Hi there! I’m sorry for the small number of updates, work has been getting into my way of blogging (we knew it would happen sooner or later…). This post is an extended version of my response to Nika Harper’s WordPlay #3 on the topic of “Noir Fiction“. The prompts were “photographer” and “the other view”. You think you know what’s coming? You don’t. (and I’m very sorry to add that the story also isn’t finished yet…) Comments welcome, as usual.
Blue Red Green
Cobalt City. Despite the glittering name, the place was far from being a gemstone. The streets were covered with dust, the air so thick you could hardly breathe. Its residents dressed accordingly: outside the red-light districts, gray and brown colors dominated the streets. Those who could afford it used their polished limousines with tinted glass so they didn’t have to see the grief and despair walking down the streets. Needless to say, most of us couldn’t afford that.
Around Cobalt, I was known as “the Japanese fox”. I was one of the girls who had made it: I owned a detective agency. Or rather, used to. One week before the events I’m about to write down, a fire had destroyed the office I also called my apartment. I still hadn’t found out who did it, but I was sure that I would eventually. I always do. Until then, I was hopping on and off the couches of my friends. Well, you’d probably not call them friends. Actually, they just owed me a favor. Or several.
That particular night, I was planning to stay at Riff’s place. Riff was a photographer working for the local newspaper, and – to supplement his income – for the girls in the red-light district. “If you wanna become the number one girl, you need a photo by Riff.” Or so the saying went. So I wasn’t particularly surprised when I found that the couch I hoped to spend the night on was already occupied. She was tall, her hair was just as long and the short black dress of lace surely suited her.
“If it isn’t the Japanese fox… ” Of course, I didn’t need an office to be known in Cobalt. Her red fingernails motioned me to sit by her side and as I followed her request, I noted the sweet strawberry-like scent flowing around her.
“And who do I have the pleasure of?”
She chuckled about my overly formal tone. “Call me… Spirit.”
“Miss Spirit – it’s a pleasure.” I took her right hand and softly put my lips on it. Most girls in Cobalt go by names like Lucky, Honey or Cherry, and I wouldn’t be caught dead with my lips anywhere near them. But Spirit was different.
“I heard you lost your office. What a pity.” News travelled fast in Cobalt, especially with the girls who had nothing left but idle chit-chat.
I smiled. “No need to pity me. Good detectives don’t need an office, just their instincts. And my instincts tell me that I will find the ones who were responsible.”
“Any leads yet?” She smiled innocently as if I were one of her customers.
I looked her straight into the eyes and she held my gaze. And then something struck me. I leaned a little bit closer and lowered my voice. “Do you know why they call me the fox?”
She giggled. “Because you have red hair?”
I smiled. “That’s one of the reasons.” I paused. Spirit was biting her lip in anticipation and I continued. “The other one is: my sense of smell is unbeatable.” Spirit was still smiling, but it was not a smile of happiness or even arousal. “And that’s why I know you. I’ve smelled that particular strawberry scent of yours before.”
“Oh really?” Spirit tried to move away from me, but I quickly grabbed her arm and pulled her closer to me.
“Yes. In my office. After it burnt down.” I whispered the words and saw her eyes widen – the universal signal of guilt. “So, Miss Spirit: What exactly was your business there?”
She counted her options but it was clear that she didn’t have any. She bit her lip. “I’ll tell you if you promise to protect me.”
Spirit lowered her voice so much that I could barely hear her. “I was there with my man.”
“Your man? And who’s that?
I let go of her arm. Mackay. Otherwise known as the boss of the Emerald Syndicate. This wasn’t exactly unexpected news. Mackay and I had been frenemies ever since we first met in jail a decade ago.
I got up, deep in thought and went over to Riff’s window. It presented me with another view of Cobalt, but it didn’t tell me how I could get the revenge I desired. Not yet, that is.
I was distracted from my thoughts when the door opened with a loud bang and Riff entered carrying a bunch of cameras. “Sorry this too– Fox?! I thought you said 11 p.m.?”
