by C. S. Malerich
Instead of Mama, the brothel's owner called herself Venus.
Franz returned a wry smile when she gave him the name. She didn't look like any Venus he'd ever seen in the art museums. Any moment, you expected to be invited into her kitchen and ordered to eat vats of pasta. Or that's what she wanted you to expect.
Aside from that, she was weighed down. There were rings on her fingers and heavy gold chains at her throat. Her broad bosom and buttocks were covered in swaths of dark lace. Nothing girlish or fresh there, no coy backward glance to catch sight of herself in a reflecting pool, no modest hand to screen her pert breasts. Lines crossed her face, especially at the corners of her eyes and her painted-on lips. Her voice was deep and throaty--accented, but Franz suspected that was a put-on, too. The inspector decided he preferred Botticelli's version; this Venus was past her prime. He flashed his ID and explained the purpose of his visit, assuring her he wasn't looking for infractions of sex trade law.
"A murder, signor?" said she, raising her crinkled eyelids to affect wonder and fright. "What could that have to do with me? Or my establishment?"
"That's what I'd like to discover, madame," replied the inspector. "We found this address in the victim's hotel room. Do you know him?" Franz showed Signora Venus a snapshot of George Linebaugh, the American tourist whose body had washed ashore yesterday. The face in the photo was discolored and twisted where the sea had done its work, but the expression was peaceful. Signora Venus looked away -- a moment too late for the inspector's taste -- putting her hands up as if to shield herself from Death's face.
"No, no," she protested. "I do not know him. Oh, the poor man. To die so horribly, away from home. But he never came here, of that I assure you, signor!"
"Right," said Franz. He had expected she'd say that. "All the same, I'd like to take a look around your, ahem, establishment, talk to your employees. One of them might know him. Or one of your customers."
"You are welcome, of course," said Signora Venus, "to speak with any one of my employees--"
Franz heard a nascent "but" in her tone; he spoke before she was able.
"Thanks, madame, that's very accommodating. First I'd like to ask you," he went on, holding her in the narrow hallway just inside her door, "if you have any ideas how Mr. Linebaugh ended up with your address, when, as you say, you never met him and the gentleman never came here?"
"I'm sure I don't know--"
"Another customer told him?"
"It's possible," she admitted.
"I'll need a list of all the customers you've entertained here in the past year. Names and phones numbers, if you would be so kind."
Venus laughed. "Signor, surely! My customers don't want to be found, and I don't mail out circulars. I don't ask for addresses if their money's good. Most are here on vacation."
"What about repeat customers?" Franz asked. "No loyal core of regular clientele?"
"Nothing of the sort, signor."
"Come along, madame--I'm told yours is the best place on the strip, the only place that caters to all ages and appetites. That's a rarity worth coming back for."
"Not all ages and appetites, signor," said Venus, lowering her deep voice even further. "Of course not all. I would never provide a customer with something illegal. If you think Signor Linebaugh had such tastes, I'm sure that is why he never came here."
Franz considered her. "If you don't mind, I'll have that chat with your employees now," he said at last.
"As you wish," she replied. Her now-iron jaw belied the words. She stepped back, pressing her buttocks against the wall so that he might squeeze past her and up the back stairs at the end of the hall.
Venus showed him out the door an hour later. He'd checked up on all Venus' girls, boys too, but they turned out to be legal and overage. There hadn't been any customers on the premises to interview--it was broad daylight still, Franz reminded himself--and none of the whores admitted to recognizing the dead man. Franz believed them; he didn't believe their employer. He lit a cigarette as he stepped down into the mucky alley. As he did so, he eyed the wooden cross on the building across the road, imagining the building's tall narrow windows eyed him ruefully right back.
"Doesn't that hurt business?" he asked Venus, nodding toward the convent.
"Christos and I have an accord," replied the brothel's proprietress, that voice raspy with age and sardonic wit. But Franz couldn't see the joke.
"Good afternoon, Signor Inspector," said Venus.
Franz circled back to the alley after twenty minutes--what seemed like enough time to convince Signora Venus of his departure if she had watched him go. He couldn't be sure, but he imagined her eyes on him as he'd walked away, even if she had closed the door behind him and bolted the lock. There was a window on the second floor, above the door, but it looked too grimy to be a good vantage point.
