RHAPSODY IN BLACK
This novel is for Brinke Devlin
I first met Alison Wilder in a bar at six o’clock on a Friday night.
By six thirty, I had agreed to kill a man for her.
Alison was a busty, beautiful brunette—a leggy looker to put a bump in a bishop’s robes.
She made the first move; slid into the seat across from me before I could send her a drink. Her opening line: “The men in here other than you…? So, I need you to keep them at bay. Can you do that for me?”
I said, “Not many women find their way in here.” That this woman had, and that she had seized on me? Well, it seemed too rich, even eyebrow-raising.
“I can see now why so few do,” she said giving the joint another once-over. “More wisdom come my way too late.” The woman put out a hand and we shook. Her hand was warm, strong. She told me her name.
I said back, “Nick Holt.” I let go of her hand with real reluctance.
A Key West August: She lifted her heavy dark hair from the back of her neck, then scooped an ice cube from the drink she’d brought to the table with her. Looked like a Cuba Libre she was drinking. She smoothed the ice cube across the back of her neck. I wished to be that sliver of ice, sliding damply across all that silky, cinnamon-tanned flesh and the soft dark down on the back of her neck.
“I came in on the ferry,” she said. “I don’t know this town. Didn’t know this was a men’s only joint.”
“Officially it isn’t,” I said. “It’s just the local women wisely give it a wide pass, mostly for the reason you said. The men in here? Well, as you can see…”
“Sure, except for you,” Alison said. “Doesn’t really seem your kind of place, either, Nick.”
“I had to meet a man in here earlier,” I said. “Had to wrap up some business.”
“You haven’t answered my question, Nick. Can you keep the men in here at bay?”
“Hell, I suppose,” I said. “I mean, if it was really necessary. But it won’t be. Now that you’re sitting here with me, I don’t expect it’ll be much of an issue. They’ll just stare and spit iron.” The mugs were certainly doing plenty of that. Her dress that bared much of her back and legs didn’t do anything to curb their interest.
“What do you do for living on this rock, Nick? You don’t look like a fisherman,”—a beat and a sultry half-smile—“or a rummy. I hear this rock is lousy with both.”
“I have a boat,” I said. “But I don’t do much fishing other than for recreation. Maybe take the occasional sports fisherman out when other work is scarce.”
Alison smiled. “And what is other work for you, Nick? What keeps the wolf from the door? Be specific.”
“Freelance stuff, mostly,” I said, trying very hard to be unspecific. I didn’t want to put a name to any of that: the rum running, refugee running. Some mercenary stuff and gun smuggling to Cuba, now and again.
Grinding out my cigarette, I finally had the presence of mind to check her ring finger. I’m slow that way, too often—too tardy getting around to scoping for wedding bands after some pretty thing has already pushed my buttons. It’s a trait that’s gotten me into trouble before. Not that it mattered in this case: the hook was already set; the die was cast.
Alison had a wedding band and a big rock on the third finger of her left hand. The knuckles of that hand were also bruised and a bit swollen. Pointing at that rock on her finger I said, “You’re married.”
She looked at my left hand, a big mitt whose back was matted with dark hair. “I am. And you’re not. At least not now.”
“Never have been,” I said. I was still focused on her status. Married. Another man’s woman. I studied her some more, making no effort to hide it. I took in her black hair, black eyes. She was all chest and legs and chiseled features. A woman unlike any other I’d seen pass through Bone Key in a long time: a raven, buxom dish.
I got out another cigarette, fired it up with my Zippo. “Why are you in this blind pig, Alison? It’s a drive. Hell, why are you on Bone Key? Surely you’re not here to fish. The bathtub booze around these parts is like acid, so ducking prohibition can’t be the lure.”
“The Cuban rum is plenty smooth,” Alison said, her little pink tongue sliding enticingly across her rum-wet lower lip. She was staring at my hands again. Her thumb traced a line across the knife scar etched into the back of my left hand. Her touch had me stirring south of the belt buckle. She said, “The heat down here. How do you stand it day-in and day-out?”
A shrug. “Rum and bathtubs. Bathtub rum. And, it’s a bit cooler at night. The near daily rain takes some of the heat off the afternoons.”
She scooped another cube from her glass. She traced this one across the sheen of her collarbones; up her long, fine neck, then down again to the swell of her breasts. Watching that sliver of ice lay a fresh gleam across the tops of her breasts, I said, “You still haven’t said why you’re here on Bone Key.”
