Friday, January 16, 2015

Noir by Fred Skolnik

Charlie Walker gets out of prison after five years and seems to be managing to restart his life, until he falls for a femme fatale; by Fred Skolnik.

When Walker got out of the pen he checked into a cheap hotel across the street from a bar & grill with a flashing neon sign. The light went on and off as he lay in his bed smoking a cigarette and listening to the rain outside. He wasn't really thinking about anything, just listening to the rain and enjoying the smoke. Afterwards he had a good meal in a chophouse and found a woman walking the rain-washed streets. It started to rain again later so he waited in a doorway smoking another cigarette and watching the cars go by. He could see the rain falling in their headlights and under the streetlamps. He felt good now, better than he'd felt for a long time. He wasn't the type to get excited about things. He was a low-key, easy-going type who just drifted along, maybe too easy-going because he'd operated like an amateur and that had gotten him five years inside. He'd gotten used to the joint fast enough and after a while it suited him like any other kind of life. Nothing really changed for him. He had long, serious talks with other cons who spoke softly like him, talks about how they'd been wronged and how you had to look out for yourself, and he liked to have one last cigarette before turning in and that put him in touch with himself, it was just him and the cigarette and his random thoughts all locked together in an intimate kind of way. It didn't really dawn on him that he was out until he'd had the woman and the good meal. But then, when he lay on his bed smoking the last cigarette of the day, it was as though he was inside again.

The next morning he got up late and figured he'd look for work. The streets were full of panhandlers and winos and kids with weird hair. He wasn't used to so much noise and movement. It confused him at first. Then he tried a few luncheonettes and restaurants, figuring they'd need a dishwasher, but ended up cleaning toilets in a local gym. He hung around there about ten hours a day and got paid in cash once a week by the owner out of a cigar box. He probably made book on the side, was what Walker thought. Anyway, it was enough for a cheap room and his meals and smokes and a woman now and then. Walker was a friendly type but he hardly ever saw his neighbors. There was a good-looking woman in the building who he tried to talk to but it turned out she was married to a little fat man who was on the road most of the time. He'd seen them together just once or twice. They were an odd couple. The woman couldn't have been more than twenty-five and the husband was way past forty for sure. She wore tight sweaters that made her tits stick out but always had an anguished kind of look on her face, as though she'd just been crying, or wrestling with demons, and sometimes her face would be flushed or broken out in a real sweat and he got to thinking that something must have been wrong with her mentally but nonetheless couldn't keep his eyes off her when he saw her in the building or the street. He figured they must have been down on their luck, she and her husband, to be living in such a dump. She was chummy with another woman in the building who lived downstairs, also with a husband you never saw, and that one was a little strange too but not as good-looking - tall and thin and pale and flat as a board and always wearing black with bright red lipstick. There was an office downstairs and the monthlies like him paid their rent on the first of every month.

Walker tried to talk to the woman in black too. Her name was Louise. She surprised him with her deep, sexy voice that must have come from smoking too many cigarettes. Her red mouth made him think of candy. She told him her husband sat in their room all day writing detective stories. Walker couldn't figure out how she spent her time. She told him they'd lived in Argentina for a while and then in Florida. Wherever they went they seemed to have had the same routine, him writing and her hanging around, and yet she seemed resigned to it, as if this was her role in life, to serve as a kind of muse and satisfy her husband's needs.

"Doesn't he ever get out?" Walker said. "I never seen him."

"He works all the time."

"Still, he's gotta get some fresh air."

"We leave the windows open."

"So what do you do all day?"

"I type for him."

"Whaddya mean?"

"He writes in longhand and then I type it up."

Walker didn't understand exactly what she was talking about but let it pass, staring at her chest. The flatness was uncanny. There wasn't even the hint of a nipple there. He wondered what it would be like to make love to a woman who had the body of a boy. He found that the idea excited him, as did her little red mouth.

"Don't you ever want to get out and have some fun?"

"I don't think about fun," she said.

"Everyone has to have some fun. Like dancing." He gave her a mischievous look and made as if to give her a whirl. She didn't even crack a smile. It wasn't easy to get a fix on her. She was inscrutable. He got to thinking that her paleness and thinness might have thrown him off. There was something hard in her face, and shrewd.

