A white mist covered everything around me as far as I could see. I was wet. My arms and legs shook, and my heart rumbled asynchronously like the Band of the Grenadier Guards the morning after Grenadier Day. With my head still spinning, I clumsily tried to get up.
I was in heaven, obviously. In fact, I couldn’t be absolutely sure, and it might as well be hell because it was pretty hot, but in any case, it wasn’t an ordinary place. Right next to me in what seemed to be purgatory, the gatekeeper kneeled, confused. It was a naked woman who looked very much like Sonya.
“You alright?” she asked me and tenderly stroked my head.
“I think so,” I replied in a hollow voice.
I looked around, dazed. I saw an intruder not far from me who had clearly tried to sneak inside without permission, but his attempt failed. The security guys stopped and trashed him ruthlessly. The man had square jaws, and his arms looked like pneumatic jackhammers, but the gatekeepers here obviously took no prisoners either. They had smashed his head with a metal dildo, and the thing still lay on the floor beside him.
I groaned painfully and tried to imagine a scene where a stark-naked young woman beat an almost seven-foot-tall lad on the head with a sex toy. At the same time, my own head hurt terribly, and I wondered if the same thing had happened to me. I felt sick and disorientated.
“Did you do this to him?” I asked, astonished and still not believing it, but then I noticed a hammer near the man’s feet that was heavy enough to crack the toughest coconut. It was covered in blood, and it explained everything.
“We had old scores to settle. Come on, let’s go!” The woman, whom I now definitely recognized as Sonya, urged me to stand up.
I tried to obey her, but I staggered heavily and had to grab the floor with my hands to prevent it from slipping away from under my feet. I stayed like that for a few moments until the world trembled nervously before my eyes with a smaller and smaller amplitude and finally stopped moving. Then I tried to rise again, but I still felt sick and was afraid I would throw up. Sonya took me under her arm and helped me keep my balance, after which we waddled unsteadily toward the end of the corridor and down the stairs. The entire time, she supported me with one hand, and with the other, she held the bed cover to her body. Soon we reached the ground floor and left the building.
As soon as we stepped into the yard, I knew something strange had happened while I was in the house. At first, I had no distinctive idea, and I thought the sensation was a product of my fainting, but after a while, I realized the air was strangely cool and rich in oxygen for the first time in a couple of months. It was the touch of autumn! I had actually been waiting for this moment for so long that I felt happy as a Bedouin kid in the middle of the Sahara Desert, on whose dark nose a naughty white snowflake just fell.
I opened my mouth and breathed deeply. My lungs filled with crisp air, and its freshness drove the sticky summer lethargy that paralyzed me out of my system. Then I suddenly felt so tired. I wanted to forget everything about this damn case—the police, the contract, my financial problems… I just wanted to sit by the ocean with a bottle of gin and drown my brain in alcohol, listening to the waves breaking against the shore and the seagulls crying.
After a few moments, I let go of Sonya because I felt much better and looked around myself. There were many cops everywhere in the yard. Most were doing things that didn’t even remotely qualify as work. They were smoking cigarettes, chatting with colleagues, and laughing with no worries bothering their minds. Among them, I recognized Inspector Greensboro, who was coming toward us. Soon, he approached and cleared his throat, but he only stared at me instead of saying something. I had no idea how I looked, but based on his expression, it clearly wasn’t good. I had the feeling he didn’t see me, but a tyrannosaur with his grandmother’s hipbone sticking out of its mouth!
“Are you okay, Mellrow?” After a while, he asked me the stupidest question ever.
I snorted. As always, he was immaculately dressed, wearing a formal black suit, a white shirt, and a bowtie. His hair was glossy with brilliantine and pulled back so tightly that it looked carved into his skull with a sharp nail—like in those insanely cheap toy sets of Barbie and Ken. I was almost sure he had just taken Jill out—maybe for an opera or something—when his colleagues called him to say that an idiot named Mellrow had embarked on a raid to take over the entire Vietnam army all by himself, and because of that, he was mad at me now.
“I’m fine,” I answered, sobbing and coughing because my eyes and throat were still sore from the smoke grenades, and the moisture in the air suddenly made it worse. After a short struggle to stop it, I lost the battle and unleashed myself, crying openly.
“Do you need medical care?” Greensboro asked me sympathetically, nodding toward my wounded leg.
