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Following the Sunsphere

Ed Lynskey

 

"This serial killer -- The Zoo Man -- whatís up with that name?í" My eyebrows veed at the squatty barkeep.

He swabbed a red rag smearing the zinc bartop. "The cops scraped up victims at the zooís tiger cages. Get it?"

Icy fear dripped into my clenching guts. "Was the son of a bitch ever nabbed?"

"Nope, never. The Zoo Man is invincible. Spooky shit, huh?" said the barkeep, his smirk oily. I didnít believe a word and told him as much. "If you do or donít is no freckles off my hairy ass," he said, retreating to restock a hardhat busy getting hammered on Jack Daniels with Coors Lite chasers.

My eyes darted to the backbar mirror topped by sports trophies. Behind me, I counted three white globe lights with pull bead chains. Over the Bakelite-knobbed jukebox, Earl Scruggs smoked a banjo riff. A ragtop blonde clapped her hands. Stuck in this gritty tableau, I had a thought: me in this bar, why?

"Mr. Johnson, are you ready to settle?" the barkeep asked me. "Last call. Nothing more? Okie-doke. Your tab, sir, totals twenty-eight bucks, seventy-three cents, tax included. Cash or charge?"

"Charge." The MasterCard I forked over was embossed with "ROBERT GATLIN, ESQUIRE." "Tack on a beer for yourself, why donít you?"

"Thatís damn generous of you," he said. "Thanks, too."

"Donít thank me. Put it on my boss, Mr. Gatlin."

Belching into a freckled fist, the barkeepís eyes bugged. "Yow. He must be some boss."

"Just like The Zoo Man must be some killer," I said before shouldering out the door into the velvety murk socking in Knoxville, Tennessee. Iíd been on the wagon for six years but it still sucked not to leave a bar in a smashed state. Kingston Pike, the townís main stem, was deserted. I waded across it. The wind chill had to dip temperatures below the twenty-eight degrees I saw digitized on the bankís signboard. I felt alone. Homesick, too.

Off in the west sky, I studied a ring of red caution lights blinking on a tall, spindly structure (a colossal radio tower?). Remaining vigilant was my mantra. Collar hiked high, I hurried on to the next tavern.

*

My mission was to track down and escort home a defense witness. A destitute lady, Jenny Blue, was in the fight of her life. Looking good for murder one, she sat aboard a runaway train bound for Virginiaís execution chamber. It was a harrowing hellhole Iíd visited for two countdowns at the behest of my clientsí families. Both condemned inmates -- snapping, spitting, and cursing -- had died there like the animals they were. Jennyís slender hope to derail that train, God help her, rested on Gatlin and me.

I hadnít learned the particulars of Jennyís case and lacked any profound insight as to why only Nathan Renfroe, the object of my manhunt, could clear her name. My onus was simple. Gatlin had sicced me on Renfroe. Iíd mapquested his last fixed address as here in Knoxville. Lo and behold, the Internet was wrong. Renfroe, from what little I could glean about him, had skied for the tall timber weeks ago. Now a Trans Am, demolition red with flashy baby moons, trolled through the next intersection.

"Go get a job, yaí bum," a man whooped from its rolled down window.

"You can have mine anytime," I replied to him.

My thud of footfall echoed off the brick faÁade of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church at Locust and Vine. I marveled at its baroque, angular magnificence. Born and bred a Roman Catholic, Iíd remained unchurched since my early teens. My sins had blossomed since culminating when I nailed a pair of psychopath cousins. My flaming twelve gauge flushed them into Hellís lower sewers. Gatlin had pried me off that hook by convincing a jury it was justifiable self-defense.

My disposition now mellower, I felt led to sidle inside. It might fortify my nerves and maybe switch up my luck. The paneled oak door groaned in its frame at my shove. A heady mix of hymnals and citrusy furniture polish evoked memories, a few sweet but most sour. Prowling on the pads of my boots, I secreted my furtive shadow in the rearmost row, right side.

