No, not a Monty Python sketch. But almost. What follows below, just for a lark, is the first chapter of “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” - my post-World War II “cozy” mystery about a museum heist, a missing child, a murder, a recent ex-con and an even more recent widow, presented as a noir pastiche. See how many films you recognize from the screen caps. The actors were all sent over by Central Casting this morning. They agreed to work for scale, since most of them haven't worked in a long time.
Think of it as a literary "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".
“The last spring of the 1940s.”
Past the fashionable Bond Hotel, she stomped her brake hard, with heart-pounding, if momentary, panic on discovering the large and dirty tailgate of the Hampden Ale truck in front of her. “You Get More Out of Hampden”.
Juliet sometimes looked for signposts in her life, more supernatural than what was normally found on beer truck advertising or cooperative traffic lights, and invented them when they were not really there. Only dimly aware of this trait, she would have balked had someone accused her of needing some existential hand-holding. Proud and somewhat vain about her independent streak, nevertheless a vague sense of being imprisoned gnawed at her lately.
Perhaps it was her approaching thirtieth birthday, though Juliet told herself she did not care.
Making love on her free afternoon was all she cared about right now.
The trees in front of their apartment house were something that she would have painted. But, Kurt would dismiss the idea, with derisive laughter, as a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, and move onto deeper subjects in his conversation and in his art.
Mr. Percy looked up at her smiling, as if pleasantly surprised, on cue. Juliet stifled a chuckle, invariably reminded of Kurt’s nude remark, which is all she thought of now whenever she saw Mr. Percy.
The officious desk manager, unaware of her comic fantasies, certainly was surprised, for she usually worked until at least six, sometimes later. It was only four o'clock. Juliet considered announcing she had come home early to make love with her husband, but Mr. Percy was just too easy to fluster. She wondered, with what Kurt might say was disingenuous flippancy, if it mightn’t kill him.
Juliet took the elevator to the fourth floor apartment. The elevator operator, a tall, thin, young black man about twenty named Tommy also gave her a somewhat smile of unexpected pleasure. She wondered if this was indicative of a very well-trained and polite staff or if she really had been so hidebound in her habits. And, if anybody, actually, could be that pleased to see her. She hoped Kurt would be.
“Did you take your car off the blocks, yet, Tommy?”
He caught her eye with a conspirator’s look.
“This weekend. I can’t wait.”
“I’m surprised you’ve been stalling. Winter’s got to be over by now.”
“You can stop teasing me. I needed a tire.”
Tommy brought her to her floor. When the doors opened, he wished her a good afternoon.
“Thank you, Tommy.” Her footsteps echoed in the empty hall, and she touched the key to the keyhole.
She opened the door quietly, with no shouts of greeting. Surprising him was one thing, disturbing his work was another.
She became only then just aware of a low muffled voice or more like a series of human noises. Lowering her arms slowly, pivoting with a gracefulness as if it had been rehearsed, Juliet looked through the thin, ironwork balustrade into the living room.
Juliet lowered herself to her heels again. Her heart leaped into second gear, her breathing shot in gasps all the more painful from trying to stifle them. Her throat began to ache. She knew what it was she was seeing, but a fog of more than shock; of resolute stupidity fell over her. She felt that she needed to look again, really look to make sure she understood the situation.
Juliet stepped quietly around the half wall and almost into the living room. She could make herself look no longer than a moment; it was enough, and too much.
Juliet turned quickly, her head snapping in a jerking movement, an involuntary reaction common to horror, great mirth, and being shot, and stepped back to the door. With a shaking hand, she picked up her purse. Shock and humiliation grabbed her by either arm and escorted her out the door, without even really knowing what she was doing. She only knew where, automatically, to retreat.
Back to her office.
Juliet took the stairs down to the street. She did not want to meet Tommy again. She could not return his smile, or greet him, a friend, without an explanation.
Henry, the security guard looked up at her in surprise when she reentered the building. It was not a look of pleasant surprise, the way Tommy did, the way Mr. Percy did, with solicitude and deference. Just blank surprise. But, he gave her an awkward nod, touched his cap.
In a way she was, asking the same questions of how could he? Why?
Wrinkled brown socks slipped down to reveal two white, rather hairy ankles, wrinkled brown trousers smeared gray with dust slipped down from the open hole in the ceiling.
The stupor that had overtaken Juliet these last few hours evaporated. She snapped suddenly alert and aware again. Sometime in the past few hours she had taken off her white gloves. They were bunched in her hand, twisted, wrinkled and damp from wiping her tears with them.
Could she alert Henry?
She looked at her delicate gold wristwatch. Nine o'clock. Had she been here so long? Kurt will be worried.
Kurt would be worried? Yes, Kurt would be so worried he might need to go out and get another date. She cursed his immortal soul and wondered if anyone else was working late. Chauncey, would he still be here? No. Chauncey always took a moment to look in on her. She had an idea that Chauncey liked her, maybe more than he should. She tried not to encourage him, but she tried not to discourage him either, because after all he was her boss.
Karen was not here either, the secretary she shared with Chauncey. All the office staff would have long gone home by now. There would only be Henry the night watchman and his two assistants.
The trouser legs became a jacket of a slightly different shade of brown, and likewise streaked gray with dust. Then the man lowered himself, very gently, like an acrobat, and dropped himself with only the slightest noise to the floor.
Too late for her to turn off the desk lamp. He noticed his own shadow on the wall, and turned to face Juliet. She attempted to hide under her desk. But, it was too late.
