James Wright lives in Malibu, California. He is a veterinarian and received two degrees from Cornell University. He has two grown children Heather and Jim that reside in California. Writing, gourmet cooking , and sailing are his passions. A previous short story "Hematocrit " was published here in the July 2019 issue. His new novel "A Horse to Kill For " is available at Amazon.
The sun sunk below the distant mountains and the desert night turned bitingly cold. I stepped harder on the gas pedal and my Porshe Boxter convertible rocketed toward Palm Springs. I debated whether to put the top up. Instead I reached over and flicked on the heater full blast. I should have felt great. It was New Years Eve. I was wearing a tuxedo and headed for The Ritz Carlton to party with two women. Kimberly, an ex-girl friend, who had just inherited a bunch of money, was footing the bill. Her friend, a criminal defense attorney, was flying in from Jersey.
Last week it seemed like a great idea, but now I wasn’t so sure. I thought I needed some excitement in my life. My divorce had left me aimlessly drifting these last few years and I became bored easily. Impulsively, I had accepted the offer; bu now nagging doubts bombarded my mind like firecrackers on the 4th of July.
It wasn’t so much that was said but what was unsaid. Kimberely had, in passing, mentioned that her attorney friend had been involved in a tragic incident in Jersey and needed to get away. “What does that mean?”I thought as the cold night air continued to pummel me in the convertible. I shivered despite the heater. The exit sign “Welcome to Palm Springs”glared brightly illuminated by the phosphorescent lights on the side of the freeway. I turned right, screeched around the turn and headed up Doris Day Drive to the Ritz Carlton.
Massive palm trees stood and lined the drive and subtle white low level lighting outlined the circular driveway. As I slowed, I shut off the heater and the smell of star jasmine wafted into the interior of the car.
Three young men in white tuxedos were hanging out and chatting near the valet stand in front of the massive glass entryway. One broke away from the trio and approached my car. “Welcome to the Ritz. How may I help you?”
I leaned over the door and said, have you seen two good looking girls, one dark haired and the other blonde with shoulder length hair?”
“ Oh those two, couldn’t miss them…not exactly inconpicuous. Got here a few hours ago. Brunette seemed a little reserved but the blonde was ready to party. “
I handed him my key. He raised an eyebrow and smiled.
“They are in suite 322. Go through the lobby and up the stairs. Good Luck”.
Kimberly opened the door on my second knock.
“Hi Parker, welcome to my party!”
I wrapped my arms around her black satin dress and gave her a full body hug. She was as taught and firm as I had remembered. I am all for the3 fitness and health fads promoted by Madison Avenue. ‘Rubenesque’ women are not for me. I gave her an extra squeeze and said, “ Hey, Thanks for the invite. You look great. I like your new hair style.”
She stepped aside and said, “Thanks for noticing come on in. “
I stepped through the doorway and glanced around the room. An enormous tapestry, in gold and green, depicting an ancient hunting scene, hung over the king-size bed. The mirror behind the mahogany bar was backlit with blue lighting. A dazzling array of every liquor bottle imaginable filled the entire wall. A set of crystal glasses perched precariously near the silver ice bucket.
Kimberly headed to the bar, turned her head toward me and said,
“Do you still drink gin?”
I nodded an affirmative.
She mixed a ‘Stoly’ rocks for herself and expertly made a dry martini ‘up’ for me. We both leaned against the bar. She handed me my drink and raised her glass.
“Cheers! Let’s put on some music.”
She went behind the bar and hit a button. A wisp of blond hair fell over her left eye as she looked at me over the brim of her crystal glass.
“ Gina is in the bathroom taking a shower, she had a long flight. She should be done any minute. I think you might like her.”
The cacaphonious rock and roll emanating from the speakers surrounding the room mingled with the noise of the shower.
I still lowered my voice and said,
“You know I am not here for any romantic adventure, but may I be bold enough to ask why think she is so intriguing?”
“ I told you, she is a criminal defense attorney from Jersey and has traveled all over the world and speaks Italian fluently.”
