The Unquenchable Thirst

There existed only one unequivocal thought in his mind and that is that he desired her.  Maybe it wasn’t quite love in the traditional sense or maybe it was the closest thing he felt to that insidious saccharine sentiment, but it was the one thing he felt that he couldn’t question. Harry could only admire her from a distance.  In fact he’d gone over a year without seeing her and there was nary a hint that she had ever given him a second thought since the last time they met. When last they parted, it was an awkward hug in the rain in front of Neary’s Bar on St. Stephen’s Street. For the 50th  time in his life, he had lost count of how many shots of tequila he had had resulting in a jingle jangle stutter step to the curb and a cab back to his place in Clifton.

They had each sworn in bold declarations that they’d see each other soon.  Just because their employment at the paper had ended that night didn’t mean they couldn’t stay in touch. The rain pelted his raincoat with a fury that felt like a tropical hurricane.  The wind blew her chestnut brown hair this way and that, and while she probably deemed herself to be a righteous mess in those moments that’s how he frequently thought and even dreamed about her.  She had opened the rear door of the cab bracing herself against the rain and wind as if her clothes could be ripped apart by the force of it all. In his rush to obtain a reprieve from these conditions Harry cut her embrace short, climbed in the cab, and let her close the door for him.  He drunkenly stared after her as she ran back into the bar and thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her. Then time did its thing.  There were new commitments to be made, a book to write, a dram and a drink to quell an infinite thirst, and a slow dirge marching towards middle age and death to round out a lifetime of misery.

He followed her career closely but could never quite get up the nerve to call.  Phone calls these days carry so much less weight than they used to.  It used to be that if an old friend called you, it meant something.  It might even change the course of your evening.  Now, everything was meant to be quick. People dismiss old friends easily because life gets busy and why make time for a conversation when a text would do.  Harry clung to a deep-seeded fear that she would dismiss him in this manner so he maintained to himself that it was best to avoid reconnecting with her.  It wasn’t worth shattering the illusion he had of her.  It wasn’t worth ruining the subject of his desire with such a thing as a discomforting truth.  Fiction is almost always better than fact.  He allowed the fantasy of her to reign eternally in his heart unencumbered by what must be by now her cold indifference.

He could still replay almost every detail of their first assignment and segment together.  The chief had told them, “These higher ups want us to produce these short web segments on news stories so that the website could get more hits.  Harry and Samantha, why don’t you two tackle the rising murder rate.  I want it done and up on the site by noon.”

Samantha piped in, “But I’m still working on that piece on the latest poll numbers.”

The chief replied, “Who gives a fuck about the poll numbers.  People want to see action but we’re not going to give them action. We’re going to give them two reasonably attractive talking heads talking about action.  Now, get to it.”

Harry chimed in, “Why thanks, boss. I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”

“You can whack off to me later,” said the chief.

Harry had had a crush on Samantha since she started there several weeks beforehand.  She may have been new to the paper, but she proved right away that she knew what she was doing once she delivered her first story.  It was a doozy.  Everyone loves a sex scandal.  Correction: Everyone loves a female reporter talking about a sex scandal.  Harry turned to Samantha and said, “At least he didn’t call you toots. It took Caitlyn years to live that down.  She thought about going to HR, but then decided it was best to take it all in stride.”

Samantha smiled. She shot him that alluring glance he learned to relish with her and said, “Harry, nothing ever fazes me.  Let’s get a drink together later tonight.”

That was the start of it all. They did their segment and it was a hit, but it’s what came after that stuck with Harry. The drink turned into a nightcap at her place and the nightcap turned into a make out session and the make out session turned into the kind of ferocious love making reserved for pornography. The next morning came the awkward goodbyes and “see ya at work.”  Then, the following week would yield yet another successful web segment followed by another similar evening of frolicking. Neither of them spoke of a need to define the nature of their relationship.  Even the very word “relationship” would have been poisonous to the very enterprise.  They worked fluidly together to the point where they could read each other’s minds.  Their repartee on screen was almost like music.  The paper’s website got more and more hits.  Everyone was happy and Harry and Samantha knew better than to spoil a good thing by having an actual serious conversation about their desire for one another.

Then, just like that the bomb dropped.  The paper shut down its print edition and became a web exclusive news source, which wouldn’t have been so bad if so many people didn’t get laid off. Harry and Samantha were initially spared, but then word came down that Chicago was looking for a pretty face. The morning anchor job on a network broadcast station was too big for Samantha to give up.  Harry knew it would be the beginning of the end.  His pink slip came on Samantha’s last day.  The chief walked up to his desk that morning and spouted, “Sorry, Harry.  Looks like it’s the end of the line.”

Colleagues had decided it was the perfect occasion to go out with a bang at Neary’s Bar that night.  Harry drank and drank some more repeating the phrase “onward and upward” with every shot of tequila wishing he could get one more taste of Samantha’s skin to savor on his taste buds.  He knew she wouldn’t be up for it.  He didn’t even have to ask.  Before going outside to meet the cab in the pouring rain, he staggered over to her and slurred, “It’s been fun.”

She smiled that alluring smile of hers and said, “Right back at ya, Harry” accompanied by an ever so coquettish wink.  She walked him outside to the cab and then it was over.

Harry thought that’s it.  That’s the last I’ll ever see of her.

The funny thing about desire though is that at least for Harry it never dissipated.  He spent every night since thinking about Samantha, dreaming of that chestnut brown hair coming down on her naked shoulders.  He thought about the way her voice reduced to a whisper as she seduced him all those evenings.  Her every gesture in his memory became a lavish oil painting complete with a moving canvass. He couldn’t escape the memory of her. She became a ghost transfixed upon his brain.  Every time he’d get lucky with a new girl he’d pick up at a bar somewhere she’d disrobe and he’d find that his eyes had morphed her face into Samantha’s.

He couldn’t bear to watch Samantha at her new gig next to that pompous prick, but he forced himself to watch anyway. The clips he’d get hold of made him sick.  Those knowing glances that were exchanged, that alluring smile he thought she’d reserved only for him, the way her voice rose when she agreed with one of his talking points, all those things plagued him. Still, this was the woman he desired, and once you desire someone it’s impossible to forget that desire.

Harry decided to write a book.  He had the free time anyway.  He was working freelance and steady work was hard to come by.  He had published a novel before in the lifetime he lived before Samantha, but it had been years since he considered fiction writing again.  His editor was pleased to hear that he’d return back from the journalism front and pressed him for a first draft, but nothing came easily.  He decided he’d try to channel Samantha into his writing.  He’d devise a story about her although it wasn’t exactly about her.  It would be a facsimile of her, but even with this close approximation of her he found that it strangely brought them closer at least in his mind.  He came up with a brilliant plot and every night he wrote with fury attacking his old fashioned Royal typewriter almost as feverishly as when he made love to Samantha.  Writing this novel became his way of at the very least channeling this desire and making something productive out of it instead of letting it plague him.

The real Samantha had no idea that he was channeling her, and for a while it bugged Harry.  He thought If only she knew just how much she has inspired me. That might even be enough to at the very least get her to invite me over for a drink if I should happen to be in Chicago.  Then, who knows what else a drink might lead to. Still, he resisted the urge to call her or contact her.  Better to let fantasy rule over reality, he thought.

Months went by. The book was finished.  The galley was printed.  Everything appeared to be wonderful about his life again. On a whim, he decided to send a galley to Samantha.  He had obtained her contact information so he sent it to her home address. Inside the front cover, which had an image that had been cleverly modelled after Samantha’s likeness, he inscribed the words:

“Dear Samatha,

I plan to dedicate this book to you as it has been wholly inspired by our dalliance together.  I hope you don’t think it too forward. I promise not to use your real name but of course you will know that every word of it was written for you. I still remember the touch of your skin, and I’ll never stop desiring you.

Always,

Harry”

A week later the package came back with a note inside the book that had been returned. It read,

“Dear Harry,

I don’t have time to read books these days and anyways we hardly even knew each other. It was fun for a time but do yourself a favor and get a grip.

It’s been fun,

Samantha.”

A couple of months later after the book release, Harry returned to Neary’s bar instead of the book signing that had been arranged for him.  For the 51st time, he lost track of how many shots of tequila he downed. He never wrote another word.

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.

A Final Letter to Liz

Dear Liz

I realize the music I listen to may be a few decades behind anything you listen to but if you have the heart to do it I want you to find the song “It Makes No Difference” by The Band.  Honestly, that probably sums up my feelings about you and my whole situation – indeed, my entire life – given the fact you won’t be seeing me for a long while.  They say the law always catches up somehow and perhaps I’ve broken a few bones too many in my line of work.  Still on the eve that I go away, my thoughts are not of my impending imprisonment but of this song and of course you. It’s amazing to think that I saw you every week for five years and never once told you how I felt about you although I know you’re smart enough to guess. I think now more than ever you deserve to know and the words must be said. There’s a line in that song that goes,

“Now there’s no love as true as the love that dies untold.”

As many times as I’ve heard that song over the years that line had always failed to resonate with me until now and it’s really because it rings true for me.  There’s something about unrequited love that makes life both bittersweet yet nourishing to the noble soul. It just makes me think about the prospect of never seeing you again and how even though it’s for the best, it still hurts.  The regret is still there even though there’s nothing I can change about what caused it.

Who am I kidding?  I’ve never been a poet nor am I some highfalutin philosopher qualified to quote song lyrics as if I’ve just discovered the meaning to life. I could barely string together a few sentences on most occasions but since you’re so important to me it’s the most I could try to do so I only hope I make sense and you understand me.  I’m nothing but a runner for a bookie, but you know that already.  You knew that from the first night we met.  I walked up to your cash register and ordered my Big Mac meal with no pickles and you gave me a wink but then as the evening wore on and I conducted my business that frown appeared on your face.  You even told the manager that I was engaged in illegal gambling activities and that perhaps he should do something.  Little did you know the franchise owner himself sanctioned my little operation.  He knew I worked for the Duke of Earl.  That’s all that needed to be said, but then how would you have known that.  I mean a kid like you, how would any one expect you to be familiar with the ways of us low lives.

