Simpatico

They say LA is the city of angels, but if you ask me angels must be born somewhere in Iowa.  I’ve never been there myself, yet I think it’s something of a truism, a statement that I could carry with me to the grave without ever having to prove it to anyone not even myself.  That’s the thing about belief.  It’s something that runs deep into the core of one’s being. Even if you’re a rational person who typically harbors skepticism for most things, when it comes to belief that same person could never and would never waver despite any kind of evidence to the contrary.  Why do I believe angels are born out there you may ask?  Well, part of me romanticizes that part of our country because of Field of Dreams.  When the love of baseball runs in your blood, it’s only natural that one of the best baseball stories should capture a significant portion of your heart.  That tale has everything you could ever want from a baseball story so much so that it manages to make me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never been to.  Music can do that too.  Ever listen to a song made decades before you were born, but somehow you can just feel it in your veins as if that song spoke directly to you? I’m not quite sure what to call that. It’s not déjà vu, but something similar.  Maybe there’s just something about me that makes me more receptive to this kind of sensation.  I’m sure there’s a more sophisticated term for it but I just call it being “simpatico.” It’s that feeling you get when even though you have no reason to feel a connection to something or someone, you just do.  Whether or not the person you’re simpatico with ever even senses it, it’s a sensation that exists “out there” nonetheless.

What do I know about Iowa cornfields or a guy reconnecting with his father summoning the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson by building a left field? Nothing, but that feeling you get when you play catch with your dad. . .  missing that one person in your life that you have that intangible connection with – well, just about anyone with a beating heart could relate to that.  I suppose that’s why most people love that story whether it’s the book or the film or both.  There’s a true sense of the miraculous I get particularly when reading Shoeless Joe, the book that Field of Dreams was based on.  Unlike the movie, it’s only a left field that gets built at first which summons Joe Jackson to come and play.  Then, there’s more hard work to be done building the rest of the field for the other position players, but the miracle doesn’t quite happen all that easily despite all the hard work and sweat and tears.  It’s as if nature gave Ray Kinsella just enough of a taste of a transcendent experience to want more but then it held back demanding even more from the man before yielding the reward and even then only people who “believe” can see it.  There’s a kind of poetry to the events in that story even after you put aside all the romanticizing of Iowa.  It’s that feeling you get when something makes perfect sense even though you can’t explain it.  Maybe Iowa is heaven after all.

In the summer of 2010, I fell in love with the most amazing woman I have ever known, an angel from Iowa named Lizzie Davidson.  I fell in love with her before I even knew her. I fell in love with her even though I never got to know her – not really. This story isn’t about that – at least not directly – although I can’t rightly tell anymore. Everything gets a bit hazy especially when the old fashioned kind of inspiration runs dry.  My mind used to be flooded with a bevy of ideas, but my brain cells have been skewered over time if not by old age then by the rigmarole of everyday living, the mundane echoing of Phil Collins slushing through my brain – innocuous pop music to fill my mind and help me forget how much I hate the life I’m forced to live, and also there’s the inconvenient factor of being trapped in a marriage.

There used to be a time when I thought I could take it all in the stride. “Pretend to be happy and the world is your oyster,” a man I knew well had been very fond of saying.  Then, he got hit by a train or maybe he jumped into the train or maybe he got pushed. It doesn’t matter now does it? If that was his mantra, he may as well be dead so we could all assume he died a happy man.  The kicker is that the man’s wife won the lottery the day after his funeral with the numbers he used to play every week. Now she lives out in Mallorca with some Eurotrash half her age named Jorge. My wife and I visit her once every so often and each time we toast to her late husband who we all know must be smiling down upon us wherever he is.  I just hide my shit eating grin every time we do this and look over to my wife mouthing the word “bitch” when she isn’t looking.

So, back in the summer of 2010 I worked in an office.  Well, it wasn’t quite an office.  It was more of a lounge, but we called it an office or at least I called it an office.  Hell, if I can remember what we all did there (one evening of listening to “Sussudio” on loop will do that to you- don’t ask why), but I distinctly remember Lizzie Davidson and her smile or maybe it was a fake smile, but even her fake smile was a thing of beauty.  You see, we dealt with a fair share of shall we say unpleasant people who we all needed to be pleasant to so I can’t remember if Lizzie was genuinely smiling at the person in front of her or if it was a fake smile meant to appease said person, but I can remember the feeling of wanting to be that person in front of her – the person she was smiling to.  I watched from afar and realized that I had never witnessed a woman as graceful, bright, and as impressive as her or if I had, I had taken no particular notice.  I developed a crush of maddening proportions so I did what would have come naturally even if I hadn’t been married. I resigned to disguise my attraction to her with a casual display of indifference. I pretended to take no particular notice of Lizzie only every now and then I couldn’t help but look up at her from my work station when I knew she’d be around, and each time I did the attraction grew deeper.  I semi-hoped she wouldn’t notice me at all, but one day she came up to me with that smile of hers and asked how my day was going.  Since I was somewhere where I didn’t care to be, my day had already gone to shit but I couldn’t quite say that.  I couldn’t quite say anything.  I got that feeling you get when you know you’re blushing and tried to recover with some innocuous small talk but needless to say my attempt at remaining cool and calm failed spectacularly. I don’t even remember what came out of me, but it must have been utterly embarrassing.  She just laughed and walked away, but it was a sympathetic laugh.  She wasn’t mocking me the way someone else might in the same situation.  No, not Lizzie.  No, she was laughing because in that instant we were simpatico even if it was for just a brief instance before forgetting it entirely.  There we were a man and a woman on the same wavelength experiencing some kind of fragile connection.

Despite sounding like a raving loon, let me assure you that I’ve never been described as a passionate man.  Most people who encounter me feel as if they’re left with no impression of me at all. I’ve learned to subdue all the things that make me stand out.  It’s what one must do to survive marriage.  Somewhere in the vast garbage dump of my subconscious exists all the things about myself I used to enjoy: my foolish ambition to become a writer, the way I used to roar and cheer at a ballgame, the tears that would come streaming out of me at a sad movie, the plans for my “future me” that I held dear to my heart -all the things I set aside the moment I said “I do.” There’s an old pop song from Rod Stewart’s old band Faces called “Ooh La La.”  The song starts out with the singer telling the audience about his grandfather who warned him of “women’s ways.” “They trap you and use you,” the song goes but the singer simply thought that the grandfather was a bitter old man and surely none of this would happen to him until he reaches the chorus where he sings “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger.” Married life is a bit like that. By the time you figure out the kind of person you’d really want to share your life with, it’s already too late.

There was that time I recall now when all the work piled up on us quite suddenly.  It was another Saturday night (“and I ain’t got nobody / I got some money ‘cause I just got paid” – sorry I can’t seem to resist song lyrics these days), but on that Saturday night it was really busy for some reason. I was lucky enough to work side by side with Lizzie and out of the corner of my eye I’d see her and think isn’t she something.  Then, when there would be a breather, we turned to each other and smiled.  It was just the camaraderie of two people working on a task, but it was also something more than that. There was that smile of relief on her face when we finished the rush. The sweat that trickled from each of our brows signaled the adrenaline that pierced through both of our veins.   I could imagine our lips getting closer to each other as we surrendered to kiss each other, yet there’s always work to be done.  Before I knew it, the magic of the moment had passed and I realized that whatever connection we had faded along with that magic.

Whenever I saw Lizzie, it was as if we’d go from strangers to acquaintances to friends to passionate lovers and then back again in a never ending cycle that only I’m capable of registering.   Those moments when the connection was strongest felt utterly intense and then when the connection is lost I felt desperately lost and foolish for ever even considering the possibility that she could be even remotely attracted to me just because I felt this attraction to her. I’ve lost faith in my simpatico theory more times than I could count.   First, I think that I’m such a damn loser who Lizzie wouldn’t want anything to do with even if I were single.  Then, I begin to think that Lizzie must already think I’m just another creep who wants to cheat on his wife the same way all men who have piggishly used women have done since the dawn of time.  She must think I’m a Neanderthal, a pig, a no good louse whose only thoughts lay in the gutter.  Sometimes I even think that way about myself until I remind myself why I started to feel the way I do about Lizzie in the first place.  Of course, I find her physically attractive, but I also think she’d be the kind of woman who could understand me and accept me for who I am and that I could do the same for her, but the more I ponder all this the less it all makes sense especially now.

All these feelings began in the Summer of 2010 and much time has passed, and some might say that I’ve grown complacent.  After all, isn’t time enough that a person commit to one life or another and all that is true I suppose except for the fact that I’ve lost something in the intervening years or rather I became lost.  One day I was walking down a city street when my vision became notably blurred.  It carried on in that way for several minutes but when I fully recovered, I was somewhere else. The first thing I noticed was the cigarette smell piercing through my lungs, but then I began to notice the telephone booths.  Almost every few blocks I walked seemed to have one and not just the kind that were open air.  No, these were actual closable glass partitioned phone booths, the kind that used to be common place many many years ago and now have all but gone extinct.  Then, I noticed the men all around me in suits and trench coats, the women – many of them with their hair made up in neat little buns – carried themselves in a way that seemed uniformly conservative while at the same time utterly striking.  Where were the jeans and sneakers of my time?  Where were the faded T-shirts that proclaimed the favorite sports team or fictional character of the average passerby?  Where were my jeans and my polo shirt? Where were my sneakers?  I seemed to be dressed in an old fashioned grey suit.  My face felt more closely shaven than normal and my hand almost recoiled at the oil in my slick back hair.  I had no idea where I was until a local urchin approached me and asked me for a nickel.

“Shine your shoes for a nickel,” pronounced the bold boy

“I’m wearing sneakers, kid,” I said almost instinctively.

“Why no, sir. Those are shoes if I may say so.”

I look down and much to my surprise I’m wearing black leather shoes which did look like they needed a polish indeed.  I turn to tell the boy “perhaps another time” when I notice the most phenomenal thing.  The cars! The cars weren’t the cars I’d been used to seeing.  No, these were all large gas guzzling vehicles I would consider relics only they aren’t relics right now at this moment in time.  In the blink of an eye I saw a long black Packard 180 followed by a green Hudson Commodore convertible.   Then a Ford Customline Country Sedan pulled up to park right in front of me.  There it stood in all its yellow and white factory delivered glory and all I could do was stare with my mouth open.  A frisky blonde inside seemed to recognize me and called to me.

“Well, are you going inside or are you going to stare at my car all day?”

I stare further in disbelief as the woman grows more and more incredulous.

“Clark? Clark? What’s wrong with you?” she asks, and for the moment I can’t and don’t answer partially because my name isn’t Clark and partially because I have no daggone idea what’s going on or where the heck I am except that something inside me is telling me to go along with all of it.

Something inside of me instinctively tells me that this woman’s name must be Barbara but somehow I know that “Clark” has taken to calling her “Babs.”  I’m not sure how I know this.  I just do.

“Just a minute, Babs. I thought I spotted a dent on your hood but turns out it was just a reflection.”

“Mr. Porter called 4 times while you were out yesterday.  If we don’t have the rent for him by noon tomorrow, he’s likely to padlock the door to the office.  Whatcha doin’ here so early?”

Babs leads the way inside crossing the hallway and walking up the stairs fervently and determined like a woman on a mission as I linger behind.  She hangs up her scarf and her jacket and I put my hat on a hat rack staring about the place.  The dust hangs in the air the same way it might in the distant corner of a library where all the older titles are kept.  The forms on Babs’s desk appear yellowed and typed in a rather old fashioned manner that suggests neat approximation rather than the precise computer formatting similar forms might have in my time.  Everything about this office anteroom reminds of the old films.  There’s a waiting area with a coffee table and ashtrays.  There’s the standard black rotary phone on the upper right hand corner of the desk and file cabinets off to the left of Babs’s chair, and I could just about hear how loud they get when they open and close.  The newspaper she tosses me tells me it’s December 1949. The frosted glass door to the right of Babs’s desk proudly proclaims this to be the office of Clark White, Private Detective.

“Lemme guess, Clara went off with the kids again?”

“What’s that”

“Clara . . . your wife. Did you get popped on the head on the way over here?”

“Ah yes.  Clara is off visiting her sister again.  Why’d you ask?”

“Because normally you come in with an ironed shirt like most respectable men,” replied Babs.

“I must have forgotten.  Sorry about that,” I say.

“I get you your paper, your coffee.  I answer your phones and file your paperwork and now I suppose I need to iron your shirts too.  This job’s more than any woman could bargain for.  The least you could do is take me out to the diner later tonight.”

“You got it, Babs.”

“I don’t suppose that wife of yours will have sense enough to stay away long enough to let me take her place?”

“I doubt Clara would ever quite run off for good.”

“It’s a shame. You and I make quite the match.”

“Those are just the cards we’re dealt, Babs,” I say as I walk into my office and close the door.  I stare out the window for a long while expecting to awaken in the 21st century after every blink of my eyes only it doesn’t happen and I think to myself that of all the places to disappear to and end up in this ain’t so bad.

At the end of the day, I take Clara out for a hot meal and further settle into the life of Clark White.  Most of what I need to know has been implanted in my brain somehow.  For instance I know Clark has $75 tucked away in his gun safe for a rainy day and while Clark was hoping not to use it towards rent he figured about half of that might keep Mr. Porter from padlocking the office if he piled on the charm and implied that he was working a “hot case.” I know that Babs has been Clark’s loyal secretary for 4 years and that she flirts with him at every opportunity knowing that he could never call her out on her bluff.  It’s turned into a game they play and they each get some zingers in to pass the time and relieve stress when needed.  At dinner she talks about her old boyfriend Rocco who used to take her to the pictures until she found him sticking his hand up Betty Brogart’s blouse when she decided to treat herself to the movies one night after he told her his ma was sick and he needed to leave town for the weekend.  The food at the diner tastes absolutely delicious even though I just ordered a hamburger and fries.  The burger is perfectly seasoned and the vanilla milkshake I treat myself to hits the spot like no other milkshake I’ve ever had.  Babs notices that I appear more pensive than usual, but as my confidence about the circumstances rises I feel more alert and aware enough to stave off her concerns. I walk her home and I go off to my place knowing exactly where to go and feeling more and more at home with every step I take. I become Clark White and I have no regrets in leaving my old life behind.  Somehow it just feels right for me to embrace this existence.

I get so used to walking in Clark White’s shoes that 2 years go by and I hardly even notice and hardly ever even stop to think about my 21st century life, which I can safely say was not much of a life at all. Having somehow gleamed Clark’s personal knowledge and skills I found myself to be quite an able gumshoe when I had to be.  Most of the time I tracked down cheating or missing spouses.  Missing and cheating tend to be the same thing in this business. I created quite the stir, however, once I found Trixie Montgomery after she ran off with Nazi gold nefariously obtained by her husband. It made all the papers “Private Dick Recovers Nazi Loot” and “Detective White Settles the Score for Uncle Sam.”

Then, one Saturday afternoon in June 1951, I get the urge to visit the Polo Grounds and watch the Giants play ball 6 years before they would move to San Francisco.  I had been to couple of games before, but this one Saturday afternoon I felt something beckoning me to go to the game so I did.  I passed through the turnstile knowing full well that back in the future a writer by the name of W.P. Kinsella would romanticize this very act which now felt common place to me no different than swiping a metro card at a subway today.  Part of me just wasn’t sure how to pay reverence to such an occasion other than to blend in and act like I belonged which was a behavior I had grown accustomed to.