“You mean she is Italian?”
Kim looked at me and said with exasperation in her voice,
“Of Italian descent. She was born in Paramus, New Jersey.”
I couldn’t help but wondering. An Italian attorney from Jersey wouldn’t have any mob connections. What are the chances? I kept these thoughts to my self and decided I had been watching too many movies.
The bathroom door flew open, a cloud of mist and the smell of expensive perfume preceded a fluffy white robe that overwhelmed and encapsulated a dark haired beauty. Her long, jet-black hair, still wet and shining from the shower cascaded down her back. I thought her eyes were dark but, in the reflected light, I could see now they were the color of burnished metallic gold. Still wrapped in the robe, she threw herself on an overstuffed armchair in the corner of the room.
“ Hi,” She said. “ You must be Kim’s friend, Parker. I have heard a lot about you.”
I laughed. “All good I hope.”
She shifted in her chair and the bottom of the robe parted exposing her legs. They were long, firm, and sinewy, a runner perhaps? Surprisingly, a long linear raised scar was visible on the outside of her right thigh. She caught me staring at her legs and casually pulled the terry cloth fabric over them.
She glanced up and with a wan smile replied,
“I am exhausted and on nervous energy right now but I’m ready to have a great New Years Eve…. I need to have a little fun. I have a had a rough year to put it mildly.”
I nodded my head and took a long slow drink of my martini.
“How bad was it?”
The robe shifted again and she twisted a piece of thread and snapped it off at the hemline. Without looking up she replied,
“ I’d really rather not talk about it but, I will give you the short version …a druggie ex boyfriend whose father was “mobbed up” tried to kill me. He will be in jail for a long time.”
I thought I detected a slight shudder as she rewrapped the robe around her and rose from the chair.
“ I have to get dressed. Why don’t you go downstairs and we’ll meet you at the bar. You know your job is to be our handsome escort tonight.”
She gave me a sly smile and wink and headed to the back bedroom.
The cavernous hotel ballroom overlooked the twinkling lights of Palm Springs. Huge plate glass windows surrounded the room on three sides. Red and blue ballons dangled from streamers hung from the ceiling.
The room was filling rapidly with smartly dressed maen in tuxedos and women bedecked in fine jewelry and sequined dresses. I snaked my way through the crowd and headed for the bar at the end of the room. I went to the far corner and approached an elevated burnished mahogany bar. I caught the burly bartender’s eye, I am tall, but certainly from his elevated vantagepoint he could view the entire room. He nodded and I said,
“Boodles Gin martini up with a twist. I’m waiting for two women can you let me know if you spot them in this crowd.”
He slid the drink in front of me and said,
“Sure thing. Who am I looking for?”
“ Blonde and brunette. Both good looking.”
The band members were beginning to set up for tonight’s party, the murmuring voices and tinkling of glasses intensified. I could barely hear the bartender when he glanced toward the entrance and said,
“ I believe your dates have arrived.”
I followed his gaze and saw the two stroll arm in arm into the room. They paused at the entrance and both scanned the room as if they owned the place. Kimberly, her blonde hair cut in a bob, wore the classic black cocktail dress and it fit her perfectly. Pearl earings, pearl necklace, and a slash of red lipstick finished the look. Gina, in direct contrast, wore a black rimmed hat, a red dress with a black sequined border and minimal makeup on her olive toned skin. The glaring mismatch was she carried a white leather purse slung over her shoulder.
I stood up and waved, both nodded in recognition and headed in lockstep toward my direction. They joined me in the corner and I felt dozens of eyes stare at our threesome. The crowd jostled and pressed us further ino the corner. The smell of booze, perspiration and perfume permeated the air. Gina turned toward me and the light from the ceiling illuminated the right side of her face and neck. I bent down to speak to her and I noticed another scar, partially covered by her hat, hair and a layer of foundation makeup. The scar ran from below her right ear to the base of her neck. She stood close to me and pulled me even closer.
“How bout that drink? Scotch and Soda.”
