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MALICE BECOMES HER

by

Ed Lynskey




‘W hy sport, haven't you swam in the raw?’ Smirking, Laura let her spangly bikini top slip into the reservoir. Her bottom piece had landed at Frank Johnson’s feet.

Johnson refused to let his gaze dwell on her nude body vamping no less toxic caught in the high beams. ‘You lost the damn key?’ he repeated. ‘No wonder. Your ratty jeans look like Swiss cheese.’

Ignoring him, Laura dove off the concrete apron, floated a moment on her back for show, flipped over to dog paddle up to him. ‘Babycakes, relax. Two keys are issued for bus locker rentals.’

‘For an ace insurance investigator,’ Johnson said, ‘you like skating close to the edge, huh?’

Hoisting herself from the pool, Laura stretched to wrap a beach towel about her. ‘Break in, snatch this key, bop out. Like before, a walk in the park, sport.’ She wrung water from lank blonde hair, retrieved her swimming apparel.

Johnson raked fingers through cropped hair. ‘I can’t keep pilfering the Colonel’s keys. He’ll soon smarten up.’

Laughing, Laura piled her hair inside a towel turban. ‘That’s why we should move fast. Do it tonight.’

‘Look, I’ll go on owing you a favor,’ said Johnson. They were now walking to the car. ‘Turn this over to the police. Forget the finder’s fee. Let them nab the Colonel, recoup the swag.’

‘I’ve busted my hump for ten years.’ Gripping his lapels, she tugged for emphasis. ‘If I recover the ruby glass slippers, I net 10% of their value. That’s $20,000.’

‘I know, I know. Otherwise, it’s a paycheck, just another Eatta boy.’ After starting the engine, Johnson grabbed reverse.

Her window down to inhale the hazy night’s honeysuckle, Laura glanced over sideways. ‘Your cut remains a cool grand,’ she reminded him.

‘You say that as if I’ll then be flush.’ Johnson jutted his bearded jaw; his eyes were glued to the broken lines. ‘Hell, I can earn that for two nights on stakeout.’

Laura's hand snaked over his thigh, fingers worming deeper. ‘True, Frankie bird,’ she whispered. ‘But while playing detective, don’t you get horny?’

Grunting, Johnson released the steering wheel, toed the brakes. Tires skid off pavement, lost velocity plodding along the sandy shoulder. Her towels unsheathed. While kissing, Laura undid his belt, clawed at his fly. Peering over her wet head, Johnson piloted the jouncing car to a halt. Pressed to hot, sticky vinyl, he shifted to kill the ignition. Gasping, Laura wrested away the key ring to fling out the window. * * *

Following dinner the next day, Johnson drove by Colonel Tom Wingo’s manor located at Joppy’s main crossroads. He nodded back to the Colonel puffing on a cigar, rocking in the porch swing. A Chihuahua dubbed Hercules guarded the brown bag where the Colonel concealed his bourbon bottle. Natives claimed he could splurge like Elvis Presley, but the Colonel was too busy moving merchandise appearing on his auction block. Nobody asked questions about ownership.

Turning right, Johnson slowed to inspect the back entrance to the Colonel’s manor. That first theft had been a snap. Clad in black, he operated slick as a professional cat burglar. Slicing a credit card between the door crack to trip the hasp, Johnson picked the lock. Gloves left no prints. The penlight clenched between his teeth illuminated just enough. The Yellow Bird Bus key dangled by a girlie calendar. Within the hour, after making one quick stop, he had met Laura in a bar, slid the key down her black lace bra.

Continuing around the lazy bend in the road to the bridge, Johnson pulled up behind a pickup truck bearing ‘FARM USE’ license plates. The decrepit black man hailed him in the rear view mirror, limped back, and leaned his forearms on Johnson's window.

‘How’s the cat-fishing, Homer?’ asked Johnson.

