Friday, July 22, 2011

Your Friday Dose Of Pulp Fiction

This one was originally in Shots Magazine. Since a redesign a while ago it looks like it's disappeared. So, what the hell. I'll put it here. Enjoy.



A FIRE IN HER EYES



I hear the devil likes jazz. When I see Anne-Marie listening to a saxophone solo in Harvelle’s in Santa Monica, wearing that slinky red dress and matching fuck-me pumps, I believe it. She's sipping a cosmo that goes with her nails, short blonde hair in a bob, diamonds around her throat. Green eyes half closed, drunk on the music. She's alone, but at least half the guys in this place wish they were with her. I'm not one of them.

I wade my way through the crowd and slide into the seat next to her, pushing her handbag out of the way. She turns toward me, smiles as if I had been there all evening, and then turns back to the music. I was her age, I was listening to the Stones, Bob Dylan. I don’t know what kids are into these days, but I’m sure it’s not this. We sit and listen together. It's enough that I'm here; I don't have to do anything.

The set ends and the musicians announce they're taking a short break. Out to the back for a smoke, or grab a drink from the bar. Anne-Marie orders me a Manhattan without even asking. She has a habit of giving people gifts they don't want.

As the waitress leaves she gives me a look over her shoulder. I’ve seen it before. What’s an old fart like you doing with a hot chick like her? And what in the hell does she see in you, anyway?

“Charlie,” Anne-Marie says. “I thought you didn't like jazz.”

“I don't,” I say.

“Ah,” she says. “Business, then?” I nod and she sighs theatrically. She knows why I'm here. She collects her purse. I settle up with the bar and make a path for her to the door. People instinctively get out of my way. I’m old, but I’m still big. I work out daily, eat right. Hell, if Jack LaLanne can tow a boat at seventy, I can at least keep from having a heart attack pushing sixty.

Outside, the fall air is cold and biting sharp, a slap in the face after the thick swell of people in the club. She shivers and I lay my overcoat across her bare shoulders. It swallows her up.

She's got her pouty face on. Same one she used to get a pony when she was eight. “Is daddy terribly upset?” she says in a mocking sing-song tone.

“He doesn't know you've gone out,” I say.

“Then we can go dancing,” she says. She starts hopping, she's so excited. “There's this club in Silverlake I've been dying to go to. What he doesn't know-”

“He'll find out,” I say. “I'm taking you back home, Anne-Marie.” She's back to pouting. Got it turned up to eleven. She'll start stamping her feet any minute and then I'll have to pick her up and carry her to the car. It's happened before.

“You're a real pain in the ass,” she says. “I'm an adult, you know.”

“In two days,” I say. Knowing her father, though, turning eighteen won’t change things. I've been working for Rick Patterson for over ten years now. I tie up loose ends, make things happen. No way is he going to let his one and only darling daughter loose into the world. He's afraid it will eat her. Me, it's the other way around.

“Are you going to tell him?” she says.

“Of course not,” I say. “You know the mantra.” I don’t tell him half the things she’s pulled. There are things he doesn’t need to know.

“You can do things right,” she says, “or you can do the right thing.” Sometimes what you’re supposed to do isn’t what you should do. She flashes a smile at me. It's the kind of smile that opens doors and breaks hearts. God knows it gets her into the clubs.

As kids go she's not that bad. She stays away from drugs, doesn't drink or party too much. Her grades aren't as good as I'd like, but hey, better than me at that age. She's sharp, takes advantage of her movie star looks, easy to underestimate. If anyone's taking over her father's business, it's her.

I unlock the Mercedes, open the door for her like a gentleman. “You know he wanted you to stay home tonight,” I say.

She rolls her eyes at me. “He'd like me to stay home every night,” she says.

“Yeah, but right now, things are kind of heavy. You really need to stay home.” She catches something in my tone. Gives me a look that disappears behind the tinted glass as I close the door for her.

