In which I Do Some Damage…

I’ve mentioned that I love Flash Fiction challenges. This one is a Noir/Crime challenge which is a genre that I’ve only begun to dip my toes into. I am a neophyte, but a joyful one. No. I mean a gritty, hard boiled, dark one. See? Learning.

Thanks to Do Some Damage  (the Monday Steve Weddle flavor) for the challenge of Noir on Vacation. Also, thanks for the 500-5k word count, since what began as a play on a 50’s era movie became something 3k and interesting.

Humbly, I offer:

Debt Takes a Holiday 

The acid-coconut smell of tanning lotion drifted around me like the tide, but my mind was on my book. Girls paraded past me, sweating in the humidity.  They wore wilted smiles, hundred dollar shades and bare snatches of polyester dignity. I watched from the shadowed corner of a kiddie arcade, and still, my mind was on my book. I shook my head and walked out into the unforgiving New Jersey sunshine.

It took seven steps for the heat of the boardwalk to bleed through the soles of my shoes. I hated this. There was a time when the sounds of the arcade, the smells of the beach and the beating of the surf would quicken my pulse. There was a time when the girls’ smiles didn’t seem so wilted. Or, maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to the smiles. There was a time when vacations to Aunt Gail’s beach house, and the ensuing youthful debauchery, were welcome diversions. Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe my book was getting too big. Maybe this deal with Aunt Gail was turning sour. Maybe I needed a drink.

I’m on vacation, I reminded myself. Of course I needed a drink. And a smoke.

***

“I thought you’d quit,” the bartender said as she poured me another shot. I could have discerned if she was curious or condemning by the arch of her eyebrow, but it was dark and I’d been shot-and-beering it for a few hours. I blew out a plume of carcinogenic nonchalance. “I’m on vacation, Tess. Hop off my back. You don’t seem to mind me filling my gut with booze.”

“Booze is business. That stuff will kill you.” The wave of some haggard pub princess pulled her from what was sure to be a gratifying verbal joust. A shame. I tried to recall what I did on these vacations. I’d been coming back to the same strip of beach since I was a boy, first with my parents, then to live with Aunt Gail after the car accident totaled my family. Aunt Gail was always more of a friend than a mother, hence the deal. My thoughts turned again to my book. To my clients who hadn’t seen my face in days. Doubt might be creeping into their thoughts right now. “Maybe I got off easy…maybe he forgot.” I ground out my smoke and lit another. I don’t forget a vig. But clients, they get their money, and then they get amnesia. Some gents in my line of work call their clients fish. I can see the similarities. Fish are not smart. Fish follow their basic needs no matter the cost. Fish scatter when the shark comes. And there’s the rub; if you call your clients fish, that makes you a shark. I aspire to greater things. I have clients; I am a shylock. Shakespeare didn’t write a loan shark into Merchant of Venice he wrote a shylock. A shylock and his book were an enterprise unto themselves; a monument to American need and necessity. I slammed back my shot and wondered, yet again, what was a shylock when his book was locked in a safety deposit box at Astoria Federal Savings? What was a shylock on vacation?

And who knew he was drinking at this bar?

That question shook me from my thoughts as Tess shook the phone in my face. “If you don’t grab this phone, you’re flagged. You need some kind of special invite?”

“I’m thinkin,’ here. Who is it?”

“Brodie,” she said. Oh. That made sense. She raised the phone like a club. I disarmed her.

“Hey,” I greeted.

“Hey,” the voice on the line replied. It had been at least two years since I spoke to Brodie. He sounded tired. Straight living will do that to a man. “Why are you still drinkin’ in the same dive we drank in as kids?”

“They still don’t card me.” Tess rolled her eyes. I thought it was funny. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your call, Lt. Brodie? Wanna come down for a shot?”

“No. I want you to come to your Aunt’s house. Now.”

Maybe he heard my hesitation. Maybe he knew me well enough to know the questions that I was about to hit him with. He cut all that off. “Not over the phone. Call a cab.”

I left without finishing my beer.

***

I saw the yellow tape blowing in the warm, salty wind off the beach and I began to run. I don’t know how much I gave the cabbie, but those guys know when to beat it. Like the one that had dropped me off, eleven years old and only one bag, on the front porch. The lights on the cop cruiser were shut off, but still it looked menacing, like Death’s pale horse in the driveway next to my 55 Futura. Even in that moment I hoped, selfishly, that they hadn’t looked in the glove box and found my Saturday Night Special. My eye’s slid past Brodie’s unmarked car, as they were intended to. I ducked the tape, dodged a uniformed cop and was through the door just as Brodie was coming out to meet me.

Our eyes touched for a moment. His were still the same ocean blue, but cracked with red and sunken into dark smudges. The eyes were too tired to be cold. “Sit.” He commanded.

I think I argued, but ended up in a chair, anyway. He asked me questions that meant little to me. I was jarred back to focus as a body rolled out of the house in a black bag. “Brodie, stop with the cop crap and tell me what happened to Aunt Gail. Now.”

