Thursday, July 12, 2012

Wherein I Channel My Inner Hemingway

Lately, I've been listening to To Have and Have Not on my Nano while working out at the gym, which was a novel by Ernest Hemingway on which a movie of the same name was loosely based. The film is one of my favorites from the 1940's because it stars Humphrey Bogart, one of my favorite actors of all time, and the nineteen year-old actress, Lauren Bacall.

A variation on a tweet someone posted triggered the following vignette in the mode of the popular literature of the time, featuring the daring exploits of characters like Harry Morgan, Bogart's character in the film, or Sam Spade and Rick Blaine, two other roles Bogey played in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, respectively.

She smiled with the look of someone who knew all the answers. I couldn't help thinking she'd be a real knockout if she would wipe that smug grin off her face. Instead, it took all I had to sit in the same room with her, especially after what I knew. I had no choice, though. I had a job to do.

"Nothing to say, Mr. Bishop?" she said, her eyes narrowing like a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting mouse. "I'm all ears."

"And all wisecracks, too," I said to her with a sneer. "Look, let's put all our cards on the table, shall we?"

She grinned that grin again, then crossed her legs, one long stem slowly over the other, and leaned my way.  "Sure. I call."

"Fine, I'll play it your way. The way I see it, Mrs. Talbot, you had three chances to kill your husband. The first two, well, they'd be kind of messy and complicated. You don't strike me as all that bright to pull either of them off."

She batted her eyes and turned her finely chiseled profile where I could admire it. "Go on."

Look at her, I thought. So damn cool. Wait until I deliver the punch line.

"Like I said, three chances. Number three has something to do with your husband's little drinking problem."

"So he drank, so what?"

"Drinking makes a man weak, that's all. Weak men make for stupid husbands. They tend to spend a little too much time hanging around with people who are even weaker."

She uncrossed her legs and leaned back, stretching those long limbs. I turned my head so as to not appear interested in the view, but she knew I couldn't help myself. She chuckled.

"Lots of people are weak, Mr. Bishop. You must meet plenty in your business."

I pulled his last cigarette out of the pack and gestured with it. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all. I'd join you, but I quit years ago. Please continue, though. This fairy tale you're telling is just getting interesting."

I lit the cigarette and walked to the other side of the room. She tried real hard not to watch me. I leaned against the wall and took a long drag on the butt.

"Let's see, where was I?" I said.

"Weak associates of my husband."

"Oh, that's right. Your husband enjoyed the company of some women of, let's see, questionable morals?"

"Questionable tastes, too."

"You could say that. Anyway, the way I see it happening is this -- he was out cavorting with one of his dates--"

She sat up. "Dates? That's what the kids are calling them now?"

I laughed in spite of myself. "Just hear me out."

"Go on, I'm listening. But hurry it up, I have my own 'date' tonight."

"So he was cavorting pretty closely with this blonde number, but you had enough. So you followed them from the gin joint back over to that one room walk-up he kept for his private meetings."

She stood up and walked around the desk, then leaned against it with her perfect hip. "Sounds like it's getting interesting."

"Quite so, in fact. You stayed in the shadows and entered the apartment building just behind them."

I watched her smirk and for a moment, wished I could shake her until she stopped her gloating.

"You look perturbed. Was it something I said? I'm just wondering how I could've followed this loving couple into a locked apartment building," she said.

I jumped at the bait. "Locked? How did you know it was locked?"

She sat back on the desk and smiled. "An unlocked apartment building in this city? Let me tell you one thing, Mr. Bishop. My husband may have been a philandering drunk, but he was no fool. I lived with the man for five years and he was a nut for security."

"That may be true, Mrs. Talbot, but he was a sloppy drunk. That night he made a fatal mistake."

"What's that?"

"Someone else -- another tenant, perhaps -- left the door ajar. Maybe something blocked it and your husband and his lady friend didn't notice in their, shall we say, 'festive' mood, leaving it ajar as well."