We head up to Sunset, take Laurel Canyon up to Mulholland. She's quiet, subdued. Probably wondering what's going on. She knows the score. Her father let her in on the family business her sixteenth birthday. The empire’s huge. International. The man’s worth a billion easy. But it’s the shadier ventures that really bring in the cash. There are people who’d like to keep the details of how their cash comes and goes private. These days everything's outsourced, including money laundering. He's got so many clients from so many walks of life, he’s practically a public service.

It isn't until we're on the twists of Mulholland that she asks, “What's happening?”

Her father hasn't told her, hasn't had time, about the death threats. First it was email. Stupid stuff. Talking about how he was going down. Tough talk. Barely enough to think about. The addresses were all Hotmail accounts. None of his techs in the downtown office were able to trace them. That was a month ago.

“Stuff,” I say. “Your father should be telling you about it, not me.”

“But he's not here,” she says. “Like always.”

“The hell you mean, like always?”

Then it was the phone calls from blocked numbers bounced through too many phone exchanges for us to trace. That got people wondering. That takes skill. Got it on every phone that goes directly to him. House private line, work numbers, cell phones. The messages got nastier, too. Real poison pen letters. Threats against him and his family. That was two weeks ago.

And then there was the bomb. It didn't go off. Hugh, another of Mr. Patterson’s assistants, noticed it when he was tuning up the Rolls. I called up an old buddy from when I was in the Marines who does bomb disposal. I got lucky to find him stateside.

Turned out it was on a radio detonator. Guy who set it up could have blown it any time, but didn't. It was a warning. We can get to you whenever we want, it said. That was yesterday.

“Come on, Charlie. My father doesn't tell me anything, because he's got you to do it for him. He doesn’t have to be daddy with you around.”

I hear fire engines behind us, a pumper truck and a paramedic speeding by on these nightmare roads. I pull over as best I can to let them by.

“He loves you,” I say.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with this, does it? If I want to know what's going on I have to send him a memo. He spends all his time with Stacy.” Point. Between his new wife and work, he's never going to win the #1 Dad Award. Anne-Marie’s mother died when she was little, right before I came on board. I decide that it's time to tell her what's happening. Get her out of the dark so she understands.

But then I see where the fire engines are headed.

“Is that the house?” she says, leaning forward to see better. I can just make out its silhouette against a backdrop of flames. I'm hoping that it's another place on fire, but I know that it's not. I push the Mercedes harder, take the corners the way this car is meant to take them. We get there a minute after the fire department does.

The whole place is an inferno. The main house, a three-story Tudor, is down to one. Burning beams jut out from the wreckage like broken teeth, flames pile onto each other to see which can get the highest. The garage is mostly a crater and the guest quarters, mine and the servants' rooms, are almost completely to the ground. The air has the crisp smell of barbeque.

Anne-Marie is running toward the house before I can stop her. She body checks a cop, bowling him over to get past. Breaks a heel on the paving stones, keeps going. She stops at the front driveway, falls to her knees. I go to her, hold on to her tight. We watch the flames eat away at her home.

I lead her over to where a group of paramedics are tending some of the Pattersons' staff. Sit her down next to them. She's got that thousand yard stare when your world twists upside down.

“I'll find out what's happening,” I say, and move off to get some answers.

I see Hugh breathing from an oxygen mask, his bald head covered in soot and sweat. No sign of Anne-Marie's father or his wife. “What the hell happened?” I say.

He looks up at me, coughs. “I don't know, Charlie,” he says, his voice thick behind the mask. “There were-- ” The paramedic has moved on. Hugh lowers his voice. “There were some explosions. Small ones. Maybe a dozen,” he says.

“Shit. What about the Pattersons?”

He shakes his head, coughs, massive shoulders heaving from the smoke, takes another hit of clean air. “I don't know where they are. I was back in my room. I had just finished waxing the Rolls when I heard the explosions. By the time I got to the main house the whole first floor was on fire. I couldn’t get inside.” Hugh’s ex-Army, but he’s a good kid. If he says he couldn’t get inside, then he couldn’t get inside.

I look at the faces, coughing and dark with ash. Ilene, the cook. The gardener, George, and his wife. Francis and Gertrude, housekeepers. Somebody's missing. “Where's Ramon?”