The smell of fried onions and hot dogs lingered just about everywhere as I approach my seat.  I thought about inviting Babs to the game with me but something told me I needed to be there alone. It was really something to see the stands come alive that day.  I saw Wes Westrum behind the plate for the first time that game. I recognized him as one of the Mets future managers, the one who would replace Casey Stengel as manager in 1965 and whose career as a Mets manager was unremarkable but I nevertheless took pride in watching him play the game as the starting catcher for the Giants in the 1951.  I suppose the foreknowledge that this team would eventually lose to the Yankees in the World Series that might spoil the experience for most people but anyone who loves the game of baseball just loves to watch the game being played.  So what if I knew how the season would end?  My baseball knowledge was limited to World Series winners alone so I had no idea about the outcome of the individual games in the season. Back when I was 12 years old, I decide to memorize the winners of every World Series ever played.  It’s just something I carry with me and I know no matter where I happen to be.

I watched Larry Jansen strike out the side in the 4th inning then I sat back in my chair and inhaled the smell of the outfield grass when I looked across the field and saw her.  It was Lizzie Davidson sitting just beyond the Giants on deck circle. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me at first but then there was no doubt in my mind it was her.  I got up from my seat and started to make my way towards her section hearing several “What’s da matter, pals” as I made my way.  As I got closer, I called out to her but she didn’t seem to hear me.  Next to her was a big man and I knew he just had to be somebody’s muscle. I wondered if she was in danger and was desperate to find out more.

Both the strong man and Lizzie get up and make their way to the back seats under the shadows of the upper level. I could tell Lizzie doesn’t want to be there.  Then I see it, the dark metal barrel pointed at her ribs and my mind gets ready to freak out but I somehow compose myself and push people aside until I’m right next to them. I remember that I’m carrying my own piece, and I decide to pull up right behind Mr. Muscle and stick the barrel of my gun right in his lower back.

“I think the lady doesn’t care for the pleasure of your company. I’d scram if I were you unless you desire a new orifice in a place where you haven’t got one already.”

Mr. Muscle looks surprised and stunned. “A new what’s it?” he says.

Since I arrived here I seemed to have attained a natural gift for the one-liners so I say, “Look it up in the dictionary and beat it.”

Mr. Muscle leaves and I find myself lost in Lizzie’s chestnut brown hair. I think about how her hair would look splayed out on an empty outfield grass as the two of us lay side by side in an empty left field with no one else around (It has to be left field because in Kinsella’s book it all starts with a left field). Her round cheeks and her beautiful figure enchant me and I find myself feeling as if I’m floating only to be awakened by her soft voice saying, “That was sweet of you, but you shouldn’t have done that.”

I reply, “No worries. I’m a Private Dick. I can take care of myself.”

Lizzie took great pains not to laugh at my line and then she introduced herself as Elizabeth O’Connell and I just decide to play along.  I tell her I’m Clark White and offer to look after her if she thinks she’s in trouble.  It turns out she is, she’s in a lot of trouble.

We don’t get to talk much as I escort Elizabeth to my car.  My 1950 Pontiac Chieftain deluxe convertible is hardly the kind of inconspicuous vehicle you’d expect a low brow detective to have, but with all the success after the Nazi gold case, I decided to splurge a little.  Only now I wish I hadn’t.  The largeness of the thing sticks out like a sore thumb and no sooner do I get passed 109th street do I spot a cabbie tailing me.  Mr. Muscle looks to be behind the wheel and I could tell by the determined look in his eye that he plans to stop us and stop us for good.  I step on the gas and try to ease Elizabeth’s concerns by telling her that this isn’t my first high speed chase on the streets of the city, but she looks too worried to care about this feeble attempt to console her.

I try to get downtown fast but traffic seems to be working against me.  At East 74th Street I make a sharp turn into the alley as Elizabeth’s jaw gapes open in suspense.  I honk the horn 3 times and unload a single shot into the air.  The cabbie is right behind and I pray they don’t shoot out my tires, but so far the shots they’ve fired have all missed the mark completely.  Still, I make sure to tell Elizabeth to keep her head down.   After speeding away for 3 minutes I make a sharp u-turn doubling back to pull in front of the Church of the Resurrection at 119 East 74th Street where Father McMichael stands outside ready with his shotgun.  He waits for us to pass him by and then stands in the middle of the street pummeling his Winchester right into the windshield of the cabbie. Mr. Muscle brakes hard and his body breaks through the grass along with his companion, a mustachioed man in a bowler hat.

As Father McMichael comes towards us to see what’s going on, I tell Elizabeth that it pays to have friends in high places. It also helps that I caught the sorry mook who conned the church out of 7 Gs a year ago using the same signal system only I was the man with the shotgun at the time.

I finally got the chance to talk to Elizabeth as we sipped down some Earl Grey tea at the rectory. Father McMichael left us alone to talk after seeing to the authorities.  Turns out the good old padre stopped some fellas who stole a cabbie uptown.  How he knew the cabbie was stolen, they ask.  Well, the Good Lord has His ways, he says without blinking an eye.  The doughnut squad buys it and that’s why I love religion.

“So, let me guess.  You must owe the wrong people some money,” I tell Elizabeth.

“Close, actually they owe me money,” she says. “I bet on the Yankees to sweep the Phillies in the World Series back in October.”

“Good bet,” I say.  “How much was it for?”

“100 grand at 9-1 odds,” says Elizabeth without batting an eye, “They took me for a sucker. ‘Yanks might win the Series but no way will they sweep,’ they told me.  Turns out I was right. I tend to be right about these kinds of things. I like the Yankees chances of winning this year too, but I think my betting days are far behind me.”

“I agree about the Yankees but I’m not a betting man myself.  It’s a shame though. I never could take to those pinstripes,” I say.

“Well, don’t count me among their fans,” she says, “I just know a good bet when I see one.”

Later that evening we retreated to my office and I ignored the glare Babs gave me when I told her to hold all my calls as we rushed passed her after a cursory introduction. Elizabeth filled me in on all the details telling me that the bookie she made the bet with was connected to the Luchesse Syndicate.   The bookie himself was just the middle man who was forced to welch on the bet by his boss Stafano LaSalle, underboss to Thomas Luchesse.  I wondered if Elizabeth was thinking what I was thinking.  Just about anyone else in their right mind would have advised her to forget about the money and leave town, but instead a crazy notion clicked in my head and I wondered if the same notion was on her mind.

“What if,” I started….

“We hold up a Luchesse casino,” she finished.

“A woman after my own heart,” I said. “How’d you know what I was thinking.”

“Woman’s intuition,” she said.

That night was the perfect night to strike.  They would be licking their wounds from the pinching of Mr. Muscle, and I doubt they knew the kind of ally Elizabeth made the Polo Grounds. I made some phone calls, and in a matter of a couple of hours I secured a team of clean trustworthy cops willing to give organized crime a black eye. This would be an unofficial operation of course.  In my business, it pays to know which cops are on the take and which ones aren’t.  It pays to know how many cops are in fact disgusted with the rampant corruption in this town where gangsters operate with impunity.  These are the guys with tough hearts and cold eyes.  These are my kind of men.  I explain all this to Elizabeth but she’s just nervous about whether or not this crazy idea will actually work.  I decide to take my chances, lean in, and kiss her. She kisses me back. Then, something happened to take us out of the moment.  She began telling me some of the things these men have put her through since she tried collecting on her bet.  How she’s been forced to live life constantly looking over her shoulder, how one day the men even killed her dog.  Then she said, “Until today, it seemed to me that just about every man in this world had a rotten heart. Somebody ought to write a song about it.”

I thought for a second and said, “Well, the closest thing I could think of is a song I once heard by a guitar playing fella called ‘Hungry Heart.’ Fella who played it was named Bruce.”

Elizabeth took a step back and her face seemed to contort in utter shock.  She gasped. “Springsteen,” she said.  That two syllable name stood between us like an albatross and seemed to produce a tremor that only the two of could feel.

I finally speak. “How could you know that?  Unless you’re really her. Lizzie Davidson?”

“Yes and you must be…”

But before she could finish, Lt. Stanley Caldwell just about knocked down my door. He’s the man I’ve just chosen to lead our assault on the Luchesse casino along with me.  Nine of his men were right outside. Lt. Caldwell knew the perfect time and place to strike.  There was a former speakeasy over on West 46th street that was now just a plain bar using its secret hidden back room to double as a gangster casino.  Caldwell had just raided the place just over a month ago but the charges were suddenly dropped and nothing ever came of it.  I can’t help but glance over at the woman I now know to be Lizzie from the 21st century and suddenly fear sweeps over me.  My fear has nothing to do with the operation.

All of us put on ski masks as we ride in an unmarked police van out to the west side.  I try to convince Lizzie that she should stay behind, but she insists on coming along. Once we arrive, everyone says their own quick little prayer – the cops to some Jesus guy, and me to whoever controls this time travel thing that’s kept me here in the past for so long to keep me here even longer.  My gut only tells me that my prayers will be in vain.  Somewhere, some universal time travel computer will no doubt detect a glitch and say “Wait a minute… These two people don’t belong together… Not in this time . . . Not in any time.”

It’s Lt. Caldwell’s booming voice that everyone hears as we storm into the bar and head towards the back. There’s a momentary sense of chaos where all the unsuspecting men in the room freeze and then protest but I make the first move. I let my gun speak once letting the bullet fly just over the head of the strongest looking man in the room.

Caldwell breaks through to the back room where we see black jack tables and poker tables lined up from front to back. Elizabeth in her ski mask holds the Smith and Wesson I gave her shaking hand but her eyes impart the necessary sense of fury to give the impression that she’s willing to use it.  Then, Stafano LaSalle weaves his way towards us with his hands up.  Elizabeth removes her mask.

“Lizzie no,” I say as I watch her steady her stance and tighten her grip on her weapon.

LaSalle all smarmy and coy smiles, “It’s alright, it’s alright.”

“I want the money you owe me with interest,” Lizzie says sweat dripping down her brow like pouring rain.

LaSalle motions to a man at the corner. “Eddie go into the safe.  Give these men everything in there.”

Eddie attempts to vocalize some kind of protest but it only comes out as a mumble.  I make my way over to him and point my gun right between his eyes.

“Do it,” LaSalle said. “Let me tell you something, girl.  You’ve got yourself some moxie but if you ever place any kind of bet anywhere in this town again I will personally see to it that you and every one of your friends – don’t think I don’t know who they are – you and every one of youse will be hanging from a meat hook.  Are we clear?”

Lizzie stepped up to him. She put her gun down staring him right in the eyes. “Crystal clear,” she said.

Lizzie and I thank Lt. Caldwell and his men. They depart and then it’s just the two of us outside my office on West 35th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. “I don’t quite feel like going back to my apartment,” she says.

“Well, with my wife at home the only thing I can offer you is a cot in my office but with the funds you’ve got I suppose you have better options for yourself.”

“Don’t you think we should talk,” she says, “About where we’re from?”

“Absolutely not. What if the two of us just being together like this pulls us back? I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”

“We’re still here aren’t we?”

Only just as I was about to reply, my biggest fear came to fruition and in the worst possible way.  As I tried to pull closer to Lizzie and reach out for her suddenly my vision blurred again. Then, came the noise.  That insidious horrible sound. It was coming from large amplified speakers.  I was in some kind of concert theater.  Then, the worst part of it came.  A keyboard riff and then that bland loud voice broke out in song, “There’s a girl that’s been on my miiiind /  All the time/ Su Sussudio!!!!”

Phil Fucking Collins.  I was at a Phil Collins concert with my wife. “Isn’t this awesome?” she asks.

“What the fuck is this?”

“It’s your favorite song,” she says. “You listen to it practically all the time. I got these tickets for you.”

“Lovely,” I say.  There’s nothing more I could say. Later on I find out 3 years have passed. No one seems to think I had gone anywhere. It takes me several months to readjust to my 21st century life.  One day not too long ago, I actually had the urge to listen to that Phil Collins song again and that’s when I knew I had fully returned. I was me again grounded in this time.  Phil Collins becomes a pill I take to numb my brain and deal with the loss of my preferred life as Clark White.  The music is literally a drug to me.  Other songs become my drugs – a means of escaping without really escaping, a way to feel passion without risking any real part of me. I just escape into the world of a song and I’m there in that moment feeling the song’s feelings, living the song’s life. No courage necessary.

I find out Lizzie no longer works in my office but instead she now works in a different office smiling her same smile at a different set of people.  One day very recently, I resisted the urge to listen to Phil Collins and decided to see her. I think Why not. I’ll just go up to her and ask her if she happened to be a bodysnatching time traveler who pulled off a casino heist with me in 1951.What could possibly go wrong?

I get very close. I see her through the glass door but then just as I’m about to go inside I see my own reflection. I see me, the person who I am in this 21st century life – a man adrift with no prospects other than the fruitless office work I do.  When I was Clark White I was somebody, and now as I stare at myself I’m back to being nothing but a shapeless shell of a man. I’m not Clark White anymore.  I’m nobody and I have nothing to offer- no bravery, no courage, not even a nifty anachronistic one liner.  Lizzie – whether she was with me back in 1951 or not – deserves better. I turn around and go back home where I belong and listen to Phil Collins “Against All Odds” with my headphones on. I must forget all that stuff about being simpatico, but it’s a notion that I just can’t seem to shake out of my head. I think just this one thought to myself before falling asleep on my pillow and forgetting the entire matter, if only I could spend one night with her. If only I could spend a lifetime.

The Lips of a Killer

Intro:  This was a story I wrote for submission to The First Line, a literary magazine where they provide the first sentence and then you – the writer – must complete the story using their first line.  I found out about it a couple of days before the due date so I really didn’t have much time to come up with something more original. I just thought I’d just give it a shot and write something quick in time to submit using their line: “Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  So, off I went and wrote this story and sent it.  It’s not the greatest thing I ever wrote, but the whole point is to try to do something creative and original.  It’s a bit derivitive of the Mickey Spillane stories I’ve read except it’s told in the 3rd person and I get my detective in a jam that he asbolutely won’t get out of.  It’s a one-off in the truest sense of that phrase since the character isn’t one that I plan to revisit.  As a nod and a wink I named his secretary Vicki using another “V” name.  Mike Hammer’s secretary was named “Velda” in the Spillane stories, but Vicki isn’t quite the same as Velda and you’ll see why.  Needless to say the story was rejected, which is no surprise to me since it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel centering on a typical detective’s encounter with a femme fatale.  Since it was rejected, I can now share it here.  It’s rare for editors to give any kind of feedback.  I suppose they may have written this to everyone who had a story rejected, but here’s what they wrote: “Really well done, Jack. Several similar submissions, but I enjoyed yours. Just missed. Try us again.” So without further ado, here’s the rejected story.