Walker stayed on at the gym, biding his time. He had no plans. Things just happened to him. The owner, Mr. Green, treated him as if he was retarded, and it couldn't be denied that with his soft, slow way of talking he sometimes gave that impression. When Mr. Green sent him on an errand he'd put bus fare into his hand as though he were a 10-year-old and it was also true that sometimes he got lost. Otherwise Walker liked sitting around with the fighters and shooting the shit over a beer and a smoke, though mostly he just listened and they didn't mind if he was there. They must have thought he was retarded too and he didn't mind creating such an impression, even encouraged it, because it gave him an obvious edge. Walker stole a little money from the cigar box every time he cleaned the office and from time to time went through a few pockets in the locker room where the locks were all busted and you had to buy your own if you wanted to protect your valuables. In this way he picked up an extra ten, fifteen dollars a week. Walker had sound instincts. He always knew who to be. That was how he had survived the pen.

The other woman, the one with the nice tits, was less inscrutable than the one decked out in black. She didn't beat around the bush. That was how it all started. One day in the hallway she grabbed his arm in her overheated way and said, "You gotta help me."

"What's wrong?" Walker said.

"He beats me," she said in a whisper. "He doesn't let me out of the house."

"Who?"

"My husband."

"You're out now," Walker said calmly. It wasn't as if he didn't want to appear helpful. It was just a simple observation. Walker tended to take a step back when people came at him too fast.

"He's away now. He doesn't even let me use the phone. I'll show you."

She kind of tugged at his sleeve and Walker's mind worked a little faster than usual and he figured that if she was inviting him into her room he'd be getting some for sure. All he had to do was play along. "Sure," he said. "Take it easy. I'm coming."

She lived down the hall. She was wearing a sweater and a skirt and looked as good as a woman could. It would have been a pity if she really did turn out to be crazy.

They went inside. She had a room just like Walker's with an unmade double bed taking up a third of it. There wasn't any phone that he could see and clearly she had a key to get in and out.

"Where's your husband supposed to be?" Walker said.

"He's on the road. Look." She pulled up her sweater to expose some skin and Walker could see the welt on it.

He tried to be cagey now. "Is that the worst of it?"

"I wish it was." Now she pulled up her skirt and showed him her nice thigh with a black and blue mark.

"He done that?"

"With his belt."

"What the fuck for?"

"He's a mean son of a bitch."

"Why don't you just leave him?"

"He'll find me and kill me. That's what he said. Please help me."

"What do you want me to do?"

"I want to kill him first."

"Whoa now. That's a little steep. You're not serious, are you?"

"I'd be good to you. You can have me now."

"I don't know," Walker said, holding up his hand as if to ward her off, or at least the idea that was in the air.

"I said you can have me. Don't you want me?" She looked desperate and her face was all red, but at the same time she put on a seductive and even calculating look, watching him out of the corner of her eye.

"Well, sure," Walker said. "But that's steep."

"You take a pipe and break his head. No one will know it's you. You know the alley behind the building. He comes through it when he's been out drinking. You just have to wait."

"I don't know," Walker said, shaking his head.

"He's insured. I made him take out a policy. It would be for us. It's a hundred thousand dollars."

"You mean like fifty-fifty?"

"Or we stay together. It's up to you. You want a sample? I'll give it to you now. Come on, get on the bed with me. I'll fuck your brains out."

She was fabulous and put on a terrific show, screaming a little and twisting her body like she hadn't gotten any in years. And he'd never been with a woman who looked so good. "Jesus," he said.

"He'll be back in two days. I'll knock on your door when he goes out. Then you wait for him in the alley after midnight." She was sitting on the edge of the bed now, running her hands up and down her legs and making him want her again.

"Where am I gonna get a pipe?" Walker said

"I have a wrench. It's just as good."

"What'll I do with it after?"

"Throw it in the river."

"What if I'm seen?"

"No one's out there that late at night. You just throw it in and come right back. Then lay low. We'll get together after things quiet down. You'll just be my neighbor for a while."

"Yeah, but what if they whaddyacallit - when they look in the river?"

"It can't be traced. Wear gloves."

"What's your name?" Walker said.