‘They ain't had no bites all afternoon.’ Spitting, Homer gestured down to his cronies holding bamboo poles. ‘Channels running muddy. Thunderstorms pretty near every night, it seems.’

‘Guess what? I need to pry back into Wingo’s.’ Johnson watched an exasperated Homer snort through his splayed nose.

‘Another day bumming around that terminal and I’ll fling a fit,’ he said. ‘You said you were set yesterday.’

Johnson gazed a full second beyond the treetops before replying. ‘Laura lost the key.’

Homer’s knobbly knuckles tapped Johnson's chest. ‘Do us both a grand favor and ditch her.’

After Johnson did not respond, Homer scowled. ‘Tell me you ain’t muzzy-headed enough to think you’re falling in love,’ he scoffed.

‘That girl sure floats my boat,’ replied Johnson.

‘I knew it. Oh Christ, you’ll never learn. Okay loverboy, I’ll give you two days more. Then I quit. Hire another lookout.’ That uttered, Homer pivoted on his heels, stalked back to his truck.

Johnson sat whistling between his teeth to bluegrass music on the AM radio, its reception fuzzy with approaching dusk. He had nagging doubts. The ruby glass slippers were the real deal, he told himself. Laura had a Xerox of their provenance -- a typewritten correspondence signed by Judy Garland thanking the shoe manufacturer for making her rich and famous. Miserable came knocking later. Dorothy’s ruby glass slippers from The Wizard of Oz were priceless icons, according to Laura’s Hollywood client.

Something else vexed Johnson. Again, he tried to rationalize what he was doing. It wasn’t a crime, was it? He was stealing stolen property to return to the rightful owner. Whatever money he secreted in the bargain was irrelevant. It was that simple. Laura had laid it out for him. Strike while the Colonel stashed the slippers in a bus locker. Laura was one sharp cookie. Johnson sighed. Keeping her happy, though, was a full time job and more. Homer had a point.

When the tinsel bugs fired up, Johnson flipped off the radio. Rifling through the glove compartment, he tugged out the full-face black ski mask and gloves to put on. Getting out of the car, he knelt and fumbled beneath the seat. Yes, the shoebox was still there. After hoofing it cross-country, he emerged at the back end of Colonel Wingo's manor. Unlike the previous break-in, Johnson now fended off a rising attack of nerves. He hunched behind a chinaberry tree, scrutinized the windows. The lights burned. The Colonel had probably nodded off watching Tora, Tora, Tora showing on Channel 5.

After a time, Johnson's anxiety settled to a dull apprehension. No traffic appeared. Moonrise was a silver sliver. The night bugs serenaded the bullbats. Johnson gave it five more minutes, then raced over. Peering through the lit pane, he noted the blaring television. Only his boots sticking out visible, the Colonel had extended his recliner flat out for sleep.

Reprising his former triumph, Johnson skittered unseen into the Colonel's office. Aiming the penlight, he rummaged here and there. A car swished by outside causing him to duck. One second before scrapping the mission, he found the duplicate Yellow Bird Bus key taped underneath the telephone. Tiptoeing in socks down the corridor, Johnson mashed against the corner wall to gawk around at the Colonel. He was the perfect picture of a man’s day-end leisure. He drew closer. The Jap's delivered bombs were smashing Pearl Harbor to smithereens. Somehow, one stray bullet had drilled the Colonel plumb dead center in his forehead.

Johnson did a doubletake. Yep, it was certain. The Colonel was dead as a dodo. No derringer or suicide letter was evident. Huddled in a hairball, Hercules whimpered beneath the hi-fi. Sirens wailed. Something had fouled up. Johnson’s heart a gong banging his ribcage interrupted his trance. The sirens reverberated shriller. Scooping up Hercules, Johnson backtracked to stuff on his loafers and sprint to the woods. By the time he was fumbling into his car seat, every deputy and yahoo owning a police scanner within a twenty-mile radius had descended on the Colonel’s manor.

