The One That Got Away by Cris de Borja

Cris de Borja's noir flash about a detective hunted down by a widowed femme fatale.

Emergency lights painted her dead face in flashing white and amber. She didn't look innocent in death. She didn't look like she was sleeping. Rivulets of polluted salt water dribbled out of her hair.

Her name had been a sweetness like brown sugar syrup: Marlena Robles. I had known the flavor of it poured over my tongue. The bitter aftertaste of her was against my teeth even as I sat there watching, still dripping cold water myself beneath a disposable blanket. She had a poison under that sweetness. She had a husband, too.

I didn't like the way the case ended. The facts laid themselves out in a neat path to one conclusion that I couldn't disprove, that Leon "The Lion" Robles came to his end by suicide. My gut feeling said different. Beautiful women get away with murder all the time, and this time it was literal.

Maybe he deserved to be murdered. His business hurt a lot of people. Maybe the truth didn't matter so much this time, but that didn't stop my brain from spinning like a carnival ride over Marlena's grieving widow act. I took a walk along the water to clear my head. I watched the faded white sun quench in the cold waters of the harbor, smelled the fog come rolling in. Wished I hadn't given up smoking. Wished - only for a minute - that I was still a guy who did his thinking in the company of other drunks.

A jaundiced lamp flickered on the back of a warehouse, attracting winged vermin. Its illumination was probably the only reason that the old payphone under it still had a handset attached. The blaze of lights over the few cars left in the parking lot would make anyone night-blind. They only made the shadows darker.

I walked out onto the dock. Kids who didn't know better and old folks who didn't care fished off the pier during the daylight hours. They had all gone home. It was dinner time for decent people. After the early sunset of winter it got cold by the water. The tide was in. I could hear the waves, hidden by the mist, slapping at the dock.

I was turning to leave for friendlier digs when the candy store scent of her perfume found its way to my nose. Her diamonds winked in the sulfur light. The gun in her hand gave off a sassy shine, too. She had a soft step in those tight leather boots.

"Hello, Tommy," she said. She was as cool as the fog.

"Marlena," I said.

"The way you say my name, Tommy, it sounds like you miss me." She glanced around. "What dark and lonely places you pick to brood. I suppose the gloom suits you?"

"Conveniently dark for you, it seems." I backed up one more step. "Put that noisemaker away, sweetheart. You don't know how to use a firearm."

She took three steps closer, each of them swaying her hips like a pendulum. She used that walk the way a hypnotist uses a gold watch. "Oh, Tommy," she sighed. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to."

"Like the way you had to murder your husband?" I asked.

She stiffened. "Leon had it coming."

"Was it for the money, Marlena? Or -"

She interrupted. "Or did he find out about us?" She spread a smile across her plum painted lips. "It wasn't you, Tommy. But Leon was going to leave me. He was going to leave me with nothing."

"You could have fought that in front of a judge."

"I was tired of hearing the lion roar," she said. "Isn't it a laugh, that he hired you to provide evidence of my infidelities? Then we fell in love, didn't we?" She whispered the last across the arm's length between us.

"It ended," I said.

"No," she said. "This is how it ends." She raised the gun.

I don't know where she had gotten the gun, and I didn't care, but I could see that she didn't know how to use it. In the moment that she shifted her grip, I jumped forward. We grappled, less friendly about it than in other times. The gun spun out of her grasp, skidded over the weather-worn boards.

Marlena got away from me. I charged after her, took too many steps doing it, and went in the drink. It was the fog; I couldn't see where the boards ended.

It was a blind nightmare until a wave shoved me up against a barnacle crusted piling. Ignoring the sting of salt water in fresh cuts, I clawed at the deck. A silhouette looked down into the water. Marlena held the gun out like a divining rod as she searched for me.

Her ankle was within my reach. I grasped it and yanked. She hardly had time to shout in surprise. Pulling her in gave me the push I needed to clamber back up to the drier side of the dock, where I heaved out the seawater swill that gasp reflex had made me swallow. The noise of splashing reminded me that Marlena was drinking up her own share of the harbor.

Getting back on my feet was a labor, but I still could not see Marlena anywhere in the water. I couldn't tell if any of the splashing was Marlena, or if it was all waves. I stumbled over to the payphone, coughing all the way. My old coat was heavy with stinking water, but it was wool and wool will keep a body warm even when soaked through. I didn't think that Marlena's fashionable ensemble was serving her so well.

By the time the paramedics pulled her out of the harbor, the cold water had drained all her heat. There wasn't an ember left in her. She got all the attention for a while, while I got a first aid blanket and got ignored. That was fine by me. I didn't want to be there, looking at her dead body. Being ignored made it easier to pretend I wasn't there.

A car door opened, the dinging warning of lights left on or keys left in the ignition calling my attention to turn and look. I resisted. A figure walked out of the parking lot blaze. Walked up to me and stopped three feet away. I looked up the expensive suit to the face of Charles Magner, my client and attorney to the late Leon Robles. Seeing him here made the noise in my head, which had never really stopped, rise like a tidal wave.

He took out a silver cigarette case, selected a cancer stick, and lit it with his gold lighter while he spoke to me. "A woman like that never stops being trouble," he said. He looked across at the busy paramedics. He chuckled. "Hellcat between the sheets, wasn't she?" He took a long taste of his cigarette, savoring it like a memory.

The wave of mental noise crashed. It occurred to me that I hadn't heard Magner drive up and park. He had been in parking lot the whole time, watching from his car.

Magner had given Marlena the gun.

He was Marlena's suspected lover, why Leon Robles hired me - a case I had to quit when I picked up a sweet tooth myself. That's why Charles Magner hired me to investigate Leon's death: he knew I couldn't see straight around Marlena Robles.

"What was in it for you, Charles? Revenge for being cuckolded yourself?"

His expression lost all mirth. "I'm a businessman," he said. "This was business. All of it." He turned to go. "Don't be fooled by sentimentality. That woman got what was coming to her."

I didn't watch him walk away. Instead I watched as Marlena was loaded into the ambulance. The doors slammed shut. One of the paramedics came over to check on me. I waived him away, pointed at a random car in the lot, and said it was mine. After they left, I started the walk home. It wasn't far: a bit past Guppie's bar, around the corner from a liquor store that stayed open late.

Once I got past those, I'd be all right.


  1. Lot of nice descriptions here, and definitely one for the fifties. Where's Bogie?

  2. Terrific piece, Cris! Wonderful descriptions, and insights into the protag. Many great lines to choose from, but the one that made me laugh aloud was "Wished I hadn't given up smoking. Wished - only for a minute - that I was still a guy who did his thinking in the company of other drunks." So much said, in so few words!

  3. Beautiful. The whole of the story in a very short piece. So little said, so much told. Really well done.

  4. first class read! and an excellent character! more to come?

    Michael McCarthy

  5. A delight in many ways. Reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. Keep going.

  6. Some very good lines. Not an ember left in it. Candy store scent of her perfume. Excellent.

    Jeff Burt

  7. Perfect flash fiction. A compelling story with a satisfying arc in a very small package. Nice noir style too.

  8. Great descriptions, great lines as well. I enjoyed this piece.

  9. So I finally found your stories, Cris. Olga from dreamwidth here. Really enjoyed this piece, lovely command of plot. :)

  10. Cris de Borja’s fiction is tight, lucid and packs a punch. I marveled at How like Dashiell Hammett’s fiction it was. I almost expected Nick Charles to emerge from around a corner. It was pure noir and could have continued on for 250 more pages, if I’d had my way. Good job, Cris.