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The ping of the elevator echoes across the courtyard. Ben Chalmer crouches forward, so the screen hides half his face. But as always Tony glances neither left nor right as he steps from the elevator and walks along the breezeway.

Ben knows he isn’t being rational. What if Tony saw him? A man at his desk, a laptop in front of him, staring out the window. What would that Neanderthal think?Damn scribbler! Bet he makes a killing with his BS.Yeah, right.

Tony flicks a cigarette over the balustrade, then knocks on Isabella’s door. Eight p.m. sharp – leave it to Tony to waste no time. Isabella got home twenty minutes ago.

The door opens. Tony disappears. Acid boils up from Ben’s stomach.

He pops two Pepcids, slams shut his laptop. No way he’ll get anything done now.

He leans back in his chair. The courtyard lies in shadow, the sky is Kool-Aid pink. A translucent image of himself hovers in the window: a man in his forties, a tired expression around the mouth. He pushes his ash-colored hair into place.

Back in Santa Monica, he could watch the sun melt into the Pacific. No chance of that here, in the center of God’s ashtray. Welcome to Smell-A!

But you want to be close to her, don’t you?

Seven months and five days ago (a Wednesday) he was clicking through those websites – to avoid tackling that all-decisive second act. He knew the real thing was not for sale. He was done with this. What made him change his mind? Not Isabella’s pictures: generic, face blurred. Her text? He noticed irony. On the phone she was matter-of-fact. Her voice was soothing.

Three hours later he knocked on a door in a Hollywood apartment building. The usual lag of time while he sensed the eye behind the peephole. The door swung open. He stepped into the hallway, feeling the familiar thrill. Isabella emerged from behind the door.

His breath came up short. This girl could never have nurtured a bad thought. There was a dimple in her left cheek. Her large brown eyes shone with curiosity, no judgment in them. Her throat moved as she swallowed, the long neck looking fragile. All of her looked fragile. She was a head shorter than him, 5′ 8″ maybe, above average for a woman of her race. But her build was more slender than he had judged from the pictures. The image of a roe he had seen grazing by a lake a couple of weeks ago on trip to Big Bear flashed through his mind. A strand of her dark hair fell in waves down the side of her face, lay in a curl atop her bosom.

“Hello,” she said quietly.

“Hi.”

He stretched out his hand, placed the strand behind her ear, letting the tip of his thumb linger on her temple. Her mouth opened in a smile to reveal a set of large perfect teeth. She closed the door. Then she took the envelope from his fingers and without even looking inside threw it onto a side table. She pulled him into the bedroom. Three candles burning on a low table, their flames reflected in a dressing mirror. A scent of coconut and lime emanating from them. Jazz on the stereo. Sinking back onto the crisp linen, he recognized Charlie Parker’sLover Man– how appropriate! Isabella leaned over him. Her areolas shimmered through the lacy brassiere. He reached underneath her arms and unclasped it. Her full breasts spilled across his face as he raised his upper body. Her skin was taut and finely grained like that of a ripe pear. He could barely feel the implants. Oh well, this was La-La land, and anyway, he was no purist. Nothing wrong with improving on nature, particularly if perfection was the outcome.

She grasped his wrists, pushed them into the cushion. “Let me.”

Her lips moved down his sternum and across his abdomen. They paused below his navel, tracked sideways, then down again. He moaned in anticipation as she kissed the inside of his thighs, then her mouth closed around his scrotum, and he gasped. She held his testicles between her teeth, her tongue playing with him. Suddenly her eyes were looking down into his.

“You like that?”

He nodded.

She grinned, while a fingernail ran up his penis. “I can tell. We’re getting some life here.”

She took him in her mouth, all of him, like he did not exist. The colors of the surrounding objects began to run. Later he thought his heart might have missed a beat or two. But he did he did not empty himself, not at this point. She would not let him. Her fingers were curled around his scrotum, choking off the spasm. Her mouth moved up and down on his penis, consuming him repeatedly, but release was denied him.

He whimpered.

She knelt up, her left hand still holding him. Her grip was both firm and gentle.

His manhood throbbed in the empty air. She gave its head a playful touch with her right index finger. “Now it’s ready for me.”

She reached underneath the pillow, pulled out a condom. She tore open the packet with her teeth, positioned the condom between her lips, pushed its tip out with her tongue, and placed it on his penis. canlı bahis Her touch was so light this time, he barely felt it.

She positioned her elbows beside his rib cage. “You’ll never forget this.”