Thinking fast, Johnson motored even faster the opposite way. Hercules nestled in his lap, quivering but hushed. A screaming ambulance, cherry-top atwirl, rushed by them. Yanking off the ski cap and gloves, he struggled to focus on the present moment. Concentrate, he kept muttering. Okay, let's see. He was to rendezvous with Laura in the parking lot behind the old vinegar works located on the other side of town. Manoeuvring through a maze of back roads, Johnson arrived ten minutes late.

His headlights stabbing the darkness, Johnson circled the gravel lot desolate and empty as a moon crater. Even the night bugs and bullbats had forsaken the ruins. He checked the luminous dials on his wristwatch. Perhaps Laura was goofing around on him again. No, the stakes were too high. She may have decided to wait in the warehouse -- he dared to honk once. That solicited no response.

Waiting there with lights doused, the engine idling, a thought stirred his mind before near panic swept in. Suppose Laura had been apprehended or gunned down? His face contorted into a grim mask. Violent, lurid images bobbed up. Johnson twisted the radio knob on as if to glean some news. A restless anxiety seeped into his bones.

Homer, Johnson happened to remember, bunked just across the railroad tracks, a route that didn't necessitate navigating through town. Squirming away from him, Hercules climbed over to the passenger side, perched his puny paws on the dashboard, and wagged his rattail. His three yaps bugged Johnson.

‘All right, big fellow, I can find my way,’ Johnson grumbled. He petted a wet, cold, friendly nose.

Before crossing the tracks on Homer's meandering lane, Johnson caught sight of the piercing eye of orange light bearing down on him. The midnight express let loose a squall. Rows of windows clattered by. Scrunching beneath the sun visor, Johnson squinted into the coaches gleaming with sleek brass and teak. Capped porters were serving seated passengers sipping champagne. A few were smoking big cigars. Johnson could have sworn one tall blond powdering her nose was the spitting image of Laura.

"The Hell you say.’ Slouched beside the kitchen stove outfitted in a Star Wars nightshirt, Homer stomped his bare foot on the buckled linoleum.

‘I didn’t know what else to think,’ Johnson sputtered.

‘Say what? Me and that skanky white woman?’ Feigning displeasure, Homer waved his hand in a shooing motion. ‘Scram before I blast you through with buckshot.’

‘Hitch up your bibs,’ countered Johnson. ‘Let’s travel. I have an ominous hunch Laura is in trouble.’

Homer switched the radio off. He didn’t cotton to the bluegrass music Johnson had tuned in. Too damn many men dying and hounds howling. While cursing in protest, Johnson failed to observe the roadblock until Homer pointed to it.

‘Trouble at twelve o'clock,’ he said. ‘Exchange places, then hunker under that tarp in back. Take that moth-eaten mutt, too. Don’t even breathe a noise.’

Homer slowed to a crawl into the blinking bluish arcs of light. Uniforms in orange vests reading ‘DEPUTY’ flagged him down to a stop. One was shining her flashlight through the rear window before stepping up. Homer held out his driver's license.

‘Isn’t this Frank Johnson's crate?’ she quizzed him.

‘Why, yes ma'am, it is.’ Homer’s smile broadened. ‘I left him tonight fishing under the old Joppy bridge.’

The stout deputy remained stern-faced. ‘Fishing?’she wondered.

‘Why, yes ma’am. Channel cats are best snagged at night,’ explained Homer. ‘You see, first we impale these stink baits on a trot line to drop . . .’

‘What are you doing with it?’ The deputy was loosing interest.

‘Well, ma’am, I am running home for calamine lotion,’he replied, still smiling. ‘Frank has a vile case of chiggers.’ He demonstrated by pretending to itch.

‘Yeah, okay, so hop along,’ she ordered Homer after recording the plate number and his name on a clipboard.

Once the roadblock ebbed from view, Johnson sat up front again with Hercules curled on his lap. Wiping his brow with a sleeve, he spoke first.

‘At least my alibi is established,’ he half-joked. ‘Flimsy as it sounds.’

