She Was A Swell Looker
Rena had worked here singing her lungs out for sixteen years. She’d had enough, enough of being an item on the menu.
The men imagined her as meat, more delectable than the stuff that was served as food. This was the day she was going to quit. She was going to walk into Jimmy’s office and tell him she wanted out – or a raise. And it’d have to be a big one. If not, she was going to quit.
Jennie had advised against it.
“You know what he is, he’s a gangsta. How can you trust him?”
“What I got to lose?” Rena said, freshening her makeup with a puff.
“You don’t mean that, honey.”
Jennie began freshening her lipstick, which was as deeply red as blood. “Like the color?”
Rena felt Jennie was trying to send her a message. But she really wasn’t scared, she didn’t know why. Maybe the sixteen years on the makeshift platform they called a bandstand had turned her into a cynic, and over time she had become immune to feelings.
“Nothin’ gonna happen to me.”
“You take chances,” her friend said.
“I played it safe too long,” continued Rena, easily, stretching her “lazy legs.”
On certain days of the week she’d advertise them for nylons. The photographer had lifted the moniker from Scarlet Street. Joan Bennet played a character her paramour had nicknamed “lazy legs.” Rena’s legs were smooth and straight and she was still really proud of, at the age of thirty four.
“Well, don’t you go and get killed, girl. You n’me, we bin friends a whole time, huh? You always bin mah best friend. An’ my best drinkin’ partner, too,” Jennie drawled.
She smiled as she took a long pull on her drink, a very green Grasshopper, in a frosted glass.
“Look,” she said, suddenly opening her purse.
Rena couldn’t see into the purse from where she sat, so she leaned over the table. Jennie held the purse open for her to see: it was a small caliber Derringer. Jennie took it out and placed it discretely on the palm of her hand.
“Go on, take it. Just in case,” she urged. “You never know.”
The Derringer had an ivory handle, and it was gold-plated.
“Just don’t lose it,” she said. She passed the gun under the table. At first, Rena didn’t want it, but as Jennie was so insistent, she took it from her. Covertly, she slipped the small handgun into her own purse, which had a long strap that hung over her shoulder.
“What am I supposed to do with it?” she asked, lamely.
“Use it, but don’t shoot – unless you have to.”
Jennie considered herself an expert in intimidation. She winked at Rena.
The club was starting to fill up, people of all types gradually drifting in,
women in furs, men in black suits and ties, some heavies with bulging pockets.
A group of drunks, suckers no doubt from out of town, staggered in, holding each other and laughing uproariously at some private joke, and finding a table near the bandstand, where musicians were gathering and opening up their instruments. The piano player hit a couple of chords and started talking to the saxophone player.
“Hey, play Melancholy Baby!” someone shouted from the burgeoning crowd – suddenly, it was as if a dam had broken, and they poured in like a waterfall.
“My set’s coming up,” Rena said, observing the men with visible contempt.
“Hey, it’s a clip joint,” Jennie reminded her, lazily. “What’d you expect?”
“I got to get going,” Rena said, getting to her feet, “if I’m going to talk to Jimmy before my set.” She blew out a smoke ring, then she crushed out her cigarette in the ashtray. She looked determined.
Rena was attractive. She was a blonde, five feet eight – high heels added another two inches or so.
With a white fox stole draped over her shoulders, and an exotic evening dress that hugged her hips, most men thought she made a great package. She knew how to use all this to her advantage. She was also proud of her upper torso and she was particular about how she displayed it, always leaving enough unexposed to leave ’em wanting more. She made an impressive entrance. She was about to make such an entrance into Jimmy Little’s office to demand a raise, or she was going to take up a rival club’s offer. Across the street was The Blue Rose.
Mickey Scaloni had wanted her for a long time, but her singing was only the icing on the cake, he’d expressed a strong interest in her other talents. She would turn them down, she had no interest in any fringe benefits and had no interest in Scaloni. She only wanted to leverage her advantage with Jimmy.
Rena tried never to show fear. Jimmy could smell fear, and halfway up the winding staircase she faltered, her hand on the banister. The club was filling up fast and the chatter was getting louder in her ears. She felt them turning red.
Then a hand clamped down on her arm, and squeezed.
She felt a surge of panic rising up from the pit of her stomach.
It was Jimmy.
His face was a sphere dented on one side where they’d inserted a metal plate “where his brain used to be,” people said. Nobody actually knew if he’d served in the military. More likely it had been a different kind of war, in Chicago, during Prohibition. He was rumored to have known Al Capone.
Jimmy was a hard man, no different from the others she’d known along the Strip. He had his ear to the ground and didn’t miss much.
Rena kept her cool and managed to dig up a warm smile from somewhere deep inside her gut.
Jimmy, in his usual breezy manner, put his arm around her shoulder, fingering the fox stole possessively.
