“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Read Read And Weep

Our good friend David Thompson of the Busted Flush Press drops by with yet another suggested blog-post, to wit:
“Have you read Cornelia Read’s ‘Hungry Enough’ from A HELL OF A WOMAN? It happens to be one of my favourites of the collection, and it was just nominated for a Shamus Award! I’ve attached the pdf of the story, and you’re welcome to post it on your blog for everyone to read. :-)”
  Man, but I’m a sucker for those smiley faces …
Hungry Enough
“I absolutely adore driving drunk,” said Kay. “It’s so damn easy.”
The top was down on her little two-seater Mercedes—one of those burnished days, after a week of rain.
  She surprised me by careening right onto Hollywood Boulevard, off Cherokee.
  “Darling girl,” I protested, “the Cahuenga Building went that-a-way. I’m an hour late as it is.”
  The wind was ruining our hair.
  She plucked a strand of platinum from her lipstick. “One tiny stop, Julia. I have a few things for you at the house.”
  Kay’d offered me birthday lunch at Chasen’s, her treat. I held out for Musso and Frank’s so I had the option of walking back to work.
  “You gave me your solemn oath,” I said. “Only reason I agreed to that fifth martini.”
  “Wouldn’t you rather arrive sober than punctual?”
  “I need this job, Kay.”
  “You need a husband, Julia,” she said. “You’re twenty-five years old.”
  “I seem to recall having already suffered through this lecture. Somewhere between cocktails three and four.”
  “Honey,” she said, “it’s practically 1960 and you’re dying on the goddamn vine.”
“I happen to like the vine. Marvelous view. Fee fi fo fum, et cetera, et cetera . . .”
  “Three years in Los Angeles, and what do you have to show for it?”
  I had one ingénue turn on Perry Mason and a succession of glossy headshots to show for it, as Kay knew perfectly well. She, meanwhile, had a rich producer husband.
  “Another Greyhound bus pulls into this town every five minutes,” she continued, “packed to the gills with fresh-faced little mantraps—”
  “—I cannot believe you’re willing to be seen driving this tacky thing,” I said. “Powder blue with white upholstery?”
  “Says she who takes dictation from the man in a powder blue suit,” said Kay. “Promise me you’re not sleeping with him. He wears socks with clocks on them, for chrissakes.”
  “Promise me this color scheme wasn’t your idea.”
  “Of course not. I found it in the driveway last week, complete with jaunty bow over the hood. Another little kiss-and-make-up incentive from Kenneth.”
Kenneth, her rich producer husband, snared last year at a Sunday brunch swim party in Bel-Air. He’d been sunning himself on a raft in the water’s shallow end. Kay sauntered up in a bathing suit and heels, crooked one finger, and said, “Hey you, out of the pool.”
Tuesday morning, his third wife chartered a plane to Reno.
  I caught her eye in the rear-view mirror. “Darling, this car practically shouts divorcée—”
  “—A girl can dream, can’t she?”
  “For chrissake, Kay-Kay,” I said, “If you’re that unhappy, why not leave him?”
  “Because I finally have some leverage, Julia, now that I’ve seen what that plate glass is for.”
  This was an inch-thick slab suspended above their bed on golden cables. Kay had recently discovered her husband lying beneath the transparent platform while baby-oiled young blond men wrestled one another atop it. Defecation earned them bigger tips at the end of the night.
  “Did I tell you,” she said, “that he actually thought I’d go down on him while those appalling creatures moiled around in their own filth?”
  “Whereupon you told him he was out of his ever-loving mind and stalked out of the room,” I replied, leaving out the part about how she showed up at my place that night with a bottle of Seconal, already half-consumed.
  She turned to flash me a grin, then held up her wrist to flash something blue-white, flawless, and far more enduring. “Look what arrived with my breakfast tray, just this morning.”
  “Harry Winston?”
  “Cartier,” she said. “He’s learning.”
  She hauled the wheel left again, shooting us down a palm-tree-lined boulevard.
  I shrugged. “So you’ll put up with it. You’re one of the wives now.”
  “This year,” she said.
  I rolled my eyes. “And whose job it is to swab down the sheet of glass, afterwards?”
  “Search me,” she said, “but I hope to hell it’s that little shit Carstairs.”
  Carstairs was Kenneth’s secretary—a snippy little man who was still quite blond, possibly British, and ten years past earning his keep unclothed. He and Kay loathed one another.
  Trying to get him fired was her primary form of entertainment, after shopping.
  We pulled up to a stoplight. The man in the Cadillac next to us wrenched his neck, getting an eyeful of Kay.
  She ignored him with intent, one sly finger twisting the pearls at her neck. “I’m not ever going to be goddamn famous, now, am I?”
  “’Course you won’t,” I said. “Fame is reserved for those freshfaced little man-traps who can’t go home on the Greyhound.”
  “I’m better looking.”
  “Fairest one of all,” I said. “But you aren’t hungry enough. You never were.”
  “And you’re too goddamn smart.”
  “Have to be,” I said. “I’m a goddamn brunette.”
  “Mere lack of will. Doesn’t mean a life sentence.”
