DIAL W FOR WRITER
by Derek Paterson
“Snow fell upon the city like a duck feather quilt. The howling wind turned into the wail of police sirens, as the forces of law responded to the nefarious doings of the forces of evil.”
Betsy read the first paragraph of Boil Me Again back to herself and could find no flaw in the gripping narrative. Her agent—once she got herself an agent—was sure to find it equally gripping. He’d present her with a four-figure contract and whisk her off to book signings where people would be falling over themselves to meet her. The cream of Hollywood would want to star in the movie they’d make from her best-selling novel. Maybe Biff Thorsen would play Jack. The very thought of meeting the world’s most handsome actor sent delicious chills running up and down her spine. But right now, she had writing to do!
She placed her fingers upon the keyboard and willed them to create more words. That was how it worked—they did the writing, making things up that she had no control over. When she’d tried to explain this to her writing group, they’d all looked at her like she was nuts. One guy explained he spent weeks thinking about his next page, and until he was satisfied he knew every single word by heart he didn’t even put paper into his typewriter. Another girl said she was only two chapters into her novel, which she’d been working on for five years, and she didn’t know how anyone could just rattle out words without giving them due consideration first. Betsy hadn’t the courage to tell them she was working on her fifteenth novel. Not that she’d had any success with the first fourteen, yet, but she had query letters with all the major publishing houses. They couldn’t keep rejecting her forever.
Her fingers started moving.
“Standing naked at her penthouse apartment window, Bonnie Latouche took a sip from her glass of French champagne and wondered who she’d shoot tonight. It was her self-appointed task to rid the city of its scum, of the gangsters and creeps and malcontents who dwelled in the sewers and toilet bowls that had once been decent streets where mothers could meet and discuss knitting patterns while their kids played nearby without fear.”
Boy, this was good stuff! Maybe she’d take it to her writing group next Wednesday at the local library. She could always tell them she’d been working on it for six months or more, and it was a fourth or fifth draft. Maybe that would make them think twice before they tore it apart, like they always did. If she heard “shallow characters” or “too much exposition” or “comma splice” again, she’d just scream!
The telephone rang. Betsy ignored it. Her fingers moved again—
“A gentle knock at the door startled Bonnie. Jack was here early, and she wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing! She reached for her silk robe... then thought better of it. She and Jack had been circling each other for too long, neither willing to make the first move because he was married. But now that his no-good wife had run off to Florida with a vacuum cleaner salesman, it was time their working relationship blossomed into something much, much deeper.”
The telephone continued to ring. Betsy glanced at it, hoping it was a wrong number and they’d hang up in a moment, realizing their mistake.
“Bonnie winked at her reflection in the mirror. Not bad, she admitted to herself, not bad at all. She strode to the door, ready to surrender her womanhood to the man she loved. She opened the door and Jack slumped into her arms, covered in blood, his handsome face bruised and puffed up almost beyond recognition.”
Brriiiiiinng! That darned telephone! Why couldn’t the snow knock out the phone line? Betsy reluctantly left Jack hanging in Bonnie’s arms, went out into the hallway and snatched up the receiver. “Midtown 1-5-2.”
“Is that Betsy?” A woman’s voice. Betsy didn’t recognize it.
“Why yes, it is. Who’s calling, please?”
“B-Betsy, it’s Rose. Rose Finnegan.”
Betsy searched her memory for the name. “I’m sorry, do I—?”
“From the writing group, remember?”
The girl who’d written two chapters in five years. “Hi, Rose. Well, this is a surprise.” Betsy was surprised Rose would ever want to talk to her. She’d made her feelings about Betsy perfectly plain via her scathing critiques.
“I’m sorry, Betsy, I really am, it’s just... I didn’t know who else to call.”
Betsy closed her eyes and tried not to think about Jack lying bloody and beaten in Bonnie’s arms. “Nobody else was home, huh? Okay Rose, you got my undivided attention, never mind you’re keeping me from a hot date with Biff Thorsen. What can I do for you?”
“Did you say Biff Thorsen?”
“Never mind. Why are you calling?”
“I kind of need your help, Betsy. That is to say, if you would ever consider helping me. I know I haven’t been kind to you, but I only said those things to help you improve your writing.”
Betsy twisted the telephone wire around her fingers, wishing she could twist it around Rose’s neck until her face turned purple and her eyes bugged out. “Don’t worry about it, Rose, I don’t take it personally. It’s only my writing you’re criticizing, right?”
“That’s exactly right, I knew you’d understand. Oh Betsy, I’m in a whole heap of trouble. The more I think about it, the more I get myself all worked up into a mindless funk. That’s why I thought about calling you. You... you think faster than I do.”
I type faster, too, Betsy thought, but she didn’t say it. “What kind of trouble, Rose?”
“I lied to the writing group about my job,” Rose said.
“I don’t really work as a secretary in a law office. I just said that to impress you. I’m really a waitress. I work at the Blue Oyster Bar. You know, the place over on—”
“I know where the Blue Oyster Bar is.” Betsy had read about it in the papers often enough. Everybody knew the things that went on there. District Attorney Mulgrew was determined to close the place down, but evidence was hard to come by, especially when witnesses had an annoying habit of disappearing.
“It’s not as bad as you think it is,” Rose said. “My boss is nice to me, he doesn’t take liberties or anything, and the customers tip real good. I know some of them are supposed to be, well, gangsters, if you believe what’s said, but—”
“Rose, get to the point, will you?” Betsy didn’t mean to sound rude, but Jack was still bleeding over Bonnie’s hall rug, the one the grateful Italian restaurant owner had given her after she’d rescued his eldest daughter in Slap Me, Handsome.
