F is for:
I have dabbled in fiction writing in the past and, embarrassingly enough, have also written some very, VERY bad fan fiction. I don’t do it so much these days, mostly due to not having time, but also my creative thoughts has deserted me for the moment – I blame it on mummy brain!
When I was taking it a bit more seriously and entering a few competitions (and winning nothing) I entered the Eurofiction competition on the old incarnation of Slingink.com and actually won some points for one of my pieces, so I thought I’d share…
The prompt for that week was ‘anything’ – you could choose anything that inspired you to write about it. I chose The Same Old Game, a painting by Jack Vettriano:
She was some broad. I meet a lot of broads in my line of work, but not one of them has ever compared to Lola. I’m not talking about the looks department, although Lola could put most beauty queens to shame. The thing about Lola is… What is the thing? The only way I can describe her is…dangerous.
Let me explain myself. My name is Mike Spooner and I’m a PI. I didn’t choose the job – I started out as a cop in LA back in 1940, working Sunset and Vine when it was still safe to walk alone and a twenty-year-old rookie cop got a little respect. When the US of A went to war in ‘41 I did my duty and, when the shouting was all over, I came back to LA with a leg full of shrapnel and a chip on my shoulder. I’d never married, so there was no-one to stop me when I decided to drown my sorrows with my good friend Jack Daniels. I lost five years to self-pity before I decided to trade in the few favours I had left and do the one thing I knew how to do.
Spooner’s Investigations opened for business in ’51 out of a beat-up five-storey on Pico Boulevard, with a beat-up Mike Spooner the only employee. I got a few cases in the early years, mostly white collar fraud investigations with a juicy adultery case thrown in for good measure. By the time John St. Clair came to see me, my reputation for catching cheating spouses in compromising positions had never been better.
When I first met St. Clair I assumed that this was gonna be one of my now-not-so-regular white collar cases. The guy was about 45, five feet in his socks and looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. I’d just taken some very interesting photographs for one of my other clients – a cute little redhead from Van Nuys – and was eager to get them developed and collect my check. The last thing I needed was this guy in my hallway making the place look untidy.
“Mike Spooner?” he asked. The guy’s voice suited him; it sounded like the guy never said a word and came out in a soft whisper. I didn’t think he and I would get along.
“Yeah, who’s askin’?” Rude, I know, but the redhead was paying well.
“Mr Spooner, my name is John St. Clair and I understand you’ve a…reputation…for being discreet?”
“Depends on the client.” I had yet to unlock the office door and he was beginning to look nervous – I can tell when I’m about to lose a client. “Shall we step inside?”
St. Clair looked instantly relieved and pathetically grateful as I opened up and gestured him into my office. I spend most of my time on the job and the state of my office shows it. St. Clair had to wait for me to move a pile of old case files before he could gingerly sit down. He looked around suspiciously, eyeing up my office-cum-apartment. Business had been good, but not good enough for me to move out to the ‘burbs. While we spoke, St. Clair had been holding a battered brown portfolio like a shield and he shifted his hands on it as I took off my coat and hat and sat down. Before I spoke, I locked the undeveloped film for the redhead in my desk drawer. To paraphrase a hokey song, a check is still a check.
“What can I do for you, Mr St. Clair?” I asked, leaning backwards in my chair and stretching my aching back – I’d been crouched in the front seat of my Buick all morning and I wasn’t as young as I used to be. St. Clair swallowed before he spoke.
“It’s my wife Mr Spooner. I think she may be having an affair.”
I was surprised this guy had a wife in the first place, but if that was the case it stood to reason that she’d be messin’ around on him.
“What makes you think that?”
He didn’t say anything, but handed over the portfolio. As I flicked through it, I saw picture after picture of a brunette; in a park, on the street, in a car, laughing with a friend. It wasn’t the pictures that surprised me, but the brunette. I glanced up at St. Clair, then back at the pictures. The woman was certainly beautiful, but in an austere way. She was tall, with an impressive set of pins and a figure to make you look twice. I felt the smallest amount of pity for St. Clair; it didn’t last long.
“That’s my wife, Lola.” he said, as I finally lay the pictures aside.
“I don’t see anything here to indicate an affair, Mr St. Clair.”
“I know. I’ve employed several private investigators – the photographs prove that – but not one of them has ever confirmed what she’s up to.”
“What makes you think she’s up to anything?” I repeated, with a little more interest. I enjoy cases that other PIs can’t solve.