_______

“Unfortunately, there is no mistake,” she said, closing the file.  The smirk on Mary’s face spelled it out all too well.  Harry took solace in the only source of comfort available to him in that moment – the way she held her cigarette in those delicate fingers, the way her lips curled just before letting out the smoke which seemed to envelop her in all her radiance.  That red gown she wore just for this occasion told him the one thing he should have known all along: that she was dressed to kill.  He had a habit for falling for the wrong type of dame and why should Mary be any different.  Everything about this case felt off right from the start ever since she sashayed into his office like a tigress waiting to pounce upon its willing prey, and yet he was drawn to her.  Even in this moment of ultimate betrayal, even now when there could be no uncertainty, no doubting her unbridled cruelty, he couldn’t resist that face and those curves on her body.  If in some sadistic fashion, she decided to kiss him in this very instant, he would kiss her back and that kiss would be both passionate and sincere.  Despite the very fact that she seemed to be just seconds away from extinguishing his life, he still desired her perhaps even loved her.

As she drew closer to him, he saw the Beretta 9mm pistol in her nonsmoking hand.  Her eyes peered into his as she said, “You were never supposed to see that file on me, Harry.”

Struggling up a smile, Harry replied, “Well then why don’t we pretend that I haven’t, sweetheart.”

Her bare shoulders shrugged conveying her sarcasm, “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” said Harry hoping in vain for some kind of reprieve knowing she’d never fall for it.

Putting down her cigarette, Mary shimmied over to him with all the grace of a ballet dancer holding the gun almost like a toy in her tiny hand, her finger around the trigger.  Mary pressed the business end of the pistol point blank against his chest and proceeded to caress the upper buttons of his shirt. “No dice, Harry,” she said in a mousy voice that would have been unattractive coming out of the mouth of any other woman.

Harry held his breath anticipating the moment of his demise wondering if he’d even hear the sound of the bullet firing.   He had frequently told himself that he didn’t care if he lived or died and that in fact he was prepared to die if the circumstance ever came down to it, but now that death became almost a certainty he wasn’t so sure.  It’s one thing to occasionally flirt with death and to even resign yourself towards an occupation where your life is on the line, but to actually die, to actually take that final breath knowing it to be your last, knowing that every sensation and memory you’ve ever had could just cease to exist at that very instant? Being privy that kind of knowledge could just about terrify any man even one who had already spent decades risking his life.  Harry had been in gun fights before.  Gunfire was nothing new to him, but he had always been armed.  He always had his piece on him.  This was the first time he was disarmed with a pistol pointed at him just inches away from his flesh.  The sweat on his brow intensified while his eyes searched the room for some kind of salvation, some kind of miracle object that might get him out of this trap, and yet there was nothing.

The ornate furniture of Mary’s bedroom had always left Harry bemused. Now the thought of dying in this very room sickened him.  He always found the room dank, but his objections were usually silenced by the dropping of garments in front of him followed by the squeezing of her wanton flesh.   Right now, Harry wished he could summon just about any pleasurable memory of the numerous other women he’d been with but in these final moments she was the one in front of him and therefore his mind would be occupied solely by her.  His rational mind searched for any other alternative only to come up empty.  In this very moment Mary was the only woman who existed. His last and only thoughts would be of her and he found himself both aroused and repulsed by this woman who now stood ready to kill him in cold blood.

Strangely enough she seemed to be reading his mind as she said, “I bet you’re gathering your final thoughts in that internal monologue you’ve got going in your head.”  She paused, “It’s okay to admit it.”

“What is it that you want me to admit?”

“That you’re thinking of us, more specifically me,” she said with a sadistic smile. “I can’t begin tell you how many men have fantasized about me just as they were about to die.”

“That file could tell me,” said Harry.

Mary laughed to herself, “Yeah, I suppose it could.”

“So Sacramento, Seattle, San Antonio, and now New York.  That was all you. Same modus operandi. One bullet in the head and one for each testicle.”

Mary stood quiet and smirked that little grin of hers.  Harry’s brain worked hard to put all the pieces of the puzzle together knowing he stood nothing to gain but determined to solve one last mystery nevertheless.  He focused his thoughts on all the things that transpired to get him to this point.  The moment Vicki, his secretary, announced that he had a prospective new client, giving him that special look she reserved for those times she knew there’d be trouble. He knew he was in for a doozy.  Vicki had recognized Mary’s face from the newspapers.  When she walked through the threshold of his office door, he recognized her too as the recent widow who the coppers had deemed fit to book for her husband’s murder.  Turns out the doughnut squad got it right the first time, but a whole lot of good that did him now.  Mary must have known that he couldn’t resist. Poor Vicki.  Harry imagined she’d take his death the hardest.  There’d always be that night cap she invited him for after a night at the pictures a couple years back.  Vicki may just be the most loyal woman alive because somehow she never let him feel even a hint of remorse for getting back to business as usual the next day when she had clearly wanted more, when every inch of her body felt like it had achieved the ultimate ecstasy with his every touch as he took her that one night. If only he could have brought himself to commit to her instead of brushing her off after one evening of bliss. Harry struggled to remember the sensation of his lips kissing her, but the memory of that sensation escaped him now returning him to the cruel woman standing before him.

“Men are so easy to manipulate,” said Mary. “When I came to you with my sob story about how the cops had railroaded me, you were only too eager to take on my case.”

“For my usual fee,” said Harry.

“But soon after we got to know each other better,” said Mary with a wink, “You began to have a personal stake in the outcome of the case.  You never figured that I was capable of murder, did you?”

“How could I?” said Harry.

The newspapers called her the Black Widow after her fourth marriage ended with the untimely demise of yet another husband. Everyone in the country believed she was guilty as sin but Harry became determined to prove them all wrong.  Although she openly confessed to disliking her husband and marrying him for his wealth, she managed to convince Harry that she had been innocent. Perhaps it was her warm body beneath his that did most of the convincing, but she claimed to have had an alibi for the time period when her husband had been shot.  She claimed to have been at the pictures even producing a ticket stub for the 3pm showing of Pal Joey. After some coaxing the ticket seller and a few ushers remembered her, but Harry now supposed she could have bought the ticket and ducked out of the theater to murder her husband.  What Harry couldn’t figure out was the identity of the individual who must have been helping her.  Mary had no known blood relatives nor did she seem to have many close friends yet there were too many incidents during his time with her that just didn’t add up.   There was the shooting outside his office when they were together, and of course the incident that occurred when they were trying to draw out the real killer of her husband which led to the two of them becoming intimate.

“Tell me who’s helping you, Mary.”

“I suppose you haven’t gotten to that part of the file,” she said.

“You mean it’s there?”

Her mousy voice returned, “Here I am thinking that you discovered it just as I closed the file in your hands.”

“What I saw was that all the killings in the other cities were identical to your husband’s including the details that were not in the newspapers.”

“I don’t suppose you would tell me how you got the file in the first place,” she asked.

“Not a chance,” said Harry.

It wouldn’t be so hard for anyone to figure out that Harry pulled a few favors with the NYPD to get the case file on one Mary Calhoun compiled from each city where the previous husbands had all been killed. George Calhoun, the latest victim, was the wealthiest one yet.  If Harry could only prove her innocence so that she could get away scot free, it would become her biggest score yet.  It was his closest friend, Detective Frank Fisher who had been convinced of Mary’s guilt all along, but gathering all the information on those previous case files took time as well as the pulling of strings. The other investigators from the previous cities had been less than forthcoming.  Frank had come by the office when Harry was out and left the file with Vicki or so Frank told him when he bumped into him at the coffee shop.  Something had come up and Frank had to run off, but Harry was assured that it was there. When Harry returned to the office, Vicki told him the file was gone. It had been right at her desk and it had disappeared.   It didn’t take long for Harry to figure out where it had gone to once Vicki admitted that Mary had stopped by for a visit.  He paid the doorman a fiver to let him know whether or not Mary was in the building.  With confirmation that she was still out, he snuck into her apartment and proceeded to search when he found the file tucked away in a dresser draw among her unmentionables. He flipped through it randomly observing some key evidence about the previous murders when a delicate hand closed the file from behind him.  Somehow she had been expecting him.

With Mary now firmly in control, she took hold of the file and folder and flipped it at him while securing her grip on the gun still pointed at him. She said, “Since you’re going to die anyway you might as well see for yourself.  Go to the page entitled ‘Known Associates’ and I bet you’ll be in for a shock.”

Harry flipped through the pages and there it was plain as day. There was a photo of a woman clearly in a wig but the face was a face he had known, a face he trusted.  It was Vicki and written underneath was the word “sister.”  Harry drew in a breath and stared in disbelief.

“What’s the matter, Harry?  Can’t believe that your trusted secretary would betray you?”

“It can’t be,” said Harry.

“Typical of a man, isn’t it?  You rely on your secretaries to be these loyal confidantes, to do your dirty work, to protect you, to get you your coffee when your hungover, soup when your down with the flu, to be your eyes and ears when your away and what do they get in return?  They get a pittance of a salary when business is booming and an IOU when it’s slow. Then, the kicker is when they fall for you and give themselves over to you body and soul, you treat them like yesterday’s paper in the morning and expect them to just go back to business as usual.”

Harry stood silent until finally asking, “Where is she?”

“You don’t deserve to see her again,” said Mary as she drew in closer.  Just then another figure emerged from the shadows.  It was Vicki or at least the woman Harry knew as Vicki.  Her hair was strewn about like a mess and tears covered her face.

“I never wanted this for you, Harry.” Said Vicki.

Harry’s knees weakened as he knelt on the floor.  He began to plead, “There was always a place in my heart for you, but you know how it is in this business.  It just didn’t seem right for me to be close to anyone.”

Mary laughed, “I bet he’s sorry now, Sis.  How does that song go?”  She began to sing, “Who’s sorry now?/ Who’s sorry now? Who’s heart is aching for breaking each vow?”

“Stop it!” yelled Vicki.

Harry closed his eyes and reached out for Vicki.  She grabbed his hand.  He knew that the pivotal moment was near.

“Don’t go all soft on me now, Sis.  We need to get rid of him just like the others.”

“Just like the others,” repeated Vicki.

Vicki let go of Harry.  Harry began to sob as Mary walked behind him.  In one last desperate gasp, he shouted, “I love you Vicki!”  Then the shot fired though he didn’t hear it.  His body collapsed and as his life escaped him it wasn’t Mary his final thoughts were focused on.  It was Vicki and that one special night they had together.  While the newspapers would ultimately categorize him as just another victim, a sap who fell for the wrong dame, he had one advantage over all the others. He had the blissful sensation of the lips of the woman he loved pressed upon his even if he only felt them for a half a second before his consciousness dispersed into oblivion.

 

 

 

The Shelter We Seek

Author’s note:  This is a sequel of sorts to my story The Last Dame to Fall For. I thought I’d try to do a different type of continuation rather than a direct sequel. Therefore, we have this story about one of Clark White’s children years after the events of that story.

The rain came down heavy on the windshield.  Still, Tom drove down the expressway undeterred in a green Ford Cortina.  He’d reach a level of comfort or as much comfort one might feel while still on the run.  He turned the radio up only to hear the DJ make a rather telegraphed reference to the weather as he introduced the new song by Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” Tom laughed to himself, not at the dumb joke but at his circumstances – Who’ll Stop the Rain indeed!  He listened to the song and it resonated with him with everything he’d been through.  He glanced over to her as she sat cradled next to him in the passenger seat. She was sound asleep but even then she was beautiful, graceful, and most of all . . . innocent.  If there was anything Tom inherited from his father it was that gift of seeing into a person’s true nature and character particularly when it came to women.  There wasn’t much from his father he was grateful for, but this was perhaps the best thing he could have taken away from the old man.  Unfortunately, Tom also inherited his dad’s penchant for drinking, but right now he was more focused than ever before.  He needed to prove her innocence and he had risked everything to do it. Despite all the evidence against her, Tom stood firm in his conviction that Mary Williams did not kill her husband, and he’d even risk his own badge to prove it.

There was only one safe place Tom could think of to go. It was the address on those letters his father had kept hidden from his mom.  Clark White had been a complicated man indeed. Tom felt like he hardly knew the man until he confided in him towards the end and even then it was because he needed Tom to write down what he wanted to say in his final letter.  It was a matter of necessity as Clark had grown too frail and his hands shook and he could no longer write, not that Clark had been fond of letters to begin with.  Tom knew his dad to be a man of few words and until his final days he never thought of his father as being overly complex.  Stingy- yes, judgmental – yes, crotchety – always.  Childhood had been anything but fun, but at least it toughened him up, and when he earned his badge, he remembered his dad running up to him to give him a big hug.  It was the most affectionate the man had ever been. Tom would be lying if he didn’t admit to himself that it didn’t get to him a little.

Now, the question remained . . . who was this Beverly Davenport that his father had been desperate to write to in his final days and would she even remember Clark White or even care to help his son under these desperate circumstances nearly 18 years later.  Tom imagined that Beverly who must now be in her early 60s might even call the police and then he’d be done for – both he and Mary would each be incarcerated.  Tom had put together the story easily enough but there was still an enormous sense of doubt as to whether or not he could trust this woman his father had trusted all those many years ago. As the radio continued to play, Tom haphazardly wondered if 20 years from now people would come to regard the present day as ancient history.  It would seem that time passes indiscriminately for all of us and yet its fate that’s kinder to some than to others.  It was fate that had riddled his Dad with Lou Gehrig’s disease and caused his lungs to fail a few years after the onset of symptoms. Perhaps it would be fate that would deal the same hand to him in due time.  It was fate that drew him and everyone alive closer to the void of death where surely nothing awaits but a vast unfeeling emptiness. His father never believed in heaven and neither did he.

He pulled up in front of a modest sized house with a big lawn and a garden off to the side.  Mary stirred next him. “Where are we?” she asked.

“The only place I could think of to go. The only place I felt I needed to go for reasons entirely unrelated to the mess we’re in together.”

Mary yawned and looked as though she could use another few hours of sleep.  Tom helped her out of the car as she stood up in her tight fit blue jeans and grey “Farm Strong” t-shirt.  Her legs wobbled as she took the first few steps towards the front porch.  Tom held her hand as they approached the door and knocked. A minute later, they could both make out the figure of an older woman approaching distorted through the small glass next to the door frame.  She looked just as Tom imagined she would despite the passing of years.  His dad had described her to him perfectly: her round cheeks, her welcoming face, her chestnut brown eyes, her hair now lightly faded caressing her face.  The years may have made her figure more diminutive but this was most definitely her.

“Hi,” Tom began. “You don’t know me, but I think you knew my father, Clark White.”

The woman’s eyes brightened at the mention of the name. “Why, yes.  You’re father once helped me with a rather delicate situation. . . He saved my life.”

“You must be Beverly Davenport. My dad told me a lot about you.”

“Yes, although I’m surprised your father had much to say about me. Do come in.”

Tom introduced Mary then the pair stepped inside as Beverly guided them into the living room and invited them each to sit down. Tom observed the simple elegance of the room.  A few simple paintings adorned the walls.  One was of a sail boat depicting a man and a boy fishing.  Another was of the Empire State Building in the middle of its construction in 1931. It prompted him to recall that his father told him he had first met Beverly when she worked at the building’s gift shop.  On the glass coffee table in front of them was this morning’s edition of The New York Times and a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Beverly offered them each a refreshment, but Tom declined and insisted that Mary have something cool to drink. Beverly returned with a glass of lemonade.  Mary drank eagerly as the long trip and the nap had made her thirsty and her mouth dry.  She graciously thanked their host.