“I prefer that collar and cuffs match, thanks ever so.”
  She stomped on the brakes and swerved right, bringing the car’s powder-blue nose to a halt six inches shy of her driveway’s cast-iron gates.
  A uniformed flunky sprinted forth to swing them wide. Kay checked her makeup in the side mirror, ignoring the man’s salute.
  She punched the gas before he was quite out of the way, spraying his shins with gravel.
  I looked back and waved, mouthing a belated “thank you.”
  “I’m serious about your future,” said Kay. “Had we but known at Barnard you’d end up mooning over some cut-rate detective—”
  “—or that you’d end up playing beard for the man you married?”
  She laughed at that, rich golden peals that trailed behind us till the end of her curving drive.
  “What a monstrous pile it is,” Kay said, cutting her eyes at the Deco-Moorish façade she lived behind.
  She walked away from the Mercedes without bothering to close her door. Someone would take care of it. Someone always did.
  “I’ve got to call my service,” she said, as we walked inside, our heels clicking against marble and echoing back from the domed entry ceiling.
  “Why the hell do you have a service?”
  “Because Carstairs manages to lose every message intended for me.”
  She peeled off her white gloves, tossing them in the general direction of a gilt-slathered side table. I kept mine on.
  “I can’t stay all afternoon, Kay.”
  “Go upstairs to my dressing room,” she said. “I’ve laid out some things for you to try on.”
  “I don’t need your clothes.”
  “I spent the morning with that little woman at Bullock’s, picking out a few ‘delightful frocks’ for delivery here in your size. Allow me that one small pleasure.”
  “And if I should happen to come upon Kenneth, ogling something untoward above your marital bed?”
  “Tiptoe past without making a fuss. I’ll throw in a fur”
  “For chrissake, Kay.”
  “And solemnly swear you won’t have to kiss my ass for a week.”
  “Make it two.”
  “Greedy guts,” she said, as I started up the stairs.
  As it turned out, her husband couldn’t have ogled anything at all.
  There wasn’t much left of his face, after the slab of glass had swung down to catch him under the chin.
  The pair of golden cables at its footboard-end had given out.
  The closer one lay curled along the carpet at my feet. Three of its four strands had been neatly sliced, the last left to fray until it snapped.
  Kenneth wouldn’t have seen it coming, nor would his pack of wrestling boys.   There were four sockets in the ceiling, little brass-lined portholes cut into the plaster. Two were now empty.
  The cables had been severed up in the attic, out of sight.
  I lifted the phone on Kay’s side of the bed, pressed the second line’s unlit button, and dialed GLEnview 7537.
  There was a click before my employer picked up on the third ring, grumbling.
  “Philip?” I said. “I know I should have been back hours ago—”
  “—This is why I never wanted a secretary,” he cut in. “Too much damn trouble.”
  “It gets worse. I’d like to take you up on your offer of a birthday gift, after all.”
  “A little late to have something engraved.”
  “I’m with Kay. We need your help with a bit of a situation.”
  He took down her address when I explained what that situation was.
  “Twenty minutes,” he said. “Promise me you won’t touch anything.”
  “I’m wearing gloves,” I said.
  “That’s my girl.”
  Philip rang off, but I kept the receiver to my ear.
  “Don’t hang up just yet, Carstairs,” I said. “Have Kay wait for me on the terrace. Fix her a drink so she’ll stay put.”
  He exhaled.
  I knew he hadn’t yet called the police. The scent of ammonia was still too heavy in the room.
  “After that,” I said, “Come back up here with fresh rags. You missed a spot on the glass.”
  Philip walked into the library an hour later. I’d sent him upstairs alone.
  “Happy birthday,” he said, “though I’ll hold off on wishing you any returns of the day.”
  The room was all Gothic walnut, excised whole from some down-at-heel peer’s estate—the dozen muddy portraits of faithful dogs and dead grouse included.
  Carstairs made sure there was always a fire in the grate, air conditioning calibrated to offset its heat as needed.
  “Nasty little scene to stumble across, upstairs,” said Philip.
  “Horrible,” I said.
  “Has it hit you yet?” he asked.
  I shook my head.
  He took my hand in both of his. Pressed it a bit too hard.
  “It will,” he said, “and I want you sitting down when it does.”
  He glanced over at Kay, stretched out asleep on a leather sofa.
  “Your friend seems to be bearing up rather well.”
  “I made her take a Seconal.”
  “Only one?”
  “We had gin for lunch.”
  I let him pull me toward the fireplace.
  “You’re shaking.” He put an arm around my waist, lowered me gently into a wing chair, then sat in its mate a few feet away.
  “The boys are gone?” I asked.
  “Carstairs handled it. He’s had some practice.”
  “And you’re sure they won’t say anything?
  “Would you, Julia?”
  I looked at the fire. “Of course not.”
  He nodded. “I’ve told him to phone Kay’s doctor. Then the police. Then her lawyer.”
  My hands got jittery in my lap. “Philip, she didn’t do this.”
  “I’m happy to believe that,” he said. “You may have a bit more trouble convincing the detectives.”
  My gloves felt wet.
