© Dan Stone
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(Please be aware of the * in place of italics or a different typeface)
Harry Evans of Guildford, better known as Mark Rathbone –Taylor, writer of American hard-boiled fiction, sits in silence staring at a blank sheet of paper. One novel into his writing career and he’s hit a wall.
Head in hands he’s rummaging for an idea. He needs one. His agent and his publisher are expecting one It’s been over six months now and no new manuscript. He’s clearly in jeopardy of breaching his contract…dammit! Ever since Rhonda’s Ruin tickled the bestseller lists they’ve been on at him to reproduce it. Reproduce it? Reproduce it?
As he recycles the thought, so an idea suddenly occurs to him; it’s a vague idea, a wisp of smoke but while searching around for the fire so the telephone rings. Mark is aware of the implication and curses. The distraction of listening to a disembodied voice at the other end of the phone has the propensity to obliterate his thoughts; of making him forget that he’s had an idea in the first place. It’s happened before and it’s always left him feeling angry and deprived.
‘Answer the phone, please, please answer the phone,’ whispers Rhonda, who is now living ‘happy ever-after’ with Nick at the end of Mark’s first novel, Rhonda’s Ruin.
She knows the idea that he’s is toying with is a sequel. A sequel? The idea appalls her, especially after what he put her through last time out: a murder, a double rape, domestic violence, a surfeit of drink and drugs and then offering her Nick as some sort of consolation. The book might have sold but his treatment of her had been so crude, explicit and brutal that it had left nothing to the reader’s imagination. Now the idea that he might want to repeat the trick…please God, no!
Learning from past mistakes, Mark grabs a sheet of paper and jots down: ‘Rhonda’s Revenge - a sequel, adding: ‘One year is a long time in an unhappy marriage.’
* “But I’m not unhappily married” objects Rhonda.
* “Well you are now.”
*“Because you’re too good a character to leave in happy ever-after land.”
*“I’ve been through enough, Mark.”
*“Not yet,” he snaps, “I’m going to introduce you to Gamine Jack, the ghost killer.”
*“I’ve had him up my sleeve for some time, been waiting to use him.”
Mark quickly scribbles something on the paper in front of him so he won’t forget and then answers the phone.
It’s his agent again checking up on his progress.
“I’ve six chapters completed, just two to go.” He lies. “Yeah, yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get back to you soon, I think you’ll like it.”
He rings off and returns to the subject of Gamine Jack.
*‘He's known as the ghost killer not because he kills ghosts but because he looks like a ghost. He's gamine, get it? He’s a gun for hire, works for Capone, Dillinger and Pretty boy Floyd amongst others. Has has a way with the ladies. He exudes a certain B movie mystery, a gas lamp allure if you will.’
*“What the hell is that?” Asks Rhonda.
* “You’ll see.”
*“I’m still to be the gangster’s moll then?”
A plot begins to swiftly develop in Mark’s head. The sub-text of his last novel had been the difference between love and lust set in the world of prohibition.
*‘So this time I’ll reverse it.’
*‘You’ll pay for this Mark, I promise you’ll pay for this.’
*‘I think you’ll find they’ll pay for this. Rhonda’
*‘So, what will I get out of it?’
*‘A series, with any luck’
However, before turning his attention to the opening paragraph he goes to make himself a cup of tea.
As his mother used to say: ‘Before God made the world, he made a lovely cup of tea.’
“Top of the world ma,” he mutters, “top of the world.” He pours the boiling water onto the dark leaves before adding sugar and milk and returning to his desk cup in hand.
‘Okay, let’s crack on.’
Rhonda turned over and reached out for Nick who was sleeping soundly beside her. It was then that she saw for the first time the small but distinct stain of red just below his ear. It was a hickey; that threw a pebble into the pond. It wasn’t her hickey, she never gave hickies she knew dames who did though, trailer park dames like Mona, they spread hickies like they spread diseases.
"You louse." She whispered in Nick’s ear before falling back onto her pillow.
Now you might have thought that Rhonda would have been tempted to prod him into some sort of waking confession but no, not Rhonda.
*‘Why not, Rhonda?’
*‘Because your notes dictate against it.’
*‘Your character notes.’
*‘You write character notes?’
*‘Of course I write character notes, how else am I supposed to get to know you?’
*‘How about thinking of me as real?’
*‘Rhonda is a bag of contradictions.’
*‘Is that what you wrote?’
*“Yes. Remember that scene in the kitchen in Rhonda’s Ruin when Nick accuses you of having no convictions and you reply, ‘my only
hope is that of a happy death.’ I’d say that was pretty contradictory?”
*‘Yes I would.’
* ‘I wouldn’t.’
*‘There you are, QED, I think.’
*‘Oh, very funny.’
