Don Stoll's fiction is forthcoming in THE HELIX, GREEN HILLS LITERARY LANTERN, XAVIER REVIEW, THE MAIN STREET RAG, WILD VIOLET, BETWEEN THESE SHORES (twice), YELLOW MAMA, and CHILDREN, CHURCHES AND DADDIES, and recently appeared in SARASVATI, ECLECTICA (tinyurl.com/y73wnmgq), EROTIC REVIEW (twice: tinyurl.com/y8nkc73z and tinyurl.com/y36zcvut), and DOWN IN THE DIRT. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasizing women's and children's health to three Tanzanian villages.
Ellen Flay would later admit to friends that she’d responded peculiarly to the young man who came to her distraught about his murdered lover and with a picture of his beautiful corpse to show her.
“Bloody lucky that smiling ear-to-ear like I did didn’t put him off and send him straight out of the office,” she would tell them. “But the picture of the dead body gave me a good feeling.”
Ellen would tell only her most intimate friends that the feeling of looking at the corpse had been better than the feeling she’d gotten the last time she had sex.
But that wasn’t saying much. The bloke had come into the bar with his eyes wandering all over. Ellen watched him because she liked his looks. Looked like Arthur Ashe, who’d just beaten Connors at Wimbledon. Bigger Afro, though. She could tell by the places his eyes landed that he wanted somebody young. Fair enough since he was young himself. Ellen thought maybe half her age but she didn’t care. Then she thought of course she cared: him being young made it better.
He sat next to her at the bar but only glanced at her, his eyes still wandering. She waited for a second glance that never came. She finally thought Sod it, I’m chatting him up. She wasted little time asking his age and when the answer came back twenty-three she said I’m exactly twice that. She could see in his eyes that he was thinking she was pushing herself on him. But there’s pushing and there’s pushing. Not like she’d drugged him and locked him in a cage, though she was thinking she could see herself doing that since he looked better by the minute to her. And how hard had she pushed? He had every chance to slip away after doing the simple math and seeing she was forty-six. But he didn’t try to get away.
“Forty-six?” he said, looking surprised. “You look good except for this.”
He touched her upper lip where the scar was.
“Drunken boyfriend,” she explained.
“Not saying it looks that bad,” he said. “English, aren’t you?”
Course I’m bloody English, she thought. You really had to ask?
“Don’t they say English Rose?” he said. “Sun out here hard on your skin?”
Lifting me up and then dropping me on my ass in two short sentences, she thought. Had lovely fair milky-white skin once, he’s implying. But curdled now. Gone off, toss it down the drain.
His eyes wandered all over like they’d done when he first came in and again Ellen watched where they landed.
“Ex-husband’s black,” she said in order to say something.
“Some of your best friends too?” he smirked.
Bloody hell, she thought, just making conversation. Then she thought All right, maybe I deserved that.
His eyes wandered and every time they landed she thought She’s taken. She knew her odds were getting better every time he saw a young bird already with another bloke. Finally he had no more young birds to look at.
“Why not?” he shrugged.
Ellen knew why not. Because he thought he was God’s gift. Should have told him that. Problem was she wanted it.
But later she would wonder if she’d really wanted it in the alley behind the bar. She’d gotten on her knees for him. Felt like a tart with them pressed into the hard filthy street. Glad she’d worn trousers instead of a dress or skirt at least. But she thought This is what you do to get the same back. He hadn’t returned the favor, though, and then it ended fast like he was a schoolboy. Ended for him, that is. She knew it hadn’t ended fast because he was excited like a schoolboy. Ended fast because he hadn’t cared enough about her to slow down. Ended fast because the night was young. Thought he could go back in the bar and bide his time until some young bird came along who wasn’t already with another bloke. He’d try his luck with the young bird and it would be as if Ellen Flay had never existed.
He zipped up.
“Coming?” he said.
She thought Course I’m not coming, you twat. That was the problem. But if you just bloody go I can make it happen.
“Need a fag,” she lied.
Fortunately he was one of those healthy chaps who would never think to smoke a fag.
He pissed off and she finished the sex properly by herself.
That had felt good, but not as good as looking at the picture of the dead body. But she didn’t want the young chap in her office to think she was twisted. She reined in her smile.
“LAPD’s thinking Dead drag queen, somebody saved us the trouble,” he laughed, but there was no humor in it. “And black with a white boyfriend, even better.”
She’d seen Chinatown in London last year. Now here she was in Los Angeles, like Nicholson playing the private eye on a case the police weren’t going to solve.
“Your lover have enemies?” she frowned.
“You mean besides every respectable law-abiding citizen in LA who thinks society needs protection from fags?” Douglas laughed.
Ellen remembered saying fag instead of smoke or cigarette to the bloke in the alley.
“Contradiction there,” she said. “Respectable law-abiding citizens don’t commit murder.”
“You sound like one,” he laughed.
I bloody deserved that, she thought.
“Sorry,” she said. “But respectable law-abiding citizens or not, did Barry have any particular enemies?”
“Don’t think so. Gave them their money’s worth when he performed. Gave good head, was straight with johns. . .”
Ellen raised an eyebrow.
“Straight about money,” he laughed.
Laughing too much, she thought, Turn into tears soon. She also thought Shame he’s a ponce, but then thought Might want somebody younger anyway, like the bloke in the bar.
“Respectable if not necessarily law-abiding. Had a code.”