She held his manhood upright, then lowered herself onto him. A warm resistance gave way as his penis advanced into her. Slowly she sank back, engulfing him. Like her hand had held his scrotum, with a calm but sure softness, she now enclosed his manhood.

“You won’t come,” she stated.

Then she raised and lowered herself, only a little and with patience. Their eyes locked. When she knew that he would do as he was told, she began to move faster. Her womanhood gripped his penis as she moved up and down. On each upward movement, she exposed a little more of his shaft, so that soon, at the maximum extension of the movement, only his tip was still inside her. Once she paused there, his penis yearning to be swallowed again. He began to raise his lower body, but she pressed down on his abdomen with her fingertips.

She shook her head, winked, and resumed her movement.

Soon his bowels were turning fluid. “I think I can’t….” She reached behind herself, and her fingers were again around his scrotum. But this time they were not gentle, pulling his testicles away from his body with steady force. He squirmed underneath her, her back arched, her flesh shivered around him, and he thought he heard a tiny gasp, like air rushing away from a closing door.

She lay down beside him, pulled off the condom. Her hand gripped him and gave a fast shake. He emptied himself with a force that allowed for no residue to be left.

“Geez….you want to go clean up?”

When he came out of the bathroom and lay down beside her, she put a hand on his chest. “I enjoyed you.”

“Thank you.” He nestled his face in her hair. “I was not expecting that.”

She snorted. “I know. Guys underestimate me.”

“Won’t happen again, at least not with this guy.”

They lay in silence for some minutes. She broke it by telling him it was only her second month in this biz. He laughed. What was he laughing about? Oh, the generosity of the gods. She made a face, like she couldn’t handle poetry. It was exciting, she said, a nice break from the books. She wanted to become an attorney, specialize in family law. He leant over to kiss her mouth. She submitted, even opened her lips a little, before turning aside with a giggle.

He hardly slept till Isabella’s next workday, only a little better after that because she gave him a new appointment. It became his ambition to make her happy: to see her eyes light up as the wrapping fell under her fingers to reveal a Louis Vuitton bag or a Cartier watch. Then to feel those soft lips touch him….

The ringing of the phone wakes Ben from his reveries. He checks the display, hesitates, picks up.

“Ben, I waited the whole effing day for that rewrite….”

“It’s…in the works.”

A smacking sound as Phil draws on his cigarette. “I’m meeting the suits tomorrow! The hell you think I should tell’em? Sorry, gentlemen,Monsieur artistewasn’t kissed by the muse?!”

“I’m almost there.”

“Keep hearin’ almost. How about you do us all a favour? Look up deadline one of these days!”

“They liked the last version, they’ll wait another coupla days.”

“Newsflash: they liked the title.Mind Games, gotta hand it to ya – awesome. The first half hour’s good too. Nice one-liners.” Phil takes another drag. “But your ending any moron can see coming a mile off!”

“It’s the most probable outcome.”

“Who gives a fuck?! People wanna be surprised. They expect it! It’s called a twist!”

Ben wonders whether he should bring up a word like ‘contrived.’ No point. He envisions Phil behind his glass desk, tapping its surface, like he always does when things aren’t going well.

Real smart, buster, letting your agent down….

“I’m working on it. Get me another week, please.”

“I think you’re losin’ it.”

“Come on….”

“I’m serious. What’s happened these past coupla months? You used to be Mr. Reliable. Still broke up about thatshiksayou wereshtupping?”

“Of course not!”

“Well, what is it?”

“Bad spell. I’m over it!”

The rasp of a lighter, another smacking sound. “Here’s the deal. I’ll cover your ass tomorrow. Last time. Friday, I haven’t got that rewrite, I’m cutting you loose. And it better have one hell of an ending!”

The line goes dead. Whew, cutting you loose. What’s that supposed to mean? He better get cracking tomorrow. Two good days and the thing’s in the bag!

Who are you trying to kid?

Ben glances towards Isabella’s apartment. The kitchen light is off, but a glow tells him the one in her living room is on. The lamps over the breezeways have been switched on, the sky is a hazy black. 9:19 p.m…..

His stomach growls. He goes into the kitchen, grabs a box of sushi from the fridge, hurries back to his study. By bahis siteleri the time he’s finished eating, another fifteen minutes have passed. One hour, thirty-four minutes.

Good times, good times…but not for you!