“On my breaks I sneak into the boss’s office and use his typewriter,” Rose said. “I bring my own paper, and once when the ribbon ran dry I replaced it with a new ribbon I bought myself, so I’m not stealing from him or anything.”
Sharp clicking sounds made Betsy turn and look at her desk. Betsy made it clear, with scowl and a determined shake of her head, that her typewriter was strictly off-limits to everyone but herself.
“Who is your boss, Rose?”
The line crackled, then Rose said, “Mr. Pazzini.”
Betsy knew about Pete Pazzini, too. Who didn’t? The handsome young crime boss was staking his claim on the city, making deals, forging alliances and getting rid of anyone fool enough to stand in his way. Some well-known actresses had appeared on Pazzini’s arm. He took them to expensive shows and restaurants and then back to his big house up on Hummingbird Hill. They said that if you wanted liquor, or if you wanted women, or if you wanted someone to take a swim in the lake with concrete overshoes, you talked to Pistol Pete Pazzini.
“Tell me what happened, Rose.”
“Well, Mr. Pazzini was out, and it was my break, so I sneaked into his office to continue with Chapter Three.”
Betsy felt obliged to ask: “How far have you got?”
“Well, Delia is preparing to move back to her mother’s house, little knowing that Mr. DeVere plans to seduce her mother and expose the entire family to scandal just because Delia spurned his advances.”
“That sounds great.”
“Why thank you. I’m very pleased with Mr. DeVere’s character development. Sometimes I wish you’d make your Jack as well-rounded, and give him the solid background and history that any character needs instead of just—”
“Ye-e-es?” Betsy pulled the phone wire taut.
“Let’s talk about that later,” Rose said. “So I was just putting a new sheet of paper into the typewriter, when I realized it wasn’t one of the sheets I’d brought in. There was writing on the other side. I turned it over and began reading, as one does.”
“Oh, absolutely. How could one possibly stop oneself from reading someone else’s private correspondence?”
“Really, Betsy, it wasn’t private correspondence. That’s when you write a letter to someone asking if their aunt is feeling better. This wasn’t even a letter, it was a list. A list of names. Seven of them, to be exact. Betsy, you’d know these names. The list started with Police Chief Murphy and ended with District Attorney Mulgrew.”
Another kind of chill ran up Betsy’s spine. A montage of bloody scenes flashed before her mind’s eye. Machine guns stuttered and Murphy, Mulgrew, and five other good men whose names were on that list threw their arms up as bullets spun them around. Betsy discovered she was panting hard, partly from horror and partly from excitement. This was the stuff real novels were made of! “What did you do?” she demanded.
“Do? Do?” Rose’s voice went up an octave. “I got out of there fast, that’s what I did. I told Piano Tooth Tony, that’s the bar manager, I told him I wasn’t feeling so good, which was true, and he said go home, so that’s where I am now.”
“Where’s the list?”
“I put it back exactly where I found it,” Rose said. “I remembered to put it face down, too, just like it was before I came in.”
“Then it seems to me you don’t have a problem,” Betsy said. “Mr. Pazzini won’t even know you saw it.”
“We-e-e-ell, the thing is....”
“What? What else, Rose?”
“My manuscript. I left it in Mr. Pazzini’s office.”
Betsy imagined Pistol Pete coming into his office, reaching for the list of people he intended to kill, and discovering Rose’s romance novel. He’d flick through the pages, wondering what the heck it was and how come it ended up in among all his secret gangster stuff. He’d ask Piano Tooth Tony, who’d snap his fingers and remember that Rose the waitress sometimes went into the office during her breaks to use the typewriter. An extra scene got added to the montage: Rose screamed as the machine guns opened up again, ending her innocent young life almost before it had begun.
“Oh, Rose. That was the dumbest thing you could have done,” Betsy said.
“I kno-o-o-ow!” Rose wailed. “I can’t think what to do, Betsy. That’s why I called you.”
“Me? What do you think I can do about this?”
Rose went quiet for a moment. Then she said, “What would Bonnie and Jack do in such circumstances?”
Betsy might have laughed at Rose’s calling upon the very characters she despised, only this was no laughing matter. “They would never get into such circumstances in the first place,” she said firmly. “One, Bonnie isn’t a writer, and two, even if she was, she wouldn’t do her writing in some murderer’s private office.”
Rose wailed again, long and hard. “A murderer? You mean he might come after me and... and... and....”
Betsy couldn’t resist. “Murder you?” She had to hold the receiver away from her ear. When Rose’s screech died down she said, “Rose, don’t do that, please. I’m sure you’re damaging phone company equipment.”
“But you’re a writer, Betsy,” Rose said. “You come up with all kinds of neat ideas every week. You just sit there and it all comes pouring out your mouth and the rest of us can’t even understand half of it. It’s like you’re a Christmas tree decorated with electric light bulbs and they’re flashing on and off, on and off, and all the electricity’s coming from inside your head.”
Betsy was flattered, kind of. “Stop that, Rose. You make me sound like a crazy person. Can’t you just go back to the Blue Oyster Club and grab your manuscript?”
“What if Mr. Pazzini’s there? He usually comes in at this time of night. He could be looking at my manuscript right now, this very second! And opening his desk drawer and pulling out a gun and loading it. That gun’s for me, Betsy. Those bullets are for me.” Rose sobbed miserably.