Tom felt the need to explain things, but it was difficult to start.  He himself hadn’t yet processed the precarious nature of their circumstances and he feared that as friendly as Ms. Davenport may be, this might simply prove to be too much of an imposition.  Beverly sensed this and stood over him, placed her hand on his shoulder and said, “I have a feeling you have a story to tell me.  I’m here to listen and help if I can.”

“Thanks for understanding. First . . . well, this may come as a shock if you don’t know but my dad passed away 4 years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

A faint smile crossed Beverly’s jaw.  It was an uncomfortable grin of sympathy. “I happened to come across his obituary when it occurred so I know.  He was a good man, your father. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Tom recovered his train of thought.  “Then, you might also know that he cared for you deeply.  What I mean to say is that he actually felt a connection to you through your shared experience. There is one letter he dictated to me once he couldn’t write anymore, and there are a couple letters that he had written earlier that have your address on them, which he never sent.  I suppose that’s what led me here under these circumstances.”

“Do you have his letters?”

“No, but his final letter was short and I’ve committed it to memory.  The few other ones he wrote are most likely lost or in storage somewhere.  My siblings weren’t too keen on them, and when my mother past away not long after, it just became a source of friction within the family. They are probably locked up in the old attic somewhere now that my sister took over our childhood home.”

“That I understand,” said Beverly as she grinned.

Mary listened intently.   She drew closer to Tom as she spoke and she must have realize how difficult it was for Tom to speak this way of his father because she threw her arm around his shoulder to comfort him as his voice broke up.

Tom continued, “Well, before he deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t talk, he felt the need to confide in all his children the story of his investigation with you along with the feelings he harbored for you, his desire to leave our mother for you, and well, his quite pessimistic view of humanity and women in particular with exception of you. He wasn’t a happy man by any means, and I believe my mother understood him more than he gave her credit for, but time and time again he told me that there was only one woman he ever encountered who owned the key to his heart and it wasn’t my mother, it was you. He explained that there are precious few beautiful women who naturally lack the ability to beguile. When I was younger, I thought this was all nonsensical male chauvinism prevalent to his generation, but then I myself became a police officer and then a detective within the police force and I found myself walking in his shoes, thinking his thoughts. I’ve encountered many cases in my brief time even though I’m still a relatively young man, and many times there have been women involved who have lied and deceived, some who may be guilty, and others who are not. In each and every case, they always seem to have an angle to play and in many cases they have just as much if not more at stake than the men do. If I’ve inherited anything from my father, it’s been to be able to weed out the difference between how people present themselves from what they actually are. Perhaps that’s why I’m in this mess.”

“Tell me what happened, Tom.”

Tom looked over to Mary and whispered, “It’s okay.”  He shifted his weight away from her and focused his eyes on Beverly. “I failed to prove her innocent so I did the only thing I thought I could do. I sprang her out. The case was doomed from the start. Mary’s husband had been poisoned, and the bottle found by another detective in her pursed contained arsenic.  It was quickly determined that she had been putting the stuff in his food, and by the time I caught wind of the fact that my partner was dirty, it was too late.  Nobody would believe me.  The jury had already convened and she had been found guilty.  Judge gave her 25 to life.  That’s when I did what I think my father would have done for you.  I intercepted the transport van, risked life and limb, and somehow managed to free her after a deadly crash. After regrouping and hot wiring a new vehicle, this was the only place I could think of to go.”

Just then they all heard a knock on the door.  A cursory glance through the window indicated that a New York State Police department cruiser stood parked outside. Beverly directed Tom and Mary to the cellar, “My grandson likes to hide down there all the time. There’s a crawl space just beside the two bookshelves down by the corner to the right.  It should keep you out of sight.”

The two headed downstairs. Mary looked at Tom quizzically as a panicked expression gripped both of their faces.  The crawl space was snug but provided just enough space for the two of them. They held on to each other listening intently to the matters going on above.  They heard Beverly mention something about needing a warrant.  The car they had used to get there must have been reported stolen.  Perhaps someone had spotted them as they drove earlier through the neighborhood. Tom’s mind raced to figure out what their next steps should be. His eyes darted across to Mary’s and he thought he’d do anything to take away the anxiety she must have been feeling.  A tear streamed down her face and then she moved.

“What are you doing?” Tom whispered.

“I’m going to turn myself back in,” Mary briskly replied.

“No.”

“Tom, we can’t do this. We can’t live our lives running hoping that kind heart strangers will hide us time and time again.  It’s over. We have to face the consequences. I have to.”

“But you’re innocent.”

Mary’s face grew more frigid, “Am I?”

“I know you are.”

“I wanted him dead, Tom. I wanted him dead because of how he treated me, and then you came along and you believed me. You’ve convinced yourself that I’m this woman that Beverly was to your dad. Well, I’m not. I did it Tom.  Now, move over because I’m going to end this.  I don’t know how this ends for you, but I know how this ends for me. It ends with me in a women’s penitentiary, and maybe with good behavior I’ll see the light of day one day. That’s the best I could hope for, but the worst thing I ever did wasn’t killing my husband, it was getting you to believe me when I said I didn’t do it.”

Tom looked at Mary and did his best to contain the rage that had been summoned up within his chest.  Just as he was about to speak, Beverly’s steps gently creeped upon the cellar stairs. “Hello?  They’re gone, but we don’t have too much time.  My car is in the garage.  I’ll give you the key. I won’t report it missing or stolen, but when my son comes to visit next Sunday he’ll certainly notice it and I’ll do my best to dissuade him from reporting it. Hurry, you two.”

Tom got up and walked up the steps.  His head had been swimming. He barely comprehended what Beverly had told him, but he got the gist of it.  She was helping them at least that’s what she meant to do.  His dad had been right about her, but he had been wrong about Mary.  The three of them walked and hardly uttered a word as they approached Beverly’s red Ford Mustang.  In another frame of mind, Tom would have stopped to admire it and thrown a slew of compliments Beverly’s way. Instead, he blinked and nodded.  He got into the driver’s side, rolled down the window and started to thank Beverly.

Beverly interrupted, “No need to thank me.  I owe this much to your father.  You never told me what Clark’s final letter to me said.”

Tom looked up, laughed to himself and said, “On a cold winter’s day my father brought me close to him. I thought he was going to say goodbye to me, but instead he had me write down what he wanted to say to you. I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘Dear Beverly, I trust time has been better to you than it has been to me. I miss you and I often think of you and the life we could have shared, but now I’ve grown too old and too damn tired of my own dreams for it to matter much. There are a couple of letters that came before this one that I’ve never gathered up the nerve to send.  What good would they do? What good would this one do? It all comes down to this: You mean way too much to me to forget, but sometimes the life we want and the life we’re meant to live divert from each other like a fork in the road. I’ve taken my path and you’ve taken yours and never the twain shall meet.  Sometimes this makes me sad, but mostly it’s just the way of things. If you ever read this, just know that I’ll always remember you fondly. Love, Clark White.”

Tom saw Beverly begin to struggle with grief. Her eyes teared up, and in that moment he knew that this woman had not only meant a great deal to his father, his father had also meant a great deal to her. He stepped out of the car and gave her a hug that somehow felt maternal. They lingered there together for what seemed like ages.  Then, Beverly let go and said, “Good luck to the both of you. I hope you find peace somewhere, somehow.”

Tom and Mary nodded. Then, Tom turned the key in the ignition, waved goodbye, and said thanks before he pulled out of the garage.

After they had driven far enough away, Mary turned to Tom, “I suppose we’re going to the nearest police station to turn ourselves in.”

Tom turned and said, “If that’s what you want. Personally, I was thinking about Mexico.”

Mary laughed quietly to herself and asked, “And I suppose you still love me even though I played you for a fool?”

Tom pulled over to the side of the road.  He said, “I may not be as intuitive as my father, but I love you and that hasn’t changed.  I trust you had your reasons to do what you did, and even now I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done to protect you.  Whaddaya say we head off into the sunset together?”

Mary nodded, grabbed him closer to her, and kissed him.  Tom pulled back into the road and drove knowing he’ll keep driving until they could both be safe together to live wherever fate landed them.

50 to Life

Chris had nearly been at the end of his rope and this might just be his only way out.  The only thoughts that comforted him now were the thoughts he’d imagine of what life would be like with the woman he wished he was free to be with, but with every indulgence in these delusional fantasies came the price of knowing that it would never happen . . . at least not until now. Still, it was impossible to rid his mind of the image of Kim’s dark hair falling on her shoulders framing her beautifully round cheeks as she leaned in to embrace him all those months ago.  It had been one of the few times he had felt comfortable touching her, and for reasons that couldn’t be rationally explained, it was the last time he felt a touch that meant something to him.  With each passing day, however, his memory grew hazy and his thoughts grew narrower.  He hadn’t been absolutely sure that something had sparked between them, but he felt drawn to Kim in a way that just didn’t seem rational. In more ways than one, Chris knew that his attraction to Kim would be his undoing and that it could be dangerous, but there comes a point in every man’s life where risks need to be taken otherwise he’d be doomed to spend a lifetime living a life he never wanted.

Autumn came rolling in leaving a trail of dust withering with the unfulfilled dreams of summer.  The air thickened and the wind now carried a wistful breeze each day for the past week. Chris stepped outside and felt the breeze gently brush his face as he heard the brown and red leaves fall from their low branches. Before today he’d earnestly start every day with the expectation that little in his life could possibly change.  There had been an inner peace he felt knowing that each day would be like the last and although the seasons would change, his life would remain constant.  There had been an eerie solace in the promise of routine that he had grown accustomed to. Life was far from perfect but as long as he could sleepwalk through it, it would all be fine in the end.  Then as if his subconscious conspired against him, a memory of Kim would intermittently jolt him awake and remind him of the life he couldn’t have, a life that if he was free to pursue would most likely liberate him from the dull comfort of routine and force him to meet new challenges each and every day, not the least of which would be staying hidden and alive.

Staring out of the bus window on this occasion, he discovered a song emanating from his heart and it played and beaconed him towards freedom. The song that he couldn’t get out of his head was “Wanderlust” by Paul McCartney.  It wasn’t a love song by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a song about being free.  Whenever his mind jolted him out of his routine, this song would play and he’d imagine himself with Kim smiling innocently next to him on the deck of a cruise ship as they sailed for the shores of Jamaica. The wind would blow her hair about and as they’d embrace he could almost feel it sweeping across his face and nothing else would matter.  With his hands around her waist, he’d feel the tight fabric of her bathing suit and they’d retire to their room where all they would hear would be the sound of the ocean.  They’d watch the sun rise the next morning, discover whatever pleasures awaited them, and each day would feel like an adventure.  As Chris stared out through the dreary urban sidewalks, he’d turn each pathetic urban stick figure tree into a palm tree on a distant shore, and it until he turned away from the window that’s where he lived.

When the daydreaming ended, Chris found reality almost too difficult to bear.  The Caporelli family was a piece of work, and he’d only wish he’d been able to get out before he married the patriarch’s daughter. He knew enough to put a number of members away in prison for a lifetime, however, the problem was he’d be dead long before he could even get to the stand, and there was the matter of Francesca who hadn’t been a terrible wife.  They had met before news broke out of the Easter Massacre, which had implicated her family. Her father, Paulie Caporelli, had done well to evade investigation prior to that.  As the owner of a popular livery cab business, he had emerged from the 1990s crackdown on the mafia entirely unscathed despite having a hand in the leading drug and prostitution rings in the city.  Chris had been a driver and one night he had been asked to drive the boss’s daughter home and from that night they had been inseparable. A year later, after a lavish wedding he found himself married, but when he had wanted to quit his job as a livery driver to pursue a degree in business management, Franscesca balked at the idea of temporarily sacrificing her lavish lifestyle so he could go back to college.  Paulie offered to move his new son in law up in the organization, but Chris had always aspired to be more than just a soldier on the lines of a mob front.  He chose to leave his life in the Caporelli business behind and go back to school and earn a business degree, however, he found himself indebted to Paulie Caporelli for continuing to keep Francesca in the lifestyle she had grown accustomed to while he pursued his degree.  In no time, he found that Paulie had insisted on some quid pro quo and he was forced to occasionally comply with a few odd favors to appease his father in law. Sometimes, Chris had even resorted to cracking a few skulls despite the fact that he abhorred violence.  For the most part, Paulie had restricted his requests to just helping out on routine collections until it inevitably turned into more than that.

Last night he had been paired with his brother in law, Sal, on what was supposed to be another one of those routine pickups, but it had gone fatally wrong. Sal had arrived in his wind chafed blue Sudan around dusk and what was supposed to be a quickie collection deal turned into a deranged shootout of Reservoir Dogs proportions. There was just nothing else to compare it to the more Chris thought of it.  Sal had gone nuts executing people left and right once Billy, the club owner over on 9th Street, refused to cough up the outrageous vig on a two times college basketball bet over some technicality. Next thing Chris knows, Sal whips out his fucking pistol and starts mowing down the customers in a rage.  Police arrived just in time to see what was going down and the next thing Chris knew he was in a shootout alongside the last person he would want to be standing next to in that scenario.  Blood spewed everywhere.  Hostages were taken, and somehow Chris and Sal made it out alive and unidentified, but the more Chris thought of it the more he hated himself for being trapped in the situation to begin with.  It’s one thing to find yourself in fubar mix-up of your own doing, it’s another thing to get mixed up with people like Sal Caporelli and almost get killed because some loser failed to fill up the Caporelli coffers.

So, this was it. Chris decided that today would be the day that he would quit it all. He’d quit the Caporelli business, quit on his wife, and quit on his entire life even the business school.  Instead of going to class this morning, he’d rush to find Kim at her job, confess his feelings for her, and maybe, just maybe she’d run off with him and they’d find a quiet place to lay low before settling down in some hick town where they could live quietly and happily ever after.  Chris thought it would be just like a fairy tale, only this was a fairy tale full of slimy sociopaths who just wanted to control every aspect of his life as if controlling their own territory in Manhattan wasn’t enough.

Kim worked at a diner in Jackson Heights.  It wouldn’t take long to get there, Chris thought.  He wondered what her reaction would be. If she looked anything like the way she looked when they first met, he knew he was done for.  He had been instantly attracted to her as he spotted her when he stopped in to her dad’s diner for a coffee break late one night.  Her hair had been frazzled from working a long overnight shift, but she had been reading a book on the life of Elliot Ness and they instantly began talking.  He never thought he’d meet a woman who had been as fascinated as he was about the history of the mob going back to the era of Prohibition. It took only minutes before she felt comfortable sitting at his table chatting up the whole night away with hardly any customers to worry about serving.  Chris had even learned quite a few things about the role the women’s suffrage movement had played in getting Prohibition passed around the same time women had won the right to vote.  It didn’t take long, however, for Kim to spot the wedding ring on Chris’ finger and once Chris told her that he had married into the Caporelli family, a grave disappointing look had crossed her face.  Still, that first evening had been full of magic. He had so much more chemistry with Kim and found himself wishing he could be free to get to know her better at the very least.

Over the next year and a half, Chris found himself wandering into the Jackson Heights diner to see Kim and talk to her, but over time his inability to get closer to her frustrated him. One night 4 months ago before he could ever imagine being in a bloody shootout, he decided to stop going to the diner. He made no big pronouncements about it, but he just thought to himself that there was no way he could continue to imagine a future with Kim when there was no way of leaving Francesca without significant risk to his own life. Besides, wasn’t he being selfish to some degree continuing this long fascination with another woman when he had no means of giving Kim the full attention that she deserved? Wouldn’t Kim be better off finding a guy who could devote his entire life to her, a guy who didn’t have dubious ties to the mob, a guy who could maybe actually make her happy?  Doesn’t she deserve that?

