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Chris Fortunato
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MONEY HEALS ALL WOUNDS

by Chris Fortunato

 

Billie Rae passed through the spacious lobby with its picture windows overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway and took the gilded elevator to the fifth floor, and just at four o’clock, as Sal had instructed her, she put her key in the door and entered their two-bedroom condo.

          When she did so, she heard scurrying footsteps coming from the bedroom. A young woman with tangled blonde hair, wearing only panties and a bra, stood at the foot of the bed, sobbing while putting on a blouse.

          She looked at Billie Rae terrified. “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what happened. I think he had a heart attack.”

          Billie Rae pulled a Sig Sauer .45 with a seven-inch suppressor from her purse and pointed it at the girl.

          “Sorry for your pain, dearie, but if you think you’re running out of here, you’re not.”

          She walked to the side of the massive bed and looked down at Sal’s inert hulk of a body. She felt his wrist quickly. His heart was beating frantically.

          “How did he die?” she asked the pretty blonde girl, who was now fully clothed and hopping into her flats.

          “Isn’t it obvious?” the girl said.

          “Maybe you and me need to have a little talk in the living room,” Billie Rae said.

          Once in the living room, Billie Rae shut the bedroom door behind her and confronted the frightened girl who was clutching her handbag shaped like a heart.

          “What’s your name, sweetheart?” Billie Rae asked. She held the Sig Sauer in her right hand. She was a good-looking woman who had retained her looks into middle age, although Sal now liked to tumble with tough girls in their twenties. The girl standing before her was sweet-looking and refined.

          “Emily Pelton,” the girl said.

          “Well, Emily Pelton, what do you do when you aren’t doing tricks?”

          “I go to college,” the girl said. “I’m studying business administration. Would you mind not pointing that gun at me?”

          Billie Rae waved the gun around and stared into the girl’s pretty blue eyes. “I’m going to keep pointing this gun at you until we come to terms, Emily Pelton.”

          “What do you want of me?” The girl was almost crying. “He could have had that heart attack at any time.”

          “I wish he had,” Billie Rae said. “He was a real SOB. Anyhow, he was a strong man, and it took the exertions of a pretty girl like you to push him over the edge.”

“Listen, Mrs. Mardrosian. I’m not some slut hanging out at the fancy hotels. I only have six more credits before I finish college. I’d like to go home now and forget all this.”

“Tell me, sweetie. How much did he pay you to get him all worked up?”

“A thousand dollars,” the girl said. “I’ll give it back if you want.”

“I don’t want your hard-earned cash. Did his pillow talk involve his real-estate holdings, the strip malls and apartment houses?”

“He told me what he did,” the girl said. “All these guys like to brag. But I got the feeling that he didn’t employ best practices.”

Billie Rae barked out a laugh. “That’s for sure. He’s a slime ball from the old school. When you think of the world being an unfair place, think of Sal Mardrosian.”

The girl waited for Billie Rae to get to the point.

“Well,” Billie Rae said, “now that we’ve established our friendship, and you know what business Sal and I are in, or I should say, what business I am in, let me tell you what you need to do if you don’t want me going to the police.”

“All right,” the girl said softly.

“Sal’s business partner, a guy named Jimmy Andropolous, was trying to buy him out for pennies on the dollar. Now he’ll be trying to buy me out for even less than that. The problem is that Jimmy has been robbing from the business for years with all sorts of pretend improvements to the properties. Now, as a poor widow, I need to take care of Jimmy Andropolous so he doesn’t try to take advantage of me. Get my drift?”

“Sort of,” the girl said.

“Here’s the deal,” Billie Rae said, still pointing the Sig at the girl. “Go to the Bainbridge Condos tomorrow at 6 a.m. It’s just down the causeway here. Jimmy and his wife Esilda go to the pool at five thirty every morning. They pretend to be health nuts even though they snort coke all afternoon.”

The girl listened intently. Billy Rae could see that under the gloss of sweetness, the girl had a resilient nature, maybe from sitting in classrooms listening to blather three or four hours a day.

“You are to go out to the pool, wave this piece of business, and let them know they are to sell to me for the same price they expected Sal to sell to them. Got it?”

“I think so,” the girl said doubtfully.

“See this extension on the gun,” Billie Rae said. “It’s called a suppressor. If they try to get rough and you have cause to shoot them, the sound when you shoot will be no louder than popping open a beer can.”

“Are you giving me the gun now?” Emily asked.

“Not a chance. Meet me at the Bainbridge tomorrow morning. As you face the building, there’s an archway to the left. That’s where I’ll give you the gun. Then you can take a path directly to the pool. I’ll be waiting in the parking lot to take back the gun. Understand? A good firm warning, report back to me, and your job is done.”

“Sure,” the girl said with evident relief that she wasn’t going to be shot.

“In the meantime, Emily, I want to see your license and your college ID. I want to know exactly who you are. Don’t think you’re walking your pretty little self out of here, never to be seen again. I’m a desperate woman, Emily. Alone in a world full of creeps trying to rob me. I’m prepared to use every weapon at my disposal.”

