Sunday, 15 June 2008

Nostalgia Trip #16: DOUBLE OR QUITS

published by SDO DETECTIVE Issue #5, April 2004. Mark Anthony Brennan, Fiction Editor.

Malone searched his jacket pockets, inside and out. Then his pants. Nope, they were all empty. He sighed. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't work. Tonight it hadn't. He'd learned to be philosophical about it, although he would have appreciated having the price of a cup of java.

Just as he was about to unlock his car door and head on home, a voice behind him called out, "Hey, Lucky!"

He turned around in time to meet a fist the size of a ten pound coffee can. Malone experienced a wonderful moment of weightlessness, then he opened his eyes and found himself looking up at the prettiest girl he'd ever seen, a blonde with her hair piled high on top of her head. She wore a black sleeveless dress and long gloves like she was going to the opera. His head lay upon the soft pillow of her lap.

"Are you an angel?" he said. He wasn't sure if he said the words right. His jaw hurt and his tongue felt too big for his mouth.

She looked down at him and the light angle altered her appearance. She was good looking, all right, but there was ice in her eyes as she studied him like an insect under a microscope. She was either a good girl turned bad... or she'd always been bad. They were together in the back seat of a moving car. She said, "Hey, Frankie, our boy's awake." She flicked cigarette ash onto Malone's face. "Rise and shine, honey." She helped Malone to sit up—or rather, she pushed him away and then elbowed him sharply in the ribs when he started to sway back.

"I must be losing my touch," the big guy who filled the front passenger seat said. He looked back over his shoulder. Hard eyes peered out from underneath a ridge of healed scar tissue. The guy with the coffee can fists. "Okay, here's how it is. You keep quiet and behave yourself, maybe you'll live to see tomorrow. Tell me you understand what I just said."

"I understand what you just said," Malone said.

"That's a good boy," the blonde said. She patted his thigh like he was a pet. "You know, you've lived up to your name already. Frankie used to be a contender. Some of the guys he met in the ring didn't get up again."

"I could'a maybe won a trophy, but they took my license away," the big man said.

"That's a cryin' shame," Malone said. He stared at the blonde. "Any chance you snatched the wrong guy?"

She chuckled. "You wish."

"What do you want me for? What did I do?"

"It's what you're gonna do, honey."

The car turned into a wide driveway that led to a big house with palm trees and a pool, the kind of house Malone had always dreamed of living in. Only he didn't want to live in this particular house because he knew who owned it.

"That's right, honey." She was watching him closely. "Jimmy the Nose wants to see you. You be sure and make a good impression, now. Oh, and let me warn you. Jimmy don't like smart mouths."

Malone knew for a fact that was true. Jimmy the Nose was king of the gambling rackets on this side of the river. Rumor had it he was spreading his wings, muscling in on neighboring territories.

The city morgue had been doing good business for a while now. Some of the victims had their noses cut off and their tongues cut out, which was a sure sign they'd said something to displease Jimmy the Nose.

The car stopped and Frankie got out. He opened the blonde's door and offered her his hand. She stubbed her cigarette out on his palm and climbed out by herself. Frankie smiled crookedly, shaking his head. He beckoned to Malone. Malone slid across the seat, got out and walked inside after the blonde. Frankie brought up the rear.

Jimmy the Nose kept a nice place. Tasteful statues and pictures decorated a living room big enough to host a baseball game. The blonde sat down on one of the black leather couches and crossed her long legs. Malone couldn't help but look. She smiled, letting him know she liked him looking. Frankie stood by the door, his hands clasped in front of him, his expression blank. Malone could live or die here tonight and Frankie wouldn't give a damn one way or the other.

"It's so good of you to come." Jimmy the Nose looked every bit as handsome as his newspaper photographs. He'd flown down to a clinic in Rio after rival gang boss Rocky "The Rock" Gumbo cut his original nose off, and got the doctors to graft on a new one. The skin looked a couple shades lighter than the rest of him but that was because the reluctant donor was younger than Jimmy. The Nose walked over to the couch, leaned down and kissed the blonde on her cheek. Instead of turning into him she turned her face away. He plainly didn't like that but he didn't say anything. Maybe having an audience put him on his best behavior.

