THE DAME WHO CALLED long-distance said lover boy was dead.
Although I didn't know it then, lover boy got dead this way: He rolled out of the sack one morning in March, showered, shaved, brushed his teeth and put on his soft contact lenses. As soon as he popped them in, his eyes apparently started to burn real bad. He filled the bathroom sink full of cold water, dunked in his head and cooled his peepers until he drowned.
The cops called it suicide; they couldn't find anything funny in the soft-lens solution. But the dame on the phone smelled a rat. That's why she called me.
My name's Remington. Rick Remington. I'm a P.I. out of L.A. The dame was in Washington with the stiff, so I caught a plane for National.
She met me at the airport, just outside the metal detectors. Her mouth was the first thing I saw. It was full, cruel and kissable. It was right where it should of been, below her nose. Her cobalt eyes were large and wet and distant. She was dressed for power -- a beige linen suit, matching beige pumps, a wine-colored briefcase. Even with the suit, a dummy could see that whatever game she played, she played it with a major-league body.
"Hello, Remington, I'm Melissa Swarthwart," she purred. She took my hand and led me out of the crowded airport, through a swarm of screaming cabbies who harrassed us with garbled offers of discount fares. Before they'd back off and let us go to the parking lot, I had to shoot two cabbies in the knees.
We climbed into her red BMW. On the parkway heading north, Melissa told me about herself. She said she was a member of the "environmental community" and that she was all jacked up over James Watt at Interior. She drew a strained analogy between Watt's shiny bald head and deforested wilderness areas.
"It's a new era," she said. "There's reason to be a fighter. The Movement is being reborn."
She made a point of telling me that she wasn't just another humorless do-gooder. She said she could tell dead baby-seal jokes with the best of them. An in-greeting among her friends was a high- five and a scream of: "Nuke the Whales."
While talking, she deftly threaded the BMW through early evening traffic. As we crossed the Potomac on Memorial Bridge, reflections of the Lincoln and Washington monuments gleamed in the still river like ivory jewels on black velvet. In the warm spring night, I smelled freshly cut flowers and quiche Lorraine and suede. Sidewalks were clogged with joggers in designer warm-ups. Young-professional country, I thought, so pretty, so intoxicating, so deadly.
Melissa seemed content to go on talking about herself and the environmental community forever. But I wasn't content to listen. I slapped Melissa in the face and told her to tell me about the stiff.
"Oh, yes, I almost forgot, you mean, Trevor," she said. "It is so tragique."
His full name was Trevor Ashley III. But the more I learned about Trevor Ashley III, the more I prefered calling him "the stiff."
Melissa said she'd loved him in her own distant way. They'd shared an interest in gun control, endangered species and meatless brunches. Out of sheer craziness, they'd once wore matching "I'm a Pepper" T-shirts. For both of them, John Belushi's death ruined an entire weekend.
"We met on the Mount Vernon bike path last fall," Melissa said. "He was sprawled on the asphalt, both knees scraped up pretty bad. There was blood on his Nikes. He said a myopic roller skater knocked him off his bike. Mmmm, that bike was a beauty -- a 10-speed racer with center-pull brakes, Simplex derailleur, a molybdenum frame. . . . Anyhow, I asked him if he was OK, if he needed a doctor.
"He looked at me dolefully, his eyes were honest and wise and artificially blue from the soft contacts. He turned me on. And when he said he was a lawyer, that he worked for the Justice Department, that he had a liberal conscience, that he made $46,000 a year and that he didn't have genital herpes, I felt warm all over."
Melissa was a talker, all right, and she was paying me $300 a day plus expenses to listen. But lover boy was cooling in the D.C. morgue and I'm a dick not a shrink. I slapped her again.
"Listen, cookie," I growled, "either you tell me why you think lover boy was iced or take me back to the airport."
She grunted, checked her lipstick and parked the BMW near a bar on Capitol Hill. She took my hand again and led me inside. We sat at the bar. I ordered a double whiskey; she had a dry, nutty-tasting white wine. Finally, Melissa talked turkey.
She said that in the months before Trevor's death, he'd been in hot water at Justice. Trevor worked in the civil rights division. He'd been one of the 100 lawyers there to sign a letter in January protesting the Reagan administration's decision to restore tax exemption to private schools that discriminate against blacks. But Trevor, Melissa said, didn't know when to pipe down.
He'd contacted lawyer friends at other federal agencies who were miffed by recent Reagan administration moves. He called an Environmental Protection Agency attorney angry at the decision to relax standards on toxic waste disposal. He called a Health and Human Services attorney angry at the abrupt decision to withdraw support for strict warnings on cigarette smoking. He called a State Department lawyer angry at an announcement that Chile had improved its human rights record.
