Story by Nick Swain
Illustration by Sheik
You look like an angel
Walk like an angel
Talk like an angel
But I got wise,
You’re the devil in disguise!
Part 2: Living Dead
Amelia LeMaire. She was going to die; the Man was certain of that. She’d failed to kill him, and the cops and doctors hadn’t been able to hold him. Now, he’d have his revenge. Now he would kill Amelia.
But not in the hospital whites he was still sporting.
He snuck into the back of a department store by way of the fire-escape. Once inside, he managed to snag a black suit from the rack and a shirt from the shelf; then a pair of socks and loafers. He left the way he came in.
Then he went to a gas station and pinched two sandwiches, a coke, and a bottle of aspirin for the pain in his shoulder (which was killing him). The morphine back at the hospital had been much more practical for a gunshot wound, but chewing on some aspirin was better than nothing. On his way out, the counterman looked him over, almost contemptuously; like he knew what the Man had been doing but wasn’t feeling big enough to call him on it. He looked back to his game of solitaire when the Man passed (thumbing off the cap to the aspirin inside his pocket at the same time).
He stopped off at a diner and went into the restroom to examine his shoulder. The bandages were still dry, and without blushing splotches. Before leaving, he went through the jacket pockets of a man using the stall next to him; leaving the wallet, he got seven dollars and less than half a pack of Camels.
The Man was back on the streets then. Feeling more blended, and less like he had a big WANTED sign hanging from his back.
He knew his next move. He knew that he’d never find Amelia on his own; she would be out of the city by now, or maybe even the state. But he could find the others: Isaac, Eddie, and Chowder Head. They would still be here (he hoped).
But they would be laying low; hiding from the Cinelli mob. There had to be at least a dozen gunzos out there, sweeping the streets for the stick-up men who’d taken them for over a quarter of a million the day before.
Yes, they would be hiding out. But they were stupid; each of them in their own ways. And it would be likely they’d split up the cash by now. And just maybe one of the more moronic of the three was spreading some of that out on the town, leaving a nice trail for the Man to follow. They could be found; which was why he had to assume that no matter what, they were in on it – because without that he had nothing to go on. Nothing to help him find her.
A Man without a name, shuffling down the sidewalk of the city, lit one of his pilfered cigarettes and began the search for the woman who’d shot him and left him for dead after stealing the money he’d stolen only hours before; the same woman who had said not two minutes before that, that she loved him; the same woman he’d kill.
The Man spent the next few hours hitting every race-track, bar, and cathouse that he could think of. No one he came across gave up anything on who he was asking about; unsurprising.
But eventually, he met a dancer who overheard him mentioning the name “Chowder Head” to the barkeep, and after buying her a drink she opened up a bit. “Ain’t that just the dumbest name you ever heard of?” she’d asked. “I only remember it cause this fella I went out with last night said somethin’ about a friend of his by that name. Said the guy was in trouble, then he just ran off. Left me hangin’ with the drink bill, can you believe that? Lousy shyster.”
The man was a bookie named Mueller. The bar-broad said he could be found at a dive lounge called Sharkees; a small, grimy joint on the side of town openly governed by graft. The Man was familiar with it, and the cab he flagged down had him there in fifteen minutes.
“Wait here,” he told the driver.
Ambling into the lounge, the Man felt something like Randolph Scott stepping through the swinging doors of a saloon in hostile territory, like in one of those westerns. There were maybe eight heads; eight pairs of eyes on him all at once. The Man didn’t drop his gaze, and most of them turned away; they looked like barflies, buzzing sports talk around the open bottle. Dion and the Belmonts could be heard singing about tainted love from the colorful jukebox in farthest the corner.
He approached the bar, leaned over, and speaking loud enough for the others to catch, said, “I’m lookin’ for Mueller, friend.”
The sports mumble died, and the barkeep stopped what he was doing. After a second the background-talk started again, and the barkeep cocked his head towards the back of the lounge, where a man was shooting a lonely game of pool.
The Man started his way, minding the extra guy in the leather jacket and cap, observing the other man’s surroundings for him. The one with the cap whispered something just before the Man approached the table, but it’s player didn’t bother looking up.