I apologize if this is a bit awkward to you, but there are things that I’ve been wanting to say and even though a lot of time has elapsed I still don’t quite know how to say it or even how to approach you. The briefest way to say what I’ve been wanting to tell you for years is to just admit that I have feelings for you, but as you may know, things are bit more complicated than that.  I’ve been attracted to you for a long time probably since the first time I saw you behind the cash register at our McDonalds on Nostrand Avenue. I just instantly found you to be a bright, warm, intelligent, beautiful woman with a good sense of humor and I always looked forward to seeing you every week so that’s why I made it a point to make our McDonalds my personal place to conduct my business and over time I coordinated my business meetings to coincide with your shifts so I’d have an excuse to see you – I know it sounds pathetic but I have very few real friends so try not to be creeped out by that.   You know what I do. I set up meetings with the Duke’s clients, hand out winnings to the winners, collect money from the losers, and anyone who didn’t show up at the appointed time at our McDonald’s . . . well, let’s just say I tracked them down and taught them a lesson, but this letter isn’t about me and what I’ve done it about my feelings for you.

I remember the night things changed between us like it was yesterday.  You had just been promoted to shift manager and as luck would have it two thugs walk in just before midnight and decide they want to hold the place up.  I needed to bide my time before making any sudden movements but the look of panic that crossed your face gave me a chill down to my spine.  I knew what I had to do.  I saw it as my duty to protect you.  Just as they had asked you again about the safe, I walked up behind the shorter of the two guys, grabbed his ski mask, pulled it up and stuck my gun right in his nose as he turned around.  You woulda thought the guy shit his pants.  I looked at you and saw a look of relief.  I stared the other guy down.

I told them, “You two better leave right now or else things will get ugly starting with this motherfucker’s brains on the floor!”

I got the bigger thug to take off his ski mask.

In all their nervousness the bigger one replied, “We weren’t going to hurt anyone, Yo.”

I said, “Do yourselves a favor and never come back here again.  You come back here and I’ll make sure The Duke will hear about it.  You understand?” Then I added, “Smile, you’re on camera!”

They all too eagerly nodded in agreement.

Then I said, “You want to hold some place up why don’t you give those liberal yuppies over at Starbucks and Whole Foods a scare.  Better yet, go to Whole Foods and suck each other’s dicks there so you fit right in.”

Out of my peripheral vision, I could see a smile reach the corners of your beautiful mouth.  I think it was the first time I ever truly saw you smile.  The two thugs left and you sat down at my table with me and we talked until the end of your shift.

I said, “I don’t know about you but all this organic food shit is just turning everyone into a bunch of pussies.  That’s why I come here.  Fast food may be poison but at least it doesn’t sell you some liberal self-aggrandizing fantasy either.”

I could tell you appreciated my sense of humor even if you didn’t whole heartedly agree with the sentiment.  To be honest, I don’t even agree with half the shit I say. I just say whatever I think might get a rise out of someone, but after that night things changed.  Whenever I’d walk in, my eyes instantly searched for you and I suspect your eyes greeted me with a warmth I hadn’t known until then.  You started sitting with me on your breaks and we’d talk about current events, movies, sports, or anything really.  I sometimes found myself ready and willing to lose myself in your beautiful brown eyes but I always reminded myself that we were in public and obviously it wouldn’t do me any good for any of the Duke’s clients to think I was some puppy dog in love with a girl at McDonald’s.  One time this middle aged degenerate gambler, Marco caught on and started teasing me.  I waited for the next time he lost and made sure he knew not to do that again.  Headlocks do that to people, I suppose.

Don’t think me a violent guy.  I mean I don’t resort to violence unless I have to, but in my business you find that no matter how much you may wish to avoid a conflict, conflict always finds you. It’s unavoidable. Working with the public, I’m sure you understand. How many times have you confessed to me that you were so close to slapping some bitch because she complained her coffee was too hot?  Or some uppity college kid who wants to return his burger because he asks for no pickle?  Or how about the fucking drug addicts that somehow manage to get the key to the bathroom and leave all their paraphernalia for you to clean up once they finally decide to leave hours later?  Or what about those bozos who think that McDonald’s employees are beneath them and that you should worship the ground they walk on because they occasionally drop some money there?  They remind you that you’re not smiling or chastise you for conducting their transaction too quickly when they want to talk about the weather with you?  All those people give you grief and you’ve told me all about it.  Well, I have to deal with similar things although it’s different.  There’s always the guy that doesn’t want to pay because his bet “wasn’t heard right.”  They’ll come to me and say, “I took the over not the under.  Why don’t you give me a break?”  There’s the fucking young yuppy liberal generation types that like to look down on me when they lose.  They’ll say things like, “I bet you’re real proud of yourself. You just took the money my Dad gave me for books. Guess I’m failing that class.”  Then there’s the ultimate no-no that always happens when a guy says, “Talk to the Duke. I’m good for it.”  Hehe. “I’m good for it” is code for “I don’t have the money please don’t rough me up.”

The point is we both have our ups and downs in our jobs. That’s something we have in common. We both work thankless go-nowhere jobs only the difference is that for you your job is a stepping stone to a future honest living.  For me, well this is as good as it’s ever going to be for me.  Once you’re born a low life, you stay a low life.   There’s no getting out of it once you start.  My future was doomed from the first day I made my first collection for the Duke.  Sure, maybe the Duke might give me some more action and recently he’s allowed me to put some of my own money on the street, but that’s all coming to an end now.

I’m sorry, I know this letter has rambled on and on about things that don’t matter. I have a habit of doing that.  The point is that I care for you very deeply and I think you know the reason why I’ve never told you before but let me say it anyway.  A woman like you deserves better than me.  Maybe if I had moved up in the hierarchy to the point where I had a decent no-show job so we could lie to your family about what I did maybe then perhaps if you felt the same way we could be together, but even then I know I could never truly measure up to being the man you deserve.  You deserve an honest man – someone who does something better than being a runner for a bookie, someone you could be proud of, someone who could lavish all their attention upon you, and give you all the love and affection you deserve.  It’s funny how getting to know you gave me an opportunity to just imagine what my life could have been like if things had gone differently for me. I think the happiness you’ve given me by allowing me to be your friend will be enough to sustain me in prison.  I know I’ll spend many nights imagining a life that could have been.  Hell, I’ve done that for many nights already and that’s something prison could never take away from me.

The pathetic thing is that this isn’t even the first love letter I’ve written you.  There have been many over the years but every time I came close to giving one of my previous letters to you, I always stopped myself and reminded myself why I don’t deserve you.  It all goes back to that song by The Band, “It Makes No Difference.”   There’s another line in that song that goes,

“These old love letters / I just can’t keep / ‘Cause like the gambler says read ‘em and weep / And the dawn don’t rescue me no more.”

Do me a favor and listen to that song just one time and think of me.  Then, move on with your life. Get back in school, become one of those liberal yuppies I make fun of and make something of yourself. I know you have it in you to rise above your circumstances.  You’re so smart and you’re good at everything you do.  Don’t hold yourself back. If you take away anything from your time with a loser like me remember this: Keep your head high and don’t be a sucker.  It’s the last piece of advice I’ll ever give you so take it to heart and stay away from men like me who may have a big enough heart but lack the ambition and drive to be better than who they are.

Take care, Liz, and listen to that song when you can and let that be my goodbye because “It Makes No Difference” really does sum up my life completely.

Love,

Sal

Absolution

Perhaps it’s the years I’ve worn the collar that have made me cynical and fatalistic or maybe it’s because I’ve never truly believed in God, but time and time again I look at my time absolving sins in the confessional as an elaborate game whereby I prey upon the superstitions of my congregation.  Admittedly, I realize it serves its purpose much like when George Steinbrenner apologizes to the fans or signs some up some ballplayer for big money.  It makes the player feel good because he’s hit a payday and it makes the fans feel good because they feel like they’re being rewarded.  Really, all that’s ever achieved are headlines.  Confession gives the believer the same feeling.  It’s a cathartic release for the sinner to say what they’ve done and feel like it gets washed away.  Some say they could feel the spirit of Jesus Christ within their souls the moment they exit the confessional.  They rush to do their penance and all the wrongs they’ve committed suddenly disappear like they’ve never happened.  It amuses me to think of the power religion has over these people.  They commit the most horrific deeds 6 days out of the week and then they come in at 8am on Sunday and confess so that they could deem themselves pure enough to receive Communion.

It’s amazing that so much of human behavior could be dictated by ancient fairy tales and superstition.  “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” indeed.  Typically in my 30 years as a priest, I’ve dealt with your garden variety cheating spouses, the occasional remorseful shoplifter, the drunk who neglects his family, drug addicts, prostitutes, and all varieties of poor judgement and disgraceful behavior.  I’ve waved my hand and pardoned them all only to find them sitting across the booth from me time and time again confessing to different varieties of the same sin.  Humanity is nothing but a forgetful drunken fool repeating the same pratfalls time and time again.  If there were a God, we would be his court jesters trouncing upon his stage naked and unashamed for his bitter amusement.  If God exists, he is nothing but a spectator at the cinema filling himself up with popcorn and candy feasting his eyes on all sorts of atrocities, devastations, pornography, murder, violence, as well as the quiet humiliation of those who suffer in silence.  In an ironic twist, I am meant to be his vessel on Earth, and I do very much the same thing. I listen, I observe, and I pay witnesses to the destructive nature of the very human beings I’m supposed to be helping but in actuality I do nothing.  The kicker is that they admire and respect me for this just as they do the God they claim to worship. I’ll tell you, life in the priesthood is a real racket.