Instead of saying, "I didn't have much of a choice, your goons kidnapped me," Malone waited patiently to hear why Jimmy the Nose had had him brought here.

"They call you Lucky Malone, don't they?"

"That's right."

"How come? I mean, you lose all the time. You live in some pokey little dump that overlooks the garbage recycling plant. You can't afford to feed your cat, it has to go scrounge for food. Jesus."

Malone was impressed by how deep the Nose had delved into his private life. Impressed, and a little bit annoyed.

"Well?" Jimmy the Nose sat down on another couch and stared at Malone, waiting for his answer.

"It's like that dame in the ancient Greek legend," Malone said. "You know, she could see the future, only no one believed a word she said."

The Nose looked at Frankie. "What the hell is this guy talking about?"

"I dunno, boss," Frankie said.

"What the hell are you talking about?" the Nose demanded of Malone.

"I don't lose all the time," Malone said. "I always win... at first. But I never get to hold onto my winnings. Not all of them, anyway. Sometimes loose change finds its way into my pockets. Enough to pay the rent and keep me and the cat in TV dinners."

"You don't know when to quit. You've got to go back to the tables and try to win more. Is that it? You're one of those compulsive gamblers."

"Something along those lines, yeah."

"Cassandra," the blonde said. The Nose looked at her. She got up and poured herself another drink, threw it back like there was no tomorrow.

"That stuff'll kill ya," the Nose said.

Malone didn't know if this was a general observation or intended for the blonde. She didn't seem to notice.

"It's getting late, boss," Frankie said.

"I know it's getting late," the Nose said, annoyance in his voice. "Okay, Malone, you're wondering why you're here. I'm gonna spell it out, and you're gonna tell me if there's maybe something to all this, like Velma thinks there is. But first, we're gonna play a little game."

The Nose opened the lid of a carved wooden box and took out a deck of playing cards. He tore off the wrapper and shuffled the cards expertly, watching Malone the whole time. He stopped shuffling, cut the cards and held them so Malone couldn't see the card at the bottom of the cut.

"Tell me what it is."

Malone shook his head. "I don't do freebies. A thousand bucks says I know what it is."

The Nose considered this. "How do I know you can afford a thousand bucks."

"If I can't pay, Frankie breaks my fingers."

The Nose smiled. "Okay, you got a bet."

"Eight of Diamonds," Malone said.

The Nose glanced down at the revealed card. He didn't say anything, he just shuffled again, then cut. "Call it out, Malone."

"Double or quits," Malone said.

The Nose thought about it, then nodded.

"Three of Spades."

The Nose glanced down again. He shuffled a third time and cut. Malone said, "Double or quits again?" The Nose nodded. "Six of Clubs."

The Nose's hand trembled, although you'd have to look hard to notice. Malone was looking hard. He tried not to smile in case the Nose ordered Frankie to rough him up a little.

The Nose shuffled, cut the cards, zipped the two halves together and shuffled them again, then cut a fourth time.

"Same deal?" Malone asked. The Nose nodded.

"Jack of Diamonds, and you owe me eight gees."

The Nose let out a deep breath. He put the cards down, looked speculatively at Malone, then beckoned to Frankie. Malone watched as Frankie produced a fat money clip, counted out a wad of lettuce and offered it to Malone—who didn't take it.

"What's the matter?" the Nose demanded. "My money isn't good enough for you?

Malone shook his head. "It's not that. If I take it, something will happen. Don't ask me what, I don't know. But I won't walk out of here with that money in my pocket."

The Nose gestured. Frankie put the money away.

"You got a weird sense of humor, Malone. I like you. Now you've proved yourself to me, I'm gonna tell you why I invited you here tonight."

"I was kinda hoping you would."