Betsy sighed. Rose had much more imagination than she’d given her credit for. This was a tight squeeze, all right. No, Bonnie wouldn’t ever get herself into a pickle like this... but what if she did? Sometimes plans didn’t run like they were supposed to. Things got moved, or stolen, or were put down and forgotten about, only to turn up later at the most awkward moment. Wasn’t that how Jack ended up hanging over a crocodile pit in Kiss Me Roughly? Betsy tried to fire up those Christmas tree lights Rose had talked about. This was important. She couldn’t not help Rose, not when the poor sap was upset like this.
“B-Betsy, are you still there?” Rose said.
“Hush for a moment,” Betsy said. “I’m thinking.”
Betsy put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to look at her desk again. Framed against a background of falling snow outside the apartment window, a shadowy figure occupied Betsy’s chair, watching her. Tonight Bonnie wore a black dress that hugged her full figure and exposed enough cleavage to stun a guy at twenty paces. She wore her blonde hair loose so it gave her a shimmering halo she didn’t deserve, because she was no angel. Bonnie picked up the gold lighter, casually put a cigarette between her full red lips, touched the glowing flame to the stick—and promptly had a coughing fit. Darn it, Betsy had forgotten that her character didn’t smoke. Bonnie ground out the cigarette and recovered her breath, glaring daggers at Betsy.
“Sorry about that, I got carried away,” Betsy said, keeping the mouthpiece covered so Rose wouldn’t hear her. “So, here’s the rub. My friend left something of hers at the Blue Oyster Club. If Pistol Pete Pazzini puts two and two together, he might just decide to make her disappear.”
Bonnie didn’t say anything. She wore that maddening smile that drove Jack crazy. Betsy nodded, understanding. “I get it. Not your problem. You don’t know her and you don’t want to know her. But get this, see? I know her, and the only reason you’re sitting there is because of me. You’re my creation. So, help me out here, will ya?”
Bonnie pretended to inspect her nails.
Betsy bit off a rude word, and tried another tactic. “Maybe I didn’t tell you before, but I’ve been thinking about writing about somebody else.”
That produced a reaction. Bonnie’s smile faded and she drummed her fingernails on the desk, challenging Betsy to prove she wasn’t talking helium.
“All right. Get a load of this,” Betsy said. “Her name’s Jin-Jin. She’s Chinese-American, she lost her acrobat parents in a tragic stage accident. Her aunt brings her to San Francisco to take care of her. She meets Li, a handsome rickshaw driver, and he wins her heart. But there’s this Tong boss, a real bad egg, he has his eye on Jin-Jin. He orders his goons to kidnap Jin-Jin and bring her back to his place so they can make whoopee. How do you like it so far?”
Bonnie shook her head. You’re bluffing.
“But Li helps spring her and they go on the run, with the Tongs one step behind them. That’s the theme of the whole novel, they’re always being chased and they’re always in danger. But on their travels they stop and help poor, desperate people who can’t get help anywhere else.”
As Betsy talked a shadow grew in the corner beside the rubber plant. Betsy concentrated harder. The swirling shadow took shape and formed the outline of a teenage girl with a serious face and jet black hair. She wore a silk jacket and pants. Betsy let her go—she wasn’t ready for Jin-Jin just yet—and the shadow faded. The rubber plant’s leaves trembled, then that corner of the room grew still again. Bonnie looked alarmed.
Betsy told her, “And that’s when the legend of Jin-Jin begins. You know what? I can see two books already. No, three books. A trilogy, even. All linked together, part of a... a... I guess you’d call it a cycle. Love, hate, revenge, plenty of action.”
Bonnie snapped a pencil in two. Betsy knew she had her. The threat of being dumped for someone else was just too much. Betsy said, “Just a minute, Rose, I’m still thinking,” into the phone, and looked at Bonnie expectantly. “Well?”
Nothing happened for a couple of seconds. Then Bonnie stood and went to the mirror. She piled her hair up on her head and put on a hat, keeping it in place with a long pin. She shrugged on her coat and pulled up the collar. The final part of her disguise consisted of a pair of pearl sunglasses that turned her into something mysterious and dangerous. She stared at Betsy over the rim of her glasses.
“Rose,” Betsy said. “Give me your address. I’m gonna come by and pick you up.”
“Uh, okay. 1-2-5 Lower Sunset, look for a big palm tree out front. The one covered in five feet of snow. Are we going somewhere?” Rose said.
“Sure we are. You and me are going to pay the Blue Oyster Club a visit.”
“Oh no, Betsy, I can’t—”
“Relax. I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Be ready.”
“I thought you lived in Midtown? That’s only ten minutes away.”
“I gotta do something first,” Betsy said. She hung up, and Bonnie nodded her approval.
* * *
“Gee, Betsy,” Rose said, “I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Betsy almost didn’t recognize herself either when she looked in the rearview mirror. The short black wig concealed her mousy brown hair, while the tight black dress showed too much skin. Her eyes were so made up she looked like a panda with huge eyelashes, and her rocket red lips shimmered with gloss. Who was she supposed to be anyway, some street walker from the South Side? She had an awful feeling she’d overdone her disguise, but when they arrived at the Blue Oyster Club and she saw some of the flappers going inside, she relaxed a little. Why, they dressed so skimpy and walked so sassy they might as well be naked. The sidewalk had been swept clear of snow, otherwise they would have ended up on their tushes.
“Run it by me again,” Betsy said. “The office is where?”