"Trevor met with them one night at his condo," Melissa said. "He has a terrific condo, two bedrooms, vaulted ceiling, exposed oak beams, skylight, wet bar, redwood balcony, nice view of the zoo. Anyway, the lawyers all showed up. Trevor invited me, too. Everyone drank imported beer and said they were outraged.
"Trevor, too, was outraged. He gave a speech. Oh, I can remember his exact words. He was so sexy when he got self-righteous. I'd never seen those little veins in his forehead thump like they did that night.
"He said: 'Reagan has to go. We must cast off the velvet chains of life in Washington. No more brunches, no more smart dinner talk, no more twilight picnics on the Mall. Forsake those films that Pauline Kael says are the best of our generation. To hell with home-delivered dry cleaning. We must move out, go out to the boondocks and work for the election of a new president. We must all sell our condos, even if we have to take a loss.'
"Everyone got strangely quiet when Trevor mentioned selling real estate at a loss. It was only a little after 9 o'clock, but the lawyers in the room began to leave, claiming they had squash lessons early the next morning. I stayed as long as I could, until about 9:30. But I had a squash lesson, too. That was the last time I saw Trevor alive. I left him standing alone on his condo's redwood balcony. The little veins in his forehead were still thumping."
When Melissa finished, I ordered more whiskey. Out in L.A., when a lover boy gets dead, it may be not be pretty but you can figure the reasons why. It's either broads, bucks or something more vicious called love. But Melissa, this vixen with the moral sensibilities of Apartment Life magazine, was trying to tell me that politics killed her Trevor.
No matter how much whiskey I threw back, it wouldn't wash. Nixon wasn't president anymore. The man in control now, a good-natured horse-opera actor from my stomping grounds, could only be cruel to faceless groups -- high school students seeking college loans, welfare recipients, Medicaid patients. No savvy pol would worry about tough talk from a milquetoast named Trevor.
I ignored Melissa, and she ignored me. She was making time with a bearded lobbyist named Al.
Whiskey makes me cynical. It made as much sense, I thought, that lover boy had been bumped off by his own lawyer friends. They had the motive. Who would want to sell a condo at a loss? Who would move away from a first- rate Audi mechanic and take up residence in Idaho Falls just to campaign for a chump who might never bring you back to Washington? Better to knock off Trevor and get back to sniping about Reagan's insensitivity toward the poor.
Or just maybe the cops were right. Maybe Trevor had poisoned his own soft-lens solution. Maybe he couldn't stand the prospect of going through life with little veins thumping in his forehead. I didn't know. I didn't want to know.
I slapped Melissa for a third time. But before I could tell her that I wouldn't take the case, her new playmate, Al, broke my jaw.
When I woke up three days later in a hospital room, Melissa was standing over my bed. It must have been morning. Sunlight streaked across the room, caressing Melissa's face. She was fresh from a squash lesson, lean and tan and touchable in white terry-cloth togs. Those cruel lips of hers were moist and pouty, and if it had not been for the wires in my jaw I would have. . . .
"Remington," she screamed, atomizing my ardor, "I killed Trevor. I had no choice. You see, I loved him. Before his damned good intentions got the better of him, we were to have lived together in Washington. I wanted him. That condo, our dual-incomes, the vacations. Once we even discussed the possibility of having children, that is, of course, when we became more mature and found ourselves in a financially tenable position. Oh, Remington, it was everything I ever dreamed.
"You see, I could never have left Washington, given up that dream. I loved him too much. That's why I poisoned his contact lens solution."
I hadn't figured her for a murderess. She'd struck me as too cool, too caught up in off-shore oil issues, too interested in public television. But as tears streamed down her tremulous cheeks, there was no mistaking the passion.
I was torn between calling the cops and holding her in my arms. I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to tell her that, during a Republican administration, one knee-jerk liberal more or less didn't really matter. But my jaw was sore; I called the cops.
Before they arrived, I asked why she had called me. Why was she confessing this all to me?
"I called you," she sneered, "when I wanted it all. I'd heard a well-developed girl could sucker you into anything. I wanted you to pin a murder-conspiracy rap on all Trevor's lawyer friends. With them in jail, I could have bought their condos at super-bargain prices."
"And now I'm telling you this because, well, I guess, I'm truly sorry. For a while, killing Trevor seemed so right, a survivalist strategy for staying in Washington, you know, like protesting nuclear proliferation. I just didn't realize that Trevor would be so terribly dead.
"And besides, I've been offered a substantial advance to write a book about killing Trevor."
Maybe it was just the drugs they were giving me for my jaw, but the more I thought about Melissa, the more my head swam. Washington was too tough a city for me -- too many angles, too many hustlers, too much liberal guilt, too many non-fiction book contracts. As soon as I could travel, I left for home and the comforting villainy of Tinsel Town.