August 10, 2015

Author of Death: Chapter 1 and 2 (Noir Crime/Thriller Fiction)

It has been quite awhile since I have posted anything that I have written so I thought it might be a nice time to do so. This comes from my Noir-inspired Crime/Thriller entitled Author of Death. I have talked a bit before about the cover but I've been wanting to post an excerpt. It's somewhere between a third and fourth draft and I'm finally feeling more confident about it.  

Chapter 1 : The Last Interview 

     My reflection stares back at me in the lens of the reporter’s spectacles. It’s been years since I’ve really seen myself and even in the glare from the top of his glasses, I barely recognize what I see. My once dark hair now has silver streaks. My pallid complexion is washed out by my powder blue collared shirt— standard issue of course.  
            As I watch the reporter unbutton his jacket and loosen his tie, I realize how much I miss my scuffed brown shoes and old gray suits. For a brief moment, I consider asking if I can wear them when they slaughter me.  
            The reporter fidgets with his glasses. “Yes, Mr. Marlowe, um, can I call you Roger?” he asks. “I’m glad that you asked to see me. For something like this they said we’re allowed an hour or two but it really is up to you, um, I think I can request more time, that is, if you are interested.” He sits in the steel chair opposite me and, with a nervous grin, glances at his wrist watch. 
            The man looks at me eagerly, anxious to begin the interview that will launch his career as a “credible journalist” — as if that’s a real thing. 
            “I have some questions but they can wait until the end if you’d like. Don’t worry, sir, I’m not like the others” he says. I can’t decide if he’s trying to convince me or himself. He chatters endlessly, refusing to shut his damn mouth. My mind wanders… 
            His hair is too long and his shirt is barely pressed. He’s wearing black shoes with an ill-fitting navy blue suit. 
            I can already tell he’s one of the passionate liberals who has taken an interest in my case in order to make his own. The only question was what spin he’d put on this. Would I be the new face of Capital Punishment or would I be the “Evil” brought on by greed and compromising art for profit? Dear God, was I this kid’s hero? …  
            I realize he’s still blabbering.
            “I want to give you a voice. I want to tell the world your side of the story,” he says.   
            I fight the urge to punch him in the face. I wonder if I made the wrong choice until I see it laying there in his bag — the recorder.  
            “So, Mr. Marlowe, you can begin whenever you would like.” He says this as if he’s giving me permission to speak, though I can see the intimidation in his eyes. We both know that I can easily send him away. It’s not my career on the line. Really, at this point, what would I have to lose? The answer is nothing. I would lose absolutely nothing. 
            I wait a moment, allowing the tension to rise. “Did your boss tell you to say that? To try to make me comfortable, to present yourself as a friend? Let me make things clear – I don’t intend to lie to you, I’ll tell you everything exactly how I remember it. You’re not here to be friends so please don’t insult me by implying that you actually give a shit about me.” I pull in close, an unexpected action that makes him jump back. 
            I catch another glimpse of my reflection as the reporter pushes his wide framed glasses up the bridge of his nose. With a handkerchief, he dabs at the beads of sweat dripping down forehead.
            The reporter notices me staring at the tape recorder in his bag and, as if on cue, pulls it out and places it on the table. He gestures toward the object between us and politely inquires, “is it okay if I record this?”
            I nod. 
            His hands tremble as he fidgets with the machine for a bit. Clicking it ON and OFF without success. “Shit!” he mutters. Click-click-click-click.  PAUSE. PLAY. RECORD. RECORD. RECORD. RECORD.  He taps the light that’s supposed to be red but the machine won’t record.
            I begin to get annoyed. I asked for a professional and they sent a child who couldn’t work his own damn tape recorder.
            I meet his gaze and don’t even look as I reach over and click the machine ON. I press RECORD and the red light blinks. The tape turns inside recording the sound of my deep voice as I state “You have my permission to tape this. You’re lucky too. Otherwise I’d have to sue you.” I laugh at my own joke and the sound of it fills the room, reverberating off the whitewashed walls and echoing a little. It grows quiet and he breaks the silence too soon.  
            “Is it true what they say, sir? Did you really do it?” 
            How rude, I think, just freaking rude.
            I decide to take control of the scheduled interview. I ignore his question and continue. “A few hours should be enough. Be patient. Before we get to that, I would like to tell you a little story. You see, I think it would probably be easier for us both if you just sit and listen. No questions and don’t interrupt me.”
            The guy nods. 
            An interview without questions. Weird. I know. But the warden wouldn’t let me near a pen or a typewriter. I had thought about it for months and decided this was the only way. My last opportunity to set the record straight. To tell the world what really happened. I didn’t need the punk in the clearance rack suit; I just needed the tape recorder that came with him.  
            I take a deep breath and sit back in the chair. 
            “Where I do I begin … ?”

