Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 323 - Cormac Brown

A RED LIPSTICK - CORMAC BROWN

Originally published in Astonishing Adventures Magazine Issue #5

Gold, black, green and purple spots. When they are part of an Impressionist painting, they are beautiful, but Lara’s skin is not a canvas by Monet. No, in the dingy light of the diner bathroom, her arms and legs look like they’ve been touched by the brush of DeSade or Torquemada. She winces, not at her reflection, but at the pain in her sore jaw and the tenderness in her lips.

Guy went a little overboard this time...even for him and she had known this was going to be the consequence. He arranges and oversees each one of her dates, so when she came up short with the money, one time here and another time there, Guy told her he wasn’t going to be played for a sucker. It was the things he said to her as he batted her around like a cat does a mouse that forced her to come up with a plan.

“Just because I let you have a few extra dollars here and there, don’t think that I’m not keeping track or that you’re too clever for your own good,” he hissed in his Louisiana accent. “You don’t want to be like Millie. Do you really believe that she went on vacation like she told you? Tell me, cher, since you’re so damn smart. Why do you think she hasn’t sent you a postcard? She just didn’t want you getting scared, but she knew she’d only get so far before I found her. You don’t want to take that permanent vacation like she did, do ya, cher?”

Lara was the last girl working for Guy and him using her as a sparring partner did not help her earnings. Not too many of her regulars wanted to spend time with her looking like this. And the fellas that didn’t have a problem with her looking like Max Schmeling after Joe Louis floored him were not the kind of dates that any woman would want.

Her hand trembled as she touched up makeup, her lipstick felt like lemon and salt on a paper cut. As she dabbed off the excess, the paper towel felt like it was covered with lye. Lara took a deep and as she raised her lipstick to the mirror, the bathroom door burst open.

“Guy, you can’t come into the ladies’ room!”

Guy checked the stalls, then sneered. “First, I go anywhere I damn well feel like and ain’t nobody gonna tell me different. Second, I don’t see any ladies in here!”

Lara calmly turned to the mirror as she dabbed her lip. “I’m hungry,” she said, “and you’re gonna get us kicked out of here before we get a chance to eat...if they don’t call the cops first.”

The mention of the police dimmed the wattage of Guy’s sneer for less than a second and only someone who knew him would’ve even noticed.

“I ain’t worried about the heat; I got them in my pocket like my blade. You should worry about what’s gonna happened to your five dollar backside if you don’t get out of this bathroom in the next minute. I ain’t waiting all day to order and if you’re not ready by the time the waitress puts my coffee on the table? Well, let’s just say you’re looking tired. Maybe you need a little vacation like Millie got. Might do you a bit of good to get some rest. A little beauty sleep.” Then he laughed like a poor Cajun’s version of The Shadow.

Guy turned on his heels and walked out, his purple zoot suit with red pinstripes a garish blur. Lara smiled even though it caused her almost as much pain as one of Guy’s punches. Everything had to fall into place like one of those complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions. The stakes were high. She had everything to lose and her life to win. Her hand shook as she raised her lipstick, then it became amazingly steady as she started writing.

Guy Malveux sat down in one of the booths and peered over the menu at the rather plain red-headed waitress. He winked at her and she curled her lip in disgust. Guy sneered back at her; he didn’t get California women at all. It was so much easier for him in New Orleans. There he actually had to turn women away.

The women back home worked hard, they treated him right and they didn’t give him all that sass like they did out here. They knew their place, their dates didn’t give him a bad time and everything was like a slice of Heaven until a cop tried to double-dip on him.

Guy bribed the man fair and square, but the flatfoot came right back the same night and said that his expenses were going up, so they had to come out of Guy’s end. Guy would’ve paid him, but business was business and usually in New Orleans, no one got to greedy because there was more than enough to go around. Guy was pleasant enough to the double-crosser and explained that he would get back to him on it when the cop put a gun to Guy’s head.

Well, something in Guy’s head had snapped and the next thing Guy knew, three of his ladies were pulling him up and another was screaming. It seemed that Guy had lost his composure and somehow he made the cop eat a bullet from his own gun. Guy knew that despite him always being fair and square with them, the New Orleans Police Department wouldn’t take kindly to him killing one of their own.

