Thursday, April 23, 2009

First Chapter of Sunset Orange Water

I'm seeking constructive criticism of this chapter.

Faustus: O, I have seen enough to torture me.
Black Angel: Nay, thou must feel them, taste the smart of all: He that loves pleasure for pleasure must fall.
Christopher Marlowe

Chapter One

June 1951

The hand of death rests lightly on all of our shoulders from the day we're born as if to inform us that only death knows its appointment. However, for some who walk among us, death's cold fingers lightly caress the back of their necks as if to express affection. In reality, it's more like the warning hiss from a viper. Once heard, you expect the strike, until anticipation wanes like receding tide, and life's bittersweet taste becomes a burst of sunshine sweetness and then the cold fingers of death clench tight and light and life fade rapidly into someone else's memories.
The abrupt end of a young life horrified me since I first experienced it during the war. The occurrence never got easier, and that knowledge surprised me. Death strode boldly through the battlefields, trenches, and the streets and avenues of the city snipping off pieces of humanity where least expected, leaving others to wonder at their good fortune when they witnessed the results.
I exhaled a burst of air to smother the gasp I felt build in my chest, shook my head and wiped my face with both hands. The tremor that ran the length of my hands would not stop, so I jammed them in my pockets.
Paul Dunbar, a homicide detective working out of the thirteenth precinct had spoken with a calmness I found offensive. Somehow, what he had said didn't make sense, or couldn't make sense.
"Tell me did you say she died?" I sounded normal, but bitterly skeptical. My hands wouldn't unknot from fists bridling rage as my nails sliced moons into my palms.
"Like I said, the M.E. told me her death was a simple act of suicide." Dunbar had deliberately removed his hat, something he never did under normal circumstances. He held the snap-brim in his right hand, worried it with his left and then used the back of his suit coat’s sleeve to wipe sweat from his brow.
"What the hell do you think is simple about any goddamn suicide?" I demanded. When he didn't respond, I nodded to let him know how I felt about his silence too.
"Tell me the rest of it, and then get the hell out of here," I hissed between clenched teeth. "I'm not feeling real comfortable with the company I'm keeping today."
"He told me she put the barrel of the .32 they found at the scene in her mouth and pulled the trigger. We saw signs of bruising on her left forearm and calf, her hip, but a few mild bruise are not enough to indicate a struggle. Our guys found a half-empty whiskey bottle next to her and she smelled like she'd been drinking." I knew he saw the displeasure flash through my eyes as I felt its heat spread color under my skin.
"Look if it helps you, I'm sorry, Marlowe, really," he spoke fast and glanced at the floor. "I couldn’t think of a way to tell you that might make it any easier on you, pal." He mopped his brow again.
Swell. "The way you broke the news is not what’s pissing me off, Dunbar," I said, not caring how he felt or what he thought. Enough animosity hung between us from our past. When I worked under him on the force for three years, he'd been a miserable sonofabitch. Our friendship during the war and before was beyond a point where any remnant of camaraderie stood a chance of revival without serious effort. I wasn't about to make the effort, nor was he about to try to recoup what we'd lost.
My throat felt tight with grief. "Lois didn't have a reason to kill herself, and hell, she didn’t even own a gun. She told me she hated the sight of mine so I left it home when I visited her. I never took it with me when we went out someplace together."
Slowly, he lifted a small pistol from his jacket pocket. Fingerprint powder remained stuck among the gnarls of the grip like a rabid dog's dried saliva.
"You ever see this before?" Arm outstretched, he extended the handgun towards me.
I walked across the room, and accepted the .32 revolver, holding it by the end of the barrel. The weapon was not heavy. I turned it over, and carefully examined it as if I might find something the cops had missed to identify the killer.
"Serial numbers are gone," I said and rubbed my thumb over the abraded surface where someone had used a file and roughly ground off the digits.
Dunbar had lowered his hand to his side as if he didn't want the weapon returned to him.
"No, I’ve never seen it before." Intentionally, I dropped the gun on the corner of my desk. It made a loud bang that we both ignored.
"They find a note?" Instinctively, I again reached for the pistol, and then pulled my hand back as a picture of Lois' small delicate fist wrapping the grip filled my mind.