It must have been around this time last year when Joey Calonzo entered my confessional. I knew who he was the minute I laid my eyes on him through the shadows of the screen meant to guard his face.  The perception is that you’re supposed to be anonymous in these boothes but the priest knows his congregation.  I had performed the baptisms of his children and I knew who he was. I also knew how much he contributed to the Church. At first I figured, how bad could it be? I listened as he went through the initial motions all the while shifting on his knees.  He was a strong muscular man for a 50 year old.  I imagine he could lift his own body weight but he had weak knees.  He sometimes limped down the aisle at church telling anyone who expressed concern that he had been in a bad car wreck some years ago.  He wore a nice grey suit that day with the most remarkably flashy cuff links. His head was balding but it didn’t take anything away from the fierceness with which he carried himself.  He was a man to be feared if you saw him walking towards you on a dark secluded street.  If you actually did see him walking towards you on such an occasion, it might actually be the last thing you ever saw.  Joey was a hitman.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 years since my last confession,” he said.

“Was that around that time that Father Palisimo passed away?”

“It is, Father.  He used to hear my confessions but since he passed I haven’t felt comfortable confessing my sins until now.”

“Go on, my son.”

“I’ve seen the life leave the eyes of many men since my last confession.”

“You mean you’ve committed murder.  You realize that murder is a mortal sin.”

“I do, Father, but Father Palisimo absolved me of my sins in the past and I was hoping you might do the same.”

“What you ask is not easy. Murder is not only a mortal sin but also an egregious crime.”

“I realize that Father, but I also know that as a priest you cannot violate the Sacrament and turn me in.”

“In order to be forgiven for your sins, you must truly repent and commit to change your life for the better so that you may live in peace in the love of Christ,” I said.  I knew that his chosen profession wouldn’t permit him to do this, but I had to say something that sounded noble to reinforce the reverence he afforded me.

“Father, I admit that I cannot change but I truly regret my actions. Is that not enough?  It was for Father Palisimo.”

“Let’s set this aside for now. What other sins have you committed?”

“Father, I have also committed adultery on many occasions.  I know Anne-Marie loves me and I love her but she doesn’t satisfy me, Father. I’ve recently found myself not only lusting after other women but I also believe I’ve fallen in love with another woman.”

“What is her name?”

“Tina Vitale, Father.  I’ve sent her a single white rose every day for the last 3 months. I feel as if my heart belongs to her but I know I can’t leave my wife.”

“Divorce is against church teaching of course.”

“That and she’s liable to take me to the cleaners, Father.”

At this I chuckled. It’s strange how miniscule a petty thing like infidelity appears when compared to such a horrific crime as murder. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes.  I gave him the impression as if I had taken on the weight of the world deciding whether or not to fulfill the Sacrament. I had to do this so as to at least give the appearance of wise contemplation. In actuality, I was merely thinking about the perfect words to use to keep the ruse going.  I wasn’t about to let Joey Calonzo or his blood money leave my church for another.  I’m sure Saint Mary’s would love to have his bankroll in their pockets.

I started, “My son, you have committed deeds that are truly evil, however, I believe you’ve shown true remorse.”  Waving my hand in front of the screen I continued, “You will say 30 Our fathers and 20 Hail Marys and you will try every day to walk with Christ and show compassion for your fellow man.  You will do something kind for your wife and be a good father to your children.”

“I will, Father.”

He then said his act of contrition and left. I must admit to have felt a heavy burden on my heart since that day. Joey’s confessions became a weekly ritual, and I sat, listened, and waved my hand accordingly as he recounted crimes and details that might make your stomach turn.  The city around us was falling apart, and it felt like Joey and I were just superfluous dust meandering through a wellspring of urban decay. Not even baseball could cheer me up.  The Mets were in the gutter and the Yankees had Dave Winfield who could never come through in the clutch.  The city itself just seems to be decaying every time I turn around to look at it.  Depravity runs wild on the streets, and fewer and fewer young people come to church on Sunday morning.  More and more it’s become a haven for perfume soaked spinsters and widows.  They need someone to reassure them that their lives mean something, and I sell the snake oil they need at just the right time to prevent them from losing their minds. The kind smiles they offer me disguise lifetimes of despair and self-serving sacrifice. It’s become harder and harder to disguise my own contempt of it all.

The one comfort I have in this life is the knowledge that on the day Joey Colonzo dies, the moment his life extinguishes, he’ll know he will have been had.  He won’t see a light.  He won’t see St. Peter.  His consciousness will vanish into the ether just as everyone else does.  He’ll dissolve into the same nothingness as his victims and my knowledge of that makes me feel good about what I do.  I provide a service.  Without religion, this city would have decayed decades or even centuries ago. Men like me provide a service to keep society from complete self-destruction. Men like Joey Calonzo would have no sense of morality whatsoever and they would kill for sport instead of killing to fulfill a contract.  I’ve done more for this city than God ever could.

After all those gory confessions of murders, torturings, and fighting, I’ve become almost numb to it.  Instead, in our recent sessions I’ve come to let him breeze past those mortal sins and had him tell me more about his affair with Tina Vitale.  If one didn’t know better, after the first few minutes it might appear as if our confessions transformed into a gossip column. He’d tell me about all the wonderful things he bought her and about how he can’t stop thinking of her. He wrote her love poems, and I truly came to believe that he genuinely loved her despite his status as a sociopath.

It’s amazing how a man capable of such ugly behavior could turn around and almost appear human.  Tina’s mother passed away of cancer recently. Joey not only paid for the funeral but he also bought the most beautiful pendant for Tina’s mother to be buried with.  The damn thing must have cost about 20 grand, and it looked as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. On it he had an inscription which read, “I will forever abide in Christ as he abides in me.”  During the wake, the mourners were all invited to lift it slightly from the body’s chest to admire it and declare how beautiful it was and how peaceful Mrs. Vitale looked as she wore it in the casket.  In fact, everything about it was beautiful and graceful. It was as if her dead body had become this adorable accessory to this beautiful jewelry. I performed the ceremony taking on my usual somber reflective tone for such occasions.  My performance was exquisitely convincing, the body rested in all its peaceful glory, and the faces of the mourners took on a surrealist impression. Everything was as it should be.

As I finished my final blessing, I looked into Tina’s eyes and then I looked into Joey’s eyes and said, “Surely, she will find life everlasting as will each of us who believes in our lord, Jesus Christ.”

Joey held Tina in his embrace and nodded reverently.  Tina tried to suppress her tears and buried her face into Joey’s arm.  I embraced them both, held them in my arms, and said, “Don’t fret, Tina. Think of the saying on the pendant and let that give you comfort.”

Tina replied, “But those are just words. I don’t even know what it means”

Joey Calonzo looked to me for a sage response, but I merely stood back, smiled, nodded, and left. I could still hear him call out to me as I approached the doors.  I tried not to listen. Instead, I focused on the rain pouring down like pellets fired from a careless carbine.  The gutters would soon be awash with fresh waters from the heavens.  The streets would be cleared of those who wished to get away from the torrential downpour, and for a brief time the city would be still with the exception of the rain.  The parked cars would remain parked and the street corners would be clear of drug dealers and would-be muggers.  The prostitutes would abandon the streets and the wind and the rain would force all sins to be committed indoors far from the omniscient sight of their neglectful God.  For that moment, I felt truly free, truly peaceful, and I relished the relative solitude I was about to have for myself upon clearing the archway until my senses awakened and I heard his voice. It was clear as day and could penetrate any distance. “Bless you, Father,” he said.  I could feel the eyes on my back so I turned around, smiled, waved my hand and said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Afterwards, I returned to the rectory, retired to bed and prayed. I prayed for dear life that there should not be a God.

The Gentlemen

They watch you.  They wait for you to leave your home and they watch you and follow you wherever you go.  They all resemble James Cagney, and they all smoke cigars with those stylish grey suits and feathered fedoras keeping both eyes on you and making sure you don’t leave town.  It’s been like this for 3 weeks now in our little town, and every time I so much as go out for some eggs to fill up the icebox they silently follow me walking behind me at a steady pace.  They don’t follow me inside the grocers as the agreement the town made with them prohibits them from internal surveillance, but anytime we go outside, one of them is always ready and waiting to follow us.  Anyone who dares to protest or heaven forbid run – well, they end up disappearing, probably smoked. That’s the way it is here in Connorsville, and who knows how long it’ll last.

All of us have our own families to protect so there’s little chance of anyone stepping out of line.  No, the key is to wait it out. That’s what Sheriff Henderson told us. “Wait it out, and one day they’ll just leave. In the meantime, just go about your business, send your kids to school, and don’t change your routine.”   I suppose when faced with something this disturbing human instinct is to crave normalcy.  The various routines that define our lives during whatever phase of life we happen to be in traditionally offer us some comfort. No one likes to admit it but routines are indeed comforting.  Whatever inconveniences or distractions that occur in our lives only serve to help us appreciate whatever routines we have previously defined as “normal.”  The weekdays I’m used to getting Samantha ready for school while Susan makes us breakfast.  Then I read the paper while eating my scrambled eggs, finish getting dressed, walk Sammy to school with Susan, then head on over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue for a typical day of number crunching for the various businesses in town.  It’s mindless work, but it pays well and it’s given us a good home in this quiet little town.  We settled down here 5 years ago right after Sammy was born and figured this small town would be a nice place to raise her.  I liked the idea of a quaint little community where the neighbors all knew each other and everyone looked after everyone.  Sure, there was more than the usual round of gossip, but Susan had always been smart enough to keep enough distance from the uglier gossiping circles that tend to form in small towns like these.

