The Shutter Blinks Twice

The detective was a drunken buffoon. I didn’t need to smell the brandy reeking from his breath: the very air of his office was an ethanolic haze.

I felt my heels sticking to the unwashed vinyl floor, and wondered again what I was doing in this dump.

He leered at me across his desk, bloodshot eyes trying to manipulate their way into my low-cut dress. His gut was strategically positioned beneath the battered leather surface, and he sat up a little straighter, trying to mimic some semblance of a man in his prime.

Once his gaze had cradled my cleavage for long enough, I decided to get on with it. There was only one way this was going down.

“I’d like my photographs, Mr Rubens.”

“Call me Clive.” He squinted suspiciously at my face now, trying to figure out which client I was and how much booze had made him forget me. He tried for professional, falling a thousand miles short. “Er, I’ve been rather busy lately, so you’ll need to refresh my memory?”

“Cut the crap, Clive. You’ve done sweet fuck all for the last six months. ”

The cursing did it: not what he expected from a classy-looking dame. A flash of calculation paraded over his face, fireworks and all, and he prepared to bullshit me.

“Oh, those photographs. Well, I’d love to help, sweetheart, I really would…” I hoped that wasn’t his seductive tone – the voice could have congealed water – but managed to conceal my shudder, “… buuut there’s just a little problem: I don’t have them no more.”

His eyes flickered at this last, pausing on an oversized print on the wall, cartoonish flowers and realistic mold colonies. The greasy handprints in the frame were very subtle.

“Any.”

“Huh?” Now he was genuinely lost.

“You don’t have them any more.”

“That’s what I said.”

“So they wouldn’t be, say, in the safe over there?”

His eyes again visited the print, though I hadn’t indicated any part of the room.

In a second, I was across the office, flicking the hinged painting forward to reveal… A hole in the wall, bulging with envelopes and receipts. The sad bastard had sold the safe to support one of his habits.

He was gulping now, trying to climb from the sagging chair, to comical effect. My trained hands shuffled through the envelopes, finding what I wanted before he could decide what to do.

“Stay seated, Mr Rubens. I believe this is what I came for.” He sank back down, defeated without even throwing a punch. Even I felt sorry for him.

“Here’s what’s going to happen, Mr Rubens: I’ll walk out this door, and you’re going to tell your client that you fucked up, that the film was overexposed.” I continued, before he could muster up the courage to interrupt, “If you follow me, or fail to comply, I will publish these photos.” I slipped a small folder across his desk. He looked inside, turned pale, and nodded.

Back in my hotel room, I stripped off the vaguely clinging wisps of fabric, changing into something a little more comfortable, and far more modest. I washed off the ridiculous makeup and brewed a pot of black tea, steeped to perfection. Myself again, I called the agency. “It’s done, Denise. Mrs Jackson can proceed with the suit. That pervert won’t be helping her husband any more. You can wire the balance to my account.”

It’s not always a pleasant business, watching the watchers, but it is very lucrative.

This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #3. The challenge was noir fiction, with the prompts “the photographer” and “the other view.”

Gone

She sits,
not poised at the edge of dramatic abyss,
but snuggled deep in that old couch,
her lover’s arms,
wrap around her too, in memory at least –
too many layers of dust have settled since,
and those phantom limbs
now sway unsullied by muscle cramps,
no pins-and-needles prompting new positions,
– just a glossed-over distillation of those perfect moments
that never really happened.

The couch is real, though,
its depths concealing spores of mold and more memories,
stains of several lifetimes, their passage through the flat,
loves lived, lost and longed-for,
and still the couch remains –

Or would, if not for her:
the couch, the room, the building gone.

Not to ash, as she expected,
but to a skeleton of vague proportions
Ribs and springs and incongruous tufts of stuffing
Coated in soot, no longer a couch, but still more than nothing.

Still more than her lover:
a figment only, created and destroyed
a thousand times in desperate daytime dreamings,
by the crumpled form who sits, if “sits” is fair,
still smothered by the couch, or couch remains,
still now, in every way.

 

This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #2. The challenge was free-verse, with the prompts “memories” and “the reason it isn’t there.”

The Lowest Bar

The bar was a squat, ugly box, haphazardly tacked on to the base of a character art-deco building. Strategically designed as an ugly duckling amid the uptown glitz and glamour, artificial grunge permeated the place, from the unfaced stage-front of cheap pine, to the carefully worn formica bar surface. Even the smoke was embellished in those days of indoor cigarettes, a hidden fog-machine adding to the haze.

You couldn’t see the floors, of course, because the place was packed slightly over capacity. The sticky surfaces underfoot didn’t have to be faked, with dozens of people fighting for elbow room while juggling pints of beer.

We couldn’t wait to be part of it, and the queue was punctuated with short, terse conversations, underpinned by adrenaline.

Finally, the shuffling line edged its way past the threshold, each of us parting with a token cover charge that seemed a fortune to hollow student wallets, and, for the first time in my life, I walked into a bar.

Our Chem tutor, a hip twenty-something worshipped by most of the girls, and not a few of the guys in our lab, was playing that night, because it wasn’t enough to be handsome, smart and engaging, he’d just have to be a jazz saxophonist, too. You could say a few of us guys, still struggling with acne and introversion, were a little envious – but even we couldn’t deny that he was pretty damn cool, and receiving even third-hand invitations to attend the gig felt incredible.

One by one, we approached the bar, giddily handing over our paper entry chits. One by one, each of us received a pint of suspicious house beer. One by one, that is, until it was my turn.

“How old are you?” The bartender didn’t look too interested.

“Er, 18,” I managed to contain the “in a couple of weeks,” that threatened to follow, as I presented my folded driver’s licence.

He barely glanced down at the unhelpful document. “Sorry mate, the law change isn’t for another three months, so the age is still 20. You’ll have to head outside.”

The blush spread across my face, as I froze and considered a thousand inappropriate responses. A juvenile instinct to incriminate my friends, to stamp my feet and claim unfairness, surfaced only briefly, guiltily in my mind, before embarrassment and a polite nod won out, and I wordlessly shuffled against the tide of alcoholic bliss towards the door.

From the carpark, I could hear the band: they were really good. Taller, older-looking friends popped outside to take shifts standing with me, sharing consolation for problems they’d never encountered, but the consolation mattered.

We stood vigil to the low pulsing lights and boozy world of warm companionship, forging our own bonds as we watched together in the darkness; still distant, still outside, but connected.

This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #1. The challenge was a 500 word short story using the prompts “unbridled enthusiasm” and “a guy walks into a bar.”