My friend Colleen posted a Facebook status a few weeks ago asking people to write fictional stories about how each of us met her. I saw her request just as the right amount of caffeine hit me . . .
Nighttime falls in the city. I contemplate my next cigarette, watching the smoke of one yet unfinished curl away from my hand, mingling with the fog. Silent. Enveloping. Concealing. No one here notices the fog.
One gin joint’s like any other, the sweet smell of yesterday’s booze, the neon casting it’s color pretending to illumine dark corners. It’s my first night in this town, but it’s familiar like all the rest. Desperate people in desperate times just trying to make a living, hoping for a little something extra on the side. The bells sound from the ships in the nearby docks. But for these people? In this place? There’s no ship coming in, not today, not tomorrow. Drink’s the only comfort for their souls.
The bartender slides me my glass. I’m just shadow to him. A paying customer.
The whiskey’s the only thing that cuts the chill of the air, the fire that keeps me warm. This is how it has to be. Who know’s how long I’ve been sitting here. I’m alone. That’s all that matters.
The scratch of the record in the jukebox cuts my thoughts. I know this song. Every beat. Every feeling. The last time I heard it was during the war, before the world fell apart, that time when she . . .
I know that shape in the mirror. A man doesn’t forget shapes like that, no matter how much whiskey he’s had, how many bars, how many miles. It’s a shape that makes a man catch his breath, contemplate what he sees, and exhale in desire.
“It’s been a long time, Colleen.”
“You’re a difficult man to find,” she returns, ignoring the reference to our past. The past is no more.
“I don’t make it my business to be found. It’s … safer that way.”
“Yes. Safer. You always were cautious. More than most.”
So she does remember. At least she let her guard down enough to admit there was history once.
“Buy me a drink?” she asks, motioning to the bartender. Same old Colleen. Never assuming. Never asking. She reaches for her handbag, and I feel the weight of the .38 under my coat. Slowly she extracts a single, thin cigarette. She’s right. I am cautious.
The match I strike reflects in a thousand cold stars off the ruby in her necklace. Black dress. Lace. The Black Widow is spinning her web.
“I never meant what happened back in Marseilles.” It was almost apologetic, nearly the truth. Would almost make a man believe. Weaker
men. “The war changed us all. Our lives didn’t … Things were not how they were supposed to be. We had to choose. We couldn’t help that.”
“How did you find me, Colleen?” When I saw her I was the one remembering. Now I’m the one refusing to go back.
“We’re part of the same business, you know that. A friend of ours.” She smiles. “It’s good to see you again.”
Lies. The friends I keep don’t talk. In this line of work, if you talk, you don’t live very long. I’ve seen what talking does. I saw Émile’s face after they got to him. Purple. Disfigured. Broken. He was the only contact worth a damn. Probably slowed the German advance a day or two with what he knew. How many more people got out because of him? There should be parades in his honor. Give him a medal. But somebody talked. I buried him.
“I just couldn’t … The war’s over now. Forgive me, but I had to find you.” Dulcet tones. She was always good. “It doesn’t have to be like before.” Eve. Offering a second bite.
“Didn’t you lie enough in Marseilles? Don’t you think you played me enough already, Colleen? Go sell it to some other patsy. I stopped buying long ago.”
Her hand cut the smoked and perfumed air, stinging my cheek. I tasted the warm salt of the blood on my lips, but she was the one who felt it. I saw it in her eyes. She was my mistake. But I saw it – I was hers.
“Damn you! Damn you! Always distant! Always about your work!”
“It’s what’s kept me alive, Doll. More than I can say for some others.”
“Breathing, maybe, not alive! Always in the shadows with you! How has that helped you one bit? Has it helped anyone? It didn’t stop what happened to Émile!”
Colleen was one of the best. But even the best are human. She fell for her mark and that’s a complication you can’t afford in this line of work. I’ve kept my distance, but it’s kept me alive. It kept Émile alive, for a time. That’s why I was the only one he trusted with his name.
She knew what she said. Her passion was real. So was mine. But I kept mine close. She let hers out. And now we both knew the truth.
I had forgotten about her, tried to forget about her, never looked for her. But as I turn, pulling my hat low, I know the next time I’ll be the one looking. Next time there will be no choice.
I feel the heavy comfort of the .38 against my body. I’m not alone. In the streets I look for shadows in the fog.