The truth is that after spending our whole lives living in a big city, we craved something different.  Susan’s father had been a banker, and she grew to resent the hustle and bustle of the city with its loud boisterous noises every minute of the day and people always in a hurry.  She had always wanted her dad to slow down and finally he did, only it was because his heart gave out. She didn’t want me to suffer her father’s fate.  A job in finance could be stressful, especially when working for people whose every action in life is motivated by greed.  A cousin of hers told her about an accounting job opening in Connorsville far from the big city, a town with a population of only 300 people on the other side of the country.  It would be a huge lifestyle change for each of us, but after all the stress of my big city job, I had been determined to make the arrangement work.  We would be able to afford a house twice the size of the one we had in the city, and the arrangement became ideal. Sammy loved living in a big house with large backyard where she could play and run and do what kids do as they grow up.

I was playing catch with her in our backyard when Harry Summers drove by and told me there was this big town hall meeting that everyone had to go to.  Something had happened and there were important decisions to be made. He offered to drive me and I left Sammy home with Susan who had been preparing dinner for that evening. Harry had left his 2 year old son home with his wife as had most of the men who attended the meeting.

After some initial rumbling and waiting, a clearly panicked Sheriff Henderson got up at the podium to speak.  The sweat on his brow had been clearly visible as were the armpit stains in his uniform shirt.  He shuffled back and forth nervously hesitating before Carl Smolder prompted him to speak.  After all, Carl had his customers to get back to at his bar and this had taken up precious time for him already.

“Well listen up,” began Sheriff Henderson,” Everybody listen up!” The town hall quieted down as we all listened. “There are some gentlemen here from the city and the bottom line is that Connorsville is now under their control, but if we all cooperate they will be gone before we know it.”

“What is this some kind of joke?” asked Stanley Ruthman.

“Not a joke.  These gentlemen . . . well all they want is for us all to stay put and not leave town.  Connorsville has become a . . . location of strategic importance to them . . . but I’ve been assured that it’s only temporary.”

We were explained the rules.  We were all to adhere our regular routines only there would be one of these gentleman following each and every one of us wherever we go.  We were not to leave town and to make it easier on these gentleman, any irregular outing should be coordinated by house numbers.  So on even numbered days, even numbered households could have one unplanned outing to say take a stroll or go into town spontaneously.  The same would apply to odd numbered households on odd numbered days.  Each household would get a sum of $600 a week for every week that these gentlemen remained.  The payments would start immediately, and if anyone objected or protested in any way . . . well, that would be dealt with by rather discouraging means.

Most of us were clearly unhappy about this, but none of us had the courage to do anything.  Why stick your neck out when you know it’ll just be cut off? We all had families to protect and so we all agreed to go along with it.  Besides, it was made clear that these men would never actually enter our homes or follow us inside any building or structure so long as we were deemed in compliance.  Our routines were not to change and so work could get done and this extra cash would be some decent pocket money.  Clark Gasling had always wanted a pool in his backyard and Stephen Fowler had wanted to redesign his kitchen.  I always thought it would be nice to own a 2nd television set even though having just one set was considered a luxury. We each had our own ideas of what to do with the money.

The first few days came and went without incident. I had to explain to Sammy that there were men that would follow us while I took her to school every morning but that when the time was right, these men would go away.  She had even tried to say hi and wave to the pair that tailed us the next morning, but they ignored her and simply followed with their eyes on us each step of the way.  After Sammy had gone into school, I approached one of them and told them it wouldn’t hurt to have manners.  That’s when I was greeted by a snub nosed pistol in my face and told to “Stop making trouble or I’ll smoke yah.”

From then on, I had to content myself with following along. I could sense the frustration growing in the town, but no one dared to speak up.  No one dared upset the new “normalcy” that had been established.  We became prisoners in our own town vigorously following our normal routines under constant watch of these gentlemen.

I saw the strained look on Harry Summers face as he drove past my house today.  The gentlemen followed him in their Bentley.  He had been likely planning to go to the grocers but when he saw me, something inside him stirred. His face turned red and a defiant look crept across his face. He looked upset as he slowed down in front of my house. I had been watering my lawn with Sammy as he approached.  As soon as I noticed something amiss, I sent Sammy inside.  The gentleman watching me nodded in approval.  Then, I looked back just in time to see Harry’s truck speed off wildly down the road toward Bricket’s Underpass.  What was he thinking? I wondered.  The Bentley behind him sped up to follow.  They rammed him from behind then sped up alongside and ran him off the road.  Before I knew it, pistols were pulled out and Harry Summer’s brains had been spilt across the grass leading to Gaitlin’s townhouse.  The gentleman assigned to watching me water my lawn nodded in approval and smiled. I must have looked horrified, but as long as I didn’t do anything out of line I knew I’d be safe.  I went back to watering my lawn although I made sure Sammy stayed inside.

I don’t know what the destiny of Connorsville will be.  If the gentlemen ever leave, I imagine it’ll become a ghost town because I can’t imagine anyone would feel safe here ever again.  Tomorrow happens to be a big day at work for me. I look forward to getting up, eating my scrambled eggs, taking Sammy to school, and heading over to my office at Smithson’s on Canton Avenue.  There’s news of a new account being opened and that might mean a big promotion for me along with a raise of course.  I’ll try my best not to dream of poor Harry tonight, but if I do I’ll be sure to dream about the good times I had with him as my neighbor.  I imagine that whatever mess his blood and brains might have made up the road will soon be cleaned up.  These are gentlemen we’re dealing with after all.

Sealed with a Kiss

They call poison the typical method of murder for disgruntled wives so who was I to stray from convention? Sure, Henry had money and I wanted it, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as that.  Money and independence does help though.  How else is a woman supposed to get along in this country while Ike and every other goddamned fool I know has their knickers in a bunch about Sputnik?  I did my time waitressing and I figured I’d let the younger broads tackle that noble profession for as long as they could handle it.  I know better. Men are mostly saps when it comes down to it – at least the type of men who let themselves fall in love so completely.  They meet a pretty lady – one that they like – and they promise her the moon, the stars, the treasures of the earth, and everything in between. A smart woman knows how to use that, but frankly in my case I was hardly dishonest – slightly deceiving? – Perhaps but hardly dishonest.

I told him the score the very first time I met him only he wasn’t paying attention. As usual, his mind drifted off into his own private thoughts and maybe he convinced himself that he heard what he wanted to hear. I was waitressing at a joint called Bob’s Grill, a diner in the Catskills, when I noticed his sorry blank eyes staring out the window.  When I asked him if something was wrong, he rushed an apology at me, and when I insisted that no apology was necessary he found it to be the right occasion to blather on about the meaning of life and his disappointment in the life he found himself in – typical wealthy socialist guilt if you ask me.  I listened, I endeared myself to him –batted my eyes at the right time and so forth- and before I knew it we were laying side by side beneath the stars in the dingy parking lot of Bob’s Grill.  My life would never be the same.

“Ever feel like you’re living a life that isn’t meant to be yours?” he asked with that boyish whimsical smile of his.

He was wearing a collared white shirt beneath an expensive looking blue sweater.  The fabric felt as soft as anything.  He lacked the rugged look of the men I had been accustomed to flirting with.  He came from good stock and there was no way of hiding it, try as he might.  He just didn’t have the guts for it even if he wanted to pretend to be otherwise.

“There are worst things to be than a well-to-do young man philosophizing with his waitress in a diner,” I replied.

“Oh, I know that.  You think because I come from wealth that I should be happy?  It doesn’t work that way.  I’ve been reading Nietzsche and he says essentially that God is dead and life is meaningless – that Nihilism has prevailed in the modern age.  For you perhaps it means nothing but for me – well- I consider myself a contemplative person.”

“I figured you would,” I told him, “You do seem like someone who thinks an awful lot.”

“I do. It’s like I find myself living in age where my life is of little consequence.”

“If you find your life to be of little consequence then I could hardly imagine your opinion of an inconsequential young girl like me.”

“But that’s just the thing – I look at you and I know that you are important – perhaps more important than me.  Is that not at least one aspect of the true nature of love?”

“Love? Why we hardly know each other. You should be more careful about who you say such things to.”

The conversation started to go in circles until it began to get late, but I set him straight as I stood up to go back to my car.  I told him, and I remember that night clear as day.  I’ll never forget the words I used because like my husband, I also thought a lot about the important matters of life.  I had also spent many a night pondering love and the meaning of it all usually before drifting off to sleep in bed and each and every time I thought about these matters I had arrived at the same conclusion.

I said, “You want to know what I think?”

“More than anything,” he said.

“I think that I want to live alone and I want to die alone because in the end we all die alone.  Even those seemingly lucky enough to die at a tender old age with loved ones beside them on their deathbeds holding their hands – even those people die alone. Death is a solitary experience and I believe life is meant to be one as well- at least my life anyways. What good is it to waste your years pining for the approval and validation of a beloved when all they have to offer you are decades worth of grief, aggravation, frustration, and disappointment.  You live your life to marry and grow old with someone and really what do you get out of it? Companionship and to me companionship is worthless.  People use it as a panacea when it’s really a lousy substitute for joy. If you ask me, cherish and enjoy your solitude because truly that solitude is worth more than anything in the world anyone could ever offer you.”

Now if that doesn’t sound like a gal shooting a man down in flames I don’t know what else would. I spoke to him straight and honestly giving him the best possible explanation of my own philosophy.  The last thing I expected was that he would ignore just about everything I said and lean in to kiss me.  I pretended to like it. After all, a young man with money is hard to find.

So, all the expected things happened. I met his family and acted the part of the daintiest damsel amused by dinner parties, flower arrangements, hosting, and all the nauseating things wealthy people put themselves through. Instead of good stock, however, I learned that my wealthy husband came from a long line of inbreeding, pampering, and devastating family secrets that would no doubt crush the entire lineage if these secrets ever saw the light of day. I played my part and listened to the gossip preparing for the inevitable day that he would make me his wife.