"You know Rocky Gumbo? What am I saying, of course you know Gumbo, you were in his joint tonight. How much did you take him for?"

Malone divided the actual amount by ten so he wouldn't look too stupid. "Twenty thousand, at one point."

"You won it, then you lost it again?"

"That's right." He'd turned away from the roulette table, actually turned away with the bundle of big denomination chips in his hands, ready to take them to the bird cage and cash 'em in, when someone bumped his elbow and someone else nudged him the other way, and he lost his balance and stumbled over his own big feet and emptied the chips back onto the table, covering thirteen numbers at random. The wheel was already spinning and he heard the fatal words: "No more bets!" Not even enough left for a cup of java.... And Rocky Gumbo, making a rare personal appearance in his own casino to watch Malone's performance, had shaken his head and retreated into his inner sanctum, his shoulders heaving with suppressed laughter. His parting comment echoed in Malone's ears: "Throw dat loser out of here."

"Gumbo's been a bad boy," the Nose said, bringing Malone back to reality. "A little bird tells me he's got friends up in the Big City and they're looking to muscle in down here. If I go to the Bosses without proof, they'll slap me good. That's where you come in."

"You think I have proof?"

"Shut up. I talk, you listen. Gumbo wouldn't be involved in this for nothing. When it goes ahead and the territories get split up, he'll get his share, don't worry about that. But Gumbo doesn't trust his own mother, see? Verbal promises don't mean a thing to him. He must've got something from those guys... and I know what it is."

"The Ace of Spades," the blonde, Velma, said.

"That's right," the Nose said, glancing at her. "The Ace of Spades, their marker, with their names written on the back. It'll be in Gumbo's safe, behind the picture in his study. I can get someone in there, only they wouldn't be able to open the safe. It's a real tough job. One mistake, one wrong number, and all kinds of alarms go off."

"So you want me to...?"

"I want you tell me if you can guess the combination and open the safe. If you can't, our business is concluded. Frankie will take you back to where he found you. Won't you, Frankie?"

"Sure thing, boss."

Malone read the silent message that passed between them. He wouldn't be seeing his cat tonight, that was for sure. Frankie would cruise around until he found a quiet landfill, and that would be the last anyone ever saw of "Lucky" Malone.

Velma was watching him, reading his mind. Malone thought she might say something but instead she poured herself another drink.

"I don't know," Malone said. "I've never tried anything like that before."

The Nose thought about it for a moment. Then he said, "Bring him, Frankie." He got up and left the room. Frankie pushed Malone after him. They gave him a brief tour of the house and ended up in the Nose's study, a tastefully decorated temple of contemplation. Malone looked around for a lever but didn't see one. Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't standing on a hidden trapdoor above a crocodile pit.

The Nose stepped behind his desk, reached up and pulled a framed landscape painting away from the wall. The painting was hinged so it swung open like a door, revealing the Nose's private safe, a twelve-inch cork of gleaming steel.

"Come on up here, Malone."

Malone went around the desk and joined the Nose. The combination dial was surrounded by tiny numbers counting up from zero to ninety-nine. The Nose sat down on the edge of his desk and played with a gold paper knife, rolling it up and down his fingers. Frankie stayed just inside the door. He was curious, but not curious enough to want to know what his boss's safe combination might be.

"Open it," the Nose said.

"What happens if I can't?"

"Nothing happens. I just want to see if you

can do it."

Malone took a deep breath and placed his thumb and forefinger upon the dial. He turned it to zero, then willed himself to guess the first number of the combination string. The study became uncomfortably hot. The Nose's eyes bored into his head and the gold paper knife became a blur, rolling down his fingers and rolling back again like it had a life of its own.

"Hurry it up, Malone," the Nose said. "There's a time limit to this caper. Gumbo stays at his gambling joint until two in the morning to count his takings. Then he heads home. If you're there when he arrives, you can bet he'll want to ask you questions." He looked at his watch. "It's fifteen after one. It'll be close, but you can still make it. In and out, like a ghost." His brows came together. "What's the matter with you? Why don't you open the damn safe?"