“Howdy. I’m lookin’ for a guy named – “
“Yea, well I’ll bet right now he’s busy fuckin’ your mother,” the man said, knocking the 5-ball into a corner pocket.
The Man smirked; right to business was fine with him, he’d never been big on diplomacy.
As the fellow who he knew to be Mueller jabbed his cue forward, the Man snatched up the white ball, and juggled it in his palm; studying it as if it were some oddity that had fallen from the sky. The backup in the leather jacket stood and was within arms-reach in three short steps. As he reached out, the Man threw a fast-left hook, and the billiard ball connected with the goon’s jaw. A strange sound accompanied his drop – reminiscent of dice being rolled against an alley wall – and the Man knew it was broken teeth rattling across the floor.
Mueller swung on him with the pool-stick, but the Man ducked it and caught him in the ribcage with a hard right-hook. As Mueller leaned over gasping for the air taken from him, the Man put his loafer against Mueller’s ass and pushed lightly; he plopped over clutching his side – next to his former bodyguard, who was crawling around for the pieces of his teeth.
“You know,” the Man said towering above, “you really should be more careful, Mueller. Some guys actually have mothers.” He kicked Mueller hard then, and from behind came the sound of barstools scooting out and their occupants leaving through the door.
From the barkeep: “Hey look Mister, you can’t just – “
“Shut the fuck up,” he chided without looking back. Again, the Man put his foot against Mueller’s side, but this time he started pressing. “Chowder. Where is he?”
“Look… look guy, take it – “
He pressed harder, and Mueller’s cry of internal damage sent the last few patrons out the door.
“OK! OK, JESUS CHRIST!”
“Where is he?” he asked again coldly.
Mueller fought for gasps of air as he spoke: “He’s… he’s hidin’…he’s hidin’ out, alright! He’s got Cinelli’s boys after him. They think he had somethin’ to do with ripping them off!”
Mueller shook his head shamefully, and the Man raised his foot as if to strike him again.
“OK! OK! He’s in a vacant apartment on the other side of town, the one off’a Baker!”
“Ahh…ahh… the first floor, third room on the left.”
“You sure about that?”
“Yea, yea I swear to Christ! Now, will ya lay off ‘a me!”
“You really outta make some better friends, Mueller. You kids might keep hurtin’ yourselves.”
He left Sharkees and climbed back into the cab. “Baker Street, driver.”
“Ay, what’s going on in there anyway?”
“Bar fight,” the Man answered, rubbing his shoulder and popping a few more aspirins in his mouth to chew on. It was a good thing he’d used the pool ball, because even with that, his shoulder was throbbing.
The cab pulled off for Baker Street.
The sun had only begun to hint at its departure when a man named Chowder returned to the apartment complex he was hiding from the mob in. He had risked being seen by those he was hiding from to go to the market for a pint of brandy and some noodles. He peered in each direction before stepping into the building; he’d learned over the last couple days how important observation was.
Chowder twisted the door knob to room 1C; it was unlocked, but he’d left it that way. Not only did he not have a key, he knew it wouldn’t matter if he did have one; not if someone with Cinelli had found him.
He stepped inside, shifting the bag of groceries into his other arm while he turned on the light. When he did, someone flicked the other switch in the room, and it was dark again. He dropped the bag and flung a hand around for the gun in his waistband, but before he could even brush against the butt of it, powerful hands grasped the back of his jacket and he was being thrown into his (the former tenants) coffee table; he flopped off and toppled onto the floor. As he got to his knees and spat out what tasted like blood, the hands of someone he assumed was there to kill him flipped the vented part of his jacket up and took the pistol from his belt.
There were footsteps moving away from him, and then the light was back on. Chowder turned and was horrified to see a dead man, examining a revolver that had belonged to him just the day before.
“…you… you can’t… that’s not…” Chowder babbled, easing backwards at the same time, still on his ass.
The Man was doing his best to stifle the rage boiling over inside of him. He was holding his own magnum. The one he’d used on the job; the one he’d left with his clothes. So, Chowder had been in the room; had rifled through his things while he’d been lying there – dying.