Wiping my tears, I grunted, and my eyes accidentally fell on a police dog not far from us. It obviously cried too. “It’s just a scratch. Don’t worry!” I refused his help, still wondering what was wrong with the animal. However, I must have looked at it too fixedly because I heard the inspector’s voice explain.
“It’s the tear gas. She’ll be alright soon.”
“Tear gas? I thought that shit didn’t affect dogs!” I burst into tears again.
“Nonsense!” Greensboro firmly rejected my theory. “It’s a popular belief, but simply not true. Tear gas affects everything that breathes!”
I reluctantly turned my head to him, frowning at the fact that he could teach me something, but I said nothing. I didn’t want to waste my time here and wondered how to get rid of him, but just then, a police sergeant came to us and interrupted our conversation. He informed the inspector that FBI agents had blocked Kurvallo’s car a couple of miles down the road, and there was no escape. The officer promised it was a sure thing. Except for the DEA chief, a woman wearing a distinctive pair of white pants was also inside the vehicle, he added. Greensboro nodded silently and looked back at us.
“Is this the girl you were looking for?” he wanted to know, glancing at Sonya, whose “garment’s” front had loosened a bit and now revealed one of her breasts, just like Delacroix’s Liberty in his famous painting.
“Yes, she is.”
“You do know you can’t take her with you, right? She’s staying to give statements.”
At first, I wanted to argue about it, but in the distance behind his back, I glimpsed Boris and a few other men, which distracted me. My blond-haired friend was arrested and received medical care. He looked pretty trashed, as if he had just returned from the wildest jungle, where he fought hundreds of jaguars and green anacondas. I felt sorry for him again. The guy was rough, but he was just a bouncer who tried to make a living at Eternity. He hadn’t done anything bad to me except for threatening me a couple of times, and I really hoped he would find Marilyn alive among the women kept in this horrible place.
“Can’t you take her statements tomorrow?” I made a face, expressing my annoyance with the inspector, combining it with some sobbing and sniffling. “She’s practically naked, for God’s sake!”
“Don’t worry about it! We’ll think of something,” he replied nonchalantly.
I shrugged, still irritated. The guy was a damn paper pusher, and that was it! When he had the chance to move his ass and help me, he preferred staying in his office and screwing Jill on his desk, but now that I had done the dirty job for him, he was quick to reap the laurels. Lately, almost every cop in this country fitted perfectly into this character, and it was really weird that I thought that, because at this moment, I glimpsed another two of my dear old friends—the albino guys. They were talking to an officer who idled beside his squad car, and when I looked at the group, Agent Scully turned her head and looked at me, too. We remained like this for a few seconds, and then she nodded slightly. I returned her gesture in the same reserved manner, and her partner—Mulder or whatever his name was—kept rummaging in his pants the entire time, true to his unique style. He didn’t even notice any of this.
Since I was mad at Greensboro but helpless to change his decision, I was just about to leave Sonya in his hands and go away when another cop ran to us, heavily panting and explaining that Kurvallo’s car had escaped the roadblock and the agents had lost it completely. The inspector didn’t comment again, and the entire situation made me think that maybe the DEA chief was really invincible after all, as the yellow press claimed about him. Either that or the cops and the FBI were truly and genuinely incompetent! After the officer finished his report, he hurriedly walked away, and Greensboro turned his head back to us with the same weird expression as before.
“By the way, do you know the club you told me about was burned?” he asked.
“Yeah, I know that,” I said.
“It’s actually weird, because in the hotel next to it, we found a few dead bodies. One of the victims is the owner, a female. I just wondered if you, by any chance, had checked in there.”
“Why would you think so?” I was quick to deny it, still sniffling. “It’s a stupid assumption!”
“Well, Murphy McDougall and Lara Croft were in the guest book at the reception, so I figured it might be you.”
“But it wasn’t me! My name is Mellrow; you know that well!” I tried to look as indifferent as I could. Then I quickly steered the conversation in a different direction. “Have you found the club’s owner yet? What was his explanation for the fire and everything?”
“This is even weirder, you know.” Greensboro frowned. “There is no trace of him. We couldn’t find him at the crime scene or anywhere else, and besides, there were no victims among the ruins either. The place was totally empty.”
I pursed my lips because it was no surprise to me. It just confirmed my suspicions that Tanaka was the one who set his club on fire. Anyway, I didn’t say anything about it and just waited for the inspector to go on.
“We’ve also found another victim in the hotel,” he added after a while. “I presume he’s the bartender because there were broken bottles of gin and lots of olives beside him. I guess you wouldn’t know anything about that either!”