You could hear a mouse fart. I didnít know what else to do so I nicked the Good Lord for a favor. "Jesus," I thought. "Nathan Renfroe is in the wind. A decent ladyís life hangs in the lurch. My damn boss puts too much faith in my abilities. Now Iím not greedy. Please gimme a break in this case. I can take it from there. Amen."

My legs trembling, I knelt on that cushiony thingamajig. Peering past the altar rail, I witnessed a fierce, red tongue of fire hovering in midair. Its significance, if memory served, demonstrated the Lordís presence in our midst. Somewhat reassured, I rejoined the windless boulevard. Pink neon tubing to an IGAís logo in the distance lured me to walk that way.

"Pssst. Gotta a Zippo, dude?" a voice, brittle but feminine, asked. Stacks and curves stepped into the street lampís cone of brightness.

"Sorry, no. I donít poison my lungs. I quit that and booze."

"Did you now?" Her retort was tinged with flirty sarcasm. "Do you wear a collar? You ainít a priest trawling out here for lost lambs, are you?"

"Hardly." Grateful for company, I strolled over toward her. "The church was unlocked. I needed to clear my head. Inside it was quiet. Arenít you cold?"

Instead of replying, she asked, "Got a lot weighing on your mind?"

"Frank Johnson does at that. And who might you be? Ba-Ba Black Sheep?"

"Bump," she said. "Thatís it -- just Bump. Letís cut the bullshit, Frank. Twenty for a bareback blow job. For fifty, you can fuck me inside your precious churchís warmth. Deal?"

"Thanks but no. A solitary bed is all that tempts me tonight."

"Sleep? Great idea. Look. You gotta an extra bed in your hotel room maybe," she said. "Iím dying out here. Itís too cold to strut my stuff and, frankly, business sucks. Over a slight misunderstanding, I got booted out of the shelter."

"How do I know you wonít stab me in the back and rip off the sixteen bucks in my wallet?"

She shrugged in elegant nonchalance. "How do I know you wonít jump my bones for free nookie? I donít. Letís chance it on a mutual trust. Whatís your line of work?"

"If I tell you, youíll only laugh."

"Try me, babe. Iíve heard it all."

I did. She laughed, seducing me to join in. It was very funny -- me, a PI in Knoxville with Bump, a prostitute with a heart of semi-gold. We were walking, talking clichťs as if at this point I gave a flying fuck. I wondered if sheíd ever run into The Zoo Man in a dark alley. I didnít dare ask, though. Obviously, sheíd made it back out.

*

My berth, reserved by Gatlinís secretary, was in a three-story, white shipboard manse on Central Avenue next to a record shop peddling vinyl LPs, nothing on CD or DVD. Nobody challenged us clomping up the pine plank stairs and the room unheated by a cold iron radiator got me on the phone. The proprietor groused. Bumpís breath spewed out in ragged haloes. She pointed at mine. Winking at her, I argued harder. After a little, the proprietor huffed up and demonstrated how to let off the magicianís valve. Bump nestled underneath a bed.

"Are you hiding a gal in here?" His nostrils sniffed again. "I smell little girlís perfume. Charlie."

I denied it.

"Mm. If so, Iíll nick you for a double," he said. "Donít defraud an innkeeper. You can get castrated for doing less in this town."

A giggly snicker arose but when the proprietor whipped his meaty neck around, my heels squeaked on the floorboard. "Happy feet," I said. "Itís a nervous tic."

"Mím. Good night," the acerbic man said before stamping out the door.

"Good night and donít let the vampires bite," said Bump wriggling out from her den. "Yuck. This skanky room screams out for a maid."

I didnít dispute her. The red rotary dial telephone on the nightstand between our mismatched beds rang. I plucked it up, barking a brisk "hello."

Gatlin barked back. "Did you check that street address?" he asked me.

"I did and itís a dud," I said. "What now?"

"Root through Knoxvilleís stinking slime like a boar hog," said Gatlin. "What you excel at best. Real good, too, boy. This time the stakes run high."