On the second go-round, he again found himself contemplating the juxtaposition of the convent and the brothel. The convent was a looming stone building, black with pollution, and few in apertures as its holy virgins' uniforms. The brothel on the other hand had tucked itself inconspicuously into the row of pawn shops and tabernas, other dens of iniquity, without any sign or distinguishing mark. Nothing to match that enormous wooden cross affixed to the convent's wall. It stood like the hand of a superhuman traffic cop ordering vice to halt at its walls. The brothel, on the other hand, had no desire to ward off sin, and no need, apparently, to advertise.
An emaciated dog was squatting near the convent's gate. One of the sisters came walking down the alley from the other direction, returning home--from the market, for she carried a laden basket on one arm. The dog retreated at her approach and she paused at the gate, taking a moment to produce the gate's key from her robes. Her keys jingled, and clacked against what Franz could only assume were rosary beads. As if the sound were a signal, street children began to emerge from the alley's shadows, waifs with sunken cheeks and hopeful eyes. Slowly they came; they dare not hope too much.
"Yes, yes, children. Come, it's nearly supper-time," said the sister. She was young for her vocation, and apple-cheeked. At her beckoning, the spell was broken and the children ran forward hastily, clustering around her like pigeons around a statue of the Madonna. She trusted her basket to one of the older ones. "There, Raphael, take that to the kitchen for me." She urged the older children through the gate as well, all the while casting mindful glances about her in the withering sunlight. Franz could see she worried about being out after dark. When the cluster of children were inside, she herself went in, shutting the gate behind her with a slam. The skeletal dog stood outside in the alley still, quivering.
Franz waited. Just when he and the dog were certain the sister would not re-appear, she did. She came through the gate again, bearing a shallow dish, which she set some five paces from the gate. When she had fallen back again a sufficient distance, the dog loped to the bowl and began devouring its contents.
"I know I shouldn't waste good meat," said the sister to Franz, without looking at him. "And if another dog comes along they'll only fight and kill one another over it."
"Sister Sophia," said the inspector, "I'm grateful for your information."
"And?" the sister asked expectantly. She spoke as if they had not only met that afternoon, as if "sister" were not just an honorific and he really was her brother. In spite of himself, the familiarity pleased Franz.
"I thought you might tell me more about your neighbor across the way," he said, coming close.
"Did you meet the lady of the house?" Sister Sophia asked, with a touch of irony.
Inspector Franz nodded. "Yes. But I am afraid she was not very forthcoming."
"Did you expect her to be?" asked the sister. She shifted the weight on her hips, and the unseen rosary beads clacked again somewhere inside those swishing robes.
"I did not," Franz admitted. "She said my victim was unknown to her. Not a customer."
"How does she explain, then, why the gentleman had her address?"
"She didn't explain it," said he. "But that's simple enough. He may have intended to be a customer, or was even merely thinking of it. But Fate intervened."
"You believe in Fate, do you, inspector?"
Franz chuckled. "I apologize, sister. I usually hide my heathenism in a more secure shroud; but I confess: I'm an over-educated man."
"Which means you cannot be a religious man," Sister Sophia finished.
"In my case," he admitted, still apologetic.
"What is it in your education that forces you to doubt?" she inquired.
Franz paused. This was not the conversation he had intended to have at all. He didn't feel like angering her, telling her point blank that her church was responsible for the rape of hundreds of children. So he gave another reason. "I suppose it is the idea that there must be only one god, one great being that controls everything--" he laughed, cutting his own thought short.
"What?" inquired the sister.
"There it is again. Your neighbor calls herself Venus after the pagan goddess--just the goddess of love and beauty, you know. And even She had a son to divide responsibilities with. The ancients had separate gods for everything in life. Sun, moon, farming, prophecy, the sky, the sea--I wonder sometimes what must have happened to all of them when your god moved in and monopolized the universe. Put a lot of deities out of a job, didn't he?"
Sister Sophia's pink lips were pursed and Franz could tell she had soured on him. "There are some jurisdictions," she replied, with a hostile glare across the alley, "Christos was just as happy to leave to others."
"Like you did when you took your vows, sister?" Franz asked, finding his mind had wandered to those unseen rosary beads again. Her glare shifted toward his face.
