Posting more fiction, because why not? Also a candidate for inclusion in the Grad portfolio, but who knows.
He was waiting outside for me in a pool of streetlight as I walked out of the Times building: a tall drink of water in a pinstriped suit, fedora perched cockeyed across his forehead. He stepped out of the light toward me. The pool of yellow slid off his shoulders like water, and I felt that there was something so familiar about this man.
“You’re Joyce Cummings,” he said.
“I’m tired, is what I am,” I said. I tucked my purse under my shoulder, pulled on my gloves and tried not to feel the weariness of the press conference this morning; the mayor in behind the podium, teetering in the heat until he collapsed on the stage. The feedback of the microphone as it fell. The frantic hours afterward on the phone to the hospital, begging for news.
“Well I’m Glenn Baker, and I’m a fan.” He stuck out his hand, “The work you did on the ‘32 Summer Olympics was art.”
I placed my gloved hand in his, and we shook. “Thank you very much,” I said, and smiled.
“Let me take you for a drink?” he asked.
I tipped my head back to look at him and realized that, even in heels, the top of my curled coif only came to his chin. His eyes were deep as a glass of whiskey, and the pinstripes of his pants hugged him well.
“Why don’t you take me out for a drink,” I said. Maybe if he hadn’t had that Hollywood smile I wouldn’t have said it.
“I know a place just down the street from here.”
“Then lead the way, Mr. Baker.”
The sign out front said The Florentine, and it was swanky inside. A bar full of glass bottles lined the left wall and tiny, leather booths the right. Chandeliers hung over each table, their light reflected in the mirrored walls behind them. Gold drapes swished over every door, and clouds of cigarette smoke billowed. The place was packed with men in suits. A few women in tight dresses and too much makeup speckled the crowd, giggling over their drinks. In the dim light, a jazz combo began to play something slow.
“I’m underdressed,” I said over the noise, looking down at my brown tweed skirt.
“You’re perfect,” he said. “There’s a table in the back, follow me.”
We picked our way through the crowd to a booth in the corner. It was quieter there. I tucked my purse and hat next to my feet. When I looked up, a girl in a low cut cocktail dress appeared at the edge of our table.
“What can I get you, Mr. – ” she said.
“– I’ll have a Gibson,” he broke in, “and the lady will have…”
“The lady will have the same,” I said.
Baker raised his eyebrow.
“I’ve been tossing them back with the newspaper boys for longer than you’d imagine,” I said. “I’m used to being the only skirt in a room full of pants. Now let’s cut to it. Why did you really ask me out tonight?”
“I told you, I’m a fan,” he said.
I shook my head. “Nobody’s just a fan. Maybe you liked my picture too. Or maybe you think I have information about something and you want it. Sure, you’re a fan. But regular fans don’t show up at the office and ask to take a girl out.”
“So I’m not a regular fan,” he said.
“Then what kind of a fan are you?”
“The needy kind, I guess.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Listen, Miss Cummings, you’re right. I like your work, but I’m also in trouble. You seemed like the kind of woman who would be willing to help a guy.”
“I’m better at getting myself into trouble than getting others out of it,” I said.
“Look, I didn’t want to do things this way. Let’s have a nice night, and then you can come back to my place and I’ll explain it all.”
I looked at the concerned crease between his eyes, and at his broad shoulders. I leaned forward. “I believe the standard currency for coming back to your place is dinner and a movie. We can have a nice night, but you’d better tell me here.”
“I didn’t mean…” he said.
“Of course you didn’t, you just weren’t thinking.” I put my hand on his. “Listen, don’t worry Mr. Baker. Just tell me, what is it you want to talk about?”
“I don’t know. I guess let’s talk about you.”
I laughed “I’m not very interesting I’m afraid. Been wedded to work for years. I don’t do anything unless there’s a story involved. Men don’t like that very much, so I assume you’re the same.”
“Where did you grow up?” he asked.
“Boring little town thirty miles east of here. Nothing but orange groves and packing houses for miles,” I said. “I left as soon as I could, and there’s no story there. New subject. Where did you grow up?”
“I guess I’d rather not talk about it,” he said.
The waitress arrived with our drinks. She placed two martini glasses on the table, and winked at Baker. “You all just let me know if you need anything else!” she said as she turned on her heels and disappeared back into the crowd.
“Look Mr. Baker,” I said, “It’s loud in here. The sooner you tell me what’s on your mind, the sooner you can stop worrying. No one will overhear in this din.”