"Nothing like a nightmare before hitting the rack," I said.

"This capital case has me in knots," said Gatlin, an uncharacteristic coarse seriousness to his tone. A fluttery qualm in my guts I recognized as another onset of nerves. "Nathan Renfroe is Jennyís last chance for any alibi we can make stick. I kick off opening arguments tomorrow at nine sharp. Iíd never breathed this to another soul, Frank, but Iím afraid of loosing this case."

My swallow was a raspy gulp. "Time grows tight."

"Does it ever. Itís fourth and sixteen and I canít punt," said Gatlin. "Thatís no exaggeration, my gridiron metaphor."

"All right, all right," I said. "First, I gotta crash a couple hours."

"Sleep later! Have you snooped in all the bars in Old Town?"

"Yep," I said. "Renfroeís mugshot didnít jostle any memories."

"Shit. Well, stay on it, dawg. Keep me apprised."

"You got it." Replacing the handset on its cradle, I glanced over in alarm. Still dressed and curled up in a ball, Bump had fallen asleep. On my bed, I did likewise.

My consciousness flipped to full alert at predawn. Board stiff, I lay listening to steam fizz from the creaky radiator and fell prey to my anxieties. I had less than a day to go tree Nathan Renfroe. Bombarded by crazy thoughts, I pictured Miss Jenny Blue strapped down in a six-point restraint to a leather gurney, cyanide mainlined into her fragile veins. Helpless rage welled up inside me. Iíd asked God for a clue and got nothing but Bump . . .

"Pssst, are you awake?" A trim hand jiggled my shoulder. "Frank, you didnít die on me, did you?"

"Lay off, Bump." Pushing, I rebuffed her.

"Sleep hasnít bucked up your mood," she said.

"Well shit, I wonder why." I planted my hands to crane upright and slump against the headboard. "That dude last night on the phone was my boss. A lawyer, he represents a lady accused of first-degree murder. I hit town yesterday tasked to dig up her alibi witness. If I flub it, sheíll be found guilty and get the spike."

"Spike?"

"The needle," I said. "Death by lethal injection."

"Ainít hunting up folks your forte?" asked Bump. "Youíre a detective, right?"

"That hardly makes it a slam dunk," I told her.

"Hím." Bump took a generic cigarette from her drawstring shoulder bag. She balanced on the swayback bed and unscrewed the smoke detector from the flyspeck ceiling to pry out its batteries. Then she lit up. "What have you got to go on?" she asked after exhaling. Blue smoke vined up into my eyes.

"A punt and a prayer." My mutter betrayed the misery riling me. "Seriously, Iíve buzzed around a mugshot of Nathan Renfroe taken five, six years back. Canvassing all the Stripís bars, I struck out."

"Haul up and get dressed," said Bump. "Gimme a peep at your mugshot . . . hím, this dude -- " her manicured fingernail flicked the portrait "-- he looks awfully damn familiar to me."

"Youíve seen him around?" I asked, hopeful. "Recently?"

"I didnít say that." Bumpís leggy, athletic paces stalked the roomís dimensions. I clapped one eye on her while dressing in haste.

"We better get going," she said. "Youíll do better with a guide. Thatís where I come in. Amazing how we met up, ainít it? Did you fly or drive down here?"

"Neither. I breezed in on the Greyhound. Since 9-11, you couldnít force me on a jetliner."

"Swell. Itís wimps like you who make me nuts," she said stalking down the low-lit hallway with me. "No big deal. We can hoof it or thumb it to get around town."

"Taxis donít run today? I came armed with a corporate credit card having a high-dollar limit."

Screwing on a piquant face, Bump nudged me. "And you whined about how our karma is all black and bad. Youíre carrying plastic? Well, screw that noise, babe."