  He looked at his watch. “Tell them that the pair of you came by the office before she brought you here. That was a little after two. I gave you the rest of the afternoon off.”
  “A little after two,” I said. “What time did we get here?”
  “You don’t know. You called me the moment you found him, of course. I told you to let me handle it from there.”
  “Kenneth keeps some decent Scotch in that desk, if you’d like.”
  He shook his head. “Tell me how long you’ve known about the state of Kay’s marriage.”
  “A month. Something like that.”
  “And how long had she known, before confiding in you?”
  “Less than an hour. She drove straight to my apartment that night.”
  He thought about that. “Four weeks ago, Sunday?”
  “I suppose it was.”
  “You called in sick the next day.”
  “I apologize for that, Philip.”
  “No need,” he said.
  “We were up all night.” I looked to make sure Kay was still asleep. “She had a miscarriage.”
  “How far along?”
  “Not very. She hadn’t told Kenneth yet.”
  “Did she want the baby?”
  “Even after she walked in on him,” I said. “Maybe more.”
  “She thought it would help?”
  “Women so often do, don’t they?”
  “I’m happy to report I have no personal experience in that arena.”
  “Lucky you,” I said.
  He rose from his chair and walked behind it. “What do you really think—was it Kay, or was it Carstairs?”
  “I’ve already told you what I really think.”
  “So you have,” he said.
  “For God’s sake, Philip, can you imagine Kay with a hacksaw?”
  “I can’t imagine Kay filing her own nails.”
  “And she’s been with me since morning.”
  “I doubt it was done today,” he said. “Could have been any time over the last month.”
  “All the more reason it had to be Carstairs, then.”
  “Not sure I’m following your logic.”
  “Philip, Kay sleeps in that bed—”
  “—Still? You’re sure about that?”
  “I am,” I said. “Yes.”
  “Any proof other than your say-so that she hadn’t set up camp down the hall?” he asked. “Under the circumstances, one might presume she’d have wanted to ix-nay the arbor of connubial bliss with a stout ten-foot pole. Can’t imagine they’re short of alternate quarters, given the size of this place.”
  “Kay takes breakfast in bed every morning. Dry toast, black coffee, and half a grapefruit—broiled. I’m sure someone on staff could verify finding her there.”
  “Even so,” he said, “those last strands looked strong enough to hold, as long as nobody put extra weight on the glass.”
  “But what if they hadn’t been strong enough, despite appearances to the contrary? Philip, there’s no way she could have been certain. The glass might’ve just as easily killed Kay and Kenneth both, while they slept.”
  “I suppose so.”
  He crossed his arms and leaned on the top of his chair, looking at the fire.
  “Kay would have done it this morning, if at all,” I said. “You know I’m right.”
  “And you’ll tell the police she’s been with you since breakfast? Helping out at the office?”
  “She was at Bullock’s,” I said, “choosing dresses for me.”
  “Which left Kenneth free to pursue outside interests for several hours. Safe to say he had Carstairs make the arrangements, without help from the rest of staff. Boys delivered quietly at the service entrance, shuttled upstairs with none the wiser?”
  “Carstairs must have brought the things from Bullock’s upstairs himself,” I said. “He wouldn’t have let anyone else through to Kay’s dressing room.”
  “Ducks in a row for Kay, then,” said Philip. “Unless this was an elaborate suicide, Carstairs takes the rap.”
  It all hit me then—the bulldozed pulp of Kenneth’s face and everything else, straight through to that moment.
  I thought I would be sick, right there on the rug.
  Philip wandered over to Kay, still asleep on the sofa.
  “We’ll make sure the police get a good look at her hands,” he said. “Not a mark on them, and severing that cable must have been a bear.”
  He turned back toward me.
  I peeled off my gloves and raised both hands, turning them slowly for his inspection, front to back.
  Philip tried not to look relieved.
  “I’ll bring Carstairs in here,” he said. “Make sure he’s trussed up and ready to go.”
  He was wrong, of course. The cables had been a cinch to cut, four weeks ago Monday.
  I’d chipped the polish on one fingernail, but the second fresh coat of red had been dry a good hour before Kay woke up, back in my apartment.
  She’d have done the same to keep me from harm: without question, without hesitation and without my knowledge. Kay is my oldest friend, as I am hers. We take care not to burden each other with the onus of gratitude.
  Conscience now clear in that regard, I turned from the fire to watch her sleep—my hands still, my nausea at bay.
  Philip paused in the doorway, one foot across the threshold.
  We both heard the siren in the distance.
  “Wouldn’t hurt the appearance of things if you cried a little,” he said, not looking back. “Plenty of time before they get all the way up the drive.”

© Cornelia Read 2008

A HELL OF A WOMAN is published by the Busted Flush Press

4 comments:

Katherine Howell said...

Wow!

Cornelia Read said...

Thank you so much for posting this, Declan--you are wondrous kind!

Declan Burke said...

No, YOU are, Cornelia. No, YOU ... Cheers, Dec

Patricia J. Hale said...

Great stuff, thanks.