So he got out of town before the body had even turned cold and he made his way west. He tried to make a go of it in Oklahoma, but his aptitude for business seemed to have deserted him. It wasn’t quite the same as it had been back home. He just couldn’t seem to keep his temper in check anymore and it got the best...or really, the worst of him.

By the time he calmed down, someone would be hurt and it was never Guy. The girls, the dates, even a piano player here, or a washer woman there. By the time he had decided that his temper was the only true friend that he had and that he wanted it around more often, Millie was feeding trees in San Rafael, and he was trying to figure out just who was going to replace Lara.

He eyed the waitress one more time. All she needed was a little makeup, but how would she look after three or four dates a night? He decided right there that he was going to flip the waitress and Lara? Well, Millie was going to have someone to keep her company.

“The worst snake is the one that doesn’t rattle or a hiss. Just because it doesn’t give you a warning before it bites doesn’t mean that is not poisonous.” Millie’s warning didn’t quite make sense last year, but Lara wouldn’t have listened to her anyway. All that she could think about was the very notion of leaving Merced, California and that’s exactly what Guy promised her, a ticket out.

Why else would an eighteen year-old that couldn’t even stand the sight of alcohol spend her time in a bar, listening to a guy who seemed like even more of a hick than she was? He was pouring the sappy stuff on so thick, that she thought she was going to drown and then talked about her coming to visit him in the City of Saint Francis.

“San Francisco don’t get hot like out here in the San Joaquin Valley during the summer and why, it’s almost sixty-two degrees all-year around. Everybody invites you over to their house and it’s just like a party, everywhere you go around here. The movie stars come up to San Francisco to get away, why, it’s their playground. I met Clark Gable and Carole Lombard at a friend of mine’s, just the other night.”

Lara told Guy to wait at the bar and that she would be right back. Lara’s parents didn’t even blink when she ran in, nor did they say anything when she came out of her room with a packed suitcase. This meant one less child to feed and one less person that would nag them about their drinking, or that would hide their liquor from them. Lara at least tried to kiss her mother goodbye, but her mother pushed her away because she was interrupting Fibber McGee opening that closet for about the hundredth time on the radio.

So it turned out that Guy had lied about everything in San Francisco, except for the weather. Most of the people there were nice enough, but not at the parties that Guy made her go to. Lara always managed to miss not only the movie stars by days or weeks but the characters actors and extras, too.

In the bathroom, Lara twisted the cap back on her lipstick. The first part of her plan was complete. She clutched something shiny and cold for a moment. This was second part of her plan.

A moment later, she finally emerged from that lukewarm frying pan and into the fire. She sat down across from Guy and smiled through her pain again. Guy looked up from his menu and his face turned stone serious. He thought that he had finally beat out any of the spirit that she had left and he didn’t want any distractions while he worked the waitress. He stiffened almost imperceptibly as Lara’s grimacing smile reminded him of a corpse that he had seen wash up in the bayou after a hurricane.

Lara’s smile reminded him of death, though she wasn’t paying any attention to him at all, because the third part of her plan had just walked in wearing a grey fedora. The man in the grey fedora was a few minutes later than Lara had figured. He carefully studied the five faces in the diner before he sat down in the furthest booth in the back. He slowly took his hat off, smoothed his slicked-back hair and put the hat back on. This apparently was a signal, as a few moments later, a police matron walked in. She sat down across from the man in the grey fedora and they smiled at each other.

Lara glanced over at the mirrors behind the counter and saw the couple holding hands in the reflection. They always came to the diner on Thursday nights, come rain or shine. The waitress already knew their order because they didn’t like to be bothered; the blue plate special and they shared a piece of pie.

“What are you havin’?” the waitress asked Lara.

“I’ll have...”

“She’s having liver,” grunted Guy without looking up from his menu.

“I don’t like liver.”