On waking Nick found little to disturb him. Rhonda was still curled up and the sun was shining through the bedroom window. It was a beautiful morning. He gently threw back the bed covers and made his way to the coffee. He loved coffee, especially with cream. Coffee wasn’t coffee unless it had cream. He prepared two cups and lit a cigarette. Despite the beauty of the day and the prospect of the coffee he didn’t feel particularly good due to the fact that he could feel the guilt beginning to seep into his bones. Sure, she might have been swell looking but she wasn’t Rhonda. He didn’t understand himself sometimes. They’d done it outside on the bonnet of his automobile. It had been quick, savage and she’d bitten him on the neck, he remembered that.
Slowly returning his coffee to the sideboard he went to check on it in the mirror. Damn, there it was, Rhonda must have seen it unless she really had remained asleep when he’d got home. Deciding against taking the coffee into her, he wrapped a towel around his neck as if fresh out of the shower and awaited her arrival.
Gamine Jack packed his Magnum thirty-eight and stepped out into the sunlight; it hurt but he had a job to do. Preferring to walk in the shade he crossed the street pulling his fedora down over his eyes to avoid the glare. It felt good to be out again. It felt good to be cruising the boulevard like a wraith. It felt good to be a God.
Rhonda had heard Nick get up but had let him go without a word, pretending to be asleep. She’d heard his hurried steps to the bathroom and smiled. She knew it would be a towel and suspected there would be a creamy coffee awaiting her when she sauntered into the kitchen…and she would saunter into the kitchen in her bathrobe, probably with her hand in the pocket.
‘You look like a floozie’ he’d once commented when she’d taken similar action over a similar but much smaller erosion of trust several months ago.
“How did it go?” She asked making her entrance.
“Just the boys?”
“Just the boys.” He repeated.
She shrugged which had the effect of kicking the bathrobe off her left shoulder. Nick looked at her hungrily.
‘Damn she was beautiful and she knew it. The Judy last night paled in comparison.
“No.” Said Rhonda reading his intentions but Nick wasn’t to be denied. He grabbed her in a rough embrace and tried to kiss her.
“No, Nick, no.” She repeated but it was too late his hands were all over her, forcing her back over the breakfast table. She could feel
his excitement grinding between her legs.
“You bastard.” She whispered picking up a random fork that had been left out after last night’s dinner and plunging it into his neck. Nick recoiled in horror as he felt the first explosion of blood; he then whimpered as he fell back against the wall madly clutching at the fork which remained embedded in the hickey. Rhonda looked on with a smile of satisfaction.
“I said, no Nick and now you know I meant it.” But Nick was in no position to reply because by now he’d slipped to the floor on his own blood and was sitting, propped up, staring at his outstretched feet. She sipped at her creamy coffee. She hadn’t meant to kill him, if kill him she had? She’d just meant to defend herself but seeing him now supine and shaking, any feelings she might have had for him rapidly disappeared; essentially, she thought, he’d still been a brute in a suit.
*‘No, he hadn’t been a brute in a suit. I’d rather liked Nick, remember?’
*‘That was then, this is now.’
*‘He saved me from a life on the streets. I owe him.’
*‘You owe him nothing. He was unfaithful.’
*“I don’t care.’
*“You obviously do care, you’ve just killed him.”
*‘I wouldn’t kill him for that?’
*“It’s in keeping with your notes.”
*“My notes! You’re not Hemingway, you know. You write pot boilers, who cares if I don’t conform to notes?”
*“My readers might care.”
*‘Anyway, he’s not quite dead yet, maybe I could save him?’
Mark shook his head sorrowfully.
*‘I’m afraid, it’s bit too late for that.’
Gamine Jack, peered through the window of the small bungalow just to re-assure himself.
Yep, this was the place. This was the house his boss had described. Bedroom to the right, kitchen to the left, door in the center and a hanging basket in the small porch containing dead roses. Yep. He tried the front door, it was locked. He tried the bedroom window, it was unlocked and like a slick of oil on water he was in. The bed was unmade and the door was ajar. He slipped the Magnum from its’ holster, attached the silencer and then oozed slowly across the floor, soundlessly.
He could hear someone talking in the kitchen, it was a dame. ‘Take them both out’ he thought, no witnesses’ and that’s what he intended to do as he continued across the small lobby, through the doorway and into the kitchen.
“Good morning, mam.” He lowered his gun arm to Rhonda’s chest.
“Who the hell are you?” She asked, seemingly unfazed by his sudden appearance.
Gamine Jack didn’t reply he simply nodded towards Nick who was still twitching.
“Seems you’ve done half the job for me already little lady.”
“Is that your fork?”
“Perhaps you should have cooked him first before trying to eat him.”
‘Damn, she sure was pretty when she smiled.’ Gamine Jack suddenly reassigned his gun arm and pulled the trigger. Nick’s head separated as the bullet hit him squarely above the nose, causing his skull to shatter. Rhonda stepped back to avoid the spray.
