Story by Kat Clay
Illustration by Jihane Mossalim
A woman walks in.
You’ve heard my story before.
I’m a jilted lover, an abandoned sister, daughter of a rich-daddy with too much time and not enough attention. I’m wearing a red dress and a black veiled hat which screams va-va-voom in the decrepit office you work/live in.
I’m a knife in the heart and a stab in the back.
And before I speak, you know what I will say. “I got your name from a man in a gin-mill who said you could help me. You see, I’ve lost…”
I’ve lost something. We’ve all lost something. A jewel or a man or my virginity, but please mister, be discreet. There’s a disjoint between the dark dive of your life and the glamour of mine. Why else would a woman like me be in a room like this, with its reek of drip coffee and slow rotating ceiling fan?
I feign innocence. I powder my nose. I dab my eyes with a handkerchief, careful not to smudge the black eyeliner. I whisk red lipstick across my open mouth, watching the door in my compact.
You don’t expect me to say, “I heard you killed me.”
— ♦♦♦ —
It started in a city. It could’ve been LA or New York or Chicago. Either way, it’s a depraved den of wannabe starlets, pornographers, pimps and hustlers. There are tall buildings and fire escapes and glimmering neon lights reflected in a never-ending storm. It is the twenties, with giggling flapper girls running through stage doors, it is the future, with androids crying human tears, it is now, wherever you are, in a room or a tram or a seat reading a story.
You meet the redhead while tailing an unfaithful husband through a string of dive bars. They get progressively worse through the night; the Tiki Chamber, the Bad Apple, Cherry Pop’s. You lose the husband to a late night back seat rendezvous, with enough evidence to send his wife to divorce court and half-a-mill in alimony. You’re hungry after all that watching; the alcohol’s not sitting well on a stomach full of bar nuts. So, the usual: eggs, bacon and unlimited coffee refills in a diner named Joe’s on fifth. There’s a sassy waitress who spars with you. Despite the wire lines around her eyes, there’s something in the strong legs and attitude you’d screw.
The crowd: night-owls, be-bop kids and a drunken redhead. She’s got legs as long as a Long Island Iced Tea, and just as much gin in them. She’s not me; I’m a peroxide-free blonde. “Seeing other women! The nerve!” she shouts at the other patrons.
Two cops come in. They’ll arrest her if she doesn’t calm down. You feel sorry for her, so you slide into the red booth with your plate of grease. No one deserves a cheater. Not even your wife.
Her dress strap slips down at the side. She cries into her coffee. “My fiancé left and now I’m all alone,” she says, her mascara running like a coal seam across her face.
“What are you going to do?” you say. An affront to masculinity everywhere with a dame like this! A writhing mess of red hair and violence. You wonder what she’d be like in the sack. Firebrand.
“I gotta work. I gotta pay my bills ‘cause no one’ll pay them for me. My friend said she could fix me up good with this job. But I hate it! I’m a good girl, you see. I came here to get away from it for just one night.” She shakes her head, worn out from the fury. “Tony’s going to kill me. You better take me home.” You wonder where she came from – a Nebraska farm house? Daddy’s little girl gone to make her name in lights? She looks you in the eye, and you see the pin-point pupils of her doped up brain.
“Alright, I’ll take you home. Where d’you live?” you say.
She’s not wrong: on your way home, you pass a man with a pointed beard and a pitchfork, scrambling home from some wild Christmas party. While driving past the devil with a left on fifth, you feel sympathy for this woman. It’s when her head is rolled back, high on dope, lolling around like a dog’s tongue. You get distracted by her open mouth. Eyes on the road. Eyes on the–
— ♦♦♦ —
Madeline lives in a rental above the Golden Age, a nightclub she hustles in. Twin neon legs crackle with luminosity on a post as high as a building. They kick twice before performing the same routine. You stop the car on the street, the interior lot full with luxe-cars and taxi drop-offs.
You take her to the side entrance in the back alley. The road is greasy with oil and water. The bouncer sees the girl and waves you through.