*

For an inauspicious start, we dropped by the Greyhound Bus Station on Magnolia and Central. I stowed my luggage, a shabby nylon satchel, in a rental locker and we left with our arms free to swing. Bumpís slinky strut hypnotized men. The cold snap had acceded to a balmy day all of twenty degrees warmer. Bump brimmed with enthused smiles. Stir-crazy folks had turned out to freelance in Knoxvilleís streets. One or two introduced as her pals pecked me on the cheek. As Bumpís older brother from up north, I was their friend, too.

For breakfast at the Waffle House, I snarfed down ham and eggs and Bump did likewise to a stack of flapjacks. Mr. Gatlinís plastic again treated us. We re-emerged energized. My spirits soared to a cautious optimism until a KPD patrol car hammered into the pea gravel parking lot. I tensed.

"Easy, Frank. Itís a routine patrol," Bump said squeezing my arm. "Your Renfroe Iíve spotted knocking around here. Sooner or later itíll dawn on me just where."

"Fine. Now tell me because I gotta know, what exactly is that damn thing?" My curious forefinger jabbed at the structure resembling a jumbo meatball on a Popsicle stick. It had followed me throughout Knoxville including its cherry red lights blinking the previous night outside of the bar. "The universityís planetarium? A monument to an UFO rally?"

"Sunsphere," said Bump. "It was slapped together for the Ď82 Worldís Fair. Like Seattleís Space Needle, I suppose. It used to be an upscale restaurant inside the copper globe part that twirled. I ate steak in it once. Nowadays tourists use it for an observation tower. But it really just squats there doing nothing."

"By going up in it, can we see Nathan Renfroe?" I asked.

"Doubtful. Renfroe is a worm who lives underground," said Bump. "Boy, I hate looking at it."

"No comment," I said not big on debating the aesthetics of local architecture. "How do we get a passport to Knoxvilleís underground? Better question, does Knoxville even have an underground?"

Bump laughed. "Every city has a seamy underbelly. Knoxville does, too. Weíll ease into it so as not to stir up a commotion. Does that sound doable?"

"Lead on, Macduff," I said.

Again she laughed but alone because new fear had sewn up my lips. I blamed it on bar talk of The Zoo Man.

At a yellow traffic light where a SUV came close to rear-ending a cream-colored Lincoln Town Car bearing handicap license plates, Bump flagged down an idle Paradise Cab. She clamored into the rear seat ahead of me. The cabbie, a squatty Greek vain about a walrus beard and a sweaty pate, asked for a destination.

"The Y on Clinch," Bump said, then in a higher pitch, "No, wait. Better make that to the Sunsphere! Punch it, too!"

"Right." The Greek snarled between gum chews. "Youíre the signal-caller."

"Whatís the excitement?" I asked Bump.

Her oval face flushed a hot red. "Hopping into the taxi just now jogged my brain," she said. "I shared a cab ride with that man in your picture. Renfroe. A killer rode that close beside me. Christ -- "

"Donít freak on me," I said, feeling my heart pulse rev up, too. "Details. When? Where?"

"Too damn long ago, Iím afraid. When was it? Late last summer, mid-August. This burly man loomed out of the Veterans Cemetery on Decameron. After recovering my wits, I sized him up for another john. Before I could rattle off my sex fixes, however, he cut me off short. He needed a taxi ride, too. Nothing else. So off we went."

"Where did Renfroe bail out?"

"Well, he crawled out first," Bump said.

Bump canted her fine-featured brows to beam on the Sunsphere and I followed her gaze. A cloud scudding by dinged the morning sun and made the Sunsphereís copper-plated glass panels take on the appearance of a toxic toadstool. "Renfroe got off smack dab in front of the Sunsphere."

I stopped our cabbie at the same spot and paid the fare. We redoubled our gait over concrete to reach the Sunsphereís lopsided shadows. "Why did he come here?" I asked, puffing for breath.

"You now know what I know," Bump said over her shoulder, waving. "Hurry."

A blood blister under my toenail broke as we raced to a bank of pay phones at the Sunsphereís base. Some boxy offices further on looked abandoned. The structureís sheer immensity intimidated me. Pointing, Bump said, "Homeless dudes jungle up in there."