Baker grasped the base of his glass twice, and then raised it to his lips and drank. The glass wobbled as he set it back on the table. “I hardly know where to start,” he said.
“Wherever you’d like,” I replied. The sweet aroma of a good story hung thick in the air. I could taste it.
“I guess it all started with Ida,” he said, “or rather, it started when Ida and I ended, and I found out how many debts she had racked up.” He took another sip from his drink. “She had to have that mink coat, y’know, and the fancy dinners all over town. And the gilded hotel rooms she visited with other men. I thought we were in love, but she just up and left me with the bills one morning and it was then I saw who she was. Pretty clear. But by then I was up to my neck. I borrowed the money to pay the debts from people I shouldn’t have. It was the worst mistake of my life.”
I waited, watching the condensation gather on my glass.
“I have money now, plenty of it,” he continued, “but they won’t let me pay. I’ve been performing little tasks for them for years. Acquiring things. You know what I’m saying?”
“And where do I come in?” I said.
“You have my final payment. At least, that’s what they said. I don’t know how they would know. A little white envelope the Mayor handed you this afternoon.”
A shot of adrenaline rushed through my veins like iced gin. The sweltering heat of the afternoon; the Mayor collapsing on the hot pavement, foam gurgling from his mouth. In the chaos, I was sure no one had seen me tuck the white envelope into my own jacket. I didn’t tell anyone I had it. I learned a long time ago not to let anyone know what you’ve got until the story is written. They’ll just pat you on the head, call you darling, and suggest that it’s too dangerous. Billy should take it from here. I don’t know how Baker knew anything about the envelope.
“Who are ‘they’?” I asked.
“I don’t know. If I knew, maybe I’d be outta this mess.”
“And what’s in the envelope?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” he said.
“Presuming I have it.”
“Well, yes. Presuming you have it.”
“And presuming I’ve opened it, too.”
He cleared his throat. “Well yes, that too.”
“I can’t help you,” I said.
He downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp and winced. “Yes, I thought you might say that. I’m afraid I don’t have anything clever worked out in response. Look, Miss Cummings, it’s a matter of life and death for me. These guys don’t play around, and if I don’t cough up the envelope they’ll take it out of my flesh instead. I’m not asking you to hand over the envelope this second. I’m not even asking if you have it. I’m just asking you not to refuse me help until you’ve thought it over.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Baker, you seem like a nice enough fellow,” I said. I swirled the straw around in my drink. “But I can’t help you unless you help me.”
“Help you how?” he said.
I leaned forward. “The envelope is in code; a jumble of nonsense words. I can’t read it. I need a scoop to bring to the boys at the office. I haven’t had a juicy one in months. You get me the code, the letter is yours.”
A faint clapping filled the bar as the jazz combo switched to a new song. I watched the surge of people moving through the bar. Men breathed plumes of smoke into the air. One held cigarette and high ball in the same hand, to wrap the other around a girl’s waist and whisper in her ear. Serving girls distributed sloshing glasses of alcohol throughout the room. Light glinted off the saxophone as the performers swayed to their music.
“Pardon, then. I should have known,” he said.
“Known what?” I asked.
“I recognized that look in your eye right away, the cold behind your baby blues. As soon as you get what you need from me, you’ll leave me twisting, Doll.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Baker,” I shrugged.
“You’re not sorry,” he hissed. “Lies don’t become you, Miss Cummings.”
I took a gulp of my drink. It was sour as it trickled down my throat.
He laughed, dry and mirthless. “You have me trapped just where you want me. But I’ll be damned before I just hand it over. If I get you the code, you produce the letter, and we translate it together.”
I took another sip from the martini glass before I reached into my purse and pulled out a slender cigarette. I brought it to my lips. He found a lighter in his pocket, and held the flame. I pulled the smoke into my lungs and let it out in a slim, curling tendril.
I thought of the envelope tucked into the front of my jacket pocket. It would be so easy to lift it out and hand it to him, to forget I ever saw it. He sat slumped in the booth beside me, lines creasing his handsome face, staring into the distance. He swallowed hard.
I stabbed the end of the cigarette into my drink, and picked up my purse and hat. “I should be going. Walk me out?”
“Whatever you say, Miss Cummings,” he said. He dropped some money on the table and we picked our way out of the crowded bar. The night had turned cool, a crisp breeze pushing aside the heat of the day.
“Look,” he said, “Don’t go home angry. I got a little hot in there, I’m a heel.” He grabbed my hand and I let him take it.