Hugh shakes his head. “Haven't seen him.” Ramon does jobs for Mr. Patterson same as Hugh and I. We're drivers, or errand boys, or body guards, or whatever he needs of us. I hope Ramon’s all right, but the house is a massive wall of fire and smoke, and I can’t imagine how he could be.

The fire crew is having a hard time with the flames. The house is little more than a blazing shell, thick blankets of smoke fanning up and blotting out the moon. I look at Anne-Marie. She's staring at what's left, something I can't identify dancing in her eyes. Probably thinking the same thing I'm thinking.

She's not seeing her family again. Not tonight. Not ever.


***


With some well placed money the coroner releases the bodies of her father and his wife two days later. Anne-Marie’s eighteenth birthday. Instead of cake and a party she spends the day signing papers, paying morticians. She has her father cremated, leaves his wife at the morgue. Figures her family can deal with her. The cremation is fast and brutal. There’s not much left to burn. An extra couple thousand gets it done by the end of the day. That night she has me drive her to a beach in Malibu.

“How you holding up?” I ask. She’s staring out the passenger window, wrapped in a jacket of her father’s that we found in the Mercedes’ trunk. She doesn’t say anything, so I drop it.

When we get to the beach she takes her father’s urn, kicks her shoes off, and heads toward the waves. I’m right behind her. The water laps over her bare feet, moonlight painting the ocean with a thick, silver streak. She wraps the urn into the jacket, spins the whole thing around and launches it into the ocean like a hammer throw. We watch the waves swallow it up.

“Let’s go.” It’s the most she’s said to me all day.


***


Anne-Marie starts talking more, but she spends the next week dropping off in the middle of sentences to stare at nothing. These fugue states last a few minutes, then she picks up where she left off, as if nothing had happened.

But the next week, it’s a different Anne-Marie. Somebody’s replaced her with a woman made out of steel. She’s focused, attentive. The girl I pulled out of Harvelle’s burned away in the fire that killed her parents. I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

She hasn’t cried once since it happened.

Hugh and I have her holed up in a luxury suite in the Argyle on Sunset. Forties d├ęcor and a terrace that looks down on the craziness of the strip. Just another posh hotel on a street littered with them.

A lifetime of private school couldn’t have prepared her for what she has to deal with now. Every day she’s meeting with lawyers and board members, getting a crash course in the family business. The will’s still in probate, but they know which way the wind blows, and they’re puckering up to kiss their new queen’s ass.

She has me sit next to her during these meetings, at the head of the long conference table at her father’s downtown office. She reaches under the table sometimes, grasps my hand, squeezes tight. The only sign that she isn’t in complete control.

The police never find Ramon’s body and we aren’t mentioning him. If he gets into custody there’s no telling what he’ll say. It could ruin Anne-Marie before she even gets off the ground.

Besides, I want his head on a stick.

Hugh and I have taken to carrying guns, ugly automatics in shoulder rigs. It’s not a new thing, but it’s a rare thing. Neither of us likes it, but needs must when the devil drives.

There’s always at least one of us with Anne-Marie outside the suite. We get in her way, check rooms before she goes in, stick close enough to block a bullet. She puts up with it, but for how long I can’t tell. She’s either at the hotel or at the downtown office. Eventually, she’ll go stir crazy.

Hugh has just brought her home from another grueling day at the office. “That lawyer, what was his name, Wurther,” she says. We had given one of the board members a ride out to the Hilton across the street from our hotel. “He stank. Can you take the car to get it cleaned, Hugh?” Anne-Marie asks. Hugh gives me a questioning look. I nod.

“We’ll be fine,” I say.

“God, I am tired,” she says after the door closes. She tosses the jacket of her gray business suit onto an ottoman, throws herself onto the sofa. “Spreadsheets, invoices, personnel records. Jesus. How did he run such a huge company? And that’s just the legitimate stuff. Did you know that we’ve got offices in London and Berlin?” She spreads her arms out on the back of the sofa. Arches her back until it cracks. She’s tired and disheveled, but she’s beautiful. I have to remind myself that she’s forty years younger than I am, that I watched her grow up. She might as well be my own daughter.

