Major intersections in the Metroplex where Carol settled after abandoning the small town of her birth were infested with panhandlers sporting barely legible, hand-lettered cardboard signs welcoming pity and disingenuously seeking temporary employment, and she circulated through the major arteries for several hours before making her selection. By then the cheeseburger and French fries in the white bag on the seat beside her had grown cold and the ice in the soda cup had mostly melted despite the air conditioning vent aimed directly at the cup holder.
“Homeless. Hungry,” his sign read. “Will work for food.”
Greasy, disheveled hair of indeterminate color drooped to his shoulders and a patchy beard masked the lower half of his jaundiced face. He wore a tri-colored—light tan, pale green, brown—desert camouflage field jacket open over a stained white wife beater, baggy Wrangler jeans held up by a too-long brown leather belt, and once-white running shoes held in place with mismatched laces. He had the intersection to himself, no mangy dog for a companion, and only a single, bulging Hefty SteelSak for his possessions. No one stopped for him and he never rose from his position.
Carol crossed the intersection several times, approaching in different lanes from different directions until she finally ventured into the turn lane next to the raised concrete median where he squatted. The first time, she caught a green arrow and had to proceed through the intersection without stopping. The second time she had better luck and found herself trapped behind a rusting Ford F-150 leaking oil and Tejano music. When she powered her window down and held up the grease-stained white bag, he rose and shuffled toward her car.
He eyed the bag. “Yeah.”
“Then get in,” she said. “I have a job for you.”
“Make up your mind,” Carol insisted. She dropped the bag into her lap and placed both hands on the steering wheel. “The light just turned green.”
The F-150 lurched forward. The driver of the Lexus behind Carol leaned on his horn. The panhandler backpedaled, seized his SteelSak, and with it hurried around Carol’s pristine white Maxima. He squeezed into the passenger seat just as the traffic light changed from green to yellow. Carol stomped her foot against the accelerator, slamming the passenger door and forcing the panhandler back against the seat, leaving the finger-waving Lexus driver trapped behind a red light as her Maxima shot through the intersection.
Carol took one hand off the wheel, handed the white bag to her passenger, revealing a tiny green sprout tattooed on the palm of her left hand, and pointed at the sweating soda cup. “The drink goes with it.”
He pushed the SteelSak containing all his possessions into the rear seat as the Maxima climbed the onramp to the Interstate. Then he tore the to-go bag open and wolfed down cold French fries.
Carol glanced at the panhandler. “What’s your name?”
He mumbled around a mouthful of food. “John.”
John reeked of stale sweat and the gassy stench of poor digestion, an odor that overwhelmed the pine-scented deodorizer hanging from the rearview mirror. Carol switched off the air conditioner and powered all four windows down to evacuate the stench. Her finger-length blonde hair immediately began to wilt as triple digit heat blew through the open windows. Split ends clung to the sweat arising on the back of her neck and her antiperspirant lost the battle.
“Do you know what I want you to do for me, John?”
He shook his head as he unwrapped the cheeseburger, then took a bite and licked catsup from his scraggly moustache. As he chewed, his gaze traveled the length of her, from her white leather sandals, over her white linen Capri pants, and up to the white silk blouse with mother of pearl buttons that she had fastened all the way to her throat, the silhouette of her lacy white bra visible through the thin material. A slash of crimson lipstick bisected her slender face and pale blue eyes the color of faded denim looked back at him.
“I want you to kill me, John.”
He stopped chewing. “What?”
“How much money do you have?”
“A dollar-sixty-three,” he said.
“Open the glove box, John.”
He did, then swallowed hard.
“That’s ten thousand dollars,” Carol said. “Ten thousand dollars in small, unmarked, non-sequential bills. That’s a lot of money, isn’t it, John?”
“And all you have to do to keep it is kill me. What would you do with ten thousand dollars, John?”
He took another bite of cheeseburger and chewed slowly without answering. The world outside the car changed as the white Maxima traveled away from the heart of the city. Multi-story office buildings no longer crowded the Interstate, replaced by single-story strip malls and chain restaurants that littered the frontage roads. The highway was just as busy, though, with four lanes of traffic in each direction and every vehicle but one a self-contained universe where petite women did not offer strange homeless men thousands of dollars to kill them. He lifted the soda cup from the holder, guided the straw between his chapped lips and drew down a long swallow.