Chapter 2: Inspiration
 It was 1954.
            The office was saturated with the din of clicking heels, clattering typewriters, telephone chatter and the like. I sat in the midst of it, outside of Mr. Scavo’s office, in the ugly moss colored chairs, beside Lily. Lily Ann Marie. A woman so magnificent she had three names. I once teased her it was because she was three times the woman. I was trying to flirt but I only managed to make her uncomfortable. She never seemed to be amused by my jokes. 
            To tell the truth, most of the time Lily seemed confused anyone noticed she was there behind the desk at all. But I noticed her. How the hell could I not? She was a gorgeous woman with an olive complexion and a celestial face hidden behind a raging ocean of chocolate colored hair that grazed the top of her slender shoulders. 
            I alternated between watching her and my cheap gold watch as I waited for my fat Italian boss to bombard me with criticism.
            Charles London leaned over Lily’s desk, adjusting the frames of his Buddy Holly glasses which swallowed his face. He was a tall child and obnoxiously innocent too. His jokes weren’t that funny but they were sure to get a rise out of Lily. Charles was nothing special with his long ashy blond hair, annoying laugh and exhausting optimism. 
            I wanted to like him. Sometimes it was almost like we were friends. Almost. The grace he lacked in person was manifest in his work which flowed so effortlessly from his fingertips as he brought them down upon his Royal, the lucky punk, always inspired. And Lily loved his work. It figured.
            With most everyone she was guarded, even anxious, but when Charles was around she seemed at ease. Her dark eyes searched the lines of his face as he scanned the latest sales report. It should have been me making the most sales and winning Lily’s admiration. Instead, I was waiting for my gluttonous boss to finish screaming into his telephone at whichever unlucky soul on the other side had provoked him. Nobody stood a chance when he got that angry, except perhaps his golden employee, Charles. 
            Mr. Scavo scheduled the meeting. He didn’t even need to tell me what it concerned. I saw the quarterly sales report on my desk. I already knew. Unlike the esteemed Mr. Charles London, my latest piece wasn’t noteworthy and what’s worse, it wasn’t being purchased either.
            I wrote the piece with bottle in hand. Sure, it was no classic. But honestly, what did people expect with the pay I got?  It was just another formula piece, strictly genre conscious. Pulp. Mr. Scavo tasked me with writing trendy material, transforming simple outlines, foolish whims, and idiotic ideas into short novels.
            I guess I was supposed to work my creative magic but I was all tapped out. It’d been years since I’d written something for myself. I wasn’t even sure that I knew how to anymore. Pulp on-demand with a small publishing company like Scavo’s Prints was a more pragmatic job than begging the big companies to accept my manuscripts. I needed to pay the bills and it could have been worse— I think. It wasn’t what I originally wanted to write but I was virtually guaranteed to be published. Plus, we were based out of San Hugo, not LA, which was always a bonus.
            “Mr. Marlowe, you can go in now.” Lily announced as she glanced up from her desk. 
            “Darling, I’ve already told you that you can call me Roger.” Trying to be smooth, I winked but the timing was off so it came out awkward and I instantly wished that I hadn’t tried at all. 
 I entered his smoky office and took the ebony leather chair across from him. 
            Mr. Scavo had called me in but insisted on finishing whatever he was reading before so much as acknowledging my presence. I hated that – his need to prove that I was beneath him. What a jerk.