Malone shook his head. He was about to say, "I can't!" when Velma said, "Hey, Malone." She leaned against the doorway, fanning herself with a wad of money she must've got from Frankie. His money—the eight gees he'd won from the Nose but refused to take.

The Nose waved her away. "You're disturbing his concentration."

"Offer him double or quits," Velma said.

"What about it, Malone? Eight'll get you sixteen. Just do your thing."

The Nose opened his mouth to speak again but Malone spun the dial, Left 19, Right 37, Left 13, Right 71, Left 57. The locks clicked and the steel door swung open. Malone found himself looking at a pistol lying on top of papers bound with a ribbon, plus stacks of green bills with that unmistakable hot-off-the-press new smell, the kind of smell men killed for.

The Nose grinned and looked at Frankie and Velma. "Did you see that? Did you see that?" His grin faded. He slammed the safe door shut and spun the dial. Malone didn't know if he was angry or pleased. "Okay, Malone, I guess those cards weren't a trick after all. Velma was right, you can do the biz. So here's the deal. Frankie takes you to Gumbo's place. We got a man on the inside, see? He'll unlock the back door and let you in. You open Gumbo's safe and bring me that Ace of Spades. What could be simpler?"

Malone nodded. What could be simpler, indeed?

"You're forgetting just one thing," he said.

"What's that?" the Nose said.

"Why the hell should I risk my neck stealing stuff from Rocky Gumbo's safe? A man would have to be crazy to even think about doing something like that. I might be a loser, but I'm not a crazy loser."

The Nose laughed, producing an unpleasant whining sound that suggested anything but amusement. "Even a loser needs a stake to get into the next game," he said. "You got sixteen gees held in trust. On top of that, you get another hundred gees. And it ain't no bet, so it can't slip through your fingers. Wha'd'ya say, Malone? Five minutes of your precious time gets you a truckload of TV dinners, and maybe enough left over for a couple tins of cat food."

"You seem awful concerned about my cat."

"Yeah, well, I had a cat of my own when I was a kid. It was the only friend I had. Now I can buy as many friends as I need, but they'll never love me the same way my cat did."

"I love you, boss," Frankie said.

"Shut up, Frankie, you're embarrassing me. Waiting for your answer, Malone."

"A hundred gees sounds real good to me," Malone said. "I'm your boy, if you can get me in and out of Gumbo's house in one piece."

"I guarantee it," the Nose said. "I guarantee it. Frankie, get the car. Tell Fast Eddie to take the rest of the night off, you're driving this time, slow and careful."

"I think I'll go with them," Velma said.

The Nose looked at her. "Now why would you do that?"

She waved the money. "Someone's got to make the bet, remember?"

Understanding spread slowly across the Nose's face. "Yeah, I get it. You gotta make the magic work. Okay, you go with them, just don't get in the way." The Nose clapped Malone's shoulder. "If this goes off, and there's no reason why it shouldn't, maybe you and me can think up some other way to make a few bucks together. Wha'd'ya say, Malone?"

"Sure, why not?" Malone said, but the act didn't fool him for a moment, the dice were rolling and Frankie already had his orders. Whether Malone opened Gumbo's safe or not, he had a date with a landfill.

Velma took him by the arm and led him out into the hallway, leaving Jimmy the Nose alone in his study. Despite her soft touch Malone felt trapped. Even if—somehow—he could get away from Frankie, the Nose would just send someone after him. He'd end up in the morgue with a John Doe tag on his big toe because they'd never find his face or his fingers, the Nose would make sure of that.

"Don't worry, honey," Velma said as they moved outside into the garden at the back of the house. "You and me together, we'll figure something out."