Inside, a club, like all clubs. A swooning woman in a sparkly dress sings sorrow into a silver mic. Round tables, red booths, cigarette girls in sleek silk stockings, line of black up the back of their legs, like the ribbon of a spider’s thread. If they bend over, you can see their suspenders.
You’ve cheated with women like this before. Your marriage is breaking down between a bottle and a babe. Gloria or Joanie or Carmel can’t handle the infidelity. They only stick around out of loyalty to your whiskey scented cologne.
But this is the story of two infidels. You and your page, the faithless breed of relationship; hiding your secret longings from the world. Reading it, you long for the exotic erotic, to have blood on your hands, escape from the clutches of two-bit crooks and prostitution rings. You need dames and dime store drugs and delinquency and the sound of dope flushing down the toilet.
Enter stage right. Darling, I’m back. You’d almost forgotten about me. Didn’t I tell you I worked at this club too? Oops. Must’ve slipped my mind.
“Maddy! Where did you find her?” I say. The redhead slumps as if on cue.
You carry Maddy past props and prepping showgirls. I lead you upstairs to a room with a fading glitter star on the door. You lay Maddy down between two mirrors lit up like electric hell. Our names are spelled out in cut out letters around the mirrors. Her table is a jumble of make-up and cosmetic bags, feathered dresses and sequins. Mine is oddly empty, save for a red lipstick, a black veiled hat and a compact.
For a moment, it’s you and me and the sleeping girl. I don’t like you from the start; I know your type too well. Tired, dogged and committed to the job. It doesn’t matter that you look good in your trench coat and hat, or that your wit is as sharp as a shiv.
You tip your hat at me. “What’s your name sweetheart?”
“Cyanide,” I say and shut the door in your face.
— ♦♦♦ —
Two days later you go to the Golden Age to watch for me and check on Madeline. You tap your foot to the swish of brushes on high-hat. During a trumpet solo, the redhead finds you. She’s not the same woman with her perm fixed and makeup done. She comes to sell you something: food, drinks, sex. “You look better,” you say. “But stay off the dope. Otherwise you’ll end up in the overnight.”
She bends over your ear. “They make us take them to loosen us up.” You know she’s a cliché by the way she speaks in an over nasal drawl, with lines like “Hey mister? You gotta light?” But you play your part and you go along with it. She’s got great legs, remember? Madeline leans into your ear and whispers, “Is there some way I can pay you back?”
“You give me your blonde friend’s address.”
Disappointed, she scrawls my address on a napkin.
A thin man, the greasy type with pockmarked cheeks, appears at the door. He is inevitably called Tony. He might chew gum or a toothpick. If this is the eighties, he wears black turtlenecks.
“Problem here, Madeline?” She stops mid-sentence, Tony’s hand on her wrist.
He scopes you. “She gotta get back to her show, buddy.” The thug’s hand squeezes tight.
Madeline’s body sways as she walks into the gloomy backstage, between a cardboard palm tree and a giant ukulele. Tony stays with you. He escorts you out through the service entrance to the back alley.
“I don’t wanna see your mug ‘round here again,” he hisses serpentine.
“I’m more of a shot glass man myself.” Of course, you can’t leave it alone. You’ve got a nose for these things. So, you ask, “What do you know about the girls being drugged?”
“You know what they say about curiosity,” says Tony.
“Lucky I don’t own a cat.”
Tony smirks. A flick of his hand brings two extra thugs to the alleyway. A pissing contest with fists. It seems Tony doesn’t do any of his own work. He’s locked the door, watching from the rectangular peephole. They take the first swipe, but you duck low and barrel into a suited stomach. The other jumps on your back, a heavy mass pulling you down. Thick arms grab around your neck, strangling with the full force of a man’s weight. You push backwards, spraining the second thug into the brick wall. The weight falls off your neck.
Flick! Out comes the razor. Thug number one. Adrenaline pumps through iron veins. You watch the metal, ducking and diving through the weaving attacks. The razor snips your hand lightly. Warm blood trickles down your wrist. The thug drops his arm and you take the chance, twisting it high behind his back. The knife falls.