"So what? I just waltzed on in there without a key? How did I get into his apartment then?"

I stubbed out the cigarette against the wall and waited a moment as I sized her up. She's going to make one gorgeous inmate, I thought.

"Well?" she asked, now getting impatient. Good, I like impatient. It leads to mistakes.

"This is how I see it. You waited outside the door for a while, imagining all the sins the dearly departed were committed, getting more and more steamed. A neighbor, a gentleman next door maybe, sees you, this somewhat attractive woman, pacing around the hallway, anxious to get inside. You explain you're the guy's secretary and you need to get in his place to get some papers for an important meeting your boss is having in the morning."

Her laugh started out as a soft chuckle, then crescendoed into a full-throated, bawdy laugh. I had seen this many times before and I waited her out.

"Shall I go on?" I asked.

"By all means."

"So you flash your baby blues and maybe a bit of bare leg and the guy's drooling at your heels. It just so happens he has a spare key to the apartment, given to him by your husband in case of emergencies."

"Like when important papers are needed?"

"Yes, just like that. So he let's you in and without so much as a thank you, you close the door in his face and get to work."

"And what work would that be, Mr. Bishop?"

"Murder. The real world's oldest profession. Ask Cain."

She stuck out her chin in defiance. "You ask him."

"Wish I could, Mrs. Talbot, wish I could. Were you ever your husband's keeper?"

I sat back and watched her jump off the desk and head toward the door. 

"I think I've had enough of your questions, Mr. Bishop. I hired you to find my husband's murderer, not to make up stories about how I killed him. I loved Howard, more than anyone ever! To hear you tell it, I'm a cold-hearted killer and I'm nothing like that, I tell you."

She cried a few tears and pulled a hankie out of her bag, then dabbed her eyes. For a moment, I almost believed her. Almost.

"Don't you want to know how the story ends?" I asked, taunting her.

"I told you, I'm done here."

"Then why aren't you walking out the door?"

Her shoulders slumped in defeat and she slid into the chair next to the desk. She didn't say anything, but her eyes begged me to end her misery. I was happy to comply.

"Now here's where it gets interesting. You walk into the apartment, expecting them to be locked in the clinch in the living room. You planned to confront him, maybe break a lamp or ashtray or something. But he wasn't on the sofa necking with the blonde. The bedroom door was closed, but you could hear them in there."

She sank lower in her chair, the tears flowing for real now. I had her where I wanted her.

"While the loving couple were making noise, you were getting madder and madder. Then you spotted the blonde's purse on the coffee table, so you decided to do a little snooping, figuring they were going to be busy for a while.  As you were looking, you found a .38 stuff in one of those hidden pockets that come with those things. For a minute, you thought you'd leave it there, but something came over you. Disgust? Maybe. Jealousy? Probably."

Mrs. Talbot blew her nose in unladylike fashion and wiped her eyes again. Her mascara ran like a dime store watercolor, but she didn't seem to care how she looked at the moment. Her eyes told me to get on with it.

"Just then, you heard the door knob rattle, but there was nowhere to hide. There you stood, your hand in some floozy's purse, holding her loaded gun and you were about to be confronted. The first one out the door was the blonde. She screamed when she saw you, but froze. Your husband, dressed only in his boxers, came running out to see what the commotion was and there you stood with that gun in your hand. He made a run for you and before you knew it, you pulled the trigger just once. Down he went like a sack of eight balls."

I opened up my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle and two shot glasses. I pulled out the cork and poured both glasses full, then walked them over to where she sat and placed one in front of her.

"Drink," I told her. "You look like you can use a belt."

She shook her head, but watch me sip mine. After a moment, she picked up her glass and took a taste, then a little more.

"Thanks, I needed that."

"I figured. Mind if I continue?"

She just shrugged and took another sip of the rye. I took that as a go-ahead.

"After you spill your husband's blood on his nice gray carpet, you confronted the blonde who now knelt down on the floor, cowering like a whipped dog. You told her to get up, but she just shook all the harder. You yanked her to her feet by her hair--"

"Her hair? How would you know that?" she asked.

