Once a Man Indulges
a novel by Tony Kelsey

“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he next comes to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.” — Thomas De Quincey

JULY 1949

She was wearing the same dress I’d seen her in the night before, her shoes on the floor next to the bed where they had been kicked off. There was a hole in the hose on her right foot. The big toe and the one next to it poked out, both with chipped red polish and needing a trim. I didn’t really want to stare at her feet but it was better than looking at the angry hole in the side of her head, and the splatter all over the wall.

They say the first person you kill is always the hardest, that it will weigh on your conscience. I wouldn’t know about that. Those first ones didn’t seem so hard to me. It was later, when they started to add up. There’s probably something easy about it when it’s nice and neat. This wasn’t so neat. Someone was going to have to clean up Sonja Hoff’s brains, replace the mattress and maybe even the curtains, dotted not only with her blood but a lariat, wagon wheel, and rather prophetically, an old-west six shooter. But it wasn’t like the place didn’t need a good cleaning anyway.

I told Greenberg what he wanted to hear. He’d never actually seen Sonja Hoff before so I confirmed it was her. He clapped me on the shoulder before practically skipping out to the sitting room to call his captain with the big news. I did my best to appear nonchalant by pretending to take notes on a pad while staying out of the way of both the fingerprint man and his black dust, and the photographer and his flash bulbs. Eventually my eyes went back to that big toe. For a second the intimacy of seeing it so naked and neglected sent a wave of shame and revulsion through me.

The photographer turned to everything on top of the vanity across from the bed. There was her purse. In it, I was sure, would be the matchbook I’d given her the night before. He shot a photo of things as they lay, the flashbulb popped out onto the floor. He dug in his coat pocket for a new one, snapped it into place, and took another photo from a different angle. That flashbulb clattered off somewhere under the bed. Then he snapped the latch and dumped the contents of her purse. Lipstick. Some keys on a ring. Handkerchief. Whatever. A whole bunch of shit. And sure enough, the Rail Yard matchbook. He pushed it all around with the eraser end of a pencil until he was satisfied with the layout. When he bent over his bag to load up his pockets with more flashbulbs, pulling them one by one off a cardboard holder, I excused myself to pass in the tight space between the bed and vanity. In one quick motion the matchbook was in my hand.

As I went out through the sitting room and kitchenette I heard Greenberg saying into the phone it was a suicide. A logical conclusion. There was no sign of a struggle, and the gun was on the bed by her right hand. That would explain the small entrance wound and burn marks at her right temple and the large, gaping hole the size of a golf ball on the left. And of course, all the brains on the wall.

Even outside the air was filled with a faint hint of gunpowder, which seemed to dance fondly with the musty, pinched stink of rotting wood and the sweaty poignancy of human desperation. I imagined this wasn’t the first dead body they’d had at the Howdy Partner Mo-tel.

When Greenberg came out I was smoking a cigarette lit with a stick pulled from the Rail Yard matchbook. An ambulance was trying to jockey in between all the marked and unmarked police cars in the small parking lot.

“Suicide, huh?” I said, offering him a cigarette and the matches. “That’s convenient.”

He lit his and dropped the matches into a pocket. I snapped my fingers twice. He dug them out and dropped them into my open palm.

“Let me guess, you think she was murdered.”

“Did you see her watch? And the shorter nails on her left hand? She was a southpaw.”

“Hardly conclusive,” he said, spitting a piece of tobacco off his tongue. “

Plus, I saw her at Marquand’s. She wrote with her left hand. Don’t believe me. Ask him.”

“So she couldn’t use her right hand?”

“Would you use your left hand to shoot yourself?” I said.

The ambulance men in their white suits and black bow ties began unloading the stretcher from the back. They moved as if they had already done the drill a dozen times that day. The fat one was chewing a cigar stub.

“Right here, boys,” Greenberg called to them. Then to me he said, “Why do you want to fuck this up?”

I wanted to tell him I knew for a fact she didn’t do it. Instead I said, “I’m not trying to fuck anything up. But, you can’t possibly believe she’d really blow her own brains out.”

“Maybe she’s ambidextrous. Can anyone prove she wasn’t? And there’s nothing here suggesting anything other than a suicide.” He took off his hat and dug his fingers through a tangle of thick hair. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen someone kill themself because they were guilty about something. Hell, people off themselves because they’ve got nothing else to do that day.” He put the hat back on and said, “Anyway, this wraps everything up. And God knows, there’s nothing I want more than to be finished with this goddamned mess.”

We moved aside for the ambulance men. “Lieutenant, I gotta be honest,” said the one with the cigar. “I’m beginning to really dislike you.”

“Yeah? Why’s that, Charlie?”

“Every time I see your ugly Jew face we’ve got a fucking mess on our hands.”

“Does my being Jewish really have anything to do with it?”

“I’m beginning to wonder,” Charlie said.

“Nice,” I said after they went inside.

“He’s okay. We fuck with each other.” He flicked a nonexistent ash with his thumb on the butt and faced me. “Okay. For the record, here’s what I’m thinking. Loitzel and Hoff kidnap the baby. Somehow it winds up dead. They end up fighting about something and she kills him. In the end, the guilt over the baby and the fact she killed lover boy gets to her. So, she takes the easy way out.”

I took a step off the covered walkway and turned towards the rising mountains dotted with scrubby brush, staggered pines and aspen with their bright green leaves. The sun was slipping away, painting everything with the sepia tones of early evening, when shadows turn distorted and washed out like dried coffee spills on white linen. I smoked the cigarette down to my fingertips and tossed it away just as the neon sign started buzzing to life. The green tubing flickered a few times before lighting. With crooked letters that were supposed to go with the friendly, western motif it said Howdy Partner Mo-tel. Only they didn’t look so friendly anymore, they looked like they were about to fall off. Howdy and Partner started to flash, one after the other. A couple seconds later the red neon below started buzzing. It said Vacancy. “

She didn’t kill herself,” I said, turning back to him. “And I’ll give you this one too. She was pregnant.”