“Along for the ride,” she said, watching me watch her. “I’m baggage, you might say.” She didn’t meet my gaze as she said that last.
“Where’s your husband?”
“Around.” A husky sigh. “He has business down here. Left me to roam a bit. Lucky me, huh?”
More like lucky me.
She tossed the nearly spent ice cube on the floor and began massaging one bruised and swollen hand with the other, pointedly drawing my attention to her damaged hand. I didn’t disappoint:
“Who’d you hit, sweetheart?”
“The one who was hitting me.” She said it just like that, straightforward and damn near toneless.
I searched her face again, looking for masked bruises on that pretty chin, on those chiseled cheekbones.
Apparently a mind reader, too, she said, “He hits me where it doesn’t show. If you saw my stomach, saw my ribs?” She shuddered.
I almost asked for that proof. I sorely wanted to tear that clingy dress from her and bend her over the back of a couch and… and…
“I… Well, I think he means to kill me, soon,” she said. “I really believe he means to have me murdered down here, far from New York.”
Get up and leave, I thought. You need to do that, right now, brother.
Sure, she’s pretty. Yes, she seems very available.
And, yeah, it’d make for a wild, panting, limb-tangled weekend that might extend well into the next.
But she’s clearly more than a bit crazy, Old Kid. She’s in a very bad spot.
And this bad husband of hers? What might he be?
But I didn’t stand up and walk away, then.
Her hand was stroking mine again. I said, “You’re joking about him killing you, aren’t you? Why do you say that?”
She quit rubbing her bruised hand and took a drink from her glass. “Yesterday, he said he wanted to do some of that sports fishing you talked about. We’ll go out tomorrow, he said. Far, far out to sea, he swore.”
Alison hesitated, then added, “Earlier today, he took out a life insurance policy on me. A big one. Yet money is tight for him, just now. And still he splurged on that insurance policy on me.” She bit her full, lower lip; that made me want to nip it, too. She said, “And…I think there’s another woman.”
Why another? Alison seemed plenty of woman, enough—too much, maybe—for any one man.
“You should go the police,” I said. That was a bit of a joke, in several ways. Not the least of those was the fact the local law was a sheriff who shuttled between several of the Keys. Even if he was competent, which he wasn’t, he was stretched too thin. Fella was a paper tiger, at best.
“I came here because I was told it’s the kind of place I could find a man who might…” Alison shrugged those bare, tanned shoulders, still glistening from those ice cubes. “You know.”
I knew. But I wanted her to say it.
“No,” I said. “Tell me.”
She fidgeted with her fingers. “I was told in here I might find a man who…who might take care of my husband before he kills me. But when I saw these other men in here, saw what they are like, I lost my nerve. I began to think what else they might ask of me beyond money. I saw you and…” Another shrug; a sad but beguiling hint of a smile.
Lucky me for certain, I thought. Oh, yes. So I look like a man who might kill for you and not ask for something other than money in return? That’s it?
“You have a boat, you said. You do some charters…?”
“Some. Here and there. Here to there.”
She smiled, eyes shining. She gripped my hands in hers. “I could direct him your way. You could take us out on the boat for this fishing trip. And then, if he tried something…?”
Now this was getting crazy; far too crazy.
Oh, I wanted her, of course. I wanted Alison in the worst way in every sense. I wanted to taste that sweet, sometimes mocking mouth. Wanted to feel those bare and damp legs wrap tightly around my waist; to savor her moving against me, bare belly tight against mine.
I said, “Alison…”
“He’s going to kill me, Nick. I know it. Probably he’s going to try and do that tomorrow. He might even offer you the job if he meets you and thinks you’re the kind who would do that sort of thing.”
Again, I was left shaking my head.
“But I’m not that kind,” I said, studying her some more. “Not even close.”
“But you could convince anyone you are. With your height, your build? Your scars…? You can make him think you’d do it, Nick. Then, when his guard is down…” She looked up at me from under black bangs. “You know.”
She was pleading with those black, depthless eyes.
Jesus Christ. So many ways to play it. I decided to blow holes in her plan:
“Honey, these men who are into sports fishing, they usually come down here with recommendations from others who’ve fished these waters. It’s a word-of-mouth trade. You being the woman you are, and clearly not one who’s tried to land a marlin or probably even a tarpon, well, your old man’s going to raise his eyebrows if you recommend for him a charter. You can see that, can’t you?”
She was unfazed. “He always lets me make his plans like that. He’s really helpless in some ways. Can’t make a dinner reservation, can’t book a boat ticket. And friends? He hasn’t any. Not like you’re talking about. I think I could easily enough direct him your way.”
