A solitary vulture sat atop the pole, keeping watch over the coming feast, or so he believed. Above, the other disciples in the flock circled lazily in the white hot August sky. There were eleven of them dipping their wings to take advantage of the thermals they were riding. I guess over the course of a couple thousand years some things don’t change.
“You recognize him, Dinger?” Cal Kroeger, homicide detective with the Las Vegas PD removed his sweat-stained Fedora and swept a sweaty hand across his sweaty balding head. Kroeger had requested my presence after a couple of teenagers out joyriding in the desert reported the body. Knowing my propensity for rubbing elbows with some of the Strip’s sleazier denizens, Kroeg often called on me to see if I could ID the victim.
I took a breath and eyeballed the corpse again. The skin was black, baked from the outside by the scorching sun and broiled from the inside by putrefaction. Advanced swelling had set in, making the body look more like a grotesque beach float than a once-living human being. Frenzied clouds of insects buzzed around the body, creating an ever-moving shroud. The blackened tongue protruded through the ballooned lips. The eyes were missing; probably an impatient disciple sneaking an hors d’oeuvre before the main course began.
I tested the breeze and circled to the left of the body, keeping my distance. A quick change in the wind had already cost one of Kroeger’s flunkies his lunch. I didn’t care to lose mine. The wind was at my back. Whoever had crucified the victim knew their shit. I’d seen it before on Peleliu during the war. The hands were folded over above the head, and what appeared to be a rusted railroad spike was driven through both wrists. The feet were bound to the pole with a stout hemp rope. I pulled my binoculars from a coat pocket and zeroed in on the blackened right shoulder blade. Focusing in, I made out entwined lovers, a nude man and woman engaged in the thralls of passion. There was no mistake. I had my make.
Kroeger stamped out a cigarette in the sand beneath the sole of his shoe. “Well, Dinger, what you got?”
“Not a damn thing, Kroeg. That body’s on the verge of busting wide open, and when it does I don’t want to be anywhere within smelling distance of it.” I had lived with rotted corpses, Japs and Marines, for over two months on Okinawa a few years back. You’d think a person would get used to the stench, the maggots crawling everywhere from friend or foe, until the dead obliged the living by disintegrating into a common mush that blended with the mud from the almost constant rains. But the stench never left you, no matter how hard you tried to shut it out.
“So, you got no lead on the . . . victim?”
I checked the wind, turned my head, and took a deep, cleansing breath. “No, Kroeg. I got nothing.”
* * *
It was a lie, of course. Sure I recognized the bloated body of Benjamin Bigneghetti, former hit man for the Genovese family of New York City. The family’s ties with Vegas had been kept under wraps as well as could be expected. But there was always the lovestruck drunken mobster spilling secrets while entangled in the throes of lust with one of the hundreds of willing showgirls strutting their wares in the resorts along the Strip. “Bennie Big,” as he was popularly known, supposedly lived up to his name as a top gun for the Genovese clan, and also for the weapon he wielded to impress the young and ambitious starlets whose Hollywood’s siren call echoed in their ear. Is it always the fools who are most blessed? But Bennie wasn’t always content with the skirts dishing it out willingly. He had a nasty habit of taking what he wanted, offered or not. Sometimes nasty habits need breaking. Revenge is sweet. You didn’t hear it from me.
Later that night I trekked up to the third floor of the Cactus Flower Apartments building. Stopping in front of Room 308, I lit a Chesterfield, the last one in the pack. I tapped lightly on the door, three followed by two, followed by one. The door’s curtain peeled aside from a corner, followed by the sound of the lock unlatching. It opened a few inches, and a sweet voice whispered, “Dinger?”
“Banzai,” I said, and the door swung open enough to allow me to squeeze inside. A pair of luscious lips greeted mine, accentuated by firm breasts grinding against my chest. After a minute I broke up our reverie.
“Is it finished?” she whispered into my good ear.
“Yeah. The LVPD have got a couple suspects. Nothing that will stick, but you’ll be long gone by then. They got nothing on you, anyway. To them, you don’t even exist.”
She pulled my face to hers and laid another deep kiss on me. “Come with me, Dinger. We can make a fresh start. Who would ever think of looking for us in Iowa?”
The dame couldn’t imagine how my heart was breaking right then. Her offer swelled inside my chest and set fire to a dozen dreams. Dreams of me and her, living in the old, rambling farmhouse her dad had left her. Peaceful dreams of taking early morning walks, checking on the crops we’d planted a couple months before. Dreams of making love tangled in the sheets atop the feather mattress of the bed we would share.
We made love, and then, in a moment of sanity, I pushed it all away.
“I’ve gotta beat it, sweetheart. Maybe in a few months, when I get things straightened out, I’ll meet you there. In the meantime, remember this.” I laid the best kiss I could on her sweet, luscious lips.
And then I left, knowing I’d never lay eyes on her again.