“It looks like she walked into a robbery. I’m real sorry, pal.”

Images flashed through my head. Twenty years ago, another cop standing in my parent’s doorway. My neighbor’s hand on my shoulder. Two deaths. A life ruined. Another uniformed apology. Aunt Gail holding on to me at the funeral, promising to take care of me. Growing up, making friends, getting into trouble here at the beach. Telling her I was engaged. Telling her I was broken up. Moving to New York. The deal. The years of vacations.

“She don’t got nothing nobody wants, Brodie.”

“Right. Which is why I’m questioning you.”

“What’re you trying to say?” Anger leapt up in me, it had been waiting for a target.

“Walk with me.” He said it like we were planning to stroll down the beach. I walked.

“They took some jewelry and some cash. But it looked quick. Like an after thought.” We walked into the guest room. Everything was turned upside down and inside out. Even the wall vents had their covers removed. The mattress was slashed and the dressers were hastily taken apart.

Brodie caught my eye. “This looks intentional. This looks thorough.” He let the words and my tossed room sink in. “What were they looking for?”

I looked right back at him. I walked right out of the room.

Maybe I’d tell my old friend Brodie. But that was a cop.

***

The funeral was quick and small. Aunt Gail’s friends. Some of my scattered family. Brodie. Tess came with me. Samantha showed up at the end. Our exchange was an awkward series of “Heys” and “I’m sorrys.” So much for two years of dating and an engagement. She did squeeze my shoulder. I think I told her she looked good. She did. Rich living will do that to a girl.

Betty was behind her in the short condolence line. Just like when we dated. On-again, off-again. Waiting behind and obscured by my thing for Sam. She still looked good, too, but in a more realistic way. Sam looked effortlessly beautiful. Betty was fighting both time and gravity, but was currently winning the war.

She didn’t speak; she just took me in with those dark chocolate eyes. Then she hugged me deep and long. She’d known Aunt Gail well. Gail had taken her in while I was at college, when things with her dad had gone south. It was nice having an on-again, off-again girl to come home to on break who had her own key. I should pick a more evocative word than nice, but I’m tired.

The wake was held at the bar. It was a small, sodden affair. Aunt Gail would not have approved. The culmination of Betty’s return to my life was held in the cleaned up guest bedroom. I can’t say Aunt Gail wouldn’t have approved. She always wanted us together. I can say that she wouldn’t have understood. With some things, sex was just a kiss on the cheek, a more holistic “How ya doin’?” without words. It was good, though, don’t get me wrong. We laid together on the single bed and tried to get comfortable.

“Don’t you have a bigger bed in your room?” Betty asked, stretching.

“This is my room.”

“No, it ain’t. Your room’s down the hall. Always was.”

“That’s storage now.” Storage. It was an accurate lie. It stored my life before New York; before my deal with Aunt Gail. Everything was just as I had left it that day. My drafting board was stuck with the unfinished bridge, my paintings scattered, posters on the wall of bands I no longer cared about, even some of my old clothes still on the floor. How do I know? Aunt Gail and I had dinner in there once every year at the end of the vacation. She called it “Reviewing the Deal.” I suddenly needed to stand up, and did so more roughly than I cared to.

“All right then. Why don’t you come by the club later?”

“Ain’t you dancing?” I asked, looking for my boxer shorts.

“So? Just think of it as an appetizer for later.”

“Why do you gotta do that stuff? You’re talented. You could get a job at a real show in Atlantic City or something.”

 “Tried it. I was talented. What I am now is broke and tired. I got bills. Big bills. And I gotta stay out of AC.”

I sat in the one hard chair, in my boxer shorts, and lit a smoke. Betty dressed with feminine swiftness. It was like a magic show in reverse. I read the new hard lines on her face. “Playin’ again?”

She kissed my forehead. “I’m always playing, honey. I gotta start winning.”

***

I was back at the bar and Tess was back to work. “It was good that Sam came to the funeral,” she prodded.

I could still smell Betty’s perfume on me. Eau de Stripper. I stayed quiet.

“Didn’t I see you leave here with Betty?”

“I don’t know what you saw, Tess.” I felt a truly foul mood growing. Something wasn’t adding up. I had that feeling, like when a client was planning to bolt, or a cash drop was a setup. Somewhere in my mind, I thought “Or like when you were designing a building and the math was wrong.” That guy. The before-Samantha-left guy. The before-the-deal guy. Aunt Gail and Betty had blown the door off my inner “storage room.” Screw that guy. I missed my book. This vacation sucked.

“Brodie been around?”

“Nah. Give him time. It’s only been a couple of days.”

I dialed his cell. It went to voicemail. I attempted to leave a polite message inquiring about the status of my Aunt’s case, and her killer. I failed, judging by Tess’s look when I hung up. I asked for two bottles of cheap beer, with the cap still on one. Tess turned them over without a quip. I guess it was the look on my face.

