Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Criminal In The Palace

The Criminal In The Palace
a noir story for a lazy sunday afternoon by jake kilroy.

The city had the grave sighs of a heavy smoker. Dirty, warm breaths coursed through the alleyways, and sunlight was hours away from doing its best magic trick of making church seem like a way out. Funerals should be held at night, Arlo Beckett figured as he passed the cemetery he'd love to not call home by the end of all this.

It was late, but it was an early late. The grifters were out, but the ones to really fear were still causing trouble before they started doing something worse.

Beckett crossed the empty street and moved into the scattered crowd of well-dressed men and exotically dressed women. He came to the stairs and made sure to hit every clank as he went down. This wasn't a time for a sneak attack. This was a time to let the locals know there was someone here without a thing to hide. Beckett even wore his gun a little closer to the front.

With a left turn, he was swallowed by the red and purple lights that gave the snug passage an nightmarish underwater quality. He passed brutes and bruisers, but they left him alone. He had the grandiose aura of a man who knew something they didn't, and that was more intimidating than a gun this late and this close.

And then he was in the club.

The lobby was beautiful and busy, as chorus girls lined up for the side entrances and the hounds looked for an entrance themselves. Becket didn't bother looking left or right, as there remained a good chance one or two of the chorus girls were looking to string him up.

So he moved through the drapes, and the heavens opened up to him. It was a heck of a scene, with each tier lower and closer to the dance floor, where several couples slow danced. Most of the orchestra was drinking whatever they had off to the side with just a few of them still playing music, led by a trumpeter in a blue suit.

Beckett came to a man with a trim suit and a pencil-thin mustache and handed him a few bills.

"I want privacy," Beckett said.

"This won't buy you total privacy."

"Give me what I paid for then."

"Certainly, sir. Right this way."

The host pocketed the money and strolled down the stairs with grace. A bribe could do that to a man's posture, especially if he saw them enough to expect them from even the sleaziest gentlemen. They came to a booth off to the side, circled by other booths, but this one had a higher back to it.

Beckett removed his hat and trench coat and then sat down.

"Is Delphine singing tonight?"

"Ms. Young may or may not be performing later this evening. She is recovering from a nasty cold."

"Swell. Could you tell her an old friend is here to see her?"

"Ms. Young has plenty of old friends. She will see you if she sees you."

"Tell her the man who still owes her a car is here."

The host's eyebrows raised slightly, which, given the man's quiet but furious demeanor, gave away more than it should've.

"I'll see if she's available," he replied before floating back up the stairs.

Beckett flagged down a drink girl and ordered something destructive.

A woman dressed to kill in reds and blacks came down the stairs with a glare that gave away every emotion in a swift cocktail of eyes. A cigarette dangled from her fingers, and she came to the table to throw herself down and waste no time with forlorn greetings.

"Well, well, well, old Arloadofshit Beckett, I never figured you'd be a ghost that'd come to haunt these halls."

"Even dead men need a way to pass the time, Del."

"Oh," she purred, "should I add a touch of sympathy to this lipstick?"

"I wouldn't. You look too good as it is."

"Why, my goodness," she cooed, salting a fake southern accent, "it seems like The Devil let you out for good behavior."

"Wouldn't say that," he said, each word indifferent, before taking a sip of his drink.

"What would you say?" came the sultry response with a lean.

"I'd say you look better than I remember and your new man owes."

The glitter washed out of her eyes in a blink, as she sat back in the booth.

"You don't know what you're talking about."

"If there's anybody who knows what I'm talking about, it's me," he growled with a sense of restraint, "and that haunted house you called a lover."

"You know this is his club, right?"

"No kidding," he said with a light passing through him. "And here I was, thinking it was all a coincidence that I came here."

"If you were a smart man, you'd pay a doctor to sew your mouth shut. It gets you in trouble."

"And it gets me out of trouble too as I recall. I'd like to think it was part of the reason you helped me out last time."

"You say another word, and I'll make sure you can't even crawl out of here."

"Darling, if you think I'd beg for my life, then you don't know where I'm living these days."

"That bad?"

"The junkie one pad over at least has a rug."

"Well, you can sleep well tonight on your bed of rat shit that it warms my heart to know you're a few days away from dying of starvation."

"Ah, honey, I got enough corn for winter at least," he said with a sharp grin and a shake of his glass of gold.

She looked over toward the stage as the song came to an end and the room applauded. Beckett lit a cigarette and clapped.

Her head rolled back to Beckett, and she beat him bloody with her eyes.

"Where the fuck is my car?"

"At the bottom of the river."

She nodded and bit her lip.

"Will I ever see it again?"

Beckett shrugged.

"Can you swim?"

The curtains of her eyes went up, and she flicked her cigarette at him. Beckett swiped it away, picked it up, and stuck into the candle in the center of the table.

"You've gotten fast," he remarked with a glint of joy tucked in his lids.

"You want to see fast? If I tell him you're here, he'll have the entire orchestra beat you to death in front of all these people in a matter of minutes."

"Well, I could at least outrun the tuba player."

"I'd say you had a death wish, but I can't imagine you having the drive to make a wish of any kind."

Beckett leaned in.

"Del, I haven't seen you in two years, and up until a few minutes ago, I'm pretty sure you thought I was dead. The truth is I was close to it, a few times actually. And now I'm here drinking this overpriced scotch and smoking in a gorgeous suit that I stole. You really think I give a good goddamn fuck about you thinking I'm not motivated as a person?"

Delphine turned toward the stage as the orchestra returned in full. Beckett snapped his fingers. She looked at him without any sense of interest.

"I'm a criminal, Del. The only honest job I've ever worked in my life was at my uncle's bakery when I was 14, and even then, I stole bread to sell to junkies."

Her eyebrow raised, but not even her cheeks moved. Beckett resettled himself and gritted his teeth. He was over the pleasantries that came with a charming return from the dead.

"But now I'm here, and I've got a long way to go before I can get my head fully off the chopping block. So it starts here, it starts now, and it starts with that fat fuck you've been rolling around with for money because it sure as shit ain't looks. He looks like a tank, and I bet he fucks like it too. Now, go tell him that I've got people holding strings over my pathetic puppet life, and they want their money right the fuck now."

Delphine could've been watching paint dry, and she would've had the same expression. She shrugged and stood up. Beckett seemed pleased with himself, but she came to the outside of the table to stand at it and lean into him.

"If you thought I was getting up to do what you said," she told him, "you obviously haven't seen where I'm living these days. I'm a queen here, Arlo, and you're something the cat dragged in before we fed that cat to the serfs."

Beckett hated what he was hearing, but he was loving how she was saying it.

"Get me my car from the bottom of that river and polish it until it looks like you got a decent job just to pay for it and drive it off the lot to me. Or, hey, better yet," she said in a near whisper, "steal me a new one."

Her eyes raised, as she noticed one of the bouncers watching them talk from above.

"Don't worry, I'll make sure this one's on the house," she crooned and then slapped his drink into his lap.

Beckett was stunned.

"You look good though," she said finally and then headed up the stairs as slow as she could, knowing the men were watching her.

Beckett flagged down the drink girl and considered next steps.

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