"We didn’t find one." He frowned, gave me a look that told me he knew more than he had revealed, but would wait until I gave him a good reason to share the information.
"I'm telling you that she didn’t kill herself, Dunbar. I don't give a damn what your M.E. told you or what you think. He didn't know her the way I did and neither did you." I spoke slowly, emphasized each word.
"Only prints on the gun belonged to her. Hell, the only prints we found in her apartment belonged to you and her." Finally, Dunbar took the pistol as if it was a tainted throwaway. He dropped it into his pocket and turned to the door.
"Case is closed on this one, pal. All you can do is bury her and mourn her." He didn’t sound like he really cared about how I felt. He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, and glanced over his shoulder. "She have any family in town, do you know?"
"They’re all dead. Her brother bought it on Tarawa. She said his death hit her parents hard, and the grief killed them. She was the only surviving child."
And we had planned to get married in a few weeks, I reminded myself unnecessarily.
Moving with nervous restlessness, he cleared his throat. "You two getting along lately?"
"What the hell are you implying, Dunbar?" I squinted.
"I’m doing my job, so answer the damn question."
I felt my hands relax and pump into fists again. Blood dripped off my right palm and splattered the floor noisily.
"We’d discussed marriage remember, Paul? I told you about it two or three weeks ago you remember?" I took a few steps in his direction and stopped short of getting in his face where I wanted to be. Hell, he was still a cop. I couldn't hit him.
"She might’ve changed her mind." He stared, flat brown cop eyes not revealing his emotions.
"If she had changed her mind, she didn’t let me know." I pressed one shoulder to the wall by the window, glanced at the streaked glass, and thought about putting my fist through its center. "The last time we were together she told me she loved me. That was two days ago. We talked about her moving into my place, laughed about me not liking dogs and her having one."
He sighed quietly. "Where do you think she got the gun? Bought it or borrowed it?" Now he turned and walked away, after asking one of those questions no sane man would ask a grieving fianc? let alone an old friend. However, I didn’t think he cared, and only wanted to avoid seeing my reaction or catching my fist. I really wanted to hurt him.
"Lois didn’t own a gun." I answered with a rough edge that should have warned him to back off. "No more of this shit, Dunbar. Tell your fucking captain you did your damn job. Now get the hell out of my office, and shut the door."
"Sorry," he said again and closed the door with no more than the click of the latch after he stood in the hallway.
I returned to the window. The fog from my breath had cleared off the glass. The rain slowed so each drop pelted the panes like insects trying to burrow their way in.
Something bad happens inside when you lose someone important so abruptly, as sudden as a stray lightning strike on a cloudless day. It erodes memories and leaves behind shadows drained of any color they might've once held. Moreover, you know eventually those memories too will fade like dried leaves blown by winter’s first storm until all that remains is a haunting wisp of who she had been when alive, and a fading framed picture bleached by time.
To hell with that, I thought. Mourning will have to wait until I can find her killer and deal with him.
When I sat behind my desk, her photograph confronted me. Her smile reminded me of the warmth of her love, and an invitation for a future together.
Then, I recalled one night about a week ago that I spent with her that had been so special her words had melted my heart. We were sitting in the living room of her apartment with the rust of sunset sparking across the floor.
"I'm pregnant," she'd said softly touching my face with her fingertips.
"Marry me!" I had blurted without forethought.
She didn't hesitate to answer as tears shimmered her eyes. "Oh, Marlowe, you don't know how much I'd hoped you'd say that."
"So you'll marry me then?" I asked still stunned to know I'd be a father.
"Of course I will, darling." She leaned to me, I kissed her, and now she and my unborn child lay dead in the morgue.
With care, I lifted the photograph by the top edge of the gold frame, slid open the bottom drawer on the left side of my desk, and placed her in it face down.
"Now what?" I said, felt the wedge grow in my throat, and knew I’d find and serve her killer the justice he deserved. Suicide was out of the question.

Copyright property of L.F. Schliessmann. All rights reserved.

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