A low whistle calls out from the door and the thug punches you solidly in the stomach before running to his rat hole. You limp to your car. You’re a tough dick, you can handle it.
— ♦♦♦ —
The next day, Madeline’s body turns up in a dark place – take your pick of riverside illuminated by distant city lights, rat-infested sewer or a hand that slips from a garbage bag as it’s loaded into the truck. Madeline is bruised and wrapped in plastic. She’s been violated. There are photos. You’d remember that face anywhere. You see her splayed body in your head. “Take me home,” she says. Going home to Hades by Charon’s sewer tours, run nightly.
When she is found, you know where to go. Illinois Drive. You knock on the door of the bungalow. It’s a sweet little thing with polite neighbors and a well-kept yard.
“You,” I say.
“What a way to tell a girl.” I gesture you in with a flick of my hand. The carpet is cream. The furniture…wicker. “But I already know.” I flop in an armchair, legs casually dangling over the edge of one arm, placed one over the other with pointed toes.
“You don’t care?” you ask.
“Of course I care. I’m sorry to hear she’s dead, but that girl took risks.”
You know it’s gotta be the gangster behind this. “What about Tony? Were he and Madeline ever together?”
I laugh. “Like a coffin at a funeral. She didn’t mind. He bought her clothes and took her to shows. If only I could be so shallow.”
“That’s not what I heard. She wasn’t happy.”
“Was she high when she told you that? Listen, Tony’s not a bad guy. He’s not going to go cutting up girls. He’d think it a waste.”
“That nice guy gave me this.”
You peel back the wadding and show me the cut. My eyes pass over your ring. Left hand, index finger. When are you going to take it off?
I take your hand. “You know that’s getting infected. Let me put something on it.”
“I’ve spent enough time nursing wounded thugs.”
I pull iodine from my cupboard and tell you to sit down. I straddle you. The chair is only big enough for one. I dab you with yellow cotton wool. You wince. Tough guy.
“How’s the wife?” I ask.
“What wife?” And we tumble into adultery, my hair brushing your face like sand.
— ♦♦♦ —
There’s always a hidden insurance policy. The one I forget to mention in those passionate throes. The reason I’m bringing you in. To kill my husband. To cut a grifter. A power game in the seduction of skin. Somewhere you know this, but you choose to ignore it. Legs, damn legs, get the better of reason every time.
You also have an insurance policy: “It’s only on paper. I would never do those things.” Oh, how you are unfaithful, secret deeds in thought and word. One hint of pornography and you’re hooked, staring at a peep show through a gap in the wall. Titillated and tantalized to read more, looking over your shoulder to see if anyone is watching. Reading dark shadows in daylight gives more pleasure, like having sex in public places.
They always do this, you say. But you read it every time, about our rumored, illicit affairs. Still, you can’t see the wefts of the webs, strung high in the corners of the room.
— ♦♦♦ —
My hair is wild. You expect a scorpion to scuttle out from its cavernous waves. I run my fingers over the skin of your shoulder. There’s a bullet wound or a scar. You tell an anecdote about how you got it. I look down at the sheets with my oh-so-sultry eyes. I’m about to tell you a secret.
“I lied about Tony. He’s not a nice guy. He pays us to say that.”
“I could’ve told you that.”
“You’ve got to do something about him.”
“I’m working on it.”
“He feeds the girls bad dope, then…”
“Ever done it to you?”
I don’t answer.
— ♦♦♦ —
It is morning, a sparse time of day. The concrete is gritty. People are walking to work, heads down, eyes bleary with hangover. Rubber tires crunch as you pull into the parking lot of the Golden Age. The place is a myth, with its fake stage and bright lights. Human during the day, Mount Olympus at night, glowing golden over the city. The club is open. An easy break in. Chairs sit empty facing the stage, waiting for the performers to enter and sing their sad, soulful tales.
You sneak upstairs to the empty starlet’s room, past a kitchen where people are arguing about the cost of resupply. Empty, you slip in to peruse Madeline’s items. There’s no police cordon, no warning signs; they haven’t even identified the body. But you know it was her in that half-tone print picture. So how come I didn’t call the cops either?