“No. Absolutely nothing,” I answered curtly. “How did he die anyway?”
“Well, it really looks like a drunken brawl or something. The entire place was trashed. Perhaps a client was giving him trouble, and the guy tried to deal with him with a baseball bat, but then the quarrel spun out of control, and his opponent shot him dead. After that, the perpetrator ransacked the hotel and probably killed the owner in the process. Luckily, there were no guests at that moment.”
After I heard his cute little theory about the events, I couldn’t help but smile. As always, the man was quick to grasp everything that happened in the exact order it happened. Even though my own theory was completely different, I didn’t try to correct him. There was simply no point. Besides, right at this moment, a third officer came running to us, and interrupted our conversation again. I looked at him, not surprised at all, because I kind of suspected what he wanted to say—Kurvallo and his companion had mysteriously left the United States by teleportation and got political asylum in Cuba, where the ex-DEA chief married into Castro’s family and became a member of the Cuban Communist Party. However, the officer nervously cleared his throat to inform us that the fugitives were shot dead in a gunfight with FBI agents, to which Greensboro had to respond now. He went to talk to his colleagues.
I promptly grabbed the opportunity to sneak out, taking Sonya across the yard. On our way, we dropped by the ambulance car on the alley where Carpenter was receiving medical care, and I secretly pushed the bag of photo negatives into his hands. It was useless to me now. He grinned and asked me if that was the girl I had been looking for. I said, “Yes,” and he winked at me, whispering that she was worth it.
I abandoned him in the paramedic’s caring hands and quickly led Sonya around one of the police cruisers, right next to the ambulance. We quietly moved behind the back of a fat officer laughing his ass off while talking on the radio. He was telling a joke about cops and didn’t notice us stealing through the gate.
We hurried along the road, following the trail Cynthia’s pink Porsche had left on the asphalt, and after a minute, we reached my own car under the willow tree’s shadow. There, I pushed Lara’s sister into the Ford and quickly walked around to sit behind the wheel. In the vehicle, I rolled down my window to let some fresh air inside before lighting a cigarette.
“You care for one?” I asked, taking the smoke out of my mouth and the flask out of the glove box to offer them both to Sonya. She refused.
“What are you planning to do now that your case is over?” she wanted to know instead, playing with the seat adjustment lever to give herself more space. Her “dress” immediately unwrapped and slid down behind her back, but she didn’t bother to put it back on. She only pulled it out and tossed it carelessly across her lap—exactly as her sister would do.
I said nothing at first and thoughtfully looked at myself in the rearview mirror. It was only now that I realized why everybody asked me if I was okay. I looked terrible. I looked very much like the miserable ghost of a warrior who didn’t survive the last battle in all history, and now he was waiting for the gods to decide his fate after his death.
“I don’t know,” I answered after a while. “I’ll probably take a rest. I feel awful.”
“And you really have no idea where my sister is?” Sonya returned to the thing she cared about most.
“Unfortunately, I don’t. But don’t worry! She’s probably alright; we just lost each other.”
I raised the flask again, took another long sip, and silently stared at the night sky. The cool air rushing in from outside gave me goosebumps. I looked at my naked companion, but since she didn’t seem cold, I didn’t roll the window up. A few moments later, she suddenly reached out her hand to open the glove box and grabbed two of Lara’s joints that were inside. She had probably seen them when I took the flask. Then she pulled out a lighter too and lit one of the cigarettes.
I frowned. “Boy, you do like dope very much, do you? You and all the members of your family!” I couldn’t resist saying.
She turned her head to look at me, surprised.
“We do, yeah. And you like booze, I guess!” She answered curtly, slowly pulling at her cigarette and blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. “I thought you’d steer clear of alcohol for the rest of your life after what you’ve been through!”
I shivered unpleasantly. When she said that, a forgotten memory stirred for a moment in my head but quickly wriggled and slipped between the other stuff, and I lost it. The entire experience must have been a great shock to me, obviously, because after all these weeks, I still struggled to remember the events clearly.
“Well, about that—” I started saying and suddenly stopped. I actually wanted to take another sip from the flask, but Sonya’s remark made me feel uncomfortable, and I thought that maybe she was right after all. Maybe I had really been drinking too much lately! Then I went on, “I don’t actually remember very well what happened in my apartment that day, but clearly, you had a major role in it, didn’t you?”