"Brenda," she said. "You better go now. Let me get the wrench."

Walker got a sexy kiss and a little moan to seal the bargain. Then he went back to his room with a big wrench under his shirt that looked pretty new. So far he'd gotten laid so he was ahead of the game and now he could review the situation calmly. He sat down on his bed and lit a cigarette. He'd never killed anyone or even come close. He wasn't a brawler though occasionally he couldn't avoid a fight and gave a pretty good account of himself. He didn't know how far he could trust this Brenda, who had put out a little too fast for a normal woman, but he'd never had anyone like her with the body of a beauty queen and he could imagine having her as his own with all that loot and started daydreaming and making plans.

He didn't show up at the gym the next day but got to thinking that that might be a giveaway so he came in the next morning, the day the husband was due back, with a cock and bull story about being sick and went back to cleaning people's shit. He'd have to go on like that for maybe a month or two, he figured, and then he'd split with Brenda and they'd set up house somewhere near a beach and live like kings. Tonight was the night and he felt a little tight in his stomach because killing someone was a big step that put you in another league. Once you killed someone you could do anything but he figured he wouldn't have to do anything at all because he'd have Brenda and the money and what more did you need?

Someone called to him, "Hey, over here," and he had to clean up some vomit. That kind of thing had never bothered him and it didn't bother him now though the irony of it didn't fail to sink in. He leaned on his mop watching the men work out. He had a good physique and had played with the idea of fighting once but he was too old now. And besides, the kind of men who worked out in the gym fought for peanuts when they fought at all so Walker was glad he wasn't in the ring getting banged around.

When he got back toward evening he saw Brenda's husband downstairs and his heart beat a little faster. He had the face of a pig and Walker couldn't figure how a woman like Brenda had married someone like that unless it was to get out of a bad situation or get her hands on the insurance money, in which case she may have planned all this and had maybe given herself those welts though you couldn't fake the sweaty red face and the anguished look.

The husband was carrying a bag of groceries. He must have thought he was going to be around for a while. They all had hotplates and little refrigerators in their rooms. At suppertime you could smell the grease out in the hall. Walker didn't let the husband see him. He waited outside for a while and then went upstairs and sat on his bed. He wasn't hungry. His stomach was in knots and he half-hoped Brenda wouldn't show up. He watched TV for a while, then he opened his window and stared down into the street. It was ten o'clock. The street was quiet. Sometimes a lone figure hurried past. The night air was wet and raw. He figured the husband had gone out already, gone out to drink like Brenda had said, and was tempted to knock on Brenda's door, or at least to listen in at it to see that nothing was amiss, or maybe get a quick one on account before he got out the wrench and went downstairs. What a piece she was! The alley ran between two buildings, from one side of the block to the other, and was full of junk. There was a door there that led to their basement and that was where he figured he'd wait though then the husband would be coming straight at him and he'd have to let him pass before hitting him from behind. Walker was working everything out in his head when there was a knock at his door, a woman's knock, so he knew it was Brenda. She stepped past him and said, "Are you ready?" She was wearing a sweater and showing a lot of leg. Walker licked his lips in a reflexive kind of way but found that his mouth was completely dry.

"It's a little early," he said.

"It's after eleven. You have to be there from eleven-thirty to be sure. Just go down to the basement and out the door."

"O.K. give me a minute, willya. You want coffee or anything? I gotta have something to drink."

"Nothing for me. Don't waste time."

"O.K. Don't get in an uproar. I'm on my way."

He futzed around for a few more minutes to see if she might be interested in having that quick one anyway but she had her feverish look with little beads of sweat standing out on her forehead. One part of him couldn't believe what he was doing and that was the part that got him out the door. "Give me a kiss for good luck," he said. She gave him her mouth but when he tried to stretch out the kiss she pulled away. "Take his wallet and his watch," she said. "That'll make it look like a mugging."

