“Uh-oh,” said Mary Alice. “Hold on a sec.”
Diana watched her friend’s eyes close in anticipation. Mary Alice groped for her bag beside her on the padded bench. She fumbled with the clasp, but it refused to cooperate. After a moment she gave up and grabbed her napkin. She plastered it to her face just in time to catch three violent sneezes. The flimsy paper held up, barely.
Diana shielded her plate with her hands. “Jeez,” she said, “keep my lunch out of it.”
But then she looked down at her Greek salad without the onions, anchovies or anything else that would give her unprofessional breath. Sometimes she got tired of it. Clients didn’t have to watch their own breath, and often they didn’t. “On second thought, don’t worry about it. This is too boring to eat, anyway.”
“That was the fourth time today,” said Mary Alice. “I’m getting as bad as Sneezy Ralph.”
“What the hell, it’s pollen season,” said Diana. “Who’s Sneezy Ralph?”
“You don’t know him? I thought he had seen everybody in the area.”
“He’ll get to you. Count on it.”
“What’s with the nickname?”
“Just what it sounds like. He comes, and he sneezes. Every time.”
“No kidding,” said Diana. “I thought I’d seen everything.”
She thought about it, and the mental picture made her giggle.
“Don’t do that with him,” said Mary Alice. “He’s sensitive about it. He says that’s why he has to come to us. His wife won’t put up with it.”
That information didn’t help. It was such a typical sad-sack client thing. Diana giggled again, and then the giggle became an outright laugh. “I think this job is getting to me. You know what that makes me think of? The old punch line. ‘If it affects you that way, why do you do it?’”
“The punch line to what?” said Mary Alice.
“The one about the guy who goes into a drug store and buys condoms and Dramamine.”
“Because he’s going to be on a boat,” said Diana.
“On a boat.”
“Yeah. The druggist doesn’t know that part, so he thinks it’s sex that makes the guy heave. So he asks him …. never mind.”
Mary Alice continued to wear her botoxed look, and Diana couldn’t keep the laughter in. It was the kind that fed on itself.
“I guess I didn’t tell it right.”
“Didn’t tell what right? Where’s the joke?”
Mary Alice had the makings of a great straight man, but Diana couldn’t catch enough breath to say so. She squeezed the last bit of air out and drew more in with that whooping sound that she hated when anyone else did it. Mary Alice obviously shared the opinion. She looked around the restaurant.
“Do you have to laugh like an idiot? People are staring.”
“Dramamine and Viagra. I never realized it before, but they’re the same thing.”
“The same thing as what?”
“Jeez, do I have to do all the work here?” said Diana.
That finally got a reaction from Mary Alice. It looked like pure disgust. Diana pressed her thighs together, before she had her first-ever incontinent event.
“A guy takes a pill to get it up. Then he pays us money to get him back the way he was in the first place. Why does he bother?”
“I like the money. Don’t you? Come on, say something.”
Diana shrieked, and the tears of weirdness started flowing, punctuated by more hiccups. The regular waitress in Rosen’s restaurant looked at her as if she had never seen her before. In a way, she hadn’t, because Diana always wore her hooker’s professional mask in public. Always, that is, until today.
“You could jinx us,” said Mary Alice. “Talking like that.”
“I’m not trying to jinx us. I’m just saying.”
“Well, don’t,” said Mary Alice. “I think you need a vacation.”
“If guys are going to start sneezing on me, I definitely need a vacation. How do you handle it?”
“He has some couth about it. I mean, he doesn’t actually sneeze on me. He aims to the side. It’s a good thing they change the sheets, though.”
“Do they really?” said Diana. “I mean, have you ever stuck around and made sure?”
“What’s got into you today?” said Mary Alice. “Start thinking like that, and you won’t be able to get out of bed. Your own bed, I mean.”
That almost set Diana off again, but a glance at her watch made her stop.
“Business calls,” she said.
“Where, the Savoy?”
“I guess I’ll see you there. If you go through with it, that is, which I’m not so sure you should.” Mary Alice looked pretty scary in full serious mode, with her dark and dramatic coloring. “Call me superstitious if you want, but I never make fun of the clients. Karma is a bitch.”
“I’ve never canceled, and I’m not going to start now. Hicc.”
“Oh for God’s sake, get out of here.”
Diana slid out of the booth and swept the check off the tabletop. It wasn’t her turn to buy, but she owed Mary Alice for putting up with her today.
The drive to the Savoy Motel took just minutes. Diana parked and sat for a moment, breathing evenly. You’re in control, she told herself. She climbed out of the car.
Her client Joe Ellenhaas waited in his regular room. He was one of her favorites–gentle, tolerant, and always pleased with her work. His one quirk was harmless compared to others she had seen. Right after the deed, she knew he would run to the bathroom for a bout of obsessive hand washing.
As always, she started with ten minutes of asking him about his life and deflecting his questions about hers. He liked it when she remembered details from their last meeting.