Frankie pulled up in the car before Malone could ask her what she meant by that. He opened the door for her and Velma climbed in. Malone sat down heavily beside her when Frankie stamped his foot on the gas. Velma looked at him oddly and Malone realized she must have felt the bulge in his pocket. He inched away from her and played innocent, staring out the window, but he could feel her curious gaze on the back of his skull. She didn't say anything to Frankie but Malone didn't know if that was because she wasn't entirely sure, or because she wanted to play some game of her own.

They passed through familiar streets. The bars and clubs had closed a while ago and they only met a couple of cars on the road. This was Malone's favorite time of night, when the city settled down after a hard day, and the smell from the garbage recycling plant faded until you could almost breathe normally.

Eventually they moved into the rich part of town, where the successful businessmen lived next door to the A-list actors and actresses, all with their electric gates and private security. Frankie stopped outside a big house and said, "This is it."

"How do I get in?" Malone said.

"The side gate's unlocked. You walk up the path and knock on the back door. Our man will open it and show you where the study is."

Malone sighed. "Okay." He opened the door and went to climb out but Velma put her hand on his arm, stopping him. She fished into her purse and brought out the lettuce. His lettuce, the sixteen gees he'd won from Jimmy the Nose.

"Double or quits, Malone," she said. "Thirty-two big ones just for opening the safe. Remember that. The bet's on."

He nodded his thanks and braced himself to exit the car but Velma put her hand on the back of his neck, drew him down and kissed him. "For luck," she said. Her eyes were like deep pools, inviting him to climb up onto the high board and dive in. It took all his strength just to step out of the car.

Malone looked back when he reached the gate. Frankie and Velma were watching him from across the street, half-seen shadows inside the car.

The path beyond the gate wound through manicured bushes and past an ornamental pond stocked with gleaming fish. Anyone who happened to look out any of the windows would see him right away. Malone tensed, expecting to feel sharp pain followed by the crack! of the firing gun, but nothing happened and he reached the back door without shedding a drop of blood.

The door opened before he could knock. A little guy stood there, dressed in a white jacket as if he was a waiter or something. He stepped aside and motioned for Malone to enter. The waiter didn't have to tell Malone to keep quiet, that was a given. They crept through the dimly lit house until the waiter stopped at a door. Malone nodded. He turned the handle and stepped inside.

He had to wait until his eyes adjusted to the almost total absence of light. Then he figured it was okay to switch on a lamp because the heavy drapes would prevent anyone outside from seeing the light inside. He felt his way forward, encountered the desk, searched for the lamp and found it without knocking it over. He had the sense to shut his eyes before he switched it on. He looked around the study, which seemed oddly familiar.

Maybe Gumbo and Jimmy the Nose used the same decorator. Malone found the picture and swung it away from the wall. Gumbo's safe gleamed invitingly. Malone turned the dial to zero, then closed his eyes and waited for the first number to pop into his head.

Sweat broke out on his brow and trickled into his eyes. He stepped back from the safe, sat down in the big red leather chair and tried to figure what the hell was wrong. Velma had offered him the bet, hadn't she? Then why wasn't it working?

The waiter opened the door and looked in. His eyes widened when he saw Malone sitting in Gumbo's chair. Malone held up a finger, asking for another minute. The waiter nodded and closed the door again, albeit with reluctance.

It wasn't working because Velma had jinxed him. Malone slapped his forehead. How could he be so dumb? Luck wasn't something that could be forced, it was a free spirit. Malone didn't decide which way a coin landed or what number came up on the roulette table or what card came out of the pack, that happened by itself. His talent was guessing the result a few seconds ahead. But Velma had given him a good luck kiss, intending to push matters in his favor. Thinking back, Malone had felt the subtle shift in the whirring gears of the cosmic slot machine, only her hot kiss distracted him so much he hadn't realized what the repercussions might be. He couldn't predict the safe combination even if Jimmy the Nose put a gun to his head and thumbed the hammer back.

He could try Velma again. If he could make another bet with her, with no good luck kiss this time, maybe that would do the trick? Or would his luck remain stale because it was really the same bet?