He went down the stairs with the wrench under his shirt. The basement was full of cats with piles of broken furniture everywhere. He pushed open the door and found himself in the alley. As you couldn't get back in once it swung shut he left a little wedge there, figuring he'd wait inside after he checked out the alley and then come out behind the husband after he passed, hopefully pissed. It was still quiet outside and the air was still wet. He looked up and down the alley and checked his watch. It was 11:45. Then he waited just inside the door, listening for the crunch of footsteps. It was nearly one a.m. when he heard them. He wanted to look out to make sure it was the husband but figured he'd recognize him from behind. The steps came nearer, there was a pause and the sound someone makes before he starts throwing up and some drunken cursing and then the steps again. Walker opened the door a couple of inches to look outside and saw the man come by. He didn't hesitate. He stepped out and cracked him over the head, swinging with both hands. The man fell forward as if he'd been pushed while walking in his sleep, without making a sound. Walker was on top of him in a second, swinging the wrench like an axe six or seven times until the head was completely bashed in. He was breathing hard now. He took the watch and pulled out the wallet with a small wad of bills. He was already thinking about what to do with them. They hadn't talked about that. That was something Brenda should have thought of. He felt a little peeved with her. She should have thought things out down to the last detail instead of just giving him a general picture and leaving him to fend for himself. He'd remembered to wear the gloves, which made it a little awkward to go through the wallet. He slipped it into his pocket with the money. The wrench was smeared with blood and pieces of bone and he wasn't going to walk around with it like that even at two in the morning so he found a dirty plastic bag to wrap it in. That was another thing Brenda should have thought of. Then he walked quickly out of the alley, onto the back street and toward the river. No one was around. He threw the wrench as far as he could and afterwards threw the wallet and the watch down a sewer. He got back at 2:30 a.m. and couldn't resist knocking on Brenda's door, though not too loudly lest someone hear. There was no answer so he figured she was asleep, though later it occurred to him that no normal person would have gone to sleep knowing her husband was about to be murdered. He couldn't sleep himself. At about 4:30 he dozed off but was up at six going through everything step by step with a feeling of dread. He'd seen the movies and knew how certain fatal oversights could trip you up. There might be footprints, he thought, a stray hair, someone who'd seen him. It occurred to him that he still had the gloves, and there might be bloodstains on his clothing too. For a second he felt panic, breaking into a sweat. Then he looked them over. They looked clean enough. For the time being he figured he'd leave them where they were.

At 6:30 he heard the police cars and the ambulance. He stood by his window, just behind the curtain, looking down into the street. He saw the bodybag and was relieved. At least he was dead. He figured he'd see Brenda too, as it would have been easy enough to work out who the victim was with half the building out there on the sidewalk now, but there was no sign of her. Instead he saw Louise making what looked like a long statement to someone writing things down. Maybe she was the one telling the cops who he was in the absence of the wife. Walker figured he'd better go down too. He asked a few innocent questions and was told to wait upstairs for the detectives like everyone else but said, "I gotta get to work." The cops said it wouldn't take long so he went back upstairs and waited behind his door. At 7:45 the two detectives rang his bell and he invited them in and got very chatty to throw them off the scent, shaking his head over and over again and saying, "Jesus, what a way to go. Who the hell could have done such a thing?"

"You done any time?" one of the detectives said.

"Hey, that's in the past," Walker said.

"Did you know the deceased?"

"Never really talked to him. Just saw him once or twice."

"How long are you living here?"

"Couple of months."

"You know his wife?"

"That good-lookin' babe? I never figured that. What did she see in him?"

"Do you know her?"

"Just said hello maybe once or twice."

"Were you here last night?"

"Where?"

"In the building, in your room?"

"Yeah, all night. Hey, look, I got a job to get to."

"Where do you work?"

"Green's gym."

"Did you hear anything?"

"When?"

"Last night."

"Nuthin like someone bein' killed."

"What did you hear?"

"Nuthin at all."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure."

"O.K., you can go now."

They left first. Walker was tempted to knock on Brenda's door again. He couldn't figure out what was going on. Had she panicked and run? He thought about the gloves too, and the rest of the clothing he'd worn. He checked the gloves again and decided to take them with him and get rid of them at the gym. He opened his door and looked cautiously into the hallway. Downstairs he opened the lobby door and looked just as cautiously into the street. In the gym he stuffed the gloves into a nylon bag and dumped them with the garbage. It was a slow day. He was worried and not worried at the same time. He was worried about Brenda and any other slip-ups like the gloves he may have made but he was sure he hadn't and even if they found the wrench they couldn't tie it to him so all he had to do was play it cool.