Then he held both his hands up, palms facing outward as if he were surrendering to her, and he touched his finger to his lips again imploring her to be quiet. He called in a whispered stage voice up to the hole in the ceiling.
“We have to go back. I made a mistake.”
Juliet heard a body shift and some muffled reply in the air shaft somewhere deep behind the ceiling panels above her in an otherworld of ceiling infrastructure. The man took the chair for visitors and brought it to the hole in the ceiling and stood upon it, and called softly into his hole again.
“This office, it’s been made over into a supply closet, door’s locked from the outside. We have to go back and try the other way.”
Another muffled reply in the air shaft.
“I'm not playing games,” he said. “I'm coming back up.”
He looked down at Juliet and touched his finger to his lips again. He called again into the air shaft.
“Someone's coming! Go back! I’ll hide here.”
In another moment, they heard a muffled movement from the ceiling that became more and more faint.
“I won't hurt you. Just don't scream, or we’ll both be in for it.” He said it in a slow, calm, deliberate way, as if he were talking to a small fretful child, or training a dog. He kept doing that same gesture with his hands. Both slightly raised, as if he were surrendering, palms facing outward to her, patting the air in front of him gently. She finally began to feel her heartbeat slowing, as if his hand motion was making her slow down. She managed a few deep breaths.
“There's going to be a heist pulled on this museum in two or three days. A week. I don't know yet. I'm not involved in it. I mean, I am, but I'm not a crook. Until about a month ago I was in prison, but I never stole anything or hurt anybody. These guys, they've got me over a barrel. They've got my kid. And if I don't help them pull off their job, they won't tell me where she is. They might even hurt her.
“I want to set them up, so they get caught. I want to fix it so that the cops or your security staff knows when it’s going to happen. But, I don’t want to be here. I don't want them ever to know that I squealed. Do you understand?”
He waited what seemed like weeks for her to nod.
“As soon as I find out what's really happening and when it's going down, I'll contact you. Don't tell them that you found out through me. Just an anonymous tip. Okay?”
“I don't believe any of this.” Juliet finally said, in a faint, shaky voice, the first thing she had said in hours and it was true, and she meant more than just the strange man falling out of the ceiling, or the museum going to be robbed. She meant Kurt McLeod, that miserable lying cheating pig of a husband, whose superior artistic talent was surpassed only by his lust, and perhaps by his arrogance.
“I swear it's true. I want to stop these guys and I don't want to get involved. I got out of prison a month ago. I want to start my life over.”
“What were you in prison for?”
Juliet had been gripping the armrests of her office chair. She pulled her white-knuckled grip off the chair, put her hands in her lap and began to rub them, leaving her white cotton gloves in knotted ball on the desk. Her wedding ring lay on the desk blotter by the gloves. She had wriggled it off hours ago. Rose gold with three diamonds. Kurt bought it with his separation pay from the Army. Or, he said he did. Suddenly her entire history with him was a question mark.
She looked up at the man, noticing that he saw the ring.
“You can have it, the ring…and here, my watch, if you just leave me alone.”
“I don’t want them. I swear, lady, I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I'm not alone. I could scream, or call and get help very quickly.”
“There's a security guard on the outside of the building and one on the inside on the first floor. You're alone and there's no one to hear you.”
She swallowed audibly and her heart began to pound again, hammering blood to her temples. Again he lifted his hands.
“I don't say that to scare you. I know the routines of your schedule and others. You sure weren’t supposed to be here tonight.
“But, I'm not here to hurt you. We’re going to walk out of here, you and I, right through the lobby where the security guy is sitting alone. When we pass him, I’m going to look right at him, so that he knows my face. When the cops get involved, he’ll be able to identify me later on if he has to. When we’re out of the building, I’ll leave you. And we won't see each other anymore, but I will contact you when I know what the plans are for the break-in so you can alert your staff.
“I’ll even tell you my name, but I’d rather you not tell it to anybody, not yet. But, if you need to tell the cops who I am, eventually, my name is Elmer Vartanian. I’ll trust you, if you trust me.”
The name meant nothing to her. She'd never heard it before. Her first thought was that it was a made-up name. It sounded silly enough to be a made-up name.
“Well, Miss Van Allen? Do we have an agreement?”
“You know my name?”
“It's painted there on the glass of your office door, Miss Van Allen, Associate Director, Marketing.” They both looked at the glass and read it, backwards.
“You want me to wait for your call to tell me when the break-in is going to occur and to alert my security staff to catch them. But, you don't want me to mention your name to the police. Is that it?”
“Yes. That way, I don't get in trouble with these people. And I get my daughter back, and you don't get your museum robbed. Is it a deal?”
“What are these people supposed to be stealing?”
“You’ve got a collection of gold on the first floor, plates and cups and things on loan from the Southwest Museum.”
“It's an Aztec collection.”
“They don't care about that. They expect to get a fortune when it’s fenced.”
“Do we have a deal?”
“I want something else, too.”
“What?” He frowned, hesitating.
“I want you to destroy some paintings.”
He look of incredulity encouraged her. She explained quickly, with a sense of sureness that had finally returned to her after the last miserable hours.
If you haven't figured it out already, this is an insidious publicity ploy. For those of you brave enough to continue the story without screen caps, the novel is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Sony, Kobo, and Diesel.
I won't be posting next week as I have some other fish to fry, but I'll be back with a new post on Monday, November 14th.