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.