After months of courting, the proposal came as we rode in a carriage through Central Park and I said all the right things and made all the right facial expressions and embraced him in just the way he liked and I also let him kiss me in the exact manner he liked and let him linger and dote on me for however long he wanted.   I suppose most women would be flattered and happy to attain this kind of attention but I found the whole thing intolerable.

We married and on the wedding night when it was no longer necessary to remain chaste, I pushed him off with all my might.  He was such a fragile thing, my husband, that a heavy wind could carry him away.  When he asked what was wrong, I reminded him of our initial conversation and told him that I intended to remain in a marriage of convenience with him.  We would sleep in separate rooms and that we would leave each other in peace to each do as we respectfully pleased.  It was that moment when I saw the look of utter defeat in his face. It was that moment when I sense that he had truly lost the will to live. I kindly reminded him that I knew all the family secrets and besides that his family would be embarrassed by the prospect of divorce and that I doubted that neither he, his mother, nor his sisters were prepared for a lifetime of shame and ostracization.

He reluctantly agreed to let me have my way as he had no other choice and we spent several  years at a kind polite distance from each other.  Neither one of us had cause or reason to be hostile, and I suppose I could have gone on just the same with having the freedom to move about as I pleased and the money to go where I wanted.  I could spend entire days reading my books without being disturbed for meals at someone else’s convenience.  We didn’t have pesky petulant children to tend to and the convenience of our arrangement suited us both. He was free to stay out at his clubs all day and go off writing his dissertations on philosophy impressing his friends and family, and I was content to often arrive at an empty house and enjoy my much valued peace, quiet, and solitude.  There was an understanding and that’s how I preferred it

Then, one evening he came to my room and I could tell something was wrong as I saw him choking back his tears.  He told me his mother had died. She had been sick for many years but the woman, fate, happenstance, or coincidence decided that that night was the end.  She left this world knowing of our arrangement but with the comforting knowledge that her precious family secrets were all safe.  As Henry was about to leave, I called him back. I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps a sudden wave of compassion hit me; perhaps my composure waned in the wake of despair; but more likely I sympathized with poor Henry because my own mother died when I was young before I ever knew what warmth and compassion could possibly be.  I saw Henry there with that dim feeble awkward look on his face and saw a wounded bird. I grabbed him by his collar, kissed him, and hugged him letting him collapse in my arms.  I even let myself cry as well.

That’s when things changed. That’s when the arrangement changed.  It happened without much resistance from me. Before I knew it, we began sharing our meals together every day, going out socially together, laughing giddily with one another, sharing private indulgences, affectionate glances, and ultimately sharing our bed.  Over the course of  the next 2 years, we became a real married couple doing everything together and my previously private and independent life withered away to nearly nothingness. I was actually really quite happy.  We both were.

Christmas came and I found myself with child, and just as I had forgotten my old attitudes, I found them making a sudden and unexpected return. Henry was preparing plans for the nursery deciding where things could go. The man couldn’t assemble a crib if his life depended on it so he brought in an old school friend to help him. The baby would arrive any day now, and it was better to have the crib ready than not, and then it hit me. With the pain of my first contraction I knew I had unwittingly surrendered my principles.  Not only had I succumbed to a potential lifetime of living under the thumb of a man, but my child – perhaps a girl just like I was – would be forced to carry on the cycle of subversion of the will, subversion of independent thought and space.  I had not only allowed my own solitude to be corrupted I was now bringing forth a new life with its own needs and its own empty void of dependence.  All my previous aversions to social living flooded back to me with this intense torrent of pain, and I despaired.  In my heart I knew nothing but despair.

Anyone who gives their heart completely is an utter fool. I know this because I became one.  I hadn’t set out to be but that’s what I became.  I needn’t have experienced the entire spectrum of life’s disappointments to know where my life with Henry would end up.  He was never good-looking and that naïve smile combined with his contemplative nature would grow wary on me.  His body would bloat and become frail with age and he would eventually become a burden as I would as well to him.  I had enough worries contemplating how to care for myself without having to worry about the needs of another.  I suppose it was good fortune that our baby was stillborn. Henry and I went through the motions of mourning.

I kept up appearances with him as I planned his demise. I decided poison would be the best and least detectable manner.  It would be a simple matter of slipping it into his food when he wasn’t looking.  He’d conveniently die and I would inherit his share of the family fortune and that would be that. This time I would remain resolute and resist any urge towards over-sentimentality.

On the third day of administering the poison he caught me.  He took hold of my wrist as I was about to do the deed and asked me what I was doing. There was nothing more to do but tell the truth and hope for mercy.

He asked, “Those attitudes you claimed to have when I first met you – the ones that kept us apart early on in our marriage – have those points of view returned?”

“They have indeed.”

“Then would you truly like to be alone without me?”

I told him, “I would.”

With that he disappeared into our bedroom, closed the heavy door, and truly left me.  Through the closed door I heard him yell out one last time, “I love you, Laura!”  Then, an awkward silence. Then, a single gunshot.  Henry was gone.

The freedom I had always craved – the independence I desired and now have – if I allow myself to exist thoughtlessly I can just about enjoy it.  It’s when the silence hits me, stuns me, and shocks me that I can’t help thinking that the emptiness of it all is ultimately unbearable.  Time drags on and all the comforts I can afford do nothing but refuse to shorten the length of days. I often find myself thinking back on that very first night I met him and that high minded philosophical conversation we shared. I find myself reliving that moment again and again only it wasn’t so much the conversation but the kiss.  When I remember it now the words we both said become meaningless and nonsensical.  When I remember it now, this time I find myself enjoying that first kiss.  That’s how I choose to remember it now and that’s how it shall forever be.

Detective Frank Fights Back

This is the 3rd story in my planned series, The Detective Frank Chronicles.  The stories are episodic so you don’t have to read the prior stories to enjoy this one.  

If you wish to read the 1st story, Detective Frank’s Daytime Dilemma, you can find it here: https://jackl0073.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/detective-franks-daytime-dilemma/

If you wish to read the 2nd story, Detective Frank Takes a Swing, you can find it here: https://jackl0073.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/detective-frank-takes-a-swing/

The following is a work of fiction.  The views and opinions of the characters don’t necessarily reflect those of the author. 

It was just like the old days back on the job though this was not quite a stake out as it was protection detail.  Officer Holliday loved his family.  They were all he lived for, yet he never knew they’d ever be in danger just because certain people took offense to him doing his duty.  First came the headlines in the paper then came the threats against him followed soon after by threats to his family.  His Dad, Louis Holliday was a good friend of mine, proud that his son had made it onto the Force.  Over the years I’ve spent several Thanksgiving dinners at the Holliday household and I remember when his son Michael had been just a wide-eyed boy with his entire future in front of him.  He came from good people, and all he ever wanted to do was make his family proud.  Even after all the disdain, threats, and humiliation he’s endured over the past months his family had much to be proud of.  It’s a shame that there are factions at work right now whose only desire is to besmirch the good name of a loyal and dedicated officer.  I’m not just telling you this story because I know the family nor is it because I myself am a retired police officer.  I’m telling you this story because maybe there’s someone out there who still needs to be convinced that the majority of cops protecting our city right now are good people.  They may not all be perfect, but they deserve to be treated with honor and respect.

It was my eighth straight night on voluntary protection detail.  The snow had become a menace that winter and although it wasn’t snowing at the time, there was plenty on the ground.  I figured since I knew the family it was the least I could do to help them out.  Every night until then had been uneventful.  I’d park across the street from Michael’s modest two-family home around 8pm and keep watch all night until 8am.   No one had asked me to do it, but I felt like I had to.  It made his family feel safe.  His wife, Samantha, was such a sweetheart and he had 2 teenage sons.  I knew that they would feel safe again in their own home with me outside.  They’ve gotten to know me through the years and they know I’m quite the badass who’s fully capable of taking on anyone who’d ever think of messing with them.  That’s what loyalty is.  Loyalty is having someone’s back and making them feel safe, and I’d like to think I’ve built quite a steady reputation for being loyal throughout the years while I was on the job.  Now that I’m retired, why should it be any different?

Samantha frequently came outside to offer me food or coffee despite my protestations. Nights like this call exclusively for soup and coffee.  That was my only fuel while I was on the Force whenever I had this kind of assignment so I figure why break with routine.  Spaghetti and meatballs are bit too messy to eat in your car anyway. Samantha kept telling me that she couldn’t thank me enough and that she couldn’t believe I’d be doing this for free as a retiree.  If she only knew the messes I’ve entangled myself in since retirement, she might have a clue that maybe I haven’t quite settled into retired life just yet.  Perhaps, I never will.  There are plenty of guys like that who just can’t let go of the badge but those stories rarely end happily.  I’m beginning to think my own story to be quite problematic but there is little I can do about that now.

I just knew that Samantha needed to feel safe sleeping in her own home knowing that nothing would happen to her or her family as they slept at night while Michael stayed at a hotel until the media coverage of the story blew over.  When some godforsaken hack website published his home address, he nearly hit the roof.  The only thing that would reassure him was knowing that I’d be right outside keeping watch over his home every night until things blew over.  Trust me when I say that was the only way to convince him to be apart from the family he loved.

My phone rang at about 11:30pm.  It was Vivian. We never dated while she was my superior officer nor even after she had left my precinct, but I recently reconnected with her after she phoned me with news that she found her biological mother.  That was many months ago now.  We met up for coffee and soon afterwards I found myself in a relationship with a woman that I had only known professionally for many years.  We did see each other socially quite a few times back then but there was always a respectable distance between us.  I suppose a mutual lingering affection existed – that feeling that perhaps we were kindred spirits of a sort – but at the time she was my boss and boy did I keep her busy.