“I’m a wealthy man, Mr Spooner, and I’m not under the illusion that I hold any attraction for her other than that.” I was about to speak but he silenced me. “Please, let’s not deny it. My wife married me for my money and I’m happy with that, but a clause in our marriage contract expressly forbids her from…relations… with anyone while we’re married. If she breaks this contract, I will divorce her and she will leave the marriage exactly how she entered it. With nothing.”
The effort of this speech had left St. Clair breathless and I suspected that he was not telling me everything.”
“Are you sick, Mr St. Clair?” I asked, as I got up to pour him a glass of water.
“Unfortunately, yes.” He accepted the glass with a grateful look and took a long swallow. “I don’t have long left, Mr Spooner, and I need to know for my own peace of mind whether Lola has kept our agreement.”
“I can take the case alright, but I can’t start until next week and my work doesn’t come cheap.”
“As I said, I’m a wealthy man. If you start immediately I’ll pay you $50 an hour and give you access to a monthly expense account of $750.”
I didn’t need to think; the redhead could keep for another day.
“Tell me everything, Mr St. Clair.”
I talked to St. Clair for almost four hours, getting to know Lola more intimately – what she liked to do, the places she went, who her friends were. After a while it was clear that he was exhausted, so we finished our conversation at the diner downstairs. I put St. Clair in a cab at seven and went back to my office to think. I knew that Lola St. Clair wouldn’t be an easy woman to watch; the list of PIs that her husband had already hired was extensive and made up of some of the best guys in the state. If she was having an affair, she was hiding it like a pro. I decided to develop the pictures for the redhead and sleep on it. Decisions were always easier after a good eight hours.
I woke early and smelled bacon. The diner was already cooking up a storm for the early crowd and I heard my stomach growl. I didn’t see her until I rolled over, and then I only saw the legs. The occupant of my office chair had her long, stockinged legs crossed against my window frame. The bright morning sun slanted through the blinds and lit the thin trail of smoke from the chair to the ceiling. I don’t know how, but I knew this was Lola.
Her voice was like golden syrup and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck salute her. I could only wonder where I’d left my pants and if she’d see me if I got up to get them.
“Your pants are on the chair next to your bed, Mr Spooner. I took the liberty of folding them.”
This broad was beginning to annoy me. It’s been a long time since someone caught me with my pants down (‘scuse the pun) and the fact that her husband had just hired me was that much worse. I got out of bed and pulled on my pants. I brushed my fingers through my hair, which didn’t help it a whole lot.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked. “And what do you want?” That was more to the point.
“The janitor let me in.” The legs dropped to the floor and she turned the chair slowly in my direction. Her face was more animated, more alive than the pictures I’d seen. “I gather you spoke to my husband yesterday.”
“So what if I did?”
“He hired you because he thinks I’m having an affair.”
She smiled at this and stubbed out her spent cigarette in the ashtray on my desk.
“No, Mr Spooner, I’m not.”
“He thinks you are.”
“My husband is not well. He’s convinced I’m being unfaithful and is setting about wasting what little time and money he has left on proving that ridiculous notion.”
“Whatever makes him happy, lady.”
“Well that is the point isn’t it? He’s making both our lives miserable.”
“What do you expect me to do about it?” I said, with more bravado than I felt.
“What all the others have done: take a few pictures, file a few reports and drop the case.”
“So do you do this every time he hires someone? Pay ‘em a visit and fix it so you don’t get caught?”
“You can twist it to make whatever assumption you like Mr Spooner, but all I’m doing is trying to stop my husband from going crazy in what could very well be his last months.”
She got up from the chair and sashayed towards me. This broad was smart; her hips were entrancing. She stopped not six inches from me and I smelled sandalwood.
“I can pay you double what my husband offered for two months. After that, you submit your pictures and leave us alone.”
I thought about it. $100 an hour for some boring pictures. It sounded attractive, but, believe it or not, I did still have a last shred of integrity.
“Sorry, lady. I signed a contract with your old man. If there’s nothing to hide, you’ll be fine.”
Lola gave me a look like poison and flounced to the door. Let me tell you, I’ve made a lot of women flounce but this was impressive. She laid her hand on the door handle and delivered her parting shot.
“You’re wasting your time, Mr Spooner.”
“It’s my time to waste, Mrs St. Clair.”
I dropped into a bow and didn’t look up until the door slammed hard enough to rattle the glass.