“I never really specified the time.” I shrugged.
“You can’t just appear whenever it suits you! I’ve got a customer!”
“Oh, she can stay! I don’t care.” Spirit was again smiling innocently. Still sitting on the couch, she turned her back to me. “Would you mind opening my dress? Boy hands are always so clumsy…”
Riff looked annoyed, but I couldn’t tell what bothered him more: that I was there or that Spirit fancied me more than him. I winked at him and then went to help Spirit out of her dress. I had no intention to get intimate with her – she was a prostitute, after all – but it could come in handy if she thought I was interested.
“You’re doing this often, Fox.” Spirit was holding up her hair so it didn’t get caught up in the zipper and I could see the slight goose bumps on the nape of her neck.
“Just one of my many skills.” I took more time than was really necessary, and I knew that Riff was getting more annoyed by the second.
The black dress revealed an elegant corset of dark green. Once again I was reminded that this was Mackay’s girl – or at least one of them.
Spirit let the dress fall on the floor. “Why don’t you stay here on the couch and direct me?”
“Hey!” Riff finally decided that this was enough. “You order pictures by Riff, you get pictures by Riff. If you want her you can leave right now. The hotel’s right around the corner!”
“Calm down, trophy hunter…” I got up. “I’m not here to steal your precious customer. And anyway, I’ve got some people I need to see, so I’ll leave you two alone and come back in an hour or so.”
“But you promised–” Spirit protested.
“And I’ll stand by that promise. But for the moment, I think you’re in good hands with Riff here.” I patted his shoulder and then hurried out of the apartment.
The thick air outside was like a punch in the gut. Even after all this time, I still needed a few moments to adjust myself to it. And I knew that it wouldn’t get any easier in the future. Too many people in Cobalt had succumbed to the unbearable mix of heat, humidity and dust. If you could afford it, you left. In fact, that was probably the first item on everyone’s to do list. Too bad the inflation still had a stranglehold over all of us.
I didn’t want to spend too much time in this hell and went straight to Syringe Town. Of course that wasn’t its official name, but around here the decisions of city officials don’t matter much. Understandably, nobody wanted to live in a neighborhood named after a corrupt former mayor. So we took the liberty of giving everything a more fitting name.
Syringe Town was one of those neighborhoods where most people wouldn’t go even if it earned them one thousand dollars. I wasn’t a big fan either, but many of my acquaintances (and also a lot of my clients) preferred the solitude and darkness of its bars over the more lively quarters of Cobalt.
In the most run-down of all the bars, I met The Butler. No one really knew why he went by that name, but some said it was because he was as quiet and as efficient as a butler. We hadn’t met in a while. We only met when one of us was in trouble. Although that night, he also looked like he was.
“You’ve looked better in your life…” I remarked before a bottle of beer was put in front of me. Golden Draft. I hated it.
“You better stop harassing me if you want any information.” He took a sip from his drink. It was dark and oily and smelled of something indefinable.
“I’m not harassing you. Just worried, that’s all.”
“Worried? You? Fox, you can tell me a lot of things, but not that you’re pitying me.” He spat out the last two words.
“But you’ll agree that you’ve never been this pale before. And what are those marks on your hand?”
“That’s none of your business. You can’t solve everyone’s problem.”
“And I think you’re here because you need my help. Not the other way around.” He emptied his glass.
I sighed. “So you’ve actually got some information?”
“I do. Usual price.” He didn’t look at me and ordered another drink.
I took the money out of my coat and without counting put it under his waistcoat. “Probably too much, but you look like you need it.”
“Were you always so careless about your money?”
“I got no more rent to pay.”
“Ah, yeah. So, about that…” He took another sip of his drink. “What do you know already?”
“I know that Mackay was there.”
The Butler whistled through his teeth. “I always forget how good you are.”
“Was lucky. I hope you know a few more details.”
“Sort of. I don’t know how exactly Mackay is involved in this whole affair, but I do know that he’s in a whole lotta trouble.”
“With the police.”
“Nope, with the Opal Syndicate.”