“Now it’s your turn toots.” He said re-acquainting his gun with her chest but Rhonda wasn’t ready to die quite yet.
While she couldn’t get hold of the Derringer hidden in her bathrobe when Nick had attacked her, she could now. So without removing her hand from her pocket, she fired. Gamine Jack looked shocked, he’d never been shot before and while the bullet had only grazed his shoulder it had been enough for him to drop his gun.
‘This Judy was something else.’ He thought as she prepared to fire again.
“Okay, Toots, you win.” He said, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
“Don’t call me Toots.” Hissed Rhonda
“Okay, little lady, okay.”
“Or little lady, my name is Rhonda and don’t you forget it.”
“Okay Rhonda, I’ll carry it to my grave, which don’t look so far away with that gun pointed at me.”
“How about this gun?” Said Rhonda swiftly bending down and picking up the Magnum.”
“So why did you kill Nick?”
“He was ballin’ the bosses’ daughter.”
“Sure, last night.”
Rhonda eyed Jack, there was something about him, something about his pallor, something about the way he stood, the way he was dressed and the way he smiled that she found disturbingly attractive. He looked like some goddamn model from Life magazine.
“You would have shot me?”
“I was having second thoughts.”
Jack began to relax, he could see that she was warming to him.
“Shooting unarmed dames, especially dames as beautiful as you, don’t sit easy with me.”
“We better take a look at your shoulder.” She said, rapidly changing the subject.
“So, you ain’t going to shoot me?”
“You didn’t shoot me. Take your coat off.”
Rhonda was used to dealing with bullet wounds after all the years she’d spent with gangsters.
“It’s a crease.” She said having opened his shirt to have a look. “I’ll bathe it in whisky and wrap it up.”
She still held the gun, just in case but she could see from the way he was looking at her that any danger had passed.
“Hey don’t waste it Rhonda.” He breathed as she slowly trickled the alcohol over his wound. It hurt but he wasn’t going to show it.
“I got more.”
“Your guy Nick, he liked to drink?”
“He used to run the stuff.” She replied tying a clean handkerchief up over his armpit and onto his shoulder.
“How does that feel?”
Jack stretched out his arm.
Rhonda then emptied the bottle into two glasses and offered him one, which he took gratefully.
“So, what’s your name?” She asked.
“They call me Gamine Jack.”
“The Ghost Killer?
“You heard of me?”
“Nick mentioned you a couple of times. Said you lived around these parts.”
“I live where the job takes me.”
“I’m a gun for hire Rhonda…I go where the money is.”
“Strictly one off assignments.”
“The guy who pays me.”
“Who paid you to kill Nick?”
Jack shook his head and went onto explain that he never asked names because the less he knew the safer everyone was.
“As long as they pay up front, the job gets done.”
“But the job’s not done,” she countered, “I’m still alive.”
“Gunman’s discretion.” He replied with that dazzling smile she was finding hard to resist.
“So where next?”
“A truck stop café I know, for breakfast.”
She emptied her glass.
“I know what you meant Rhonda…now how do you like your eggs?”
Okay, so he wasn’t giving up his secrets but he was offering her a date.
“Unfertilized.” She replied with a grin
Gamine Jack cocked an eyebrow in appreciation of the joke and then pointed to Nick who still lay sprawled.
“Leave him, the boss will send round his boys to check up on the job, they’ll do the disposal.”
“They won’t rob me?”
Gamine Jack shook his head, adjusted his hat and clothing and reluctantly suggested she get dressed.
“That’s an unusual request.” She grinned wickedly
“If we had more time, Rhonda I’d reverse it, believe me.”
Dressed in a figure hugging green satin skirt, high heels and white shirt, Rhonda with her flame red hair cascading over slim shoulders looked like a million dollars as they climbed into Nick’s car.
“Where to?” She asked, gunning the engine.
“Take the road out towards Boulderville.”
“Yes sir!” She saluted comically and slipped the car into gear.
It had been many years since Rhonda had actually felt happy but as she drove so the feeling returned. It felt good to be away from the house, away from Nick, away from her past. It felt good to have Jack beside her and a breakfast ahead.
*‘Too good to last no doubt?’
*‘Wait and see.’
*‘I don’t trust you Mark.’
*‘Trust me Rhonda.’
*“If you betray me…I’ll have my revenge.”
*‘Enjoy your breakfast, Rhonda.’
“Hi guys, what can I get you?” Asked the perky waitress shimmying up to their table.
“Coffee, eggs over easy, bacon, hash browns and toast.” Jack looked at Rhonda to see if she demurred.
“Sounds good.” She nodded.
The waitress made a note and then shimmied off to get their coffee.
