Monday, May 27, 2013

"Sally Charm: Private Eye"

I love detective stories, especially the old kind with private investigators with improbable names. They always seem to find themselves in one jam or another, surrounded on all sides by crooked cops, femme fatals and any assortment of underworld lowlifes and societal high-lifes. There's just something about the era, the smoke-filled rooms and nightclubs and lack of DNA evidence that makes the stories a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, as is the case with pretty much all media that came out between the late '30s and early '60s, misogyny is rampant. The stories contain plenty of women, but they always fall into one of a few given archetypes:
  1. The dizzy dame: She may or may not have important information, but one this is clear; she has zero awareness of her own significance. Her dimness is often inversely proportional to her usefulness and number of spoken likes of dialogue.
  2. The femme fatal: She wants one thing and one thing only; our hero, dead. She has her own ambitions, and they often involve one or more rich, manipulated men at the business end of her revolver.
  3. The princess: She's rich, she's powerful, and she thinks she can tell our hero what to do. It's the job of the intrepid PI to prove her wrong, most likely by forcibly kissing her as she attempts to fight him off before succumbing to his roguish charms.
  4. The victim: Inevitably, a woman finds herself kidnapped/ stalked/ otherwise pursued by an ex boyfriend/ overprotective father/ nightclub owner. She comes to our hero in her hour of need, desperate to find a man who will rescue her from problems a woman couldn't possibly solve on her own.
Apart from detective stories, one of the things I love is taking genres and turning them on their heads. So, like my tuna-ice cream milkshake, I took two of my favorite things and crammed them together. Note that, if the gender roles were reversed, this story could have been one of any number of detective radios serials from years gone by. Enjoy!

“Sally Charm: Private Eye”

Aaron Matthew Smith

May 27th, 2013

My shoes pounded up the stairs, the dull thudding of the wood for a moment drowning out the deep, throaty scream that echoed from the hall above. 

I heard the gunshot as my foot left the last stair.

The first door on the left was standing open; gold lettering proclaimed it to be room 302.

I burst into the room just as other doors along the hall were beginning to open, bleary-eyed occupants looking to see what fuss had awoken them at three in the morning. 

I was too late. 

Sprawled on the floor was a woman in a black dress, her long, brown hair a damp, tangled mess that partially obscured her face. A dark red stain had already begun to spread across the floor of the living room, causing her hair to stick to the thick wood grain. The acrid smell of cordite and sharp bite of blood pricked my nose as I entered, and for a moment I froze. 

Standing over her body was a man. He wasn’t much taller than me, wearing a worn tweed suit minus the jacket, fine blonde hair mussed about on his head. He had eyes the color of bachelor’s buttons, and a jawline so sharp you could slice cheese on it. The sleeves of his butter yellow shirt were rolled up just over his forearms. In one hand he clutched a tiny pearl-handled revolver, a man’s gun, a tiny curl of smoke still clinging to its barrel. 

His eyes were fixed on the woman on the floor, as cold and hard and blue as Antarctic ice. Then his eyes flicked up to me, and something in him broke. The hard mask over his features cracked and then fell away, and thick, damp tears fell from his eyes. 

I took two steps forward and caught him just as he started to faint, nearly tripping over the dead woman at his feet. He collapsed into my arms and wept, great heaving sobs that made his broad shoulders lurch and jump. The gun tumbled out of his hand and clattered to the floor.

He wailed, “She was going to kill me. I told her I was going to leave, and I meant it this time, but she said No! No, you can’t leave! I won’t let you!, and then she…” he pointed into the tiny adjacent kitchenette, “She went for her gun, over there in the kitchen, and I just…”

“Shh,” I hissed, patting him on the head. “There there, hold yourself together now. It’s alright. Come on, let’s get out of here. Come now.” I took him by the hand and led him back into the bedroom, where an unmade bed was perched next to a nightstand with a tall crystal decanter on top. I poured him a tall drink of the amber liquid in the decanter then went back into the living room.

I moved to the door and pulled it closed, cutting off the grisly scene from any curious neighbors who might decide to wander down the hall tonight. There was a clutch purse on the stand by the door. I picked it up and popped it open. 

A driver’s license fell out into my hand. Doris Hemming, thirty-four. This was her apartment, but I knew that already. My client was the delirious young man weeping his eyes out in the back bedroom, Kevin Asher. Or, his mother, Maria Asher, was. Ol’ Maria was worried that her youngest son was running around with an older woman who was trying to nose in on the Asher family fortune and manipulating her son to do it. 

I’d spent the last week trying to track them down. I’d finally followed Doris from the law firm where she was an attorney working nights to a nightclub where she met up with the boy. They drank, then they fought, then they fought some more, then they hopped in a cab and came up here. 

I’d tailed them as best I could, but they’d lost me after a few blocks, cost me several precious minutes. I’d hoped to halt any confrontation before something… drastic happened. 

Sally Charm, Private Eye. Always One Second Too Late. I ought to have it stenciled on my business cards. 

I sighed and knelt by the slain Ms. Hemming. I gently rolled her head back and forth, doing my best to not disturb her. Single gunshot wound to the back of the head. I followed line of sight to the living room, then to the tiny kitchenette separated from it by the entry, where the body laid. 