"You find fault with me?" she asked. "The heart wants what the hearts wants."
"Or in your case," he completed the thought, "the heart does not want what the heart does not want."
She shrugged. "We are each made one way or another, for this way of life or that, and none of us chooses it of our own accord."
"Now who believes in Fate?" Franz teased her.
"I would not call it that."
He chuckled. "But isn't it a pretty enigma? Here we two admit that humans crouch at the mercy of uncontrollable powers--and yet our jobs both require us to believe in free will."
"A pretty enigma," she agreed. "Let me know when you solve it. But I do not believe my God can be so unjust as to call men to account for what is beyond their control."
"That is another advantage of heathenism," said Franz. "The ancients did not expect their gods to be just, and they were never disappointed."
Just then the door to the convent opened, drawing their attention. Out walked Father Bruno, whom Franz had also met that afternoon when he came to inquire about the address in George Linebaugh's hotel room. A nice young man, Franz had thought. It was too bad--a young man like that should have gotten a sensible job, married, settled down with wife and children. But this one was idealistic. Well, one would have to be, to volunteer for a parish as poor as this one. Franz understood the impulse though; after all, he'd volunteered for this assignment.
The wiry little priest walked to the gate but not through it.
"Sister Sophia!" he called. "Hello again, inspector. Sister, they are waiting for you--Mother is holding evening prayers and the children are hungry of course."
"Of course," said the sister, passing through the gate once more as he held it open for her. "I hope you will excuse me, inspector. Perhaps Father Bruno can help you, however."
When she had gone, Father Bruno spoke to Franz through the gate. "I didn't intend to interrupt, inspector," he explained, "but when Sister Sophia did not return at once, we were anxious. In this neighborhood, we must look after one another."
Franz explained why he had detained Sister Sophia. "I did wonder, since earlier you both identified the address across the way as a brothel--how do you know?"
"You think we share a common source of information with your dead man." The inspector nodded but the priest shook his head. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, inspector, but we never heard it said in so many words. Living across the road--we are not unobservant--"
"You merely put two-and-two together," Franz explained for him.
"I wish I could be more helpful," said Bruno. "It troubles us, especially with the children about. We wish we could keep them inside the convent, but we haven't the facilities for an orphanage. We let them sleep in the church and we see they get a hot meal in the evenings, but most of them depend on begging or some other day trade to survive and we have no call to deny them their freedom."
"What do you fear happening to these children?" Franz leaned in closer to hear the answer.
"What don't we fear happening to them?" asked the priest. "Without homes or families they could have accidents, they could be murdered, could become murderers themselves--there's no one to look after them at every hour. They could be used for...illicit purposes." The priest pinked. Franz was sorry he could not have gotten this far with Sister Sophia. She was made of sterner stuff.
"I checked out Signora Venus' whores," the inspector told Father Bruno. "They're all overage at least. All in good health, it looked. Venus takes care of her employees. For what it's worth."
"I am--somewhat--gladdened to hear you say so," said Father Bruno. He pressed himself against the gate. "I have heard otherwise about that place, that there you can buy yourself a child of any age if your cash is good."
Now we are getting somewhere, Franz thought. "Where did you hear this?"
Too soon. The priest went mute. "I am afraid I cannot say--my vows prevent me," he mumbled at last.
"You mean you've heard the confession of someone who has--"
"No," Father Bruno objected. "But the rumor was mentioned to me in confession. I cannot say more."
"Father, please--anything you can tell me, you needn't reveal--"
"I've already said too much."
The inspector met the priest's eyes through the gate. Franz made a decision. Bruno was the type of man who was suspicious of suspicion. But if Franz confided in him, perhaps Bruno would confide in Franz. So the inspector told him why he was really there. It wasn't just a homicide. The dead American was suspected of traveling abroad to buy himself a child. That made it Franz's case to investigate--he'd taken on the special assignment, the ancient scourge that looked new.
Father Bruno stared at him a full ten seconds before he spoke. "Father Alain," he said at last. "At the Basilica of San Devote. He has done nothing, I assure you. Now I must leave you." The priest's face was ashen, sickly; he moved off quickly and paid no heed to Franz's shouted follow-ups. There would be no more information from Father Bruno, not today. He had already said as much as his antiquated sense of honor would allow.