Then so had the others.
“Ah shit… hey… hey look, listen – “
The Man went over and put the end of the magnums barrel against Chowder’s forehead; Chowder looked up crossed-eyed at the ominous, black-steel muzzle pressing just above his nose and started screaming: “AH JESUS, LOOK I SWEAR I DIDN’T HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH IT! I SWEAR I FUCKIN’ SWEAR!”
“Everything Chowder,” the man grunted through gritting teeth; exposed like an agitated dog. “I wanna know, everything.”
“I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me who shot you! It was her, I swear!”
“Yea, no shit. I wanna know why.”
“Why?” Chowder asked stupidly.
“Why she fuckin’ shot me!” It took everything for him not to squeeze the trigger then, and take it all out on Chowder.
“Isaac! Isaac made her do it! She was screwin’ Isaac from the start. It was their idea, me an Eddie didn’t like it, really! But they said it was happening whether we were ok with it or not, and that it was better for all of us if – “
The Man had stopped listening. When he heard that she… she and Isaac… the spot next to his heart where he’d been shot started aching all over again.
“– it was all his idea! You know Isaac, he’s fuckin’ crazy! He hated… hates you. He – “
“Where is she?”
“Who? The LeMaire dame?”
The Man thumbed the hammer back then, and Chowder could feel the gun’s cylinder rolling over and setting the next bullet in place.
“I DON’T KNOW! Really! After she… after she… you know. We all scrammed in the Chevy. There was this other hotel room they had ready. Only the double-cross didn’t just go for you…”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, that after we got to the room she made off out the bathroom window with the loot. We didn’t see that she was gone until we went back inside and busted the door down. That fuckin’ dame! It was her! She shot you and she crossed all three of us along with you! She’s the one – “
The Man took the gun from Chowder’s head and eased a few steps back. He was chuckling; chuckling to himself, to Chowder, and to each corner of the room – as though someone were there cackling with him; he looked quite insane for a moment. Then he finished and asked, “Where’ s Isaac?”
“At his place, I guess. After she made off with the dough, Isaac and Eddie was real mad, see. They went off in the car, lookin’ around for her, ya know? But they didn’t find nothin’, and Eddie went back to the Stockhelm hotel and Isaac went home.
“I tried goin’ home too. I knew that those guys saw me back during the caper. I knew Cinelli would have them come for me, but I thought I might have more time to get some of my things, ya know? But when I got to my place, there was this guy I’d never seen before… just standin’ there… waitin’… well, you know what he was waitin’ for as well as I do!
“I been here since.”
The Man contemplated in silence for a moment, taping the revolver pensively against the brush of his pants leg. And then he asked, “You know I came here to shoot you, right Chowder?”
“Ah hell, please listen – “
The Man cut in: “Be quiet, Chowder. I don’t have enough bullets to waste on shooting you. I believe what you said. You’re just an idiot.”
Chowder said nothing.
“Besides, it doesn’t matter what I do, Cinelli will find you eventually. And then one of them will kill you.”
Chowder’s mouth moved soundlessly, as though he could’ve rejected this statement; he couldn’t.
“Tell me one more thing, Chowder.”
Chowder remained wide-eyed and silent on the carpet floor.
“Where does Isaac live?”
5334 Amoretto Lane, first floor, the front apartment to the left. The curtains were drawn; he wouldn’t have even given Isaac credit for being that smart. The Man stood in the shadows of an alley across the street. The sun had finally set, and in the span of time it took for the brute named Isaac to leave the building, the man had smoked four of his cigarettes.
He knew it was Isaac. Even though Isaac was dressed in a crummy new suit and a hat to match. He’d never seen Isaac wear a hat before. Again, he didn’t think Isaac would be wise enough to feel the need to be inconspicuous. Isaac was carrying something. It was, yes, it was a black briefcase; even with nothing but the flickering street light to help him see, he could tell that it was the same he’d used to stash the cash in. But it couldn’t be that one; Amelia had apparently spilt with that case. Hit the highway, making fools out of all of them, – but one of them most exclusively.
