Loretta Asche looks like coffee being poured into a jar. Her hair is as dark as the raw, bitter energy of the beans; her skin swirls like the milk underneath. But around her is the glass. The barrier all kinds of men have surely pressed their hands against; the wall which keeps all of her in. She’s lost something. That’s why she’s here.
‘Detective Lionel Black.’ I extend a hand and kiss her knuckles. She doesn’t exchange any pleasantries, just says:
‘I need you to find my perfume.’
‘Yes. It’s in a white box with gold flowers, and it smells like cinnamon.’ She sees my frown. Asks, ‘Is there a problem, Detective?’
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Asche. But the things missing in this town are usually the diamonds or the husbands.’
She’s got two handbags, one smooth, one boxy. The fifties are proving a strange decade for fashion. She swings them both from one hand to the other. Lifts her chin. Says, ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you getting a bit old to be chasing crooks?’
‘Ma’am,’ I reply in earnest, ‘this job has been mine for twenty-five years. I can’t just slip it off. I wear it like an invisible coat, or a second skin, or—’
‘Or a favourite perfume?’ she interrupts, stepping so close that her eyelashes become rows of delicate trees. ‘Surely,’ she murmurs, ‘if I can appreciate your need for an invisible coat, then you can appreciate mine.’
I take the case. Of course I do; it’s good money for little work. Ten minutes with my guy on the street, who’s got a network like a maze of vacuum cleaner cords. He winds slowly into hundreds of inner circles and then, at the press of a button, he’s back and out and there’s just the space where he used to be.
We meet in a marketplace. The paradox of privacy, that it’s best found in public. He’s calling himself Dennis these days and we stand for a minute surveying the market goers, until it’s safe and I tell him:
‘I’m looking for some stolen perfume. White box, gold flowers. Cinnamon-scented.’
His eyes still drifting over the crowd, he replies, ‘I hear a tall blonde guy’s got a box load of the stuff.’
‘Does this man have a name?’
‘Sure does.’ Dennis won’t say another word until I slip him a fifty, then tells me: ‘He’s calling himself Isaac.’
‘Where can I find him?’
‘I’m not too sure.’
‘Maybe you should check again.’ My hand at my waist, folding back the jacket, letting him see the gun.
‘Jesus, Lionel,’ he says quickly. ‘I really don’t know. You might find him four blocks that way,’ he jerks his head, ‘Or you might not.’
No need to thank him; he’s got my gratitude tucked into his wallet. I fall into the crowd like a drop of water into a puddle.
I’m two blocks from the market when suddenly there is an outstretched foot where there shouldn’t be. Air rushing when it should be still. My whole body where I should only have my shoes. People almost queue up to help and one guy’s apologising but I’m only interested in one of the faces.
‘Are you alright?’ she asks.
I ignore her outstretched hand, and when I’m on my feet again I say, ‘I think the real question is: have you been following me, Miss Asche?’
‘I have,’ she admits. ‘It’s always been a bit of a dream of mine, to fight crime. Like I’m in one of Raymond Chandler’s books.’
I ask her, ‘Then why hire me?’
‘Because I have more faith in you than in myself. Chances are I would get myself shot.’
‘For a bottle of perfume?’
She sighs. ‘Must we go through this again?’
‘Of course not.’ I peer into the distance, to the street Isaac is more than likely down. ‘If you’ve been paying attention, Loretta, you’ll know I’m close.’
‘Naturally,’ she smiles. ‘But I don’t have a gun.’
‘Have mine.’ I’m a little creaky with my fists but it will have to do. She stores her smooth handbag in her boxy one, and curls her fingers around the Glock.
We walk like old friends out for a stroll.
One block. Two.
We become as silent as photographs of ourselves, until the corner, the new street, my whisper swirling then fading like cigarette smoke:
And there’s the perfume, white with gold flowers; there’s a whole row of the stuff. Isaac is kneeling down, a box in his hands, concentrating. Doesn’t see us until Loretta’s pointing the gun straight at him. Jumps, raises his hands in the air, yells:
‘I ain’t done nothin’.’
I shake my head in wonderment. It’s never been this easy. ‘How stupid are you,’ I ask him, ‘parading your stash around in broad daylight?’
‘Not as stupid as you,’ he snarls. A chill at the back of my neck. I tilt my head and see that the street is too empty. There are noises from other streets, none from ours. But I can feel gazes. The careful aim of weapons. The sinking entrapment.
But before I can do anything, Isaac sees Loretta’s awkward hold on the gun and lunges, snatches it, presses it to the side of her head. Our eyes catch and hold like magnets.
‘There’s no use running,’ sneers Isaac.
Anyone with an above-average IQ knows this. But that doesn’t stop me from taking a step—to get away, to get closer, I have no idea.
The gun jerks in Isaac’s hand. There’s no noise and I wonder if I’ve gone deaf. Loretta wrenches herself from his grasp and reaches me just before I hit the ground; her lap is soft, her nails tickle my face. I can feel my lungs expanding. Falling. Struggling. Failing. I can feel my tonsils going dry, but the air stops there. Everything stops there. Everything stops.
Then, suddenly, there’s a voice.
Loretta is speaking through the walls of the stopped things.
But instead of pleads to God and admissions of love, she sounds annoyed. Maybe I’ve heard her wrong.
But then she says it again.
‘Look what you did, Isaac. You got him all excited. No shooting next time.’
‘Sorry. I was just kind of in the moment, you know?’ There are strong arms lifting me into a sitting position, and then Isaac is looking at me. Asks me, ‘You alright, Lionel?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’ve been shot.’ But all of my blood is inside my body. The white perfume box stares down at me from the shelf; I pull one down and dazedly hand it to Loretta.
‘Thank you, Lionel,’ she smiles, placing it in her boxy handbag—no, shopping basket. She stands up, straightens her nurse’s uniform. Helps me to my wobbly feet.
Dennis appears behind her, flanked by a few onlookers pushing trolleys. Pats me on the shoulder and grins. ‘Back with us, are you, Lionel?’ He takes out my fifty and gives it back to Loretta.
‘I’ve never been the villain before,’ says Isaac. ‘That was brilliant. My Grandad’s got dementia but all he ever does is forget everyone’s names.’
‘Well,’ says Loretta, ‘your Granddad obviously watches less movies than this one.’ She puts the gun—no, it’s her phone. She puts it in the shopping basket. Catches me staring at the box of perfume and says, ‘It’s for Emily, remember? It’s her birthday tomorrow and you wanted to get her a present.’ She pauses, then adds, ‘It’s 2014, Lionel.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I reply cheerfully.
She checks her watch and says, ‘We’d better get you back to the home. Nurse Jane will be waiting.’
I don’t want to ask who Emily is, even though I need to. She sounds familiar. She sounds close to home. We head for the checkout and I can’t stop myself from hoping that she’s missing a diamond or a husband.
By J. M. Miller
Published in Empire Times, 2014