Now it was my turn to whistle. Opal was the most powerful syndicate in Cobalt. They had been controlling half the city for as long as it existed. Their members dropped like flies, but there seemed to be a practically endless supply of people willing to enter their ranks. Naturally, I wasn’t on good terms with them.
“As I said: whole lotta trouble. One of the Emerald gangs has stolen cocaine from Opal and sold it to a syndicate in Chicago. Opal wants the money – plus interest – but the gang has vanished.”
“And what does Mackay’s need of money have to do with my office? Mackay knows I’m not an Opal ally.”
“I’m just supplying the information, not the conclusions.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks for nothing, Butler…”
“Thanks for the money, Fox.” He patted his waistcoat.
I emptied the disgusting beer and got up to leave. “I hope we’ll meet again.”
“That’s a first.”
I took a piece of paper from one of my pockets and scribbled something on it. I gave the paper to The Butler. “Best doctor in town. Tell him I sent you.”
The Butler hesitated, but then took the paper. We briefly nodded to each other and then I was out of the door. Seemed like I had to find a new supplier of information. Maybe Spirit could help me with that…
I slowly went back to Riff’s, deep in thought. How did burning down my office help Mackay? Had something been in there that he wanted to get rid off? Had I accidentally uncovered one of his business affairs? Or had it all just happened by chance? Had someone broken into my office and accidentally set it on fire?
I wasn’t getting anywhere. The puzzle was getting more complicated instead of easier to solve.
“Hey Foxy! Been a while.” About two blocks from Riff’s I was stopped by a sweeter-than-sugar voice.
“Happy…” I was annoyed. Yes, she was good looking – well, some of her body parts, at least – but the way she talked always made my hair stand up.
“You remember my name!” Her voice went an octave higher. I felt a developing headache. “What are you doing out here? Isn’t your office the other way?” She hadn’t heard? That was weird. Too weird.
“You know, I’m not really an office girl…”
“You never come around my place these days.” I shivered. Of course I didn’t. Nobody in his right mind spent his night at the Pink Kitty Club, the sanctuary for all those who hadn’t managed to leave the business.
“You know I’m busy…”
“Is there someone else?”
I looked at Happy, startled. She couldn’t mean that. Or could she? “Well…”
“You’re like all the other guys out there! I develop one tiny wrinkle and you just abandon me!”
I wanted to say that she had more than just one tiny wrinkle, but didn’t. Sadly, my professional life depended on this kind of people. “Look,” I said softly “I’m really sorry I haven’t been with you in such a long time. I’ll try and drop by next week.” Or never, I added in my mind.
Happy looked sad, but gave up her aggressive stance. “Promise?”
“Sure.” I crossed my fingers behind my back.
I nodded and then looked at my watch. Two hours had passed since I had left Spirit and Riff. Should have been enough time for taking photos and “paying”. “Sorry, Happy, I gotta go. See you ’round.” I winked and turned to go.
“Next week. You promised! I’ll tell everyone.”
I swore silently. Apparently, I really had to go. Oh well, an opportunity for Spirit to glimpse what her future would look like if she stayed in Cobalt.
Or maybe not. Because when I returned to Riff’s apartment, I surely found a naked Spirit. But she was lying in a pool of blood. Shot through the heart. I sighed. She still looked beautiful. Why did everyone capable of thoughtful conversation always have to leave so soon?
Riff was nowhere to be seen. I looked behind every door, but he was gone. Kidnapped? Killed? The killer himself? All of these were equally likely. Well, maybe not the last one, Riff always panicked when he saw blood. Or maybe he just was a good actor?
I didn’t have time to think further because at that moment the door sprung open with a loud crash. “Cobalt City Police Department, put your hands where I can see them!”
“Shit,” I muttered, but dutifully put up my hands. They surely wouldn’t arrest the Fox. “Look, I know how this looks like, but I only just go–”
Unfortunately, that particular police officer didn’t seem to know me. He put my hands behind my back and cuffed me. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. My last arrest was fifteen weeks ago.