She pursed her lips guiltily.
“Larry made me do it; I just had no choice! Bob wanted to kill you right away, but Larry persuaded him to be more creative. They made me call you and convince you that I wanted out and to make a deal with the cops. In a way, I saved your life, you know. You would have been dead otherwise!”
“Oh, thank you very much for that! I’m so grateful!” I crowed hoarsely and shivered again for the same reason as before. “So I personally let the bastards into my house?”
“Don’t you remember anything at all?” Sonya asked me, surprised.
I didn’t answer.
“I’m really sorry!” She repeated her excuse and raised her legs on the dashboard, pressing her bare feet against the windshield. The bed cover slid down again, this time onto the floor. “I was in their hands! When we first met in Florida, I thought they were cool, but then I started realizing they were doing bad things, and until the moment I knew exactly what was going on, it was already too late for me to scram. So I called you; we came to your apartment and waited at the door; you opened it; the guys knocked you down, and the rest is what led us both here. You just made a mistake when you agreed to meet me at your place!”
“How many bottles of Johnnie Walker did they make me drink?” I asked her, having a distinctive memory in my head now. I had really made a terrible mistake inviting her home, but since I had no office because of my financial status, I had no choice. Besides, I didn’t expect any of that to happen.
“I think it was four. They killed the fifth themselves. Oh, man, I really thought you would die there. They were literally pouring it right into your throat!”
“Yeah, I’m sure you did. An hour later, I thought so too!” I bitterly said as I recalled the scene in my kitchen. “I gotta say it’s a hell of a complicated plan, though. It would have been much easier if they had just shot me!”
Sonya quickly finished her first joint and reached her hand over my lap to throw the butt out the window. Her left breast rubbed against my right elbow, but she ignored it. Then she lit the second cigarette and picked up the bed cover from the floor, tossing it into her lap again.
“I told you,” she went on afterward. “Bob wanted to finish with you as soon as possible, but Larry was convinced you had already delivered too much to the cops. He had this crazy idea that if they drowned you in alcohol and made it look like abuse, the police wouldn’t consider your report. Bob liked it very much and even thought it would be funny because he was such a perverted bastard! Clearly, they underestimated you, though, and maybe they didn’t have to drink the fifth bottle and leave it for you.”
“And after that, they had another ‘brilliant’ idea, right?” I finished the story instead of her. “They cuffed me to the radiator so I couldn’t get my ass to the hospital!”
In my head, everything was clear and in complete order now. I vividly remembered how I tried to get to the coffee machine and make myself a drink to keep my heart beating, but unfortunately, I couldn’t reach far enough. I could only stretch as far as the sink, so my deranged mind thought that if I clogged it with dirty dishes and emptied a pack of coffee into it, I could use hot water from the tap and succeed in the task. In fact, I could have simply ingested the coffee, but I wasn’t thinking straight back then, as it seems. Sadly, I ran out of time before executing my extravagant plan, and soon my alcohol delirium kicked in. Who knows what would have happened if Lara hadn’t come to save me?
“What about the key?” I suddenly remembered it. “What was the deal with the handcuff key?”
“They made you swallow it.” Sonya giggled as if it were the funniest thing in the world. “It was also part of Larry’s crazy plan. It had to look like you were so drunk that you didn’t know what you were doing.”
“Well, obviously, Larry wasn’t skilled enough at planning and thinking! If he had thought a little bit more, he would have known there was a pretty good chance I would throw it up eventually.”
“You shouldn’t be angry with me for all this!” Lara’s sister giggled again and started drawing figures on the windshield with her right foot’s big toe. The weed in her system had probably already kicked in. “After Cynthia ditched us and moved to Kurvallo, the guys kept me on a short leash, so I could do nothing to stop them. They wouldn’t even let me leave the fucking shack without them!”
“Whose idea was the entire blackmailing scheme? Was it Cynthia’s?” I asked, reaching out and taking the joint from her hand, pretending I would take a puff at it. Then, when Sonya kept drawing figures, I threw the cigarette out the window without her noticing it. “She arranged the photo session, and you all did it according to your plan, but why did you give up afterward?”
“That was all we wanted at the beginning, but then Larry and Bob became greedy, and when they realized Tanaka had business relationships with Kurvallo, they took it all too far. After that, things suddenly became terribly complicated! At the time, Cynthia was already working for Tanaka, and she was afraid we might get ourselves killed. That’s why she switched sides and went to Kurvallo—for protection, you know. Plus, the bastard’s so sick; she knew she could easily manipulate him.”