You turn your search to my side of the room. You knock over the lipstick, leaving it to roll back and forth on the table. You open the compact and check behind you. Nothing but cobwebs in the corners of the room. You throw my hat in the corner. Is there anything else to me except these three things? My lips, my hat, and my image? Once you get rid of them, I’m just a cardboard cutout of an ill remembered star.
But there’s still the drawer. And inside, ready for you to find is the dope.
— ♦♦♦ —
You march downstairs to look for me, through a surreal wonderland of papier-mâché. Everything is fake. There is a plastic palm tree on your right, a feathered dress on your left and a gun in your back.
“Turn around buddy,” says Tony.
You turn around with your hands rising. “Leave your thugs at home today?”
But this banter between you feels false. It’s something you’ve hashed out a thousand times before in a thousand reams of paper sold at a dollar a pop. You look at each other, as if you’re just waking up to the reality of living in a world propped up by cheap words.
But before you can realize too much, the stage door bangs open. Tony’s gun turns to face the intruder but there is no one there. You jump fast behind the palm tree. You pull your gun. Tony fires at you, clips the palm. Plastic shards fly off in your face. Tony lurches through the props towards the stage. You fire back and the mobster goes down, down, down to the orchestra pit.
He dies too easy, as if we are repeating a film that is repeating a book that is repeating a film that is…
Instead of checking on the thug, you open the stage door. I’m standing there illuminated in the morning sun. I throw myself on you, in a bad embrace reserved for departing lovers.
“Thank God! When I saw Tony I thought he’d kill you.”
“I didn’t think you were the sentimental type.”
“How can you say that?” I ask. You release me from our embrace and look into my eyes.
“You were the one feeding her bad dope.”
“What? You’re joking, aren’t you? Come on. Let’s get out of here before the cops arrive.” I pull at your arm, urging you to leave.
But my hair and legs betray me. Femme fatale. I tried to seduce you, therefore I want to kill you.
“You wanted the Golden Age for yourself. Once Madeline was out of the way, Tony was the only one stopping you. And you wanted me to take Tony out, make it look like self-defense.”
“It wasn’t me. I swear it wasn’t me!” I walk backwards as you approach, brushing props and looking for a way out. This is where I should turn, smug grin on my face, eyebrow arched. Where my personality acknowledges the seduction in my voice. But I don’t.
“Please don’t hurt me. He drugged me too.”
“How do you explain the dope in your drawer?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I cry. I run for Tony’s gun. You’re going to kill me. It’s my last chance. I thought we had something together. But as I run across the stage, you fire. I fall, arm lingering just over the edge of the orchestra pit, reaching for the gun.
You turn me over, as I breathe my last. You take one last kiss.
— ♦♦♦ —
I’ve been looking for a way out for years now. Just another woman lingering in the footnotes of pulp’s golden age. We’re all the same, with our red lipstick and veiled hats. We all walk in the same doors to the same offices.
“I heard you killed me,” I say. You look up from the typewriter on your desk, desperately trying to place my familiar face. That’s because you’ve killed me so many times before. The broad gets it. The end. You’re a serial killer.
So I’ve come to find you for one final case. Revenge.
I am the femme fatale, pen raised to strike like a scorpion sting.
Like a clown gun, I go bang.
And you realize, as redness blooms in the weft of your shirt, that there are more than two women in this world. Not just the sort to be pitied and the sort to plot. The jury cries “Not guilty!” but I am condemned by the book, the page and convention.
I smear the lipstick from my face like blood, stepping my heel over your dead body.
A woman walks out.
— ♦♦♦ —
The Raven: Part 2. By Ike Keen, Art by L.A. Spooner
Be sure to check back next week for a return to “The Raven” by Ike Keen. This is the second installment of a two-part story about the vigilante who strikes fear into all that do evil. Keen first introduced us to the masked vigilante on May 7, 2017. You have to see how his story plays out. Will The Raven finally meet an enemy that he cannot defeat? You can only find out by reading the second installment next week.