“You are most definitely a heel,” I said, “and you were probably right. About all of it.”
We walked a ways down the street to a row of apartments. It was quiet and the moon was bright. A car drove past, and the headlights made the world of shadows spin around us. We stopped walking.
“You’re beautiful, Joyce, you know that?” he whispered, pushing a curl away from my cheek. He kissed my cheek, and his lips were soft. The blood rushed in my ears. My heart hammered. I was alive.
It seemed like ages had passed when he pulled away, but it was only seconds. He cleared his throat and rubbed the back of his neck. “I shouldn’t have…”
“Let’s stop with the apologies,” I said. “You know what I want from you . Code for letter. Best of luck, Mr. Baker.” I walked away, feeling the light of the streetlight slip over my shoulders this time. I knew that if I had been a different girl, that kiss might have melted me. Still, something in me wanted to grip that letter tighter than the mayor had.
He looked better than I remembered when he slid out of the shadows again later that week, and that air of deep familiarity struck me again. There was a cut across his cheekbone now, and it gave him a rakish air that fit with his easy manner.
I smiled. “I presume this means…”
“I have what you asked me for,” he said.
“Mr. Baker, you are my hero,” I said. He had delivered on his promise.
“And if you have the letter with you, then you’re mine. I don’t think I have much time and I might have been followed. We can’t go back to the bar. We have to go somewhere else, somewhere not public. I know you said you wouldn’t come back to my place…” he trailed off.
I couldn’t invite him into the news room. Not until I had the story wrapped up, with my name on the byline. “We’ll go to my apartment,” I said.
We strode over the sidewalk together, headlights of cars wheeling past and casting circling shadows through the night. I turned the key on the wooden door as he waited in the palm tree covered courtyard. We stepped into my stark living room; only a bookshelf, a yellow floral couch, and a bare wooden table to break up the white stucco walls. I tossed my things on the table and turned to Baker.
“Well,” he said, “you said you had it.”
He pulled a receipt from his hip pocket. Black scrawl covered the back of it.
I reached into the inside of my coat. The white envelope glowed in the darkness between us. The letter crinkled as I unfolded it. I spread it on the kitchen table and began to translate.
“Evidence that Franco Bianchi’s gang is blackmailing the city council is taped to the bottom drawer in my office. Don’t tell the police, they’re on his side.” it said.
I closed my notebook and stood. This was bigger than anything I’d ever had before, and the filing deadline for the paper was early. I grabbed my hat and gloves absently, and walked toward the door.
“I have to get back to the office,” I said.
“Miss Cummings,” Baker said, and I turned. “My envelope?”
I held it out to him. My thumb and finger gripped it where the prints of the mayor had crinkled the corner.
He took the envelope from my hand as if it would shatter at the slightest touch. A slow smile spread across his face. The creases in his forehead smoothed. He tucked it into the inner pocket of his own jacket.
When he removed his hand from the pocket, it was not empty. Something glinted silver in the moonlight, and I saw that it was a small pistol with a wooden handle.
“Mr. Baker,” I said. I grabbed the back of one of the ladder back chairs, moving my body behind the thin rails. It would be no shield at all, I realized.
“If I’m going to kill you, we should be on a first name basis. Don’t you think, Joyce?”
The silence filled my apartment. My mouth was dry and I swallowed. The back door was behind him. The front door was too far to outrun a practiced trigger finger and a slick silver bullet. I stood, still and tall.
“Fine, Glenn,” I said. I willed my voice not to waver.
“Most people call me Franco,” he said.
In that instant in my living room I realized where I knew him; in the dim light, I saw his face as it appeared in the black and white pages of the paper.
“Franco Bianchi,” I whispered.
“You really are beautiful, Doll,” he said, “but I can’t have any witnesses, especially not witnesses from the press. And I can’t let you write that story about the mayor.”
He pushed down the brim of his hat and fired. The world spun, and my back hit the slick wood of the apartment floor. I thought of the mayor and the way he toppled from the podium. There was no one to rush to my side here, no one I could give a small white envelope. The story would die with me. I had been a fool, too eager for a byline and too trusting of familiarity. Something warm, dark, and sticky seeped through my tweed jacket and into my hair. I had tried to be the hard boiled reporter, and in the end I was still nothing but an easy mark. The sound of the lock clicked and I realized I was alone. I stared at the pattern of swirling stucco on the ceiling, watching the pattern fade and focus, and then fade out again.