Then she could get their real business started.
She was on top, where he said he could see her better. By now she also knew how he liked her to move. And this time it started to work for her too.
Oh, she thought.
Diana sometimes came with clients. She could never predict it, and that could be a problem. Some men didn’t care, others took it as a nice extra, but some reveled in their studliness and felt entitled to have it happen every time. Then she was locked into faking it for them, which got to be a chore.
She doubted that Joe would be a problem, and she let her body take over. She arched her back and closed her eyes and felt the muscles in her arches and the backs of her thighs cramp in that good, good way. It wasn’t an earth-mover, but she would take it. She felt him bucking and moaning along with her.
Diana opened her eyes and smiled down at him.
She thought it, but she didn’t have time to say it or even to turn her head away from him. A wet, convulsive sneeze erupted from her. She had him trapped underneath her, and he could do nothing to protect himself except close his eyes.
His face became all horizontal lines. Her mood from lunch was lurking right beneath the surface, and the laughter forced itself out. It was his fault for looking like a very displeased infant.
Too late she remembered his germ phobia. He thrashed and flailed like a fish on the dock. His elbow connected with her right cheek with enough force to send her flying. As she toppled off the bed, the night table appeared out of nowhere to clout her on the temple.
That was her last thought before the universe turned out the lights. She was still thinking it when they came back on. Diana opened her eyes, and right away something seemed off. She was lying face down on a surface that was too hard to be the mattress. What it felt like was a thinly carpeted floor. That was weird, because her cheek was resting on the smoothness of a cotton-poly sheet. On the other hand, she could also see the bed looming to her right. What was the sheet doing down here with her? What else had she missed?
She heard soft footsteps on the rug. Oh, right. She was in a motel room with Joe Ellenhaas. As she prepared to speak to him, someone folded the edge of the sheet over her. The someone could only be Joe. Hands gripped her shoulder and hip and started to roll her over.
Her hooker’s instincts put it all together in an instant. He thought he had killed her, and he planned to dispose of her. Then she realized that “planned” wasn’t the right word. His mind was in a middle-aged male panic, and startling him with sudden words might push him to do something drastic.
Such as making sure she was dead this time.
Now she was the one flailing in desperation. Diana fought to turn onto her back, then to get free of the sheet. She worked her left arm loose and threw a couple of jabs at him with her fist. She couldn’t get much behind the punches, but if he was the average middle-class guy she thought he was, he didn’t have much experience with a shot in the nose. She must have guessed right, because Joe grabbed for his face with both hands and lurched away from her with such force that he toppled onto his back.
Diana jumped up and tossed the sheet away. She sprinted toward her bag on the cheap table near the door to the courtyard parking lot. The bag with her car keys was crucial. Her clothes were optional. She ripped the security chain aside, yanked the door open, and ran outside. She saw no one, but that wouldn’t last.
She had a plan for this scenario. First, drive someplace secluded. Then dress in the backup business casual outfit that she kept in her trunk. It was a solid plan, but it assumed no further obstacles.
Like the goddamned pickup truck blocking her Taurus.
She hadn’t really hurt Joe, and he could come after her any second. He might not be in the mood to listen to her promises about keeping their issue between the two of them. She looked around and saw nothing to help her.
But then a door opened across the lot, and Mary Alice poked her head out.
“Get in here.”
Trust another hooker to grasp why a woman would be naked in a parking lot. Diana hustled over to the room, and Mary Alice shut the door behind her.
A middle aged man wearing nothing but his glasses and a blissful smile lay on his back on the bed. Diana guessed that his expression came from having two naked women in his room for the price of one.
“I don’t suppose you have any ice,” said Diana.
Adrenaline had kept her going until now, but her head had taken two hard knocks, and it would start hurting soon.
“No,” said Mary Alice, “and I don’t think this is the time to go for some.”
Diana looked at Ralph and then back at Mary Alice.
“Ralph,” said Mary Alice, “this is Diana.”
Diana almost blurted, “Oh, Sneezy Ralph,” but she stopped herself. She had committed enough unprofessional behavior already. Right there she decided to make amends to the goddess of hooking.
“I think I owe you a freebie.”
Ralph looked confused, and she didn’t blame him. Any average guy who found himself in the middle of a porn film scenario would need a moment to catch up.
“Why’s that?” he said.
“Let’s just say, karma is a bitch.”
# # #
Albert Tucher is the creator of prostitute Diana Andrews, who has appeared in sixty hardboiled short stories in such venues as THUG LIT, ALL DUE RESPECT, and THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010, edited by Lee Child and Otto Penzler. Diana’s first longer case, the novella THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE, was recently published by Untreed Reads. Albert Tucher recently made his ELLERY QUEEN debut with a stand-alone story called “Hangman’s Break.” He is a librarian in his day job, and his hobby is drinking too much coffee.