            He twisted the wedding ring on his sausage fingers. I could only guess he had outgrown the thing and that, now wrapped tightly around his fingers, it was restricting him in ways he had not anticipated when he committed to it so long ago.  I wondered if he felt the same about the marriage that came with it.
            “Roger. What the hell? Another flop. Even by our standards. Genre fiction isn’t supposed to be a big risk. Dammit! I’m in business to make money not give it away to you artsy types.  If you want to keep your job, Marlowe, you’d better find a way to recover these losses. Understand?” 
            “Yes sir.” I replied. I gritted my teeth and held my tongue. I wanted to scream in his face that I had asked for a few extra weeks but he insisted I rush it. Even by our standards. 
            Mr. Scavo held up the sales report.
            “Consider this your first and only warning. If you don’t find inspiration immediately you’ll no longer have a place in this company. I pay you to produce books – books that sell.”
            My jaw quivered. I wasn’t prepared for his final insult before he dismissed me. 
            “Perhaps you could work with Charles to come up with some more original ideas. Have him give everything a look over before you submit your next piece to me.”
            I cringed. “With all due respect, sir, Charles writes romantic fantasies— women’s books.” 
            “So? Your point is?” 
            “So – I write Crime … Noir. I hardly think a love triangle is what my readers want.”
            “As of now, you have no readers. Laugh at Charles and his girlie stories all you want, his books sell. You’re in a rut and you could use some help.” The chair groaned under the weight of his body as he shifted. “So quit your sniveling and ask him for some help dammit!”
            I wanted to scream. He’d spent the last three years telling me to write only from the outlines he approved and now I was being blamed for shitty sales. I wanted to sweep the papers from his desk, to knock his typewriter onto the floor, to kick his fat ass off the chair that bowed beneath it. I was ready to explode but I maintained an appearance of quiet composure. 
            “What should I do?” I asked, with every ounce of respect that I could fake. 
            “Roger, the problem is that you’re as straight on the narrow path as Charles, only it’s affecting your work. Be honest, you have no experience in crime or death. That’s fine if your market is the average housewife but I think you just aren’t convincing the rest of us anymore — I don’t really know what to tell you. Maybe you need a little more real word experience.” He folded his thick hands in front of him. 
            “Your next piece is scheduled to print in January. We’re set for this season but you’ll need to start for next year’s releases. I want something completely fresh and new. Roger, I want something that sells. I’ll give you three months to bring me a draft that I can work with. Don’t disappoint me.” 
            I stormed out of his office, throwing the door open. The smiles disappeared from Charles’ and Lily’s faces. 
            Charles appeared concerned. “Hey Roger, what’d he say?” 
            “I need more life experience.” I replied flatly. 
            Lily Ann Marie tilted her head sideways, confused, as always. 
            Charles followed me down the hall. I just wanted to be alone. 
            “Roger, I saw the Report this morning. I read your book and I liked it. It’s just numbers don’t let it get to you.” He patted me the back as if we were the best of friends. 
            “Yeah? Just numbers?” I scoffed. “Tell that to Scavo.” 
            That was easy for him to say. Right next to my results were his own — bright and glowing like the midday sun.
            Charles’ face was full of empathy or maybe just pity. It didn’t really matter which. I didn’t want either. 