The Maxima left the Interstate for a state highway that led beyond the suburbs to an exurb where multi-story homes occupied verdant acre plots and the only people seen outdoors were illegals hired to maintain the illusion of spring during the searing heat of rainless summer. Carol swung her car up a long drive that took them behind one of the houses and into a garage that faced away from the street. She insisted that her passenger leave his SteelSak inside the car and follow her through the garage into the house.
“Don’t touch anything, John. You don’t want to leave fingerprints.”
Car keys, house keys, keys to things long forgotten, all jangled when Carol dropped her key ring on the kitchen counter. “When you’re finished,” she said over her shoulder. “Take the car.”
The interior of the house was Better Homes & Gardens perfect—everything in its place and so clean dust feared to settle—as if nothing had been touched since the day the decorator fluffed the last throw pillow, and the rooms smelled of potpourri with a hint of homeless man wafting through the air. And it was cold, pimpling her skin and his, tightening her nipples so they dimpled her blouse. Carol led John through the dining room to the foyer and up the staircase to the second floor, panty lines etched in the fabric of her Capri pants when each leg alternately tightened against her buttocks while ascending the stairs.
She led him into the master bedroom, a room decorated entirely in white—white walls, white carpet, white furniture, white drapes, white comforter over white silk sheets. The only contrasting color came from the black nose, eyes, and feet of a stuffed lamb centered on the bed and a stainless steel nail file on the nightstand.
She stopped and turned. “We’ll do it here.”
He hesitated. “Here?”
“Hit me first.” She stared at him. Bits of hamburger bun clung to his beard. Beads of sweat chilled on his forehead. His eyes darted in every direction without focusing on her. “Ten thousand dollars, John.”
He backhanded her. He was strong, stronger than she’d expected, but his heart wasn’t in it. A bit of grime from the back of his hand stained her cheek.
“Come on, John, you can do better than that.”
He slapped her again.
“How long has it been since you were with a woman, John?” She tore open her silk blouse, sending mother of pearl buttons flying, exposing a lacy white push-up bra that barely contained her milk-white breasts. Her constricted areolas were dark circles beneath the push-up bra and she thrust her breasts at John, taunting him.
“Be a man, John,” she insisted. “Make a fist and hit me. Hit me. Hit me, damn it!”
He cocked his arm and caught her jaw with a roundhouse right. Her head snapped to the side and she smiled.
“That’s it, John.”
He buried a fist in her abdomen, driving the breath from her and doubling her over. When she straightened up, she threw herself back on the bed, knocked the lamb aside, and beckoned to him. “Do it here, John. Have your way with me first, if you want to, but kill me here, on the bed.”
He straddled her, pinning her legs with his weight. Then he blacked her eye, split her lip, and made her ears ring. She held her arms up to block some of his blows, ensuring the presence of defensive wounds.
“Ten thousand dollars,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes and continued pounding on her until she felt certain there was no stopping him. She reached for the nightstand with her left hand, and then jammed the nail file into his neck, piercing his interior jugular vein. His eyes opened wide and he clutched his neck. Blood sprayed through his fingers, stippling her, stippling the bed, stippling the wall behind the bed. She withdrew the nail file and jammed the point into his jugular a second time. He rose, stumbled across the room and collapsed against the wall. Carol waited until John expelled his last breath before she reached for the white phone and dialed 911.
“I just needed some yard work done,” she explained between sobs to the first police officer on the scene. “I thought I was being a Good Samaritan.”
Woman in White
originally published in Big Pulp Winter 2011: Interrogate My Heart Instead
Michael Bracken is the author of 11 books—including the private eye novel All White Girls—but is better known as the author of almost 900 short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage, Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, Hardboiled, Hot Blood: Strange Bedfellows, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Out of the Gutter, and many other publications. Additionally, he has edited five crime fiction anthologies, including the three-volume Fedora series. Learn more at www.CrimeFictionWriter.com.