“Oh, I understand,” the girl said. “You really have to be tough.”

The girl left with a promise to be at the Bainbridge complex the next morning.

Billie Rae opened the door to the bedroom. Sal was sitting up in bed reading a magazine. He was a big man, big stomach, big nose, big hair.

“How’d it go?” he asked, looking at her over the rim of his bifocals. He spoke with the baritone growl of a bear. He would have been cast as the dyspeptic bartender in a crime movie.

“She seemed genuinely scared,” Billie Rae said. “But I think it’s a lousy plan. I should just plug you with this gun and have done with it.”

“I told you before. I’ll give you the divorce, but let’s grab ahold of the whole business. Why settle for half of a half? You want the nice life in the Sunshine State, you gotta play along. I’m the guy who knows how to make money, remember that.”

“Well, using this girl worries me,” Billie Rae said.

“Why?”

“She’s the smart type,” Billie Rae said. “You should have used one of your dumb, street girls who wouldn’t process things so much.” She disappeared into the bathroom. She kept her purse with her with the gun inside.

          The next morning, Billie Rae met Emily Pelton under the archway at the Bainbridge Condominiums just before 6 a.m. Billie Rae handed Emily the Sig Sauer with the suppressor and showed her how to release the safety.

          “Be direct and firm with Mr. and Mrs. Andropolous. Tell them Mr. Mardrosian is deceased and that Mrs. Mardrosian will buy out their share for a mill five and not a penny more. If they don’t agree, other people will pay them a visit, and the offer will be for much much less. In a sense, Emily, you’re playing the role of good cop.”

          “I understand,” the girl said, taking the gun with a shaking hand. “You know, you people are weird. Mr. Mardrosian told me he’d pay me five thousand dollars in cash to kill you.”

          “Is that so,” Billie Rae said. “Well, he can’t follow through with that plan, can he?”

          “I guess not.” The girl tried to force a laugh.

          “Thanks to you, Emily,” Billie Rae said cheerfully. “You did a good job once, now do it again. I’ll be in the parking lot when you’re done. If anything goes wrong, and you can’t find me, come to the condo at ten. I’ll have an envelope for you.”

          “I have a class at ten,” the girl said.

          “Make it noon,” Billie Rae said. Looking at the girl made her yearn for her own lost innocence.

          The girl walked down the path to the pool, and Billie Rae walked to her car in the lot. Nearby, two men in matching windbreakers got out of a white Cadillac and began strolling toward the entrance to the complex lobby. They had a purposeful way about them that Billie Rae didn’t like. She thought she recognized one of the men as a man who had played golf with Sal a few weeks earlier. She didn’t like his looks, and she didn’t like the looks of the other man, either. She didn’t like that they were here at the Bainbridge Condominium complex just after six in the morning. She wasn’t liking anything right about now. And she certainly didn’t like Sal. Years ago, when she first met Sal, he was a lot of fun and he seemed to have a magic touch for making money. He still knew how to make money without even trying, but he was no longer fun, at least not with her.

          She decided to leave. Emily Pelton would just have to be resourceful if she ran into problems. She was the smart type. Let’s see how smart. This was Sal’s plan, after all, not hers.

          “How’d it go?” Sal asked when she got back to the condo. He was sitting in the screened porch overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, glancing through the sports section of the morning paper.

          “I don’t know. I didn’t stick around.”

          “I told you to,” he said.

          “I’ve got to trust my instincts,” she said. She didn’t tell him about the two men she saw. “I told the girl to be here at noon if she didn’t see me afterward.”

          “Earlier would have been better,” Sal said.

          “She had a class. You should have picked one of your tramps for this job. There wouldn’t have been any conflict with academics.”

          “You making breakfast?” he asked.

          “Sure.”

          Billie Rae didn’t want to deny herself the beautiful Florida morning, so she ate her scrambled eggs and bacon with him out on the porch.

          Sal made a phone call to one of his buddies then returned to the porch.

          “Ben Coppeli is putting together a foursome at the club. We’ve got a nine o’clock tee time. Jimmy was invited. I can scope things out then.”

          An hour after departing, he was back, shutting the door hard.

          “That was a quick eighteen holes,” Billie Rae said.

          “That girl must have gone crazy,” he announced. “Jimmy and Esilda were both found dead in their condo. Both shot in the chest.”

          “Maybe it wasn’t the girl,” Billie Rae said, thinking of the two men in windbreakers.

          “Oh, yeah? Who could it have been?” He was such an actor. She should have shot him when she had the chance. Maybe she should have shot the girl, too. Sometimes you just don’t know.

          At noon, a rapping sounded on the door.

          “Go hide,” Billie Rae said to Sal, who was sitting on the sofa, drinking a brandy and soda. “That will be her.”

          “I don’t need to hide now. Anyhow, she’s the killer here. We’ve just got to get the gun from her. Maybe pay her a little money to disappear. Money heals all wounds.”