         Feeling sorry for myself, I rushed to the parking lot and sat in my car. Smoke flowed in a steady stream from my lungs to the little opening in my window. 
       I sat behind the wheel, imagining all of the dark and dastardly events that could take place in a desolate lot, scribbling out a myriad of notes - page after page of ideas on a legal pad the same lemon color as the street lights that flickered above me. As I stared down at my list I realized Scavo was right. The crimes of my tales were routine. Even now, my ideas were little more than a list of things I’d already read or written.
       A wave of relief washed over me when the bright bulb of the street light died and I was plunged into an atmosphere darker than my thoughts. I sat in the dark listening to the sound of my breath until she came.
       I heard the click of her heels long before I saw my brunette angel, all alone, her hips swinging with every step. Her hair was blowing in the breeze as she crossed her arms over her chest.
      Charles ran after her, waving her red scarf in the air. She turned to meet him. A smile filled her face as he flailed his arms, no doubt explaining something. She politely thanked him as she reached out for the scarf and their hands met. There was a long pause after that. They lingered close to one another.
      I was anxious, worried that Charles would steal a kiss and that I would be forced to watch. But Lily took a step back. She thanked him again as she wrapped the red scarf around her neck and made her way through the parking lot. I was relieved.
       I’d spent my last few hours contemplating crime and as I stared at her soft figure gliding over the pocked pavement, I suddenly became aware of just how dangerous the city could be for a young dame. Especially a pretty one like Lily. 
      I flicked the last of my cigarette out the window and pitched my note pad onto the back seat. Something clicked inside of me and I knew that this was it. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to her. She was a rabbit and, come what may, I resolved to follow her deep into the rabbit hole. 
      Lily seated herself on the iron bench at the bus stop across the street. Even beneath the harsh glare of the street light she still looked stunning. It dawned on me that I had found my inspiration, Lily Ann Marie, but I was still lacking in experience— Criminal experience. 
       Up to that point, loitering was the only thing I could ever be accused of and even that was stretching it. But as I watched Lily waiting for her bus, I told myself this was my chance. I wouldn’t be hurting anyone. Just following a coworker home, getting a feel for the mind of my criminal and the woman he stalked. Character research, really. Nothing more. Had I known everything that it would lead to, I would have just gone home and thought of something else or just quit writing altogether. It would have been the smart thing to do. But of course, I didn’t know and so I stayed.
       Bus 41 screeched to a halt. The doors hissed as they thrust open. And Lily, bundled in her tawny overcoat and ruddy scarf, boarded the silver bus and took her seat in the front. 
       My heart pounded and my engine purred like a cat as I turned it over and stalked the bus. There wasn’t a cop in sight. It was exciting. I felt sneaky and powerful — like a lion stalking his prey.  I kept a little gap between my car and Bus 41. I followed it deep into the city, where massive buildings loomed overhead.
        Bus 41 chugged along, stopping every few blocks to shuffle and trade old and new passengers. Lily remained toward the front of the bus. At least I imagined she had, I couldn’t see her from the back. I pictured her sitting there alone, reading or looking out the window, maybe stretching her sore hands or massaging her tired shoulders. Though I couldn’t so much as glimpse her, I watched at every stop, anticipating her exit. But she stayed on Bus 41.
       The bus turned into Mission Valley, taking Friars Road around and stopping between the apartment complexes that were overlooked by the Spanish Mission. Caught at a red light, I waited patiently behind Bus 41. There, I saw her walking on the sidewalk— a ghost from my past.
       From behind all I could see was the tight clothes hugging her curves in all the right places, the bottle-blond hair, the skirt that came a little too far above the knees, even the way she clutched her purse. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It had to be her- but it couldn't have been. I was puzzled. 
     The car behind me blared its horn. Shaken from my daze, I looked forward only to realize that the light was green and Bus 41 had vanished. As I drove away I glanced into my mirror at the blond woman and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t my old squeeze June but I couldn’t really see either way. A black car pulled up and the woman hopped into the passenger side before it sped off in another direction.
       Having lost sight of both Bus 41 and the mysterious woman that looked like June, I had no choice but to go home. 

        When I finally made it back to my apartment I kicked off my brown leather shoes at the door and headed straight to the dingy kitchenette where I promptly threw together a ham sandwich and a double scotch. It slid down my throat with ease. It had been a long day and I was grateful for it. It was exactly what I needed. At the sink, where I took most of my meals since the kitchen table had become the permanent home to my typewriter and mountain of futile notes, I rinsed my ink stained hands and patted them dry on my old gray trousers. 
       Wedged between my barren cupboards and the embarrassingly empty refrigerator, there was a cat calendar on my wall where I marked Friday with a fat red marker NEW PITCH TO SCAVO 6PM.    
     I didn’t have to go to the office for a few weeks but I wanted to tell him about my new idea and more importantly, I needed an excuse to get back to the office and see the mysterious destination at the end of Bus 41. 
     I needed to see it for myself. The street where she lived. I wanted to see inside her home as well but I’d have to think hard about how to go about it. Of course, I could’ve made up a setting but I always struggled with making it believable. There were things about a woman’s home I could never quite get right in my books. Things like a box of baking soda in the ice chest, the sweet smells, the rugs and curtains and extra pillows. It baffled me. I wanted to see it in person.

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