The detectives came back at eight in the evening. By that time he'd knocked on Brenda's door maybe twenty times. Maybe she'd gone to her family, he thought. A tragedy, after all, had to be made to look like one. The detectives told him they had the murder weapon and Walker said, "That's great. You guys really know your stuff." Every time he opened his mouth now he had to worry that they weren't trying to trip him up. Had they mentioned the murder weapon before? That they were looking for it? what they thought it was? The detectives just stared at him, as if to gauge his reaction.

"Where were you last night?" one of them said.

"You asked me that already."

"We're asking you again."

"I was here." He almost said he'd been sleeping but that would have given away the fact that he knew the murder had been committed in the middle of the night. You had to be very careful, he could see, just say yes or no and never offer information though he still thought it was a good idea to gab away about general things to show them he was very far removed from thoughts of crime.

"Where were you at two a.m.?"

"I must have been sleeping."

"Don't you know?"

"I guess I was. I fell asleep at around eleven and woke up at six."

"Did you have a woman here?"

Were there signs of Brenda? He let his eyes shift a little, then he said, "No such luck."

"Would you mind if we looked around a little?"

"Where?"

"Here, in your room."

"What for? I didn't do nuthin."

"We can get a warrant."

"Go get one. This is bullshit. You can't make a mess out of my place for nothing."

"Whatever you say."

He wanted to suggest a few lines of inquiry that might lead them astray - a mugger, a psychopath, someone he'd had words with in the bar - but kept his mouth shut. The two detectives left, not looking too pleased. What were they looking for anyway, if they already had the wrench? And how the fuck had they found it?

The two detectives showed up again in the morning. This time they didn't have anything specific to ask him, except if he knew where Brenda was, that is, they wanted to know if he knew the people who lived in 3C. No one seemed to be home.

Walker had to blink a couple of times. Were these cops stupid? "Isn't that where the dead guy lives?" he said.

"No, that's 2B."

Walker couldn't believe what he was hearing. He felt his stomach shrink. "Are you sure?"

"You said you knew his wife. Are you fucking with us?"

"His wife?"

"The one without the tits. The 'good-looking babe.' Remember?"

"What the fuck."

"Do you know the people in 3C?"

"Shit, no. Maybe a woman. I don't know."

They stared at him some more. After they left Walker sat on his bed for half an hour without moving. It wasn't possible that he'd killed the wrong man. And where was Brenda? And where was her fat husband? He went back to her door and knocked real hard this time. Then he went down to the office and asked the old geezer there if he knew where she was. The old geezer checked his books and told him there wasn't anyone called Brenda in 3C as far as he could see. The room was registered under a man's name, and no he didn't remember him.

Walker went back upstairs and sat on his bed again. He'd killed Louise's husband. What was worse, he wasn't going to get a cent. He couldn't believe it. He tried to form a picture in his mind of the little fat man but couldn't get him into focus. Maybe Brenda was right then. He'd fucked up and why should she be hanging around anymore? But it was her own fault, in a way, giving him the wrong information. Ironically, it occurred to him that Louise was more or less available now, with her long legs and sexy voice and little red mouth, the bereaved widow, and who knew, maybe there'd been insurance there too. That would have beat all. And what kind of a life would she have had anyway, living in these dingy rooms when she should have had a real home and children maybe? Walker could give her children. He liked the idea of juicing her and having a family. He'd maybe fatten her up a little and get some color into her cheeks.

He played with the idea for a while but not for too long because he had bigger problems now, half-expecting the cops to break down his door any minute. The next day he got rid of the clothes he'd worn. He brought them over to the gym in a neat little package and dumped them in the garbage like the gloves. Then he cleaned up the toilets and leaned on his mop for a while trying to think, but nothing came into his head. When he got back he banged on Brenda's door a few more times. He even contemplated jimmying it open. A few days passed and nothing happened. At night he lay on his bed smoking or stared out the window. Still nothing happened. Naturally enough he started thinking about Louise again. He hadn't seen her since that morning and didn't want her slipping away, so the next night he knocked on her door with a little speech all worked out in his head. It was crazy but there he was. He was just being swept along, playing with fire. It was as if he was pretending now that she was Brenda and somehow that made things all right, altering reality in a magical way. She opened the door and said, "What do you want?" She didn't seem too pleased to see him.