They passed some people coming down, Jimmy winking at them as he did at his better customers.
He unlocked the door to his office and pushed her in, then closed the door behind them, then he spun her around.
“I know what you bin thinkin’,” he said. “You wanna work for that dope across the street!” He slapped her across the face. “Think I don’t know that?”
She’d been slapped before. But his threatening look froze her. When he released her, she felt the blood in her veins run warm again, but she was afraid. She leaned back against the door and groped for the doorknob.
Her purse was still hanging off her shoulder, but her fur was on the floor. She picked it up, as Jimmy turned his back to go behind his desk, and had to let go of the doorknob.
“I’d rather work for you,” she replied, sounding like silk. But she experienced the frigid touch of terror in her veins.
She picked up her stole.
“I got something’ else for ya, even nicer,” Jimmy told her, reaching into the safe behind his desk. His voice sounded sinister.
Rena reached inside her purse. The fur which she’d draped over herself again covered her move. She felt the cold steel in the same fingers which had moments before been groping for an escape. This escape was more definite, if more desperate.
Now Jimmy stepped around the desk, toward her. Was he smiling? He carried something in his hand. He came up to her and extended it.
“What’s this?” she asked, quavering.
“Take a look.”
Did he still looks as vicious?
She held the jewel case in her hand, having released her hold on the gun.. Inside was a sparkling necklace of pearls comprised of two strands, intertwined. She was trying to figure out what to do when the phone rang.
Jimmy went off to answer it.
He spoke gruffly for a few seconds, then hung up. He turned to Rena and said: “I have to see Jack down at the bar about something. Be back in a minute, but don’t you go nowhere, baby!.”
Rena stared at them then back up at Jimmy.
“Why?” she asked.
“You figure it out.”
He came up to her and kissed her on the cheek. “You’re still the best canary in this part of town,” he said, and went out.
The word “canary” stuck in her mind.
Rena waited a moment, then took the necklace out and splayed it across her hand. It was quite dark in that corner of the room, so she took it to the big lamp on Jimmy’s desk. Behind her, she noticed that Jimmy had left the safe ajar.
She switched on the lamp and examined the jewels under the light. She brought up the necklace close to her eyes. She was thrilled by the glow that danced in her vision. She tried different angles under the spot lamp. Then she breathlessly put it down on the desk.
Absently, feeling good about things – perhaps she could stay with Jimmy after all – she fingered a small, heavy statuette, a bust of Napoleon, of all things. She nearly laughed out loud. She picked up the bust – why did they call it a “bust,” anyway? Again, she almost laughed.
Then, she did laugh. Openly. She didn’t know why, exactly. But she found it funny that Jimmy – little puny Jimmy – could have such pretensions.
The bust, however, was heavy. She tried to put it down, using one hand as she reached over the slight space to place it back where it was – she didn’t want Jimmy to know she had handled it -but for some reason her hand was unable to take the weight; she felt the little statue slip a little, then as she tried to grab it with her other hand, Napoleon’s head and shoulders landed on top of the necklace.
Horrified, Rena scrambled to restore the desk, but when she picked up the bust she was even more horrified by what she saw: the necklace! The pearls! Crushed!
A wave of heat passed over her. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Paste! The pearls were fake!
She didn’t waste time in commiserating with herself. She was going to leave, now. Never to come back.
As she turned to walk away, she noticed the safe again, its tiny door still invitingly open. There was a large bundle of money tied up with a rubber band. Actually, there were three bundles, all tied up the same way and tempting her with such avarice as she had never experienced before. It was simple payback for what she had endured.
Without further thought, she swung round and peered more closely into the safe. She’d have to be fast, really fast. Sending Jimmy’s appearance any second, she grabbed the three packs of beautiful green money and stuffed them into her bag. At that moment, Jimmy returned, entering silently, as he always did. She hadn’t heard his step on the lush carpeting.
He stopped dead and stared at her with a venomous look, his mouth curling like a rabid dog’s.
“Ah,” he said, hardly a breath. But she heard it, felt it right across the room.
She acted quickly, reaching quickly into her handbag. In a second, she had the Derringer in her hand.
“You owe me,” she said, evenly.
“What’d I owe you?” he asked, throatily.
He started toward her. “Don’t move, Jimmy, because I’ll do you if you come any closer.”
“What the hell’s the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Look at these pearls!” she shouted, throwing them at him in a fury.
The chain broke and the fake pearls scattered in all directions, but mostly they ended up at Jimmy’s feet. He looked down at them as if he didn’t know what they were.
“Paste!” she screamed. “They’re nothing but paste!”
He started toward her again, his arms in a supplicating gesture that she knew was as fake as the pearls.
“And you called me a canary. I never squealed to anyone.”
He looked scared. “Hey, that’s not the way I meant it, baby!”
