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.

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“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 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.