The bartender nodded and turned to make the drink. Gina leaned against the bar and surveyed the crowd. She tensed and nudged my left arm.
“ Check out that guy in the far corner standing alone. Do you see the one with the slicked back hair thats wearing a brown suit? I think he is staring at us.”
I tried turn casually, like “Bogart” did in the old movies. I eyeballed him and he furtively glanced away and sipped from his highball glass.
I sidled a little closer to Gina and reassured her,
“ He’s just looking at you two beautiful women…not to worry. “
I got the feeling that Kimberly was feeling ignored and she announced to no one in particular that she was going outside for a smoke.
Gina nodded to Kimberley and said to me,
“ I’m not so sure about that guy he looks a little out of place.”
Gina fingured the gold clasps on her purse and visibly relaxed.
To change the subject and make small talk, I politely asked,
“ My curiosity is killing me, why are you carrying a purse to the party it doesn’t even match your outfit.”
“ It’s a necessary fashion accesory for me.”
I raised my eyebrow.
She opened her purse and said,
“Take a look.”
Inside was a small nickel-plated gun.
Despite my surprise I said,
She snapped her purse shut and laughed,
“ It’s a Beretta Bobcat. It’s not the size of the bullet that matters but the accuracy of the shooter.”
The music began and the four piece band played like a second rate Las Vegas NightClub Act. The crowd slowly milled toward the dance floor. The music was discordant and off beat but the couples shuffled and swayed and seemed not to care. We two stepped toward the middlle of the crowd and I lost site of the brown suit. In the middle of an unrecognizable song, Gina stopped dancing. Near the front of the band stood the guy with the brown suit.
“ There he is. He is checking us out. I am sure I’ve seen him before in Jersey.”
He was thin, sallow complected, with thin lips and a prominent nose. He had high cheekbones with pock marked skin. Not somebody one would easily forget.
Gina pulled me off the dance floor and said,
“Let’s get out of here. We got to get Kimberly and go back to the room.”
Luckily, Kimberly had finished her smoke and was just entering the ballroom.
I caught her eye and motioned for her to follow us. She hurried over and said,
“ What’s up? Why are you leaving the party?”
Gina turned to her and said,
”We got to go back to the room.”
“You got to be kidding. It’s almost midnight!”
Gina glared at her, grabbed her hand and said,
“ This is no joke. I’m serious follow me now.”
We raced up stairs to the suite, went in and locked the door.
Gina threw herself down on the tapestry upholsterd chair that faced the door. Her complexion was a curious shade of olive/grey.
“ Gina are you OK you look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“That dude is a hit man, enforcer for the Jersey mob. Now I am sure they have a contract out on me.”
At that instant the knob on the door turned. The sound of a key clicked.
Brown suits bursed through the entryway. A sub nosed 38 Smith and Wesson pointed directly at Gina.
Gina fired first; seven shots rang out in quick staccato. One loud report returned that harmlessly went astray and shattered the mirror behind the bar.
The assailant fell forward on his right side; the gun clattered against the tile and skittered along the floor.
Gina slowly rose to her feet and cautiously approached the prone figure. She knelt down and felt his neck for a pulse. Two small bullet holes seeped blood from his forehead above his right eye and the other below his left cheek. The blood slowly trickled down his face and pooled on the brown tile. The center of his chest was peppered with mutiple gunshot wounds. Gina made the sign of the cross and gently touched her scar on the right side of her neck. To no one in particular she said,
“Never wear a brown suit to a New Years Eve Party. Shows a lack of proper upbringing and no class.”
Kimberly headed for the bathroom and proceeded to get sick and vomit. Gina got up, took off her hat, and flung it on the chair. She kicked the door shut and said,
“ Thank God that’s over… we best call 911.”
She undid the scrunchy that held her hair in place, unfettered; her black hair fell down to her shoulders. She buried her head on my chest. The noise from the party downstairs had reached it’s midnight crescendo.
She looked up at me, her gold eyes glimmering in the light and said,
“ HAPPY NEW YEAR.”