Back then she was Lt. Vivian Marshall to me and every time I’d get myself in a mix I’d find myself along with my partner Hank in her office for the typical commanding officer reaming that is actually quite like the movies.   You know those cop movies where the main cop character does something to get himself in trouble early on and then there’s the obligatory scene where said cop gets read the riot act by his commanding officer?  Well, for me that was Vivian for a good 6 year stint in my career going back quite a few years ago – more than I care to recount here.   There was always an unspoken understanding between us. We were the same age, divorced with kids, and both of us were stubborn and equally pigheaded at times when we couldn’t get our way.  After she left my precinct, she softened up towards me considerably and we’ve remained good friends. She retired before me, and every once in a while I’d get a call out of the blue or an invitation to a birthday party.  Her call to me months ago about finding her biological mother was different.  I thought I heard that frog in her voice indicating that she was teary-eyed.  When she finally blurted out that she had found her biological mother after all these years, I didn’t know what to say other than that I was happy for her. We started seeing each other shortly after that.

So the call came in on my cell phone that night as I sat in my car in front of the Holliday house and it was Vivian.  She had spent the day getting to know her biological mother after many years of searching.  This had been perhaps their 3rd or 4th meeting. I imagine it must have been strange finding an old woman in her mid-70s who had abandoned her when she was a baby but Vivian had quickly developed a rapport with her and it had been important to Vivian to find this woman. She began telling me about her latest visit when I noticed a shadowy figure approaching the house.  At first I thought this suspicious person would just walk on by, but whoever it was stepped onto the lawn approaching one of the first floor windows.  I dropped my phone and shot out of my car like a cannon.  The figure’s arm pulled back in an attempt to throw a heavy object at the living room window when I leapt towards the figure and tackled the person from behind to the ground.  A brick covered with a note fixed to a rubber band fell from the person’s hand onto the grass beside us as I turned the person around and saw a woman.

I quickly got back up to my feet and helped the would-be assailant stand up informing her that I was placing her under citizen’s arrest.   Before me stood a frightened red-headed, tall woman in her mid to late 30s.   She trembled in her black hooded heavy coat, one that had been covered in snow after our awkward little tussle.  I might have found her attractive if I had encountered her in a bar with those freckles and dimples on a face that looked as innocent as anything.  I asked myself what this person could possibly have to do with attacking a police officer and his family in such a way.  I picked up the brick and on the note attached to it had been the slogan that had been repeated at every anti-cop protest that had taken place in the city since Officer Holliday’s fateful encounter with an unarmed black man, “I can’t breathe.”  Beneath the words though there had been scribbled a logo or symbol of sorts.  I tried to look at it closely but I could barely see.  It looked like a triangle with an elephant on top.  I couldn’t look at it too long. I began to reach for my cell phone but realized that I had left it in the car.

The woman shivered in front of me not just from the cold but also out of genuine panic and dread.  Her delicate hands had turned into a strange pale pinkish white color. As her red hair frayed at the ends and blew about her face I told her, “Listen, the police are going to come soon and take you in. I’m not going to lie. They’re going to ask you some tough questions.  Did someone set you up to this?”

The tears running down her face as she nodded all but answered my question.  Then, I saw her eyes widen and her mouth gape open.  I thought I heard the distinct sound of a car driving across the road, and then it hit.  I could feel the bullet tearing through the flesh between my shoulder blades and just as I started to turn around I fell to the ground.   My head hit the cold snow beneath me and all I could see was the snow in front of me turning red as if someone had clumsily spilled some red paint on the snow.  I knew my wound was behind me so the blood couldn’t have been mine.  The blood had to be hers. I turned my neck just enough to see the remnants of her red hair speckled with blood as it blew recklessly in the wind.  I could almost see the tattered remnants of the back of the black hood stained with the dark red ink of her blood.  Then I remember trying to let out a shout at that moment but succumbing to a restless sleep instead.

I’ve been shot before.  This was nothing new, but in all the years of being shot and being shot at I’ve never slipped out of consciousness into a comatose state, and I’ve never had such nightmares haunt me to the point where I begged for the eternal repose of death.  Suddenly, it was years ago and I had just put on my uniform for the first time.  Looking in the mirror I was shocked to see someone else.  Instead of the younger man I was 36 years ago, I saw a grizzled old man in need of a cigarette gulping a bottle of whiskey.  The face looked completely unfamiliar, but he wore my uniform and he spoke in my voice as he yelled at my ex-wife to keep the kids quiet and out of the way.  All I could do was stand and stare in silence as the man in the scruffy beard adjusted his collar looking back at me snickering and sneering like a scoundrel.   He knew I was there.  Indeed, he seemed to take an odd pleasure in the fact of my watching.   I looked about me and noticed my service revolver sitting on the bed nearby.  As I walked over to grab it, the taste of whiskey flooded my mouth. I found myself gulping back swallows and swallows of drink that had never been put to my lips.  Picking up the gun, I felt sluggish again. My head was swimming.  I felt outside myself. I staggered back to the mirror ready to take aim and fire at this wretched doppelganger on the other side only to find him gone.  Suddenly, the cries of my children as infants flooded my eardrums until they were all I could hear.  Trying as much as I could to regain some composure, I turned around and started walking towards my bedroom door calling out softly towards my two sons telling them that I would be right there to pick them up and hold them.  I found myself wondering as I approached the door, where do I find the baby bottles?  Where are the diapers?  Where is the formula?  Then, I steadied myself and found myself instantly transported to the children’s room where two cribs stood side by side.  The crying from both cribs intensified but as I walked closer towards the cribs, the room elongated and the cribs kept moving further and further away. I reached out and called out to my two sons but they didn’t hear me. They kept crying and yelping and snorting and writhing but I could do nothing to help them.  Looking down, I saw that bottle of whiskey in my hands and drew it closer to my lips collapsing in utter helplessness. I kept calling out and calling out but nobody heard me.  It was as if I wasn’t there.  Then, I was running . . . chasing someone. I had to get them.  I had made a mistake. Shimata!! That’s the word – the Japanese word – that would fit the situation. I had made a mistake.  That was the word that my Japanese girlfriend (what was her name again?) had taught me at that time.  It’s the closest thing to a curse word that she would utter out when she made an error.  Only this wasn’t her error, it was my error. I was stupid. I was dumb.  The guy told me all he wanted to do was reattach his prosthetic leg. What harm could that do? “Officer Flecha, please?  I just want to put my leg on I promise I won’t run on you.” What harm could that do?  The guy was caught.  Why not be charitable? Show the guy some sympathy. The game was over.  It was over and done with.  What good would it do to humiliate him and take him into the precinct handcuffed balancing himself on one leg? Why not let the man have one last shred of dignity?  So, I un-cuffed him and allowed him to put his leg back on only just as soon as he did, he opened the car door and bolted faster than anything.  Now, I had to chase him down, but that wasn’t the worst thing. No, the worst thing would be the laughter.  This whole thing could follow me for my entire career. Yes, I would come to be known as the cop who let himself get outrun by a one-legged perp. The wind blew across my face as I ran with desperation.  My cheeks welled up and now tears started streaming across my face.  The speed at which I ran made the tears blow off my face as they would across a speeding windshield.   I was gasping and gasping for air.  Suddenly, I found myself leaping into the air. I tackled the guy. Off went the leg as I struggled to get my breath back but no matter how much time I took I couldn’t catch my breath.  I read the guy his rights again and I noticed he was crying too.  Crying because he was caught without his leg again? Perhaps. Did it matter?  I told myself that it didn’t.  Then, I was surrounded by my fellow officers who took the perp away, but behind my back they all laughed.  They laughed and they laughed and there was nothing to comfort me but that one bottle of whiskey I had been nursing since the start of it all.  With the addition of a pack of cigarettes, a bar, and an open tab all the pain – the pain of humiliation anyway “Shimata!!”- it all went away, but by the time that happened I had lost something else and I could never get it back.

Reality began to fade again or perhaps it wasn’t reality that was fading. It was the nightmare that faded and reality that returned.  Indeed, the reality was that I was in a hospital bed and it was Vivian’s lovely face that I first saw through the haze. “We almost lost you,” She said.

I was still groggy. I searched for words but they had all but escaped me. Perhaps my own vocabulary had won the footrace after all. Looking around, I noticed tubes and felt the stick of an IV needle in me, and I desperately wanted nothing more than to rip it out get out of there.  There was an investigation to be done and I was wasting precious time dreaming away while the shooters ran free.  Everything flooded back to my mind and I could see the red-head and her brick and her note clear as day in front of my face again. I began to lift myself but Vivian rose from her chair and put her arms around me in gentle restraint.

“You need to rest.”

Finally, I started to talk, “The woman – is she?”

“She’s dead, Frank.  One of the bullets hit her right between the eyes. She had no chance.”

“But the note . . .”

“The police have everything they need. The detectives on the case are good group. I used to work with one of them. It’s all in good hands.  If the bullet that hit you had been an inch more to the left we wouldn’t be talking right now.  You’d be dead or paralyzed.”

“Vivian, I have to find who’s behind this.  The woman indicated that she had been set up.”

“I’m sure Detectives Ramos and Claufield are looking into it, but right now I’m concerned about you. Let me get the nurse and let her know you’re awake. There will be plenty of time for you to discuss the case with the detectives. “

“I have to help.”

“Help? Frank, you’ve done enough. Let’s not talk about it now, okay.”