"The cops found a clump of her hair with the damaged follicle at the crime scene. Forensics took note that the shaft was broken in two or three places. They theorized you pulled her up by her bottle blonde tresses."

"Smart cops," she said, swallowing the last of the booze. "Hit me again, barkeep."

I laughed and gave her another dose. Celebrate while you still can, I thought.

"Go on."

"Not too much more to tell, really. The blonde stood there, shaking like a leaf in her unmentionables, begging you for mercy. You hit her hard, once, twice, with the back of your hand to her face. She spit out the blood along with the fake tooth you knocked out and forgot about. You turned and she thought you were going to leave. But she made one mistake -- she thanked you for sparing her."

Mrs. Talbot finished the second drink and sat back.  "Go on, finish what you started," she said with a gesture of her hands.

"You heard 'thank you' and you saw red. You turned the gun back toward her, aimed it at her head and shot her twice. She didn't stand a Chinook's chance in Hades.  After that, you wiped off the gun and put it back into the blonde's purse, then left as quietly as you could. The neighbor was a nosy character, though, and had a lot to tell the cops when they interviewed him."

"Like what?"

"Well, Mrs. Talbot, I can't give away all the best parts, can I? You'll hear plenty at the trial anyway."

I lit another cigarette, satisfied I had done my job.

"Give me one of those, will ya?" she said.

"I thought you quit."

"I did, but I could use one right now."

I flipped out a cigarette and handed it to her.


I lit hers with the end of mine. No sense wasting a good match.

"Thanks," she said, taking a deep drag and blowing out the smoke with her perfectly painted lips forming a tight circle, her eyes closed like she was lost in a dream. "So now what?"

"The cops are on their way over. It's up to them."

"What makes you think I'll stick around?"

I shrugged. "Where do you think you're going to run off to? Besides, maybe if you cooperate, the judge will go easy on you."

"I see your point."

"You're a funny one, Mrs. Talbot."

"Why's that?"

"There I was, telling you the entire story of how you committed a double homicide, even filling in conversations I figured you had even though I wasn't there to hear them and you didn't even challenge me on the details. What gives?"

She smiled, her well-manicured eyebrows arched quizzically. "Come now, Mr. Bishop, a girl has to keep a few secrets, doesn't she?"

"What secrets might that be?" I asked, sensing a fuller rendering of the truth was coming. I sat back in my chair and laid my crossed legs on the desk. "Humor me."

She leaned toward me. "Oh, I admit your tale was pretty engaging and had me going for a minute. I almost felt like I did kill them. But you got it wrong."

"How so?"

"I was out of town the day my husband was murdered."

I jumped and sat up. "You mean to tell me that's your strongest hand?"

"I'm just telling you what happened. You can decide whether or not it's the truth."

"That a job for the cops."

Just then, the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and listened.

"Bishop, it's O'Shea. Is the Talbot woman still with you?"

"Why yes she is, Lieutenant," I said, winking at her. "In fact, she's sitting right across from me."

"Well, we have a bit of a problem. Can you come down to the station?"

"What about the girl?"

"Don't worry about her now, just come down."

"Alright, Lieutenant, if that's what you want. See you in an hour."

I hung up the phone and just stared at it.

"Anything wrong?" she asked, a grin plastered on her face. A grin that said she had an ace in the hole and just went all in.

"Nothing I can't handle. Look, I have to run. You're free to go."

"Wait, what about the cops?" she asked, blowing smoke in my direction.

I leaned toward her. "Listen, I wouldn't get too cocky if I were you. The cops have enough evidence to put you away for life, if you're lucky. Me, I don't care whether they give you the chair or not. Just one thing -- I advise you don't get lost quite yet."

She stood up, stubbed out her cigarette and sauntered to the door. "Who, me? Lost? Why would I get lost? I'm an innocent woman."

With a final flip of her hair, she walked out the door and slammed it behind her.