“Listen, if he really means to kill you, and to do it on a boat, don’t you think he’s already found his skipper and craft? Don’t you figure money has already changed hands for that sorry boatman to look the other way?”
Alison shook her head. “It wouldn’t have to be that way,” she said. “He could knock me off the back of the boat, then be a while noticing I’m missing. Make it look like an accident.”
“That sounds just as crazy,” I said. “If you went off the side, your screams—”
“It would be an accident, like I described,” Alison said. “Or it would look that way. I’d fall, strike my head. Go overboard apparently unconscious. It would appear I’d accidentally drowned.”
“That’s pretty fanciful stuff,” I said. “No way anyone would try something like that outside of the pulp novels or movies. Never for real.”
Defiant eyes: “He’s already done it once. He got away with it, too.”
Now what the hell? I said, “You better explain that to me.”
Alison closed her hand over mine. Again, I felt this stirring. “He killed his own brother to take over the business they ran together. He said his brother was in danger of sinking their company. Said he was ‘a degenerate drunk and gambler.’ They were returning from Europe on a liner. He said he tossed his brother off the back of the ship. Made it look like a suicide.” She shook her head. “He smiled when he told me. So…proud.”
“Why would he ever confess something like that to you?”
“I was threatening to leave him. He said he doesn’t like to lose things. He was trying to scare me into staying. Boasting, too. Trying to surprise me at how vengeful he can be. Bent on showing me what he was capable of, I suppose.” She stared at her bruised knuckles again. “When he mentioned this fishing trip, well, it got my mind going to dark places, Nick.”
Very dark places, I thought.
Hell, it seemed she was fully committed to retaliating first, bless her dark heart.
“He left me at the hotel,” Alison said. “He said I should ask around about a good charter service. So, you see, I can send him your way, Nickie. No trouble at all about that. And I’ll pay you. But I don’t have much, just a thousand dollars.”
Just a grand. Big money to most anyone but Alison, it seemed. I chewed my lip. The extra money I could surely use. Hell, I could always use more gelt. Sure, I could take them out for a fishing run. I could watch him carefully to see Alison didn’t go over the side, or the like. And then?
Then I guessed I could just play it by ear. I would play the game up to a point… Perhaps up to exactly the point that might land this woman in my bed.
“I’d take the charter, but only to play bodyguard,” I said. “I’m no assassin, Alison. I’ll see you safely on and off the boat. Deal?”
She shook her head, glum now. “It could never be that simple, Nick. If he tries to kill me, if he has to try and kill you…?”
“Who’d steer the boat for him then?”
“He’s got a sailboat, back east, “ she said. “He might think he could get himself back ashore. And he might even be right.”
“Well, it won’t be like that, anyway. I’m sure I can handle him.”
Her dark eyes searched mine. “But what if you can’t?”
I said, “Then…I’d do what was needed to protect us. To protect you.”
“So you would kill him, then.” She assessed me from under long, dark lashes, sizing me up again. “I mean, if you had to do that thing to him?”
It was hypothetical stuff, at best, I told myself. Crazy talk that amounted to less than nothing.
Not thinking about it too hard, just casually tossing it off as a crazy promise I’d never have to deliver on, I said, “Sure. I’d kill him if came to that. Sure I would.”
Alison smiled and squeezed my hand harder. “I’m sure you must know some place better than this one, Nickie. Some place quieter and more secluded? Some place we could do what we both want to do to one another? Some place away from here where we can be truly alone, just the two of us? Far enough away from here to be safe?”
“Sure I said. There are plenty of places like that.”
I was wrong about all that, of course.
There was no place that far.
© 1924 by Hector Mason Lassiter/Renewed 2010 by Hector Lassiter, LTD/Night Town Books
Author’s Note: On Aug. 21, 2014, the Hector Lassiter series returns from Betimes Books with the first three novels in the chronologically re-sequenced series. On that day, ONE TRUE SENTENCE, its never-before-seen sequel FOREVER’S JUST PRETEND and TOROS & TORSOS will become available in brand new trade paperback and eBook formats. A few weeks later, two new Hector Lassiter novels will follow, THE GREAT PRETENDER (featuring Orson Welles) and a WWII memoir narrated by Hector, ROLL THE CREDITS. On the run up to the series return, I’ll be revisiting some pieces written about ONE TRUE SENTENCE, the “new first novel” (sequentially speaking) in the Lassiter series.
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