He made the speech, saying how sorry he was and was there anything he could do to help her and she let him in. He made the rest of the speech while sitting down. She didn't offer him anything to drink and didn't say much either at first. She sat there pale-faced and tight-lipped in her black weeds, not grieving, it was clear, but not overjoyed either. He saw a computer on a card table in the corner of the room and some books piled up on a chair. This was for writing the detective stories, he surmised.

"Did they catch the guy who did it?" Walker said, all caginess again.

"No," she said.

"Do you have any idea who it could be?"

"No," she said,

"I hope for your sake he was insured."

She gave him a long, hard look and seemed to be weighing something. Finally she said, "Yeah, well, there's a problem with that."

"Like what?"

"The insurance won't pay as long as there's an ongoing investigation."

"And when does that end?"

"When they catch someone."

"And if they don't?"

"The police have to close the file."

"How long does that take?"

"A year, maybe two."

"That's tough," Walker said. "You gonna stick around here?"

"For a while."

"You need anything, you let me know."

There was no sense pushing it, not that he knew exactly how to proceed. All he knew was that there was money there and that he had earned it. He thought of it as his money now, or at least half of it. When he got back to his room he lay on his bed smoking a cigarette. Once he got an idea in his head he found it hard to let go. He waited a few more days, until he saw her in the street, and offered to carry her groceries for her. Then he invited her out for a drink. Everything seemed to have gone back to normal for her. It was as if the husband had never existed. She must have resented him, Walker thought, for making her into a slave. He wanted to ask her if he had been fat too. That was the impression he'd had, of killing a little fat man, but of course your eyes played tricks on you when you were overwrought, which Walker seldom was, except when he was swinging a wrench at someone's head.

She was dressed in black of course, with the red lipstick on her puckered little mouth. It was like her trademark. Walker desired her. He had started having fantasies. He'd already forgotten Brenda's fabulous body. As far as he was concerned, Brenda didn't exist either. "You need someone to take care of you," he said.

"You mean yourself," Louise said in her low, hoarse voice that was maybe just a little playful now.

"I'm available," Walker said with his most charming smile. He'd always thought of himself as irresistible.

"No thanks," Louise said.

Walker was disappointed but understood that she was playing hard to get. He'd taken her to a classy place where they had a little combo playing jazz. "How much was that insurance for?" he said though he knew he shouldn't have.

She laughed for the first time. "More than you can count."

"I can count pretty high," Walker said with another smile.

"Well, you ain't gonna be counting any of this."

They both laughed this time. She didn't exactly push him away when he leaned across the table and gave her hand a squeeze. She looked around, maybe to see that no one she knew was watching. After all, she was supposed to be a grieving widow. Walker was pleased. They understood each other now. Clearly she was ready to start a new life. The important thing was not to let her slip away like Brenda.

They finished their drinks and walked back. It was the first time since he'd been out that he felt he really had a woman, a woman you might talk to about normal things. He felt inclined to tell her about his life and hard times but decided to save it for another occasion. Whenever he talked about his life he started feeling sorry for himself, but half of that was a pose, as if he wanted sympathy. And in any case, it was Louise who should have been getting the sympathy. It had been raining again. The air had that wet smell he liked and he could still hear the plaintive sound of the saxophone from the jazz club in his head. They were alone on the street. When the cars speeding by threw down their lights the wet, black pavement shimmered. He thought about making love to Louise, about her long, smooth, bony body and the bush between her legs. They staggered into the building. They were both a little drunk. He kissed her on the landing and tried to feel her up but she put a hand like a claw on his wrist when he tried to grope her crotch. He said, "Come on, baby, open up," which was what he always said when he wanted more than he was getting, but she resisted him and broke away, saying goodnight hoarsely.

The next day he got a message from Brenda in the office. It was about time. When he called her number she said she had to see him. That threw him. He started thinking. Had something gone wrong? But he wasn't worried too much anymore. He figured he was in the clear now. The cops could bullshit him all they wanted but as long as he kept his head they couldn't touch him. After all, he couldn't be tied to that wrench, that is, only Brenda could tie him to it. That gave him pause. Was she trying to screw him?