She didn’t wait. She pulled the trigger. The Derringer went off like a small canon. She saw the man crumple up, holding his belly. He still kept coming and she cocked and fired again, this time from the other barrel, and Jimmy reeled back holding his eye this time. He screamed and fell backwards, landing with a heavy thud.
There was a terrible silence as the little bit of smoke cleared. She could smell something unfamiliar, she didn’t know what it was, and then she remembered: cordite.
She stood paralyzed for what seemed like ages. Nobody came in, there was no commotion anywhere, all she was could hear was the overarching noise of the crowd of people downstairs in the main lounge. She heard the band start up with a tune, and became suddenly aware of what she’d done.
What she’d done so quickly and efficiently, without a second thought. Even now as she stared down at the corpse of the man she’d hated for so long, she didn’t feel anything.
Never Die Alone
She wasn’t really sure how long she’d stood motionless, with the derringer still in her hand.
A trail of smoke floated freely out the tip of the barrel, like a cigarette. She noted it without seeing it – just a small piece of the scene of horror in front of her, Jimmy’s eyes in a long stare, as if he’d found something interesting on the ceiling. A hole in his chest, though it was only the blood she could see, pooling and spreading, a stain she was responsible for.
The noise from the club faded. It became a quiet roar. She thought it was coming from the radio, and someone had turned down the volume. Her ears seemed plugged up, full of wax. The gun slipped from her grasp as her body released the tension of the moment, and she was awake, fully awake now. The derringer dropped to the floor as lightly as a feather from her limp hand with a barely perceptible thump.
She hardly noticed the unmistakable shuffle of shoes nearby, and looked up stupidly, aimlessness, shame and fear engulfing her. She’d done something terrible, irreversible. It was still a dream, but a real one now, a waking nightmare.
“I didn’t mean it,” she said out loud, to no one in particular.
But there was someone there.
Someone was standing in the doorway. She couldn’t see who it was. Her vision was clouded around the edges. Everything except the spot of pooling blood on Jimmy’s chest was blurred to her eyes.
The light had gone out, and it was dark, only the man in the doorway. He was a mere silhouette. The light from behind him threw a long shadow on the floor, taller than himself. He had a small bag in his right hand and he was motionless.
He stepped forward, his arm went up against the wall. She heard a faint click and the lights were back on.
The man had his hand on the light switch. The other had held the bag. He was dressed in a black suit. He was about forty, handsome. When he took another step, she backed off.
He was staring at her. “Got your attention?” He had a calm, clear voice.
Rena froze. The man took a quick look around, and then he saw the body on the floor.
“That Jimmy?” he asked, without any expression, waving the gun at it.
Rena could barely nod.
The man came around to look at the corpse from a different angle. Rena tried to sidestep imperceptibly, toward the door, but he spotted her and swiveled toward her, the gun extended.
“Where’d you think you’re goin’, sister?”
He was still calm, but his eyes were black.
He grabbed her by the arm.
“You wasted ‘im?”
She shrank back in terror, pulling away. He was too strong for her.
“Ya did a nice job,” he said, suddenly smiling.
He peered at her with what seemed like praise.
“Come on, I’ll getcha outtta here before the shit hits the fan.”
She still stood her ground. He relaxed his hold on her, relenting. He studied her amiably. “It’s okay. I was supposed to rub him out, but now I don’t hafta.”
Rena’s knees buckled in sudden relief, relief that spilled through her entire body, and she felt faint, losing her balance. She fell helplessly against the large man’s chest, where he held her a moment, then as she came up for air, recovering, he pulled her toward him roughly, and kissed her. One arm was around behind her back, the other round her waist, and he held her like a mannequin. Weak, disoriented, and grateful, she twisted her face to get a better look at the big man.
“You-you mean…?” she began.
“What’s your name, honey?” He was wearing a big, broad smile. She felt safe in the cradle, like a baby.
He whisked her out, before anyone knew, and she was out in the street, then down a short alleyway where he’d left his car.
Still shaking, but hopeful, she allowed herself to be bundled into the big Buick.
A moment later, he was at the steering wheel. He smiled at her.
“Ya didn’t tell me yer name, baby,” he said.
“Rena,” she answered, in a small voice.
He backed the car out of the driveway, fast, very fast. His arm on the front seat backrest, touched her as he maneuvered the huge machine.
“My name’s Joe. I run a nightclub on the other side of town. I bet you’re a singer, huh?”
“I heard o’ you. You got a voice like an angel.”
She smiled. She didn’t care who he was, as long as she was out of there, out of that horrible place, and out of danger.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “I”ll protect you and you can sing for me, in my club, if you want.”
“I think I want,” she said.
They drove along the street. Joe was humming.
“I had the contract on Jimmy,” he said. “I won’t tell, and they’ll think it was me.”
They drove on, and as night descended over the urban landscape, she felt safer than ever.