I made the trek back to the beach house interesting by drinking and walking on the great jagged black rocks which met the incoming waves. Sure, it was dangerous and stupid, but also nostalgic. I used to do it when I was a kid. Aunt Gail would see me from the porch and yell me the whole way home. Besides, if I fell in, was it any less than I deserved?

Despite my half-hearted attempt at clumsy suicide I made it home with only a stop to pickup my Special from the Futura. I put the gun on the kitchen table and cracked the second beer. Now this was a much more certain suicide. I won’t lie, the thought, soaked in booze and self pity, crossed my mind. But I was more interested in pointing the weapon at someone else. But who?

It was obvious that someone came here searching for my book. But was it a client or competitor? I spun my cerebral Rolodex and began to walk the house. I try to only take clients who lack the assertive/aggressive/unstable gene. Barring insanity, I thought I could cross clients off. So competition? A competitor could take my action with my book. Or turn me in. But why?

That brought me back to clients. Maybe I was forgetting one, or forgetting something. That’s why I had a book, damn it! I needed to think. Almost unconsciously, I opened the door to my bedroom and sat at the drafting table. My sketches and pencils were still strewn in stop motion, but the desk and the room were conspicuously free of dust. Aunt Gail had cleaned this room, still holding up her deal, and her hope, sometime before she got a bullet in the brain. I hadn’t cried. I did now.

My cell cut that maudlin display thankfully short. I’ll spare you Brodie’s angry response to my message and his awkward attempt to show sympathy, since I only responded with grunts.

“Look, there’s no leads,” Brodie finished, sounding frustrated.

“How come?”

“No prints, no witnesses and every possible suspect—which is only three of the old girls from the Rotary—has an alibi.”

“I’m missing something. Why are they suspects?”

“Look. This is an open investigation. I can’t—”

“Brodie! It’s my aunt!”

“Because it wasn’t a B and E. There was no forced entry, no jimmied window, and unless it was Houdini who shot her, no picked lock. They are the only ones who had spare keys.”

Oh. I sat up. My eyes locked onto the arch of the old bridge sketch. Oh. That’s a new piece to the puzzle. Brodie prodded me. I did my grateful mumble and hung up.

Faster than wise, I was in the driver’s seat of the Futura and the Saturday Night Special was back in the glove box. But not for long.

***

 “Let’s hear it again boys, from your hearts and your wallets, for Bouncing Betty!” The DJ’s lewd joviality grated on me, as had his thumping music. The club was dark, the men were drunk and the girls were hiding their disinterest behind plastic surgery smiles. There was one point in her act when she seemed to stumble but I couldn’t be certain that Betty had seen me.

I headed for back stage. President Grant made short work of the bouncer and he let me pass without a word. Ben Franklin had gotten me past the pat down at the door. Thank you, recession. I caught Betty in the dingy cinder block hallway behind the stage. She wore only a cheap red robe of fake silk.

“Hey baby, you cam—ow!” I couldn’t help it, I grabbed her arm. Fear had sparked in her eyes when she first saw me, before she could hide it.

“How could you?” I growled.

“How could I what?” She barked, wrenching her hand away.

“Who did you give the key to, Betty?”

She stuttered. “You’re crazy. Lost it. Playing your big criminal games in New York.”

I pulled the Special from my pocket and pointed it at her.  “This ain’t no game. Aunt Gail is dead, and it’s your fault.”

Her face hardened. “My fault? My fault? Fine. Screw you. They wanted your book! You did this.”

“Who?”

“How do I know? I was deep in the hole. Some guy in nice clothes came sniffin’ around right after you got back. I made an offer. It was business.”

“How could you?”

“I was in deep, I said!”

“You could have come to me.”

“And been another number in your book? Thank you, no. I got more self respect than that.”

“You could have come to Gail.”

She laughed. “You don’t think I did? She wouldn’t loan me nothing. Said you’d soured her on that.”

“What do you mean?”

“She knew, you idiot! The money she lent you was supposed to give you a new life in the city after Sam left you. But she said it made you dirty. She didn’t know you were a loan shark but she knew enough!”

Every final vacation night dinner ran through my head. Every meal in my old room ended the same way. “Well,” she’d say. “Are you done yet? Are you ready to come home and pick up where you left off?” She’d known. She’d known and tried to fix me in her patient way. But I’d made my choice, then. I clenched my teeth, but wasn’t sure which way my rage was facing. I bit a familiar target.

“I ain’t no loan shark. I’m a shylock.”

“Yeah? And I’m a dancer. We’re both frauds. You always wanted to be a big fish. Well, congratulations! You’re finally noticed. Now a bigger shark wants you. So, what are you gonna do now, Mr. Shylock with a gun?”

What was I gonna do? Shoot Betty? Give up my book and start fresh? Go back to New York and find Aunt Gail’s killer? Go back to my clients and my book? I was up to my neck in bad choices, starting with the one I’d made with Aunt Gail all those years ago. That’s the thing about choices. First you make them, and then they make you.

As I looked over the barrel of the gun, one thing was certain. This vacation was over.

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