"You mean, they sleep inside the Sunsphere?"

"Yep. Look sharp for a skunk hole. Iíve heard talk about it on the street."

Bump acted as if splitting us up might expedite our search but I trusted her keen instincts better than my own so we stuck together. It was a clever hideyhole for a desperate character like Nathan Renfroe. I donít know why but my tight tailhole told me our quarry had to lurk near.

"Frank, cut through here," yelled Bump. "I found it, the way into the Sunsphere."

A panel of the coppery glass had been detached from the main frame and shoved aside to create a narrow portal. Sucking in my belly, I squeezed through it sideways. Of course, weíd forgotten to bring along a flashlight. A yellowish indirect light, however, illuminated the interior.

"Whatís in there?" asked Bump in a muffled shout from outside.

I blinked. Blinked again. There was no doubt about it. The scarecrow of a man advancing in catlike paces and slicing a commando knife was Renfroe. Only he now wore a bushy, black beard and Salvation Army castoffs.

"So, youíve found me and now Iím gonna gore you," he said.

My backpedaling ended at the wall behind me. "Whoa, Renfroe. All I want is to talk. Our client needs your help. Her name is Jenny Blue -- "

"Ha." Renfroe jabbed in a vicious horizontal swipe slitting fabric and skin. "That skeevy slut, sheís where I put her. She gets the needle, not me. I whacked Rance Tyler but Jenny takes the juice for it. Slick, huh?"

Wet warmth seeped along my stomach wall to my beltline. Scorching pain signaled my intestines might next tumble out in steaming, raunchy handfuls. "You set Jenny up," I said, incredulous.

"Like I said, slick."

"Y-y-ouíre a son of a . . . " I tried to say as a lightheaded dizziness seized me. From the corner of my eye, I detected a deft movement. "Get back, Bump," I said.

Bump didnít heed my warning but surged into the cramped space. "Duck, Frank," she said. Renfroe dripped with malice for his next prey. He neednít have bothered. A concussive explosion thundered as Bumpís handgun flamed at her would-be assailant. A hot slug grilled his sternum and sizzled into a lung shredding apart vital, pink tissue. She wasnít done with him. A second and third round cored a hole where his terrorist heart convulsed into an inert clump.

Cordite maced my eyes. I rubbed them. Both ears took in only the loudest sounds, Bump hollering at me. "Isnít that him? Ainít that Nathan Renfroe I gunned down?"

I nodded, numb and spent. "And heís plenty dead."

"This slut was good enough to give him the juice," said Bump.

*

The next morning back in Virginia after slipping out of Knoxville on an all-night bus jaunt home, I testified at Jenny Blueís trial. To stay alert, I was speeding my ass off on Dexedrine. It marked the first occasion Iíd ever worked for Gatlin from inside the witness box. I detested every minute of it. Only the confession Iíd heard inside the Sunsphere from the mealy mouth of the late Nathan Renfroe had to be related to the jurors.

I finished by saying, "Nathan Renfroe had arranged for Jenny Blue to look like the killer when it was actually himself."

"Is it your sworn testimony that Mr. Renfroe uttered these very words?" Gatlin asked me.

"It is. Iíve worked in law enforcement for fifteen years," I said, riveting my most soulful eyes at each of the jurors. "In all that time, Iíve never heard a more spontaneous confession. Never. Nathan Renfroe was the genuine killer. He admitted it."

Later, after the not guilty verdict was delivered, Gatlin would swear my testimony had turned the tide for Jenny Blue. I ducked out, however, before she leaped up from the defense counsel table. I moved fast, too, for a man with eight stitches across his guts.

As for Bump left behind in Knoxville, I never saw her again although at odd, elegiac moments like at Catholic funerals or alone in cold beds I think about her.


Ed Lynskey has published short fiction in Plots with Guns, Hardluck Stories, Nefarious, and Bullet Magazine. He has signed a contract with PointBlank Press for a novel, The Blue Cheer.

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