“On the left as you face the bar,” Rose said. “There’s a little stairway goes down to the powder room. Walk past the powder room and keep going along the hallway. You’ll see a door with a ‘Private’ sign.” Rose chewed her lip nervously. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Betsy wasn’t sure at all. But then she glanced in the rearview mirror again. Bonnie grinned at her from the back seat, daring her to go through with it.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
Bonnie winked at her, good luck. Betsy got out and closed the door. She straightened her dress, straightened herself, shivered as a snowflake melted on her cleavage, and crossed the street to the Blue Oyster Bar. The doorman, a big guy in a tux, smiled and opened the door for her.
The warmth and the music hit her as soon as she went inside. Pulsing jazz, beating in time with her heart. The four-piece band crowded the small stage. A microphone was set up but the singer wasn’t there yet. Betsy attracted a few glances as she walked to the bar, climbed up onto a stool and swung round so she faced the room. She slowly crossed her legs. Bonnie had suggested wearing fishnets, and they seemed to go down a treat with every guy in the club. Some girl grabbed her leering boyfriend’s ear and pulled his head around so he was looking at her again. That got a laugh from nearby tables.
The barman, a good-looking young guy with slicked-back blond hair, leaned over and said, “What’ll it be, toots?”
Betsy slowly turned to look at him. He blanched under her ice-cold stare, the stare she’d learned from Bonnie. “Call me ‘toots’ again, you’re gonna wake up in a hospital bed, pretty boy,” she said. “I want to be happy.”
“Coming right up,” he said. He poured bottles into a shaker, added ice, did a little dance and dribbled some into a narrow glass. He set it off with an olive and slid the glass over. Betsy took a sip. It zinged all the way down to her toes, bounced back up and blew the top of her head off.
“Not bad,” she said, wondering if smoke was coming out her ears. “Keep ’em coming, I’ll tell you when to stop.”
“You got it,” he said, putting her shaker under the counter.
A big guy with a gold tooth sidled up to her. “Let me pay for that,” he said, digging into his pocket and dealing an impressive green flush. He laid a ten on the bar before Betsy could answer. “I haven’t seen you in here before.”
“Oh, I’ve been in here before,” she said. “It’s been a while, though. I just got back.”
Light sparkled off his tooth as he smiled. “Boy, if this is what a spell in the slammer does for you, every dame should be put behind bars.” Betsy hadn’t meant to imply she’d been in prison but she liked the idea, it gave her character background, just like her writing group wanted. He leaned closer. “I like your style, doll,” he said. “What say you and me find a quiet table and I whisper sweet nothings into your ear?”
Bonnie, standing at the end of the bar, shook her head and made a motion with her hand. Betsy tipped her drink over the guy’s tie. “Do I look that easy?” she said. “Back off, buster. I’m aiming for bigger fish tonight.”
He dabbed his tie with a napkin, muttered under his breath and gave Betsy plenty of space. The barman refilled Betsy’s glass from the shaker. She took another sip because everyone was watching, and tried not to slip off her stool as her legs turned to rubber.
A waitress returned to the bar with her tray and ordered a round. She looked Betsy up and down.
“What’s the matter, you never seen a twenty-dollar dress before?” Betsy said. The words were out before she even thought. She knew it must be the alcohol talking. Or was it?
The waitress smiled, not in the least put out. “I’m admiring you, honey, not putting you down. You look pretty classy. Too classy for some of the sharks who come in here. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who. Watch out you don’t end up with a loser.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Betsy said. “Is the boss in tonight?”
“Sure he is. You know him?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if he’d even remember me.”
The waitress laughed. “Oh, I think he’d remember you. You want I should tell him you’re here?”
Betsy shook her head. “Maybe that’s not such a good idea.”
“Suit yourself.” The barman arranged glasses on her tray. “Listen, Pearl’s due to come on soon.” The waitress nodded toward the stage. “Mister P. likes to watch her show. That’s his usual seat, right over there.” She indicated a booth with a “Reserved” sign on the table. “You know, if you were to sit right where you are, he’s going to notice you. Dressed in that number, he can’t not notice you. Good luck, honey.” She picked up her tray and took the drinks to another table.
Betsy watched two flappers go down the little stairway that led to the powder room. Another door opened and a coffee-skinned girl with the longest legs Betsy had ever seen stepped out. She wore a glittering silver dress that emphasized every curve of her body. The crowd parted to let her through and Betsy knew this must be Pearl. She swept past Betsy and took up position at the microphone. The band dropped a gear, slowing down until Pearl nodded her head and snapped her fingers in time.
Boy, could she sing. Listening to Pearl’s liquid voice, Betsy almost forgot why she was here. She glanced at the empty booth, then at the stairway. Where was Pistol Pete Pazzini? The double base throbbed and the drummer set fire to his brushes. Betsy swayed, intoxicated by the music and the alcohol rushing through her system. She took another sip and realized this was the world she wanted to live in, Bonnie’s world, where tough men and fast women came together explosively. She didn’t want to be a writer, she wanted to be taken and used and abused, and do unto others what they did to her.
A handsome guy in a white jacket paused by the stairway and held up a match so a girl could light her cigarette. The girl blew smoke past his head and smiled her thanks. He turned and walked away but the girl’s gaze lingered on him, and Betsy knew from her expression that she would gladly have followed him and submitted to whatever he demanded of her—only he wasn’t interested right now, he had other things on his mind and besides, Pistol Pete Pazzini could have his pick of any of the women in his club. He nodded hellos to customers on his way to his private booth, and stopped to exchange words with some guys who knew him pretty well judging from the way they stood and solemnly shook his hand. Respect thickened the air. They were gangsters, the lesser demons who dwelled in Pazzini’s shady underworld.