I thought about it, and it made perfect sense. That’s why the Butterfly actually told us about the shack and everything when we interrogated her. She had already repositioned herself and didn’t need her old pals. She was such an ambitious little whore!
“What did you do after she left?” I asked Sonya.
“I was too scared,” she shrugged. “I had to think of something and decided to go to Tanaka with the photos. I knew he would be interested and hoped he would protect me.”
“Was it then when you sent the letter to your sister with my name and address?” I looked at her without telling her how stupid her idea was. The late bellhop from the hotel thought so too, and paid with his life. I was even afraid Lara had paid the same way!
“I needed to leave breadcrumbs behind me,” she explained. “Tanaka isn’t just anybody, and I had no idea how he would react. But before I escaped with the pictures, Larry and Bob made me trick you, and the letter suddenly became irrelevant. Shortly after that, Kurvallo ransacked our place. He couldn’t find anything, though, and Cynthia gave him the idea to pick me up so he could have leverage on the guys. I didn’t even get to take my stuff with me!”
“Do you really believe it would have made any difference? You think they would have stopped blackmailing him because of you?”
Sonya shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess Larry had some kind of feelings for me, so—” Then she started examining her toenails.
“Did Kurvallo personally pick you up from the shack?” I asked her.
“No, his men did. The guy isn’t brave enough for this! They waited until Larry and Bob left, leaving me locked inside, and they crashed the door.”
“But why didn’t you tell them where the materials were when you saw it was all over?”
“It happened a few days after the episode with drowning you in whiskey. When we returned home, Bob became suspicious and hid the stuff but wouldn’t tell me where. And besides, Kurvallo’s men really didn’t give me a chance. They just followed orders and didn’t want to listen to me.”
“Actually, it’s no wonder the bastard picked you up, you know,” I remarked thoughtfully. “Even without the pictures, you could ruin his political career better than anyone or anything else. You should be really happy you’re still alive!”
Sonya looked through the window and remained silent for a few moments, pondering something. At some point, she frowned, and her face darkened, but she didn’t share what worried her. And I didn’t ask too. I only thought she was the exact opposite of Lara. There was something secretive and alienating about her that discouraged people from reaching out to her—just as her sister described it.
“Was it bad in the villa?” Despite that, I asked her after a while because silence really oppressed me. “Did they rape you?”
She forced a smile out of herself. “Let’s just say it was pretty bad, okay? There are things a lot worse than rape. What about you? How did you know about the pictures and everything?”
“Well, it’s a long story.” I sighed heavily and finished the flask. “In a nutshell, Tanaka took them from your friends, but he didn’t keep them for too long. A sly, beautiful chick pinched them from his office shortly after, but she didn’t manage to keep them either. They actually cost her her life. Eventually, they fell into my hands.”
“And Larry and Bob—” Sonya started saying, but she suddenly hesitated and stopped to take her feet off the dashboard. “Are they dead?”
“Yes, they are,” I replied without looking at her. “Don’t worry! Everybody’s dead now.”
Then I reached out my hand to start the engine. I did it quietly, without turning on the headlights. Before I grabbed the wheel to drive Lara’s sister to my place, I glanced ahead through the windshield. About fifty yards from us, the cops still bustled around the house, unaware that the “famous” private detective Murphy Mellrow and the key witness in his case were missing from the crime scene. Or maybe they just didn’t care; I couldn’t know that for sure.
I released the emergency brake and shifted into gear, but only a moment before I moved the car out of the tree’s shadow, something briefly flashed in the corner of my vision, and then I heard a sharp clicking sound. It happened so quickly! It made me turn my head to the right to look at Sonya.
She stared at me from her seat, her face strangely serious. I spontaneously glanced at her lap because I felt something was wrong, and she had something in her left hand. It was a shiny metal object, but it wasn’t a gun, as it turned out. It was a pair of handcuffs, which she probably took from the nightstand in her room. One of the rings was around her wrist now, and the other was around mine.
Very slowly, I turned my eyes back up to look at her eyes, confused.
“You have to help me find my sister!” the woman said quietly but firmly. “I can’t leave her behind. You just have to help me find her!”
I didn’t reply. I was simply unable to. I could only think, my right hand still holding the gear stick, “Goddamn you, Mellrow! You fucking idiot, goddamn you!”
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