He watched as Isaac staggered up the sidewalk and hailed a cab. The cab passed, and its passengers didn’t notice the stranger appear from the alley, crossing the street into the next lane of darkness.
There was another window in the buildings alleyway, and after a moment of delicate prying, the Man found it was unlocked; Isaac couldn’t think of everything.
The room he crawled into was darker than the alley he’d come from, but the minute light from outside let him know that it was the bedroom. He used the barrier of the door – its frame highlighted by the light source on the other side of it – to help mute the sound of his pistols hammer being inched back gently; the trigger tightened, and as he seemed to glide forward he could hear the muffled voices of a radio through the door.
Either there was somebody else in there, or wise guy Isaac had left everything on.
The Man wasn’t going to risk being wrong about either.
He flung the door open and pounced into the den with his magnum aimed at a high angle from his hip; ready to start blasting if even the picture on Isaac’s television so much as glimmered too fast.
She was standing there; Amelia, was standing there. She was smoking and leaning against the wall by the radio, looking just like she had the day before (why not, it had only been a day). Before her mouth gaped and the ash from her cigarette shook to the floor, she even bore the same haughty expression that could only be described as constant societal disdain.
The Man had his own expression; it was an irrational-mix of fury, shock, loathing, hurt – and maybe even some joy; she was here, with him again. But he had the gun this time.
He thought she might faint, but she didn’t. After a moment, she masked her own surprise and dragged on her cigarette, then: “I knew you’d come for me.”
It took the Man just a second longer to pull himself together, and then he managed to speak. “You saw the paper?” He was surprised how somewhat amiable he had sounded, under the circumstances.
“No. I haven’t. But I knew you’d come back for me. Or your ghost would anyway.”
He moved toward her, his steps echoed threateningly against the small rooms hardwood floor. “Yea, I’m back, but I ain’t a ghost. Your aim is slipping, doll face.”
He stopped then.
“I’m sorry I – “
“Yea. Yea, you’re sorry,” he cut in, “sorry you didn’t’ plug me that second time. Especially now.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I did lov – “
“Don’t fuckin’ say it. If I had a penny for every time I was dumb enough to fall for that line… but no more of that, kitty cat.”
“I did…” this was where she would’ve said his name – if he’d had one. “It’s just that I’m no good. Like Barbara says in Double Indemnity, do you remember that? I’ve been thinking about that night at the theater a lot lately; what she said. Because I really am no good. And neither are you. I just made the first move.”
It disturbed him to know that she had been thinking about that day, much as he had back in the hospital; but not as much as it did to hear her excuses. “Shut up. Sit down.”
She did as she was told, and he dragged a chair from the table and joined her by the window. She must’ve been the brains behind the drawn curtain after all.
Her black skirt wasn’t exactly short, but it was slim; beginning from above her white- shirted waist to a considerable few inches above her ankles. Her legs were still adorned in a pair of nylon stockings; provocatively suggesting he should let his guard down around her – forget the fact that she’d shot him point blank in the chest. Beautiful; like a Venus fly trap must be to some dumb, enticed bug just before it’s devoured. Her beauty was venomous and he couldn’t forget that.
After a moment, with the revolver balanced on his knee in her direction, he spoke: “So Isaac, huh?”
She shunned away.
“Is that what you’re still doing here? Chowder Head told me you spilt on all three of them with the loot. Isaac included.”
“Isaac’s nothing but a mad-dog free off his leash!” she lashed out. “Yea, I took a powder with the money. But Isaac was in on it. I was supposed to come here, and after they gave up looking for me he came back and found out I wasn’t.
“Only he found me. I made a go for the finish line and now he’s got me by the throat with an anchor.” She brushed her hair aside and the Man could see the faintest trace of a blackened eye. “He took my gun, and’s been keeping me here ever since.”
“Yea? Well if he’s got you so trapped, how come you’re still here? He’s gone, I know he is -” he stopped talking, remembering what Isaac had been carrying. It had been the same Attaché case after all. He began to laugh; not just to be cruel to her, but because it was truly amusing to him. She was good… real good…
He spoke through the chuckling, “… I know why… because he took the money with him, wherever he went off to. Oh… Oh… that’s real nice…”
“Why haven’t you killed me yet?”