He took his seat and the waitress leaned close to hear his whispered order. She nodded and headed for the bar, giving Betsy a look on the way past. Betsy closed her eyes and listened to the music. She wanted to rip her dress off, climb up onto the bar and dance the night away. She leaned back, put her elbows on the counter, and sighed. Dammit, she had a job to do, and Rose’s life was on the line.
“Screw Rose,” Bonnie said. “You don’t owe that dumb broad nothing.”
Betsy opened her eyes. Bonnie wasn’t there, but Pazzini was staring at her across the distance that lay between them and she saw the interest in his eyes. A hot flush spread throughout her body. The waitress brought Pazzini his drink. He spoke to her without taking his eyes off Betsy. He scribbled something on the napkin and gave it to the waitress, who nodded.
Pearl launched into another song. This one was too much—it reached into Betsy and tore her heart out, threw it on the floor and stomped all over it. Pearl’s man had done her wrong, hooking up with a loose dame from the wrong side of town who ruined him for Pearl, who just couldn’t love him no more.
The waitress slipped Betsy the napkin. “I should have placed a bet,” she said. “You were a sure thing, honey.” She went off to fill another drinks order.
Betsy stared at Pazzini. Without opening the napkin and reading his message, she picked up a matchbook from the bar, struck a match, set the napkin on fire and dropped it into an ashtray. Pazzini’s expression changed. For a moment she thought he was going to blow a gasket, but then he smiled and looked away. She could tell he was trying not to laugh.
She got up and headed for the stairway, not looking back. She went past the powder room, found the door with the brass “Private” sign. She tried the handle. It turned and the door opened.
Piano Tooth Tony, who deserved his nickname, looked up at her from behind a big desk. Accounts ledgers lay open before him. “Who the hell are you?” he said. “The powder room is that way.”
“I’m not looking for the powder room,” Betsy said. She sat down on the edge of the desk and leaned forward so he could get a good view of Pinky and Perky. His eyes bugged out. “Maybe you should pack up and go. Mr. Pazzini’s going to be back any second. We’re going to need all the desk space we can get.”
Piano Tooth Tony scowled. “This is supposed to be an office, fer crying out loud. We got rooms next door for that kind of thing.”
“I can’t wait that long,” Betsy said. “A woman has her needs, if you know what I mean.”
He snapped the ledgers shut, stuffed them under his arm and got up. “Yeah, yeah. Well, you ain’t nothing special, lady. If I had a buck for every flapper Pete pinned, I’d own Fort Knox.”
He slammed the door shut on his way out. Betsy went to the smaller desk, where the typewriter sat. She resisted the impulse to sit down, roll in a sheet of fresh white paper and let Bonnie carry poor bleeding Jack to the couch so she could ask him what the hell had happened to him, and instead looked for the manuscript Rose had left here. Where was it? She checked shelves and drawers but couldn’t find it. Frustrated, she moved back to Pete Pazzini’s big desk and tried the drawer, but it was locked. She fished a nail file out of her purse, crouched down and tried to pick the lock. The file slipped and a stinging pain woke her out of her alcoholic daze. She sucked her finger, then tried again. The lock clicked, the drawer opened and there it was! Betsy lifted the manuscript out and put it on the desk. She looked at the last page just to be sure. Mr. DeVere had his arms around Delia’s mother, who wasn’t adverse to some afternoon delight, and Delia had just come in from the garden. “Mr. DeVere, what are you doing with my mother!” Delia cried, and just then the office door swung open and Pistol Pete Pazzini stared at Betsy.
“Hell are you doing in here?” His eyes took in the open desk drawer and the manuscript Betsy held.
“Did you have a chance to read it?” Betsy said.
“Read it?” A muscle under his left eye twitched.
“Yeah, I thought maybe you— I mean, I should explain. My name’s Dolores, Dolores LaMancha.” There, that didn’t sound too bad. “I’m an actress, but I’m also a writer.”
Pazzini reached inside his jacket and pulled out a gun. “Sit down and shut up.” Betsy sat down in the big chair, trying not to let any of her fear show. “You better start talking sense real soon, if you don’t want to end up next door.”
“Next door?” Betsy frowned, puzzled.
“Yeah. The funeral parlor, next street over. That’s where people who stick their noses into my business end up.”
Terror squeezed her chest and breathing became a chore, but Bonnie, standing behind Pazzini, made calming motions with her hands, telling Betsy to play it cool.
“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you, Mr. Pazzini, I really didn’t mean to do that,” Betsy said. “I guess I’ve been pretty stupid. You see, someone told me you’re an investor. Among other things, you back movies.”
Pazzini cocked his head to one side, as if he was thinking about how he was going to kill her. “Go on,” he said.
“Well, I’m writing this novel, and my writing group said it would make a great movie. Do you know how hard it is to get a movie script read in this town? Trust me, it’s hard. Everyone who has a typewriter is banging one out right now, and maybe they’ve got a cousin who works for the studios and can recommend them to a big producer. Me, I’ve got nobody. So I had this thought: if I could get somebody to look at my novel, maybe they’d like it enough to give me a couple of bucks to write the screenplay.”
A smile spread over Pazzini’s face. The gun wavered... then he put it away. “That’s what this is all about?” he said. “You want me to bankroll you?”