She rolls her head, trying to crack her neck. I stand behind her, knead the muscles in her shoulders. She sighs, starts to relax. Her hand comes up, rests on mine. Slowly, she starts to caress my fingers.

I stop. There’s a long, torturous moment. Neither one of us breathing. I’ve got two halves of my brain screaming at each other. It’s wrong, but I can’t seem to help myself. I bend down, face near her neck, rationalizing that maybe I’m not that old.

“I need to get some rest,” she says, voice flat. “Goodnight, Charlie.” She stands, strides to her room. Doesn’t look at me. The door closes with a loud click of finality.

I sit on the sofa, put my head in my hands. Stupid, useless, old man. What the hell was I thinking? She trusts you. Besides, what would an eighteen year old girl see in a broken fifty-eight year old ex-Marine? You’re just the hired help. You’re a baby-sitter. Always have been.

The phone rings. “Hey, Charlie,” Hugh says. “I’m stuck at Hollywood and Highland. Some asshole sideswiped the car and took off.” Los Angeles is famous for hit and runs. Half the drivers in accidents are running without insurance. “I’m gonna be a while. Can you hang?”

“Yeah,” I say. “No worries. She’s sleeping. Take your time.”

The night stretches on. I’m chewing on what I should have done, what I didn’t do. It’s exhausting. Without realizing it I doze off and startle awake. I’ve been out almost an hour. Anne-Marie’s door is cracked open. I bolt off the sofa and run to her room. She’s gone.

I call Hugh, fill him in. He calls me an ass, and worse, an amateur. “You know her,” he says. “Where would she be?”

The only thing I can think of is music. With so many places on Sunset to catch a live band, I’m thinking she hasn’t gone far. Probably House of Blues down the street. She’s been there before. I throw on a coat to hide my gun and head downstairs.

The elevator doors open and I hear it. She hasn’t gone far at all. There’s a swing band, of all things, playing in the lounge. I stand at the top of the steps looking at dancers in costumes doing flips and spins. The singer is doing a passable Louis Prima.

There are spotlights on the stage, so the audience is dark. It takes me a minute, but then I see her. She’s over by the side, back in that slinky red dress she wore at Harvelle’s.

But this time she’s not alone.

The guy at her table is sitting with his back to me, wearing a baseball cap. My paranoia kicks in. He’s got Ramon’s build, but a flash of the spotlight shows a blonde mop under the hat, not Ramon’s black buzz-cut. He’s got his back to the audience. I can’t see his face. I start down the steps when the band kicks into something loud and fast and it seems the whole audience knows the cue. People stand up, start dancing at their tables, by the time the music settles down and I get to her, the guy’s gone. I have no idea where.

She looks up at me, sighs. I slide into a seat next to her, back to the wall.

“Who the hell was that?” I say.

She shrugs. “Just some guy. Asked me to dance. I don’t much feel like dancing.”

“You shouldn’t be down here,” I say. “You shouldn’t have snuck past me.”

“You shouldn’t have been asleep.” The words are ice, a slap in my face. Her highness scolding the maid. Her tone softens. “It doesn’t matter, Charlie,” she says.

“Yes, it does,” I say. “I’m sorry. We should go.”

“No,” she says. “I can’t be any safer than right here, right now. What are they gonna do? Burn down the hotel? I can’t stay cooped up in that room. You can’t protect me forever.”

I know that, but I want to lock her away, anyway. Keep her safe. “I’m sorry,” I say again. Not sure what I’m sorry for.

“Stop saying that,” she says. “Just stop talking.” The band starts playing something soft and languid that I don’t recognize. Couples slow dancing. We watch them, listen to the music. The song ends and she finishes up her cosmo. “Now we can leave,” she says and stands up. She puts her arm into mine and we exit the lounge.

She’s quiet as we make our way back to the suite. Leaning into me, holding tight. “Do you think I’m a bad person?” she says.

“Of course not,” I say. “You’ve got a lot on your mind. You’re under a lot of pressure.”