They met in a bar. She wore a kerchief and dark glasses and already had a drink in front of her when he came in. She still looked good but he wasn't interested in her that way anymore. Something about her put him off now. They sat in a booth and she leaned forward and talked in a whisper.

"You fucked up," she said.

"Yeah, well." Walker was wary. He had no idea what she was up to. Then he had another of his inspirations. "I'm gonna have to check you for a wire. I ain't getting burned again."

"You want to take me into the toilet?" she said archly.

"Don't be so smart," he said.

"You can feel my tits if you want."

Walker had the feeling he was being outclassed here in every respect. One thing he knew for sure, he wouldn't be getting any from her again anytime soon. Aside from which, he wanted to point out that she wasn't so perfect herself. He wanted to point out all the things she'd overlooked, like what to do with the wallet and the blood on the wrench and the gloves, not to mention the fact that she hadn't even known when her own husband would show up in the alley. "What did you want to see me for?" he said. "You wanna try again?" This was sarcasm.

"Have the cops talked to you?"

"A couple of times. They wanted to talk to you too, but you weren't around. And they found the wrench. They must have whaddyacallit, when they look in the river?"

"They found the wrench? Are you sure?"

"That's what I said."

She looked at him for a long while, just as Louise had, as though sizing him up again. "I talked to Louise," she said. "She has a big policy. Is that why you're hanging around her?"

"Why, you want a piece of it too?"

"I got a piece of you. That's enough."

"What do you mean?"

"Use your head."

"You'd have to incriminate yourself," Walker said wisely.

"Not necessarily."

"What does that mean?"

"Do you want to find out?"

"What the fuck do you want?"

"A piece of the action, just like you. Hey, Charlie, we're in this together, remember? There's a lot of money out there. Enough for all concerned."

"But she ain't getting any until they finish investigating. They gotta catch someone or close the case."

"Don't worry, they'll get someone."

"Like who?"

"Let me worry about that."

"Oh yeah. I seen what happens when you start worrying about things. How's your old man by the way?"

"Couldn't be better."

"Not beating you anymore?"

"Not at all."

"I'll bet."

"Stay focused, Charlie. You're the key. You know what you gotta do."

"What?"

"You gotta marry her."

"I already thought of that."

"And?"

"It may not be so easy. She ain't putting out so fast."

"Use your charm. And whatever you do, don't let her out of your sight. Keep your eye on her at all times. We don't want her getting away."

"I know that," Walker said, "but I got a job."

"Fuck it. Quit that shitass job. This won't take long. I'll finance you. How much did you get off her husband?"

"About two hundred bucks."

"Here's another two hundred. That'll keep you for a while." She handed him two crisp hundred dollar bills.

"I want to know where you are at all times," Walker said. He understood now that he would be needing her, not only to finance him but to tell him what to do.

"I move around. I'll stay in touch," she said

"I'm not buying that."

She patted his arm, to calm him or conciliate him. "Cherchez la femme," she said with a smile. Then she was gone.

He pursued Louise for the next two weeks but never got within a mile of her puckered lips, not to mention copping the tiniest feel. And yet she seemed to be leading him on. They'd fence a little and she'd give him her come hither look and he'd try to move in on her and she'd break away and he'd be following her in the street and into the building and once she turned on him right outside the office and told him to stay away from her and the old geezer came out and clucked his tongue and whenever anyone was around she'd start carrying on like that so Walker got to thinking that maybe she didn't want anyone to know there was anything going on between them, which made sense. In the meantime he quit his job, telling Mr. Green he'd come into some money and wouldn't be needing to clean toilets anymore, and started getting worried when he didn't hear from Brenda and got to thinking that he'd just as soon split the money with Louise as with her. He wanted Louise. He couldn't stop thinking about her bony body. But Brenda had that thing on him. And what was she thinking of anyway, putting Louise out of the way? She was capable of anything, he knew. But they'd been chums, hadn't they? He'd had the feeling they went back a long way, Brenda and Louise, like being childhood friends maybe and running into each other by accident or moving into the same building by design. He couldn't say why, he just felt it.