I stood, crossed to the kitchen and pulled open the first drawer I found. A heavy nine millimeter automatic lay in the drawer, safety off. It looked like Kevin had been telling the truth. 

I picked up the phone and dialed the police station. Someone was dead now- I had to call it in. Four rings, and then a scratchy woman’s voice came over the line.

“Detective MacGillicudy.”

“Rose, it’s Sally Charm,” I said. “Listen, remember that case I mentioned to you earlier—”

“Sally! Oh my gosh, where have you been? I’ve been trying to call you all evening!”

“What? Why, Rose, what’s wrong?”

“Well it’s about that case you mentioned!” Her thick Irish accent gave each of the words a hearty little curl. “That rich lady, Asher? She came down to the station earlier, said that she was worried about her son and wanted to get the police involved.”

“That’s exactly what I’m calling about, Rose…” I started, but the Irishwoman cut me off. 

“No Sally, you don’t understand. Asher said that a woman, Hemming, had transferred a series of bonds into her son’s name earlier this week- she received notice in the mail today! She’s worried they’re going to take them and leave the country!”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that,” I said, “because Doris Hemming is…”

The word died on my tongue as I noticed motion out of the corner of my left eye. I turned to see the chromium barrel of a pearl handled revolver, the mate to the one that lay on the floor at Doris Hemming’s feet, pointed directly at my noggin. 

Kevin Asher mouthed the words, Hang up or you’re dead.

“Got to go, Rose,” I said, slowly. “Call you back later.” I could hear her protests as I placed the received back on the cradle.

For a moment the two of us just stood there, separated by a tiny length of chrome and five nine millimeter rounds. 

My eyes flicked to the still warm body on the floor, just feet away.

“Why’d you have to kill her?” I asked.

“She was too clingy,” Asher said, the corner of his mouth turning up. “I need to be free.”

“Freedom is the last thing you’re going to have now,” I said. “Other people on this floor heard that gunshot. Someone has already called the police, be sure of that. They’re on their way now. You might be able to explain away one murder as self-defense, but what about mine?”

“I’ll tell the police that you were overtaken by my charm and threw yourself at me.”

“Nobody will ever believe that.”

The revolver cocked. “Of course they will. I’m just an innocent little boy with too many good looks that draws the attention of all the wrong kind of women.”

“So what was the plan?” I said, trying to keep him talking. The longer he talked, the longer I survived. “She’s an attorney, makes plenty of her own money. She didn’t need your mommy’s fortune.”

“Mommy,” Asher said, and spat the word like it put a bad taste in his mouth, “Cut me off. She said I didn’t understand the value of a dollar, that I’d never had to earn anything in my life. She said a life of hard work would build character. Character! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?”

“I think I might have,” I mumbled.

“That’s not for me, Miss Charm,” Asher went on as if I hadn’t spoken. “That’s not the life I want. So I started looking for a woman who could give me the life I did want.”

“So you hooked up with Ms. Hemming here. Why her?”

“Because of her bonds,” Kevin said, a greedy little flame flickering to life in his cobalt blue eyes. “She had them transferred into my name. Mother might’ve cut me off, but I can still access the Swiss account she opened for me, as empty as it might be. I convinced Doris that we could start life anew in Europe, and all we had to do was transfer her capital to my account to do it.”

“And then you killed her,” I said, an angry lump trying to crawl out of my throat. “She loved you, you know. Was willing to toss her life aside so that you two could start a new life, allow you to get out from beneath your mother’s influence. She was willing to do that for you.”

“Well, I do still plan on doing that. So in a way, I’m fulfilling her final wish. Sort of poetic, actually.” The manic grin returned to Kevin Asher’s baby-doll face, and he leveled the gun at me. “Now, if you’ll excuse me miss Charm, I have a flight to catch in two hours.”

A sudden thudding on the door caused us both to jump.

“Police! Open up!” a voice shouted, and in that moment, I made my move.

I dove at Asher, so quickly that my fedora toppled off of my head, my bundled brown curls coming undone. My left hand lashed out and struck his startled wrist; there was an explosion and flash of light. My left ear went deaf, and I felt the wind from the gunshot tousle my hair.

My right hand rolled into a tight fist and collided with the young man’s neck, sending him to the floor in a crumpled heap. He cried out as he fell, and the heel of my shoe landed hard on the top of his hand. He released the pearled gun, and I kicked it across the floor. 

My own thirty-eight revolver was in my hand as suddenly as if it had materialized there, and I held it on the boy with a grip as solid as granite as the door swung in and three uniformed policewomen stormed into the room. 

“Sally Charm!” One of the detectives, a woman named Fields, said. “What happened in here?”

Kevin Asher gazed up at me from the floor, fury burning his eyes so intensely that it might’ve incinerated me where I stood. More heavy tears had begun to roll down his cheeks. Unlike the previous tears, however, these were genuine.

“Arrest this boy for murder,” I said. “Someone call his mother, tell her I’m sorry.”

“Damn you, Sally Charm,” Kevin Asher growled through gritted teeth. His head dropped, silent tears pattering to the floor where the blood of Doris Hemming had already begun to dry.