“Don’t sass, you need your iron,” he ordered flatly. He turned his attention from the menu to working on the waitress, with a smile as bright as a camera flash. A little bit of ice from the waitress’ façade melted like Guy knew it would. As far as he was concerned, women who worked the late shift had little or no time for love, let alone attention.

Lara looked at the mirrors again and noticed that both wore wedding rings. The police matron’s name was Myra, which was easy enough to remember. Lara knew Myra, as she had processed Lara each of the three times that she’d been arrested. Myra was the type of guard that let her baton do the talking and Lara was smart enough to never rile her. Lara figured that Myra either didn’t recognize her because of her swollen face, or she didn’t fear running into former prisoners in the outside world.

The man was Detective Duane Wolenski, a vice cop that had a reputation for shooting first and waiting until the suspects were in the hospital or morgue to warn them. Lara had managed to avoid Detective Wolenski twice by pure luck, as he and the vice squad had raided two of the hotels where she was working. The worst part of it was that each time, Guy had been tipped off before the raid and he left her to fend for herself.

Guy never apologized for these incidents and she had always hoped that Detective Wolenski would arrest him, yet Guy was somehow always a step ahead.

Yes, the couple both had wedding rings, but they weren’t married to each other. All of this information was hard to come by and it was also one of the reasons why Lara was coming up short with Guy’s money. One of her dates Lloyd, was a civilian that worked at the police station. Lloyd was a wonderful wealth of information and he told Lara all kinds of things about Myra and Guy, until he had realized that she wasn’t interested in him, just his gossip.

From that point on, Lloyd never paid for a date and that lack of money hastened the vicious circle that surrounded Lara’s neck like a noose. She contemplated how delicious things would be if they fell into place and Lara let out a laugh. Guy glared at her and she disguised her laugh with a cough, drawing the waitress’ attention.

“Cover your mouth when you cough,” the waitress scolded Lara like she was a small, annoying child. Guy’s attention drifted back to the menu. Lara’s upper lip glistened with perspiration and she had to put her hands under the table, because they were starting to tremble. As long as no one used the women’s restroom for the next three minutes, everything would fall
into place. So then to Lara’s dismay, who headed straight for the facilities?

Oh, no. That stupid waitress is going to ruin everything. What am I going to do?

Lara started coughing without covering her mouth and the waitress stopped just short of the restroom doors. Lara coughed some more and the waitress paused again, this time pushing the door of the women’s bathroom open. Bright red lipstick letters could be seen on the mirror. Lara swiftly got up and went behind the counter, risking Guy’s temper in order to keep Guy and the waitress from seeing the bathroom mirror.

Lara deliberately started to look under the counter and she pretended to search for something rather intently.

“What are you doing playing around back there?” demanded the waitress.

“I’m just getting some coffee.”

“The coffee is brewing in the pot, right there.”

“Well, I need sugar, too.”

“The sugar is already on table! Look, just sit down and I’ll bring it to ya,” the waitress huffed. She pointed Lara towards the booth and then she folded her arms as if she were a mother guarding a freshly waxed floor. Guy paid no attention to Lara as she stumbled and bumped into him before she sat down. He didn’t notice the extra weight of the object that Lara had slipped into his jacket pocket, because of the way that his loose zoot suit draped on the seat.

Guy was preoccupied with the waitress because she was going to be his meal ticket two days hence. He figured Lara was just like the steak he was about to order, well done and just something else that he wouldn’t remember by the end of the week.

The waitress poured Lara’s coffee with the cup low and the pot up high, just like at a Russian tea room. She brought the cup around the counter and put it down on the table as hard as she could without spilling it.

“I’ll be right back to take your order,” she said to Guy with a smile. This time, the waitress gave Lara a curled lip of disgust.

Myra winked at Detective Wolenski and she rose from the booth. The waitress saw Myra making her way toward the bathroom and she let out a snort of disgust as she ceded the lavatory to her. She wasn’t sure what Duane did, but she saw the lump under his coat that was surely a gun and she always gave those two as wide a berth as possible. She knew that Myra was a jail matron, yet Duane seemed too much like a gangster to her, to actually be a cop.