“Whatever,” he replied, serious now. “Look, it’s the respectable law-abiding citizens you want to look at. A cop on a private mission to clean up the streets, a married man who afterwards hated himself but took it out on Barry. . .”
“Quite fit, wasn’t he?” she said studying the picture instead of Douglas’s suddenly teary face. “And tall: six-three you say? He ever act before?”
She didn’t like blokes crying.
“Answered an ad in the paper,” he sniffled. “Mr. Foreman said he was perfect for the part, had cast him before Barry opened his mouth.”
“I’ll get to it,” she said, quickly shaking his hand.
She thought Bloody hell here come the waterworks.
Ellen hadn’t been smiling about the poor chap’s murder. She simply loved working again instead of playing tennis against the idle bitches at her club. Loved the distraction from finding one bloke after another not measure up to her ex-husband and then in a fit of self-pity picking one up in a bar. Bloody stupid since she could have ended up like Barry.
She would bypass the police. She thought On my own like in London when the other Detective Inspectors wanted a bloke for a partner. Women, fairies: both second-class. If LAPD had stopped returning Douglas’s calls it was because they thought A fairy dies from strangle sex, accident or he had it coming anyway. But not even a ponce deserves that, and something off about Barry’s death. Sam Foreman nattering on all the time at the club about his craving for “respect” as an “artist,” but his films had been getting too gritty. Casting “real people” like Barry, stunts too real, sex too real. Not that Sam would have guessed he’d hired a real killer to strangle a real drag queen. Poor sod in over his head.
But Sam not an utter twat. Had the sense to tell poor teary Douglas to sod LAPD, see the lady P.I. who just hung out her shingle but was a first-rate copper in England.
Twenty minutes in the Mercedes her ex-husband had bought before he became her ex, cruising through enough California sunshine to make you think nothing bad could happen here if you’re a silly twat. To Studio City, where else? To Sam’s own studio where the silly bugger made the horror films he imagined could earn him “respect” as an “artist.”
Sam would need to go outside his studio into the streets today. He’d told her at the club yesterday that the next “murder by unusual means” for his movie of that name would be by dragging.
Ellen wanted to ask Sam who’d been on the set last week when he shot the simulated strangle-sex murder of Barry’s drag queen character. He’d described the scene, doing his best to talk coolly about the nudity on the “closed set” but doing a poor job of remaining cool. The heat coming off him like off an old Ford log-jammed on an LA freeway on an August afternoon. Wanting Ellen to radiate heat too. But not going to light my fire with your fat disgusting body, Ellen thought, never mind your salacious account of the goings-on on your “closed set.” This his bid for “respect” as an “artist,” his bloody “authenticity” nothing more than stripping off shirts, dresses, and brassieres like that’s the same as stripping away lies to get to the truth. Stripping away lies to reveal the truth is what Ellen had made a career of with the Metropolitan Police and in Yorkshire before that. If that’s what art did then Ellen was the artist, not Sam Foreman. Not that stripping off shirts, dresses, and brassieres didn't have intrinsic value, Ellen thought. Could go for a bit of that. But that sort of stripping was never going to make Murder by Unusual Means “art” or earn Sam “respect.” And if the goal of art was to inspire then Ellen had an idea about what Murder by Unusual Means had inspired. Might have inspired somebody who’d been on the “closed set” for the murder of Barry’s character to murder Barry for real.
She pulled into the studio parking. Not a soul around. Back to the security bloke who’d smiled her through.
“You want Gunsmoke Street,” he said.
She saw he wasn’t taking the piss. There was an actual street called Gunsmoke Street. She walked straight on the way he’d pointed. There they were, preparing to bring respect as an artist to Sam by shooting a scene that would leave an avenue of blood on the tarmac. Strip off shirts, strip off dresses, strip off brassieres, strip off flesh. Sam Foreman’s idea of stripping off the layers of lies to get to the truth
No closed set today. She went right up to Sam and asked him right off.
“When you shot the strangle-sex murder of the drag queen who was on the set?”
“That guy, Ellen,” he said, pointing. “And him, and him and him.”
She sized them up. All four holding equipment, looking important, guardians of the sacred mysteries of filmmaking forever beyond the grasp of civilians. But no mystery about the size of that one: bloody gorilla. Only one you could see strangling poor yummy Barry who had lovely muscles all up and down his six feet three inches.
“That massive bloke,” she asked Sam. “What’s he do?”
“Sound,” he said. “But we’re starting, so be quiet.”
She obeyed and soon heard rumbling turning into roaring. Then she saw a car dragging something obviously not alive. Department-store mannequin? How they make it look real on the screen?
She also thought Somebody’s going to get hurt. Sixty miles an hour past shops and restaurants and members of the public watching from the sidewalks, loads of them. This how they did it for Ben-Hur? Bigger budget for that, all sorts of precautions. But they couldn’t close off the street and the sidewalks?
She was vindicated when the car, what the Yanks called a “muscle car,” blew a tire. Everybody ran.
After the screaming had stopped she went with the rest of the crowd for a gander. Pond of blood on the sidewalk from two bystanders and two of Sam’s blokes.
Among the four dead was his gorilla sound bloke. To Ellen’s mind the killer of poor Barry though it would be hard to prove. And who would care now anyway except teary Douglas, just another ponce that nobody listened to? She wondered if this was justice even though it had nothing to do with the law but she couldn’t decide.