“I’m not looking for a fortune, Mr. Pazzini. I just want people to like my story. I’ve been taking bit parts to pay my rent, but unless you’re willing to wear holes in some sleazy producer’s couch, you’re not gonna get anywhere in this business.” She glanced down at the chair she was sitting in. “Would you like your chair back, Mr. Pazzini?”
“Nah, keep it warm.” He sat down in one of the smaller chairs, facing her. “How’d you get that in here, anyway?” He indicated the manuscript.
“I got a friend works here,” Betsy said. “Her name’s Rose. She’s a good girl, and I know I really shouldn’t have asked her, she was afraid she’d get into all kinds of trouble. But I was desperate so I twisted her arm. I told her to just open the door and drop the manuscript on the nearest desk and get out fast before anyone asked any questions.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Pazzini said.
Betsy swallowed hard. “You do?”
“How come a looker like you only gets bit parts? I see girls on movie posters who’d look like dim bulbs alongside you.” He opened the box on his desk, offered her a cigarette. Betsy shook her head. He lit one and seemed to think for a moment. Then he said, “What’s this story of yours about?”
“It’s about a girl who tells a creep to get lost, and he gets back at her by seducing her mom, but all the time he still wants the girl.” No doubt Rose’s novel included several subtle layers of plot and character, but Betsy didn’t know anything about that stuff. Every time Rose read pages of her novel aloud at the group, Betsy couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if Delia pulled a rod on Mr. DeVere and threatened to put a couple of lead goodbyes into his slimy belly if he ever looked sideways at her mom again.
“Sounds interesting,” Pazzini said. “How does it play out?”
Betsy wished she knew. Bonnie, behind Pazzini, urged her to continue. She pointed at Pazzini. Finally Betsy got it. “The girl falls for an up-and-coming gangland boss,” she said. “She can’t help it, she knows he’ll never change but she’s like a moth drawn to a flame, her wings are going to get burned but she’s in love. He finds out about the creep who’s been bugging her and her mom and measures him for a coffin. But the girl can’t just stand by and see the guy killed, even if he is a creep. The only way she can stop it is by calling the cops.”
“That’s crazy. What’s her problem?”
“Her conscience is the problem.”
“I don’t buy it. He offers her an easy way out. Why doesn’t she take it?”
Betsy shook her head. “If she took the easy way, there’d be no story. You gotta have character, setting and conflict. Without conflict you got nothing.”
Pazzini sat back and thought about that. “You know,” he said, “you just might have something there. It would be over kinda quick, wouldn’t it?”
“That’s right. A twenty-minute B-movie filler, tops.” Betsy wanted to sigh with relief. He’d swallowed her lie. Now all she had to do was get out of here, get into the car and drive home, dropping Rose on the way.
“What about this guy, her boyfriend, the crime boss?” Pazzini said.
Betsy had to think fast. “He’s young. He’s ambitious. He’s got plans. The older bosses don’t listen to him because they don’t understand him. He wants action, right now. They tell him he’s too impatient, that he has to wait for his turn. The cops don’t like it when territory disputes boil over onto the streets, but he doesn’t see any other way.”
Pazzini brought his hand down onto the desk hard, startling Betsy. “Yeah! Yeah, I like this guy. What happens?”
“This hot shot D.A. gets on his case,” Betsy said, warming to the subject. “Everywhere he goes, everything he does, bam! The D.A. is waiting for him, watching him, ready to drag him before the Grand Jury if he puts one foot wrong. Every time he turns round there’s some guy with a camera waiting to snap him. He finds little microphones inside his telephone and the lamp in his office, so he knows they’re listening to every word he says. The other bosses insist he does things their way, but they don’t offer him any help to get this D.A. off his back. It’s crowding his operation. He can’t hardly breathe. There are snitches everywhere. He can only trust his own guys, the guys he grew up with on East Street, the guys who swore undying loyalty to him. Everyone else wants him dead or behind bars.”
Pazzini’s expression got real ugly. Betsy didn’t know what he was thinking, but she could guess. District Attorney Mulgrew was on Pistol Pete Pazzini’s case, hounding him hard. And Mulgrew was on Pazzini’s list.
Piano Tooth Tony opened the door and looked in. “Hey, boss.”
“Yeah, what is it?” Pazzini growled.
“I got something interesting to show you.”
“So show me. What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation?”
Piano Tooth Tony gestured, and a big guy with a scar on the side of his face pushed Rose into the office. Rose looked at Betsy, sitting in Pazzini’s chair. She was shaking all over, a nervous wreck at the bottom of the ocean. Her hair was all wet. Betsy guessed it was still snowing outside.
“Big Al noticed her parked across the street,” Piano Tooth Tony said. “When he tapped on the window she had a screaming fit. Big Al asked her what was wrong, didn’t you, Big Al?” The big guy with the scar nodded. “But she wouldn’t tell him, so he brought her on over. You know what she said?”
“No, Tony, I don’t know what she said,” Pazzini said. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”
Piano Tooth Tony smiled, illuminating the room with his big chompers. “She said she didn’t see no list, she didn’t come into your office, and she sure as hell didn’t see no list sitting on your desk with the D.A.’s name on it.”
Pazzini stared at Rose, who whimpered and tried to make herself invisible, but that was difficult, what with Big Al gripping her shoulders real tight. Pazzini slowly turned around to look at Betsy. There was nothing attractive about him now. In fact, he was downright frightening.
“So you’re an actress and a writer, huh?” he said.