After that, well you can probably guess all the stuff that took place while I was in the hospital.  The recovery, the doctors, the detectives with their questions, my official statement, visits from Michael Holliday and his wife – all the stuff you might have expected to happen –  it all happened, but nothing could describe the urgency I felt to get healed and to get back on the case.  I pride myself on the fact that I never let anyone who took a shot at me get away.  That’s something Vivian could never understand.  Was the case in capable hands?  Of course it was, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a job to do.  The sense of duty rose up within me as my body healed.  All I could think about was tracking down those shooters, finding out who had sent that woman to throw a brick into the Holliday home, and bringing them all to justice.   Vivian may have been a cop in the past, but she was also capable of being passive and letting things like this go.  In the past it had been her job to keep me in check and I found myself in familiar territory as she implored to me that not every incident needs to be turned into some vendetta.  I listened as she told me I wasn’t a detective anymore.  I needed to transition back into civilian life just as she had and that she would help me.  I nodded but her words went right through me.  They meant nothing, and the more she protested the less she began to mean to me.  Did she think she was still my superior officer barking down orders after I slipped up?  Did she think that hospital room was her office and my bed the desk between us, an object to wield to rein me in and control me for my own good?  I began to secretly resent her for the way she kept talking and talking to me as if these were the old times when we both had lives that still mattered.  She wanted me to be like she was – sedate, settled, and sober- content in the knowledge that we can’t take control over the things that matter the most in life.  I kept all these feeling bottled up inside me, but each time she spoke to me I wanted a drink and a cigarette – hospital rules and the fucking mayor be damned.   Once they had finally let me out of the hospital I took out my frustrations on her by making love to her brutally ignoring the pain I felt in my bones. Even that didn’t satisfy me and I spent the entire first night back home wide awake staring at the ceiling with Vivian’s naked body sleeping peacefully beside me.

Back in my apartment the next morning, she brought me a beer and slipped a business card into my hand before giving me a long kiss full on the lips.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“I think you should talk to somebody.”

“A shrink?”

“Dr. Helen Markham has helped many men like you transition back into civilian life.  She comes highly recommended.  Veterans returning from the Middle East struggling with PTSD vouch for her.  I have a friend who had a husband return from Iraq and . . .”

“Vivian, I don’t have a problem. It’s not like I‘m coming back from a war zone. I got shot in the back. I just need to find out who did it and why.”

“How many times do I need to tell you you’re not a cop anymore!” Her voice rose with every word.  I could tell she had been trying to restrain the tears.

“Come on. Before this happened, you were amused when I talked about what happened in LA and what I went through with Hank’s daughter.  This is no different.  It’s in my blood to do this.  It’s in your blood too. I know you.  If this happened to you . . .”

“This would never happen to me.  That’s just it. I’ve left the job behind. I wouldn’t do police work again if someone offered me a billion dollars just to be a cop again for a day. I’m retired. I did my part and so did you.  It’s time to . . .”

“Time to what?  Sit back, get old, and get ready to die? Because that’s what retirement is.  That’s what that retirement party they threw for me meant.  It meant that that I was done, finished, so why not have a blowout – only I’ve proven over this past year that I still have life in me yet. I caught a man who murdered a soap star. I caught the bitch who slashed the face of Hank’s beautiful daughter, and now I need to do this.”

Vivian look up at the ceiling rolling her eyes, “Do this and then what, Frank?  Then what?”

“I don’t know. . . but don’t tell me that I’m finished because I’m not.  I’ll never be finished. If I get killed out there then so be it.”

“Then we’re done, Frank. I can’t let myself love a man like you. I can’t!”

An awkward silence and then the doorbell rang.  Vivian answered the door.  I heard her say, “He’s not going to talk to a reporter.”  As soon as I heard that I knew who it was and shouted, “It’s okay! Let him in!”

She walked back into the living room, embraced me, looked me in the eyes and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I nodded in the affirmative. I didn’t even think to say anything only now I wish that I had.  She turned around and shot Anthony Valenti a look that would just as soon kill him and told him, “He’s all yours.”

Anthony stood silently in his black vested suit his eyes following her behind as she left walking past him.  His five o’clock shadow had started despite the early morning hour, he shifted his neck tie, removed a flask from his inside jacket pocket and said, “Time for a drink, old friend?”

“You bet,” I said, “Good to see you again.  How long has it been?  Ever win that fucking Pulitzer you were pining away for?”

He chuckled and said, “I’ve learned to accept certain realities. The newspaper business isn’t what it used to be. Heck, it wasn’t what it used to be when I first signed up for it so what else could I expect.”

“I hear ya, Anthony.”

The company and the drinking helped me to at least temporarily put Vivian towards the back of my mind. I never could forget a woman who meant as much to me as she did, but sometimes a man has to just put things on a shelf while he sorts out other things. I wanted to tell her I loved her and I knew she loved me but pride and egos have a nasty habit of getting in the way. It was good to see Anthony again though. As a cop I used to have little or no respect for the media, but Anthony was different.  Most of his family including a brother and a sister were on the Force. His old man used to be on the Force, and when the paper he was working for a few years back wanted him to write up some anti-cop garbage to feed the public its usual swill, he upped and quit.  It took him a while to get back on his feet but he remained true to himself and loyal to the Police, which is why I knew I could trust him.  I knew he had information that didn’t make the papers.  It was this information that he was sitting on that could maybe help me find out who was responsible for what happened that night.  The sooner I resolved that, the sooner I thought I might be able to win Vivian back and perhaps even let her talk some sense into me.  I needed to act fast.

“Well, you already know the identity of the red-head, Lucy Berringer, but what you may not know is that she had a boyfriend, a black guy who went missing 2 months ago.  It’s been kept hush-hush.  This guy Sam Carter went out after a rendezvous with Lucy at a club and he was expected to be back later that night but disappeared.  Strange thing is that not Lucy or even Carter’s family reported him missing.”

“So, how do you know about this?”

“Lucy’s sister told the cops only after they leaned on her for something they didn’t already know.  The problem is that the cops don’t know what to do with this bit of information. They are considering all angles but my sources tell me that they still don’t know what Lucy was doing there that night about to throw a brick through the window of the Holliday household.  It doesn’t make any sense.  A white woman in her mid-30s with no ties to the anti-cop protesters suddenly decides to throw a brick at Officer Holliday’s window.  Why?”

I spoke up, “She was set up.  That’s why. But by whom?”

“I don’t know, but I bet it has something to do with the disappearance of Sam Carter.  Find out what happened to him, and I bet this case blows wide open, and when that happens maybe you give me the exclusive, eh.”

I chuckled, “Don’t let yourself sound so desperate, Anthony. I know you’re a good man, but let’s just take one thing at a time.  Besides, you’re the only reporter I know who isn’t a complete bastard so who else would I talk to?”

Before Anthony left I called him back for a minute, “You think flowers ought to do it?”

A sympathetic smile crossed his face, “Not enough flowers in this city, Frank.”  He grabbed his fedora from the desk by the door, waved goodbye to me, and left.

I decided to start with the retired parents of Sam Carter.  I found them easily enough. These days it doesn’t take much sleuthing to find anybody.  Those people who aren’t trying to hide could be found within minutes and those that are trying to hide could perhaps delay the efforts by an hour or two.  It’s the ones that hide in plain sight that you need to worry about.

Carter’s parents seemed honest enough.  They had been easy to find, and they were hoping I had information on their son.  They thought I was still on the job and I didn’t do anything to correct that impression. When I asked why they hadn’t reported their son missing, they started to become defensive.

“We love our son,” Lois Carter said in protest.

“I know that. I just want to help.  Is there anything – anything at all – that you haven’t told us yet?”

The father’s eyes tilted down and his face took on a somber impression, “They say that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

“What are you trying to say, Mr. Carter?”

“My son.  Well. . .”

“George don’t!” interjected Lois Carter.

“We have to tell the truth, Lois.  It’s the only way to find our son dead or alive.  It’s the only way we’re going to know for sure.”

“Please, both of you. All I want to do is help you find out what happened to your son.  I promise that whatever it is I find, I will share it with you before I share it with anyone else.”

“Alright, our son was being held for ransom – only if we went to the police the kidnappers – whoever did this – they said he would kill us.”

“How much did they want?”

“That’s the thing.  He didn’t want money.  The man on the phone said it was a matter of patriotism -something about restoring the faith of America.   He said he was ex-military and that my son would be free as soon as his mission was accomplished.  Then, we never heard from the kidnappers again.  Then, you cops came around asking questions about Lucy and I didn’t know what to say.  I was told that if I talked to the Police he would kill Sam.  Then, one time when Lucy had come over, the phone rang and he gave her . . . instructions.  He promised to release Sam once she had done what he told her to do.   Then, that whole mess happened at that Officer Holliday’s house and we didn’t know what to do or say.  Lucy was a loving and kind woman.  She may have been older than Sam but we could tell they were in love. Now, she’s gone and we still don’t know what happened to Sam.”

I left the Carter household reflecting closely on the implications of what I had learned.  Sam Carter – a hostage? The perpetrators – ex-military? Could it be possible that the person responsible for this entire mess had been someone unwilling to adjust to his civilian life – someone who took up a cause and now put the lives of innocent people in jeopardy because of his own refusal to stand down as it were? These endless possibilities stirred in my mind cooking up as if they were ingredients in some kind of stir-fry.  I thought about this faceless man behind the phone.  What was his purpose? Was he acting alone and if not, just who did he work for? I needed to get to the bottom of it all.

On my way back home from seeing the Carter family, I drove past a group of protesters.  They were carrying signs saying “No Justice No Peace!” and calling for the blood of Officer Michael Holliday because he had killed an unarmed black man in the line of duty.  None of these people seemed to be aware of the sacrifices men and women like Officer Holliday make every day to keep them safe.  All they cared about was their own sense of self-righteousness so that they could all feel better about themselves believing that cops are all racists so that minorities could continue to be downtrodden despite the fact the cops I served with had come from all sorts of different backgrounds, religions and races.    These fanatics want to believe that cops are all white men when that couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact just about every cop I know would give their life to save the life of an innocent person regardless of the color skin of the person they were saving.  It’s what’s right. The man who died in the confrontation with Officer Holliday had been a menace to the community.  He was a low level hoodlum with a checkered background of domestic abuse who had even thrown his newborn infant son out of a car window just weeks before his death yet he’s now idolized as martyr by these ridiculous liberals. The world has gone astray.  What happened to the days when law enforcers were idolized instead of the crooks?  Gone are the days of my youth when young boys like me looked up to Dick Tracy, Batman, and Superman.  Those were the days when kids wanted to be heroes.  We wanted to save innocent lives, and we didn’t care who we were protecting.  It would become my duty when I joined the Force, and it’s that sense of duty that compels me today.