‘It would behoove you to start catfishing,’suggested Homer. ‘That and smearing on gouts of calamine lotion for a week. Where to next?’

‘Red Deer Motel,’ replied Johnson. ‘Ease up to Room 7.’

The oval neon sign outside the Red Deer Motel sizzled with ‘NO VACANCY’ in spearmint green lettering. The motel parking lot was crammed with out-of-state tags except the space in front of Room 7 was vacant. Mrs. Hodgkins, the proprietress, lay sprawled across the stuffed chairs in the bright lobby with a magazine propped over her head of curlers. The motel filled to overflowing, she could afford to catnap.

Homer nosed into empty space, extinguished the headlamps. Johnson ordered Hercules to stay put, then followed Homer who held the screen door for him to unlock the steel door. Inside, the reading lamp next to the bed was ablaze. The sheets had been slept in. There were soppy towels and a discarded feminine razor. An off-the-air picture froze on the television; its volume muted.

Laura was missing.

‘Whoa, your lady friend indulged expensive tastes.’ Gloating, Homer tipped the trashcan for Johnson to notice empty demijohns of imported wine.

A hollow rap on the door prompted both men to turn. Mrs. Hodgkins ambled up to Johnson. She fished from her blouse pocket a lodging bill. ‘You owe this innkeeper $160, plus tax and gratuity,’ she commented.

Bending over with hands planted on knees, Homer launched into braying laughter. ‘Man, you’ve been screwed, blued, and tattooed.’

Without a word, Johnson produced his credit card that Mrs. Hodgkins carried off to process and return for his signature.

In a display of sympathy, Homer draped his arm around Johnson's sagging shoulders. ‘You ain't the first guy made a total fool of by a devil woman.’ He steered Johnson by the elbow from the motel room.

Johnson shook his head, refusing to believe a word of it. ‘You’ve judged Laura plain wrong. She's not a tramp. You just despise her fancy ways.’

‘Whatever you say,’ agreed Homer. ‘But you're packing the locker key, right? Suppose we mosey on over, sneak a peek.’

Back on the road to Joppy, a coming rain spattered the windshield before torrents assailed them. Neither man bothered to crank up his window. Refreshing, cool sprays hosed their faces. Lightning slashed, thunder crashed. Their progress decelerated to a terrapin's pace. Twenty minutes later, Homer signaled a right onto Fitzwater Drive, edged the car alongside the Yellow Bird Bus terminal open 24 hours.

‘I’ll do it,’ Johnson insisted. His voice was slurred and leaden.

Sloshing through the front door, Johnson surveyed the deserted terminal. The ticket clerk, a kid engulfed by black-framed glasses, watched him pass the soda and cigarette machines to invade the corral of pale blue lockers.

Wedging fingers down his wet trouser pocket, Johnson extracted the key he'd appropriated earlier from the Colonel’s office. It opened Locker 354. As he inserted the key, Johnson prayed to be wrong. All thumbs, he managed to drag out the shoebox. Lifting its lid, he stared at nothing except a note printed on the back of a dry cleaning receipt. The devil woman's words hit like a left hook to the gut.

Frankie boy,

Barnum said it best: There's a sucker born every minute. Should I call you ‘All Day,’ as in sucker? Hahaha! You were a swell sport, though.

See you in the funny papers, All Day. L----

Johnson trudged back outside, the rain having slackened. Reaching across, Homer kicked his door ajar. Crumbling the note, Johnson slumped down inside, his face buried in cupped palms.

‘That bad, huh,’ Homer said at last.

Nodding, Johnson groped under the seat. Out came the other shoebox. Homer whistled. Hercules barked.

Inside, the ruby glass slippers, these being the genuine articles, glistened in the semi-darkness.

‘There’s a sucker born every minute,’ Johnson repeated. His voice was brighter.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Today, we don't know anything at all about Ed Lynskey. If you know this man, please help us.








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