There was only one way to find out. He switched off the lamp and headed for the door—just as the drapes lit up. A car rolled past the window and moved to the front of the house. Malone didn't think many vacuum cleaner salesmen would come calling at this time of night, which meant that Gumbo was home early. The Nose's prediction was 'way off. If Gumbo had his bodyguards with him, as he surely would....

Malone reached into his pocket for the pistol he'd taken from the Nose's safe when he'd turned away to look at Frankie and Velma—the pistol that Velma had brushed against in the back seat of the car. Gone! In its place was something else, lighter and a lot less useful to him given the current situation. What the hell kind of game was Velma playing with him? She'd picked his pocket like a pro, probably while she was kissing him.

He opened the door and looked up and down the hallway for the waiter. The guy was gone. Voices reached him from the front door. He caught a glimpse of Gumbo and his Sumo wrestler bodyguards, who had to turn sideways to fit through the door.

He heard Gumbo say, "I'm gonna put dis in the safe."

Malone swallowed hard and tried to figure where he could hide. The study wasn't that big. Either he crouched down behind the desk, or he squeezed himself into the narrow space behind the door. Gumbo's heavy footsteps got closer. Malone pulled in his stomach and stepped behind the door just as it opened. The door sandwiched him against the wall. Gumbo's shadow fell across the floor and climbed up the desk. Malone got ready to move as soon as Gumbo came inside. If Gumbo turned around Malone would lay one on his jaw, never mind that the guy weighed two hundred fifty pounds, all of it solid muscle. If he didn't turn around then maybe Malone could make it into the hallway without being seen. His legs wanted to start moving right now but he told them they'd have to wait. Some things couldn't be hurried.

"Hey, what gives?" Gumbo said to no one in particular.

Malone would have kicked himself if not for the fact he was squished flat. He'd forgotten to close the picture over the safe.

Gumbo turned and ran down the hallway, shouting to his men. Malone decided it was time to blow this joint. He moved to the desk, picked up the big chair and heaved it at the windows with all his strength. It hit the heavy drapes, which drained it completely of its momentum. The chair hit the floor with a resounding boom that echoed through the house and brought Gumbo's men running this way.

Malone pulled the drapes open, bent over and picked up the chair. Then a thought hit him. He put the chair down, gripped both handles, turned them and opened the unlocked French windows outward. He felt like a real chump. An alarm bell started ringing but that didn't matter, they knew he was here anyway. The night air cooled his sweat as he hurried across the garden, searching for the gate he'd come in through. A gun shot from the study caused him to duck instinctively but not before a lead-winged insect buzzed over his head, giving his hair a new parting. Gumbo's harsh voice demanded the shooter hold his fire but shadows played across the garden, suggesting they weren't giving up that easily.

He discovered some of the bushes had thorns. They dragged at his clothes and his skin, determined to stop him. He broke through, saw a set of headlamps flash through the gate, and charged headlong in that direction, stepping into the fish pond on the way. Bleeding, disheveled and wet, he staggered through the gate and collided with the side of the car. Velma opened the back door for him. He dived inside and she slammed it behind him.

Frankie wasn't saying much but that was because he was hunched forward over the dashboard, dripping blood and brains onto the floor. Velma came around to the driver's side, opened the door and pushed Frankie over. She squeezed in beside him, started the engine and floored the gas, taking them out of there on clouds of burning rubber.

Malone stole a look out the back window. Gumbo's men came out the side gate and pointed their guns, but Gumbo must have shouted them back inside. They put their guns away and disappeared.

Malone couldn't stop staring at the hole in the back of Frankie's head. He wanted to believe that while he was inside the house, one of Gumbo's men had sneaked up on the car when Frankie wasn't looking and popped him. But when Velma looked at him in the rear view mirror he saw the truth in her eyes.

"Just shut up and sit there," she said.

She drove back to Jimmy the Nose's place like it was a race and she'd seen the checkered flag. She took some corners on two wheels and others on just a wing and a prayer. Malone liked fast women but not this fast. Asking her to slow down might have had serious repercussions however, so he contented himself with reflecting on the good life he'd had and on making his peace with the big guy upstairs.