He kept watching out for her, just as Brenda had told him to. In any case, now that he was out of work he didn't have much to do. Watching Louise was like his job. He hung around outside the building awaiting developments, half-expecting a cab to pull up and Louise to come down with her luggage and hatboxes and things like that and that would mean she was splitting, he supposed, but what the hell was he supposed to do about it, take down the license number? None of this made any sense. Aside from which, Walker didn't have a clue how you married a woman and settled down and got her money. That was what he needed Brenda for.

It wasn't a cab that came, it was a car, and Brenda was inside it. Louise didn't have all that much luggage either, just a single suitcase which she hefted around without much trouble. Someone who was inside the car with Brenda went upstairs and got the computer. Then they drove away, about a second before Walker got there on the run. The cops came a few hours later. This time they had the warrant, and they found what they were looking for inside of a minute: the receipt for the wrench in the bottom of a drawer. It must have been that night while he was making his coffee that she put it there. His lawyer from legal aid tried to convince the jury that it would have made no sense for him to keep it all this time but the prosecutor pointed out that he might even have bought the wrench innocently and forgotten about the receipt, being none too bright, as Mr. Green testified when he told the court how Walker had left his job boasting about some money he'd come into. Walker almost had to agree with the prosecutor, thinking to point out how he'd forgotten about the gloves and the clothes he'd worn that night, but that didn't make any sense either, incriminating himself like that. Brenda actually came to the trial, wearing a wig and dark glasses and sitting three rows back but directly behind him so that he had to twist his neck to catch her eye. To put a cap on things they got Louise on the stand too in her black widow's weeds - a very nice psychological touch - to testify about his relentless pursuit of her and how he'd brought up the subject of the insurance and how she'd tried to avoid him and had even told him off in public which the old geezer in the office and a few of their neighbors readily confirmed with not a few embellishments, which was to be expected when the prosecutor invited them to give their imaginations the freest rein. Walker had to lean forward to catch what Louise was saying in her deep, low voice, which was anything but sexy now. She too was wearing a wig for sure, and he was surprised he hadn't spotted it before. There were in fact a lot of things he hadn't spotted, and though he might have been imagining it, he could swear he saw a little bulge between her legs. And it hit him like a bolt of lightning. It was the most brilliant thought he would ever have and he would not have been able to say where it had come from. For what if that little fat man had been Brenda's husband after all, a little fat man who wasn't about to lay a fat life insurance policy on his whorish wife for all the money in the world? And what if her friend Louise - what if her lover Louise - or was it Louis with that bulge between the legs - had just crossed the line and invented herself? Who could have known? And wouldn't that have been one helluva scam.

Walker sat through the trial like a zombie. He got life this time. It was raining when they took him out to the van. The sky was dark and the air was raw. He lit a cigarette and watched the rain beating down on the pavement as the van sped away. He wasn't thinking about anything. He was just watching the rain.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Fred, this had a great set up and 'Walker', excuse me, walked straight into the plot and got hammered for his trouble. I found myself drawn deeply into the helpless situation that progressively allowed the character to be duped. Although unfortunate, after all we generally want the little bad guy to overcome his past and do good, it was still a satisfying end where Walker's expectation of sex and money was so well manipulated. An enjoyable read. James McEwan

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  2. A good read with plenty of twists and turns. I had the feeling that one way or another this might be action replay for this hapless ex-con: never the brightest star in the firmament?
    thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Good read. Great twist. Very noir.

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  4. Great story with an unusual twist at the end. You used description so cleverly, fleshing out your characters so that they became living, breathing people in a setting you'd also created through realistic description; none of it was supurfluous - a mistake so many short story writers make! Take a bow, Fred. You deserve warm applause.
    Beryl

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  5. Fem fatales are a staple of noir fiction. I thought I had this one figured, and I did except for the Louise gender. Couldn't someone tell up close? How was even a closely shaven face disguised?

    Had Charlie not seen or read enough noir to see this coming?

    Despite that, I liked the flow.

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  6. Charlie's mistakes along the way, so realistic, seem to exemplify the ex-con with a disorganized mind, the guy with no chance of staying out of trouble.

    George Semko

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