It was a difficult stand to take because Chris missed Kim incredibly in the months that followed, but he felt he made the right decision for her sake.  Then the shootout with Sal happened, and Chris had an epiphany.  He couldn’t continue to live out his life knowing that he longed for Kim with every fiber of his being.  He felt secure in the knowledge that they could make each other happy if they could only be together.  As he approached the diner in Jackson Heights, he had made up his mind once and for all that he’d take a stand and propose that they start a new life together albeit on the run for a while, but sooner or later he figured the heat would die down and the Caporelli family will eventually have bigger targets and concerns to deal with.

It was still early morning as he walked in.  The smell of scrambled eggs greeted him as he walked through the door.  He took his usual spot at the corner table by the window and waited for Kim to emerge. When she did, she was wearing a red and white striped blouse with her hair falling gently on her shoulders.  He stood up to embrace her as she approached, but she shuddered.

“Chris, what are you doing here?”

“It’s a long story but we need to talk.”

“Sally called out this morning. Now is not the best time.”

“Kim, there’s a lot I need to say to you.  A lot that I’ve been holding back, a lot that I just want to tell you so you could know and react and maybe decide where we go from here. I just need a few minutes.”

“Sorry, Chris. I can’t . . . Yes, Mr. Franks – I’ll be right with you.”

Chris waited for what seemed like hours only it had been around 40 minutes.  The breakfast rush began to die down and finally Caroline came in to relieve her.  Kim approached Chris’ table with an exhausted look on her face.

Ignoring her sigh as she sat down, Chris continued as if he had never been interrupted, “Listen, I’m crazy about you. I think you know that. I want us to be together. I’m starting over. I’m leaving everything behind. . . Everything.  We can run away together.  Who knows, maybe in a couple of years we can come back to New York, but right now I need to be away.  The only thing I got going for me is that I’m not a snitch.  Sooner or later, Franscesca will meet a muscle bound blowhard and she’ll forget all about me and it’ll be safe.  Meanwhile, the two of us can maybe spend time together outside of this diner and maybe find out more about each other and maybe we’ll learn what I’ve suspected all along that we were meant for each other. I know it sounds crazy and believe me, I’m not trying to freak you out, but this is the situation we’ve been dealt and I think we can make it work. Talking to you over that year and half and being here those nights with you were some of the best times of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite as remarkable as you.  You’re a woman I admire and respect and I think maybe time will prove that we were meant to be together. Stranger things have happened….”

Kim frowned as tears welled up in her eyes, “Chris, I’m flattered you feel this way, but stop and listen to yourself. You sound crazy, and besides that . . .it’s too late.  Maybe if you made this gesture months ago things might be different, but I’ve met someone.”

Chris noticed the ring on her left finger.  The diamond was small but formidable. He swallowed some air and the more his eyes focused on her ring the more his heart shattered.  He had once laughed at a kid who wanted to be a boxer with a glass jaw, but a heart of glass proved to be far worse.  In that moment, Chris looked deeply into himself and his future and found nothing but sorrow. If he could bring himself to cry he would have, but his tears had long since ceased to function. There was nothing left to say so he stood up, said goodbye, wished Kim well, and told her that whoever gave her that ring was a lucky son of a bitch.

Instead of going home, Chris found the nearest police station and confessed to the massacre at the nightclub. He took the rap for Sal Caporelli and let the cops throw the book at him. Some may say he was lucky to not live in a death penalty state, but a lifetime of dreaming of the life he almost lived with Kim while living in the penitentiary could be considered either a blessing or a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.

Book Review: My Gun is Quick by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane’s 2nd novel, My Gun is Quick, delivers an even tougher punch than its predecessor.  It’s at once grittier, seedier, and full of the kind of passion and brutality that can only exude from a Mike Hammer story.  The book begins oddly enough with Hammer taking on a rather meta perspective speaking to his reader directly:

“When you sit at home comfortably folded up in a chair beside a fire, have you ever thought what goes on outside there?  Probably not.  You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened.  You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it?”

Hammer goes on to describe the typical reading experience as “life through a keyhole” describing his perspective reader as someone who is out of touch with what really happens in the world.  It’s a rather bold way to start a pulp novel by essentially telling your reader “you have no idea what really goes on out there.”  I have to admit that this drew me in further although I’m not sure how readers in the 1950s would have reacted to this. I was pleasantly surprised to see Spillane have Hammer start out the story this way.  It would have been easier and safer to just start off by getting into the plot, but Hammer has his reader take a moment to think about how they’re about to engage with this story.

Once the story begins we find Hammer stopping by a seedy all night diner for coffee after having resolved a case.  He befriends a red headed prostitute who we later learn was named Nancy.  She asks him to treat her to some coffee and they have a friendly conversation.   Although many still view these Hammer stories as a sexist and misogynist, the character is actually quite nonjudgmental of the prostitutes in this story and treats them with a lot more respect than one would expect of a man from that generation.  He develops genuine sympathy for Nancy and goes on to describe her:

“She wasn’t very pretty after all. She had been once, but there are those things that happen under the skin and are reflected in the eyes  and set of the mouth that take all the beauty out of a woman’s face. Yeah, at one time she must have been almost beautiful.  That wasn’t too long ago, either.”

She tells him, “Big Mugs like you never have to pay, mister.  With you it’s the woman who pays.”

Their friendly conversation is interrupted when a man, described by Hammer as a “greaseball,” accosts her forcing Hammer to get involve and dispatch him.  Once the threat is dealt with, Hammer tells us:

“I grinned at her again.  She was scared, in trouble, but still my friend.  I took out my wallet. “Do something for me, will you, Red?” I shoved three fifties in her hand.  “Get off this street. Tomorrow you go uptown and buy some decent clothes.  Then get a morning paper and hunt up a job.  This kind of stuff is murder.”  I don’t ever want anybody to look at me the way she did then. A look that belongs in church when you’re praying or getting married or something.”

The next day, Hammer finds out that Nancy died in an apparent hit and run, and he knows without a doubt that she had been murdered despite all the evidence pointing to an accident.  He enlists his friend on the Police Force, Pat Chambers, to help dig around and soon finds himself on the trail of a lethal crime ring with many powerful connections and many means to threaten whoever might get in their way.  Hammer fearlessly goes after them out of his sense of outrage with the way Nancy was treated and all that led her to where she ended up in her life.  There’s no subtle irony at play when he reminds the reader later on that this crime ring would be taken down because of the senseless killing of a prostitute.  We also find out that perhaps Nancy had been working out her own angle to usurp the system that actively oppressed her and other women.  A complicated blackmail plot emerges and Hammer finds himself employed by a wealthy client with a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

Along the way, Hammer befriends and actually falls in love with a reformed prostitute named Lola, who offers some background insight into how and why women at the time might have fallen prey to the prostitution racket.  She tells him:

“Maybe that’s why Nancy and I were so close . . . because there was some excuse for it. I was in love, Mike . . . terribly in love with a guy who was no damn good.  I could have had anybody I wanted, but no, I had to fall for a guy who was no damn good at all.  We were going to get married when he ran away with a two-bit bum who hung around all the saloons in town.  I was pretty disgusted, I guess. If that was all men wanted I figured on playing the game.  I played it pretty good, too. After that I had everything, but never fell for anybody.  . . . I had something men wanted, and they were willing to supply the overhead charges. It got so good that it wasn’t worth while playing one sucker at a time.   Then one day I met a smart girl who introduced me to the right people, and after that the dates were supplied and I made plenty of money, and had a lot of time to spend it in, too.  I had a name and phone number, and if they had the dough all they had to do was call.  That’s why they called us call-girls.  The suckers paid plenty, but they got what they wanted and were safe.  Then one day I got drunk and slipped up.  After that I wasn’t safe to be with any more and the suckers complained, and they took away my name and my phone number, so all I had left was to go on the town.  There’s always people looking for left-overs like me.”

Lola describes how contracting venereal disease set her on a path downward within the prostitution ring and it’s a really sad story. Instead of judging her, Hammer sympathizes with her and treats her with the same respect that he would any other woman.  Today, we live in a world that might cynically mock this scenario, but Spillane entreats us to look at these characters in a genuine and refreshing way without sugarcoating the harsh reality of their circumstances.  Hammer falls in love with Lola because he sees her as someone equal to him in her humanity despite her difficulty in seeing herself as his equal because of her past. This is not a fanciful Pygmalion trope that Spillane uses as an exploitive aspect of the narrative.  Instead, he authentically captures the essence of two people really falling in love by delving into this genuine relationship between Mike and Lola.  This aspect of the novel is actually even more compelling than the murder investigation part of the plot.  There’s plenty that gets revealed in their interactions and plenty of unavoidable heartbreak when it all comes to a bitter end.

If I had one complaint, it would be that it’s not very hard to figure out the twist to the story long before it arrives.  When you find out who the villains turn out to be it doesn’t really have that impact your looking for.  In the 1st book, it was easy enough to guess who the villain turned out to be, but the final confrontation scene left an indelible impression on me.  In this story, that doesn’t quite happen.  There are plenty of times when Hammer could have complicated things for the eventual villains had he been onto their scent before the reader; not to mention the fact that many unpleasant things happen to innocent people along the way, which could have been prevented.  Despite some plotting issues, I actually found myself enjoying this novel a bit more than I, the Jury.  It was fascinating to see Hammer fall in love and it’s great to read much of the passionate writing herein.

I highly recommend My Gun is Quick to any fan of the genre.  It’s a thrilling fast paced read with many poignant character moments.  I may be one of those readers that Hammer referred to at the beginning of the story decades removed from when it was written, but I’d like to believe that the impact these stories have are timeless and perhaps we can gleam a bit of insight into the time and place Spillane wrote about and find that that place sadly might just exist today.

Source.

  1.  Spillane, Mickey My Gun is Quick. Signet, 1950.

Book Review: I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane

Mickey Spillane was indeed a master of his craft. I’ve read other renown authors from the noir / hard-boiled genre, but there’s something that just comes across as more visceral and hard hitting about Spillane’s writing. There’s nothing pretentious about his style but there’s an unspoken wisdom behind his words. I may have read Spillane a long time ago, but it’s one of those things where if you approach something later in life it leaves an entirely different impression on you.

While it’s not that hard to figure out who may have killed Mike Hammer’s friend Jack, it’s really Mike Hammer’s single-mindedness and his flawed yet likeable persona that draws us in. By exploring Hammer’s psyche and motivation through the 1st person narrative, Spillane gets a reader to not only understand him but also to sympathize and even perhaps condone his callous attitude towards life at least in part.

Originally released in 1947, this is a book that is authentically of its time in terms of some out dated attitudes(which is to be expected) but it’s also very easy for a reader to put himself in that setting and feel as if he’s right there in the room with Hammer. This book is a classic in every sense of the word. It’s almost a master class in hardboiled / noir writing, and it’s a book that I’d be happy to return to and re-read at some point. Spillane introduced us to the gritty world of Mike Hammer and his sassy assistant Velda in this debut novel and the result is one that will definitely strike a nerve. It feels like these characters are still alive today as you read this book.

Both the prose and the dialogue are so top rate throughout.  There’s plenty revealed about the nature of Hammer as well as the characters he finds himself dealing with. There’s just something about exchanges like this that just makes the writing come alive to the point that you feel you could almost sink your teeth into their thoughts and words.  When describing Charolette, a psychiatrist who had attended the party Jack gave before his demise, Hammer says:

“Her breasts were laughing things that were firmly in place, although I could see no strap marks of a restraining bra. Her legs were encased in sheer nylons and set in high heels, making her almost as tall as I was. Beautiful legs. They were strong looking, shapely…. “

Soon after we get to some very provactive dialogue:

I grinned at her. ‘You remind me of something.’

‘What?’

‘A way of torturing a guy.’

‘Oh, please, I can’t be that bad. Do I affect you like that? Torture you, I mean?’

‘No, not quite. But if you take a guy that hasn’t seen a woman in five years, let’s say, and chain him to a wall and let you walk past him the way you did just now – well, that would be torture. See what I’m getting at.”

Many writers have since tried to emulate Spillane’s prose and dialogue to varying degrees of success, but there’s just something that comes across as so authentic, raw, and pure here that it’s easy to lose yourself in the narrative.  To some readers what comes across may be nothing more than a macho fantasy, but for someone who enjoys the genre and all its elements its like reading poetry.  The book trascends the revenge angle that remains at the forefront of the plot and becomes a poignant character study of a flawed man, his desires, and the way he perceives the world around him and the people occupying that world.

The world Hammer occupies is a cold and vicious one.  It’s a gritty urban landscape where characters either survive or don’t survive and it’s a world that doesn’t stop and grieve for those who don’t.  Mike Hammer sees himself as the ultimate purveyor of justice.  As hinted from the title, he’s driven to dole out justice his way as judge, jurror, and executioner of cold-blooded killers.  It never occurs to him that he may indeed be making himself into the very kind of killer he wants to hunt down.  There are friendships such as the one he has with Pat Chambers, the lead police detective who uncharacteristically decides to share information with Mike Hammer despite Mike being a Private Detective.  He also has his loyal assistant Velda who not only works for im and has a crush on him, she also understands him and accepts him for who he is probably more than anyone else Mike Hammer knows. There are desirable women who he must either submit to or resist depending on the circumstances, and there are victims who he may or may not be in a position to protect from a vicious killer.

In way, it’s refreshing to read something so honest and compelling, which stands in contrast to the way most of these kinds of characters are made to function today.  Today, we impart our heroes with tortured souls.  Once they’ve crossed a certain line, they have consciences that dragged them down and make our heroes question their own methods and even their own identities.  Take Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy for instance.  In each film, the character feels a progressing burden of having to carry out the very justice that initially inspired him. Our heroes today like to dwell in the existential consequences of their very existence as heroes and purveyors of justice.  In contrast, Mike Hammer of this novel exists in a time when such meadering philosphical melancholy isn’t only uncharacteristic, it’s nonexistent.  Mike Hammer remains secure in who he is and never questions the nature of how he doles out his brand of justice.  He just does it and he does it stubbornly and unapologetically.

The ending will hit you like a ton a bricks not because of who turns out to be the killer but because of the way Hammer tells it. The interplay between dialogue and Spillane’s descriptions in those final moments will leave an indelible mark on a reader. It’s a remarkable dance that engages the reader via Spillane’s stark but elegant language. I highly recommend getting to know Mike Hammer, a shamus for the ages.

The Sweet Release

He waited for her though he knew she would never come.  What time was it?  What day?  What month?  What year?  What decade?  It didn’t matter because all he could do all – and all he could think of to do was wait.  Jimmy knew he’d be stuck there and that the wait would be interminable.  Sure, he could go through long stretches without thinking of her but that would require more effort than he could muster.  A cool breeze swept over his face and he could almost detect her scent in the air.  That serene scent of roses mixed with just a tinge of magnolia reminded him of the love of his life and the pride he once felt walking arm in arm with her out of town hall when they married.  That day it was as if she had pulled him from a wreckage even though she must have felt like he was the one saving her.  That was Magdalen and she had come a long way.