Father Alain had already been missing from the Basilica of San Devote for three days when Franz learned his name, although Father Bruno did not know that. The two priests had not spoken in some time, not since Father Alain's last confession, when he told Father Bruno of the thoughts and desires that kept stealing into his mind and body, unbidden. Of the rumors he had heard of the house across the road from the convent, of the temptation, the sore temptation to visit Signora Venus. Perhaps Alain had come to Bruno on purpose, expecting understanding. But it had backfired: the delicate young priest had been horrified, had offered nothing more than the hasty, trite counsels every seminarian knew, had withdrawn from contact with his colleague.
Franz knew nothing of this, but he did learn the next day that Father Alain was dead. His body was found in a garbage bin outside the city that morning.
The interesting part, the coroner told Franz, was that the priest and Franz's victim had died in the same way. It was only now that Mr. Linebaugh's cause of death had been determined.
"Shot in the heart," said the coroner.
"It took you so long to notice this?"
"I've been occupied elsewhere; yours isn't the only victim to examine. Anyway the killer did a neat job of it."
"Fine fine," Franz complained. "What kind of gun am I looking for? Or can't you tell that?"
"Not a gun, inspector. A bow and arrow."
Franz blasphemed. "Who commits murder with a bow and arrow?"
"It gets stranger--"
"Linebaugh and the priest aren't the only ones," Franz guessed.
"No," said the coroner. "I checked. I found two similar cases, going back a year. Both shot in the heart, both still open cases."
"Go on," said Franz.
Three of the victims--George Linebaugh and the older cases--were tourists from area hotels, but their stays had not overlapped. The last was a local priest. They had not known each other, and the bodies were found in separate locations, spread across a thirteen-kilometer radius. Except for the manner of their deaths, the victims seemed to have had nothing in common. But, Franz thought grimly, the two newest victims at least had shared a common interest.
This time, there were no introductions, no pleasantries, no knocking at the door. Franz broke through and told Signora Venus he could arrest her for child prostitution right now. But maybe he wouldn't, not right away, if she told him where the kids came from.
Signora Venus was not intimidated. Today she had on a lacy shawl, which she wrapped around her arms so that she might place her hands on her hips more defiantly. As she moved, the heavy bracelets on her thick wrists clattered together. For a moment, Franz was reminded of Sister Sophia's rosary beads. But those clacked in a wholly different way.
"What," Venus asked him, sizing him up, "do you desire?"
"I just told you," Franz answered angrily, "I--"
"That," she interjected, "is what you want," she dismissed. "I asked what you desire."
And with that one word, the world changed.
The very air felt charged with the oddest possibilities, as if lightning had struck here and planned to again. The tables turned. He was no longer a self-possessed inspector, Signora Venus was no longer his quarry. Instead she was a genie, offering him his fondest wish; he was a bankrupt gambler, showing his cards, his last reckless hope.
Franz took a step backward, unnerved. Venus' gaze was steady and probing. She took a step toward him, making up the distance, and backed him into the solid door behind. "Tell me. I can get it for you. Ask me, pray to me, and it's yours," she offered. Her eyes dilated with every word. "What is it, baby?" she cooed. Was it meant to be seductive? But she sounded like a mother to a frustrated and weeping child. "Sister Sophia's pink cheeks?" she suggested. "I have a whore that looks just like her. Or young Father Bruno? It would not be the first time my boy wore a collar."
The inspector only stared at her, horrified and fascinated. Her face was inches from his, close enough that he could distinctly see the wrinkled skin hanging off her skull, the yellowed teeth, and he could smell her rotten sweet breath. But her eyes were pulsing with vigor--they could not belong to that weathered face, not really.
Suddenly she stepped back. "Oh," she concluded, the probe over. "You want what I want."
"What?" Franz asked, bewildered, barely above a whisper. A knock at the door made him jump.
Venus grinned. "Watch," she instructed, and opened the door: Franz didn't understand how it happened, he was standing between her and the door, but before he could blink the door was open and another man had come through; the newcomer and Venus were exchanging veiled statements as if Franz did not exist. The inspector was not sure that he did.
The newcomer's shoes marked him as wealthy, his accent as American. He told Venus his contact's name, she nodded, he told her he was looking for something fresher than the norm. She asked him how fresh, he told her eight-to-ten, she quoted a price. He took cash from his breast pocket. Venus smiled.
