he was going for distance. The ball sailed right through the mass of branches at the edge of the property and disappeared. A second later came the tinkling sound of breaking glass, followed by a loud shrill alarm bell.
Siscos's face fell. "Shit. What's that?"
I answered, "I'd call that a Rube Goldberg way to call the police."
"He's a guy who does easy things the hard way."
"Shit. Polly, go tell them it was an accident. Tell them they don't have to get the damn police out here."
But Polly was shaking her head. "Sorry, Rube. We should have called them in the first place." She corrected herself. "I should have just called them. I don't know what I was thinking. I mean, he was dead, but..." She trailed off. She turned to me. "Listen, why don't you go? I can't think of a good way to explain to the police what the hell you're doing here. It's going to be crazy enough. I shouldn't have let Sisco call you. I was just too fuzzy headed."
"I should go, too," Sisco said.
Polly fixed him with a look. "Uh uh. You should stay put, lover."
"It's not going to look good."
"It's going to look a lot worse if they see you running from the scene." She slid off the wall. "I'm going inside to call the police." She clutched the robe tight at the neck and headed off towards the house. Sisco watched her until she disappeared into the house then turned to me.
"Hitch. That woman is an animal."
I gave him as insincere a smile as I could manage. "That's nice, Sisco. That's very nice."