Betsy tried to smile but she wasn’t sure if her lips were cooperating. Parts of her wanted to detach themselves from her body and creep out the room. “Wait until I tell you about Jin-Jin,” she said. “You’ll like that story even better.”
“You don’t say nothing else,” Pazzini said. “Big Al, get the car. Bring it around back. We’re taking the ladies for a little ride.”
“Boss, I can’t get the car,” Big Al said.
“She’s fainted, boss.” He meant Rose, whose eyes were closed.
“Let go of her.”
Big Al did so. Rose collapsed in a heap. Big Al left the office.
Pazzini stared at Betsy while he ground out his cigarette. “They tell me the view from Dixon Bridge is lovely at this time of night. Why don’t we go see for ourselves, huh?”
Piano Tooth Tony said, “Boss, isn’t that risky? We got a couple of empty boxes next door that’s just their size.”
Betsy realized he meant the funeral parlor.
“Yeah, I know,” Pazzini said. “But this broad played me like a fiddle. That calls for something more personal than just a pine box. Nobody plays me like a fiddle, Tony.”
“They sure don’t, boss.”
“Pick the other one up. C’mon, you.” He grabbed Betsy by the arm and dragged her out of the chair. He was too powerful to resist. She was in real trouble now.
* * *
Betsy wished Rose would wake up. What with Piano Tooth Tony on one side of her and Rose on the other, she felt crushed and uncomfortable. Then again, at least their bodies helped to keep her warm.
Pazzini rode in the front passenger seat while Big Al drove. From time to time Pazzini looked at her over his shoulder. Betsy would have stuck her tongue out at him, but the cloth gag stuffed into her mouth got in the way. Nor could she make any rude gestures since her wrists were tied behind her back. The reason she wanted Rose to sit up and make more room was because she’d kept her nail file hidden in her hand all this time, and wanted to saw at the rope.
She looked past Pazzini and caught a glimpse of the bridge superstructure through the curtain of snow. That was when she knew she’d run out of time. Fear closed in about her. Bonnie couldn’t help her now. No one could.
Pazzini said, “Drive onto the bridge, Big Al. Stop halfway across and turn off the engine, but keep the lights on. Me and Tony will get rid of the baggage while you keep watch.”
“Okay, boss,” Big Al said. He took the car onto the bridge, slowing in deference to the poor visibility. The wipers could barely keep up with the falling snow.
Betsy looked in the rearview mirror. Eyes that weren’t hers stared back at her. Bonnie was still with her. Betsy would have fainted with relief, only she didn’t like the idea of being woken by a loud splash and several million bucket loads of freezing cold water covering her. Bonnie tilted her head back so Betsy could see her lips. She mouthed something—what? Betsy strained to make out the words. Dammit, why couldn’t Bonnie just talk? Or would Pazzini and his goons hear her? Was she that real tonight? Betsy didn’t know how this could be, but she thought maybe it was because she’d had written about Bonnie for so long that she wasn’t just a collection of consonants and vowels any more. She’d stopped being that a long time ago.
Big Al pulled over and stopped. He turned off the engine and got out.
“How’d you want to play this, Tony?” Pazzini said. “One at a time, or both together?”
“Boss, we only got one length of chain. It’ll have to be both together,” Piano Tooth Tony said.
“Okay. Wake that dumb waitress up.” Pazzini got out.
Piano Tooth Tony leaned past Betsy and slapped Rose on the face until she moaned and began to move. The pressure on Betsy suddenly vanished and she frantically sawed with her nail file. Bonnie’s lips in the rearview formed the words: Hurry up!
“I am hurrying!” Betsy said, but because of the gag the words came out as, “Mmm mmm mmm-mmm-mmm!” Piano Tooth Tony looked at her. Betsy closed her eyes tight and managed to squeeze out a tear. He grinned, convinced she was scared to death. Which of course she was, but now the rope had started to give way under her frantic assault.
“You first, then her,” he said, opening his door and backing out of the car. They were right beside the rail. Somewhere down below was the Dixon River, dark and deep and fast-flowing. Piano Tooth Tony beckoned to her. “Don’t make things hard for yourself, lady. I’m cold and I ain’t got the time.”
The rope parted. Betsy slid her butt across the seat, swung her feet out, jerked her knees up to her chest and straightened her legs, catching Piano Tooth Tony in the chest with both heels. His face registered pain, and then surprise as he stepped back, hit the rail and scrambled for purchase, but the rail and the ground were wet. His shoes slipped and he disappeared into the snow, arms flapping like wings, only tonight he’d forgotten to bring his feathers along.
Pazzini pulled Betsy out of the car and stuck his gun in her ribs. If she tried anything else, she was dead. “I get it now. What a sucker I am. I thought you were a dumb broad. Who are you working for? That rat Mulgrew? Or the Feds?”
Betsy pulled the gag down. If this was it then she would die with a curse on her lips, and it would be a doozy, something for Pazzini to remember her by. The cold wind cut through her like a knife. She tried to stop herself from shaking in case Pazzini thought it was fear.
“Go fly a kite, you creep.” He flinched as the insult stung him.
His top lip curled. He stepped back and took aim at her head. “Thanks for making it easy for me.” He thumbed back the hammer.
The unexpected voice made Pazzini spin around. Betsy looked past him and saw Bonnie step out of the shadows, wearing her long coat and slouch hat. She pulled a silver gun out of her pocket.
“Who the hell—?” His first shot cut off his own sentence. Bonnie’s gun roared defiance. Pazzini ducked and fired again, the flashes illuminating Bonnie. She stumbled back against a support, clutching her stomach.