"Just a minute," Franz protested, attempting to stride forward. But his feet might as well have been nailed to the floor. Neither Venus nor the newcomer showed any sign of hearing him. Venus turned from her guest and disappeared through a side door that Franz had never seen. While she was gone, Franz watched the customer wait. He had his hands deep in his trouser pockets; Franz could see him begin to sweat and smile with the anticipation. Franz felt a wave of nausea, but he had felt that much before. It came with the job.
Venus returned, leading a smaller person by the hand. A boy, maybe ten-years-old, if small for his age. His dark liquid eyes darted about fearfully. His cheeks were round, as was the belly that poked out beneath his tee shirt--better fed and washed than any of the other children Franz had seen in the neighborhood. Even his hair was combed. A perfect little cherub.
Franz yelled, tried to move forward again, to intervene, to do anything. But he was imprisoned in the customer's ignorance of him, unable to make himself heard or felt or seen. He watched Venus hand the timid child over to her latest customer, listened to the customer approve the merchandise, watched customer and child move toward the back stairs under Venus' guidance. They passed Franz as if he were less than a shadow on the wall.
Then, with the customer's back to the little figure, Franz caught the expression on the cherub's face: a smirk, a flash of devilish glee in the dark eyes. Inhumanly dark. Franz understood suddenly, certainly. Whatever that thing was, it was not a child.
Following Venus, the customer and the thing-that-was-not-a-child disappeared up the stairs. Franz listened to the stranger's voice talking false kindness to the cherub-creature, offering to take it for a ride later in his car, telling it they were going to get along well. A door was opened, closed, and bolted.
Franz's straining ears could detect nothing further and he sweated in his paralysis. Suddenly a sharp note sounded out of the silence, as if a harp string had been plucked, strong and sure. A body thudded to the floor, and there was nothing else.
So the customer was dead. Franz was sure of that. He wondered briefly if all the victims had been killed in the same room, by the same bow, by the same marksman, or if Venus had several at her command. He thought of the grimy window and wondered if the cross on the convent's door across the way could see into the upstairs room, and what it thought of all this.
"What did you think of all that, inspector?" Venus asked him. She had re-appeared on the stairs.
Franz snapped out of his reverie and back to tangible existence.
He was honest: "I don't know what to think."
"Then allow me to help you," Venus said generously, and began to explain. "Desire is a gift. It is not given to everyone." Franz thought of Sister Sophia. "And those to whom it is given, who misuse it--there must be recompense."
"Death." He disliked euphemisms. He was honest.
"Recompense. You agree."
"I agree," said Franz.
The old woman peered at him keenly again, but it was not the soul-searching stare she had given him before. "Who was it?" she asked, meaning, he took it, she wanted to know who had hurt him.
"Not me," he shook his head, correcting her. "My sister. She killed herself when she was nineteen, she couldn't live with the pain anymore. Our bastard uncle is still alive, in prison." He was bitter. Naturally. He did not usually tell people this. "What about you?"
"My son," she said, just as the cherub-thing re-appeared at the top of the stairs and descended without ever touching foot to step. Franz couldn't tell if Venus was answering his question or making introductions. Maybe both.
"Cupid," said the inspector. "Are you Venus, then? The real Venus?"
She shrugged one shoulder as she tousled the boy's hair affectionately. "If that's easiest for you to believe. Otherwise I am just a mother--a mother skilled in magic, but an ordinary mother all the same. A mother who protects her children." She fixed him in her gaze once more, and he considered if neither explanation was the whole truth, but maybe the two of them combined.
"Well, Signor Inspector," she went on seriously, "are you going to help me dispose of the body or not? The last two were found so readily, I cannot afford to be sloppy three times in a row."
© 2008 C. S. Malerich
Bio: C. S. Malerich grew up in New Jersey. She holds a master's degree in Greek and Latin from the University of Maryland, where she occasionally teaches a course on Greek and Roman Mythology. When not in a library or writing, she enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons, baking vegan cupcakes, and hanging out with her three disapproving bunnies (the furry kind, not the Hefner companion kind). For more of Charlotte's work, visit Charlotte's Website.
E-mail: C. S. Malerich
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