Her parents brought her over on a ship from Europe when she was just 5.  They had travelled all the way from Lithuania where her father had been a doctor.  He managed to establish a respectful practice in Larose but many years of hard work and long hours had practically made her estranged from him.  When he met her that summer she often said that she had raised herself and that her mother had always been distant.  If he closed his eyes, he could just about remember her.  Those brown eyes and her those rose colored cheeks that perked up when she smiled could almost help a man forget who and what he was running from.  Back in another life, he had done some of the worst deeds one could ever imagine but almost like a baptism it seemed that almost all of it washed away the day he arrived on the bayou. Larose had always stood in his mind ever since his father had taken him fishing on what he had thought was a vacation.  No matter what his Dad had been up to, he always found time to take Jimmy fly fishing on the bayou during that summer.  The trip may have ended abruptly, but for Jimmy the streaming waters of the bayou had continued to call him throughout his maturity into adulthood.  Ugly truths and detestable deeds would pass down from father to son and the life he found himself living resembled that of his father more than he cared to admit, but the one place of solace he could find within his mind’s reach had been the streaming cool waters of the bayou in Larose.  Naturally, when it came time to go on the lam, this would be where he’d return and he would not regret it.

The glazing hot sun beat down on him that day.  It was as if the humid air anticipated his penitent soul and upon natural instinct sought out its own payment in sweat and discomfort.  It had been a long time since he had to walk in such intolerable heat but he knew there’d be some kind of toll. Jimmy had just been grateful to be granted this new life.   He had hitchhiked his way over from Atlanta where he narrowly escaped with his life.  He was determined to shed his entire life and perhaps that prior life was now melting away from his body in the form of sweat.  He had $10 in his pocket and little to no idea what he’d do to survive when he spotted the town library off Ledoux Blvd. His only thought was to get some relief from the sun.  The promise of air conditioning and perhaps a comfortable chair were enough to convince him he should head straight to where he’d find relief.

Once inside, he spotted her right away.  She was dealing with your usual run of the mill petulant teenagers.  They gave her a hard time because they had practically expected her to write their report on the English Restoration for them. “My job is to help you find the titles you asked for, and I’ve done that.  They don’t pay me enough to research and write your term papers for you,” She said.

One of the teenagers continued to harass her and the matter had escalated to some extent when Jimmy felt the need to intercede. He spoke up to the taller one whose beard looked like he had smudged dirt below his cheeks.  He said, “I’m not sure what your problem is but I think the lady has done her job.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business, pops,” said the shorter blond haired one.

“We could take this further,” said Jimmy, “But I should warn you that I don’t get pushed around.”  That’s when Jimmy took out his blade.  “You see this?”

The taller one had begun to shriek but swallowed his cry just before the sound reached his lips. Jimmy caught it and sensed his fear but more importantly the taller one knew that Jimmy sensed it.

Jimmy continued, “I’d never dream of using it over some petty squabble that could have been avoided of course, but it’s here nonetheless and I do know how to use it. “  Jimmy stared directly into the taller one’s eye and whispered, “Special forces.  Took this Schrade blade off an enemy sniper in Iraq who had probably taken it from one of ours that he hit.”

Both teens backed away.  The shorter one pathetically tried to apologize on behalf of them both but Jimmy simply waved his hands and they each practically bolted out of the building. That’s when he first noticed her. She turned towards him and though she may have been modestly dressed, his eyes studied her face and her smooth white neck. In that particular instant he thought of taking her in his arms and kissing her, but he knew that that would only have worked in a fantasy.  Though he knew he was inexplicably drawn towards her, he decided that the gentlemanly thing to do would be to act as casually as possible.

She spoke first, “Hi.  Well . . . thank you . . I think. Um, my name is Magdalen and although I’m grateful for what you just did, I feel like I should tell you that threatening teenagers in the library is totally not cool so if I ever catch you flashing that knife at someone again I’m going to have to ask you to leave.  So, uh . . . that’s that. I should be on my way –“

“Wait.” Said Jimmy. He was tempted to reach out for her but stopped himself. “It’s just that I’m new in town and . . . I think I need a place to stay.  I just arrived and well, I thought maybe you might know about an affordable place.  Actually, if anyone could use a hand I’m actually looking for work too . . . I know it’s a bit awkward for me to ask you like this but you seem like someone who might just point me in the right direction.

Magdalen nervously chuckled, “Well, if you know your way around a grill I know Pirot’s Diner is looking for a cook and there’s a bed and breakfast not far from where I live on Montague Street up near St. Charles. “

Jimmy boldly asked, “Would you mind taking me there?”

That’s how it all began.  The love of his life entered into it in a fashion reserved for fiction in a library no less. Jimmy now relived that first meeting many times over in his head.  It wasn’t long after that he confessed to her that he wasn’t really in the Special Forces but that he had been involved in a life calling that had been beset with violence nonetheless. It was a life that he grew into because of who his father was.  As much as he told her how much he regretted it he would never be sure if Magdalen could ever understand.  It was a risk letting her know the truth after knowing her for only one day, but he couldn’t bare to hide anything from her.  They had just made love in the quietly serenity of her bedroom in her small apartment and immediately afterwards he had become plagued with guilt.  He realized that he loved her and that perhaps if he was lucky she loved him too.

Besides, it wasn’t all bad.  The reason Jimmy had ended up on the run in Larose was because he decided to do the right thing.  Two children had been murdered during the last gang wars, victims of stray bullets.  One had been a precious little girl, a toddler just learning to walk.  When the gunfire broke out, Jimmy had been the closest person to her.  She had rushed towards him for safety and just as Jimmy had reached out for her, the splatter from the gunshot to her head covered his face. Jimmy survived that night but he could no longer live the life he was born into.  He decided to turn state’s evidence against the rival gang.  He became a “rat.” Once that happened he knew he’d lose everyone even all of his fellow gang members. He prepared himself for a lifetime in witness protection and had resolved to give up the life of a soldier in the gang wars, but then something happened. Jimmy had been wise to dirty cops before.  Growing up on the street he’d grown accustomed to knowing that just about anyone could be “on the take.”  Strangely though he never guessed that the two detectives in charge of keeping him in custody before the trial would turn out to be dirty.  He didn’t realize it until he had no choice but to kill them. It was either them or him.  Though he had sworn off guns after the tragedy of the girl, he had always kept his blade handy.

Magdalen sat next to him with her mouth agape.  She listened to his story, started to cry, then she pulled him toward her and kissed him. It was the most sensuous kiss he had ever had.  Every nerve in his body awoke and it was as if that one kiss from this immaculate woman washed away his every sin.

“Why would you trust me after what I just told you?” asked Jimmy

“Because I believe you and . . . everyone could use a bit of forgiveness,” said Magdalen

“I think I know why your parents named you Magdalen,” said Jimmy.

She smiled in her own uniquely demure fashion.

He continued, “It must be because of Mary Magdalene.  She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears.”

Magdalen said, “My parents aren’t religious. They just liked the way my name sounded.”

“Fair enough,” said Jimmy, “But the love and understanding you’ve shown me. . .  Well, I don’t think of myself as anything even resembling Jesus but I think for the first time you’ve helped me feel free to forgive the person I used to be if thatmakes any sense. Sorry, if I sound too grandiose, but all my life I’ve been led to think that only certain types of people would ever be kind to me.  You’ve proven me wrong.”

She kissed him again and for many months and years they shared a life together.  They kept his identity hidden and Jimmy made quite a positive impression on both her parents and the community.  They began raising a daughter together and named her Mary, but now Jimmy found himself waiting.  The game had come to a close.  The skin he shed while leaving his previous life behind had revived itself in a twisted fashion and now he found himself tied literally in chains.

His tormentor approached, “Just what do you think is going to happen here.”

“I’m just waiting,” replied Jimmy.

“Waiting? Waiting for what?”

Not for what, though Jimmy, for whom.  He waited for her. He would wait for her even though there was no chance of a rescue. No chance of return to Magdalen or to Mary.

“Have you given much thought to what happens when you die? . . . Because you should. You see I’m pretty sure that when you die nothing happens.”  His tormentor laughed a boisterous laugh. “That’s why I’ve kept you alive for as long as I have.  What kind of punishment would it be if I just killed you and poof!”  His tormentor clasped his hands together, “Nothing . . . everything just goes blank and in a way it frees you.  No, pain and torture are much better for driving home the point to someone who’s been . . . shall we say naughty.”

Jimmy refused to speak to him.

“You must long to be dead by now.  Most people would. I mean, every recognizable thing that would make you human has been . . . brutally damaged.  I dare say your manhood isn’t even intact.  That wife of yours . . . she’ll be disappointed.”

At this, Jimmy gathered up all the energy he could muster and spit out a blob of mucus and blood directly at his tormentor’s face.

“It’ll be all over soon,” said his tormentor, “But just be warned that death may not be the sweet release it advertises itself to be.”

Jimmy steadied his thoughts, closed his eyes, and prepared himself.  He pictured Magdalen in her blue blouse as she was in the library when they met.  He held on to her image in his mind with the grip of a man clinging to life from a ledge. He held on to his memory of her naked skin, the rush he felt all over his body when he gently kissed her neck, the feeling of her lips pressed against his, the way his fingers felt running through her hair, her eyes as they locked with his, her voice whispering her love for him in his ear.  He held onto all those things until they each slipped away.  Then there was nothing.

The Lady Behind the Pistol

She stood over him watching the life drain out as a glossy haze covered those blue eyes.  The bullet had struck his neck and instead of dying instantly, he bled and bled staring back at her in utter astonishment.  It would have been amusing to her if she didn’t feel that pang of guilt.  She knew it was only the bullet that bit his flesh.  All she did was pull the trigger, and what’s a mechanism like a gun for if not to be used occasionally.  She felt powerful. This is what God must feel like when he kills and no wonder He does it so often.  The blue dress she wore would have to go, a casualty of a lover’s broken heart, but what a shame it would be since Paul had always remarked that she looked like an angel in it. Poor Paul, a young man not more than 25 who lived his life with all the wonderment of a boy only to be left to rot soaking in his own blood. “Curiosity killed the cat,” they say only no one ever remarked how curiosity could dress to kill or how the cat might only be a pup and that the pup only has one meager life to live.

The smoke that rose from her pistol put her into a hypnotic trance. In that smoke she saw Paul as a baby in his mother’s arms, then as a child running amongst other children in an empty field.  Then, she saw him as the young man who wooed her away from her parents and ran all the way with her to the big city. In the smoke she thought she could glimpse fragments of his life that she never saw before.  As she watched she imagined what he’d been like before she met him.  She thought to herself, how could a boy be even more of a boy than what he is now? There he lay bleeding in his short trousers and beat-up dirty shirt and she imagined that if he could get up, all he’d really want to do would be to run off to the park and mount the monkey bars. He lacked the sophistication required to cut in the big city and in her eyes that alone was a cardinal sin. They’d run off here without a plan and without a care in the world, just two young lovers in love ready to experience life and maybe take a shot at the big time. Sure, she knew that the streets had never been paved in gold and that they both would have to work hard to earn their keep, and when life had just been about the two of them, all of it was as perfect as it needed to be.

Then she met Phil and he swept her away.  She had been working in a local jewelry store and when Phil walked in it was as if he owned every jewel there ever was including the one in her heart. He had come to buy a gift for his wife’s birthday, but from that very instance little else mattered to her.  Phil had conquered her heart without even knowing it. He flirted with her and began taking her out after her shifts. Paul had always been working.  Paul worked so hard but could only give her so little. Phil offered her the world and she took it.   They began meeting in motel rooms, sneaking away every stolen moment they possibly could.  She fell in love with Phil even though she knew he’d never leave his wife. Phil offered her a world of jazz and speakeasies.  They frequented The Cotton Club and had met Owney Madden and Hoagy Carmichael all in the same evening. She rubbed shoulders with the bee’s knees and it had all been terrific.

Once Paul found out there was little she’d thought he’d do.  She thought he’d skulk away defeated like some helpless little puppy, and at first that’s exactly what happened until one fateful night. He must have had them followed prior to this. One night, Paul burst into the motel room with Phil’s wife Delores, her hair in curlers in her tattered nightgown.  There was a woman beneath all women, she thought as she heard Delores shriek obscenities at each of them.  Well, at least Phil could be all mine now, she had thought.  Now that the game was up and the secret was out she thought maybe Paul had done her the biggest favor of her life.  She thought that every night forward would be spent with Phil beside her in their bed.

The next night Phil came by with the most serious looked she had ever seen on him. He brushed her aside as she moved in for his embrace. He turned a cold cheek as she leaned in to kiss her.  That’s when she knew she had been had.  She listened as Phil told her that they couldn’t see each other anymore and nearly fainted in disbelief as he told her he was going back to his wife. Reality came crashing down as she realized that it had all been a fling.  All those glamourous evenings, all the wine, and the passionate nights they spent had all been a dance.  She’d been taken for a ride and now she would have nothing.  Now, there was nothing to do but to return to that boy.

Life in Wyoming hadn’t been kind.  She knew all too well she came from abusive parents who wanted nothing more for than to stay put where they could control her. Paul had come from similar circumstances.  His father was a wheat farmer, but when Prohibition passed everything changed. Until then Paul’s father had been a kind and gentle man. Then, once lean times began it was as if he had been taken over by a dark uncontrollable force.  She had grown up alongside Paul and ever since they were small children it was as if she and Paul had been fated to be together.  Their parents perpetuated the lark, but then something in nature had changed everyone even her.  It was as if her spirit became hardened. Paul had been the only one resistant to it.  It was as if he was determined to remain a boy despite growing into a man’s body.  When Paul came to her window one night and suggested that they run away together, she though it had been the most adult thing he had ever thought of. She followed him everywhere when they first arrived in the city.  It was as if she was afraid to be alone.  They were the only ones who looked out for each other.  Then, they each buried themselves in work to the point where they rarely saw each other and then she met Phil and well, that just changed everything.

The gun felt warm even though the smoke had dissipated.  It radiated in her hand, but despite everything her hand did not tremble.  She coolly convinced herself that she had merely come to talk to him. The fact that she brought along the pistol that Phil had given her as a birthday gift not long ago was just a mere coincidence. In all the years she had known Paul before coming to the city, she never felt exhilarated around him. It took only one meeting with Phil to discover what true exhilaration was.  True exhilaration was firing a weapon.  Phil once remarked to her after giving her the pistol, “Now, you don’t have to take any guff from nobody.”  Holding the gun and firing it at a target now that was empowering to the point of it being nearly divine. He had prepared her for what it would feel like.  When she asked Phil what it felt like to kill a man with a gun, he told her everything.  “The first time it wreaks havoc on your stomach, but then about a minute later once you get used to the idea that the bastard got what he deserved, then it doesn’t matter much that a man is dead. Then, you realize that it only bothers you if you let it bother you.”