Just as I decided to shove the entire thing out of my mind, I noticed that across the way from the protesters, a pro-cop rally had sprung up with far fewer supporters.  They were handing out fliers to anyone passing them by.  I decided to get out of my car and have a chat and perhaps grab a flyer when something crossed my eye.  It was the logo scribbled upon the note wrapped around Lucy’s brick.  Had she scribbled it herself since the version on the flyer look polished and professional?  Was that her way of letting us know who set her up?  I asked the organizer and he told me that the rally had been funded by Gabriel Janus, a wealthy and influential friend of the Fraternal Order of Police.  This was his company logo.  The man had made many generous contributions both to the Police and to the Republican Party.  The organizer I spoke to talked about the man as if he walked on water.    It was then that I knew something smelled funny.

I went straight to the Janus Company Headquarters in midtown Manhattan and decided to see what I could find.  Once inside the tall post-modern building a life sized statue of the logo greeted me.  It was then I figured that it might be impossible to track down this very important man. I was surrounded by important looking men and women in expensive suits and quickly felt out of place. I decided I would try to put on my official demeanor and see if I could catch a receptionist off guard. I put on the old Flecha charm with the young woman in a green dress at a kiosk across the lobby.  Oddly enough she hadn’t spotted me as an interloper. Indeed, she seemed flattered with all the attention I had devoted to lavishing upon her. I imagine that important men walked past her every day and never truly stopped to take a genuine interest in her.  They only spoke to her when she was needed for something and only complimented her if she was effective at her job.

“The first star I see this evening I’m naming it after you, Deidre.  Where have you been all my life?”

“I bet a guy like you gets a lot of women with that line.”

“And if I have it has all been a prelude to you.”

She chuckled while keeping her eyes fixed on me through her angular eyeglasses.  The grin on her lips said all I needed to know. I had her.  It had been a while since I tried doing something like that cold so it was good to know I still had it in me. I told her I had a very urgent message for Mr. Jannus and that it simply couldn’t wait.  “Tell him his friend from the military sent me.  He’ll know who I’m talking about.”

After giving me her business card noting her phone number and email address, she got me through to where I needed to go. I found myself on the 11th floor of the building walking down a narrow hallway towards the very last door.  Another receptionist waved me though. Mr. Jannus was behind his desk. He was a thin young man in his mid 30s and I could tell right away he had been someone who had felt very accomplished.  Even if he had come from a wealthy family, the respect and the authority he had obtained were no easy task for a man this young.  He looked like an up and coming politician and the smile he greeted me with through those big wide white teeth told me all I needed to know.

I sat down with all the confidence in the world contemplating how far I would go with my bluff, “Sam Carter has escaped,” I told him.

“That’s impossible. Captain Nelson assured me that would never happen.”

“Well, it has.”

“Then why are you here instead of looking for him?”

“Honestly, none of us know where to look.”

“How far could he have gotten?  I mean weren’t you holding him at Nelson’s upstate ranch house?  He said it was a few miles in between neighbors. Very secluded.  Why come all the way here?”

“You know why.”

Jannus sniffed, “Money.  You guys are all the same. I thought this was about patriotism and all that ‘Hooyah!’ shit when it really is all about the payday.  Get him on the phone!”

I took out my cell phone and clicked on the one contact I knew would take this man down.  As soon as there was an answer I said, “Captain, we have a problem.  I think you better talk to Mr. Jannus and really settle this thing once and for all.  It’s about the package and our money.”

Jannus yanked the phone from me snarling, “Listen to me Captain Nelson, if I had known you were going to fuck this up and let Sam Carter go free I would have hired one of my other Black-Ops guys.  You men are a dime a dozen and I can’t afford fuckups.  You’ll get an extra million if you capture him alive but you had better be sure nobody else finds him. This operation has been a mess from the very beginning.  The whole purpose of this was to blame one of those anti-cop groups to make them look like the criminals that they really are so they could go running to Al Sharpton and cry about being framed like little babies. This was supposed be about winning the heart of America. Now it’s just a murder and kidnapping until you complete this supposedly new plot of yours to make it look like this Sam Carter set his girlfriend up.  We need Carter alive, do you hear me?”

With the volume turned all the way up on my phone, I could hear Anthony’s voice on the other end said, “Loud and clear.  You know this entire conversation has just been recorded and within seconds the NYPD will have this and converge upon your office within minutes.  Have a good day. I know I will.”

Jannus shot me a look of utter incredulity, “Who the fuck are you?”

“Nobody, I’m just a retired detective,” I said with the biggest shit-eating grin.

“This is entrapment. Nothing I just said . . .”

“Don’t give me that crap. I’ve heard enough lectures recently. If you know what’s best for you, you will cooperate with the police when they arrive. If you don’t, I’ll make sure that Carter gets rescued myself before you have a chance to warn your Black-Ops guys.  I’m not carrying a firearm but if you so much as reach for a phone you have no idea how much pain I will inflict upon you.”

Needless to say Jannus sang like a canary when the cops arrived.  The FBI got called in almost immediately and staged a raid on Captain Nelson’s upstate ranch house. They rescued Sam Carter but Captain Frederick Nelson, formerly of the U.S. Marines, escaped after a long firefight.  Anthony got his exclusive.  I imagine his name will be recognized for quite a long while since this story would occupy the front pages for weeks.  People might even get motivated to start buying newspapers again.  I imagine Anthony to be quite the hero in his own circles. Gabriel Jannus soon went from wealthy accomplished businessman to lifelong scumbag in a matter of seconds. You can bet that his name was shall we say “trending” for days.   His confession and his plot had been like something out of the movies.  It was all anyone could talk about.  I only hope that it brings people together because sometimes it’s not the people who are openly trying to divide us who do the most damage. Usually, it is people like Jannus operating in the shadows manipulating the worst qualities to come out in society.  On the surface, it looked like the anti-cop groups would have been behind something like this, but it was really someone far more sinister and divisive who had truly been the linchpin.  It’s the scoundrels that hide in plain sight who become the most dangerous and behind just about every scoundrel is the jingoistic call to patriotism to justify their evil deeds. These men don’t know what true patriotism is.  They lather themselves with snake oil and tell us what we want to hear. On our side we had Jannus and on the other end they have Al Sharpton.   If only Sharpton could be as careless on the phone as Jannus had been.

If only my story ended there.  It seems like a neat tidy ending doesn’t it? A few days after Anthony’s story came out, I went to visit Vivian. I decided perhaps a single white rose would do the trick.  I rang the bell, she answered the door and seemed surprisingly welcoming towards me.  I knew she hadn’t quite forgiven me but just seeing that lovely smile of hers made me melt. I went into my whole spiel and I was about to tell her that I had scheduled an appointment with Dr. Helen Markham just to get her to let me inside when a look of panic crossed her face.  She yelled, “GET DOWN!!!”

I heard the firecracker popping sound of gunfire behind me. The two of us crouched and rushed inside.  Together we raced towards the back of the house where the kitchen back door was located but we decided that exiting out of the back door would be a mistake.  Captain Nelson hadn’t operated alone and there was no doubt a perimeter had already been set up. If we tried to leave the house, we would be easy targets.

“Where’s your firearm?”

“Upstairs locked away in my bedroom!”

“You’re kidding me right!”

“Frank, I’m not a cop anymore. I don’t have guns in every room of the house.”

“Is it at least loaded?”

“Of course it is.”

“I’m going after it.  Go down to the basement. Find a hiding spot.”

“Wait!  The combination!”

“What is it?”

“36-24-12!”

“Got it,” I said as I bolted upstairs.

By the time I had reached the top step, Captain Nelson had already penetrated the house.  He came in alone.  He must have let his accomplices remain outside in case we tried to make a run for it.  I unlocked the safe, got Vivian’s gun, and carefully made my way back downstairs. He had decided to go downstairs and take care of Vivian first.  Then, I heard it.  A shot had been fired. I panicked and raced down the basement steps opening fire at the first glimpse of the musclular man.  I shot him in the back of his bald head just as he executed Vivian. I was too late.  The rest was black . . . darkness enveloped me . . . Then, the sound of sirens. I think you know the rest.

This time the police were able to round up all of Captain Nelson’s accomplices, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better. Vivian hadn’t asked to be a part of this, but she’s the one who is gone. I’m the one still here sucking down endless gulps of whiskey until I lose consciousness every night.  Dr. Helen Markham reccomended that I write up my story, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Writing it down only brings back the anguish I feel.  Does it matter to anyone that I wanted to tell Vivian that I loved her but failed to.  I doubt it. I doubt anyone is going to read this. My phone kept going off so much after the shooting but I didn’t care who was on the other end. I took my cell phone and threw it out the window the other night. Who needs those things anyway?  Does everybody really need to be connected to everybody else? What kind of an age is this anyway.  I swear to Christ those things were invented just to prevent men like me from ever obtaining any kind of peace and quiet.  As I stare at the whiskey bottle in front of me there is one ultimate transcendent truth this world and this life have to offer. I’ve said it many times before in a past life and I’ll say it again now:

The most beautiful three words in the English language are not “I love you.” That’s okay for the sheep, the saps, and the suckers that inhabit the planet.  No, the most beautiful three words ever uttered in the English language are, “Leave Me Alone.” I only wish I had remembered that while Vivian was still alive.