She chews the inside of her lip. “What if I do bad things?” she says.

“I’m not the one who’s gonna judge you for ‘em. This line of work, you’re gonna have to make some tough choices.”

She slides her keycard into the slot, turns the knob, stops. “What if I’d already done bad things?”

I put my hands on her shoulders. “I forgive you.”

She opens the door and there’s Ramon sitting in a club chair, a silenced pistol in his hand. Hugh’s lying on the floor in front of him, blood soaking into the carpet.

I shove Anne-Marie out of the way as Ramon pulls the trigger. The round goes high. The pain is a burning lance through my left shoulder. I fall to my knees, reaching for my gun. Ramon’s fast. He’s got the barrel pressed against my temple before I have the gun half out.

“Close the door,” he says. Anne-Marie stands, shuts the door.

“You sonofabitch,” I say. “Killing her parents wasn’t enough?”

Ramon steps away from me. “Don’t look at me. I just do what I’m told.” He sits back down. Anne-Marie sits beside him on the arm of the chair. That’s when I notice the baseball cap on the floor, the blonde wig.

I feel like I’ve been hit in the head with a two by four. How could I have been so stupid? “Couldn’t wait for the inheritance?”

“Stop it, Charlie,” she says. She walks to the bar, tosses me a towel. “That’s not what this is about. I’ve seen the financials. He was running things into the ground. I couldn’t let him do that.”

I’m hoping the look I give her tells her what I think of that plan. I press the towel to the wound. It’s not bad, a graze, but I haven’t been shot in twenty-five years, and I’ve forgotten how much it hurts. My gun’s right there inside my shoulder holster. But Ramon’s already got the drop on me. I can’t move fast enough.

Anne-Marie looks at Hugh’s body, gives Ramon an acid look. “Things weren’t supposed to go this way,” she says. “Nobody was supposed to get hurt. It was just going to scare him enough to get out of the business. Leave the country. I could convince him to let me run things from here.”

When Anne-Marie was six, she came to me with a dead frog she’d found and told me it needed new batteries. This is the same kind of thinking. Simple solutions, complex problems. “You know it doesn’t work that way,” I say, but I know it’s useless. She didn’t believe me then, she won’t believe me now.

“It would if you were here with me.” She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “Now everything’s gone to shit,” she says, “and I have to clean up loose ends.” We look at each other a long time, and I don’t know what to make of her, anymore.

Ramon clears his throat, breaking the silence. “Now that you’ve shared your moment,” he says, “can I kill him?”

“No.” She puts her hand out, never taking her eyes off me. “Give me the gun.” Ramon looks impressed, hands it to her. She steps away from both of us. She raises the pistol in both hands, just the way I taught her to.

“Do you still forgive me?” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. I should say yes, but even with a gun on me, I can’t lie to her. “What are you gonna do?”

“What should I do?” She’s changing faster than I can keep up with. One second, she’s an Amazon war goddess, little girl lost the next.

“I can’t make that decision for you,” I say. “You know that.” I’m signing my own death warrant, but I can’t seem to say anything else.

She nods. “I can do things right,” she says, “or I can do the right thing.” She turns the gun on Ramon and pulls the trigger. Double tap. Two rounds right in his head. He dies before he can even look surprised.

The pistol slips from her fingers. She falls to her knees, hands pressed to her face. I go to her, gather her into my arms as she starts to sob. For her family, for herself. For good plans gone bad. I can’t fix it. I can’t make it better. All I can do is hold her and let her cry.


END

6 comments:

Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Another excellent one, sir. Please tell me this will be a weekly event...

Thomas Pluck said...

A hell of a story. Glad you brought it back, it needs to be read.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a fantastic fantastic story! Pulled me right in. It doesn't even feel like flash fiction, there is so much stuff.

Sonia Lal said...

Anon was me. Somehow it went through without my name.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Thanks, everyone.

Sonia, it's technically not flash fiction. It's over 4000 words.

But if it can hold your interest the way flash does then I've done what I've set out to do. Thanks.

Mike Sperry said...

Great story, Stephen!