Is she as ruthless about pleasing Tony as she is –was! – about pleasing him? He has often asked himself this question. Does she ensure that Tony’s nerves are coming undone before allowing release? Does he too feel his cell walls liquefying, his tissue turning into mush? No, impossible. Not with him! A perfunctory act, if at all. More is unimaginable.

One hour, forty-three minutes!

Knowing Isabella means waiting. Hell, he was waiting for her even before he knew her. Once he knew her, waiting for her workdays. Sitting in his car outside the Hollywood apartment building, waiting for his appointment. Afterwards in the car again, waiting….

Finally, she agreed to go out with him, when she had no other plans. He never thought of her as that type of girl, but he always slipped an envelope into her handbag. LA was tough when you were starting out: rent, car payments, tuition. She put his money to good use. The speed of her answers during those seminars at UCLA – amazing!

But it wasn’t enough: taking her out twice, three times a week, otherwise watching her from afar. (“Nevercome up to me in public, Ben.”) How could it feel right for her? It hurt when she put a finger on his lips: “No, Ben, let’s not spoil things, hm?” But if she wasn’t ready to walk down the aisle, he was adult enough to accept that. He’d wait.

But he did expect her to appreciate his moving into her apartment building. He just wanted to keep an eye on her….

On a Sunday morning three months ago, knocking on her door the first time. It would be a nice surprise. Maybe they could have breakfast together, celebrate that they were now neighbors. The chain across Isabella’s face, the color draining from her cheeks.

“Ben, what are you doing here?! I can’t believe it! Go, go! Please go!”

Later on the phone: “For God’s sake! Get a life!” What was she talking about? His career was in overdrive.Back then it was. Who’d just gotten six figures to write a season opener for the highest-rated crime show?

He didn’t catch Isabella the following morning. He passed the day unpacking boxes, assembling furniture. He was just screwing a leg onto his desk when, around 7:30, the elevator gave a ping. She stepped onto the breezeway and, facing straight ahead, walked to her door. As she was closing it she looked across the courtyard. Shrugged.

He’d give her time to shower….

Twenty minutes later, another ping. Still on the floor, he kneeled up and experienced something akin to a déjà vu.

The guy was perhaps 5’4″ and had to weigh at least 180 pounds. Chest bulging like that of a sea elephant rearing up for a fight, fists the size of volleyballs. A Neanderthal a time traveller from the future had persuaded to lay aside his club, given a hundred-dollar hair cut and put in an Armani suit. What had Phil said: “For yourMind Games-baddy I’m thinking a mobster. Short, fat, bad skin. Tony…Tony…Constantino! Does that sound like mob or what?!” And here he was, Tony Constantino shambling along the breezeway with the gait of someone well acquainted with the surroundings. Life did imitate art!

Tony knocked on Isabella’s door. It opened. He disappeared inside.

That was a surprise, wasn’t it? Hurt real bad, too, I bet….

An hour and fifteen minutes later the Neanderthal retraced his steps to the elevator.

How could she? With that…monster?! In her home! (“Sorry, Ben, Ineverreceive at home.”) An hour and fifteen minutes! She never went into overtime! An acquaintance, friend, family member? Right. The Neanderthal was a regular she’d given her private address, a regular she liked!

That’s what ya thought, doofus! Always slow in the ways of the world, weren’t ya?

Tony showed up Mondays and Wednesdays, Isabella’s work days. A half hour after she arrived, a ping would announce his visit. He stayed for: one hour, seven minutes; one hour, forty-five minutes; thirty-nine minutes…. Only one explanation: Tony didn’t bring money. He picked it up. And stayed for entertainment!

Nothing ya can do about it. Might be a head taller than him, but a Neanderthal gut-punch would put ya in a box!

Isabella wouldn’t appreciate heroism anyway. She hurried to the elevator, cut short attempts at small talk. Her behavior didn’t even change four weeks ago when she had a swollen jaw after Tony’s Wednesday visit. The following Monday she worked again – and that evening opened her door to him….

Ben’s eyes catch the clock. He snaps into the present. 10:53 p.m. Two hours, fifty-three minutes!

Maybe something’s wrong….

Yes, indeedy. Tony’s banging Isabella! And as long as you’re not doing anything about it, how about getting your act together?!

Ben picks up the eighty-odd pages. They bahis şirketleri feel brittle. He begins to read. The dialog gels alright. What’s missing is…originality. Phil’s right, he’s lost something. Ideas used to come ten a day. Now it’s rare that one comes. And usually it turns out it’s only a hard to place memory of some old B-movie. Ben scribbles notes on the margins:underdeveloped, flashback?, more action….