Betsy screamed, “Oh God, no!” and ran forward, but Pazzini grabbed her.
“Friend of yours, hey?” he said. “Well, too bad for her... and too bad for you.”
He spun again. Bonnie wasn’t dead! She clung onto the rail and fired at Pazzini, but either her aim was off or her bullets were blanks because he wasn’t hit.
Big Al came diving out of left field, intending to bring Bonnie down hard. He sailed right through her without even pausing and disappeared into the snow just like Piano Tooth Tony, too surprised to do anything except obey the law of gravity.
Pazzini shot Bonnie three times at almost point blank range. Bonnie’s smile faded. She sagged against the rail and her silver gun slipped from her hand. Very quietly, without any fuss at all, she went over the rail.
Pazzini turned back to Betsy in time to receive her shoe heel in the side of his head. He stared at her with glazed eyes, then slowly sank to his knees. Betsy raised her shoe to hit him again, but he pitched forward and lay face-down. She wanted to kill him for what he’d done, and for what he’d been about to do, but lacked the strength. She limped to the rail and looked over, trying to see Bonnie, but there was nothing down there except snow and the inky black river. The wind wasn’t nearly as cold as the sense of loss that filled her.
Sirens wailed, got louder and closer, then cut off. Red and blue lights reflected off the curtain of snow. Muffled footsteps surrounded her and then a gloved hand touched her arm.
She half-recognized the face but couldn’t place the name. He stared at her, his concern turning to triumph as he watched two cops haul Pistol Pete Pazzini away. A detective with a gold shield hanging from his breast pocket helped Rose out of the back of the car and took off her gag and untied her wrists. Rose was shaking and crying and he had to hold her up for a moment until she could stand by herself. Betsy knew just how she felt.
“Are you all right, Miss?” District Attorney Mulgrew said. He took off his coat and draped it around Betsy’s shoulders. She was grateful for the warmth. He looked older and more heavily lined than his photographs. Betsy guessed that playing contact football with Pazzini and his pals would take something out of any man. Mulgrew’s being here didn’t really surprise her. How many pairs of eyes did he have on the Blue Oyster Bar?
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Betsy said. She took a deep breath. “Could someone take me home, please? I’m very tired.”
“Of course. Will you talk to us in the morning, first thing?”
“Sure. I’ll stop by your office. Around nine?”
“That would be great.” He turned her over to the detective. She got into the back of a cop car with Rose. Nobody said anything the entire journey. They dropped Rose off first. She waved to Betsy from her door. Betsy was too numb to respond. They were going to leave a radio car outside to make sure Rose was safe.
Betsy’s apartment was cold and empty. She thanked the detective for seeing her inside and he left her there in the middle of the room, staring at her desk. Betsy made some coffee, sat down at her typewriter, and stared at the sheet, bewildered. It was blank. But hadn’t she already written—?
She tore it out and rolled in a fresh sheet, hit the carriage return lever twice and tried to remember how she’d left Bonnie and Jack. She was still trying to remember when the growing light outside the window told her it was morning. If not for Mulgrew’s coat she would probably have frozen to death at her desk.
Betsy got up, changed into her own coat and took a cab to Mulgrew’s office, bringing his coat with her. A whole bunch of guys were waiting for her. She told the D.A. and the cops everything that had happened, except for Bonnie, and a stenographer wrote it all down. Not telling them about Bonnie almost killed her. Mulgrew said Pazzini was under arrest for double attempted murder. Maybe they couldn’t get him for racketeering, but a few years in the slammer for trying to murder Betsy and Rose would put him out of circulation just as good. They thanked her and showed her to the door. That was when Betsy remembered to mention the funeral parlor the next street over from the Blue Oyster Club. They all went quiet, then Mulgrew snatched up a phone and called someone to check it out. When the answer came back, Mulgrew said, “How dumb can we be?”
They didn’t tell her everything, but she heard enough to know they’d found some of the missing witnesses, whose bodies gave their own mute testimony against Pistol Pete Pazzini.
* * *
Every night for nearly a week Betsy tried to continue with Boil Me Again, but Bonnie was gone. The Christmas tree lights had gone out, and she didn’t have enough juice to switch them on again. The best explanation she could come up with, and it was really only a guess, was that she’d witnessed her character—no, her best friend—get shot, then fall in the river. Try as she might, Betsy couldn’t figure how Bonnie might get out of that fix. And that meant poor Jack couldn’t get out of his.
Her phone rang again and again and she knew it was Rose, wanting to ask her how she was and why she hadn’t come to last night’s writing group meeting. Betsy couldn’t have told her even if she wanted to. Some cases were best left unsolved. That’s what Bonnie would have said. Betsy toasted lost friends with a glass of champagne, the French stuff Bonnie liked best, and started work on Jin-Jin’s trilogy.
“On the first night of the New Moon, when the world was at its most silent and peaceful, evil uncurled in the darkest shadows like a serpent. Only Wu Jin-Jin, fourteen years old, lying on her woven mat on the floor of her aunt’s kitchen, heard the serpent’s rough scales scraping over the earth. She became instantly alert and her slim fingers sought the twin daggers she always kept beneath her pillow, the ceremonial weapons that had been bequeathed to her by her great-grandfather, a fighting monk from Old Shanghai.”
A small hand touched her shoulder. Betsy squeezed it, thankful she wasn’t alone any more. She wiped away her tears and kept typing.
DIAL W FOR WRITER
Copyright © 2015 by Derek Paterson. All Rights Reserved.