Myra smiled as she came out of the stall and she wondered if things could be any better. Her husband Herb would never grant her a divorce, he wouldn’t be able to his face to his family on Sunday dinners if he did. Well, Duane had a way of persuading anyone to go along with what he asked, though she also wondered if Duane felt the same way and wanted to leave his wife. After another night like this one? He would probably be the one to suggest that they get married.

She washed her hands and dried them. She was about to touch up her makeup when the big red letters shook her out of her daydream.

Help! I’ve been kidnapped by the man in the purple suit and he has a gun!

Lara sidled to the outer edge of her seat as the waitress took Guy’s order and then went into the kitchen. Guy poured sugar into his coffee and Lara smiled at him again with that death-like grimace, making him pause in mid-stir.

“Guy?”

“Yeah, cher?”

“About that liver?”

“What about it?”

“Well, you know you’re looking a little worn down and you could use some iron, too.”

The woman’s restroom door banged open, causing everyone in the diner except Lara to turn around.

“And you’re about to get a bellyful.”

Myra’s eyes were wide and full of panic; she looked like Elsa Lanchester as ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ when she first saw the monster. Yet it was Lara that let out the scream of panic.

“Help, he’s got a gun!”

Myra pointed at Guy with a trembling, accusatory finger and as Duane’s eyes followed the finger’s path, he already has his .38 revolver out, and was taking aim. Guy got up and wheeled around, wondering just who the hell Lara was talking about. He figured some idiot was robbing the diner. He noticed that his jacket seemed slightly heavier than usual, and then he saw the
glint of something shiny in his left jacket pocket.

As fast as the speed of thought, Guy Malveux had realized that Lara had set him up. Then he was wondering just why his right cheek and chest hurt with such excruciating pain. His blood and the gunshots finally registered in his mind as he fell slowly like a tree cut down by a lumberjack. There was nothing behind Guy’s eyes as Detective Wolenski searched the sprawled empty shell that was formerly the Louisiana pimp. He found the longest switchblade that he had seen in ten years on the police force and the small nickel-plated .32 that Lara had put in Guy’s left front jacket pocket.

He went through Guy’s wallet for an ID and Myra gave him a reassuring pat, then she asked, “Where’s the girl?”

Duane looked Guy’s license over and replied, “What girl?”

“You know, the girl...she was all bruised and beat up. She left a message in the bathroom that said that he had kidnapped her.” Myra looked over at the waitress for some kind of reassurance or confirmation that Lara was there and the waitress nodded vigorously.

“I’ll go looking for her in a second,” Duane whispered to Myra, “but in the meantime? We’re going to have to come up with some kind of explanation for the two of us being together at this restaurant at this time of night.”

*

As she enters the train station, all Lara has is eleven bucks and the clothes on her back. That will get her: a train ticket to Los Angeles, plus two bowls of soup and two cups of coffee on the train. She isn’t worried because she has her life back, she has more hope and more between her ears than all of the Guys, Myras and Duanes put together.

BIO: ‘Cormac Brown’ is my pen name. I’m an up-and-slumming writer in the city of Saint Francis and I’m following in the footsteps of Hammett...minus the TB and working for the Pinkerton Agency. Some of my stories have appeared at Powder Burn Flash, Six Sentences, A Twist of Noir, Flash Fire 500, Clarity of Night, Thriller’s Killers ‘n’ Chillers, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, Crooked Magazine, and Beat To A Pulp. You can find me at Cormac Writes.

7 comments:

quin browne said...

oh, cormac.. this one kept me wondering the entire time... would she make it out? and now, i believe she does get her life back.


bravo!!

Kevin Michaels said...

Well done - a great story in the tradition of Chandler with some Robert Parker thrown in. Great visual story with excellent dialogue! Love it!

David Cranmer said...

Excellent dialogue, very fine story.

Katherine Tomlinson said...

I liked the original story; I love this version. Great job.

Paul D. Brazill said...

This is how the big kids play. brilliant. Loved it the first time and love this remix. Top ho!

Cormac Brown said...

Thank you all very much.

David Barber said...

Excellent piece of writing, Cormac.