At 11:15 p.m., he flings pen and script onto the desk. What the hell’s going on?! Three hours and a quarter! Even Tony has never been good for more than two hours.

He took it up a notch from a coupla slaps in the face….

Anything unusual?

The cigarette over the balustrade? Not standard procedure, but seen before. Was the Neanderthal carrying anything? Nothing visible anyway. But there was something, wasn’t there? Tony didn’t display his usual shamble. There was tension in his step. As if he was about to burst at the seams from pent-up fury. A man with violence on his mind!

You self-absorbed jerk!

Ben grasps the phone.

“Please let me be wrong.” He punches Isabella’s number, caller ID enabled. She has ceased to pick up or call back, but surely she’ll realize he has legitimate cause for concern….

It rings once, twice, three times. Then that slow voice breathes down the line:

“Hi, you’ve reached Isabella Cruz. I’m available for select daytime appointments in Hollywood. Please be sure to leave a call back number, and I’ll be sure to get in touch.” Beep.

A vision of her body, twisted, bloody. Around Ben the dimensions of the room are becoming skewed.

He shakes his head. No need to assume the worst. Maybe she’s only beaten unconscious. Or tied up! He’ll call the cops. What if he’s wrong? Probably Tony has a police file, so they’d start asking questions about Isabella. It would ruin her life. Forget about a career in law with that on your record.

She hasn’t been treating you fairly, has she? Maybe she deserves to be taken down a peg….

For God’s sake! Ben stands up. How can he think such a thing?

He fills his lungs, looks down at himself. When did those pecs turn into flab? He’ll walk past her apartment. If he hears muffled cries, slapping noises, step one will be to call the cops. If he hears nothing, he’ll knock. Tony at the door, something’s wrong. Line of retreat: trying to borrow some milk. Then back to step one. What if no one opens the door? Decide about that if it happens….

Ben leaves his apartment, turns right at the end of the corridor. The elevator, then the window of Isabella’s kitchen comes into view. A shadow behind it? He needs stronger lenses. He turns onto the breezeway. As he approaches the window he slows his steps. Nothing. Then a clicking, followed by a swishing sound. Not from inside though. It’s ahead. His mouth goes dry. Isabella’s door is being opened. Tony is leaving, his handiwork completed!

But it’s not Tony. It’s Isabella.

A look of pleasant surprise on her face. “Hey Ben, how’re you?”

She closes the door.

“I-I’m g-good.” He clears his throat. “How are you?”

She looks casual, wearing jeans, a white hooded sweater.

“Fine, thanks.” She smiles, but something’s wrong. She’s not fooling him. “See you later.”

“See you later, Isabella.”

She brushes past him. He catches the orange scent of her perfume, one to which he introduced her.

“Oh, Ben.”

He spins around.

Her left hand is playing with her hair. “Uhmm, Ben, I was thinking…I might need some help carrying something….”

“No problem.”

“You’re a sweetheart.” Smiling. “I’ll call you in a bit.” A wave, then she continues on her way.

His legs feel like matchsticks as he walks on. At the end of the breezeway there is a door to a staircase. He steps through, lets the door fall to until only a narrow gap remains ajar. Isabella is standing in front of the elevator, a sneaker-shod foot tapping the ground. He feels dizzy. They talked! The elevator opens. She disappears. Probably Tony sent her to pick up something. A bottle of champagne? Ben’s stomach ties itself into a knot.

Relax, old man. She’ll call you….

He hurries to his apartment. He wants to watch Isabella’s Jetta head down the street to the wine store. The Jetta does not emerge from the garage. He missed her.

Back in his study, Ben is in time to see Isabella step from the elevator. She’s pushing a flatbed dolly. On the dolly lies a cardboard rectangle that will fold out to be a box of almost a cubic yard volume. She must have been to her storage space. Now she unlocks her door and pulls the dolly into her apartment.

Ben plonks down in his chair and thinks….

The conclusion he comes to is that Isabella is in deep trouble. No doubt, right now she’s pacing her living room, telling herself this impromptu plan might actually work. But the trouble’s even deeper than she imagines.

His phone rings at 12:27 a.m.

“Can you meet me by the elevator?”

“Sure.”

As he rounds the corner of the corridor he sees her on the breezeway, leaning into the dolly. The box on top is heavy.

“So nice of you to help.”

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