Phil’s words echoed in her brain. It wasn’t so much the words themselves or what they meant.  It was just the power she felt watching Paul grapple with death as he clenched his neck on the ground.  The blood spilled out of his hand like a sieve and those pretty eyes of his began fading. She wondered what he was thinking as he looked at her knowing that she had taken the only thing away from him that truly mattered to him or to anyone.  She wondered why he said those things to her if he was merely going to seek comfort in another woman at the first sign of abandonment.  That night when he brought Delores over to the motel he stood up in front of Phil’s face and told him that she had deserved a man who could share his life completely with her. Paul told Phil that she was the most remarkable woman he had ever known and that if Phil was going to take her away that she deserved to be more than a bit on the side.   Even now, she imagined those words of devotion coming out of Paul’s mouth.  It only took Phil leaving for her to see that Paul had been looking out for her the entire time, but it hadn’t been that simple.  Sometime while she and Phil had been together, Paul also fell for another woman only she hadn’t cared enough to realize it.  We love who we love and it’s never of our choosing.  No one ever truly possesses a heart that is not their own,  she thought. With that, she turned her back on Paul and walk away as the silence consumed him. . .

As the silence consumed him, Paul looked at her.  She turned her back and began walking away.  That blue dress always made her look like an angel. Her soft long white legs moved so gracefully that they looked like they reached up to heaven.  She may have been deadly but she was beautiful all the same.  He knew he was a goner.  He let go of his neck and uttered in a final breath the name of the woman he truly loved. Paul took comfort in knowing that that name didn’t match the name of the woman who killed him. The woman who pulled the trigger had long since become a stranger to him.  The woman he thought of in his final moments was truly remarkable.  She was the brightest woman he had ever met. He struggled to hold on to the few brief conversations they shared.  He also struggled to hold on to the feeling of her embrace wishing that he had been bold enough to kiss her the last time he saw her.  It could have been the beginning of something special.  He thought of how his hand might feel stroking her hair and how soothing it might be to have the freedom to embrace her whenever they wanted.  If he could only touch that lovely face one more time.  If he could only draw her closer to him, maybe he’d tell her all of the things he felt about her. He gazed one last time at the feminine creature briskly walking away. Then, he looked up at the ceiling, pursed his lips together one last time and uttered a name.  It was the name of the woman he wished he had the opportunity to fall in love with.  It was a desperate plea for a love that never came to be but a love that could have been something . . . special.

With renewed determination, the feminine creature upon hearing Paul utter that name rushed back into the tenement room and put a new bullet between his eyes. As she did so she infuriatingly shouted, “THAT’S NOT MY NAME!!!” It had only been one syllable but it was one syllable too many and she knew she didn’t have to take any guff.

The Last Dame to Fall For

If one were to walk across West 35th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues on a weekday morning, one might be inclined to walk past the office building next to an old Irish pub without giving the complex a second thought.  Unless you had planned to go there ahead of time, the building was inconspicuous.  The grey building almost begged to go unnoticed. You might notice the newsstand towards the end of the block and perhaps you’d peek in at the tailor’s shop or even the barber shop’s windows further down. Men and women would stop and give the newsie a nickel for their paper and perhaps even stop to get their shoes shined the next block over on a comfortable spring day. Businessmen, eager to read about what Truman might be doing concerning the steel worker’s strike, glided by the place perhaps frustrated at the prospect of a sitting duck President and the impact his actions might have on the economy of the country. In the office building at 25 W 35th street, however, the events of the nation or indeed the world economy – while of casual interest – seemed of little importance to Clark White as he stared out of his 4th floor window.   His neck itched from the fabric around his old shirt collar as he’d discovered that he smoked his last cigarette not 20 minutes ago.  The bourbon in the flask at his desk had long since been emptied and now the prospect of the wait in a long uneventful day seemed a bit of a chore to him.  There hadn’t been a new client in weeks and one by one men and women would rush past the office building as he stared after them from his office window.  None of them even gave a thought to old crotchety Larry who begged for change outside the next door pub.  They all walked past him smug and secure in their status in life knowing that wherever they had to go was so much more important -that indeed their lives themselves – were so much more important than that of a drunken hobo’s.  Clark had grown accustomed to this casual disinterest that had become humanity’s most characteristic trait. He watched, he observed, and he followed everyone who walked past and tried his best to guess where they were headed and moreover who each of them were and where they might fit in this scheme of the globe that we call life. It had become his own personal pastime and he embraced it with vigor. Besides he needed some mental exercise to keep his faculties sharp during fallow times.

Clark was truly in the nadir of his life.  Clara had upped and left taking the kids 5 months ago with barely a hint of protest on his behalf, and the solitude he’d subsequently discovered nurtured the healthy stoic bliss he felt on occasion.  It felt peaceful to be alone like sunlight broken by the branches of a row of trees leaving just the right amount of shade.  Still, these were the down times. There was hardly a client in months and he’d taken to letting his secretary, Barbara, leave early several days a week to save money.  After many years in the private detective business, he had gone through feast and famine and had come to expect each in cyclical measure.

Then, he spotted her.  He recognized her as the woman who worked the gift shop at the Empire State Building.  He had been there just last week to pick up a gift for his Aunt Myrtle. He remembered her charm and the natural grace in which she walked.  She was quite a remarkable woman.  She appeared to be about 35 years old, and though she dressed plainly in a faded blue blouse and grey plaid skirt it was as if an inner beauty resonated from her like a shining jewel. She’d look like a million bucks no matter what she wore.  Her medium length black hair had been arranged in a bun with random loose strands falling across her shoulders.  As she walked towards his building, Clark thought that she looked just as he remembered her.  Then she paused, tossed old Larry what appeared to be a dime and headed inside.  Clark assumed she must have had some business with the other office but to his surprise just seconds later he heard a simple knock on his door. It was her.

He remembered that he had sent Barbara home and leaped out of his spot by his office window into the anteroom leading to the door in the hallway remembering to straighten his tie along the way. “My apologies, Mam, as my secretary has left early for the day. Follow me.”  He led her to his office and introduced himself, “To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms . . .?”

“Davenport, Beverly Davenport.”

“Yes, I remember you from just two weeks ago. I went to the gift shop to purchase a gift for my Aunt.  I must say it made quite the impression.”

“Scale models of the building often do make good gifts, Mr. White. I’m glad she liked it.”

“So, to my original question. To what do I owe the pleasure, Ms. Davenport.”

“My sister, Cecily, is missing.  I would like for you to find her. I think she’s in some kind of trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I believe she’s been kidnapped.  I found a ransom note this morning.”

“Why come to me? Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“Because the note specifically says that if I were to involve the police that they would murder her.”

“Do you have the note with you?”

“Yes, it’s right here in my purse.”

“Before I look at it.  Tell me a little about your sister. What does she look like?”

“Well, Mr. White, she looks just like me.  You see we are identical twins.  I was raised by mother on a poultry farm in Delaware while my father took charge of Cecily raising her here in the city. Our family split up when we were just babies and Mama raised me with help from my uncle Phil.  She never re-married but when Mama fell ill and passed away of consumption a year ago, I felt there was nothing left for me in Delaware, and I thought I’d relocate here in New York City to reconnect with my sister. Father wanted nothing to do with me.  My existence had been nothing but a nuisance to him and he let me know upon my arrival that I was to make my own way in the world and that I should not expect him to carry the same burden for me as he did for Cecily.  I assured him I would find work and that he needn’t concern himself with me if that was his wish. I only wanted to get to know my sister and Cecily had expressed the same interest in getting to know me. I then picked myself up by my own boot straps and secured my position at the Empire State Building gift shop, found a cheap room for rent, and these last 6 months have been some of the happiest times of my life living and working in this city getting to know my sister in the process.”

Clark became instantly intrigued by Beverly’s story. He listened as she spoke plainly and eloquently about her life.   He became transfixed by the sound of her voice and the movement of her lips and how beautiful those lips were unadorned by lipstick. Her round face gave each expression –from concern to focus to frustration over her set of circumstances to anxiety about the whereabouts of her sister – each of these expressions danced across her face like the beauty of an elegant poem, the kind Clark could never write even if he tried.  Her milky white neckline appeared to beckon him to bring his lips closer so that he might kiss her, but he knew this to be nothing more than a fit of temporary delusion. Still, he found himself drawn closer to her as she spoke.  He briefly looked at the ransom note and listened as she spoke of her sister’s impending engagement to a man named Henry Collins, a young bank teller who had been in business with her father. It was as if the room darkened around her and she was his only source of light as she described how her sister had been raised in a rather luxurious fashion and how her manners were not up to par with what her mother had taught her.  The anguish in her eyes moved him as she described how she had wished she had grown up with her sister and how her sister was the only family she had left.  Suddenly, as if becoming self-aware of his own crush he decided to speak.  He needed to say something anything to clear up his mind and re-focus though he had been paying attention to her every word ever so intimately.

“If you were any other dame I’d be suspicious of your story but I believe every word you’ve told me is true,” he said pulling himself back towards his chair reaching for a non-existent cigarette. He then added, “You wouldn’t happen to have a smoke on you, would ya?”

“No, Mr. White. I don’t smoke.”

“Nasty habit, and my advice is that you never do.  Call me Clark if you will.”

“Clark . . . why would you say you’d be suspicious if I were . . . someone else.”

“Identical twins,” Clark said, “If a woman were lying it’s because she’d need a man like me to go on a wild goose chase to serve some kind of a purpose probably having to do with a family fortune or inheritance of some kind. If she weren’t lying, and that’s what I believe, then she’d be a woman in great danger.”  Clark paused for a minute in silent reflection then blurted out, “Beverly what you need is a bodyguard not a private detective. It’s fortunate for you that you’ve come here to me because I can provide both services in one. Did anyone follow you here?”

“No, why would anyone do that and why would anyone lie about a matter like this?”

“Beverly, you may be the only woman in this town without a sense of guile. Most women . . . well every woman I’ve met anyway . . . they represent themselves one way while really being another.  No one is ever completely honest and no one is ever completely themselves.  We all show ourselves to be the way we would like people to see us.  Men do it too obviously, but women . . . society drills it into them to present themselves a certain way even if they’re not.  Men have more liberties to expose their personalities as they please.  Women don’t have that kind of freedom so they adapt and usually only a very keen eye could discern the true nature of a woman and know whether or not she is who she makes herself out to be.  I have one of those keen eyes and I after scrutinizing your every word and movement I know that you are who you say you are, and I think you’re in trouble.”

“I’m not sure what you mean.  What does this have to do with my sister and why would someone present themselves falsely?  How am I in trouble?” Beverly flustered.

“Sometimes it’s something that’s done without even thinking.  Usually, there’s no true harm meant in it.  It’s second nature for women to want to illicit sympathy and to promise a nurturing ear, shoulder, and more for the sympathizer.  That’s how women win husbands, my dear, and most of the time the deception to whatever degree that it is a deception results in the mutual benefit of two the parties.  Then, before one knows it children arrive, and legacies are made and what had once been a quid pro quo becomes a lifelong commitment that everyone is content to partake in.  It’s only when the curtain is drawn and the husband solves the mystery of his fascination that the mystery is blown and neither party can ever truly be happy.”

Beverly spoke up, “You say this as if you speak from experience.”

Clark responded, “Only those of us who have solved the mystery could truly attest to it.  Therefore, it is best to be blissfully unaware of the formula of life I’ve described to you and regard it solely to the case of your missing sister. You say your sister was soon to be married?”

“Yes, a lovely if peculiar young man.”

“How so?”

“He seemed very happy to court Cecily but had refused to ask our father for her hand in marriage.”

“As if he knew ahead of time that he would refuse?”

“Very much so, but they were so in love that Cecily had threatened that she was going to elope with him.”

“And the only reason you know that Cecily is missing is because of this ransom note asking for $1 Million which could only be paid for by your father.”

“Yes, but my sister would never go along with such a conspiracy.”

“I suspect she would and that’s why you’re in trouble.”

Clark quickly devised a plan and asked Beverly for her cooperation.  The ransom note had demanded that Beverly meet the kidnappers at Cecily’s uptown apartment with the cash. Clark knew that would have been the death of her.

Hours later Clark found himself in a lavish upscale Manhattan apartment.  There seemed to be mirrors everywhere to amplify the size of the space.  It was dark but he wasn’t alone.  Despite his objections for her safety. Beverly insisted that she come along with him. Clark agreed as long as she agreed to stay out of sight. He found a closet nearby where both of them hid. They’re cover didn’t last long. Soon they were discovered and a fire fight ensued.  Clark and Beverly took cover behind on upturned table as Cecicly’s lover fired his pistol.  It was just as Clark thought.  They were planning to kill Beverly, take the money and leave her body to be found and mistaken for her sister’s.  That hadn’t planned on Beverly bringing Clark along with her.  Clark seized the advantage when the round of shots halted, ignored the pounding thunder that echoed in his ears.  He swung from behind the overturned table, fired his revolver, and sighed a sigh of relief when the thump of the man’s body hit the ground. Outside the foyer a muffled cry struggled not to be heard.  Seconds later a woman appeared running towards Henry Collins’ body.

“You killed him! You ruined everything, both of you!” Cecily screamed with utter contempt.

Clark looked at her face, the exact duplicate of Beverly’s and pondered for a minute.  Cecily was bedazzled in jewels and had thrown off an elegant ermine muff just before she reached the body.  She had lived a privileged life and it could be presumed that she colluded with this man to strike out on her own without the burden of caring for her father.  She spared no thought for her sister.  It had been obvious that she had duped Beverly all along.  Beverly, with tears streaming from her beautiful eyes crawled out from behind the table.  Cecily’s eyes reddened with rage until she uncontrollably screamed, ”You had everything!!!!”

Confused, Beverly sobbed, “You grew up in wealth.”

“But I had father to deal with.  There’s no amount of money that could make up for that.  This was my chance to get away and live on my terms.”

Clark interjected lowering his gun, “Beverly indeed has a quality that you never possessed. She lacks the trait of beguilement.  You and all women like you have that trait in spades.  It’s what got your lover killed and it’s what deceived your sister. Indeed, I fear you have broken two hearts today, young lady.”

Beverly listened intently to Clark’s words.  His words pierced into her very heart, and she turned looked at him and thought perhaps she could love this man.  Perhaps she could say something to Clark that would demonstrate her appreciation for solving the immediate matter at hand so efficiently, but most of all she wanted him to be wrong and she wanted to prove that he was wrong.  She wanted to show him that he spoke in generalities and that human nature was so much more complex than he gave it credit for. Then, she glanced back at Cecily and felt Cecily’s rage pierce through her heart and she became saddened.  She was saddened because she had just lost her sister, her only remaining family.  She was saddened to think of the loss of not having grown up with Cecily living apart, not doing what sisters do together.  She imagined all the esoteric laughter that they never shared as girls, all her childhood running in the field that could have taken place with Cecily by her side.  She missed the fact that they would never get to talk about boys or help each other get dressed for parties or big dates.  None of that ever happened and now none of it ever would.  Staring into Cecily’s eyes, all she saw was darkness and then a shiver went up her spine as she pulled her eyes away.  She rested her gaze once again on Clark beside her and imagined a life with him and saw only loneliness, anguish, and despair. In the space of a few minutes, Beverly acknowledged to herself that she lost more than a sister.  She’ll soon lose a man who truly saw her for who she is as well.