          “Oh, sure, Sal. Just like that. Your partner and his wife dead in their condo. This college girl with a gun we gave her. She’s no fool. This is complicated beyond measure.”

          “Open the damn door,” Sal said.

          Billie Rae opened the door and Emily Pelton strode into the room with an assurance she hadn’t possessed before. She stopped when she saw Sal on the couch, living and breathing.

          “I thought you were dead,” she said.

          “I hope it isn’t nursing school you’re going to, honey,” he said. “You would have flunked out.”

          “I’m a business administration major. I told you.”

She opened her oversized purse and pulled out the Sig Sauer with the suppressor. Billie Rae reached for it, but the girl stepped away and pointed it back and forth between Billie Rae and Sal. “You two were trying to game me,” she said, her voice raising an octave.

“That’s not true,” Billie Rae said. “Do you want a drink, dear?”

“Are you kidding,” Emily said. “I have a two o’clock class. And stop reaching for the gun. I’m not giving it back. I want some answers.”

“That’s what we’d like,” Sal said, sipping his drink and acting like he wasn’t taking her seriously. “What happened with Jimmy Andropolous?”

“It didn’t go at all as Mrs. Mardrosian said it would. First of all, only Jimmy was at the pool. I gave him the message, and he said for me to come up to the condo in fifteen minutes and meet his wife, that she was the brains behind the business. I waved the gun in his face, but he didn’t take me seriously.” She seemed about to cry.

“That was probably expecting a little too much,” Billie Rae said.

“Oh, thanks for the critique, professor,” the girl snapped.

Sal smiled and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s Jimmy for you. What happened next?”

The girl looked around the expansive living room, at the leather furniture and glass tables and paintings that were all idealized and sentimental representations of water crashing against rocks, birds in flight, swaying palms, and kittens and puppies with angelic faces and big eyes.

“I hate your art,” the girl said.

 “We bought the place furnished, and I just never got around to changing things,” Billie Rae said.

The girl had pointed out a sore point between her and Sal. They hadn’t really bought the place furnished. Billie Rae purchased the furniture and art at one of the department stores that had a big sale because Sal could be cheap as hell sometimes and would have made fun of the abstract art she wanted to buy. She should have shot him when they first bought the place in Florida.

“You’re under a lot of stress after taking care of Jimmy and Esilda,” Sal said to Emily Pelton. “I can give you some money, and we can pretend this never happened.”

“You think I killed them? I didn’t kill them. I went up to their condo and the door was ajar. I went in and they were both on the carpet shot dead. I got out of there fast. Then, when I took the elevator down to the lobby, I saw these two men coming out of the door from the stairway. They looked like murderers right out of a TV show. I bet they did it.”

“Let me get this straight,” Sal said. “Jimmy didn’t want to talk to you about selling. He said Esilda was the brains behind the business?”

It seemed to Billie Rae that Sal was trying to keep her there, keep her talking for some reason.

“Yes,” the girl snapped. “If you want to know every lousy detail, he wanted me to come up and have a three-way with them. And then he said he’d pay me five thousand dollars to take care of the both of you. What kind of people are you?” She was almost sobbing.

“I’m a guy who makes money, Emily,” Sal said. “Join me or leave me.”

As Billie Rae walked toward the sliding doors leading to the porch, hoping to position herself so she could tackle the girl from the side, she caught sight of two men down below. The same two men from earlier. The suspicious college girl moved over to see what had caught Billie Rae’s eye. Billie Rae could see that the girl spotted the men, too.

The girl pointed the gun at a painting of a cat with huge glowing eyes and fired. The bullet ripped through the canvas and into the wallboard, barely making a sound.

“Each of you wants the other dead, and both of you want me to work with you so I will be the victim if there’s a price to pay for the mess you’ve created.”

“Let’s try to talk reasonably,” Sal said in his honeyed baritone voice.

“Those men are on the way up and I have a class in an hour and I don’t want to be late,” Emily said.

She fired a shot at Sal and he fell over backward onto the sofa pillow with the embroidered whale. Billie Rae let out a squawk at the sight of the blood that burst onto his chest. She launched herself at Emily, but Emily pushed the business end of the suppressor against her chest and fired.

Billie Rae fell to the floor. She felt the gun being placed in her right hand, but she didn’t have the strength to grip it.

“You should have shot Sal earlier when you had the chance,” the girl said, her voice sounding far away.

Then Billie Rae heard the girl open the condo door, but she didn’t hear it shut. Sal should have known that the girl was far too smart to be working for them. Her last thought as she shut her eyes was that she should have shot Sal when she had the chance.

###


Chris Fortunato is a former editor at Bantam Books (1990s) and at other houses. A story of his was listed as an “Other Distinguished Story” in Best American Mystery Stories of 2019. He had a recent story in Thriller Magazine (Vol. 2, no. 2), and Econo Clash Review is publishing a story of his in Summer/Fall 2020.

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