He stopped laughing. That was a good question; he wasn’t so sure of the answer himself. There was a round ready in the chamber of his gun and it was one of the few he had meant to use on her black heart – the same heart he was starting to think was roughly the same size and shape as the ace of spades; that had been the plan all along, and two stops later, here she was. But suddenly there was more to it. There was the money, and there was the fact that they had all conspired against him. He didn’t seem to care much about anything anymore, but he did know that he wanted them all to pay; wanted them all to have a taste of what they’d given him. And maybe that’s why he didn’t kill her; not then at least.
“What time does Isaac come back?”
“Why?” she asked suspiciously.
“Because I’m gonna kill him. You got a problem with that?”
She glared at him, not understanding. But then she said, “Nine o clock. He’ll be back here at nine o clock.”
The Man tucked his revolver back in his belt and started to the door, “At exactly ten o clock, I want you to unlock this door. Not matter what, you understand me?”
“No, I don’t. Why haven’t you shot me yet? You know you could just wait for Isaac to get back here yourself. Isn’t that why you came here?”
He eyed her over, wondering if the fact that she was always on his mind was what enabled her to read his thoughts. “I’ve got business with all of you, and this time I want Isaac to know he’s the one that’s been crossed. Remember what I said; exactly ten o clock.”
She nodded acceptingly, “Fine. But if I can get my gun back before then, don’t bother.”
The Man motioned his index finger and bent-up thumb towards her as if it were a gun; he winked passionlessly and dropped his thumb-hammer, saying: “Yea I know, killer. One other thing… leave the window I came through open.”
He had a plan alright. Isaac would get it almost exactly the way he’d gotten it. He’d find out the unscrupulous woman he was bedding had really screwed him good this time, and just when it couldn’t get any worse for him, the others would be there. He’d thought of it back in the apartment: he’d let Eddie and Chowder know what their buddy Isaac had been up to, and who and what he had at his place.
Then they could all kill each other for him, and he’d be $350,000 richer for it.
Only when he got back to Baker Street, he found Chowder had taken off. Nothing in the apartment besides discarded cigarette-butts and market trash. For a minute or two, he thought his bright idea had been too clever from the start; he’d gotten greedy with his own revenge scheme. And then he remembered where Chowder said Eddie was staying.
He got back to the lobby and used the pay phone, telling the operator to get him the Stockhelm Motel. He didn’t have a last name to give the clerk who answered, but the kid knew exactly who he meant when he said, the “rough-faced gentleman”.
He connected him to the room. “Yea?” came Eddie’s raspy voice.
“It’s the dead man,” the Man said.
There were whispers in the background; Chowder was there. “What do you want?”
“I’m at Chowders former hole-in-the-wall. But I’m glad he’s there cause I wanna talk to both of you.”
“How did you know he was here?” Eddie responded quickly.
“Well ain’t he?”
“Yea, he came here talkin’ crazy. I didn’t believe him till just now.”
“Yea, well I got somethin’ else you might want to believe.” He told them then; about how Isaac had really been in on the second double-cross with Amelia; even about how she’d tried getting away from him after it, but he’d found her and had been holding her prisoner with the dough; how there was a new plan.
That did interest Eddie. And so, the Man finished, and told them exactly what he wanted them to do, when he wanted them to do it… and what he wanted them to bring.
The Man’s idea was all good with Eddie, which made it ok with Chowder, and they both thought it sounded easy enough to pull-off… As long as the money would still be split-up evenly, of course. No hard feelings about before.
And the plan was set.
The Man hung the phone back in its cradle and left the building whistling.
He didn’t notice the shadow of a man watching from the second-floor, pacing down the staircase and following him outside.
— ♦♦♦ —
Fuel of Fools. By Lee Blevins, Art by L.A. Spooner
Ever since Bertrand Click was rendered incorporeal by a factory explosion, he’s been trying to figure out what happened and who was responsible. Will he finally get his answers? This is a sequel to “Smoke Is My Shadow”.