Summer ended and with its passing came a slew of new cases.  It was as if Beverly’s case had opened up the floodgates. Clark was cast in the positive light in the papers and now the office buzzed daily with the kind of lively commotion that had seemed improbable just weeks ago.  Still, Clark thought of Beverly each day and debated the prospect of walking over to the gift shop in the Empire State Building with some flowers or some other courting gesture.  Indeed, after allowing for an extended lunch break Clark White excused himself as he walked passed Barbara to begin his exit from the building when Clara, his estranged wife appeared in the archway.  Her face timidly beckoned to him and Clark recognized all the familiar trappings.  He recognized the unwitting guile of the woman, but after an instant he couldn’t resist.  He grabbed Clara by the arm, kissed her and told her he was excited to have her back. Later on in bed as he stared at the ceiling he thought of Beverly and how undeserving he was of her.  The mystery behind that lovely face would have to remain for someone else to solve and who ever that lucky man happened to be, Clark knew he’d never measure up. Clark turned, kissed his wife as she lay sleeping, and dreamed a dreamless sleep, yet when he awoke the following morning the firmly planted image of Beverly remained warded in his mind where it would forever remain.

The Sweetest Thrill

It was a good show and I killed it but all I could think about was Ralphie’s men waiting for me in the wings. Couldn’t they wait until after the encore?  Was that too much to ask? Something must have been up.  Maybe they suspected something.  Maybe Ralphie thought I talked to the Feds. I didn’t know what was the score and I was nervous even though I knew they were just trying to scare me –  that there was no way they’d risk hurting me when my entire earning potential hinged on my returning to the stage 8 performances a week -still, when you’re in as deep as me there’s no telling what they might do.  As the applause began to wane, a look of panic must have creeped up on me as I noticed the facial expressions on some of the couples in the first row turn from that of amusement to that of puzzled concerned.  They must have thought I was about to have a seizure.  Part of me wishes I had. What was I supposed to do?  Charlie had put me in this mess. He raked up all those gambling losses until he well over his head and then up and left me to hold the bag.

Here’s the thing with show business.  You spend a whole lot of time with people you don’t like.  You have to.  You have no choice.  It’s like a marriage and putting up with your in-laws.  Before I met Charlie, I was an up and coming starlet.  The future was bright, the world was my oyster, and yes, I know these are all tiresome clichés but in my case it was true.  I became the understudy to Francine Baudilini, a quite fragile thing who had previously broken through in her debut “Ain’t that Grand,” an otherwise forgettable musical, but she dazzled the right people and hit all the high notes.  I had spent years waiting for an opportunity to join a real company after spending years scrounging and paying my dues with the Guestling Repertory singing my lungs out on stage every night doing mostly vaudeville – a little singing, a little dancing, a little T and A – whatever kept the asses in their seats.    The one advantage I always had was that I could sing better than anyone else in the group.  They used to bring me out and I’d get the crowd roaring with “I Get a Kick Out of You” or move them to tears with “If you Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain),” which was a great number to close on.  I’d have all the men in the palm of my hand.  Still, I had my sights set on Broadway.   It didn’t matter how many gin joints I played, a woman of my talent must embark upon the ultimate stage. I finally got my big chance just as I met Charlie.  He was an insurance broker and bought me a few drinks after a show one night. We got to talking and I found out his brother was the producer of “City by the Bay,” and it just so happens they were in the middle of casting for “The Sweetest Thrill.”  The buzz on this musical was huge.  Francine Baudilini had just secured the lead and none other than Harrison Caskell – only the most raved about handsome Broadway actor to grace the stage – had been cast as the male lead.  This musical was going to be huge, and now I had my foot in the door having met Charlie, who was quite a likeable chum but a sap nonetheless.  I did what any sensible young woman would do in this situation. I married him.

Charlie and his brother Ken came from money, but they lived modest lives. Their strict father would have it no other way.  You see, Mr. Fengold was a bit of a miser.  Their mother died of consumption shortly after giving birth to Charlie, and though there was a family fortune and a vast estate to be had neither of the two sons could rightfully claim it until they had proven their worth.  Mr. Fengold was indeed a nasty bastard if I may say so myself.  Our wedding present wasn’t even something we could use.  He gave us a tin cap because he admired Johnny Appleseed so much and it was meant for us to keep as a reminder that we should live frugally.  I swear the old man would have only been proud of his sons if they had lived like hobos planting apple trees even if they couldn’t even be properly harvested and could only be used for cider.  I could tell Charlie resented him. He resented having to prove his worth, having to compete for his father’s affection with his brother Ken who was no prize himself.  Sure ken may have made a name for himself as a producer but the man was a miserable philandering drunk half the time although he could be charming for the precious few moments he was sober.

Charlie hated the insurance business, but it was work he could manage and it carried a title he could use to sway his father into believing he had some meaningful calling.  The rest of Charlie’s family were a bunch of stuck up hypocrites who liked to put up their noses at me because I was a performer.  They always made me feel as if I was beneath them and they were constantly judging me. I was used to these kinds of people though.  That’s what most people in show business are like.  They smile, kiss, and hug you but they never truly respect you.  They either ignore you completely after the obligatory greeting at a party or they brush you aside as if you were a worthless piece of garbage while rushing on to their next utterly mundane conversation.

I learned to play the part I needed to play both to land the part in “The Sweetest Thrill” and to appease the wretched in-laws. It was quite a balancing act but I managed it. The director recognized the talent in my voice and I was suddenly the understudy to the lead role with a sizeable ensemble part for regular performances.  I had everything I wanted, and it was enough for me even if I had to put up with the unpleasantness I mentioned.  Then, one night 4 months ago I found out Charlie was a gambler. He’d bet on horses, baseball, dogs, and all the while when I was on stage every night he’d be at Gusto’s, a former speakeasy in the bowery where there was a fully operational casino run by gangsters of course.  He came home one night stinking of booze. I was exhausted as usual, and he belted out the loudest scream I’ve ever heard. It was unrecognizable as any kind of sound a human could make.  It was almost like a howl and it was followed by blubbering.

“I’ve lost it all, my sweetheart. . . I’ve lost it all. Don’t hate me . . .”  Those were the only discernable words I could make out.  He collapsed in a fit.  The next day, I sobered him up and he explained the whole thing to me.  He was up by 4 grand but then his luck faltered.  The cards failed to come his way and before he knew it he was down by 30 then 40 then finally 85 grand.  I told him we don’t have that kind of money.  He said he knew.  He said he’d go figure it out, that I should get ready to get back on stage for the show and that he’d figure it all out tonight.  A swell job he did of figuring it out since he decided to blow his brains out with the pistol I bought him for his birthday. Would it be awful of me to say that I wasn’t all that disappointed or upset?  I tried to muster some tears for the funeral and perhaps the performance was convincing enough, but I simply felt nothing.  Charlie may have been a sorry sap for me. He loved me and he probably thought taking his life would solve my problems.  That’s why he did it – it was the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loved.  Sometimes I blame myself. I look at myself and wonder why I can’t even appreciate the fact that Charlie died for me. What can I say? He loved me more than I loved him.  Of course I loved him and all, but a man should never allow himself to love a woman more than she loves him.  It proves fatal every time although perhaps not always quite in the literal sense.

I still had an obligation to fulfill as Ralphie Capresi wasn’t going to just forget about the 85 grand that Charlie owed him just because he kicked the bucket.  Imagine my surprise when two of his men showed up backstage after a performance one evening.  Strong man Nick Stagali and his fellow goon “Bad”Baldy Florenti would be two men that would alter the course of my life forever.  They showed up by my dressing room door and let me know about Ralphie’s intention to collect from me. When I told them that I’m simply the understudy and that there’s no way I could pay it back in a timely fashion, I could hear the wheels in motion inside their heads.

“How about if you became the lead?” they asked, “How much would that earn you?”

I knew right then and there what they were planning.  There was no way to stop it. I felt terrible, but it excited me simultaneously.  To think that I would be the star with my name on the marquee.  To think I’d have my chance.

“The Sweetest Thrill” is a musical that feels like it was practically written for me. The female lead, Charlotte, goes from vaudeville juke joints to national radio sensation after getting a lucky break.  She marries an actor but the actor cheats on her and treats her badly until one day she meets the man of her dreams and they decide they should kill her husband and run away together after inheriting the husband’s estate.  The plan proves fatal since the police catch on and Charlotte gets killed in the crossfire while the two try to escape. The final song Charlotte sings is the showstopper, a song called “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song that if you pull it off, it proves you could sing anything. It’s also a challenge not only to sing all the notes properly and hit all the high notes but the actress playing the part must really put her acting skills to the forefront and sell this heartbreaking ending to the audience.

Before I knew it, I mean within a spurt of time that felt like a blink, Francine Baudilini suffered her “accident” if you could call that brutal beating an accident. Both her legs were broken and she suffered several broken ribs.  I truly felt awful about it, and I feel even worse thinking about it now. I actually feel more sympathy for her than I do for Charlie because she didn’t do anything to deserve that. Sure enough, however, I seized upon the opportunity of a lifetime.   Everything soon followed, the fame, the glory, everything but the money that went with it.  I was being bled dry because of stupid debt that wasn’t even mine.  They forced me to appoint Nick Stagali as my agent / business manager. My pay went directly to him and what he did was leave me enough to pay for a dismal room downtown and food for the week.

When I asked him how much longer the arrangement would last for, he simply replied, “A very long time.  Keep in mind there’s also a vig on top of the principle.”

The bump in pay I received for landing the lead was clearly not enough to satisfy my debt within a reasonable time so I had to come up with something.  I resorted to seducing Nick Stagali. Nick was a large man, very rotund but with muscular arms and thick bovine legs.  I figure that he wouldn’t know how to respond to a gal he wasn’t paying suddenly putting the moves on him.  First, I acted as if I was a bit faint and pretended to fall in his arms.  I let my eyes linger into his.  Then, I reached him and kissed him.  He quivered underneath me as we made love and then I knew he was mine. I knew I had leverage and that I could control him.  The question then became how do I get Ralph Capresi off my back?  The quickest way I knew how was to turn Nick against him, but it wouldn’t be easy.  If his goon partner, “Bad” Baldy, figured out what we were up to I knew the game would be up.

The best way to best a man’s loyalty is to see if he’ll kill for you.  Dying for you is easy, even a sap like Charlie could do that.  I told Nick one night that “Bad” Baldy tried to force himself on me and roughed me up when Nick couldn’t be there the previous night. It was a lie but I’m an actress and Nick was gullible. He believed me even though I wore the same makeup that I wear in the show after “Charlotte” gets beat up.  He then confronted “Bad” Baldy, who I later learned received this name because of how he treated women in a whorehouse who didn’t give him what he wanted.  All this time I thought it was because he was bald but apparently, when some low life unfortunate thing refused to please him the way he wanted he turned on her, brutalized her, and then cut off all of her hair using a Bowie knife. Suffice it to say, I have no regrets regarding “Bad” Baldy’s fate.  I figure a gunshot to the face is probably more generous than the man deserved.

For Nick, killing “Bad” Baldy meant he couldn’t turn back.  He began plotting to run away with me imagining that I’d somehow like to live in Cincinnati somewhere or perhaps Kansas City.  He could start over with a new crew and work his way up and all that jazz, but the problem was that that didn’t solve my problem at all. I didn’t want a life with Nick any more than I wanted a life with Charlie. What was I going to do out there? Knit sweaters and watch the man guzzle beer into that pot belly of his? I wanted to stay where I was.  I wanted to be on that stage and I wanted to be a star.

That night I snuck over to Gusto’s while Nick lay in bed asleep.  The place was a dank slimy pit of cigarettes and booze. I nearly fell to the floor from the smell of the joint. I saw losers and boozehounds lapping up their drinks eying their card dealers with one desprate eye while appraising the milky white skin of their cocktail waitresses with the other eye.  Everyone turned around to look at me as if I was some creature from a lagoon or something or other.  I spoke up and demanded to speak to Ralph Capresi.  They took me to a back room up a set of winding stairs.  There were no windows and the cigar smoke that lingered everywhere looked and smelled hideous.

“Why hello there, Mrs. Carter,” said Ralph Capresi chomping on his cigar using my stage name.  There’s no way I was ever going anywhere with a last name like Fengold and as for my maiden name well that’s just privleged information.  “What brings you to our esteemed establishment on this beautiful evening?”

“I want out,” I said.  “I want to live my life without worrying about having to pay you.”

“And what can you offer me for this.”

“I can offer you information.”

“Go on.”

“Nick, he’s betrayed you. He killed “Bad” Baldy because Baldy found out he was talking to the Feds.”

“He told you this?”

“I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You’re saying Nick is a rat and Baldy’s dead?”

“Yes, and I could prove it.”

I took out a tourmaline ring that Baldy wore that I took off his body while Nick wasn’t looking. It was enough to convince Ralph to make a deal.  I would be free of my debt as soon as Nick was taken care of. My fate relied on Ralph successfully having Nick killed before he could talk to the Federal Agents that I boldly lied to him about.

I walk home that night filled with hope for the first time n many nights.  I know it’s wrong to rejoice in the death of a man, but these were all criminals after all and this entire ordeal had put me through enough.  It was well after 2 am when I walked in and to my amazement saw a man in a brown suit waving his badge in my face as I crossed the threshold to my door.  He introduced himself to me as Agent Simon with the Federal taskforce investigating organized crime and racketeering.  They were called in when Baldy’s body had been found in an ally nearby some hours ago.  Nick had been taken into custody and had testified to the whole thing.  Technically, I hadn’t committed a crime but I was a material witness of course and so they decided to bring me in. I told him my story but embellished a bit to make myself seem a bit more sympathetic. I wanted them to believe I felt awfully devastated about Charlie, Francine, and even for Nick killing Baldy.  They bought my performance and I was easily able to explain my fling with Nick as I was a helpless woman who fell for her captor, one who had been prone to violence and decided to kill Baldy after Baldy tried to rape me.  It was all very convincing and I even think Agent Simon fought back a few tears for me as I told it. After all, I had been through a horrifying experience.

Now came the kicker. I asked if they were going to apprehend Ralph Capresi.

“Sorry, Mam. Capresi is too insulated from the crimes we’re investigating.  We can’t pin anything big on him.”

“Well, what about extorting money from me and my poor Charlie?”

“Ms. Carter, we can’t move against Capresi now and that charge is one he could easily fight and win in court.  We must build a case, and if you want to help us, you need to cooperate and play along with him as if you still are going to pay him back as usual.”  A little while later, Agent Simon left.

So, that was it.  That was my big opportunity to get out of this infernal mess Charlie has put me in.  Once Ralph got wind of Nick’s arrest, I didn’t hear another word from him. He assigned two new goons to me making one of them my agent who makes sure Ralph Capresi gets his cut in perpetuity.  They’ve taken to making their presence more aggressively known to me in case I should think about talking so they show up waiting for me in the wings as I finish the encore and take my bows. They want me to know that they always get their cut and thus far they seem to be right about that.

Nowadays, I perform and kill the audience every night. I summon up the tears for the show stopping “Take Me Home to My Love.”  It’s a song of heartbreak, despair, and death only now I feel the emotions for real. I wouldn’t dream to think of Nick or Charlie when I sing that song. I never would. I never cared for either of them more than I care for myself.  I sing the song for me and only for me. Last night I spotted Agent Simon in the audience and I summoned all my acting ability to persuade him that I sang for him. I think he bought it.  Little does he know that I’d never truly sing for him. In my heart I sing for myself and all my love and all my despair and all my grace and beauty.  Those things will always be mine and mine alone but Agent Simon . . . he doesn’t need to know that right now.  I imagine his eyes gazing upon me and I know he thinks I sing for him. He thinks he could have me . . . all of me. Men always believe that.