Velma hit the brakes and approached Jimmy the Nose's house at a more leisurely pace. When the gates swung open she crept up the driveway, a candidate for Safe Driver Of The Year. She flashed the headlamps three times which must have been the OK signal. When they got to the door Jimmy the Nose was waiting for her together with Fast Eddie, his driver, who came around the car, opened the passenger door and dragged Frankie's body out.

"What the hell happened?" the Nose demanded, helping Velma out of the driver's seat.

"Gumbo came home early," she said. "His guys started shooting. Poor Frankie took one in the head. I got us out of there, but it was damn close."

"What about the Ace of Spades?" The Nose wrenched Malone's door open, leaned in and grabbed the front of his jacket. "Did you get into Gumbo's safe? You better tell me you did, you schmuck, or I'll—"

"Look in his left jacket pocket," Velma said.

The Nose did like she said. He straightened, holding up the card. He turned it around so it caught the door light and he could see the Ace of Spaces clearly and read the handwriting on the back. "Son of a gun," he said. "You did it."

"You gonna pay him his hundred gees?" Velma said.

"Yeah, sure I am." The Nose wrenched his gaze away from the card and grinned at Malone. "The two of you can wait here. I got some business to attend to but I'll be right back. Maybe you can do something with Frankie. Then get yourselves a drink and relax. You deserve it."

Malone took the hint and climbed out. He and Velma watched as Fast Eddie got into the driver's seat and the Nose climbed in behind him. The car turned around and went down the driveway.

"Looks like it's just you and me," Velma said. "Come on, let's get that drink."

Malone indicated the dark lump lying at the side of the driveway. "What about Frankie?"

"He's not going anywhere." She went inside, hips swaying. Malone hesitated, but he had to play this through to its conclusion unless he wanted to spend the rest of his short life looking over his shoulder. He followed her into the house. By the time he reached the big living room she was pouring two Jack Dees. She offered one to him. Malone took it and watched as she knocked hers back in one.

"Where'd you learn to drink like that?" he said.

"Like what?" She refilled her glass.

"Like a professional."

She raised the glass to her lips, then thought twice and put it down again. "I wasn't always like this, you know."

"Let me guess. You were a nun, then Jimmy the Nose came along and corrupted you."

She turned to face him. "Oh boy, are you looking for a slap."

"That sounds a lot better than a bullet in the head."

She took his glass out of his hand, put it down beside hers, then grabbed Malone and kissed him hard. When she was finished, about two days later, he said, "What's that for?"

"For not turning me in to Jimmy."

"Forget it. He wouldn't have believed me anyway, I'm the one who would have ended up underground, pushing up daisies. Are you going to tell me why you did it?"

"Frankie followed you up to Gumbo's house, you sap. You didn't see him looking in the window? He came back to the car, told me you couldn't open the safe."

Malone shook his head, still not able to figure things out. "You had that Ace of Spaces with the names written on it, ready to slide into my pocket as soon as were in the car." Malone glanced at the pile of cards the Nose had discarded after testing him earlier. "Out of the Nose's own pack, no less."

"That's right. His card, my handwriting. Frankie would have blabbed about how you didn't get it from Gumbo's safe, so it was him or you. Personally, I'm glad it was him."

"Me, too. But that doesn't explain why. And where's Jimmy the Nose driving off to in such a hurry at this time of night?"

"Where do you think? He's waking up the Bosses. Calling a special meeting. Telling them Gumbo's stabbing them in the back, selling them out to his friends in the Big City. He's got proof. The Ace of Spades... the marker they gave to Gumbo. With all their names written on the back."

Malone thought about that. "What'll happen when they find out it's a fake?"

"The Bosses don't like being played for saps. And Gumbo might want his pound of flesh, too. But just to make absolutely sure...."