Over the next couple months I followed Lola around LA like a stray mutt. She didn’t work, so spent her days going from shopping, to lunches, to visiting friends. St. Clair had given me a detailed list of her friends and such, so I had a pretty good idea of where to find her. I stayed out of sight in the first few weeks, but as time went on and I got nothing, I let her see me a couple times. Each time I was greeted with the same scowl she’d worn when we’d spoken, but she never dignified my presence with more than that.
I reported to St. Clair once a week, but to my disappointment, there was very little to report. How could a broad like her, who’d practically warned me off, not have anything to hide? My frustration grew as the weeks turned into months and the golden picture was still out of reach.
Lola and her friend Carol went to the Roxy Theater every Wednesday and that Wednesday How to Marry a Millionaire was showing. I laughed to myself at how apt the title was, then hunkered down in the Buick to wait for them to come out. It got to be about 8.30 when the crowd started to leave but I couldn’t see Lola among them. The mass of people thinned out until only a few stragglers were left and, as I watched, my camera poised, I saw Carol coming out of the theater alone. I cursed under my breath. Had Lola been playing me all this time? As I was thinking this, I heard a tap on the car window; it was Carol. I rolled down the window and she handed me a note.
“Have a good night private dick!” she said over her shoulder as she hurried away.
The note was written in long, flowing script and gave a room number at the Fairmont Hotel, across the street from where I was parked. I turned the paper over in my hands, but there was nothing else on it. OK, so she’d sparked my curiosity. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted, but I had to see for myself.
The Fairmont wasn’t the ritziest joint in town; the glory days of the forties showed here and there, but the plaster was starting to crack and the cobwebs told their own story. The note directed me to room 31 on the third floor so, instead of waiting for the creaking cage they called an elevator, I took the stairs two at a time. A tarnished sign told me that 31 was at the end of the hall, so I made my way through the stink of mothballs and knocked firmly on the door.
“Come in.” The voice like golden syrup made it through the door and the hairs on the back of my neck responded.
I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t find Lola attractive. I did. But rules are rules with me and her husband was a client. I tried to remind myself of that as I opened the door and saw her reclining on the shabby double bed. Earlier in the evening, she’d been wearing a smart navy suit, with a jaunty pillbox hat. The hat and jacket were now discarded along with her shoes. Her creamy blouse was unbuttoned, showing a scarlet brassiere and equally creamy skin. I closed the door behind me, still not sure of what I was going to do.
“Does this make you happy, Mr Spooner?” she asked, lighting a thin cigarette and exhaling a stream of smoke. “Do you want to take pictures now?”
“I’m not happy or unhappy. I do a job, I get paid. I guess if I took a couple pictures now, I’d earn my money.”
“Is that how you sleep at night? How you justify your …profession… to yourself?”
“Who the hell do you think you are lady?” I said, suddenly angry and starting towards her. “I’m not the one’s who’s messin’ around.”
She sat up and stubbed out her cigarette. I noticed a bottle of sourmash and two glasses beside the bed and poured myself a measure. She still hadn’t turned around, so I poured myself a second and one for her. She took it, but didn’t drink.
“I’m not having an affair, Mr Spooner,” she said, quietly.
“I don’t care, Mrs St. Clair,” I replied, taking off my hat. “I just get paid to find out either way.”
“So what do I do?”
I drained my glass and set it down. I knew when it was time for me to leave.
“I’m dropping the case. I’ll call your husband and file my last report in the morning.”
At last she turned and looked at me.
“Because I believe you. And anyway, there’s plenty of other people in this city doing what they’re not supposed to and a lot easier to catch in the act.”
She got up slowly and walked towards me, her blouse still unbuttoned. I smelled the faint smell of sandalwood as she leant into me and kissed me lightly on the lips. Before I could think our arms enveloped each other and the heat of passion clouded my judgement. I had two choices at that moment and, although my body protested, I chose the sensible one and forced us apart. Lola looked shocked and hurt, but I smiled lightly as I put on my hat.
“Give my regards to Mr St. Clair,” I said, as I swung the door open in an easy movement.
I’ve often wondered since then whether I did the right thing that night or not. I think about Lola sometimes, when my mind allows itself to wander. I remember how soft her lips were and that faint smell of sandalwood. I imagine what might’ve happened if I’d chosen differently.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I meet a lot of broads in my line of work but not one of them has ever compared to Lola.