Rhonda liked the way Jack had taken control but not in a bullying way like Nick. She knew she could have chosen something else without being told she was disrespecting his choices. Jack still seemed to have something of the gentleman about him; he’d even opened the car door on their arrival to let her out. As they waited for their order so several trucks had rolled up depositing their drivers, who seemed to know each other, at a table within easy earshot. They were a rough crew who immediately tried to manhandle the waitress when she approached them.
“Friends of yours?” Asked Rhonda.
“Never seen them before.” Replied Jack, rising from their table to offer the waitress some assistance in case she should need it.
“Hey, sit down, man we ain’t doing nothing.” Said the biggest of the drivers, grinning. Jack hovered for a moment before returning to Rhonda who was impressed by his noble instincts. However, having made themselves visible they now became central to the drivers conversation, especially Rhonda whose good looks marked her out as a target.
“That’s one well stacked floozie, you got their man.”
“Come here pussycat…have I got some milk for you?”
“She might look a million dollars guys but don’t be fooled she’ll do it for a cheap breakfast.”
They tried to ignore the jibes, neither wanted trouble but their appetites were diminishing and Jack began to grow twitchy.
“Easy, tiger,” advised Rhonda, “we’ll have our coffee and go.”
“We’ll have our breakfast and then go Rhonda… and not before.”
Rhonda nodded, laid down coffee cup and stood up.
“In that case I’ll need to visit the bathroom.
Jack stood up ‘damn, he was a gentleman’ and pointed her towards the right door. As she sashayed past the gawping drivers, so she spat in their direction causing an eruption of cheers and jeers, Jack looked on admiringly, ‘she sure was some swell Judy.’
The bathroom was small and didn’t smell too good but Rhonda was in need and at that moment was oblivious to her surroundings. However, once locked in the stall she became vaguely aware that something was occurring in the café. There seemed to be some shouting and the scraping of chairs, it was probably nothing, just the drivers leaving she thought until the bathroom door suddenly thumped open and three men entered.
“Come here pussy cat. Pussy, pussy, pussy.”
Her blood froze.
“Meow, meow, meow, here pussy.”
A face suddenly peered up at her between the bottom of the door and the floor.Another face peered down over the partition and somebody was banging on the flimsy door that separated them.
'Where in the hell is Jack?' She thought, standing up, adjusting her dress and trying desperately to find the Derringer she habitually carried and then she remembered that it was in her bag which she’d left at the table. There was hardly time for her to panic however because the door suddenly broke off its hinges and she found herself exposed. Even though she was something of a hell-cat, even Rhonda found it impossible to fight off three of them at once and was eventually forced to succumb.
“That’s better, pussycat, that’s better.” Said one of the drivers as he began to slowly undress her while his companions held her arms and salivated.
“We ain’t going to hurt you, we’re just going to have a little fun.”
Rhonda closed her eyes not wanting to see the coming defilement which was perverse, brutal and left her lying in blood and bruises once each had taken his turn and passed her on.
It was only when she heard the lorries pulling away that she finally emerged from the bathroom in disarray hoping Jack might still be there to comfort her, and there he was but slumped over the table unconscious and bleeding from a savage wound to his head. Apart from him the place was empty, even the waitress appeared to have fled or else she’d been similarly abused by the other two drivers and was now too broken to move. The lights had been turned off and the blinds drawn to give the impression that the place was closed. Rhonda felt cold but she was relieved to see that her handbag was still beneath the table, hidden by Jack’s legs.
It was small compensation but at least now she was re-united with her gun.
Mark lifted his fingers from the keyboard and relaxed momentarily. It was going well, better than he thought.
It was cracking along at a good pace, his readers he would be pleased as would his agent.
‘Another cup of tea or maybe something stronger.’ He thought.
*‘You think it’s going well?’ Asked Rhonda?
*‘Sure,”’ replied Mark, it may not be literature but I think it packs a bit of a punch.
‘Oh it packs a punch alright.’ She said pointing towards her broken lip. ‘Why did you do it Mark? I was happy.’
*“Happy, doesn’t sell books Rhonda.”
*‘You had me raped, again!’
*‘My readers love that sort of thing.’
*‘I don’t love that sort of thing Mark…it hurts.’
*“It's humiliating Mark. What’s more you killed Nick and now you’ve killed Jack.”
*“I haven’t killed Jack. He’s injured Rhonda.”
*‘I warned you that there would be consequences."
Mark smiled and got up to go to the kitchen, tea was on his mind.
*‘What’s the name of the book, Mark?’
No sooner had the words left his mouth than a bullet ripped out from between the pages and hit him squarely between the eyes.
Mark rocked backwards as half his skull smashed into the wall behind him and the other half fell forward onto his keyboard before slowly slipping to the floor, a look of dazed incomprehension rippling across its blinded, bloodied and disarranged face.
“Good title Mark but I don’t think it’ll be making the bestseller lists any time soon, do you?”