She opened her purse and took out the pistol Malone had taken from the safe. The pistol she'd used to blow Frankie's brains out. He thought she was going to use it on him, but she wiped it clean and dropped it onto the couch instead.

Before Malone could say anything else Velma picked up the phone and dialed a number. She stared at him while she waited for someone to pick up. "Hello, Police? I want to report a murder. Send a squad car over to Jimmy the Nose's place. Yeah, that's right. Better watch you don't run over the body on the way in." She hung up. "There's another car in the garage. You better come with me before the cops get here. I'll drop you off where we found you, okay?"

"Sure." He wondered what might happen if he didn't agree with her.

They made their way out to the garage and drove out of there, leaving Frankie behind for the police to find... along with the Nose's pistol, lying on the couch. Velma didn't look back. Malone did, when he caught a glimpse of flashing red and blue lights in the side mirror. The cops weren't wasting any time.

"When did you think up this sweet little plan?" he said.

"Last night, when Jimmy told me about you."

"You still haven't explained why."

Velma shrugged, trying to be casual about it, but he saw through her disguise. Tears brimmed in her eyes and her perfect lower lip trembled. "I've had enough of being hurt. I can't take any more. It's guys like Jimmy the Nose. It's this damn town. It's eating me alive, see?"

"Yeah, I see. Where will you go?"

"Somewhere. Anywhere. I haven't decided yet. But I'm leaving, and I'm leaving tonight." She let out a long sigh. "I should have done it a long time ago, but I was afraid he'd come after me."

She found the alley behind Gumbo's gambling joint. Malone's car was still there, which in this neighborhood was something of a miracle. Velma switched the engine off and they sat there for a while listening to the ticking, creaking music of cooling metal.

"I know what you're thinking," she said at last.

"You wanna bet?"

She smiled and it changed her again so he caught a glimpse of the good girl who'd been trapped inside the bad girl for too long. "That reminds me." She dipped into her purse and came out with the money. "Yours, I believe."

He shook his head. "Why don't you keep it?"

"I can't do that, it's yours. You won it fair and square."

"Sure I did, but now I'll just lose it again. Maybe my car will catch fire, or maybe someone will put a gun in my back and rob me, or maybe the cops will pull me over and take a donation for the police retirement fund. Believe me, you'll be saving me a whole load of grief if you get rid of it for me."

She thought about it for a moment. "You said loose change sometimes ends up in your pockets."

"Yeah. Sometimes."

She slipped a couple of notes into his jacket. "Does your cat like fish?"

Malone smiled. "I think he does."

"Give him a special treat, on me. I gotta go, Malone. And no, you can't come with me."

"I know," he said. "But it's a nice thought. Listen, when you get to wherever you're going, give me a call, will you? Just so I know you got there safely."

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Sure I will."

Malone got out and watched her lights disappear into the night. He was happy for her, but he also felt lonely and sorry for himself, even though he knew she couldn't ever be the woman for him. Velma was femme, all right, but she was also fatale, and he liked to fall asleep at night without having to worry about whether he'd wake up in the morning alive.

He patted his other jacket pocket, making sure that the bundle of notes he'd slipped from Jimmy the Nose's safe along with the pistol was still there. A hundred gees, unless he was mistaken, exactly what he'd been promised if he brought an Ace of Spades back from Gumbo's place. The Nose was right, he was a loser, and a loser needed a stake to get into the next game.

He'd only driven a couple of streets before he stumbled across an all-night fish market. Sometimes Malone's cat got lucky, too.

The End

published by
Issue #5, April 2004
Mark Anthony Brennan, Fiction Editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What? No one has commented on this one? I liked it. You've got the Noir thing down pat. As if you didn't know!

Really nice--you sucked me in and had me wondering when it was going to let me go.

Your New Part-Time Stalker
(Sorry I can't stalk you more often; it pains me to know a Scot who doesn't wear kilts, doesn't eat haggis (but not Haggis, Ack!).

But you're on my list, honey. Ohhh, yes. On my blog list.